Our Quest to Create a Sustainable Farm

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This Kansas farm’s grass-fed sheep and barn-mounted solar panels harvest solar energy to produce healthy meat and electricity.
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Controlled pasture burning restores nutrients and maintains plant health for optimal grazing.
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Frisky kids frolic in freshly set-out hay on a winter day.
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The author’s solar-thermal system taps the sun’s rays to heat the home’s water.
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Welch’s Chevy Volt requires minimal maintenance and gasoline.
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Barn-mounted solar panels and grass-fed sheep both harvest energy provided by the sun.

When my wife and I were in our early 20s, cash-strapped with our first baby in diapers, someone told me that the secret to financial security was to make a budget and live by it. So I made a budget.

My budget showed that we would have $11 per month in disposable income, if no one went to the doctor and neither of our decrepit cars ever needed repair. As if. It didn’t present a path to financial security. It did, however, demonstrate the value of a vegetable garden. By starting to grow most of our own food, we saved a few hundred dollars — and that summer, a few hundred dollars made a lot of difference. More importantly, our family established a collective vision, gestated in that garden, of efficient self-reliance.

We visualized a goal we’ve been working toward ever since.

Positivity Puzzle

These days, we’re no longer so focused on stretching grocery money. Instead, we’re fascinated by the idea that we can produce food efficiently — for us and a bunch of other people — and that our lifestyle can have a positive net impact on the global environment.

That’s right, a positive impact. Maybe.

We now live on 50 acres of tallgrass prairie in eastern Kansas. We raise sheep, cattle, goats and chickens for meat. With every passing year, our managed grazing makes the land more fertile. With photovoltaics (PV) installed on our barn roof, we generate more electricity than we consume. We do most of our driving in an electric car, also powered by our home’s solar system. A solar-thermal hot-water system provides plenty of hot showers. Our vegetable garden — the seed that started it all — remains.

When we socialize with urban friends, we bask in their admiration of our country skills. We smile modestly and tell subtly self-congratulatory stories about the joys of the garlic crop and how the arugula complements a homegrown rack of lamb.

But compared with our farmer friends, we are pathetically unskilled. I don’t weld and I’m helpless when confronted by any significant mechanical problem. Plumbing terrifies me.

To make our farm economically self-reliant, we would need to employ all of those skills and more. Instead, we make most of our money elsewhere and pay mechanics, plumbers and welders when necessary. We’re emphatically not supporting ourselves financially as farmers.

Rather than measuring our farm’s efficiency economically, we concentrate on solving the puzzle of figuring out how our home, farm and lifestyle can have the most positive net impact on the planet. How can we, and our neighbors, engage in a system that’s mindful of the land and sustainable for future generations?

Carbon In, Carbon Out: The Value of a Prairie’s Carbon Sequestration

Unsustainable farming practices worldwide contribute to increased levels of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the air, which get trapped at the Earth’s surface and promote climate change. Concern about the carbon in our atmosphere has led us to focus new attention on how we farm and live.

Whenever we burn fossil fuels, we are taking carbon stored in the Earth and releasing it into the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change. When farmers use synthetic fertilizers and plow the land to grow bumper crops for livestock and humans, they affect the environment in much the same way, and steadily deplete the soil of its natural fertility.

Conversely, when my wife and I graze our animals in a carefully managed way on natural prairie, it has the opposite effect. Grazing animals on perennial pasture actually improves soil health and sequesters carbon in the soil. In fact, a lot of scientists think a healthy prairie may be as, or even more, effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere as the same acreage of rain forest.

Here’s how it works: Plants use solar-powered photosynthesis to combine carbon dioxide from the air with water to form carbohydrates — sugars and starches. Over thousands of years, prairie plants have evolved together with herds of bison, deer, elk and other grazers. These herds eat prairie plants down to the ground, and, in response, the plants rebalance themselves by allowing some of their deep roots to die. These decomposing roots become carbon-rich humus. The prairie plants are adapted to recover from the grazing and grow new leaves and roots quickly each time the herds graze their tops down. This means that the more often the herds graze off the tops, the more carbon-rich humus is stored deep in the soil. In addition, legumes in the pastures replenish essential nitrogen, and deep-rooted perennial species mine the subsoil for minerals and bring them to the surface. The grazing animals also distribute nutrient-rich manure evenly across the grassland.

These are the principles behind the success of managed intensive grazing systems, similar to how we raise livestock on our farm. Farmers can optimize this solar-powered, soil-building, carbon-sequestering process by creating diverse pastures with plants regionally adapted to thrive in each growing season. Meat, dairy and eggs produced via this pastured system are also much more nutritious than products from animals fed grain in confinement operations.

What a great story: The pastures feed our herds and we harvest the nutrient-rich meat, while at the same time our pasture plants store carbon and our soil grows more fertile. (This is how the deep, fertile prairie soils have been formed around the world.) No outside fertilizers are needed — our farm is truly solar-powered and beyond sustainable!

So, our cattle, sheep and goats are carbon sequestration machines. Plus, our meat, eggs and vegetables travel a lot less than grocery store fare, because they mostly come from our own property, or from our friends and neighbors. We think that’s cool.

Adding Renewable Energy: Photovoltaic Solar Panels and Solar Thermal Hot Water System

Nearly 70 percent of the electricity residents in the United States consume comes from fossil fuels, which contribute to growing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are throwing our climate out of balance. Equally vexing, from my family’s perspective, is that we can’t control the effects that the extraction and use of fossil fuels have on the world. We know fossil fuels pollute. We know the industrial processes for extracting, refining and distributing them also have negative environmental consequences. And we know some of the countries we buy them from have leaders who don’t share our concerns about human rights. When we fill our tanks with fossil fuels, we are conscious that we’re not doing good in the world.

We’ve made two investments that have dramatically reduced our reliance on fossil fuels. The first and most important was installing 26 PV solar panels on the roof of our barn. In summer, they produce about twice the electricity we consume, pushing the surplus out onto the grid for others to use. In winter, they produce about half the energy we consume, and we buy the rest from our local utility. Over the course of a year, we’re just about even, producing a little more electricity than we consume.

Through our solar contractor, we contacted a local bank that was willing to help us lease our system for about $145 a month — almost exactly the amount of our average electricity bill before we installed the panels. The lease gets gradually more expensive each year, which we rationalize with the assumption that electricity from the utility company will gradually get more expensive as well. Even if it doesn’t, we don’t mind. At the end of our 15-year lease, we’ll be able to buy our system for less than 20 percent of its original cost.

One of the loveliest qualities of photovoltaics is their durability; they suffer little wear and tear. Our system has no moving parts — just 26 panels, some wires, a few switches, and an inverter that conditions the raw current for use in our home. The panels do lose efficiency slightly over time, but the experts say we’ll still have 80 to 90 percent of our generating capacity after 25 years.

For years, we debated whether to mount solar panels on the south-facing roof of our house, as we didn’t want to cut down the trees shading that area. The solar engineers had an answer: Put the setup on the east-facing roof of the barn, and add one or two panels to make up for the loss of efficiency. Duh.

Now, our lights, refrigerators, freezers, air conditioner, computers, phones and just about everything else that consumes energy in our home run on power we generate using just the sun, some silicon and a few thousand feet of wire to move the energy around.

To heat our water, we have a separate solar-thermal hot-water system that heats food-grade glycerin in solar collectors and circulates it through a heat exchanger. The pump that moves the glycerin is powered by a PV panel, so when the sun is shining, the glycerin gets to work. (I confess to taking long, guilt-free showers.)

Our Chevy Volt Electric Car

After the solar collectors, our second most important investment was our Chevy Volt electric car, which goes 30 to 40 miles on plug-in solar electricity before switching to its gasoline-powered backup engine. Most days, I don’t use any gasoline at all. It’s the best car I’ve ever owned, in every way. It’s fun to drive. It’s quick. It’s comfortable. And in my first 40,000 miles, I spent only $116 in maintenance. That’s right — 40,000 miles, $116.

After driving the Volt for three years, I’ve concluded that electric cars are just better vehicles. Electric motors are more efficient and powerful than internal-combustion engines, per unit of energy consumed, and electric motors can run 10 times as long before needing to be rebuilt. Even if I buy electricity from our utility company, the cost per mile of an electric car is only about 15 percent of the cost of running a similar car on gas — and the EV pollutes less, too. What’s not to love?

Our Aspirations

We still burn propane (a byproduct of natural-gas processing and petroleum refining) for heat. This fall, we hope to replace our propane furnace and our old air conditioner with a geothermal electric heat pump, which will provide heating, AC, and supplemental hot water for when our solar hot water system can’t keep up. Geothermal systems operate via underground piping that takes advantage of the relatively stable temperature of the Earth. By installing a piping loop and a ground-source heat pump, we’ll minimize the amount of heating and cooling we’ll need to fuel with electricity. We’ll be an all-electric, all-solar household. Goodbye, propane tank.

Our farm truck and our tractor both burn diesel. Unfortunately, we haven’t found an efficient way to eliminate our diesel use. So, we drive and haul as little as possible. If we were handier, we might collect and refine used vegetable oil to burn instead. Our neighbor does. If we had more time, we could probably double or triple our garden’s vegetable production. We might even grow our own grain for breads and pastas. But veggie-oil diesel and homegrown pastas are, for now, a bit more than we can handle. So, as always, we have aspirations and puzzles to solve And, in a way, that’s the best thing about the quest to create a sustainable farm and do as much good — or as little harm — as we can in the world. We never run out of puzzles.

Bryan Welch was the publisher of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 15 years, and is now CEO of B The Change Media. In between rounds of moving livestock with his trusty sheepdogs, he authoredBeautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want.