Thursday, February 26, 2009

Day 29 - Intro to Slow Foods

One of the great joys of living at Creque Dam Farm is the amazing, fresh, home cooked meals we enjoy three times a day. Once you eat all your greens less than an hour after harvest, every other salad just seems flat and lifeless. Once a month the farm hosts a fundraiser dinner, a six-course food adventure, highlighting what produce is at its peak and what meats we have available locally. We try to get all of the ingredients from our own land, but sometimes we have to reach off-farm to other local growers, depending on our supply. The culmination of our week in the kitchen is the complete planning, preparation, and plating of a "Slow Down Dinner Experience." Chef Keith and Dan Glenn will be leading us in this taste adventure!

I'm excited.

I LOVE food.

Day one introduction involved a wonderful discussion about our culture of food, our comfort foods, and our food memories. This was an opportunity to talk about your grandmother's broccoli soup, the best grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup ever, a meatloaf that knocked your socks off, or that special meal that included all of the best ingredients; the food, the company, and the emotional significance.

When asked what was my perfect food experience there are two specific meals that come to mind. In 2001, while traveling South East Asia with Laura Smith (a friend from NYC I met in Tokyo), I had the most delicious curry I have every eaten. No curry has ever compared to this one, and I have tried my share. This particular curry had fish and vegetables slow cooked and served in a green coconut, Cambodian style. We were in Siem Reap, traveling on a tight budget, and just having a fun adventure as young college kids. It was a great time in my life.

The second meal that I consider a perfect food experience was in Montreal in May 2006. I have written about this meal recently because it relates directly to my current situation, but like any truly special memory it doesn't dull with repetition. At that time Val and I were engaged. but he was going to school in Yokohama, Japan and I was working in DC. He was asked to corner and translate for the MMA fighter Hatsu Hioki in his title match for TKO in Montreal (the video of this fight is here in minute 10:18, you can see Val at the end rush in to help Hatsu after his win.)

The flights from DC to Montreal were unbelievably expensive. My friends Derek and Sarah came to my help and made for the best weekend roadtrip after work on Friday (9 hours up, 13 hours back). We drove all night. The morning we arrived we happened upon a restaurant near the hotel. That breakfast at Chez Cora was absolutely phenomenal. Apples, sliced and baked with brie, nuts, and maple syrup, coffee, a pile of mixed fresh fruit, whole wheat crepes, amazing. The synergy between the company of good friends and the long separation from Val made that coming together so perfect. The next time Hatsu was asked to defend his TKO featherweight title we gladly returned to Montreal and Chez Cora for breakfast. It still makes my heart flutter just thinking about it.

What are your best meals? Comfort foods? The thing you could eat every day and never be tired of it? Slow food is about food traditions, sharing meals and conscious meal preparation. I am so excited for this week!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Weekend Reprise III

Living at Creque Dam Farm is being a part of a wonderful, supportive, and fun community. I was nervous before coming here that I would feel trapped and dependent on my friends and family on island to get me out and about. Sure, from time to time it is difficult to get out of the rainforest and into civilization, but I can stay on farm and have a great time or get rides into town. It is isolated but you are only as bored or lonely as you let yourself get.

That said, sometimes you need to get out and see some of the local culture. This past weekend was the Mardi Croix parade and celebration. Now, I've been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, this parade was no Mardi Gras, but it was a fun event. Some of the local papers commented on the lack of participation in the parade, the St. Croix Source was more positive than the Avis (that doesn't have an online version), and the Virgin Islands Daily News did only briefly comment on the size of the parade. The parade was a disappointment but hanging out at Cane Bay and enjoying some local foods makes for a great Saturday. No real complaints here.

One worry that Val had when I decided to head down to St. Croix for my three-month educational vacation was the presence of distractions. It's easy to imagine the multitude of things here that could keep me from focusing on the hard questions facing me; the beach, the sun, diving, the culture of alcohol, and the laid-back atmosphere come to mind in particular.

This past weekend some of the people from the Ridge to Reef program proved how positively motivated people can put all those distractions aside and dedicate a whole day--a whole WEEKEND day--to helping a friend. Ben, Mandy, Marshall, and Mere came with me to my sister's house and spent Sunday with me designing her backyard gardens and working in the hot sun. This was a wonderful way to apply the concepts we are learning here in an action-based real life situation, without the guidance of an instructor. At the end of digging a swale, spreading seeds of nitrogen-fixing plants, and building a compost bin from recycled pallets I thought everyone would be ready to let me take them out to dinner. Instead, the whole group threw themselves into digging and planting a keyhole herb garden in the rocky area by Wendy's front door. We spent about two more hours sifting out the many rocks, turning the soil, and Ben designed a nice mosaic from broken pieces of tile.

We made some pasta, ate some ice cream, and went dancing until late night.

Everyone was exhausted and filthy but the smiles said it all. I love being surrounded by people who value a day of hard work. I need more people in my life who get dirty, sweat, and work together to create something real.

I hope the plants we put in the ground live on like the memories of that experience will live on in my heart.

I have more photos to upload!

Day 28 - The Last Math Blog and Installation

Thanks for sticking through the math in the last post, we have a little more to do today and I promise the blogs for next week will be calculation-free (except multiplying recipes and the magic of baking). For me, it was a really interesting experience to be in a mixed-level math class, sitting all day working out equations, and be truly enjoying myself.

Step 4: The Charge Controller, the Inverter, and the Wires

CHARGE CONTROLLER - function is to maintain the batteries at the proper level of charge and to protect them from overcharging. When a solar panel is bringing in power it will first go to run the loads on the system (lights, fans, etc) and then any extra will go to charge the batteries for use later.
Power = 100W (1 panel) divided by 12V = 8.3 Amps
Of course, we could use a 12V/12 Amp charge controller, but that wouldn’t give us much room to control for sudden increases in voltage, etc. The max voltage is taken into consideration by the manufacturer, so really a 12amp CC really has a max voltage of about 22 or so. On farm we have a currently unused 12V/36amp Charge controller, so, we will use what we have. A charge controller will run between $100-250, or more depending on the size and quality.

INVERTER – Because the PV system runs in DC, you must use an inverter if you would like to power AC devices. You need to keep in mind the maximum (peak) watts needed at one time. Our client, Chef Keith, needs 86 watts of AC power at one time if he were running all of his devices at one time. That is NOT very much because this system is already maximized for efficient appliances and lights. Much like the CC, we have a 12V/150W Inverter, which will cover the 86watts needed and give some head room just in case he introduces a new device. The cost of an inverter is dependent on the shape of the sine wave. If it is a modified sine wave it will be cheaper, but if it is too choppy it will not have an even current.

WIRES – I am not going to go into this calculation because it turned out to be a huge pain. Because we are only using a 12V panel and a small CC, we cannot increase the voltage to decrease the amount of current, so there will be a lot current and thus, a lot of resistance. Here is one calculation:
The distance from the panel to the CC is 30 feet
12Gauge wire has a resistance of 1 ohm drop per every 650feet, so the drop over 30 feet is about 0.05 ohm.
If we have to keep voltage at 12, the max current is about 16Amps.
Power loss = I2R
162x0.05 = 12.8W, it’s a 220W system, so that is about a 6% loss. 6% is too much loss, we had to move up to 8gauge wire in order to get low enough resistance.

Step 5: Installation

We mounted the one panel on the top of a very long board, anchored to the yurt platform. Installation would have been better if it hadn’t been a rainy day, so whenever the downpours got worse we went inside the yurt to take care of installing the batteries into the floor of the platform. I didn’t get to do much by myself because of the number of people involved in the task, but it was good to see how to hook up the big 6V batteries into two series strings and then hooking those in parallel.

Can I put one together for you with this one-week tutorial? No, but I have a much greater understanding of the components.

Moreover, learning about solar energy has been a great lesson in the excesses of our modern lifestyle. When you list every appliance, light, AC adapter that you plug in, you start to realize just how much energy your home consumes. Do we need an inversion blender, a mixer, a food processor, a magic bullet, and a small chopper in every kitchen?

Do you really need a curling iron?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Day 27 - Solar Energy Design Guide (part 1)

Here we go, it's time for math class.

I am no math expert, this is a blog for the average person who is curious about what goes into designing a solar energy system. I welcome all comments and discussion about the calculations here. The basic formulas are:
Volts = I (current)R(resistance) = I = V/R or R = V/I
Power (watts) = VI = V2/R = I2R
Energy = VIH
Next entry we will also have to calculate the voltage drop in a line, which we will use:

Designing a PV power generation system is not as hard as installing one, or so my experience so far leads me to believe. Days 27 and 28 will be devoted to the action project for the solar energy week; designing and instaling a real-world system for one of the structures on the farm. Chef Keith will be introduced in more detail next week, slow foods module, but he gets to play a role in this weeks project by being the lucky recipient of lights and a stereo system in his yurt.

The Yurt

Keith's yurt is standing on a platform made of "lumber" from recycled plastic. It was all built many years ago during the early construction phase of the farm. Even Ben Jones, the founder of the farm, lived in the yurt for three years. It has running water and has been a useful structure for many inhabitants, but other than some old extension cords run from who knows where, it's dark.

Here are the steps we went through for determining our solar array for the yurt. The array consists of: panels, charge controller, battery bank, and inverter (to run AC appliances as well as DC).

Step 1: Determing the Power Consumption

This is a tricky step. None of the calculations are "easy" but this one requires some soul searching. How much power do you use? When? How much power do you need? What does your curling iron take up, 1500W? Can you get a DC fridge?

Consider your AC and DC power requirements separately. We made a simple chart so that we could organize our data and reference back when we needed to adjust.
Appliance, Watts, Quantity, Hours run per day. Total that up the daily needs and then multiply by the number of days per week that you will use that particular appliance to get your watt hours per week. Total up the number or watt hours for all DC appliances then multiply by 1.2 (to compensate for system losses). Then do the same for AC appliances.

Add up the AC WH/Week and DC WH/Week. To determing the number of Amp-hours of energy required for week, divide this number by the voltage of battery you are using (usually 12 or 24V). Then divide that number by 7 to determine the average requirement per day. Here is what our totals were if Keith is running a DC Fan, two types of DC lights (efficient), charging a laptop, running a laptop off the wall power, charging a cellphone, and running an iHome stereo (very efficient):
DC WH/Week: 1831
+ AC WH/WK: 1370
= 3201 WH/WK
x 12V (we are using a 12V battery bank)
= 267 AH/WK
So the average amp-hour requirement per day = 38.1 AH.

Step 2: Size the Battery Bank

When determining how much energy we need to store, the first big question is how long does he need to be able to last without any sunshine. If a hurricane were to come through he could expect to be without direct sun for a few days. We decided that three days of using everything full blast would be enough, assuming that if he really needed to run his stereo or charge his cell phone he could do so at the community center. Also, you need to determine how much charge you want to remain in the batteries at all times. We chose 20% capacity as a reasonable amount of depletion that would not damage the batteries for long-time use.
AH requirement for day: 38
x Days of autonomy: 3
= amp hours needed to store: 114
+ 20% to remain in the batteries
= 136AH is needed to be stored at 12V in the Battery Bank.

It's not a cold-weather climate so we don't have to worry about the ambient temperature multiplier, but we do need to look at what batteries we already have.

Because we already had four 6V batteries with 220AH it made most sense for us to use those. However, because of their age they are about 50% depleated of their total storage capacity. Assuming it's exactly 50% depleated we should calculate that each of the 6V batteries actually holds 110 AH. We need 136 AH at 12V.

2 6V batteries run in series adds the AH over the series making the total 6V and 220 AH. We need at least 136AH, so if we run those two strings in parallel, then we add the voltages toether to make 12V and the AH stay constant, bringing us to 220AH at 12V, enough to give us some room to breathe.

Step 3: Determine the hours of sun available per day and size the array

Now, how many panels do you need? First, available on-farm we have 4 180W/24V panels that we can't use (12V system), 4 100W/12V panels, and 4 75W/12V or 24V panels.

Determine the Power requirement per day
Daily AH requirement: 38.1
x 12V
= 457.2 WH/day

OK, we need 457.2WH, how many WH does each panel give off? Multiply the wattage by the number of hours of sun per day. In St. Croix the average is about six.
1 75W panel x 6 hours of sun = 450WH/day (not enough)
1 100W panel x 6 hours of sun = 600 WH/day
= perfect. We need one 100W panel at 12V to fill our power needs and contraints.

The other items in the array? The charge controller, the inverter, the wires, and the fun of installing it in the rain.

Tomorrow I'll complete the package..

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Day 26 - Math and Miracle Fruit

A lot of this unit on Solar Energy is learning the basics of calculating energy needs, battery storage capacity, wiring, and how to hook it all up. It's interesting, but I think only Brian and my dad would make it through a post about it. Tomorrow I will run through the calculations that we used to install a PV System over at the Yurt, where Keith the Chef lives. While I don't quite feel confident to go out and put a system together for myself, I have a much greater understanding for how it all works.

With that put off until tomorrow, how about miracle fruit? I definitely always thought the miracle fruit was beans, because the more you eat the more you.. something or other. However, I had never seen these things before and was definitely a little wary of the oblong red berries. The tree here on the farm had a small crop, only about 10 or 15 berries total. They are roughly the size of a vitamin capsule and blood red. When Tara, one of the interns, said that there are parties in New York featuring Miracle Fruit I didn't know what to think!

The berry itself is virtually flavorless with a large seed in the middle. Where was the big bang?

The realization hit when I hesitantly licked a sour orange slice. Sour orange is like a seville orange, not very tasty but good in a gin and tonic if you have no lime. One lick and I had the whole slice in my mouth, it was like pure honey. I ate so much sour and weird stuff that I gave myself a tummy ache, but it was so interesting to see how your tastebuds can fool you!

The grapefuit was like candy..
The smoky roasted flavor of my coffee came through what would usually be bitter.. Wild.

According to the Wikipedia:
The berry contains an active glycoprotein molecule, with some trailing carbohydrate chains, called miraculin.[5][6] When the fleshy part of the fruit is eaten, this molecule binds to the tongue's taste buds, causing sour foods to taste sweet. While the exact cause for this change is unknown, one hypothesis is that the effect may be caused if miraculin works by distorting the shape of sweetness receptors "so that they become responsive to acids, instead of sugar and other sweet things".[3] This effect lasts between thirty minutes and two hours.
It lasted for about an hour. Some particularly acidic or sour things tasted so sweet I could barely eat them. Overall, I'd say there has to be something there for dieters.. I definitely didn't crave chocolate or ice cream, at least for a few hours.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Day 25 – I get a hot shower (the fastest way to a woman’s heart)

(Depending on how dirty the lady may be).

Living in an off-grid system is sometimes an exercise in evaluating your priorities. Things break. Shit happens. Someone has to have the time, spare parts, and the know-how to fix it. Much like spending a day and a half without power, 10 days without hot water made me appreciate that readily available supply in my apartment in DC. Don’t take that hot water for granted. But do you have to get taken to the cleaners? (har-har)

So, you want to get rid of that energy-gobbling dinosaur of a hot water heater? The tropics allow for different types of solar hot water to be a real possibility. At the Ag Fair Ryan Evans and I got stuck in a very nice used-car salesman-like pitch for a small passive/active solar water-heating unit. We didn’t mention to the gentleman that we already were living with a unit, so we listened politely. Some of the ideas his company is marketing were pretty clever; you can amend your old hot water heater with a new valve to control for in/outflow to the panels on the roof. This is very similar to the system we have on the bathhouse.

This indoor/outdoor setup is the place where we can go to pursue that elusive mistress, the hot shower. There is an insulated storage tank with four input/output pipes. A regular electric water heater has two: cold water in and hot water out. Our tank brings cold water in from our gravity-fed distribution system and then, if the net temperature difference between the water in the tank and the sensor on the roof is greater than a predetermined limit, the colder water is pumped out of the tank and up to the panel. This panel is a passive heater, the water sits in the series of tubes within the panel until it reaches the next predetermined temperature difference (usually about 15 degrees) at which time it is sent back into the tank to stay hot until there is a demand on the system. On a sunny day this system can replenish quickly and the insulated tank can hold quite a bit of water at a decent temperature.

There are other systems utilized on the farm. Dan Glenn uses a completely passive system at his container house on the hill. A passive solar water heater is as simple as a coiled black hose on the roof.

What are the drawbacks to this system? Primary disadvantages are that the length of the hose limits the amount of hot water significantly and the inconvenient times of day that the water is at peak temperature. The sun doesn’t get up early enough for a morning shower and later in the evening the hose isn’t insulated enough to stay warm. However, This system requires Avoiding using complicated technology is a plus because there are no pumps to break and leave us all without hot water for a week.

Marshall Bartlett, one of the other R2R students is designing a third type of hot water system for another house on the farm. I look forward to seeing how that works out. For now, I’ll cope with my cold outdoor shower and appreciate it when I get one hot.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Day 24 - Solar Energy Intro

Today we began a new module. When I was looking at opportunities to take a few months to volunteer, work abroad, or do an internship, there were so many options. I was drawn to this program because of the variety. Sure, when I leave here I’ll need a bit more experience before I can start my own organic farm, but I will have some new perspective and skill over a wider spectrum of areas which I can decide to further pursue at a later date.

Sure, the agroecology unit that we just completed is key to learning how to farm in a sustainable manner, but also alternative energy is an important aspect to managing energy costs. Eventually getting off fossil fuels is an important part of sustainability, as is consciousness in consumption. The first step in designing any solar or alternative energy system is determining the need. I think we all would be a bit shocked if we really looked at where we waste energy.

For us, this was a good segue from the Ag Fair into the alternative energy unit because we had a clear demonstration of this useless excess.

The Ag Fair is a huge draw, it is estimated that 30,000 people come in from other islands. Some people coming in for Ag Fair decided to do a farm stay with us in the two open cabanas, tent camping in the field, and in the tree house. Some of the groups were more friendly and reached out to the community and some.. well.. Someone plugged in a curling iron and blew our whole system, leaving the 10 of us at cabana land plus the 8 guests in the dark for a day and a half. Now, was that really necessary? Luckily we have long, sunny days, a separate system for the community center, and electricians who can fix this stuff when it’s broken.

I have never been spectacular at math. However, I love science and if I have a calculator in front of me--and a good teacher--I can usually make sense of the material.

One good teacher is key, two is bonus. Don Young, electrical engineer and an all-around innovative thinker, is visiting from Georgia to teach us along with Dan Glenn, the director here on the farm. Combined, they make up just the type of teaching team that plays to the strengths of different students.

Do you remember high school circuits and basic engineering? No? Well, I have never enjoyed figuring equations like I enjoyed that class. I can’t wait to learn more.. It was an easy physical day but I'm mentally exhausted.

Day 23 - Agrifest

(Sorry for the spam posts, I ate small a mouthful of poisonous tropical plant that was misidentified as a taro root. I got a little too freaked out to go to sleep so I figured I would inundate you with blog posts. This is when I notice that I'm hundreds of miles away from my main source of my sense of safety – my husband. I love you Val! I definitely read too much about Calcium Oxalate poisoning. I’m totally fine. Big lesson to the everyone (even experienced botanists) that many plants may seem identical and have very different properties. Haha.)

As each week has progressed we have built on the information that was presented to us in the proceeding weeks. As I mentioned in my last post, this is week four and we are finally learning some of the real basics of organic farming. More than anything I see this as indicative of how VISFI views specific farming methods as less important than education, sustainable building fundamentals, and the principles and philosophy of permaculture. From here we will delve deeper into solar energy, slow foods cooking, and agrotourism. Last week's New York Times article about the struggle of small farms to diversify to turn a profit really highlighted the task that faces farmers.

Agriculture is a highly competitive business where the big industrial farms can undercut the little guy, especially if the little guy is employing more expensive, sustainable techniques, paying for organic certifications, and using higher quality inputs. Selling your beautiful tomatoes at the farmer's market is not going to solve that problem alone. Local farmers need to connect with their community through outreach activities such as farm stays (ecotourism), workshops and classes (education), and other value-added products and income streams.

While I am still waiting on the final numbers from the Department of Agriculture, I'm going to go into my summary of the Agricultural and Food Festival. The average estimate of attendance is about 30,000 people from all over the Caribbean. This is no small gathering.

First, I have to again highlight that the mission of the farm here is not just profit, the triple bottom line is: people, place, and profit. This boils down to; educate people, create a community, and sustain the system financially. If money is first the rest deteriorates. It is very clearly written into the statement of purpose. To seed beneficial relationships to inspire abundance, creativity, and joy (paraphrase).

My overall impression of the fair was; heavy on the food and culture, OK but not great on agriculture. This island is in desperate need to improve it’s image of farming and get people really involved in food production. While the funky chickens and farmer’s market vegetables were great, but I don’t think many minds were changed about agriculture as dirty and hard work not worth doing.

While we were selling our produce at the Virgin Islands Farmer’s Co-Op booth, VISFI chose to put together a kids activity booth. The purpose of our activities were to get kids involved in agriculture, beyond the food vendors. We chose to make Seed Balls, a technique for natural farming with little human interference. The seed balls are mini habitat. The clay ball ball encloses seeds and what they need to grow: compost for nutrients and the shell to protect them from predators and the elements. While some kids were into it and willing to get dirty, the majority of the bon’ya (born on island) children would rather watch.

Ryan Evans, Nate Olive, and I were in charge of planning and set up for the three days. The shelter that we built as a group for this display was awesome. Truly, it was the best highlight I can imagine for our upcoming Bush Skills Rendezvous. Our booth was situated in the middle of an open field next to the boy scouts. We realized that we would be spending the better part of three days in that field, completely exposed to the elements, so a shelter of some sort was absolutely necessary. Some of the guys and Don Young, one of our instructors, laid out a design, cut some bamboo, lashed it together, draped a tarp, and made a seriously durable and awesome tent. This is the type of industriousness that Bush Skills represents. Great work guys!

On top of that, a good friction-fire-making demonstration always pulls a crowd!

In the end, Ag Fair highlighted for me that there is still a long way to go in farm communication and marketing in order to truly reach the people capable of really making the necessary changes in how the island is cultivated.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Day 22 - Banana Circle

After my long post about my graduation from vegetarianism this will be a short(ish) narrative about a small project we completed on Thursday.

This module in agroecology has been so packed with information and active learning projects, it's hard to narrow it down to what I should include here. We planted a garden with the full moon (very good time to plant), built a compost pile, cultivated land for planting, and harvested goods to take to the market. This is week four and we are finally learning some of the real basics of organic farming, but I will get further into why that is tomorrow when I talk about Ag Fair.

The most unique technique that I learned this week is the banana circle. Banana circles are a way of creating a healthy garden in a dry season or possibly in less-than-ideal soil. Banana is an interesting plant because of its high water content. I knew that you can cut the banana shoots and limbs and use them to fertilize plants, but I was not aware of its ability to bring water to the surface for use by other plants. Creating a banana circle is pretty easy and with basic tending it can nurture a larger fruit tree without much maintenance.

Here is a nice resource for building a banana circle. We started with a very dry, flat piece of the area outside the community center. The exhausting part of the project was pulling all the woody weeds. It was hard work on a hot day, but that is part of what I’m doing here, appreciating the value of hard work. After pulling the weeds we went to work digging a hole to plant the banana and small fruit tree in the center. Around the outside of the circle and in the berm (pile of soil we dug out of the hole) we planted some nitrogen-fixing plants such as pigeon peas, crotalaria, and daikon. These plants should grow quickly and hold the soil from erosion.

The final product is a wide circular, lowered bed with a high berm around the outside. The plants radiate from the central banana arranged for maximum cooperation. The soil is layered with compost and mulch to slowly break down and at fertility.

I’m planning on employing this technique in Wendy’s yard project, but modified into a horseshoe shape with the berm on the lower side of the slope to catch run-off and the ends attached to a swale for increasing the water absorption in the rest of the garden design.

I can’t wait to get to work this weekend! Hard work and satisfying work.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Day 21- Conventional meat, chicken tractors, and bunnies.

As many of you know, I was very into vegetarianism for many years. In 1997 I ate chicken for the last time. I remember the night very clearly, my friend Ty made a really good chicken teriyaki. My boyfriend at the time, Jay, and I had been discussing trying to stop eating meat. I enjoyed that chicken, savored the wonderful meal my friend had prepared for us, and then made the decision to forgo meat.

My decision was twofold, and only one was beneficial. I stopped eating meat primarily because I just cannot support feedlots, force-feeding corn to ruminants who's biology is designed for eating grass, pigs forced to live in tiny pens with their tails painfully lopped off, chickens unable to establish their pecking order and having their beaks clipped, and the many other horrors and injustices of the conventional meat industry. On top of this suffering also comes the environmental impacts of these farms. Along with the chemicals they carry, I chose to not put that "bad energy" into my body and my life.

That does not mean that I reject the food chain. Humans are omnivores who progressed and thrived by hunting, gathering, and the development of agriculture. Meat production doesn't have to be like this. When I made the decision to come to Creque Dam Farm I also made the decision to support the local farmers who are raising animals in a humane and beneficial manner.

Along with this decision to eat meat I feel like I have a responsibility to deal with my underlying issues. That brings me to the second reason I stopped eating meat. You can call it 'for health reasons' or however you want to sugar-coat it, but the reality is that I am terrified to gain weight. Not eating meat is a way to control your intake and becomes a good excuse for not partaking in a heavy meal. I have gained weight since I started eating this local meat.. I see it and I feel it. Why is it so important to me? Can I just use proper portion control and maybe just find a way to be happy with a heavier me? Where is healthy? These are the questions that everyone must ask themselves from time to time. What is a healthy amount of attention to what you eat and what is obsession?

I am making progress. Part of coming to terms with accepting myself eating meat and being happy about it is to understand where animals fit into our system. Animals play a key role in any diversified farm.

Krystle Arcamo is our animal husbandry apprentice here at the farm. She cares for our goats, chickens, and rabbits. She took the time with us to show the group of us what jobs the animals perform here and also gave me the opportunity to understand the life-cycle on a deeper level. Thank you to Krystle for her support and hard work.


The chickens on the farm here are housed in chicken tractors. These pens are moved over the hard and unworked ground that we would like to prepare for planting. The chickens eat the weeds, the insects, scratch up the ground and fertilize it with their waste. The chickens do a lot of work for us. They are a part of this farm as they provide us with eggs, fertilize the ground, work the soil, and eventually feed us and our friends.

Goats and Beef

St. Croix has very little agriculture, but one thing it does have is one good grass-fed cattle farm. The Senepol beef at Annaly Farms is grass-fed, grass-finished, free-range, and is actually less expensive than the USDA beef shipped in from the states. I have seen the happy cows in the field and I know that they are raised with love. They are not pumped with antibiotics because they are not as prone to infection as cows that are suffering the effects of eating grain. We often eat this meat on the farm and I am happy to support this local food producer. There is a demand for milk on the farm as it is one thing we have to purchase at the store or co-op. I hope Penelope goat (or whatever they are calling her now) will produce milk for us to drink and make cheese from. In the future we may expand our small herd of goats to include some cattle.


At home we always had rabbits as pets, rabbits as fur producers, and as a meat producer in lean times. To this day I do not know how my mother culled and processed the rabbit we ate, after this experience I am ready to find out. Part of coming to terms with eating meat was the process of respecting the life that you are taking and giving thanks for the sacrifice. Krystle gave me the opportunity to observe the harvest of a few of our older female rabbits that were not reproducing well and not tending to their litters appropriately.

I started by learning how to tan the hide of a bunny that was culled earlier that morning. I took a small piece and scraped the fat, flesh, and oil from the skin with a machete. I then hammered it to a board to stretch in the sun. When I first approached the freshly skinned hide, at first I couldn't touch it. I watched Marshall begin the process I knew that working the hide would help ease me into the idea. I was nervous.

Krystle brought the fluffy, snow-white bunny to the table. Marshall and Wren held her down and calmed her while Krystle took a breath, found the veins in her neck, and quickly cut each of the two main arteries. She only fought a little and as Ben and I watched the blood drain out in silence we thanked her for her sacrifice. It was over quickly, but it seemed like an eternity.

I felt at peace when I sat down to eat the Rabbit Rice we had for dinner last night. I could honor the life of that rabbit, what she gave to the farm in the form of baby bunnies, manure, and sustenance for all of us who life off what this farm produces. It is the life-cycle. Life is beautiful.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Day 20 - Conuco Building (agroecology)

By popular demand (thanks guys), I'll feature the conuco garden in my day 20 write-up, thank you for your votes! I think it is appropriate timing as Wednesday, Day 20th of the program actually was the day that we went and dug our conuco bed. The next entry focus is currently intended to be cultivation and harvest, with a little on the banana circle garden we dug and planted.

As you may remember from my Day 13 entry from Sustainable Building, before colonization the Taino indians present here in the islands. There is still a lot of native culture brought with the many conquering peoples, traders, and slaves, but some of the traditional farming and building techniques have been lost. The conuco farming was a way to propagate seeds to maximum yield, very much in-line with the ideas of permaculture. However, much like the bohio, not many people on the islands employ this type of technique.

Reylbeck Mercado Vacca is an apprentice here and a master's student at Gaia University, an accredited alternative university that focuses on student-driven action learning. Rey has been studying the indigenous people and has been tending the Mandala Garden, the first garden on the farm created with mounded beds. Rey was our teacher in this activity.

The conuco is a method of farming that piles large amounts of organic matter in with the soil to create a mound. Over time the organic matter will break down into the soil, enriching it, and reducing the height of the pile. Some methods call for the large sticks to be burned, a technique employed by a lot of early agriculturalists. We decided to use an area where a large amount of bamboo and other branches had been knocked down in the hurricane. This is in close proximity to our bohio structure we built, so it is fitting. Once you pile a large amount of decomposing sticks, grass, and other organic matter (food scraps, whatever you have on hand) you cover it in dirt and let it sit. To catch any of the soil bring run off in the rain, we dug a trench around the outside edge. This large, round pile will now sit for a while to decompose and get ready for planting.

Planting a conuco employs the techniques of gardening on levels, utilizing a small bed to grow many different crops. In the center of the raised bed will be a fruit tree and then out from there will be the larger climbing beans, cassava, and down to the lower layers of ground crops. The tainos would have planted guanábana, yautía, squash, mamey, papaya, pineapple, achiote, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, etc. The idea behind this bed is to plant only indigenous varieties in order to understand more fully how the culture lived and thrived.

St. Croix was once the breadbasket of the Caribbean. The fertile soil brought sugarcane plantations and destructive agricultural practices. By the time the slaves were freed--and later really given their freedom through revolt--so much of the topsoil had already been washed into the sea. Agriculture remains a vocation to be looked down upon and this once productive islands now imports well over 90% of its food.

This weekend is the Agricultural Festival and Food Fair (Ag Fair) and the theme of this year is "Bring back the Breadbasket." I hope that some of the local people are inspired as I am to do something about this sad fact.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Day 19 - Intro to the Farm (Focus Area)

Tuesdays and Thursdays we meet with our Focus Area instructor and work on our individual projects. Because my focus is on farm-based education and tourism, I am lucky to have Nate Olive as my evaluating instructor/mentor. He is the Program Director here and a PhD student at UGA researching small island tourism development. Also, he is a great person to talk to because he gets me excited about the programs here on the farm and what I can do to improve it, be a part of it, and learn. Thanks for all of your support, Nate!

As part of my project I am putting together a media preview to help market Bush Skills Rendezvous 2009. I've worked in the media long enough to feel like I can drum up some attention and much-needed press for what goes on here. I hope that by putting together an event prior to Bush Skills we can get at least a small feature story in one of the local papers to increase our attendance. I hope!

As I mentioned in my last post, VISFI is not just about growing tomatoes. We do grow some KICK ASS tomatoes, along with salad greens, eggplant, cucumbers, pumpkins, peppers, and other veggies (winter/dry season crops). Creque Dam Farm is the only USDA certified organic farm in the Caribbean. Other farms may practice organic farming, but a few years ago the farm received a grant to cover the costs of getting certification so the management went ahead and jumped on the hurdles and dealt with the government red tape. However, when this current certification expires there are reasons that they may choose to not renew.

One of those reasons is Humanure. What does that SOUND like it means? One of the most interesting structures on the farm is right here in Cabana Land (the students all live in primitive cabanas nestled into a hill). One of the structures also built into this hill is our composting toilet. Yes, you read that right. There are two latrine toilets, each with a large drum storage container at the bottom. When one fills up it is topped with a lid and set to compost for a year. After a year of microbial growth and decomposition human waste can be used as the rich fertilizer that it is. Now, for the purposes of our USDA certification we are not currently using human waste on our crop production, we use fish poop, chicken poop, cow poop, horse poop, rabbit poop, goat poop, etc. The pathogens in human waste can be broken down and rendered just as harmless with proper maintenance. It may seem pretty gross at first, but it is the ultimate in conservation of resources and sustainability. It's not just "nightsoil" anymore.

Which would you like me to talk about next; the chicken tractors, Cabana Land, the tree house, the conuco we just built (taino farming practice), compost and soil, or other request?

Steve, I haven't forgotten your request for information about pest management, we just haven't gotten to that lesson yet! However, we do use the chickens for some pest management, along with beneficial planting relationships to attract good bugs and crop rotation to keep bad bugs and microbes from building up. I'll tell you when I know more!

Day 18 - Agroecology/Organic Farming

I'm skipping community night tonight and the opportunity to watch "The Future of Food". While I want to see the movie, I have a bit of a headache and need to catch up on what's been going on here. Have you seen it? It seems like my kind of movie; King Corn, Fast Food Nation, Supersize Me, and other movies that just make me so angry at the state of the food industry.

Week 4 topic is Agroecology. OK, another term that coming into this program I had an idea of, but not a real understanding of the meaning. Agroecology can be defined as the application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agriculture/ecosystems. This is a whole-system approach to agriculture and food systems were developed based on traditional knowledge, alternative agricultural ideas, and creating local food ststem experiences (eating within region/season). It links ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, a healthy environment, and viable food-farming communities.

My kind of stuff.

There are many comonalities with general permaculture principles and a lot of what we are doing this week builds on the foundation of the lectures from two weeks ago.

Some of the principles that we will talk about this week are:
- use renewable resources
- minimize toxics (eliminate pollution, especially in food production)
- conserve resources
- conserve soil
- conserve water
- conserve energey
- conserve capital
- manage ecological relationships (integrate livestock, intercrop, covercrop, manage pests, etc)
- Adjust to the environment
- diversify (landscapes, biota, products, etc)
- empower people (use indigenous knowledge, transfer knowledge to the community)
- manage whole system (benefits, not just profits)
- maximize long-term benefits (build soil, learn, strategy)
- value health (human, cultural, environmental, animal, plant)

While we have been planting on and off, harvesting, and learning about the innerworkings of the farm, this week is our real introduction into organic farming methods.

So many people ask me, 'where can we buy your tomatoes?' Yes, we are currently selling our produce at the new co-op at Beaston Hill, but that is not our priority. It's interesting. I will get into the set-up of the farm in my next post, but I just want to introduce this idea here. The goal of Creque Dam Farm is VISFI, not to sell annual crops. We grow mainly to feed the people on the farm, the people who come for Slow Down Dinners, and to supplement income. We grow people.
The mission of the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute is to provide a working educational farm enterprise that integrates sustainability in education, environment, and community through quality instruction in Agroecology and related fields.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Day 17 - Sustainable Building (my first introduction)

This unit on sustainable building got me thinking about where I've seen these concepts in practice, both successfully and not so well.

From 1986 - 1992 I went to elementary school in Reston, VA. Although I lived in Herndon, I was able to ride to school in the neighboring town with my mother. Because I traveled to school I had the opportunity to experience going to Terraset Elementary. Terraset was built in the 1970s, at a time when energy conservation was just becoming a real social issue. The school was built into the ground and designed to retain heat and cool through it's thick walls (thermal mass) and green roof.

The school certainly had a green roof. It was always neat as a kid to get to play games of tag on the grass mound that the school was built into. I would occasionally look down into the library while other classes were being read to by the librarian. The solar pannels did not function the way they had been designed and were eventually deemed a safety issue. I remember the year they came in and took them down. Even though solar was a failure at Terraset, the administration always made a point to teach us about energy conservation and innovation.

You can read more about Terraset here.

This was cutting-edge at the time and should be used as an example of a step in the process of creating functional green buildings. It wasn't a failure, a lot of kids came out of that school knowing that you can build a home with a garden on the roof, you can be cool and shady in the summer without cranking up the air, and that building structure is only limited by the creativity of the designer. It was a funky-looking school, but I appreciate the lesson now.

Day 16 Sustainable Building

I am a few days late, but the sustainable building week was intense and it has taken me a few days to put together my response.

There are design concepts that were introduced that absolutely inspired me. Climate responsive design goes beyond just using a percentage of sustainable materials, and conserving energy and water through efficient appliances.


Passive solar design refers to the use of the sun's energy for the heating and cooling of living spaces. In this approach, the building itself or some element of it takes advantage of natural energy characteristics in materials and air created by exposure to the sun. Passive systems are simple, have few moving parts, and require minimal maintenance and require no mechanical systems.

Operable windows, thermal mass, and thermal chimneys are common elements found in passive design. Operable windows are simply windows that can be opened. Thermal mass refers to materials such as masonry and water that can store heat energy for extended time. Thermal mass will prevent rapid temperature fluctuations. Thermal chimneys create or reinforce the effect hot air rising to induce air movement for cooling purposes.

Wing walls are vertical exterior wall partitions placed perpendicular to adjoining windows to enhance ventilation through windows.

I am looking up some images of home design to get ideas for building in the Pacific Northwest. A passive solar heating/cooling system is very doable and from what I've seen here, can be quite beautiful. I will write more about using the angles of the winter and summer sun and ground cooling. I want to build a home with a root cellar, a sun room, a central open kitchen, and a design that mimics the natural landscape and regional climate.

I still haven't seen the Cozy Shack here on the farm. The Cozy Shack is a home that Dan built out of a shipping container. There is a lot you can do with one of those, for cheap, using recycled or renewable materials.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Learning Contract

Because VISFI does not use a quantified grading system for this course as a student I am required to determine and customize my self-accountable standards for success. I will only be able to consider my completion of this program a success if I fulfill the goals that I have set out for myself.
Nate Olive, as my focus area instructor has gone over the following goals with me and will be evaluating me on my effort:

1. To blog my experiences. I would like to work on being a better communicator while sharing this experience with people who may find benefit either through me directly or through seeking their own opportunity to undertake this type of activity.

2. Video. I would like to interview each student about his/her final project, course completion, and reflection. This will be included in the blog and if time permits I will burn copies to DVD for interested students.

3. Backpacking skills. I love camping, but like so many things I do not know how to do a lot of things on my own. As a way to conquer this lack of confidence I'd like to make a friction fire, cook a meal, and camp out one night (either with Wendy or with other students who are interested).

4. Find my simple joy. I am working toward being involved in the activities around me, not just as an observer. I will remind myself to appreciate my days by writing in my journal one simple thing that made me smile that day.

5. Future. Of course, one of my most significant goals is to tackle the great "what's next?" I will make a mind-map of future options, along with continuing to write down the questions that pop into my head in regards to the "what do I WANT to do query."

6. Exercise. I love to exercise, but it's hard when I don't have set gym-time or very much time to myself at all. I will start EVERY day with at least 5 good sun salutations and work on increasing my flexibility.

7. Dive. I am partially in the Virgin Islands to get in some diving time. I am setting the bar low with 4 tanks, however, I have a lot of competing activities and a limited amount of free time.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Day 14-15

It's a good morning to be alive.

My decision to come here is part of a process beyond learning farming skills and techniques. I knew that when I was leaving DC, I was leaving behind a life that I was not satisfied with. It's also a lifestyle I have no intention of returning to. It is important for me to take advantage of this opportunity to take time for myself and focus on the questions that I try to quiet with distractions. Focus.

I'm starting Day 16 in the Sustainable Building Unit, but I haven't been keeping up my journal as much as I should. Building is a reminder of my own limitations and it's hard to not be frustrated. I'm not tall enough to put up the beams. I'm not confident in my circular saw skills to cut the angles for the rafters. However, I am a good helper. I'm observant and pick up the slack wherever I can. I record numbers. I have to embrace the things I can do. I know that saw skills will come with practice, I have to be patient. It is the desire to learn that is the key. I often ask myself why I didn't learn these things from my parents. I was lucky, it is not as though my parents weren't GOOD at the skills I wish I had acquired.. they were too good. My sisters were both very artistic so nothing I could do was ever quite on their level.

This is me time.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Weekend Reprise II

This weekend I got to participate in the "reef" aspects of the "Ridge to Reef" program. Much thanks and love goes out to my sister Wendy, her boyfriend Mark, and her awesome roommate Pam who took me out with the St. Croix Dive Association. It was a treat to get to head out early morning, catch some incredible wrecks in Butler Bay (down to almost 110 feet!), BBQ on the beach incluing lobsters we just caught, then a long, shallow dive under the Frederiksted Pier. Wow. This is the life.

We saw turtles galore, two sting rays, parrot fish, scorpion fish, sea horses, moray eels, a HUGE barracuda, and plenty of other things that I can't identify. I realized that I need a good hand signal for "cool" or "awesome" or "I don't know what the hell that is but I think it's really neat." I need to work on that. It was really refreshing to get down and explore some of what this island has to offer in terms of marine habitat.

Sunday, the blessings continued as Ryan's parents invited us over for a superbowl sleepover. It is such a beautiful thing to get to know the families of people you care about, they teach you so much about how they came to be who they are. Also, having even more of a support network/family here is such a great comfort.

My mom got her tickets to come down for Bush Skills at the farm! We are going to have such a fun time. A lot of what I'm doing here is farm-centric activities, but being here is not all work and no play. We have a lot of fun on and off the grounds. It's been wonderful getting to know this group of people I would have not had the opportunity to meet otherwise. I do not take for granted how lucky I am.

Day 13 - Bring on the Bohio (Sustainable Building)

Monday we began our unit on sustainable building. The culmination of our education on building skills, practices, and materials will be the complete construction of a "Bohio." I've mentioned this a little before when we were preparing the land by digging the swale. The land has been leveled and cleared and we are ready to learn by doing.

What the hell is a Bohio anyway?

The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean were the Taino Indians. The Taino people lived in bohio homes, a round wooden structure with a tall pitched roof of thatch palm or grasses. The word "hammock" comes from the Taino word 'hamaca' as they had very little furniture and slept in woven hammocks. We will recreate this structure in a 20 x 20 building made of hard wood, bamboo walls, an earthen floor, and a palm roof. The bamboo we have growing in abundance and the thatch palm we are gathering from places on the island that have thatch palms on their property. Because the palm requires a lot of maintenance and pruning no one has turned down our offer to trade services.

Day 1 - We outlined the circle that will be the outer wall, dug the post holes for the 8 support beams, and stood the poles using tamped earth to secure them. At the end of the day we had all eight six-foot poles standing along the circumference of the circle, aligned with the 20-foot octagonal center post. It was a hard day of work, but at the end we could look at this special place we had created and forward to seeing this project to a lasting conclusion.

This building project has me even more determined to build my own place someday. The principles and tools I'm learning here are putting me on the path to being able to do that.

Marshall, who is a student here focusing on sustainable building is working hard with John Vining, our master carpenter. As we get closer to final project time I'm excited to see what they do. It's very refreshing to be surrounded by this type of enthusiasm along with the principle of completion. I've seen entirely too many unfinished projects.