Chickens, Eggs, Make a “Movable Feast”

This guest blog is by our Greenhouse Specialist, Sam Tepes. He’s a creative thinker and diligent and efficient worker,  just the type of person you want running a greenhouse! This piece first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Ripples, our internal newsletter.

I have over forty chickens in my movable chicken coop, which I constructed out of recycled materials. I bought nothing to make the coop brand new; I found everything on the campus previously used. The nest boxes came from Earthworks chicken coop, the panels came from the goat farm, I had old chicken mesh and wire that I also re-used to make the movable coop.

I move it about once or twice a week. The chickens lay a lot of eggs. I give the Motherhouse kitchen about 17 ½ dozen eggs a week. In exchange, they give me their leftovers, and their kitchen prep scraps, which the chickens love.

When I move the coop, the chickens get fresh to eat grass, in addition to the grains I feed them. I also feed them oyster shells which provides calcium to their diet to strengthen their eggs’ shells. In addition to egg production and the salad greens, I also have peppers and tomatoes growing the greenhouse now, so refreshing salads will be served here all summer long.

Sam, keeping the chickens in line!


LED lighting retrofit underway

“When I got off the elevator, I thought I was on the wrong floor!” Words from my officemate on the fifth floor.

We are in the middle of a campus-wide lighting retrofit project, switching over incandescent and fluorescent lights to LEDs, or Light Emitting Diodes. Not only are we seeing better (literally), we’ll be seeing some big savings.

If I had to match this photo with a Bible verse, it’d be Isaiah 9:2… “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”


LEDs have dropped dramatically in cost over the last few years. (You can get the full scoop on LEDs at with an incentive program from NIPSCO, suddenly many projects like these have become economical. Four-foot tubes that once drew 32-40W (watts) of power now will sip 15W, saving over 50%. 60W screw in bulbs are replaced with 9W, an 85% savings. We won’t truly know how much we’ll save until after the project is completed, but we conservatively estimate that it will be equivalent to removing 50 residential homes from the grid.

We are expecting longer bulb life from LEDs. Additionally, we get to remove ballasts and direct-wire the lamps right to the power supply. This eliminates another point of failure, which saves precious time for our hard-working maintenance staff. These ballasts also produced waste heat. In the summer months, you waste energy once on the ballast as heat, then you waste it twice using air conditioning to remove that heat from the building!

Removing ballasts for LED conversion.


Let’s tally up the financial and environmental benefits: a single 40W bulb running 24/7 (some we have to leave on for safety) will consume 350 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, costing $35 and emitting about 640 pounds of CO2 in Indiana. Replacing just that single lamp with a 15W bulb will save $22 in energy (plus maintenance) and 400 lbs of CO2. If a light is on 8 hrs a day, you can take those numbers above and divide by three.

Each of these projects in our many homes, businesses, schools, churches, and other buildings adds up. In addition to saving money that can be used for ministry purposes, we’ll be able to breathe a little better as emissions are reduced from the coal and natural gas plants that provide the bulk of our power. (Click here to see the real-time fuel mix of the Midwestern electric grid).

Energy stewardship is not just about earth care, but about social justice more broadly. These polluting plants are disproportionally located in minority neighborhoods (yes, in Indiana too). As we like to point out so often, the human and ecological communities suffer or flourish in tandem.

If you have a church, school, or business affiliation, act fast! The utility incentives are temporary and won’t last forever.

Plymouth Kiwanis

Despite being less than 8 miles west of Plymouth, I have met people who were born and raised in Plymouth who have never set foot on The Center at Donaldson campus! It’s just the way some of our social circles play out. But we are constantly trying to get the word out that we have everything from higher education to art experiences to conferences and concerts. There really is something for everyone at every stage of their life.

Despite lots of technological innovation in communication, word of mouth is still powerful. We still show up to “press palms” and “pound the pavement,” as they say. We’ll have a team on a hay wagon at the Blueberry Festival, for example.

Given that the position of Ecological Relationships is still new (<2 years), we want to get the word out about our work.

In June I had the opportunity to share with the Plymouth Kiwanis some of what we do (here’s their Facebook page). As you probably know, Kiwanis is a service organization that is all about local action to make communities better. I was struck by how positive and encouraging the atmosphere was.

We are always keeping alert for partnership opportunities, which always start with a conversation and a relationship.

If you would like us to come share about the work we are doing and ways we might be able to work together, let me know.

prescribed fire prep

Our current understanding of North American history is that fire played an enormous role in ecological communities across the continent, especially in the Great Plains and Midwest. There were wildfires started by lightning, yes, but much of it was anthropogenic. That is, it appears that the continents’ first people used fire on a regular basis for a myriad of reasons.

I already wrote a piece on prescribed fire for our quarterly journal, Word Gathering (p. 8 of Winter 2016), so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here.

Suffice it to say that it took 6 years of higher education in the natural sciences and months of work in the field before this reality truly sunk in (I’m a slow learner): humans used prescribed fire as a pretty heavy-handed tool that not only allowed them to flourish but, for the most part, was a main driver in the the flourishing and biodiversity of the systems around them. It was not “living lightly on the land,” the mythic notion of Indians I absorbed from my public education. Instead of our current extractive economy that degrades ecosystems (the cause of an ongoing, massive extinction event), management by fire was largely synergistic and life-giving. From a biomass and biodiversity perspective, prairies, savannas, and open woodlands are probably the most productive ecosystems on the planet. They don’t last without fire. (We will have to eventually discuss grazing as well… save that for another day).

The photo below shows the pre-European-settlement fire return interval across the continental U.S.

We are looking to expand our use of prescribed fire. My goal is to slowly increase the acres burned each year, building up our equipment, staff and volunteers. Last fire season (a brief period of certain conditions in late fall and early spring) we burned on 3 days, covering 7 burn units and 20 acres.

As with most things, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of work because the window for safe and effective burning is relatively short. We have a lot of small patches with a lot of edges… edges where the fire needs to be stopped, or where we run into fencerows. Fire lanes must be established and then maintained in order to form a boundary to stop the fire, as well as allow safe and rapid passage of the fire crew.

My intern (Meredith) and I were out the other day working on fire lanes on a small, 2 acre oak woodland. Now, when most people hear “fire” and “forest” they picture large landscapes out west and a crown fire roaring through a canopy of pine trees. But in the Midwest, we’re talking about a ground fire that consumes only leaf litter (usually oak leaves). The only casualties are typically sapling shrubs and trees. This increases light availability on the ground, which increases the quantity of herbaceous plants.

This particular little woods is bordered by crop fields and a hay field, but also some fencing, which posed some logistical challenges when we burned it in March 2017.  We attached a metal saw blade on the end of a quality gas-powered “weed-eater,” which made quick work of small-diameter trees and shrubs.

Meredith followed after me and painted the stumps with concentrated herbicide. Keep it simple! The applicator is nothing but a sponge zip-tied to a broom handle. There is no overspray of chemical to other plants.  It gets absorbed into the woody plant and kills it. It’s quick, economical, and achieves our management goals.

We also took out several small shrubs and trees in the middle of the woods, which were growing quickly, as the property had not been burned in recent memory. We are managing for an open oak woodland. Without fire, grazing, or some other disturbance, the forest becomes thick and dark, with few plants growing at the ground level. Not necessarily “bad” or “good,” but it’s not our goal for this piece of land.

The goal is to invest now in the “heavy-lifting” of establishing fire lanes, removals of invasive species, etc so that these individual units can be maintained by a fire every couple years.

One last photo. A large, multi-stemmed bush honeysuckle or Autumn olive plant is not usually killed by prescribed fire; their leaves quickly decompose and don’t allow a fire to be carried. These have to be removed manually. But smaller sprouts do get “top-killed” by a fire and will re-sprout from the roots the following year.

A bush honeysuckle shrub that was top-killed with a prescribed fire and is re-sprouting.

The top-killing gives us some precious time. In one growing season, this plant won’t be able to sprawl and create copious amounts of bird-dispersed seeds, which would exacerbate the problem. In the meantime, fire is stimulating the soil seed bank and fire-tolerant plants are going to start competing with it. As long as fire is used continuously, I can address more urgent concerns (i.e. removal of the large, seed-bearing plants) and return later to spray or pull these weakened plants as resources allow.

Ok, I’ve rambled on long enough. Fall will be upon us before we know it, and I have more prep work to do!