The new normal
So “it has begun” as the saying goes. Right now, I am living on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, Canada. There are four of us living in a wonderfully large house, and all of us in one fashion or another want to do something with the next ten years of our lives.
I run a reasonably successful telecom business, and I am an internationally published author. I am working as part of an RPG game development effort. I have served with Her Majesty’s Royal Canadian Navy in a theatre of war. I have competed at an international level in sword fighting. I have some awesome friends that I am honored to know. Someone might well argue that I have “done” plenty and do not need to worry about the next ten years.
Except that I get bored. Easily. And sometimes self-destructively. So I need to keep doing.
PEI has long be called the “garden province”, and our own little slice of it is a 1.3 acre space. Declaring all of it a manicured lawn was agreed to as a ridiculous waste, and none of us like mowing that much, anyway. Besides, the previous owners had a marvelous long-term view of their property, and the place is dotted with hand-planted oaks, willows, maples and scotch-pines, all of which now reach for the sky above the height of the roof-peak. There are clumps of hostas, a patch of a bamboo-like variant, and two or three “greenicus leaficus” bushes.
We eventually collectively decided that while we might not be able to save the entire world, we could at least save our own part of it. So, we have embarked on our first tentative steps towards homesteading. While I periodically find the notion of an alpha-geek — which I am not, regardless of what my friends think — such as myself out tending to chickens a bit amusing, I have been doing a lot of reading.
A Fearful Past Look Forward
Back around 2001, I had started doing research for what was supposed to be a webcomic set in 2102. The setting was to be “after we did not learn”, and global anthropogenic climate change turned out to be tragically real and the scientists turned out to know what they were talking about. For about six months, I plumbed the width and breadth of the data as presented by both “sides” of the argument and then stared at climate projection models obsessively. I read up on what the Mars Society was up to and what was achievable.
Super storms, inland deserts, flooded coastal metropoli, massive forced human resettlement, societal collapse, martial and corporate law enforcement, military-industrial and legal-penal complex influences. This was to be the brave new world of my web comic.
In the end, I abandoned the project. To be honest, I scared myself. It was a future that was all too possible and that my son would potentially inherit from me.
Sounds trite, does it not?
The Great Leap Forward
It has been sitting in the back of my head now for a decade, and in that time, I have come to realize that I cannot save the world. However, at the same time, “silence means consent”.
In that same intervening decade, NASA and other similar organizations have been dumping heaps of their research into the public domain. From that taxpayer-paid brainshare has come a raft of “backyard” technologies dedicated to a simple and quiet revolution. Some use the catchphrase “grow food, not lawns” to describe it.
Space flight pioneered the concept of hydroponics; growing plants without soil, with everything they need in nutrients carried via water flushed periodically around their roots. Aquaculture, or fish-farming, began to move onshore with a bevy of technologies being brought to bear to handle waste management and food production. Greenhouse concepts, intended to maximize food yields per square meter, turned back in time to look at things like “Three Sisters” gardens from the Amerindians.
Research identified combinations of plants that were excellent at improving air quality and sequestering carbon. Other research identified ways of going back to biomass burning systems like wood or straw to use between 70% and 80% less material per kilojoule of energy produced.
At the beginning of the Obama adminstrations’ first tenure, a US government commisioned study said that if America wanted to ditch foreign oil as a strategic way to bankrupt international terror, it was possible. All they would have to do is use of-the-day solar and wind technologies. Essentially, the total square footage of roofs in America was sufficient to hold enough photvoltaic (PV) solar collectors to provide America with its power. The area of government-owned garbage dumps that had been “closed over” and turned into meadows that were unusable for anything with a basement coincidentally would hold enough wind production to satisfy all night-time power consumption. There would not even be a requirement for a “storage grid”; America spans enough time zones that power could be piped to where it was needed as the day progressed.
That was Then, This is Now
And that brings us to today, here, on the north shore of the garden province. We have decided to try our hand at a 21st century homestead. So, sitting beside me as I write this blog post is a radiant-floor chicken brooder, containing a mixed batch of 18 so-called “Heritage” breeds of chicks. Those are my wife’s part of the project. Last night, one of my housemates put the finishing touches on a raised growing bed made of cedar logs. That will be the herb garden, under the care of his mother, who lives with us.
Last weekend we tilled out a 10m x 10m (~ 30ft x 30ft) area for the garden in the back lawn. My wife has the entire planting plan laid out, using modern CAD tools and heaps of research into seed growing types. The floor and two walls of the chicken coop are ready, with the rest planned for this weekend. Our single over-the-winter composter is being relocated to the middle of the “grow zone”, to be joined by two more. Three compost bins, at about 1 metric tonne of volume each will allow us to do a three-year reduction plan that will provide us with excellent topsoil from the cast-offs from the garden beds, chicken coop and biomass burner.
The chickens are selected breeds for middle-ground performance on both egg-laying and meat production. One breed is even a bred-for-Canadian-winters, so there is a bit of history there. If all goes well, we will have at least three dozen fresh eggs every week available to us — and probably our neighbours. Maybe the local restaurant as well.
A greenhouse will run between the back of the chicken coop to the side of the wood curing shed. The common wall between the wood shed and the greenhouse will have a so-called mass-heating “rocket stove” built under it, with the feed pipe on the wood shed side and the burn-flue and heat-flue inside the greenhouse. That will allow us to operate all winter on scrap wood from the home-heating furnace. The waste heat from the greenhouse will, in turn, keep both the chicken coop warm and accelerate curing the wood.
The greenhouse will see an trial project “aquaponics” system in addition to the more traditional uses. Aquaponics is the marriage of hydroponics and aquaculture to create a “virtuous circle”. The water reserve on the aquaponics project is 800 litres, allowing us to raise what is hoped to be between 12kg and 24kg (~25 to 50 pounds) of fish for the table every six months, and almost six times that amount of garden groceries, including cayle, strawberries and radishes. The mass of the water itself will work as a thermal balance, ensuring that the greenhouse stays warm over night, even in winter and slowing down temperature spikes on hot summer afternoons.
An outbuilding on the property is wired to the main house by a 40 amp, 220 volt circuit in a buried conduit. We are going to repurpose that building as a bunkhouse for guests on summer visits. In the back of that building, though, we have discussed putting the “engineering deck”, with a 7kw generator, batteries, and probably PV solar panels and a vertical axis wind turbine. If all goes well, even in a winter-storm blackout, we will have lights and water. We are on well water, you see, so no power means no pump.
Not much of a Revolution
It is all small stuff, in the cosmic scale of things. If we can cut our grocery bill in half, spend more time working outside in the sun and fresh air, and ensure that we can manage our way through a power-outage, though, it will be a good start. The money we save there will go into expanding the power production capability of “the engineering deck”. Some of the excess produce might be used to barter with local farmers we know for fresh beef, or straw.
We do not yet really know where this is going. I have an idea about taking some “real world” numbers from the greenhouse aquaponics yields and seeing if it will scale commercially I know it has been done in other places, like Iowa and Manitoba.
The facts are that “alarmist” estimates say that by 2050, what we saw happen to the cod fishery on the Grand Banks will be the “new normal” for global fish stocks. A combination of over-fishing, acidification, and progressively accelerating climate change has sealed that. At the same time, on-shore climate change will produce longer droughts and more severe floods, severely impacting the world’s farmable lands.
Even if you say the alarmists are wrong by half … then it still happens in 2100. Before then, we have to have the answers in place about how to do farming in a way that is local, sustainable, reproducible and cheap.
That is part of what my emotional and intellectual investment in our homestead project is about. Part of my blog here will be contain “lessons learned” and “how we did it” so that other folks can jump in, if they want. If enough folks do that, eventually, we will be ready for what some global thought-leaders are calling “the hidden asteroid” facing humanity.
Even if that future never comes to pass … I can at least say I was trying to help.