Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Return of the Pissoir?

 Humans, all 7.8 billion of us as of 2020, comprise an outsized portion of the world's mammals. We and our livestock equal roughly twenty times the biomass of all remaining mammals, and are still increasing.


We have become the unlimited apex predator, and consume a huge portion of the annual world photosynthetic productivity. This trend can't continue, but for now, there it is.


Population overshoot and our impact on the world is the start for myriad topics of discussion, but this post is about pee.

Our population trend is only made possible through the energy utilization of fossil fuels. This energy base enables easy access to all the other many resources we consume. Industrial agriculture relies not just on fuel to run tractors and harvest equipment, it is used to create or mine the fertilizers that have enabled the green revolution.

So as we begin the downward glide of fossil energy use, what will agriculture look like? I think it inevitably will slowly return to the closed cycle nutrient scheme that was the way for millions of years.

Currently, agricultural soils are mostly worked to death, and are often treated as a physical matrix for root anchorage, with all plant nutrients supplied annually by the farmer, shipped in from thousands of miles away by truck and pipeline.

As this scheme unwinds, how will we maintain soil fertility as we continue to harvest crops, even if by muscle power?

Human urine is an excellent source of phosphorus and nitrogen. getting it back to the field and garden will need to be central practice of agriculture. Many have heard about the Chinese farmers of forty centuries and their night soil practice ( it wasn't THAT sustainable, there was still soil loss, but it was better than relying on chemicals that won't last forever)

But the general descriptions I've heard don't mention whether they used both the feces and the urine. Organic content is good for building soil, but our urine actually contains most of the nitrogen and phosphorus that we excrete. To separate and target the most impactful nutrients makes a lot of sense.

Which brings us to pissoirs. 


I think we know that as humans built larger and larger cities, the issue of waste build up was poorly dealt with. Disease and a simply unpleasant environment was becoming too much.

One conjures up visions of drunk men staggering home from pubs, stopping to piss on the sidewalk as the urge overcame them. ( What were women to do? We'll leave that question and its various implications right there)

Makes for unpleasant smells. 

Leave it to the city of light to attempt a higher level of civilized behavior and deal with the problem.

Paris began installing pissoirs to solve the problem, but these all drained into the slowly developing sewer system. The concept spread to other European cities, and over time, large cities became a bit more pleasant to saunter in. Now we are all modern, and there are a range of public restroom designs out there. There are even unisex or separate female accommodations!

One of the original pissoirs in Paris

A modern version- but where does it go?

On our little homestead, I have two composting toilet setups, one at the house, and one in the barn. I don't do all my business in them, as the house plumbing is so convenient, but a good share. The one in the barn is a simple lovable loo bucket system as described in "The Humanure Handbook" by Joe Jenkins. 

The one at the house has separation, provided by a special seat modification.


I can say it is amazing how much pee one generates when you actually collect it and see the resulting volume. There are questions on how much to dilute before application, and how to minimize loss of nitrogen from ammonia volatilization, so I'm still looking for the best science based practices.

Anyway, for the vast majority of people, be they urban or suburban, this scheme might be hard or impossible to utilize. Mores the pity.

But I can imagine a future entrepreneur starting a business that collected from neighborhoods and delivers to local farmers to give needed nitrogen and phosphorus inputs, as what else can they do as commercial fertilizers become scarce or very expensive?

Or a new network of pissoirs in dense city centers where the pissoirs are NOT hooked to the city sewers, but to storage tanks that periodically ship off to the farms.

It's hight time to get over the ick factor and close the circle.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

pressing concerns

 This fall, after harvesting hazelnuts, I saved some back to hand husk and shell, to experiment with. I made some nut butter and some homemade "Nutella", but that's another post.

Hazelnut oil is another way to made an added value product, or just one more way to be self reliant instead of buying GMO soybean oil for cooking.

I've known about the hand cranked oil press made by Piteba for a while, but till now, had no justification to buy one. 


I could have bought through Amazon, but Piteba sells direct, and get more of my money.

Some observations/learnings

Piteba makes a product that works, and fabrication quality is ok, but seems like it should go through one more product improvement cycle.

soot, wick length- The little oil lamp heats the area where the nuts get crushed, to reduce viscosity and get better expelling of oil. I tried to make the wick short, but it still got soot all over the barrel. No problem functionally, just messy. Also, the little jar and wick holder have no retaining ring to hold the cover in place- it just lays there. The bottle is threaded, so it's bizarre that they don't include a retaining ring. An accident waiting to happen.

cleaning end cap- The info I read on line cautioned about getting the cap off and cleaned out before it cooled and the retained nut meat hardened. Bullshit- it's hard as soon as you stop, and just has to be soaked in water for several hours to loosen and clean. Plan on it.

end cap settings- for hazels, the cap worked best for me with the nut meal holes set to full open. 

fastening down press- It takes a pretty good force to turn the crank for the hazelnuts I was pressing, and the press will shift and wobble if the hold down bolts are not pretty darn tight. They sell a hold down attachment kit, but I did not buy.

catching the oil- the barrel has a slot cut in in halfway between the end and the fill hopper. Oil flows back toward the slot, and drips out. However, it sometimes moves along the barrel before dripping. Piteba has put a couple bumps on the underside to stop and encourage dripping, but it's still tricky to get under the drips. I may design a collection attachment to improve this.

feed hopper- is too small and is fastened to the barrel with a rubber band. Kind of cheesy.

oil settling- The oil looks pretty cloudy right out of the press, but clears up real nice, just gotta wait.

chopping hazels- I chopped the hazels by hand a bit to help them feed into the screw, but I guess one could pulse them a bit in a food processor. I just don't like those things.

I'm still refining my technique- crank speed, prechop size, etc., but so far am pleased. This is not for large production, but fine for home use. Next is to process the expelled nut meat to get it edible for the chickens( or us!). It's very hard coming out of the press. I will soak in water for a bit to soften up.

The setup- I had already built this frame for clamping to the kitchen table for my grain mill, bolts can be seen at the other end. Just drilled and countersunk a couple more holes on this end, and ready to go. Press needs a pretty sturdy support- don't think you can just quick clamp it to the edge of a card table.

View of the heating lamp and the receiving bottle. Note the soot on the barrel. It is hard to find a bottle the right size to fit and catch the oil dripping, these spice bottles we had saved were just right. Only a little missed the opening.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Involucres and obtaining a yield

 I just finished harvesting the hazelnuts this fall, and so will share how that went.

The first planting was in 2012, but we weren't living here yet, and when the drought happened that year, we could not figure out irrigation. Nearly every single seedling died back to the root, but most came back next year. So they are tough, but had a big setback. They are native to the region, and normally rainfall is adequate, but a drought year is tough on brand new seedlings that had not had time to set roots well.

Care has been minimal. They have received no fertilizer or water, and were planted directly into untilled pasture.

 I do mow next to each row to reduce the competition a bit from grass and other annuals the first couple years, but now that they are larger, I just mow to make access easy and stop woody plants from migrating over from the woods. The ash, prickly ash, box elder, wild grape, sumac, and briars have plenty of room to play elsewhere. 

These plants were from Mark Shepard's nursery, so they are from his best plants, but were neither controlled cross nor propagated, so the genetics are only roughly predictable. The variation in plant shape and productivity is large. Many plants have no nuts at all yet, and some are prodigious. Overall, it's a chore to hand harvest

Without the initial setback, and more intensive management, they would be in full production by now, but are still ramping up. That's ok, I am intentionally trying to see how this food crop will do with as little fossil fuel input as possible.

Here are two typical plant shapes with decent nut production. Note that there are a lot of nuts under leaves that you can't see.

Taller, more tree like, nuts scattered along the stems.

shorter, bush like, nuts mostly at the top. That's goldenrod in the row, blooming. The bushes will eventually shade them out more completely.

I used harvest bags similar to this:

and nearly  filled two bins (45" x 48" x 30", 1140mm x 1220mm x 760mm)  like this:

I kept back a few pails worth for hand processing and making home made hazelnut chocolate spread, but most went on to Mark, who has been developing farm scale mechanized processing equipment.

Which brings us to involucres. This particular nut is mostly enclosed by a fleshy covering that wraps around the nut, and slowly releases as the nut matures and starts drying. They are basically a type of husk. I guess it is some sort of evolutionary adaptation to give a bit more protection from insects to the nut?

Since I harvest when the involucres are still a bit green, the nuts don't pop right out easily. If I waited longer, many of the nuts would release and fall to the ground, greatly reducing harvest efficiency. So after the nuts dry a while in our sunroom, I remove husks by hand, which is time consuming. All the time I'm husking, I'm thinking there must be a way to mechanize at even smaller scale than currently being worked on. Like a household gadget similar to a grain mill. Maybe a good winter project for the workshop.

Permaculture design principle #3 is obtain a yield. That struck me as funny the first time I read it, seems obvious, but it does point out that as a food system, at the end of the day, calories out have to be more than calories in, or the arrangement won't continue. All the hand work I presently do is exploration, but at some point, I will need to tot up both sides of the ledger and see how well I can do as I scale up.

The hazelnut spread is quite good, and no palm oil!

Friday, July 31, 2020

wheat from our garden

A long delayed post:

To start, I am terrible at photo documentation of progress here. Didn't get any shots of the wheat before harvest, or the piles of wheat in racks, drying before threshing.

In fall of 2018, we planted red winter wheat in a section of our garden. I checked on planting densities, weighed out the portion required, and then hand sowed it as best I could.

The stand turned out quite well, crowding out weeds, healthy all through the summer, and dried well, no disease or lodging.

What did not turn out so well was the scything. I had taken an intro class on scything two years ago, but failed to put in the hours to refine my technique. I also studied various simple cradle attachments that others had come up with, and picked a simple one to do.

This fellow's technique and attention to detail on his cradle is worth viewing, and I may try this same design again, just doing it better.

I ended lip using a sickle to harvest about half of the wheat since I was making such a mess of the scything. Using a sickle is slower, and you have to bend over a lot, but wasn't that bad for the small area I was working with. Would't want to feed the village that way......

Getting the fanning mill screens and settings right was tough, and the thresher I made following another concept found on line did not work as well as I had hoped.

Nevertheless, I did end up with a nice quantity of grain, it just still has a bit of retained hulls I need to remove. I have two five gallon buckets (roughly 30 kilograms) of wheat berries, and will grind as needed.

So, this year I decided to give oats a try. Things got worse.

Winter wheat at my latitude is planted in the fall in prepared soil, sprouts and grows a while (timing of sowing is important) and goes dormant in winter. In spring, it restarts, getting a good jump on many of the typical warmth loving weeds. A good stand will crowd out weeds, and make it easier to harvest.

Oats do not overwinter, and are planted in the spring. My hand sowing is not perfect, and the oats did not get a head start on the weeds, so the stand was spotty and had lots of weeds. Luckily, I planted a much smaller area, so the loss was not as bad. I also chose a hull less variety, so maybe it is not as vigorous? I don't know.

But......I finally took more photos.

Here is the thresher I built. When the lid is closed, the shaft spins the wooden beaters, and grain is fed in through the little windows one handful at a time. I also built a bike powered attachment, but then you need two people to thresh, and it gets TIRING.

Here is where I "borrowed" this idea.

Here are some to the oats, bound and dried.

Traditionally, grains are stacked in shocks, and left in the field to finish drying. Stacking properly is a fiddly thing, and I did not have that much, so I put mine on racks and sun dried out next to the barn. If rain was forecast, I moved back in the barn till sun returned.

I found that the hulless oats were generally hulless, but again, a percentage did not release from their outer husks, so I have some more processing to tinker with.

In general, I have been making our farm into a perennial based food system, but boy I sure like grains. I also like the long term storage properties of grain. These will continue to be small, side ventures, I'm trying barley next.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Toilet paper guilt

Recently, I read another article bemoaning the vast tracts of Canadian temperate forests being cut down and pulped to wipe our soft American bums.

This is not a new issue, and I have read similar articles in the past. Not much has changed.

We buy the recycle stuff most of the time, for added cost, but is there another way? How do people clean their anus in other countries? How did people do it here in the U.S. before mass consumer products started rolling out?

A quick visit to wikipedia and we find that toilet paper was actually first used in China in the 14th century. One more time we find that Western countries had a lot of catching up to do. But, I imagine the paper was mostly used in  the royal courts and wealthy homes.

More perusal of the wikipedia shows that people will use just about anything. The list is crazy. I guess if I could find some substitute that was effective and comfortable ( and with less impact to the environment), I'd be wiling to try it.

Last year, When we harvested our sweet corn from the garden, I saved some husks, and actually sorted through them finding mid layer husks that were softer that outer husks, but still large enough to be usable. I then flattened them and used sissors to cut them in to squares. They are still sitting in a box in my workshop................

But back to that guilt thing. I guess for me, and maybe many others, it's not so much guilty feelings, but rather a feeling of unease.

Update Apr 7, 2020:

I started this post months ago, and just left it in my draft folder, as it didn't feel finished, and it was goofy topic anyway. WHO KNEW!

With the current pandemic, we've now had TP hoarding, shortages, and articles on various alternatives to the current first world use of virgin tree fibers. While we try to use recycled TP, it is still a cost, and I wonder how much better it really is.

For, now should it come to it, Guess we may switch to "family cloths". Maybe in combination with a bidet? Since I already use a composting toilet, managing the ick factor is minor.

Anyway, the guilt is still there, because why haven't I switched already?

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

quick note on climate control

It is now late winter here, and the sun is gaining strength, climbing higher in the sky, and days are getting longer.

BUT, it is still winter, snow is still on the ground, and the average March will still get 7 inches ( 180mm) of snow in our region.

We are fortunate to have a large sunroom along the south face of our house, gaining warmth, and a good place to start garden seeds. 

When we have sunny days, and when it is warm enough in the sunroom, we open the sliding door, and let warm air enter to replace burning wood for the day.

How to know when it is warmer in the sunroom than the house? I have a very sensitive temperature differential sensor, and when it signals good conditions, we open the door, and monitor the sensor to know when to close the door in the late afternoon.

It's a bit low tech. I taped a small length of black thread to the top of the door jamb, and if the thread starts being blown in to the house, I know that warm are is moving in to the house in the upper half of the doorway, and relatively cooler air is flowing from the house out in to the sunroom in the lower half of the doorway. When the thread is no longer moving, or even showing flow out in to the sun room, it's time to close the door.

Yay for the buoyancy of warm air.

hopefully you can see the thread in this shot, showing warm air entering the house.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The life of a tarp

A tarp is a handy thing when you want to keep something dry, but don't have an industrial sized warehouse in the back yard. Now that we are hobby farming/homesteading, we have acquired some "stuff".  Some of it won't or shouldn't fit in the pole shed, and some of it is just temporary. We also heat with wood, and it should be kept dry to make the most of it. If I've split more wood than will fit in my storage sheds, I tarp it. (time build another wood shed!)

While it's not that green to go buying things made of plastic, I"m not a purist, and will buy things made of plastic when the need outweighs my desire to consume less.

There are actually several life stages of a tarp. Tarp in its initial setting sits on a shelf in a home improvement or hardware store. They used to be only blue, but now come in several colors.  Once purchased by the typical home improver, they might be used for about anything. They come in light duty, medium duty, heavy duty, trucker industrial duty, good old canvas, and even one called recreational. I have never had a recreational tarp, but suspect they are pretty flimsy, more for casual frippery and nothing serious.

While it depends on the application, I generally buy a medium duty, trying to go for the eternal compromise between short term and long term economics.

When a tarp is put to its first use, it is pretty much waterproof, and I use them for covering things that need the best protection, or that probably really should be stored inside. But after a few months, or a season, the wind and sun takes its toll. They begin to wear, and you can see wrinkles, light streaks of discoloration, and maybe even the beginnings of light showing through in pinholes. They are still pretty good, but might be leaking a bit, so moved down the hierarchy to slightly less demanding duty.

This new tarp is protecting a new electrical wood splitter we just bought. The splitter will get its own post later.

This tarp is protecting our grill/smoker. It's a bit older. but still in good shape.

Another season or two, and now they definitely leak, but only in areas, and most of the surface does deflect rain. Can still be used for things that can stand a bit of water. Maybe used for temporary coverage, maybe to cover a tiller or brush mower that ran out of gas before getting to the shed. Or covering a load in the pickup truck on a trip that threatens rain.

After another year or two, it is definitely tattered, and you wouldn't want to count on it for shelter in a rain. By this time, it is good for gathering leaves to drag to the mulch pile, or to catch wood chips shooting out of a chipper, but not much else. It can be in this stage for a couple years, if stored when not being used.

Once large tears have developed, it's pretty much useless, and time for the trash. They are effectively unrecycleable here.

Recycling has always been a bit of a conscience salve anyway, rather than a true implementation of a circular economy, but it has become even less effective since China stopped taking our poorly sorted detritus last year. I suspect much of it is going in to landfills now, but reducing plastic use can be hard to do completely.

I'm ready to try the used old billboard tarps next time I need new tarp. While they don't recycle either, at least I'm repurposing some plastic. Until I can figure out a better, more sustainable way, I will use tarps for temporary wether protection, and just use them for as long as I can.