Monday, September 13, 2021


 Wow, time has flown this summer. I won't try to recap, but for now will just mention that we finished harvesting this year's hazelnuts.

Our hazelnuts are hybrids, and some plants have bushlike genetics, and some have more treelike genetics, and they all ripen at different times, and have different sized nuts. As the outer husk, or involucre starts drying and separating from the nut, you only have a short amount of time to pick the nuts directly from the bush. Once the nuts fall to the ground, collection is very tedious, and probably a net loss of calories.

So once "most" of the nuts are ripe enough, we pick them all, and let them finish drying in bins in the barn. Once they have finished drying, dehusking is much easier. They can then be stored for shelling later.

Each year, as the plants come more in to full growth and production, the yield has increased where it is real work to get them all picked before they fully dry and fall to the ground. Most will be sold, or traded as barter, but I'm saving back a good portion to eat and experiment with various recipes.

I'm bad at photographing progress, but here in the back of the truck is one of the harvest bins half full. We eventually harvested about three binfulls of nuts.

Friday, May 28, 2021

finger pointing

This article is just one of many I could have linked that describe the litigation, protest, and anger aimed at fossil fuel companies. The number of people around the world that are becoming aware of and concerned about global warming grows continuously, but full awareness is sadly lagging.

Oil companies would collapse into bankruptcy if there was no demand for their products. We the consumers are the other partner in this dead end pillage and waste of the planet's resources. Until we acknowledge our own complicity and truly make the changes needed, this era will continue ineffective and misguided confrontation theater.

I fully realize that the changes required are massive and painful, but we live on a finite planet. It's not an if, but a when the party will end. It would be preferable to wind down in an organized, methodical fashion than through chaos.  And I admit how far I have to go to change. All I can do is work on it one step at a time, and not waste time looking for scapegoats.

And while I'm at it, can we all quit fixating on climate change? It's a terrible thing we've wrought, but it's a SYMPTOM. I think I understand why the environmental movement decided to focus on climate change, but now wonder if it was a strategic mistake? There was probably no good way to tell people they have to scale back and live a much less convenient life.

The real issue is overconsumption, and climate is one of the many side effects of our population overshoot and lifestyles. If we somehow figured out how to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere from some Deus ex machina technology, we'd still be screwed by all the other impacts and depletion that are unwinding at the same time.

Won't be that long till they all look like this. What then?

Oil companies have been defensive and even deceitful, but they are protecting their interest as we all have been doing by denying our part in this.  So stop blaming oil companies and look inward.

Ok, end of rant. (too much coffee).

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Gardening Sheds on fire

 I have been slowly gathering materials for a garden shed.( turns out TOO slowly! material prices have gone nuts due to pandemic caused disruptions in supply and demand)

Design decisions have prioritized local materials, and attempts to be more sustainable. A nearby friend has his own sawmill, making lumber from pines that were on his land. I bought most of the framing lumber I needed from him.

The roof will be steel, bought from a local Amish business. The steel coils aren't actually made there, but they fabricate the roofing panels there. All without electricity.

Here is the real experiment though, something I had never heard of till recently, and why I titled the post like I did.

There is a technique of siding preservation that involves charring the surface. This layer of charred wood minimizes rot and sun weathering, since fungus cannot break down this form of carbon, and leads to very long lifetimes for the wood. 

This technique is becoming all the rage recently, and was first widely used in Japan. Thus it's name(s).

Will post later on  how it goes.

Monday, March 29, 2021

storing eggs long term

 We've been keeping a flock of laying hens for a few years now, and are used to the annual up and down cycle of egg production. In late fall, as molting happens, and as hours of daylight lessen, we get fewer eggs. And since some of the hens are getting on in years, the falloff can be rather dramatic. 

Today, late March, they are back in good production, and laying more eggs than the two of us can eat. In the past, we would sell or barter some, but that has been more random this year, so I started thinking about ways to store and even out our egg supply through the year. 

I remember reading about pioneers heading out across the plains with eggs in barrels full of lard or waterglass ( sodium silicate), but both those ideas sounded rather messy and uncertain.

I searched various homesteading and prepping websites, and settled on using pickling lime ( calcium hydroxide) solution. Eggs need to be unwashed and fresh from the hens, and clean. The source I used says use a ratio of an ounce of pickling lime to a quart of water, and make sure eggs are fully submerged.

I have no idea by what mechanism this is supposed to work, so this is definitely an experiment.

While the solubility in water is not that great, it does enough that the resulting solution has a pH of over 12. We will store away a few dozen now, and try them out next winter, to see how well this works. I'll do a post then to report how well the technique works.

Here is the solution right after mixing and pouring over the eggs:

And here is the solution after much has settled out:

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

descent engineering part two

Back in April of 2017, I posted some thoughts on what the engineering discipline should try to consider for design criteria as we approach the end of the fossil fuel era. What I did not do, was list any of the things that the engineering disciplines should first figure out how to redesign.

There is an uncertain amount of time till we get severe energy constraints on making infrastructure choices.  It would be best to work over those things that are most critical to reducing the shock to society as our lifestyles change. We actually always have constraints on what is feasible, the ever-present gap between wants and needs.

We will be entering a phase where the balance between effort and return will be a marked change from what we've done the last two hundred years or so. Instead of the enormous energy source of fossil fuels, we'll be back to muscle, wind, water for power, and easy to mine materials will have been already harvested. So one would REALLY need something badly to marshal the effort and resources to create or maintain infrastructure.

Just a wild guess here, but we will probably have a century or two where engineering will be relevant and a potential aid to soften the descent.

In fact, the very profession of engineering may eventually become obsolete. At some point, craftsmanship and being limited to simple infrastructure will result that we won't need calculus or stress analysis. The odd cathedral or bridge would be made from stone and wood, and maybe one or two engineers. It'a actually amazing to see some of the structures that were designed without the aid of calculus and engineering as we know it today.

I read this account of the large dome built in Florence, Italy, and recommend it for the story as well as the example of significant structures that did not need engineers as we understand them today.

This architect's blog entry has the short version in the first ten or so paragraphs:

I'll point out that they did it without fossil fuels and modern equipment, but it took generations to do, in addition to the devout faith based persistence required to complete something of this magnitude. What might our descendants deem justified to build at this level of effort and duration? 

So here are a few design problems that might be called engineering problems.

1. redesign concrete. They say the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Concrete as made today will only last from 25-100 years. It takes huge amounts of energy to produce, and all the millions of tons we have built with it so far will need to be replaced if we want to maintain  our current arrangements, and much of it its coming to the end of its life. Time to stop making things from concrete. ( and believe it or not, we are running out of sand!)

Maybe engineers need to come up with a design method that replaces concrete with stone, or other natural materials, and begins creating standard designs for all the critical infrastructure we feel needs to be maintained. Even if they can't be rebuilt now, the designs will be there, "shovel ready". One would hope that modern stress analysis could make these designs more efficient than similar structures from the past that were made of stone.

2. Water. Again, many impressive canal and irrigation systems were built in the past without fossil energy or engineers, but designing new canals and water distribution for the locations which now rely on pumped water would be a key need. Another side result is that some cities or areas will be assessed and come up short on low energy input water options, and should be abandoned. In addition to water distribution, low tech ways to assure grew free water will need to be reinstitute. No more chlorine injection or pumps and motorized clarifiers to treat incoming water. 

Changing weather patterns will make this tricky to predict, but also making water management all the more important.

3. transportation- add more canals, reopen old abandoned canals, and redesign roads. Roman roads lasted ( and some still last) hundreds of years, because they were built to last. Copying Roman designs won't work for the many places that get freeze thaw cycles, plus, we have much heavier loads than the horse traffic of Roman times, so coming up with designs that don't use concrete or asphalt, and will last centuries would be useful for the key routes that will justify such effort.

4. Energy- Biogas, pyrolysis gas, oils, various ways to make electricity or generate mechanical work from organic materials exist, but need more design work to become more efficient, and to scale up to an appropriate level. Work has been done to burn pyrolysis gas and oils in turbines, but turbines have been optimized for methane, other fossil fuels, and need redesign for bio materials. I'm thinking that steam power could persist for quite a long time, and direct mechanical wind energy conversion will return as well. These could both benefit from the engineering analysis that has been done to make them more durable and efficient than their ancestors.

5. It's more of a question of political will, but transportation in general, especially shipping trade goods will need a return to simpler, low energy methods. 

So much of current engineering knowledge is bound up in, and caters to the high energy, complex technology society we live in. Once one starts thinking about what could persist without the initial foundation of plentiful energy, the house of cards looks pretty shaky. It also makes much engineering expertise a bit irrelevant in a low energy future.

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.