New Water Management Earthworks Increases Resilience at LWF

By Patryk Battle, Living Web Farms Director

photo courtesy of John Henry Nelson

Part of Living Web Farms mission is innovation with the goal of ever increasing our land’s and our farming operation’s resilience. Over the course of the last year or so we’ve undertaken several new projects with this end in mind. In the future, I hope to describe some other innovations such as our soldier fly production unit and our passively aerated windrow composting system. But for now, I want to cover the most ambitious and for certain our largest innovation/installation.  This is our Grandview Farm’s extensive new system of water management earthworks, conceived, designed, and installed by John Henry Nelson, of the Stone and Spade Permaculture Design and Installation Company. This project started with our original concept, which was to install a pond that would collect water from the extensive roof area covering the Grandview Biochar and Greenhouse Complex. Expanding on this concept John designed a water management/wetland plan for the entire Grandview property. Over the last year, he has installed three major ponds, a couple of small settling ponds and a remarkable system of swales and berms and wetlands which collect, filter and channel almost all of the rainwater that would otherwise run off our land during major rain events. The system is anchored by a million gallon Collection Pond next to our greenhouse. Fortuitously this placement puts the Collection Pond at the lowest place on the property.

The windmill at Living Web Farms. Photo courtesy of John Henry Nelson

Protected by a wetland installed between this pond and the biochar facility’s parking lot this pond includes a fish lock to facilitate the harvesting of fish. Our new Collection Pond receives the water collected from the roofs of the biochar greenhouse complex, and the above-described swale berm wetland system. The Collection Pond is projected to collect over a million gallons a year. Another key component of this system is a “Saddle” Pond. Situated at the highest point on the Grandview property, the “Saddle” Pond likewise, has a million gallon capacity. John’s installation connects the Saddle Pond by an underground pipeline to the Collection Pond. Using a windmill and a backup solar powered pump his system moves water from the Collection Pond up to the Saddle Pond. From the Saddle Pond, water can be distributed by gravity to all of the plant and animal operations on our Grandview farm.

There is a third pond installed in a 3.5-acre field which is separated from the main property by Grandview Lane and therefore must have an independent swale-berm pond collection system. This pond has a capacity of approximately 100,000 gallons. This pond is connected by a pipe that goes under Grandview Lane to the Saddle Pond. Our always industrious, creative and inspired biochar crew has already created a mobile solar power unit which will be able to power a solar pump for this more remote pond. We will use this pump on those occasions when the hundred thousand gallon pond reaches capacity, and we need to move excess water to the Saddle Pond.

Installed at a level grade, the swales are designed to first and most importantly channel water into the aquifer. Previously during intense rain events, water rushed off our property and even possibly at times contributed to downstream flooding. Since our swales have no slope water only moves gently to the Collection Pond when the water holding capacity of the land is exceeded. Such saturation causes the swales to fill up . The end of the level grade swale system furthest from the Collection Pond has no outlet. Only the end of the swale system closest to the Collection Pond has an outlet. Once the swales have filled during excessive rains, they must overflow at this end through a small settling pond, which then overflows, channeling the water through a wetland installation down to the Collection Pond.

Since the fields at Grandview are all covered by either pasture, or in the case of the 3.5-acres multi-species no-till planted cover crops/vegetable crops, there is virtually no erosion. However, during intense rain, there will always be some stripping of small amounts of topsoil and organic matter. The swale/ settling pond component of this system is designed to intercept this bit of erosion before it leaves the property. Hence the swales will become increasingly rich, as they gather sediment and we will be able to harvest sediment from the settling pond. Furthermore, the berms will stop wind blown leaves each fall. These leaves will settle into the swales further enhancing the fertility of the swales. Water tolerant plants such as Silphium Perfolaitum or Cup Plant can be planted on the uphill side of these ever more fertile swales, and they will eventually colonize the swales converting the captured fertility into superior animal forage. Meanwhile, because so much water is channeled directly beneath the berms, they are ideal sites for silvo pasture plantings.

 

A swale after heavy rainfall. Photo courtesy of John Henry Nelson

 

So far we have installed mulberries, alders (they fix more nitrogen than legumes, and their leaves are excellent forage for animals) apples, pears, persimmon, pawpaw, and serviceberry. This initial planting is only a beginning. Eventually the berms will be a diverse collection of human food and animal forage crops, inter planted with bio- accumulators such as comfrey, medicinal plants such as yarrow, and culinary herbs such as oregano. We will also, as always, plant a great diversity of farmscaping plants and pollinator habitat.

A swale, flanked by diverse cover crops for our sheep to graze. Photo courtesy of Meredith Leigh

With regards to the fruit plantings, we have intentionally planted more than we are likely to be able to keep up with harvest wise. Our hope is that by creating great abundance, we will ensure that we get fruit despite bird and squirrel pressure. Also, the fruit we miss which drops to the ground will be relished by our grazing sheep, chickens, and cattle.

Since the ponds are not yet ready for stocking, and I have no expertise in the realm of aquaculture, I’m not going to attempt to describe this piece in any detail. I can however reassure readers that we will not be feeding Purina Fish Chow or any similar products to our fish. To train the fish to the fish lock, we will regularly feed them small amounts of soldier fly pupae in the fish lock. Otherwise, we will be stocking only modestly with fish species that naturally occur in our region’s pond wetland systems. For the most part, the fish will be left to rely on the natural pond/wetland food web for their sustenance. Their populations should expand as the pond ecology deepens and diversifies. We will be planting the pond edges with this goal in mind.

Hard to imagine? You don’t have to. On Saturday, August 19th John Henry Nelson will be presenting on Permaculture Earthworks and Farm Wetland Ecosystems here at Living Web Farms. Weather permitting, this will include a tour of the entire system of ponds,wetlands, swales, berms, windmill and plantings. To register and to learn more, click here.

I’m looking forward to it and hope to see you there!

Closing the Loop – Biochar as Carbon Negative Technology

By Dan Hettinger, Biochar Facility Manager

The increase in annual global carbon emissions has stalled in recent years despite strong global economic growth.  In effect, economic growth is no longer coupled with increased carbon emissions.  In 2015, most of the world agreed that we can limit climate change to a rise of 2 degrees Celsius. This is all great news for everyone, especially those who are most impacted by climate change.  However, some say that the 2C goal is unattainable without the use of technologies that actively remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Biochar production has been recognized as one of these carbon negative technologies.

Biochar is biomass that has been carbonized through a process called pyrolysis, rendering its labile carbon in a more stable form. When added to soils, this stable, recalcitrant carbon is resistant to decay, and has the potential to sequester carbon much longer, potentially for thousands of years.  For those that have followed our work here at Living Web Farms, you know that with the help of our friends at Chargow, LLC we’ve talked about this before.

We all know plants take in carbon dioxide in a process called photosynthesis, and this carbon is released when these plants are burned.  What might not be as apparent is how most of the stored carbon in dead material is slowly released back into the atmosphere through eventual decay.  This is where pyrolysis comes in.  Instead of being piled up and burned, or left in the field to rot, waste plant material is diverted into an oxygen limited chamber, called a retort. Here, through the application of heat, complex molecules present in the biomass are broken down either into gasses that can be easily condensed as wood vinegar, tar and bio-oil, or non-condensable gasses that be stored or burned for heat or electricity.  Leftover from this process is a high quality lump charcoal that we call biochar when it’s incorporated into soils.

Collecting “slab wood” at a local sawmill. This stuff has little commercial value. Some mills sell it as wood chips, others pile it up and burn it.

For years now we’ve been making biochar in batches with wood waste from local mills.  We use a 14’ diesel flatbed for pickup and local shipments, an LP forklift, our share of gasoline small engines and a fair amount of electricity running various blowers and pumps:  these are carbon heavy tasks we do on a regular basis.  In light of this, we wanted to know if we could still claim to be a carbon negative operation.

Determining a carbon footprint requires a detailed look at the throughput of the facility – what goes in and comes out – including all the hidden sources of carbon usage (down to the RTV silicone we use for gaskets). Life cycle assessments (LCA) are used to inform decisions on improving sustainable production practices. LCAs are consulting tools used to shed light on a product’s environmental impact from raw materials extraction, through processing, maintenance and eventual disposal.  Third party sustainable manufacturing consultants Verified Life Cycle, Inc., from the front lines of the hemp industry,  were able to modify their models and perform a cradle-to-grave carbon life cycle assessment for our biochar facility.

Verified Life Cycle, Inc., analyzed our process: from the transportation of raw materials, fuel inputs and energy exchanges at our facility, and shipment of finished product to our farms.  It’s important to note here that we are relying on early data from biochar production methods that may be challenged as biochar gains relevance in the global carbon marketplace.  Particularly of note is the pyrolysis process itself, where ever changing quantities of non-combustible carbon dioxide account for a significant portion of the total gas generated.

A site visit in January of this year revealed:

This means, at present, we may sequester up to 4 lbs carbon dioxide equivalent for every 2.2 lbs of finished biochar.  Our average yield of 7 400 lb batches of biochar/week means it’s possible we sequester 5,189lbs of carbon every week.  To put this in perspective, I drive nearly 60 miles round trip (I know) just to get to work. The EPA tells us the average car emits 441 grams CO2/mile, so at 60 miles, I emit about 58 lbs carbon just getting to work (about 5% of our total carbon sequestered over the course of a week).  I’ll mention that electric cars typically emit about ⅔ less carbon emissions.  For someone like me, who commutes just within the range of most electric cars, this is an increasingly obvious choice.

Let’s look at our operation in a little more detail:

  • Carbon sequestration is possible when considering stored carbon in the trees themselves.  It’s best to leave the trees alone to continue pulling in atmospheric carbon.
  • When hardwood and softwood waste is diverted into our process, some of the original stored carbon is transformed into sequestered, recalcitrant carbon.
  • Transportation is a huge part of our carbon footprint.  In the short term, we’ll be switching our diesel trucks to run on 20% biodiesel.
  • Even though our inputs are nearly 50% hardwood, their value in sequestration is significantly higher.  As producers, we can prioritize collecting hardwood waste when possible.
  • Our electricity inputs are not negligible.  We can shave electricity costs through efficiency measures, then further explore our options with generating our own power via solar PV, syngas generators, stirling engines, ethanol fuel, or small scale steam.

Processed biochar is stored in large woven polypropylene bags like this before shipment to our affiliate farms. These bags are made in India – literally the other side of the world. Since learning of the carbon impact of shipping these, we’ve switched to a different style bag that can be easily reused in the field up to 5 times

It’s worth noting there are other carbon negative technologies, some more accessible than others. Though simple carbon negative technologies and carbon smart farming exist, these practices can’t be seen as a license to pollute.  For farm scale biochar producers like us, this means paying attention to the subtleties of carbon farming on all fronts.  It’s likely that small scale producers have an edge here. Farmers and enthusiastic homesteaders have a real opportunity to achieve carbon negative through the use of simple ‘backyard biochar’ technologies like the TLUD, Tin-man and Kontiki kiln.  These systems can use common landscape wastes generated on your own property: limbs, chips, sticks, as feedstocks for high quality DIY biochar.  Transportation, processing, electrical, and application inputs are practically null when biochar is produced on a small scale from feedstock generated and applied on site.

 

Processed Biochar from Living Web Farms

To me, most fascinating of all is the role of biochar applied in the soils.  In soils, biochar has a cascading effect where microbes (carbon) take up residence in its micropores, cycling more nutrients, processing organic matter (carbon) and facilitating the growth of mycorrhizal fungi (more carbon!)  Improved soil fertility means more trees survive, ecosystems are healthier and we’re more than one step closer to that 2C goal.

What’s in a Workshop? The Value of On-Farm Education

by Meredith Leigh, Living Web Farms Education Director & Livestock Co-Manager

At Living Web Farms, we focus on growing food for underserved people, while also building and demonstrating systems for resilient living. Our farm not only produces food, but also seeks to model systems for sustainable food production, alternative energy, animal husbandry, natural medicine and more. Our education program is the way we communicate these efforts, via approximately 24 workshops annually from January to December. The workshops cover a diverse array of topics, from outside expertise, to what we are learning on the ground in our day-to-day work, and developments or curiosities we are working to research. All workshops are filmed, and archived for free on our website and YouTube channel, allowing our education program to reach a worldwide audience.

A workshop on our North Mills River Farm covered spring wild edible plants. You can see our film crew capturing everything while local folks enjoy in-person education.

To accomplish our mission in food production, agriculture research, and education, we employ roughly 15 people throughout the year, some seasonal and some permanent staff. Living Web Farms is primarily funded by donations, and by a board of trustees who must approve expenses and programs. One of the mandates of the board is that workshops not be inaccessible to any person, so we have a sliding scale system in place for workshop registration. This is our best effort to allow people to pay what they feel they can for workshops, with an average “suggested donation” listed for reference. Sometimes folks pay more than the average, if they feel inspired or able, and sometimes people pay less.

When you register for a workshop, you have two options. You can choose to pay the suggested donation, or you can choose a $0.00 ticket price, which is really just an indication that you intend to pay at the door in the amount you can or feel inspired to give.

A screenshot of our web registration process. You can choose to pay the suggested amount online, or choose “Pay at the Door” and bring your donation with you.

 

What is this money used for? What does a workshop actually cost? What are the implications of a sliding scale honor system for supporting the education program? These are questions we want to consider publicly, to address direct query from our community, and also to set clear intentions about what donations actually mean to the charitable programming at the farm.

 

What does a workshop actually cost?

The answer to this question obviously varies. We have developed two types of workshops at the farm. We host short-form workshops on weekday evenings. These classes usually last 1-3 hours, and involve some form of demonstration or discussion. The suggested donation for these classes is usually $10, to cover materials for demos and also speakers that we hire from outside of the LWF staff. Long-form workshops are usually held on Saturdays, and include more in-depth information on a subject. Long-form classes also include a light meal made from food grown on the farm. The suggested donation for these events is usually around $15, but can be higher if there are additional costs involved. All workshop donation money is pooled, meaning that donations taken for each workshop are not simply applied to that workshop only, but instead they are used to subsidize the costs of any education that we provide. In this way, some workshops that use LWF staff as teachers and minimal materials can cost us less, but still garner money for us to apply to workshops for which we have outsourced teaching, need to buy any food ingredients we haven’t grown on-farm for the meal, and pay for additional needs. On top of all of this, there is the staff time spent developing the education schedule, promoting the events, interfacing with the speakers, staffing the events, cooking, filming the class, and disseminating the video to the world and fielding questions on YouTube as well as via email. It’s a lot of work!

Our recent workshop with Gabe Brown is an example of an event where we hired a nationally recognized speaker, fed over 100 people, and spent a lot of staff time coordinating and implementing the event. Workshops like this have to be supported by our trustees, but also could not happen without donations from attendees and internet supporters throughout the year.

 

What is the money used for?

 

  • Speaker stipends
  • Workshop materials
  • Speaker travel and lodging
  • Food items not grown on the farm

 

What are the implications of a sliding scale honor system for supporting the education program?

We can confidently say that donations gathered from workshops are not ever equal to or greater than the cost to our organization in providing them. This is not our greatest concern, again, as we are chiefly interested in getting information out into the world and making it highly accessible to anyone who wants it. That being said, however, might help community members understand the impact that a donation has on the rest of our shared community, as well as the solvency and longevity of the programming at the farm.

Another implication of our sliding scale system is its impact on our partner organizations. We are fortunate to have generous trustee contributions to make our programming possible. Many of our fellow educational non-profits don’t have this, and must rely on grants and registration fees to fund all the costs of their events as well as their overhead, like staff salaries. We want education to be accessible, but we want to be careful about taking advantage of our blessings, and so want to stress to our community that whatever donation is given is a welcome recognition of the work and cost associated with grassroots, collaborative education of all kinds, and of a coalition of organizations like ours working together to bring you learning and networking.

 

What are the meals like?

Meals at LWF are meant to showcase the full circle farm experience. You will not only learn about food production or preservation, but you will also get to taste it. That is what its all about! Our staff uses veggies on the farm in peak season, as well as farm goods that we have preserved from previous harvests. Most meals are a vegetarian base, with gluten free and sometimes dairy-free options. We often include a meat option as well, because we believe integrated diets are important for health, and integrated agriculture is important for the planet. Participants are able to indicate on their registration what dietary restrictions might apply to them. We will do our best to accommodate. The meals are always buffet style, offer a chance for participants to share with each other socially, and enjoy innovative, healthful food. All food waste is either composted or fed to the animals after classes. Truly a full circle system!

A shot from behind the scenes in the kitchen. A workshop meal’s components, in this case including preserved tomatoes from a previous season, farm grown beans seasoned and simmered slowly, a leg of our heritage pork that we cured for 2 years in salt, and some fresh endive.

 

How are Topics Decided?

We publish our workshop schedule every fall for the entirety of the next year. This allows people to plan ahead, or count on education that they need. Topics are decided based on participant and community feedback, as well as staff passion. Very often, we will have been working on an idea or system on the farm that we plan to share with the community later, and these projects will inform future topics on the education schedule. Additionally, we take past workshops and build on them, based on the questions that arose from prior learning, or on developments in the field. If you have topic areas you’d like to see covered that you haven’t seen us cover in videos, send an email to meredith@livingwebfarms.org .

 

How can I find out more about the education program?

Visit our website’s workshop schedule to see all the classes in this year’s line-up, and to register for any class you wish. You may choose to pay the suggested donation online at the time of registering, or if you choose “Pay at the Door” we will take your cash or check contribution when you arrive.

 

Where can I watch past videos?

Subscribe to our YouTube Channel, and check out our videos on the website.

 

Hope to see you out at the farm!