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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

ISCOWP Update August 2012

Click here for the latest from our friends at The International Society For Cow Protection (ISCOWP)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Secret To Solar Power

"If they can, the basic value proposition is this: Say you have been paying your utility, on average, $100 a month. The solar company installs solar panels on your roof, maintains them, monitors them and repairs them for the life of the lease. The output will reduce your utility bill to roughly $20 a month, and you pay around $65 a month to lease the equipment (and the power the equipment produces, along with maintenance). You’re now paying $85 a month total, 15 percent less than you were, the installer has a revenue stream that it can use for cash flow or sell off to an investor and everybody is playing his part in reducing the burning of fossil fuels.

“The most frequent question I get,” Kennedy says, “is: ‘What’s the sting? Where’s the trap?’ ” Lyndon Rive says he still goes to dinner parties, where people know all about SolarCity and what he does, and at the end of his pitch about the solar lease, somebody will say: “So how much does this cost again? What’s the payback period?”

“‘You haven’t heard me!”’ he shouted to me, over the telephone, spelling out his frustration with those kinds of questions. “You get cheaper electricity! Full stop!’"

Thursday, August 23, 2012

New Vrindaban Takes A Step Towards Sustainable Energy

The valley barn in New Vrindaban

From Madhava Smullen at ISKCON News

ISKCON’s West Virginia community New Vrindaban has taken another step towards the self-sufficiency that Srila Prabhupada envisioned for it when it was founded in 1968: the community has installed two brand new solar energy systems this year.

Behind the project is ECOV, a non-profit entity formed in the late 1990s with the special focus of realizing Srila Prabhupada’s instructions on living off the land and the cows.

“One solar system was installed on the roof of the community garden building, across the street from the Radha Vrindabanchandra temple,” says ECOV board member Chaitanya Mangala Dasa. “It was activated in the spring, and produces power for a garden shed and guest center.”

Meanwhile, the other system was installed at the Valley Barn, where the majority of New Vrindaban’s sixty cows and bulls reside, on June 12th. Consisting of 26 panels and measuring 42 feet wide and 10 feet high, it produces power for the barn’s lights and animal care equipment, as well as for ECOV’s offices.

In the first week, the two systems produced 114,000 watts of electricity between them; overall, the garden system produces 3 kilo watts per hour, while the barn system produces 5.2.
Holstein Steer grazing outside New Vrindaban Valley Barn

The systems are not independent from the grid, but instead are designed to feed back into the main grid, which will continue to be available.

Both systems are designed to produce enough electricity for the buildings they’re attached to so as to result in a zero dollar electric bill.

“Solar power is a renewable energy source that can help reduce our carbon footprint,” Chaitanya Mangala says.

The new solar systems are currently in a testing stage, as ECOV staff study how well they perform in West Virginia’s climate—the area only gets 150 days of sun a year.

The information they gather will guide future decisions on whether they install more solar panels or investigate other, more efficient types of renewable resource systems.

Even if solar power is chosen as the main energy source, other systems will be incorporated as well, as New Vrindaban moves towards becoming more and more energy efficient. ECOV staff are currently also looking into wind power and bio gas power, which would be run by extracting methane from cow dung.

“Srila Prabhupada clearly stated forty years ago that the main business for New Vrindaban was to develop the simple village lifestyle with residents dependent upon the land and the cows,” says Chaitanya Mangala. “This matches perfectly with the buzz today about developing local economies and minimizing the distance between production and consumption.”

Srila Prabhupada was also a strong advocate of locally produced products, stating, “Anything grown in the garden, that is hundred times [more] valuable than what is purchased from the market.”

ECOV staff are also working towards this goal, planting their own crops in a small demonstration garden as well as the five-acre Garden of Seven Gates. The aim is for the New Vrindaban community to be able to subsist as much as possible on self-produced vegetables rather than those purchased at the grocery store.

The community is also working towards growing all its own flowers for use in the temple, while ECOV staff have planted two hundred fruit trees and berry bushes on the New Vrindaban property.
Manjari, a Brown Swiss Heifer in the Valley Barn which is being powered by solar panels

“All these activities, along with our recent introduction of solar power, represent practical steps towards lessening our dependence on the fossil fuel based economy, and show by positive example that we’re acting on the important instructions that Prabhupada gave us,” Chaitanya Mangala says.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

D.C Gardener Encourages Other Temples To Go Green

Shyam Gopal, gardener at ISKCON of Washington D.C. and his "friend"

From Madhava Smullen at ISKCON News

As environmentally-friendly living becomes more and more of a concern in a modern society where Earth’s resources are fast running out, ISKCON has an increasing responsibility to set a good example.

After all, our philosophy is based upon our founder’s oft-quoted aphorism “Simple Living, High Thinking”—the practice of living naturally from the land while focusing on solving life’s mysteries.
This responsibility doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of ISKCON’s rural communities—it’s also something city temples can join in on, thus lending our society much greater credibility in the eyes of the public.

One of those stepping up to the plate is Shyam Gopal, gardener at ISKCON of Washington D.C.

As well as offering good advice for other temples interested in going green, Shyam is walking the walk himself. That’s something U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama—
who encourages home gardens and planted one on the White House’s South Lawn just 17 miles from the ISKCON temple—would appreciate.

Shyam, 34, comes with quite a pedigree. The son of a gardener and a forester in Berkeley, California, he studied environmental science at UC Santa Barbara, worked as a park ranger and an eco-tourist guide, and served at the ISKCON farm in Mauritius before moving to D.C. in March of this year.
On only one third of an acre at the temple in Potomac, Maryland—a D.C. suburb—Shyam has already coaxed an impressive bounty from the earth.
Eggplants from seeds

“We have heirloom and lauki squash, golden and green zucchini, hybrid and cherry tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, and Thai, serrano, habanero, and cow-horn chilis,” he says. “We also grow eggplant, cabbage, okra, bitter-melon, cucumber, cantelopes, pole beans and bush beans, beats, carrots, mixed lettuce, various pumpkins, and two-foot long watermelons.”

He has to pause for breath, before reeling off a spiel that sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel song. “Then there are all the herbs: basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, dill, fennel, fenugreek, and cilantro.”

With all these, the garden is ISKCON D.C.’s main source of organic vegetables, its sole source of herbs, and a considerable supplement to its overall food purchases.

And that’s not all: the temple doesn’t have to buy any flowers for its presiding Deities in the summer time, when rows upon rows of African, Mexican hybrid and double bloom marigolds, as well as red roses, white Tuber roses, and even seven-foot-tall sunflowers are available to make beautiful garlands with.

All this abundance is no accident. Shyam Gopal cares so much about the plants, which he calls his “children,” that he’s often spotted talking or singing to them. In the future, he’d like to set up some outdoor speakers to play them Srila Prabhupada’s kirtan.

This is nothing to laugh at. Shyam’s holistic, natural gardening techniques are no conconction— they’re embedded in both scientific and Krishna conscious principles.
Morning harvest on July 4th

“In trying to debunk the old research done on playing music for plants to improve their growth, researchers, for instance on the TV show Mythbusters, have only found that they couldn’t disprove it,” Shyam says. “It actually works.”

Plants, he explains, respond to music of all types—classical, ragas, heavy metal, and poetry— as well as simply being spoken to, with vigorous growth, more flowers and larger fruit development. They don’t have favorite genres; they simply like the interaction and are stimulated by the vibration.

“As I’m checking the plants for fungus, damage and pests every day by hand, I talk to them,” says Shyam. “I just say, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Oh, you have a problem here.’ And when I harvest from them I say ‘Thank you, we appreciate what you’re giving us for the Deities. You’re doing a great service.’ After all, they’re souls, just like me. I was a plant before. It was a rough life. So although they may not understand my words, I want them to feel on some level that they’re not living in vain.”

Shyam, following the best practices in permaculture, organic gardening, and biodynamics,
is considerate in all areas of his work. Seeing the soil as a living system full of complex, interdependent relationships, he avoids tilling once his garden beds have been made so as not to destroy this infrastructure. Instead, worms, which are carefully protected, do the tilling for him.

He also avoids walking on the beds in order to let the roots breathe. And rather than feeding the plants directly, he feeds the soil—considered to be “the stomach” in natural organic farming— with “Actively Aerated Compost Tea.”

This is made by blowing a household air pump, such as those used for an aquarium or air mattress, into a tank of water holding a “tea bag” made from cheese-cloth. The “tea bag” is filled with worm castings, a high quality compost created by feeding worms vegetable scraps and manure. This liquid compost mixture is aerated for 24 hours, then molasses and seaweed are added.

“Molasses increases good bacteria, and seaweed has natural plant growth hormones, which helps plants to uilize sunlight and photosynthesize better,” says Shyam. “It also acts like a B complex vitamin, boosting their immune system and reducing stress when you transplant.”

As he develops his garden, Shyam Gopal will also add Rishi-Krishi, the ancient farming techniques of sages described in the Vedas, to his practices.

Some of these techniques, written about by the great Parashara Muni in Krishi-Parashara and by Kashyapa in Kashyapiyakrishisukti, coincide with biodynamic principles, and thus are already being practiced in the ISKCON D.C. garden.

For instance, Shyam Gopal works by the lunar calendar, planting seeds as the moon is waxing, and pruning, transplanting and composting as it is waning. He also plants different items on the days the waxing moon goes through different constellations: for vegetables it’s the fire sign; for leaf crops, the water sign; for flowers, the air sign; and for roots, the earth sign. This, amongst all his other practices, makes for tastier and healthier crops.

Shyam encourages other devotees, at any level of experience, to start their own natural organic gardens at their temples or homes.
Morning harvest on July 6th

For beginners, he advises, “Start small. Don’t get overwhelmed by giving yourself way too much work. Start organic—there may be a pest or problem you can’t control organically at some point, but at least start organic and learn that way. And start with things that are easy to grow: herbs, tomatoes, a few flowers for your Deities.”

Specific local knowledge is key in gardening, Shyam says, so get advice from local gardeners in your area who know the local conditions. Your nearest university’s agriculture extension office or its website can also be an excellent resource for this.

Another key to gardening is awareness. “Observe how your plants are growing in different conditions,” Shyam says. “Go outside and check the weather every day. Get to know how reliable your local weather report is, compared to the actual weather. Get a simple rain guage and measure the rain. Get in touch with the cycles of the sun, moon, and seasons.”

Finally, Shyam encourages ISKCON temples to go green by purchasing biodegradable silverware and plates, since so many are used at every Sunday Feast and festival. He also suggests using shredded paper and cardboard boxes in the garden as mulch, and using all rotten vegetables as compost, not allowing anything to go to waste.

“Once you get started and build your knowledge base, it only gets better and better,” he says.

Shyam Gopal is happy to help other ISKCON temples go green and increase their fruit, flower and vegetable production. To speak with him and receive educational resources which he says have benefitted him greatly, please contact him at

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Letting The Cloud Watch Over The Farm

From Randall Stross at The New York Times

THE world doesn’t necessarily need the gazillion-and-one games that seem available on smartphones. But it could use more apps and services that address the needs of business people with specialized needs. Like farmers.

FarmLogs, a start-up based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a one of a few new companies that are making a pitch to farmers. It offers a cloud-based software service — no software is downloaded; only a Web browser is needed — that embodies the latest technology. But in reaching its intended customers, the company must often rely on an old-fashioned medium: in-person selling.

Jesse Vollmar, 23, and Brad Koch, 22, graduated from Saginaw Valley State University last year and were running their own small I.T. consulting company when they decided to try to make easy-to-use software for farms like the one on which Mr. Vollmar grew up in Caro, Mich., about 90 miles northwest of Detroit.

The two received funding from Y Combinator, a seed fund in Mountain View, Calif. During a three-month residency in Silicon Valley last winter, under Y Combinator’s aegis, they worked on farm management software aimed at tracking all of a farmer’s field activities. In one view, a farmer can see rectangular representations of what is planted on each field. A click leads to a log of what was done when on each field: tilling on this date, fertilizing on that date, spraying on another.

With the data stored in one place, it can be combined with information from other sources and used by the farmers. If they need, they can also share it easily with consulting agronomists, crop insurance agents, the Agriculture Department and others.

Nathan Engelhard, an early customer who farms 1,000 acres in Unionville, Mich., says FarmLogs gives him the ability to take his iPad out into the field and make entries himself. “FarmLogs is a money saver,” he says, “because I don’t have to write things down on a scrap of paper and pay someone to sit in an office and enter them into the computer.”

FarmLogs officially opened to customers in June. “We’re trying to reach a community that isn’t all online yet,” Mr. Vollmar says. “We have to use more traditional marketing methods.” FarmLogs declined to say how many people have signed up.

In mid-July, Mr. Vollmar set up a booth at a local county fair. (In the booth to the left was a political candidate; to the right, a psychic.) Farmers who stopped by were receptive, and many signed up for the service, he says. But the local fair drew too few attendees.

FarmLogs reached many more prospects by demonstrating its service at a booth at the much larger Ag Expo at Michigan State University. This annual agricultural trade show drew more than 18,000 visitors last month.

FARMLOGS has spent little on advertising. Print magazines about farming are often found in rural homes, but the company has not yet tested the efficacy of print ads, which Mr. Vollmar says are costly. Instead, experiments with Google ads have produced encouraging results, especially when tied to a search for the phrase “farm management software.”

In a niche like this, the pre-cloud method of software distribution, entailing downloading and installing software on a desktop PC, imposes high initial costs for the customer, but no monthly fees. 

One of FarmLogs’ older competitors, Farm Works Software, for example, sells accounting software for a desktop PC that is designed for farmers and costs $750.

FarmLogs, however, uses the pricing format of software-as-a-service start-up: a free trial, no setup fees, and monthly plans based on the size of operations. Costs range from $9 a month for the smallest farm to $99 a month for farms of more than 2,000 acres.

Farmers’ income arrives unevenly, in big lumps over the course of a year rather than in a steady monthly stream. That could make it hard to persuade farmers who are now using notebooks or spreadsheets for record-keeping to add a new and recurring expense category, software-as-a-service, even if the amount is tiny when compared with annual income.

Another start-up, Farmeron, also provides a cloud-based software service for farm management. It has received funding from 500 Startups, another seed fund based in Mountain View.

But where FarmLogs is for row crops, Farmeron is focused on livestock management. Its monthly charge depends on the number of animals managed by the farm, and by the number of people who use the software. Typically, of the many people who may work on a farm, two or more may need simultaneous access to the same data, which a cloud-based service easily provides.

The mission of another start-up, Solum, is to expand the store of data that farmers use to make decisions. The company has a central office in Mountain View and a soil analysis laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

Founded by three young men who earned Ph.D.’s in applied physics from Stanford, Solum has created new hardware and software technology for soil analysis. It makes a machine for testing soil nitrate levels that is small enough to be kept on the farm, allowing farmers to perform far more tests cost-effectively in a given field, says Nick Koshnick, one of the founders.

“It turns out that there’s huge variability in yield across a field,” Mr. Koshnick says, “The challenge is to figure out what accounts for the variability. Our soil analysis can be used with GPS mapping to help agronomists figure out what fertilizer to put where.”

In essence, Solum and other start-ups are building the technology to allow farmers to benefit from data science.

Solum has raised more than $19 million from investors including the Silicon Valley venture capital firms Khosla Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.

Had it been around in his day, George Washington might have been quite excited to see a demonstration of Solum’s testing technology. At Mount Vernon, Washington experimented with using muck dredged from the Potomac River as a fertilizer — he would toast, “Success to the mud!” But his method, alas, was hit-or-miss. No GPS, databases or algorithms, and no software-as-a-service at any price.

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

 Click here to read the full article from Bill McKibben at Rolling Stone

So far, as I said at the start, environmental efforts to tackle global warming have failed. The planet's emissions of carbon dioxide continue to soar, especially as developing countries emulate (and supplant) the industries of the West. Even in rich countries, small reductions in emissions offer no sign of the real break with the status quo we'd need to upend the iron logic of these three numbers. Germany is one of the only big countries that has actually tried hard to change its energy mix; on one sunny Saturday in late May, that northern-latitude nation generated nearly half its power from solar panels within its borders. That's a small miracle – and it demonstrates that we have the technology to solve our problems. But we lack the will. So far, Germany's the exception; the rule is ever more carbon.

This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don't work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we're certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.