Here I am at the garden in July, 2014. Notice the white blossoms on the vining lauki plant in the foreground. Lauki is sometimes called “white blossom squash.” Photo by Thomas Egenes

It’s been a bumper gardening year, with rains coming throughout June and July and the cucumber and zucchini and other squashes growing to Findhorn sizes. After last year, when torrential rains washed out our seeds and roly-poly’s (pill bugs) mowed down our zucchini seedlings overnight, we had to replant so many times that many gardeners in our campus community garden, which is all organic, gave up for the season.

So this is like winning a big prize. “Free food,” my husband chirps when I haul in bags overflowing with kale, chard, herbs, tomatoes, strawberries and broccoli.

“I call it our loot,” says my friend Dianne happily. She and her husband Rod joined the garden this year, added heaps of soil to already fertile beds, planted a few seeds and seedlings, and it’s taken off big-time.

Dean Goodale, who established a one-acre greenhouse north of campus and now gardens on his own, tells me that the reason our tomato, zucchini and cucumber plants are Findhorn-size this year is because the abundant rains have kept us from having to use the tap water. He says he tested the soil of eight gardens in our area last year, and they all had a high sodium content, from the water treatment system here in Fairfield. The sodium especially affects the squashes, cucumbers and somewhat the tomatoes.

If anything, I and my gardening partner, Charlotte Judge, didn’t plant enough this year. We planned on planting an extra garden along the fence, but ran out of time.

Thinking it would be another year like last year, we skipped the zucchini and went straight to the bottle gourd, a long, thin, light-green vegetable that our Indian friends call Lauki squash. Lauki is a highly revered vegetable in Ayurveda, known to balance liver functioning and help with weight loss, urinary disorders, and even is said to prevent premature graying of hair.

Last summer's lauki squash, sweet potatoes and greens. Photo by Linda Egenes

Last summer’s lauki squash, sweet potatoes and greens. Photo by Linda Egenes

It’s commonly found in Indian vegetable curry dishes and also can be juiced. It has other names: opo squash, long white gourd, white pumpkin, Benares pumpkin, or dudhi in India, calabash in Asia, kakunsa or cucuzza in Italy, fuzzy squash in Canada, and slaouia in Morocco.

The best part is that it has slightly stinky leaves that fended off the sow bugs last year. In fact, it was our star performer, with the two plants vining around the edge of our garden producing at least 30 huge gourds as big as baseball bats, which, unlike zuchhini, tasted better as they grew bigger.

Our Indian friends, in fact, asked us not to pick them young and green but to wait until they were two feet long with seeds inside. We ate them, juiced them and still had plenty to give away to friends. Charlotte dubbed them the solution to world hunger.

But alas, this year, when everyone’s zucchini is three feet tall, our two lauki plants have yet to produce a single vegetable. We’ll see. Lauki grows slower and shines in the later part of summer, when zucchini falls prey to the dread root borer.

One thing I’ve found consistent—that every year is different. One year it was the bush beans that stunned us with their output, the next the beans barely blossomed and the chard was a star. This year the timely rains have created a bumper crop of cucumber, kale, tomatoes (and other people’s zuchini). Oh well.

Lauki also tastes great as an Italian vegetable, and can be substituted for zucchini in any dish. It melts in your mouth. Here’s how I prepare it when I’m planning an Italian meal:


Mint-Anise Lauki Squash, Italian Style


½ lauki gourd, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 T chopped fresh mint

2 T chopped fresh anise hyssop leaves

2 T butter or olive oil

Steam the lauki squash. Melt the butter or olive oil on low heat, add the herbs and lauki and toss lightly. Salt and pepper to taste.


IMG_9146One of the simple pleasures of a living in a small town is riding a bike everywhere you go. My husband and I love to pedal downtown to Howard Park every Saturday morning for our local Farmers Market. We’ve frequented much bigger Farmers Markets in Florida and the Bay Area, but there is nothing like the friendly and eclectic mix in Fairfield.

There you can chat with Fairfield’s Amish and Mennonite neighbors who sell pasture-raised organic eggs (Robert Yoder Farms from Bloomfield), the healthiest flower baskets you’ve ever seen (Lengachers Greenhouse in Keosaqua), and freshly made pies and bread from a Brighton family. Smiling Amish teenagers help sell the produce, and shy younger children hide behind their mothers or chase each other in tag games under the trees, their bonnet strings and long dresses flying in the breeze.

IMG_8556And then there are our amazing certified organic farmers, like Steve and Susan McLaskey, who run the new MUM Student Organic Farm. Steve is from my hometown of Naperville, IL, and is a descendent of the Goodrich family, who more than a century ago donated their farmland for Goodrich School, where I attended elementary school.The talented Dale Goodale is wandering around the market, having already sold out of the spring greens and sweet organic carrots he started in February inside his greenhouse. In early May you could buy his spectacular hand-tapped maple syrup if you got to the market early enough.

IMG_6416I never miss a chance to talk with older, local farmers, such as Ernie Hinkle, who at age 90 still shows up every Saturday morning. He was one of the founders of the Fairfield Farmer’s market. Even though he’s not certified organic, Ernie hasn’t used pesticides or chemicals on his garden veggies for decades. The former mayor of Birmingham, IA, Ernie and his wife raised over 30 foster children and adopted six.

Last week I bought a bag of spring lettuce greens from Ernie and was treated to a story about his time in vaudeville. He’ll regale you with a song if you ask him. I also bought organic pasture-raised eggs from Steve and Kim Keller, whose father was a friend of Ernie’s and also a founder of Fairfield’s Farmer’s market. They carry on their father’s farming tradition and are certified organic. (The eggs, by the way cost only $3.50. In the Bay Area organic, pasture-raised eggs were 8.50 a dozen!).


The Farmers Market is also a great place to meet friends, who gather for the food, music and fun. Eventually we settle down at a crowded picnic table and eat a hot lunch of the best Ethiopian food in the Midwest from our friend Gannet and her daughter Hermella. The lentil samosas are a treat I look forward to all week.



IMG_8533One of my favorite vendors in spring is Rolling Prairie Acres, run by the Webster family of Sigourney, Iowa. They start garden veggies in their greenhouse for the rest of us to plant in our gardens in spring. Every year I buy three kinds of tulasi (holy basil plant), tomatoes plants and zuchinni starters. All their plants are grown pesticide free, chemical free. Last year when the sow bugs mowed down my squash plants overnight, I asked Doug Webster for a bug-resistant squash. He recommended a bottle guord called Cucuzza, whose stinky leaves and thicker skin repelled bugs. Its vines wrapped around our garden and grew over 200 lbs of long pale green squashes that tasted a bit like zuchinni without seeds.

IMG_8529My Indian friends thought they tasted just like lauki, bottle gourd, and cooked them into fantastic Indian dishes. My gardening partner Charlotte Judge dubbed this prolific plant the Cure for World Hunger. I bought six starters from Doug Webster this year, to share with our friends.

It’s encouraging to see kids getting into the spirit of growing and selling produce along with their parents and grandparents. At Rolling Prairies, Doug’s son Dawson taught me how to plant a seedling in a peat pot. And Paloma and Marisol Braun, aged 13 and 10, run their own business selling snow cones at the Farmer Market. Marisol told me how she markets their tasty drinks: “I whisper to one of my friends that the stand is open and they whisper it to their friend and pretty soon there’s a whole line of kids at our stand.” Talk about word-of-mouth marketing savvy!

One Saturday in early May I drove my car to the market so I could buy flats of seedlings, and ended up with too much to carry away from the Lengacher’s booth, where the Amish parents had left the selling to a teenage daughter Lydia and her older brother.

IMG_8559Seeing my two flats, Lydia politely asked, “Would you like help?” I declined, not wanting to distract them from their job selling. I grabbed one of the flats and started to my car, only to hear bare feet padding behind me. It was Richard, the six-year-old younger brother of Lydia. He smiled shyly under his straw hat and I could see the gap in his teeth where a new tooth was growing in. He never said a word, but he carried my second flat to my car, happy to be helping and grinning all the way.


Photo credits: Linda Egenes

Photo of Linda Egenes by Charlotte Judge


2010_11_SLCdrawingWith U.S. buildings consuming 77 percent of our electricity and creating over half our country’s greenhouse gas emissions, most major architecture firms have adopted the Architecture 2030 challenge to bring their buildings’ carbon footprints to zero by the year 2030.

Yet many experts wonder if we couldn’t be moving faster. Now a building under construction atMaharishi University of Management is about to show that we don’t have to wait until 2030 for zero carbon—anyone can do it right here, right now.

A Building Like No Other

The Sustainable Living Center is a 7,000-square-foot classroom and office building that combines so many features of sustainability and meets so many standards of ecological building that it is being widely heralded by architects and builders around the world.

“This building will be completely off the grid in electricity, heating, cooling, water supply, and waste disposal,” says David Fisher, Ph.D., the intrepid head of the Sustainable Living department at MUM, who, with his wife, Mabel Scaroni-Fisher, spearheaded the building’s development from its inception. Fisher has seen his department grow from six students in 2003 to 80 today, making it one of the largest sustainable living programs in the U.S.

“We wanted to create a building that walked our talk, that demonstrated sustainability and self-sufficiency as a teaching model for our students,” he says. “And for the public too—to show that we can live sustainably.”

When it’s done, the SLC will create more energy than it uses—enough to supply itself and provide power to the university’s nearby library. And it’s doing all this using off-the-shelf technologies that are available to anyone—at a fraction of the cost of other energy-efficient buildings.

As if that weren’t enough to put it on the cutting edge, the building also demonstrates four philosophies of sustainability—something that has never been combined in one building anywhere on the planet.

First of all, it is designed to earn the LEED Platinum certification, the highest award from the internationally known green building certification system. Second, it meets the more rigorous criteria of the Living Building Challenge. When complete, it will be one of the select few buildings in the world to achieve this demanding building standard, which calls for new structures to produce all of their own energy, use only water that falls on-site, rely on sustainably sourced materials that come from within a 250-mile radius, and avoid a “red list” of toxic materials including asbestos, mercury, and PVC.

Third, the building will also demonstrate the 25 nontoxic principles of Building Biology (known in Germany as Bau Biologie).

Finally, it is designed in accord with Maharishi Vastu architecture, a complete system of natural-law-based architecture, which creates wholly nourishing influences on the occupants.

“By having all those certifications, it’s a way of conveying to our students and the world how you can combine the ancient wisdom of Maharishi Vastu architecture with the modern visions of LEED, Living Building Challenge, and Bau Biologie,” says David Fisher.  “It’s a kind of ancient-meets-present and an east-meets-west kind of building.”

Peace and Harmony

The first thing I notice when I enter the building is the trees.  It turns out that even a soft wood has tremendous strength when left intact, and in this building 16 whole aspen trunks support the entire structure like Atlas holding up the heavens. Stripped of their bark and burnished in golden sunlight that floods every corner of this building, they give the feeling of a living forest.

These trees were sustainably harvested near La Crosse, Wisconsin, from a forest managed by the Forest Stewardship Council. The trees meet the Sustainable Building Challenge guidelines to source all materials within a 250-mile radius.

“Aspen trees have no commercial value,” says Dal Loiselle, the affable developer and construction manager for the project. Dal’s been constructing eco buildings since 1989, and like David Fisher and architect Jon Lipman, he’s been researching systems for the project for five years, donating thousands of hours before the project got off the ground.

“They’re softer than softwood trees like pine and fir that we typically use in dimensional lumber,” he continues. “But when you take a whole tree, it has double the strength. ”

The next thing I notice are the compressed earth blocks, stacked like bricks, forming the inner layer of the envelope of the building. It feels calm and peaceful here even with the typical construction sounds of buzzing saws and thwacking hammers. The blocks are made of local earth that was harvested when the neighboring Argiro Center’s parking lot was excavated.

“Soren Pearson, a student in the Sustainable Living program, researched the feasibility of using rammed earth,” says Dal. “We rented a machine and the students themselves produced the 26,000 blocks.” Many other students, including Dal’s own daughter Nelina, helped with the fundraising, the research, and the testing for the building’s systems.

It’s hard to convey the degree of sheer intelligence and hours of research that have gone into this project. Dal points out the double wall that forms the outer envelope of the building. “The outer wall is a 2×8 stud wall with sheathing on both sides, filled with cellulose (recycled newspaper) for insulation. There’s a two-inch gap, and then there’s the layer of earth blocks for thermal mass. The insulating layer keeps heat or cold out and the thermal mass layer stores heat or cool. The gap prevents thermal bridging.”

Dal says one of the reasons they used earth blocks is because that’s the way the Native Americans and early pioneers built here—out of earth and out of wood. “Earth also has a nice quality,” he says. “It’s cooling in summer and it grounds you, so you feel good. You feel settled.”

Earth breathes and absorbs moisture. “It’s what you call hydroscopic,” he says. “In summer when it’s humid it will take some of that moisture and absorb it. In the winter when it’s dry it will give that moisture back. So it maintains a relative humidity. Earth does that, and the whole trees will do the same.”

Dal takes me up on the roof where there’s a glorious view of the campus. The roof will serve as an outdoor space for classes and social events. On the southern edge stand 10 solar tube panels lined up in two rows. Water circulates through a manifold and is heated by the solar tubes. Once heated, it’s stored in a 4,800-gallon stainless-steel insulated tank and then circulated under the floor as radiant heat. The building has five kinds of solar power—in the form of passive heat, solar thermal tubes, photovoltaic panels, film, and shingles. The roof’s membrane also reflects the sun to help heat the solar tubes.

“The tank is insulated and large enough so that even if the weather is cloudy and there is no wind for a while, we’ll still have enough hot water to heat the building,” says Dal.

Solar energy is also used to cool the building—as moist air is drawn over a liquid desiccant and the warm, moist air is extracted by heat from the solar tubes and pushed outside, reducing the humidity in the building. Cooling is also achieved through “night flushing” by an air well that draws in cool night air in summer, resetting the earth block walls that radiate the cool during the day.

Covered with a TPO membrane, which is free of toxic PVC, the roof is slightly sloped to catch rainwater in six drains. The rainwater is purified with an ultraviolet filter and stored in a cistern underground.

“It only takes one inch of rainfall to fill our 6,000-gallon cistern,” says Dal.

Below us we can see the area where the peat-moss-based sewage treatment system will be built. “This is a system that prevents nitrogen and other toxic nutrients from entering our waterways and contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Dal. “It’s also a way for municipalities to help their overworked waste management systems.”

Dal points out the utility cottage below that contains the equipment to convert wind and solar energy to AC electricity. It was one of the first structures built on the site, and has 12 solar panels of its own, which generate the electricity needed for construction. All construction waste is also being recycled, making the building non-polluting from day one.

Preparing for the Public

“According to Mike Nicklas,” says David Fisher, referring to the architect and green building expert, “ there are now several hundred building professionals who know about this building and are watching and waiting to see how it performs.”

The first thing the visitors will see as they climb off their bus (yes, there’s a tour bus parking plan) is a charming bridge over a waterfall and stream meandering through a garden of edible and native habitat plants that not only look beautiful, but capture storm water and purify it, preventing toxic runoff and flooding of nearby buildings.

The building will feature 12 exhibit bays to explain its unique features. Environmental monitors around the building will record and archive the performance of the building in real time on a website, so anyone anywhere in the world can see  how the building is performing.

With so many sustainable features packed into one building, the project has attracted national media attention. At a press conference that marked the use of solar panels to produce the energy to build the building, Iowa State Representative Curt Hanson said, “Let’s use this as a learning tool and learn from the experiments that are taking place in this building and perhaps get more of us off the power grid, more of us off the foreign oil, more of us energy efficient.

Read more about the team of experts and volunteers that came together to make this building happen: “Sustainable Living Center: It Takes a Team to Go Green.”

For more information, see MUM Sustainable Living Center.

Linda Egenes is a Fairfield-based freelancer who writes about green and healthy living. Visit her blog at

If you would like to be part of this remarkable adventure in sustainability, contact Dal Loiselle at (319) 217-2179.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, November 2010. Reprinted with permission.)


Fairfield Iowa Mayor Ed MalloyImagine a small town where homes are powered by the city’s own wind farm, and energy consumption city-wide has dropped by 60%. Accessible pathways lace the town, making it easy for people to bike or walk to work. One-fourth of the produce offered in the town’s supermarkets is locally grown, raised on thriving farms that surround the town. Tourists boost city revenues by flocking to the fully functioning sustainable living center. Needless to say, the economy of this small town is booming, stimulated by tax cuts and energy savings, with ample jobs created from innovative, eco-friendly enterprises.

This is the sort of future the town of Fairfield, population 9,650, envisions for itself. And to ensure that this happens, the town fathers have recently ratified the Fairfield Green Strategic Plan—a coordinated effort to become a sustainable, green community within ten years.

It all started with an idea that Mayor Ed Malloy had been turning over in his mind for a couple of years, to develop an integrated plan to move Fairfield toward a green future.

“When the energy crisis hit, it seemed like the right time to float this idea,” the 50-something mayor says. “To me, being sustainable means helping the planet, but it also means sustaining our community’s economic viability in the face of global climate change, population growth and the current economic crisis.”

In February 2008, Mayor Malloy formed a commission to research and write the Fairfield Green Strategic Plan, appointing 20-plus members from all walks of life. “We included small business owners, bankers, manufacturers, educators, and experts in waste management and soil and water conservation,” says Malloy. “The idea was to involve every sector of the community.”

A few short months later, in November 2008, the city council unanimously ratified the 28-page green strategic plan.  At the same time, the planners garnered tremendous support from the Iowa Power Commission, which awarded the city of Fairfield a $80,000 grant to assess current energy efficiency and create detailed strategies for moving forward.

A Community-Wide Effort

Connie Boyer, CFO of Iowa State Financial Services Corporation and the co-chair of Fairfield’s green planning commission, says,  “There are three main legs to the plan: 1) creating a sustainability culture—including education and raising awareness; 2) economic development—which includes opportunities for new businesses and jobs in the area of sustainability as well as ways to adopt green solutions and save money, and 3) sustainable community design and public policy and infrastructure—which is about decisions the city can make to create a green future.”

The plan’s wide range of objectives include reducing non-renewable energy consumption and increasing energy generation; conserving water, protecting the air, and transforming wastes into useful resources; designing buildings and landscapes for efficiency and human well-being; and supporting a prosperous and sustainable local farm economy.

“Now that the Fairfield Green Strategic Plan has been approved by the city council, the commission has moved to the next step and are meeting with various community leaders to ask them to take responsibility for different sections of the plan,” says Malloy.

For example, one goal is to create an organization to develop local food production and processing. The community organizations that are being asked to take responsibility for that part of the plan are Hometown Harvest, Pathfinders Resource Conservation and Development, and, as secondary leaders, the Fairfield Entrepreneurs Association and Maharishi University of Management.

“We’re saying, this is one of the plan’s goals, and can you take responsibility for making that happen,” says Boyer. “As we talk to these various community leaders, it also gives them the chance to give us feedback and help us take a different direction if necessary. Ultimately, that will make the Fairfield Green Strategic Plan even stronger.”

The real genius of the plan is the way it involves every member of the community, from school children to housewives to factory workers.

“From the very beginning the idea was that different people have different ideas of what will happen in the future and what it means to go green,” says Boyer. “So this plan is about the things that everyone can agree on—how to save money and make our planet a better place.”

One of the first steps is to galvanize the citizens of Fairfield to reduce their own energy usage—whether that means wrapping their hot-water pipes with insulation or installing solar panels or riding bikes to work. This will be done through creating and distributing a household guide, and through an educational campaign using all available media, says Mayor Malloy.

Another important step is to hire a community sustainability coordinator by March 2009, who will coordinate the efforts of various community sectors and keep the plan moving forward.

Helping Other Towns Go Green

As possibly the first small community in the nation to adopt a comprehensive green plan, Fairfield is planning to take a leadership role. One of the major objectives of its strategic plan is to help other communities go green.

“We want to create a model community, a virtual template that other small towns can adopt to create the same results,” says Mayor Malloy.

He points out that Fairfield already has many of the resources to move forward. Fairfield is the home of Maharishi University of Management, for instance, which offers the first Sustainable Living major in the country. The students and faculty there have spearheaded the construction of a revolutionary 7000-square-foot Sustainable Living Center and classroom building on campus, using wind-and-solar power, earth block construction, rainwater catchment systems, and geothermal heating and cooling systems, now under construction. University farms already grow organic food in gardens and greenhouses, supplying the university cafeteria and nearby groceries with local food year-round.

“Many of the sustainable living department’s faculty and graduates have donated their consulting services to help the commission create Fairfield’s Green Strategic Plan, and we’re hoping they will continue to lend their expertise to various projects over the years,” says Malloy.

Malloy points to the city’s strong entrepreneurial sector, which he predicts will rise to the occasion and provide many of the services that will be needed to turn the town green.

Fairfield also has many existing demonstration projects, which serve as models for sustainable living. Malloy cites Abundance Ecovillage, a Fairfield development with off-the-grid homes powered by wind and solar, rain catchment and retaining ponds, and recycled sewage. Downtown, KRUU 100.1 FM, Fairfield’s local radio station, has installed solar panels to run its services completely off the grid.

One of the grander aspects of the plan is to build a sustainability center on the south edge of Abundance Ecovillage. The center will include classrooms, workshop space and dormitory rooms for hosting educational seminars and courses. In this way, the city hopes to become a nationally known center for sustainability. 

Already, notes Boyer, the city has been accepted in an incentive program offered by Alliant Energy to switch to LED traffic lights, which are brighter, use less energy, and last years longer than the current incandescent bulbs. The estimated savings in energy usage and personnel: $18,000 a year.

On a personal note, Boyer and her husband have asked a group of sustainable living students from the university to assess their historic bed-and-breakfast to recommend ways to make it more energy efficient.

It is individual actions like this, multiplied many times, that will make the plan a success.

Mayor Malloy predicts that the plan will pay for itself in energy savings. “The nice thing is that the savings can be rolled into the future budget.”

Even with such a daunting task ahead of him, Malloy is relaxed and confident that Fairfield can reach its far-reaching goals to become one of the first sustainable, green communities in America. “I don’t feel any pressure,” he says. “I see it as an opportunity to engage in big thinking, for our community to join together in accomplishing a big task in a way that is fun and light-hearted.”

(I originally wrote this article for Radish Magazine, January 2009. Reprinted with permission.)

Categories: green living, Iowa


Dirt. Mud. Clay. Cob. Cob building is an ancient way to build with earth, used most famously in England to create picturesque cottages with thatched roofs. There are many advantages to cob building—it can be warm in winter and cool in summer, it’s natural, nontoxic and beautiful, and it costs very little.


Lin Mullenneaux works on the cob house in progress. For more photos and updates, see

Just ask Hap and Lin Mullenneaux, a Fairfield couple in their 50’s who recently sculpted their own cob home with the help of friends and family.

The total cost for their modest 14×18’ two-storey cottage? Just $7000. And half of that was for the green metal roof and sturdy Pella windows.

Labor of Love

It all started in the summer of 2007, when the Mullenneauxs attended a workshop at Cob Cottage Company in Oregon with Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley, who have promoted cob building around the globe through workshops and their book, The Hand-Sculpted House.

After their trip to Oregon, Hap and Lin traveled to England, where they met the young British cob builders, Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce.  Adam, who grew up in Iowa City, met Katy while studying documentary filmmaking in London.  They also learned cob building in Oregon and have gone on to win awards for their work in England.

Back home in Iowa last fall, Hap and Lin purchased a $700 camper on eBay, parked it on their land near Fairfield’s Abundance Eco Village, and moved in. They planted trees, built a hoop greenhouse that serves as an open-air garden in summer, constructed the three-sided rustic wood shed that serves as their outdoor kitchen, shower and workshop.

When spring came they started constructing the cob cottage, with the help of over 50 volunteers.

I was one of those volunteers, helping Lin mix the cob on tarps, using buckets of clay substrata dug from their own land, buckets of sand, water and straw. We mashed it with our feet, formed it into lumps with our hands, and tossed it fire-bucket-brigade style to Hap, who slapped it on the wall to meld with other cobs into a solid earthen mass.

An Experiment in Sustainability

A few months later, on a cold November day, I visit Hap and Lin in their completed cottage. They’ve covered the cob walls with a water-resistant render made of cow dung, earth, and straw and white-washed that with lime. It’s a fairytale place, with a limestone foundation, a green metal roof to catch rainwater, and a periwinkle blue door. It sits comfortably on the land, like it grew there.

Winds are gusting up to 35 mph, but the 18” earthen walls keep the cottage snug and warm, even without the wood stove going, their only source of heat.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the finished interior, and I feel like I’m being hugged by nature. Plaster walls—made by Lin from a mixture of kaolin clay, sand, straw, wheat paste and cattail fiber—are smooth and curvy, like sculpted stone. Sturdy benches carved out of cob, beams of round pine logs that Hap cleared as deadwood from the local forest, and a winding slate staircase to the sleeping loft add rustic charm. Coat hooks are made of tree branches.

Hap has built a kitchen counter out of old planks, stained golden with the dark brown grain making an intricate pattern. A friend gave him some walnut boards that had been sitting outside for seven years and Hap made them into shelves that hold Mason jars of beans and grains. Cast iron pans and bunches of dried garlic and fennel from Lin’s garden hang from the rafters.

Lin offers me a seat on one of the sculpted cob benches, shaped like a couch and covered with sheepskins. Hap sits in his rocking chair next to the built-in walnut book shelves and computer shelf. A wire to power the computer is the only electricity in the home, and eventually that will be powered by solar panels.

“Do you want to see the cowboy bathtub we’re looking for?” he asks. It’s a small galvanized tin tub with curved sides like an upside down cowboy hat. It will fit in the sleeping loft, and an Amish pump will supply water — heated on their wood stove — through a copper pipe.

“This is an experiment in sustainability,” says Hap.

Hap and Lin hope to inspire and teach others to build their own homes with natural materials. Hap is the treasurer of the Sustainable Living Coalition, which is creating a campus adjacent to the Mullenneaux homestead and Abundance Eco Village. It will include a center for sustainable living and courses on permaculture and natural building. Already, some of the volunteers on the Mullenneaux house are starting their own cob building projects in Fairfield.

Built by Nature

Hap notes that their home’s interior, with its rounded niches and undulating walls, is a result of the flowing nature of cob building.

“It’s a comforting space,” says Lin, who feels that what’s missing in modern architecture is the curved line—the feminine element, the comfort of the mother.

“When you use uniform materials, straight boards and sheet rock, the result is something straight and rigid,” says Hap. “With cob building, it’s easier to be round than straight, and you naturally create more curved, gentle shapes. Every cob home is unique. You’re never going to feel that oppressive uniformity in a cob home”.

Hap has also thought a lot about the difference between natural building and green building.

“’Green’ is a term that is getting over-used and abused these days.” he says.  “I’d define ‘natural’ building as using unprocessed materials as much as possible.”

He lists what he feels to be natural, unprocessed materials: round wood, clay soil, stone, sand, straw. “When you use materials in the form that nature made them, you have to work cooperatively with nature. They start to shape the creation—they design the home.”

“It’s like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle,” adds Lin. “You can’t decide it all ahead of time.”

“You find the stone and see where it belongs,” says Hap. “For the builder, it’s a 180º change. Instead of a fixed design, your evolving design takes shape based on the materials at hand—the round trees you cut down for your beams, the old boards your friend gives you for your kitchen shelves, or a limestone outcropping that becomes your foundation.”

“Or the window you find behind your friend’s barn,” says Lin, gesturing above Hap’s head, where purple and blue-tinted clouds float in a rectangular window frame, making me think of Georgia O’Keefe’s spectacular painting, “Sky Above the Clouds.”

“The house comes into being as a co-creation with nature,” says Hap. “It’s much more of an artistic process.”

Hap and Lin say they had two goals when they started: to build a sustainable home that allowed them to spend most of their time outdoors, and to avoid going to the bank for a mortgage. And they were able to achieve both.

“I get it,” I say as I say good-bye. “This is like playing house, like not having to be a being a grown-up.”

Hap and Lin laugh and say in unison, “That’s it exactly.”

To see Hap and Lin’s Cob House Journal, go to

(I originally wrote this article for Radish Magazine, January 2009. Reprinted with permission. For more photos and updates, see


Lancaster_County_Amish_03My mother calls herself the original recycler. Having grown up in the depression years, she stored used tin foil in a giant ball, covered our presents in last year’s discarded Christmas paper, and wrapped our school sandwiches in Pepperidge Farm whole wheat bread bags (a source of acute embarrassment for her 60s-era kids). My Dad lined his workshop with neat rows of Maxwell House coffee jars, the kind with bold white stars on red lids, which contained every loose washer, nut, bolt, nail, and piece of wire he had ever encountered in his life. When it came time to fix an appliance or a kid’s bike, he had the missing piece at his fingertips. My parents didn’t throw things away—they fixed them, mended them, and made do. It wasn’t that they were poor—they simply believed a frugal, non-wasteful lifestyle was best way to raise their family and protect the environment.

Thinking of this, I suddenly realized that going green to save our economy is not a radical new idea—it’s traditional and retro.

Take the Amish. As a growing but still marginal segment of the rural population, they make their own clothes, grow their own food, live off the grid, and drive horse and buggies instead of cars. While most of us are never going to achieve a carbon footprint as low as theirs, we can adopt a few of their habits to help ourselves, the environment, and our economy.

Buy Fresh, Buy Local

I once asked an Amish friend of mine why the Amish drive horse and buggies. I expected him to give me the usual answer—that it had to do with their religious beliefs, to remain separate from the world by eschewing modern technology. He surprised me by saying, “If we drove out of town to shop, our local merchants would be out of a job.”

While none of us are about to give up our cars, we can support our local restaurants, merchants, and farms. In a tough economy, your dollars spent at the corner market, the one-of-a-kind restaurant, and the local bookstore help prevent a chain reaction of small business failures, home foreclosures, and falling property values. In a town of 10,000 people, it’s estimated that a dollar spent locally will circulate a dozen times. Buying local also makes green sense because it cuts down on carbon emissions. And venues such as farmer’s markets bring fresher food at better value straight to the customer while supporting local farmers.

Live Within Your Means

I remember reading an article in the Des Moines Register at the height of the 1980s farm crisis. Small farms across the state were failing, mostly due to large debt-loads when farmers bought expensive new machinery and land at peak prices just before commodity prices fell. The article pointed out that the Amish, who did not incur debt and thus could weather economic downturns better, weren’t at risk of losing their farms.

It’s never too late to adopt a more realistic budget. A new fashion term cropping up is “frugalista,” someone who makes a statement by finding bargains and getting creative with the sewing machine. Even in today’s stagnant housing market, innovative new arrangements like house swaps are allowing people to unload homes that are too big to afford or to move up to a larger home to accommodate a growing family.

Take Joy in Simple Pleasures

Before I started visiting the Amish, I thought they must be a grave and dour people, judging from their dark, 1600s-era clothing and prim bonnets. What I found was a people who love to laugh, to tease, and to party even when they’re working. Whenever there’s a tough job to do—whether it’s putting up 50 quarts of tomatoes or putting up a new barn—they invite their friends over for a “frolic” that involves massive amounts of food and good old fashioned fun. And because they have less artificial types of entertainment at their disposal, the Amish have developed their human social skills to a high art. When they talk to you, they are truly present, free of interruptions by telephone, TV, or radio. The Amish enjoy simple pleasures—potluck meals, taking a walk in the woods, playing volleyball, baseball and other nonviolent sports, and family table games that involve a large dose of loud, raucous laughter.

No matter what your budget, you can take joy in simple yet fulfilling pastimes like starting a garden, preparing home-cooked meals for your family, or hiking in a nearby forest. Riding your bike for Saturday errands can burn calories, reduce your gas budget, and lead to new discoveries as you slow down and actually see the architecture and landscaping that were once a blur in your rearview mirror

Recently my husband, Tom, and I downsized to one car. It does require a little juggling when the weather is rainy, but Tom is enjoying a new form of exercise: walking to and from work. He says his daily walks have become favorite times of the day, and he wonders why he spent so many years driving. He also loves not having the extra car to service, which saves us both money and time.

“We’re just one car away from being Amish,” Tom likes to joke. “But no black hats yet.”

Simple pleasures not only save the environment, they save your health and your pocketbook. And like the Amish, who knows, you might find that living simply is simply more fun.

Linda Egenes is the author of Visits with the Amish: Impressions of the Plain Life, University of Iowa Press, 2009. A freelance writer and book author, Linda visited with her Old Order Amish neighbors in Southeast Iowa for 13 years before writing these very personal stories about her experiences inside the hidden world of the Amish. The book is available at

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, May 2009. Reprinted with permission.)

Categories: Amish, green living


Intelligent DesignIt started in 2004 when a few people in Fairfield, Iowa, were looking for a sponsor for an environmental conference.

“We decided to form our own nonprofit and called it the Sustainable Living Coalition,” says Diana Krystofiak, a founding board member of the SLC. “The goal was to combine people from different sectors to create a more sustainable Fairfield, which could then become a model for other communities.”

From the start, a driving force behind the SLC’s vision and educational initiatives was Lonnie Gamble, who with permaculture expert Grover Stock, began teaching a 10-week permaculture course called Big Green Summer. Hundreds of interns trained with Gamble and Stock and lived in Gamble’s home. But Gamble and his wife, Valerie, couldn’t donate their time, money and home to educate interns indefinitely. A campus was needed

Fast forward to the fall of 2009. The newly inaugurated SLC campus standson the north edge of Fairfield.

“We bought the land in 2006 with a grant from Iowa’s Great Places,” says Briggs Shore, the SLC’s administrative coordinator.

The purpose of the campus, she explains, is to become a working permaculture farm and educational center with classes and internships.

“Permaculture is a way to take the principles of intelligent design, found in nature, and apply it to absolutely everything in your life — how you get your food, water, shelter, heat (and) power, and (how you) dispose of waste,” says Shore.

“We want this to be a model, to establish best practices for natural building and rural farming that people can take back to their own communities,” says Frank Cicela. At age 40, Cicela brings a wealth of experience to the SLC, having established a similar nonprofit called Sustainable Indiana, and shows remarkable dedication by taking an unpaid leave from his job at Clipper Wind Power in Cedar Rapids to spend every other week working for the SLC.

Shore points to the 1,200-square-foot straw-bale, post-and-beam barn that is the main classroom and administrative space for the campus (pictured). The building is functional but awaiting funds for plastering the outer walls, covering the gravel floor with flagstone and completing a five-room dormitory loft. It was erected in just four months with the help of an Amish construction crew for the foundation and dozens of volunteers, who worked innumerable hours.

“We’re completely off the grid, and we provide our own power and water,” says Shore. She points to the rain catchment system, 10 photovoltaic solar panels and one-kilowatt wind turbine that supply electricity and high-speed Internet. “We’re high-tech while being sustainable, rustic while still being modern.”

The SLC benefits from its collaboration with other groups. For one thing, the campus adjoins and makes use of two other sustainable sites for its workshops: the Abundance Eco Village and the Mullenneaux extended-family acreage, which includes three sustainable cob, straw and clay homes. Other collaborators include Grinnell College and Maharishi University of Management.

Future projects include building four-season dormitory space to house 50 interns, a hospitality center, an Elder hostel, underground cisterns to store drinking water from the rain catchment system, wetland waste management system, permaculture food forest, edible landscaping, and seed money to extend educational offerings.

But ambitious as these plans are, Gamble sees a more visionary goal. “The SLC is a way to foster ecological micro-enterprises,” he says. As an example, the SLC bought equipment and loaned it to help a local baker get started, and launched the Edible Cityscapes Project.

Another project in the works: a micro-enterprise center to help fund sustainable businesses. And the SLC is providing land and sponsorship to a John Jevons mini-farm center, one of three in the U.S. to be established this spring.

For more information about the SLC, contact Briggs Shore at

or visit

(I originally wrote this article for Radish Magazine, January 2010, pg 14. Reprinted with permission.)

IMG_6322According to the dictionary, sustainable means “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Or “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.” Other people might define it as the energy going out never exceeding the energy going in.

When I think of the words “sustainable living” I think of my parents, who, like many people born in the Depression years, lived a more sustainable lifestyle than most families today. My mom, who calls herself the original recycler, saved tinfoil in a giant ball, washed out plastic bags and hung them to dry, and even packed our lunches in used Pepperidge Farm bread bags.

My dad caught a ride to work so they would only need one car. My dad was an engineer who did not believe in designing machines with planned obsolescence, and he fixed his own tools and machines rather than buying new ones. He also designed and built our passive solar home in 1959, which had six-inch walls and was energy-efficient in an era when fuel prices were so cheap that many homes in our northern-Illinois neighborhood were built without any insulation at all.

On one level they had it down—they fixed, reused and recycled almost everything in their environment, so that the energy going out pretty much equaled the energy going in. Without knowing it they were early pioneers in the sustainable movement of today, which aims to rely on sustainable resources such as the sun and wind so we don’t have deplete our remaining reserves of unsustainable fossil fuels.

I was proud of my parents, and I took their example to heart, reducing my own energy consumption by becoming a vegetarian, and in later life ended up writing many articles about the sustainability movement.

But even while growing up I started to wonder if this principle of sustainability could be taken a step further—could it be applied to our human bodies. Was there a sustainable source of energy within? Most people I knew felt so tired at the end of the day that they couldn’t even enjoy the evening. Even though I was a young person, I felt pretty tired myself. I studied, worked as a waitress and took a bus to high school at 7 a.m. and returned at 5 p.m.

I started to wonder, could there be a way we could draw on resources of energy from within our own bodies, so we could end up at the end of the day with the same more energy (or more) than we started with?

Fortunately for me, when I was a college student I went to a lecture on the Transcendental Meditation technique and the young TM teacher giving the lecture told us, “Inside each of us is an infinite field of energy, happiness and bliss.” This idea rang true for me—that everything that most of us try to get from the outside, could actually be found on the inside. Most of us sense that there is a great deal more creativity and intelligence and yes, energy, inside us than what we have access to as we go about our daily lives. We sense it, but we don’t know how to reach it.

I started the TM technique at age 19, and I can honestly say that I have more energy every year. My 86-year-old mom comments on this all the time. “You have so much more energy than you used to!” she likes to say.

Research on the TM technique tells us why this can happen. The practice of Transcendental Meditation produces a state of profound relaxation much deeper than ordinary rest. When practicing the technique, there is also increased alertness and more orderly brain function, as shown in EEG patterns. The result is a state of “restful alertness.”

This state of restful alertness is experienced from the first meditation, and when you dive deep within, your mind settles to quieter levels of thinking, transcending the pressures, worries and agitation of the active mind.

Women who practice TM regularly, twice a day, report that this state of enhanced energy and alertness starts to spill over into activity. The inner silence, happiness and energy you experience in meditation replenishes your depleted reserves, so you can meet the responsibilities of home and work with greater ease. And by releasing deep-rooted stresses, your mind and body become more vibrant, more stress-resilient, so situations that used to exhaust you or challenge you no longer seem like a big deal.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Shel Pink, an eco-thinker and consultant who established SpaRitual—a vegan, sustainably sourced line of spa products and cosmetics—long before words like “eco” and “green” became popular. She now promotes the principles of “Slow Beauty”— which she defines as expanding your concept of beauty and aging to include the slower path of health and wellness rather than the punitive path of anti-aging through botox and plastic surgery.

“Consciousness is the future,” she says. “It’s such a fast world, an extraverted world. I think people are getting burned out, tired of checking multiple voice mails and emails and being engaged 24/7. People are really craving slowing down. If you’re racing, there isn’t the quality, you really aren’t productive at end of the day. Slow Beauty is about slowing down and connecting with your authentic self, to help raise your consciousness and put that out into the world.”

As a sustainability leader and a mother of two, Shel not only advocates regular meditation to create “slow beauty,” but she and her husband practice the Transcendental Meditation technique twice a day to help meet the demands of their busy lives. “It’s reduced my stress levels,” Shel says. “After working all day, you can feel parts of your body hold onto the stress. When I do TM I literally can feel that part of my body relaxing and stress melting away.”

Shel says that if she misses a meditation, she feels that something is missing. “I almost crave it. And in the afternoon it’s a welcome reprieve to tune out from the meetings and deadlines for 20 minutes. It really refreshes me and helps me get through the rest of the day.” She also points to the research on the Transcendental Meditation technique, which shows that the rejuvenating effects of meditating twice a day actually slows the aging process.

Maharishi, the founder of the TM technique, talked about this exact point when he wrote in the The Science of Being and Art of Living, “The system of Transcendental Meditation, however, is the most effective way to bring the mind to the field of transcendental Being, where it will naturally acquire life-energy for performing any amount of hard work and for producing the most effective and desirable results. This drawing of energy from the field of Being is the most striking aspect of the art of living, for it brings the active life of the day-to-day world into communion with the source of limitless life—energy, power, intelligence, creativity and bliss.”

And, it seems to me, that a person who is able to conserve their own energy, to sustain their life energy without exploiting or ruining their own body, will be able to make more sustainable choices for her environment as well.

As the great poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry says, “The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a “new economy”, but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.”

Perhaps the future of sustainability is about having more energy at the end of the day — a way of living that itself is energizing. A way of living in harmony with out own inner nature, so we naturally create a positive impact on the precious eco-system all around us.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, November 20, 2013. Reprinted with permission.)




2010_09_francis_thickeOUTSIDE THE RADIANCE DAIRY milking parlor on a drizzly spring morning, Francis Thicke rings a bell and blasts a reveille on his trumpet. His Jersey cows amble slowly toward him in the misty dawn, waiting for him to slog through the muddy holding area in his knee-high rubber boots to unhook the electric wire that separates the cows from the milking parlor.

“I used to play this—majored in music in college.” He rolls the tarnished instrument in his hands. “It was once a fine instrument, but it got burned in a fire.” He turns and leads his cows into the milking parlor, like the pied piper, only with a horn instead of a flute.

A tawny cow named Harmony is first in. A few straggle behind. “It’s just like Rawhide,” says Francis, a gentle man who at age 60 flings grain with the strength of a lifelong farmer. “There are always a few drag cows. Each has its own personality, and there’s a pecking order. The older cows tend to run in first, because they’re more dominant.” He speaks quickly in his clipped Minnesotan accent, punctuating his words with a shy smile or a laugh.

“We don’t use antibiotics on our cows,” says Francis, who owns and runs the dairy with his wife, Susan. “If we have a health issue, we use homeopathic or herbal remedies that are designed for humans, with doses recommended for cows.” After 40-some years caring for cows, Francis rarely needs to call in a vet, although he has called in a chiropractor to reset the back of a cow who couldn’t stand up in the pasture.

How do the cows respond to such tender loving care? One statistic tells all: the cows at Radiance Dairy continue to produce milk up to 12 years, compared to the two-year life expectancy of conventional dairy cows. These cows literally spend their days in clover—grazing carefully tended pastures of organic legumes and grasses. If there is such as a thing as a happy cow, they’re here.

Working with Nature

But after spending time at Radiance Dairy, you begin to realize that special attention is only one part of the whole picture. There are many reasons why these cows live longer, why their milk is so healthy and desirable that Radiance Dairy can sustain a viable economic base by selling to a small community of 11,000. One thing binds all the puzzle pieces into a complete picture of pastoral success: Francis’s basic philosophy, to work with nature rather than try to overcome it.

Francis calls his farming philosophy co-creative agriculture. “Nature has a game plan,” he says in his quiet voice. “We just have to recognize it. Nature, with its intelligence, brings something to the table, and the farmer brings something to the table. Solving problems is a co-creative process, rather than one of dominating nature.”

This kind of nature-driven problem-solving is evident in the way Francis converted his herd from grains to grasses, a more natural feed for cows. “Cows aren’t really made to eat grains,” Francis explains. “Cows who eat grasses are healthier.”

It turns out that allowing cows to graze also conserves energy. “An organic farm mimics the efficiency of nature,” says Francis. “At Radiance Dairy, we don’t consider cow manure to be a waste to be disposed of, but a resource that fertilizes our pastures, improves soil fertility, and makes the grasses more nutritious—thus increasing the health of the cow and the milk. Better still, the cows harvest their own forage and at the same time spread their own manure, saving energy.”

When farmers do what nature intended, it seems, they solve economic and ecological problems in one stroke.

Farmer, Scholar, Public Servant

What makes someone start on the path to organic farming? For Francis, the dairy farming part is in his blood. He was born on a conventional dairy farm in Minnesota, working alongside his father and brothers since childhood.

It was while studying at Winona State University, where Francis majored in music but took all the philosophy courses he could, that he started to question many of his beliefs.

“I remember my philosophy teacher teaching us to always question everything, and that resonated with me,” he says. “So when it came to putting chemicals in the soil, I thought there might be a better way to do things.”

Back on the family dairy farm after college, he saw an opportunity to put his new ideas into action. In charge of spring herbicides for the farm, he decided to skip applying them to one of the fields.

“I just kind of watched it,” says Francis. “And I was encouraged with the results.” He showed the field to his two brothers, and they decided to try the whole farm without herbicides the next year.

Francis’s father didn’t like the idea. But the sons prevailed, successfully converting the family dairy farm to organic in the 1970s, when organic farmers were a rare breed.

Francis laughs and says, “That first experiment must have been pure luck, with a lot of climatic conditions coming together to make it a year without many weeds, even without any alternative weed control.”

Their trial-and-error approach caused a few disasters along the way, such as weeds taking over the fields before they learned how to do timely cultivation. “It took us a few years to get things fine-tuned,” he says.

With no one close by to show them how to farm organically, the brothers subscribed to early organic farming magazines, such as Rodale’s The New Farm and Acres, USA, which still exists today.

“We’d read how other farmers were doing it, and then we’d try it,” says Francis.

Francis and Susan left the farm in 1982 so Francis could pursue higher degrees, an M. A. in Soil Science from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Agronomy from the University of Illinois.

“I went to graduate school because I thought I could help change the system,” says Francis.  “I soon learned that graduate students are very vulnerable, subject to their professors’ opinions, so I learned not to talk about my views on organic.”

After getting his Ph.D., Francis and Susan headed for Washington, D.C. As National Program Leader for soil science for the USDA-Extension Service, he worked on water quality and sustainable agriculture. Again, he kept most of his views quiet, trying to effect change from the inside.

When he quit the USDA in 1990 to buy Radiance Dairy, most of his colleagues thought he was weird and radical, he says.

All that has changed now that organic is the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Perhaps more than anyone, Francis Thicke sees the danger in making organic farming the latest agricultural fad. Unless people have a commitment to organic farmingphilosophical or personal—it’s difficult to make it work long term, he has written in the Organic Broadcaster and other publications.

“I’ve seen a lot of farmers try organic as if it were another specialty crop,” he says. “You have to look at the big picture, and approach the organic farm as an ecological system, or it’s not going to be successful.” Francis knows a corn and soybean farmer who tried to farm organic soybeans by substituting organic fertilizer and pesticides for conventional ones. He gave up, believing organic didn’t work. According to Francis, another recipe for failure is to neglect inputs altogether—without adopting ecologically friendly practices to replace them—leaving the crops vulnerable to pest infestation and soil depletion.

Somehow Francis manages to live several lives at once—farmer, writer, and public servant. Even though he no longer works for the USDA, Francis has served on many national and state boards and committees and is now running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture on a platform of greater energy efficiency for rural farms using wind and solar, creating more jobs and economic development by supporting local food production, exposing predatory practices by corporate monopolies, promoting wider uses of perennial crops to keep Iowa’s rich soils from washing into our rivers, and re-establishing local control over animal confinement operations.

Francis and his dairy are already known throughout the state. Each year hundreds of visitors—from school children to politicians to farmers—flock to the farm to see how solar-powered organic farming can be done.

“Radiance Dairy exists as an extraordinary model for the kinds of direct marketing to local markets that other farmers may do in their own operations,” says Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at  the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “He’s also an engaging personality. He’s having an impact in Iowa.”

Kirschenmann also wrote the introduction to Francis’s new book, A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture, in which he says, “We have the opportunity in the decades ahead to design an agriculture that can be more economically, socially, and ecologically resilient. That is the future to which Francis has dedicated himself—and so should we.”

Above all, Francis Thicke is a hands-on, old-fashioned farmer, with his heart tied to the land, the cows, the crops.

“It’s hard for a dairy farmer to give up milking his cows,” he says with a wistful smile. “I still milk them several times a week. When we first started, my wife, Susan, and I did it every day.

Linda Egenes ( is the author of Super Healthy Kids and four other books on healthy, green living. 

Rick Donhauser is an award-winning photographer whose work appeared in A Home for the Souland other publications.

Excerpted from the book-in-progress Green Angels by Linda Egenes and Rick Donhauser.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, September 2010. Reprinted with permission.

 (Photo: copyright Rick Donhauser, used with permission)


Kauai Aquaponics
December 22, 2012

Three stages of cracking a macadamia nut

The first day my husband and I arrived on Kauai’s north shore we were resting after meditation. Suddenly we became aware of two small eyes peering at us from the top of the stairs. Soon we were chatting with Micah, aged six, like we’d known him his whole life. Micah and his brother London, nine, were two of the best things about our trip–raised by their parents Dee Dee and Chris Almida, they were a constant source of information about surfing, herbal lore, native plants, and how to crack macadamia nuts.



Kauai Aquaponics

London shares his garden creation.



And since we were staying in their treehouse guest room ( Mount Meru Hale airbnb), we were warmly welcomed into their family for ten days.

Kauai, it turns out is a sustainable living mecca. With growth carefully controlled, you get the feeling that the spirit of the island is running things instead of the tourists.



Our tour guide, Micah, teaching us about the taro plant garden.



To teach us how the native Hawaiians carefully managed their ecosystem, Dee Dee and Micah took us on a tour of the Limahuli Garden and Preserve (a National Tropical Botanical Garden). Dee Dee, Micah and London do volunteer work there once a week to help preserve and restore native species. The terraces are incredibly beautiful, and connect the top of the mountain to the lowlands around the shore in one ecosystem called an ahupua‘a  by the ancient Hawaiians.



The Almida family (Chris, Dee Dee, London and Micah) stand in front of their aquaponics project.

One thing we were curious about–what were those trays of water sitting in their driveway?

It turns out that Chris and Dee Dee are adventuring into a sustainable way to raise food. Having left their farm on the big Island four years earlier, they were looking for a way to farm without the back-breaking work. Aquaponics, I learned, is a symbiotic system that combines the best of fish farming with hydroponics farming.

The fish waste feeds the plants, and the plants feed the fish, purify the water and keep the fish healthy. The result is high-density green crops AND tasty fish in a short time. The Almida’s have joined forces with other islanders to bring aquaponics to Kauai on a commercial basis. With limited farmland on the island, it’s a smart sustainable solution for every family’s need to grow their own  fresh, organic food.

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