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Rural sustainability

Orr Center preps for second annual expo next weekend

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 8/11/17

ORR— The building is clean, the floors are waxed, and the vision behind a remarkable effort at rural sustainability is taking physical form as the folks behind the Orr Recreation and Resource …

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Rural sustainability

Orr Center preps for second annual expo next weekend


ORR— The building is clean, the floors are waxed, and the vision behind a remarkable effort at rural sustainability is taking physical form as the folks behind the Orr Recreation and Resource Center prepare for their second annual Homesteading and Sustainable Lifestyles Expo, set for Aug. 19-20, in Orr.

It’s been a busy year at the ORR Center, thanks to a small army of volunteers, donations, grants, and their energetic field marshal Wendy Purdy, who makes sure everything and everyone keeps moving in the right direction.

Wendy and her husband Jeff were busy working at the center this week, hoping to show off some of the progress they’ve made since the last expo. Jeff was up on the expansive flat roof of the former Orr School building, which now houses the center. He’s making the final connections on an 11.8-kilowatt solar array that will provide a bit over half of the center’s electrical needs. The Purdys live off-grid, so Jeff has been working with solar photovoltaics for years. He’s also an electrician, which means he knows how to connect the solar array to the electric grid in town. When the sun is up, the center’s electric meter will track the output of the array and reduce the center’s electric bill by a similar amount. In the summer, the array should produce more power than the center needs, so the excess will feed back into the grid, allowing the center to accumulate credits that it can tap during the winter months when solar production is more limited in the region.

It’s a long-term investment of $62,000, aided by a $20,000 energy retrofit grant from the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency and donations in cash and services from various supporters of the center. Jeff is donating his time to oversee installation and hookup of the array, which should be completed in time for this year’s expo.

This past winter, before installing the new solar array, Purdy and volunteers spent weeks replacing most of the school’s old fluorescent fixtures with new and highly efficient LED lights. It’s a standard principle of the new energy economy— tap conservation gains first, install new renewable energy sources second.

The energy upgrades are just one element of an overall vision of rural sustainability that has been embraced by the center’s founders and its many supporters. They are also making strides on another critical leg of the stool— food production. And in a former classroom, the first of several aquaculture “pods” is nearing completion.

“It’s a pretty simple system,” said Jeff, noting that fish will live in a 190-gallon tank on one end of the base of an elevated growing bed. The bed is filled with small rocks that are used as a “soil” to keep the roots of plants in place. Meanwhile, water from the tank is regularly pumped up into the growing bed, keeping the rocks and the roots moist and transferring nutrients from the fishes’ waste to the plants. The water is pumped to a predetermined height in the bed, then drained back into the fish tank. “It’s called a flood and drain system,” said Jeff and it can work virtually on auto-pilot. The only inputs needed into the system, once established, are seeds for each new crop and food for the fish.

The growing beds won’t grow root vegetables, like potatoes or carrots, but they will grow everything from lettuce to tomatoes, from broccoli to beans. The system not only provides a year-round source of veggies, it also provides a steady source of fresh fish. The tilapia that the center will grow in the fish tanks initially reach harvest size in just nine months, so the system can provide an abundance of high-quality protein as well. Just one “pod,” as each unit is called, can provide all the food for a family of four according to Wendy.

The aquaculture system won’t be operating in time for next week’s expo, but they hope to have it functioning by fall. And since it operates inside, it’s a year-round source of locally-produced, organic food.

For Wendy, the system combines the kind of local food self-sufficiency once common in rural areas with new technologies to provide economic development and save critical resources. “We used to grow our own food, even up here,” she said. “I want to see local food production come back. We just need to get the process down.”

By producing food locally, notes Jeff, the act of eating would no longer transfer money out of the local economy, and it would save resources that would no longer need to be used to transport crops from around the world to markets. And besides, said Wendy, if it’s fresh and local, it will just taste better. “Why buy one of those hard green tomatoes in the grocery store in the winter, when you could buy a fresh one that was grown close to home?” she asked.

The aquaculture system they’re planning to create could eventually become a major source of revenue for the center. But the primary objective remains education— and that means spreading the word through events like the expo, or working with groups, schools, and individuals to assist in expanding such food production systems. “Every community needs to do this,” said Wendy.

Eventually, the center will provide housing for a regular summer camp where people from around the world will be able to come to learn more about local self-sufficiency, new food production technologies, homesteading skills, and alternative energy. In other words, it’s an exciting time for folks in Orr, who have turned the loss of their school into new opportunity.


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