The Green Gap

In the Cold War, we feared a Missile Gap was a strategic weakness. Nowadays, we must awaken to the fact that the Green Gap is true strategic weakness: the nations whose economies will thrive in the coming years will not be those with the biggest factories, but those with the most sustainable, efficient, and ecological markets. What we require is a Strategic "Green Reserve" of ecological design to weather the coming changes that both climate and resource scarcity will force on the international economy.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

An Idea for an Organic Farm

So I made an open call to a group of my friends to see who would be interested in buying in to a sustainable farm. This is something of a dream of mine, and one I’ve talked often about, but not been able to be totally serious about until now. If the housing market holds up, I will hopefully be able to put together a grubstake to build a rather good house in the country. The catch is that I think it would be better if other families (specifically those with some young kids like mine) came along too. Quite selfishly, I want the clean living lifestyle with food security for my family without giving up the close socialisation my kids get in a city environment. While it’s still my own dream, the family is what’s important.

It struck me, after talking to one of my friends, that people just saw an idea and a price tag and didn’t really picture what I had in mind when I made my offer. Well, here it is in black and white: a concept for a self-sustaining organic farm… with high-speed internet (that’s important). I’ve been researching the technology and everything that I am going to talk about here is mature tech – not pie in the sky tech that might come out in a few years. This is stuff on the ground, now. As many of you know, a lot of our great energy-saving concepts came out of the gas crunch of the 70’s, so these things – while not going mainstream – have nonetheless seen improvement since then. Such things as methane digesters and composting toilets have come a long way. Frankly, a lot of this tech could be implemented in a low-tech low-cost way, but I rather wanted to use stuff that kept the comfort of modern living with the added bonus of being sustainable. Cost reductions are therefore possible with simplification, but only if necessary.

Also, I have been attempting to build a realistic plan by putting together possible alternative income streams other than crops. Growing Power is an inspiration in this regard, as they conceive of the working urban farm in terms of dollars per square foot and attempt to extend profit-making activities beyond simple food production. The modern organic farm concept is something of a highly diverse business venture, with chances to tap income streams all over the map. Additionally, organic farms have the odd habit of attracting cheap labour (WWOOFers et. al.) because they are a shared passion amongst we greeners. Spinoff enterprises include everything from cob and cordwood building courses (which serve to populate the property with guesthouses and outbuildings) as well as aquaponics and organic farming courses that would be a source of income outside the traditional farming model. With a good sized stand of sugarbush, spring tourism would be a possible revenue stream during the sap run. With existing contacts, a yearly Japanese maple syrup tour would be more than possible, and would represent a source of labour that incurs a negative cost: a revenue stream that creates another revenue stream.

So, I am not too concerned about the opportunities to derive profit from an organic farming operation. The issue then is to talk about what exactly the operation would work. My core theory is that of Jacobsian extension: the longer you keep stuff in your system, the more opportunities you have of making profit from it over and over again. The basis is then an attempt to create an almost closed loop system. A closed loop system is functionally impossible – sunlight is an external input that simply keeps on giving, therefore with that external energy source, there is no such thing as a closed-loop system. The key, then, is to make that sunlight input last as long as possible in your system and be a gift that keeps on giving.

LAND: Optimally, I see 100 acres of land with 30-40 acres clear and 60-70 acres in mainly maple. The clear would hopefully have only a small gradient, but the treed area could have a diverse landscape with bogs and hillocks. That’s my preference, but my ideas can be scaled to reality if need be. I would prefer it in a good growing region (6 or 7) but a high 5 will do fine. Access to local water sources preferred but not totally necessary.

HOUSE: The main expense of the operation, the house would be designed to qualify for a Passivhaus certification, meaning it would effectively pay for itself over the long run. Passivhaus design started decades ago (the inspiration came from a hyper-insulated house in Saskatchewan) and is the most strict energy-saving certification in existence. Most Passivhaus designs do not require central heating, even in the depths of a Canadian winter. They are heated primarily with human body heat and lightbulbs in the house. For additional warmth, there is radiant floor heating produced by a solar-powered geothermal heat pump. Since HVAC is almost totally eliminated, as are gas services and heaters, you actually save enough money to pay for the hyperinsulation. Passivhaus designs are being built for about $150 per square foot. Heating costs are near nil. The house would require hyperefficient appliances and solar panels, but again, these pay for themselves over the long run.


This is where things get fun. The core of the farm is the people. The farm must supply food and utilities for the families, and take care of their waste products. Let’s start from the showers, shall we? Showers, sinks, and washing machines produce greywater. Greywater is dirty water that you can’t drink, but if you use the right soaps and detergents, plants can drink it. As a matter of fact, greywater treatment is a main feature of Earthships. It even occurs right inside the house, providing plants that clean the water as well as the air. The water is then used to flush toilets (because using drinking water for that is simply stupid). The treated greywater then gets flushed and becomes blackwater… that’s water, only with poo in it. The poo water goes to a methane digester, which produces both methane (natural gas) and natural fertiliser. Part of the input to the digester must be carbon-rich, and therefore sawdust and other biomass would occasionally be put in from foresting and farming activities. In order to back up the solar power units, the methane could be used to run not only the stove (with three families, there’s enough poo for a lot of methane for cooking), but a natural-gas powered fuel cell. One of these can make sure there is always enough current in the lines. Eventually the poo water becomes spent, and ends up as natural fertiliser on the Fukuoka-style grain fields. Eventually that grain becomes bread and beer, which continues the poo and pee cycle. Pee, by the way, should be separated from the poo by diverting toilets, because it is the perfect nutrient for an algaculture bioreactor – and also can be used directly on fields if diluted. Pee is really useful.

With people eating, there comes food scraps and other organic garbage. That stuff is great, and needs to be kept in the system as long as possible. Its first stop is to the black soldier fly buckets, where oodles of little creepy-crawlies reduce everything except cellulose. They can even eat meat and cheese and other milk products, stuff worms can’t eat. This system produces several products: heat, compost tea, compost, and black soldier fly larvae. There is a use for every one of those things. Heat is useful most of the time in Canada, so we’ll leave that be. Compost tea can be diluted and applied to the land as a very potent source of soil microbes to improve soil health. The compost is moved over to the next processing stage: vermiculture. Worms actually seem to prefer black soldier fly castings to raw foods, and they can process the cellulose that black soldier flies can’t. This process has been tested and it has been proven that not only are the two processes complimentary, the vermicomposting goes faster when the compost has been preprocessed by black soldier fly. This process produces vermicompost for the fields (a compost so rich that it should be mixed with other soil before applying to the ground), and compost tea. The black soldier fly and vermiculture units leave us with a surplus of creepy-crawlies with which to feed our tilapia in the aquaponics unit.

Aquaponics has been talked about before, but for the uninitiated, it’s a system that takes the best of aquaculture and hydroponics and puts them together. There is no cycling of water out of the system: fish poo fertilises planting trays, the nitrates are transformed into nitrites by the resident bacteria, the nitrites fertilise the plants, the plants thereby purify the water. The water can be cycled indefinitely as opposed to flowing through wastefully. The only input required is food, and worms and black soldier flies provide part of that. With an algae bioreactor, tilapia can also eat algae (for which they are adapted because of filters in their gills). Tilapia are omnivores that can truly eat anything. After all, they naturally occur with hippos because they can eat hippo poo. With constantly cycling and recycling nutrients, the only thing a person has to do for an aquaponics system is plant, maintain, and harvest. The amount of food produced by a small system is staggering… and it is tried and tested tech. The aquaponics system would require a greenhouse to be able to produce all year round. Yes, even in Canada, in minus 20 degree weather. How, you ask? Well, I have a mind to incorporate rocket stoves with thermal mass as well as a potential solaroof design. All possible, all tried and tested. With the aquaponics unit would come a flock of Muscovy ducks for pest control, meat, and eggs. Duck poo is perfectly welcome in an aquaponics system, and ‘scovies are at home on the range, capable of foraging and generally taking care of themselves. If necessary, chickens could be added to the system to add heat and carbon dioxide. An odd thing, you may think, to add to a greenhouse… but if it’s near airtight and plants consume CO2 to make sugars, you need a source of CO2 in the greenhouse. The added heat of the coop (as well as the eggs and pest control services) wouldn’t hurt.

A key to the functioning of the farm, then, would be water storage. A pond would be highly useful for not only water storage but production of biomass. Duckweed, a nigh indestructible water weed, is an exceptional converter of sunlight to protein, and can multiply on still water faster than you can say photosynthesis. Opening up a nice pond with duckweed on top would allow for green forage for the tilapia that can be frozen for storage over the winter. Another aquaponics enthusiast does this for his fish, and the nutrient composition of duckweed is superb for fish feed when supplemented with other stuff like black soldier fly (which, itself, is actually superior to most commercial fish feed). Additional water tanks for runoff collection would also be useful for dry periods.

What you see above is a reasonably brief discussion of some pretty nifty thoughts for just the central systems of the organic farm. A woodlot makes a great deal more activities possible, especially if it is maple. With a big enough woodlot, the income from sustainable forestry would also supplement the bottom line, and the use of a pyrolizer for heating in the greenhouse would produce not only heat but biochar – useful in making terra preta. On top of those things, an open expanse of clover would allow for beekeeping, a couple possible dairy cows, goats, you name it. That’s just gravy, as all the necessary calories are already being produced in the systems I’ve just talked about. Excess produce can be sold through the middle of winter. A little bit of cottage industry, and secondary products are also possible. Add in WWOOFers and farm vacationers, as well as weekend courses, the place can become quite an earning proposition.

So, that’s the basic idea. Any questions?


  1. A creek running through the land would be a very BIG bonus. Research 'ram' pumps which are self sufficient, and non electrical. They are tricky to prime, but once started, like a single stroke piston, work continuously using water pressure to move the piston. When the irrigation or water is not needed, it can be diverted right back into the creek. Used one in Smithers BC, it was amazing.
    Also, I live on (between) two long standing 'organic' farms... in the Okanagan BC. And, the farmers state that 'organic' is not as 'clean' as one might wish to believe. You still use diesel and other mainstream practices: to till, tend, and harvest crops; if you intend to supplement your income selling produce. I have participated and observe how labour intensive and 'hard' the life of a farmer is. All that being said, Yipee Kayee - I am so happy to see the movement grow legs - go for it with all your heart! Zoe

  2. I think the key is to go in whole hog and learn about how hard it is AFTER committing to it. Ignorance is bliss.

    I'm keen to try intensive greenhousing and no-till grain farming (Fukuoka-style). In Fukuoka grain farming, laziness is a virtue (and I am really virtuous). Fukuoka could feed five or six people from a quarter acre given his yields and never once used a tractor; his method was very thought intensive but minimised individual labour. He even harvested with a scythe. Another reason why more hands is better in this case. One Straw Revolution is a great read in this regard. It's like a treatise on Buddhist farming.

    Thanks for the encouragement though, I'm in the process of "engaging stakeholders" and planning for a possible transition... nothing is 100% yet but perhaps I can get there with bullheadedness and an incapacity to listen to reason. :)

  3. I have several comments and questions but I will mention only one for the moment. You mentioned no till farming. This is pretty standard practice in farming at the moment, at least in Southern Alberta. There are a number of great reasons for choosing this option. They problem of course is weeds. No till farming has traditionally led to increased usage of chemicals. Opinion or thoughts?

    I was also looking at your proposed acre count. I thought our 5000 acres in Alberta was a small farm; however, I am discovering that 100 acres was the traditional land division in Ontario. I would be very interested in how you plan to divide the land between grains, garden, and pasture. To me, the interesting part is the agriculture and how that would work. That is heart of the idea in my opinion, all the rest is gravy.m

  4. The acre count is low by Alberta standards, but with Fukuoka agriculture, small is beautiful. In Fukuoka ag, there is no pesticide nor herbicide application because of an intelligently thought-out precedence of mulches. Barley is planted under white clover, which fixes nitrogen and crowds out lower broad leaf plants. When the barley is harvested, the fall rice is already planted, and the barley stalks are put down as ground cover. In addition, Fukuoka would soak the land to make it tough for certain weeds to get through. With the mulch down on wet soil, the rice comes up and when it's strong enough, Fukuoka let the field dry. At harvest, when the rice stalks were put down as mulch, he would already be sowing the barley and white clover for next year. It's a very intriguing prospect, getting two grain crops off one plot every year with no fertiliser of pesticides, and worth a look.

    Grain, garden, and pasture is something about which I have no idea, but under Fukuoka farming, only a quarter acre is required per family for grains!

  5. You sound really knowledgeable, so you probably already know that maintaining healthy black soldier fly colonies throughout the winter is not easy. In addition to a fresh, indigenous supply of adult females, heat and humidity, they need sunlight to reproduce.

    "An artificial light source influences mating and oviposition of black soldier flies, Hermetia illucens,"

    I don't know if you want to use the BSFL on your human feces. Based on the link below, biodiesel from BSFL is a more effective way to harvest the methane.

    Whether you have the capacity to refine the BSFL into biodiesel is of course a major question. Digesters might be the more appropriate technology.

    You mentioned tilapia. AFAIK, you have to keep the water temp pretty high for them. Perch is another option which I believe does not require such constant warm temperatures.

    Best of luck to you.

  6. Hi John, thanks for your comment. I've read that BSFL colonies can be finicky, since they generate heat, they must be kept cool in tropical climates to prevent crawl-off, but they need to be kept above a minimum temperature for optimum processing. I think these would be kept in the greenhouse, which would be built on a solar-gain intensive model and could also be fed chicken poo:

    Or pig poo:

    Even though reduction of faecal sludge by BSFL is possible:

    I'm not that into it. I would send the human waste (and any large animal waste) to an anaerobic digester for the production of methane. The resulting fertiliser from the anaerobic digester would be spread on the fields, or further rendered inert through the use of a biological machine (per Dr. John Todd).

    As for heat, I have thought a lot about it. Canada is cold, and heating is energy intensive. You raise very valid points. My final reasoning was that since Canada can also get very hot, and I would rather have a heater than a heater and an air conditioner, I would stick to heating. Raising very carnivorous and finicky rainbow trout, for example, who love cold water, would be tough in an Ontario summer. They are also not as hardy and fast-growing and versatile as tilapia. If I was to consider all energy inputs, I think it is easier to plan on keeping heat in the greenhouse rather than heating a little in winter and cooling in summer.

    Thank you for your comment, it is a great chance to test these theories!

  7. I so desperately want the back to the land movement to succeed. I loved it in my twenties and love the prospect of it now.
    Still, there is a reason our human societies have evolved as we now see them. While the concept of undividual sustainability is attainable, it is simply not what we are inclined to do as a species. I do not want to give up the lifestyle I have, with its easy access to the Arts, Travel, Opportunities for education, fast paced and cutting edge innovations in tools, health care, and labour saving equipment.
    Within a prudent diversity, we know how to farm, store, improve the productivity, and restore the health of the land. We just don't want to be there every day when that good work is going on.
    What we will struggle to accomplish is to build a sustainable community that retains the best of what we already have and does not force us to lead plodding lives, year over year, with uninteresting but useful and productive people and no change of scenery except the seasons.
    My premise is that we have as much work to do in building an artistic and stimulating society, with personal property rights, as we do to build the net zero farm compound.

  8. I've been around the world a couple times and I seem only to be succeeding in giving my kids asthma, skin problems, and poisoning the whole family with residual pesticides. I've got a lot to answer for when it comes to what this family has been putting in its mouths and lungs, and clean living is probably the best way to get back on track. I understand what I'd be cutting out, and I may miss it, but right now I'm guilty of exposing my family to a lot of environmental nastiness and I need that to stop. This plan still contains a lot of "ifs", but should the prerequisites be met, this is the way I'm going.