A.V. Walters

They’re hounding me to renew the registration of my hives. In theory, it’s a good idea. If beekeepers register their bees–how many hives and their location–farmers will know to alert them when they plan to spray. That way, I can close up the hives when they are most at risk. They’re emailing me to tell me that if I don’t renew, my listing will be dropped. So, why do I resist?

First, registration hasn’t done anything for me. Doesn’t that sound selfish? In fact, I reached out to my neighboring farmer on my own–we formed an understanding, and now he gives me 24 hour notice of any chemical spraying or application. My idiot neighbors to the west apparently are uninformed about the registry–and they spray, willy-nilly, without notice. Their property looks like the lunar landscape–nothing grows there, not even the things that they plant. The crop registry didn’t help me with my notification success, nor with the failure.

I suppose my resistance is rooted in principle. I don’t want to participate, or be complicit, with the powers that are killing the bees. Late last year the registry unveiled a “new look,” complete with corporate sponsorship. The primary sponsor? Bayer. Wow.

For those who don’t know, Bayer is the primary player in the neonicitinoids game. Neonicitinoids (or “neonics”) are a class of insecticides that science shows are a primary killer of our honeybees. Of course, the industry denies it, in the time-honored tradition of corporate denial (think DDT, Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Climate Change, or, soon at a theater near you, Fukushima!) The usual game plan is to float a disinformation campaign and to deny as long as possible, only to quietly acquiesce to the underlying science AFTER using influence to secure liability protection.) I don’t want my participation in such a program to provide “cover” to corporate malfeasance.

Bayer sponsoring a Bee Registry is like General Mills giving out free wildflower seeds to help the bees. (Oops, that’s a real thing, too!) Is it cynical greenwashing or brilliant PR? I can’t tell, and I don’t want anything to do with it. Am I tilting at windmillls? Should I cowtow and collaborate? I cannot tell anymore.

 

The Myth of Snow Removal

A.V. Walters

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For the traditionalist…

There is no such thing. When it is time for it to go, snow will go on its own. Until then, all we can do is push it around—out of our way. We should really call it snow relocation. “Snow Removal” is a big ticket item on many northern, rural budgets. For many, the face of government is one’s local township clerk, and the guy who drives the snow plow. For public road maintenance, the standard snow plow is the way to go.

Snow management for the homeowner, or small business, poses important questions. First and foremost is the basic question of egress and access—unless you manage snowfall, you simply cannot get from here, to there. Immediately behind egress and access is the question of safety. At what point does the danger of a slip-and-fall land on the shoulders of the pedestrian? What is the responsibility of a business for access safety? When in doubt, wear spikes. It’s an inexpensive measure of safety. (Just remember to remove them at the door.)

The farther north you go, the higher the level of social tolerance for snow inconvenience. We know how to drive and schlep in snow. Snow management falls into one of three categories—pushing it aside (plowing and shoveling), scattering (snow blowers) or compaction—the old fashioned method of just traveling on top of the damn stuff—making for layers and layers of slippery, which are the seasonal measure of geologic sedimentation. Snow-blowers and their ability to disperse the mess make modern snow management easier. You never have to have a place to store the season’s bounty. The biggest issues in determining your snow management method are amount, effort and space. How much are you willing to sweat for access, and where the hell will you put the stuff?

When I was a kid, snow was shoveled by hand. That’s what kids were for. Driveways were relatively short. (I’m sure you’ve driven by a lovely old farmhouse and sighed at how close it was to traffic. Roads have widened over the years, and old houses were built sensibly closer to the thoroughfare.) Mechanization has freed us from those old, utilitarian limitations. Now, it is not unusual to see the McMansion on the hill, with its thousand-foot driveway. Woe to them, should petroleum become scarce.

We have our own range of snow equipment. The snow-blower on the tractor can clear a five-foot swath in a heartbeat. We have a hand-push blower, which we almost never use, favoring the flexibility of the traditional snow scoop or the northern version (the yooper-scooper), which makes it easier to move the snow some distance. In the North, snow removal is the aging test of whether it’s time to move into town. At that point, either you move, family helps out, you pay for snow removal, or you rely on the kindness of strangers. Since my father passed, my brother-in-law has dutifully kept my mum’s driveway clear. Rick and I are young yet, and are nowhere near those kinds of considerations. But…

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The Yooper-scooper–available only in the far north, wherever premium snow implements are sold.

I never had children. I wonder if Rick’s California kids understand the mores of familial obligations in the North.

 

Winter Wonderland

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It seemed like a no-brainer to me. We’ve been cooped up with winter for months, so the idea of fresh line-dried laundry was like a breath of fresh air. We’re having one of those wonderful February breaks with sunshine and temps in the 40s and 50s. Ah, sunshine!

Of course, it is a little odd to have to wear winter boots out to the clothesline. While I was out hanging laundry, a number of my neighbors drove by on their own busy Saturday mornings. Their reactions made me wonder. I could see them do the double-take when they spied me. Three of them slowed their cars to a crawl and stared in wonder at what I was doing. In the background, I could hear snowmobiles. The moment was rich with contrast.

I suppose they think I’m the crazy one. I wonder. At these temperatures, by tomorrow the snow may be gone.

Did I mention that it was sunny?

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Notice Anything New?

Can you see it? It’s transformational! It changes everything.

This isn’t smoke and mirrors. (Well, maybe smoke.)

I’ll give you a hint. It’s about heat.

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Be Prepared

A.V. Walters

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When I was just a kid, ten or eleven, “they” started a Girl Guide troop in my village. I was elated. The Boy Scouts—the male version of our Canadian youth organization—did all kinds of cool stuff. They hiked. They went camping. They learned sailing and essential survival skills. I wanted in.

But, Girl Guides was a major disappointment. We met regularly, paid our dues and stood around in formation. There was a lot of discussion about earning badges—and we all eagerly researched the requirements in our Guidebooks. There were no nature hikes, no tips on identifying wildlife, no talks on campfire safety (and, needless to say, no campfires.) Oddly enough, there were tips for the application of cosmetics. And, they emphasized the gentle arts of knitting, crochet, sewing, and swapping patterns. If I’d wanted that, I could’ve simply signed up for Home Ec, at school.

Just once, we had a promising project. We made camp stoves out of coffee cans, which were to be used with beeswax candles as fuel. Of course, when we’d finished with the tinsnips and wax, some of us decided to light the damn things. Our Girl Guide leader had a total fit. You’d have thought we were trying to burn down the building! “Who brought those matches?!!!”

I was a problem child. So, naturally, I complained. The organizers, a trio of women from our village, told me to be patient, that they were just getting started. But, I was bored. To amuse myself, I did handstands against the walls. My concerns (and restlessness) stirred up the other girls, inspiring them to look beyond handicrafts and sock-puppets in their expectations. We started practicing gymnastic moves when the meetings were slow or disorganized. Our leaders didn’t approve of gymnastics. (Admittedly, it’s difficult to keep your Girl Guide uniform neat and tidy while practicing gymnastics.) Consequently, I earned demerits, and was soon regarded as a disciplinary problem.

Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts continued their outings to neat locations, like the local Provincial Parks, and did nature hikes. Could we do that? The response was a “hike,” but not in a park. It was through our village, and down the local highway—marching. Marching In formation. We did about six miles. The other girls groaned. This wasn’t anyone’s idea of fun. Essentially, the entire troop was being punished because of my entreaties. I considered quitting.

Before giving up, I started asking the girls from next town over what they did in their Girl Guide meetings. Needless to say, their troop was far more active and interesting than ours. And, their dues were only a dime a week, while ours were a quarter. Of course, I pressed further, asking other girls, even farther afield what they paid in dues. Always, the answer was the same—a dime.

Finally, I brought it up at one of our meetings, pointing out that other troops paid a lot less and got more out of Girl Guides. Our leaders seemed a bit unnerved at my public questioning. They weakly explained that the excess was used to purchase their uniforms and to cover “incidental” costs. They were volunteers, after all! I retorted that we had to pay for our own uniforms—and we were just kids. I had done the math, and pointed out that uniforms for the three leaders could have been fully paid in three to six months—but that the imposed surcharge had gone on for nearly a year. (Obviously a young girl, like myself, had no appreciation of the cost of a used coffee can.) I knew it wasn’t like we were talking big money, but it was the principle of the thing.

At the end of the meeting, I was unceremoniously kicked out of Girl Guides. Gone. I should have, but I sure didn’t see that coming. I guess I wasn’t cut out to be a Girl Guide. Our motto was, after all, “Be Prepared.”

Needless to say, it was no real loss; it wasn’t much fun, anyway.

 

A couple of years ago, I joined Facebook. As an indie author, I was told that social media was an important part of our “branding.” So, I put my blog feed through Facebook and accumulated a wide variety of “friends.” Though I enjoyed it, my Facebook page never did much of anything from a marketing perspective.

In 2015 and 2016 my Facebook activities widened to include political expressions. I wrote on issues of food and agricultural policies, climate change and the upcoming elections. I joined groups and made even more “friends.” My topics of discussion included resistance politics, protests and, of course, the elections.

Occasionally, I was trolled, challenged on my positions. Some politicians and political organizations were using paid trolls in their programs of disinformation. In my posts, I was always civil and thorough. If you challenged me, you’d best have your facts straight, because I was ready with mine. I’d research the trolls and, in pretty short order, could tell who was a legitimate person, and who was there just to make trouble. Real people had real friends, and they had longtime Facebook accounts, populated by photos and comments and, well, lives. I attracted the trouble-makers.

One day, recently, I tried to log-in to my Facebook account and was greeted with this:

“HELP US IDENTIFY YOU-

We’re working hard to make sure everyone

on Facebook can be their authentic selves.

We don’t allow accounts that:

  • Pretend to be someone else
  • Don’t represent a real person

From time to time, we check to make sure

it’s really you with a few short questions

before you log into Facebook. It won’t take long

and it helps keep Facebook safe for everyone.”

What? I’ve been booted off Facebook?!

The successive security screens informed me that, in order to regain access to Facebook, I’d have to upload a copy of a government-issued, photo ID. Some troll (or trolls) had fingered me! Of course I’m a real person. My posts were always thoughtful, cogent and informative. While I’m shocked that the exotic Facebook Algorithms couldn’t recognize my obvious humanity, I’m equally appalled that it is so easy to silence the voice of someone with whom you might simply disagree. I have a “liberal’s” extreme distaste for Big Brother tactics and I’ll be damned if I’ll provide ID in exchange for access to cat videos, photos of restaurant food and trolls. Make the damned trolls show their ID. For no clearly articulated reason, I’ve been kicked off Facebook.

They talk about Facebook withdrawal. Admittedly, I spent too much time on the site. It’s a major mind-suck. And, like any junkie, I’d talked about cutting back, or quitting, altogether. (“I can quit anytime I want. I’ve done it a million times.”) Hell, a recent study even suggested that low doses of LSD can eliminate Facebook Addiction! But I didn’t see this coming, either. I’m out—cold turkey. I’ve completely disappeared from Facebook. It’s as though I’d never existed. Gone. And, there is no way to communicate with the minions of Facebook to question why I vanished, or to explore other options.

There’s a recurring theme, here. I guess that in my own way, I’m a born troublemaker.

So, I’m recovering my personal time and enjoying it. In any event, the lesson is clear: Be Prepared.

 

 

 

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

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Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.