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The One Straw Energy Farm: Virtual Tour

July 5, 2011

Rob Frost maintains the One Straw blog, where he reports on practical efforts to find “personal solutions to the Big Problems of today.” He is establishing an Energy Farm on 20 acres in South Central Wisconsin. Rob laid out his vision for the farm in his Making an Energy Farm post in April. Last week he offered a virtual farm tour, cross-posted here with permission.

Would like to spend some time fleshing out some more of my thoughts on my Energy Farm project.  First off, thanks to a great shot that the owners, Mike and Ellen, where able to take from a small plane (the farm is next to our community airport and they had an open house with plane rides for $25) I can better show the current State of Affairs.   The farm is located within the city limits (though only just) of a town of about 20,000 people and is located on the edge of an industrial area – indeed it is currently zoned industrial and would have potentially become a factory had the owners not saved it from sprawl.  The home has not been lived in by humans for over 15 years – though several generations of racoons have been raised there apparently…  The barn is in fairly good shape, though the roof and foundation need some TLC which is being applied in spades by Mike.

Now for the virtual tour.  Lets start in the bottom right.  This is a very low spot on the farm, the water table is barely 4″ down in the Spring and the trees in the lower right are actually growing in a seasonal pond that is dry by the end of July.  This area is too wet for most crops, and will be a natural frost pocket.  However, with the wooded pond it is rather picturesque and the wet, fertile soils are ideal for willow.  This is the spot that will be the Rainbow Willow Coppice 3 rows of willow on each side of a 10′ wide access/hiking path  which will serve as an aesthetic test of about a dozen different varieties of willow in 2012 – the willows will be planted to showcase the remarkable variety found in willows, starting with red and working its way through oranges, yellows, greens, and ending with violets, giving the hiker the experience of literally walking through a rainbow of willows.  With dozens of specimens of dozens of varieties I will be better able to select for those that thrive on our sight in our microclimate.  The lighter spot is an area about 30 yards long and 3 yards wide that I sheet mulched, but my willow supplier sold out of stock once I was ready and had accumulated the funds.  Next year.

To the left (west) of the willow coppice, you move up about 15′ of elevation to the top of the hill and onto one of the 2 or three flatter spots on the farm.  This is where Mike and Ellen have been gardening for the past several years, with a major expansion this year to a garden of several hundred square feet that is meticulously maintained with beautiful winding paths and full of healthy, bountiful vegetables, herbs, and flowering perennials.  What they have done with their soils in just a few years through good organic stewardship is what I hope to accomplish on the larger plots.  This year they have also planted a not so small orchard with cherries, apples, blue berries, and then they learned how to graft and started 30 more apple trees to be planted out in a year or three.

Sunflower rows – the clay/cob was virtually impossible to create furrows in, so I drove the grillo back and forth using the wheel ruts as furrows which we seeded and then backfilled with the sunflower seeds.

Continuing west you will see the first, large tilled area.  This area is about 15,000 sq ft that we had prepared by a friend of Mike and Ellens who farms a mile or so away.  His 80hp John Deere with its 6′ rototiller made short work of the sod, but the soil was still a bit wet so the thatch, mixed with the clay has turned the plot to a consistency that dries to, well, cob.   My home gardens did the same thing 5 years ago – this too shall pass.  The northern 50′ of this plot is planted to 5000 sunflowers with an understory of crimson clover.  This mix will provide a GORGEOUS scene in August as the 8′ tall sunnies tower over the brilliant red clovers.  It will also provide dozens of pounds of edible seeds, and smother out the endimic weeds- mostly goldenrod, reed canary and quack grass.  Just south of the sunflowers the owners and I planted about 50′ of asparagus in 3 rows.  The rest of the plot is in an oat/crimson clover mix to smother the weeds while building organic matter and nitrogen levels.  This plot will continue in heavy cover crops for a year or more until the weeds are beaten down, with rye/vetch following the current crops.  Once the weeds are done, this will potentially be home to a small CSA, perhaps it could be used as large garden plots for others, and it will likely house the larger field storage crops like squash, potatoes, and corn for the owners and I.

30 squash hills and 18 Amish Paste tomatoes on the left. In Fall this will be converted to a Hoop House. Woot!

Above this plot (north) there is a 60′ x 20′ plot that is in winter squash (30 hills) with canning tomatoes (18) on the very north side of the bed.  This plot was also tilled with the John Deere.  The hills were built with compost and then the entire plot mulched with grass from our biomass gatherer.  This fall, once the squash is done, we will be building a Hoop House similar to the one at our home in the Burbs for Ellen to continue her gardening in throughout the darker months.

To the north and a bit west of this plot is where I will be spending much of the summer – the Biomass Processing Area.   In this section – about 200′ north to south and 50′ east-west – we will be storing and processing the various biomass for the Energy Farm.  The City has agreed to deliver woodchips and leaves to us and we are continuing to prepare the drives to handle their huge equipment.  In the mean time I am working on building up some mid scale composting windrows to make the needed compost for the tilled plots.  Those plots are almost .75 acres total – and covering that with an inch of compost means I need 200 cu yards of compost, which means I need to gather about 500-600 yards.  More on my plans there in the next post which goes into my composting plans in much more detail.

Continuing up the drive to the north, you get to the “Energy Farm”.  This plot is somewhat larger – almost 150′ x 125′ if memory serves and is currently in larger “biomass” cover crop trials – 2 plots, about 30% / 50% of the plot with Pearl Millet and a Sudan/Sorghum hybrid planted in monocultures in each section.  The Millet can reach up to 13′ tall in good conditions and the Sudan Grass can hit 7′ plus and takes mowing well.   Both will smother the “weeds” well and provide me with a better idea of what these crops are capable of as potential candidates for a biomass crop in rotation with the food crops.  At this time we will likely not harvest the grain, though that may change by fall.

To the west of this plot I have planted a 100′ x 20-30′ wide polyculture windbreak of hickory, beach plum, nine bark, serviceberry, and tulip poplar.  I have not watered the transplants at all and the plums are expressing their displeasure by dying in droves.  I bought all the trees as bare rootstock for about $1 each so it isn’t a big loss.  Lost some of the tulip poplars as well, so those are being replaced with some hybrid poplars I bought last week.  If they do well (up to 13′ / yr!) I will take many dozens of cuttings for next year for more windbreaks.

To the North West of the Energy Farm tilled land I am beginning to prepare the ground for what will eventually house the larger hoop houses – first a 12′ x 30′ and then a 48′ x 28′- which will house the methane digesters, worm composters, and various linked biological systems of my age old “S.A.F.E.” center (Sustainable Agriculture Food and Energy) idea that was worked up with much input from the Jefferson County CSE (Community Supported Energy Group) over the past 3 years.

The rest of the farm is a Real Life rendition of Old Field Succession – with aggressive / invasive pioneer grasses and forbs dominating the 15 acres and the property slowly losing elevation as you head to the west where the west property line ends in a drainage ditch.  Shrubs, mostly dogwoods, and some pioneer trees are beginning to colonize the field and there are hundreds of large ant hills – some over 30 sq ft in area.  To better observe the property, and allow for us all to enjoy it more, we are maintaining (ok – we mow a wide path through the field) almost a mile of trails that meander through the various biomes of the property and allow us better access to the wildlife and ecology – we have already found 4 species of snakes- and the usual full gamut of Wisconsin wildlife from turkeys to deer to red tailed hawks, even skunks.  The 15 acres will provide much of the biomass for the composting – our equipment will barely scratch the surface until we get a real tractor, but we will be able to make slow, but deliberate progress on areas we wish to “improve” such as a large willow or poplar coppice, or more trails, and can likely keep up to an acre of the field controlled enough to be used for biomass collection with the mower – which apparently can capture over 5 cu yards of clippings per hour once we fab up a trailer mounted bagger.

In short, we are taking many of the best ideas from my Stimulus Grant proposal from 2009 (that made it to Washington, but no farther ) and starting it out on a smaller scale and much slower pace.   This iteration is having much more focus on carbon sequestering with biomass and less on energy production, at least for now.   Much of that has to do with the captital and regulatory requirements of producing energy, but it also is driven by the state of the soils on property.  We need to put our ideas into the soil, literally, by taking dozens of tons of carbon and getting it into the soil via composts, mulches, and biochars.   And again, none of this would be possible without the incredible generosity and hard work of the farm owners

Stay tuned for the next post on the first steps in that direction!


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