The Urban Frontiersman

Rich Deming is an evangelist for self-sufficiency-while still living an urban lifestyle

Rich Deming is an evangelist for self-sufficiency-while still living an urban lifestyle

Rich Deming is an evangelist for self-sufficiency -- while still living an urban lifestyle

When you learn that Rich Deming is modifying a wine cooler into an extreme low-energy-use fridge, building a solar oven, and converting a discarded water heater to solar power, you might form a mental picture of a man in a tool belt. But when you learn that he's a biofuels entrepreneur and a certified beekeeper who has started two community gardens, the mental picture becomes more collage than snapshot.

Deming wants to live as far off the grid as possible while living in the city and thinks more people would want to do the same if they had the tools. Six years ago, Deming was running a construction firm that he built to $24 million in annual revenues. Now he subleases 350 square feet in the Cherry neighborhood, where he lives in part to minimize driving. So far he's winnowed it to about five miles a week, which takes two gallons of fuel a month. "I had the big stupid life and then woke up. Now I'm so much happier."

Once he decided his "big stupid life" wasn't going to get better on its own, he moved in with a friend in Waxhaw and planted a half-acre garden. Something sparked. He followed his new agricultural obsession to farm conferences, which led him to enroll in a boot camp for making diesel out of vegetable oil. He partnered with a fellow boot camper to open Fat City Formulae. Fat City turns discarded vegetable oil from restaurants and culinary schools into the partners' personal biodiesel supply. It also makes tiki torch fuel, fire starter, and a wood treatment coating (available in some area Earth Fare stores).

This summer, Deming joined South End-based Calor Energy, a sustainability and renewable resources consulting company. One of his projects is to help the nine-county Centralina Council of Governments apply for federal Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grants. "I'm intrigued by how to pull the levers," he says, smiling.

Big Idea

"If everyone bought their fuel and their food from someone who made it themselves within a couple hundred miles, and no one felt the need to build monuments to themselves in the form of McMansions, we wouldn't have an environmental crisis." Deming's community garden at Friendship Trays epitomizes his philosophy. The plot uses captured roof water and provides culinary students with a working food lab. Friendship Trays is a community organization that prepares and delivers meals to the elderly and infirm. So its clients also get the freshest and most healthful food possible.