What A Cow Taught Us About Free Range Learning

Isabelle. (Photo by Claire Weldon)

Isabelle. (Photo by Claire Weldon)

Look closely at any one thing long enough and you start to see how much more there is to know, stretching your mind (and often your heart) well beyond the supposed “right” answers. You also may notice the way this one thing interconnects with everything else. A cow helped us see that.

Years ago we were only raising chickens and honeybees on our small farm. My daughter researched, did the numbers, and convinced us that keeping a cow would not only provide an amazing learning experience but would be an excellent way to supply our own milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese. That’s why Isabelle, a gentle Guernsey, entered our lives. And every single day since my daughter has worked hard to care for her, without fail.

Isabelle taught us more than we could have imagined about thinking for ourselves, about tenderly raising animals, and much more. When it was time for college, my daughter wrote her entrance essay about this and was awarded an amazing scholarship.

Today Isabelle is 16 years old. She continues to teach us, our vet, and a community of people who participate in a family cow forum. To celebrate her birthday, I’ll be bringing her extra carrots and apples. I invite you to celebrate too by reading about Isabelle’s life on our farm

family cow, homestead dairy,

Isabelle (Photos by Claire Weldon)

Growing Up Sarcastic & Self-Sufficient On The Farm

homeschooling self-sufficiency, homeschooled siblings, diverse siblings, happy sibling rivalry,

Isabelle the cow. (Image: Claire Weldon)

“Come here Slug Weasel,” my daughter commands. Obediently her youngest brother does as she bids, helping her carry 50 pound bags of chicken feed to the barn on our little farm. They chat pleasantly on the way.

By pleasantly I mean he doesn’t just point out that her flip-flop clad feet are dirty. He says that they are festering toxic bacteria unknown to science and should be classified as biological weapons.

She doesn’t just notice he’s squinting, she pretends to worry about his sudden exposure to sunlight and insists that swiveling in a computer chair probably doesn’t afford him the musculature to carry more than the weight of his own hair. They laugh and talk all the way to the barn.  I smile in adoration.

I was raised to be quiet and deferential to others. (Fist-shake at outdated values.) Perhaps as a direct result, I wanted to insure that my own children felt free to be themselves. Homeschooling has given us that freedom. Natural learning and all sorts of friends serves as an antidote to cultural factors relentlessly trying to pressure young people into sameness.

There’s not much sameness going on here. My four offspring can fix old tractors, diagnose a chicken in respiratory distress, compose a bagpipe tune, design custom air cooling systems for computers, discuss the chytrid fungus currently decimating amphibian populations, randomly quote from old Futurama episodes, weld sculptures, and roast fantastically spicy potatoes. They get science on everything. They don’t, however, pay attention to fashion trends or celebrity gossip.

We’re all still in headlong pursuit of our interests. But now that everyone is older I’m left with wonderful memories of early learning, the kind that shifted easily between relaxation and adventure. We read for hours together sprawled on couches, managing to get out of pajamas and into clothes before lunch if we had places to go. My kids launched into ambitious projects, from building a trebuchet that propelled pumpkins across the pond to entering a national science contest that landed them prizes including a visit with an astronaut. Other equally ambitious ideas, like making a hovercraft, were more notable for their humorous failures. We gave homemade gifts that stemmed from woodworking, sewing and soldering projects. Other gifts, like a handmade theremin, were not as well received. We called exploding experiments “science,” invited everyone we knew for large-scale projects, threw strangely amusing parties, jaunted all over for concerts and plays, maxed out our library cards each week, hosted an international guest for six summers, and whenever possible learned directly from people who thrived on work they loved.

It’s not all in the realm of memory. My grown and nearly grown kids seek each other out for hours long discussions as well as weeks long backpacking trips. Conversation around the dinner table is a gallery of fervent opinions, esoteric interests, and very dry wit. I’m still smiling in adoration. Well, I’m also smiling because someone else carries all that chicken feed.

farm homeschooling, teen homeschooling,

Fowl demonstrating free ranging. (Image: Claire Weldon)

This post originally appeared on Radio Free School

Will Fracking Affect My Family?

fracking affects your food, fracking affects your air, fracking affects your water,

Equipment arrives at this dairy farm. (Image: fafaohio.org)

Have you heard about fracking? It may seem like it will have no impact on your or your family. But take a look at the facts.

A dairy farm not far from us is the first in our area to begin hydraulic fracturing. This process was developed to extract formerly unattainable gas and oil from rock a mile or more below the surface. Unlike old style wells bored straight down or at a slant, these go down and then proceed horizontally. Using a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals the rock is fractured (hence the name) to release fossil fuels. This is commonly called fracking.

I went to look for myself. The bucolic farm is snuggled along gentle hillsides. An Amish buggy went by as I took in the dissonant sight of Holsteins grazing and huge rigs marked Halliburton parked just off the narrow rural road. Drilling hadn’t started. I wondered if fracking chemicals could possibly affect those cows and wind up in their milk. How many of us know where our yogurt once grazed?

I’m as energy dependent as the next person. But I wanted to know more about fracking, especially how it might affect my family and community, so I started hunting down information.

Sorting through the confusion

fracking chemicals in your food, what frackers don't want you to know,

My husband and I attended a public meeting held to promote leasing by landowners. There were lots of glossy handouts and a power point presentation. The speakers said that 60 years of gas well drilling had never caused a health or safety problem. I found the same reassuring claims by the oil and gas industry in advertising campaigns and online reports. Friends who’ve already signed fracking leases repeat this too.

It seems to me they’re blurring the distinction between decades of experience in vertical drilling methods and the much newer process of fracking. It’s not hard to find incidents around my hometown of older-style wells causing trouble. That includes homes with explosive levels of methane as well as a house explosion linked to inadequate cementing of well casings. Apparently such problems have occurred in both vertically drilled wells and fracked wells.

But technically, assertions that fracking is safe are largely true. That’s because industry and government regulatory agencies use the term “fracking” only as it relates to the actual process of pumping fluids into the ground to break apart rock. So when they make claims about fracking safety, they don’t include what happens while drilling, constructing the well, setting off explosions, dealing with blowouts or well fires, storing waste water in open containment basins, vapors emitted from condensate tanks, open flaring to burn off gasses, transporting waste, injecting waste water into deep disposal wells, or at any point in the future when the wells may leak.

That’s convenient, because a University of Texas study found that these are the activities actually contaminating air, water, and soil. So both sides are “right” in the fracking debate. The industry is correct when they say that fracking is largely safe because of their limited definition of the word. People concerned about the environmental and health consequences lump all activities associated with the process under the term “fracking,” making their claims of risk correct too.

Maybe this is one reason why media coverage of fracking is so confusing. For example, the standard fracking-related practice of disposing of waste in deep injection wells has been linked to earthquakes inColoradoOklahomaTexas, and Arkansas according to a U.S. Geological Survey study. In my home state of Ohio earthquakes have also been linked to this disposal method, although the state continues to accept fracking waste brought in from other states. Last year Ohio injected 12 million barrels of waste deep below her surface. But plenty of media outlets, quoting the same studies, run reassuring headlines like “Don’t worry much about quakes and ‘fracking’” and “earthquake rise, fracking not to blame“ even if farther down in the article it’s noted that earthquakes are associated with deep injection wells used to dispose of fracking waste.

I think it’s time we developed a new word or phrase to discuss the issue more clearly. For now I’ll use “fracking-related activity.”

Disclosure and rights

fracking and water shortages, fracking chemicals evaporate into the air,

Those of us who live in areas said to be rich in shale oil are being romanced. Industry representatives hold open houses. Lawyers eager to get a share of leasing money by selling pooled rights do too. I’ve paid close attention at these meetings. The emphasis is mostly on how much money can be made. We’re told that those who get their land drilled first will have the highest yields and the most money. One speaker demonstrated with a straw and a cup of soda, showing that wherever drillers (his straw) first pierced would have access to the most gas (soda) below. He slurped loudly, then asked if anyone thought he’d leave much behind for those who leased their land later.

Many participants eagerly signed up. Any concerns raised were quickly soothed. At a meeting held in a rural church we were told that landowners would be left with trees, grass, and a single wellhead providing substantial income for 30 or more years. Big money, restored land–sounds good, right?

The promise of a hefty income rising from the ground well below our feet comes at a time when many Americans are reeling from unemployment, poor housing prices, and debt. And all over the country, property owners like small to medium dairy farms are losing their livestock and often their land because they can’t turn a profit. Fracking seems like a life line.

But when I talk to people who have already signed a lease many are upset, believing they haven’t gotten as much money as they deserved. Others believe they’ve been lied to about the environmental impact. Surely there are happy lease-holders out there, I just keep running into those who feel they’ve been deceived.

At an open house meeting last fall, a conversation between an Ohio property owner and industry representatives was tape recorded. The property owner asked about chemicals used in fracking. He was told, “We don’t put any chemicals down in the ground. We just use regular, fresh water.” Another industry representative coming into the room later said the process uses household chemicals like dish washing detergent.

These are common claims. At one meeting we were told that fracking chemicals are no more dangerous than cleaning products in the average home. Cheerful articles online tell us that the same chemicals using in fracking can be found in hand sanitizer, fabric softener, even hot dogs. (I’ll take a brief look at why that’s not the whole story in a bit.)

And leases may be misleading. A New York Times review of 111,000 documents showed that most homeowners aren’t aware what rights the industry takes.

  • A majority of leases do not require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination or damages to the land.
  • Even if state regulations force industry to replace contaminated drinking water, not all costs are covered nor are needs of crops or livestock included.
  • Many consumer protection laws do not apply.
  • Some leases deduct costs such as hauling to or from the site.
  • Energy companies can use the property to build roads, store chemicals, cut down trees, run equipment 24 hours a day, and build containment ponds (in some instances covering them with dirt rather than hauling away the waste).
  • Few landowners are fully aware that their property becomes, in essence, an industrial site.
  • Some homeowners’ insurance policies will not cover problems related to fracking.
  • They also may not be aware of a potential loss in property value.

But local citizens have very little control over fracking. Depending where they live, fracking may occur under cemeteries and in state parks. Some cities as well as colleges are considering lease offers. Despite regulations that normally zone residential areas apart from industrial areas, drilling can take place near homes and schools. Residents in ColoradoTexasWest Virginia, and elsewhere are advocating for stronger regulations to protect schoolchildren from the noise and dust generated by these sites. In some areas drilling sites are only required to be 350 feet from schools and 200 feet from homes. (In New Mexico, one school playground is 150 feet from a well.) No matter how vehemently citizens object, the ability to pass local ordinances regulating gas and oil producers can be superseded by state or federal regulations. This provides the industry rights normally not allowed under the law.

For example, in 38 states you can’t say no to fracking on your land if others in your area have already signed leases. It’s called by all sorts of names such as “mandatory pooling” or “compulsory integration.” This means a horizontal drilling line can run under your property whether you want it there or not. It’s really eminent domain by private enterprise. Such laws make it easy for gas and oil representatives to tell people they might as well sign up, because underground reserves will be extracted anyway. That’s the reason people we know are signing leases. That there’s no legal recourse shocks some homeowners when drilling begins.

For many of us, fracking operations (called “plays”) seem like a distant threat. But they’re taking place not only in rural areas but cities, suburbs, and park lands with several hundred thousand new wells scheduled for drilling in the next few years.

Will your area be fracked?


fracking the next economic bubble,

We also heard lots of talk about how much good this gas and oil will do to boost the local economy and help our nation to get back national energy independence. These are laudable goals. I’m not sure they’re more than optimistic projections.

Any talk of jobs is likely to generate enthusiasm in our still flagging economy. Those of us living in shale oil areas have been told that an employment boom is around the corner. In Ohio we’re assured that our state will see 65,000 jobs and $3.3 billion in wages within two years. But analysis of data from states already experiencing a fracking boom finds only a modest rise in employment, even when factoring in supply chain jobs and increased spending by workers and landowners. Looking more closely at the numbers, it’s clear that the majority of the energy paychecks are going to out-of-state contract workers who handle drilling and hauling.

They don’t have the most enviable jobs. Oil field workers are exempt from certain safety rules, leading to a higher rate of accidents than other industries. In one state alone, police found that 40 percent of the 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks inspected were in such serious disrepair they were taken off the road. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fatality rates for oil workers are seven times the national average.

Fracking-related activity actually places a heavy burden on municipalities. The industry estimates over 200,000 new wells will be fracked across the U.S. in the next decade. Each one requires 500 to 1,500 truck trips to haul equipment, water, and waste. Massively increased traffic brought by these heavy rigs is likely to hasten the deterioration of roads and bridges. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) puts out regular report cards on the country’s infrastructure. They note that bridges are normally built to last 50 years. The average U.S. bridge is now 43 years old. Overall, the ASCE gives U.S. infrastructure (including roads, bridges, and water supply) a grade of  ”D.”

It costs in city services as well. Police have reported increased calls in some areas due to the surge in temporary workers associated with drilling. And first responders such as fire fighters and paramedics may not have the equipment, training, or funds to handle new perils that come with drilling and disposal operations.

Maybe this is the price we have to pay. After all, we’re told that fracking is a reliable means to achieve energy independence. I hear lots of these talking points repeated in meetings and in print, often along with some patriotic fervor tossed in for emphasis, but it isn’t easy to figure out energy facts in all the hubbub. As a concerned parent and citizen, I’m still trying to sort it out.

Here are some things I’m mulling over. The U.S. exports more gasoline than it imports, so energy independence isn’t as simple as the “drill, baby, drill” signs I see in my community. And shale oil, which can be extracted along with natural gas from the fracking process in some areas, is more expensive to extract and refine than crude oil. But most of the energy generated by fracking comes in the form of natural gases and liquid gases such as ethane, propane, and butane.  Over the last ten years this industry has spent 20.5 million dollars on donations to Congress and 726 million dollars on lobbying to continue steering subsidies toward fossil fuel, keep regulation minimal, and boost incentives.  Government policy decisions are locking in tax dollars for years to come on natural gas incentives based on industry and Wall Street speculation about the amount of gas that can be extracted. It will cost 700 billion to convert just some of our coal-fired plants to natural gas, a pricey venture when estimates of these reserves keep dropping.

At the same time, reports from financial and energy sectors indicate such speculation is shaky. Huge investments made in leasing and supplies are not returning profits as projected. The U.K.’s Financial Times called it the next economic bubble, comparing it to the financial disaster caused by real estate financing. For some companies, such as Chesapeake Energy, the bubble may already be bursting.

It’s not just a financial bubble, there’s also a gap between the industry’s wildly optimistic estimates and the realities of extraction. Petroleum engineers note that initial production rates are high but dropping. Although President Obama’s State of the Union address repeated industry claims that we’re sitting on a 100 year supply of natural gas, a week later the Energy Information Administration revised its estimatesof Marcellus Shale gas downward by 66 percent and overall potential U.S. reserves by 40 percent. ASlate report takes a close look at the numbers. The estimated supply actually lumps  ”proved reserves” (meaning it’s known to exist and is recoverable) with those that are “probable,” “possible,” and “speculative.” In other words, most of the so-called surplus of gas may not exist or be recoverable. Only an 11 year supply falls into the “proven” category, and that’s if our usage doesn’t go up. As Slate dryly notes, “By the same logic, you can claim to be a multibillionaire, including all your ‘probable, possible, and speculative resources.’”

Government and industry continue to insist that a boom is on although a well-by-well analysis notes that gas production is much flatter than hyped and “the gold rush is over.”  The number of drill rigs operating in North America continues to fall and production per well, on average, declines by 44 percent per year compared to 23 percent for wells in traditional gas fields.

Some people we know who have leased their property worry that the companies owning their leases are simply speculating in land and will sell those leases to foreign companies. I held up my hand at one meeting and asked an industry representative if any leases might ever be sold to non-U.S. companies. “Absolutely not,” I was told. “This is about American energy independence.”

I came home and looked it up. All sorts of huge foreign companies are buying up rights. For example, the Australian company BHP Billiton bought 4.75 billion worth of shale assets in Arkansas, the French company Total will pay 2.25 billion for shale assets in Texas and 2.32 billion for assets in Ohio, and the Chinese firm, Sinopec, is spending billions to scoop up assets across the U.S. from firms like Devon and Chesapeake. Selling these assets is, of course, the prerogative of any company owning them. Obscuring the truth about it to landowners before they sign the leases doesn’t seem to be a priority.

The fracking boom (or bubble) isn’t limited to the U.S. It’s taking place or about to in CanadaArgentinaChinaMozambiqueRussiaPolandIsraelAustralia, and elsewhere.

Health and environmental considerations

fracking and health, fracked air, fracked water,

We also attended public meetings run by several area groups hastily formed to oppose fracking. They brought speakers in from across the state and beyond. I listened to Joe Logan, a representative of the Ohio Environmental Council, explain how fracking-related activity can affect the food we eat. His charts showed that heavy metals and chemicals migrate into air, soil, and water. These contaminants can diminish crop yield, affect the health of livestock, and imperil organic certification. He noted that current laws are not sufficient to protect the food supply or food producing areas from the effects of fracking.

I listened to Doug Shields, former member of the Pittsburgh City Council, explain how fracking-related activity is exempt from major environmental laws that currently protect the public. The oil and gas industry does not have to comply with key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Environmental Policy Act, or the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.

A local man stood up with a jug of brown water from his once clear well. Since his land was fracked the water has been foul smelling and murky, although state officials told him it was okay to drink. Another woman said brine was dumped on a road by her house and when she paid to have it tested it was found to contain chemicals associated with fracking, although state officials declined to investigate. I talked to many other people at these meetings: college students, farmers, retirees, mothers with small children living near active fracking sites. The information they shared was alarming. Here’s a little of what I’ve been able to confirm.

Each fracking operation takes 1.2 million gallons to 5 million gallons of water, sometimes more. Each additional time a site is fracked more water is required. Water stress (an imbalance between water use and water resources) is fast becoming an alarming global issue. When water is withdrawn from natural sources for drinking, irrigation, and other typical uses it normally finds its way back into the global water supply. But a substantial portion (15 to 40 percent) of the water used in fracking operations is left deep in the ground. What does come back up (called “flowback” as well as “produced water” which naturally occurs in shale) is often put in deep injection wells for long-term storage. This method not only edges up the potential for earthquakes, it also takes much-needed water out of planetary circulation.

Chemical components make up only about 0.5 percent of fluids used in fracking-related activity, the rest being water and sand. This sounds like a reassuringly small amount, until you multiply the millions of gallons of water used per fracking site with the number of sites being fracked. Some estimate that 20 tons of chemicals are used per million gallons of fracking fluid. (This number does not include drilling fluids and other chemicals that augment fracking-related activity.)

2011 Congressional report lists 750 known fracking chemicals in order of most common usage. Here’s a partial account of those used in highest amounts.

Some of these chemicals are indeed similar to chemicals used around the home. But a 2011 analysis found that 25 percent are carcinogens; 37 percent are endocrine disruptors; more than 40 percent can impair the immune system and nervous system; and three-quarters can irritate the eyes and lungs. It’s important to remember that some chemicals are toxic in concentrations much less than one part-per-million and the synergistic effect of most chemicals is largely unknown.

The fluid that comes back up also contains ingredients that didn’t go in. This means naturally occurring matter such as heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (including benzene, toluene, xylene), radioactive materials (including lead, arsenic, strontium), even acidic microbes. It also means chemical compounds created by the reactions of chemicals during any stage of the process. Claims of air, ground, and water pollution due to fracking-related activity are often dismissed by industry and government officials because some contaminants are considered “naturally occurring.” And let’s not forget the water’s salinity. Fracking wastewater has two to three times more salt than sea water and more than 180 times the level considered acceptable to drink by the EPA.

Although the industry insists that all chemicals used in fracking are on the record there are still rules in place allowing them to claim chemicals are proprietary or to disclose what’s used only after the drilling has been completed. In several states including Pennsylvania and Ohio, physicians are bound by a “gag rule” which prevents doctors from sharing information about symptoms, diagnoses, and disease clusters related to fracking chemicals even with other doctors and public health officials. Some doctors say they’re not sure if the laws permit them to inform patients either. Frightening stories abound, like the one about a nurse treating a gas field worker whose clothes were drenched in chemicals. She fell ill herself.  While she was in ICU with multiple organ failure the worker’s company refused to identify those chemicals. Turned out that story was true. (Her state of Colorado now has forms to get that information although doctors are still bound by non-disclosure rules.) Limited information hampers the ability ofmedical practitioners to link health problems to environmental contaminants.

How do these and other toxins linked to fracking-related activity get into the environment? Here are a few routes.

  • Leaks and spills during transportation, mixing, or other fracking-related activity. The industry reportsmillions of gallons spilled in one state alone.
  • Liners that leak or burst, spilling fluids into the soil. Birds and other wildlife are known to be affected.
  • Exhaust from diesel trucks and diesel generators running day and night.
  • Flaring of gas (burning into the air), venting of gas (directly releasing into the air), as well as air release via dehydration units and condensate tanks.
  • Evaporating unknown quantities of chemicals into the air from open containment “ponds” of fracking waste. Misters often spray the liquid in the air to speed up the process. This is standard across much of the industry.
  • Contamination of ground water at depths used for drinking water, typically caused by failures of well casings but also possibly due to increased permeability of rock layers.
  • Inadequate treatment of waste water at sewage plants.
  • Use of “treated” fracking waste from water treatment plants mixed with sludge to be spread on parks and farms.
  • Waste water released into surface bodies of water.
  • Spraying treated fracking brine on roads to control dust or melt ice, a method approved by Ohio EPA and used in many other states although the U.S. EPA advises against this practice.

Burning natural gas itself is cleaner than other forms of fossil fuel, as long as larger environmental costs of the energy-intensive and toxic process of fracking aren’t added to the equation. In fact a Cornell study concluded that as much as eight percent of the methane in shale oil leaks into the air due to fracking, twice the amount released by conventional gas production. Since methane is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2, researcher Robert Howarth concluded that shale gas is less “clean” than conventional gas, coal, or oil.  Studies released by the American Petroleum Institute and American Natural Gas Alliance show much lower methane emissions. Reports and research funded by the gas and oil industry tend to find results more favorable to that industry, putting the science itself into question.

There are always risks in fracking, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson said in a recent speech, but he believes the public has been alarmed by “manufactured fear.” As he sees it, the biggest problem is “taking an illiterate public and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks.”

For a variety of fracking perspectives, check out YouTube. You’ll find plenty of videos presenting the industry’s viewpoint, as well as stories of people living near fracking sites, and this quasi-humorous skewering of what’s being called an industry-wide cover-up of fracking dangers. It’s hard to find footage simply showing what a fracking operation looks like, but here’s one filmed by a Penn State extension service.

I went back to take another look at the dairy farm near us, now being fracked. The area was covered with heavy equipment. A few employees outfitted in fire retardant suits, masks, and hard hats worked in the distance. The quiet morning was filled with noise. Gray dust rose in the air and my throat burned.

When I set out to find out all I could about fracking I didn’t anticipate such disturbing information.  I couldn’t have known fracking would soon intrude on our lives. I recently learned that fracking leases have been signed within sight of us to the west, north, and south. I’m concerned about our land where our cows graze and our chickens scratch. I’m concerned about my family’s health. And I’m wondering if you’re concerned too.

fracking waste grows food,

This is what fracking looks like. (Image:fafaohio.org)

First published on wired.com/geekmom

Global Village Construction Set

It’s possible to plant 50 trees in one afternoon.

To press 5,000 bricks from the dirt beneath your feet in one day.

To build an affordable tractor in six days.

It’s possible thanks to the members of Open Source Ecology (OSE). They aren’t armchair visionaries. These engineers, farmers, and developers are dedicated to making communities sustainable and self-reliant. They’re taking on scarcity and inequality with open source enthusiasm

OSE got its start when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke.  Well, lets back up a little. After Jakubowski earned a PhD in the physics of fusion energy, he bought a farm in Missouri where he grew fruit trees and raised goats. One day his tractor broke. He didn’t have the hands-on experience to fix it himself. But he hauled out some can-do attitude along with his welder and torch. He realized a tractor is simply a box with wheels, each powered by hydraulic motors.  So he bolted together square steel tubing to make one from scratch. It worked.

This inspired him to look beyond pricey, commercially made machines. He began to come up with versions that were hardy, low cost, and constructed out of locally sourced or repurposed materials. His posted designs generated lots of enthusiasm and input. Participants began showing up to help build prototyles on project days, becoming OSE collaborators.

The idea evolved. They considered what it takes to build independent, sustainable communities that support farming, construction, small manufacturing,  and power generation. They came up with a list of the 50 machines most important for modern life including a hay baler, bakery oven, laser cutter, drill press, solar concentrator, and truck.  Low cost, industrial strength, DIY versions of these machines became known as the Global Village Construction Set.  The motors, parts, and other fittings of these machines are designed to be interchangeable. All the 3D designs, schematics, and instructional videos are posted on the OSE Wiki.

On average, constructing these machines costs about eight times less than comparable machines made by industrial manufacturers. As Jakubowski explained in his recent TED talk, “Our goal is a repository of published design so clear, so complete, that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. ..The implications are significant: a greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains, and a newly relevant DIY Maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.”

So often hope seems abstract.  This is tangible hope, made of steel. It puts independence and equality in reach for people in both the developed and developing world.  Welding never seemed so inspiring.

What’s Up On The Farm

It’s quiet on our little farm. Spring hasn’t really arrived in Ohio. Although I’m starting heritage tomato seeds, they’re waiting to spout in front of a window that still frosts over most nights. And it’s quiet on our farm website too. So this week I’m sharing a few posts from our farm site. It’s like a hello from my life to yours.

Great Things Aren’t Always So Great explains why our house nearly fell apart.

Idleness Isn’t Always the Devil’s Workshop outs me as a mom who isn’t always the best example.

Trying to Grow Potatoes Instead of Magic Mushrooms describes my first attempt to grow potatoes and the method I’ve since adopted.

Hopefully some useful advice is offered in Why Kids Belong in the Kitchen and 12 Ways to Raise Happy Healthy Eaters.

And yes, plenty of barely disguised ranting is noticeable in Small Town Values Bitch-Slap the Economic CrisisGreenwashing the Gates Foundation Way, and Cow Powered Treadmills, Really?

Eager to hear a hello from your life to mine.

Thanks To Mom, We Tried Turkey Farming

I offered to host Thanksgiving year after year. My mother turned me down each time. She liked hosting the family get-together even though her kids and grandkids lived close enough to visit weekly. She preferred her wedding china and linens to my mismatched dishes and homespun tablecloth. Mostly she wanted to ensure that the meal featured homemade white crescent rolls and a large Butterball turkey filled with her own stuffing recipe. She was afraid that her annoyingly whole foods vegetarian daughter might prepare something horribly non-traditional, like nutloaf with chestnut wild rice dressing instead of turkey. Valid point.

But her health kept declining. I took to coming over early on Thanksgiving Day to stuff the turkey with her and hoist it in the oven. We all came back a few hours later with side dishes. I always brought homemade crescent rolls that looked suspiciously brown and healthy. Our meals continued to be lively events and we worked hard to make sure my mother didn’t noticed how much we all helped out.

I knew she’d reached a new low in her energy level when she offered to let me host Thanksgiving a few years ago. She said I had to agree to one condition. I had to make a real turkey (not a Tofurky, she hastened to add) and stuff it with her stuffing recipe. I had to promise. I wanted to cry, knowing that she was much sicker than she let on. I promised.

But there was no way I was going to cook a typical grocery store turkey. I know these birds spend their short lives in tightly confined spaces, eating foods that aren’t natural to them. We raise pastured livestock on our little farm, so we drove nearly an hour to buy a similarly pastured turkey directly from the farmer. I felt particularly solemn as I prepared that first Thanksgiving meal at our house, knowing it was difficult enough for my mother to get from the car to the house so she could spend the day with us. At least the turkey was a hit. According to the meat-eaters in the bunch, it was the best they’d ever had. It was also so juicy that it overflowed the pan. That’s something grocery store birds don’t do, even though they’re injected with a “7% solution containing water, salt, modified food starch, sodium phosphate and natural flavors.”

But that pastured turkey was astonishingly expensive. We thought we might be able to raise a flock of our own more cheaply. We were wrong. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nearby farmers gently told us that we were foolhardy. They warned us to keep turkeys “on wire,” indoors, and away from what they said were the disease-carrying dangers of grass. They said our plan to avoid feed pumped up with medications and synthetic vitamins would leave us with a dying flock. Online articles repeated these woeful predictions.

Still, the next spring we bought turkey chicks. They were raised in the warmth of an Amish kitchen until they were old enough to live outdoors.

On our place they lived in what’s called a “tractor.” This is a moveable coop, allowing the birds access to fresh areas to forage. My husband and oldest son built it with roosts and feeders. We soon learned turkeys toss food from feeders and don’t like to roost. Out came both of those modifications. Then to forestall problems with predators we added a moveable electric fence.

How much our rapidly growing chicks ate surprised us. In addition to the roots, grasses, leaves, and bugs they scratched up on their own we provided them with a locally grown and ground mix of seeds and grain. And we gave them fresh organic produce from the garden each day. They had strong preferences. One day they might eagerly eat cucumbers and squash, the next day they refused to eat those veggies but enjoyed tomatoes. They turned up their beaks at plenty of other treats, like broccoli and rutabagas.

We found turkeys quite interesting. When they’re young they peep and squawk. Then the gobble develops, something we found relentlessly amusing. Hens don’t gobble. They chirp and cluck in their own quiet manner while the toms are prone to showy displays of exaggerated feather fluffing. The toms gobbled at any noisy airborne attraction including Canada geese, crows, and helicopters. When annoyed, their heads turned iridescent blue and sometimes they engaged in snood-grabbing jousts. Our dogs were fascinated by the turkeys, but the turkeys showed little interest in creatures beyond their own genus.

All day, every day the flock had a visitor. A little brown hen moseyed up from the back of our property to visit her fowl friends. She stayed close. She pecked at grass and bugs, sometimes a few feet away and sometimes a few inches away. When we gave the turkeys a treat from the garden like a monster zucchini she’d cluck at me, waiting for her own piece. Quite often the turkeys, in their zucchini-enhanced exuberance, tossed flecks of what they were eating almost as if to share. Their friend the hen was right there waiting for those offerings. I never saw the turkeys peck at her.

What we learned about turkeys wasn’t entirely charming. Full grown turkeys are huge. Some of ours were over 80 pounds. Their poo, I’m sorry to say, was also huge. I never realized just how foul it was until I slipped and fell in it. And despite the overall health and vitality of our flock, once we factored in all the expenses there wasn’t any profit at all. Plus, after feeding and chatting with them for six months, it felt like a horrible betrayal to take them to the butcher.

This year we let the turkey farming venture go. We’re gratefully buying a pastured turkey, knowing that it’s worth the cost. It’ll be cooked with my mother’s stuffing recipe. I’ll also be using my mother’s china and linens. We’ll sit here at a table filled with friends and family, fully aware that our blessings include those made of memory.

I’ll smile this Thanksgiving at all who are here with me. I’ll leave the sob in my throat, choosing instead to share fond and funny stories of my parents who I miss every day. I realize now why every generation goes on celebrating even after the elders who made the traditions meaningful have gone. Holidays are a sort of bridge between past and future, a way of steadying ourselves with the idea that some things stay the same. When the time comes for me to pass along the honor of hosting Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll try passing along my mother’s stuffing recipe too.

honoring memories at Thanksgiving, how to raise pastured turkeys, small farm turkey story, missing mom at Thanksgiving,

Image: Karuntribs



Hay Now

soil health, grassfed, pastured, sustainability, family farm, ethical land use,

This summer’s first cutting of hay is stacked in the barn. Seventeen acres of grasses transformed into golden squares, storing sun and soil’s energy for the winter ahead.

The unsung miracle of grass is a beautiful illustration of nature’s wisdom. Cows eating only grass flourish, turning these coarse blades, inedible to humans, into rich high-protein milk. This benefits the environment as well as the health of people drinking the milk of grassfed cows. To me, fields devoted to hay and pasture make sense while factory farms make no sense at all.

Hay isn’t a fancy crop.

It doesn’t bring much in the way of money. Some years we scramble because there’s too much rain and not enough time to harvest. But this perennial doesn’t just nourish a few of our favorite ruminants. It helps preserve topsoil.

The loss of soil to water erosion, called sedimentation, is measured in tons of soil loss per acre per year. This runaway soil clogs waterways, smothering aquatic life and affecting navigation. The denuded land left behind is robbed of fertility.

The importance of topsoil can’t be underestimated. According to Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil, the decline and fall of civilizations are based on soil fertility.

Nearly everything we eat relies on healthy soil, yet it takes 500 years for nature to produce an inch of topsoil. Current farming techniques increase soil erosion 10 to 40 percent greater than the rate nature can replace it. We’re running out of the very dirt our lives depend on.

The living skin of our Earth is thin, wildly complex and more interconnected than we might imagine. That’s why, when I look out over the woodlands on our land, the pastures our cattle graze on, the hayfields—I am reassured. The continuous ground cover of pasture or forest protects the soil. Perennial hay fields, pastures and woodlands allow organic matter to build naturally.

I have just a beginning grasp of the vital interplay between amoebae, fungi, bacteria, arthropods and plant roots in soil, enough to sense those bags of “sterilized potting mix” found in every big box store are a mockery of the lessons to be found in nature. I do grasp that we survive, in large part, through the life-giving nutrients of what has died. Organic material of all kinds decays into humus and that makes soil a story of resurrection, writ large.



books worth reading

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan

Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners by James B. Nardi

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis

The Secret Life of Plants by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins

Edible Knowledge

cherrytomatoes Living on a farm we can’t help but be connected to the food on our table. We’re by no means perfect when it comes to eating locally. We’ll never come close unless chocolate and coffee start sprouting up in Ohio.

While more of us are paying attention to adopting better habits for our own health and planetary health, it’s easy to overlook the vital and wondrous learning that is directly related to food. For my family, those lessons often have to do with shared experiences.

~Many years we head out to pick apples together on a bright fall day. After an indulgent week of eating and baking with as many apples as possible, we devote a day to applesauce. We cook the remaining bushels of fruit down, cranking Grandma’s Victorio strainer that pushes with sauce out one side and pulp out the other (pulp eagerly eaten by the chickens), then can jars of applesauce to eat all winter long.

~We have encouraged each child to choose his or her own “crop” to plant and tend in the vegetable garden. Harvesting and sharing the bounty of one’s own fresh green beans teaches the satisfaction of work right along with lessons in botany and soil health.

~We try recipes from around the world, not only while learning about other cultures, but also because we freely trade garden bounty with friends, and have to do something with unfamiliar herbs, roots and fruits.

~We visit nearby farms. Observation and conversations with those who live on the land have been instructive, teaching us practices we want to emulate and those we hope to avoid.

~We eat meals together every day. Cooking frugally by choice as well as necessity has brought us myriad conversations about health, trends, politics and defining worth for ourselves. Of course our meals also precipitate family humor related to home ground grains that result in breads darker than wet cardboard and yes, we’ve had one or two loaded spatula chases around the kitchen. Oh wait, that didn’t involve the kids, just me thinking it might be funny to fling frosting at my husband.

~Unintentionally we learn by making plenty of mistakes. Ordering 25 pounds of organic buckwheat from the food co-op before knowing if anyone would eat it, raising our first flock of turkeys on faith more than fact, repeatedly attempting to make cheddar cheese although we can’t maintain the temperature needed to age it, well, this list could go on.

10 Things We Should Teach Every Kid About Food, recently posted on Every Kitchen Table, offers a handy list of important food-related categories to explore with our children.  The ideas are important and too often overlooked, such as the precepts of the industrial food system and the insidious effect of food advertising.

Here are some related resources:

Improve School Lunches With Locally Grown Food This article offers information plus strategies to bring positive change to your school district, whether you have children in school or not.

Don’t Buy It A non-profit site with learning games to help kids evaluate and analyze media messages.

I Buy Different A website sponsored by New Dream and World Wildlife Fund with tools to help tweens and teens be, live, and buy differently to make a difference.

Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children

I Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature

What are some ways that learning, growing and eating work best in your family?100_5960

Learning from Wisdom of Elder Farmers


The sight of Ron’s farm is like a quiet blessing. I wait for my first glimpse of it over the rise of a hill each time I take the dogs for a walk down our street. The house and several outbuildings are in shambles, but that’s because Ron puts his energy into keeping his small dairy farm going.

His herd of around fifty Ayrshire, Holstein, Guernsey and Brown Swiss graze on pasture so lush that the grasses sway in the wind. Many of the old fence posts surrounding the fields are wire-wrapped osage orange and hickory trunks, since farmers a few generations ago knew these durable woods would serve while alive and long after.

Ron puts his cows out on pasture each spring by a calculation that remains a mystery to me, something to do with phases of the moon. He adheres to other timeworn methods that aren’t fancy enough to be termed eco-friendly or green. For example, Ron drives his old car back to the hayfield before it’s time to cut. He walks through the field handpicking weeds that aren’t good for his cows. He doesn’t confine his cows year round, dose them with production-boosting hormones or follow any other agricultural trends.

Ron’s back is bent; his face is weathered and creased into a permanent smile. Already he looks like his father, Herb, who died a few years ago, probably already in his nineties. We asked Herb’s advice back when we first started farming. Herb told us he’d walked over to see our cows a few times, meaning he’d hiked through fields and woods to reassure himself that all was well.

How many of us can still benefit from the benevolent instinct of a neighboring farmer? How many are lucky enough to learn from examples of those who are deeply rooted, as Lisa Hamilton’s wonderful new book Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness is aptly named?

Dairy farms all over the country are selling cows, selling land and going out of business. The price they are being paid is about the same as it was in the 1970’s, although feed and fuel is much higher.  Government aid under consideration for small farms is steered to prompt farmers into selling cows, meaning even more milk will come from huge confinement agricultural operations. Losing small farms also means that the wisdom of farmers like Ron will be left behind at an ever faster pace. This includes specific wisdom about the land and wider wisdom about ways to live.

True connection to the land is so easily crushed beneath the weight of society’s pressing demand for immediate gratification and quick profits. But then, much is lost. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “This palpable world, which we are used to treating with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association, is a holy place.”

Perhaps most obviously, common sense is lost. Small farms are actually more efficient. The Institute for Food and Development Policy amassed available data from every country to compare productivity of smaller farms versus larger farms (total output of agricultural products per unit area — per acre or hectare.)  Their research showed that smaller farms are anywhere from 200 to 1,000 percent more productive.

Ron’s son-in-law and grandson help on the farm, but his family talks to him about getting out of the business. They know he’s losing money. Ron says that he watched his father go through hard times and he learned that the way you stay farming is to hang on. So he’s hanging on.

Ron’s rootedness to his farm and his land is part of who he is, like the farmer Gene Logsdon describes in a recent blog post “…he is a last member of an ancient tribe—the genuine traditional farmers who committed themselves lovingly to a piece of land and husbanded it from generation to generation, carrying in their memories a lifetime of their own experiences and that of their fathers and grandfathers on that land.”

So today I will walk in his direction, grateful for Ron’s farm. I’ll pay attention to the sight of cows resting in tall grass and the sound of a slack board on the house creaking in the breeze, hoping perhaps each thing we look upon with love somehow is more likely to endure.