May Meeting Leads to the Construction of the First AgriPod Greenhouse in the USA


Linda pulls me in Dick’s push cart in a lighthearted moment after using the cart to move the solar hot water panel out of storage.

This is a continuing series of posts about my travels though the USA earlier this year with my friend Linda Ford. We had the chance to explore several projects promoting Appropriate Technologies and alternative living during the trip.

After leaving Strawbale Studios on May 7th, 2012, Linda and I went down to Athens Ohio where SolaRoof/AgriPod founder Rick (Richard) Nelson was to meet with Richard (Dick) Hogan for the first time. While there, I had the chance to get to know Rick and Dick, who later in the year built the first AgriPod greenhouse built in the USA.

The AgriPod system is a unique two level greenhouse design. It is designed especially with consideration to Rick Nelson’s SolaRoof design; an innovative a passive solar heated and cooled greenhouse growing system that uses bubble machines to fill a cavity space between the inside and outside of the structure with bubbles to insulate.

Also notable was our opportunity to diagnose a broken solar hot water system, fix it and then take our first solar hot water shower – all in the same day!

Over the last several years, I have considered the possibility of developing a Solaroof prototype at Arcosanti, Arizona. I discussed this plan with them, including some of the possibilities and challenges for developing a prototype AgriPod at Arcosanti.

Map of Appalachia BioRegion

Geography and Background

This adventure took us to the western edge of Appalachia. The region is a lot larger than I realized. According to Wikipedia the cultural region associated with the term Appalacia extends up to southern NY, then PA and the going through the Deep Southern state like Georgia Alabama and Miss. I always associated the entire state of West Virginia and the eastern tips of Kentucky and Tennessee and the western tips of Virginian and North Carolina as part of that region. All these years travelling through PA in I-80 and never realizing i was going through Appalachia. I knew I was going through the Appalachians, I just never realized just as in the Ozarks this was a major geographical region that also cultural links that led to a common identity.

The similarities with the Ozarks are obvious both in terms of the geological and cultural features so I felt quite at home (having spent most of my life in the Ozarks) with the curvy mountain roads and “downhome” living. Athens, Ohio is like your typical Ozarks/Appalachian mountain regional center with one exception – its strong economic reliance on the local state university (Ohio University)  makes it a relatively politically progressive place.

While sharing some things in common with Fayetteville, Arkansas as a university town; Athens is smaller. This was evident when we traveled downtown and saw that the downtown had been taken over as the shopping, eating and district for the students. I had never recalled going to a place where the students so dominated the downtown. Indeed keep driving past main street and suddenly you realize you are in the center of Ohio University.

About Dick Hogan and Greenfire Farm

Dick is a big bear of a man with a head full of hair and large beard. While that’s typical for many backwood folk living in the craggy hills and hollows of Appalicia, what sets him apart is that he’s been an activist for global transformation as part of a international network of “global wisdom leaders” like Vandana Shiva to work on what is basically a Planetary Bill of Rights (Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights). Considering the think globally/act locally equation, he’s sought to put forward a vision aligned with the Ecovillage Movement and has made his vision known in Athens.

His longstanding plan has been to build an ecovillage based on commonly held principles and values within the movement on his property. The name for this project is Greenfire Farm. It located on about 100 acres of partially cleared land in the rolling hills  about 10 miles outside of Athens. The property itself has huge potential, but has seen limited development so far.

The site has like Strawbale Studios served as training center and base for the discussion, experimentation and development of  appropriate technology for about 20 years now.

Dick positioning the hot water collector on the mounting hardware.

The AgriPod Greenfire Launch Meeting

Finally upon meeting up with Rick Nelson that vision mentioned above seems to be coming together. Rick came with his wife Geraldine and it was more of a get to know each other/trust-building type of meeting rather than something where you get concrete work done.

We barely scratched the surface of what was going on in Athens (and this was a recurring theme throughout the trip). We did however get a chance to go to a meeting group called Democracy Over Corporations that Dick is involved in. The meeting featured a surprisingly interesting video called the The Secret of Oz which was made by the libertarian journalist and presidential candidate Bill Still. It was a good opportunity to get to know some of the people in the area and their point of view.

We also visited the Village Bakery and Cafe a organic bakery and cafe that also included a health food market called the Undercover Market.  This kind of thing is an example of how local efforts were leading to more sophisticated networks of organic food production and processing that were increasing access to these products, while making them more affordable.

Before Rick went back up to Montreal, he gave a presentation to local people in Dick’s network about the AgriPod and supporting SolaRoof technologies.

Rick, Geraldine and me

The Greenfire Solar Hot Water Shower Repair and Revitalization

Linda cleaning the hot water collector panel after it was pressure tested and before it was moved for installation.

After Rick left Dick, Linda and I worked on the solar hot water shower that Dick had built several years ago in a workshop. Dick was generous enough to devote some time to teaching me how to refurbish a solar system and we went over the basic theory of how the system worked.

As we rebuilt the system the first step was to diagnose the problem. We found that there was a break in the copper piping and it was not easily repairable. He mentioned that several of the panels were made a good friend of his who was one of the pioneers of the solar hot water industry.

Solar systems like his friend’s were supported initially by Jimmy Carter who had several installed in the White House using the government as a way to encourage change. However when Reagan was elected these were ripped out and the subsidies needed to get appropriate technologies into the mainstream were slashed. While many of them started as self-reliant small scale business model fueled by the energy of the counterculture movement they needed funding to mainstream their products. As the energy crisis subsided and Reagan was elected interest in green tech wanted and many of these companies suddenly found themselves struggling to survive.

Dick and I installing the piping for heat exchanger/hot water collector to connect it to the hot water storage tank.

We had to pressure test the replacement solar hot water collector before we replaced it. Fortunately the last one – our only hope – passed the pressure test and we could then proceed to move the system over to the shower once we cleaned the accumulated debris off. After placing it on mounting system, we then proceeded to install quick connect fittings to make the connection between a old hot water tank that was repurposed as the storage tank for the shower and the collector.

After the connections were made we had several leaks spring up until we finally replaced all the worn and frayed plastic piping between the storage tank and the shower. Just before we had to leave to go back to Strawbale Studio, we decided to test out the shower.

Envisioning AgriPod as an Inspirational Model moving us towards a Right Livelihood Existence

Athens Healthy Food Network Map at the Undercover Market at the Village Cafe lists all the local grassroots folk who produce healthy organic foods and products.

Seeing more people go out on a limb and begin to take the small initial steps of becoming part of a ecosystem of more sustainable living is inspiring me to go forward on my own path in this direction. The rewards though involve becoming part of a system of living and being that, despite operating at a fraction of the mega-scale economics of the modern corporate-state system, moves us practically towards this desire of making a living without doing harm upon the earth and our fellow humans – the buddhist concept of Right Livelihood.  For our long term well being and health, we must figure out how to build businesses more rooted and grounded in practices consistent with ecological and social integrity. Such living and innovating provides a more holistic sense of profit and well being, than the conventional models that provide us with wads of cash in our pockets, but end up leaving us with a broken or empty heart – something hollow inside that no amount of money can fill.

So let us consider how we got to this point of coming to Athens and later building the AgriPod here (partially with my money). It was Dick saying to Rick and I and several others on Skype and email:  this is an opportunity to show how an alternative and appropriate technology can be an inspirational prototype on a small scale in a place where people are coming together and building momentum for a critical mass transformation of culture and society. Through this strong and developing network of sustainability pioneers and advocates, such prototypes if based on sound principles of Ecological Economics, can rapidly spread and expand as inspirational alternatives to conventional economic systems that rely on unsustainable practices like Fracking.

Greenfire AgriPod Update

The good news is that Rick and Dick were able to follow through on their commitments and build the first AgriPod Greenhouse using the SolaRoof Passive Solar Energy System in the USA.

The latest report from Rick is that the system is almost ready to be tested out.

I’ll report more on this in the coming weeks.

In the meantime you can stay up to date with the latest developments on the SolaRoof Facebook Page.

Above: Final Stages of AgriPod construction involves install of decking and mounting systems for the greenhouse growing beds, walkways and aquaponics system and the wrapping of plastic around the hoops.

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