Archive for February, 2010

An Ice Day

February 27, 2010

Greetings to everyone: those of you enduring the ice and snowstorm in NB (and winter weather in other parts of the country), as well as you lucky devils immersed in BC’s early spring weather (what, the asparagus is up already?!) and those of you in sunny southern US locations. Yes, we are indeed still snow-covered with more snow falling from the skies today. I’m hoping we have no more than another month of winter weather and will see the soil soon but I’m told not to get my hopes up too high!

I’ve been passing some of my time enjoying an organic gardening course given by Rowena in nearby Moncton. Rowena, for those of you who don’t know her, visited our farm in BC last summer during her cross-Canada WWOOFing tour. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or something like that, and is a world-wide network of farms who host workers (of any age and experience) for a stay on their farm, working in exchange for room and board. Rowena kept a blog of her six month adventure and you can get the link to it on our blogroll: Canada Food Roots. She gained her original farming experience here in NB and started teaching an organic gardening course a few years ago through the Moncton branch of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. This is her last year teaching the course and she asked me if I’d take it over next year. How could I refuse? I like teaching, especially something I love and believe in, and what farmer could say no to a bit of extra cash? Plus it’s something to do in February, that oh so long month.

Rowena is a great teacher and the course is very well designed and very well organized. I can’t imagine doing as good a job as she, at least in my first year, but it gives me something to aspire to! I realize, too, that I’ll need this summer’s growing experience before I’ll be able to speak intelligently about organic veggie growing in NB, since the BC experience doesn’t translate quite as well as I thought it would to these conditions! So, as you can imagine, I’ll be making good use of everything I learn sitting in on Rowena’s course. Her material is based on Permaculture, a design system best suited for small-scale subsistence level agriculture, but we larger scale types can always find some elements of it to apply to our farming systems. It is based on some basic, common-sense principles: conservation of energy and resources, recycling of resources, using locally available inputs and these inputs (and outputs) should all have more than one function, to name a few. I first discovered Permaculture in Botswana through a Canadian who worked with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, helping them adapt to agriculture, since their hunter/gatherer life was no longer possible. He was helping them raise food in the desert using many water conservation techniques developed in Australia, and it was a very successful project.

Will took a few pictures at the Moncton Farmer’s Market which you can see below. We are still shopping there though not every week since we have our CSA to supply most of our vegetables. We still get apples, fish, butter and a few other goodies at the market while our CSA also supplies us with pork, beef and eggs. We aren’t suffering for lack of food at all though I look forward to next year when we have more of our own veggies in the freezer and root cellar. Yes, that would be more beans and greens and fewer beets and parsnips! We’ll also have a coldframe next year and will get to experiment with over-wintering kale, parsley, brassicas, leeks and chard.

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February 27, 2010

Inside the Moncton Farmer's Market

February 27, 2010

Moncton Farmer's Market building: all that red and yellow roofed structure!

The Off-Grid Learning Centre

February 18, 2010

Last Sunday we drove out to Ste-Marie to visit a home that had recently opened itself up to the public to demonstrate alternative energy systems. This house is completely off-grid and was powered using a combination of solid fuel, wind and solar energy. Actually the wind generating system is being dismantled because it doesn’t work very well. Wind out here is intermittent and when it blows, it blows hard, so a tall windmill needs to be very firmly supported. The owner also had trouble with winter ice on the windmill blades preventing the blades from turning, another strike against the windmill-as-power option.

The whole idea of an alternative system came about because the property wasn’t hooked up to power and it would have cost $50,000 to connect to the grid. The owner decided, at that point, to invest in other sources of energy and did so pretty much all self-financed. The provincial government is now giving some financial support and they’ve built another building on the property, demonstrating the different systems also used in the main house. Part of getting provincial support requires them opening their home up to the public and conducting tours a couple of afternoons a week, hence our opportunity to visit and learn.

The demo building included the water jacket system you’ll see in the photos below. A specially constructed wood-burning stove creates the heat with glycol circulating through the stove and in copper pipes to a hot water tank and to baseboard heaters in the attached greenhouse. A small pump moves the glycol through the pipes and a thermostat in the hot water tank controls water temperature. This system is used to heat water in the winter time, when wood stoves are also heating the house and cooking food, but in the summer they use a solar system. This involves long glass tubes which heat circulating glycol and a heat exchanger to transfer the heat to the hot-water tank.

Part of the demo building is built to take advantage of passive solar energy for heating and for starting seedlings. The seedling room has baseboard heaters with the tubes of glycol running through and a south-facing wall of hard greenhouse plastic. There were also composting toilets being set up in that building though they hadn’t arrived yet. They plan to use the SunMar toilets and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that they aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be. The bucket method is so much more practical! I don’t know anyone who’s had a good experience with the SunMar type, which are very expensive, tend to break down and don’t actually compost as much as they dehydrate the compostables (at a high energy cost).

Solar energy powers the two houses: the well pump, lights, appliances and power tools are all powered by solar photovoltaic panels. Hot water, cooking and space heating are powered by wood or by the solar hot-water system. The solar panels face south and can be moved to different angles at different times of the year. Inside the hut is a very complex system of inverters, batteries, and other high voltage electrical gizmos that store and convert the power before sending it to the house. The house and demo house each have a breaker panel, just like you’d see in any home, and the power comes to it via a line, like a hydro line. The family also has a diesel generator for emergency use and this is wired into the system so a flick of the switch is all that’s needed to get emergency power going.

The owner reckons he spent $75,000 setting this system up and, given that they’d be spending over $2000/year for electricity if they’d spent the $50K to hook up to the grid, there seems to be a reasonable pay-back time. Unfortunately, for anyone who is already hooked up to the grid, the cost of these systems greatly outweigh their potential to eventual pay back the investment, at least at current electrical rates. However, if you consider that electricity may one day become very expensive, and if you are keen to reduce your own contribution to environmental damage caused by unsustainable systems (nuclear, coal-fired, gas-fired systems), then there is some interesting potential here. For someone building a place in a rural area, the costs compared to doing a conventional hook-up become quite manageable.

February 17, 2010

view of off-grid house with windmill and more solar panels

February 17, 2010

batteries store electric power from solar panels

February 17, 2010

solar panels generating electricity

February 17, 2010

outside the grow room

February 17, 2010

passive solar and wood heated grow area

February 17, 2010

wood powered hot water and baseboard heater