The Future is Insight

The title of this blog works on many levels- it plays off of my belief in hybrids being a critical step towards our future, the fact that introspection and mindful planning are critical to our future, and that the future is literally in sight for those that are willing to see it. Here I chronicle my attempt to Be the Change I wish to see in the world-and to help make that Future a Reality.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Beauty of Efficiency

So our transportation is 25% of our carbon emissions-what about the other 75%? Let us embark on chapter 2 in my series on topics presented in the Sept '06 Scientific American. Next up will be Eberhard K. Jochem's (a Swiss professor of Energy Economics) article on Energy Efficiency. Why? Bang for the Buck. Again stats, unless otherwise noted, come from his article.

Here at the Mia and Beo household we are vegetarians. The reasons are legion, but the biggest for me is the environmental impact of meat (shocker!). See it takes about 10 times more calories to make a 16oz steak than a pound of beans-and do you know how many meals you could get from a pound of beans? I don't either, but more than a you can off a phat steak. The whole deal breaks down to physics (I guess everything does) and the degradation of energy converting from one form to another. The same thing happens in all forms of energy, including the electricity you put thru your home. Say you have a nice smelly, polluting, coal energy plant supplying your electricity (chances are you do) and for arguments sake makes 500 megawatts. Due to friction and heat losses, by the time it gets to its end users that 500 megawatts is down to roughly 300 megawatts. Now you and everyone else in your city goes to turn on their toaster or whatever, the energy availible to actually do the work drops to about 150. Crap! Run the math more exactly and you get a loss of about 66% with the two conversions of energy-and that gets worse the farther you live from the power plant. And this is even before you as a consumer get a crack at it! This is why it is critical to reduce our energy use at the end-because the savings are magnified immensely over savings in energy production.

Enter the Green Building. As my faithful will remember, here in our little WI hamlet we have now passed legislation that all new commercial and government buildings will be built to LEED silver standards-typically at an increase in efficiency of about 30%. This month's meeting I have got residential standards on the agenda and we will be debating LEED-H vs. Energy Star. As our community is still growing this is huge. We are progressive in this regard, but by no means cutting edge. Check out the Swiss Re Tower in London. This breathtakingly beautiful building saves 50% over a conventional building's energy, by using natural ventilation and lighting, passive solar heating, and to cap it off it was built with materials that can be easily recycled should the need arise. Loves it! Construction was completed in 2004, and it joined a growing world wide community of green buildings. Less spectacular due to its focus on function over form is the Szencorp Building in Melbourne Australia. Proving that you can't judge a book by its cover, this fantastic bit of architecture boasts a 70% increase in efficiency with gee-whiz items like a dehumidification system that both cools and dries the building and ceramic fuel cells to provide both electricity and heat. Using fuel cells on site reduces the energy lost due to transport, and its constant steady supply negates the need for large battery banks while making energy at twice the efficiency of a coal fired plant. Nice. On a more residential scale, simply nothing beats the Earthship for that Uncle Owen charm. If you can get past the fact that Stormtroopers may barge in at any moment to look for some missing droids, you can enjoy the sublime knowledge that your new home has virtually zero emissions, and no energy inputs other than your food and communications channels. It creates its own heat, collects and filters its own water, and processes its own (human) waste on site. It is very, very hard to live lighter on the land than in one of these. I may never live in one of these, but an hour or two cruising their site will expand your knowledge of integrated building systems 100 fold and if we ever move, I will incorporate many of the systems into our new home-those cisterns are gorgeous!

The technology for green buildings is here-now. But if you think the time it takes for an efficient car to reach market impact level was long-building life is measured in decades not years. So in instances like my village where we are experiencing massive growth, green building can have a huge impact, but in established communities with existing structures, retrofits are in order to save energy without incurring massive construction costs. First up is the ubiquitous Compact Fluorescent Bulb. Energy savings of 40-70%, life cycles of 10 times longer, and costs that will be paid back 10 fold in its life time... its no wonder these little beauties are so popular with the Eco aware. The trendy LCD computer screen is another, and much hipper option. Not only do they produce significantly less heat, but they cut electricity usage by 60% and are much more recyclable. How much impact can swapping out some appliances have? When backed by no nonsense regulations, alot! There are 150 million fridges in the US (Once China ramps up they will have a billion)-by updating them all to 2001 standards vs the old one in 1974 will save 40 gigawatts of power. Putting that number in perspective imagine one of those giant wind turbines like you see in California. Then imagine 15,999 more right next to it. Sobering isn't it? If your refrigerator is older than 10 years-recycle it as soon as possible and buy a new energy star model. It will pay for itself in 4-5 years and will most likely keep your food fresher too. Do me a favor and avoid the one with the TV built in it ok?

This last fact was brought to you for the explicit reason of giving the importance that governments play in molding our energy future. Convincing 150 millions families to buy an energy star fridge next time is impossible-mandating it is relatively simple and drives innovation. Simply put: Global Warming is huge. Each one of us has a vital role to play in the choices we make every day, but Congress, or if not them then the states like California, must take the lead and set standards to drive innovation and, frankly, to save the Earth as we know it. The kicker is we have nothing to lose-energy is expensive and saving it makes incredibly good economic sense. Start-up costs can be prohibitive, especially for the lower income who need the savings most and this is were rebates are critical. This can, and is working across the world. Being born in the most affluent country on the Earth has given us power beyond our ken-and with great power comes great responsibility.

Be the change!

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Better Way

I know I promised that I would post about the Sci Am article, and I will, but the mailman brought me my plates today so I'll share.

Notice the shafts of heavenly light... I'm on a mission from God.

This is actually a very nice segway into the first of my Sci Am commentaries. This one will focus in on John Heywood's article in the Sept 06 issue of Scientific American "Fueling our Transportation Future". All stats, unless otherwise noted, will come from his article; since he is a professor at MIT and I work in a warehouse we'll call that a good thing.

First the Doom and Gloom-25% of total worldwide CO2 emissions come from transportation. Let that sink in a minute. Good. A quick Google search leads me to believe that the average Big Rig truck gets about 4-6 mpg. Ugh. That is too dark, so for now let's focus more on light duty trucks and cars. Here in the US we are using about 150 billion gallons of gas per year-that works out to about 1.3 gallons per person per day (not sure if that is drivers or persons-Heywood is a scientist so lets take him literally). Ew. By 2050 China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil will be upping their living standards immensely-and that will add a few billion more drivers to the mix-figure world consumption of gas goes up by a factor of 10. Holy sh*t. Tell me why we aren't messing with the CAFE standards again? Did I mention we have more cars in the US than registered drivers? I digress.

First let's talk Bio-fuels. GM would love to have you believe that Ethanol makes everything ok-put some E-85 in your Tahoe and just keep driving. Balderdash! Even with the immense ramping up in the biofuels segment right now the projections have them hitting 10% of total transportation fuels by 2026, saving about 5 billion barrels (42 gallons) of fuel a day. Sounds great right? Without efficiency gains total demand will have gone up by over 200 billion barrels a day by then. Plus Ethanol only cuts emissions by about 25%. GM isn't just greenwashing their dipping their sponges in horse manure first.

OK, biofuels are out as a savior for Global Warming. Heywood mentions 4 'new' technologies that he feels will impact efficiency.

  • The direct injection turbos This is already out as seen in the Mazdaspeed 6. Efficiency and emissions increases on these are in the categories of the savings of switching to bio fuels (not even a drop in the bucket) and they cost as much as a hybrid option-so I am calling this a non-solution.
  • Low emissions diesel. Heywood puts this on a timeline of 5 years to market with 15 years until 33% of new cars make use of it. Honda {this is a great article-their FFV that will run on anything from pure ethanol to regular unleaded is hot} thinks they can do it in 2. Am I excited about this? Yes (but-more on that later)-diesels get 30% more mileage (about the same as most hybrids) and do so with about 30% less Co2 emissions. In the past that has come with lots of N02 and other nastiness, but the Tier 3 standards have them cut by 82%. Big Fan. However, 30% doesn't put much dent in that nasty 200 billion number.
  • Gasoline Hybrids. Heywood puts this at 5 years to market-I must be missing something as my Insight rolled off the line 5 years ago, but again he is stressing market competitive which is probably true. He gives them 15 years until they get 30% of the market, and is probably right unless GM and Ford wake up or go bankrupt. I have written thousands of words on this already so I will be brief: 30-100% increases in mileage and PZEV ratings. Huge Fan!
  • Hydrogen. 15 years for a market competitive vehicle, and 25 years for 30%. I find this as overly optimistic as I find his numbers on hybrids pessimistic-how are the vehicles going to be competitive if there isn't anywhere to get 'fuel'. And hydrogen is not a fuel source-it is a carrier, a virtual battery. So we still need to make the energy somewhere and we don't have enough electricity now. Same goes for making hydrogen using natural gas. Once the solar economy is going and we all have PV and wind turbines at our houses I will be on board with this. I like the concept, but loathe the R&D dollars it is taking away from real solutions.

Nothing really new so far except for the nice (and sobering) timelines for market penetration on new automotive technologies-basically people keep cars for a long, long time. How many circa 1980's cars do you see every day on the road? Alot.

I think Heywood missed something Big. He mentions plug in hybrids in passing-but I see them as the silver bullet or at least the gun to fire it- as it is the 4th technology that we need to stack to get us out of this mess. Check my math here. A Plug in Prius gets 130 mpg a 2.3x improvement over a 50mpg Prius (which is already a 80% improvement over a 30mpg Malibu). Now lets put on our what if hats. What if the Prius was a diesel hybrid getting 65 (30% more than 50 [a diesel-hybrid Insight would be getting over 90 with me driving and not the EPA]) mpg-run the math and you get over 150 MPG. And then what if you ran it on B100 with a 78% reduction in CO2 emissions with pure biodiesel. Instead of talking about 30% we are talking about taking a mid size sedan that currently makes 30mpg (a non hybrid Prius sized sedan) and increase it 500% and reduce the C02 emissions by 78% for each gallon you do use. And the electricity you need to charge one of these systems over night is available from a 2 panel PV system, about $500 plus an inverter to hook it to the grid, with 8 hours of sun-the energy in the tank of GM's fuel cell vehicle can power an entire block...

What Heywood's article did for me was to drive home with a BFH the point that there is no silver bullet-we need to stack ALL the technology at our disposal to make the kind of impact that we need to. He finishes with the stress for drastically improved and coordinated regulatory and fiscal incentive program to get consumers and producers to move. He proposes, and I still love, the Fee-Bate plan of taxing the heck out of the worst offenders (I recommend a gradient system starting at 40mpg and going up quickly until you get to the Hummers) and giving that money in incentives to the vehicles getting over 60mpg. This makes it budget nuetral so we can still fight wars of aggression to protect our oil... He also recommends a higher fuel tax to fund R&D-both would have Big Impacts on shrinking those timelines.

I liked being green better when I felt that planting 600 sq ft of prairie was a Good Thing.

And it is-I am just scared as hell for my kids after these articles.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Future is Insight

The title of this blog was intended to work on many levels- some of which are that it plays off of my belief in hybrid technology being a necessary step towards our future, the fact that introspection and mindful planning are critical to our future, and to the fact that the future is literally in sight for those that are willing to see it. The ranks of that latter group are growing and its constiuents are becoming more outspoken with the continuing onslaught of hard data on the reality of global warming.

We are currently in South Dakota visiting relatives, and I picked up some magazines to help productively pass some of the downtime when traveling. One of those is the Sept. issue of Scientific American, devoted entirely to the scientific reaities of a future that is significantly less dependant on carbon fuels. One of the most striking quotes comes from the first article, where Gary Stix states emphatically "The debate on global warming is over". With carbon dioxide now past 400ppm -the highest level in 650,000 years- the reality is indesputable, and the trends are pointing to 500ppm by 2050. The 'uncertainties' of climate change that are touted by skeptics-including our federal government- are now relegated to issues like when the polar ice sheets will melt, not if. Stix set s the stage and his poignant article is followed by several action orientated articles on what we need, and more importantly, can do about it. 2 Princeton professors, Robert Socolow (mechanical engineering) and Stephen Pacala (ecology) detail a very well researched and workable plan focusing on taking huge bites (1 billon tons of carbon) out of our carbon emmisions to freeze and/or improve our carbon situtation by 2050 in a manner that is conducive to economic growth ala Hawkin's Natural Capitalism. The steps needed to acheive these goals - the steps that must be acheived to avert the unthinkable- are immense. Some seem impossible like Zero defrestation and a 100% switch to no till farming by 2050, to wishful: 700 fold increase in PV usage, to very attainable: doubling the effeciency of the world's auto fleets from 30 to 60mpg and increasing the effeciency of coal power plants by 50%. They lay out 15 ways to take a 1 billion ton wedge out of our emmisions, and any 7 of them will attain their goals so it can be very workable-but any of these are huge undertakings that can make the Appollo Program or the Manhattan project look like science fair projects if for no other reason than we can't do this alone-it will be a worldwide venture. And we can't even agree to help out Darfur...

While I strongly encourage everyone to track down a copy their selves, over the next week or so I will highlight the main articles, delving slightly deeper as needed and of course provide some commentary (the 'nuclear option' article had me going...) as I work thru the issues for myself. More than anything else this issue of Sci Am put vast amounts of relavent, up to date data into one document from very reliable sources (MIT, Berkley, Princeton...) giving me verifiable facts to help me continue to connect the dots in my own gord let alone in trying to talk to others about it.
Stay tuned!

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Prairie Restoration

Followers of this blog understand that some of the energy behind our gardens is coming from a base source: guilt. You see we are urban sprawl. We purchased a spec home 2 years ago after failing to find a farmette that even remotely fit both our budget and our needs, and stand by that decision. On the up side our new home is relatively energy efficient and we ensured we got one with a south exposure for at least minor passive heating, but on the downside we live on an interstate in a subdivision. So last year we began a quest to see how far we can take Green Living while living in suburbia-or to take a line from Dan Chiras-can we make Suburbia into Superbia? And does the fact that in Latin superbia means hubris concern me at all? The answer to both is a resounding yes!

My quest to heal this land-hopefully to a point beyond even the farmer was able to attain-led me to a great book (Gaia's Garden) and then on to Permaculture from there. The basic plan for our home will be to limit inputs (energy for the home, water and fertilizer for the gardens, purchased food for us) while maximising our comfort (healthy mental and physical environment for the family), the livability of the site ( i.e. reducing interstate noise), and increasing it's biodiversity.

On the biodiversity front the biggest initiative was our 12'x60' prairie restoration along the DOT fence, My goal was to swap the all but monoculture grass mix the DOT used (it had spread thru the fence) for a diverse prairie culture that would be tweaked to provide excess nitrogen for the 25 Thuja tree wind/sight break to shield us from both the north winds and I-90. With some educated ecological design I am attempting to foster a succession planting from monoculture to prairie to 'forest' in under 10 years. What was that about hubris again?
Here is a shot after my first days digging and desodding in June.

So enough background and time for the progress report. The Thuja were about 18" tall when I put then put them in and have put on 2" or so the first summer. Hopefully they will double in height next year (they should be able to put on 3-5'/yr once established!) now that their roots are developed. Initial prognosis of the prairie planting was not good. Even though I had cut the sod off to a depth of 4-6" the rhizomes from the nasty DOT grass were prevalent enough that within the first month they had sprouted several shoots per sq foot and were threatening to reclaim the project before the slow growing perennials could get established. I compounded this by watering the prairie seeds heavily the first few weeks-the prairie seeds didn't need the water, but the rhizome bits loved it. First learning! So I went in and hacked down the prairie growth to about 4" with a sickle to even the odds. Then in late July the darn DOT grass sent up thousands of seed stalks-not good! By now the prairie plants had sprouted well and were about 6-8" tall and I couldn't just go cutting again, so I basically hand weeded the stalks. Payback? We have hundreds of blooms, and its only the first year! The black eyed susans and cup plants are short, but blooming and it looks like some of the clovers and perhaps the quinine will bloom as well. Given the thickness of the wildflowers, and the amount of native grasses that I see sprouted but only 4" tall I am confident that next summer they will be able to complete and win against the invasive DOT rhizomes.

Given the vigor of the Big Blue Stem grass, Cupplant, and Indigo I have seen in the other smaller prairie plantings my new biggest concern is that next summer when the prairie gets into its own it will be 2-3' taller than the 36" tall Thuja...ox-eye sunflower, cupplant and bluestem can easily hit 6' once established. The prairie was designed to be a nursery crop, shielding the tree seedlings until they can thrive, but the prairie is about a year ahead of where I thought it would be on growth, threatening to shade out the trees next year. What a great problem to have! Most likely I will either mulch larger circles around the mini trees, or just cut down swaths around the trees that I am worried about to let in some light.

From a biodiversity standpoint, the first year of my prairie didn't see a return of the buffalo to central WI, but we did make some gains at least compared to a typical suburban yard. First of all we got some snakes-well at least one 3' garter snake now includes our prairie in its territory. The other gains are on a more entomological level, primarily in spiders. LOTS of spiders. On one particularly foggy August morning I went out to find literally hundreds of dew laden webs strung between the prairie plants. Watching the spiders drink from the dew as they cleaned their webs was a treat I would not otherwise have had. Hopefully next year will bring more of the cute and cuddly biodiversity in the form of increased avian visits and perhaps some small mammals searching for the much more nutritious wildflower seeds. I would also love to see the prairie expand itself to begin to reclaim the DOT grass on the other side of the fence!

Here's to hubris!


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Friday, September 15, 2006

Waste Not...

A funny thing happened on the way to Good harvest over the past 2 months. We managed to hit our waste goal of one grocery bag of garbage! An unexpected but very welcome side effect of us buying much more bulk items and more fresh produce is that the packaging (which gets chucked) from our groceries is done to almost zero. Combine that with our intense commitment to composting and our Worm Bin and about the only thing that makes it into the trash is used light grade plastics like bulk bags with tears in them, and spent Ziploc bags. Considering that most plastic in this grade is at the end of a long line of plastic recycling we don't feel to bad about that.

The average American Consumer generates about 4lbs of waste per day. If we consider each of our kids as a 50% consumer we should be generating about 84lbs of waste a week. Last week we did about 5! If you factor in our recyclables (15lbs) and the amount of veggies and food we fed to the Compost pile and Worm Bin (easily 30lbs) our waste production is about 50% of average. But from a landfill point of view we generate about 5%, and the bulk of our 'waste' is recycled on site and turned into humus to produce-with some help from the good ol' sun- into more veggies.

Next steps? We will be switching to reusable mesh produce bags and reusable bulk bags-is zero waste possible? Perhaps not for us right now as we will have at least 2 bags worth of recyclables, but this is really encouraging!

Here is a short list of how we have gotten this far:

1) Reduce We factor packaging into our purchasing decisions now. Does your cereal come in a plastic bulk bag? It, or a similar version, probably does. This not only saves the cardboard from the box, but will save you easily 10% in cost. Refuse a bag when checking out on small, easily portable items. Better yet: bring your own bags-the only time we take bags is if we are getting low for our trash-about once a month. Buy Bulk-Good Harvest offers everything from Olive Oil to Peanut Butter to Dishwashing detergent in bulk in addition to the usual pastas, beans and flours. Again this will save money too!

2) Reuse I have already mentioned bringing your own bags, but compared to the beauty of Freecycle it is small. I am amazed at the stuff that people will take from you on Freecycle. Whenever we have posted something it has never sat more than 48 hours-and in the case of the kids stuff the receivers are usually gushing due to unexpected twins on the way or some other pinch on their budget. Makes you feel warm inside. Yogurt quarts and milk jugs make great leftover containers, and in spring all my seed starts were in Stoneyfield cups. We ship all of our eBay stuff in reused cardboard boxes and mailing envelopes. Then there are the gardens-we used local sourced field stone to build the raised beds and stone from our own yard to line our perrenial beds.

3) Recycle
This one has a big Duh factor to it, so I will go beyond the curb pickup recycling. We recycle literally tons of waste on our property. I annually produce about 2-3 cu. yards of finished compost on site. Considering I have no mature trees that takes some doing. I take 25 gallons of coffee grounds from a local coffee shop each week that would otherwise be in the landfill. We also use wood chips from our city yard instead of buying them at Menard's. Then there is the Worm Bin. God I love those worms! They take 2-3 lbs of food scraps every day and turn them into the best fertilizer that you can get. Then there is cardboard-whenever I want to expand my gardens (ok that is all the time) I don't use Round-up- I just lay out a layer of two of cardboard, cover it with leaves and grass clippings (sheet mulching) and 3-4 months later I have nice friable soil ready for planting.

Other awesome ways to reduce your impact on the waste stream are to grow a garden, shop farmers markets, and use the library.

Challenge your friends and family, and I am challenging each of you now, to reduce your waste. Little things have Big Impacts and proactive solutions are much better for the psyche!

Be the Change!

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

We are what we eat.

In case you hadn't noticed, Mia and I are making a concerted effort to reduce our ecological footprint. Going back to when we lived in Iowa City in '97 we started shopping at The Co-op and started to eat more natural foods. This is also when I first started toying with seasonal vegetarianism (I took summers off to grill brats...) at Mia's urging. As we matured and read more we shifted to more and more organic foods, and with the birth of our son almost 5 years ago we switched to virtually 100% organic. At first it was stunningly more expensive-but at that time we were still trying to eat the same, just organically. That meant lots of organic packaged and frozen foods, and that meant we had the double whammy of paying for the convienence-and for the organic premium. When we switched to vegetarianism that helped, as did driving out to Whole Foods which had significantly lower prices than the urban markets and the organic foods sections of traditional grocers.

But the main reason Organic is considered more expensive is, well, because it is. Organic Red Peppers are about $4.50/lb. Organic Milk is a little over $5/gallon. Both are easily double their conventional equivalent. I have no problem with that because I know I am not forcing future generations to foot the other half of my bill in soil erosion, cancer epidemics, and collapsed local economies. When some of our friends once asked what charities we give to-we replied "we buy organic foods". That covers everything from supporting biodiversity to water quality to farmer direct subsidies in domestic Fair Trade pricing. And frankly it is worth every penny.

But that begs the question that Organic really is more expensive lending it to attacks of it being elitist. Before my career took off it was hard to find the money. Or was it? At the time it felt that way-but we found another $50/month for Internet service. Oh and then there was the other $50 for the cell phone. We've never had cable, but 90% of Americans do. Chalk up another $75/mo. Don't get me started on the latte's. In fact Americans use significantly less of a percentage of their income on food (about 10%) than any other country in the world (15% in Australia, Mexico is about 25%, India a whopping 50%) and half the amount we paid even just 50 years ago. And that is with real wages flat for over 30 years. Basically it comes down to choices. Why is it that we will pay for wuality in our clothes, our cars, our computers, schools, well just about anything, but when it comes to our food we almost invariably side with price as the leading issue on whether or not we'll purchase it? My, and my parents, generations were raised on incredibly low cost food driven primarily from the shift in Farm Subsidy theory in the 70's from trying to maintain prices to protect farmers, to trying to drive prices down to protect Big Business in the name of the consumer. The Result? The 99 cent double cheeseburger at Wendy's, and the death of the small scale American Farm. Adding about $50 to my weekly bill seemed like a very fair trade for helping out my kids, and without cable I am still ahead of the game.

Earlier I mentioned that we were still trying to 'eat the same'. When we switched from eating a lot of meat to almost none (we won't make a scene if we're served chicken at a dinner party) we modified how we ate. If we went from Meat and Potatoes to just Potatoes we'd be malnourished wrecks by now. Of course we studied up on building complete proteins (it's not hard-add a legume to a whole grain at meals, eat dairy and dark green veggies [veganism is a whole different story]) and spent more thought on our meal planning-especially when raising healthy vegetarian infants. So if we changed our eating habits when we went Veg, it (now) seems odd that when we switched to Organic it took so long to switch to eating whole foods: those you have to prepare instead of open.

Now let it be said that my wife is a fantastic cook and I am spoiled rotten-we weren't living on TV dinners and microwave popcorn before! But over the past 6 months or so (almost exactly the amount of time I have had my Insight...hmmm) we have made a concerted effort to prepare more of our own food from scratch. I started baking bread-kneading it by hand and making amazing pancakes from scratch each week with the kids. At the time I was looking for hobbies to fill in for my autoracing after I sold my sports car, but it had a huge impact on our psyche. In truth it goes back farther... to the end of last summer when we had more garden veggies than we knew what to do with (plant 4 zucchini plants at your own peril!) and Mia outdid herself in her succesful quest to let None Go to Waste, and to the summer before that when we subscribed to a CSA which pushed our culinary paradigms with its diversity.

Last month we found Good Harvest and for a variety of reasons chose that moment to switch to buying more bulk, and getting our milk from Crystal Ball Farms, one of the only dairies rated by the Cornucopia Institute at 5 Cows. Crystal Ball sells their milk in reusable glass bottles that you must return for your $1.50/bottle deposit and it is wicked good: I liken it to the the magnitude of the shift in flavor as we got from going from conventional to Organic milk. So we now buy very little that is 'ready to eat', instead buying bulk flour, pasta, rice and couscous, seasonal veggies and fruits (only enough to augment the garden), Tempe instead of Quorn, and steel rolled oats instead of organic cereals.

And a funny thing happened... we cut $50 off our grocery budget the first week and have sustained it ever since. I would put our weekly, 100% Organic bill up against almost anyone's conventional, processed bill for a family of 4. Sure Milk is still $6 gallon (Crystal Ball is the BMW of dairy), but 2lbs of steel rolled oats are like $1.25 and make 3 weeks worth of breakfast, that much organic cereal would be $27. Organic isn't elitist unless you want your Cake (convienence) and to eat it too (chem free). This is simple economics and there are no free lunches; something has to give. You either get convienent and cheap (while burning up soil fertility and poison our water supply), convienent and expensive ('best 'of both), or slow and wholesome, which I maintian is the best of all. Granted, plain oats are rough fare-but throw in a healthy quantity of seasonal fruit (raspberries, apples, strawberries) picked fresh from the garden, add a tsp of vanilla and some sugar and salt and its delicious for pennies a bowl. Good Harvest also has great bulk items-even eggs. For the excruciating pain of putting the eggs into a carton yourself you save over $1/dozen. Organic Peppers may be $5/lb-but only when you try to buy them out of season and get them shipped in from Chile without chemicals and waxes to keep them 'fresh'. The ones from my garden cost about $0.20 per plant, that is about $0.02 per pepper for higher quality. Now that they are seasonal in the stores the price is halved so even city folk can save money shopping the seasons. Conclusion-Going Organic need not be more expensive-just go Whole Hawg and make a lifestyle switch to Slow Food and reap the numerous benefits both budgetary and ecological. Organic isn't elitist unless your priorities are on speed.

How far this will take us remains to be seen. When we were at Prairie Dock Farm this week, Greg asked if we had any interest in joining his Dairy Coop-seems that he wants to get a cow next year, not to sell the milk but just for his family. But they don't need 30 gallons of milk, nor do they want to have to milk it twice a day every day. So he is looking for about 10 families to 'buy in' on the cow, each taking a milking time along with all the milk they can glean from ol' Bossy for the price of 1/10 of a heifer (about $150-200). 2-3 gallons of whole milk would meet our milk needs and let us make our own yogurt and perhaps even some soft cheeses. That just on milk alone could save us $15/wk, meaning a stake would pay itself off in under 3 months. If we made our own yogurt, figure another $10/wk. Add in the benefits of uber local (4 miles) milk and total ownership of its supply chain (hybrid or bike distribution network!), and the only down side is some nebulous concerns over food safety (one raw milk outbreak every 2-3 years despite tens of thousands drinking it daily-that is about the same as the number of people getting samonela from buffet lines) But especially with our kids still under 5 we will research this in a very real way.

This decision is still at least 6 months out so look for updates on my Raw Milk Rsch Project-and knowing that some of my readers drink their own raw milk I would love some insights on risk management.

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Monday, September 11, 2006


Today is a special day. Of course it didn't really used to be, but everything is different now isn't it? Over the weekend I made an appointment that, with the help of some serendipity, made this morning even more poignant than it looked to be.

There is an organic CSA in the town just north of here that I have been attempting to tour for several weeks now. In a conversation this weekend we had set the timing for the tour to be this morning at 9am. I had not thought of the significance of that until we were en route this morning, but we arrived at Prairie Dock Farm at almost the exact time that the first plane struck the Towers 5 years ago.

I did not plan it this way, but while some of my fellow citizens were making speeches about staying the course in Iraq to Win the War on Terror, I was preforming what, to me, is perhaps the most patriotic act possible. My family and I were building relationships with a neighbor, exchanging ideas and sentiments, and ultimately purchasing 2 bags of whole foods directly from the farmer that grew them, with no middleman, processing or corporate involvement. Wars will need to be waged, and battles fought, but I believe in my heart and soul that until we can learn to know the face of the farmer that grows at least some of our food and shake their hand we will never be either safe or free.

9/11 changed America, and the world, forever. Hatred, anger and ignorance guided those planes to their deaths. How can still more hatred, anger, and ignorance make the pain go away?
We must find a better way.

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Eco Municipality

A few weeks ago I shared the amazing news that our little community had voted itself the 4th Eco Municipality in WI and then followed that relatively non binding resolution with a more practical one in which we mandated that all new government and commercial developments must be built to LEED Silver Standards, though certification was up to the developer to reduce anticipated concerns over costs (certification can cost up to $2-5000 depending on the size of the project). We have since firmed that resolution up with one clarifying that all institutional buildings (schools, hospitals, non-profit care facilities, etc) are also to be included in this resolution, and also that all renovations requiring a building permit need to meet LEED standards for renovations.

This is all fantastic forward thinking stuff that makes me damn proud to live in this little town in WI, but frankly I still had some concerns about how all this would be accepted. I felt that our Green Committee had done a fantastic job educating our board and Village President on the need for forward thinking and the practical ways to implement real change, but that we had left a education gulf between ourselves and the average citizen of our little village and the commercial residents as well. While our board meetings are all public and posted, like government everywhere: no one really comes to them. So last week we held a public presentation to and our Village Administrator and our County Supervisor gave their power point on their trip to Sweden, and then brought the attendees up to speed on our Eco Municipality status, and the LEED resolution. We then encouraged the attendees to sign up for a 10 week study group of the Natural Step to further the grassroots effort and brainstorm ways to implement sustainability into our community. Speaking of attendees, we had about 20 people show up. That seemingly low turnout was a little depressing for me, but then I (being a geek) crunched some numbers in my head. Comparatively, this response (about 2%) would be equivalent to 33,000 people showing up in Chicago-which would make national headlines. We need to do much better, but the majority of those 20 signed up for the study groups and will form a core of motivated citizens exponentially increasing our word of mouth marketing. Our next meeting will be better advertised and attended.

Paul, our Village Administrator also shared some very heartening news. In the month since our resolution 2 of our local businesses called to inquire about some expansions of their operations. A local restaurant was looking to expand their parking lot to be better able to accommodate tour buses, and a bank was looking to expand their office building. In both cases Paul was very enthusiastic about their opportunities for growth, and then explained to them our recent LEED resolution. This is where our Green Rubber was going to hit the road-how would local business owners take our forcing the to go Green? Luckily Paul is good-in both cases they were very open to embracing the green building practises- both saying that they are in the community for the Long Haul and want to do the Right Thing. In both cases this will involve some extra capital outlays for them, which could be significant in the parking lot instance as it will have to be storm-water neutral (installing permeable paving or a retention pond), but both owners see the advantages in advertising, maintaining good relationships with local government, and future utility savings as offsetting this initial outlay. Hopefully we will also be able to provide assistance in grant applications. Excellent!

So what is next? These resolutions appear to have finally staked the nail in the coffin of our Green Committee becoming a gardening club. We are now a force for sustainable growth in our community and the Planning Committee needs to take us seriously as we are getting legislation passed that has significant impact on the growth of the community. We spent 15 minutes at the end of our last meeting throwing out future items for consideration. These items are BIG:

  • Securing grant money to preform a Stormwater Management survey for the entire village to provide a baseline to hold future developerd accountable.
  • Completing a feasibility study of implementing a methane reclamation plant into any future expasion of our treatment plant to provide BioGas to fuel either local homes or vehicles.
  • Discussing the possibility a Stormwater Utility to bill new developments for any excess runoff over pre development runoff levels to add some Natural Capitalism to our rain garden, permeable paving, and infiltration programs.
  • Initiating talks with our local landfill about converting their incinerators to run turbines for electricity generation and then using the waste heat to warm homes and busnesses. No I am not kidding.
  • Passing a resolution to that all new residential housing must meet the soon to be released LEED residential standards. This would be huge-cutting our infrastucture costs by 25%!
  • Initiating a long term community education program by bringing in experts in Green Building, Wetland Preservation, Organic Gardening, Eco-Village design, etc. to give public seminars get our populace up to speed.
  • Opening dialogues with our sanitation provider on the feasability of billing each resident by the pound for garbage (with a possible credit for over average recycling) to reduce waste generation.

Once we get the Natural Step study groups going there will no doubt be more ideas to hit the table. The future is in sight!


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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Someday Gardens

Over the past several months a significant amount of energy has been building in the House of Beo towards doing more concrete things to effect change in our little corner of the world. Much of this had focused on us attaining our dream of founding a micro farm and selling wholesome organic produce to the community. When we researched land and ran some high level business plans-both made it very clear that without moving out of south central Wisconsin we could not afford to do anything more than part time farming-even 4 acre lots with homes were going for about $30k/acre plus the $250k home. Takes alot of radishes to make that mortgage payment. Too many infact. I believe strongly in Gene Logdson's advice of avoiding debt like the plague on a farm. Tripling our mortgage to get us land that needs another $50-80k in equipment and buildings to become efficient was not a viable solution.

Small scale organic agriculture is possible in WI, but one needs to travel to where you can still buy ag land for under $5k an acre with property that is already set up with outbuildings and fencing. We considered this, but eventually turned it down for several reasons. First-this gets you a long ways from your markets, making a CSA or a direct sell (farmer's markets) operation less feasible without driving hundreds of miles every weekend which is counter to our Slow Food aspirations. We did find a very viable alternative to this problem with Organic Valley's Cooperative. As long as you build near one of their current routes, they will pick up your produce market it, and give you a fair wholesale price. I even toyed with becoming a small scale Grass Farmer to harvest organic milk from goats and cows. This was getting us a long way from our original plan and was smacking of a slippery slope taking us away from our plan. So Mia and I did some talking and got Back to Basics. We live in a house we can afford, Mia has an awesome job running a local non-profit that helps dozens of people every week, I have a stable job that provides good health-care and benefits while giving me 3 days off a week. We have done wonders with the past 18 month on our property on the interstate and are loathe to leave it just yet. When our Green Committee passed the Eco Municipality resolution in August it was the final blow to our moving. We were effecting to much change here to leave. Instead I will be focusing much more on eking every last but of produce out of our suburban yard. I recently read an article in Natural Home that chronicled a family pulling over 3 tonnes of produce from their yard-which is smaller than mine (though graced with mild CA winters). Hitting even a fraction of that is my new inspiration!

But the energy was still there. When I was in the early stages of planning our rain garden I took a bid from a local Ecological Landscaping Co. from them to install it. The bid came in at about $15/sq ft-and that is with us donating 20 hours of labor. This rain garden was to be about 400 sq feet-we were talking almost $5000! Mia and I ended up installing it ourselves for about $600 in plants and soil amendments plus 2 weekends in labor: and it looks great. Everyone gushes over our gardens... Could we actually make money making the world a better place? Crunching some numbers on what it would take to start a very small scale garden design and install business we realized that start-up costs could be as low as $1000-mostly for a trailer and some better tools. We could realize that return on our first garden, even by pricing ourselves below the competition.

Not really having $1000 that I wanted to invest this summer, I chose to add another element to our business plan-rain barrel manufacturing and installation. With some creative networking I found a local source of oak whiskey barrels from a local brewery and Someday Gardens was born. With the sales from the barrels we should have enough to buy a trailer hitch by winter, and a trailer by next summer-sooner if I can find a used one. Within the first month of incorporation we have 4 barrel sales under my belt-I'm no Trump but considering my marketing budget is approximately $3.24 I am calling it a win. Not only will this generate some needed capital, but each barrel I build saves 6000 gallons of runoff annually. An added benefit to the barrels is that they are a great 'In' with clients. When my first customer came over I spent about 30 minutes touring our gardens and educating him on native and edible plantings. After his comments about how boring his yard was I planted the seed of us doing a garden install to complement his new barrels next spring. We could realize a few thousand dollars in profit from the sale of a rain barrel, while also increasing native habitat and biodiversity in our village. Can someone pinch me, please?

While it seems to good to be true, this is exactly the way it must work if we are to turn Capitalism to work for positive ecological change. And for that change to be truly sustainable, it must be not only ecologically and socially just, it must also turn a profit, be it for a household, government or business. Their are plenty Eco-Aware citizens out there who either don't have the time, skill, or inclination to spend an entire summer landscaping their yards-but many of these people will pay to achieve their eco dreams. Hence our motto "Turning your Someday, into Today" as we launch ourselves into the new Green Economy.

Wish us Luck!

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