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12/28/10

There's Only So Much West.

The Lincoln Highway Seen
by Kass and Eric Mencher

We in the "New World" have a handicap in that our entire history has been one of exploiting natural resources. "Go west young man..." is embroidered on our society's genes in orange thread.

The reason one could (and was expected to) "lift themselves up by the bootstraps" was the existence of vast tracts of virgin territory containing timber and mineral ores and ancient fertile soils and of course coal and oil and gas - all there for the taking, just a short ride off toward the sunset.

Of course we're currently burning through those gifts like the lottery winnings they are, but we've convinced ourselves it is us that is special, when it reality it was only blind luck that put us in the right place at the right time and the right color and (usually) the right sex. In other words, we were 'Born on third base and thought we'd hit a triple' – to mix metaphors.

As we subdivided and privatized and populated and mined the commons, "growth" was inevitable and so a "growth economy" made sense. The role of government was small since there was a huge surplus to go around and that always makes governing easier. Until, that is, the early period of industrialization when the production of "capital" wealth outran the ability (and will) of government to protect the populace from the rapidly concentrating power wielded by monopolists.

Teddy Roosevelt and the "Trust Busters" interrupted the march of the industrialists for a time but by the "Roaring Twenties" the wealthy overclass once again had money to burn - and gamble. They inflated another speculative bubble in commodities and the stock market that even the little guy eventually tried to ride. Of course when the little guy gets on board you better know it's time to get off - think real estate in 2005.

During the depression, income taxes on the rich were raised and the ensuing fifty years saw the most uniformly prosperous time in US history. Everyone prospered, the owners made money and the workers shared in the success. Unfortunately the political tides of the last 40 years have shifted and the citizenry duped into believing if you let wealth concentrate, eventually some will "trickle down" - contrary to past experience. As a result, wealth is concentrated more than at any time since the great crash of '29, the "rights" of corporations are judged to be protected by the Constitution and more and more, control of the very essentials of survival; food, shelter, heat and even water are being privatized, purchased and controlled by corporations simply because that's all that's the only place left for them to spend their vast cash reserves.

Our whole system is based on the government loaning money into the economy at interest. That interest has to come from somewhere and the somewhere is "growth". The problem of course is there can be no growth without the availability of cheap raw materials, the gold-nuggets-as-big-as-your-fist-just-waiting-to-be-picked-up and of course most other minerals, the big stands of timber, tall-grass prairies, endless fisheries, easy fossil fuels... are all gone or going fast.

So here we are at the end of another speculative bubble blown because too much money was in the hands of too few people with no adult around to keep them from betting it instead of investing.  Except this time IS different: all the "A better life for our grandkids" is gone - leveraged/strip mined/clear-cut/sub-soiled/off-shored/free-traded/trash-compacted and land filled.


There is no "west" left... it's all private property now...

NEAR THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY TERMINUS, SAN FRANCISCO
by Kass and Eric Mencher

6/1/10

A Movement

If you missed my wit and wisdom I apologize for my absence - and recommend you get out more! I've been hanging out at peakoil.com again, a sad thing to admit, I admit. Anyway I was thinking about the Deepwater Horizon mess and...



I can't help but consider the irony of the Horizon rig blow out occurring within days of the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day - which itself was inspired in no small part by the Santa Barbara spill of '69.

In fact, the entire "environmental movement" received a kick in the pants because of the widespread news coverage the Union Oil rig blowout received. Tricky Dick fooled everyone (especially the Corporatacracy) and signed the Environmental Protection Act and later created the Environmental Protection Agency in the wake of the public outcry prompted by that "spill".

The Santa Barbara leak didn't cause the tree-hugger movement to materialize from scratch, Silent Spring, written a few years earlier might have been the spark and Dirty Hippies everywhere were certainly ready for a Movement of some kind but those images of oily birds (I can still remember) on the TV every night did the trick.

Pew research recently found 25% of Americans are very interested in the story of the Horizon, more than any other current event. It's 6 weeks after the explosion now and we haven't even seen many dead bird pictures yet - that is a very long time to keep Americans' attention.


I wouldn't be surprised if the various threads of climate change, "green marketing", Peak Oil and outrage over The Leak combine with a kind of national existential angst (if there can be such a thing) to form some new "Movement".

The whole "slow food" - "locavore" thing is good as far as it goes but doesn't go very far. TT "resilience" and "energy descent plans" are the right kind of medicine if the sugar coating were removed - the economic situation, especially if unemployment stays flat or if there is a second leg down, would be the thing that could take the simley face off the Transition Town sign.

I don't see it being the Partiers, angry demands for Nothing! don't seem to me to have very long legs to begin with and anger at too much government doesn't really offer much of a solution to the problems outlined by GW/PO/the economy or The Leak either. In fact, they seem to me on the opposite side - Warming/Smoreming, Drill Baby, deregulate just like Ronnie - - and now that I think about it, I haven't heard the Partiers solution to The Leak.

I'm thinking todays' graduates might be ready for some kind of movement, tens of thousands in debt with no job prospects and employment flat-lining in a two-year old recession. And remember the last 2 recessions were asymmetric jobs wise, the recovery took much longer than the drop and this one still isn't trending up much.

Then you've got the Boomers, they were 20 about the time of the Santa Barbara blowout. They were the first wave of the granola-eaters, then they put on leisure suits, then changed to power ties. They have always set the tone and remade the world in their own image. They are about 60 now and control all the money like old folks always do, I wonder if they have another change left in them or if they are just tired and scared for their nestegg?

That leaves the 25-54 demographic and I really don't have a clue about what they might do or think about all this distraction. I'd venture they are probably most directly hit by the credit/housing bust but maybe less affected by unemployment? They do have kids though and it could be The Leak hits a nerve with them more so than other groups.


I don't usually make bold predictions but I'm going to predict a movement coalescing around The Leak. I think it will have elements of conservationism certainly but my crystal ball doesn't show clearly whether it is the Teddy Roosevelt brand of protecting resources so they can be better exploited or more of the Earth First brand so I'll guess radical environmental.

Likewise I can't be sure if it will be socialist or fascist or anarchist but I'm leaning anarchist because government has become a corporatocracy and most know it already. If they don't know it now, they will by the time the corporations exercise their constitutional right to free speech in the coming elections - the ultimate right of a natural person endowed on corporations, newly granted by the Bush SCOTUS .

So, by that line of dubious reasoning we arrive at an enviro-anarchist movement populated by aging hippies, unemployed and homeless moms and dads, unemployable grads with iron clad contractual agreements to pay back student loans to the government and various and sundry economic refugees.

Hmmm.

5/9/10

Babies.

Because you can't be a momma without babies, here are some of the babies at the grandkids' farm today.






Gram had a big day too, we went to Wally's, then ate Taco Bell, then came home and built fence.

Happy day to all you Moms out there!

5/7/10

Gardens!

After babbling on about "living on the edge without money" I haven't been able to write much lately because I've stumbled on more design work than I've had in 6 years!  It's all good tho! (mind yer speakers)

Anyway I want to talk a little about the garden.

Hickchic, one of my faithful readers (I always wanted to say that) and family are starting their little farm from scratch, what a pleasure that must be! We bought an old farm, the house is almost 100 years old and I'd bet the kitchen garden has essentially been in the same spot all those years - it's been there for at least 40 years anyway.

Our soil is a silty loam, 24-30" of topsoil over a limestone chert/silt-clay fragipan. On top it's only slightly acid but as you dig deeper it gets more acid. The former owners were Amish and I was surprised the garden was so devoid of organic matter when we arrived. This type soil is very tight and poorly drained without organic matter and the less it drains the more acid it gets and the less it drains. I'm no chemist but somehow the tiny grains of silt don't clump together as well when pH is low and this makes for very small air spaces, when the particles clump together it makes passage of air and water easier. Anyway, without much of anything organic, the soil took forever to dry and compacted like cement when it did.

Our first garden here beat us, plain and simple. We came from the Central Valley of California, where sandy soil and sparse rain means there really isn't much of a weed problem except where you water. Not so, here. In fact the first two years we were effectively run out of the garden by spiny amaranth which is really hard to eradicate unless you get it extremely young.

So one of my main criteria for locating the farm - over 35" of rain, was my first hurdle.

Since I'm not much of a cultivator and I don't like to use more chemicals than I need to, I decided to build some raised beds. I simply used the scraper blade on the little tractor to scrape 6-8in of topsoil from between the beds-to-be up onto the new beds. Here are a list of raised bed benefits:

  1. Drainage raises pH
  2. quicker warming in the spring
  3. less compaction
  4. easier to mulch a wide area than a narrow one
Raised beds do quite a few things, first in the way of pH, by scraping the path topsoil onto the bed topsoil they gave me a deeper layer of sweet soil (less acidic) instantly and because they promote drainage, the soil stays sweeter.

We've added lots of carbon as mulch - wood chips, straw, spoiled hay and also lots of well rotted manure and stirred it thoroughly each spring to get oxygen to the breakdown bugs. I'm very happy with the improved tilth and will probably not till most beds after this year - tilling is good for incorporating organics but every time you add carbon (the woody part of plants) and stir, the soil the bacteria that breaks down the plant material uses nitrogen to get started and will take it from the soil if you don't add enough. In fact, tilling can actually burn up more organic matter than you are adding by giving the aerobic bacteria a shot of oxygen, causing them to break down all your hard won compost really fast - just like in your compost pile.

4/26/10

Report to the Grandkids, MMX

Since this is the grandkids farm, it only seems appropriate to give a periodic report on the state of the farm, so here goes part I.

We still own the farm, no liens or encumbrances - Ye Haw!

Soil fertility balance sheet:

  1. (-) We sold a small amount of alfalfa hay last year and about 2 dozen calves
  2. (-) Traded about 25 bales of grass hay for putting up the other 25
  3. (+) We didn't hay all fields - mowed some and let it drop as usual. 
  4. (+) We continue purchasing/bartering for feed concentrate imports
  5. (+) We brought in a good wagon load of straw (with help buckin' from your pregnant Auntie/Mom!). 
  6. (+) Most of our firewood last year was from off farm.
I need to get a couple soil samples to take to the Extension but I'm going to say that we probably are still down some fertility on balance due to putting up hay on shares.

Water
Still my biggest concern long term is water, both quality and availability. We are downhill from two dairies. One uses a lagoon to capture and spread from a freestall barn, the other is more traditional with lots of runoff. I don't mind receiving some of the "tea" that runs off but worry about the groundwater quality as well as level as dairies really use the water.

Good news is there isn't any new (or old) industrial development nearby or uphill, no big CAFO ag barns/lots and no new urban refugee barns either!

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on water.


Improvements:
Capital Improvements [cash costs in brackets]
  1. Greenhouse Project: increased solar gain, new poly roof covering, new (recycled) south glass, hydronic heated benches, propagation cabinet [mostly recycled, $100 plumbing, $75 poly, misc hardware]
  2. New hen house. [a few 2x4s]
  3.  New back steps [recycled lumber, new composition railing]
  4. Still working on Gram's kitchen...
Equipment, facilities:
  1. 9 new calf hutches [2x4s]
  2. New 8x12 calf shed [2x4s]
Cash income/expenses:
Last year was pretty tough cash-wise: Pops got sick, graphics work was virtually non-existent, calf market was in the toilet. But, work has been picking up since the first of the year, calves are bringing better, Uncle Sam is happy for a while, we're working the hospital bill and meds/supplies aren't nearly as bad as we thought.

I was kind of slow this time last year and Gram did lots of the gardening. This year I've been doing more graphics work so she is doing most of the gardening. We had thought this would be the year went much more into market farming as a necessity but we pulled back at the last minute as graphics jobs started coming back. We did wholesale some starts to the feed store, and depending on his success selling them we may put up a small hoophouse this fall.

We ate lots of homemade beef and pork and potatoes and onions and beans last year! We went shopping a couple times at Sam's and used the pantry a lot. We've worked on our few utility bills; the phone is a bare bones plan, the Great Thunder Bottom Internet Antenna is at the lowest level of service available, we have plug strip switches on the Evil Standby Red Eye phantom loads if we can remember to use them and of course we have had curly lamps everywhere since whenever.
We haven't had cable or satellite TV for years but I recently splurged and signed up for Netflix - $8.95/mo - good time are here again! I finally watched Crude Awakening!

All in all, the last couple of years were a good experience. Our income mix is is much improved. Although graphics still comes exclusively from CA, 2 new clients are more diversified than I've had in a long time - health care and small business advertising. We have even more experience with sick calves, one day we hope to be able to keep most alive.

We remembered too that pantries (and Rule #4) are there for a reason.

4/20/10

How Big is Too Big?

The average US home has grown in size from 1,000 square feet in the 1950's to somewhere in the 2,400sf area in the late aughts. At the same time, the number of people per home has dropped from 3.5 or so to 2.5 or about 1000sf per person. 



http://all-classic-ads.com


Is it any wonder the amount Americans owe on mortgages has increased from about 20% of the size of GDP to 70% of the size of GDP? Over 2/3 of the value of everything this country makes in a year. That just floors me.




I didn't talk about housing in my 5 Rules mainly because there are so many ways to gain shelter and I obviously have a bias toward small towns and small farms. But if I were to add a sixth rule I think it would be KISS - Keep It Small, Stupid. Granted, we now live in the largest house we've ever owned, but that's the key, we own it.

Several bloggers I read were talking about housing and households this week - Calculated Risk (a great economics site if like me, you understand charts better than equations), John Michael Greer, Sharon Astyk and some others. They talk a lot about declining resources and that dovetails right into the whole idea of a less-is-more lifestyle.

When we decided to abandon CA to the real estate flippers 6 years ago, we had a few criteria; somewhere in the center of the country, east of the treeline and south of the 200-day growing line (think somewhere south and east of central Kansas) - away from cities, 20+ acres of tillable land, 35"+ rain - those we my criteria, plus - - -


 an old 2-story house...












So yea, we have over 1,000sf per person in our house but we don't owe anything to the bank and that makes all the difference. But as far as being the wisest decision, an old house (ours is just under 100 years old) isn't the best. This old place is framed with oak - yep, oak, so it's gonna stand up for a while longer and the foundation and framing are about as straight as they get so I have no qualms about putting in time and money bringing the insulation and mechanicals up to snuff. But it is a long process and if you or yours don't have the experience of living in a work zone for a really long time you need to think long and hard about a fixer.

Much better (if you all the parties can agree) would be building a new, frugal home from scratch. I love this old house and I'm trying to get all the holes plugged and some solar gain but it's tough, starting new with solid plans would get you to frugal fast. I'd build a small, bermed, passive solar house using plastered ICF walls (basically a Styrofoam/concrete sandwich) and galvalume or tile roof. I'd spend all I had on the envelope and finish the interior as I could get the goodies.

There used to be a formula, back in the pre ETF/bundled securities days, it was called a qualifying ratio and when we bought our first house we needed the housing cost to be less than 24% of our gross income and all our loan payments plus mortgage to be less than 28% - oh, and 20% down too.

4/13/10

Dropout Economy



Time magazine article a few weeks ago really struck a nerve. The premise put forward was kind of a new underground economy populated by dropouts.

As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won't exist, we're on the cusp of a dropout revolution...

As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.
So I looked up the author - Reihan Salam, like I usually do and was surprised to find he is a conservative. Not that that's a bad thing, just that this little ball-gazing effort was quite liberal - in the strict sense of the adjective:
Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; 

The dropouts he pointed to were of the young version but the underground economy he imagined could be one I'd fit right into. Today there are a large number of people who've been out of work for a long time, many are indeed blue collar and a large portion are also 50+ undergraduates. Salam thinks unemployment is so cushy and attractive nowadays many freeloaders would rather draw unemployment than find a job. I'd have thought perhaps his vision is more of a conservative's nightmare of the return of long-haired hippy types until this:
The cultural battle lines of our time, with red America pitted against blue, will be scrambled as Buddhist vegan militia members and evangelical anarchist squatters trade tips on how to build self-sufficient vertical farms from scrap-heap materials.
Wow. What a mouthful from anyone even sort-of aligned with any political party.

Anyway, it's a great idea starter for anyone thinking about slipping out of the fast lane...

4/11/10

Rule #5, Don't be Dependent - The Marlboro Man Paradox


Wayne McLaren, the first Marlboro Man, dying of lung cancer at 51



Individualism is participating in society for the sole purpose of furthering one's own interests. The Marlboro Man is the modern icon of individualism. He (at least one of him  anyway) died of lung cancer, I assume because he believed what he was told by those making a profit from his addiction. Philip Morris for it's part was simply furthering it's own interests by lying about the dangers of smoking - that's as individualistic as it gets. It's ironic the icon of individualism died as a result of unfettered individualism.


Americans have this image of themselves as rugged pioneers who sally forth to tame the wilderness - and get rich off it's untapped resources. The Marlboro Man is the perfect icon for this myth, a lone agent rounding up the doggies and trailing them to market. He is Chisholm, Crocker, Comstock and Rockefeller.

Our society is stuck in Manifest Destiny mode but land and natural resources (and wild cattle) free for the taking are quite gone. But like the Marlboro Man with cigarette dangling, we cling to the myth and condemn any suggestion of contributing to a greater good as socialism.

At the same time the nagging feeling that the end of our endless resources is indeed nearing and the theme is often repeated that things may not be better for our kids after all. The result - I guess, is the mass, ugly re-expression of our selfish gene at virtually any political question.


Living at the margin is selfishly individualistic if you are an individual but it could just as easily be a model for collectivists if that's your thing. Taking advantage of society's overflow seems a perfectly normal niche, after all we're omnivores, quite good at invention and utterly adaptable. 

So when I say 'don't be dependent' I'm not talking about trying to be the Marlboro Man, the poster boy of dependence, in fact exactly the opposite. Avoid dependence on the systems we all take for granted, the Just In Time delivery of stuff - food, heat, lights, transportation, entertainment, and perhaps most of all, the 9-5. The added benefit is achieving a measure of resilience in your personal economy that makes you better able to withstand the normal ups and downs of the larger economy and maybe even the turns that aren't so normal.


It's not so difficult to change...

Marlboro had a female target audience till Leo Burnett came up with the Marlboro Man Campaign and changed the brand almost overnight, probably one of the most successful ad campaigns ever...

4/8/10

Rule #4, Don't Get Hungry

"Get Hungry?" I imagine you yelling, "I'm so fat I can't get into my pants! Food is so cheap today how could I ever go hungry?"




Ironically that is exactly the problem. In the rich world today, the cheaper the food, the more likely it's filled with empty calories, made from highly subsidized ingredients like added sugar and Hi Fructose Corn Syrup, over processed grains and added fats. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables fish, etc, are more expensive than a Big Mac menu - and no wonder, the food pyramid and the farm subsidy pyramid are exactly reversed.



In the Rich World, producing the essentials for survival; food, water, shelter, (along with all the diversions in the Bread & Circus isle) are in the SEP Zone (Somebody Else's Problem). The good citizen takes little notice except for paying very close attention to what is the popular, most advertised product of the moment. The citizen's responsibility then is simply to work and consume what's offered in the price category matching their education and income, the lower the income, the emptier the calories, the less you are satisfied, the more you eat, the fatter you get.


Remember Rules 1 & 2 are about getting off the buy-cycle and number 3 is getting rid of your day job, so the wise, edgy person learns to be more ant than grasshopper. Conveniently, since you have less time alloted to "a job", you have more time to devote to your pantry.



Rule 4.(a Stock up.
Fill your pantry with food you buy at the warehouse store and on the sale day and from the local farm and from your own harvest. Once you get it full, just buy, grow enough to replace what you use. Voila! instant Food security.


The pitfall when trying to take advantage of the margins around our current society is mistaking cheap food for good food - exactly the same problem as buying really cheap stuff thinking you are buying stuff really cheap. Low priced, over-processed pre-digested, HFCS/fat/salt laden, individually-wrapped-just-microwave-and-inhale, mystery food is bad for you, just look at the correlation between income and obesity - the less you earn the more you weigh.



Rule 4.2 Grow food.

Wherever you live you can grow some food. Because much of what passes as food at the supermarket is beat into mush - even the good stuff, you need fresh raw fruits and vegies. To be overly simplistic, if you eat some fresh asparagus and leafy greens with your extruded mush and HFCS Whatchmacallit patty, your blood sugar won't spike quite so high or fast so you'll feel satisfied longer. And who knows, you might feed your kids some vitamins and minerals by accident!

On the edge, I 'work' less and make less money so not only do I need to take advantage of the harvests and seasons, it's probably one of the biggest benefits. Our food production system has been ruined just as surely by consumers demanding a product with a quality appearance and a cut rate price as every other product. Foreign manufacturing of some worthless widget sold by a screaming barker on the Bread & Circus channel is silly. But to concentrate food production wherever the overhead is the cheapest is downright dangerous. Today monoculture is the norm, miles and miles of exactly the same crop, every fruit designed to ship. But worse, more and more crops are grown predominately in just one region of the world - then shipped to markets everywhere.

The queue for all the rich world goodies gets chaotic pretty quickly when there is a hiccup. The complicated string of just-in-time deliveries it takes to get those goodies (including your food) to the line is long and always subject to such hiccups. As the system gets more complicated and the string longer I expect it to fail more often.

Do you know where your next meal is right now?

How about the meal you'll eat 7 days from now?

.

4/7/10

Rule #3, Don't Specialize!

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. 

Specialization is for insects.


-Robert A. Heinlein


Falling Down

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OK! The first of my 5 Rules; #1.a, One point Two and 2.1 aren't all that much fun, in part because they go against everything we were raised to believe it means to be an American, namely, do the right thing so you can buy more stuff than the Jones. I say stuff is an addiction and competing with the Jones for stuff is the root of unhappiness - why do you think the slang for addiction is "Jones"?  [I don't know if thats the reason or not but it fits my purpose perfectly!]

My first two rules, Don't Buy and Don't Borrow eliminate the need to pay interest to buy unending piles of worthless stuff so you don't blow a gasket like Douglas did in Falling Down. Now you can start getting to the fun part: reducing and diversifying your income. This is really the best part of living on the edge. For many years I struggled and sweated through my cheap dress shirts trying to make a little more money, first working for someone else on salary, then in my own business. Every time I succeeded in making more money I got a bigger mortgage, ran up more CC bills, bought (and replaced and replaced) ever more throwaway stuff. All the while I thought I was doing what I wanted but I was mostly just paying the Stupid Tax that keep the Bread and Circus Show on the air.

.
Just one word...

Mr. McGuire was right, plastics were the future, but they'll be past soon enough. What's the word now?

 Telecommuting. I'm no guru and I have no crystal ball but that's my prediction anyway. I have a diversified income but my primary tool (most years) is a computer and internet connection. If you do any portion of your daily grind on a computer you can probably find a way to make a living anywhere you can get a connection. I can't express how convinced I am that one day not to distant, the current model of "driving till you qualify" for the size home you desire, then driving back in to work everyday will be untenable for a variety of reasons.

Telecommuting is great for rules 1 and 2 too, because it eliminates a wide variety of stuff from your debit column, from commute expenses (you know, like a car and gas) to clothes, to restaurant meals, to child care. Seriously you can save a ton of money by not having a "Job". It also allows you to design everything about your work life, from hours to t-stat setting to choice of Muzak - I'm listening to Dan Tyminski on some-guy-from-Japan's music list on Last.fm just now.  And as you can see, my office looks like a bordello, which is very soothing.

But best of all telecommuting puts you in charge of your time, get your work done by 6a? Cool, do something else!

And that's the key to making enough cash to keep the tax man away and buy a soda pop here and there, you need to diversify your income. Jobs - and job categories - are increasingly transient, very few people retire with a company pension any more. The last thing you should do is put all your eggs in one basket - the corporation don't do they?

I can't tell you what will work for you. Because we choose to live in the country, in addition to graphics we raise calves, do some odd jobs - carpentry, general farm labor (GASP! and a white man too!), wrenching, upholstery, sewing, sell some vegetable starts and excess produce, some hay once in a while (though I hate selling off fertility) and we're always casting around for something new - that we we like to do.

Another advantage of telecommuting is disconnecting income from cost of living. IOW, I can live in SW MO, with an extremely low cost of living, yet do work for clients in and at rates a shade below what I'd get in the Bay Area of CA - which I do (sometimes).

The flip side of that is if I can work from the Ozarks, someone else can work from Bangladesh and undercut me as well, I've tried eLance.com and Freelancer.com and I have gotten some work but it's tough. But the cat's out of the bag on that one. Whether you live in LA; Gutwater, Missouri and your job can be done over a cable it will be done from a cheaper place one day. You might want to think about that. My best advice is to get yourself a good rep (if you do freelance like me) or make yourself valuable in a way someone in Chindia can't before your job goes that way without you.


Working at the edge of the rich world takes a little bit of courage if you've been a company man your whole life. But this isn't your fathers world anymore and playing their game doesn't always pan out. Homo evolved to be the King of Adaptation, it's time to take advantage of your genes.

.

4/6/10

Rule 2. Don't borrow trouble...

I just found out the first true credit card was introduced the year after I was born. Funny, I thought all along I was born with a minimum payment due. The Rich World runs on credit, interest is the dues you pay to play the game.
Diners Club was actually first the first "Charge Card" to allow purchase at multiple businesses (resturants) in '50, but charges were due at the end of the month. Previously, retailers (department stores gas stations) would offer their own card. AmEx and Bankamericard (now Visa) were the first to take us down the road of revolving credit cards and the Minimum Payment Devil!


My goal in living on the edge has 3 facets; first, enjoy a small country life, second, use stuff the rich world sorta dribbles out the side of it's mouth so I need less money, and third, have a personal economy and infrastructure not totally dependent on BAU. Let me tell you about me and BAU...




My first bit of credit was for a new refrigerator. We'd used hand me downs and even an old Coke ice box and block ice but I was ready to make the leap into BAU. My Dad co-signed for me, he said, "I'll sign for you, if you're sure you want me to – you'll never be out of debt again you know."

Of course he was right, I ran 'em up then paid 'em off with every house we sold. We'd swear them off and be good till the next time the car broke or school clothes time or whatever excuse seemed handy. We got in over our heads many times but I don't think we ever missed a payment.

Anyway, we're out of the interest business for good now. Long story short:

  • After the recession started our one card (that we used for cash flow - calf money isn't a regular thing) jacked my rate from 7% to 16% for no reason (except that the law was about to change preventing them for raising rates for no reason)


  • Then a few months later I got sick and wound up in the hospital, I wasn't sure how that would turn out so we skipped a payment - they jacked my rate to 29.9%


  • As soon as I saw that statement I decided I just wasn't going to pay - [expletive deleted] 'em!

    6 Months later I offered them 20% to give up and they took it.

    That makes me feel bad, not that they're crooks but that I knew they were crooks and still wound up in a place where I broke my word. It's too bad for them too. Now, just a few months later, I have 2 pretty good new clients, the calf market is up and the calves I was raising to pay off that card would have made a big dent in the balance, but they could not see past jacking me to ridiculous rates, late fees, and then over limit fees. Had they worked with me they would not only have made their their money back with interest but more in the future. Oh well, $20k is no great loss to them and in the end "they" finally broke us of our habit and now we're learning to get some cash savings built like we should have done years ago. 

  • But there are other ways to save for the future more in line with living on the edge. An unexpected offshoot of raising calves is they are as good as money in the bank, in fact, their return is much better than bank interest. Basically we put in some time and maybe $100 dollars and stick 'em out on the grass where they can gain weight. We don't need to sell them at any particular point (as long as we have grass), the bigger they are, the more they're worth (albeit with diminishing returns) and we can sell them 48 weeks of the year and have cash in a couple of days.

    The same goes for storing hay, raising a pig, keeping chickens, growing and preserving food from the garden - even cutting firewood and unless you are really lucky those are all lots more fun than your office job. After all, there is nothing magical about money, it's just a store of value. Whether it's a gold coin, FRNs or 1s and 0s on some hard drive somewhere, it's only worth what someone else will give you in trade.


    For someone trying to live in the margin, the reason to not borrow is pretty obvious; every dollar you borrow comes with a Business As Usual tax in the form of interest - if you're trying to escape BAU, why support it by paying the tax?

    4/4/10

    Rule #1.b Recycle




    Not recycling where you return things to be reused by "them", this is the kind where you reuse things. The classic is the spool table which I think should be the photo beside the definition of recycling, come to think of it, in this case it is.


    Previously: 5 RulesRule #1

    Obviously you aren't obligated to have a spool table to qualify as someone living on the edge, (which from now on I'm just going to call "Edgy") Here are a couple of Edgy examples from around the house:




    Reupholstered $15 chair



    Piano - free for hauling, table - homemade (but not free)




    Working chute: hiway barriers panels, salvaged gate - even the headgate was a rescue.

    I have any number of other examples, like the heated greenhouse benches and the soon to be unveiled Hen House from the Edge - in fact our entire house qualifies! It was rundown and inefficient with a roof beginning to fail, a porch roof that already had and the mechanical (and 1 outlet/room electrical) systems virtually kaput when we bought it - that's major recycling!




    The point here is there are basically two ways to spend your life, ride the BAU-go-round and specialize in one or two things so you can make enough money to pay other specialists (or little Chinese girls) to do/make everything you can't - or - spend your life learning to do things yourself. There is a pile of rich world stuff just laying along the edge no one wants to touch... 

    Not yet anyway...

    .

    Rule #1, don't buy junk.

    Buying stuff is necessary, but buying stuff that barely makes it through the trip home is crazy.



    25 or more years ago, Susan wanted to make bread. "Cool!" I said, I can buy a tool - mixers, miter gauges, mattocks, they are all the same if you are a true tool fool like me.

    So at the next opportunity (this in was pre credit card days) I bought an expensive (for us) mixing machine. On a consumer cost scale of 1-5 it was probably a 3 and that was expensive for a carpenter.

    She smoked it on the first double batch.


    Use it once...


    This was the early '80s when there was still a blurry line between sturdy and cheap. That line was quickly fading as plastics and "engineering" made everything better - or at least cheaper. I think that's the corner we've worked ourselves into, everyone wants a deal, the low price always, and that's smart but it has created the throw away society.



    We waste about the same amount of food as we did in the 60's and only twice as much as we did 100 years ago. But we waste 100 times the amount of "product"!

    Containers and packaging made up the largest portion of MSW generated: 31 percent, or about 77 million tons. The second largest portion came from nondurable goods, which amounted to about 24 percent, or about 59 million tons.*

    What is really sad is that in addition to the 24% of the waste stream comprised of "non-durable goods" another 18% is "Durable Goods"!

    Lots of throwaway stuff gets recycled, but the price paid for junk never gets refunded.


    I try to buy stuff that can be fixed...


    I took that plastic mixer back and bought the largest kitchen aide consumer model available. We still have it. It did need repair one time, Susan's brother in law took it apart and replaced a gear and guess what, it was the only plastic part in the machine.

    I'm not really sure there are many products that can be fixed any more, especially the household variety. Parts for the kitchen aide blender we bought 15 years ago are no longer available, the unit looks the same as it has for 50 years but the working parts are new and improved - all plastic in other words. But it's worth a look around if you use something often, it seems sweet to buy 3 cheap somethings for the price of one good thing until you turn around and all 3 are broken.


    I buy old stuff...

    This too is becoming more difficult as the stuff Gram bought 30 years ago gets tossed out with her doilies after she passes. When I was shopping for a good sturdy sewing machine for a Christmas present, I asked a repair guy's opinion and he told me the best machine I could buy - by far, was any model made before about 1965.

    The other problem is many times useable old stuff gets bid up by dealers who resell it as "antique". This really hurts, I'd like to find a useable corn sheller for example but they go for so much as "primitives" I wind up twisting cobs by hand...


    Buy one good thing...

    Finally, I try to buy the best if I possibly can and forego the other 2 things. I'd rather buy a used Honda small engine anything than a new whatever with a brigs; a Lie-Nelson plane is a wonderful thing if you are a tool fool...





    4/3/10

    Silk Purses



    Living on the edge of modern ag has kind of become the subtext here at the blog. I'm a Junker/Cobbler/repurposing aficionado at heart and enjoy the functionality of a well turned out Sow's Ear Faux Silk Purse.

    But beyond the simple satisfaction of a successful kludge, my overall goal is to negotiate my life to a simpler and lower energy level, whether as a preemptive move in the face of lower fossil energy availability or just as an escape from the brass ring grabbing contest, the plan is the same. Hopefully a side benefit is leaving a place and a way for my kids and grandkids to adopt if they want or need.

    About three years ago, after racking my brain repeatedly distilling my thoughts on "powering down" to bumper sticker sized morsels for posting on message boards,  I came up with my Five Rules. I use these to judge how/what/where to spend my time and meager resources and to what extent I'm successful.

    Here are Pops' 5 Rules for Living on the Edge of the Rich World:
    • Don't buy
    • Don't borrow
    • Don't specialize 
    • Don't starve
    • Don't be dependen

    I want to talk about these one at a time so I'll start with the firstest and hardest, Don't Buy - or the longer version, Quit buying worthless stuff and learn to live on less.

    If I add together what the SS Administration says I've made in my life to what I've made selling the houses we've lived in and fixed up over the years, it comes to over a million bucks (inflation adjusted it's more like about $756.38 but whatever). Boone Pickens says the first billion is the hardest! Point being, I don't want to come off like some monk sleeping on the floor in a lotus position and eating air. I was up there in the 80th percentile a few times and by golly I tried to spend it before it stagnated and I caused the downfall of the entire economy.

    But hey, buying stuff is the American Way. The self evident, god given right to pursue stuff was in the opening line in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. And even though "property" was replaced by "happiness" in the final item, we all knew what they were talking about and so we all became the undisputed champions of stuff consumption. As a good American, I've made myself happy by buying every kind of stuff from candy bars to bass boats.


    We left California for the Ozarks for a couple of reasons, first and foremost, it was clear the run in home prices was way overdue for a fall. I learned at the time the typical cycle since WWII was 7 years peak to peak - in '04, prices had not peaked for 20 years - that's 2-0 years! When I read the execs at the big home builder Incs were selling off their stock in their own companies to "diversify", well...

    Real estate prices, or any price really, makes no difference if you aren't buying or selling. The thing is, as we sat and watched the "value" of our house double over about 3 years we had that pile of airball equity staring us in the face. But it was only accessible 2 ways, borrow against it (and inevitably find ourselves underwater) or sell and move to a lower valued area.

    I was almost 50 and chained to the merry go round. I had a huge nut to crack each month and any little blip in the economy (oh, I don't know, RE bubble, credit bubble, commodity bubble) would cause my little free lance graphics business to go poof! The same old roundy round, chasing a buck just gets old. And most importantly Susan, my wife, and Miss, my daughter, were ready to abandon the coast - finally!

    Anyway, when it came time to jump the shark, the first step was deciding we could get by without buying so much stuff. Turns out, buying stuff  is a hard habit to break and is what keeps most people working 50 hour weeks. We've been here almost 6 years now and we still get to jonesing for stuff from time to time. Stuff seems to multiply spontaneously (though of course this is illusion), and as it does there is an equal and opposite decrease in wallet mass.

    But stuff is like food, you need to have some to survive, the key is deciding what and how much.

    After chores post more...


    3/20/10

    Living on the Edge of Rich World vol III

    So a neighbor came by yesterday with 60 dozen double-yolked, fertile turkey eggs and asked me if I wanted some, I said sure.

    Turns out he "knows a guy" who works at a turkey ranch and this is turkey incubating time. Turkeys, like all good "modern" CAFO organisms, can't reproduce without human help and part of the industrial process is candling the eggs and discarding the doubles.

    Eggs of course are the perfect naturally packaged food capable of remaining edible for at least a couple of months with no refrigeration. With a little care and you can extend that out to 6 months or more.

    Eggs with an intact shell are pretty well hermetically sealed - if you handle them carefully and don't wash them, momma hen's own tamper proof container is sealed with an airtight coating known as "bloom". The only thing you can do to improve their 'shelf life' is try to keep out air and keep in the liquids after 'the bloom is off the rose' – sorta-speak.

    Anyway, quite a while ago I had purchased a gallon of Sodium Silicate, known as 'waterglass' to your great-gram. We had a bunch of new hens and way too many eggs. Turns out we gave away eggs till things settled down in the hen house and so I still have most of the waterglass concentrate. I paid about $20 for a gallon of concentrate, I think though, if you check the link at the bottom of the blog you can see why the price is $30-something now.

    From The Pure Food Cook Book, 1914


    WHEN eggs are their cheapest and best, in May or early June, and before the really hot weather has come, the wise householder will put away, in water glass, a liberal quantity. If possible, " put down " enough to carry the family through the months when eggs " soar." If carefully packed, and if there are not more than three or four dozen in a crock, and again if they are kept covered with the water glass, they will keep well.


    I posted these directions on a message board a few years ago:

    One gallon of the solution (1 pint of sodium silicate solution to 9 or 10 pints of water yielding a little more than a gallon) should preserve 75 to 100 dozen eggs (900 - 1200 eggs) according to Carla Emery's Encyclopedia of Country Living Old Fashioned Recipe Book. If you want smaller quantities just keep the ratio intact at the 1:9 ratio. ie: 1/2 cup to 4 1/2 cups or 1 cup to 9 cups or 1 pint to 9 pints of water. Here are the details of the method referred to as the Water-glass method. Pack the eggs when they are between 24 hours and 4 day old. Older eggs don't keep as well. Unfertilized eggs will keep longer than fertilized eggs. 

    Start with a clean crock* or (6 gallon food grade) deep plastic pail. Boil the water and let it cool before you add it to the waterglass. Then pour the mixed solution into the crock or pail. Remember not to fill the crock or container more than about one third full of the solution because you will be adding eggs.
    Add the eggs. Do not wash the eggs before preserving them because the egg shell has a natural sealer on it that will be removed. Dirty eggs can be washed and used immediately. Make certain there is an extra 2 inches of solution covering them. In hot weather it evaporates pretty fast so watch it carefully. Cover the container as tightly as you can to ensure that no insects can enter the container. Store it in a cool dark place. Don't let it freeze. 

    It starts out as a clear liquid but gradually turns to a cloudy jelly. When adding additional eggs or making up for loss due to evaporation, just be sure to cover them with about 2 inches of solution mixed at a 1:9 ratio. Preserving the eggs in this manner will keep them for up to one year. Eggs should be washed thoroughly before using.
    Be sure to follow any safety tips or directions on the sodium silicate container or from the pharmacist while handling the solution or Sodium Silicate itself.

    Another old link,  and 'nother link with instruction for use of dry sodium silicate,   and last but best, the great egg stor-off from, of course,  Mother '77.

    And a more modern use for "waterglass"but don't tell where you heard it...

    I looked for an old-timey version of "turkey in the Straw" and found Liberace but decided to link this by Cousin Emmy because it's just better on it's face.

    .


    *Most any container without a toxic history should do to store your eggs but be careful when using a croc...


    .

    3/19/10

    Sunshine

    Just some wandering around pictures after 2 weeks of gloomy overcast.




    Turns out most illustrate my poor maintenance schedule.  









    The brush hog and it's enemy...

    3/17/10

    Hookin' Up in the Sticks


    So a big part of getting by down on the farm is finding a way to make modern day egg money. Sure you can have a town job and still live in the sticks but then you're basically a suburbanite with a big lawn and a bigger fuel bill. I know, I once lived in the California Sierra Nevada foothills and worked in the central valley. A commute of over an hour wasn't bad when I was a mid-level toadie but once I opened my own business, the drive plus 12 or 14 hour days made me feel like I only saw home on the weekends.

    For me the perfect solution is to telecommute.

    You need a couple things to "earn-by-wire". First you need the gig, that's something you'll have to figure out on your own but secondly you need the wire - or wireless. I'm no expert on internet connectivity except for in my own office so let me tell you about my experience.

    After spending several months shopping for a farm online we decided on our general area and flew out to see the chosen few places. The picking was easy, in 10 midwest and southern plains states we only had a handful of prospects and after a quick trip we found we had lucked into one place fitting our criteria almost to a tee.

    We had already reviewed about everything we could about SW MO generally but the internet connection required us to settle on a place first. I do commercial print graphics and routinely transfer fairly large files both upload and download so a good connection was a pretty big priority. I knew cable obviously was out and DSL was probably out as well since The Place is around 5 or 6 miles from a town of only 4k but I checked anyway.

    Sure enough, no DSL. So right away I was down to satellite or wireless or - gulp, dial-up. I was concerned about weather interference problems with satellite and cell service was spotty. Though we're only talking 6 years ago the cell networks here really weren't made for quick data transfer waaay back then and anyway we had very bad cell reception.

    I just happened to stumble on a local company who had a wireless network just for internet conection! I arranged for them to do a site survey and they said we were golden so we pulled the trigger and signed the contract on the farm.

    Skip ahead a couple of months and we are unloading the trailers and wondering where the guys are to install the antenna that was supposed to have been up by the time we arrived - welcome to the Ozarks bub, cool yer jets.

    We get a dial-up account established and boy is it slow, I mean so slow that sometimes my machine just gives up trying, this is definitely not good. Several calls and here comes Mutt and Jeff and a ladder.



    So we get the antenna up and boy it works fine, it ain't DSL but it ain't bad.

    A couple of months go by and overnight the speed goes to pot, a few calls and a few excuses from Mutt about how Jeff is working on the problem and all of a sudden no connection whatsoever. By this time I have an unrelated computer virus on the PC and a Mac with no modem. Let me tell you, I love the Ozarks and wouldn't leave for the world but that weekend driving around Springfield Missouri trying to find an external Macintosh modem while a good client's big job is on deadline is one for the books!

    In the end the job goes out because I got lucky and found a Mac modem and am now back to rejoicing over a dial up connection that barely connects. The calls and visits from Jeff and Mutt go on for months, replacing the modem, re-tuning the antenna, ducking my calls.

    Finally I'm talking to a new not-Mutt/Jeff guy. This guy bought the franchise from the first guy who really only wanted to sell the service, not necessarily keep it working. Turns out the big antenna that my little antenna was trying to talk to had been moved lower on the tower to make room for the new fangled, faster type antenna at the top! Not surprisingly the old-fangled antenna was moved lower at the same time my reception went to pot.

    But what is surprising is nobody told me my connection would never work without upgrading to the new flavor antenna or asked me the many times we talked if I wanted to spend some more money to get a better connection.



    Of course when they told me what was going on I paid the $300 to get the new antenna installed on my roof and new modem-receiver-electronic-gizmo and have had pretty good service since, not counting a few outages after ice storms, tornadoes that sort of thing. I get about 1mb down and 500k up for $49/mo. and out in the toolies that ain't bad until they get fibre that last mile.


    Finally, I have three pieces of advice about country connections for the telecommuter:

    Make sure the people you are talking to understand you need the connection to make money to pay their bill – you are not just surfing for porn or cake recipes.

    Have a back up dial up or a friend with a good connection.

    Know where the fedEx drop box is.


    P.S. Neither Mutt nor Jeff were bad guys, just in over their heads, I never did pay for the first antenna installation or any service till the new antenna was up.

    3/15/10

    Little Mucker Survives!


    Here is yesterday's little mucker all dry and happy, notice the milk mustache, actually he may not be so happy, he looks like he's thinking he should have a THREE qt. bottle!



    Just a little more on raising calves, we bring them home and bed 'em in little hutches for the first 3 weeks or so. By that time if they are going to get sick they usually have and we can treat them in isolation so we know just what's happening. By that time they are starting to eat some grain and are rambunctious enough to keep up with their cousins or we leave them in the hutch a little longer.

    When they are ready we put them in groups of 5 in a larger pen and feed them replacer from a bucket with 5 nipples for a few more weeks before we start weaning. At 6 weeks or so they are on just one bottle for one last week, high protein feed and good grass hay. We try not to let them out on grass till they are about 3 months, if they start grazing too soon it retards the ability of the rumen to absorb nutrients, remember that back in olden wild cow days before dairies, dairymen and Ben and Jerry's, calves stayed with mom and nursed pretty well till mom said enough – certainly longer than 6 or 8 weeks.

    Raising bull calves is a fine balance, obviously you want them to be happy and healthy and the longer they are on a bottle the better but milk replacer doesn't come cheap, figure $15 a week, good sweet starter grain is maybe $3 a week when they get going, plus straw and hay and vaccines and meds and miscellaneous supplies and the occasional and sometimes more than occasional failure and pretty soon it's a hobby because you aren't even breaking even.

    Then you always need to figure in the cost of pilferage...

    3/14/10

    Orphans of Industrial Ag.


    It's kind of hard not to feel sorry for dairy bull calves.

    From the standpoint of the dairyman they are at best a byproduct of the process, at worst a nuisance and cow killer. When a heifer calf hits the ground, you can bet she is swept up and fawned over from the first moment, little bulls like this not so much. The little dairy where I trade a couple hours worth of chores a day for bull calves is a mom and pop outfit. They care for each cow like no thousand cow dairy could, they know each girl by sight, who her mom was and who her girls are.

    Still when lots of things are going on, like today, a little guy like this can get forgotten. Today 3 cows calved, one cow went down with milk fever (calcium deficiency) then died in the hay barn right in the way of the feed wagon. The vet had to be called because I thought one of the dry cows had been acting funny and this morning she was pushing like labor though she wasn't due for weeks - turned out she had a dead calf in her - not a pretty situation.

    I sometimes call modern Holsteins "Frankenstein Milk Monsters" because they are bred for just one thing: to provide your double chocolate chocolate chip ice cream as cheaply as possible. To that end they are selected for - what else, giving milk in the largest amount with the least input until they fall over dead, which isn't but a few years nowdays. They are big, they have a hard time standing on slick concrete holding pens and sometimes fall and "Split out" ruining their ligaments I suppose and though they get hand fed, watered, lifted with a tractor and sling for exercise they usually expire.

    Though sires are also selected for small birth weights at least somewhat, many times the dam is a huge bruiser (a good thing) and she throws a huge bruiser calf and if it's her first or second calf it can kill her. There are two first time moms in the hay barn over there, due to birth paralysis they have hobbles on their back legs to keep them from falling and splitting out.



    One thing they are never selected for is being good moms because they don't usually see that calf but just for a few hours. That's what happened to this guy, they were in a nice lean too shed up out of the muck but mom would have nothing to do with him. A good mom starts licking a calf right away and soon cleans him dry, it stimulates the calfs circulation and makes it want to get up and suck which in turn helps the mom "clean" – expel the placenta. But of course none of that matters because people take care of all that stuff, mom goes on the milk string and calf goes in a hutch.

    This guy is gonna have a hard time, he got pretty cold before I got him home and rubbed down. He went right after the bottle though and it warmed him up enough to start shivering, a good sign. He's wearing the red poncho to help warm up (and my belt because I couldn't find the velcro). His hutch is nice and warm and I shoved him in and hope he'll stay inside, it's misty and kind of windy though only about 40*.

    Dairy calves as opposed to beef calves are quite helpless, many are so large as to not be able to stand on their own, especially bull calves which are larger than heifers. Many times the reflex to nurse seems to be missing as well, I was feeling pretty good so far, we have 5 babies (out of 20-25 in the next couple months) and I haven't had to use a stomach tube on one - till this morning... and the same calf this evening. It is imperative for a calf to get a gallon of colostrum (first milk) in the first 24 hours. It contains moms antibodies and the calf's a ability to absorb them decreases by 50% every 10 hours from birth. Without those antibodies that kid is gonna have a hard time surviving without lots of meds.


    Don't get me wrong, I don't bring home the little muckers because I feel sorry for them, I bring them home because it's one way to make some cash money in the country on the edge of modern farming. It's hard to not like the little shits when they are little and frisky out kicking and bucking when we move them from the hutches to group pens at a couple weeks. And though I cuss at 'em when they are daring me to keep them alive it makes me feel good when they do good. 

    Still, I hope to buy some old line dual purpose heifers this year, maybe old line milking shorthorns, red polls or Devons. Some old "family cow" line that was abandoned when the transition to concentrate feeding began in the 40's and 50's. Some line whose moms don't need chains and butt jacks to calve, remember how to mother a calf and haven't been bred to be walking udders.

    It would be nice if there were a market out there for just a good sturdy family milk and meat cow that gives a good amount of milk and calves that grow meat instead of just hair and were raised on grass by their moms instead of being orphaned in the muck.


    3/12/10

    Greenhouse Heating

    I need to have heat in the greenhouse to get a good enough start to sell starts! This last February was 6* colder than average, and the average is around 20* at night with many below 10* (we'll just ignore the record of 29* below).

    I don't have a lot of bucks to invest so let me tell you how my system came about: The first piece fell into my lap back in the summer when I saw a 60 gallon water heater sitting in front of my neighbor's milk barn. Being the curious junker I am I ask what was going on and the story went "the bigger chiller unit we installed caused the main breaker to keep tripping so we replaced the electric water heater with a propane unit"

    Ah!

    So after I did him a favor and took the WH home, I stuck it in the shop thinking I would do something with it one day. Well one day came a few weeks ago when it dawned on me I could make that water heater into a radiant hydronic heater for my greenhouse benches. Here is a shot of 2 benches, each with it's own "curcuit" of tubing for hot water to cycle through:


    I attached coils of PEX tubing to the underside of the bench tops and sealed the bottom with 1/2" rigid foam insulation - foil side up. The pex is plumbed to 3/4" pvc pipe, a supply and a return, and ran around to this work of engineering mastery:


    Here you have your basic washing machine motor and pump assembly protected by a preciscion fitted plastic pot. Affixed to the top of the pump is the fully programable control unit (in the Folgers can). The control unit contains all the guts of the washing machine wiring because I couldn't figure out which of the 9 wires coming out of the motor would make it run. I just left them and the timer all connected and after a slight adjustment to the timer clock rendered it not a timer at all everything basically became an on/off switch.


    If you look back at the pics of the seed cabinet, I think you can see behind it a sheetrock wall - you can see a bit of it behind the heater in this shot too. This building was a garage built sometime early last century and so it has a stemwall foundation. I'm building walls inside the old north wall and insulating them as I scrounge the materials, I'll do the north half of the roof as well. Here is a section through the wall so you can see I have about R-30 insulation with the part at the floor being rigid styrofoam.


    Yet to be accomplished is connecting the pump to a line voltage t-stat I had hooked up to heat lamps for the previous incarnation of the greenhouse and completing the tubing installation on the last 2 benches. The washing machine pump setup is overkill since the motor is way overpowered for this job, if things work out I'll replace it with something more appropriate – when something turns up more appropriate that is...

    My costs:
    Benches, water heater motor/pump, wiring, breaker box - $0
    200 ft PEX - $50
    "Gator" fittings 10 @$6 = $60 Ouch!
    PVC $40 +/-
    40A 220 breaker - $20
    _____________
     $170 total

    I could have bought a Blue Flame propane heater and installed it for about the same but I'm thinking this will be much more efficient since I'm heating the underside of the trays with radiant heat and not the air of the entire greenhouse. Placing a cover over the benches using a cage structure (you can see the fence wire I'm experimenting with in the top photo and previous post) I can trap the heat right at the bench. Also in the back of my brain is plumbing the black water barrels as a solar collector / heat sink during the day.

    The added benefit is that when starting seed or propagating from cuttings the soil temperature is what's important – which is why the seed mat in the starting cabinet, but with this setup we could theoretically start seed right on the benches.