Archive for the ‘eco sanity’ Category

Human Impact and Hope: This Type of Farming is Extraordinarily Good for the Environment

surviving progressI’ve been watching several environmental documentaries on Netflix.  Whatever the focus, every documentary seems to be built upon the theme of “human impact is horrible for the environment – we just can’t help ourselves”.   It’s hard to disagree with this theme when so many U.S. examples are staring at us in the face – the decimation of 75 million-strong herd of Great Plains buffalo, the 1930s Dust Bowl, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the paving of paradises for strip malls, and on an on.  One interviewed gentleman discussed the impact of cities on the environment but said, “Well, people returning to the land isn’t an option either, because that would result in even more land being destroyed.”

A few years ago, I would’ve been nodding my head in complete agreement.  But now, I know there’s another path.  Humans have the resources to provide extraordinary benefits to the environment – healing the land, reversing desertification, and stopping climate change.  I’m not talking about millions of small farms/gardens.  I’m talking about humans using a very low-tech and often vilified tool:  livestock.

Allan Savory, founder of the holistic livestock management framework, has proven that correctly managed herds of livestock can completely heal the land.  It’s all about time management.  The land is pulsed with very high animal impact for a short amount of time and then moved on.   The herd returns months later after the grass has recuperated.  The herd provides another grazing pulse and is again moved on.  Grazing, intense hoof trampling, and manure stimulate grasses to thrive.  Growing grasses extend their roots deeper into the soil profile and take CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil.  Plant roots slough off after each grazing pulse, which puts even more carbon into the soil.  High carbon (organic matter) soils hold water and improve the landscape’s water cycle, which attracts more plant and wildlife diversity.  Land on the brink of desertification is restored to beautiful bio-diverse savannah that sustains human communities.  What work is more noble than this?

Check out this short video of Allan Savory explaining the process and proving that it works.  This video is the longer version – very worthwhile watching.

U.S. folks like Greg Judy are using Savory’s principles with management practices called mob-stocking.  This video is very inspirational and demonstrates how land can be amazingly improved via high intensity livestock grazing.  At the end, Greg Judy states that mob stocking can be scaled down all the way to two animals – good news for our small farm.

The housing collapse has delayed our plans for livestock farming for a disappointing several years now.  We’ve been trying to make the best of the delay by cover cropping to improve our farmed-out soil.  The organic matter has increased by 1 to 2 percentage points, and we feel super good about that!  But, we can’t wait to quit our desk jobs and get started with high intensity grazing and watch our soil improve even more.  Thanks for reading!

High intensity grazing improves land.  Herd grazes for short amount of time, then moves.

High intensity grazing improves land. Herd grazes for short amount of time, then moves.


Geothermal for the Farm


Have you heard about geothermal?  It’s a simple heating and air-conditioning technology that’s been around since the 1940s.  And it’s super-efficient.  The most efficient gas furnace is 94% efficient, but a ground source heat pump (geothermal) is 400% efficient!  That’s because a ground source heat pump uses a little energy to go get a lot of energy from the ground.   In our quest for low-to-no bills, we’re very excited to have geothermal in our home.


A ground source heat pump pumps a water/antifreeze mix into a pipe loop that’s buried in the ground.  Like a cave, the ground is cooler than outside air in the summer and warmer than outside air in the winter.  I like to think of geothermal heat and air as renewable energy because it’s using free energy from the ground, and that free energy will always be there. 

In the summer, the heat pump uses electricity to pump the water mix into the ground loop.  The water mix coming out of the house is hot – it contains the heat that we’re trying to get rid of in the summer.  As the water mix travels through the ground loops, it cools because the ground is about 55 degrees.  That cool water returns to the house, and the heat pump delivers cold air to the home – air conditioning!  It works the same in the winter, except the water mix leaving the house is very cold, and it gets warmed up when it travels through the ground. 

Trenches were 220' long each.

We’ve been really interested in geothermal for a long time, so interested that we scrounged around and drove all the way down to Georgia to get a great deal on a 6-foot blade Ditch Witch.  One look at the beast, and we named it “T-bone”.   We used T-bone to trench four trenches that were 220 feet long and 6 feet deep each.  We laid black water pipe in the trenches – 6 feet down going away from the house and looping back at four feet down coming back to the house.    We pushed the dirt back into the trench and tamped it hard so the dirt would have great thermal contact with the pipe (the water mix will cool/heat faster).  All the pipes are connected together in a manifold and brought back to the house.  The total length of pipe is about 1,780 feet.  The water mix will travel that whole length before returning back to the house.

Next steps are duct work and installing the ground source heat pump inside the house.  With a small house, loads of insulation, and geothermal heating and air, we’re really excited to see how low our electric bill will be.  Wish us luck!

Oyster Floats for the Bay

Did you know that the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population was once so plentiful that it filtered the Bay’s entire volume of water in just three days?  Early English settlers wrote that the oyster reefs were so large and high that they posed navigational hazards for their ships. 

Imagine the Chesapeake Bay back then – it was once one of the world’s most productive bodies of water in terms of marine life.  Now it’s practically gone.  Decimated by pollution, over-harvesting, and a deadly duo of diseases in the mid-20th century, today’s oyster population is only 1% of its historical population.  The Bay’s floor once hosted giant colonies of oysters that were centers of aquatic life, places where crabs, fish, and mussels came together, much like how the Caribbean coral reefs teem with life.  Sadly, today’s Bay floor is a desert of green mud.

unloading the floats from the truck

Oysters are a keystone species in the marine ecosystem because they eat by filtering and cleaning the water.  Cleaner water provides better habitat for blue crabs, fish, and other marine life.  Our farm sits on St. Clements Bay, part of the Chesapeake Bay system. Besides sea nettles (jellyfish), we’ve noticed very little life.  We’d love to see hundreds of blue crabs (yum)!

We’re using oyster floats to help clean the water around our pier and to attract more life.  We bought two floats from Circle C Oyster Ranch, and plan to buy two every year and take advantage of Maryland’s tax credit.  The baby oysters are about an inch in diameter at this point.  They are native oysters, and were selectively bred to be disease-resistant.  After about two years, they’ll be over four inches long and ready to eat (yum).  The oysters sit in mesh bags, and the mesh bags float inside a pvc pipe perimeter.  By floating just under the water’s surface, they live where the food (algae) and the oxygen lives.  This coddled environment helps them to grow a little faster.    

oyster float tied to our pier

Knowing the Bay’s water is polluted, I’m a little wary about eating these oysters, but not enough to stop me.  Oysters are very nutritious – chock full of Vitamin D, B12, Iron, Zinc, Copper, and more.  I’m hoping that the jumbo nutritional boost will help my body get rid of any bad stuff.  Besides, have you ever had a fried oyster?  Heaven on earth!

Going Green, Minus the Bright and Shiny

Are you as sick as we are about “going green”?  It seems that going green equals going shopping for something flashy – a new hybrid SUV, new eco materials for the home, etc.  Around here, even DC’s humongous new baseball stadium is labeled “green,” as evidenced by the holy blessing of LEED certification.  We have a friend of a friend who tore down a perfectly good (but old) house and built a new one, equipped with all the latest Energy Star appliances, bamboo flooring, and the like.  All of this is built on consumerism, which plays right into the hands of Wall Street types.  There’s profit in new cars, new construction, and pretty things, “green” or not.  Green is just a new sales category.

What about the REAL going green, the kind we never hear about on TV?  It’s the kind that tries to minimize both waste and wasteful spending.  (And flaunting wealth is certainly the ultimate in wasteful spending.)  It’s bent towards conserving the old, because consuming new stuff isn’t green at all

New 2x4 on left, 100+ year old 2x4 on right. The old one is much denser and heavier.

We’re trying to keep it real with the farm house.  It’s small, and was built over 100 years ago.  At first, it was hard to look past the tiny rooms, but I soon realized that the rooms were framed in old timbers – dense, heavy old-growth pine that doesn’t warp and wane like modern 2” x 4”s.  This house has great bones, and there was no justification for tearing it down and building a new one out of poor-quality materials.

One of our goals is to get our utility bills down as close to zero as possible.  We hate bills!  We kept running into loads of valuable energy efficiency research done here in the U.S., but implemented in Europe.  Europe has many near zero-energy homes, and they’ve done it simply with loads of insulation and tight construction.  New bamboo flooring and shiny recycled glass tile does not play into it.  Glass tile is sexy; insulation is decidedly not, unless the pink panther does something for ya. 

We decided that insulation is the way to go.  Most newer homes have R-13 insulation in the walls (R-13 is the same thickness as a modern 2” x 4” stud).  Some homes have R-19, which is thicker and prevents more energy loss than R-13.  But homes in Europe have R-45!   We set out to replicate this on the cheap.  We figured out the best method is to just build an additional 2” x 6” wall inside the existing exterior walls of our house.  This will bring us to R-45.  When Mike introduced this idea to me, my first thought was “Whaaaa?  The rooms will be even smaller!”  But I thought about it.  Our goal is to have next-to-nothing bills, not to have rooms that will store lots of crap we don’t need.  I caved.      

Double wall in closet

The only room we have renovated so far is the walk-in closet.  The exterior wall is super-thick.  We don’t have central heat and air yet, and last winter we were heating with a kerosene burner.  The house was very chilly, but the closet was cozy.  Another thing we noticed was the complete absence of drafts in the closet, even during the monster double blizzard the DC area got in February. 

We feel good about living contrary to “green” consumerism.  Insulation isn’t pretty, isn’t expensive, and it’s literally behind the scenes.  (By the way, doesn’t this describe most of the REAL people in your life?)  And wouldn’t you know, it actually makes a difference.  Losing a sliver of space around your home is a tiny compromise for the lifetime savings and added comfort.