Archives for posts with tag: organic food

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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I read all the science on it, and I find it frustrating that there is no consensus about just what is up with the bees. I’ve been a bee fancier for decades. My grandfather was a beekeeper and my interest was piqued as a little kid. However, my urban life didn’t favor beekeeping. When I finally moved to the country, in Two Rock, I was more than ready to keep bees. Then, I learned that my landlord was wildly allergic to bee stings. I liked the landlord—so, no bees.

Even going back two decades, the bees were in trouble. The culprits then were tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites are still a problem for the bees but, in an otherwise healthy hive, a manageable problem. Now we have what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, with bee losses ranging from 25 to 50%, per year. They just fly away and abandon the hive, en masse. Science has yet to find the reason that the bees lose their sense of direction and wander off to die. In fact, it’s likely there are several reasons. We really are at a point where bees are at risk—and with them a substantial percentage of our food supply. One-third of what we eat requires bee involvement.

When North Americans think of our bees, they are generally European honeybees. They have been domesticated for thousands of years—and we brought them with us to America. They are not “natural” to our North American biome, but they are a vital component of our agriculture. There are plenty of native pollinators, but they’re not a big part of the way America produces food. And, that’s a very big part of the problem.

It seems to be lost on Big Ag that bees are insects, just like many of the other agricultural “pests.” Our industrial agricultural model—based on monoculture, is hostile to most insects and weeds. The dominant approach is to saturate the crops, and the fields, with poisons. There is an enormous “collateral damage” quotient in the dominant approach. Our foods are coated in pesticide residues, our soil and groundwater are being contaminated, our agricultural workers suffer from chronic exposure syndromes and we poison the bees, our pollinators. Some newer pesticides, neonicitinoids, appear to be particularly damaging to bee populations. Unfortunately, while the bees are dying, the “debate” continues whether the neonicitinoids are legitimate suspects. The makers of these toxins, Bayer and Syngenta, claim that proper use will not result in bee losses—taking a page from the tobacco companies’ old playbook on what does or doesn’t cause lung cancer. Denial can hold truth at bay for decades. After all, there are a great many factors at work.

Included in the mix are issues of proper beekeeping. The emphasis for professional beekeepers tends to fall into one of two camps—the pollinators and the honey producers—though the pollinators produce honey, and the honey folks’ bees are obviously out there pollinating, too. Both camps are guilty of not taking great care of their bees. Here, the big issues seem to be food and travel.

Like most of us, bees are healthiest if they have a diverse diet and a low stress lifestyle. Left to their own devices, bees will collect the nectar and pollen from of a variety of plants and will produce more than enough honey to feed the hive through the winter. The pollination industry interferes with the natural order by trucking the bees from place to place to pollinate specific crops. There is no diet diversity, the bees are exposed to high levels of insecticides on the crops they pollinate, and living on the road is hard on the bees’ navigation skills.

The honey industry is no better. In the quest for high honey production, the beekeepers strip the hives of honey and then winter-feed the bees with high fructose corn syrup or sugar—the bee version of junk food. (Not that the pollinators don’t use sugar diets, they do, too!) In both cases, bees are weakened, and then at risk for the various bee hazards, including the tracheal and varroa mites and pesticide exposure. There’s so much finger-pointing going on in the bee tragedy that the bees will be all gone before any coherent science can catch up. Indeed, I heard one beekeeper justify his poor practices on the grounds that everyone else does it, and the bees will soon be dead, anyway! (I wonder if he has the same attitude when it comes to raising his kids.)

Every single day I am solicited online for donations to “save the bees.” Most of these are seeking funds to fight the use of neonicitinoids which really are a big problem, but only a part of the problem. The challenges of beekeeping are a microcosm of the challenges we have in agriculture, anyway. It’s a problem of scale—diversity equals strength—monoculture equals weakness. The solution isn’t to pour on chemicals; the solution is to grow our crops and our bees in ways mindful of, and taking full advantage of, the rhythms and ways of nature. Organics. It can be done.

So this week, Rick and I have started to make our contribution to save the bees. A month ago, I took a beekeeping class. And we’ve invested in hives and beekeeping gear. Ours will be pampered bees. They will live in one place. They will have a natural and diverse diet—and in the winter, they’ll eat their honey, like bees should. We’ll enjoy smaller yields in the spring—after the bees have had the chance to overwinter. Small scale, “bees first”, management is the solution. We’ll do our bit to save the bees, while the bees earn their keep by pollinating our gardens and giving up a bit of honey. Win-win. And now, if we could just get these hives assembled….

 

Let's see, Tab A....goes into....

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

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Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.

 

 

Maybe Too Much of a Good Thing

A.V. Walters

We all want our food to be safe. We all think that one of the roles of government is to ensure a safe food supply. And they are trying. (Take that any way you like.) There’s regulation pending that would make it hard for organic and small farmers to sell produce. You see, growing food isn’t a spotless operation. It’s done in dirt. Major producers can afford the equipment (and use the chemicals) that give you that pristine, scrubbed, (and not nearly as fresh) produce. Small farmers and roadside stands can’t. It’s as simple as that. Note that most of the outbreaks of food borne disease aren’t coming from small sustainable producers–they’re coming from Big Ag. We need to amend the proposed regulations to provide exemptions for sustainable producers. What looks like a good thing actually favors Big Ag over traditional farming. For more information or to make a comment supporting change to the proposed rules, click on the link. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=12303

A.V. Walters

Last week I said it was a race with the first hard frost, to get the tomatoes in. I was wrong. When you live somewhere where rain doesn’t happen for seven or eight months of the year, it’s easy to forget. If your tomatoes are ripe (or almost) there’s another thing that can be devastating–RAIN.

A growing tomato has the ability to expand its skin. But ripe tomato, having reached its full size, shifts its internal workings to focus on seed maturation, not growth. We take advantage of this by cutting back on watering in the late weeks of the garden–it protects the tomatoes and enhances their sweetness. A ripe tomato, if it gets a heavy dose of water, can suck up the long awaited drink, split its skin, and rot on the vine. So, Sunday’s forecast of rain got my attention–not just a little rain, either, they forecast days of the wet stuff.  So we got busy, stripping the plants of all the ripe or near ripe fruit.

We had to harvest in five-gallon buckets and when those were full, used the largest bowls and pots we had. One hundred forty pounds of tomatoes later, I made another delivery of fresh tomatoes to everybody on the farm, and then we confronted a kitchen that was already being held hostage by our previous efforts.  We canned whole romas (some in yellow tomato sauce), diced tomatoes and sauce, lots of sauce. A year’s worth of tomatoes. Tomatoes in every imaginable color, shape and size–reds, pinks, goldens, bright yellows, oranges, brunos, stripes (both green zebras and chocolate stripes), those multicolored “pineapple” tomatoes, you name it, a veritable rainbow of tomatoes. To make sauce that has enough heft you have to reduce the volume of liquid by more than half. Every large pot we own was simmering away on the stove. There were tomato seeds and spatters, everywhere. I had to stop regularly to clean my eyeglasses. Two days later, we’d canned this year’s quota — 63 quarts of various, tomato products. Another day to clean everything and we are finished. Whew.

We’re picky about this, we taste and blend–making sure that there’s a uniformity of color and flavor. Why else would we go to all this work? After all, store-bought canned tomatoes are cheap, you can buy them by the case at Costco–even organics. Needless to say, it’s not an economic choice we’re making here. We’re opting for taste and an alliance with a rural lifestyle from a bygone era of self-sufficiency. It’s one of the signs that summer is over and that we’re ready for winter. The wood pile is under cover, and the kindling barrel full. Tomatoes and jam are labeled and lining the pantry. So, we’re ready.

There is still a lot of fruit on the vines (our growing season starts late and finishes late) so the garden will continue to produce ripe, fresh tomatoes until frost hits. We’ll continue to use them fresh for salads or tossed in pasta–and deliver them to our friends and neighbors, until then. If they get ahead of us, we’ll take them to the food bank. But, I don’t think we’ll can any more. It starts to get silly at some point, and over sixty quarts is that point, for us.

Who Knew?

A.V. Walters

My last blog addressed the issue of produce theft. Who knew it was a trend? I discovered that community gardens all over the country have been vexed with this garden pilfery. And I thought gophers were bad! Friends sent me the following links.

http://kstp.com/news/stories/s2712848.shtml

http://www.chicagonow.com/chicago-garden/2010/08/please-do-not-steal-the-vegetables/#image/1

http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2012/07/27/tomato-thieves-plague-st-paul-minneapolis-community-gardens

Since then, they’ve hit the corn and more tomatoes. Not that I’m left without; I’m still canning and at this rate it’s a question of what will happen first–the last of the tomatoes ripening or the first hard frost. Still, it’s a shock that garden theft is so common. It never occurred to me that the old organic maxim “And a third for the pests,” meant people.

We’re having one of those hot and muggy residual summer weeks. I’m not complaining, it will help to ripen tomatoes (who, so far have kindly not come ripe all at once.) I can only can so much at a whack–earlier this week my stove was simmering at capacity–a pot of sauce on every burner. Fifty pounds of them cooks down to about nine quarts of sauce and whole canned tomatoes. So the rest of October looks like tomatoes–and then NaNoWriMo in November. (What’s that? Oh, next blog I’ll explain and encourage.)

Gluten-free is all the rage right now. I guess I’m the lucky surfer riding that wave, since it has resulted in many new products and labeling that makes life easier for those of us who cannot tolerate gluten. I guess I’m a trend-setter. What’s gluten? It’s a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It used to be that only celiacs avoided gluten, but they’re discovering that there is a whole range of people whose lives are easier and more comfortable if they follow a gluten-free diet. Now there is more accurate testing for the various gluten related ailments. Still, many doctors are completely ignorant of the symptoms and the treatment for folks who are gluten intolerant. I don’t blame them, the symptoms can be wildly diverse and confusing. The only real solution is a gluten-free diet, which isn’t easy in this world of processed foods. Still, since I quit eating gluten (and in my case, cow’s milk products, too) my life has completely changed. The first 46 years of my life I struggled constantly with many, many health problems–but my doctors just shrugged. Now, as long as I watch what I eat, I am one of the healthiest people I know.

What are the symptoms? They are wildly different for many people. I guess I’m lucky that my symptoms were “classic” celiac. They included gastro-intestinal problems, a chronic rash, aching joints, infertility, chronic upper respiratory problems and a continually growing list of foods and drugs that triggered allergic reactions. I remember feeling frustrated that, at some point, it felt like I’d be allergic to everything. I was afraid to end up like the boy-in-the-bubble. I always was the sickly kid. Little did I know I was the poster-child for Celiac Disorder. (aka Celiac Sprue, aka Celiac Disease)

I wish I could say that a kind and conscientious doctor listened to my complaints and did the detective work to find out what was wrong with me. Nope. Despite the fact that I presented with all the classic symptoms, and even endured years of unsuccessful infertility treatments, nobody ever suggested that we take a look at my diet. Long after childbearing was an option, I discovered I was a celiac, while driving down the road, listening to NPR. That’s it, my medical provider of choice, National Public Radio. It was December 27, 2004 and a talk show host was interviewing a man about his mysterious ailment. He went through his symptoms. I pulled over to the shoulder. By the end of the program I was weeping behind the steering wheel; this had been my problem all along. I stopped eating wheat the very next day.

Thank god for the internet. I did all my own research and completely reformulated how I eat. At first my family thought I was crazy, but within a month or two, even the doubters could see the improvement. I never looked back. My doctor initially resisted my self-diagnosis, but it’s hard to argue with a sudden attack of good health. For a while I was angry. I could have felt good decades earlier if the medical people had listened, and had known about the condition. Maybe I could have had children. Often with celiacs, especially younger celiacs, a year or two gluten-free can reverse all the symptoms. A niece of mine, also suffering from infertility issues, was able to conceive after changing her diet. Many gluten issues are hereditary. My discovery has changed everyone in my family. Three of us have gone completely gluten-free, with great results. Others are considering it–but it’s a big step and requires some sacrifices. (One just isn’t willing to give up her fancy micro-brew beer! Sheesh! Believe me, even though I like beer, too–it’s worth it.)

Why am I coming clean now? Someone I know through blogging has complained of similar symptoms. I occupy only a tiny corner of the blogosphere, but if, by writing this blog, I can lessen the suffering of just one person, then I should make that effort. I’m not NPR, but since my recovery I have made it part of my mission to help others transition to better health when the learn that they, too, have won the gluten-free lottery. So, Nick, look into it. Find out and choose health. It’s worth it.

Spiders and Flies and Cows, Oh My!

A.V. Walters

Warning: This blog contains graphic descriptions that may be offensive to sensitive readers.

It is that time of year when gardeners, plants-in and waiting, are beset by bugs. I live next door to a dairy. Dairies attract flies. (Let’s not go there. It’s enough to say, it’s about the cows.) Flies attract spiders. I live in what must be the spider capital of the universe. If I don’t “sweep” or power-wash my house a couple of times a year, it looks like the wicked witch of the west lives here. The entire shadow area under the edge of the clapboards is completely filled in by spider webs. The eaves are, well, scary. My car is home to countless arachnids as well, and gets so covered in fly specks that people comment when I go into town. While I’m not fond of spiders, living here has helped me put them in perspective. At least they help keep the bugs (flies!) in check. Our plethora of insects also feeds an enormous number and variety of birds. Hey, I’m looking on the bright side here.

At about this time every year we get The Invasion of the Leaf Hoppers. They’re after green, anything green. Wave your hand over my radishes and you’ll see a cloud of them. As the green dries out of the surrounding landscape, gardens are left to absorb the bugs from everywhere else. This past week the valley farmers cut and bailed the last of the hay from the bottomlands. The hills are golden and dry. All those bugs are on the move—looking for their next meal.

It would be easy to panic and reach for a chemical solution. I think it would also be a mistake. Organic growers have options for a real emergency, but the basic framework calls for patience. Over time, the mantra, feed the soil not the plant, should lead to soil and plants healthy enough to endure the annual onslaught. This is a natural, seasonal event and agriculture over the centuries has survived pests. I guess I can, too.

Left to their own devices, plants are not defenseless against insects. When insects nibble (or chomp), plants respond chemically by making their leaves a little more bitter. It’s not so much that we’d notice (though I have tasted some overly stressed and, resultingly bitter, greens in my time) but enough to dissuade the bugs. It takes a little time. I know that when the leaf hoppers first arrive, it looks like an emergency. Hold off! Don’t reach for sprays or toxic powders. Let the plants do their magic. (The same can be said of white flies—though with them I’m inclined to reach for the Safer Soap earlier on.) You can help. Make sure they have enough water, especially if it’s hot. One year I fed my garden manure tea, but I can’t say if it was any more effective than water—but I felt better. Probably with that little extra bit of care the vegies will be just fine.

Of course, from time to time there are infestations that threaten the survival of the garden, or maybe just one of your crops. The watchword there is Know Your Bugs. We do have natural methods for most pests. For larger marauders, there’s hand-picking. This is not for the squeamish for faint of heart. It is very effective, particularly for slugs, snails, caterpillars (especially those amazing tomato hornworms, which you can feed to your chickens) and squash bugs (which I always thought was an imperative command.) These larger pests can do damage quite quickly—a tomato hornworm can defoliate a plant in days. I just squish them in my fingers, which makes the kids on the farm recoil in horror. You can also throw them in soapy water, or gently relocate them to a different environment (yeah, right.) Check the undersides of leaves for eggs, which you can squish, or wash off (or spray) with soapy water. With squash bugs, if you stay on it early in the season, you may solve your problem early on. In any event, make sure you exterminate them at the end of the season (they’ll congregate on the last remaining squash and pumpkins, or their leaves) or you’ll see them again next year. In a bucket-garden, handpicking pests is easy. When you fill the bucket reservoir, they all head up the plant for high ground. And there you are, waiting…

For little winged critters, there’s soapy water spray, both for them, their larvae and their eggs (in particular watch for those voracious cabbage moths and their larvae—sure they look like pretty white butterflies but they can do real damage.) For crawling critters—especially at the seedling stage, there’s diatomaceous earth. And if things are really bad, you can treat with Bt (bacillus thurengensis)—the organic gardener’s ace in the hole. Probably you won’t need most of these tactics.

The internet is an incredible resource, both in identifying the pest of the moment, and in suggesting treatment alternatives. Check there first, before resorting to the hardware store.

I have spiders in my garden, too. They are honored guests. I try to water and weed without disturbing them. They are my plants’ guardians. My family will be surprised that I have made my peace with spiders. From arachnophobe  to arachnophile in just a few short garden seasons.

Now if we can just do something about the gophers.