Archives for category: agriculture

Star Thistle.

A.V. Walters–

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“Star Thistle”

See the lovely fields of purple flowers, rippling in the wind. Taste the delicate flavors, the floral back-notes in the honey from these “local” fields.

The real name for this heralded bloom is spotted knapweed, and it’s no local. Conservationists call it an invasive species, originally from Eastern Europe. Once it gets its roots into your soils, it never lets go. Nobody talks about eradication; they only talk about “management.” There was spotted knapweed on our property before I bought it, decades ago, so I shouldn’t complain. Only recently, though, have I learned about its evil and pernicious ways.

In a riff on Irish luck, Rick and I used to joke that it weren’t for spotted knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all. Little did we know we had that backwards. Sure, we have poor glacial soils, but the more potent force of our limited landscape is spotted knapweed. You see, not only is it a vigorous invasive, but it has the admirably devious survival mechanism of poisoning the soils around it so little else will grow. It is an expert in plant hegemony.

So that would explain our spindly vegetable garden! We have acres of knapweed.

Knapweed has a multifold program of engagement. First, it is a vigorous competitor. It sports a thick absorbent taproot that quickly captures and stores any available water (leaving its neighbors thirsty.) It is a rampant reproducer, colonizing both via ample seed production and from runners from its rhizome root system. If you try to remove it, and leave any part of the rhizome in the soil, it will sprout and flourish, like the cursed broom in Fantasia. Knapweed avoids predation by being the most bitter plant in the field. (Even goats avoid it; though I understand that sheep will eat it.) Back in California we used goats to clear poison oak from the hillsides, but even the goats are too picky to mess with the spotted knapweed. If that weren’t enough, knapweed generates its own phytotoxins, literally poisoning the soil around it. The mechanism of its catechin toxins aren’t well understood, but they prevent germination of competing seeds and poison the root zone. When a knapweed root comes in contact with the root tips of another plant, it sends a cascade of chemical messages to its victim, triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death, from the roots, on up.

Presumably, back in Eastern Europe, spotted knapweed needed these strategies to survive. Plants from there have immunities that can withstand its chemical onslaught. Here, though, our native plants and crops have few defenses. It’s a problem from coast to coast—but especially so in the dry rangelands of the west.

But the bees love it. It’s one of the few flowering plants that continues to bloom and provide nectar in the dog-days of August. I have beekeeper friends who react with open hostility when folks discuss ways to eradicate knapweed. The honey produced from knapweed blooms is so delicious that “Star Thistle” is treated as a premium appellation product, like Locust Honey, or Tupelo.

I’m a beekeeper, but I’m also a gardener. Would a rose, by any other name, smell as sweet? A pest is a pest is a pest is a… (my apologies to Gertrude Stein.)

Star Thistle, my ass.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wascally Wabbits!

A.V. Walters–

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Cages and Wraps

Late April and early May were a whirlwind of activity. We ordered over 200 trees, anticipating the participation of 40 volunteers in this spring’s tree planting extravaganza. The trees arrived. The volunteers did not. There were good reasons for standing us up, but that still left us on our own with a lot of bare root trees.

With bare root plants, you have, at best, two weeks to get them into the ground. You can “heel them in” to buy additional time. Heeling in is essentially storing them in dirt—either by digging a trench, or mounding. Still it’s planting and uprooting them again—more work for us and more trauma to the tender roots. So, we rolled up our sleeves, and planted.

No sooner were the trees in, than we began to lose them to deer and rabbits. So began the next great surge—the making and installation of the tree cages. In all, over a very short period, we made and installed almost one hundred and fifty cages. By the time we finished, and feeling invincible, I was almost beginning to think that rabbits could be cute. Then, we (mostly Rick) re-fenced the garden/orchard area with rabbit-proof fencing. You’d think that there would be an opportunity then, to breathe and rest. Ha! Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

Below the house, we’ve planted a hedge of berry and blooming plants. Well, eventually it will be a hedge; currently it is a widely spaced and hopeful collection of spindly plants. Its purpose is to provide a visual break and to host a wide variety of blooming plants that will be good for the bees. As a side note, there are a number of berry plants that will provide treats for us, too. There are blueberries, high-bush cranberries, service berries and elderberries, mixed in with lilacs, redbuds, red osier, and lavender. In a few years it will be really beautiful. Because the berry plants are particularly tasty (and because I have an emotional and aesthetic stake in this hedge), they were among the first to be caged. Finally, after weeks of work, we could relax.

Well, I actually went into town for groceries, and bought some new work shoes. Rick was working on plumbing, so I walked up to the house to show him my fancy new footwear. On the way up the path, I saw it. A baby bunny. Cute, eh?

Not so much. The baby rabbits are very small. They fit nicely between the wires of our new tree cages. Once in, they are protected from predators, and can munch, at their leisure on our berry plants. From my vantage on the path I could clearly see a baby bunny giving my brand new blueberry bush a serious pruning. I rushed it, waving my arms, screaming. It ran. And stopped, thirty feet from the new hedge… waiting. Quickly, I surveyed the damage. One blueberry, neatly pruned to half its original size. One baby bunny, stalking. And, across the field, half a dozen baby bunnies, frolicking.

Rick came to the door of the house, alerted by my cursing. I held out the severed blueberry branches and he understood immediately. We pulled out a roll of chicken wire and began cutting cage-wraps, glancing nervously over our shoulders to the hedge. I should have stood guard, because in the twenty minutes it took to cut the wire wraps, three more blueberry plants were pruned to within an inch of their lives! Thank God for new shoes!

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Blueberry, it’s branches trimmed!

Now, all of the berry and bloom hedge plants have double cages. I’m also going to string deterrent wires across the tops, to discourage any deer, who might reach down into the shorter cages for a nibble. It’s the Fort Knox of landscaping. Maybe now we can relax a bit. Except that it’s time to put in the garden.

Bunnies? Maybe they’ll be cute again, someday.

 

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

What’s Eating You?

A.V. Walters–

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Spindly cages over even more invisible tree whips!

Just as you can identify a critter by its tracks, you can tell who is eating your trees and foliage by what is left behind. This is critical information to the hopeful planter of baby trees. If you don’t know who is doing the munching, how will you know how to stop them?

Last year, we lost some of the seedlings early—like within a week of planting. At the same time, a deer jumped our garden/orchard fence and ravaged the baby fruit trees. Though they survived, I was devastated. I could clearly follow the deer tracks to each and every tree victim—and then on out and over the fence. Bastards! We solved that problem by making the fence higher—but I missed a learning opportunity in garden sleuthing. And, I blamed the deer for other losses outside the garden.

I was wrong.

You see, when a deer grazes on your seedlings, they bite and run. They leave a ragged edge. Other critters have other distinctive habits. The modus operandi of the dreaded cottontail is to use those sharp rodent teeth, leaving a clean, angled cut—almost as though pruned with a shear. Bunnies are an under-recognized threat.

Porcupines also dine on seedlings and branches. I’ve been impressed with what I thought was deer damage on the wild bramble canes, only to learn that raspberry and blackberry canes are among the porcupines’ favorite spring and summer foods. And in the winter, they’ll also gnaw on tree bark at the base of a tree, eating the nutrient rich cambium layer, girdling and often killing the tree. Indeed, starved for salts, they’ll gnaw on plywood siding, or the tires on your car! (Salt from road clearing gets imbedded in the rubber tires.) Just this week we saw gnaw marks on our rubber garden hose! (And on our neighbor’s garden shed.)

Yesterday, I saw a huge porcupine, swaying in the wind in the top of a maple tree. They love the leaf buds—before they unfurl and get too tannin. It was a very windy day and, looking up I saw that porcupine hanging on for dear life—just to eat those tender new bits. Never before had I contemplated the risk of being thunked by a falling porcupine. Ouch.

But my chief opponent of the moment is those bunnies. When we plant trees in the forest, I don’t worry about the rabbits. It’s too hilly and woodsy. The bunnies are out front, by the house, in the grassy open areas. That’s where we’re putting the hazelnut and mixed berry hedges. No sooner did we start the planting than the rabid rabbits were right after them.

This is no surprise. Tomorrow we will be changing the fence around the vegetable garden (before we plant) because last summer the bunnies made short work of our garden. With the tree seedlings, we had to quickly change gears and immediately put up welded-wire tree cages around each seedling. The cages are made from cut fencing material, formed into circles by bending over the wire tabs from the cuts. With a more than a hundred seedlings at risk, that’s a lot of work!

The natural world notices. We finished the planting (and most of the cages) yesterday. We came out this morning to a parade of deer prints—a veritable square dance of deer, checking out the new additions to the neighborhood. Thank God those seedlings were safely in their cages.