Tuesday, July 31, 2012

WEED Something...You'll Feel Better

Weeding may be the single-most important activity in the garden.

You can have the most amazing varieties of plants…astounding soil fertility…the most awesome irrigation system…and a sure-fire marketing strategy…but, if the weeds take over…

                                         …it was all for naught.

Simply stated, weeds are just plants that grow where they are not wanted. 

Sometimes they are noxious, invasive species that are not indigenous and seem to have some superpowers to grow despite drought, flood, hail and any other natural disaster. Since they’ll grow in all sorts of conditions, they provide a perfect environment for insects that can decimate vegetable crops. These types of plants have caused some farmers to embrace drastic measures and were the impetus for widespread herbicide usage.

I suppose in a perfect world, there would be no weeds.  But, just in case you haven’t noticed, this is NOT a perfect world. 

This year we have had the perfect weather for the perfect weed crop.  Warm, wet, early spring followed by a warmer, wetter summer.  The weeds are stupendous!  Unfortunately, we don’t make our living growing weeds. I would like to say that some weeds are quite tasty and very nutritious.  But, it is very hard to sell something for profit that people routinely pull out of their lawns!

A lot of folks figure that in order to grow crops, you must eradicate ALL weeds.  Those same folks figure that farmers spray all kinds of glop to get rid of said weeds. Nothing could be further from the truth here on the hill. While it might not be the perfect solution, we have reached some sort of truce with the weeds and manage to co-exist with a fair number of them.  As a matter of fact, there is a great deal of nutrition, for animal and man alike, in some of the plants that we disparagingly refer to as weeds. Our pastures are a mix of a lot of broad-leafed weeds and various grasses and clover. We have feasted on lambsquarters and dandelions more than once.

As of today, there are no herbicides approved for use in the “Organic” world.  Although, this year was the first year that the NOSB actually considered adding one to the list of approved products.

Personally, I don’t like herbicides….and yes, I have actually applied Roundup over the years.  For the record, never to crop producing areas! (promise)  But, herbicides take a while to take effect, and then you have this dying, brown mess that can’t be fed to the animals, and shouldn’t be put in the compost pile.  It just looks so messy!  YUCK

Weeding is the answer!  Weeding is therapeutic, effective, and provides a much appreciated treat for the chickens. It is one activity that requires no specialized tools…just a basic knowledge of “good plants/bad plants” and a little bit of persistence. Unlike cleaning house (which I admit I don’t really enjoy) there is little chance of the freshly weeded garden being soiled by dirty footprints or inadvertent spillages or other unpredicted disasters.  Generally, you get at least a couple of days before the persistent little weeds start popping up again.  There is something satisfying and attractive about a freshly weeded garden.

It is vitally important to the crop to be at least somewhat weed-free.  Weeds soak up the essential moisture and nutrients from the soil.  The weeds cut down on air circulation for the crop plants, smothering them or holding in too much moisture and allowing disease to flourish.  In some cases, the crucial pollinators cannot reach the blossoms of the crop because of weed pressure, thus limiting or destroying the yield potential.

A few minutes (more like HOURS) of intense effort and the garden is tidy, the crops well-cared for and the chickens’ appetites satisfied.

                                         I feel better already!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Father....Forgive ME....

I have a confession to make…

                      This is a big one…

                                        you may be shocked to learn that…

                                            Sometimes, I HATE summertime!   

Now, I realize that many other producers may understand my statement…but, I dare say no one else will.

How could I dislike, much less HATE, the warm, beautiful summer time when the “living is easy” and gorgeous, delicious food is ever abundant?  What on earth could I be thinking?  Isn’t this the time when I make the majority of my income?  Am I not the one who is always saying how much L-O-V-E what I do for a living? Have I suddenly lost my mind?

                Yeah, yeah, yeah…

But, there are times when it is SO HOT!  The weeds are SO TALL!  There are SO MANY bugs…eating EVERYTHING! There are far too many zucchini, tomatoes, onions, or whatever multiplying on the kitchen table, counter…for that matter…any flat surface all over the house.  I need to can, freeze, and preserve countless things.  There are seeds to sow, seedlings to plant, animals to process, crops to check, vegetables to harvest, and countless meals to prepare. The "to-do" list multiplies exponentially on a daily basis.I can't seem to keep up with the housework, laundry, and farm paperwork. Then, there are the complete and utter crop failures. It either rains TOO much or NOT AT ALL!  There are news reports of dire weather events elsewhere in the world that we know will affect prices, sales or availability in the upcoming months.  I’m tired…oh, so tired. Did I mention it’s HOT?!?  The animals are complaining, panting, or acting “off” due to weather related issues. And due to said weather issues, the power has been out THREE times this week alone. There are familial, community and Market “issues” weighing on my mind and/or heart. Add to that, I need to be thinking ahead and planning for Fall, Winter…and quite honestly…NEXT SPRING!

Gee…and this is when the living is “easy”? Seriously?             
                                                                                I need a break!

Any farmer/producer must admit that summer is not the “easy livin’ ” time that is often portrayed by Madison Avenue and the movies.  Vacations and farm life just do NOT mix. That old saying “make hay while the sun shines” means that during the warm months of summer, there is oh, so very much work to be done.  Sometimes, the amount of work seems insurmountable and more than a little overwhelming. There is an internal pressure to work harder, faster because there is a limited window of opportunity for accomplishment and success.

Mid-to late-July occasionally finds me wishing I had indeed followed some other line of work.  You know, I really could have done something else.  A little consideration only proves discouraging…if I had followed that opportunity long, long ago…I might be retiring soon…with benefits galore.  Why…I might be cruising the high seas!  The Boss and I might be tooling around the country in some big RV…visiting Farmers’ Markets across the nation…maybe around the world.  (….oh never mind…that actually sounds like some sort of hell on earth...or at the very least purgatory!)

Some years, the summer doldrums hit far harder than others.  This year seems especially bad.  Maybe it was the Derecho.  We are now seeing the far reaching effects of the wind, the heat and the 5 day power outage. (It is not pretty) The continued high temperatures and torrential rains haven’t helped much.  Maybe it is that last year seemed SO incredibly awesome.  (Last year seemed so great because the year before was quite possibly the worst of our lives…take that back…it WAS the worst year of our lives)  I haven’t felt quite so overwhelmed since the first year of living here on the hill. That first year, the learning curve seemed almost insurmountable as we shifted growing zones AND lifestyles. Talk about failures…frustrations…and tears…   That situation was one I hope to NEVER repeat!

 I’ve been hot and tired and the number of crop failures continues to mount.  While it’s not a pretty picture of farming, living, or even coping…there have been a number of times when I have just wanted to cry this year. (and okay,I admit it… I did) The bugs have beaten me on more than one occasion, freakish weather wiped out more than one “sure thing” crop, and we have experienced some things this year that we never have in the past. For the record…there are no “do-overs” in farming.  Often you get ONE shot at a project until next year.  I suppose we should just look at all of it as a learning experience.

As a farmer, it is hard to admit to the fact that sometimes I falter….sometimes I fail…and sometimes, just sometimes…I really want to give up! (Farmers should be tough, resilient and capable) It would be nice to find something easy…something fun…something that pays the BIG bucks.  And, then I find myself feeling slightly ashamed, somewhat apologetic and more than a little embarrassed.  Because, I really love what I do!...despite the frustrations, the hard work, and the small return on investment. I really do.  I love this life and all of its ups and downs. That is when I feel as if a confession is in order.

The truth of the matter is just this…Farming is hard work with absolutely NO guarantees! You can give it your best shot, work to your utmost ability, only to have the weather, a twist of fate or a glitch in the market defy you.  It is only through an enormous amount of faith and fortitude that any farm can continue to survive.  Farmers are said to have the most faith…of any profession…of any group of folks on earth.  I really think that is true. Sometimes, like this year, I can attest to the truth of that statement.

If it wasn’t for farmers…and their faith…and fortitude…we would all be cold, naked and very hungry.  I count myself privileged to number among the farmers/ranchers and other folks who make their living in agriculture in this country. It is an awesome feeling to know that you are an integral part (however small) in the food supply.

                     It’s just the "mid-summer doldrums" talking…


Wednesday, July 25, 2012



How do YOU say it?

There are quite possibly as many ways to say T-O-M-A-T-O as there are varieties.  Well, perhaps that is an overstatement…there are entire catalogs/companies devoted to the red/green/yellow/black/striped fruit. Yes, I did say FRUIT! The tomato is botanically classified as a fruit, no matter what you may think, nor how it is used in nearly every cuisine throughout the world.

The tomato is without a doubt the most eagerly anticipated harvest from the garden.  The round, red things in the grocery just cannot compare to a field-raised, vine-ripened, heirloom tomato.  The complex blend of sweet/acidic taste and fruity undertones is hard to describe and even harder to resist. Summer without a tomato sandwich is like…well,...it just wouldn’t be right.

We’ve been growing our own tomatoes for a very long time.  We’ve experimented with all sorts and colors and every year we think we may have found the “ultimate” tomato.  …and then we try a new one…

The Boss likes the BIG pink/red ones with low acidity
and few seeds. 

I am partial to the bi-colors with their
gorgeous colors and fruity taste.
Paste tomatoes are essential for good
sauces and salsa.

A quick word about heirloom tomatoes…these varieties are old, in some cases dating prior to the War Between the States (the Civil War). Unlike hybrids, the heirlooms will grow true to variety if the seeds are saved from year to year.

Growing tomatoes from seed gives us the opportunity to try varieties that are different and somewhat unusual. It also means that we’ve been thinking about tomatoes for MONTHS before we ever get to harvest time. 

We start our tomato seeds in March in the greenhouse.  They are babied along and then put in larger pots sometime in April.  They finally go into the garden about the end of May. (you have heard my stories of COLD and FROSTY Springs here in the Valley).

Once they are in the garden, they are trellised and mulched. (confession time…mulching didn’t happen this year…really don’t know what happened) During the growing season, we tie the plants to the trellis several times.  This allows good air circulation to the plant, thus preventing disease.  It also makes things somewhat tidy and keeps the tomatoes off the ground. The mulch (when it happens) keeps the weed pressure at a minimum and the moisture down at the roots of the plants.

When the weather is warm and humid, (this is summer…so, that means on a near weekly basis) we apply copper to the plants.  This inhibits fungal diseases, allowing the plants to thrive. Pests among tomatoes are relatively few, giving us something for which to be truly grateful.

Sometime in July, we see the first signs of ripening.  Soon, we are inundated with tomatoes.  It’s time to take the most gorgeous specimens to the Market, have a LOT of tomato sandwiches, and make tomato sauce, pizza sauce, salsa and canned tomatoes. If things work out right, there will be frozen tomatoes and dried tomatoes for Winter Sales. For a short while, tomatoes will grace our table at nearly every meal.

All too quickly, about the time of the first frost in September/October, the vine-ripened, heirloom tomatoes disappear from the garden and the menu once more.      …and the anticipation of the next year’s bounty begins.

For those of you wondering how I say T-O-M-A-T-O... take a look at this!

 …and yes, I know, now you are wondering if I really sound  like Larry the Cable Guy…
                                                     ...well, maybe just a little. J

Monday, July 23, 2012

It's Raining...It's Pouring...

This is JULY?


July generally marks the point in the summer where we are desperately…and I do mean DESPERATELY…praying for rain.  When the sheep run down to the feeders, it is in a swirling cloud of blinding dust.  There is absolutely NOTHING green around the henhouse---absolutely nothing! When we look at the gardens, it is with a distinct plan of what is in most dire need of irrigation.  July is generally, DRY….DRY…DRY.

This year is different.  Very different.  While all our friends in surrounding areas are praying for rain and complaining about drought, we have been wondering if we somehow became our generation’s “NOAH”.  We are actually slogging through MUD while many of our “neighbors” are worried, really worried, about the lack of rain. Further afield, the Midwest is in the midst of what could be an historic drought of dire proportion. That could adversely affect the rest of the nation.

Folks at the Market have been asking about rain for quite some time now.  “Guess you’re glad to see this rain, huh?”  That was the gist of the conversation for the past two weeks. At first, I played along, thinking perhaps I had missed something along the way….and knowing that you never, ever complain about rain.

However, as we began to really listen to our friends and “neighbors”, it became evident that we were the only ones getting regular and measurable rainfall.  Since our early days in the Valley, rainfall has been dutifully noted on the calendar.  I realize there are newer ways to keep track of such things. There is probably an app for my phone, but we keep track of precipitation the old-fashioned way. We have pretty accurate rainfall records for the past fifteen years.  I knew we weren’t dry…not by any stretch of the imagination.

In some ways, it is easier to attempt to counter drought than it is to attempt to circumnavigate flooding.  One can always irrigate in the dry stretches, but there is no way to protect from the ill effects of TOO much rainfall. Hard, heavy rain beats the plants into the ground, allows for the spread of disease and damages the growing vegetables.

So, while nearly everyone we know is saying “oh, my…it’s so dry…I just blew the dust off those taters when I dug ‘em!”  or…”it’s so dry…my garden’s not doin’ a thing…just sittin’ there…waitin’ for a rain!”…we’ve been slogging through mud, fighting parasites among the sheep, and trying to keep the mold and mildew from being an issue in our field crops. We haven’t had a July like this in quite some time.
The arrow shows our location...

Today, if it had not been for radar, we would have figured that the entire Valley was being deluged.  We certainly were!  However, a check of the weather page revealed that we were the only area of the county to be getting the rain…complete with lightning and a RAINBOW!  An inch and 5/8’s later, and the storm finally dissipated. The whole thing lasted under an hour. Oddly, it formed almost directly over the farm and dissolved just slightly east of us.  That may have been the most localized storm I have ever witnessed.

The wet weather has certainly put a damper on our plans for the week.  The planting, cultivating, harvesting may all have to be postponed due to wetness.  While that is highly unusual for this time of year, it’s not completely abnormal.  So, we’ll just improvise and move on.

                                   …and never, ever complain about the rain!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Random Act

Living “out here”, you learn that you should wave at oncoming traffic.  I mean, you just never know when family or friends may be headed in the opposite direction.  So…you wave!  You wave at everyone.  If you don’t, someone will take you to task.  (Particularly my kids!) Yeah, I’m serious.

Prior to our move to the Valley, I was driving our pickup southbound toward my folks’ house.  My mother and daughters were riding along and we were all talking.  Soon, it became obvious that every passing pickup driver was waving at me.  As I hesitantly waved back, I asked my mother, “WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE….do they ALL know you?”

“Oh, I don’t know why they all do that” she said.  “I really don’t like it!” My mother has lived the majority of her life in the country and yet still refers to herself as a “city girl”, so she’s not the person to ask such pressing questions. Honestly, I should have known better. Acceptance and assimilation are not among her finer points.

I began waving back, just because it seemed like the thing to do. It made me feel kind of good…like I belonged.  Later, a friend told me that the “driver-to-driver greeting” as she called it was just expected as you passed anyone, everyone on a two-lane road. So, if I’m driving…I wave.  Howdy!

I’ve done this so long that I rarely give it any thought anymore.  Any passing vehicle gets a little two-fingered salute off the top of the steering wheel.  Those folks that I consider close friends get a little more personal wave…a little finger waggle.  It is kind of amusing to watch those unfamiliar with the tradition look askance as they drive by.

Since a lot of other folks wave as well, it no longer seems out of the ordinary. I love where I live and by default, share a common bond with a great number of my fellow residents.  When we see a friend or close acquaintance on the side of the road working, we will toot the horn and wave out the window.  Anything less is considered kind of rude.

 “Oh…there’s Mr.H workin’ in his tomatoes!”  beep beep!  HEY, Bob!

Lester and Judy sittin’ on the front porch….”Hey, y’all…what’s goin’ on?”

Sam’s workin’ cows….beep, beep….WAVE!

RG’s plantin’ corn…BEEEEEP!

Hey, here comes a tractor/harvester/haywagon….WAVE!WAVE!

Beep, Beep!  Hey, Eddie!  That fence is lookin’ GOOD!

Generally, as I am driving around the county, I am so very happy to be living here, working here...  I wave at everyone, even those I don’t know personally.

There is a little house at the edge of M’brook where a little old man sits out in a lawn chair on a regular basis.  He always waves…and I always wave back.

I have never given him a whole lot of thought.   Well, I have always wondered a little about his story, but, then I drive on, intent on doing my next errand. He’s just part of the scenery, something I count on seeing on my way to town and back.

Saturday morning, as I drove to Market, he was getting his mail.  He gave me the two fingered “peace” sign as I drove by. That memory made me chuckle all day long.

As I headed home from my “town trip”, traffic was completely stopped due to the VDOT guys working to clean up the leftover Derecho mess along the side of the road. They were chipping up branches and brush and had completely stopped traffic. It was nearly lunchtime, and they were working toward their stopping point.

As the northbound traffic began to pass, a dilapidated, old pickup flagged me down.

“Hey, there sweet lady!”  It was the old, old man from the outskirts of town. As he pulled his truck close to ours, I could see that he was far older than I had thought, the effects of age and weather creased his face. “I see you drivin’ by almost every day” he said “and you always wave!  The others don’t.  Who are you?” The evidence of a past stroke slowed his speech and made conversation somewhat laborious.

We sat there and exchanged pleasantries while stopped in the middle of M’brook Road.

It occurred to me that I’ve become one of the “old folks”.  With the mindset of a slower time, some of the older folks will stop and talk in the middle of the road if the mood strikes.  It is not too unusual to come to an intersection where two old boys driving equally old pickups are catching up on neighborhood news. They slowly move out of the way for passing traffic and generally go back to their conversation with a nod and a wave the moving vehicle.

Turns out that my newfound friend is indeed quite ancient and in somewhat failing health. He lives alone and really, really appreciates the waves. But, as he said "he's gettin' along alright".

“Waaallll, I want to tell you I really appreciate ya, honey…” he said  ”….and I LOVE YOU!  You have a nice day!” his old voice wavered a little as he waved out the window as he drove on toward town.

I was stunned...I nearly cried.  I mean…who would have thought? 

                      A wave?

Is that really all it took to touch the lonely heart of another human being?  Wow.

…you better know from now on I am going to wave at every person I ever see!

                           Hey, Neighbor!!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Here's Lookin' at YOU, Kid

Last week, there was a very small praying mantis that hung out on the front porch for days. He/she wasn’t easily frightened and seemed to be finding things to eat in a tiny spider web under the porch railing. As a predatory insect, it is quite possible that he/she ATE the spider!   I found that he/she was also incredibly photogenic. When I posted a picture of the tiny creature, it got more hits than anything else I have ever posted on Facebook.  Go figure!

I think I have always thought that praying mantises were fascinating creatures.  This may be due to the fact that when I was quite small we ended up with a huge number INSIDE the house.  I don’t remember the details of the event other than my mother had somewhat inadvertently brought an eggcase into the house.  She enjoyed bringing bits of nature inside and spray-painting them gold. I assume the eggcase was attached to one of those “bits of nature”.  Apparently conditions were just right, or it sat there too long, but one day the baby mantises were all over the dark dungeon of a laundry room.  It seemed as if there were millions…and each was only about a ¼ to ½ inch in length.  In the dim fluorescent light against the darkness of the basement, they truly seemed some tiny, glowing alien invasion.  I don’t remember what happened to them.  But, I can assure you, there were no more praying mantises in the house!

The praying mantis is a truly predatory insect. This means that it only eats insects that it has caught.  It will also eat its young, other mantises…and the end result of copulation is the eating of the male.  Oops, I guess you really didn't want to know THAT!   I guess human beings do not have the edge on family dysfunction.

There are many species of mantids around the globe, each adapting to its environment in specialized ways.  There are few other insects that they will not eat.  However, it seems that ants are too tough to eat. Some other species of insects have developed the ability to mimic the ant in order to escape being dinner for a hungry mantis.

Here in the US, we refer to them as PRAYING MANTISES.  The reference being to the way they appear to draw their little “hands” to their bodies in what appears to be a reverent gesture.  This is somewhat of a misnomer as they are actually getting ready to swoop in and capture their PREY! They also use their “hands” to hold their prey as they eat.

With their voracious appetite and seemingly indestructible qualities, they are highly prized among gardeners.  This has led to the urban legend that it is illegal to kill a praying mantis.  Intense internet research had revealed that this is indeed just a legend.  Although, Connecticut prized the insect so highly that it was deemed the state insect back in the ‘70’s.

For those choosing the truly natural approach to gardening, the eggcases can be ordered online to increase the number of “GOOD insects” on the farm. I read that millions of eggcases are sold annually. 

Here’s hoping that no one puts them in their laundry room!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Whole World's Goin' Organic, Tom!

Years ago, we knew an old gentleman who insisted that the title of this piece was true.  Without fail, he made the comment during every conversation.  As a matter of fact, it became a game to see just when he would say it and how many times it would happen during our talks.  It never took more than fifteen minutes…and occasionally he said it repeatedly during a conversation. He has since passed on, but the comment lives on in infamy.

A great many folks think that if the “O” word is on a product or farm, that product or farm must be better than conventional.  They think “O” means green, environmentally friendly, more nutritious, better for the consumer and the world. They believe that “O” means pesticide-free. That would be completely incorrect. The “O” word is NOT a guarantee of anything…it is just a word used to convey an image that may or may NOT be what you (the consumer) think it is.

Before anyone calls for my lynching…please consider the following
Here is the definition of ORGANIC from the USDA.
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.

Could anything be more vague? Note that nothing is said about pesticides and/or herbicides.  Another item of note is that the products have been “produced through approved methods”. This leaves a great deal of room for interpretation and definition and National Organic Standards Board changes the rules from time to time. Those on the NOSB are hand-picked by the Secretary of Agriculture, and from what I understand, there is more than a little controversy regarding the appointments. The NOSB decides (arbitrarily in some cases) which inputs are allowable and for what uses. The Organic Materials Review Institute publishes the information for farmers and allows for enforcement of the regulations. One other thing to note…the OMRI board is made up of a lot of industry folks, and Whole Foods was among the founders of this group.Whole Foods who was investigated earlier this year for questionable labeling usage.  All of this seems more than a little ironic to me.

In order to use the “O” word, certification is required if the producer makes over $5,000.00 a year in sales.  It is recommended in ALL cases. Fines are levied for usage of the word without certification. Certification is a lengthy process that can be costly in many ways. Time and meticulous record-keeping are among the drawbacks...and then the cost of the allowable inputs....!  Many growers that had used organic methods for years, felt cheated when the USDA took over use of the word…leaving the farmers unable to use the one word that truly described their operation. Now, these farmers struggle to find a proper word to define their growing methods and products in order to set them apart from the conventionally produced items.

Back when we first started the farm, we felt that it was imperative to become “ORGANIC”.  That would be the one thing that could set us apart from the other small producers in the area. So, we applied, complied and obtained certification.

A great deal of record keeping is required.  Inputs must be tracked, and only certain ones are allowed for certain uses by the OMRI board. These can be quite expensive. They are not necessarily less toxic, or more earth friendly…they are just what is allowed. The farm is to be open for inspection at any time.  This is a “privilege” for which the farm must pay.

We jumped through all the hoops, we kept the records, and we paid the fees.  Then, the USDA got into the act.  By granting federal government oversight, it was suggested that a level of continuity in the administration of the rules would become possible.  With the great number of farms vying for certification, the rules became more cumbersome, the inspections more difficult to get, the hassle factor began to grow. Our biggest concern was that the word would no longer have any credibility. The demand for “ORGANIC” was becoming attractive to many producers as it seemed that there was much money to be made through the use of “O” in labeling. We left the “O” word behind, focused on being responsible farmers and began the arduous work of educating the consumers. 

When a consumer encounters the word ORGANIC, they get a pleasant mental picture. It might be the Garden of Eden, a lush pastoral scene, or abundant, verdant crops. None of these are guaranteed…nor even suggested by the word. Go back and read that definition again. Pests, disease and crop failure never figure into the picture.  Toxic products ARE indeed allowable.  A pesticide…be it organic or conventional KILLS pests (and in most cases, some beneficials as well). Organic is not the equivalent to the “fountain of youth” for which Ponce de Leon searched in vain. 

I have been aware of “healthy”, “natural”, “organic” food for most of my life, long before it was trendy and cool.  My grandfather was a devotee of health food stores and supplements back when they were THE place for the young, long-haired hippie types.  Granddaddy wasn’t young, had no hair, and was definitely NOT a hippie-type.  He was just concerned about his health.  Nearly everyone we knew had a garden of some sort.  Fertilizer was straight from the farm or compost pile.  There were products for pest control, but they weren’t used much…and they were known to be toxic. A garden was a necessity to keeping the family on budget, not because anyone had any thoughts of being trendy. Organic Gardening was a well-read magazine in our household.  It was a plain publication, printed in black and white on newsprint paper.  
Presently, it is a full-sized glossy magazine loaded with ads…with an on-line version and smartphone app.    “Organic” has gone mainstream and high-tech. In some ways, this may have been its downfall.

“Back in the day”, it wasn’t organically grown, it was just plain grown.  The natural way was the only way that folks knew to grow their food products.  It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution swept through all the other industries and began to affect agriculture that the commercial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides became available.  The assembly-line mentality of produce more, more, more and cheaper, cheaper, cheaper led to new and innovative inputs (that in some cases are by-products of other industries). Which, I might add, are not always the anathema that some would try to have you believe. What we are seeing now is the swinging of the pendulum from one extreme to the other. At one time commercial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were touted as the panacea to agricultural ills.  Now, everyone wants to return to the old ways and heirloom breeds…(and I am NOT saying that is necessarily a bad thing)
The sad thing about all this is that there is money to be made in this new trend…lots of money! ...and this leads to all types of corruption.  Any time money is involved, there is some type of corruption following on its heels.  Since the consumers are so far removed from the knowledge of food production, mental imagery sells products. There are those who capitalize on this lack of knowledge, easily coercing the unknowing public to buy into a lovely mental image that has no basis in reality.

The whole world may be “goin’ organic”.  But, that’s only because the definition of the word has been changed and cheapened in order to make a sale. Consider for a moment, if you will, the dictionary definition of “organic”:  Back in 1828, Noah Webster’s dictionary referred to it simply as “consisting of organs”.  The next reference I found (New World Dictionary, 1983) defines it as “of or involving the basic makeup of a thing” with a further explanation of an Americanism “grown with only animal or plant fertilizers”.  Wikipedia holds to this definition as well.  The USDA (the one agency responsible for certification) does NOT!

The word “organic” has been completely corrupted.  The standards to which the US producers are held are not global in their enforcement.  I would contend that the regulations are not always reality even within our own borders. (that, of course, is strictly MY speculation)  When those packages at the grocery have travelled around the world the consumer will never truly know how they were produced.  The stores and producers are relying on third party certification which only opens the door to more possible corruption. “O” can be fairly meaningless anymore, unless you are the seller of some input product and can command up to three times the price of the same conventional product. As the consumer, you are guaranteed nothing except a mental image.

So, it all comes down to what I have said before…



We need to educate ourselves as to what we are putting in our bodies…how that product has been handled and produced…and not rely on what has become a marketing tool. Postharvest handling may be more important than the actual production method in some cases.

**This is in no way dismissive of those who do hold themselves to “organic” standards, but should serve as a wake-up call or warning to those who would put their trust in labels.**

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Super D... DO WHAT?

Derecho comes from the Spanish word for "straight" (cf. "direct") in contrast with a tornado which is a "twisted" wind. The word was first used in the American Meteorological Journal in 1888 by Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs in a paper describing the phenomenon and based on a significant derecho event that crossed Iowa on 31 July 1877. -Wikipedia     You can read the article in its entirety here.

Until Saturday night June 30, 2012, I had never even heard of a “Derecho”.  As a matter of fact, I actually thought the weather man said “Horatio” and I got off thinking about Opie Taylor on the Andy Griffith show in  THIS episode and nearly missed the real news of the day.  I cannot use the excuse of heat or storm stress as this kind of thing happens all the time.  Well, at least I am easily amused.   Fact of the matter is…it is just hard to forget “half a boy”!  (be sure to click on that link...it's classic!)

Back to the Derecho.  Apparently, we have the possibility of this type of weather every four years.  Seriously?  Hmm…that means I should have heard about this before…like…well, LOTS of times before.  Never have heard of such a thing.  Frankly, I could have done without this one.A wall of wind hitting with tornado-type force…oh yeah, I’m sure everybody wants to experience that.  Wait a minute!  Two people actually told me (right after the storm) that they wished they could see a tornado.  Yikes.  I told them to go visit Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz or something…we don’t need any tornadoes around here.

Actually, last spring we had a tornadic event here in the Valley. Barns were destroyed and there was damaging hail and a widespread power outage.  It was a real mess and yet another time we were thankful for our generator. Although, I really could have done without the phone call that started out “Mama?  If you hear about a tornado….don’t worry…” 

WHAT?  I think I stopped listening at tornado. I forgot my #1 rule of being a mom.  If they can make the phonecall…they ARE okay.   But, I digress… (see? I think I just proved my point from paragraph one)

The “Super Derecho” of June 29, 2012 will go down in history as one of the costliest weather events in Virginia history. Amazing numbers of folks were affected.  Power outages lasted the better part of a week, and in some more remote parts of the state, even longer than that.  Cars were smashed; huge trees uprooted or twisted off, power lines torn down, cell towers impaired, houses destroyed and lives lost.  We feel incredibly blessed that we didn’t encounter any of these tragedies. While we were hot and inconvenienced, we were together, the animals safe, the freezers frozen and we were able to keep things operational around here. (I even knew where all the “kids” were!)

Despite some of the complaints that surfaced after the incident, there was no real way to prepare for the wall of wind that hit us with such tremendous force.  It was quite fickle in its effects.  In some places one tree would be destroyed and the one next to it would be completely untouched.   A small case in point, our grills in the front yard were completely unmoved, while a bucket in the relative safety of the shed was smashed into the processing sink. A friend related the story of a 400 year-old tree being snapped in half, while the rest of his woodland was relatively unharmed. The force of the wind was truly unbelievable.

This is all that stood between us and normalcy for nearly five days.  A little bunch of branches and leaves tangled in the line caused the fuse to blow. The Boss' experience with the Power Company meant that he had the knowledge and expertise to fix it.  He just lacked the permission and the possible necessary parts. As frustrating as that may seem...there were other folks in far more dire situations than ours.  We couldn't begin to complain!

Our heroes!

Lights on...headin' home

It’s too bad there’s not a way to say THANK YOU to all those power crews who came from across the nation (and even Canada) to help our local companies repair, rebuild and restore the electrical system on which we are all so very dependent.  The soaring temperatures combined with the required protective gear must have been incredibly uncomfortable. They were a most welcome sight to all the overheated and weary residents of the Valley and elsewhere.

As we all get back to normal, many of us will be adding “Super Derecho” to the list of of “been there…done that…”  

 ..and don’t EVER want to do it again!                 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Aging Workhorse

B & A mark the corners of the construction site 1997
When we first purchased our little piece of paradise here on the hill, it was a blank and barren piece of land.  Perimeter fence and a septic field were the only signs of human presence.  The only sign of prior habitation was a sheep skeleton that was found at what would eventually become the master bedroom corner of the house.  Not an auspicious start by any measure.

Among the first things on the immense “to-do” list was the digging of the well.  Ben and his assistant PeeWee got on it for us.  Among the well-drillers in the area, they are the BEST.  …and among the well-drillers in the area…they definitely have the best stories!  When they finally hit water, they were nearly 400 feet down through dirt and rubble and limestone.  This area had not been disturbed in the entire history of the world, so there was a lot of junk to get out of through the small pipe that would bring life-giving water to our little farm here on the hill.  We were given the advice to run, run, run the well until the water became clean and clear.  The best thing for this job was a generator.

I truly do not remember the generator purchase.  I will surmise that although we thought it was imperative and we had known the frustration of country living throughout the years without any source of power…we were really, really broke…so, we probably bought something cheap, hoping to replace it someday.
In the past fifteen years, that generator has “saved our bacon” more than once. Chicks were kept warm, water was run, freezers were kept frozen, all because we had the generator.

 A lot of folks think that if you have a generator…any generator…that the issues of power outages are no longer, well, issues.  This is only partially true, no matter the size of the generator.  Otherwise, everyone would be supplying their own power.  A generator makes it possible to keep the priorities functional. 

Our generator has a loud gas engine, complete with fumes, and since it is fairly small, it drags when certain items require power.  Every time it hiccups, or drags, or the pitch of the engine changes, it strikes terror into my heart.  What if this is the time it finally quits?   Age is catching up with it.  The pull-cord is coming apart.  As it ran longer and longer and longer, the vibrations of the motor made some of the screws pop out.  Fortunately, it was an easy fix for the Boss.  While it is a great asset, it in NO WAY eliminates any concerns for power during an outage.  Particularly a summertime outage. With the temperatures we were experiencing “post-Derecho”, it would only take a short outage to render all those lovely frozen food products a soggy, useless mess.

The generator also doesn’t power the whole farm.  We could fire up certain operations for short periods of time, but a lot of “creature comforts” went by the board.  No air conditioning, hot water heater, stove or computer.  The circulating fans in the greenhouses were rendered useless. The Boss hated to run the well pump on the generator too much…something about possibly damaging the pump…that would lead to a necessary replacement. He and I replaced a well pump a long time ago.  It was not a fun job and it was a shallow well. That memory was enough for me.  We’ll make do with little bits of water.  That meant no irrigation for the outdoor crops and very limited irrigation in the hoophouses. (read ONE time in five days…poor little lettuce) We were very grateful for a good rain during the early part of the week.

We had been discussing purchasing a new generator for some time.  I think we got on the subject during the last power outage.  As the post-Derecho outage wore on, our generator concerns grew.  I was not the only one concerned about its possible demise. The Boss planned on doing some research once we got operational again.  Then, we’d start thinking about making a purchase.

On a trip to Draft, we stopped at the hardware to purchase a part necessary to move the generator from the backyard to a spot a little further from the house.  This would get the fumes and incessant noise away from us and might relieve the ongoing headaches that we were experiencing.  It would also make it possible to open the kitchen door and window during the night to get some more cross-ventilation without having to listen to the deafening roar.

Oh, lookee here!  Generators!  A big stack of generators!

We had seen a few generators on our other trips into town.  One Lowes employee told us that they had been flying off the shelves since Saturday.  They didn’t have any more, or even any repair parts for generators in stock.  They were selling everything as fast as it came in.

But, here was a stack of generators.  At first the Boss thought they were all too small.  If he was going to buy a new generator, he was going to get a BIGGER one. There in the back of the stack was one lone “big” generator.  Hmmmm   The little wheels in the Boss’ brain started turning. The uncertainty of our present situation was not lost on me.  Buy ‘em all!  But, what do YOU think?  He asked again.

We were headed for our daughter and son-in-law’s house.  They had power and blessedly HOT water…and had offered to let me wash my hair.  I was really hot and sticky…and NEEDED that hot water.  Can we PLEASE think about this AFTER I get clean? PLEASE?

The Boss and SiL checked out the generator on-line.  Wow!  The price at the hardware store was really good! It was also a really good generator…

You know where this story is going…don’t you?

Yep, by the time my hair was clean, we were off to get that last big generator. 

Now, we’ve got MORE POWER…(insert a roar here)  and our “emergency back-up”. The Boss is often teased by his offspring for his concern with having an “emergency back-up”.

Oddly enough, I think the Boss was a little disappointed when a few hours later we saw the power company trucks at the end of the lane.  While that bucket truck wending its way through the trees was a welcome sight, it does mean he doesn’t get to try out our new purchase any time soon.

But, wait….there are big storms in the forecast for this afternoon…

Monday, July 9, 2012

Country Folks Will Survive

Sunrise after Super Derecho

The preacher man says it’s the end of time
And the Mississippi River she’s a goin’ dry
The interest is up and the Stock Markets down
And you only get mugged
If you go down town

I live back in the woods, you see
A woman and the kids, and the dogs and me
I got a shotgun rifle and a 4-wheel drive
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

I can plow a field all day long
I can catch catfish from dusk till dawn
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke too
Ain’t too many things these ole boys can’t do
We grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

Because you can’t starve us out
And you cant makes us run
Cuz we're them old boys raised on shotgun
And we say grace and we say Ma’am
And if you ain’t into that we don’t give a damn

We came from the West Virginia coalmines
And the Rocky Mountains and the and the western skies
And we can skin a buck; we can run a trout line
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

I had a good friend in New York City
He never called me by my name, just hillbilly
My grandpa taught me how to live off the land
And his taught him to be a businessman
He used to send me pictures of the Broadway nights
And I’d send him some homemade wine

But he was killed by a man with a switchblade knife
For 43 dollars my friend lost his life
Id love to spit some beechnut in that dudes eyes
And shoot him with my old 45
Cause a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

Cause you can’t starve us out and you can’t make us run
Cuz we're them old boys raised on shotgun
And we say grace and we say Ma’am
And if you ain’t into that we don’t give a damn

We’re from North California and south Alabam
And little towns all around this land
And we can skin a buck; we can run a trot-line
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive!
                                     -Hank Williams Jr.

I’ll be the first to admit it…I like music with “attitude”. I like those brash and bold lyrics and often wish that I came off far “tougher” than I do.  I don’t think the Boss approves of this; he is concerned that I may identify myself in an erroneous or unflattering manner.  …oh well, whatever...

Lots of people have identified with this song by “Bocephus” throughout the years.  It’s been re-recorded, quoted and mis-quoted countless times since its original release in 1982. So, apparently, I am not alone.

I got to thinking about this song as recovery efforts from the Super Derecho got underway.  The first news footage we saw was of everyday folks out there with chainsaws and handtools cleaning up the mess and debris.  Unlike the coverage of other disasters, no one was standing around wailing and moaning, lamenting their lot in the storm; nope, they just grabbed their tools and got after it. The fussing and cussing started after several days of hot, hot, hot temperatures and no electricity.  (That is another story for another time.)

Some of our customers from the “big city” had come down for the weekend.  As they attempted to venture into town, they were behind some guys in a farm truck.  “It was amazing!” the customer said, “those guys would just jump out, saw up the tree, push it out of the way, and the whole line of traffic would move on!  Amazing!” He just couldn’t get over those guys in that truck. You know, I think I know those folks, or at least some just like ‘em.

If it hadn’t been for those country folks with farm equipment, strong backs and even more fortitude, I dare say that recovery would not have gone so quickly. Life in the country is different than that in the big city. Out here, if it’s broke…you fix it….yourself, most of the time. Or, your neighbor might fix it…but, you at least offer to help.  That’s just what ya do. This is not to say that city folks don’t work hard, but life out here is just different.  In many cases it is imperative that residents are incredibly self-reliant.

Hot shingles burned rectangular patches in the grass
By Sunday morning in our own post-Derecho saga, we decided to head to Lowes for the replacement shingles.  The broken shingles had been cleaned up and put in front of the barn waiting what promised to be a mammoth trip to the landfill.  It had been so hot while the shingles were on the ground that the grass is now completely burnt where the shingles landed.  In many cases, the nails blew right out of the roof.  Those too, were burning hot and had to be retrieved so they didn’t end up as projectiles when the lawn was mowed.

With temperatures flirting with 100*, any roof work would have to be done in the very early morning hours so that the Boss didn’t roast up there on that dark roof.

Shingles with nails still attached blew off the roof.

We looked for other roof damage on our way into town.  Hmmm, lots of metal roofing…maybe we should consider a change next time. Although, when a metal roof peels back, there is no easy fix.Thankfully, there was a good supply of our particular brand of shingles. We bought yet another supply of gasoline.  This was one expensive outage! …and it was going to get more expensive over time. But, the important thing was…the freezers were indeed still frozen!  That meant that all the meat for Market and the vegetables for winter sales were indeed still safe (as was our future income).

As we headed home, we stopped off to look at Woody’s haybarn.  We were hoping that everything was okay when Woody and “the missus” pulled in the lane to the barn.  They are the most entertaining couple to talk with, well, actually listen to…you don’t do much talking. They detailed their efforts toward recovery so far.  He’d been up most of Friday night checking cattle, clearing the drive to one of his fields and worrying over his haybarn.  She had spent her time worrying over Woody and helping the ailing neighbor. They had seen the roof blow apart.  They spent Saturday installing a large tarp over the hay to take the place of the roof.  In all the years we’ve know Woody, his hay has never been rained on in the field.  Now, his rain will get rained on…IN the barn!  They were both real tired.  She said, “ya know, I’ve done hard work all my life….but, I’ve never been 70 years old before!  We’re takin’ it easy ‘cause today is Sunday.  But, tomorrow, we’ll get the boys to help us and we’ll get this cleaned up.   ‘cause what else ya gonna do?”  Clean up they did.  While the barn is still lacking its roof, all the metal has been cleaned up and hauled elsewhere.

Come Monday morning, the Boss was up on the roof, patching the damage. It was pointless to put in an insurance claim, and much faster to do the work himself.  …and then again, like Miz Woody said “what else ya gonna do?”  The lyrical equivalent to Miz Woody’s comment is ….”country folks can survive…!”

When it came to meal preparation and keeping up with household chores, it was a matter of creative survival.  We live about 12 miles from the outskirts of town and 6 miles from the interstate.  That’s a long way to drive for the possibility of a hamburger. Since we were already using gasoline for the generator, adding more trips for meals seemed superfluous. We are surrounded by food...good food.  We just needed to figure out how to utilize our resources withOUT the aid of the electric stove or all the kitchen gadgets.  Grilled veggies, anyone?  We tossed the leftover zucchini, onions and a handful of potatoes in the grill basket. That served as the basis for supper one night. How about cooking noodles on the propane canning burner?  Okay, and throw that leftover chard in there. Toast?  Yeah, we can do that on the grill.  We did use some meat, although we kept freezer openings to a bare minimum. Actually, all of this was pretty tasty! Particularly paired with ice cold beer or a glass of wine...

At some point, we realized we had adjusted to this new pattern.  In an odd way, it was rather pleasant.  Okay, roasting in the bean patch wasn’t “pleasant”, but that had nothing to do with the storm.  On the other hand, laundry hanging on the front porch was more than a little amusing.

It may be that ATTITUDE is EVERYTHING.  …and THAT is what allows for our country survival.

… despite the challenges (and several near-meltdowns, both physical and mental) …we did survive.

           YAY for bein’ from the country!   "Bocephus" was RIGHT! J

                                         Country folks can survive!