The Enemy of Good Enough

You may be familiar with the phrase “Perfection is the Enemy of Good Enough”. The Mad Farmer’s father, the Mad Welder, was often heard to say “If you don’t have time to do it right, you will be finding time to do it over” (the first thing I ever added to the Wisdom Nugget Toolbox). In all fairness the Mad Farmer’s dad aka the Mad Welder was also often heard saying things like “not there, move that light to your other right”, “where is my hammer?” and “what the “H-E double hockey sticks (you know the real word) do you think you are doing” and the ever popular, “hold down the brake pedal” (while he was working on the carburetor). So, some of the real pearls did often fall between the cracks while innocents cowered and offenders were taught the life lessons that form the foundation of character.

Anyway, the Mad Farmer has discovered a phrase that will not be joining the Wisdom Nugget Toolbox is “I’ll Fix That Later”. “I’ll Fix That Later” is the enemy of Good Enough, Near Enough, Probably Good Enough and all of their cousins and extended kin, without even bothering to mention Perfection. Last fall at the Tiny Homestead we had a couple of really sad trees that were growing in our easement (what the Australian’s call “the Parking Strip”). In Kansas, at least in Topeka, the Department of Making You Sad gets upset if you remove trees from the easement. It’s technically land that the homeowner owns, is responsible for maintaining and pays taxes on but the city has the right to do anything they like there and the homeowner is not allowed to make major changes without city approval. Pretty sure it’s things like this that are driving the Mad Farmer straight into Voluntaryism (but clearly that’s a post for another day).

Elm, Little Balls of Death Tree and Dying Maple

The trees were a Sweet Gum, also know as “The Terrible Monster Tree that Distributes Small Spiky Balls of Death that Can Kill, Wound or Seriously Annoy When Expelled at High Speed From the Whirling Blades of The Mower”, and a diseased Maple that had been struggling since we purchased the property and was never going to get better. It was suggested by someone that the Farmer call the City Department of Making You Sad about Trees and see if the trees could be removed. In possibly the most surreal sequence of events in the Farmers life, while he was on the phone with the City Department in charge of Tree Sadness requesting that someone come out and look at the trees that were impeding homestead progress Miss Mercy relayed that a city vehicle had just pulled up in front of the homestead and a city worker exited said vehicle with a clipboard and started looking at the aforementioned trees. After thanking the Tree Department of Sadness for the prompt response the Mad Farmer and Miss Mercy went out to talk to the city employee.

The city employee told us he happened to be in the neighborhood when the call came over the radio so he stopped by. Still super surreal. Even more surreal was that the employee agreed with the assessment of the diseased Maple and the imminent danger posed by the Death Ball Tree and told us the Department of Sad Trees would be out to make these Trees Super Sad by removing them. And, in less than a couple of weeks, a large City Truck and several support vehicles arrived on site, workers swarmed and the trees came down and disappeared. So what does this all have to do with Perfection, Good Enough or I’ll Fix That Later? Well, once the Parking Strip trees came down the only obstruction to garden sun and happiness at the homestead was a sickly elm that was also facing the street but was on homestead property, not the Parking Strip, so the Mad Farmer was allowed to remove it if he wished, and he did wish.

Parking Strip Trees Gone

So a sunny afternoon, a chainsaw, some well-placed cuts and one not as well placed and the elm tree was no longer an obstruction and instead was in many log-shaped pieces and lots of branches and limbs. Because the Department of Making You Sad does apparently care about things like piles of log-like items in the front of the homestead (and because random strangers kept coming up and asking the Farmer “Do you want those?”), the Farmer tossed everything over the homestead fence. Intending to “Fix That Later”. This is where the Farmer learned that “Fix That Later” is the Enemy of Everything. The Farmer didn’t fix it later. The rains came, the Winter came, the snows fell and everything stayed in piles, against the backside of the fence. Then Spring came, the wettest that Farmer remembers (not that his memory is that great), but also the wettest many other people could remember. The unfinished pond filled up, the rains continued, then, for the first time in years – an actual Spring.

Elm Tree Down

Growing things covered over the piles of limbs, brush and logs that had been thrown over the fence. Birds bringing in strange seeds that grew into vines, stickleburrs, thorny random weeds and cover crops gone berserk. And then the sunshine came out intermittently, the plant life flourished and got higher, denser and more out-of-control. Briefly it looked planned and “meadowy”. Then it looked like something your neighbors would complain about to the Department of Making You Sad, but because it was hidden from prying eyes, no complaints. The only other person who could see the forest primeval attempting to take over the honestead was Miss Mercy. The good news is Miss Mercy is super cool and only mentioned things were getting out-of-control occasionally. The bad news is, it was a mess. So Miss Mercy took a road trip to catch up with her life-long best friend (maybe she will guest blog about that trip someday) and the Mad Farmer did his level best to get the out-of-control meadow under control. The Farmer made some progress, but not nearly enough. Thus was hammered home the lesson that “Fix It Later” doesn’t happen, and, when it doesn’t it makes a mess.

Clearing the Mess

The moral of this story is that people are human and human systems aren’t consistent (Paul Wheaton has a spot-on theory about this). People say that Perfection is the Enemy of Good-Enough because if you overthink or wait for the perfect moment or sequence of events then things never even get started. If you start something and it’s “Good Enough” it means it’s working at least a bit, that means you have the opportunity to tweak it, tune it and correct it – all things that can’t happen if you never started. Those are all good things. If you do things in a hurry, because you think you are going to get “right back to it and tidy it up correctly” it will probably really move you backwards. Not doing things correctly in the first place is going to cost you more time than if you had done it right the first time. Sometimes you might not have a choice, but if you do, take the time to do it right if you can – you’ll be happy you did.

New Skills and Pickles

The Mad Farmer took a day off from his “real job” and was hoping to get some intensive yard work in on his “day off”. It’s said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. It apparently started raining sometime during the night. The Mad Farmer’s Strawberry Blonde Pain-in-the-Too-kas, aka the Bane of the Farmer’s Existence, aka the Dog that almost speaks English, sometimes known as … “Sasha”, usually gets the Farmer up sometime before 6 am to “go out”.

In case you are not a dog owner “go out” means “I’ve been inside, cooped up for a while and I gotta go, and I gotta go now (okay I could hold it, but now would be super swell and I’ll whine less – maybe – okay probably not, but maybe, if you would get up and let me outside NOW that would be SWELL). So the Mad Farmer stumbles out of bed, staggers down the stairs, whining mutt following, and opens the back door. Amazing what you don’t hear when you’re not really awake. Somehow the Farmer missed the pitter-patter of a torrential downpour. When the door opened, the driving rain was apparent and the sudden crack of lightning and resulting flash sent the aforementioned Strawberry Blonde hobbling backwards and up the stairs as fast as she could. It appears that safety trumps a full bladder, at least in the short term.

The point of all this exposition is that no yard work was getting done, at least not in the morning, at the Tiny Sustainable Homestead. There were still things to do even though it was raining.

  • The Family Truckster was scheduled for an oil change (turns out a trip to Polyface Farms from Kansas is far enough to warrant an oil change when you get back).
  • Miss Mercy had an early morning board meeting (she’s on a lot of boards, apparently to keep from getting bored).
  • There was coffee to be drunk (the Homestead is super fond of Seattle’s Best #5)
  • Bird Feeders go empty and need to be refilled, even in the rain, especially with the flying pigs that inhabit the area around the tiny homestead.
  • Early morning rain induced nap (this was optional, but seemed a shame to pass up).

Miss Mercy returned from her meeting and helped to drink the coffee, she was no help at all for napping – she doesn’t really nap (although she does try on occasion). The Strawberry Blonde was also not helpful for the napping. Turns out, if you’re not spending every waking moment paying attention to the Blonde then Little Miss Whiny whines. Super annoying if you’re trying to nap while hanging out on your porch in the rain. At that point the Farmer had a choice: He could get up, go upstairs and go to bed or, his timeline could fork, and he could get some stuff done (Future Post Warning: The Mad Farmer will at some point share his brother’s theory about naps and going back to bed) .

As much as the Farmer would love to waste a day doing nothing, it didn’t feel like today was that day, so the mental decision was made to get some stuff done. The bird feeders got filled, turned out the birds don’t care if it’s raining. The kitchen got spruced up, the fridge got cleaned out, zucchini chips got dehydrated and peppers and cucumbers got harvested from the garden. It’s been a weird year for gardening in Kansas, last year it jumped from Winter to Summer, giving Spring a miss. This year has been one of the wettest years in memory and so we actually had a Spring but Summer has been a pendulum swing between very hot and very wet – it’s really confused the garden produce. We know people who are having a bumper crop of tomatoes, the homestead has very few. The basil is going gangbusters and we have volunteer squash that have massive vines but aren’t fruiting. So all-in-all, garden confusion.

The one amazing pile of produce we have is cucumbers. Not the Mad Farmer’s favorite fruit but Miss Mercy loves ’em in all their forms. We had way more cucumbers than Miss Mercy could reasonably eat so the Farmer decided it was finally time to learn how to water bath can. A recent podcast from Nicole Sauce, at Living Free in Tennessee, about the 8 Steps to Mastering Canning, inspired the Farmer to give it a try with some cautious encouragement from Miss Mercy.

Cucumbers from the Garden

So we gathered the cucumbers and the canning supplies (the Homestead has been preparing for this for a while) and the Mad Farmer started slicing and dicing and sterilizing and sanitizing and boiling and preparing and all the other things you need to do so start canning.

Canning Prep

Turns out it’s not that scary. The Farmer has brewed beer and mead off and on for years. The one thing in common with those processes is you want to make sure everything is clean and sanitary. If conditions are not sanitary you risk contaminating your product and screwing up all your hard work. Cucumbers are naturally high in acid so, like brewing, there isn’t anything that will grow in canned pickles that will kill you. It may skunk it up, make it so it’s not worth eating or look gross, but it won’t kill you so that’s a plus.

Some foods, like meats and soups and green beans are lower in acid content and if you don’t prepare them properly you can introduce botulism. Botulism is found in all kinds of places, the dirt in the ground, on your fingers, etc. The problem with botulism is if you introduce it into an oxygen free environment it geometrically reproduces and produces a toxin that can kill you – clearly not an outcome anyone wants while preserving food for consumption later ( Important Safety Tip Egon, don’t cross the streams and don’t allow botulism toxin to thrive in your canning process).

So all the directions were followed, ingredients were added in quantities according to recipes and accepted practices and pickle packing, lid seating and jar boiling commenced. After the proper amount of time in a big pot under a rolling boil (15 minutes for the recipe we were using) the first ever Tiny Homestead canned pickles were finished and moved from the water bath to the cooling area.

1st Batch of Pickles

Refrigerator pickles were made at the same time (a similar process, but instead of water bath canning them you just put them in the fridge). The fridge pickles turned out great, even the Mad Farmer who previously didn’t like pickles very much, found them tasty. Common practice, as we understand it, is to let the pickles rest for a few weeks to allow the flavor of the spices and dill included to infuse them with the flavors. Going to be hard to wait that long. As the quote says ” I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.

My Three Things

Sorry about the interruption of the Polyface Farms trip. Since we got back the Mad Farmer has been exceptionally busy at the primary place of employment. It’s sad how taking a vacation somehow results in twice the work when you return. I don’t think that’s how it is supposed to work, but somehow, it seems like that does become the end result. Perhaps the Mad Farmer is doing it wrong? Seems likely.

In the meantime the Mad Farmer has started listening to a new podcast – Living Free in Tennessee. The podcaster is Nicole Sauce, who is also an Expert Council member for Jack Spirko at the The Survival Podcast. The Living Free podcast is much like it sounds, it’s a podcast about homesteading and being more sustainable and self-sufficient, right up the Tiny Sustainable homestead alley.

One of the things that Nicole Sauce is a big fan of is something called “My Three Things”. As the Mad Farmer understands it My Three Things is basically about prioritizing the three most important things that you need to get done each day. Everyone is always busy, that’s a side-effect of current life. Everything is fast-paced and it’s easy to lose sight of what your goals are. My Three Things help you keep track of that. Lots of people keep a To Do list, the Mad Farmer keeps multiple lists of all kinds of things, lots and lots of lists. So many lists….

So of all the things you want to get accomplished in a day, pick out the three most important to complete that day and actually write them down. It can be a help if you write them down in a public way. Currently on MeWe (a social network platform that doesn’t have ads and doesn’t sell your info the way Facebag does) Nicole has a group called “Living Free in Tennessee” (anyone see that coming)? On the group page a lot of followers post their three things that they are hoping to accomplish that day. It generates a group encouragement and helps folks to tackle those tasks. Seems like a good idea, or at least a helpful one.

So, the Mad Farmer has started two “My Three Things” lists. One for the homestead and one for the workplace. So far the it’s been an interesting experience. Helpful, not too much different than than all the other lists, but the component that is missing so far is the public posting. The Mad Farmer has started sharing the three things with Miss Mercy, so there is some semi-public accountability. Will it work? Only time will tell. If you would like to hear it in a better and more coherent form, then you can listen Nicole Sauce’s podcast “Balance Your Short Term and Long Term Success with My Three Things“.

Homestead Progress

One of the on-going discussions that Miss Mercy and I have is about progress on the homestead. Sometimes it seems that nothing is going right, things we planted last year have died or are failing to thrive, all of the bird feeders we put up are full because a hawk moved into the neighborhood and has eaten or scared off all the birds. The first year I attempted to keep bees I was generously gifted two hives, equipment and about 60,000 bees. I was desperately attempting to learn how to keep them alive, attending meetings of the Kansas Bee Keeper Association , reading books and then suddenly, small hive beetles! I understand that small hive beetles are a natural part of the world, I understand that they only do what they do because they must – but I dislike small hive beetles with the same passion that I dislike squirrels.

The slow progress we seem to be making seems overwhelming at times. Sometimes we sit on the deck and discuss the lack of progress. The interesting thing that we discovered while discussing our lack of progress was that we were discussing it on our deck. Five years ago when we moved in to the Mad Farmer homestead there were two decks. One deck was what we called the “Fire Deck”, that was an existing deck in one corner of the yard that had been created to facilitate “fire pitting”. The second deck was a smaller deck that extended off the back of the house. The Deck that Miss Mercy and I were sitting on, drinking our morning coffee, discussing the lack of progress on the homestead was a deck extension we built three years ago about 22 feet by 17 feet of deck extension that wrapped around the house. The same year the Mad Farmer built his lovely bride a Pergola on the old portion of the deck. We are literally sitting on an example of progress.

When we bought the property it had many trees, it had weird bushes in strange places, the earthworm activity was good but lots of bare soil. Five years later we now have four decks, The Main Deck, The Deck Deck, The Fire Deck and the Dock Deck (actually this build is in progress). We have a scenic pond, a partially completed decorative pond (waiting until the rains pass and we can finish it). We have removed the dead trees, the scrub trees and weird vegetation in the easements. We have the Pub Shack and the Hugel mounds. We are clearing space for a Green House and Miss Mercy’s Flower garden is starting to bloom – the Hollyhocks are amazing! When you look at pictures from when we moved in until now the changes are actually amazing. Miss Mercy has dug a lot of post holes. Your humble Mad Farmer has moved a lot of wood chips and dirt. We have a plan on where we want to go. We’re working on it. I’m not sure who initiated the phrase “Every step in right direction is a progress”.

Every movement forward is in the right direction. As long as it’s forward, it’s progress. Life is like that – every moment is either forward or backwards, always pick forward and you are moving in the right direction.

TSL Homestead and Air Conditioning

So here in Kansas the seasons can turn pretty rapidly. Last year we went from freezing cold straight into 90 plus degree days (we’re still Fahrenheit here in the U.S. in case you are keeping track) and it was a very strange gardening year. Really didn’t have much of a Spring at all and it showed. Tomatoes struggled, they are the Divas of the garden anyway, and everything else needed regular watering or it scorched. The Cucumber beetles and Squash Vine Borers ate everything else that wasn’t protected. Overall, not a year you look back fondly on if you’re a Mad Farmer.

This year it was cold, Winter had snow more like I remembered from my childhood, more years ago than I care to discuss, and Spring was definitely coming in like a lion. Lots and lots of storms, Tornadoes in Missouri and lots of wet and chill. For all the folks out there screaming “See!!!! Climate Stuff!!!!!” there is a scientific explanation for at least part of it. The Mad Farmer is not on the anti-climate change wagon, I’m sure that people have some impact on their environment, both good and bad. I’m also not a “climate denier” whatever that is. Climate is weather and environment – good or bad, it’s climate – I guess you can “deny” it if you want but I don’t think climate cares. Personally my feeling is, if we caused it, we can probably fix it but we better make dang sure what we are fixing or it could be worse.

Anyway, the science stuff that explains a bit of it is that according to what I’ve read* there is El Nino and La Nina, basically wind systems that pass over the Pacific Ocean. Depending on which way they go they have a different effect on climate. Every few years they switch as Primary and Secondary systems and whichever is the Primary system impacts where tornadoes and storms appear. When La Nina is strongest Tornado alley shifts South and East, causing more storms and tornadoes in places like Missouri and Louisiana, where there typically aren’t as many and reducing those types of events in the Northern parts of the U.S. where they tend to be more usual.

Anyway, this post is not a climate change discussion but the weather does have an impact here in Kansas. It had been cold and wet for most of late Winter and early Spring and there was very short period, maybe three days, where the temperatures got up into the 80’s. Your humble Mad Farmer really doesn’t mind those kind of temps for the most part, he was born on the first day of Summer, but Miss Mercy is a different story. The Mad Farmer is cold when the temperature is below 80 degrees Fahrenheit and Miss Mercy is hot when it’s over 80 degrees. We’ve had many a discussion about where we might be comfortable together but all we’ve determined so far is it probably won’t be California – all other options are still in negotiation, including Kansas.

So, to make a long story longer, which is the Farmer way, the furnace filter was changed and we tried to start the Air Conditioning to prevent the upstairs bedroom from being overly warm. We got a limited amount of cold air coming out of the registers, not enough to effectively cool anything. At this point I’m really wishing we lived in a WOFATI (check it out here https://permies.com/t/wofati ), but we don’t so I contacted my brother, Jack of All Trades, and asked him for the number of the HVAC Wizard. We had the HVAC Wizard repair the furnace at our previous homestead and, like all wizards, he is mysterious and his ways are not the ways of mortals but he is effective and reasonable is his pursuit of coin.

The Mad Farmer was hoping that the HVAC Wizard would be able to perform his magic before the Summer heat of Kansas began in earnest. Sadly, it was not to be. The HVAC Wizard was plying his trade magicking the Heating systems that are the “HV” portion of his trade. Eventually, after several weeks of chill temperatures and lots of rain, the weather in Kansas finally decided to give Spring a miss and go straight on into Summer. At that point it became more urgent to contact the HVAC Wizard so through the magic of “texting” the Mad Farmer was able to gain an audience with the Wizard. The Wizard was able to fit a visit to the Farmer homestead into his busy schedule and just like that, he appeared.

Just like Merlin, the HVAC Wizards coming and goings are mysterious. He reminds this farmer of the long ago Shaolin Monk, Kane, wandering the earth and fixing HVAC problems instead of fixing the problems of individual villagers. However, I digress. The Wizard appeared and within moments had diagnosed the issue, acquired replacement items from his traveling warehouse (sometimes referred to as “a truck”) and repaired the Air Conditioning system, accepted a reasonable amount of coin in exchange for his labors and was on his was his way.

The Mad Farmer learned three important lessons from this experience. First, there is a component on the homestead unit called the starter kit. This is an important component that allows your Air Conditioner to actually start, it is a good thing when this works correctly. The second thing learned is that you should always hose off the exterior AC unit to prevent build up of dirt and anything that might impede air flow. The more air that can get past the cooling “fins” on the unit to the interior cooling core the more efficient your unit will operate. The third thing I learned is that buying inexpensive filters and changing them more often will save more coin than buying more expensive filters and changing them less often.

The ultimate take away is that if you don’t have the skills to resolve an issue yourself, it’s good to know who to contact to and that you trust that person. The homestead could have contacted a more commercial wizard and probably had a fine resolution, but it is satisfying to do business with local contractors that you have built a relationship with over time. The other take away is that when Miss Mercy can sleep easily at night, the Homestead runs more smoothly. A Happy Spouse makes a Happy House.

*Disclaimer: The Mad Farmer is not a weather expert and does not play one on the interwebs.

Rocket Mass Heaters and Ianto Evans

I just finished reading what is probably the original Rocket Mass Heater book, “Rocket Mass Heaters Third Edition” by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.

In case you haven’t been a RMH geek for a long period of time you may not know that Ianto Evans is regarded as many as the “Father of Rocket Mass Heaters”, at least that is my understanding. Ianto has been working with fire, building stoves and working with associated natural building techniques like cob, for decades. The biggest current names in the RMH field, like Kirk “Donkey” Mobert, Ernie & Erica Wisner, Art Ludwig and Paul Wheaton have all collaberated with Ianto, taken classes from Ianto or used Ianto’s designs as the basis for advancements in the science (or perhaps art) of Rocket Mass Heaters.

Rocket Mass Heaters Third Edition is not a long book, it’s only about 120 pages but it is packed with information, pictures, drawings and case studies. The book goes into exactly what makes a Rocket Mass Heater tick, how to build one and what materials to use. Rocket Mass Heaters in a nutshell consist of several main parts: The Burn Tunnel, Heat Riser, Feed Tube and the Mass or Thermal Battery and the exhaust pipe or Chimney.

One note of caution that comes up again and again in the book and should be noted by anyone thinking about building a RMH is that these heaters  burn HOT. A typical wood stove will usually burn around 500 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, the relatively low temperature is what makes them so dangerous, they don’t burn hot enough to burn off all the creosote and gasses and the typical temperature exiting the chimney can be in excess of 300 to 400 degrees. In a Rocket Mass Heater the temperatures in the  burn tunnel can reach 1500 to 2000 degrees. That is hot enough to burn creosote, smoke and anything else that can cause a problem and the typical exit temperature at the chimney is around 150 to 180 degrees – much less likely to start a chimney fire. The high temperature burn is what make them so efficient but anytime you are working with fire pay attention!

The book starts out with a description of what a Rocket Mass Heater is, how it functions and outlines what they are and what they aren’t. It’s pointed out if you are looking for a “throw some wood in and leave for the day” fireplace then a RMH is probably not for you. The middle section of the book discusses in detail how to build a RMH, what kinds of materials you can build it with and the care and feeding after you have it built. The final section covers safety precautions, case studies of actual RMH builds and information on additional resources.

At $20.00 this book is a must have if you are interested in Rocket Mass Heaters or just want to read about cool things you can build that involve fire. I highly recommend it.

 

 

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.