Mother Earth News Fair – Kansas

For those of you who might now be tired of the Mad Farmer’s adventure in Montana we will go ahead and shift topics for a bit to the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS. If you are not familiar with Ogden Publications they are a publishing company based in Topeka, Ks. They publish magazines like GRIT, Mother Earth News, Mother Earth Living, Capper’s Farmer, UTNE and several others. They have been proponents of homesteading,  green living and regenerative agriculture for a lot of years and possibly one of the best kept secrets in Kansas. Ogden Publishing shouldn’t be a secret of Kansas but we’re considered a “fly-over state” so some of the really cool things that do go on here seem to get overlooked by some of the snobbier states (take notice Oregon and Washington, it’s not just you greening up the desert anymore)!

Anyway, the Mother Earth News Fair is a homesteading, back-to-nature, gardening, beekeeping, sustainable-living jamboree of vendors, presenters and small business folks that get together to put on a event several times a year in various locations around the country. Currently there are six fairs a year and Ogden Publications started having one in their own hometown in 2014. It looked interesting and it was local so we attended the first one they had in Topeka, Ks and had a great time.

As near as I can remember the Mother Earth News Fair, speakers and topics being presented is how I got into being interested in Permaculture and sustainable living. Jessi Bloom, author of “Free-Range Chicken Gardens” and “Practical Permaculture” (an excellent book) was there, Joel Salatin, author of “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal” and “The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer”  was a keynote speaker, Rosemary Gladstar, herbalist extraordinaire and many others were at the fair giving presentations on tons of homesteading and sustainable living topics.

It’s hard to believe that I blogged about the last fair only a year ago. A lot of the bloggers and podcasters I follow have had dozens if not hundreds of articles and podcasts in that time. I’ve posted far fewer than that and hope to be better and more consistent going forward. So, moving down memory lane to the present this year’s fair came the weekend after I got back from Montana. Having just spent several days with some pretty awesome innovators I was pretty stoked to attend the fair when I got back. An added bonus was that Uncle Mud was going to be there with his family presenting on a number of topics.

Miss Mercy (the most tolerant, long-suffering , Mad Farmer’s wife on the face of the planet) and I were hoping to get together with Uncle Mud and family prior to the show  (okay, it was really just me hoping) but they were late getting in so I didn’t to get to see him until his early Saturday presentation.

Wheaton Labs and the Fisher Price House

Our second day of the tour started at what Paul and Jocelyn call the “Fisher Price House”. The Fisher Price House (FPH for short) is a double-wide mobile home that has been basically permanently installed on a granite slab that was cleared in the side of a mountain. It’s mostly made of plastic and chemicals, hence the moniker FPH. Paul also calls it “an air-tight baggie” because all of the doors, windows and joints are sealed so tight there is almost no air-flow in the house.

There was quite a bit of discussion while I was there about how homes should “breathe” and how after years of mandating minimum levels of insulation and tightening up on home regulations the government finally got some studies done that showed there really should be a minimum rate of air exchange to keep people in structures healthy and reversed their policies. All of that was mostly an aside, the air-flow discussions primarily centered around the effect of proper air-flow and draw to keep Rocket Mass Heaters working correctly.

There is a beautiful proof of concept Rocket Mass Heater in the FPH.

FPH Rocket Mass Heater

The barrel on this RMH is made of stainless steel and is really quite striking. The thing about this RMH that makes it special is it is the first “pebble style” RMH build. For those not familiar the “Mass” in Rocket Mass Heaters is used to store the heat produced by the system and release it slowly over time, that is part of what makes them so efficient. Typically the mass is made out of Cob, which is a mixture of sand, clay, straw and water. In a pebble style heater the mass is primarily large-ish rocks that are surrounded by pebble size rocks contained in a wooden frame. Paul’s also has a granite top to the mass “bench” so it also looks very nice and is useful at the same time. I’ve been told in the winter they put their clothes drying racks above the bench (Permaculture function stacking at it’s best)!

When Paul, Donkey and Ernie Wisner built the FPH RMH (how’s that for acronyms?) they originally tired venting it out the wall, just to see if it could be done. It turns out it can, but it did not draw well on cold days. They re-routed the chimney through the roof, as is typical with most wood stoves, and that did the trick. Paul figures that his pebble style bench and the stainless steel barrel make this stove about 30% less efficient in actual heat generation and retention than a cob style with a normal metal barrel but he still typically only runs it a few hours every couple of days in the middle of a Montana Winter.

We spent a bit of time in the house, firing up the Rocket Mass Heater, and discussing design tricks and I can personally attest that it didn’t take long for the room to be cozy and it stayed that way long after the fire was out.

Wheaton Labs Ants, Oehler and Base Camp

Paul Wheaton has an several on-going experiments about building community through natural building, shared ideals and the limitless possibilities of Permaculture. One of Paul’s on-going experiments is Ant Village. Ant Village originally started out as  the Ant Challenge where a minimum of six “Ants” would pay a minimal amount of rent for a one acre plot for a year. The Ants would have access to all the rest of his property to use for resources to build their own shelters, gardens, graze livestock and anything else they would like to do within a certain set of parameters of the challenge. The parameters included no “off-site” commuter jobs, no paints, toxic chemicals or insecticides and using natural methods as much as possible for building and heating.

As I understand it the people participating were called ants based on the “Ants vs. Grasshopper” parable. The reward for winning the challenge, which was basically who had the most complete, livable plot after a year, would get a “deep roots” package which is basically lifetime rent on the acre and continued access to all the other property.  Structures could be wofati’s, or other natural building styles approved by Paul. One of the Ants who has since moved along built a Mike Oehler-style structure.

Oehler-Style Cabin

The cabin is cozy inside, probably less than 200 sq. feet,  more like a tiny house. The bunk is right up against the ceiling, pretty narrow and requires some acrobatics and the ladder leaning against the wall to get to bed – I would probably do something different, but I’m considerably older and less agile than the person that built it.

Oehler Cabin Inside

There is a tiny wood stove inside, that Paul approved with reservations because he was told that it would be replaced with a Rocket Mass Heater.

Wood Stove of Death

Apparently it heats the space okay but it doesn’t hold any heat and the design of the stove is not really intended for extended use. Personally I think I would have it out of there pretty quick, but in the interest of full disclosure, I probably would have gone with a different design for the whole project. That being said, it was built by hand, by mostly one person and I have yet to do anything quite that elaborate in round wood timber framing so, “kudos to you” Ant Who Built the Oehler cabin.

Later that evening the participants of the tour gathered at Base Camp for a Pot Luck meal that featured Jocelyn’s “Spaghetti Flavored Cake” (that’s lasagna to the uniformed) that was fantastic and side dishes and bits and bobs that were provided by the folks who attended.  Arlo and Jenn, a couple who are homesteading in the Washington area cooked up a fresh salmon in the Rocket Oven and it was very tasty. Overall a nice end to a long day and eventually I got a ride up to the Cooper Cabin where I was staying the rest of the trip.

Paul has recently changed his policy on the Ant Village tying it closer to his bootcamp program. You can read about that here.

Wheaton Labs Tour Willow Feeders and Stuff

So at Wheaton Labs they encourage you to do your number one “bidness” anywhere on the property to return the nitrogen and minerals back to the environment. They also ask that you eat organic or better especially while you are on property for myriad and various reasons that you can look up on their website at permies.com. For your other functions there are multiple locations on the property that have various different types of “willow feeders”.

Willow Feeder

The concept behind the willow feeders is that willow trees and cottonwoods love excess nitrogen. After human byproducts are stored long enough to kill all the pathogens the remaining composted nutrients left behind are still too “hot” to put around most plants and most people have a natural aversion to composting in the garden with human waste (even though that was the practice in Asia for thousands of years and still is on-going but that is a discussion for another time).  Turns out however that willows and cottonwoods will take as much of that kind of stuff as possible and turn it into oxygen and wood and such.

So the “willow feeders” at the Labs are more efficient than an outhouse and I can personally attest that they don’t smell and they are very clean. I’ve probably used more out-houses and porta-potties over my lifetime than most  folks and I can tell you personally that the willow feeders are way more civilized than anything else of that nature that I have ever used.  The biggest hassle factor is having to get mostly dressed if the weather is not good to use them.

We also got to take a look at a project that was built by a couple that was staying in the tipi. Yep, you read that right, Paul has a tipi on his property that is available for rent and contains a rocket mass heater.

It’s a full size tipi and has a rocket mass heater and circular thermal mass bench inside. Paul told us the first year it was on a property a couple stayed in it over the winter. One morning they got up, put on their outdoor clothes, came out side and found out it was 25 degrees below zero! Inside they said they had the Rocket Mass Heater going the previous day and when they got up it felt like 50 – 55 degrees out. They were shocked by the outside temp. And that was in an uninsulated tipi with canvas walls. Pretty amazing stuff!

Anyway, while the couple was staying onsite they wanted to practice their round wood timber framing skills so in their own time they built a skiddable “bee hut”.

Bee Hut

There are a lot of black bears in the area and black bears love honey, so they added a solar panel and an electric fence around the structure that is powerful enough to discourage bears without permanently hurting them. The straw bales you see around the hive are in preparation for the coming winter to help the bees maintain the temperature in the hive and make it easier on them. It also cuts down on the wind and the roof cuts down on the rain and snow. Bees typically maintain their hive temperature in the 90 to 95 degree range all year round so cutting down on wind, rain helps a lot.

We then moved on to the allerton abbey wofati.

Allerton Abbey

Allerton Abbey was to be the primary focus of the upcoming Natural Builders week and there were some really cool people coming into work on that and I will cover that in a future post. On this day I got to fire up the Batch Box style Rocket Mass Heater that was in the abbey. It appears the trick to successfully starting any Rocket heater or stove is to start a small fire in the back to warm the heat riser and then build the fire more towards the front (batch box) or add more wood to the infeed (J-Tube) once the unit is drawing well. If you don’t, you’ll get smoke (and Paul will explain why that is bad and look at you funny).

Batch Box Rocket Mass Heater

This particular heater is built with a glass top from a regular stove so you can see the fire and uses a pyrex casserole dish lid as the fire feed door. Without a door on these style Rocket Mass Heater/Stoves they are not finished and will not operate properly – that is one of Paul’s biggest pet peeves with this style. People start building, don’t finish or build it wrong, then say “Rocket Mass Heaters don’t work”. They do work but this style build is not for the novice, so it’s recommended you do others before you tackle this type.

I will say you could see the fire through the glass cook top and it was wild to watch it burn sideways, then roll towards the center of the chamber in elongated tubes like sideways fire tornadoes. Erica Wisner explains  about Fire Science on their website and she also has a booklet called “The Art of Fire” that you can purchase that is super informative and interesting about how fire behave in various environments and conditions. I learned a lot by seeing all of the different Rocket Mass Heaters and Stoves and I am super glad I made the trip.

 

Wheaton Labs Tour Cooper Cabin

Paul’s property certainly has it’s share of beauty and charm. The area where the labs are located is somewhat on the side of a mountain, at least that’s what people from Kansas would call it, maybe in Montana it’s a big hill? A portion of it overlooks a steep slope down to a river and on the mornings I was there the mist and fog as you came out of Cooper Cabin was surreal and quite an experience.

Anyway, the tour continued with a visit to the interior of Cooper Cabin.

Cooper Cabin Interior

The front wall of the cabin has mostly glass so there is a lot of light coming in. The floor is finished in wood, although Paul hopes that eventually that will be converted to a Linseed Oil floor. I need to do more research on that – anyone familiar with that type of floor?

Batch Box Style Rocket Mass Heater and Cooktop

There are actually two experimental Rocket Mass devices in the cabin. The first is a Batch Box style Rocket Cook Stove.  Batch Box RMH’s have a door and have a different internal configuration for gas pathways and such. Paul is not a huge fan because they are not as simple as a “J-Tube” type (we’ll get to that in a moment) and typically require more “fiddling” to run well. If you are interested in listening to experts discuss it there is a podcast here.

The second is what would be considered a “normal” J-Tube style Rocket Mass Heater with a Cob Bench providing the “mass”.

Rocket Mass Heater

They are called “J-Tube” style because the wood feeds in vertically in the front (you can see the fire and wood feed towards the bottom of the picture above) and the burn chamber inside runs horizontally and then connects to an insulated vertical heat riser contained inside the barrel in the picture above. It is really a trip to watch flame burn sideways along the bottom of the burn chamber. The whole burn chamber is encased in cob and there is exhaust pipe that goes all through the bench to heat up the mass. Rocket Mass Heaters if running correctly burn between 1200 and 2300 degrees, burning up all the smoke, creosote and everything else combustible and then releasing some CO2 and water vapor that vents out the chimney.

The heater pictured above is in Erica and Ernie Wisner’s Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide which is probably the most definitive guide on Rocket Mass Heaters currently available.

 

Wheaton Labs Tour

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Wheaton and Wheaton Labs his property is divided into two parts – “Base Camp” where the current home and shop is located and “Wheaton Labs” which is a larger section of property where the Ant Village (we’ll cover that soon, I promise) and a lot of the other experimental structures are located. He calls it the Lab to make sure everyone remembers that the goal here is to experiment and prove concepts, not necessarily to churn out a finished product.

After the Pizza Party there was a bit of a mix-up on Friday night about where I would be bunking and Jocelyn graciously extended an offer to me to sleep the first evening on the couch in the Fisher Price House (they call it that because it’s a double-wide trailer made mostly of plastic) which I happily accepted. I helped her and Chef Ron with the dishes from the party and ended up turning in fairly late. Due to the time zone change and the length of my trip I had no trouble getting to sleep almost instantly.

I found out the next morning that Paul and Jocelyn tend to get up around 5:30 am. Paul was very kind and was being quiet in an attempt to let me sleep in. It  turns out that Paul’s version of attempting to “be quiet” is quite adorable for a 6′ 4″ large man although it’s not actually very quiet. I appreciated the effort but the early wake-up was fine because I was excited to be up and start the day. The tour and the chance to see and play with all the Rocket Mass Heaters I had been reading about was why I drove to Montana in the first place.

Chef Ron, one of the tour participants, had come in the day before from Washington and helped Jocelyn prep everything for the pizza party. Chef Ron really outdid himself making a breakfast casserole with the leftovers and making homemade biscuits to boot. He told me he had never been in Jocelyn’s kitchen prior to the day before but he had found everything he needed almost immediately. I figured that was a) because Jocelyn rocks as a cook and a person and b) he’s a chef, and people who cook tend put things they use the most nearest where they use them. After breakfast the group of tour participants gathered together and carpooled in various vehicles up to the Lab area.

The first thing we saw when we arrived at the first Lab location was the Cooper Cabin.

WOFATI
Cooper Cabin

Cooper Cabin is a WOFATI which stands for Woodland Oehler Freaky-Cheap Annual Thermalized Inertia structure. The Oehler stands for Mike Oehler who was a designer of underground earth houses who recently passed away. Mike was the author of the $50 Dollars and up Underground House Book and apparently quite a character based on the stories Paul was telling all weekend.

The WOFATI is designed to store heat in the summer and release it in the winter, maintaining a year round temperature without heating or cooling the structure. The Cooper Cabin is not completely finished but very close and Paul is hoping to have someone or a couple of someones live in the structure for year to document the conditions and prove that it works. If you are interested in helping out with that project let me know or contact Paul at Permies.com and let him know you want to be involved in the Thermal Inertia test.

The next project we looked at was the skiddable Wood Shed.

Wood Shed

The wood shed was built as a place to store boards they have milled with their portable saw mill. Recently sawed green lumber needs to dry for a considerable period of time before being used in structures to prevent shrinkage. There is a style of building using green logs, called Round Wood Timber Framing, that actually takes advantage of the shrinking to tighten the joints of a build but that’s a topic for another post. The Wood Shed was built by a novice builder as their first natural timber build and it’s not perfect but it does the job.

We then got a look at Paul’s Solar Leviathan.

Solar Leviathan

The Solar Leviathan is a portable solar charging station that has multiple solar panels mounted on a frame built onto a trailer that Paul’s brother welded together. The wheels look out of whack because the type of suspension they built has both wheels in a kind of floating frame, attached to a axle to allow for being driven over rough terrain. The solar inverter and batteries are contained inside the trailer making it a completely self-contained mobile power station. Very, very, cool, especially if you are off-grid and want to run an electric chainsaw, charge up your cellphone and have lights in a wofati cabin at night.

The next structure we looked at was the Canning Kitchen.

Canning Kitchen

The canning kitchen is a skiddable structure (skiddable means it’s designed to be hooked up with chains to a vehicle of some type and dragged to a new location) built to make canning in the summer more bearable by performing all the heated operations outside. All the blue food grade barrels you see in the picture are for water storage and the kitchen sink on the lower right side of the picture has a manual foot pump that allows for running water.

The structure is designed with an open bay (lower right side) that you can insert a module unit into depending on what you need. When used as a canning kitchen they can put a Rocket Mass Stove for heating water into the bay or they can put the Rocket Mass Oven into the bay and use the shelves for food prep. The structure is about 65-80 percent finished but is certainly usable.

Journey to Montana Part 3

The drive from Billings to Missoula was only about 4 1/2 hours so I slept in a little bit, went down to the continental breakfast, had a nice chat with the lady who was serving (unfortunately I did not get her name) and continued on my way. The event I was attending at Wheaton Labs was a get-together for some of the folks who had supported Paul’s Rocket Stove Kickstarter. Paul was having a natural builder’s event starting the week after so he had some natural building rock stars coming in for the event and since I was coming in from the East I was asked if I could pick up Chris “Uncle Mud” McClellan at the Missoula International Airport. I was happy to do it (basically that was like asking a teenage girl if they would like to meet Taylor Swift).

I got into Missoula, MT quite a bit before the plane was scheduled to arrive so I did some grocery shopping and went to lunch at a place called the Mackenzie River Pizza Company. It’s a great pizza joint and if you are passing through Missoula I highly recommend stopping in for a slice. After lunch and a look around town I went to the airport to pick up Uncle Mud. I had seen him in person the year before at the Mother Earth News Fair in Topeka, KS putting on a straw bale building demonstration and was looking forward to giving him a ride. Uncle Mud turned out to be just as genuine as he appears when putting on a workshop and his enthusiasm for all things Rocket Stove and Natural Building related is apparent in every conversation he has. The other thing that impressed me was his dedication to family and I was honored to spend the time with him.

By the time we arrived at Wheaton Labs the Rocket Stove Pizza Party of 2018 was in full swing and  just like that I was standing in a place I had been reading about for two plus years and meeting people that I been hearing about and reading about for longer than that. Just for the record Paul Wheaton is pretty much a giant. He’s 6’4″ tall and a presence in any room he is in, even if he’s not standing. Jocelyn Campbell might possibly be one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet and is an excellent cook as the next few days attested.

The first night of the event was cooking pizza in the Rocket Stove featured in the Kickstarter video, eating good food and getting to meet the people who I would be spending the next couple of days with. It turned out that the people supporting Paul in the Kickstarter and coming together to spend time in the labs and talk Permaculture came from all over and many different walks of life. A chef turned farmer, engineers, architects, IT geeks, retired administrators, homesteaders and many others. A diverse group that actually reflected in so many ways the diversity that Permaculture strives for.

After a few hours of good food and lots of stories and introductions the various participants separated to go to the various campsites and rented structures around the property and turn in for the night.

Journey to Montana Part 2

Journey to Wheaton Labs Day 2 started pretty well. Up and on the road by 7:30 am, a little later than I planned but not by much. Kansas is much prettier in the daytime. Many people think of Kansas as flat. That is mostly true for the East-West drive, but we do have the Flint Hills which are beautiful and the North-South drive has it’s fair share of reasonable hills. No mountains but there is definitely elevation change. In the western part of the state I was driving through with a little bit of imagination you can picture what it might have been like hundreds of years ago, covered in grass 20 feet tall and herds of Bison so big you couldn’t see them all. Too bad all that is mostly gone except for a few places where they have protected it.

Soon enough I entered eastern Colorado. The scenery changes very quickly and it gets colder, you start to go up in elevation as you come closer to Denver. Fortunately my route passed by Denver but it did go partway on a three-lane highway between Denver and Fort Collins that eventually went down to two lanes. If you like a leisurely scenic drive avoid traveling that highway at all costs. Even in the late morning on a Thursday it was wall-to-wall traffic. Not as bad as the corridor from Oklahoma City, OK to Dallas, TX, but pretty bad.

The good news is that once past Fort Collins everything thinned out and the traffic became lighter and sparser as I neared Wyoming. Wyoming has the aura of the Marlboro Man, riding his horse across vast, untamed prairie. There are wide open spaces and some mountains. A very pretty drive through lots of small towns and spread-out ranches. I could easily see myself living in Wyoming – in the Summer. Winters there are pretty harsh from what I understand and I’m not really a winter guy.

Once I finally got into Montana it was gorgeous. The whole trip on Thursday had very variable weather and temperatures through every state and time zone. I went from moderate rains and 50 degrees to sunny and 72 degrees, back down to the mid 30’s and rainy again and it was happening about every 30-60 minutes. Very interesting. I finally got into Billings, MT, the Capital, about 7:30 pm. I was checked into the Sleep Inn by a nice, friendly young lady named Alicia. I spoke on the phone with the lovely Miss Mercy and then got settled in for the night.

Journey to Montana Part 1

I started my trip yesterday after work (yes, you can have a tiny sustainable life and still have a day job and sometimes it’s what funds your projects) with much fanfare from Miss Mercy who was very exited about my trip. We have a great relationship so  I’m sure she was just happy for me to go play with Rocket stuff and not just happy to see me go.  I was hoping to get out of Kansas the first night of traveling but it turns out that in flurry of activity prior to leaving I had programmed the wrong route into my Garmin and ended up traveling mostly straight West through Kansas instead of North into Nebraska.

In case you have not ever looked at Kansas (and I can understand why you might not, I probably haven’t looked too closely at your state) it is kind of a rectangle, so it is much wider than longer on the East-West vs. North-South orientation. It got dark and by the time I noticed I was passing Manhattan, KS instead of getting a “Welcome to Nebraska” sign I finally realized I was heading West instead of North. Probably most of you would not make that kind of mistake but sometimes proof that everyone is human does come out in a weird ways. My body wanted to go West, an electronic device sent me West, I went West….   And immediately ended up driving for several hours in extreme crosswinds. Crosswinds that move your vehicle sideways in lurches and send tumbleweeds and cows flying past your window. After three hours of that and having been at work all day I decided discretion was the better part of valor and got a room at a hotel in Hays, Kansas.

After a reasonable nights sleep (there was an all-night gas station across from my hotel room and the window blinds in the room were just for show, so more light than needed), a quick continental breakfast I was on my way…

Montana and the Rocket Oven

So I’m getting prepared today for a trip to Wheaton Labs in Montana to meet Paul Wheaton and get a first hand look at a Rocket Oven. Paul had a very successful Kickstarter campaign to put out a video documenting how to make and use a Rocket Oven.  You might not be familiar with the concept of Rocket technology, which can be included in a Rocket Mass Heater, a Rocket Stove or Rocket Oven. Overall a Rocket anything  is basically a super-efficient wood burning device that operates at temperatures of between 1200 and 2500 degrees Fahrenheit in the firebox area (the rest is cooler and safer than a typical wood stove).  Probably the most comprehensive book current out is Erica and Ernie Wisner’s Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide.  It’s an awesome reference so if you want to know more get the book or check out the user forums at Permies for Rocket Mass Technology

Back to the upcoming trip. I’m excited to go for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that Paul has at least 12 functioning Rocket Mass Heaters and Stoves at the Wheaton Labs. I’m going to be building a Greenhouse this fall to use as a nursery for my TSL Urban Farm business that I am starting up and I’m seriously considering adding a Rocket Mass Heater to the build to help keep the heat up in the winter. I understand there are some challenges to running a RMH in a humid environment so I’m looking forward to seeing the outdoor season extension RMH they have at the labs and perhaps get the the opportunity to discuss the tech with some of the builders that are going to be onsite.

What is on your technology radar? What places will you be going soon that you are looking forward to visiting?