Archives for category: stewardship

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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161 Trees…

A.V. Walters–

And counting.

Dear readers, I will return. But there are still bare-root trees to plant, and until they’re all in the ground, these aching bones will not be blogging. The oaks and tulip poplars are in, the hazelnuts (almost, just five to go) The service berry, black elderberry, and redbuds are almost in (I’m saving just a handful for the end, when I’ll put in a mixed berry hedge. Most of the trees were selected to make the bees happy. Right now, getting them all planted, will make me happy. Another day, maybe two. Then I have to make cages for them to keep them safe from the bunnies and deer. And then we pray for rain.

 

Musings on Planting Trees–

A.V. Walters–

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And that doesn’t even include the trees we bought from Benzie County!

Professional “re-foresters” can plant hundreds, even thousand of trees each day. Depending upon the terrain, they use dagger-like tools, either hand or foot powered, and can put in acres of trees in short order.

I am not one of them. I am too fussy. Each tree gets an actual hole, not just a slash with the roots jammed in. Each tree gets a shovel-full or two of compost, which must be blended into the natural soils, so water doesn’t “perch,” causing root rot. I layer in the roots, so they’ll have a stable start. This year, I’m loading up a little on the compost. They’re predicting a hot, dry summer and the compost helps to hold moisture in the root zone. I cheat a little, and soak the roots in Terra Sorb (or work a pinch of it into the hole), also to give them the moisture advantage. If no rain is predicted, they get a starter sip of water, (though spring soils are pretty moist.) Sometimes, we give trees a cage, to protect it from deer or rabbits during its infancy. There’s only so much you can do.

Professional tree-planters work on a scale that allows for a relatively high failure rate. From my perspective, there seems to be little point to doing all that work if the trees don’t survive. Sure, there are losses from natural forces, deer, bugs, and the like. This past year we lost two baby trees when other trees fell on them. There’s nothing you can do to protect from natural hazards. The best you can do is to give them the best start possible. Do I sound like a parent? I’m pleased to report that we have a good survival rate for last season’s seedlings.

In the forest, you need to look for a good spot–a hole in the canopy for light, not too close to existing trees, not near an obvious deer path, not in the “fall-line ” of any existing afflicted trees, and hopefully sheltered from strong winds. Of course, you’re carrying a bunch of seedlings in one bucket (with some water) and another bucket of compost and a spade. I spend a good bit of time, wandering in the woods, finding those good spots. I couldn’t be happier, even with the load–what a lovely way to spend time.

We don’t celebrate Earth Day. We spend a couple of weeks each year, planting. So far this season, I’ve put in 98 trees (including 3 orchard trees.) I’m over the half-way mark. I hurt like hell, but things are moving right along.

 

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.

 

 

Minding Our Bees and Qs

A.V. Walters

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Ah, The Sweet Smell of… Failure?! How can that bee?

We’ve just spent the better part of the weekend processing honey.  The house smells sweet and clean from honey and beeswax. Unexpectedly, we have a lot of honey. This is honey that was left in the hives so the bees would have something to eat over the winter. The problem is that the bees didn’t make it. We checked the hives a couple of weeks ago and confirmed our worst suspicions; all the hives were dead.

They must have died pretty early in the winter, because they left ample stores of honey. At least they didn’t starve. There’s nothing wrong with the honey, so, once we’d cleaned up the hives, and done our limited forensics, we collected up the laden frames for processing. We had very productive bees. Our mild winter appears to be melting into an early spring, and we wanted the hives empty before we have a bunch of grumpy, hungry bears roaming around.

The late season honey is very different from our first harvest. The honey from early in the season is light, with a floral aroma. The late season honey is thick and more strongly flavored—made with the robust pollen of Black-eyed Susans and Goldenrod. I can’t decide which I like better.

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We’re not quite finished processing, but it looks like we’ll end up with just shy of seventy pounds of honey. Add that to the thirty-five pounds we harvested last fall, fifteen pounds from the Pinta hive, and… well, it’s a lot of honey. Today we had to run out to buy another dozen quart canning jars. (Folks at the local grocery wonder out loud what you’re canning in March. It’s early, even for maple syrup.) The new quart jars, along with every jar and container in the house brings this batch to about 27 quarts. It makes for a bittersweet failure. We’d rather have the bees.

We’ve checked with the experts and the most likely explanation is that our bees succumbed to varoa mites (or to the viruses that the mites carry.) There was some evidence of mite activity in the two smaller hives. Our aggressive hive, Santa Maria, was not so clear a case. It could have been the weather. This winter’s warm/cold oscillations were very hard on local bees. We’re not the only ones who have had losses. Even experienced beekeepers are cursing this winter. It seemed mild, except (quite abruptly) when it wasn’t.

We have cleaned up the hive boxes, and set them ready for spring–we have new bees on order. I’ve also ordered a well-recommended book on natural beekeeping–and I attended a day-long class on advanced beekeeping techniques. I feel almost ready to try again. We’ll monitor mite levels closely. We’ll do mid-season splits (dividing colonies in half, and “forcing” new queens.) Splitting not only increases the number of hives, it also interrupts the varoa breeding cycles. And, we’ll investigate and experiment with natural methods of hive treatment.

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Bees’ combs are amazing structures.

Overall, we can’t complain. The retail value of the honey we harvested has covered our initial investments in bees and equipment. It makes good sense to try again. We plan to start with three hives, and split to six, mid-summer. At the end of the season we can assess the hives’ strengths, and either go into the winter with six, or recombine some for larger, stronger hives for next winter. Unfortunately, the new normal in beekeeping is to expect thirty percent losses–and that’s when you do everything right.

We’ll have to be a lot better about minding our bees.

 

The Sum of Its Parts

A.V. Walters–

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We tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Both Rick and I come from families where you fixed it, before you replaced it. Sometimes, if whatever “it” was, was not within your field of expertise, you paid somebody to fix it. Sometimes, cost or convenience inspired you to do it yourself. There’s a little bit of a mantra to it, even if “it” is intimidating, “Well, how hard could it be, really?”

All the way to building a house.

That history, combined with an appreciation of older things, has led us, separately and together, to a good bit of investigative repair and reinvention. My home is filled with rescue-antiques. Rick is the mother of invention when it comes to building and repairing challenges. We have accumulated no small measure of experience in woodworking, refinishing, building, tool maintenance and repair, mechanical and electronics repair (mostly Rick), art restoration and the mending and making of things in fabrics (mostly me.) We have projects upon projects. Which brings us to the Paramount question.

In the midst of my mid-life upheaval, I decided I needed an intellectual challenge (because writing novels wasn’t enough?) I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and in so doing, to immerse myself in a participatory way, in the language that is music. I had to choose which instrument would be appropriate for a (then) solo, middle-aged woman. It had to be something I could play alone, and maybe with others. I envisioned myself playing and practicing on a big porch with a view. My first choice, violin, wasn’t a good fit—as a previous car accident had left me with neck issues. I thought about the sax—but even the idea of relearning the breathing for a wind instrument, left me winded. So, I decided on the banjo, mostly because I could not think of any banjo music that sounded sad. I picked up a cheapie banjo on craigslist and began learning and plinking. I have a long way to go.

But, as things work out, once you open the door in a particular area, opportunities step in. When my brother learned that I had an interest in the banjo, it turned out he had a contact for an old banjo with history. He sent it my way.

It is a Paramount, tenor banjo from the mid-twenties. It’s beat up and beautiful. For a number of years it’s been sitting, disassembled (thanks to a “well intentioned” friend) in its case. I’m coming very close to having that lovely long front porch, overlooking the valley, so I thought it was time to get the Paramount in shape. Rick, as is his way, raised an eyebrow.

The banjo needs a lot of work. First and foremost, it needs to be completely disassembled and cleaned. Then, a new “head”—the stretched skin that gives the banjo its distinctive sound. The choice was whether to use a synthetic head material, or the traditional calfskin head that was used when the Paramount was first manufactured. We also need to replace the tuning pegs—which raised the question,again, of new versus old. The Paramounts had ingenious Page, geared pegs, new back in the day, and no longer manufactured.

In the past, everyone had said that I need an expert to help with this banjo renovation. So, I asked around and received several referrals to a local guy, who was reputed to be both better, and less expensive, than the “ship it off to Lansing” guys used by local music stores. I called and made an appointment. First, he gave me his tour of successes—a line-up of string instruments, hanging awaiting pick up by his other customers. They were lovely—so we got to the Paramount. His eyes widened when he saw the disassembled banjo. A Paramount is an impressively machined instrument, sturdy and buttressed with all manor of hardware. The expert marveled that the parts were mostly there—you could see that he was positively itching to get to the task. He knew that I had contacted him mostly for assistance with the installation of the new head—but soon his enthusiasm overflowed to the rehabilitation of the wood and the nickel-plate parts. He pointed out the accumulated finger grime on the mother-of-pearl inlayed finger board. I hadn’t noticed how bad it was. He insisted that the entire instrument be disassembled, lovingly cleaned, then reassembled, before a new head could be stretched. He was adamant that only vintage parts should be used—and of course, a calfskin head. He explained the intricacy of the stretching of a banjo head, a process not unlike stretching the canvas for an oil painting. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was completely on board. As he described the work necessary to restore the banjo to its former glory, the dollars were mounting. He looked up at me, but I didn’t blink. I’m a pushover for any argument favoring an antique’s original integrity. I was sucked in by his description of the painstaking task. With the vintage parts and laborious restoration, my “free” banjo was fast approaching a thousand dollar rehab.

“That grimy fret board,” I asked, “what would you use to clean it?” I expected to be drawn further into the secret and arcane world of instrument restoration.

“Oh, Windex will do it.” He said offhandedly.

My heart skipped a beat. “Windex?” I’ve done enough antique restoration to know that you minimize “wet” treatments, especially near inlay or marquetry. He noticed my alarm.

“Why, what would you use?”

“As mild a cleaner as possible. Probably Murphy’s Oil Soap, with very little water, a damp cloth to wipe it clear and then dry it immediately with a soft terry.”

He nodded, “Yeah, that’d work, too.”

But he’d now handed me the tail-end of the thread that would soon unravel the spell he’d woven.

“And the nickel-plated parts?” I asked.

“Ammonia soak—you know the Windex, and then, where needed, a little steel wool.” My eyes widened and he followed up, “Don’t worry, that steel wool wouldn’t hurt for the tough spots. Why, what would you use?”

“I like Never-Dull. It doesn’t scratch and can clean most any metal finish.”

“Never heard of that.” He pulled out a polishing compound he sometimes uses.

I had to press further. “What about the areas on the neck, and the other wood surfaces, where the finish is worn?”

He looked at me seriously. “There’s a temptation to refinish that—but it’d be a mistake. As long as the wood integrity isn’t threatened, you keep the value of a vintage instrument by maintaining the original finish. You can do that with a little Pledge.”

The bubble didn’t just burst, it imploded.

Pledge?”

“Yeah, you know, or any polish and wax finish.” I had visions of 60s era homemaking commercials and gingham aprons. I needed an exit strategy.

“This is adding up. We really just need help with the calfskin head—the cleaning part is grunt work that we can really do ourselves.” His face fell. It wasn’t just that the fish had slipped the hook—you could tell that he had really wanted to get his hands on the banjo. There’s genuine satisfaction in the restoration of a beautiful old item. He nodded. And helped me repack the banjo parts back into the case. He was really a nice and genuine fellow. He was, after all, the person most recommended in the area.

I took the banjo home and told Rick the tale.

So, really, how hard could it be?

We went online, researched and ordered the replacement tuning machines, and the calfskin replacement head material. We even broke down and bought an original Paramount wrench to stretch the new head. (They look kind of look an old skate key.) There are You Tube videos that show the many phases of banjo restoration, including stretching a calfskin head.

Rick helped disassemble the rest of the banjo, and I started the painstaking cleaning process, starting with the inlaid fret board, using the materials of my choice. The expert was absolutely right (in part)—cleaned up, it is beautiful. The nickel plated, metal parts have been gently restored to their former gleaming glory. We have some wood repair still to do, but I’ve ordered all the replacement parts and look forward to the challenge of finishing the job.