Saturday, December 17, 2011

blank spots

Man always kills the things he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?

-- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Thursday, December 15, 2011

the price of safety

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither." -- Benjamin Franklin

In his latest book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, Joel Salatin explains that one of the criticisms he receives towards his pastured poultry operation is that it isn't safe for the chickens. Salatin says that allowing chickens to run around free outside, pecking at grass and scratching for bugs, is better for their well-being because allows them to "express their chickenness" -- or, as my dad would say, "do chicken stuff." Some unnamed opponent argued that pastured chickens can't possibly be as happy as factory house chickens, because the latter don't have to feel cold or rain or worry about attack from predators.

We've lost about a third of our chickens this year to predators -- hawks, foxes, and a bear. The hawk came after the chicks when they were still relatively small. Most of the chicks ran under a big rock to hide, but two or three didn't -- and of course, they were the ones who got picked off. (Although one was heroically rescued by the puppy -- a story for another time.) Let me be clear that I didn't mourn the loss of those chicks. Half-grown pullets who are not smart enough to hide under a rock when the hawk comes don't have genetics I really want to pass along in my flock. The chickens lost to the bear, in my opinion, represent inevitable circumstance. There's not a lot you can do, short of locking them up inside a concrete fortress, that will keep your chickens safe from a bear. My dogs went out and chased it off after it had claimed just one grown hen, ripping a giant hole in the side of the coop in the process, which I consider an acceptable level of loss. The fox is more complicated. It came in the early morning, when it was still dark enough that I probably should not have let the chickens out of their coop to wander around anyway. And I shot her. She was a red fox, which is considered an invasive species around here as it's pushing out the native mountain swift fox. That alone could be enough justification to shoot her on sight. But I can't help but feel we're on the edge of her territory, and had I just waited longer to let the chickens out, the conflict might not have happened, and she might have lived another year to have little fox pups somewhere else. I don't regret shooting her, but she does remind me that it's much easier to reduce predator interactions before they happen than to deal with predators that have learned your homestead is a source of easy food.

What I have right now in my backyard are a half-dozen beautiful, alert, predator-savy chickens who come to the kitchen window to beg for table scraps. While I haven't named them, I can tell each apart individually, and sometimes can even tell which egg came from which hen by subtle variations in the coloring. I like to think that nature does a better job of weeding out the least fit than I could ever hope to, biased as I am by things like pretty tail feathers or friendliness to children. I can't imagine the logic that goes through the mind of someone who argues that factory house chickens are more happy, more nutritious, or in any way better for anyone than chickens raised like mine. I really don't even buy the argument that they are "safer," since an electrical outage in a heatwave translates to thousands of dead chickens in just 45 minutes due to the malfunction of their sophisticated house ventilation system.

But happier? More content? More able to express their chickenness?

I worry for a society where people conclude living in a temperature-controlled environment with a thousand of your siblings, not having to worry about pecking and fighting because you've all had half your beak cut off, is somehow ethically superior to running around on grass dealing with all of what nature intended. Isn't that the same logic that brought us such wonderful things as the Patriot Act?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

labor of love

"The family is the best source of labor for the small-scale farm. ... Why? Because farming is hard work, and the rewards at the start are measured more in satisfaction and pride than in large salaries. The farm family will do the work because it is their dream. It is their canvas, and they are painting it the way they've always wanted it to look."

-- Eliot Coleman, The New Organic Grower

Friday, December 9, 2011

Artois the Goat

What's more romantic than winning over your sweetheart by starting the business of your dreams -- illegal raw goats' milk cheese? Artois the Goat takes a hilariously over-dramatized look into the shady underworld of cheese in this indy fiction movie.

Watch the trailer on youtube or the full movie for free on hulu.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Monsanto's Bt corn still producing superbugs

About a week ago, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report expressing concern that Monsanto's genetically modified Bt-corn was causing corn rootworms to develop Bt resistance in at least four states.

Bacillus thuringiensis is not a pesticide -- it is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the soil and attacks corn rootworms and other insects. In healthy living soil, this bacteria should be able to help control populations of insects that damage crops. As the insects develop resistance, the Bt develops toxicity, in a balanced state of continuous evolution. It ought to concern organic growers everywhere that the vast oceans of Bt-corn are creating superbugs that vastly outpace the ability of Bt to keep up. It's akin to creating mice that are resistant to coyotes and housecats.

Monsanto isolated the toxin from the Bt and inserted it into living crops, essentially making the crop itself as deadly to insects as the soil bacteria. Their New Leaf potato was the first crop to be genetically modified with Bt, back in 1995. Since then, Bt has been added to dozens of other crops, including cotton, rice, and corn, the latter of which is heavily subsidized in the US by payments from the USDA. The EPA's report notes in several places that continuous corn planting -- year after year without rotation of even one other crop -- creates the selective pressure necessary to make rootworm resistance most likely. Scientists quoted in the report recommend, at the very least, alternating Bt-corn with non-Bt corn. But this would require farmers to endure sacrifice years, where they can expect most of their corn crop to be destroyed by the superworms already present in their fields, in an effort to pursue the greater good of reducing overall rootworm resistance.

After the initial assumption that the individual farmer struggling to make payments on his combine is probably not at all interested in sacrificing a year's worth of positive cash flow, my first question is this: Where exactly could a midwestern corn farmer find non-GMO seeds in the quantities needed for thousands of acres? Over 80% of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified -- about 11% of the world's total -- and sources for open-pollinated seed continue to be threatened. Monsanto has sued hundreds of small farmers for patent infringement when pollen from their GMO crops drifted into neighboring fields, making some farmers afraid to save their own seed at all.

On the bright side, the Organic Farmers and Growers Association is fighting back. In a lawsuit initiated March 2011, this association is asking a judge to declare that pollen drift, over which farmers have very little control, cannot be considered a source of patent infringement. I hope that one day, we'll see organic farmers suing Monsanto for the damages caused when their seed escapes and contaminates heirloom, open-pollinated varieties.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

all the trimmings

Never saw a more beautiful tree than this douglas fir we cut from our own backyard.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pennsylvania Dept of Ag releases new raw milk guidelines

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture released its new guidelines for the production and sale of raw milk. My home is one of just ten states where it is legal for farmers to sell raw, unpasteurized milk from their cows. Penn State University's Department of Animal Sciences has also released an explanation of the official guidelines.

Highlights of this document for milk producers:
-Raw milk permits begin 1 September and end 31 August, and need to be renewed each year.
-You don't need state-regulated milk bottling equipment on your own farm, if customers bring their own containers.
-Your farm's water supply must be tested. Probably something you should be doing anyway, what with all the Marcellus Shale fracking going on.
-Advertising, delivering, or exchanging raw milk is considered "selling" under the law, and doing any of these things without a permit carries a stiff penalty.
-Your Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture played a big role in making this legislation possible, so thank them!

Highlights for consumers:
-Raw milk sold by Pennsylvania permit holders is randomly tested for several different types of bacteria throughout the year. This gives you more assurance that the milk you buy is safe to drink than many other distribution programs can offer.
-Cows whose raw milk will be sold for human consumption must be tested annually for several different bovine diseases and certified healthy by a veterinarian, a requirement that pasteurized milk producers do not have to meet.
-Pennsylvania raw milk is also tested for pesticide residue, an assurance you can't get from even most organic produce.
-You can check the permit status of a PA raw milk dairy online at any time.

Monday, November 28, 2011

only important things

Away from major cities and the Interstate, winter traveling in Colorado is an adventure waiting to happen. Will that mountain pass be closed due to snow or avalanche? Will it close behind us after we pass through, blocking our route home? Is 4WD enough, or do we need chains? And maybe also a hi-lift jack, a winch, and a fairy godmother?

Well, folks, this family happens to be the proud owner of a 150,000+ mileage Land Rover. And as the narrator in this episode of BBC World proclaims, "Land Rovers only do important things." I can think of few things more important than a poor man's weekend adventure. When we realized that one of the remote getaways featured in this month's Rovers North magazine was less than two hours away from us, we were sold.

Temperatures in the single digits? Wind at hurricane speed? Snow drifts and ice without a single tire track? Land Rovers were meant to go where no one has gone before. Well, at least no one in their right mind, in the last 24 hours.

We made camp near treeline beneath Kite Lake, a few miles east of Breckenridge. The older dog, quite used to winter camping, snuggled down under her thick down dog blanket and fell asleep immediately. The pup, on the other hand, couldn't seem to stop wiggling. "I don't want to be covered up. No, wait, it's freezing, let me in! No, I've changed my mind, I don't have enough room to stretch my legs. Oh, actually, it's cold again..."

Leaving our miniature farmstead for a weekend getaway is a luxury we'll enjoy while we can. We left extra food out for the cat, made the chickens stay cooped up away from predators, and of course the dogs came along. The more animals we add, the more difficult such escapes will be. But never fear, I am planning to tap all of my extended family members for a weekend of farm sitting every now and again. (So if you're reading this, start preparing your list of demands in exchange for this work.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wall Street wants your military pension

The Young Farmers Coalition recently put out a fantastic report about the barriers that keep young people from starting farms, and how these affect America's food future. With the average U.S. farmer around 70 years old, some estimate that a quarter of our nation's food producers will retire in the next ten years. Recruiting new farmers is crucial, yet these young farmers cite lack of capital and poor access to healthcare as their primary struggles in starting new enterprises.

T and I are fortunate enough that we likely won't have to worry too much about either of these things. When I deployed to Iraq a few years ago debt-free, I put my entire tax-free paycheck for a year and a half into savings, a substantial amount that will likely be the down-payment for our farmland. And next year, T will hit 20 years in service and will be able to retire at the ripe old age of 38. We will have access to affordable healthcare through the Tricare for Military Retirees program, which charges a premium of about $500 a year for the entire family. We will have a small but steady monthly income from that pension, which will ensure that we'll have enough capital flow to buy gasoline and salt and coffee while we get our farm into the black. In short, the sacrifices we've made for the Army over all these years will translate into the perfect combination of benefits for starting a farm. We've earned them.

You may already know that in this age of federal deficit, Congress has been considering cutting benefits for military retirees. (I guess the $1,200 a month we will receive after five deployments and two decades away from our families just isn't fair to all of the other taxpayers.) But you may not know that this idea, and other similarly ridiculous ones, is the brainchild of the Defense Business Board -- a closed group of highly paid, Wall-Street bred civilian corporate advisors to the Department of Defense. Today's headline article in Mother Jones magazine, "Inside the Corporate Plan to Occupy the Pentagon," says that "a report from the board argued that paying soldiers and their families for 60 years after 20 years of service was "unsustainable," adding, "The 'Military Retirement' sacred cow is increasingly unaffordable." The board called for scrapping the system in favor of a mandatory 401(k)-style account whose savings could "be invested in higher yielding equities and bonds."

Clearly, this bunch of Wall Street investors are selflessly attempting to save the government money by advising the existing military pension system be scrapped, and instead invested on Wall Street.


As to their argument that paying people for 60 more years after they serve 20 is unsustainable, I first of all disagree with their math. The youngest a person can retire after 20 years of service would be 37, and very few veterans will live to be 97 years old. But more importantly, I think that the all-volunteer force is hopelessly unsustainable without the 20-year pension. Many of our most experienced, senior leaders are soldiers who are only staying in "till I hit my 20." Changing retirement benefits to require 30 years of service -- or, as the DBB recommends, eliminating them all together in favor of a corporate-style 401(k) plan -- would cause many of our most seasoned veteran leaders to decide that sticking it out for five or ten more years just isn't worth it. Even if we instituted the wildly unpopular option of a draft, this wouldn't solve the problem. Recruiting has really never been a problem -- lots of young people in America want to join the military. Giving up four years of your life and possibly a major limb in exchange for an almost-free college education is a big attractor. The problem is retention. It takes a particular type of person to want to stay in an organization which requires extraordinary sacrifices that are simply not comparable to any civilian job, not even police or firefighters. We are already offering bonuses of $35,000 or more to try to entice leaders to stay in after eight or ten years of service.

But hey, I'm a beneficiary of the current system, so what do I know. If T lives to be 97, the total cost to the government for his pension will be about $850,000. When you consider that a single brand-new F-22 Raptor costs $350,000,000, cutting benefits instead is clearly the way to go.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Last spring, we bought eight day-old chicks from our local hardware store. They'd been shipped in from Who Knows Where, and even the store manager wasn't quite sure what breed they were supposed to be. They were listed as "Ameraucanas," which in many places, means that they are mutt chickens whose parentage is unknown. (Ameraucana is a recognized breed, but the standard accepts so many different varieties and colors that the name becomes a catch-all. Sort of like labeling every dog in the pound either a "lab" or a "terrier.") I think we paid $1.49 for each chick.

Now that they're grown and beautiful, I'm beginning to suspect that they may actually be Welsummers. I base this partly on their color and shape, and partly on the fact that the hens lay eggs with brown speckled shells. Our chickens are extremely docile and friendly around people, but also ferocious around mice and small predators. None of the other breed descriptions I've read quite describe our flock as well as the Welsummer does.

Of course, I really have no way of knowing what breed they might be, and couldn't sell their chicks as purebred Welsummer flock-starting stock. But I'll say that our quest to identify their breed has kindled an interest in this heritage variety from the Netherlands that I would probably have otherwise never known.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

death by manure

Photo from
I have to admit, of all the hazards associated with concentrated manure pits found in industrial livestock operations, death was not the first to come to mind. I initially thought this graphic would belongs in the over-cautionary menagerie at Safety Graphic Fun.

Apparently, death by manure is a significant hazard. Farm workers can asphyxiate quickly from breathing in toxic gasses from sealed underground pits, or from drowning in above-ground manure lagoons. What a way to go, eh? Nationwide, about 20 people die every year from breathing in hydrogen sulfide, a gas unique to concentrated manure pits that are not exposed to the air. Two years ago, this gas claimed the lives of an entire Mennonite family, as the father attempted to unclog a manure pit pipe, and after he collapsed, his family members died trying to rescue him.

That snippet of news also made me think of how many people believe that just because something is "Amish made," it is must be high quality and environmentally sustainable. I grew up around Amish communities, and know first-hand that they are not immune to the problems of the modern world -- things like drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and dishonest business practices. I've encountered Amish families who believe that animals are property, something God has given you to take care of but not care about, and for whom this belief translates into treatment of livestock that is much harsher than I would personally find acceptable. There are, of course, many outstanding Amish and Mennonite family farms, but a label identifying the town or religious preference of its maker does not automatically denote wholesomeness.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

growth-promoting implants

Do I even need to explain why this is wrong?

A bulletin from the Penn State Ag Extension recommends "growth-promoting implants," complete with the preceding picture, as an answer to help family cattle farms make more money from their beef. I had to get over my initial sickening just to read their argument in favor of this procedure. It was, of course, purely economic -- implants cost just $2.74 and result in an average difference in feedlot weight gain of 56 lbs! This is an opportunity to earn more than $45 extra on every steer sent to slaughter! The potential impacts on the poor young animal's development, other than increased carcass weight, are not even mentioned. Animal welfare aside, the effect on young people of eating beef from cattle raised with these implants hasn't even been studied, as near as I can tell. Even though a Texas Tech University study found that the implants increase the levels of estrogen in the treated animals, and multiple studies have shown that excess estrogens can cause early sexual development and other problems in growing children -- I'm sure, as industry would like you to believe, that it's perfectly safe. Aren't you convinced?

If you buy beef from the grocery store in the United States, chances are good that you're consuming this stuff, since labeling isn't required. As a matter of fact, the USDA and the FDA are so convinced that it's safe, our government took the EU to the World Trade Organization Dispute Settlement Body to argue that their ban on treated beef imports was an "unfair trade barrier." The EU argued that banning it is a basic question of food safety, and therefore permitted under trade rules. Funny how the same scientific data can be interpreted so differently on opposite sides of the pond.

What boggles my mind about the Ag Extension bulletin is that it's brought up as a solution to chronically low commodity beef prices. Farmers raising beef in Pennsylvania can expect to receive around $1.60/lb for their whole year's effort in a cow/calf operation. But a quick survey of the information available at shows that organic, grass-fed beef is selling direct to Pennsylvania consumers for between $6 and $10/lb. Now, I do realize that this consumer price doesn't take into account the increased cost of fencing, land, hay, and such when you're finishing your own cattle on pasture rather than selling them to a feedlot. But I would certainly think that if you knew you could get almost ten times the price selling grass-fed beef direct to the consumer, you wouldn't be tempted to consider freakish things like implanting hormones beneath the skin of your calves. Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Last night we watched Dirt! The Movie for free on Hulu. The cartoon characters and message of hope made a nice change from the somewhat depressing agricultural documentaries we've been watching lately.

Two snippets I took away from this movie:

"Kids don't play in soil. They play in dirt."
One of the people interviewed in this movie has made his life's work helping kids find greener places to play. He pulls up concrete in playgrounds so they can become dirty, living places -- in other words, the kind of places where kids actually like to hang out. He says that some people were shocked, asking where children would take recess if their play area wasn't encased in a lifeless layer of "clean." (Maybe those neighborhood parents need to take a gander at Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv's book which argues exposure to nature, unstructured play, and dirt is critical to childhood development?) I can't help but recall a neighborhood child who, watching us dig carrots through the fence we shared when we lived in the city, asked, "Why'd you put those carrots in the dirt?" While his innocence regarding the way plants grow was comically forgivable, honestly, I was somewhat impressed that in the age of packaged meals, he still recognized a raw carrot as food. And what's with university professors insisting that you call dirt "soil," as if changing the word somehow makes you sound more intelligent, and feel more distant from that stuff beneath your feet on which all life depends?

"There is no such thing as waste until it's wasted."
The folks interviewed about compost included people in Maine who were making a good living composting fish waste leftover from fishermen. This waste had previously been dumped into the ocean, with no one the wiser, until eventually the EPA decided to tell them they weren't allowed to do that anymore. Without a cheap place to dump their refuse, the fishermen became interested in whether it could be brought onto the shore to be composted and feed plants, "like the Indians used to do." Well, of course! For me, this story made a good illustration of just how much living, decaying stuff goes to waste, every day, all over this country and surely the world. Massive, gi-normous, mind-boggling amounts of stuff. Stuff that should be in the soil, but isn’t. Stuff that shouldn’t be killing the fish in the Gulf of Mexico, but is. Fish guts, lawn clippings, leaf litter, human waste, Smithfield lagoons of pig manure, and of course, millions of tons of artificially created nitrogen dumped indiscriminately across the great plains, all washing down into our drinking water. We have a waste problem, and we have a fertilizer problem, which is insane when Mother Nature has already created a perfectly round system where these things are not problems but complimentary solutions.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

the first hundred years

"Well, my old hound has died of starvation
Him and me ate all the chickens in the pen
Well, I'm getting kinda hungry, but I won't give up yet
I think I still got one old settin' hen

They say the first hundred years are the hardest..."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

heat miles

A few weeks ago, Crunchy Chicken posted the 2011 Freeze Yer Buns Challenge. One of the participants, the North Park Homestead, described "heat miles" as something we should think about with the same devotion we offer to "food miles" in our efforts to locally source what we eat every day.

This year, with any luck, all of our heat will come within a mile and a half of our house.

When our 700 square foot cabin was built at the base of Pike's Peak in 1927, it had no electricity or indoor plumbing, and the woodstove was its only source of heat. Since then, it's been retrofitted with the world's tiniest bathroom, electric lights and water heater, and a small CoZy Heater, which is less of a furnace than a glorified space heater. But unlike many modern houses, this cabin was designed with the stove in mind specifically to be the sole source of warmth. It sits in the center of the house, facing into a large living room, with the doors to the bedrooms nearby. The stove insert sits partially into a wide chimney made of local pink granite rocks, mostly about 10 inches in diameter. Enough of the surface of the stove sticks out into the room for you to heat dinner or boil a teakettle on top, but enough of the stove is nestled back into the rocks to allow them to act as a heat sink. It can take us up to two days of wood burning to get the rocks warm, but once they are, they will radiate heat back into the house for another two or three days.

When we light up the stove on chilly 40°F autumn days, it quickly raises the temperature inside the cabin to 80°. Last winter, our electricity and gas were out for several days during the coldest week of the year. But even while it was -20°F outside, our stove still kept the inside of the house around 60, all by itself. Needless to say, I was sufficiently impressed. It does get chilly at night, but we let the fire die down rather than waking up in shifts to tend it. With two adults and two 60-lb dogs snuggled up under thick blankets, we couldn't much care if it gets down into the 40s while we're sleeping, and the rocks re-radiating the warmth from earlier in the evening keeps our plumbing above freezing. We could turn on the gas heater for back-up if we needed to, but we haven't yet this year, even though we've already had two mountain snowstorms.

I write about our woodstove not just to brag about how awesome it is, but hopefully to inspire some folks reading to think about alternative sources of heat. For us, like many folks who have elderly or very young family members, turning the thermostat back to 60 or 50 degrees isn't really an option. Maybe it's because I've had a prior case of hypothermia, which makes me especially susceptible to the cold. Maybe it's because we, like many soldiers, started developing arthritis in our 20's. Whatever the reason, even when I spend the majority of my days working outside, I can never seem to take off my heavy winter jackets without shivering when the temperature is much below 70°. It encourages me to think that I can keep my home at whatever temperature I want, as long as I'm willing to trek up into the woodlot and cut the renewable resource required to warm it up.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

health of the economy

“In America, when consumers are confident – as evidenced by increased consumer spending and borrowing – the national economy is said to be healthy. As it happens, what’s true for America isn’t true for the farmer. I don’t know how they balance checkbooks in Washington, but every time I increase spending and borrowing around our place, the household economy goes straight to hell.”

-- Peter V. Fossel, Organic Farming: Everything You Need to Know

Saturday, November 5, 2011

this is not my hobby

"Calling people who grow food part-time "hobby farmers" is like calling people in the National Guard "hobby soldiers." Most people would never dare peg the people who might give their lives to protect their country such an aloof term. The stakes are too high. When it comes to creating food, I feel the same way. And while the accountant down the street with the two-acre dairy goat and vegetable operation hasn't quit his day job, he still is providing food for your community. He deserves a higher title than "hobby." He is a farmer, end of story. He may be other things as well, but if he is making cheese and squash, he is learning a skill and providing a product to help keep all of us alive. The soldier might die for us, but the farmer lives for us."

-- Jenna Woginrich, "This Is Not My Hobby"

Truer words. Here's to being both.

Friday, November 4, 2011

since when does bigger mean better?

For the second part of my discussion on what "organic" means and why I support it, I'd like to address the myth that bigger is better. One of the most tired arguments against organic agriculture is that it might be a fine designer food for those wealthy enough to afford it, but it's just not big enough (efficient enough, cheap enough, productive enough, et cetera) to feed the whole world. Multinational agribusiness corporations like Monsanto claim that organic just can't keep up. Of course, they also claim that any method that increases the tons of crop yield per acre is sustainable because it will produce more food from less land, and therefore allow us to free up more land for forests. Or, you know, suburban housing developments and strip malls. Whoever has more money this week.

Monsanto may be the world-wide expert in getting the most corn, soy, and canola from an acre of land. (Although a Kutztown University study showed that yields of organic corn per acre were similar using organic methods, and that the organic yields were actually higher during years with poor rainfall.) But I don't think it's accurate to say that they are better at producing food.

In the United States, thanks to the last fifty or so years of Farm Bill legislation, we have a national system where low-quality corn is heavily subsidized by the federal government. This isn't the type of sweet corn you eat at your summer picnic. Most of this corn is destined to become another product -- ethanol, feed lot cattle, new forms of plastic, and of course, thousands of different types of food additives. Subsidizing corn production hasn't brought us cheaper food at the grocery store. What it has brought us is a new "food science" industry which is dedicated to increasing the proportion of grocery-store packages laden with high-fructose corn syrup and other junk devoid of actual nutrition. We are now seeing a resurgence of rickets, the 19th-century disease where children's bones fail to form properly due to Vitamin D or calcium deficiencies. Where in the past this disease was the scourge of the malnourished, it is now affecting children who are otherwise obese. Shouldn't it be a sign that something is seriously wrong with the way we produce and distribute food when children can be overweight from eating too much food, and still simultaneously suffer from malnutrition?

Globally, we humans are growing several times more grain than everyone on earth could possibly eat. In fact, one study concluded that if all the world's current conventional farmland were converted to organic, we would still produce more than enough tons of food to feed the global population, without bringing any additional land into cultivation. The problem is not, and has never been, that we don't produce enough food for everyone. The problem is that many people are too poor to buy it.

Do you remember the Green Revolution? It promised to bring new methods of cultivation, irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer to poor regions of India and other "third-world" nations. But as India native Vandana Shiva writes eloquently in her book The Violence of the Green Revolution, that promise just didn't hold up to reality. Chemical inputs, like nitrogen artificially synthesized from the air, come in exchange for money. In her words, "It doesn't matter how much bread you can buy for a dollar, if you aren't making any dollars during the day." Thousands of farmers mortgaged their land in order to pay for their first season of input, lured by the promise of increased yield. But at the end of the growing season, the prices they earned for their crops were not enough to pay their loans. (Sound familiar? The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies avoiding debt as one of the most important things a small farm can do to stay in business.) Many people suspect this vicious cycle of poverty and hunger is driving the startling increase in Indian farmer suicides.

By contrast, the aim of organic is to create a closed-loop system, where off-farm inputs are minimal. This means that the fertilizer you use on your crops comes from your own animal manure or vegetation compost. Ideally, it doesn't take money to buy those things -- and in fact, it reduces the money you have to pay to haul that "trash" away and store somewhere in a landfill. As a future farmer in the process of creating a business plan, this lack of initial capital is extremely attractive to me here in my wealthy nation. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development came to a similar conclusion in their 61-page report explaining why organic agriculture has a greater potential for feeding human beings in Africa than conventional methods.

Conventional farming hasn't convinced me it can grow more food. But it has shown that it's sinisterly effective at reducing the number of farmers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

the driveway

Sunshine and snow are two things that rarely ever occur together back home in Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

the basic premise of organic

Are chemicals ever acceptable? Does 'natural' mean 'safe'? Is it even possible to feed the whole world sustainably?

Digress with me a moment to draw a comparison. I teach basic land navigation -- use of a map and compass -- to junior high school kids. There is so much I want to show them, from shortcuts for accurately plotting latitude and longitude, to how to navigate past obstacles like swamps and giant rocks. But increasingly, I find myself coming back to the basics. Many of these kids start out learning, for the first time, that the arrow on a compass points north. That fact is so basic, I sometimes forget to even cover it. But soon, I find myself backtracking -- starting at the beginning. Without comprehension of the most basic concepts, the finer points are mere hubris. Lately, I find myself doing the same thing when it comes to political and ethical arguments for organic farming. I'm defending even basic choices my family makes, like taking the time and effort to sort out the recyclables from the compost.

Here's a basic question:
What is organic?

I'd like to hear your answers, but I'll start with my own. The first thing that comes into my mind when I say "organic" is the absence of chemicals. But that requires us to define chemical. I remember a high school teacher who maintained that every single substance ever known to man should be considered a chemical, to be precise, whether it was synthesized in a laboratory or naturally occurred growing out of the ground. I disagreed with this assertion in 10th grade, and I still do. A chemical, to me, is something that is deliberately synthesized by humans, and doesn't occur naturally. Natural systems have trouble breaking it down, because it's new and bacteria don't recognize it. And because it's new, its long-term effects on human health and the environment really can't possibly be known for many generations, no matter how many studies we conduct or what interest groups fund them.

In my house, we do nearly all of our cleaning with vinegar. We don't have oven cleaner, countertop cleaner, bathroom scum cleaner, or even bleach. We do this for money-saving reasons: From personal experience, the vinegar is just as effective for cleaning up all the things I used to use those other products for, and does it for less than a tenth of the price. We do this for space-saving reasons: I keep a 5-gallon jug, and a small refillable spray bottle, of vinegar in my cupboard and don't need to make space for thirty other types of cleaners. We do this for environmental reasons: vinegar is a naturally occurring substance, made from the fermentation of apples or other fruits. If I spill it outside or flush it down my drain, tiny creatures in my ecosystem know what it is and know how to break it down and recycle it. I'm concerned about the saponification of our watersheds and streams, and so I choose to use fewer chemical soap products. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, we do this to protect our family's health.

Have you ever noticed that household products that we deem safe to use on a daily basis suddenly become off-limits once you are pregnant? Pregnant women are supposed to avoid everything from tuna fish (mercury) to oven cleaner (toxic fumes) to conventionally grown apples (pesticides.) Were I to suggest these substances were inherently dangerous, many people would scoff -- my great-grandmother used those products, and nothing ever happened to her! (You know, except that breast cancer she almost died from.) But tell the same people that they ought to feel comfortable using them while pregnant, and they pause. Hey, maybe a lady carrying a tiny being inside ought to avoid regular apples. You know, just in case. Tiny beings can only handle a tiny concentration of pesticides, and several studies have shown that the human tissue containing the highest concentration of pesticides is breastmilk.

I'm sure there's some debate as to what concentrations of various pesticides, herbicides, and poisons is considered safe. But my conclusion is, if I know it's deadly in any reasonable concentration, why would I voluntarily introduce it into my home? Doesn't my family already face enough stress that is completely outside of my control? Reducing the number of poisons we ingest is one thing that is completely within my control.

Look for a part II of this discussion coming soon. I welcome your comments.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

when farmers go hungry

“A year ago the food summit was taking place. How do you solve the problem of a billion people going hungry on a regular basis, something humanity has never suffered before? Hunger throughout human history has been localized in space and time. In some places some people starved for a short while, because of a drought, because of a flood, because of a war. But that permanently a billion people would be denied food is an achievement of a world based on capital intensive farming, control of agribusiness over agriculture, and systems of food production and food distribution designed not for human welfare, but for corporate welfare. That’s why we have hunger today. We have hunger because farmers who have to buy the seeds and the chemicals can’t afford to keep the food they’ve grown. They have to sell it immediately just to pay back the debt. And what they sell at a quarter price, they have to buy at four times the price just to eat as food. Most people who are hungry today are rural people who are producing food. Earlier hunger was an urban phenomenon. Now it is has become a problem faced by producers of food, which should tell us something is wrong with the way we are producing food.”

-- Vandana Shiva, "About Biotechnology."
Speech available for download here

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

to split a log

“The first year I lived here, we cleared land and cut our firewood with hand saws. It was hard work and it took a lot of time, but we had that time and the work felt good. As winter approached, though, we realized that we had in no way cut enough wood to last us very long, and we panicked. We asked a friend who had a chainsaw to come over and cut up some of the big logs that we had lying around. These would have taken hours to saw through with the hand saw.

He came with his monster machine which fascinated and terrified us all. Our country peace was broken. The noise was deafening and overpowering. I was eating an orange and couldn’t taste it; the chainsaw demanded all my consciousness. The animals fled. We stood at a distance, fingers in ears, and watched the chainsaw rip through the wood in no time at all, leaving us a three-month supply of warmth and comfort and hot meals."

-- Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer

Last year, our routine of gathering firewood was simple, relaxing. In the crisp mountain air of early autumn, we’d load up the truck with dogs, chainsaw, and a few gallons of gatorade. Winding dirt roads lead us through the National Forest to the permit firewood cutting area, where for as little as $15, you could haul away dead softwoods to feed your family’s woodstove. So passed nearly every Saturday afternoon until the snows came, ambling along with the windows down, selecting only the most enticing downed logs to cut into fifteen-inch sections, and returning home with a modest stack of semi-dried wood to be split by hand in the evenings. In particular, T took pride in telling people he had to go straight home from work to split wood for the night’s fire, and meant it – our stash of stove-ready chunks rarely split more than two or three days ahead of the need.

The swing of a splitting maul sings an easy rhythm. Each time two quarters fall equally away from the head, I feel like I’ve come one swing closer to mastering an essential skill of our ancestors. The work is physical, but not difficult, and an hour or less a day isn’t enough to make the shoulders especially sore. We split on a section of stump next to the driveway, and set the pieces on the porch where the eaves shelter them from snow and water. We have two splitting stumps, actually – one for T, and one about six inches shorter for me. The half-foot difference in our height equates to almost exactly the same difference in our respective maul-swinging positions. I catch a glimpse of the cheap, lightweight axe our landlord left to us, and imagine her in her business suit, attempting to split the tiny pile of kindling she left for us when we moved in.

We were on our way into the Forest again last weekend when serendipity came calling. The fire radio crackled to life just as we pulled out onto the paved road – traffic accident on the highway. Like much of Colorado, our small town’s fire department is entirely volunteer – not even the chief is paid – and so whatever help comes or doesn’t come to the folks entrapped in their vehicles following an accident is dependent entirely on the generosity of working people who can take time out of their day to render aid. Leaving the pups waiting anxiously in the cab of the truck, we rolled out to the scene with two of our neighbors. The accident turned out to be relatively minor, and we spent much of the call directing traffic around the tow truck and chatting about good places to find firewood. It just so happened that one of our neighbors and fellow volunteer firefighters knew of someone who was trying to get rid of a large pile of wood. A land development company clearing the way for new home sites had dumped a stack of softwood logs at the edge of their property, undecided about how to dispose of them and hoping they would eventually disappear. A tall pile of unclaimed logs, just waiting to be cut up and hauled away? We were happy to help them out. In exchange for a dozen of our home-grown brown eggs, this same neighbor loaned us the use of his hydraulic log splitter.

In one afternoon, we were able to cut, split, and haul away three or four pick-up loads of split wood. We now have already stacked – on the porch, on a firewood rack, on pallets beside the house – as much wood as we put up all season last fall. It’s heartening to feel so rich in renewable heat source. But at the same time, we unintentionally robbed ourselves of one of our favorite early evening activities. In the end, we decided to come back and fill up a few more truckloads without the benefit of the splitter. That way, we managed to get ahead on the work, but also left round pieces in a pile that could still serve as source of daily meditation. Lift, swing, split. Repeat.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

see what emerges

Rundown neighborhoods as marginal systems

Another example of the importance of marginal systems concerns the sources of both cultural and enterprise innovation and their relationship to urban renewal. Jane Jacobs pointed out that one of the values of rundown urban neighborhoods was that they provided cheap rents in old warehouses, shops and houses, where small start-up businesses could establish themselves. She provided evidence that the elimination of these areas by urban renewal programs in the 1950s and 1960s was killing the economic life, as well as the artistic and cultural life, of American cities. There is tension between the "tidy up" mentality that wants to recyle and make full use of everything, and the mindset that values leaving things be to see what emerges. The balance is a fine one, whether we are working in the garden or planning a city.

-- David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

alternative economies

Anyone who listens to an early morning farm program on the radio will be aware how seldom a university expert will propose a remedy that is not for sale. What they have accomplished is the virtual substitution of credit for brains.

-- Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land

from an essay describing how the small family farm might add much to the fabric of society, but adds little to the Gross National Product

Monday, June 27, 2011

family trees

Family trees are a great way to get people telling stories that you might otherwise never hear. Take the three trees in my grandmother's front yard. Blue spruce, planted lovingly by three pairs of little hands over fifty years ago.

Online search sites like and bring thousands of obscure written records right into your living room. Not only does it offer helpful suggestions for documents that you might actually be looking for, it also provides a way to contact relatives whose names you may never otherwise know. Just recently, a cousin who met me when I was a toddler found my profile through my online family tree. With just an email, he put me into touch with a whole branch of my family in another state who I didn't know existed. These sites are expensive, but so very well worth it, in my opinion. Usually we wait until Christmas, when most of the relatives gather from around the nation to come back to the old homestead. That way, I can pay for just one month's access to the online records at a time when all of the kinfolks are around to ask questions, and we can all share in the data we gather together.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

sun tea

8 black tea bags in a gallon-sized pickle jar
1/2 cup of sugar (more or less to taste)

Leave alone in a sunny spot for 3-5 hours. Tastes slightly different than boiled-water tea, and with sugar added will only keep for a few days. So drink up.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

chicken ark

After much deliberation, we decided on the "chicken ark" design for a coop. It has a raised nesting area with a ramp that reaches down into the center of the pen. About six feet long is big enough for our six chickens. We had originally planned to make the entire side of the henhouse open, with one long hinge, but decided that would be too heavy. Instead, we cut a door out on each side, in opposite corners, that should allow us to access the entire interior for cleaning.

And hopefully, in a couple of weeks, eggs.

The bottom is open to allow them to scratch at the ground. We were initially worried that this would allow predators to dig underneath, but it seems that the need to dig delays them long enough to attract the attention of our dogs, who are dedicated predators of wild chicken-eaters.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

egg carton jiffy starters

I'm not terribly thrilled with the results of my egg carton planter. It did give me instant, free extra sprouting space. But this morning, as I transferred the little spudlings into a bigger planter, I discovered that their roots had grown firmly attached to the soggy bottom of the egg carton. I'm not completely convinced I didn't damage them trying to get them out.

Have I mentioned that it's still snowing here? My house is slowly filling with little window boxes perched beneath every available sunny spot. This is the first year I've tried to grow any kind of green plants in this ridiculous climate. I'm debating whether to build some kind of plastic hoop house. I don't think our weather will ever be safe for things like tomatoes to be grown outside.

I'm terrible at telling plants apart, especially when small, and we don't have any craft or popsicle sticks. But we do have wooden clothespins, so I sacrificed a couple today to serve as labels.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

real live bugs

I can't believe how fast the chicks are growing. They're still just under two weeks old, and already have several layers of feathers growing on their wings. We decided they've outgrown their original, temporary cardboard box home.

We set them up this evening in a tupperware brooder. I'd read a couple of different accounts of people having good success with these. My only worry is that our collie mutt, a dedicated chicken-killer, will be much more interested in them now that they're down closer to her eye level.

As bedding, we use scraps from our firewood splitting spot. Basically I scrape off the top inch or two of softness from the ground. It includes pine needles, wood shavings, sandy dirt, and lots of bugs. The chicks love being able to scratch around and find actual insects to eat, the way their instincts demand. Just one of the many pleasures of raising your own chickens. :)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

the good root

Are you fleeing from Love because of a single humiliation?
What do you know of Love except the name?
Love has a hundred forms of pride and disdain,
and is gained by a hundred means of persuasion
Since Love is loyal, it purchases one who is loyal;
it has no interest in a disloyal companion.
The human being resembles a tree;
your root is a covenant with God.
That root must be cherished with all one's might.
A feeble covenant is a rotten root, without grace or fruit.
Though the boughs and leaves of the date palm are green
greenness brings no benefit if the root is corrupt.
If a branch is without green leaves, yet has a good root,
a hundred leaves will put forth their hands in the end.

-- Rumi (translated by Kabir Helminski)

Friday, April 8, 2011

new chicks on the block

Eight Americauna babies, hatched yesterday, now making their home in a cardboard box atop the front-loading washing machine. Bedding is pine shavings from our firewood splitting. The waterer is a coffee can, with a few holes drilled, on top of a frisbee. Works well for us.

Monday, March 21, 2011


You never seem to notice how dirty the floor is until you start to mop it. Even after sweeping, a tremendous amount of crud remains.

A little white vinegar will eat away most of it. We use vinegar for darn near everything. It breaks up the grease on the stovetop, penetrates the congealed who-knows-what on the floor under the fridge, and replaces fabric softener in the laundry.

Friday, March 18, 2011

made from scratch

I'm on a mission from Dog to learn to make more meals from scratch. But that leads me to an existential question:

What exactly is 'scratch'?

(Yes, I put my question marks outside of my quotation marks. If the quotation isn't a question, I think the placement of my mark ought to specify so, even if it isn't proper grammar. I tear the tags off pillows, too.)

As an example, we love green bean casserole. My family grew green beans as a kid, and they are one of a handful of green things I can unquestionably recognize. You can buy it at the store in a pre-made box where you just add water. Sometimes you can even buy it ready-made at the deli counter. T's mother makes it the 'traditional' way -- that is, with a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup. Is that 'from scratch'? It gets points, of course, because Mom made it, but take a look at the ingredients:
water, mushrooms, vegetable oil, enriched wheat flour, salt, cream, corn starch, whey powder, soy protein isolate, monosodium glutamate, tomato paste, calcium caseinate), yeast extract, spices

Mmm, our good friend MSG. Not exactly what I would call wholesome. The ingredients in the French's Fried Onions are relatively benign, by comparison:
palm oil, wheat flour, onions, soy flour, salt, dextrose

But neither of these things are 'from scratch.' You could make your own soup, and your own fried onions. But that then begs the question -- how far must you go for it to really be from scratch? If you make your own fried onions, do you have to grind the flour yourself? Grow the wheat from seed?

Monday, March 7, 2011

raiders of the lost greens

I dig farmer's markets as a cultural phenomenon. But before I can hope to turn the stuff they sell into dinner, I first have to start convincing myself that it's actually food. Backwards, even inerudite, you say? Of course, but read on.

Let me confess that it wasn't but a few short years ago that I ever ventured into the 'produce' section of the grocery store. That scary, open area on the right-hand side, with all that fresh from the garden stuff? I couldn't even name anything there. And besides, there were no high, comforting walls -- anyone could just look up across the center displays and see me! And, heaven forbid, they might even walk up to me and tell me the name of this green thing I was scrutinizing, as though holding it up to the light might reveal some sort of secret bat decoder! No, the other isles, with food-like stuffs neatly labeled in cans and boxes, was much more inviting. No guessing there. If the big shiny label proclaimed it contained processed cheese food, well, then, that must certainly be what's inside.

Like many other kids raised in Generation X and beyond, I grew up preferring the flavor of artificial grape powder to actual grapes. Real grapes just weren't ... purple enough. And having spent days or weeks riding in a crate across a continent, whatever flavor they might have once have possessed had fled for the homeland long before those grapes got to me. Friends sometimes wonder why I never learned cooking from my mother. Let me tell you -- I did. But my mother, like so many others in America, cooks primarily Hamburger Helper, frozen pizzas, and chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs. It's not that she can't cook wonderful meals from scratch; it's that her time is so limited, she saves those meals for a special occasion.

For me, learning how to make meals 'from scratch' had to begin with something simple, something not too terribly different in taste from the processed, MSG-laced fare that awakens nostalgia for a freezer-pop and bologna roll-up youth. (I'm told that bologna roll-ups -- a slice of Oscar Mayer with ketchup in the middle, rolled up like a tiny burrito and eaten -- are unheard of outside of Pittsburgh. Anyone in the audience care to weigh in on that? We are the home of Heinz ketchup, you know.) And so one of my first adventures was homemade Hamburger Helper. After all, how difficult can that really be? It's a bunch of noodles, some ground beef, and a spice packet. If I could figure out what was in the spice packet, I'd be set. That's really the only processed part of the whole thing. Following the advice of Chickens in the Road, with a bag of egg noodles and a jug of milk in hand, I had soon created my own meal. It was cheaper than if I'd bought a cardboard box with all the ingredients measured out ahead of time and hardly a bit more work.

But then, of course, some of those recipes require actual ... well, you know ... produce. Stroganoff in the box comes with dried mushrooms. Our military commissary doesn't generally carry dried mushrooms, and the squishy wet canned kind I didn't think would agree well with the recipe. That left only one option. Armed with dark glasses, an upturned collar, and some backup, I plunged in.

"Mushrooms are over here," said my backup, pointing towards the end of the row.

"Shh! You're diminishing the scariness. This is supposed to be like a quest into the cave of death."

"Well, I figured we'd spend less time in the cave if you knew what things are where."

"Oh?" I countered, brandishing a leafy green something. "Then what's this?"

"Kale?" he offered tentatively. "Actually I have no idea."

At that very moment, a large busty woman burst out of the stocking room to our rescue. She positively identified the green in question as something other than kale, and patiently explained to us the reasoning behind the placement of vegetables according to their humidity requirements. When we joked that we needed to carry a field guide to vegetables, she steered us over to that very thing. A think binder, complete with color photographs, had sat waiting for us in the center of the produce section the entire time. It outlined what things were called, when and where they grow, what to check for when you pick them up, and what kinds of dishes they might accompany. A holy braille for the blind and uninitiated! Why hadn't we found this earlier? (They do, of course, make an actual Field Guide to Produce, if you're so inclined.)

Since Colorado farmer's markets don't open till June, we have all winter to learn what things are called and how to cook them. Knowing what you want to eat is, of course, the first step in learning what you want to grow. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, February 28, 2011

delight to rove uncontrolled in the woods

"The term "backwoodsman" itself emerged from a biased connotation. For those who still regarded England as the focal point of progress, the "backwoods" referred to the Appalachian range "behind" the eastern seaboard. On the other hand, for those who viewed the frontier as the new America, the woods served as the front line of change and the future. "Frontiersman," seemingly, was the positive counterpart.

[James Hall] found that the woodsman's delight to "rove uncontrolled in the woods," like the Indian, doomed him to the same sense of invasion of his "ancient heritage." Ultimately, it would also force the woodsman to defend himself from removal.

For the woodsman, the American pastoral was not one of cleared and tidy farms, but the wealth of the forests and its wildlife; the openness of the hills and hollows; the freedom of not seeing the smoke rise from the chimney of a neighbor; the wilderness and its natural ways that had been denied to the peasantry in Europe's conquered dominions.

"You English are very industrious," Birbeck quoted his woodsman neighbors, "but we have freedom."

-- Jeff Biggers, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland

Thursday, February 24, 2011

gas sipper

Who here owns a vehicle that gets upwards of 75 miles to the gallon?

A few days ago I took a basic rider course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. (It's required, and free, for Army soldiers who wish to ride on post.) In Colorado, like many other states, completing the written and skills portion of this course waives your need to take a separate test at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life, and in just two days, I became now a licensed motorcyclist. Plus, if you're military, you're required to take one before you ride, and so Uncle Sam covers the bill.

I admit I was a little intimidated. I wasn't sure if I'd even like riding, and figured taking the course would be an easy, safe way to find out. Speaking of safe, a few people -- you know, including my Dad -- kept telling me that motorcycles are unnecessarily dangerous. That's Dad Stuff, of course, reminding your progeny not to do things like run with scissors or ride around on two wheels. But the reality is that riding, like flying an airplane, has a little to do with luck and a lot more to do with skill and situational awareness. If you can "Be A Lert!" to what's happening around you, riding really has a low probably of killing you. Much lower than tangling with that two-year-old colt your cousin just dumped in your pasture. As the saying goes, the world needs more lerts.

Truthfully I've always wanted to learn to ride. I passionately despise Harleys. I'm not fond of college kids on crotch rockets. But little, old-school models like you see pictured above intrigue me. It's like a bicycle, except you can take it on the highway. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how perfectly practical it is. Like many of you, I have a day job that takes me off my homestead on a regular basis. My little truck still drinks in a whopping 17 mpg, and gas up here in the mountains is hovering near $3 a gallon. Any vehicle that can claim 50-75mpg, or more, deserves my attention for purely economic reasons.

And then there's the added bonus that it's a helluva good time.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

potatoes for breakfast

Who knew you could make a baked potato in the microwave?

Just turn the temperature setting down to about 1/3 of what you use usually. For mine, this is "medium low." Then cook for about six minutes for a medium-sized brown potato. (They're called "Irish potatoes" in Kenya, and never without the adjective, sort of like "French toast" here in the states.) Make sure you slice it in half or use a fork to prick holes in the skin so steam can escape. I wrap mine in a wet paper towel, because it's crazy dry up here and it keeps the skin from getting wrinkly. And that's it.

Potatoes are wicked cheap. A good change from the Ramen Noodles.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

a sound investment

Picked this patch up at NCOR back when I was in college. Still one of my favorite political slogans. Sadly, the National Conference on Organized Resistance seems to be no more.

Monday, February 21, 2011

new friends

I knew that anti-social cat couldn't resist irresistible puppy love for long.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spent is a poverty video game.

No, really. Imagine that you are one of the 14 million Americans who is unemployed. You lose your house and most of your savings. What will you do?

This website offers a click-through simulation, rather like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, of what it's like trying to make ends meet working a minimum wage job -- or not working at all. It's put on by the Urban Ministry of Durham, NC. Fascinating. Share it with your computer-savvy teenagers and everyone you know.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

earth mother

Crouched in the dirt, her sandals fill my vision. Thin, dainty straps crisscross above painted toes. She's singing softly, but her sandals have all of my attention. They belong with a fancy dress, worn for evening out in the city. They ought to be stepping out of a fancy powder blue convertible. They ought to be walking beside a gentleman who offers an ermine boa to match, and takes those sandals down to the opera house. I imagine one sandal cocked out into the air as she crosses her legs under her dress, her hair smoothed into the waves that became popular around the time of the War, when she was just out of high school; fine earrings, a hint of lipstick, like a moviestar. Such a beautiful, kind woman deserves to be taken out to all of the places where I imagine those sandals.

Instead, they step carefully among the rows of carrots and spearmint. I follow close behind. She moves my small hands from the budding vegetables to the weeds, without breaking her song for an explanation. I draw designs in the dirt with a stick, and reach up to brush the dirt from her marvelous sandals. She smooths the hair on the top of my head, smiling as she sings. When we reach the end of the row, a thorny patch of mixed berries pokes up from behind a green plastic barricade. Inside, raspberry bushes aren't quite ready for picking yet, but the strawberries are. She hands me one, and points at another that is just becoming ripe.

I put the whole thing into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully. So much juice and flavor. Tastes better than any candy treat, and has more meaning to me. I can't have strawberries all of the time, but only now, at this time of year, when they burst forth from their little green-fenced bed. And they didn't come from some far away place; they came from here. My grandmother grew them, on this patch of land behind the house her husband built, next door to the house she in which she was born.

As more years go by, it's almost painful to recall how much those days in the garden meant to me. At the time, the edible fruits of our labor wasn't important to me. I wish now that I'd spent more time learning what was planted when, and where, and how to care for it. But I will never forget the taste, and the songs I learned by osmosis, and the attention paid just to me, as we worked together in the dirt.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

grow lights

On the desk in the bedroom, level with an east-facing window, sits a tray of basil seeds in potting soil. I'm glaring at them as I type this, actually. You see, that's what they've done for the last five weeks -- sit. They mock me and my lack of gardening skill. It's like Eddie Izzard's Encore on Computers routine.
"I can't germinate because you've forgotten to give me something."
"What, what is it? I'll give it to you, I swear, if you'll just let me know what it is."
"Oh, no, I can't tell you."

I have a suspicion that what these seeds need most is probably sunlight. Tucked in between two mountain ridges, we only get sunlight from one direction -- east. And we only get it for about five hours on a winter day. Any one spot on the property probably only has sunlight for about thirty minutes. The dogs curse this as they get up to move from one tiny sunlit patch to another as it moves across the sky. You have to wait till 10 am for it to peek up over the northern ridge, then follow it patiently as it slinks across the canyon, before disappearing again over the southern ridge at around 3 in the afternoon. Which is why, although it might be a balmy 60 degrees down in the valley, up here my driveway is still packed with ice. I can sun myself on a rock for a short while in a T-shirt, but back inside the cabin, shaded by rocks and tall trees, the furnace must run to have any hope of coming close to that temperature.

Our fine state of Colorado legalized medical mary jane not too long ago, and as a result the countryside is spattered with little shops catering to the indoor grower. Knowing nothing about gardening save what little I recall from elementary school, I stopped by one afternoon. I own quite an impressive bookshelf on growing green things, and I've even read most of them -- it's just that most of it doesn't make sense to me. Bean sprouts can't meow or crow or nudge me when they haven't been fed or watered. They don't respond to their name, or to loud noises. In fact, plants in general often mystify me as to how they can be considered living things in the same category as ducks and termites. But I digress. Hoping for a little instruction, I let the young salesman give me his schpiel.

Unfortunately for him, it backfired. You mean to tell me that these fancy "grow lights" that start at $25 are basically the same thing as a shop light I could get from the hardware store for $6? They take the same bulbs? Blue light is better for sprouting, red light better for flowering, but you can get the effect of both if you just put a warm and a cool bulb together in a two-bulb shoplight? Who knew?

Maybe all my little basil seeds need is a little bit of light, after all.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

grass in the streets

"The great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy out farms, and grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."

-- Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan,
speaking at the Democratic National Convention of 1896
as quoted in Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness

Monday, February 14, 2011

tan your hide

I killed a fox a few weeks ago.

I think that killing predators is probably a reality of keeping livestock. We can debate the morality of it, but if you intend to raise animals for food or livelihood, protecting them from human and non-human invaders is just part of the package. I keep a shotgun by the door. One morning when the chickens and the dogs were all raising a ruckus, I had occasion to use it.

It took me over an hour to skin. I wanted the face -- the ears, the nose. The pieces that make it unmistakably fox. Working outside in the bitter cold, I decided that I didn't want the paws enough to spend another hour coaxing them out. But what to do with it now? The dogs showed no interest in eating it whatsoever, disturbed, perhaps, by a fellow canine. We ended up mixing some pieces of meat into a stew with other ingredients. I can't stand to waste it, even though the consensus of most of the people I've spoken with is that fox meat is for vultures, not for people, or even dogs.

Now I'm left with a very nice, thick red pelt. And I have to say, I've haven't yet figured out a method for tanning that I consider to be reliable. I'd rather experiment techniques with something less rare than a winter red fox. So for now, I've just salted it. This is the same method I used on a coyote skin about six years ago, and that skin seems to be holding up well. It has very little smell to it, and has not rotted. The only drawback to the salting is that it remains hard and brittle -- not something you'd want to make mittens out of. But for something that will probably just hang on the wall and look cool, like this fox, it's fine. Just make sure you use plenty of salt.

Friday, February 11, 2011

human-powered enterprise

"What are you humming?" I asked one morning. The sun was shining across the waters of Lake Victoria, and little children were chasing their donkeys laden with water kegs up the hill to the village of Wagusu, Kenya.

Eddy, my host in the village, looked up from the watermelons. He grinned shyly. "I am writing a song to my mother," he said. We were going to see her in a neighboring village later that afternoon. "When I am finished, I will write a song to your mother. She carried you for months so that you could come work with us today."

We had many such short-yet-profound conversations over the course of my stay, and even three years later I am still drawing meaning from many of them. Eddy, an ambitious young man about my own age, had done a lot of work to get his tiny village put on the map. He'd made partnerships with Africa Home Adventure and the Kenya Voluntary Community Development Project to bring foreign volunteers, and their funding, into projects he had helped pilot. I paid around $100 a week for one of the most rewarding "vacations" I'd ever had. Only a very small portion of that went to buy things needed to host me -- some soap and cooking oil, for the eggs and cabbages we harvested in the field ourselves -- and the rest went to fund a vocational-technical program for girls.

The vo-tech program consisted of a small adobe -- that's mud, you know -- building, fancy because it had a poured concrete floor. Inside were two treadle sewing machines. The girls received training in tailoring and could come here to take turns using the machines. Some were orphans; others provided support for elderly family members. All of them were excited to have access to this simple machine, which required no electricity and gave them an opportunity to start their own businesses. To become self-sufficient.

How strikingly different our versions of self-sufficiency seem on the surface. To me, it means being able to make enough of my own food and materials that I don't need to depend on products imported from far away and produced through practices with which I don't agree. To the ten-year-old girl who unobtrusively followed me through the watermelon fields, all it meant was a chance to turn a bolt of cloth into a garment, and make a few shillings to buy eggs for her ailing grandmother. She was just learning to write her name, and could recite a few phrases in English, but she was a fiend on the sewing machine. School academics were important, but distant -- sewing skill on the treadle was critical to survival and future.

We aren't so different, really, both bored by the study of things that don't produce immediate, tangible results. It's not that theory isn't interesting, it's just that it takes a backseat when there are so many other, more pressing things competing for attention. All this girl needed was the loan of enough money to buy her first bolt of cloth -- less than $5 -- to give her the hope that she needed to consider her ability to change her own future. A micro-microloan. What do you need to feel you have a bit of control over your destiny?

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Earlier this year, I decided it was time to buy a sewing machine.

But not just any machine. I had previously inherited a small electric model, which had finally reached the point of needing to be put out of its misery. The rubber coatings on the electrical cord had all dry rotted to dust. Metal innards had corroded to a fine grainy green. In short, it looked like it had been left all alone in a swamp for a couple of decades. "Maybe you can fix it," was the advice from my grantor.

But you can't fix such problems, at least not without a significant investment in research, time, and new parts. New sewing machines, like most consumer gadgets produced since I was born in the early 1980s, aren't designed to be fixed. They aren't designed to be repaired, tinkered with, or adjusted at all, actually -- they're designed to last just long enough for the warranty to run out, so you'll have enough faith in the product to go buy another one. Anne Leonard's The Story of Stuff video cleverly illustrates this idea of "planned obsolescence."

But of course, I don't need to tell you that they don't make 'em like they used to. I just want to remind you that the antique mall, flea market, and craigslist are all better ways of finding stuff you really need, that's still in reliable working shape, than heading off down to Big Box Mart. For me, this meant eyeing up the beautiful 1927 Singer Sewer you see above, rather than plunking down even more money on an electric machine that will probably need to be replaced before my unborn kids make it to elementary school.

Treadle machines aren't just a thing of beauty. They're extremely durable, easy to work on, easy to repair, and it's surprisingly easy to find -- or fabricate -- spare parts. Singer makes a strong effort for many, many of their modern parts to be interchangeable with all models of singer machines. That means that the bobbin for a sewer made in, say, 1918, is exactly the same bobbin you can find on the shelf of Big Box Mart designed to fit a modern electric machine. I read a craigslist post recently where a woman selling hers (for an exorbitant amount of money, as an "antique") noted that you can't sew on it any longer because you can no longer buy a belt for it. What utter nonsense! First of all, if you desire, you can still buy treadle belts. But when I bought mine, it didn't come with a belt, and I didn't bother to order one. I took out an old pair of leather boot laces and slapped them on, with a little bit of fiddle rosin to make them slip less. Done.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad back when I was driving my very first truck across the country alone. My air conditioner compressor exploded for no good reason one day in the mountains. I couldn't afford a new one, and really just wanted to get off the mountain and get home before I went looking for a used one. I'd called him to say how frustrated I was that Dodge didn't make this model of truck without an air conditioner. I figured I could just walk into the local NAPA, slap the short belt on that would skip the air conditioner's pulley, and be on my way, but no. "Well," came the reply, "Have you got a pair of pantyhose?" Of course. Why hadn't I thought of that? If the auto parts store didn't sell a belt of the length I needed, I could fabricate one on my own.

It's this kind of ingenuity that I fear is rapidly being lost. It worries me not just on a nostalgia level -- though I do believe everyone ought to be as self-sufficient as possible, just because -- but also on a security level. My soldiers can't fabricate parts they need and don't have. They wouldn't even know where to begin. They have a difficult enough time trying to maintain the equipment they're supposed to know how to repair. The throw-it-away-and-get-another mentality that has so thoroughly permeated our entire society has far, far-reaching consequences.