Friday, February 23, 2007

Self Sufficient Farming: The Dream

In my last few posts, I mentioned that I want to eventually make replicas of ancient farms, and that building with cob would be essential to that goal. The farm project is something that I have had in mind for years, but in various stages. It has always been a goal of mine to be self-sufficient. This goal started while I was still in school, as my best friend and I started designing estates we would like to own some day. I think I may have been heavily influenced by the show "Good Neighbors", a 70's British Comedy that focuses on a family that decides to become self sufficient with their own home. Yep, Urban Farming.

Well, the idea has slowly evolved into a very complex concept, involving a small farm, series of greenhouses for tropical crops, a small village for various uses, and historical influences that I would not have dreamed of before I started my History degree at the University of Utah.

The Problem Develops
The changes have all been due to events in my life that have required me to think more toward this project as incorporating more than just myself. As I got married, it included my wife and family. As various family members have run into hard times and have moved into my home, it extended to the family members. I quickly realized that the project alone would be too expensive for anyone to complete with modern construction techniques. Without the prospect of becoming rich anytime soon, I found myself getting discouraged.

The Problem-Solving Inspiration
Then I came across the website for the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire. The concept behind the farm was one that appealed to me: To build a farm that was an exact working replica of an ancient Celtic farm, with an addition of a Roman Villa constructed on the grounds as well. Suddenly, possibilities began to run through my head. They became more possible once I started researching the building materials: Wattle and daub, cob, and thatch.

The Cost-Effective Way
Up until now, I have been making plans half-heartedly by collecting several concepts and technologies that were great, but very expensive. For instance, I had a complex design for power that would be off-grid and compile solar, wind, and water generators. Any one of these technologies would be very expensive, and all three together would be cost prohibitive (unless I find that fabled money tree). Then there was the construction. Logs and stone are both very expensive.

Enter cob. Cob is a basic mixture of clay, sand, earth, and straw. If used on a wooden frame, it can be made into a thin wall that is called "wattle and daub". If built into a single monolithic structure, it is referred to as cob, or monolithic adobe. The building material is perhaps the oldest used, as several prehistoric societies have used cob in their buildings. This is why it's not as popular anymore: it's considered barbaric or uncivilized. Regardless, it's easy to work with, requires no extensive experience, and is more earthquake resistant than traditional adobe bricks.

So now I have found a low-cost building material, as most of the material would be on site. Suddenly, the farm becomes feasible! But there is more to the project than just the buildings. I intend to have a working farm that is low maintenance. This means I need to organize the project into manageable chunks, and focus on what I want to get out of the farm itself.

The Farm Plan
I want to have a farm that will provide the basic requirements for survival (shelter, food, warmth), and provide a source of revenue for continued survival in the existing economy. A single acre can provide shelter and enough food stuffs for a single family, with a small amount of revenue-generating crops that could achieve my goal. But I have more in mind: I want the source of revenue be educational as well.

So I will have the following layout: The main house will be a replica of the Castle of Invernglas, which was the home castle of the MacFarlane clan. I will then have at least two traditional cottages in the continental Celtic style (meaning rectangular). I then will have at least 4 insular Celtic buildings (circular), and I hope to build at least one Roman Villa. This will span the historical architecture for Scotland from the Celtic period to the 16th century.

I then hope to have a small village built with a couple of pedestrian cobbled lanes. This will provide space for a small market, with apartments above the shops. I will also have a large grassy pasture nearby, specifically for various sporting events. I hope the site will become a popular site for renaissance fairs and Scottish festivals. And yes, renting space will be a source of income. ^_^

There will then be pasture for sheep, a couple of goats, and probably only two cows for milk. Also, there will be fields of vegetables, a small fruit orchard, a bee hive, and grain. I also intend to build an artificial cave for ripening cheese. There will also be granaries and storage for root vegetables. And finally, there will be a pond as a small fish farm. This will constitute the ancient working farm, as all the technologies are fairly common and simple.

Now we get to the more modern portion. Solar power is ideal in Utah, as the skies are rarely cloudy (as it is a semi-arid region). Nanosolar has developed a high yield, low-cost solar sheet. While not currently available in a ready supply, it should be by the time I figure the farm will be possible. This will provide a large amount of power with existing roofing areas.

If I am able to locate a site with year-round running water, then I will most likely stick with a hydroelectric generator. Depending on the design and location, I may set up a small station, or build a water mill in a more traditional style.

There is also a possibility that I could use wind power, in which case I would build a traditional wind mill. The mill would then provide both power and a lodging to potential family members.

With the power in good supply, I will then build various greenhouses to start growing tropical crops. This will provide a solution that would become popular with farmers markets, as locally grown tropical plants can be ripened on the tree before picked, and will provide a better flavor. It will also be more cost effective, as shipping costs are not increased. Along with tropical plants, tropical fish crops can also be raised, providing for a source of truly fresh seafood within the area.

Well, that's the plan. It's really comprehensive, and will probably take the rest of my life to accomplish in the end. But this project that I have going on in my back yard is the first of many steps, and eventually should lead to the realization of my goal: To be self-sufficient and provide for the family. It also returns to the roots of civilization, which is the agricultural development of societies. The experiment will be interesting as a living anthropological study. Perhaps I will learn something of the ancestors who lived in these societies.


Chris said...

enjoyed hearing your layout for your farm. i've been looking into using google sketch up to "sketch up" our farm layout to help design different tree plantings and how our production fields lay with the rest of the property. maybe you could sketch up a virtual idea of what you'd like to see?

if i can ever be of help to you with the farm side of things don't hesitate to contact me.

we need more farmers. period.

Jason Bunting said...

FYI: Your link to Nanosolar doesn't work. Thanks for posting all of this information about your plans and ideas online, I am intrigued by all of it and have long thought it would be great to be as self-sufficient as possible - getting off of the grid would be awesome, as well as providing a safe source for food and a great work environment for my family. Don't know that I will ever be able to go all the way with these things, but I would love to try. :)

Jeremy Robb said...

Thanks Chris and Jason! Good idea about the google sketch up.. I'll check that out. I agree that we need more farmers, and local farmers are by far the best in my opinion.

Jason, I'm glad you were intrigued! I hope my experiments will give you a direction to go, and maybe you can learn from my mistakes. ^_^

Thanks for the notice on the link to Nanosolar. I fixed the link, so it should be working now.

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Jenna said...

Hi! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts about building cob in Utah. I am wanting to be self-sufficient and off the grid, while also promoting a sense of community and a place for people to get to know each other. I really liked the details of your plan. [and thanks to Chris for the idea to use Google Sketch. I will have to look into that] I like the vision you have and I hope that the past couple of years have shown some availability being opened up for it. I am wondering if you know where to find a good 'recipe' for the cob mixture with Utah earth. We are in West Jordan and are looking for a place that we can begin building "ours". Thanks again!