Archives for category: stewards of the land

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, Spring

A.V. Walters

In our minds, our little house—our work in progress—is picturesque. All winter, we could hardly wait for spring to get back to work on it, in earnest. I’ve been asked to send photos of our progress. Then, earlier this month, the snow finally melted. It was like waking up after a bad drunk.

Construction is a messy thing. Just before the snow, we finished up the septic system, and sealed the log exterior. Somehow, in my minds eye, things under that snow were peachy. Spring has been an awakening.

Installing your own septic system is like buying new underwear. You’re happy to have it, maybe even proud of it. But it isn’t something you show off. It is, in fact, an ugly scar on the scenery. It was time to do some reconstructive landscaping. With any luck, after an enormous amount of work, you won’t be able to tell that we dug there at all.

We added this to our annual spring planting schedule. We take a fervent approach to diversity, adding dozens, if not hundreds of new trees and plants, every year, to fill in what climate change takes. I don’t mean that lightly. The forest is suffering. We are losing our ash trees to the Emerald Ash Borer, and the beech trees to Beech Bark Disease. Last summer’s “freak” wind-storm took out over 35 trees. Changes in the environment are accelerating. We have to hustle just to keep pace. We select our plants emphasizing climate tolerance, and, hopefully, outguessing the next blight. At least diversity should serve us there.

So, every year we purchase baby trees of many varieties to diversify the forest. This year, in trees, we will plant white oaks, hemlock, tulip poplars, witch hazel, dogwood, and redbud. We’re also planting shrubs and bushes for soil conservation and wildlife habitat (a hazelnut windrow and a mixed berry hedge.) To the forest trees, we add 100 hazelnuts, red osier, elderberry, serviceberry, blueberry and high bush cranberry. And then, to fix the scar over the new septic we have clover, native knapweed and various wildflower mixes. Needless to say, we are not putting in a lawn.

So far, the 27 white oaks are in, and we’ve prepped and seeded the front with a mix of clover and over 3,500 square feet of wildflower mix for the bees. I’m trying to keep them closer to home with a delicious variety of safe blooms that haven’t seen pesticides. (I can’t account for what the neighbors, or local farmers, plant.) Rick says the bees will go wherever they want, but I’m like the frantic parent, putting in a swimming pool so the teenagers will stay home. (Rick says that just means you have to feed their ill-mannered friends, too.) That’s not lost on me because I know we may lose many of the new wildflowers to the deer and the bunnies. Bambi and Thumper are no longer cute to me.

By this time next month, we’ll have used all of the 45 tons of composted manure that we purchased last year. Rick can hardly believe it. He thought I was crazy.

I’m exhausted and we still have 158 plants and trees to go. Until the front area heals, there’s no point in pictures, it’s just sorry looking. The next few weeks will be all about planting. The first waves, fruit trees and oaks, are in. Next week the big shipment will arrive. And after that, we should be frost free enough to put in the garden. Ah, Spring.

 

 

“There Are Raspberries in the Woods!”

A.V. Walters

At the top of the incline...

At the top of the incline…

Yesterday was hot and muggy. My big chore for the day was watering and feeding the garden. We have poor soils, so initially, as we build the soils with organic materials, we are also fertilizing with a ground, whole-fish mixture. It’s a messy venture, with mixing in 5 gallon buckets and then pouring back into a watering can–or, for the fruit trees, into our special, slow-feed (cracked-bottom) bucket. Just watering is an exhausting exercise in hose dragging (three hundred feet of heavy duty hose to three locations) and the alchemist’s fertilizing concoction stinks. It splashes all over –and, in the heat, red-faced and sweating, I was quite a sight (and smell) even from a distance.

Our neighbor happened by. She’d been hiking up in our hills. We haven’t seen each other in weeks and she stopped to catch up. The whole neighborhood is in a tizzy over the loose and barking dogs. So far, nobody has the nerve to press the sheriff to do something about them; that day is coming. The barking, especially late at night, is driving everyone crazy. I’m always surprised that people aren’t more direct. We exchange stories. She’s kind enough not to mention my fishy, disheveled state. But, she seemed a little more agitated than just the usual barking dogs annoyance.

Just as she was about to depart, she turned to me and said, “You know, there are raspberries in the woods.”

“I know.” I gestured towards the house we’re building, “We’ve been so busy… I haven’t had time to get back there.”

She nodded, then wrinkled her face, obviously dissatisfied with my response. She leaned forward, almost conspiratorially, “No, really, you should get back there. They’re ripe…really lovely.” And then she repeated, lowering her voice, “There are raspberries in the woods.” I thanked her and she headed home, disappearing through the pines.

I was pretty spent from my morning’s chores. The woods are cooler and the suggestion to pick berries was stuck in my head. Fresh raspberries… I could make sorbet. Wouldn’t that be lovely on a hot, sticky day? And, it’s been weeks since I walked in the woods.

There are raspberries in many parts of the back-forty. Marilyn hadn’t been specific about which area got her so excited. So, I ambled west, down the south side of the two-track, figuring that if I didn’t find anything I’d cut north before it got too steep. It was lovely, a light breeze and a near full canopy of shade. I found plenty of berry canes, but the berries were not ripe in the shaded areas. I headed up the hill, hoping they’d be further along in the sun, up on the ridge.

I crested the top and saw red berries almost immediately in what had become a jungle of brambles since I was last there. Just as I turned to find the trail, I came upon three teenage girls who were taking turns cutting a log with a bow saw. I was stunned. So were they.

“Hello,” I said, “What are you doing?”

A fresh faced blond in braids responded, “We’re camping.”

“Ah,” I said, “I meant, what are you doing, here?”

“We’re camping. We’re with a Christian camping group. We come here every year.”

“You come here, every year?”

“Yes, at least for the last few years, since I’ve been coming. We have a lease with the owner.”

“And, the owner’s name is…?”

“I don’t know, but our camp counselor might.”

“That might be helpful, because I’ve owned this property for over twenty-five years and I’ve never leased it to anyone.”

By now, the girls were looking a little nervous. They stood up and brushed themselves off.

“Perhaps you should take me to your leader,” I smiled. They didn’t get the joke. Maybe it’s too old. Maybe I’m too old.

They led me, single file, down the trail to where it widens along the ridgeline. We came to a campsite with about a dozen tents. The trails were neatly swept clean of leaf litter. There were “furnishings” made from cut logs, tied together with heavy twine: a big dining table; log stools; and storage shelves full of packs, tied, shoulder high, between trees. A combination tent/lean-to held coolers, half buried in the ground. Everywhere around me, young teens were busy, working together to establish camp. I was taking note that they seemed well organized, and supervised. It almost felt like another world had sprung up in our woods, like they were playing house there, with their swept trails, neat lines of tents and twined furniture. But it wasn’t lost on me that they were cutting quite a bit of wood. Most of it looked like deadfall. I am sensitive to people cutting wood on the property. The other two girls ran ahead to find their counselor. The blond stayed with me, as she narrated what the campers were doing.

Her companions came back, with another girl, just a couple of years older.

“Yes,” she said, “Can I help you?”

“Well, it seems that you are camping on my property, without permission. And if the girls are right, this is something you’ve been doing for years.”

“Yes, we have been using this site for several years, but we have a lease with the owner.”

“I’m the owner.”

She looked flummoxed. “I’m not sure what to say. We’re a Christian group.”

“Me either. But I need to point a few things out — you’re storing your coolers, your food, on the ground. We have bears here and that can attract trouble. Your storage areas are too close to the ground–again if there’s food in those packs, the bear can easily get to them.”

“Thank you. I’ll mention that to our supervisor.”

“Okay, maybe you should take me to your leader.” She didn’t smile.

“They’re all in a meeting, over by the other camp.”

“The other camp?”

“We have two camp sites. We compete with each other.”

“Oh. I guess we should go there.”

So, the counselor, the blond, whose name was Emily, and I began the hike over to the meeting. I guess since Emily found me, she became a permanent part of the entourage.  The counselor asked me to let her know when we were no longer on my property. We hiked for some time and then I told her that we were at the property line. We still had some ways to go before we reached the “headquarters.” At one point, we ran into some other campers, the counselor stopped to ask where the meeting was being held–and then directed Emily to take me there. We proceeded down the trail, with Emily in the lead chatting about the camp and what they did. In the distance, we could see a group of women, sitting in a circle next to a van. As we approached them I informed Emily that once we’d arrived, it would be inappropriate for her to stay–that my business and concerns were with those in charge. She paused and then told me that she would leave, but first she needed to introduce me. I found that to be charming, especially under difficult circumstances. Finally, I was introduced to the woman in charge of the camping operation.

She explained that they leased the camping area from the owner–and gave the name of my neighbor, to the north. She believed that they were on his property, but if that was not the case, it was a mistake. I told her that the camp I had first encountered was on my property, and not by just a little. It was located about two thirds of the way into our back forty. She apologized and added that they were, after all, a Christian Youth Organization, dedicated to teaching wilderness camping to young men and women.

I couldn’t help but say that one of the first wilderness lessons was about knowing how to read a compass and a map, and it appeared that the leadership of this group had failed miserably at this threshold skill. I explained that I was angry–not specifically at her, and I didn’t want to direct my anger at someone who wasn’t personally responsible. I said that I also wasn’t crazy about the fact that the girls were cutting wood on my property.

“They don’t cut living wood.”

“No? I’ve found cut stumps, in the past, from live trees cut down–I’ve been finding cut logs for several years now. And, I’m afraid that I’ve been wrongfully blaming my neighbors.”

She wasn’t really listening and jumped in to explain, “We teach no-impact camping. The girls are instructed not to cut down any living trees.”

I paused, “You do understand that this situation puts me at some risk?”

“Oh, no,” she said, “We wouldn’t put you at risk.”

“Well, I expect that your lease with my neighbor contains release language, and indemnification language, and that there is insurance coverage, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, since we don’t have a lease, we aren’t covered by any of those protections, are we? Your girls could be injured and then I’d have something to worry about, wouldn’t I? That’s especially concerning since I’ve seen what I consider to be unsafe camping practices. What’s my current exposure if one of your girls is injured by a bear, because you store your food on the ground, right next to their tents?”

“We can leave, right away.”

“That’s not what I’m asking for. But, when are you scheduled to leave?”

“Next Saturday.”

“I need to talk to whomever it is that’s in charge of the lease arrangements. I’m not trying to run you off, but I need to get this straightened out, so that I’m not exposed because of your mistake.”

“Perhaps you can draw me a map, or show me where your property line is?”

I drew her a map, showing her where the property line was, and gave her my contact information, so the Director could reach me to iron this out. Then, I headed back down to our building site to tell Rick.

“We have a problem.”

“What, no berries?”

“We have an infestation in the woods.”

“An infestation of…?”

“We have an invasion of young Christian Campers.”

He could barely believe it. But, it did begin to make some sense. For those of you who follow this blog, you know we’ve had problems with woodcutting. All of the cut logs we’d found, it didn’t make sense. But now–now that we had “competitive camping” on the property, it made all the sense in the world.

At no point in the thick of it did I stop to consider what impression I may have made. There I was, dressed in grubby construction clothes, red-faced, drenched in sweat, and smelling strongly of fish. I can only wonder what they all thought.

When I checked my email, the Camp Director had contacted me. He confirmed what I’d feared–that the group had immediately broken camp. I hadn’t wanted to run them off–just to bring their occupation of the property into some arrangement more formal than trespassing. Still I mentioned all the cut logs (more than thirty at last count) and I referred him to a previous blog in which I’d railed about unauthorized cutting on the land. (https://two-rock-chronicles.com/2015/04/19/a-storms-a-brewin/)

When Rick and I re-visited the campsite, there wasn’t a trace of them. Even the leaf litter had been re-spread, carefully and evenly, over the trails and their site. The only reminder was an impressive pile of cut wood–which they’d said they’d leave.

We’re trying to work out “compensation” for the use now–something in the vein of some volunteers, next Spring, to help with tree planting. We’ll make it fun and educational–maybe we can help some young people to get involved in understanding why we plant for the future and for forest diversity. I think it will all work out in a win-win kind of way.

But we’re left wondering about my neighbor. Why couldn’t she just tell me we had a camping invasion? What’s up with speaking in code? Now, Rick gets a glint in his eye and whispers, “There are raspberries in the woods.” I have to laugh. And, those Christians? I can only hope that they can forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

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And, at the end of this adventure, I realized that I’d completely forgotten to pick berries.