Desert Farm: MVP

I plan to buy a plot of land and build a desert farm to eventually operate as an educational campground. The idea is that people can come and join the community for a long time in order to learn about subsistence techniques and pitch in with money and work.
Then, together, we can all work to grow food and subsist on the land with the short-term goal of complete food and water sovereignty for the community, and the long-term goal of everyone being completely free to work on their own projects and careers in order to thrive together on the land.
One of the first planning tasks is defining the MVP or minimum viable product. What are the bare minimum essentials that we need when we get started?

Goals

Let’s start by talking about the early-stage goals for the community.

Sizing

One of the critical early questions to ask is how big should the community be. Many of these challenges are far easier to address with a tribe-sized community. Humans evolved to live in groups of 30-50 individuals. Our brains are wired for this. Food production, infrastructure, and many other challenges we face are far easier to address at this scale.
I think it makes sense to start with this size for the MVP phase of the project. It may later make sense to increase in multiples at this scale. Eventually, it seems likely that each project may have a group this size which owns and operates their project together.

Subsistence

The primary short-term goal is subsistence. We need to rapidly get to the point of being able to feed and water ourselves onsite without any inputs, and while managing and recycling all our outputs.

Infrastructure

Layout

Just like Arcosanti, the initial settlement will be outside the planned future development. This will allow easy access to the site by positioning First Camp near the road like our own Mind Garden.
By the end of the MVP phase, we will have built a 3×3 grid of city-block sized squares. The central square will be the main public space and feature public restrooms, showers, and eventually art installations.
The eight outer squares will be sites for group camps just like Ponderosa at Slab City or Moon Cheese at Black Rock City. These will eventually be allocated on an annual basis to groups with compelling project proposals for public offerings, resident stewardship, and  fulfillment of the principles set forth in the Desolation Manifesto. All of these camps should operate as independent, self-sufficient, bootstrappable, and self-funded businesses which address issues related to permaculture while also fulfilling the triple bottom line. Some of the early project proposals include an air well, aquamation facilities, Castile soap production like Dr Bronners, and of course basic community infrastructure. The purpose of all these camps is to inform visitors about techniques for affordable, sustainable alternatives for building communities like ours.
Initially, the only thing we need to worry about is building essential infrastructure and doing it in a way that will let us later expand as planned.
Outside the core grid, land will be allocated for the purposes of the community on an annual basis by the community. Food production and solar arrays are among the most important possible land uses. Additional land not allocated for specific uses will be set aside for dispersed camping and miscellaneous art installations.
But before anyone can come, we need several basic things to be prepared so they can be provided for the community. Most of the work we need to do will be at the site of the future central square, starting with public restrooms and showers.

Power

In the early stage, I want to set up solar photovoltaics with lithium batteries to hopefully give us all the power we will need. The solar arrays will be federated around the property so as to produce power at the same locations where it’s needed. Distributing power production this way is vital to resiliency. There will be no single point of failure.
I plan to duplicate my work from Burning Man, creating a simple network of artsy spider boxes which can run off the battery banks and distribute the power. This means each set of solar panels can charge separate battery banks which are each dedicated to different purposes. For example, one dedicated just for refrigeration and cooking, one for infrastructure like internet and lights, and one to serve as the initial public backbone for the small number of people who will be working on the early stage of the project.
As a proof of concept, I built a small camper which generates 600 watts of solar power which is far more than enough for all of my own needs as an individual. This simple system will simply be duplicated several times to satisfy all these initial requirements.

Food

During this first stage, two large chest freezers will be placed inside a shipping container with additional shelving to serve as the  community’s secure food storage. One of them will be fitted with a special thermostat to make it operate like a fridge; this way we have a large fridge and a large freezer to share. This is a popular and successful strategy in widespread use at burning man and elsewhere.
In the beginning, a very simple community kitchen will suffice, probably housed in the same shipping container as the food storage. This is actually how the kitchen at my burning man camp started out. Larger food production facilities will make sense once there is a larger group to feed and house on-site.  In the long-term, I’d like to see the kitchen offering some kind of simple meals twice daily (breakfast/dinner) to everyone so that there is some basic level of access to nutrition guaranteed to all community members.
If the side of the property with the street access is the front, then I envision one of two outside-front blocks as the main kitchen where food is collected, stored, and distributed. This allows the kitchen access to the central square, the unplanned land for agricultural use, and to the street for deliveries. We aren’t going to be able to specialize in everything, so no doubt some food imports will be necessary.
Food will be produced in several exciting ways on the empty land adjacent to the kitchen. First, there is closed loop aquaponics. I have done a great deal of personal research and experimentation with this, and the possibilities are huge. We will need to build several simple tank beds inside some kind of greenhouse. These will be stocked with edible fish, shrimp, etc. Then a simple raft of styrofoam insulation floats on top of the water with holes cut in it for net pots. These net pots contain the many leafy green vegetables we will later eat.
There is a really enormous amount of research available about this method called Deep Tissue Aquaculture. It serves several purposes at once. It grows food both in fish and plant form, it runs off of urine from both fish and humans, and it cleans and recycles water that would otherwise go to waste. It does all of this without any soil and while using over 99% less water than soil farming. Deep tissue aquaculture has been in practice from Mexico City to Thailand for tens of thousands of years and it’s both more efficient and more productive than more mainstream techniques.
Additionally for long-lived vine plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, and berries, the dutch bucket method allows us to very simply build a similar growing station which uses the same fish water to grow these large plants in a way that is more suited to their needs.
For both the dutch buckets and the aquaponics beds, I think doing the growing inside a shipping container with controlled light cycles and temperature will be a huge improvement over outdoor or greenhouse growing. In order to avoid the limited seasonal growing cycle as a result of changes in daylight, and to avoid the unnecessary heat, we can let a rooftop solar array capture the sunlight and heat before transmitting that power to led grow lights in the cool, humid inside of the container gardens. It’s not clear to me whether this makes more sense as a short-term goal or a medium-term goal, but I think getting crops out of the sun cycle and into a protected environment will allow us to grow a lot more crops year-round as opposed to only during their natural growing season.
One of the biggest reasons to grow food indoors instead of outdoors is the opportunity for first-in-first-out just-in-time growing. I want to take this early stage to experiment with ways of doing the planting and harvesting to allow for FIFO/JIT so that we can produce these vegetables as we need them, not all at once. If we plant two or three each of spinach,  lettuce, kale, etc every week or so, then we can harvest that many each week after a 26 week growing cycle. This is one major opportunities for innovation in subsistence farming that I think we can really pioneer here. Instead of growing lots of food in the spring and trying to store it for the rest of the year, we can move production inside and grow the same food year-round. This likely wouldn’t make sense for vast corporate agriculture, but it makes a lot of sense for subsistence farming.
For example, a standard sheet of syrofoam is 8’x4′. If we build the tank beds to fit that size, then we will have 8*4=32 square feet of growing space in each bed. Because most leafy greens require about one square foot of space, this means we can segment the production such that one row finishes growing per week. That way we always have fresh leafy greens on hand, with more being ready each week.
Despite the focus on aquaponics, I’d like to have an additional focus on composting in order to create healthy soil for growing plants that way as well. In the long-term, it makes sense to create geodesic domes to allow year-round food production for soil crops. In the short term, I think it makes sense to start with the circular beds that will eventually be enclosed in future domes. These can be constructed on an ongoing basis using reclaimed materials from the composting process, including compostable toilets, table scraps, and other sources for compostable materials. These domes will likely be well suited for agricultural products like herbs and spices or anything that may have a harder time with aquaponic growing methods. Imagine walking into a dome full of fresh basil. to have your morning coffee and bagel.
This will also be a great opportunity to inform people about companion planting techniques. Rotating monoculture is one of the practices most responsible for the many catastrophic side effects of corporate-scale agriculture. Instead of sewing vast fields with a single crop that strips all nutrients from the soil and then moving on to new land like corporate agriculture does, we can focus on reviving ancient wisdom traditions around plants that work together (companion planting) to provide for one another’s needs while nurturing the soil in a way that keeps working over time (is sustainable).
Remember that one of the key principles is to be a community with no outputs. We need to find ways of recycling and reusing all the materials that normally get dumped somewhere. This makes us more sustainable but it also gives us huge opportunities for growth. This is a perfect example because we’re taking waste that would normally be buried and turning it into fuel that drives food production and growth.
It probably goes without saying but I want to make sure we are only using heirloom varieties of plants so that we get healthy, reliable results from plants that were designed by nature to succeed as part of a broader ecosystem, rather than designed in a lab only for the purpose of maximizing profit no matter the cost to that ecosystem.
Another one of the big advantages of growing food in the desert is the fact that there are lots of food crops which are well-suited to growing in the normal desert conditions. After all, people have subsisted for tens of thousands of years here growing crops that thrived under these conditions and allowed vast civilizations to develop here. We will need to set aside a large area for these kinds of crops as well.
Another critical piece of the puzzle is pollinators. If we want to produce our own seeds to grow food far away from other agricultural enterprises, then we will eventually need to develop apiary skills and establish bee hives to pollinate the plants. I am very interested in building off the work of Paul Stammets in researching and experimenting with the ways that agarikon fungi can serve bee colonies as a general-purpose antiviral to stop the apiary viral complex which when combined with widespread pesticide use is decimating vital bee populations around the world. Bees are absolutely essential to human well-being. We could not survive and produce food without them.

Livestock

Chickens are fun and easy animals to keep. They love to eat any pest insects like cockroaches, and they make lots of delicious eggs. I’ve had chickens most of my life, and once you taste fresh eggs, you will never want to go back to store bought. Chickens are a no brainer.
I’ve also had pigs and dogs. One of the dangers of living in the desert is the presence of venomous animals like snakes and scorpions, as well as coyotes that will try to eat the chickens. Luckily, both pigs and dogs love to hunt and eat snakes and scorpions, plus they chase away coyotes. For this reason, I plan to get a couple of pigs (pot-bellied) and a couple of dogs early on. These will never be food, just cute friends who work on keeping the grounds safe from dangerous animals.

Water

The same block where the kitchen sits will also play host to our Department of Public Works Camp (DPW) and serve as the central distribution node for things like power, water, internet, and septic.
Trenching these things will eventually give access to the other eight blocks of the core grid. For now, it will only be supplying the kitchen with power, water, and septic.
I’d like to start with a raised IBC Tote water tank, and eventually construct a full IBC water tower. This builds on lessons I learned at Slab City during my visit there. This will initially serve to simplify water distribution by putting a lot of water in a big tank where everyone can access it. The easiest short-term solution will likely be either hiring someone to truck water in periodically or else using a second IBC tote to truck water in ourselves.
Eventually, raising that tank or one like it will mean we can let gravity do the work of high powered pumps in providing water pressure for showers, sinks, etc.
Water reuse is a must. Water is expensive and it’s one of our scarcest resources. We must focus on reclaiming as much as we can and finding new uses for it whenever possible. There are great ted talks about techniques in use around the world for reusing water five times or more before it becomes too dirty for any useful purpose. To that end, I’d like to have public access to water freely available to everyone in the community. This will create natural incentives for us to educate guests about how important water recycling is, and to provide adequate infrastructure to close the loops on the outputs.
In the long-term, I want to focus on developing and expanding bio-remediation and reclamation techniques for water. For example, in the earthships of Taos, many use this same technique of collecting human urine in a tank to grow plants. They also use a complex system of mechanical filtration or bio-filtration to reclaim fresh water from the tanks.  The water they drink is the water in the fish tanks, put through a series of filters. Then it goes back into the fish tank when they pee it out. In the tanks, bacteria and enzymes break the urine down and make its chemicals available to the plants as food. This is why the technique is called closed-loop aquaponics. Adding fish to the tanks just adds extra urine to feed even more plants while including fish as an additional food source.
There is no reason we can’t use something like a simple solar distillery or other filtration system to clean the fish water and pump it back up into the water tower to be used again as perfectly clean and potable fresh water, and this has to be the long-term goal because water is only getting scarcer and more expensive as the biosphere continues to collapse.
If everyone uses 1-3 gallons of water per day (about half the average for a typical American), and we have one hundred community members, and we pay $1/gallon to have water trucked in (less than half the average paid at burning man), then we are paying over ten thousand dollars a month just for water. Every gallon we reuse means money we save every community member.
Some of the people involved in the early planning stages of the project have  expressed interest in building Atmospheric Water Generators such as Air Wells. I think in the long-term this makes a lot of sense. Even in the desert, there is a lot of water in the air, and that water can be extracted in order to be used as potable fresh water. Also, while closed loop aquaponics uses over 99% less water than old-fashioned farming techniques, a great deal of the water it does use goes into the air as humidity through the processes the plants use to make glucose and other materials they need. This water accumulates in the air since the greenhouse is a closed space. It makes a lot of sense to extract the excess humidity back out of the air in the greenhouse and return it to the tanks for reuse. In fact, this is a natural side effect of air conditioning. All air conditioners produce water which must be drained away. This can simply be caught or piped back into the system. This seems like a challenging project but we have someone who wants to do it, and I think especially in the long-term, it makes sense to focus on any water reclamation strategy that’s available to us.
As a case study, one of the best examples of water bio-remediation is water hyacinth. This plant grows quickly and floats on water with no soil for its whole life cycle. In fact, in places like Thailand, water hyacinth is what they traditionally use as the rafts to grow plants on in their ancient deep tissue aquaculture techniques. They use water hyacinth just like we’re using styrofoam. One of the other benefits of water hyacinth is that it filters any heavy metals and other toxins out of the water. Water hyacinth can grow in raw untreated sewage, purifying it into clean water while producing lots of compostable plant material. It can even be fermented into ethanol or other biofuels.

Internet

The most common individual-scale strategy I’ve seen in my own research in improvised communities is using hotspots from providers like T-Mobile or Verizon. I use one from Google. These costs can even be shared by several people caravanning together.
Community-scale internet is a more challenging problem to solve. The current internet infrastructure is owned by a corporate monopoly. The backbone that was built with public dollars is now only accessible through corporate gatekeepers. I think there is a lot of hope that this will change in the future, but currently our only real option is to pay a gatekeeper for access.
Thes best way to provide community-scale internet service will depend a lot on the eventual site chosen for the farm. At burning man, we use long-distance radio towers to beam internet into the city and then distribute it through a series of smaller networks.
Building our community network will be the easy part. I’ve worked directly on this project at burning man and even built a community-scale network myself  for Comfort & Joy. BUilding a community network can be done using simple off the shelf repeaters to rebroadcast the internet connection around the area. Something cheap and simple like this will likely be fine in both the short-term and medium-term. Even a simple Google Wifi Mesh system like the one I have at home will easily deliver gigabit network connections to the entire area of the proposed future development.
The hard part is figuring out the best way to get a high enough bandwidth connection from the internet to our public network so that everyone can get enough access. In the long-term, it will likely make sense to federate this system so that several individual uplinks to Starlink or something like it which can then be distributed around the area with branches building off of these uplinks. It would even make sense to establish load-balancers between the uplinks, and then share that balanced uplink across a simple mesh wifi system. This kind of system would be extremely resilient to any kind of issues outside the area.

bathrooms

Urinal troughs are simple to build and they allow us to easily reclaim valuable material and add it to the aquaponics system to feed the plants. I’ve seen examples where people are doing closed cycle aquaponics without fish urine and using just human urine to feed the plants. I think doing both together will be a good place to start.
Composting toilets are a no brainer, particularly in the early stages when there are just a few of us. Simple instant tents with toilets inside are an easy solution that I’ve already tested with great results. We will likely have some large section of the land adjacent tothe kitchen set aside for composting, in addition to the aquaponics, soil domes, and other agricultural infrastructure.
Many of the composting materials require different periods or temperatures. For example, safely composting human waste requires different techniques from composting vegetables or unwanted plant parts. So there will need to be different kinds of composting set up for different materials.

showers

I have always found it morally appalling that public restrooms and showers are not already sited on every street corner across the developed world. People have a right to bathe and relieve themselves with dignity. This one of the most egregious violations of human well-being I’ve seen perpetrated on a de facto basis throughout not juts America but also Europe. The only public showers that are available in America are found at truck stops and they cost $10-17 each time. This is not ethical. Showers, like restrooms and water, should be freely available for everyone.
To that end, I’ve researched and experimented with various techniques in improvised communities and I like the simple strategy of a low-flow shower head with a metered button to turn it on for a minute or so at a time. Water heating will be done by a simple passive solar water heater. The water coming out of the solar water heater will then pass through an electric tankless water heater in order to make sure it is up to temp. This hybrid design means the electric water heater only has to do part  of the work on cloudy days, or at night when the sun is not heating the water. Our shower system will have no CO2 emissions, and make it easy to collect and remediate/reclaim the water from the drains.
One technique I liked at burning man was the elevated expansion grid platform with a sump pump underneath to collect the water and pump it into a holding tank. Remediation and reclamation processes can then pull the stored water out of the tank and get to work cleaning it up and making it potable again or simply using it to flush toilets in the adjacent restroom block.

Laundry

Laundry is an interesting problem to solve. There are substantial costs involved in terms of maintenance for typical machines, and remediation of the water may not always be possible with certain chemicals. Also evaporating the water during drying is going to waste a lot of water. Probably the best option would be not using industrial machines, but instead soaking clothes in natural non-chemical cleaners and then drip drying them or using a condensing dryer to reclaim the water during drying.
One of the most important things is not using any chemicals that are going to be hard to remediate in order to get the water back afterwards. One of the best options for solvents is Castile soap like Dr Bronner’s.
In terms of methods for not using expensive machines, I have found great alternatives in my own research at improvised nomadic communities.
In the modern world we have lost the tradition of soaking clothes overnight in soap to clean them. This is a huge first step that will be easy for us to do. Simply start by soaking clothes in a bucket with soapy water overnight. People I’ve talked to say that about a tablespoon of Dr Bronner’s in a few gallons of water is plenty.
The next day come back and agitate the clothes in the bucket using a plunger. This final step loosens any remaining debris and let’s it dissolve into the water. Some people also change out the water before and after agitation. But most people I’ve talked to actually don’t rinse the clothes after this. The argument being that if you need to rinse extra soap out then you’re using too much soap.
Then the clean clothes simply need to be wrung out and hung up to dry. This last bit of lost water seems difficult to recover, but the vast majority of the water stays in the bucket. Used Castile soap is easy to neutralize and remediate.

First Steps

We will be using USDA Farm Loans and Grants to buy a few hundred acres of land later this year. The whole project will be organized as a nonprofit. Most of the early team are already fully self-contained nomads so we will simply set up camp there with our existing gear to get started.

MVP Materials

These are the things we will need to buy with the initial USDA grants after the land is secured;

  • A water trailer.
  • Materials for livestock pens.
  • Initial livestock and their feed.
  • Fencing to surround the land.
  • Materials for the first aquaponics beds.
  • Ideally I’d like to get several shipping containers.
    • Freezers and shelving for food and tool storage.

Here are things we already have and won’t need to buy for this project;

  • Lots of solar panels
  • Lithium battery banks
  • Backup generators
  • Shelter/ campers