No Pickup, No Problem: Social Capital Trumps a Shitty Situation

No Pickup, No Problem: Social Capital Trumps a Shitty Situation

by Dorothy Farrell

My hands are grappling the rumbling, rusty wheelbarrow handles, and as we walk half a mile through the village, everyone can hear the five Rancho apprentices clunk on through. In a village of 120 people, your whereabouts are everybody's business. Don't worry, I want to say, this will all make sense soon. They'll be having a chuckle by the end of the day. For now, we are five warriors defending alternative energy. We are making the best use of our woman power (and Dan power) when the white pickup truck is out of commission. We are going to pick up poop.

As Timo explained in a blog post last month, poop is the essential ingredient for synthesizing our kitchen's methane gas supply. Once a week, the white pickup truck is driven half a mile up the road to pick up ten sacks of manure. Assuming you have the human labor and the car labor, it's a brilliant system-- until the white truck, which has seen more years than myself, stops working. No truck, no poop, you say. Chuckle chuckle. Four of the baddest chicks and one man are about to prove you wrong. Here are two cents, to boot, on what makes a functional energy system.

We make it to Finca Siempre Verde dripping in sweat. Chilo, our friendly poop dealer, greets us as we roll five empty wheelbarrows up the driveway hill. Since we're on the theme of biodigestors, he offers to give us a tour through his biodigestor system. It's a work in progress, but here are the pigs. He shows us the pig pen which gets hosed down, and where the poop drains into a pipe. He then shows us a newly built pen that is slightly lower than the kitchen. Here, Chilo explains, will be the new site for the biodigestor. The manure will wash directly into the feeder barrel, no transport necessary.

We are five champions of renewable energy and suddenly I am wondering why my journey to move poop suddenly seems less noble. Here is a system that capitalizes on the fact that the source of manure is located at point zero for the biodigestor intake. If Chilo had a failure in one of his auto parts, there would still be gallo pinto on the table. Is Chilo's biodigestor any different than ours, or am I just about to push 100 pounds of manure half a mile because we built a delicate, un-resilient system?

Biological systems, such as Chilo's pigs, are complex. They are composed of living, breathing organisms whose livelihood is ingrained in the health of the entire system. As long as Chilo (who is also a living component in the system) continues to produce food on his farm, process it in his kitchen, bring the scraps to his pigs, and maintain his system accordingly, then poop will continue to flow through the biodigestor, methane will continue to be produced, food will continue to be produced, and the pigs will continue to be fed. 

Now, suppose we swapped out those pigs for one of those nifty new robots on the market. The Porkolator 3000 is equipped with machinery that makes it the most efficient robot in converting biomass to waste product. This technological feat is revolutionary. As it turns out, however, the company that manufactures the Porkulator did not create the machine with the capacity to heal from, say, an erupted engine. So when that breaks down, and Chilo doesn't have a spare engine in the middle of the jungle, how on Earth will the gallo pinto get made?

Pigs are complex; Porkolators are complicated. The difference between a living system and a non-living system is that a living system has numerous connections and survival responses in accordance with the environment, whereas a non-living system cannot respond. A non-living system is complicated because if there are 1000 pieces and the tropics rusts one obsolete, the system will fail to function. A living system has 999 pieces you can name, and 999 to the ninth power of interconnections you cannot even see, that when one piece fails, the show must go on. On that day, our pickup truck proved to be complicated because the inability to start the engine meant that our biodigestor risked starvation. 

Pigs are not the only example of complex, living systems. Communities are also complex. In the wake of realizing that our biodigestor may not get fed, we rallied the troops and took action. That's right, our engine may have failed, but our spirit did not. That morning, five apprentices and ten sacks of manure rolled through Mastatal and it didn't matter that my forearms were burning or that my hands were too dirty to wipe the sweat from my eyes. We were resilient, and let warm gallo pinto be proof.

News from around the Permaculture Community

We love books at the Ranch! Our library is constantly growing as each of us pick out a few new books to populate our shelves. Our favorite publisher is Chelsea Green publishing, and the folks over at have been busy reviewing many of their best books. Check out the review list to see if any belong on your shelf! 

The National Institute of Apprenticeships in Costa Rica is having their annual Agroecological Festival this December 3 & 4 in Cartago. We hope to attend. This will be a great opportunity for anyone interested in connecting with the Costa Rica permaculture and urban farming community!


The Ranch Crew