Archives for category: farm life
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The Pips

It’s not that I hate dogs. I don’t. I’m not a dog person, largely because I am allergic to them. I’m probably allergic because I was mauled by a cocker spaniel as a tiny child, which naturally gave me a healthy respect for bad dogs, and no respect for bad-dog-owners.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Bad dog owners. People who think their dogs are just fine, and don’t understand that it’s up to them to keep their dogs in check.

For several years we’ve had issues with a neighbor about her dogs. They aren’t malevolent, but she has never trained them. She believes that her dogs should be allowed to run and bark all night. She says she’s doing the neighborhood a favor to let her dogs “run deer.” She bemoans the loss of the good old days, when one let one’s dogs run loose without recriminations.

The neighborhood does not agree. Despite efforts to deal with her personally (to no avail) almost every neighbor in a half mile radius has had her cited. Her dogs bark incessantly. Her dogs chase cars and bicyclists. They’ve been known to menace pedestrians. Her dogs spook the deer at one neighbor’s hunting camp. She once complained to me that, if she kept the dogs on her yard all the time, there was too much clean-up to do. (Read, I prefer if my dogs crap in your yard.) So you see, it’s not really the fault of the dogs.

A couple of years ago I had a problem because one of her dogs took an interest in digging up my freshly planted orchard trees. After all, the soil was freshly worked and made for easy digging. I informed her that if I caught the dog digging on my property (which is literally pockmarked with its regular digging efforts), I would call the Sheriff. I did, and did. I also told her that, since she was enamored of “the old days of dogs running free,” she should well remember that in those old days, a loose dog doing agricultural damage was usually shot on the spot.

My neighbor didn’t appreciate my straight forward approach. And that was all before Blondie.

You may recall that last year we got chickens. We named them, based on recognizable features they had as chicks. Only one, Blondie, retained her chick coloration into adulthood, so we had Blondie and “the chickens.” I know, it sounds like a 90s punk band.

Blondie was an excitable and flighty chicken. She would try to take to the air with the slightest provocation–a person approaching with treats, a crow overhead. But she lived, safely we thought, behind a six foot fence. Not that chickens cannot fly, they can, and do. But chickens are like bumblebees–curiously designed when it comes to sustained flight. All of Blondie’s impulsive bolts for freedom ended when she hit the fence.

Late one afternoon, I decided to check the coop for eggs. Winter egg production is sporadic anyway, and if you’re not timely, the eggs will freeze. Approaching the chicken yard, I was dismayed by the sight of countless dog prints in the snow, endlessly circling the fence. Apparently those dogs had been harassing the chickens the night before. I collected the one egg, and then looked around to see how the chickens had fared. There were only three chickens. It was like the Pips, without Gladys.

I checked all around the fence–no Blondie, only feathers. I knew. It was getting dark, so my sleuthing would have to wait until morning.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I revisited the scene of the crime. Obviously the intensity of the dogs’ engagement had set Blondie airborne. For the first, and last time, Blondie was free. Direct into the mouth of the waiting dog. I checked the tracks (against my handy-dandy little animal track identification chart. Clearly dogs, not coyotes. I followed the feather-trail, which was clearly limited to one set of dog tracks, as it made a beeline for my neighbor’s property. The trail ended at the road, separating the two parcels. On her side, I found no feathers. There were many human footprints in the snow, though–and my neighbor is not usually one to wander around outdoors in the winter. I surmised that she’d cleaned up the feathers. My evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

After the weekend, I called Animal Control. They know us–after all we’ve been dealing with them over the dogs for years. I recounted my story and my observations. As I’d suspected, they could not issue a citation based on anything other than an eyewitness account. (Really? Don’t they know the research on how flawed eyewitnesses can be?) I warned that if I saw either dog near my chickens, I would just shoot it, as is my right.

Our friendly Animal Control Officer implored me not to take justice into my own hands. “Use the system,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood.” I’m not sure about that. My neighbors might arrange a hero’s parade if I dispatched those dogs. Still, I want to work with them. So, since then, we’ve been watching. If we see the dogs on our property, we call it in.

And such was the case this week. The snow is melting, giving the critters of the world easier access. Rick looked out one morning and saw the dogs on the property. He called Animal Control. When the officer arrived, he took the complaint. He also acknowledged that the day Blondie last flew the coop, there’d been a welfare check on my neighbor. In that report, the Deputy had noted that there was a dead chicken in her yard, which he pointed out to her. I was right. She’d cleaned up the evidence. After taking our report, the Officer headed across the way to talk to the neighbor. I yelled after him, “Tell her the chicken’s name was Blondie.”

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A Multi-Part Saga of Succession: Part 1

A.V. Walters

Any population lacking authentic leadership is in trouble. Without authentic leadership, any group can fall for the antics of power hungry posers, whose influences, over time, can only disintegrate group cohesion and direction. You know the type, charismatic thugs capable of whipping up an excitable crowd. Don’t say, “It can’t happen here.” It has.

And such was the case with our largest bee hive. It’s been a productive year, ample rain has fueled a pollen and nectar bonanza. We’ve been doing regular hive splits, trying to avoid last year’s swarming losses. Those bees have been keeping us on our toes. But in early August, we ran out of woodenware, the boxes, bottoms and tops that make up a Langstroth hive. By then, we’d split all the hives, but one and we didn’t have time to build anew. Summer’s like that. We still had plenty of honey supers–so we just kept adding “up,” giving them space to grow, and to store all the honey they were producing. We needed the honey, because all those split hives were going to need resources, heading into winter.

Finally, we were able to catch our collective breath and assemble and paint new hive parts, to split the big hive. But we were too late. When we inspected, we could not find the queen–she and her entourage had already swarmed. There were still gazillions of bees, enough for at least two full hives, but there were signs of trouble.

A queen bee reigns by virtue of her hormonal influences. Not only are the bees connected and loyal because of pheromones, but all those female worker bees’ reproductive urges are suppressed by the queen’s control. When a hive goes “queenless,” either because of swarming, accident or mutiny (yes, mutiny), the bees will endeavor to create a new queen with one of the recent eggs or larvae. This takes a couple of weeks, and in the interim, you’re at risk of a “laying worker.” Without the constant hormonal suppression of the queen, a worker bee can begin laying eggs–and exert a similar hormonal control on the hive. The worker is unmated, so she can only lay drone eggs and she does not have the full complement of pheromones. A rogue hive like this can be mean and unpredictable.

Our inspection revealed problems, there were eggs–but no fresh larvae. The laying pattern was erratic–sometimes two eggs per cell and eggs laid on the sides of the cells, instead of the bottom. These are clear indications of a rogue, laying worker bee. The laying worker bee can interfere with normal royal succession. She may kill the larval queen–or kill her on hatch. After all, who wants to give up newfound power? To save the hive, we needed to re-queen it, and quickly.

Since the hive was still huge, even having swarmed, we opted to get two queens and to split the hive into two before we re-queened. As it was so late in the season, we wanted  already mated queens. We needed them to get in, and get to work, quickly. We wanted to find Michigan, winter-hardy queens, to maximize the chances of surviving the winter. We tried to see this as an opportunity to increase our genetic diversity, instead of just the loss of a truly productive queen.

Online, I found just what we needed–and I zoomed off to pick up our new royals. Though  we weren’t happy about having lost the swarm, we were confident that we could make the best of the situation.

What? Did you think I was carrying on about something other than bees?

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Better Late Than Never–

A.V. Walters.

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Yesterday’s Barbed Wire

The day before yesterday, Rick and I went for a walk in the woods. There was a wind-storm over Christmas, and we wanted to see if any more trees were down. We wore our regular shoes. There was no snow. So, we busied ourselves, with some minor trail-clearing, before yesterday’s predicted storm. (It’s nice to remove the trip hazards, while you can still see them.) At least the additional trees that fell were already dead—this is normal winter renewal.

We also wanted to check on our “widow-makers,” trees that came partially down in the wind-storm last August, but that were caught in the surrounding trees—hanging, but not stable. These are a woodsman’s worst nightmare. They are extremely dangerous to clear, as you can tell by their name. We have several snarls—where a fallen tree smashes into its neighbor, and that one into its neighbor—and so on, until four or five trees are entangled. We’ve been slowly clearing them, hoping that winter would level them for us. No such luck, so far.

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Widow-maker.

Unfortunately, several widow-makers block, or threaten, our trails. One of them is further complicated by being bound up in some of the ancient, barbed-wire fencing. The trees have grown, embedding the wire deep into their trunks. A big maple, split at its base, leans heavily on a smaller maple, over our main access trail, both of them wired together. It’s just a matter of time, and wind, until the smaller tree splits or collapses under the burden. (Should the bigger tree fall fast, that entrapped wire could cut through a bystander like a hot knife through butter.) We decided at least to clear the wire. Tinsnips in hand, we do what we can.

Yesterday morning we woke up to a different world. Finally, winter has arrived. It’s tough to estimate, with the drifting, but I’d guess we got a good six inches of dry, fine, powder. It’s about time.

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What a difference a day makes.

Though the mild season has seen great savings in heating costs and convenience, it is disconcerting not to have a real winter. This new blanket of snow sets that to rights. It will also provide needed “chill” hours to our fruit trees and down-time for the bees. Not that the bees need super-cold temperatures, but it is hard on them to have warm weather with no blossoms. Now, they can huddle and give up on the search for pollen and nectar.

Now, one would think that, being late December, we’d be ready for winter. Were we that well-oiled, seasonal machine, we’d be waiting, ready, with the snow-blower already set up on the Kubota. Yeah, right. Instead, we flailed about in the snow, disconnecting summer implements and hooking up the blower. The reward is that the blower makes short work of snow removal. Rick did the driveway, parking area and paths at the house site, and the drive at the apartment—ours and our landlady’s, in a couple of hours. Altogether it’s over a thousand feet of plowed road and path, about ten feet wide.

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Suiting up.

We’re settling in now, to the slower pace of winter. Things need to be more deliberate. A trip to town requires clearing the car, first. Work on the house requires warming glue or caulking materials. You have to think ahead. We don’t mind. We have the necessary tools and we like the snow. Another snowfall like this one, and we’ll break-out the snowshoes.

 

 

Wrapping up the Season

A.V. Walters

 

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Post bucket

We’ve had nearly an extra month of fall. Tomorrow, though, temperatures are expected to tumble down to seasonal norms. We’ve been rushing around to take advantage of the extended season and to get a jump on spring, next year.

We garden in buckets. It’s habit, from California, where it solved some of our irrigation issues. It also kept the gophers out of the vegetables. We’ve kept it up here in Michigan for some of the same reasons–water, critters, and because our soils need a lot of work. The buckets let us amend most intensely where the plants will live. Before the next season, we pull the buckets and empty the amended soil and leftover roots back into the soil. It could wait until spring, but we had the warm weather, so I did it this week. It will make it easier to spread amendment over the whole garden area in the spring, but we’ll probably stick with the buckets for a few seasons yet. It is more work–but promises better harvests until we can get the garden’s soil into better shape.

It was also time to attend to the fruit trees. They needed an end-of-season weeding, and it was time to wrap their trunks before winter. There are two main reasons for wrapping the trunks of fruit trees. It prevents sun scalding. Winter sun can warm the trunk–expanding the bark and the moist tissues below–on the sunny side. The temperature differential can split the bark, endangering the tree. By wrapping the trunk with light colored material, you reflect the sun’s heat away. The other reason to wrap is to dissuade mice and other critters who’d be inclined to nibble at the baby trees’ thin bark. Mice can easily girdle, and kill a young tree. I knew I’d arrived to the task just in time, when I saw that one of the apple tree’s lower trunk showed the early signs of nibbling! Now all of the fruit trees are wrapped and ready.

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A tidy wrap to protect the baby tree.

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Lined up in winter finery.

Along the way, I noted some successes. Before we planted the trees, located in the fenced garden area, we dug amendment in deep–very deep. In prepping their planting holes, we went down four to five feet deep and at least that far across. We wanted to give them a good start, and since our soils are poor, it was our best chance to add nutrients to the soil for the trees’ formative years. It has already paid off. Because we were attacked early by deer, the garden orchard trees had both the fence and individual tree cages for protection. In spite of having been seriously nibbled by deer, the apple, plum and pear trees have all more than doubled in size. They’ve outgrown the cages! They look more like 3rd or 4th year trees than 1st season trees. We may even see apples and pears next year.

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The cherry trees–grown outside the garden fence–didn’t get as much care. First, they’re all cherry trees. This is cherry tree country. One of the pioneer plants in our sandy soils is the American Black Cherry. I didn’t think that the cherries would require as much soil amendment. I only dug the amendment in to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. I also thought that cherry trees would be safe from the deer. They’re bitter! No such luck. We must have voracious deer. They munched on the cherries, too. Immediately after, we gave them cages, too. But while the others have recovered and really grown, the cherries have recovered, but stayed smaller. For future plantings, we’ll keep the deep-amendment program.

It makes me wonder if we should dig and replant the cherry trees. It’s a lot of stress on a little stick of a tree. I’m sure we’ll debate it all winter. More likely, I’ll be researching organic methods of fertilizing–not as good as a nice deep start, but we shall see. Any thoughts on that?