Plans for the New Office

Sorry for the long silence on SESE’s new headquarters but we’ve been so busy building it that we completely forgot to tell you all about it.  We broke ground on the recycled warehouse and mostly erected it back in 2011 (post on that coming up soon) and then broke ground on the building proper in May of 2012.  The months preceding ground breaking were a flurry of design sessions, draft drafting, research, and consultation.  After laying a lot of the ground work ourselves we ended up working with architect Fred Oesch, an area green architect who came highly recommended from a number of people, to bring our plans to completion.  He was a great help, advising us on design elements to aid in natural lighting and ventilation, building systems for high performance and low cost, and helping us figure out what we could do ourselves and how best to do it.

The final design is a beautiful sweeping two story affair oriented invitingly to the south (how could we build a building without a grand southern exposure?) and fitting cozily into the space we prepared for it.  Take a look.

The new SESE office... now the trick is getting it off the paper and onto the ground.

You can see quite a few features of the building on this drawing.  The long face full of windows is the south and front side of the building, maximizing solar heat gain in the winter and letting lots of light into our working space.  Our recycled warehouse is poking its nose into the picture from the right.  You can see the sun porch and front airlock projecting out of the face of the building.  The exterior grade doors leading from the porch to the outside and into the office proper will prevent outside and inside air mixing which should help keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  The mostly glass walled area should also make a cozy place to take off your snowy coat and boots or just pass the time in the winter.

From here you can also see the terraces providing outside access from the second floor, which is mostly private offices and flex room for our growing co-op to expand into (knock on wood!).  The east and west terraces will be surfaced in an engineered soil and planted with sedums forming a living roof which should last indefinately and help keep our building cool in the summer by converting some solar energy into living energy rather than heat and by doing a bit of evaporative cooling to boot.  Crowning the building you’ll notice the full length monitor (a sort of super cupola) that we’re including for lighting and ventilation.  The windows all along this ridge will let a flood of light into the core of the second floor, naturally lighting what would otherwise be a dim northern side of the building.  When we open them up in the heat of the summer, we’ll be setting up a powerful stack or chimney effect whereby hot air in the building will rise into the monitor and escape through the windows, pulling in relatively cooler air from the ground floor to replace it.  When the days get hot enough that the stack effect stalls out we’ll be mounting a few whole building exhaust fans in the monitor to take up the slack.  Out of our commitment to live lightly on the land we will not and have never air conditioned our people, although we do air condition our seeds.  Ventilation, shading, and the timely opening and closing of windows can keep our spaces comfortable throughout some pretty challenging weather without the high energy cost associated with air conditioning.

The first floor of the new office, the place where it will all go down.

Here you can see the layout of the first floor of the building with a few features I already mentioned.  Here you can see how the southern wall (the bottom of the drawing) is peppered with windows while the northern wall opposite it is pierced very sparsely.  This lets light (and heat during the winter) in on the south where it is abundant but keeps the cool dark northern wall as well insulated as possible.  You’ll also notice that the rooms clustering around the northern wall are spaces not generally inhabited by people, like the mechanical room or the bathroom, or that we want to be cool and dark, like the picking room where all the packets of seed live.  The principles for good seed storage are to keep the seeds cool, dry, and dark as what they want to start growing is warmth, wetness, and light.  Situating the picking room along the north helps keep it cool and dim.  To supplement this we will be super-insulating the walls of the room (including a straw bale wall along the whole northern exterior wall) and installing a good wrap around vapor barrier to keep our amble Virginia humidity out.  These measures should minimize the amount that we need to run our air conditioner and dehumidifier to keep the room at its optimal condition.

The southern rooms are more self explanatory.  The multi-purpose room is our big open space that we hope to use in a variety of ways.  It should provide over flow space for working during the busy winter season, space to hold our regular meetings, and hopefully to hold occasional public workshops on seed starting, seed saving, cooking with heirlooms, gardening organically.  The clean office, also called the quiet office, separates computer and phone workers from the dust and loud music from of the shippers and packers occupying the dirty office (also the noisy office).

Two little harder to spot details are the wood fired boiler and the composting toilet.  We’ll heat this building, as we heat all our buildings, with wood harvested from our own land or purchased locally burned in a super high efficiency boiler.  Wood is a great heating fuel, especially in rural areas, as it is relatively abundant, naturally renewable, and carbon neutral.  Using a high efficiency gassification boiler and an intelligently designed heating system (which we got a lot of help with from Galen Staengl, a local green mechanical engineer) can get the fire running pretty cleanly and can get the most energy out of this still precious resource.  The building also features a small basement vault where we will house Virginia’s first legal owner built vault composting toilet and the dosing basin for our grey water system, designed by John Hanson of Nutricycle Systems.  Composting toilets are ecologically and economically wonderful waste management systems and, as we’re in a position to easily pull it off, we would have felt remiss not to include one.

Well, that concludes the preliminary tour of the new seed office.  We hope to throw up a few more posts in the coming weeks to catch you all up to the current state of the construction.  Stay tuned!

Protecting our Right to Grow Pure Seed

The fight to protect our right to grow pure seed continues! Last week Southern Exposure joined many of the other plaintiffs in Washington, D.C., for an important chapter in our historic lawsuit to protect pure seeds from agri-giant Monsanto: OSGATA et al. v. Monsanto. A panel of three federal judges heard the appeal, and we have high hopes going forward. We’re sending a loud message: we don’t want GMO genes on our farms, and it is shameful that under the current law organic farmers can be found at fault when our crops are contaminated by those genes.

So many farmers have contributed to this battle, donating their time and funds to travel to the court and make a real show of the faces behind this lawsuit. You can help too: add your voice to the Food Democracy Now! Petition in Support of Family Farmers Against Monsanto. We’re especially thankful to all those who called their congresspeople on January 10 in support of our appeal.

Want to learn more?


Our own Ira Wallace and Carol Koury of Sow True Seed at the Citizen’s Rally for Farmers.

Singing the Praises of Butternut Squash

butternut squashbutterbush squash

by Debbie Piesen

Winter squash may be the perfect vegetable. It is easy to grow, stores well without processing, is tasty and nutritious. For seed growers like us at Living Energy Farm, winter squash has the added advantage of being a dual-purpose crop- we can save the seed while also enjoying the bounty of delicious food.

We grow all kinds of different squashes on our farm, but moschata type winter squashes are our favorite. Moschata is a species of squash that includes seminoles, butternuts, and some pumpkins. Moschatas do particularly well in the Southeast because they are resistant to insects and thrive on heat and humidity. One of our worst insect pests is the squash vine borer, which in a bad year can wipe out non-resistant varieties. The reason mochatas resist vine borers is that they have solid stems, unlike the hollow stems of pepo and maxima type squashes. With a moschata, the vine borer has no place to go!

Pictured, from left to right: top row: Butterbush, Nutterbutter, Waltham, Waltham Virginia Select; bottom row: Honey Nut, Metro PMR, Amber Delight

Among the moschatas, butternuts stand out as particularly productive and delicious. This year we were involved with trialing seven different butternut varieties- Waltham, Waltham Virginia Select, Metro PMR, Butterbush, Nutterbutter, Honey Nut, and Amber Delight. Waltham is the standard butternut squash for its medium-large size and good flavor, but Waltham Virginia Select, which will be offered by Southern Exposure starting next year, proved to be a considerable improvement over Waltham in productivity and disease resistance.

Our all-around favorite was Butterbush, which has exceptional flavor, early and uniform ripening, and a small seed cavity. This variety has compact and productive vines which are well suited to the home grower, who may have limited space.

In addition to being fun and easy to grow, butternuts are excellent keepers. Without canning or freezing, we enjoy our butternuts from harvest in September well into February and March. Good handling and storage technique starts at harvest time. Ideally, harvest your butternuts when you have a week of warm clear weather. Choose fruits that are fully mature and unblemished for storage. Immature or damaged fruits, or fruits missing their stems, will wrinkle or rot more quickly in storage and should be eaten first. Start by clipping the fruits off the vines, leaving at least an inch of stem, and turning the fruits so the stem is exposed to sun and wind. Leave the fruits in the field, or move to a sunny spot, to cure for at least a week. The curing process dries out the stem and draws moisture from the squash, which hardens the rind and helps prevent rot during storage. If the weather is cool or wet when you harvest, squashes can be cured in an indoor space at 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once the squashes are cured, pack them gently into a box or bin, being careful to avoid puncturing the skin. You don’t need a root cellar to store winter squash; in fact, they do better with warmer temperatures and medium humidity. They should not freeze- 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal- but we find that in Virginia butternuts do fine in unheated outdoor buildings like sheds and barns until the weather turns really cold in late December or January. After that, a basement or cool room in the house works nicely.

Our favorite way to eat butternuts is to slice them in half lengthwise, coat them with oil, sprinkle the halves with cinnamon or savory herbs, and bake them at 350 degrees for about an hour. Some folks like to add a little molasses or honey, but some varieties like Butterbush don’t need the extra sweetness, they taste better without it.

And nothing says winter in our kitchen like a warm, hearty squash soup. We sometimes make squash soup from the frozen purees we’ve put up from our fall pumpkins, which are not good keepers. But using storage squashes like butternuts works well too, and many of us – myself included – prefer the flavor to pumpkins. Here is our favorite squash soup recipe. The quantities have been left out because it works for many different amounts of vegetables, as long as there’s plenty of squash!

Butternut squash
onions or leeks
celery or celeriac
grated ginger
garlic
cream
salt and pepper

Bring a large saucepan full of water to boil for stock. While the water is heating, slice open the squash(es) lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and pulp into the saucepan. Peel off the skin and add it to the saucepan. Cut the squash into one inch cubes and set aside. Slice, dice, or mince, according to your preference, the onions or leeks, celery or celeriac, and garlic. Add any trimmings to the stock pan. Keep the stock at a slow boil for at least one hour.

Coat a large heavy-bottomed pan with olive oil, put on medium heat. Add onions or leeks and cook until they begin to soften, then add the garlic, celery or celeriac, and squash. Cook for about ten minutes. Then add the stock through a strainer, adding extra boiling water if necessary to cover, and the grated ginger. Cook at a low boil for 30 minutes, until the squash is soft. Mash it all up or put through a blender. Add cream as desired, and salt and pepper to taste. Yum!

It’s easy to save seed from butternuts and other winter squash. Cultivation is much the same as growing these plants for food. Give them plenty of space and adequate water for quality seed. To maintain genetic vigor, save seed from a population of at least 10 to 20 plants. And be sure to provide at least a quarter mile of isolation distance from other varieties of the same species. (SESE recommends a quarter mile to one mile of isolation, depending on planting size.) Harvest when the fruits are completely mature. Signs of maturity are different in different varieties, but with butternuts look for fruits that are completely tan. Cut a few fruits open and check the seeds if you’re not sure; they should be plump.

To save the seed, cut the squashes in half with a small knife, trying not to cut through the seed cavity. Scoop out the seeds, pulp and all, into a bowl or bucket. Add a small amount of water, if necessary, so the seeds stay wet while they are fermenting. Let the seeds ferment for at least two days, stirring twice a day. The fermentation process controls some diseases and breaks down the pulp so it is easier to clean the seed. You may need to let them ferment for more than two days in cold weather. When the pulp is soft enough to slip easily from the seeds, add more water to the bowl or bucket. Most of the good seeds will sink, and most of the pulp and immature seeds will float. Pour off the pulp and immature seeds. Repeat to separate out more of the pulp and immature seeds, adding more water with each pour if necessary. Then pour out the good seeds onto a screen and put them in front of a fan to dry. After 5 to 7 days of drying, put the seeds in a jar and store them in a cool dry place until you’re ready to plant again in the spring!

Biography:
Debbie Piesen has been working in organic agriculture for eight years, and has been growing organic vegetable seeds for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for three years. She is currently the farm manager for Living Energy Farm, a community and environmental education center in Louisa, Virginia, that uses no fossil fuels. Living Energy Farm cultivates three acres of organic vegetables, grains and flowers for seed and market, and maintains five acres (and growing) of organic orchards.

Saving the Past for the Future