Today is Thanksgiving in America and I am thankful. I have a fantastic, patient and forgiving wife in Miss Mercy, who puts up with all the crazy ideas and experiments a Mad Farmer can come up with. I have two wonderful and loving daughters. I am very proud of both of them and thankful I don’t seem to have caused them any lasting harm in the way they were raised. They are both very capable, kind and caring young women and I love them immensely.

We will be spending this day with family and friends, plenty of food (as usual I am sure there will be way more than enough to go around). I’m sure there will be a few households that are struggling, there are people in California who have recently lost their homes to fire and are grateful to be alive. Some are mourning the loss of loved ones, but for the most part all across America this is a day of rest and thankfulness. I am humbled to live in a nation where even our poorest households would be considered well off by the most of the rest of the nations of the world.

America has it’s share of problems and struggles, but on this day, Thanksgiving day, let’s reflect on the common ground between our citizens instead of the differences and remember and celebrate the things that make America the greatest place to be.

Happy Thanksgiving to all,

The Mad Farmer

Rocket Mass Heaters and Ianto Evans

I just finished reading what is probably the original Rocket Mass Heater book, “Rocket Mass Heaters Third Edition” by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.

In case you haven’t been a RMH geek for a long period of time you may not know that Ianto Evans is regarded as many as the “Father of Rocket Mass Heaters”, at least that is my understanding. Ianto has been working with fire, building stoves and working with associated natural building techniques like cob, for decades. The biggest current names in the RMH field, like Kirk “Donkey” Mobert, Ernie & Erica Wisner, Art Ludwig and Paul Wheaton have all collaberated with Ianto, taken classes from Ianto or used Ianto’s designs as the basis for advancements in the science (or perhaps art) of Rocket Mass Heaters.

Rocket Mass Heaters Third Edition is not a long book, it’s only about 120 pages but it is packed with information, pictures, drawings and case studies. The book goes into exactly what makes a Rocket Mass Heater tick, how to build one and what materials to use. Rocket Mass Heaters in a nutshell consist of several main parts: The Burn Tunnel, Heat Riser, Feed Tube and the Mass or Thermal Battery and the exhaust pipe or Chimney.

One note of caution that comes up again and again in the book and should be noted by anyone thinking about building a RMH is that these heaters  burn HOT. A typical wood stove will usually burn around 500 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, the relatively low temperature is what makes them so dangerous, they don’t burn hot enough to burn off all the creosote and gasses and the typical temperature exiting the chimney can be in excess of 300 to 400 degrees. In a Rocket Mass Heater the temperatures in the  burn tunnel can reach 1500 to 2000 degrees. That is hot enough to burn creosote, smoke and anything else that can cause a problem and the typical exit temperature at the chimney is around 150 to 180 degrees – much less likely to start a chimney fire. The high temperature burn is what make them so efficient but anytime you are working with fire pay attention!

The book starts out with a description of what a Rocket Mass Heater is, how it functions and outlines what they are and what they aren’t. It’s pointed out if you are looking for a “throw some wood in and leave for the day” fireplace then a RMH is probably not for you. The middle section of the book discusses in detail how to build a RMH, what kinds of materials you can build it with and the care and feeding after you have it built. The final section covers safety precautions, case studies of actual RMH builds and information on additional resources.

At $20.00 this book is a must have if you are interested in Rocket Mass Heaters or just want to read about cool things you can build that involve fire. I highly recommend it.



Food Safety Course

We started the K-State Extension class on Food Safety by going over the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety rules. Apparently the FSMA was passed and signed into law in 2015 and has a phased compliance period. There are some exemptions, for instance because I am not yet selling more than $25,000 annually in produce over the last three years I’m exempt.  I actually haven’t sold any produce yet, since my first growing season will be next spring but, as our lead instructor Cal pointed out, “If you haven’t been in business you don’t have any bad habits to un-learn”. Primarily the rule covers growers selling between $25,000 and $500,000 a year in produce (can’t wait to get to the upper end for TSL Urban Farm)!

The class is divided up into seven modules, the first being a broad overview of the six to come and the rest covering what produce is covered by the rule and what isn’t, health and hygiene, soil and soil amendments, agricultural water, wild and domesticated animals, growing, harvesting, processing and packing. The amount of information that came at us in an eight hour period really was like trying to drink from a fire hose. The good news is that you can access a lot of resources at the K-State Extension Food Safety website and the instructors are available via email and phone for follow-up questions and consultations if you have questions, which you will.

It turns out that just washing your hands properly and often when handling produce can reduce the possibility of contamination by up to 60%. We also learned that “you can’t sanitize something that isn’t clean”, seems obvious in hindsight but apparently it’s a common problem. Another thing that turns out not to be true is that putting sanitizer in wash water “washes” the  produce – what it actually prevents is cross-contamination from infected food, so you get three instances of listeria from a lot of produce instead of 300 or 30,000. I also found out that in Kansas the difference between sprouts and micro-greens are that sprouts have the roots attached and micro-greens don’t. If you are growing sprouts you need a license in Kansas, growing Micro-greens, you don’t.

The best part about the class is that the materials are well organized and presented and it’s K-State’s practice to try and have at least two instructors for each class, one with practical growing knowledge and one with a more academic, scientific focus. In our class we also had a guest graduate student working on his PhD teaching the water modules. We were told that the water section is the least liked of the materials but personally I found it fascinating. I learned a lot I didn’t know about how water is classified and how risks are increased or decreased by the type of water you are using, where you are using it and how you are using it. The worst part of the class is that the instructors are mandated to verbally read each PowerPoint slide, in case there are attendees who don’t read English or read it well. Death by Droning PowerPoint presentation is a personal pet peeve of mine but I can see why they have to follow that rule and the instructors made the best of it.

Overall it was probably the best $20 I have ever spent, at the very least it was the least expensive and most productive of my educational outlays. I’ve attended lots of free workshops and webinars over the years on all kinds of topics and I can say that personally I found this one of the most useful and informative classes I’ve ever attended. I would highly recommend taking it just for the education, even if you are not planning on growing anything other than your own little backyard garden.

On a side note, I’m now signed up to be an Amazon affiliate. What that means is if you click on one of the items I have links to on the right side of the screen you will be taken to Amazon with the TSL Urban Farm affiliate code. You don’t have to purchase the book or item, anything you put in your cart and purchase after clicking through will generate a small percentage of the purchase price that will go towards maintaining the site and also my site that is currently in the process of being built. It doesn’t cost you any extra to shop on Amazon that way and it will go towards site fees so please think about clicking through and helping the site out with the purchases that you were going to make anyway.

Have you taken a food safety course in your area? What other classes have you taken that you have found informative or useful? I’d be interested to find out what other folks are doing.

Food Safety and K-State University

Several weeks ago Miss Mercy forwarded a link to me about an upcoming Food Safety class being put on by the K-State Research and Extension department. Because I’m starting to get the infrastructure in place for TSL Urban Farms it sounded like a good opportunity to find out more about the laws regarding Food and Sale of Produce in the State of Kansas, so I paid my $20 and signed up.

For those of you who might be interested in history each state has a Land-grant university. The Morrill Act of 1862 allowed the States to sell off land and fund universities to perform agricultural and mechanical research. Kansas State University, or K-State as it’s commonly called, was the very first Land-Grant college and was established on February 16, 1863, and opened on September 2, 1863 (see Kansas does have some firsts that are worth noting)!

Anyway, K-State, through their Research and Extension office does outreach, education and training for the community and one of the things they do is put on classes for Food Safety. The location for the class I was attending was about an hour away from where we live and it started at 8 am so I got up, feed our ridiculous animals (two dogs, three cats and a hedgehog in case I haven’t mentioned them before) and as quietly as I could (it was Miss Mercy’s day off) left the house and headed towards the K-State Extension campus in Olathe, Ks. K-State’s main campus is in Manhattan, KS (also called the “Little Apple”) but like a lot of universities they have satellite campuses in several different cities.

The drive was uneventful, which is the way I like it, and when I got to the campus I was impressed with the Olathe campus. Very modern with lots of glass and open space and a pond/small lake with flowing rapids on the grounds. I went to a nice university but clearly there have been some updates to some facilities since I went to school. When I walked in I started to make my way up to the second floor. Perhaps because I was quite a bit older than the average student with a backpack and in the  school way early (or maybe because I was trying to walk up the stairs via a magnificent stairway that turned out to lead to the locked administrative offices) I got to have a brief discussion with the security guard. It turned out the instructors had changed the classroom location and he had not seen the memo so once we confirmed  everything was properly documented he pointed me in the right direction and I made it to the classroom.

When I got to the class it turned out to be a fairly small turn out. I’m told the typical class size is 20-30 people and for some reason we only had 7 people signed up for ours and two did not make it, so we had the best student / instructor ratio I have ever had in a formal class. Three instructors, one instructor auditing and five students. As you might expect the attendees were a diverse bunch as were the instructors. There was a gentleman in his 80’s who had started growing and selling produce in a Kansas City farmers market when he turned 70, a middle-aged lady who was the marketing and web person for the older farmer, an employee of a local orchard, a community garden organizer, and of course, your humble narrator and start-up Urban Farmer.

The lead instructor came from a generational farming background and the other two instructors were from the academic side of things, including one who had flown in from Texas and had to buy a winter coat at a local store because she had not expected Kansas to be cold. The auditing instructor happened to be Miss Mercy’s boss in from the Topeka K-State Extension office but because I was trying be low-key so I didn’t mention that initially to anyone.  When I’m in a class I’m there to learn and so it’s possible I have, on occasion, driven a few discussions towards things that might be more specific to my situation than generic or occasionally gotten into a “spirited” discussion about this or that. I was willing to let MMB (Miss Mercy’s Boss) disavow any knowledge or acquaintance with me but she was too nice to go that route  and at one point she did volunteer that my wife worked for her. I hope I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the class, I was figuring a few handouts and some lecturing – boy was I mistaken. At each desk location was a thick three-ring binder, a clipboard, notepad, highlighters, pens and handouts. Turns out we were about to take an actual, fire-hose of information, eight hour class..