Farm in a Box

Farm in a Box ‘Little Tokyo

I never thought I’d see “permaculture” and “Home Depot” in the same sentence, but an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (For a Green Thumb, Just Add Water) connects the dots between the two with a new product line called Farm in a Box Aquaponics from Earth Solutions.

Farm in the Box is a combined fish tank/planter box. Waste from the fish circulates into the planter box via a pump to provide fertilizer for the plants as well as removing nitrogen and ammonia from the water. From the Earth Solutions website:

“By integrating fish with vegetables, naturally balanced aquatic ecosystems are established making it unnecessary to add fertilizer, chemicals or remove nitrogen rich water.

As in nature, plants, fish and oxygen loving bacteria create a symbiotic relationship; Fish waste is converted by bacteria to a plant loving nutrient which helps maintain safe levels of ammonia without discarding waste and water.

Aqupaonics is an efficient, intensive gardening method with average of 3-6 fold greater yield per square foot. And even though water is everywhere in an aquaponic system, there is as much as 90% less water used than in-ground methods. Other advantages to aquaponics, is that it is fun, easy, most can be done anywhere, by anyone who shares a passion for locally grown food and herbs, without the challenges of in ground farming. Experiment with growing aquaponically raised fish and vegetables in your house on the patio in a greenhouse or community garden, and enjoy!”

Having never tried aquaculture I can’t say if Farm in a Box is a good idea or not, but it sure is interesting to see an advanced permacultural concept ending up in the isles of a big box store. If Home Depot wants to distribute a product like this or Nike wants to use fixed gear bike “culture” to sell shoes, I’m all for it. Let’s get the ideas out there. It’s up to us to take the next step and actually eat the fish.

Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS)

Via Afrigadget, a visual explanation of how to disinfect water with just a PET plastic bottle. The diagram, developed by Unicef, pretty much speaks for itself. Too much gunk in the water? Let it settle and filter through some cloth. At least six hours of sunlight will be enough UV to kill bad buggies. Using solar water disinfection, or “SODIS”, replaces the need to boil water, thus reducing deforestation to supply fire wood.

Obviously, this is not a long term solution. Drinking water out of heated plastic bottles can’t be a good thing. But in a pinch . . .

More info here.

Build a Solar Dehydrator


Like many of you, I suspect, we’ve got a few too many tomatoes at this time of the year. One of our favorite ways to preserve our modest harvest is with our solar dehydrator. There’s nothing like the taste of sun dried tomatoes, but unless you live in a very dry desert climate like Phoenix, Arizona you can’t just set fruit out in the sun and expect it to do anything but go moldy. In most places in the world, including here in Los Angeles, the relative humidity is too high to dry things out in the sun. Solar dehydrators work by increasing air flow to dry out the food. The one we built uses a clever strategy to get air moving without the use of electric fans such as you’d find in your typical store bought electric dehydrator.

Our solar dehydrator is constructed out of plywood and consists of a heat collector containing a black metal screen housed in a box with a clear plastic top. This screen heats up on a sunny day and feeds hot air into a wooden box above it. Vents at the bottom and the top of the contraption create an upward airflow through natural convection (hot air rises). You put the food on screen covered trays in the upper box. With sliced tomatoes it takes about two full days of drying and you have to take the food indoors at night to prevent mold from growing (a minor inconvenience). We built our dehydrator several years ago and have used it each season for tomatoes, figs and for making dried zucchini chips.

You can find plans for this “Appalachian Dehydrator”, designed by Appalachian State University’s Appropriate Technology Program, in the February/March 1997 issue of Home Power Magazine. The February/March 1999 issue of Home Power features a refinement of this plan, but we just built the original design and it works fine. The original plans and improvements to those plans are split between two articles: Issue #57 and Issue #69. You need to download and read through both before building this dehydrator. . Alternatively, the always excellent Build it Solar website has a whole bunch of solar dehydrator designs, including a nice cardboard version. And while you’re in the library there’s also a book by Eben Fodor, The Solar Food Dryer.

As an added bonus to the tinkerers out there, take almost any of these designs, remove the top box, stick it in a window and you’ve got a passive solar room heater.

Appropriate Technology

Our rocket stove, pictured above, was mentioned on BoingBoing last week and we thought we’d use the occasion for a brief roundup of similar “appropriate” technology concepts. The term appropriate technology evolved out of political economist E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful and is easier to show rather than describe. While not always low-tech, appropriate tech concepts feature elegantly simple (but not simplistic) design, efficient use of energy and are usually aimed at poor countries. What Homegrown Evolution would like to prove is that these technologies have a place in developed western countries as well. Here’s three of our favorite appropriate tech ideas and websites:

1. Rocket Stoves: our brick rocket stove and a link to a video on how to make a simple metal version.

2. The glorious Solar Cooking Archive which has links to dozens of simple solar cooker plans that you can build yourself. We built our cardboard and aluminum foil Pavarti cooker with plans from the solar cooking archive.

3. AfriGadget. The subtitle of this blog says it all, “solving everyday problems with African ingenuity.”

Our Rocket Stove

 
  • Editor’s note: we have a new design for a portable rocket stove here.

Low-tech is the new high-tech, and the best example of the low-tech revolution is the miraculous rocket stove–a stove that makes it possible to cook with small twigs–no logs needed! Best of all rocket stoves are easy to build. We liked the idea so much that we decided to build a permanent one just off our back deck for entertaining and as a backup to our gas stove should an emergency take out our utilities.

The rocket stove was developed for use in poor nations where wood used for cooking has led to the vast, wholesale, deforestation of large swaths of the earth’s surface. Rocket stoves can be built out of metal or masonry and consist of a L shaped tube, at the bottom of which you place your wood. The chimney effect creates a highly efficient, largely smoke-free burn. There’s no need to cut down a tree to cook your dinner–all you need is a few small branches or twigs.

Before we built the rocket stove we considered making a cob oven, a mud domed wood fired oven in which you can cook bread and pizza. There’s a trend in the eco-world to build cob ovens and we felt a certain pressure to keep up with the eco-Joneses. We started to build the base for one and then began to think about how often we would actually build a fire, especially considering that it has to burn for several hours before a cob oven gets hot enough to cook in. Also, where would we get the logs? And how good is it to burn such a fire and contribute to Los Angeles’ already smog choked air?

Staring at the bricks we had scavenged to build the base of cob oven, we realized that we could re-purpose them for a permanent backyard rocket stove that we would actually use. Furthermore we realized that our rocket stove could burn some of the palm fronds that regularly tumble down from the iconic palm trees that line our old L.A. street.

Here’s the materials we used:

36 bricks
4-inch galvanized steel stove pipe elbow
4-inch stove pipe
ash (scavenged from park BBQs)
1 tin can
50 pound bag of premixed concrete for the base
mortar mix
grill (scavenged)

The first step was to make a small foundation for the rocket stove. We fashioned a 18 by 18-inch by 4-inch slab with 2 x 4 lumber and a bag of premixed cement. Folks in cold places will need to make a deeper foundation to avoid frost heave.

Next we built a brick cube, leaving a small hole for the bottom of the stovepipe. For advice on how to build with brick we recommend taking a look at this. As you can see our masonry could use some more practice, but the results are not too bad–we like to think of our stove as being a bit “rustic”. You can avoid the hassle of brickwork by making a simpler rocket stove–check out these two instructional videos, one for a metal model, and another version using bricks. We chose brick largely for aesthetic reasons and we’re satisfied with the results.

Drawing from Capturing Heat

The next step is to put the pipe together fitting the elbow up into the longer pipe, and sized so that the top of the pipe is just below the bottom of the grill. Check out our earlier post for a video that can help with this part of the assembly. Serendipitously, on a bike ride, we found a grill in the middle of Sunset Boulevard that fit the opening in our brick rocket stove exactly.

You pour the ash into the completed brick cube to fill the space between the pipe and the inside wall. The ash acts as insulation to increase the efficiency of the stove. You could also use vermiculite but note that sand or soil will not work. Insulation works because of small pockets of air between particles, hence the need for ash or vermiculite, which are also non-combustible. We used a piece of scrap sheet metal with a 4-inch circular hole cut in it to keep the ash from spilling out the gap between the pipe and the squarish opening at the bottom.

Lastly you use a tin can sliced down the side and flattened out to form a shelf which you insert into the elbow at the bottom of the stove. Note the drawing above for the shape of the shelf. You put your twigs and kindling on this shelf and start the stove up with newspaper underneath the shelf. As the twigs burn you push them in over the edge to keep the fire going.

Our first test run of the stove was very successful–we boiled a pot of water and cooked some eggs in a a pan. The fire burned cleanly with little smoke except during start up. For more info on rocket stoves check out the Aprovecho Research Center.

And please people don’t burn wood inside and watch out for embers. Make sure you put the fire out completely when you are done cooking!

Out of Water!

There’s nothing like a utility outage to make one ponder the various Mad Max type scenarios that might play out when the power goes out for good and legions of zombified TiVo addicts stumble out onto the streets in search of the last remaining supplies of Doritos. Of all the utility outages we’ve experienced in our shabby 1920s bungalow, this weekend’s water outage was the most annoying. Other than the intenets, a couple of lights and our kitchen mixer, electricity is not something we’re big users of and, thanks to the many camping stoves we have, we’re prepared to go without natural gas for a while. But water is a different matter.

Late last Thursday night our water pressure began to drop. By Sunday night nothing more than a trickle of water would come out of any of our faucets. We checked the little spinning red triangle indicator on the water meter to see if water was flowing (and perhaps leaking somewhere) but the triangle was motionless. We checked the shutoff valve at the street, turning it off and on, also to no avail. One of the few sensible things the previous owners did was replace the galvanized pipe with copper so we knew that corrosion was not the problem. We asked our neighbors if they had a problem and they said no. Finally, we called the Department of Water and Power on Friday and it was Monday morning before anyone showed up. By that time, mysteriously, the water began flowing again. The DWP worker checked the pressure, said it was fine, and shrugged when we asked what the problem might have been. We welcome comments from readers who want to speculate on the cause of this outage as we like to know how things work or fail around here.

While we have a few gallons of water around in case of an earthquake this episode was a wake up call that we may need to keep more water than the couple of plastic tubs we have in the garage. We also don’t want to count on the water in the water heater and the back of the toilet. And when it takes three days to get service we can only imagine how long it would take in a large-scale disaster.

The whole notion of depending on our dysfunctional local government for anything in an emergency is foolish. Our friends at IlluminateLA helped run the emergency shelter at a local high school after the Griffith Park fire earlier this year. While it turned out that the emergency shelter was not needed, the Illuminaters discovered that the food supplies have to be trucked in from the San Fernando Valley, a not too promising scenario when you consider how bad the roads are here on an ordinary day not to mention when a couple of bridges come down in an earthquake.

This leaves us pondering keeping water in steel drums, which we first learned about in Aton Edward’s book Preparedness Now!, the first book in Process Media’s Self-Reliance series (our book the Urban Homesteader, due out in May, is the third in this series). It’s one of the more expensive options in water storage, with new drums costing several hundred dollars, but avoids the problem of an off taste that plastic can impart. But while there’s something to be said for avoiding all sources of potential crankiness when the shit cometh down, stainless steel drums are above our meager budget at this point. For now we’ll probably have to go with a new 55 gallon plastic drum, though if enough of you buy our book we’ll spring for the steel. Homegrown Revolution readers can hole up in the garage with us and share our water when those snack-crazed zombie hoards come stumbling down the street. Consider it a promise.

Pooh Power!

Unlike the Hollywood fat cats we live amongst here in LaLa land, Homegrown Revolution is more likely to find ourselves in possession of a Wag™ Bag rather than a Swag bag. What’s a Wag™ Bag you ask? Here’s the snappy copy from the Major Surplus & Survival catalog:

The Wag™ (waste alleviation and gelling) Bag Kit is the most complete, efficient and easy to use system we’ve ever offered. Each sealed kit contains: 1 waste bag with Pooh-Powder, 1 zip-close disposal bag, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and instructions. The amazing pooh-powder actually gels liquid in seconds, while it neutralizes the odor (no perfume cover-up) and the catalyst starts the decay process. The Black degradable poly bags are environmentally friendly and can be disposed of in trash containers. Can be used with any portable toilet or even in your standard home toilet when water flushing is unavailable. Can be used under or over (to keep sanitary) any toilet seat. After use, simply fold the Wag™ Bag into the zip-close bag and close. Dispose in trash container. An absolute must for your car, camper, boat, or plane (or those unsavory outhouses). Weighs 3 lbs. per kit.

The Wag™ and Pooh-Powder technology was developed by Phillips Environmental Products, a company that received a federal windfall after the weather and toilet disaster known as hurricane Katrina. FEMA soon became a huge customer as did the Pentagon which bought $1.3 million worth of bags to supply troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Major Surplus & Survival price of $39.95 for a pack of 12 Wag™ Bag kits works out to an expensive $3.32 a crap. So what are some cheaper alternatives when crap happens? Unfortunately, digging a “cat hole” is no longer politically correct. A study at Montana State University proved that human feces “remained alive with various disease-causing bacteria,” even after a year buried in the ground.

Our waste disposal preference is towards the humanure approach–turning your crap into useful compost. For the lowdown on how to humanure see Joseph Jenkin’s compelling and entertaining book which is available free online.

For hiking or temporary water outages you can simply pack your crap up for later disposal in a toilet. This is how Homegrown Revolution managed during an arduous snow camping experience last year, with one unfortunate member of our party tasked with carrying a five gallon bucket full of crap through the high Sierras. A more egalitarian approach would have been to make everyone carry a “poop tube“. You make a poop tube with 4-inch PVC pipe. Cap one end of the pipe and stick a threaded fitting on the other end. Crap in a paper bag or coffee filter, throw in some kitty litter to absorb the liquids and shove it all into your poop tube. You can then empty the tube when you get to the nearest toilet. You’ll have to size the tube based on how much you think you’ll be needing to use it.

Lastly an admission. Call us juvenile, but as some of you may suspect this missive was written in part with the purpose of exploiting the comedic potential of the expression “Pooh Powder”. Our apologies.

Build a Rocket Stove

Rocket stoves are a highly efficient way to cook using just small branches rather than large pieces of wood and are twice as efficient as conventional open wood burning methods. They usually consist of a heavily insulated L shaped metal pipe, at the bottom of which you put small pieces of wood. You size the pipe to fit a pot, which fits down into the pipe. Efficiency is gained by the fact that the pot is heated on the sides as well as the bottom.

Homegrown Evolution was delighted to find a how to build a rocket stove video (with a Euro disco soundtrack!) hosted by a goth dude named “vavrek”:


Other Rocket Stove Designs

The Aprovecho Research Center, a non-profit organization devoted to improving conditions in third world countries through the development of low cost, simple cooking and heating technologies have developed a number of rocket stoves that you can build for your urban homestead. They have a simple model called the VITA Stove made with sheet metal (note the better soundtrack music on the video) and an institutional model made with a 50 gallon drum.

We think we’ve found a use for all those fallen palm fronds . . . rocket stove cooking!

It’s Official: The End is Near

Cheese doodles sandwiched by two images from a Qatar Airlines ad

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that the price of corn has got so high due to its use for ethanol, that farmers are resorting to feeding livestock, “cookies, licorice, cheese curls, candy bars, french fries, frosted wheat cereal and peanut-butter cups.”

GARLAND, N.C.–When Alfred Smith’s hogs eat trail mix, they usually shun the Brazil nuts.

“Pigs can be picky eaters,” Mr. Smith says, scooping a handful of banana chips, yogurt-covered raisins, dried papaya and cashews from one of the 12 one-ton boxes in his shed. Generally, he says, “they like the sweet stuff.”

Mr. Smith is just happy his pigs aren’t eating him out of house and home. Growing demand for corn based ethanol, a biofuel that has surged in popularity over the past year, has pushed up the price of corn, Mr. Smith’s main feed, to near-record levels. Because feed represents farms’ biggest single cost in raising animals, farmers are serving them a lot of people food, since it can be cheaper.

Connecting the stories and ads in the WSJ is our favorite game to play in the morning over our coffee. We’re not alone in playing this game. Richard Jackson, Director of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health connected the dots with stories in the WSJ during a brilliant lecture we heard earlier this month at a public health conference (read one of Dr. Jackson’s papers on our screwed up built environment here). Jackson held up the morning’s paper and pointed out that separate stories on childhood obesity, air pollution and suburbanization are all related.

Today’s WSJ is a reminder of how this associational game increasingly paints a picture of a mad and dystopic science fiction reality. Along with the story on feeding livestock junk food, we have a story on Fermat Capital Management L.L.C., a money management firm led by a biophysicist that sells bonds, “linked to natural catastrophes, such as hurricanes”. So called “catastrophe bonds” are a method for insurance companies to ease the danger of losses on an uncertain future of global warming related natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina. On another page we find an ad for “America’s newest stars” Qatar Airway’s direct service between Washington D.C., New York and Doha. Together these stories and ads indicate a country so hooked on driving that our business and government power elites jet off to Qatar to cut deals with corrupt and homicidal oil interests while simultaneously sacrificing our agriculture to our gas tanks, all the while covering the environmental consequences with increasingly exotic financial instruments.

Madness! We fear comrades, that it’s time to prepare,.