Category Archives: Research

Stink mouthed Dragon no more

The previous story was just sitting here waiting for me to publish and the world had already moved on. Yesterday afforded me time to sit with the stove and see what I could make happen. It had been suggested to point a small fan into the feed box in order to increase the draft. If it did increase it, I couldn’t really tell. All that seemed to happen was that the smoke just got pushed into the room faster. Another suggestion I had seen in the Rocket Stove book was to choke down the feed box by adding a brick at the back of the box. Well hot Diggity ding dong dang if it didn’t work. I’ve lost a bit of space for fuel but it works. In fact, after running the rocket most of the day in an attempt to dry it and the mass in the thermal battery, I did an experiment and removed the brick I had added. And, yeah, instant smoke fest. So there ya go. I put the brick back and it went smoke free. Just the cutest little roar. If you want to hear it purr, come on by.

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Rockety Coop ready to roll

coop rocket ready for final layer

I’ve been keeping going back in the barn lately, in amongst all the doings with getting ready for the Farm Tour. With the excuse of having people walking though the barn and not breaking their legs, I figured that I needed to fill the thermal battery as it sits in the doorway connecting the new coop with the rest of the barn. This is, after all, the whole point of where it is sitting. Yesterday before breakfast, it just seemed like the thing to do. It’s funny how hunger comes and goes and the sketchy shaky feeling passes, eventually. coop thermal battery

The pipe in the battery comes out and back with a clean out just after the bend. I don’t think I’ll put the final layer on top of the box until everything gets a whole lot drier. The mix I used to fill the box was 50% unscreened bank sand and 50% unscreened yellow clay. They were both on the moist side from the recent rains so I didn’t add any water. It was only dry mixed and then tamped in around the pipe as the box was filled. Just after the returned pipe rises from the ground, another clean out is added. This will allow a place to get the draft started if their is a problem. coop door stop & chimney

Once the box was filled and tamped, there was still a bit of material left over, so I used it to fill in around the firebox on the other side of the barrel. In order to keep the unmortared bricks from collapsing while I tamed the soil in around them, I simply filled the opening with bricks and a few slivers of wood as a brace. rocket no can filled

It’s pretty neat that there was just exactly enough material to get the box to where it is. In the first image, there is a galvanized can with a lid sitting over the firebox. This will be secured into the floor with it’s bottom removed in order to control the air flow. I don’t have anything like that on the rocket in the Seedhouse and I know that without it the mass will continue to draft and cool. Pretty much defeats the purpose. This way, the lid can be used to either slow or stop the flow completely. The mix that I will use around the large, riser barrel and the smaller can won’t have any lime in it. This way I can get back into it if I need to without it being any harder than it needs to be. This looks to me like a potential drawback to adding the lime into any of the floor, but especially around the stove. Going back into the hardened lime could mean hammer and chisel, instead of just a hose. I’ve got to burry these things far enough into the ground that they can withstand having a goat  (or 3) jump up onto them. I don’t intend to have goats jumping on them. Not at all. But they already do. Viann does anyway. Ann prefers the work deck.

This is all prototype. Every bit of it. Worst case scenario, I can knock the entire rocket riser apart and dig up the firebox and reuse the bricks. It won’t make the barn colder and the chance of it burning down the barn are extremely low already. coop unflat floor

With the floor in this condition, and not having a big new batch of chickens ready to move in, the floor can sit for a while. Or lay. Or whatever a floor does. The walls won’t be doable till fall, or a till the Phrag dies and dries out. Which ever comes first. This will give me a chance to put up the next boxes and such. Perches, exclusion/brooder cages, roof. There is a lot to do before there are chickens sleeping in there at night. There is no door and one of the walls is mostly the remains of a rubber drop tank. It would be nice to have this place livable for birds by winter. This will allow me to clear the main barn for the goats when they won’t want to go out anymore. It might cut down on how often they have chickens standing on them. And pooping on them. Maybe a little.

coop latest hen and chicks

Winter is very much in the air. I know that Montana is Montana, but come on, it’s not even September yet and they are closing roads due to snow?  The front that broke the long ugly heat thing that happened earlier this month smelled of winter. Geese are on the move. Only 1 flock of about 20, not headed south, exactly, but they were moving together. My broodiest hen refuses eggs now. They know that time is short. Fall is coming. As it always does.

Farm Tour 8/27 (tomorrow!)

shroom and rooster

Tomorrow (8/27) we are hosting a Farm Tour sponsored by the Ashtabula Local Food Council  here at the farm. Come by and check out just exactly what this place looks like.  It looks very different than it has for a while (if ever). The chickens sure love it. At the base of the big Red Oaks back by the barn, down among the roots, they have found that the soil is light and fluffy and oh, so perfect for dust bathing. The rocket stove in the barn has progressed by leaps and bounds. It, too, will most likely make another oh, so perfect dust bath. Come on by and check out gardens and the Seedhouse. We’ll be doing a long plant walk as we wander the ring trail. I know the Elder berries are mostly done but the Monkey Flowers and Lobelia are going strong. The schedule says 1:00-3:30 so we’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the rocket ready for final layer


Fungus season


For whatever reason, this year has seen an explosion of Boletes in the area around the farm. At least 5 or 6 types of them have come up. These look to be Baorangia Bicolor  Bolete.

We haven’t eaten many yet. We ate what we are calling King Bolete the other day. Today we ate a few of these.

crinkled shroom

Xerocomus hortonii (“Corrugated Bolete”)

What I get to feeling when I think about  all these things coming up out of the ground is that they are all expressions of the underground here abouts. These Boletes come in such profusion around North America  that some of them are only identified with certainty under a microscope. (over 400 species) It’s the shape of their spores and the tubes they fall from. Beats me. These things are what they are. They aren’t the spore shape ones. They are certainly delightful to eat.

I’ve had a couple of experiences of eating mushrooms from the woods that have ended poorly. Once by my own hand, once by the hand of another person. the mistake I made was concerned with bitterness levels and a total inexperience identifying Boletes. Upset stomachs were the extent of things. The event by another’s hand was a misidentification of a mushroom that GLOWS IN THE DARK!!!  General rule. Don’t eat things that glow in the dark. We were actually out again today gathering Chanterelles behind the barn. It’s been a good year for fungus.

I am growing to think that the world is a far more subtle place than any of us realize.

Mud floor gets a leg up

coop floor surveyours mark

Tuesday was a big big day. There were 6 people, a dog, 2 goats and most every single chicken at some point helping out. The 4 leggers and the birds mostly just crapped on things and knocked stuff over. Like normal.

My hat in hand, I must thank Stephanie and John from Red Beet Row, Gretchen from Cherry Valley Ecological Farm and Patrick from Octagon Acres. This floor has been staring me in the face for months now. Not doing much of anything but drying out and getting burrowed into by the chickens in their eternal quest for the perfect dust bath. And what have the goats managed to hurl to the floor and smash now? With all these people coming to get the floor done, I no longer had any excuse to put it off, so we did it. Half of the floor the first day any how. It went down quite well. We could mix the cob a bit wetter than I would like to for walls. It didn’t really need to stand up to anything. And this is just the first goat anyways. coop goat prints

With having just finished the first layers on the Syrup Cooker and Mary’s Grotto (later), I’ve found some success with increased durability to the elements by adding a couple of scoops of hydrated mason’s lime, NOT farm lime. This is the same stuff that I used on the outside of the Seedhouse. Only there, the mix with only lime and clean white sand. Here the mix was 50% yellow clay 50% bank sand (both thru a 1/2″ screen) 2 scoops of lime, and a flake of last year’s moldy hay because I don’t have any straw at the moment. I found that not only does the lime harden the clay enough to shed water, the mycelium grows through the clay as it dries, binding everything together in one final explosive embrace. I haven’t actually read too much about what people use in their earthen floors, beyond using elephant dung which is polishable and antiseptic. Who knew? I have lime. So I’m throwing it in everything. I just imagine how the chicken poo will soak into the cob. The smell will be in the floor no matter what. The hope is that the lime will keep the floor together longer with all the shoveling and scraping that will happen in there. It’s not cement. I accept that. I also accept that I can’t grow more lime. The closest mine is in Genoa, Ohio. Closest supplier is in East Cleveland. What will happen in 5 years? Dunno. 50? Beats me. It’s a floor. It’s a dirt floor. In a chicken coop. Whatever happens to it will be WAY worse than anything that will happen to a floor made of the same recipe in my house. I want to see what it does with 50 chickens living on it. Just to see. Same with the Rocket stove. I just want to see what I can do with one in a building that I go into at least twice a day, every day. Or someone does. I got a warning about lighting the stove at -20 F. They apparently hammer out every bit of moisture in them at once and lock the system up after about 30 minutes. It makes sense. 2 different barns. 2 different builders. It’s only set in dirt at this point. coop rocket

As you can see in the above image, I went back out to the barn the next day and finished off the rest of the floor. I had to go back across the street for another load of sand, but by the time I got to the doorway, I had used up all of the clay and sand that we had brought floor dust box

This is the SW rounded corner of the room. The Phragmites bundles are shown as the basis for future earthen plaster work. I left a corner of the floor exposed to the tamped dirt with a treated 2×4″ frame is set flush with the floor surface so that more dirt can be added as they throw it around all winter. If I hadn’t put this dust box in, I wouldn’t have had enough cob to get the floor as close to the opening as I eventually did. The floor is within 3 or 4 inches of the doorsill, whenever that gets figured out. In addition to filling in the thermal battery and around the firebox on the rocket, I’ll need to go over the entire floor with a finish layer. This will mean I need at least 1 more load of clay and 1 of sand, so I figure there will be enough to get the floor out as far as I need it to be. I figure to set bricks in the cob under the door. Between them and the lime in the clay, I hope to discourage diggers.

Another deterrent to diggers and chicken killers is the mesh that I put up over all 4 barn windows today. This has allowed me to remove the windows from their sashes and allow even more air to move through the barn. There is an actual breeze through the barn now. And I’m content knowing that the varmints can’t get to my birds. And the 6 chicks that hatched 3 days ago. It’s nice having broody hens. She seems to know what she’s doing. There is food and water just out of the frame, and the box has some extremely expensive chopped straw that I paid way too much for at the BIG BOX FARMY STORE. I can make myself feel better by saying that it’s a business expense and I can write it off.


Baby barb in Bubba's Shrine

Here is Mary’s Grotto as it appeared in my Mother’s parent’s front yard in the spring of 1967. The child is not me as I wasn’t born yet. My folks were dating, but weren’t married till later that year. The brown sticks to the left of the image are/were beautiful roses that surrounded the Grotto by the time I came along. I am currently wearing the belt of the man who is taking the picture. He passed away last year. This is my Uncle Mike taking picture of his first child. A little girl, Barb. It’s a good belt.

Mary's Grotto

The intervening 50 years were harder on the grotto than they were on Mary. It was the roses and the rose light filtering down on her all those decades. The bottom of the Grotto crumbled to pieces as I picked up, leaving 2 bent sections of rebar hooked out the bottom of the long cement curve. These I torched and bent straight. The cement chunks are left over from the patio/sidewalk/driveway job. I drilled a hole in each of the 2 front slabs of cement and filled in around the rest of it with lime cob. I made the small bowl out of what was left.

Once everything has a chance to cure a bit, I’ll go back and apply a final coat. Depending on how froggy I get to feeling that is. I just never know what I’ll be doing next. Oh yeah. Just so you don’t think Viann didn’t get in on the action. Here is her contribution.

coop floor no good deed

Never one to let a good turn go unpunished, she must have had a great time once she found the bag sitting there uncovered this morning. She beat that thing into submission. I don’t think all that much got wasted as there was a half a bag there when she found it. When Leah saw it this morning she just asked, “what did you think would happen?” No answer. I knew that she did it because of the white powder coating her horns and powdered down her neck, to her shoulders. Every error, every misstep. Goats, they find them.



Sorry, that is an almost baseless accusation. I don’t know for sure that it was a raccoon that was trying to dig its way under/in to the barn doors. This has proved to be an exercise in futility in any case. But I do know that if the doors weren’t as well built and/or closed by dark, there would be far fewer birds in the barn this morning. I say it was a raccoon, rather than a squirrel or a skunk or a black bear, because Maly actually backed one of the little bandits up a fence post in front of the barn a couple of months ago during the night shift. He was back there screaming his fool head off, charging the fence. And there was Rocky, cool as a clam, perched on top of the 4×4 wondering how it was going to get out of this one. I have these stupid moments of compassion sometimes. I simply got a LONG stick and pushed it off the post top, INSIDE the barn yard and told Maly to come with me, which he did, reluctantly. He likes the praise that much. I call it stupid because that sucker keeps coming back. Keeps digging away at the castle wall. I’m sure it has young’uns out in the woods somewhere. Guessing. What do I know of raccoons? Besides their being micro bears. It doesn’t smell like skunk either. When they are around and messing with things, in my experience, they leave their ick, just a hint, simply to let me know they were there. Barn schmarn.

One aspect of the native clay project has taken a HUMONGOUS leap forward. When I was at the gravel supplier looking at their pile of “blue clay,” I pulled a good sized chunk of what appeared to be very clean clay out. About the size of a watermelon, the lump only had about 6 or 8 stones about the size of a chick pea. The rest went through a 1/4″ screen. I just got the sense that it would work. The clay feels right. So, I thumped some down on the wheel and PRESTO. Pottery. Rather than conduct a really accurate test, I didn’t change my water so the pots have a white scum on them. This is the fine clay that was suspended in the water. I don’t think it’s all that big a deal. These cups and bowls have some rocks and chunks in them. Not terrible. the kind of thing that seems manageable as long as the supply is consistent.IMG_0631

The bits and chunks are more apparent here. Also, notice how the right bowl isn’t round at all. It was when it went into the kiln. Same with the one resting on it. They went through the firing stacked lip to lip and the left one (smaller and on top) actually sank into the larger lower one. The clay was soft enough to move with little pressure (gravity) but not so soft it actually slumped and melted into a pool. A side effect of it having gotten so soft, it has moved into the land of vitrified clay. Flick it with a finger nail and it rings like a bell. A lot higher of a tone than the earthenware (red or white) that was in the kiln with it. These guys were on the top shelf of the kiln, so they were undoubtedly hotter than everything else in there. Not a lot lot hotter, but some. the kiln is set to turn off around 1950 F. That is what the bottom looks like. I think the top went to closer to 2000 F. Doesn’t matter as long as I can get the same results and more, a lot more, of the same clay.


I have a lot on my mind lately so I’m doing many things at once in an effort to get back to only a few things. Yesterday I made my first insulate bricks. At least, they are something along those lines. A different clay than the stuff used to make the cups and bowls, this clay is from under the pond across the street. These bricks are made of the same stuff that the Seed House inside walls are made of. Only, these things will get heated through quartz inversion (1000 C /1832 F).

The Work is heading into a more practical direction at the moment. I’m realistic enough to know that pottery is a luxury. Especially in what passes for our current local/global economy. If I can sell a few of these things this year, awesome. I feel confident that those who purchase them will be very happy with the improvement to their daily rituals. Most folks could really care less. I remember one of my Officers at the FD that refused to drink his coffee at the station out of anything but a styrofoam cup. New cup every time. A line of ceramic cups hanging from hooks right next to the coffee maker. Only styrofoam. It’s easier to toss it than to return to the kitchen, wash the cup and set it to dry. Ridiculous. He is someone who would never think about bringing something like my pottery into his day. This, to me, is an all too common state of mind. The difference between the garbage choked river in St. Marc, Haiti and Conneaut Creek is that we have curb-side garbage pick up. All those cups would be hammered into a plastic slurry on the beaches if it weren’t for that.

With the world seemingly, once again on the brink, I gotta find a way to bring something into the world that people will use. To get them to use it, they need to need it. We need to eat. We can eat soup from cupped hands if we have to. But we, as a North American 21st Century Society, have to heat the vast majority of our food. I’m looking for a way to make food preparation more do-able. Our time in Haiti showed me what cooking is like for most folks alive, RIGHT NOW. Smoky, smelly and dirty. I’ve read many times that lung compromise from breathing cooking fire smoke is a leading cause of death in women world wide. Lots of folks are traveling around the poor parts of Earth teaching people how to make Rocket Cookers and Rocket Ovens. That’s great. It’s awesome. I don’t happen to live in East Timor or Nepal or Burundi so I can’t sit in on what they are doing. I’ve chatted a tiny bit with one of those who goes. He’s busy busy and most of it comes down to experimentation with local materials so I’m on my own for the most part. The few tests I’ve done on the shallower clay look very promising. Same clay as the bricks. This is all very preliminary. Most of what I’ve come up with so far has left a lot to be desired. There is just so much iron in all the local clay that it melts at a much lower temperature than commercial earthenware. In addition to the 25 year hiatus, I only thought “using local clay” was a neat idea back then so I didn’t learn much about processing it. Learning it now though.

point and laugh

first load

Drove home from Hogle’s pond with the first load bundled on the roof of my car. What a hoot. When I got to the stop sign at the bottom of the hill I heard a strange keening warble coming from outside the car. Upon scanning my immediate environment, I discovered 3 young children in the front yard of the home to my left, a girl, 8-ish, and 2 boys, maybe 5 y/o. One of the boys way pointing and laughing at the top of his lungs. Great peals of laughter that came across as shrieking for just a moment. A sight to behold was I. And so I was. This load took about 2 hours to cut working alone in a far less than optimal stand of Phragmites. None of the bundles, and I think there were 7 or 8, had been cleaned so another 2 hours was spent rebundling them and filling the air with Phrag seeds. From what I’ve heard, the seeds are terrible when it comes to germination. They mostly spread by rhizome. But to say they are terrible includes space for them to be at least successful enough to spread around the entire planet in nearly every ecosystem that includes at least some liquid fresh water. Which means that they will be fighting it out with the mugwort growing around the greenhouse in 50 or 100 years or at least until the canopy covered the entire area and shades them out. That is only if no one is here to cut any of them back. I won’t be here by then, so it’s someone else’s problem. As much as I love bamboo, that is one plant I’m simply unwilling to bring anywhere near here. It would stomp through our wetland and own it inside of 2 weeks. And likely be at the shores of Lake Erie before years end.

Last night I took my re-bundled phrag and attached some of them to the inside wall of the coop and let me tell you, it looks real good. This will work. The bundles are attached at 4 points. It looks like I imagined it would and I think it will work quite well. With all those hollow tubes and the air spaces around them trapped between 2 hard/dense but breathable layers, heat should move only very slowly thru it.

In the processes described here, I discovered about 85 ways I could save myself time, effort, and exposure. There is a reason that in every picture I’ve seen of “hand cutting thatch”, the people are pictured processing the reeds WHERE THEY ARE CUT. Not in their driveways in front of their houses. Let the waste say in the field. The fields of Phrag are all very tidy and even and there seems to be nothing but fresh reeds standing. Not 2″ of dead reeds laid semi-horizontal among the base of the live reeds. And ONLY fresh reeds. No dead from last year or 2 years ago. I’m working from sub-optimal conditions here. Conditions that will improve over the years though as I return to the same fields and harvest the reeds repeatedly. Even a single good mowing would take care of things. Only problem with that is that the reeds are standing in 6-8″ of water. I’ve never seen a farmer around here with a tractor capable of cutting Phrag and chopping it up, that also floats. Brush-hogs generally follow the tractor. Only Public works and Dept of Transportation have the side mount and arm mounted mower decks. Dave didn’t mow down the old frag because he didn’t want to burry his non floating tractor to the axles to cut a useless (to him) grass that is growing in a place where nothing else would grow. He laughs at me when I tell him we would all should use Phrag for insulation and roofing. “They said that switch grass was the bee’s knees, too. Gunna make ENERGY from it. Ethanol. Huh. Paper plates maybe.”  That stuff is everywhere around here.

In my world view, only me, Charles, not anyone else affiliated with me, feel, that things that are designed to save time or make things easier or more productive and efficient, often involve some form of loss of autonomy. Convenience is death in other words. Cutting and bundling the Phrag by hand, and using it instead of a  $4.00 bale of straw isn’t really efficient. But it keeps me outside and moving. If I had a good job with a decent wage, I could make enough to insulate every building on these 2 properties inside and out with not a lot of effort if I were so inclined. Most likely I would be inside all day and no where near the farm. Exactly when I would be able to do such a task is hard to say. Grabbed moments and weekends most likely. Or I can do like I am and find a way to do it for next to nothing. Takes longer. I might get leaches on my ankles if I don’t wear boots, but I’m there doing it and it really feels good opening jars and bottles and being able to best the tightest of them. (Mostly that comes from milking every morning)

Another things Dave laughs about is how “kids these days” are going back to the way his great grandparents used to do thing, simply because no one can afford to get started with all the crazy expensive machines needed to do anything on a scale that is any sort of “efficient.” A dairy is only a hobby until it passes the 500 cow mark. Most contemporary diaries in this area would be cost prohibitive to build new. Like any long standing business, they are built upon the bones of their ancestors. As often as not, the tales of parent handing off the farm to their kids is not happening. A lot of “parents” (eg. property owners), in this area anyway, have been clutching on to their property with Scrouge’s grip. They seem to think that the land has a greater value as an idea, “MY LAND,” than it actually has. To my mind, land really only has the value someone is willing to put into it. Above and beyond the value of it’s actual existence as land as apposed to ocean which is only fine if you are a fish.

What does any of this have to do with the sun on my skin, the wind in my hair and the birdsong in my ear? Not even a little bit.

It’s a beautiful day. We are alive. You and I. Make it count.