Preparing for the Millennium

Go to the Austin Hill Country and meet some folks who are taking Y2K very seriously

"Most of the people who will live here, we hope, will have businesses here as well," says McCain, who has been an organic gardener for 17 years and once taught sustainable living techniques at the now-defunct Peaceable Kingdom School for Organics, near Brenham. "To be honest, part of me is looking forward to Y2K. Mother Nature is sick and pissed off. It's the people who can adapt and harmonize who'll be all right."

Not that McCain is blind to the needs of those who will react to Y2K with, as he puts it, "fear and paranoia."

"From my perspective, one of the most important things to have, if things do go bad, is heirloom seeds and the knowledge to grow them."

McCain is not the only one who sees a business opportunity ahead.
Keith Miller never considered himself much of an environmentalist. He'd spent too many years in the heavy-construction business. Then, in the fall of 1992, he got a call from Peter, an acquaintance who was building a house in the Hill Country.

"He said, 'Can you help me cut out a hip roof?' " Miller recalls. "I said, 'Sure.' Then I come to find out he's building a straw-bale house. And he actually needed quite a bit more than a roof."

At the time, no one in Texas was building houses out of straw bales. But in Arizona and New Mexico, "greenbuilders" were paying farmers a few dollars each for their bales and stacking them inside a wood frame. They cut holes for windows then coated the walls, inside and out, with stucco or adobe and attached a simple metal roof. The result is an inexpensive home, sturdy and, with 18-inch-thick walls, well insulated.

As a builder, Miller was immediately sold on straw bales' advantages and, before he even finished Peter's house, he started his own straw-bale homebuilding business, Bowerbird Construction. Miller estimates his company has built about 30 straw-bale houses, mostly in the Hill Country, and has consulted on that many more.

Miller calls this early success "an accident." But it's clear he believes some unseen force guided him into the alternative housing business at just the right time. The population in and around Austin is expected to grow 20 percent annually over the next five years. According the Austin Greenbuilders Association, 20 percent of new homes constructed during that period will employ "green" materials such as straw-bale and cob, a thick mud reinforced with loose straw.

But the prospects for financial gain are only a small part of what appeals to Keith Miller about straw-bale houses. His "epiphany," as he calls it, occurred one weekend in September 1992, when about 40 men and women gathered to learn about straw-bale construction by working on Peter's house. Many of them had never even used a hammer before, Miller says. But, in the spirit of a barn raising, they put in two long, hard days in the late-summer heat. They ate organic meals prepared by Laurel, who set up a kitchen nearby. They slept in tents or under the stars.

When it was over, Miller knew he'd never build another conventional house again. "I was amazed at how it felt," he recalls. "Whenever I went out to do some work, I'd be by myself, but it felt like someone else was there. It was the house itself; it had a special feeling.

"The spiritual aspects are what made me start a company and keep me at it. It used to be all the weirdos were part of this culture, but it's not like that anymore."

Indeed, despite their unusual lifestyle, Charles and Laurel are not unlike a lot of entrepreneurs. Charles owns a company that installs rainwater catchment systems. Laurel harvests her own herbs and roots to make tinctures and other herbal remedies. Though she will travel as far away as the Panhandle to collect echinacea root, a popular herb used to bolster the immune system, she's beginning to pay more attention to her immediate surroundings.

"There are so many roots and plants and herbs right outside my door that I think have a lot of different uses," says Laurel, whose unique entrepreneurship has produced something called a chicken tiller.

It works like this: A handful of chickens are kept in a separate coop and fed table scraps (organic, of course). With their constant scratching and pecking of the earth, the chickens "turn" their droppings into the soil. After a time, the soil --which, in the Hill Country is rocky and difficult to cultivate --is teeming with microbes and ready for planting. The portable coop is then moved to another location, and the process begins anew.

Meanwhile, the food grows and is harvested and eaten. The table scraps are "recycled" to the chickens, which eventually are eating the same food as Charles, Laurel and their children, grown in a garden the chickens themselves have fertilized.

A prototype of the contraption is already at work in Charles and Laurel's front yard, and she hopes to be manufacturing them for sale soon.

"I've already got five orders," she says, "and I think I might try selling them on the Internet. We've gotten to the point where we'd feel naked without some chickens around."

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