Power-down pioneer: cycling for change

Joseph Dougherty introduces Ted Howard, a champion of ‘powering down’, of social change directed at encouraging greater sustainability.

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Ted Howard is an inspiring example of how someone can make the transition away from a fossil-fuelpowered lifestyle. He runs two businesses: a permaculture gardening business and a kite sales business; both off the back of his bike.

That’s right, his bike! He transports gardening materials like hay bales on his bike and carries his kite stock and stall gear for his spot at the Nelson market on his bike and bike trailer. He can do this because he has an unusual bike with extra space for gear.

He was not a constant cyclist nor super strong prior to taking this up. In fact, Ted is in his fifties and took up cycling seriously in his mid-forties and says he wasn’t fit when he did it.

Pulling heavy gear around and gardening all day takes fitness though – or perhaps it creates it. Ted says he got into gardening because “there was nothing like putting my hands into the dirt to help dealing with the grief of living in a dominant insane culture that is heading towards collapse.” Three years ago he needed to get out of his shop selling kites full-time.

Maybe it was his awareness of the impending end of cheap oil and the potential collapse of the biosphere that pushed him out of that comfortable carseat and onto his challenging bike seat.

Now, he delights in challenging others: appearing with incredible loads (like ladders and weedeaters) or leaving the supermarket with his bike seriously loaded up and thinking “Every day, it’s like an adventure: ‘what can I carry today?’ and ‘how can I mess with people’s heads?’”

He got into permaculture because it gave him a way to integrate his knowledge and make sense of it. Ted has not only completed a Permaculture Design Course, but helped out at three subsequent courses, and given talks at others on his lifestyle and demonstrating how it is made possible by his amazing bike, which is where I met him. It certainly garnered full attention from the permaculture students.

He also continues learning: he upskills himself as he works, slapping headphones on and listening to tapes of lectures and audio books while using power tools.

When Ted started his permaculture gardening business he was leaping into risky territory. He only had a couple of clients, he wasn’t that fit, his vehicle was a bike, he didn’t have formal horticulture qualifications (at least not initially).

So what made it work? Contacts and optimism. Being involved in Transition Nelson and several subgroups, as well as Bike Nelson Bays, Friends of Nelson Haven and more – he has contacts. He asked friends if they knew anyone who needed garden work done and here is where being involved in your community helps out – enough work has turned up to not only keep him almost 100% financially supported by work he can do off his bike.

His vision is that these networks will be able to provide enough work to sustain all the gardening members of the Transition Nelson Permaculture Group, which fits into the cultural transition Ted believes is essential we make: connecting and supporting each other.

“We need to ‘power down’, go from being Homo colossus, used to being able to move all over the place in our little cages, to learning energy accounting and taking steps like using ‘e-assist’ on bikes to help the transition to animal power or walking as means of transport,” says Ted.

“I am moving gradually in the direction of becoming a city farmer – I am changing. We need to become a land-based culture, and permaculture gives us tools to do this.”

For all of us who flinch in the face of the challenging changes we need to make to move towards sustainability, people like Ted are showing us we can. Even in midlife, even without great physical prowess, we can adopt far more physically demanding lifestyles. And more satisfying lifestyles.

As Ted observes: “I am having fun in a garden and upskilling, connecting to my community, and people are paying me.”

Ted’s bike

Ted’s bike is a Kona Caldera with Xtracycle extensions. Xtracycles, like Yuba Mundos, are ‘cargo’ or ‘utility’ bikes, with extended wheel bases and strong chassis and strong panniers to which one can strap heavy (up to 150 kg) or large loads like long ladders, machinery and 2–3 people.

But of course, I must mention that Ted has a special helper for his bike for when conditions get tough. A helper named ‘Stoke Monkey’, a tiny electric motor (or ‘e-assist’) bolted on to the frame which helps riders with loads keep going at reasonable speeds, even on hills. The engine and battery add 20 kg to the bike’s weight, so how useful is it? “Going up steep hills loaded without ‘e-assist’ is impossible for me,” says Ted. It probably isn’t on the cards for most of us, so it makes gardening off a bike in hilly places feasible. Anyway, studies considering embodied energy show that an ‘e-assist’ bicycle is 2–4 times more efficient use of energy than just pedalling if you source your food via the supermarkets, and 1–2 times more efficient if you grow your own. (See http://clevercycles.com/p=125).

As for maintenance and costs thereof, “I’ve had no problems with the engine in two years,” says Ted. The battery is a nickel/metal hybrid which takes a couple of hours to recharge, will last 300–400 recharges and gives stable performance. As Nelson is mainly flat, Ted doesn’t need to use the ‘e-assist’ all the time.

His bike and gear did cost a bit though – over $4000. Helpfully, the Xtracycle is a kit you can fit to an existing mountain bike, and modify if necessary to take the extra strains of signifi can’t loads, as Ted did.

Yuba Mundos are dedicated cargo bikes and are sold by Stu Edwards of cargobikenz.co.nz in Levin. They are a bit stronger than ordinary mountain bikes and not expensive either, as bikes go. Other options include the Wisper model.

Ted’s winter permaculture garden tips

  • Save seeds
  • Put in winter greens, green cover crops
  • Prune and mulch
  • Build up compost
  • Prepare for planting out fruit and nut trees to keep building edible landscapes
  • Keenly observe natural processes: where is the windy spot, where is the frost damage happening, where is the winter suntrap?
  • Are you collecting enough water?
  • Train! Do a permaculture course!


‘Cargo’ or ‘utility’ bikes and suppliers
cleverchimp.com (Stoke Monkey)
cargobikenz.co.nz (Yuba Mundo)
www.electricbikes.co.nz (Wisper model)

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