Friday, April 29, 2011

People pedal power

I am an ardent supporter of people powered transportation. Walking and biking are great exercise, plus they are easy on the planet.
I've been biking seriously since college. I got through the 5 years of my engineering degree with just a bike for personal transportation. Ames, IA had a great bus system, which made the decision even easier.
Now, I'm excited to share that passion with my family.
We bought Dave a bike with some of our tax return monies. A trailer for Rowen was also picked out. Helmets and water bottles too, of course.

I'd like to say that health and exercise and green living aided Dave in his decision, he maintains that he got a bike because I'm cute. :-D I guess I'll take what I get and not complain.
Thankfully everyone enjoyed our first family ride. Rowen really enjoyed helping to put the trailer together. He loves running around the house in his helmet, and while the first time getting in the trailer was a bit scary, by the time we'd gone a half a block, he was giggling maniacally. :-D Dave likes the freedom that the bike and trailer give him and Rowen. They can now easily make it to all corners of our small town, and can run some of the household errands without having to walk miles carrying Rowen and everything else.

Our little rural town is fairly bike friendly. There are some bike paths, not enough in my opinion, but some. Most are on one of the busier roads in town, and it's not a wide road to begin with, so sometimes it's just more pleasant to forgo the bike path and bike in the road one or two streets over. That's a fairly common problem though, and nothing I haven't dealt with before. Bike racks can be found at places like Walmart and the library, but not many can be found downtown. Again, a common failing, and nothing that's insurmountable.

There is a bike club in town. They meet weekly in the summer for a group ride and social hour following. It was a good place to meet new people last year, and I'm excited to introduce Dave and Rowen to the weekly ride. Hopefully they'll continue to enjoy the bikes, I know this Momma is enjoying having her family out with her for rides. :-)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Winter Food Storage Wrap Up

Recap: I was aiming to store veggies from November through the end of March.

Onions - I cut up my last storage onion on the 1st of April. So, that worked out really well.
Apples were also done by the 1st of April. As were Sweet Potatoes, and regular Potatoes. And by done, I mean, the last remnants were shriveled and not very edible, or in the case of the potatoes, ridiculously sprouted. I'll finish the garlic by the end of this month.

Lessons learned:
1) I have a pretty good handle on how much we currently eat of certain things. I wasn't way off on any of my figures.
2) We supplemented a lot with fresh citrus, from TX and FL. If that supply was ever cut off, for economic or weather or other reasons, I would need to increase the storage of the more local apples and preserved fruit.
3) I need to get black out curtains in that cellar. No question. The small amount of daylight through the windows was too much and potato sprouting was a huge problem. We lost 10 pounds of our red potatoes due to early sprouting.
4) Wrapping apples individually in newspaper worked well to stave off spoilage. Paper disappeared into the compost pile readily, and was free to begin with, so no wasted money there.
5) 1st of April worked for this experiment, but next year I should try to go to May, as we still had snow on the 1st of April, and there was nothing local to buy.
6) I still need to get more squash worked into our winter diet. We had a couple go bad before I got them cooked.
7) If I want to try for carrots I need to increase the humidity down in that room.
8) It never made it down the recommended 40 degrees F, it hovered around mid 50's, and that still seemed to be ok.
9) In ground storage of parsnips worked REALLY well.

In terms of money, I think we probably saved a bit of cash. Storing the free apples, free garlic, cheap onions, cheap potatoes and cheap squash certainly saved us a lot of money, but that was offset by the loss of 10 pounds of store bought potatoes that sprouted before we could eat them.

Overall, as a starting foray into the world of winter cold storage, I thought this experiment was a success. I have some areas to improve in, I had some successes and I learned a bit.

Anybody else have any lessons learned from this winter?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Snow tonight

Well, I finally finished the previous post. It took me 10 days, so I hope y'all like it. There was a lot of slogging through agriculture reports and organizing it into something (hopefully) coherent. For posts like that one I do try to include sources as much as possible. One thing the internet excels at is providing a platform for anybody to write anything they want, and sometimes it's hard to filter out the nut-job opinions from the fact-based theories. So, if you are curious about any of the statements in that post, feel free to follow the links and make your own opinions. I do try to make the post sturdy enough to stand on it's own without the reader having to review all of the source material first. It's hard to gauge that sometimes, so if you have feedback, I'm very receptive to that.

Looking ahead in blog land, spring is usually a hectic time for me and this year is no exception. But, I've got a couple of hefty posts like the last one I'm slowing working on, as well as a wrap up of the winter food storage experiment that's a bit overdue. Mixed in will be my 200th post!!!! As well as updates for my extended family who probably only read my blog for those posted pictures of the cute grandbaby.

As the title suggests, we have snow forecasted for tonight. boooooo. The Dakotas have a foot of the white stuff in some places, and parts of Nebraska are under a blizzard warning. I've got seeds in the ground (peas and greens so far,) as well as potatoes and onions. The garlic is 4 inches tall! I'll review my books this evening and drape my garden blanket over part of the garden tonight. Right now I'm thinking the potatoes will be most in need of snow protection, as the greens are in the cold frame and the garlic can take the cold. If I change my mind, I'll let y'all know. :-D

Easter frosts are a grower's worst nightmare. A few years ago we suffered through an Easter Blizzard here in Iowa. These hard late frosts can do a lot of damage, not only to tender sprouting seedlings, but to fruit trees and perennials as well. So, it's always a tricky dance to get seeds in early enough that they have time to mature properly, but not so early as to be damaged by hard late frosts. Tricks and tools like my cold frame, and garden blanket, as well as mulches and floating row cover can help mitigate a lot of the damage. They do take some trial and error, but I find they are very useful.

I'm hopeful that we're spared the worst of this storm, but there's no way to tell. Spring weather here in NW Iowa is very active. We had 70's last week, which brewed up quite the storm, and spawned tornadoes just 30 minutes SE of us. We had the wind and the hail, but thankfully no tornadoes. Lots more wind and rain this week, and now snow. Gardening here is not for the faint of heart. Really, even living here keeps us on our toes. I was in bed fully dressed, listening to that hail last weekend. I knew exactly what a storm like that could produce and I had the baby in bed with me, and the emergency kits ready for a dash to the basement. I knew we were prepared though, which spared me the worst of the worrying.

Pictures out of the tornado flattened town, just serve to remind me of the very stark realities that my emergency prepping is designed to handle. Mapleton residents had 10 minutes warning before the tornado flattened 50% of their town.

This snow storm that's headed our way is full of the heavy wet snow that loves to collect on tree branches and bring down power lines. Just West of us in Nebraska, power went down in several place overnight. That could just as easily be us, and we're certainly not out of the woods yet.

Anyway. Back to the happy spring gardening news.
My flat of tomatoes and peppers has pretty little sprouts up in most of the cells. A promising beginning, hopefully I'll keep enough of them alive to donate some seedlings to the plant sale that my Garden Club hosts. I'd also like to have enough on hand to donate to neighborhood children that want a plant to grow. There are a few who have a small green thumb, and their parents are kind enough to let them grow a little patch garden.

I'm having a bit of a problem with damping off in my new little greenhouse. Mostly I think, because of the restricted airflow in there. Once all the little seeds sprout, I think I'll try rolling up the door to allow more airflow. Hopefully the baby and cat won't take that as an invitation to create havoc in there.

As soon as the weather calms down I'll be putting the flats outside in the hardening off area that Dave and Rowen put together for me. (It's a big window from my parents, propped against the house in the sun.) That will help keep the damping off to a minimum I think.

Big O, little o, What begins with O?

Organic starts with O. But what kinds of things get sold under that label? Does is mean what consumers want it to mean? In short, no.

It has come to my attention lately that there are two different organics in today's marketplace. The big O Organics, and the small o organics. I would like to address the habit of using the word organic to discuss both of them, and how different the two really are. I'll also touch on the debate between organics and industrial farming feeding the world.

You walk into Trader Joes, you buy some fair trade coffee, some frozen organic pizzas and a couple of pounds of organic apples. Big O or little o? Definitely Big O.
Trader Joe's is a supermarket chain specializing in organic, vegetarian, and alternative foods with hundreds of locations throughout the United States, centered in organic-happy Southern California. Shoppers appreciate its image of healthful food in a small-business family atmosphere. Really? In 2005 alone, Trader Joe's racked up sales estimated at $4.5 billion. The company is owned by a family trust set up by German billionaire Theo Albrecht, ranked the 22nd richest man in the world by Forbes in 2004. He's the co-founder and CEO of German multi-national ALDI, with global revenue in grocery sales at $37 billion. -Skeptoid **
There are a lot of big names vying for the organic dollars, Organic Valley Co-op, Stonyfield Farms, Horizon milk, and Whole Foods Market are just some of them. Buyer beware, they are big corporations, with big corporation interests and they may not share your ideals about food or food safety.

It's mid-winter, you're craving strawberries and your grocery store has organic strawberries in the produce aisle. Organic how? Grown, more than likely, in a greenhouse, supplemented with light and heat, then trucked in. Or flown in possibly from South America. Neither of these is in any way better for the planet. This is another big O product.

So what's a little o product? What makes something organic, in the way that most people want? Organics that enrich our planet, organics that help small farmers and foster local food growth. That type of organic is much closer in definition to words like "sustainable" and "local." To find (and eat) that kind of organic, you can't fall for the corporate green washing. You can't take the shortcuts. You have to become the kind of consumer that carves time out of their week to shop at farmers markets. Making things from scratch and buying the scratch from local producers, or growing it yourself, are the best ways to make sure you're eating real organic food that nourishes your family and the planet.

Oh, but Jennie, you're being an idealistic hippy again, there's no way we can feed the planet with organic methods, we need to keep pushing the Green Revolution and monocrops or people will starve. (Sorry, Dad, but yea, this is me parroting you.)

The Green Revolution seems like a good idea. Let's grow corn in Iowa where it grows well, let's grow 80% of the veggies in California where they have the cheap labor to harvest it and mild weather to grow it year round, and wheat in Kansas, then we'll just ship all of it around the country to where it needs to be after harvest. Yea, that model worked really really well, with one caveat. It worked well with cheap oil. Surely I don't have to spell out what's changing now. Surely I don't have to convince you that cheap oil is never coming back. Let's look at how much oil that "ship it around the country" part uses. (The pic is a little small, but oil is the big green line. Click on the source link to see it in full glory.)


Let's look at what the Green Revolution promises, " the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries." I know, it sounds like a great idea, but the part they don't mention is that modern farming techniques include a delightful array of poisons, and petroleum derived fertilizers. (Petroleum being that oil thing that keeps getting so expensive.) Modern farming techniques do a few things really well. They destroy soils. They contaminate water ways. They keep petroleum companies flush with cash, as well as the big boys in seed genetics. None of those is something poor countries in need of food should be importing to their agriculture traditions.

Since the start of the Green Revolution the US has lost around 1/3rd of it's top soil. Iowa alone loses 10-15 tons/acre/year. (Where does it go? Hint, the soil, along with the fertilizers it contains, go straight to the Gulf of Mexico where they contributes to the Dead Zone.)
Those pesticide poisons are no picnic either, did you know 300,000 farm workers are poisoned every year in the US from pesticide exposure? These pesticides keep growing stronger, because insects evolve to resist, and we keep applying more and more, AND YET crop losses from insects continue to rise. Herbicides create the exact same problem with superweeds evolving to resist the poisons, requiring higher and higher application rates.
(sources: "World Hunger - Twelve Myths" Frances Lappe. I know, how old fashioned, a book.
Rodale report last year)

Let's explore the other side of this for a minute. Organic methods (little o here, we're talking manure fertilizer and diverse crop rotations) actually build soil by retaining organic matter and soil nitrogen. This better soil then goes on to provide increased protection against drought. This is not hippy wishful thinking either. This is a 27 year study. Side by side field trials, often in collaboration with the USDA. (check it out.) Solid scientific data that clearly says we need to quit with the short sighted Green Revolution and move to methods that perform better, with less inputs. The UN even agrees, (for what that's worth.) In a recent report, they conclude,
Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously ... Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.
And just last month that same agency released an advance copy of a report called "Agriculture: Investing in Natural Capital." It amounts to a blistering assault on the agribusiness-as-usual model. It succinctly names the main problems with the goal of spreading U.S.-style industrial agriculture to the global south:

Conventional/industrial agriculture is energy- and input-intensive. Its high productivity relies on the extensive use of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fuel, water, and continuous new investment (e.g. in advanced seed varieties and machinery).

In place of the industrial model, the report calls for what it terms "green agriculture," characterized by low-tech, high-skilled methods like "restoring and enhancing soil fertility through the increased use of naturally and sustainably produced nutrient inputs; diversified crop rotations; and livestock and crop integration."

It's time we stopped supporting the Green Revolution, it's time for ag subsidies to end. It's time for small o producers to get the support and recognition they deserve. Most of all it's time to stop falling for the big O green washing. Organic doesn't have to mean expensive, it doesn't have to mean increased deforestation and it certainly doesn't have to mean switching one poisonous chemical for another slightly less poisonous one. Little o organics are cheap as dirt, bursting with local flavor, low in petroleum costs and great for the environment.

**More on that skeptoid article. First off, it's a little old, it's more than 4 years old, which is a bit too out of date for my tastes, I reference it only because someone I respect emailed it to me. Further more, I completely disagree with some of the statement contained in it. Namely the following bit;
Some supporters of organic growing claim that the danger of non-organic food lies in the residues of chemical pesticides. This claim is even more ridiculous: Since the organic pesticides and fungicides are less efficient than their modern synthetic counterparts, up to seven times as much of it must be used. Organic pesticides include rotenone, which has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and is a natural poison used in hunting by some native tribes; pyrethrum, which is carcinogenic; sabadilla, which is highly toxic to honeybees; and fermented urine, which I don't want on my food whether it causes any diseases or not.
The authors squeamishness over humanure as a fertilizer is laughable considering he spent considerable time lambasting the logical absurdities of others and pointing towards solutions that have decades of study to back them up. Urine is sterile, very few diseases can transmit through urine. The few that can, are not going to survive fermentation. He talks about solutions with decades of track record, urine has been used as a fertilizer since ANCIENT times. That's a heck of a track record. Why on earth do we flush perfectly good liquid ammonia down the pipes, then turn around and pay out the nose for synthetic versions of it? Utter foolishness. Further more, small o organic farming uses complex systems to minimize the need for inputs. Chemicals like rotenone and sbadilla, while possibly organic in the big O use of the word, are not used by any of the organic growers I know. Those could be held up as a sign, "Organic, you're doing it wrong."

More from that skeptoid article
Organic farming produces less food, and requires more acreage. Many so-called environmentalists generally favor organic farming, at the same time that they protest deforestation to make room for more agriculture. How do they reconcile these directly conflicting views? If you want to feed a growing population, you cannot do both, and soon won't be able to do either.
Here I feel the out-of-date is showing clearly. You can't take a monocropped field of something, switch the type of chemicals you use (to organic versions) and then make claims about production. That's the big O way of looking at things. The little o way of looking at things is to grow a variety of locally adapted crops that coexist harmoniously and in some case help one another out. This decrease the amount of land and the amount of intervention (chemicals) that you have to use. Additional tools in the little o belt are things like varieties that are adapted to local pressures, planting practices that are hand based rather than machine based and selling to markets that are local. Local varieties that are adapted to local pests/diseases will lower the chemical/petroleum-based inputs needed. Marketing to locals means the crops don't have to survive a long commute, or survive a long display in a grocery store, meaning more freedom for the aforementioned variety selection.

Planting and growing and harvesting practices that are human based instead of machine based is how we "so-called environmentalists" reconcile those views. But wait, isn't that inefficient? Well, it depends on what you're measuring. In terms of human-hours, sure, maybe. But let's look at the realities of modern times, petroleum prices are rising fast, and so are the numbers of unemployed. In my mind it makes more sense to use the solutions that could put more people to work and put less money in the hands of OPEC. Giant fields of one vegetable harvested by a guy in a large machine (powered by petroleum), is not the way to go anymore.

And more over, a lot of the slash and burn ag that goes on is for things like palm oil production, which is used heavily in big O processed foods and beauty products. Or to grow corn for animal feed. Very rarely is rainforest cut down to grow food that locals will be eating.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Syrup thoughts

I have 3 or 4 posts that are sitting half-written in my blogger dashboard. :-) Too many thoughts all trying to escape at once. Hopefully this weekend will yield some time where I can sit down and hammer a couple of those into completion. Hopefully they're worth the wait. :-D

To keep my readers amused, here's a fluffy post full of spring thoughts and kids and cake.

Rowen turned two last week. TWO. Man is that weird. I'm sure my mother is laughing at me, but it's weird. Here's the mandatory toddler + cake picture.We went down to Des Moines, blessed by friends that were willing to open their house to us and my parents and a whole gaggle of friends. Thanks Brian and Mel! (Pictures are in the mail for y'all.) New friendships were made. The picture below is my niece, (my brother's daughter) and my best friend Becky's son, those two were inseparable.
And a group shot of all the kiddos. I remember holding all of them as babies, and they're all growing up so fast. These shots were from the Botanical Center. They all had a blast running around in the sunshine and warmth, looking at the plants and fishes and turtles.

I have happy news on the garden front! The garlic chives that I was worrying about have put up strong spring shoots. Yay!!! I'm glad I gave them another couple of weeks. The rhubarb had leaves out of their protective covers this morning. Looking all squished and brainy, I love rhubarb, even when it's a baby plant.
Garlic bulbs are coming up in full force. I've got 3 of the 4 rows showing strong shoots, I'm anxiously awaiting signs from the lagging bulbs. There's rain and warmth forecasted for the next few days, hopefully that will spur some on.
Potatoes are all planted, snugly in their hills. We're trying a new variety this year, Kenebec. And an old favorite, Yukon Gold. Hopefully I'll have the time to try again with the True Potato Seed experiment.

Spring in our new place. I'm struck by the urge to tap our Crimson Maple tree for syrup. I read this month that Sugar Maples aren't the only tree you can make syrup from. People make syrup from all kinds of maple trees as well as Birch trees. So, my goal for this year is to confidently identify all the trees in our yard and research their saps. We eat a lot of maple syrup, and it would be awesome to get some from our own trees.

I hope spring is blooming where you are. :-)