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Howe knows how to live off the land
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WATERFORD – A local engineer has come up with an invention that makes it more feasible for individuals to grow their own food, year-round.
John Howe is a retired mechanical engineer, who has lectured throughout the country on peak energy and published three editions of his book, titled: The End of Fossil Energy.
“By 2005, it became obvious that the rate of world oil extraction ceased growing after 150 years and is no longer able to satisfy the steadily-increasing demand” he explained. “The term ‘peak oil’ long predicted by geologists now appears to be fact and no longer theory. The imminent shortfall of energy headlined by oil, which is 40 percent of all energy and over 90 percent of transportation fuel, is covertly manifested as unemployment as well as other directly-related economic woes.”
“We are now consuming six barrels of oil for every new barrel discovered,” he added. “Yet we need energy to make things happen,” he explained. “Without it, nothing grows, moves to a new place or expands.”
Howe’s solution: Become less dependent on fossil fuels, especially liquid petroleum and become more self-sufficient with respect to food and heat.
And Howe doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk.
In the early '80’s, Howe and his wife Debbie, moved to Waterford to examine and experiment “living off the land.”
One possibility for fuel reduction use by Howe has been building and testing concept vehicles that recharge directly from photovoltaic (PV) solar panels or from the electric utility grid.
One such example is a solar-powered golf cart that turns the vehicle into a mobile power source.
“When parked in the direct sunlight, almost enough energy is absorbed to continuously operate,” he smiled. “It has many uses throughout the farm such as powering conventional tools, like an electric chain saw or splitter, lighting the farm in a power outage harvesting from the garden.”
Howe has also retrofitted a 1962 MG Midget to run on electricity, but doesn’t use it in today’s traffic because it is too slow and heavy. Howe has also built three solar-powered tractors that can harvest firewood, do the haying, and plow or rototill the garden. His bicycle-powered generator can supply minimal energy as well.
Personal energy, in the form of food is a primary requisite for life and Howe’s Waterford farm is surrounded with all kinds of vegetables and fruits.
Because of the short growing season, Howe said that just growing vegetables and fruits in the summer is not enough. If people want to be able to live off their own harvest, they need to be able to grow and process grain, a notoriously labor-intensive process.
“Grains are the basis for our food source, be it rye, wheat or rice,” he explained. “Storing dried food, such as beans and grain for the other eight months is crucial as well as keeping a percentage of seeds for subsequent harvests.”
Howe grows numerous grains for year-round consumption, but separating the seeds or beans from their husks or shells became problematic.
“In primitive societies, people had to use flails to beat stems and husks, separating the grains or seeds from the straw,” he added. “Then a flat basket, called a winnower was used to literally toss the light-weight chaff (husks) into a stiff breeze and separate the waste from the edible seeds.”
Not enthusiastic to grab a flail, and certainly not willing to buy from farmers, many miles removed, who use fuel-thirsty combines to process the grains, Howe’s inventive nature came up with a solution: The Thresher-Winnower, which is a "miniature combine, threshing grains on a neighborhood scale.”
“The first prototype was built 25 years ago to process grain we grew on our farm, and the idea was resurrected a few years ago when interest in local food production began to grow throughout the country,” explained Howe.
The basic principal of operation is two-fold. Hand-held bundles (sheaves) of grain are held into the upper horizontal zone where a rotating group of bars beats the berries out of their husks. Part of the separation (winnowing) is done in this zone because one end of the rotor is also a fan blowing outward. The heavier seeds then drop down into a second inclined cylinder with a high-speed fan blowing the chaff upwards and out of the machine. The final clean product is collected in the bottom of the machine ready for grinding, cooking, or replanting.
“The complete machine weighs 60 pounds and will thresh and winnow up to 20 pounds of clean grain per hour,” he added.
Besides grains, the Thresher-Winnower cleans beans as well.
“I’ve tried it with all types,” he said. “It chews up the stems and the beans come out so clean that they can go right into the pot! And, like grains, the thresher/winnower will process 20 pounds of beans per hour.”
“It certainly beats doing them by hand,” he added. “And neighborhood growers can take complete and easy control of the whole process.”
Two electric motors muscle the machine and can be powered by an electric utility grid ... or, in Howe’s case ... his solar-powered golf cart!
Howe added that there is considerable national and Canadian interest for his machine after initial exposure in farm magazines. Several machines have already been ordered by grain grower cooperatives
“Minimal production is expanding at my shop but could not happen without the sheet-metal expertise of Marc Rainey at Longley’s Hardware in Norway.”
The essential parts and design of the machine are also being sold as kits to other possible manufacturers throughout the mid-west and west coast.
“It is a movement to get closer to our own food source,” explained the inventor. “We have wonderful gardens in the summer and area people are getting back to living off the earth; people like the Norway Transition Town movement, Sustainable Oxford Hills and local farmer’s markets. We are all trying to find a way to get back to local self-sufficiency.”
As best as one couple can do, the Howes have explored living, in part, off the land and have gone back to the primary source of energy, the sun.
“We need to return to local self-sufficiency for food, warmth and transportation as fossil fuels begin to run short and become more expensive. The unprecedented growth we’ve enjoyed for the last century cannot continue on a planet with declining, finite fossil fuels.”