In 2005, Doug Fine moved to New Mexico, bought a ranch and set about making it a model of sustainable self-sufficiency. For Fine, then a 36-year-old who’d grown up on Domino’s in the New York suburbs, “the time was absolutely right for me personally to embark on this adventure in living green—other than having no electrical, plumbing, building, engine mechanical, horticultural, or animal husbandry skills at all, that is.” His new book, Farewell, My Subaru (Villard Books, 212 pages, $24), is a chronicle of that experiment’s first year, which included installing solar panels in a windstorm, buying baby goats from Craigslist, and trading in his trusty “LOVEsubee” for a Ford F-250 monster truck powered by veggie oil.
Fine reads at Powell’s next Monday, April 21, on the eve of Earth Day 2008. He spoke with WW by cell phone in the middle of his “Carbon Neutral Book Tour.”
WW: Where are you right now?
Doug Fine: Just right at the California/Nevada border. I’m in the car as we speak, headed toward San Francisco. I’ve got three Bay Area events coming up.
And you’re driving the Ridiculously Oversized American Truck?
I call it the RO-AT.
How many miles do you have on it now?
I bought it used at about 49 [thousand], and now it’s got about 69 [thousand]. I’ve been driving with vegetable oil for about a year now, and it drives very well. It actually drives better with vegetable oil than it does with diesel.
How many miles are you logging on this tour?
Right now I’m pushing about 3,000.
And it’s a carbon-neutral book tour?
Yeah, it’s all on waste oil, with the exception of a couple hundred miles where I couldn’t get any. But other than that it’s all been oil from fryers, and who knows where that would have gone elsewhere—some kind of landfill or whatever.
How did you plan your fuel suppliers?
I actually have the capability to dumpster-dive, but we packed a pretty full truck here, so we didn’t really want to allow room for the filter, to make it portable. Some of the people who provide oil are contacts of the fellow who did the conversion to make my truck run on vegetable oil. I reached this one guy through this website called fillitforfree.com. And then one guy in the Bay Area is the husband of the owner of the bookstore that’s hosting one of my readings. So there have been a variety of sources.
So now that you have the ROAT, when the creek fills up during monsoon time, do you still plow across it?
I’m going from the tow-ee to the tow-er, that’s true. We haven’t had another flood like August of ’06, thank God. It’s not just the river crossing—the whole road scene is pretty bumpy.
You’ve actually towed somebody out before?
Actually, yes. I towed one of my neighbors out of a ditch, not too long ago.
Do you think of yourself as a western rancher now, rather than an East Coast suburbanite?
Well, I’m a western rancher in that I’ve got the solution for every political problem in the US. But as far as practical success as a rancher? It’s slow but steady progress. I’m still a beginner, but talk to me in three weeks when I’m eating the first ice cream, and I might feel a little more proud of myself.
Honestly, I’m amazed at how well everything is going. We have so many eggs that my doctor is worried about my cholesterol level. There’s only so many frittatas and omelettes we can make, now that we’ve figured out how to keep the coyotes out of the coop. The goats are going to be giving milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream. And the garden last year was just amazing. We had carrots through November, and we still have beans. I couldn’t believe that we were eating fresh corn, that we would go down and pick every day! Maybe it’s just beginner’s luck, but everything is starting out really well.
My biggest point of curiosity about your ranch is the goat ice cream. Does that actually taste good?
I don’t know yet, but I will know soon. You’ve asked at a good time. Because I’m on the road, I haven’t posted my latest blog post. But you know, Natalie—I was bottle-feeding her, I got her off of Craigslist—she just gave birth to twins a few days ago. So when I get back from the book tour, those goats will almost be weaned. From there, it’s Funky Butte Ranch goat ice cream, zero carbon miles, one hundred percent organic.
You named your goats Natalie and Melissa….
They’re named after two singers that I like, but whose voices sound a little bit goatlike: Natalie Merchant and Melissa Etheridge.
Are you gonna be able to share the ice cream? It kind of sounds like you want it all for yourself.
If there’s a surplus, I’m happy to share. First let’s see how it comes out. I have a link up on my website right now soliciting not just good ice cream recipes, but also recommendations for good ice cream makers. Because in the bread-machine era now, there are all these digital, newfangled ways of making ice cream, but I’ve heard that they break down. I want the old metal kind that you have to sit on and hand crank. The other challenge to being truly carbon-neutral is finding a sweetener that’s regional. You know, will honey work? Because my neighbor in the next canyon over makes honey—so will that work for sweetening the cream? And then, obviously, I have solar power, so I can freeze the ice. And at certain times of year we have berries, so hopefully the whole ice cream scene will be totally local.
Let’s get back to the land for a minute. When we talk about “back-to-the-land,” just how far back do you mean? Do you see what you’re doing as a throwback to ‘70s communes, or would you take it back as far as Thoreau? In other words, do you see your experiment as Walden with wi-fi?
The truth is, that’s just who I am. When I was a kid, I lobbed oranges like baseballs against the supermarket wall on Long Island, and they wouldn’t dent. I knew that the food was fake; that I lived on concrete; that I didn’t live in a real ecosystem. To their credit, my parents would take us on vacation to the Yellowstones and the Yosemites, so I could see what the planet looked like. In my first book, Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man, I hypothesized that the indigenous gene somehow came out in me—that I just had a desire to be part of an ecosystem, to live from it, to live locally. That’s how I felt healthiest and happiest, most in control of my life, rather than being completely dependent on outside sources for every one of the basics in my life.
It was a very personal journey for me. I lived in Alaska for three or four years, catching my own salmon. I would catch my year’s worth of salmon every summer. And I didn’t have refrigeration or electricity up there most of the time, so I would jar and can my salmon. I felt that I was pretty cool and pretty local—zero carbon miles, traditional subsistence fisherman—until I saw the oil from my two-stroke engine leaking out into the pristine waters from which I was catching the fish.
So part of what Farewell, My Subaru is all about is my own kind of hypocrisy reduction project. I didn’t want to be a fake rugged individualist. I wanted to progressively see how legit I could get. Some of our plans for the ranch over the next few years include compiling a seed bank, so we have extra seeds in times of need. Also, we’re going to build a sustainable greenhouse, so that we can grow tropical fruit without carbon miles.
So this is sustainability without the austerity? You’re trying to find ways to live a full life—sort of, have your cake and feed it, too?
I wanted to show that you can get oil out of your life and still have your American comforts. For instance, I don’t even notice that I have solar power. I’ve got a washing machine, fridge, electricity, booming stereo subwoofers—that’s probably the most important thing—everything that I need. In fact, when the grid electricity goes off where I live, I’m sometimes the only ranch that’s still got electricity, because of solar. Solar is completely seamless and easy. And driving with vegetable oil is a complete piece of cake. It drives better than it does on diesel—it’s no hassle at all.
Living locally is a decision that anyone can make. You think you’re too busy to garden, or to raise chickens and goats? I would argue that it only takes me a couple hours per day, and I have a full-time job as a writer and journalist. Anybody can do it—it’s all about whether their zoning allows them to do it. But, even if you’re too busy to raise as much of your food as possible, you can insist on your local co-op or giant organic supermarket having local, in-season food, so that you’re not buying apples from New Zealand.
There’s good yummy stuff year-round. We still have like 10 pounds of beans ready to go from last year’s harvest, and I didn’t even know what I was doing when I planted them. I just randomly threw them in the ground.
It sounds like you’re in this for the long haul. You don’t see Funky Butte Ranch as a temporary experiment?
No, although the Subaru in question has all these transmission problems, and I’m having trouble selling it on Craigslist. I had more trouble selling it than I had finding goats on Craigslist, or in fact, more trouble than I had selling goats on Craigslist. One of the babies we’re going to part with—we’re just going to keep one of them. And we’ve already got a taker! The Subaru was proving hard to sell, but a reader of my book from Minnesota wants to buy it now. I just got an email the other day.
The Funky Butte Ranch, I don’t want to part with. It definitely feels like home. We’re having our first baby there, home birth, in June. We’re building a life there, and it’s the realization of all of our dreams. So I could see it staying as a home base. But the Subaru, I’m totally willing to part with.
Are you gonna sign the dashboard with a Sharpie?
Yeah, maybe I should raise the price of it to an artifact, like Ken Kesey’s bus or something. I should be lucky to sell so many copies.
Going green isn’t cheap. What do you reckon was the total bill for making Funky Butte Ranch self-sufficient?
I’ll take it in segments. The rollout conversion…Let’s just say that you’re buying a diesel truck anyway. From there, the conversion to run on straight vegetable oil is several thousand dollars. But if you filter your own fuel from there, it pays itself back within six months. When I get lazy, I have a guy in the valley that I buy filtered oil from. He filters the waste oil from restaurants himself, and he just raised his price to two dollars a gallon. That means I’m saving two dollars a gallon every time I fill up, because diesel at the pump is four bucks. Add that up over all the miles you drive, and it pays for itself instantly.
Likewise with solar panels, and the total solar setup. It really depends on how sophisticated your setup is, how big your house is, how significant your energy demands are, and what the fed and your state does in terms of tax rebates. But generally speaking, I look at it as about a 6-10 year financial payback time in terms of saved electric bills. But then there’s the immediate payback that you’re no longer supporting drilling in Alaska, or all the other things that we customers of Exxon-Mobil support every time we go to the gas pump.
Of course, you can put up as many panels as you want at your ranch and be sure that there’ll be enough sun to feed them.
I think in Oregon you can do year-round solar.
Certainly in Eastern Oregon there are a lot of solar and wind projects. But how do you think your approach to sustainability can be adapted to urban environments like Portland?
For the most part they’re the same.… For one thing, anybody who is personally getting a utility bill can personally go on solar tomorrow. If you’re driving a car, you can change to vegetable oil tomorrow, and stay on top of better long-term developments than vegetable oil like algae, solar, electric, hydrogen. Anybody living in any ecosystem can do that.
The only possible difference is that I, living on 41 acres, have opportunities to have goats that are free to forage, stuff like that. But you can reduce your carbon miles just as much in your diet by buying locally, going to farmer’s markets, supporting Community Supported Agriculture projects, things like that.
You mentioned in your book that New York has a lot of walkers. Do you think that dense population centers provide better opportunities for reducing your carbon footprint?
Yeah, I mean, there are pros and cons. Often people drive less, and that’s great. The problem with true urban living is that the food supply is fragile. If CSAs go away, and if the supermarket supply stops, then city people are in trouble. That’s why I think city people should have rooftop gardens, indoor greenhouses, atriums, solariums, and things like that. It doesn’t take very much space to grow a lot of food.
You think that even in the city, people should be growing their own food?
Rather than CSA’s?
Not rather than. It’s just a back-up plan. I’m not totally food-independent even at the Funky Butte Ranch, although I’m getting closer and closer. No, I think CSA’s and farmer’s markets are great. I would say everybody should grow food.
The classic example is the Hmong refugees from Laos in St. Paul, Minnesota. In St. Paul they took a look around them and started planting their crops in the cracks in the pavement. It was a trademark of their adaptability and their ability to survive and adjust that they just took a look around them and said, alright, let’s start planting.
A couple of years ago Portland was tagged as the most sustainable city in the country. But sustainability is a pretty slippery notion. As the market demands for sustainable solutions grows, how do we measure what’s really making a difference, and what’s just greenwashing?
I’ll answer that two ways. Eventually, when there’s a critical mass for sustainable supplies—everything from locally-grown food to sustainably-manufactured windmills and solar panels—the consumer makes the decision. That’s really how we can circumvent bad politics or delayed political response. We can just make decisions as a consumer, because it’s not always easy to figure out how many carbon miles went into our food.
The most important thing at this point is not to be swayed by naysayers about commercial products. You hear everything from, “Oh, Priuses use more energy than a Hummer,” to, “Oh, too much material goes into solar panels for them to be sustainable.” Both of those things are as untrue as the statement “Dick Cheney is an environmentalist.” Solar panels pay back their resource use in a couple of years, and they’re warranteed for thirty years. And the whole Prius/Hummer thing was an internet hoax. It was bad science by a Connecticut guy funded by oil companies. Since then, there have been studies—including federal government studies—that confirm that you use about 80-90% less energy over the lifetime of a Prius.
We’re hearing a lot of naysaying about biofuels. And sure, corn-based ethanol, supported by the Monsantos of the world, that’s a bad scene. But there are other biofuels in the future—algae, switchgrass, and I recently heard about jatropha. I think people should be educated, and not swayed by bad propaganda.
The other thing is just to take it one step at a time. And I think that Portlanders are probably ahead of most places in that regard. I heard a lot about the whole yellow bike thing, which was emulated in a lot of other places.
I think that was patterned after an experiment in Amsterdam. It didn’t last very long, because it led to people’s stealing or trashing the bikes. The whole trust thing. But it’s being resuscitated as a bike-rental arrangement.
I think part of the answer is to tell people not to beat themselves up and feel guilty for being an American. Just take sustainability one step at a time, and you’ll find that it seemlessly works into their lives. You don’t have to live in a remote cabin, eating only the local cow dung or something.
So what about just doing everything you’ve always done and then buying a bunch of carbon offsets? Is that cheating?
I think it’s kind of lame. I’ve done it for the one or two flights I’ve had to take on this book tour. It’s better than nothing. I mean, hooray, I planted some trees in Brazil yesterday or whatever. But better is to work for the day when there’s a solar-powered airfleet. Actually the technology already exists—there are solar powered planes. So we should work on converting our fleet. Offsets are better than nothing, but they’re definitely incomplete.
Here’s the inevitable Al Gore question: how many air and road miles are you logging on your book tour [that you’d need to offset]?
Not too many, actually. I don’t know that many authors who are putting in four to five thousand carbon-neutral miles on the road. If there was a better option for flying than jet fuel, I’d jump on it.
And you’re a thousand or so carbon-neutral miles away from Portland right now?
Yeah! I’m really excited. To me, as an author, in the insular book world, it’s a real sign of success to have an event at Powell’s. It’s not easily come by, and so I’m really excited to be there. I’ve had some really nice events on the tour. When I’m at some of the really nice bookstores in Denver, my publicist will tell me, Oh, this is really a Powell’s-like experience—it’s a bookstore that does a really good job, it really cares. It has a big following of people who really pay attention to what events are coming.
I do more than just a reading. I do a funny slideshow that shows all the carnage and near-death that ensued, and mischievous goats, and mistakes that I made. That’s just so that everybody can laugh at me, and after reading the book, feel a little bit more comfortable about sustainable living. Like, if this guy did it, then I can do it.
So Powell’s is the gold standard for bookstores?
It’s one of the highlights of my tour, for sure. It’s one of the major ones. I was in Washington DC a couple weeks ago at the National Geographic Theater, and that’s really cool because it’s a 400-seat theater with one of those big screens. And they have this green room with bottled water and a private bathroom, so you feel you’re about to go on Letterman. Plus it’s a series that they sell tickets for, so you know that there’s gonna be hundreds of people there. But Powell’s is way at the top of the list.
SEE IT: Doug Fine riffs on Farewell, My Subaru at Powell’s City of Books on Monday, April 21. 7:30 pm. Free (slideshow included). Public transit routes to the reading can be found at trimet.org; bike racks can be found out front. Allegedly tasty recipes for goat’s-milk ice-cream can be found on Fine’s blog, dougfine.com.