High Tech/Low Tech: Energy Use Balancing Act

[Disclaimer: A few weeks ago I wrote about some of my concerns about climate change and indicated that I would write about this subject semi-regularly. As professionals in the field of behavior change, we have at our fingertips many resources that can affect the behavior of individuals and groups in many realms of life…responsible environmental behavior is one of those realms. Since mental health providers will deal with the fallout of continued change to our environment, using our skills to prepare for or prevent negative consequences is within our professional domain.]

This morning, as I was doing one of the lowest-tech tasks I do, I realized how it fits in to this ongoing discussion.

You see, two months ago, I started raising worms. I can hear the muttered “you did what?”s and see the disgusted expressions on some of your faces. I have seen and heard these often in my face-to-face conversations about vermiculture. Last month, we saw friends at a tandem bicycle rally with whom we had not visited for the last five years. Within three minutes she and I had gotten to our separately-arrived-at but shared new endeavor. Not surprisingly, we both got there by approximately the same route.

If I were retired, I would be an avid gardener. Since I co-run a small business full time, share our residence with my 89-year-old mother, and ride a tandem bicycle for recreation on the weekends, time is at a premium. Traditional gardening will have to wait.

About 18 months ago, I purchased a single recirculating hydroponic garden from a nearby company that specializes in vertical agriculture. One of my neighbors started a hydroponic strawberry farm as his retirement business several years ago and he told me about Vertigro. The unit I purchased (the VG-1) sits on my patio, has a 10.5 gallon nutrient-water tank and is run by a small electric pump controlled by an electric timer. At last, I had the possibility of growing vegetables without killing everything for lack of care!

I was so enthralled by the crop of lettuce and spinach and how easy it was to grow that, six months later in late December, I went for the big time…I purchased a four-tower unit that holds 16 pots in which up to four plants can be grown. I am now beginning to harvest from my third round of planting. Because of how the units are set up, I can easily plant crops that have different starting and best harvest times. Right now, I am still harvesting the last of the late summer basil, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants and starting to pick sugar snap peas and green beans while we wait for the broccoli. In a small in-ground garden, I have carrots, onions, cabbages and Brussels sprouts.

I have tried to grow vegetables since we first moved to our current location in Central Florida. I have had varying degrees of success. Now that we are eating vegetarian, and since I am becoming more aware about how far produce is shipped on average within the U.S. (1500 miles), I decided that it is important that we diminish some of the fossil fuel we use by producing at least some of our own food.

My in-ground garden is fertilized mostly by composted food and plant waste, but my towers are still using manufactured nutrients. Organic is my destination…thus the worms.

Apparently, using organic fertilizer requires assuring that the correct ingredients are present. Without the right starting ingredients, the fertilizer is lacking necessary amino acids for the plants and for the people who eat the plants. Worms do an excellent job of composting food scraps and paper, lots of things that usually go to a landfill or incinerator. Annnnnd, when their feed is supplemented with certain minerals, they produce extremely high nutrient “castings”…the polite and technical word for worm poop.

I raise my worms in a unit called The Worm Factory. It is a vertical stack of cleverly designed bins into which I put food scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells, shredded paper, and the secret ingredient supplement minerals. The pound of worms I bought to start my farm has been busily munching through the first of the bins for the last three months. Today I harvested my first batch of worm poop…I mean worm castings…from the bottom bin. I now have almost two gallons of highly nutritious worm waste that will soon be added to my plantings. I am hopeful that this process will allow me to move away from using mined and manufactured fertilizer to grow my veggies.

Why, you wonder, would I consider going to such trouble to grow my own vegetables when I have my choice of supermarkets, and even a local farmers market. What could possibly make it worth the additional effort, and probably additional cost, just to get a few veggies on the table?

My answer is that getting veggies on the table is only part of the goal. The goal is to find reasonable ways to balance out how much carbon dioxide my household and business dump into the environment. I do not expect that I will be able to diminish our input to zero any time soon, if ever. As a software company, we use lots of electricity to run the computers that allow us to do our work. Our local utility utilizes coal-powered and atomic-powered electricity generation facilities. Not a spec of solar power is generated by this company in the Sunshine State…yet. While we are waiting for that to change, I am working to minimize the number of food miles (the distance food travels from farm to table) expended by my family.

Yes, this is a small change…both in my lifestyle and in contribution to diminishing the production of carbon dioxide by human activities. I will need to do a lot more to make a significant contribution. The electric company energy audit is later this week. I drive a Prius and I vote for leaders who share my goals. I hope other responsible activities will follow, but this is what I can do now given my circumstances.  I can only try in small steps to do less harm to the earth by how I tread upon it. Balancing what I take and what I replace is the current goal.

What are you doing in your daily life to diminish your personal effect upon the environment? What is your organization doing to “go green” and serve as a role model? Please share the ideas you have considered or adopted to walk more gently upon the earth. We would love to know your ideas and experiences.

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