Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Amid the pouring rain, my plans to work with a young farmer starting up a CSA in Santa Barbara fell through last weekend. The fields were soaked; I was bummed. When a door closes, though, a window often opens -- in this case, my new friends Joel and Becca guided me toward Ojai, CA, where I was to experience an amazing farmers' market, spend time with John and Jody's wonderful family, discover an innovative school, and learn about diesel engines powered by vegetable oil. Did I see any of this coming? Nope. But I'm so glad Joel set things in motion when he stood in the pouring rain outside my tent at El Capitan State Park to invite me to have a cup of coffee last Friday morning....

As I sat in their warm, dry trailer for a spell and scarfed a bagel and cream cheese, Joel and his wife Rebecca invited me to join them for a jaunt into Santa Barbara. In town, Joel introduced me to John, who runs Java Jones (an organic, fair trade coffee joint), and who, over a lovely cup of joe and a chat about what I'm up to, told me about his daughters' school in Ojai that focuses on creativity, conflict resolution skills, and environmental education. Well, there's a lot more going on at Oak Grove School, but I was most excited to learn of these elements as well as the garden plot each class nurtures and the school's local, seasonal, fresh vegetarian food served daily. (Michelle Obama's school lunchroom dream come true.) Three days later I found myself in Jane and Maisy's second grade class giving a talk. The kids were awesome, enthusiastically asking me about everything from how many miles I bike per day to what I do when it rains to if I ever get tired to how I do my laundry. We talked about food, too. After a tour of their garden, I joined the class for a delicious lunch at the covered picnic table area and we continued to chat about cycling, camping, nutrition, and some of our favorite foods. Those were some sharp, veggie-powered brains. Here's a post-lunch shot of Ollie and I with the class.

Many have made compelling arguments for vegetarianism, and it is a core value espoused by Oak Grove School. Even setting aside Jonathan Safran Foer's argument about the inherent cruelty of meat production, authors from Michael Pollan to Eric Schlosser posit that it requires less energy to produce vegetables and grain in comparison to raising animals for meat. This is one of the points I've often heard raised by environmentally and socially-motivated vegetarians. (I'm still hoping to get my hands on a used copy of Jonathan Safran Foer's latest -- "Eating Animals" -- and not just because dad told me about a hilarious interview he recently did on the Colbert Report involving bacon. I've been wanting to read it for a few months now.) Collectively, Americans would all do well to cut down on our meat consumption, in terms of both portions and frequency. But this is not a post extolling vegetarianism. There are other ways we can embrace a more plant-based existence, and one of these ways may pleasantly surprise you.

If you haven't been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you've no doubt heard the catchphrase "Reduce, Recycle, Reuse." Most people think this refers to cans and bottles and plastic bags. And it often does. But what about fuel? As folks are crippled by how much it costs to fill up their Volkswagens these days, many are saying it's about time we started supporting alternative means of transportation (public transit, bike lanes) and promoting alternative fuel sources. One of the coolest solutions I've come across recently involves making fuel out of used vegetable oil.

It's not science fiction. Joel and his wife have been converting diesel engines to run on veg for about a decade: One day he looked at the back of a bottle of vegetable oil and noticed the "contents may burn" warning and he got to thinking.... He's successfully converted thousands of vehicles, I learned during a series of conversations over the past few days, and he's darn good at it. (He's proud of his work without being pompous.) I get the impression he's been wielding a wrench pretty much since he could walk and he may be the only person I have ever met who knows the intricacies of engines as well as my car-obsessed brother. As I understand it, the converted engines work much like a hybrid, allowing drivers to easily switch between diesel and vegetable oil fuel tanks en route. Only veg-powered systems are more efficient than ethanol, and cleaner burning. And the trucks are fast. (No, really. They race 'em.) And the systems recycle used restaurant vegetable oil that, at least as far as I know, would otherwise just be dumped.

Free fuel! Recycling! Less carcinogens! I'm in! I'm certainly Ollie-bound for the foreseeable future, but down the line if I go looking for a car, you'd better believe I'll be looking for a veg-powered system.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. yay veggie oil! i wouldn't say that veggie oil engines work the same way as hybrids, but it's still cool. happy trails!

  2. John and Joel go to Java Jones for just a juice in Ojai...


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