Land Day Celebration 2014

Our annual Land Day Celebration was much fun. The weather was very cooperative, the food & drink were delish, the guests were delightful, the music (with not 1 but 2! very rockin’ bands) was fabulous.  Some pics of the day are below. Thanks to all who made it possible.

the party monster stage

the party monster stage ready to go day before the big event


Acornistas Mardock & Belladonna Doing a Duet

Acornistas Mardock & Belladonna Doing a Duet


the crowd gettin into it

the crowd gettin into it


The joy of live music made by your friends and fellow communards makes itself evident

The joy of live music made by your friends and fellow communards makes itself evident


Acornistas & Oakers perform as The All Request Dance Band

Acornistas & Oakers perform as The All Request Dance Band


River & Finley enjoying the music

River & Finley enjoying the music



The view from the 2nd story deck of the Seed Palace

The view from the 2nd story deck of the Seed Palace (the pile of loose material is for the living roof)




our little calf (Pandora Midfield Fieldmouse Skeeter Acorn) wandered onto the dance floor to check out the TAPL (totally awesome party light)

As twilight approaches, the dance floor lights begin to make their presence known. Our little calf (Pandora Midfield Fieldmouse Skeeter Acorn) wanders onto the dance floor to check out the TAPL (totally awesome party light)


OK. Now that its dark the dance floor lights are really showing their stuff!

OK. Now that its dark the dance floor lights are really showing their stuff!

Quite the light show, isn't it!?

Quite the light show, isn’t it!?






some folks did dress-up for ambiance enhancement

some folks did dress-up for ambiance enhancement


Acornista Samantha

Acornista Samantha

When the night arrives its time for the bonfire

When the night arrives its time for the bonfire


our bonfire

our bonfire



The world famous Acorn Goat Circus performing death defying acts of goatness

The world famous Acorn Goat Circus (>featuring select members of the Independent Goat Nation of Acorn<) performing death defying acts of goatness


Acornistas Dragon & Luna

Acornistas Dragon & Luna


Visitor Grace & our newest kid

Visitor Grace & our newest kid (and youngest member of the Goat Circus)

East Wind to the Rescue – Thank you !

(Editor’s note: This is a repost from Paxus’s blog. Check it out )


Part of what is exciting about living in the central Virginia communities these days is the network is actually growing.  After almost two decades of there being only two income sharing communities in the region (Twin Oaks and Acorn), three years back Living Energy Farm popped up nearby.  Last week Acorn moved members into Sapling (aka Tranquility Base) which is the house we bought in late August. It is starting out as a simple residence for Acorn, but we have already agreed that it will ultimately become a new income sharing community.

Part of what is so exciting about this is that often times communards don’t find the right community to start with.  Sometimes this is resolved relatively quickly, like with my dear friend Belladonna Took who was rejected by Twin Oaks and is now a happy member of Acorn (she is referred to as Abby in this post about her rejection).  Other times it takes one or more memberships at “the wrong community” before the person finds their place.  With three, soon to be four affiliated but independent communities all in the same county there are lots of possibilities for synergy including clever membership solutions.  [And a more fertile soil for my own Chubby Squirrels dreams.]

~Belladonna Took was a bit too wild for Twin Oaks, but fits perfectly at Acorn~

Communities have their own personalities.  Twin Oaks is what i call a clockwork community, where there is a more regular procedure for things to happen.  Hundreds of work shifts are scheduled, meals show up on time and reliably, you better not be late for your tofu shift – because people are depending on you.  Acorn is somewhat more chaotic.  Things happen when people get inspired to make them happen, very little is scheduled (small dozens of jobs, mostly related to cooking and cleaning, contrasted with hundreds to perhaps a thousand jobs weekly at Twin Oaks).

East Wind is a thousand miles away in the Ozarks of Missouri and i have always thought of it as the “wild wild west of the communities movement” (despite there being important income sharing communities further geographically west).  East Wind is physically more rugged, without indoor plumbing in many buildings and more demanding physical work than Twin Oaks (but not Living Energy Farm).  East Wind has huge tracks of beautiful land, over 1000 acres that they control and neighboring state parks which are even larger.  Their decision making system is a strange anarchist-democratic model which is more flexible and volatile that either Acorns or Twin Oaks.

But what has inspired this post is a cultural difference between East Wind and all her sister communities, in my never humble opinion.  East Wind is the community you can depend on if you are in a jam.  East Wind will send out a group of members to help out almost any of the FEC communities when they really need it.  Got a sorghum harvest beyond your capacity?  East Wind will send a van load of people. Need some willing kids to help with a barn raising?  East Winders are there. Arsonist burns one of your buildings?  East Wind can be relied upon to dispatch a crew, even if it is a thousand miles away.

It is this generosity of spirit and willingness to help that makes me (and the rest of Acorn) especially happy to welcome the 7 East Winders who traveled far to help out with the fire recovery, straw bale work and dozens of other tasks we need help with going into winter and the busy season.  Viva East Wind!

east winders help destruct heartwood

~East Winders help tear out the damaged floor in Heartwood at Acorn~

Young Farmer Mixer and Autumn Stomper Oct. 19th!!

On October 19th, local heirloom seed savers and worker-owned co-operative Southern Exposure Seed Exchange will be hosting a Young Farmer’s Mixer to facilitate an enriching community building experience, provide networking opportunities and have fun.  We want to provide young farmers and young farmer recruits with access to examples of financially viable business models for new farms, homesteading resources and land link organizations. We also want to facilitate connections between landowners who want their land in cultivation and land-less farmers.  There will be opportunity to link farmers with food justice organizations and illustrate how food justice activism can play into a small farm business.

The event will begin with a tour of Southern Exposure’s seed and trial gardens and a demonstrative seed-saving workshop.    The day will end with our second annual Fall Festival complete with dancing, home-grown music, apple folk tales, food, drink and  good spirit.  If interested, please RSVP to to let us know what you’d like to bring for the potluck!”

4:00 – Tour of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange trial and seed gardens

5:00 – Seed saving demonstration

6:00 – Dinner, keynote speaker, young farmer networking session

7:30 – Apple folk tales and music from Diane Cluck

8:30 – Music and dancing and merriment!

Come mingle with landowners, food activists, local sustainable agricultural organizations (including Tricycle Gardens, Twin Oaks Seeds, Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF), Blue Ridge Permaculture Network) and of course, young, beginning and aspiring farmers!

From Richmond:  Take I-64W to Exit 159.  Turn right onto US-522/Cross Country Road, continue ~7 miles.  Take a left onto 629/Cartersville Rd.  Take 1st right onto 640/East Old mountain.  After ~2 miles, stay left on East Old Mountain, turn right onto 699/Indian Creek Rd.

From Charlottesville:  Take I-64E  to Exit 148.  Turn left onto 605/Shannon Hill Rd.  After 3.5 miles, take a sharp right onto  640/East Old Mountain.  Left on 699/Indian Creek Rd.
Acorn is one of the first driveways on Indian Creek Road on the left.   There is a large greenhouse at the front of the property.


“Bale Raising” Straw Bale Workshop

After years of planning and a frenzied summer of building, the new seed office is finally ready for the straw bales.  In accordance with our values of providing educational opportunities for sustainable living, we’re having a “Bale Raising” Straw Bale Workshop Oct. 28th and 29th.  The workshop will be lead by green and natural building architect Fred Oesch.  Straw bale is valued for utilizing a local, non-toxic agricultural by-product in the context of building to help create highly energy efficient buildings, and it’s also very user-friendly.  

Acorn Involvement in Local Food Bank Garden


For the past few yPAR Signears, several Acorners have collaborated with local organizations including the Louisa County Resource Council (Low-income Food Distribution Center) and The Central Virginia Master Gardeners to start up a local food bank garden program called Plant a Row.  Plant a Row encourages gardeners to grow extra in their gardens to donate to their local food bank to help provide fresh, local, and healthy produce to economically disadvantaged people.  We expanded the program to include a garden education center at the food bank, where we grow a variety of vegetables, hold workshops on organic gardening, and have cook-offs to prepare freshly harvested veggies into delicious samples for folks to try.

kids being cute

Although this is a little outside the norms of the typical Acorn project, we think it’s important to break down oppression in all its various iterations, not just within our little community bubble.  We see access to healthy food  (that isn’t covered in pesticides!) as one of the building blocks to a healthy, productive life, which should be a right, not a privilege.  Natural food stores and farmers markets are great, but the prices can be cost prohibitive, especially for those who are suffering to make ends meet.  With this project, we aspire to bring in more fresh food to the food bank, as well as to also empower clients of the food bank with the knowledge and skills to garden, putting control over our food source back in the hands of the people.

CIMG_3217_46EM                                 CIMG_3221_46EM

As you may guess, it’s difficult to implement such lofty ideology into a practical reality.  One of the biggest challenges is to make connections with the food bank clients in a sustained and meaningful way.  An attempt to address this is the samples portion of the program, where we serve samples made from in-season veggies and let clients know that the those potatoes in that cheesy potato pocket (gotta start somewhere!) were harvested from the garden out back just yesterday.  Many of them don’t even know about the garden, so this gives us a great opportunity to tell people about the program and give them a tour of the garden.

If you visit Acorn and you think this project sounds cool, ask how you can help out!  With this new, volunteer-run program, we need all the help we can get.


Timber Framing: The Old with the New

The structural core of the new SESE headquarters is a timber framed skeleton. Timber framing is the traditional method for building in wood, only being replaced by modern stick framing in the early 1800’s when the development of industry made the cheap production of standard size wooden lumber and pounds of cheap nails possible. Timber framing, in a relatively well forested area such as our own, makes the use of local wood, even wood from our own land, possible. We decided to incorporate timber framing into our new office for a few reasons.

  1. We want this building, SESE’s new home, to gel with SESE’s emphasis on regional heritage and empowering people to provide for themselves and their local communities. Timber framing in this case allows us to use local wood milled by local millers to build something showcasing a bit of regional building heritage.
  2. The large posts and beams inherent in timber framing allow for large open spans between horizontal posts which works particularly well for straw bale walls. This is because the posts can be embedded within the straw bales with a minimum of notching of those bales (we only have to notch every 12 to 16 feet rather than every 16 inches as we would with a stick frame).
  3. Exposed timber framing is not only a functional part of the building’s structure but is also quite beautiful and visually impressive. And what, after all, is life without beauty?
  4. It looks like a lot of fun to build!

The timber frame in progress…

So we dived on in! Based on a number of recommendations we got in touch with George Allman of Timbersmiths, Inc., a second generation timber framer who lives and works about 30 miles away from us. He was and still is a great help as he is both an experienced timber framer and a professional engineer. So, he was able to take our architect’s drawings, confirm their structural soundness, size all our timbers, and provide us with all the diagrams and plans we need to construct the thing in addition to advising us on tools and strategy, loaning and renting us specialty tools, and teaching us all the necessary skills.

So what’s involved? Well, there are a range of timber framing styles (most countries have their own traditions) and a range of techniques ranging from round timber framing to square and from all traditional hand tools to the inclusion of modern power tools. As this is our first timber frame structure we chose a fairly simple style and are using common woodworking power tools (like power planers and circular saws) instead of sweating it out with axes and hand saws. The modern world has a lot of very useful things to offer us, after all.

First, we ordered our full complement of oaken posts and beams from local sawyer Mike Wheeler and had them delivered to George’s shop where we showed up in force to run them through his giant thickness planer, reducing them all to a uniform thickness and smoothing out the rough saw marks.

Running an 8″x8″ timber through the thickness planer. Look at that plume of shavings!

Once that was done, we loaded the planed timbers onto a flatbed truck and had them delivered to our farm where we set up some heavy duty saw horses and got to work cutting the mortises and tenons needed to join them.

Some of the bigger and more complicated posts required quite a bit of work chiseling out the joinery on their many facets. Tip: Avoid non-right angles when building a timber frame structure.

The author carving a mortise on the biggest most complicated post in the building.

To increase the drama (and hide the heavy wear likely to happen in the building) we decided to ebonize all the oaken timbers. Ebonizing is a natural finishing process we learned from a local furniture maker. Oak, it turns out, is full of tannins which will darken to near blackness when exposed to iron oxide (better known as rust). Being a working farm we have no shortage of rusty iron and steel laying around which we collected in a bucket and submerged in white vinegar. Painting this on to the timbers turns them from a golden tan to deep blueish black in minutes. Very dramatic indeed!

An ebonzed timber next to an unfinished timber in our work yard.

After this we put a final coat of boiled linseed oil on the timbers and lift them into place with the boom truck we are renting from George. Traditionally the building would be built on the ground in sections called frame rows (basically cross sections of the frame) and then tilted up into place and connected to each other. It requires a lot of people, a lot of rope, and a pretty good idea of what you’re doing. As cool as it would be to have a big barn raising, considering the realities of the situation I am incredibly happy to have a crane on hand. Individual timbers in this building can weigh close to 1000 lbs.

Sliding a girt into place with the help of our borrowed crane.

Once the timbers are placed we drive a peg or two through the joint, tying the tenon into the mortise and securing the frame in place. Voila!

Steel Building Devastated by Fire

I was going to write about the effects of a few inches of snow in Virginia (power outage, cars grounded, no water, etc), in combination with busy season debacle of the year (the discovery of hundreds of orders throughout the busy season hiding in the database).  I even had cute little pictures of things with snow on them.  Then, the unthinkable happened:  the steel building burned.

People were milling around Heartwood eating dinner when Fox ran in, reeking of burnt plastic. “Call 911, the steel building’s on fire.”  Mutters of disbelief and questions about the severity of the fire were left unanswered.  She continued, “I tried to walk in to see how bad it was, but I couldn’t see past the black smoke.”

Fire from the West End

Fire from the West End

I ran upstairs searching for the phone.  I related the details to the dispatcher, who informed me that trucks had been notified.  I stepped outside and observed a black cloud of noxious fumes filling the sky.  My gaze turned to the steel building, where smoke was pouring out of both sides.  Within minutes, flames were leaping out of each end.  Bibi observed that the shape of the Quonset hut acts as a very efficient chimney, ushering air in one end and out the other.  The resulting sound was a truly horrifying rush of air, the flames tearing through the contents of the building, punctuated by explosions.  I imagined all the tiny motors and gas tanks of all the machinery we’ve accumulated over 20 years bursting like popcorn.  We waited anxiously for a few larger explosions to come – namely the four oxyacetylene tanks and the air compressor.  Drawn by the horror and magnitude of the fire, many of us stood within sight, sometimes ambling closer till  we were reminded that the tanks hadn’t blown yet, and that when they did they could do so with enough force to knock down several brick walls.

Fire fighters arrive

Fire fighters arrive

Within 15 minutes, the entire side and top of the building glowed orange, with the fury of the flames visible through holes where fasteners had been.  Finally the fire department showed up, with two fire trucks and two other fire department vehicles.  Firemen with full gas masks and oxygen tanks begun unrolling their hose.  Soon, they started spraying the firey opening on the West side.  Streams of water vaporized in the pit of fire, a mere fly on the back of a behemoth.

Questions of whether or not we had insurance of any sort were answered – negatory.  We turned to one another, recounting the things of value going up in smoke – all of our 2013 catalogs, 6 new energy-star freezers, some full of seeds, some full of food, lots of other seed in storage, our community closet (aka commie clothes),  our prized wood shop, complete with a planer, band saw, saw-stop table saw, compound miter saw, drill presses, and lathe, the seed curing room, our weight room, the autobay, all of our appliances and extra furniture, and possibly our new station wagon, which we couldn’t move in time.

Fire fighters spraying the side

Fire fighters spraying the side

the next day

the next day

ashes to ashes

ashes to ashes

east end

East end

West end demolition

West end

the wood shop

the wood shop


For those of you who are familiar with the steel building, or who can infer from the name of it, the steel building was the last thing we were worried about losing to fire.  In fact, we were allowed to build our fledgling seed office closer to it than code usually calls for due to the lack of risk of fire.

Overdue update on our new green office building

Sorry for the long silence on the new headquarters we’re building for our collective business, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, 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 community meetings, big dance parties, 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!

Foundations: researching our options

When I first joined the Design Team, there was so much to do that I had no idea where to start.  Being a literal sort of person, I decided to start from the ground up: the foundation.

Through this process, I learned some basics about concrete in general.  Between mining the raw materials, transporting them, and kilning them, concrete has relatively high embodied energy. For each ton of concrete produced, approximately one ton of CO2 is released.  Global demand for concrete is also colossal: 1.6 billion tons annually, with demand rising steadily as more and more countries incorporate concrete into industrial and residential construction.

Concrete Jungle

Since the concrete in our foundation looked like it was going to be one of the most environmentally impactful parts of our building, I decided to research our options in minimizing our concrete use.  I approached the issue from two different angles: 1) minimizing the amount of concrete used in our foundation, and 2) finding less impactful materials to create concrete with.  I started with the former of those.  What foundation would meet our needs, match our overarching design criteria, and still be as environmentally benign as possible?

Concrete use in Third World countries is on the rise.

Since the Seed Office is slated to be our business headquarters, and since it was looking like it may be over 5,000 sq. ft, we decided experimental foundations would be too big of a risk.  We considered the option of building the office on piers, but with our humid climate the crawlspace would likely require constant dehumidification for mold control.  We would also use lots of wood for the floor, as well as the concrete for the piers.  Our most favored heating option to date, radiant floors, would also be much less practical, and the floor would have to be highly insulated against heat loss.

We shudder at the thought of foundation failure!

A slab-on-grade foundation would double as our floor as well as a robust supporting structure with which to build upon.  It would eliminate the crawlspace, and would allow us to imbed radiant tubing directly into the floor.

Smooth sailing for people with mobility restrictions

Having the building on grade also provided an even surface to move pallets of seed over (thus eliminating our current rigamarole of schlepping 50 lb bags of seed betwixt obliquely located sheds and up and down multiple flights of stairs), and also enables aging and/or less able-bodied folks to easily move seed around, which is line with our anti-discrimination values.

On-grade design will help us move heavy loads of seeds

With inclinations of radical simplicity informing our concept of sustainability, we fantasized extensively about having an earthen floor.  The design would essentially be a  slab-on-grade, without the slab (or at least without a concrete slab):  it would still have a regular concrete footing along the perimeter and pier-like “point loads” for centrally located posts, but instead of filling everything else in with concrete, we would fashion our floor out of cob or adobe.

An example of the earthen floor we dreamed of

However appealing the earthen floor, worry that it wouldn’t withstand the magnitude of foot traffic and other unforeseeable mistreatment, especially with an imbedded radiant floor, prevented us from pursuing it.

So, in the world of sustainability trade offs,  it looked like the durability, multifunctional properties, and dependability of a slab-on-grade made it our most viable foundational option.

With an estimate of how much concrete this would amount to, we turned our attention to the composition of concrete:  were there ways to make concrete less environmentally impactful?

Further reading on concrete and the environment: