Ox is a job description

One of the projects i support as i can is the Living Energy Farm.  below is an interview i did on April 2 with one of the founders, Alexis Zeigler

What have you learned during the LEF start up that would be important advice for someone else who was starting a dark green Ecovillage?

I have learned that the complexity of alternative energy in this type of environment is not to be under estimated.  If one is trying to avoid expensive and ecologically high impact battery arrays, you have to design carefully.  You can’t cook breakfast with solar electricity, and no one wants to cook over a smoky wood fire every day. The basic conveniences we take for granted, like a gas stove, require some planning and work to be replaced on a sustainable basis. There is a curve on getting new technologies in place.  With propane, all you need to do is get a tank. With solar, biogas, and wood gas, it is more work to create sustainable hardware.

How is LEF going to support itself in the coming year?

Through a combination of donations, selling fruit trees and growing seeds for wholesale on contract.  We also make some money on the many workshops which we are doing.  In the long term we will provide income through a combination of selling seeds, fruit trees, and a farm stand in Louisa. We will use a bike trailer or horse cart to transport fruits and vegetables.

What types of workshops have proved popular?

The most popular are oxen training and fruit tree propitiation.  These are both all day intensives.  Participants are both locals and folks coming from further out.  We are pleased at both all the local support and people coming from all over the state and beyond.  We have not done a tremendous amount of our own promotion, and our stuff is being forwarded all over the place.  The media coverage we have received so far has all been local.

John Acorn and young Oxen

Describe the decision making process for LEF?

We use a positive consensus model.  This is consensus where the right to obstruct the group is not the focus. Instead the focus of the decision making process is how do we use the best thinking of everyone in the group. A block can be overridden if necessary to move the group forward. We have developed this model ourselves.
What is the energy covenant at LEF?
We are committed to operating with no expendable fossil fuel on a daily basis.  We have given ourselves a 3 year window to build as an exemption.  Long term covenant is that we will work with durable rather than disposable widgets.  For instance, pumping water with solar power is tricky.  You can’t spray water overhead during the day (when you have the solar energy available) which means you are using a drip irrigation system.  Typically drip irrigation is cheap plastic which only last a couple of years. We purchased a more expensive and also more durable set of drip irrigation pipes.

Lots of people are helping out at LEF planting things

      What has been the media response to the project?

So far the local media has been quite supportive, and the internet word of mouth has been great.  To date there has not been press outside the region other than the internet.

Will the community be income sharing? Egalitarian? Will it have a labor system like Twin Oaks or be more free form like Acorn or something else?

The labor system will be closer to Acorn.  We will be income sharing and egalitarian but with more of a focus.  Twin Oaks tends to  disempower the plannership (the central leadership).  We want an empowered leadership structure.  We want to be realistic about what each organization can do.  We also want to embody the anarchist ideal of a perfectly egalitarian culture and highly politicized membership.  Egalitarian systems and hierarchical structures are good at different tasks.  If you are trying to accomplish a mission and sustain the culture you embody a contradiction.

We are submitting an application for 501 D tax status (like Twin Oaks and Acorn).  We will be income sharing and we also want to support people in what they want to do, especially including things like campaigning work.  Income sharing enables us to have our technology agreements.  It supports cooperative use, which is critical from an ecological perspective.  Solar widgets are expensive. Instead of everyone having their own oven, we will have a more expensive neighborhood solar oven.  Renewables are well suited to cooperation because of cost and conveinence.  Fossil fuel is concentrated in a single location.  Renewables are dispersed, and are best suited to cooperative, not individual, use.
Will there be interns? Describe the membership process?

There will be interns, but only a few for now.  The regular members process will have the existing membership using positive consensus to review folks.  We will likely have a visitor period of some sort.  There are two types of members at LEF: supporting members and core members.  Supporting members are something like interns at Twin Oaks and Acorn.  At TO and Acorn there is an automatic graduation of provisional members after a period of time. We are not doing it this way.  At LEF if you dont want to be income sharing, you can remain a supporting member and you dont have to become a core member.

Describe how you are deciding what to plant on the land.

There are four categories, 1) commercial seed crops – to resell.  2) Annual vegetables we are going to eat.  3) Perennial disease resistant fruit and nut trees. 4) Grass seeded for erosion control and future pasture.  Seeds and trees are well suited for zero fossil fuels, with a high dollar per acre and light weight and thus easy to transport.  Trees eliminate tillage – which is the heavy work for the farm.  Tree are lower maintenance.  We will try and get what we can from trees for our food.  It is hard to grow organic fruits and nuts in this area.  This is part of local food revolution, instead of just focusing on meat, eggs and dairy, which are well suited for a fossil fuel production method.  With our energy constraints it is hard to grow what people are used to eating, so we will need to change our diet.

Animals are not the central focus of the farm, their main use is for draft power, fertility, and pest control.  Food (meat) is secondary because there is not a huge amount of land for pasture.  We recognize the relationship between meat production and global warming.  We will have an omnivorous diet while recognizing the environmental impact of meat consumption.

Animals are the focus of local agriculture because they use lots of space and little labor.  At LEF we will use less space and more labor for our food production. Our 127 acres used for pasture for beef cows is not enough food for us.  We will support ourselves agriculturally on this land through cooperative use and put more labor into diversified food production.

Was having 127 acres of clear cut land an advantage (because you were starting with a clean slate) or a problem?

The clear cut was more problem than anything else.  It eliminated the need for discussing which trees to cut, but working the land is overly difficult.  There was absolutely no infrastructure in place and lots of clean up to be done.  The state land zoning has been problematic because it assumes the status quo of your land is acceptable. Thus it is hard to improve without significant costs.  Existing problems with erosion are expensive to fix.  All this has made the project go slower.  But the lack of infrastructure has been a bigger problem: no house, no road, no well.

What is the philosophy about what the community can and can’t use around technology?

We have a set of technological agreements which provide a list of criteria by which we judge any technology.  The obvious one is no fossil fuel in an on-going way. There will not be personal electronic devices.  We will avoid black boxes, If we cant fix it we would rather not have it.  Instead, we will have more of a focus on old fashion technologies, because they are more fixable and reliable.  Our mission is to be fossil fuel free but our broader goal is to live within the means of the planet.  We will not have much electricity for personal usage and certainly not enough to run many modern tools and systems.  We cannot guarantee electricity all the time and we will not have a sizable battery bank. We will have a small battery bank, comprised of nickel iron batteries which last for ever.  This is for DC lights. Burning your house down is not sustainable, so we want to avoid candles as a primary light source.  We are not putting a ban on them, and the DC lights will be wired in.

Alexis and Cultivator

How have the existing communities in the area been helping foster LEF?

Yes.  They have been very supportive.  They have provided lots of volunteers – especially for our Saturday work parties, lots of support for LEF volunteers staying at TO and Acorn.  Donating lots of labor; both big crews and expertise.  Acorn has been providing paid work.  Big crews have been doing land clearing, construction, seed planting and some skilled carpentry.  Most of the LEF board is Twin Oaks and Acorn members.

How has the response from the relatively conservative locals been to your initiative?

Entirely positive as far as we can tell.  The local Historical society has been supportive, because we provide modern day application for their historical content.  The Ox cart is popular.  There was a great article about us in Louisa Life.

What are the largest obstacles to your success?

The roughness of piece of land we took on.  The complexity of making all the alternative energy systems work together well and money.