Solar Cooking at Living Energy Farm

Pamphlet for orchard workshops.
Perrennial Food, Easy and Reliable Methods for Growing and Propagating Fruits and Nuts


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Barnraising at Living Energy Farm




Processing Seeds at Living Energy Farm






A workparty breaking for lunch

Do You Want To Be An Intern?

Living Energy Farm is an intentional community, organic farm, and environmental education center in Louisa, Virginia that is off the grid and uses no fossil fuels. Our mission is to show that, through cooperation and community, a comfortable and fulfilling life is possible without dependence on the corporate energy grid and industrial food system. We are seeking farm interns for the 2017 growing season, which lasts from May to October. We cultivate about 4 acres of mixed vegetables and grains. Our farm grows food for the community, as well as seeds and produce which we sell wholesale. Our customers are seed companies including Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Fedco Seeds, and local food markets in Louisa and Richmond.

Interns pitch in 35-40 hours of work per week on the farm and as needed throughout the community. We get together each morning over breakfast and decide on the work to be done that day. The work is mostly planting, irrigation and cultivation in May and June, and harvesting and processing July through October. In addition to learning about organic farming and seed saving, interns have the opportunity to learn about renewable energy systems, food processing and preservation, orchard maintenance, construction and basic woodworking. Internships are usually generalized, with interns working on a little of everything; but they may be more focused if an intern would like to learn a particular skill. We share cooking and cleaning duties, and all meals are eaten together as a community. We provide housing in a private room or shared cabin, depending on availability. We also provide a stipend of $80 per month. Higher stipends may be negotiated for interns who can commit to a full season. No farm experience is necessary to apply. What is necessary is a sense of adventure, willingness to work hard, love for community and enthusiasm for living without fossil fuels.

To apply, contact us at livingenergyfarm@gmail.com or call or text 540-205-9815. We do not have e-mail access on the farm and e-mails are checked once a week, so call if you would like a faster response. If you are considering a season long internship, we suggest you come out to the farm and visit for a day before making a commitment. If this is not possible, we can do a phone interview.


Living Energy Farm

Mission statement

The Living Energy Farm is a project to build a community, education center, and farm that demonstrates that a fulfilling life is possible without the use of any fossil fuel. Our mission is to serve as an example and actively promote lifestyles and technologies that are truly sustainable, and to make these sustainable technologies accessible to all persons regardless of their income or social position.


Why We Do What We Do

Living Energy Farm is a community of people who support themselves without the use of fossil fuel. Our project has been built at modest cost so it can be replicated around the world. Living Energy Farm (LEF) is a fully operational farm and community, not just an idea. LEF empowers us to dramatically reduce our dependence on the corporate economy, and it represents a viable solution to climate change.

By employing renewable energy at the community level, we can both radically reduce our need for energy and compensate for the intermittent nature of wind and solar. At LEF, cooperation is by far our most important “technology.” We live with the rhythms of nature instead of defying them, and we enjoy doing so. With community-scale renewable energy, we can enjoy a level of comfort similar to what people are accustomed to in the industrial age, and we can support ourselves financially, all without using fossil fuels!


Electricity Use and Production

Off-grid houses normally rely on photovoltaic electricity (PV) and use large sets of lead-acid batteries which are toxic, explosive, and short-lived. That design is expensive, both financially and environmentally, and not practical on any larger scale. At LEF, we do not have lead-acid batteries, inverters, or AC outlets because such outlets are too easily treated as free energy, and encourage use of electricity beyond our energy budget. A lot of off-grid designs fail when the users plug in too many gadgets.

At LEF, we use electricity in two ways. Our high voltage (180 volt) PV rack supports “direct drive” equipment. That means a wire runs from the PV panels to the motors directly. No batteries are necessary, no fancy electronics, no computerized controllers or thermostats, nothing but DC motors tied directly to the PV panel. The design of the DC brush motors has not changed since the 1800s. With direct drive, sun comes up, motors run. Sun goes down, motors stop. It’s that simple.

What makes our direct drive economy so efficient is that we store energy in forms other than electricity. We have slightly larger than normal water storage tanks. We have a DC well pump, not an AC pump, wired to our 180 volt PV rack. (Sun Pumps, Robison, and Grundfos, and Lorentz are the companies with high-quality DC pumps.) Once or twice a day, we turn a small timer and charge the storage tanks. The pressure does fluctuate, and we have pay attention to what we are doing relative to the weather. (We currently use a centrifugal pump. A helical rotor pump would likely provide better service if the use were purely residential.) That being said, we have all the water we need for domestic use and agricultural irrigation needs. There is certainly some embedded energy cost in making the equipment we use, but once installed we can use that equipment as much as we want without creating any pollution whatsoever.

We have homemade, cheap, solar hot air collectors on the roofs of our kitchen and the main house. (The kitchen is separate from the main house in southern dog-trot tradition, thus keeping the heat out of the house when we are cooking and canning in summer). We have 180 volt direct-drive blowers that pull heat off of these hot air collectors and pass through coarse rock under the house and the kitchen. Again, the blowers simply come on and go off with the sun. “Normal” solar heat storage has historically involved bizarrely complex systems using storage tanks, rock beds, and all manner of computerized controllers and pumps. We skip all that. The high-tech storage medium under the floor at LEF is dirt.

In the summer, the irrigation water headed to the fields passes through the house first, sucking the heat out of the house on its way. Presto: free air conditioning. This, again, is something that only works on a village level.

Our 180 volt solar rack also powers any mechanical devices we need. These include a grinder that grinds our grains into flour, as well as all manner of woodworking and metalworking machines. We can run any of the woodworking or metalworking equipment you would find in a woodshop or machine shop with our 180 volt DC motors.

Our backup fuel for cooking, space heating, and hot water is firewood. We use very little firewood compared to other “homesteaders,” but we do use some. We collect dead wood, and cut it with manual cross-cut saws in the forest to get it small enough to haul home. (That’s quick and easy.) Then we have a 180 volt DC buzz saw (buck saw) that efficiently cuts the wood into stove lengths. The saw is as fast, and less dangerous, than a chainsaw. And it runs on sunshine, direct-drive, no batteries, no fancy electronics. We use so little firewood that our heating systems would be practical in most urban or semi-urban areas where firewood is scarce.

In addition to our high voltage direct drive PV system, we have a 12 volt system which charges our small battery bank for lighting and charging cell phones. Instead of conventional lead-acid batteries, this system uses nickel-iron (NiFe) batteries. NiFes have an interesting history. We have a battery from an old miner’s lamp that is many decades old. It was made by Thomas Edison’s company and has his signature right on the side of it. The amazing thing about this ancient relic is that it still works! NiFe batteries last a long, long time. To our knowledge, they are the only battery technology ever developed that does not degrade with each charge cycle. Lead-acid batteries are delicate compared to NiFes. Lead-acid batteries are damaged by too much discharge of current. With NiFes, you can discharge them all you want and not hurt them.

NiFes were in heavy use in industry 50 years ago. If they are so good, why are they not used more? NiFes are large, heavy, and expensive relative to their power output. They are the opposite of a cell phone battery in every way. The modern power-hungry world has opted for short-lived, high-output, compact batteries instead.

For lighting we use DC LEDs, which are tremendously efficient. It takes two three-watt bulbs (six watts!) to light a room well enough to read the fine print in a book in the evening. The DC LEDs we use are, like the DC motors, tolerant of voltage variation. We charge cell phones and other devices directly off the battery using DC power, instead of using an inverter. These systems are so efficient that even with a tiny PV array we have more power than we need. We have found that we can support the lighting needs and cell phone desires of a dozen or more people with less than 300 watts PV input and NiFe batteries.

Farm Traction and Transportation

We have had draft animals before, and may again in order to assess their sustainability. Draft animals are much better from a self-sufficiency standpoint, as they can eat grass and regenerate themselves. But from a global sustainability standpoint, small tractors (in addition to hand work) are probably more sustainable than draft animals. Humans and our domestic animals now comprise a stunning 96 percent of the terrestrial zoomass (total weight of animals) on the planet Earth. Of everything we do, keeping so many ruminants makes them the largest single contributor to both species extinction and greenhouse gases. (This is also why our diet is primarily focused around plant foods.) Even though draft animals are clearly much less industrial than a small tractor, the tractor may be more sustainable in a world of 7.5 billion people.

So to plow our fields, we use a woodgas tractor. Woodgas was the technology that kept Europe from starving during World War II. When Europe was cut off from fossil fuel in the war, much of the agricultural equipment was switched to woodgas. It is a complex and fussy process compared to other biofuels, but the feedstock (woodchips) does not compete with poor people’s food as is the case of biodiesel and ethanol. Woodgas is made easier by the fact that thousands of people are using it, there are email lists for information, and several companies are making equipment. We use woodgas on the farm only, not to power over-the-road vehicles. There is no biofuel that can power the American fleet of cars and trucks sustainably, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Attempting to drive the way we currently do on woodgas would quickly deforest the country (again).

This is why LEF has no cars or trucks. We have structured our lives so that we don't need them, at least not on a daily basis. We work on the farm and don't commute to a job. We get around locally by bicycle or use a local bus system. When necessary, we reach out to friends and neighbors for carpooling opportunities. Far from being isolating, not having a car forces us to get to know our neighbors better.


Cooking and Food Processing

Finding sustainable and pleasant ways to cook food has been our biggest challenge. Currently we use both solar ovens and solar parabolic cookers. The parabolic cookers are less well-known, but quite effective. They cook better in sub-optimal conditions. Numerous companies make models for sale, and they are not hard to build. Solar ovens can be purchased or homemade, but they need to be well designed to work.

When there is not enough sunshine, we use a number of different wood cookers. Rocket stoves are the most efficient, though as with solar ovens, good design matters. (Stovetecs are great.) We have a little oven called a Butterfly that sits on top of any woodstove. It works okay. We have an Amish-made wood-fired canner that works great. It allows us to can a lot of food very quickly and efficiently in late summer. (Made by D.S. Machine in Pennsylvania; no website.)

We grow a lot of our own food. Some of our seed crops (like peppers) supply both food and seeds at the same time. We grow a lot of vegetables, and we are expanding our production of staple foods. We also grow naturally disease-resistant fruit and nut trees. Trees are one of the most resilient forms of agriculture because they have such enormous root systems. Tree foods also represent a zero soil erosion form of agriculture. We have done a lot of work to figure out which tree foods work well.

Growing all that food means we need to preserve some of it. The solar heating system for the kitchen doubles as industrial-scale food dryer (more systems integration that is only possible in a village). We simply divert the air that would normally be forced under the floor through a closet around the blower. The air is heated with sunshine and blown about with 180 V DC power. We can stack many layers of food-drying screens in the closet around the blower. We can dry large volumes of food quickly and efficiently, and with zero emissions!

To process food for drying or canning quickly and uniformly, we have a hand-crank commercial grade slicer/ grater (Nemco brand) that will slash through a pile of vegetables or fruits in a matter of minutes. We have also invested in a good grain grinder (Grainmaker) that works well, either hand-cranked or 180 volt DC powered.


Water and Washing

We have composting toilets. They are a standard two-chamber design that allows one side to compost while the other side is being used. This also means we don't need flush toilets, which cuts down on water use.

We have a number of pumps other than the modern, efficient, effective black-box submersible that sits in the bottom of our well. There are a number of “positive displacement” pumps that can run well at low speed (centrifugal pumps cannot). We have some piston pumps. They are mostly ancient. They can be easily repaired and rebuilt. They work fine with variable power input, or can even be operated by hand. There are a number of modern “positive displacement” pumps, any of which would work with variable power inputs. The submersibles are by far the most reliable while in operation, but are not repairable.


What We Want To Do Better

The technologies we are currently working to improve mostly revolve around improving our cooking and food handling. We had a biogas digester in operation, but we are not developing it further. We are currently working on a solar boiler that would allow us to store solar-generated steam for cooking. If the solar boiler can be built cheaply and works well, it's overall footprint would be less than a biogas generator. Biogas is the same thing as natural gas which is the same thing as methane. By whichever name, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Building thousands or millions of small, leaky methane generators all over the world may not be a good idea. We will in the coming months work to figure out the optimal mix of cooking technologies.

An organization called STEVENS developed a solar ammonia ice-maker that we hope to build as well. That would allow us to create a cheap solar refrigerator for food. Unfortunately, that technology is the opposite of woodgas in terms of support. We are on our own with that one. Wish us luck.


Self-Sufficiency Versus Sustainability

In talking to people about LEF, we have realized that there is a great deal of confusion about self-sufficiency versus sustainability. Most people lump the two together and assume they are the same. They are not. Self-sufficiency seeks to answer the question “how can my family and I live with a minimum of industrial-world dependencies.” Self-sufficiency pushes people toward independent homesteads, log cabins, biodeisel, milking cattle and goats. Sustainability asks a different question, which is “how can we ALL live sustainably.” The answers are very different.

Biofuels starkly differentiate between self-sufficiency and sustainability. Biodiesel and ethanol became favored fuels in the early 2000s. Like grid-tie solar, the idea that we can solve environmental problems by increasing the supply of renewable energy is very popular. From a sustainability standpoint, that approach is disastrous. The recent biodiesel revival was propelled in part by some young enthusiasts who traveled around the county in biodiesel buses. Such actions were taken assuming that if energy comes from a biological source, it must be “renewable.” The problem is that, from a sustainability standpoint, renewable energy sources are nowhere close to keeping up with the voracious demand of modern industrial society. The early phases of industrialization were powered with wood as wood was easier to get and burns cleaner than coal. As a result, Europe was deforested by the early 1600s. The U.S. was, apart from remote regions, largely deforested by the mid 1800s. Both Europeans and Americans converted to fossil fuel because they had to as wood and water power could not keep pace with industrial expansion. (For an excellent view of this history, see Richard Wilkinson, Poverty and Progress.)

In the current economy, if one were to take all of the photosynthetic products growing wild and domestically for a single year -- every leaf on every tree, every blade of grass, and kernel of grain -- and burn it, we would still be 25 percent short of how much energy we use. (And very hungry!) Several people have books on the subject of supply of renewable energy versus the demands of industrialism, including Ozzie Zehner, (Green Illusions), Ted Trainer, (Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society), and Alexis Zeigler, (Integrated Activism).The reader is encouraged to reference those books for a more detailed look at the subject.

These facts of energy consumption are very basic and well known to anyone who studies these issues, but our society systematically ignores its own ecological history. As a result, trying to clearly and honestly address the implications of our societal choices is all but impossible in even the most enlightened circles. The price of relentless economic growth is all too clear. In the last two generations, the indoor residential space per capita has tripled while the commercial square footage per capita has grown ten fold. Almost all of that massive addition of indoor space is poorly insulated and ignores solar features. Trying to keep such massive multiplications of indoor space habitable with grid-tie solar electric power or other “renewable” energy sources is physically impossible, and politically popular because it makes people feel better. But any discussion of renewable energy or sustainability in the U.S. is forced to operate within the paradigm of growth, even though such relentless economic growth is clearly and obviously unsustainable at its core. The environmental movement has painted this elephant in the living room a pale shade of green by focusing relentlessly on renewable energy production. Thus we have a large and growing movement toward grid-tie PV power, windmills, grass-fed beef, hybrid cars, and other “renewable” energy technologies that cannot and do not reduce the overall environmental footprint of relentless residential and commercial growth in a consumer society. The confusion between self-sufficiency and sustainability facilitates the convenient confusion that allows us to seek personal solutions that are not viable by any means on the larger scale.

Regardless of blithe assumptions to the contrary, consumerism is not driven by “human nature.” We all seek social acceptance from out peers. In our stratified society, that translates into millions upon millions of people trying to imitate the lifestyle of the wealthy, because they are the ones whom we are taught to respect. People all over the world live in many different kinds of housing. Centuries ago in our own history, the cobb cottages of European peasants were warmer than the spacious stone and wooden palaces of the wealthy princes. But everyone wants to look like they are rich. So we have imitated the palaces of the wealthy, building hundreds of millions of spacious single family homes, at a huge environmental cost.


What Works What Does Not: The Strengths (and Weaknesses) of Renewable Energy

What makes our systems at LEF so efficient is that we work with the strengths of renewable energy rather than trying to force renewable energy to act like fossil energy. It's true that life at LEF doesn't look exactly like a middle class lifestyle, but we meet the needs and desires of a modern life in more creative ways. For example, a wood fired rocket stove creates a lot of heat at once. Instead of using electric kettles or coffee makers, we heat extra water on the rocket stove and store it in thermoses so we can have tea or coffee whenever we want. Instead of an electric rice maker, we boil rice and water on the rocket stove and put it in a hay box (retained heat cooker, or insulated box) which cooks it to perfection every time.

We don't have any refrigeration currently (except in winter, of course). We have a root cellar, but this doesn't stay all that cool in the summer, mostly we adjust our lifestyle to go without refrigeration. We plan for no leftovers or eat them promptly, we don't eat much meat or dairy, we harvest veggies out of the garden right before we use them, we learn what really needs refrigeration and what doesn't (fruit, peanut butter, and eggs don't really need refrigeration). In the long term we'd like to build a solar-powered icemaker and have an old-fashioned icebox. But we will never have large refrigerated spaces or freezers.

With the connectivity expected of the modern lifestyle, we don't expect people to give up on their devices completely. Our low voltage PV system can charge phones and other small devices very efficiently. But we don't have enough power for large computers or televisions. We don't mind doing without, we generally prefer to talk to each other than stare at a screen anyway.


Realistic Energy Choices

Human cultures, including our own, are always organized based on the core economic needs of society at large. Thus in the U.S., we live an economy based on industrial specialization where skilled workers are employed in highly segmented, interdependent but geographically separated jobs. As a result of this need for specialization, the traditional extended family rooted in a village (or band or tribe) that has dominated all of human history has given way to single family household, which has itself given way to many single-person households. The political stability of our industrial society is built on economic growth and specialization. Relentless economic growth and single-person households are anathema to sustainability, but any intellectual argument about long-term consequences is politically weak compared to core economic concerns.

Analyzing the foibles of our politics is the easy part. Figuring out how to do it better is harder. At the material level, figuring out how to live with comfortably with dramatically less resources than the average American is simple enough. Whether such dramatic reductions constitute a truly sustainable way of life in the long run is an open question. We certainly do not presume that the work we have done at LEF is a final answer, though we believe it points in the right direction. At LEF, we believe we have figured out how to support people sustainably, potentially very large numbers of people. How to manifest such sustainability into a viable political movement is the question on which the future of life on Earth hinges.

We have been led to believe that living sustainably or reducing our “carbon footprint” is difficult, expensive, reliant on new technologies, and involves personal discomfort. None of that is true. Living a comfortable and happy life supported by renewable energy is easy if we are willing to adjust our lifestyles to the rhythms of nature. That’s not what we are doing currently. The reality is that most of the people in the world today live a low-impact lifestyle because they cannot afford otherwise. Poorer people all over the world share resources and support each other. But consumption is power, and in order to hold onto that power, we hide behind grid-tied solar electricity, windmills, and a host of other false solutions. Real sustainability means that we have to share resources and live with some degree of modesty. At the material level, it's that simple.

There is one more thing we have to do, and that is to make the Earth on which we live sacred. It is clear that mountains of facts will not convince us to change. We are destroying the sacred living Earth even as we sit and jabber about the ecological holocaust. The answers are not difficult. It is time we embrace them.


How to get involved

LEF hosts volunteers and interns year-round. We give tours on Saturday by appointment. For more details about agricultural internships, see Do You Want to be An Intern? in the sidebar. We check email once or twice a week. If you need a faster response, call or text to 540-205-9815

If you want to stay informed about the project, add your contact info below and we will put you on the mail/email list. We will not share or make public your email or postal address.


How to donate, through Virginia Organizing:

Donations to the Living Energy Farm Education Program support our workshops and other educational activities, which in turn help support our farm and community.

You can choose to make a one time donation or set up a recurring donation that will sustain our work. By clicking on our donation button you will be routed to the donation page for Virginia Organizing, a 501(c)3 non-profit that accepts donations for LEF's educational programs. When routed to their site, it is very important that you fill out the "designation" field with "Living Energy Farm Education Program " or" Living Energy Global Initiative." Otherwise the money will not go to our project. Thank you for your support.

Virginia Organizing is officially registered with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, P. O. Box 1163, Richmond, VA 23209. You can write to this Department for all relevant financial statements and procedures regarding the solicitation of contributions. Your donation is tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

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Contact us

Living Energy Farm
1022 Bibb Store Road
Louisa, VA, 23093
540-205-9815