'Farm Tech" A Different Way of Seeing
by ALBERT BATES
originally appeared in Communities Magazine, 111:49 (Summer 2001).
The year is 1972. The place is the horse barn at The Farm, one of the three buildings that was there when the three hundred hippies arrived in Lewis County, Tennessee, a year earlier. One of the other two buildings of that period was the 40-foot log cabin clad with cheap cardboard siding, its tin roof rusted and its paint chipping away, that had been the humble wood-heated residence on Ishmael Schaffer's old cattle ranch. It was now in the process of transforming into the Farm's business office and Book Publishing Company. The other was the small, board-and-batten line shack a mile down the dirt road, which would become our community kitchen.
In the year the hippies had been here they had been really busy. Several dozen structures, only a few of them thought to be permanent (and fewer actually achieving that), had sprung up like mushrooms in the meadows. Most of these efforts were fairly practicalwood additions to the school buses and bread vans the group had brought from California, slabwood cabins, Korean War army tents, and conglomerations of tin, carpet scraps and two-by-fours from dumpsters and construction sites. Some were homespun utopiansix-sided, eight-sided, round with spiraling roofs, split-level, pressed clay brick, mortared creek rock, phone-pole framed, hand-hewn in oakthat made up for a lack of structural engineering acumen by their sheer unfettered artistry.
Back to the horse barn. Industrial space was at a premium in those days. The repair garage we called the "Motor Pool" had gone up around the mechanics working in it in 1972, and was now completely filled with trucks on lifts, buses over sunken pits, toolboxes and compressors, engine blocks being disassembled and machined. The mechanics were a closeknit fraternity of greasy knucklebusters (awarded Golden Bolts for major errors) who worked 12-hour shifts on rust-encrusted antique pickups and combines rescued from junkyards, in miserable cold, rain and mud. The Motor Pool was their sanctuary. It was inviolate and inaccessible to outsiders. So the few of us who dreamt windmills, solar arrays, and waterwheels went to the horse barn to share our imaginings.
The horse barn was also very full, but only in winter. It did double duty as a stable for the draft and buggy horses and their colts and fillies, and as the Farm's church and meeting hall. It stored dried popcorn, beans and squash from the summer. It was where we kept and repaired the horse drawn equipment. It had that rarest of all commodities, electricity, so in the winter it was home to night corn shuckings and town meetings. It housed our first flour mill.
But in the summer things cleared out. There were usually no dried foods to store, the horses and their equipment stayed outdoors, Sunday services were down in the meadow, and the aging barn took on a hollow, deserted air.
So this was where we gathered, we visionaries of the future, and this is to where we dragged our weekly booty of Model-A transmissions, blade bending presses, soldering kits and scrap wire, to keep in a horse stall during the day, and to tinker with at night when our bunkmates were holed up in buses and tents reading dogeared Carlos Castenedas and Chongyam Trungpas by kerosene light.
It was in the horse barn that Todd Anderson, age 16, built the Farm's first windmill, using a Ford three-speed transmission and a Chrysler alternator, propelled by aluminum blades. We built wind machines from cloth and bamboo and watermills of tin buckets screwed onto plywood rings. We made photovoltaic arrays from factory-reject solar crystals soldered onto old cookie sheets. Eventually Doug Cobb and Gerald Boyer set up a serious machine shop in the lower level of the sorghum mill and, between Motor Pool, Print Shop and Soy Dairy parts jobs, started cranking out prototype Sterling, Minto and Rankin cycle engines and the parabolic dishes to power them. Few of these models ever did any real work, but we got our feet wet and we learned what worked and what didn't.
The electronics skill that came with our need to license a score of ham radio operators led to our FM radio station, WUTZ, our in-house TV station, WNBS (as in "No BullShit"), the first dopler fetoscope, and our marriage of the Geiger counter to the Fuzzbuster, which yielded the first pocketsize radiation meter, the Nukebuster, able to run 2000 hours on a single 9-volt battery.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter's new Energy Department came out with the brilliant and as yet unequaled idea of awarding small grants to backyard inventors, even unrepentent hippies such as ourselves, if we could cobble a professional enough proposal to pass muster in our State's Energy Office. We won four of those marvelous grants over the next two years. The first was for a "Long Distance Electric Vehicle," which in our case built four hybrid prototypes for the combined sum of $5,000: two Datsun station wagons with Toyota pickup 5-speed transmissions that ran on rheostated Air Force jet starter motors, their 12-24-48 variable voltage battery banks periodically recharged by onboard 16-horse internal combustion engines; a gasohol/soybean-oil diesel utility vehicle; and a PV-roofed golf cart rigged with huge outdoor sound speakers and a kickass stereo system (after Doug Cobb's earlier sawtooth PV array showed it could power the stage at antinuke rallies).
Our second grant, another $5000, was for a "Low Cost Heat Engine," which turned out to be a succession of prototype Sterlings in the 1-kW range, eventually resulting in a novel turbine that operated on a variety of low-impact compressive fluids.
Our third grant was for a "Batch Gasohol Still" which involved a 20-foot glass-filled steel fractionating column and rendered fuel-grade alcohol from a variety of grains and legumes.
Our fourth grant was for a "Portable Concentrating Photovoltaic Array" which explored Fresnel lenses and exotic alloy solar cells before eventually building high-density PV panels which more than tripled the electric output from a square meter of area covered in silicon. Folded up, it could fit into a suitcase. Unfolded, it powered remote area electric needs.
In 1982 we worked with various Tennessee environmental groups to develop a low-cost makeover of a Victorian house on the grounds of the Worlds Fair in Knoxville, in the process saving that lovely old structure from demolition. We created an exhibit we called the Alternative Community Technology Pavillion, which became a remarkable statement for the time. Today it would be considered an example of "ecological architecture" or Agenda 21 development. It had water-filled insulating walls, compact fluorescent lighting, a 20-foot-parabolic solar steam plant, a dish city of solar cookers and concentrators, and a parking lot full of solar and hybrid electric vehicles.Concentrating arrays powered the tape loops at education stations on the guided tour. Our solar golf-cart with its powerful speakers musically accompanied a daily parade through the fairgrounds.
We didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but these displays had an important historic role in rescuing key technologies from dark corporate dungeons and releasing them into the light of public domain. Years later Doug Cobb's Solar Car Company of Melbourne, Florida, a distinguished descendant of our basement experiments, would prevail in a patent rights skirmish over all solar-powered and hybrid automobile rights, by virtue of these open-aired fairground parades in the summer of 1982. Recognizing the importance of these lessons of our history, today we rush to put any significant inventions into the open public arena as quickly as they come to fruition, rather than lock them up with patent registration and licensing.
In 1974, we began calling our crew "Global Village Technology." Over the following decade, the Farm generated several business enterprises that tried to turn some good ideas to commercial benefit, with only limited success. Most of these ideas were too far ahead of their timeseveral of them still are. Solar Energy Works tried to market insulated solar collectors through TVA's efficient homes program in the Carter years. It fulfilled a series of contracts to build innovative passive and active solar homes for private contractors. Solar Electronics tried to make a go of installing PV and wind systems throughout the Southeast, but eventually had to retreat into the security of manufacturing pocket Geiger counters during the Reagan years, a business which remains its bread and butter today. A few World Bank contracts to set up solar-powered communications systems in remote villages in the Indian subcontinent and in Latin America kept hopes alive that we could turn the world towards renewable energy and make a living for ourselves at the same time, but the business of it never made the leap to commercial reliability. Too many good-hearted installers were chasing too few (and too expensive) contracts to become an industry.
The cadre of Farm techies were not all machine-tool and electro-tech oriented. Some of us were thinking more biologically, experimenting with cultivated ecosystems as an alternative to conventional farming, measuring biodiversity, and playing Buckminster Fuller's World Game with our indigenous resources. In the late 1970s Milton Wallace built our first constructed wetlands to process effluent from the diaper washers at the Farm laundry. Barbara Schaeffer, Matthew McClure and I formed the "Ethos Research Group" which used epidemiological regressive analysis to study the health of our natural systems. This led to our first statistical study of mortality and morbidity rates by county (1940-1980) in Tennessee and a chance to make some reasonable inferences about causal links to industrial production, agricultural chemicals, nuclear energy and weapons complexes, and other site variables. Among other achievements, Barbara statistically associated the organophosphate production industry in our neighboring counties with high rates of CNS diseases in their surrounding populations. This led to a grassroots movement which eventually won a ban on deepwell injection and protection of underground drinking water sources.
In the late 70s and early 80s Global Village Technology and Ethos Research Group worked under the auspices of Plenty, the Farm's relief and development organization. In that capacity they could solicit small grants and donations and apply them to studying solar fish driers in Senegal, lead in the blood of children in the South Bronx, or vegan birth weight and growth ratios. In 1984, Global Village Technology incorporated into a free-standing think tank with non-Farm directors, improved its fundraising focus, and became the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology, or "GVI" for short. In 2000, it morphed again, now calling itself just the Institute for Appropriate Technology, or "i4@t."
In 1983 the Farm had a near-death experience as a swelling population (1400 people by some counts), a national recession, several business meltdowns, crushing bank debt, and a general dissatisfaction with our communal economics and other systems took us to the brink of bankruptcy. In the process of rescuing ourselvesthrough painful restructuring, consolidation, and downsizingwe sold off many of our famous assets. GVI purchased the Tempeh Lab from Farm Foods just before the company that invented soyburgers was sold to Barracini Chocolate for the assets of its soy ice cream product line.
GVI's ownership was a brief life raft for the Tempeh Lab, which soon became profitable enough to incorporate as its own mail order business, but for those few years GVI had one foot firmly into food research. Tempeh is a high-protein Indonesian staple made of soybeans fermented in a culture of Rhizopus oligosporus. Soybeans are a potential solution to world hunger, because acre for acre, they produce hundreds of times the available protein of virtually any other food. The limiting factor is digestion-inhibiting enzymes that make soybeans poisonous to humans unless they are treated. Deactivation usually takes the form of extended cooking as much as 8 to 12 hours of boiling if you don't have a pressure cooker or extrusion press, and in a fuel-short world which needs its trees, this can be a serious impediment. Fermentation provides a miraculous alternative, eliminating the indigestable enzymes while enhancing soy's nutritional value. Many fermented soy products prized in the Orient, like ontjom or natto, are unsuited to Western pallets, but tempeh has shown a remarkable ability to cross the international taste line, because of its mushroom-like aroma and firm but tender texture. In the past quarter century tempeh shops have popped up throughout Europe and the United States.
All tempeh begins with a culture, much like yogurt or yeasted bread. Some years ago the only sources for the pure culture were the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the food science laboratory at Cornell University. When tempeh took off in popularity, these laboratories were overwhelmed with requests and so were only too happy to hand off the task of filling orders to someone in the private sector, any one. The Tempeh Lab at the Farm stepped into this niche, and soon became the world's leading producer of pure innoculant. For its first 15 years, its only competitors were small labs started by people who had once lived at the Farm and worked in the Tempeh Lab. Through the 1980s, the Lab continuously refined the bio-cryo production process and improved the stability and consistency of its product. In 1987, GVI incorporated the Tempeh Lab as its own business, in the process recognizing another important role for ourselvesas a small business incubator.
Another area of GVI research was in land reclamation using various tree species. Within and adjoining the Farm's 3 square miles of hardwood forest, we started plantations of hybrid poplar, Tulip poplar, American chestnut and Chinese chestnut. Later we pushed these species into doing wastewater remediation, erosion control, and biodiversity sequencing. With a better understanding of forest soil dynamics, we were led to the cultivation of forest mushrooms as a strategy in mitigating global warming.
Fungi are more than the front line of organic decomposition and nutrient recycling, they are the central nervous system of a natural forest ecology. Trees communicate through the filaments of fungus as if they were fiber-optic broadband connections. That is why when a bacterial or viral pest begins spreading through bark at one side of a forest, trees on the other side begin manufacturing antibodies. GVI's work with forest mushroom cultures led to a second business spin-off, Mushroompeople, now the country's oldest and largest mail order catalog for mushroom spawn and starter kits.
In the early 1990s, Doug Cobb and Bob Adams raised enough venture capital from private placement offerings to launch the Solar Car Company of Melbourne, Florida, and later of Groton, Connecticut. Solar Car leased warehouse space and began remodeling Ford Festivas and Chevrolet Luminas to make them over as hybrid electrics. The research which started in the horse barn at The Farm and moved into Honda Civic rally-electrics kicked into high gear with more than a million dollars to spend. SCC prototypes had independent regenerative braking on every wheel, low center-of-gravity battery wells, pop-in solid-state control modules, all-electric compact air-conditioners, multifuel hybrid options, nonexplosive gel batteries, and flexible-PV arrays laminated on hoods, roofs, and spoilers. When Ford refused to sell Festiva shells without the engines, SCC bought whole cars and resold the engines in England. Doug Cobb took the prototypes on the solar race circuit and took home trophies in the open class wherever he went. Besides selling the finished carjust drive it awaySCC developed a mail order parts catalog for do-it-yourself conversions. It developed a multifuel hybrid electric stretch commuter van. It developed a solar-electric fishing boat. Its Groton branch was an effort to ameliorate the negative effects of decommissioning the nuclear submarine yards at the end of the Cold War by turning skilled nuclear sub builders into skilled solar car builders.
But like many good ideas that came out of the lab and try to change our culture for the better, the Solar Car Company, and a score of other small car makers like it, were a generation too soon. Early sales were not strong enough to make the jump from startup capitalization to profitability. Government and industry erected ingenious new hurdles like the "switch-and-bait" lure of California fleet alternative fuel standards. In recognition of economic reality, the company closed its doors in 1995.
Over the past decade the Institute launched its most ambitious effort to date. It is attempting to draw together the disparate threads of appropriate technologiesrenewable energies, ecological building, Permaculture, agroforestry and organic gardening, biological waste treatment, the social fabric of intentional communities, deep ecology, and the holistic dynamics of sustainable development into a single setting that merges different elements into a cohesive village-scape, creating and vetting experimental models for the ecological human settlements of the future.
If universities take up David Orr's challenge to become the physical experiments in sustainable systems that lead to the cities of our future, then the Ecovillage Training Center, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, the Folkecenter in Denmark, the Alternative Living and Energy Research Project at the Slippery Rock University, Tlholego Development Centre in South Africa, and many similar efforts will be the chrysalis of this change, engaging and riveting the newfound interest of scholars and designers.
In the spring of 1992, GVI traveled to St. Petersburg and made a series of multimedia presentations about the historical development of proto-ecovillages and intentional communities in North America and Northern Europe to a large groups of eager young Russians. Two subsequent visits by Russian study groups to The Farm followed in the fall of 1992. During the week-long visits to The Farm, these students were able to engage in production of tofu and tempeh, farming of forest mushrooms, and introductions to our work of the previous 20 years.
While these exchanges were highly rated by the participants, they indicated to the Institute a number of deficiencies in the capabilities of The Farm to support such a program over the long term. We had inadequate guest facilities onsite. Workspaces within heated buildings for lectures and/or independent desk and telephone access were often unavailable. We needed an interactive model ecovillage, food service, fully-operational international communications and business hubs, a library of books and papers, salaried project staff, and adequate budgets to support ongoing exchange programs.
In 1994, a planning meeting drew together development professionals, social scientists, nurse midwives, designers of new energy systems, and environmental educators. Three phases of initial development were envisioned. In the first phase, the physical location of the Center would be acquired, initial site design completed, and essential food, water, shelter and energy requirements provided on-site. In the second phase, the elements of the immersion experience would be added in to a sufficient degree to provide a transformative experience for participants, and the curricula would be refined. In the third phase, the Center would create enough income generation to provide for its own needs and to gradually expand.
In 1994, we began by remodeling an old Farm residence (originally three army tents joined around a frame lean-to kitchen, but later dried in and roofed over) near the Farm School. We refurbished and painted the house, which we call the "Inn," putting in 30 beds, renovating plumbing, heating, and electrical systems, and constructing large decks on east and west sides. We replaced aging refrigerators and other appliances with energy-saving devices, installed fans and insulation, and downsized our total energy draw by 50 percent, even while increasing population load fivefold. We edible-landscaped 4 acres, established two frog ponds and a fish pond, transplanted water plants from nearby threatened wetlands, and installed climbing trellises.
We designed and built a large organic garden, enclosed and protected from marauding deer. We inoculated the tops and stumps of storm damaged native oaks and poplars for continuous production of edible and medicinal mushrooms. We sawed up the downed trunks at the nearby Amish mill to make decking and timbers. Between the garden and the mushroom farm, we harvested so much produce that we had to sell it to health food stores so it wouldn't go to waste.
We designed and built a 20 yurt and hosted a yurt workshop. We designed and constructed a 300 sq. ft. straw cabin and hosted a strawbale workshop. In 1996 another straw workshop added another wing to this cabin.
We added gutters to all our roofs, directing rainwater to several large cisterns. Cistern water was channeled to the spigot and drip irrigation system in the organic garden. Cistern overflow, and overflow from the solar showers, was channeled to the swales above the garden and into the ponds.
We designed, sited and constructed the first two kilowatts of an eventual 5 kW solar electric system to power lights and appliances, intertieing to our local utility grid. We installed solar water heaters on the roof of the Inn. And, yes, we hosted workshops on photovoltaics and solar construction.
Next to the Training Center, we created a one acre living laboratory with students from The Farm School helping to inventory all observable biota. We'll be watching that space as the Center develops, to see how our activities affect it. The goal is to increase biodiversity by the way we integrate our designed habitat into the natural surroundings. If it starts going in the wrong direction, we'll have to redesign.
In 1997 we broke ground on a large constructed wetland to biologically treat the organic wastes produced on site. A earthen visitors center was begun to provide a narrative experience for visitors to the wetlands. Gardens and greenhouses were expanded and extensive agroforestry plans were laid. Animals (poultry and rabbits) were added to the interactive garden exhibits. In 1998 we completed our cob poultry house and redesigned our large strawbale greenhouse.
Between the end of 1994 and the end of 2000, the Training Center hosted several dozen courses, five health conferences, a Native American spiritual gathering, several environmental activist retreats, and numerous tours of school students from around the country. Each year we hosted three 10-day summer camps for young children from homeless shelters and housing projects in Nashville and Memphis and a 2-day Kwanza celebration for 30 underprivileged children.
In 1999 we instructed courses and workshops for individuals from more than 20 countries. We produced our 30-minute video on the Global Ecovillage Network, The Habitat Revolution, and translated it into Spanish. We produced a workshop handbook that sold 60,000 copies. We began partnerships with Gaviotas, Fundación Darién, Institute for Latin American Permaculture, Living Routes, Natures Spirit, Institute for New Frontiers in Cooperation and 7 Generaciones of Uruguay. We harvested more than 3000 lbs of produce and we planted 260 trees to compensate for 625,000 passenger-airmiles traveled by our teaching staff. To keep all the produce we needed through the winter, we constructed a 2000 cubic-foot root cellar.
In 2000 we advanced our biological waste treatment wetlands with the addition of specially adapted bamboo varieties, added an earthbag sauna to our strawbale greenhouse, and began work on our three-story strawbale dry storage building. We added a rooftop deck to our two-story greenhouse on the Inn. We conducted extensive training programs for emerging ecovillages in Antioqueña and Chocoana, Colombia and participated in exhibits at Hannover 2000 Expo in Germany and Images of the World in Copenhagen. The Institute also improved the design of its new, low cost, fuel efficient heating stoves through trials in Native American Nations.
Our present facility provides examples of environmental building techniques, edible landscaping, water conservation, composting, gardening and waste management. Following the coursework at the Center, our trainees receive support in transferring the experience to their communities. Our apprenticeship program earns formal college credit.
We hope to find funding in the future for a subterranean tunnel exhibit below the organic garden, to improve the wetlands technology exhibits, to build a kitchen and dining hall sufficient to serve 30 or more at a sitting, and to improve the nature trails through the surrounding forest.
We successfully raised a budget of $100,000 or more in each of the past three years for the Training Center, but we would like to do much more. We really can put any amount anyone is considering giving us to efficient and effective use immediately.
In our classes, we provide our students with the conceptual and hands-on skills that equip them to become productive workers, innovators, and decisionmakers for the next century. We have developed a wide array of features of sustainable living that infuse even chance visitors with the hope of the possible.
The Institute would like to do more educational outreach to include, as part of regular training courses, organizers and activists working to provide examples of sustainable development. Our concept is to yield a high leverage impact with ongoing effects, year-after-year, as new trainees move through sustainability training and back into their communities. We eventually envision training centers on these lines being replicated in many communities throughout the world. We want to see the ideas we develop spreading to universities, cities, and communities around the planet.