An Update from Texas
Our largest project of this year has been a solar panel array located just behind the Santa Fe Hall. This is one of the largest projects our community has ever undertaken, and although it is not quite finished, we would like to share the progress thus far.
As a community, we have recently felt the need take additional steps towards becoming more sustainable by growing more of our own food, developing a new water system and by providing a means to generate our own electric power. In 2017, we began to look into buying solar equipment to set up a power system that would facilitate the needs of our Brazos de Dios property. We were able to purchase a large amount of high-quality solar panels and inverters directly from a source in Germany. For a while, the equipment sat in storage as we discussed where to locate the operation and worked through the logistics involved in making a project of this magnitude possible.
Last spring, we selected a site and crews of young men began to clear the trees, grade the area and plant grass to prevent erosion. By October, we formulated an implementation plan and ordered the racking for the panels. These arrived on the first day of last year’s fair.
One Step Forward, One Step Back
We faced a roadblock. To set the posts, we needed a piece of equipment called a pile driver. Yet to rent the equipment, we would need thousands of dollars for a weekly rental plus insurance. Every rental company we contacted said that they would not have an availability for quite some time.
After a great deal of searching, Brother Ezra, one of the young men coordinating the project, discovered that his uncle—who works for a large solar company in Massachusetts— had the equipment we needed. When Ezra shared our need, his uncle replied that he would be using the equipment in Crowley, Texas (a town less than two hours north of here) for an upcoming project. He had the company ship the equipment a week ahead of his project so that we could use his equipment to get the posts set.
The machine was delivered on May 2. Under normal circumstances, the task of setting these posts would take a seasoned crew approximately two months to complete. We only had a week to keep the machine, and no one had any experience using it. The first day, we discovered that the bit that attaches the posts to the driver was the wrong size. We were unable to locate such a specialized attachment in our area.
The crew decided that we would have to make one. Brother Isaac called every steel yard in the area, looking for a sheet of two-inch plate, with no success. After asking a brother, who is also a steel fabricator, for suggestions, the brother realized that he had just such a sheet in his shop! After an incredible community effort that took until 1:30 AM, we at long last had our attachment ready for work!
Unexpected Help Arrives
Brother Ezra woke up the following morning to his uncle calling. His crew had arrived at their project and discovered they were missing some necessary equipment, so he offered the use of his crew to train Ezra and the other brothers working on the project on how to run the pile driver. The first three posts took several hours to pound, as there were a few kinks to work out, but at last we found a system that worked.
We organized a crew that took shifts working around the clock to ensure that we made maximum use of the machinery in the limited time we had. The pile driver is a very loud machine, and for the week that we were using it, its reverberating clang could be heard all across the community property. The crew worked tirelessly. Finally, on Friday evening, May 8, we pounded the last post into the ground!
After cutting the posts to the same height, attaching the necessary angle supports and drilling the holes that would attach the panels to the supports, we were finally ready to install the solar panels. On May 31, the first section of 9 panels went up. It was a long and tedious process to install the panels, that sometimes required ripping down entire sections that had gone out of line. But on August 8, panel number 2,365 was installed!
There is still much more to complete, but we hope to have the solar panel array online in the not-to-distant future.
Replacing Old Housing With New
Over the years, we have been slowly removing the old, inefficient mobile homes from the community property. This year resulted in three vacant spots where mobile homes had been removed, but nothing had been put back in their place.
A good use of time during pandemic restrictions has been to build three homes on the vacant spots. Our goal is to provide attractive, yet affordable family homes in their places. Not only is this a chance for young men to learn skills that they can use for a lifetime, it is also an opportunity to forge lasting relationships. We are also hoping to develop systems of building that can be used in other communities or for a fundraiser.
On June 20, we broke ground on the first site. Using a rented excavator, we dug a pit in an out-of-the-way spot on the property to utilize the natural fill-type dirt we have in abundance (this pit has since been filled in). One of the sites on the lower portion of the community property had to be built up significantly to get it above the floodplain. Once the pads were completed, an army of young men arrived to tie rebar, dig footers and lay plastic. It was a pretty exciting and nerve-racking experience when at 1:00 in the morning of July 18, the concrete trucks began to roll in for the pour. It was a crazy night, but by 6 AM, all three pads had been poured, troweled and leveled for a firm foundation for each house!
Since then, we have made good progress. Each step is a bit of a learning curve, but by the time we have completed a phase for one house, we have streamlined the process for the next site.
As of this writing, two houses are framed, sheathed and ready to be dried-in. The crew of mainly teenage young men have been coming faithfully every day, learning to cooperate with one another and becoming a team. For each house, we complete a phase, be it framing, drywall or mechanical, before we move on to the next. Believing that we will not “weary in well doing,” we plan to finish all the homes before December.
Extending Farm Participation
We have had a good year on our community farm, Brazos de Dios. Our crops did well because the rains have been quite abundant, even into the summer months, which is unusual for this area.
Brother Grady and Sister Erin are now overseeing the farm. This year we began a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. This is a way that community members who want to participate can have a more formal relationship with the farm. Members support the farm by paying a fee at the beginning of the year and commit to helping with planting and harvesting. Each family takes a share when the crops are ready.
Members can also choose to get beef, chicken and eggs from the CSA, while other members will produce those foods on their own homesteads. We have been slaughtering and distributing 200 chickens a week. Members are looking forward to receiving wheat and corn, our first harvested crops, in September.
This summer we grew corn, popcorn, wheat, oats, black beans, pinto beans and southern peas. We also grew sunflowers and okra for oil, and pink eyes, corn and okra for seed. Sweet potatoes and peanuts are still growing, and we are gearing up toward the fall, which is a good season for many crops here.
We have also launched an apprenticeship program on the farm for young men and brothers. There are several different levels available, from full-time work to several days a week. Our hope is that this apprenticeship will help to perpetuate the agrarian vision within our communities, both here in Texas and abroad. Our vision does not stop with growing crops and animals but extends to growing farmers. The apprenticeship provides a context through which skills, education and character can be imparted.
Celebrating Wedding Unions
Blake and Faith
Blake Loree and Faith Beckworth were married on July 31 at the Fellowship Hall. Due to the pandemic, the wedding was limited to family and close friends, but was beautiful nonetheless. Their friends pitched in to create several pieces of beautiful furniture, a hand‑stitched quilt and numerous other household and homesteading gifts.
Robert and Abigail
Robert Johnson and Abigail Fowler were married on August 14. After the wedding the family hosted a farm-to-table reception, serving chicken raised on the Fowler’s homestead, vegetables from family gardens and fish caught in nearby Lake Whitney. Friends in the community provided the couple with, among other items, a handcrafted bed, wall-mounted night stands, a handmade porch swing and a kitchen island.
Refurbishing a Familiar Landmark
We are in the process of refurbishing the red barn. This building was not insulated, so it was very hot in summer and very cold in winter! We have insulated it, re-sided it and painted it with red trim. This week we are pouring a concrete patio in the front. The refurbished venue will be much more useful for meetings, weddings and other community events.