Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mmmmmmm.... manure....

The large mountain of manure we've accumulated behind the barn is being eaten away, as we load up some manure for the garden. It's much easier to load into the spreader than it was to scoop it all up over the last few months, especially now that the manure heap is still much taller than the spreader.  Bilbo the dog was very excited, as he views the manure spreader the way most children view their neighborhood ice-cream truck

One of our ewes gave birth to two nice lambs a little over a week ago.  We had been expecting them for the last month, until Rachel noticed two black shapes in a corner of the barnyard one morning.  Both are black ram lambs, so I'm trying not to get too attached (males get to become lamb chops here in a few months). They're awfully cute for now though.

Mom was in a very licky mood after they were born. Normally she runs from us as if we're crazed axe murderers, but not after the lambs were born. She would lick them, then lick us, then lick them some more (that's how she dries off the lambs). When she wasn't licking anyone, her tongue was still running full bore licking the air. Nearly every photo I took had her tongue sticking out.

Thinking that we had better live up to our name, Henry and I put a few bluebird houses up on the pasture fences this last weekend. I was a little worried that they would sit unused, because the wind over the tensioned electric fence really makes them resonate.  Each one sounds like a mad bee hive when the wind picks up. Today, I noticed a pair of bluebirds loading one of the houses up with nesting material (our outhouse also doubles as a birdwatching blind), so maybe it's still alright. I'll have to check back after the next windy day and see if they're still there.

I'm apparently not the only person in the world who thinks Hummers and horse drawn vehicles might be the wave of the future. My friend Hazen found this excellent project and emailed me about it. It may be a tad more stylish than an Amish buggy, but I think the buggy would win in a drag race.

On Farming and Nutrition
It wasn't all that long ago that my primary concern about food was cost. I was a big fan of the 99 cent Whopper. I giggled to myself as I went through the Burger King drive through, knowing that I was outsmarting them by purchasing nothing but their money-losing hamburger promotion when they were hoping I'd buy some high-profit fries or pop to go with my meal. I was pretty sure that my frequent climbing and skiing trips would render the artery clogging cholesterol harmless, and getting fat was a non issue as well.

At the time, I thought that I only had to worry about what was *in* my food. I had never thought to worry about what *wasn't* in my food.

I developed an interest in farming a few years ago, when my friend Ed introduced me to the idea of small farms, some of which actually made money. I was always interested in farming, but had previously written it off as a possible career choice, because I thought the only farms making money were thousand-plus acre industrial farms which were neither affordable to buy nor fun to work.  I wanted to farm like my great-grandfather did in southern Illinois.  They milked a half dozen cows by hand, raised hogs and chickens, and grew veggies for the Chicago market.  Maybe I just want to emulate them because I know so little about their farm.  I once visited it when I was 6 years old, although the farm had new owners at that point.

As I started reading more and more books about farming, a common theme emerged. Farmers (organic farmers in particular) usually found that their animals or crops didn't get sick when they had proper nutrition. Elliot Coleman, a famous vegetable grower, claims that he has almost no pest problems when his plants get everything they need. When a bug infestation occurs, he figures out what the plants are missing, and adds it to the soil to solve the problem. Joel Salatin, a famous livestock farmer in Virginia, discovered that his cattle never developed pink-eye (which is very common in cattle, and can cause blindness) so long as they received enough iodine. He now feeds them kelp -- which is high in iodine -- and never has a case of pink eye. Most cattlemen just treat the pinkeye with antibiotics.

It doesn't take long before the farmer realizes that he's the same as his crops and animals. Many human diseases are a result of poor nutrition. Western medicine is just now figuring this out to some degree, with vitamin D deficiency. A doctor at the University of Washington I was listening to a while back said that, "We have learned that we shouldn't be thinking in terms of the rate of diabetes in women of a certain age class, but rather in terms of diabetes rates of vitamin D deficient women of a certain age class". In other words, most of these diseases, like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, are allowed to progress due to our body's inability to fight them off.  Our bodies are typically full of cancer cells and surrounded by pathogens.  Our immune system keeps them at bay so long as we keep it supplied with plenty of ammunition. 

Living in the US, it's hard to think of how our diets could be deficient. Our supermarkets are stocked with what is probably the widest variety of food ever made available in the history of humankind. But if you look closely, most of our food has been modified to have a maximum shelf life, with nutritional value losing out as a result. Our milk is skimmed, pasteurized and homogenized. Our canned goods are heated to very high temperatures to sterilize them.  Fruit juice is heated, condensed, and reconstituted.  We've been told that animal fats are bad, so we substitute vegetable fats which have essentially no nutritional value.  We can only eat so much, so everything we eat that is of low nutritional value deprives us of something which is important for keeping our bodies functioning.

An excellent example is flour. Most baked goods are made of white flour (either partially or entirely), which has had the germ removed from the wheat. The germ is actually the most nutritious part of the wheat grain. When I scattered some wheat behind our old house in Bellingham to see if it would grow there, slugs came and ate many of the seeds, but only part of each seed. Guess which part they ate? The part they left is the only part that we consume in white flour. Seems to me that the slugs are smarter than most humans when it comes to nutrition.

One of the main reasons we now use white flour is because it lasts much longer than whole wheat flour. The wheat germ contains oils which will quickly go rancid and spoil the flour, so we remove it. That's one of the reasons each town had to have a flour mill before the advent of white flour. It had to be milled nearby, or it would go bad in the time it took to transport it.

After we figured out that people got sick when we removed the wheat germ, we engineered a solution by creating "enriched flour". So we solved the problem we had just created. But, I suspect, we didn't really solve it completely, because we don't know what all was removed.  Humans always like to assume that we know much more than we really do.

Weston A Price, a prominent Ohio dentist from the earlier part of the last century had always assumed that everyone had bad teeth like most of his patients did. Then one of his family members started travelling the world as the age of air travel began, working for National Geographic. He visited exotic locales all over the globe. Wherever he went, he came back with stories about people who all seemed to have perfect teeth.

Dr. Price grew curious, and decided to figure out why. He and his wife spent nearly the decade of the 1930's travelling everywhere from remote Swiss villages, to the islands of Scottland, to the natives of northern Canada, the South Pacific, Australia, and a number of other places I can't remember.

Wherever he went, he found one theme, over and over. People who had transitioned to the modern "western" diet of refined, processed foods had far more cavities, poorly developed skulls (resulting in crowded teeth and sinus problems), and much worse health overall. People who still ate their traditional diets invariably had much better overall health. After analyzing many of the food samples he collected, Dr. Price concluded that the traditional foods were many times higher in vitamins A and D (as well as another unknown nutrient which he dubbed factor-x or something to that effect) than their western diet substitutes. If you google "Vitamin D" now, you'll find that western medicine is just now discovering what Dr. Price concluded 70 years ago.  

My take on this is that we don't need to study nutrition textbooks to eat well.  We just need to eat whole, unprocessed foods.  If people weren't eating something a few hundred years ago, we probably shouldn't be eating it now.  Michael Pollan has a great rule as well:   Don't eat anything you've ever seen advertised.

My interest in farming is driven by a number of factors, but nutrition is a big one.  Growing much of our own food is quite time consuming, but I think it's worth it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Regressionist Transport

Here's the view from our new outhouse, looking out over the barnyard and pasture. The open seat beckons...

I never before suspected that using it would be such a pleasant experience. We now get to defecate to the sounds of singing birds, clucking chickens, and snorting horses, in addition to our own soothing sounds. It's just like playing the tuba in an orchestra.

We looked at a new car last weekend. Both of our current cars are just a little too convenient and reliable, which makes it easy to take frequent trips (usually inspired by cheap craigslist farm equipment). We really need to do something about that. I never feel good after driving for more than an hour.

When purchased, our new car will have a maximum range of about 20 miles, and a top sustained speed of around 10mph. It will have no airbags, crumple zones, climate control, seatbelts, or radio. Like the Toyotas in recent headlines, it will also be prone to speeding out of control. There's definitely some potential for steering problems as well. The car we looked at was afraid of stumps and house for-sale signs, so we decided not to make a purchase.

This is what our new car will look like.

I'm not quite manly enough to sell the other cars yet (and I suspect Rachel might veto that decision), but I am easing into the new transportation paradigm. An IEA official recently said that it will soon be unusual for people to travel 30km in a day, so I figure we're just getting a head start. Note that the IEA is notorious for their rose colored glasses when it comes to predictions of future oil supply.

I tend to suffer from a lack of self control, as I suspect many other people do as well. If there's a pack of cookies in the house, I eat them as quickly as I can (see -- I'm willing to sacrifice my own health for the benefit of my family!). The trick is simply not to buy cookies, because I'll rarely go through the effort of driving to the store just to purchase something I shouldn't be eating anyway. The same thing is true with cars. They're so convenient that they make it easy to go anywhere on a whim. Maybe they need to be a bit less convenient.

Some of you may have heard of Jevon's Paradox, which essentially says that when something becomes more efficient (he was observing coal powered steam engines at the time), it results in more energy use, because it's suddenly cheaper to do what you want to do with the energy. Owning a Prius, according to this paradox, actually encourages you to drive more because there's a reduced fuel cost. Maybe we should all buy Hummers (they'll be a collector's item soon -- even better!) to steer away from climate change?

My last post drew some concerns that I may be suffering from severe depression, mental illness, or suicidal thoughts (and this post will surely bring the men in white coats), but I would like to assure you that I am neither depressed nor suicidal (mental illness is still debatable). I actually find it very exciting to be dealing with our current TEOTWAWKI situations, particularly the converging crisis of energy and climate issues. My own actions alone will not make a lick of difference by themselves, but maybe I'll have some company someday.

I see industrial society's current course as suicidal, and would prefer to avoid suicide, even if it means giving up my god-given right as an American to worship the automobile. How about yourself? Most people I know seem to have a preference for the suicide (and homicide, as it turns out) option.

I took a day off of work this week to plow up a strip of our field for planting a new osage-orange hedgerow. As with most other things, I like to do the exact opposite of what other farmers are doing, like the farmer down the road who is currently ripping out his hedgerows with an excavator to make room for a big center-pivot irrigation system.

The weather lately has been wonderful, as evidenced by Henry's attire. (just click on the play button below -- for some reason this video clip doesn't show the first frame)

Sunday, March 7, 2010


I've always felt that someday there would be an event, probably a catastrophe of some sort, which would make it clear that I -- and everyone else -- would have to change the way we live if we wanted to continue to live.  Aside from some minor feel-good changes, I could continue to live a comfortable and conventional life like everyone else until this event happens.  When this event occurs, everyone would understand the gravity of the situation and *seriously* change the way we live.  Making changes at that point would be easier, because everyone else would be making them as well.

It's clear to me now that this event has already occurred, but we all missed it.  It wasn't really a single event, but rather a series of events.  That makes it harder to spot.  With few notable exceptions, nobody that I know has responded.

Most Americans weren't really looking for the big event, because they don't like the implications.  Those who knew about it probably just chose to look away.  We've never had such an event that the wonders of technology couldn't deal with, so another group is comfortably convinced that we'll be able to deal with this one as well.  Hey, we sent people to the moon, didn't we?  Give us enough fossil fuel, and there's nothing we can't do! (oh wait -- that's how we got into this mess!)

Exhibit A, (and B, C, D, and E...)
If you're one of the rare few who bothered to read about the recent events in Copenhagen at the climate conference, you may have come accross mention of the fact that the IPCC scientists have recommended that we keep our temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius (that's 3.6 degrees Farenheit).  Seems like an arbitrary number.  I might want to take my sweater off if the temperature in my living room suddenly rose by 2 degrees, but it doesn't seem like a whole lot. 

Two degrees is important because that's the point at which most climatologists believe that a number of feedback loops will be triggered, making much greater temperature changes impossible to avoid.  At the Copenhagen summit, no significant agreements were reached.  We essentially agreed that we're going to keep marching right past 2 degrees.  The last time temperatures increased as much as they are now projected to increase within this century, nearly every large animal went extinct.  Though this train is headed for a cliff, nobody wants to ruffle the passengers by applying the brakes.  Seems logical, doesn't it?

The IPCC has proven itself to be far too conservative, as we've already exceeded most of their 2001 projections for the current year.  When the IPCC is confronted by a lack of data or some controversy, they exclude that subject from their projections in order to keep everyone in agreement.  Such is the case with arctic methane releases as a result of melting permafrost.  There simply isn't enough data yet, so this super important feedback mechanism has been excluded from their models.

The evidence coming in now is that we've already triggered the feedback loop of methane releases.  Check out this video of people on a frozen bog in Siberia.  Much of the methane currently being released is beneath the Arctic ocean on a shelf near Siberia in the form of "clathrates", also known as methane ice.  Submarines in the arctic have recently noted massive columns of bubbles rising to the surface.  It appears likely now that we'll see the north polar icecap disappear within this decade, for the first time since humans have walked the earth. 

Aside from the methane releases, it's become apparent in recent years that the ocean is now becoming saturated with CO2, which lowers the ocean's pH near the poles (where most of the plankton exists).  We've already found areas in the north Pacific which can dissolve calcium carbonate shells.  Strangely enough, I've also read about recent drops (about 30% if I remember correctly) in plankton levels at both poles. 

We've known about bleached coral reefs for quite some time now, with major bleaching events occuring in back into the 1990s.  In a previous life, Rachel and I had plans to cruise our boat around the Pacific for a few years.  I followed a number of blogs written by people who were doing this sort of thing.  One couple who left Florida and headed west accross the Pacific and Indian oceans noted that the first healthy coral they saw was in the Red Sea.  In fact, they were surprised to learn that coral wasn't normally a bleached white color like they'd seen everywhere else. 

Another friend of ours was on a scuba dive in this same Red Sea along with a group of Israelis who had been diving in the area before.  When they exited the water, the Israeli group started crying because the reefs had died in the time elapsed from their previous visit.  Keep in mind that coral and plankton remove much of the CO2 from seawater and turn it into limestone.  We're destroying the coral that is part of our life support system.  The ocean provides about 50% of the oxygen you're now breathing.  Do you really want to find out what happens when we kill it?

Though it seems strange in the middle of winter here in the northern hemisphere, we recently experienced the single warmest day ever recorded.  It concerns me that we experienced this in spite of the fact that the current sunspot cycle is at its minimum .  What do you think will happen when it starts to climb again?

Ocean currents are one of the biggest factors influencing our climate.  There's been some concern that the increasing melt rates of Greenland's glaciers would flood the north Atlantic with fresh water, which floats on the surface of the heavier saltwater.  This could potentially shut down the thermohaline circulation system that drives the gulf stream.  If you watched the news this last winter, you probably heard that the UK was being hammered with one of the worst winters ever recorded.  Chances are that you didn't hear anything about the suspected cause (particularly if you like to watch Faux News).  It just so happens that we saw the gulf stream divert itself towards the west coast of Greenland.  While the UK looked like the north pole, the west coast of Greenland was quite balmy -- in the 50's -- in the middle of winter. 

If the sum of this evidence doesn't constitute the big event I refer to above, I'm not sure what will.  It's time to make some changes. 

Ideally we'd all wake up tomorrow and find ourselves living in bark huts and chipping flint arrowheads.  Well...  that's an ideal from a climate stability perspective anyway.  Aside from thoughts of seeing my wife in a buckskin bikini, I don't find that lifestyle particularly appealing either.  Besides, there are too many of us to live that way now.  It's also hard to pay your property taxes with squirrel hides these days.  Suffice to say that the current system imposes some constraints on the changes we can make. 

But at the same time, I don't think changing your lightbulbs to CFL's and buying an electric car is going to cut it.  We need to reach a 90% reduction in carbon emissions to have any hope of a future, and these feel-good measures don't measure up.

We need to "regress" to the low carbon lifestyles of our ancestors as fast as we can, step by step.  You don't have to go back too many generations to reach a 90% reduction in your carbon footprint.  I don't think that the lives of our ancestors were as awful as many of us have come to believe.

Transportation, home heating/electricity, and material consumption are probably the biggest toes on our carbon footprint.  We've got the heating part covered, having gone to 100% wood heat at a small cost in material consumption -- a woodstove.   None of these changes are ever black & white. 

Material consumption is a tough one, probably the hardest to tackle.  Just buy less, and reduce your need to buy as much.  Living in a smaller house means you buy less paint, fewer roofing shingles, have less need for heating fuel or electricity for lighting, and have less space for that big screen TV.  I think houses like this are the wave of the future, whether for financial or environmental reasons.

Moving to our current rural location enabled us to eliminate fossil fuel based heat, but it set us back on the transportation front, where we were previously using bicycles for 90% of our needs.  Bikes don't work as well with younger family members that are too big to fit into a bike trailer though.  The extremes of Michigan weather make bikes a bit less appealing as well. 

But there are alternatives to the car and bicycle.  They're dangerous, inconvenient, expensive, and not very capable.  But when faced with the certain outcome of continued car use, I'm beginning to think they may be worth some consideration.  Stay tuned for further thoughts...