I have to say I was astonished by the activity at the plant last Saturday.Zafer and I arrived around 10:00, after visiting the Pittsboro Farmer’s Market and taking care of his “hydration test” for Northwood wrestling.
We hooked up a truck and trailer to fetch a backhoe in order to dig the bananas. The forecast was for a frost on Saturday night, and our edible banana trees have zero frost tolerance. It was a mission critical morning.
I loaded up the backhoe, and Arlo, who is arguably the neighborhood’s most skilled equipment operator.
It was a cold, dreary morning, and we knew there was an Abundance Aquaponics Workshop scheduled for later that day. We knew the bananas had to be dug out of the ground, and moved into the generator room-which would take us directly through the center of Mike’s aquaponics setup.
When we pulled in a great cloud of water vapor was wafting across the lawn. The sorghum crew was boiling syrup. They had grown a bunch of sorghum grass down in Silk Hope at Bobby’s Okfuskee Farm. Last year they crushed the cane with a borrowed press from Laurie and John at Wiseacre Farm. This year they received a grant from RAFI to put in a better unit, and they arrived at the Plant with totes full of sweet cane syrup which they boiled into molasses.
We set to digging our bananas and shuttling them into the safety of the boiler room. It’s mildly heated by waste heat from Piedmont’s boiler system.
As we were digging bananas, people kept showing up to dig sweet potatoes. Apparently Piedmont Biofarm had put out a call for volunteers. Random people started trickling in asking where to start digging.
We were loading a pallet when Paul came out of the lab and pitched in. He had just finished a shift with Eli, a high school student from Jordan Matthews High School he is mentoring.
I felt like we needed one of those directional signs with multiple arrows on a single post. One would say “Sweet Potatoes.” Another would point to “Sorghum Cooking.” Another to “Aquaponics Workshop.”
The parking lots were full. The place was hopping. And I was taken aback by the sheer volume of activity. There were lots of people co-operating. Lots of people contributing. And a lot of human endeavor involved.
It made me reflect on the overall project, and it made me think about the economics of each undertaking. Measuring success with only an “economic” yardstick is a risky undertaking-as I point out in Industrial Evolution. But as the sun started to shine on a bleak fall day my thoughts wandered that way:
Bananas: I bought 10 banana trees six years ago for 10.00 each. Total investment: 100.00 plus a lot of work. I’ve been selling banana babies for 10.00 each ever since. Total banana sales to date: 70.00. Not quite even.
Sorghum: The authorities have said we cannot legally sell the molasses produced at the plant. Any syrup sold to the makers of moonshine, and any molasses sold to those interested in a local sugar source must go unaccounted. Until it is allowed to make money, it will not exist.
Sweet Potatoes: I’m not sure what a pound of sweet potatoes sells for from Piedmont Biofarm. They retail them at farmer’s markets, and provide them on their CSA, and sell them to fancy restaurants. The harvest would be measured in “thousands of pounds.”
When I see a “volunteer” headed for the Plant gate after a day’s work with a big box of sweet potatoes on his shoulder I can’t really calculate the value-in economic terms.
Fish: Workshops are easy to measure. Abundance makes money, and the instructors make money, and the folks who provided them with supplies make money as well. I heard from one happy workshop participant that our current aquaponics model could easily provide enough protein for a family of four indefinitely. It is powered mainly by sunlight, with some human endeavor– both the workshop and the concept received high marks from a seasoned student of sustainability. That felt good.
Biodiesel: It remains a marginal economic undertaking-collecting used fats oils and greases from the community and spinning them into fuel for the community is a questionable pastime. We have been providing a high quality product that is less expensive than its petroleum counterpart since February of 2011. At least our members are “ahead.” And Piedmont Biofuels is the anchor that makes all of the other activities possible. That’s worth something-although I’m not sure there is any way to account for it financially.
It was a busy Saturday at the plant. I suppose that if we measure it with an economic yardstick it all amounts to a bust. But when we look at it as a whole bunch of people working together to meet their need for fuel, or sugar, or bananas, or sweet potatoes, or protein it starts to look a whole lot better….