Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Going To Ground

I really love the look of our native stone and unadulterated cob!  The perfect mix!  How lucky.  This is the threshold of the chicken fortress under construction.  Notice the experimental gravel bag foundation supporting the cob.  It's rock solid.

I think Amy Blackmarr would forgive me for borrowing her book’s title for this post, because it’s as fitting a description as I can think of for the 12-watt chapter of Small Batch Garden’s history, and I hope the electrical pun of the word “ground” in the title isn’t lost either.  We’ve been at our new place for about 3 weeks total, the first separated from the second and third by 4 days down south to pack up the garden and orchard, clean up the farmhouse, and drive a second U-Haul north to the mountains.  The need for a second moving truck was kind of embarrassing considering that we were supposedly downshifting into our simplest mode of existence to date, but the second truck was filled to the brim with fruit trees, herbs, berry bushes, garden tools, a chick brooder, chicken tractors, rolls of fencing, a woodstove, lumber, firewood – you know, the stuff of a self-reliant life.  This wasn’t as much a truck of possessions as it was a mobile farm.  Way too mobile.  The nectarine and apricot trees are now planted in their 4th garden in as many seasons.  And I hope like hell that it’s their last.  I’ve learned enough in all that travelling to not declare it to be – such platitudes are pointless in my world – but I have to say that I am definitely ready to gather some moss.  Judging by the savage condition of my feet, I’d say that process has at least begun.

Tripp and Josh in the cob pit getting funky.
But back to the wattage for a moment.  The full extent of our electrical service is a 12-watt solar attic fan boxed up in a 2 x 10 frame and converted into a camp tent fan.  If you recall, we bought the attic fan early last summer and made it through a brutal hot summer in South Georgia without AC, soldiering on with at least the mental image of it blasting the hot air out of the attic, if nothing else.  In a 16 x 20 wall tent it has a real, tangible impact.  A little moving air in the quiet forest goes a long, long way, and we are all too happy to go move the little panel into a sunnier spot when necessary.
For the three weeks we’ve been here we’ve been importing water by the gallon.  The four of us are averaging about 7 gallons of water use total per day, including bathing and washing dishes, but doing laundry offsite.  That seems to be just enough graywater to keep the plantings happy – in their heavy soil and shaded conditions – too.  The 3” storm we had last week didn’t hurt anything either.  But missing out on catching that much water was painful; our water collection system isn’t functional yet.  We have a 550-gallon potable water tank, set in place in the hillside by the deck where we want it, but no connection to channel the rain to it.  I’m sure I’m not being clever enough here, but the plan at this point is to install traditional gutters and piping to route the rain from the tent fly into it.

Good water, good books, fresh air, no worries.  This was the last day at the farm house in south Georgia.  Hasta la vista, cotton fields.
Ice is the next big expense.  We decided to buy a couple of really high quality coolers for our refrigeration needs, but after the first few weeks we are wondering if that wasn’t a mistake.  We go through some ice, and it isn’t cheap, nor is it low impact, ecologically.  And using a cooler full of ice as a refrigerator isn’t very easy either.  When you pull a gallon of raw milk (from the awesome dairy about 5 miles away) out of the ice, you ain’t never gettin’ it back in there, hence the two cooler dance.  The smaller version is also our road cooler that we take to market; it makes a great seat for visitors hanging out in our farmers’ market booth, and a solid stash for pastured bacon and local, organic strawberries.  I hate to plug corporate interests here, but if you’re tired of tossing cheap, busted coolers out, to deteriorate into god-knows-what, these Yetis are supposed to offer lifetime duty.  And they are grizzly bear proof when latched at the corners (which I’ve never actually done).   We don’t have grizzlies in North Georgia, but we do have plenty of black bears.  These coolers at least seal in the smell of their contents thoroughly with a freezer-style gasket, and they are made tough as nails, that I can vouch for.  But as a full-time fridge, I’m not sold.  So we’re thinking about either buying a DC chest fridge (expensive!) and the required PV capacity to run it, or converting the larger cooler into the same thing.  Any thoughts?

Ella's fourth birthday and first in the camp tent at Small Batch.  (First day of cobbing too!)  The kids really love it here.
  Other than the water and refrigeration issues, we’re pretty comfortable!  Living without electricity isn’t as hard as I thought it would be.  It’s really quite pleasant.  Everything takes more time, life is more deliberate, and we all want more hot showers, but as the water situation gets sorted out, those will flow more freely.  Sponge baths are surprisingly effective, hair is easy to wash in a large bowl, beard shaving is easy in the mirror hanging on the oak tree built into the deck, and market production is working itself out, too.  We could use more flat counter space for that, and may have to go back to making cold-processed soap for our laundry powder, but as we get cob structures built and gradually move out of the tent, the tent space can be increasingly dedicated to work.  And a 320 square foot workshop can house a LOT of counter space and storage shelves/cabinets, especially for our small herbal products.

Our first local market in Ellijay.  Went really well, good folks, and enthusiastic about our product line.  We're already being carried by a couple of local shops, and doing First Fridays downtown.
Looking at our public face I doubt anyone would jump to the conclusion that we live a 12-watt existence, but Jessica and I are feeling the lack of connectivity, and will be purchasing a 40-watt solar charger/inverter to keep the laptop online more reliably.  The small chest fridge hopefully won’t require more than an additional 300 PV watts and a couple of deep cycle batteries, so we’re eyeballing a roughly 350-watt life in the near future.  Then I think we’ll be good.  We wanted to go to zero, go to ground, and then figure out what we really needed to make life happy.  The 12-watt fan helps a ton, and we added that in pretty quickly, but there’s no point in costing ourselves MORE money than we paid with electrical service for water and refrigeration, so those are our next items to address, and success in those two areas will bring plenty of peace of mind I think.

My little Tiger, Ella, blending in at the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market.
  But being early adopters of energy descent-inspired behavioral innovation is really for the children’s sake.  At our own expense, we want this kind of life to be normal for them.  When they need a workshop of their own I want them to pull out a grub hoe and make cob test batches from the subsoil, and then build it to last.  When they need a hand, I want them to think in terms of small, dedicated power systems to meet critical functions – the lower tech the better.  Photovoltaics are not the answer to our society’s energy problems.  Solar is ecologically far more expensive than fossil fuels, if expected to replace them one-for-one.  But a 350-watt solar array – to accomplish a modest amount of refrigeration, communication, and sweat relief – is, I think, a reasonable alternative expectation to the multiple-kilowatt per household fossil fuel-powered grid.  That’s what I want their “normal” to be like.  The next wave of catabolic collapse will be a lot easier to stomach if their daily routine is already aligned with new constraints.  They can surely adapt more easily from such a starting point.  In my opinion, children being raised in a typical American growth-oriented household are being set up for pain and disappointment.  I want my children to understand the ecological systems consequences of their actions, the thermodynamics rules behind their energy choices; I want them to understand why global energy peak means what it does, and how their decisions affect the lives of Earth’s other children.  A little cultural scorn seems a small price to pay for such ends.

The eastern rim of the Blue Ridge Mountains in north Georgia, taken on our way back from hiking in the Cohutta Wilderness.  Our place is probably on the southern slopes to the right of the frame.

Yes, that’s our new hood!
Till next time, hopefully on a 52-watt broadcast, cheers, mates.

Tripp out.


  1. Hey Tripp,
    Love the Blue Ridge Mts. My friend just got back from there and did some pretty fine hiking.

    LB--now known as BeingThere on CFN

  2. One suggestion on refrigeration: you might want to try a 12VDC powered cooler. I've never used one as my primary, but I was very happy with the results when I used to go car camping for weeks at a time. Probably won't save too much on PV costs, but you can easily pick one up in the low 3-figure range.

    The keys to success: absolutely, positively, do not let anything block the air intake/exhaust -- that includes cat hair -- and do what you can to keep the heat exchanger side cool (shade, evaporation). Also, be careful about running it when the air is less than 60 or so, or it may turn into a freezer.

  3. Hi Tripp. I notice you're using straw. I found out that horse manure is much easier to mix. It's just straw, pre-ground by the horse.

  4. Hi Tripp, good stuff you're doing.

    Converting a chest freezer into a fridge

  5. Howdy, LB! I'm thinking about making a bumper sticker that reads, "People who pine for heaven probably haven't been to north Georgia". Wha'd'ya think?

    Mr. Wheeler, thank you for such a great suggestion! I'm telling you, my brain is still foggy from all the cotton defoliant down south. Didn't even think about that. Thanks a bunch. We had decided to give the expensive option a miss and possibly reroute the chicken coop toward a walk-in thermal mass cooler. Would take care of most of our casual refrigeration needs, and we could just keep a small ice cooler for dairy and leftovers. I think this is a better idea, though, especially since we are definitely buying the 40 watt charger and back-up and inverter for the electronics. I'm guessing we can pretty easily keep a 12V battery charged off of it as well for such a purpose.

    Wage, they talk about using horse (and cow) manure as a cob component in The Hand-Sculpted House for the great fiber, but I'm not there yet. Let me mix a few dozen batches with straw though, and I might be! Thanks for stopping by.

    Lanterne Rouge, thanks for the props, and thanks for the link! Another great suggestion. I'll check it out...

  6. More foraged calories was of course one of our goals in this move, and we had a stellar first mushroom hunt yesterday. Not a bad day when you can add a handful of chanterelles, a big bolete or two, and a pile of hedgehogs into the lineup alongside local grass-fed burgers and organic broccoli from the farmers market...

    All three choice edibles were found on our property, too!! Perfect cobbing soil and choice fungi. Heavenly.

  7. Mr. Tripp I enjoy following your blog. I have started gardening more since my father passed in January. I suppose with my interest in herbal remedies and such it was just a natural progression to trying to incorporate a workable system. I learned quite a bit from you the summer I spent helping with the Tifton Farmer's Market.

  8. Daniel, I'm so sorry to hear about your father. My sincere condolensces. But I'm so glad to hear about your foray into the horticultural realm! There is nothing in the world more therapeutic than reconnecting with the soil. There's even a ubiquitous soil microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae that stimulates the production of seratonin in humans! "The Happy bacterium." Almost as if we were meant to have our hands in the soil...

    Glad to have you around Small Batch.

  9. I ended up scoring 9 lbs of chanterelles before the dry weather set in! The biggest single patch I found was on our land, too. Right in the bottom of our dell where it rolls into the neighboring property. Sold 7 lbs of them at the farmers market for $30/lb. Now we just need another good soaking rain. Where oh where did that hurricane go?