So it’s February 9th, the temperature outside in Kansas right now is 23 degrees with a windchill that makes it feel like it’s in single digits – and we’re about to go to the Spring Garden Show! It’s great to have something to look forward to in the dregs of winter. The Garden show is filled with like-minded folks who are looking forward to growing things. We’re looking forward to seeing what is there.
Today is Thanksgiving in America and I am thankful. I have a fantastic, patient and forgiving wife in Miss Mercy, who puts up with all the crazy ideas and experiments a Mad Farmer can come up with. I have two wonderful and loving daughters. I am very proud of both of them and thankful I don’t seem to have caused them any lasting harm in the way they were raised. They are both very capable, kind and caring young women and I love them immensely.
We will be spending this day with family and friends, plenty of food (as usual I am sure there will be way more than enough to go around). I’m sure there will be a few households that are struggling, there are people in California who have recently lost their homes to fire and are grateful to be alive. Some are mourning the loss of loved ones, but for the most part all across America this is a day of rest and thankfulness. I am humbled to live in a nation where even our poorest households would be considered well off by the most of the rest of the nations of the world.
America has it’s share of problems and struggles, but on this day, Thanksgiving day, let’s reflect on the common ground between our citizens instead of the differences and remember and celebrate the things that make America the greatest place to be.
Several weeks ago Miss Mercy forwarded a link to me about an upcoming Food Safety class being put on by the K-State Research and Extension department. Because I’m starting to get the infrastructure in place for TSL Urban Farms it sounded like a good opportunity to find out more about the laws regarding Food and Sale of Produce in the State of Kansas, so I paid my $20 and signed up.
For those of you who might be interested in history each state has a Land-grant university. The Morrill Act of 1862 allowed the States to sell off land and fund universities to perform agricultural and mechanical research. Kansas State University, or K-State as it’s commonly called, was the very first Land-Grant college and was established on February 16, 1863, and opened on September 2, 1863 (see Kansas does have some firsts that are worth noting)!
Anyway, K-State, through their Research and Extension office does outreach, education and training for the community and one of the things they do is put on classes for Food Safety. The location for the class I was attending was about an hour away from where we live and it started at 8 am so I got up, feed our ridiculous animals (two dogs, three cats and a hedgehog in case I haven’t mentioned them before) and as quietly as I could (it was Miss Mercy’s day off) left the house and headed towards the K-State Extension campus in Olathe, Ks. K-State’s main campus is in Manhattan, KS (also called the “Little Apple”) but like a lot of universities they have satellite campuses in several different cities.
The drive was uneventful, which is the way I like it, and when I got to the campus I was impressed with the Olathe campus. Very modern with lots of glass and open space and a pond/small lake with flowing rapids on the grounds. I went to a nice university but clearly there have been some updates to some facilities since I went to school. When I walked in I started to make my way up to the second floor. Perhaps because I was quite a bit older than the average student with a backpack and in the school way early (or maybe because I was trying to walk up the stairs via a magnificent stairway that turned out to lead to the locked administrative offices) I got to have a brief discussion with the security guard. It turned out the instructors had changed the classroom location and he had not seen the memo so once we confirmed everything was properly documented he pointed me in the right direction and I made it to the classroom.
When I got to the class it turned out to be a fairly small turn out. I’m told the typical class size is 20-30 people and for some reason we only had 7 people signed up for ours and two did not make it, so we had the best student / instructor ratio I have ever had in a formal class. Three instructors, one instructor auditing and five students. As you might expect the attendees were a diverse bunch as were the instructors. There was a gentleman in his 80’s who had started growing and selling produce in a Kansas City farmers market when he turned 70, a middle-aged lady who was the marketing and web person for the older farmer, an employee of a local orchard, a community garden organizer, and of course, your humble narrator and start-up Urban Farmer.
The lead instructor came from a generational farming background and the other two instructors were from the academic side of things, including one who had flown in from Texas and had to buy a winter coat at a local store because she had not expected Kansas to be cold. The auditing instructor happened to be Miss Mercy’s boss in from the Topeka K-State Extension office but because I was trying be low-key so I didn’t mention that initially to anyone. When I’m in a class I’m there to learn and so it’s possible I have, on occasion, driven a few discussions towards things that might be more specific to my situation than generic or occasionally gotten into a “spirited” discussion about this or that. I was willing to let MMB (Miss Mercy’s Boss) disavow any knowledge or acquaintance with me but she was too nice to go that route and at one point she did volunteer that my wife worked for her. I hope I didn’t embarrass her too much.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the class, I was figuring a few handouts and some lecturing – boy was I mistaken. At each desk location was a thick three-ring binder, a clipboard, notepad, highlighters, pens and handouts. Turns out we were about to take an actual, fire-hose of information, eight hour class..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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…
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 atPermies 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?