My Summer

I promised to update you on the interesting things going on in my life some time ago, and I haven’t. However, we are now at the time of year when students are all being asked to write about what they did this summer. It seems as good a time as any to finally follow through on that promise.

This summer I . . . weeded. I weeded a lot. I am now very, very familiar with bindweed in all of its incarnations. There was also a lot of planting in the spring and now we’re getting into the serious harvest times. In between, always weeding. I can tell you with confidence that weeding knives and hori knives are both wonderful inventions. This summer I also consistently underestimated how much work it is to be a farmer. I haven’t been updating my blog not because I didn’t have ideas or information to pass on, but because once I got home and sat down, my brain was as fried as my body.

This summer I got to be one of the interns at Venetucci Farm. I say “got to be” because nailing a paid position for a non-experienced person who wants to get into farming is hard. For the most part, they simply don’t exist. I’ve started asking about this, and Mike Callicrate shared that interns are more often than not an expense rather than an asset. After being one for about four and a half months, that makes a lot of sense. I haven’t looked at the books for the farm that employs me, it’s none of my business, but I do know from other research that the profit margins for small, organic farms are generally not impressive. That means that there is less room for the farmer to be able to handle things like an employee that moves slowly, or makes mistakes. Mis-seeding a 200-foot row is something an intern may easily do, and you can’t undo that mistake. That seed is now a loss. Spearing garlic heads during harvest is really easy to do, especially for the inexperienced, but every head speared is one more that can’t go to market to be exchanged for money. Even taking two hours to weed a bed that should only take one hour means that something else that is just as pressing may not get done. All of this cuts into the profits of the farm which cuts into the ability, and desire, to hire and train the less experienced.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to speak at church about my job. The woman who was running the service said I was the only farmer in the congregation and, as I clearly loved my job, it was an important job to hear about. That request got me to do some research to make sure I was giving the right facts. Only 2% of the US population calls itself a farmer according to the IRS. Only half of those claim it as the main income for the household. After growing up in farm country and talking to farmers around here, I bet the number that have it as the only household income is much, much smaller than that. As of 2007, the official average age of farmers in America is 55. I am quite sure that average has not gone down in the intervening seven years. I am including both conventional and organic farmers in this because I don’t know where to look for the minute numbers that would be the organic farmers and because conventional farmers still know a whole lot more about how to raise food than your average non-farmer. The point of these statistics is that a tiny and rapidly aging population holds the key to feeding a vast and still growing population, but there is no support for them to pass on that knowledge to the people that want to learn. Since I’m pretty sure you know that food does not just appear in grocery stores- though not everyone does- what happens when the last farmer dies?

Lucky for me, Susan Gordon is willing to take on the inexperienced each year to run Venetucci. I got to hear her speak to a group of college kids the other day, and it only confirmed that she can’t seem to do anything without pouring all of herself into it. It’s really inspiring, particularly in a job that can so easily overwhelm and beat down one’s spirit. Rather than throwing up my hands and vowing to never work anywhere but another desk, having her as a daily example of what I could be has given me a reason to work through the pain and exhaustion that is simply a part of this job. Instead of rolling with the idea that organic produce is a niche market and maybe even a fad, she helped to start both CFAM (Colorado Farm and Art Market) and later AVOG (Arkansas Valley Organic Growers) so that her friends and fellow farmers will be able to compete with conventional growers and food importers for their share of local food money. Trust me when I tell you that not shopping at Wal-Mart will not phase Wal-Mart in the least. However, spending that money on a local farm’s produce will make a difference for that local farmer. Yes, it is often more expensive. However, aside from the fact that you are paying for a more nutritionally useful item, you are paying the actual price for the item. Well, as close to the actual price as the market will bear, anyway. We have been trained for far too long to think of food as a cheap item, a small part of the budget. It shouldn’t be. Not if we’re actually paying the real price for real food.

Speaking of money, I am also lucky that I could take on a job that doesn’t pay a living wage. That lack of money is not the fault of Susan or PPCF by any means. My income reflects how we value farmers. We don’t. As a single, childless person with relatively little debt compared to others my age, I am willing to live on less than I made 10 years ago because that’s the price I had to pay to learn what I needed to learn. You can read all the books you want. The only way to really learn how to farm is to do. I happened to pair passion with relative financial ability to support it. I have run into a fair number of others that have the passion, but don’t have the financial ability to support the learning process. This is a problem. We need to be supporting our new and young farmers, not discouraging them.

In conclusion, my summer has been exhausting, painful, sun burning, financially frustrating, and the best summer I’ve had in years. I have learned so much about farming, and about myself (turns out I can take a tan if I spend enough time outside), that I wouldn’t trade it for all the health insurance and retirement accounts in the world. I have learned so much that I want to pass on to you folks. Hopefully I will have a post up at least once a week for the rest of the season to pass on at least a few of the lessons I’ve absorbed along with the dirt that has taken up permanent residence under my fingernails.

Hanna Ranch Movie

I know I’ve been MIA for a while now, and I intend to update you on that and on some of the cool things happening in my life, but for the moment- this movie.

If you live in Southern Colorado (specifically Colorado Springs to Pueblo) or you have any interest at all in the plight of the family farmer or rancher- you have got to see Hanna Ranch. For the local folks, it’s going to be at Ivywild for a few more days. For everyone else, it’s travelling around a bit and available on iTunes. It should be showing up on Netflix eventually, too. It is one place, one ranch, and one family- but a story that I suspect a lot of the agricultural community knows in one way or another.

We need to support our farms. In 30 years, we’ve lost half-a-million ranchers (or farmers in general- can’t remember which) which is a problem. This film clearly illustrates why.

“Food Processing Unit”

I really feel the need to share this new technological break-through with you.

So what they did was invent the backyard pig. A pig that no doubt runs on fossil fuel.

They invented a backyard pig that doesn’t produce bacon!

What are your thoughts on this?

Bee School Part 2

Bees mean flowers. Flowers often mean herbicides and pesticides. Whether you have bees, your neighbors have bees, or you just want a flower garden for yourself, what you put on your garden and lawn will affect the bees and other pollinators. It seems that Bayer products in particular tend to have systematic pesticides. They stick around for a lot longer and have a tendency to build up in the wax and pollen. It’s a possible reason for Colony Collapse Disorder. One of the worst is the neonictanoids that Europe has found to be an unacceptable risk. America, of course, prefers to test chemicals on the general public until they are proven to be a problem, rather than restrict them until they are proven to be safe. This means that the flowers you just bought for the garden may have been treated with neonictanoids as seeds. This means you’re importing a very pretty poison to your bee yard. Be careful.

The next class was about diseases and pests. Right off the bat we were told to never buy used equipment. You don’t know what diseases might be lurking in the wood and any leftover wax. The odds are, it’s not worth the money you save considering the colonies you could lose. The first disease was a perfect example. American Foulbrood pretty much can’t be treated. It is possible to salvage the honey, but after that you have to burn not just the hive, but the bees as well. You don’t want to spread it to other hives if you can help it. If the person selling the cheap, used hive has no idea what happened, but his colony died? This is what you could be housing your new colony in. At around $100 for a box of bees, that’s an expensive experiment. Most of the rest of the little pests and diseases could be managed with a healthy hive and requeening as necessary. The bees should be keeping themselves clean and managing almost any health challenge.

Larger pests can be a bit more of a problem. Mice like to live in the corners of hives that are abandoned by the bees in winter when they cluster around the queen. They will do quite a bit of damage to your frames and the comb. It seems that metal mouse excluders are the best bet, since they have been known to chew openings in wooden ones. Skunks are another challenge. They will sit right in front of a hive and snap up the bees as they fly out. A board with nails stuck through it, or very sharp tacks, should keep them far enough back to let the bees angle away before they get eaten. Bears . . . well, bears got a class of their own.

Winnie the Pooh lied to us as children. Bears really don’t care that much about honey. What they want is the fat and protein of the brood. (Marmalade, however, I am sure is still a favorite.) Because of this, unlike skunks, mice, or raccoons, if a bear gets to your hive, kiss it good-bye. The brood is in the center of the bottom, and that’s where the bear goes, destroying everything else in the process. They also learn, so if you feed a bear a hive, they will keep coming back to see if there’s more to be had. It can take up to 30 return trips for them to figure out that you’re not giving them another hive. That’s a lot of time for a bear to be in your yard. There also really isn’t any part of town that can feel safe from bears. Whether you’re butting up to the mountains or snugly downtown, put serious thought into bear fencing. It’s expensive, but so is buying a new hive and colony.

If you have three or more hives, you can ask the Department of Parks and Wildlife for the materials to build a fence. Since that’s more than you’re legally allowed to have in the city, you’re probably stuck building your own. The three main points are for it to be stout, easy to access, and safe for both you and the bear. Stout is easy- bears are strong, smart, and big. If it’s easy to knock down, they’ll do it. Easy to access makes sense, too. If it’s hard to get in there, you won’t get in often enough to take good care of your hive and make the most of it. The safety aspect was the most interesting. Safe for you- of course. But when it really comes down to it, we don’t want to damage the bear. It’s not the animal’s fault that its home has been taken over by hysterical two-legged creatures that shove food in its face and then kill it when it tries to eat the food. We need to try and be civil neighbors, at least.

There is a perk to going all-out for bear fencing. If it keeps out bears, it keeps out dogs, skunks, raccoons, and curious children. If any of them run into 10,000 volts, they probably won’t come back for seconds. This will simplify your large pest control issues. I plan on planting mine with pretty herbs and flowers that would be a waste in the main yard because of the dog. No reason not to make the most of it.

Obviously, these two posts are just an overview of the classes. Aside from wondering if my brain might melt from over-use, I couldn’t be happier with what I got out of it. The cost of the fencing that I’m once again convinced I need to have is making me wince, but other than that, the class was great for pointing out the possible pit falls while still encouraging anyone who really had an interest in it. I recommend it.

Bee School Part 1

If you live in Colorado, and you want to keep bees, the Bee School put on by the Pikes Peak Beekeepers Association is awesome. For what they’re charging, I’d consider adding a hotel bill if you’re travelling from a distance to still be a fair price. It is two days and a ton of information. They encourage questions during the breaks and make it very clear that they will be available for more questions as the season goes on and we get our own hives and colonies. 

The day started off, as they do, with some basic housekeeping information. There were two points that stuck out, though. The future of beekeeping is not one beekeeper with many hives. It is many beekeepers with one or a few hives. It’s much more stable that way. The other is that in Colorado Springs we can expect to lose 15-20% of our hives annually. In California, the expectation is 20-50% of the hives. Plant flowers and stop using pesticides, people. We are not ready to see what happens if the bees disappear. 

The history portion was fast, but it was enough to whet my appetite to learn more. The oldest recording of stealing honey is 15,000 years old. The Egyptians moved their hives for pollination purposes. Current bee laws are based on Roman bee laws. Finally, the honey bee as we know it arrived in America in 1622. It was dubbed the “white man’s fly” since the bees tended to precede the arrival of the white man in a given area. However, beekeeping couldn’t be really commercialized until L. L. Langstroth, the father of American beekeeping, came up with the Langstroth Hive in 1860. The standardization and ease of access to the hive made it possible to do on a large scale.

The next portion was talking about the agricultural benefits. Did you know that it’s a $200 billion industry world-wide with the worth in the US being around $20 billion? Of course, when 1/3 of our food depends on these little animals, it becomes less surprising. Though more disconcerting when you consider their fragility. Bees aren’t just good for food, though. There are 7-800 conditions listed in the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers. Half of them include honey in their treatment. There’s more to honey’s health benefits than just help with allergies. Even propolis, bee glue, seems to have health benefits as an antiseptic, antibiotic, and even an antiviral.

There were examples of the necessary equipment that were passed around  for us to handle. During that lecture, we also got to hear anecdotes about things that were learned the hard way. This was when we were told that if you ask 5 beekeepers the same question, you will get at least 6 answers. There is a lot of science involved, but there is also a lot of art. Once you have learned the basics, it is up to each beekeeper to learn the ins and outs of their colonies and the areas where their bees are kept. 

Currently, each plot in Colorado Springs is legally allowed one hive, assuming your HOA doesn’t object. They are working on getting it back up to two. That way if you lose one, you’re not out of bees until the new one is established. If you live elsewhere, though, check your local laws. Just down in Fountain, you can’t legally have a hive unless you have at least an acre of property. Of course, if you’re planning to flaunt the law, keep the neighbors well bribed with fresh, local honey.

Did you know that the queen bee rules, but she does not reign? It is the worker bees that determine when she needs to be replaced and they are the ones that choose the worker eggs to turn into little queens. Of course, once the first queen emerges, she promptly stings through all of the other queen cells to remove any potential rivals. The workers also take on every job in the hive at some point in her life. 

Did you know that when a bee colony is searching for a new home, they make decisions as a group the way our brain makes a decision. There was a Nova show on it. Basically, they do their waggle dance to tell their sisters the good news, but they aren’t above whacking a sister who is waggling for a different destination. In the end, whoever has the most interested sisters wins the vote. It seems that neurons in our brain send positive and negative signals to waggle or whack to influence the vote in the direction they want. Who knew?

The class on hive assembly just talked about the Langstroth Hive, as that is what 90% of the beekeepers use. There are other options, like the Kenyan top-bar hive or the Warre top-bar hive, but they don’t have the same following. At least, not yet. I am starting with a Langstroth Hive, since I can easily get my hands on a kit, but I think I will eventually have at least one Warre hive. The Kenyans are more of a warm-weather construction and probably won’t do as well in our cold winters.

We watched a video on how to move your bees from their shipping package to their hive. It was helpful to see live bees being handled. I think that will make it a little less intimidating when I get my own buzzing box. A little. After the film, though, the instructor went through a couple of points of disagreement (we don’t need to medicate them- it’s been handled before they shipped) and some Colorado-specific points. Don’t do it on a windy day. They’ll blow away.

When it comes to managing our bees, we need to think of ourselves as bee assisters rather than bee keepers. The bees do 99% of the work. We just need to keep an eye on them and help out if they need it. In fact, our only job during the first summer is to feed them and make sure they’re strong enough to survive their first winter. Once they are an established colony, though, handling them is far from a daily task. However, when they are handled, don’t forget to forgo your perfume, aftershave, or scented deodorant. They will try to figure out what kind of flower you are and if you’re good to eat.

The rest will need to go in a second post, as this one is getting a bit long.

Starting Seeds

I really need a potting shed. On the other hand- it's nice to sit inside and watch a movie when it's snowing outside on a planting day.

I really need a potting shed. On the other hand- it’s nice to sit inside and watch a movie when it’s snowing outside on a planting day.

On March 11, I started my second round of seeds. I also repotted my first round of young plants. I still have a lot to learn.

I have been interested in the idea of starting my own seeds for a while. It’s less expensive than buying plants, and you can grow more exotic varieties. It’s also the only way to grow things like tomatoes from seeds you have saved. However, it can be a bit pricy to start. There isn’t a single south-facing window in this house, and I’m not sure we’d get good light even if we had one. That means I have to buy and somehow set up grow lights. The house isn’t kept all that warm, since it’s more energy efficient, but that means I really need a warm spot to help the initial germination. I also needed to buy a couple of seed-starter flats along with starting medium and potting soil. The lights in particular add up fast.

Squash seeds are so much easier to photograph than tomato seeds.

Squash seeds are so much easier to photograph than tomato seeds.

I did decide to start plants this spring for a couple of reasons. I had bought and hung a grow light in my bedroom for my own mental health. The combination of a gentle wake-up, since the light is on a timer, and the guarantee of at least a little full-spectrum light has helped to temper my seasonal issues a bit. Since I had made the first big purchase for the project, why not put it to more complete use? The plant heater is also doubling as a worm heater. My African nightcrawlers are not happy with a cool house, and there just aren’t any warm spots to keep them. I am also hoping to make at least some of my investment back by selling some of the plants that I don’t need for my own garden. (Let me know if you want to buy any . . . )

Too long in the starting medium plus erratic watering means that I don't think all the squash will make it.

Too long in the starting medium plus erratic watering means that I don’t think all the squash will make it.

Pro Tips:

  • Don’t start small perennials and large annuals in the same flat. You have to raise the light too fast for the perennials to keep up as they are slower to germinate and, in my case, just shorter.
  • Water daily. Check on them at least twice a day. Once they flop over, they may not recover.
  • Have enough lights to give even light to all of the plants. More plants means more or bigger lights.
  • If you write out a schedule, mind it.
  • Don’t wait too long to transplant out of the starting medium. It doesn’t have many nutrients.
  • If you live with a dog that eats anything and your potting shed is the living room floor- make sure you don’t have to dash to the store for more potting soil in the middle of the planting project.
  • Make sure you have enough pots for all of the plants.
  • Be willing to thin the herd if some of the plants aren’t up to snuff. (I need to improve on that.)
  • Start more than you need. They won’t all make it.
  • Just because the top of your seed-starter is all fogged over, it doesn’t mean the soil is all evenly moist.
  • Lable! New England Sugar Pie and Watham Butternut look a lot alike until they set their fruit!
Apple trees start pretty well in egg shells in the fridge.

Apple trees start pretty well in egg shells in the fridge.

I am starting plants on the early side for two reasons. One- we have a short growing season and I want them to have as many productive days as possible. Two- people like to buy bigger plants, so bigger ones should sell better. To set up my schedule, I went by the days to maturity for each variety. It broke them up nicely into a logical progression. The first to go in were squashes. The last will be my peppers. Tomatoes happen in between. Things like herbs and flowers  can be started on a less stringent schedule, so they can be fit in around the food plants.

Gently crush the shells so the roots can grow through. Starting them this way leaves a calcium source right at the roots.

Gently crush the shells so the roots can grow through. Starting them this way leaves a calcium source right at the roots.

My squash  went in right on schedule in early February, sharing the flat with some chives and calendula. I think the chives will be ok, but the calendula are so leggy that I don’t think many, if any, will recover. I’m going to need to just try them again. The round currently sitting on the heater should have been planted around February 25. Being two squash and two tomatoes, they should grow at a similar enough rate to share the flat. The moment they’re well enough sprouted to go under lights, I need to plant the round that should have gone in around March 5. If I’d done them as planned, it would be much less rushed. However, scheduling them as early as I did also gives me some leeway for being slow. The last round will also be a bit behind, as the heater won’t be ready by March 19th. If I get a chance, I also want to do a round of herbs and flowers sooner rather than later to give them a decent head start.

Before my next round of transplanting, I need to do a bit more planning. Specifically, finding a bunch more pots for the 36 seedlings that will need a new home!

Being a Crafter

Who doesn't need a chicken hat?

Who doesn’t need a chicken hat?

Being a crafter is hard. I’m up against not just Wal Mart stuff, but even imported fair trade items are competition. This is because what’s a fair wage in India or Africa or Tibet really doesn’t cut it in America. I am working on living more simply, but I do also deserve to be compensated for what is, in the end, a skill.

Or bath salts. I think they turned out pretty cute- and mason jars are the gift that keeps on giving.

Or bath salts. I think they turned out pretty cute- and mason jars are the gift that keeps on giving.

I am brand new to actually selling my crafts. I’ve been making things since forever, but I’ve never really tried to sell them. I participated in my first farmer’s market today. It was the Colorado Farm and Art Market’s Winter Market at Ivywild. I brought enough that the profit would have more than covered my rent. I made enough to cover my booth. Because the cost of the booth was covered, in the end it mostly only cost me time. I have time, at the moment, so I am going to give it another try. I have some ideas for things to make before the next one that might do a bit better, too. However, it’s a little discouraging to have so many people walk by unique works of art and hardly spare them a glance. Yes, I do believe a practical item, if it’s well crafted, is art.

I'm proud of this one- 13 stripes, 50 stars, and the wool is from Nebraska. 100% American.

I’m proud of this one- 13 stripes, 50 stars, and the wool is from Nebraska. 100% American.

If I think about it, I had a few things working against me, today. A warm, sunny day and wool hats just don’t mix well. I am brand new, so people haven’t had a chance to mull over my wares to make a decision. I price my hats so I make between $8 and $9 an hour plus materials. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for skilled, and artistic, labor, but it does mean my wool hats are $45. They take time. I think the biggest problem, though, was the beer. My table was in the hall between the entrance to the building and the beer event. A whole lot of people walked by, but their focus was not on shopping. When the choice is hand-crafted wool hats or beer, the hats don’t stand a chance.

Slightly out of season- but only slightly.

Slightly out of season- but only slightly.

Once I got the table set up, it ended up being a very feminine-looking table. While there’s nothing wrong with that per se, I think it did cut into my potential clientele. I started making hats that I liked, so purples and reds dominated the color scheme. I only had one orange and blue hat, and the blue is so dark people thought it was black. There was really only one that was neutral. Even the cream one had a silver tiara and sparkles. (After all, why knit something that bores me?) In order to appeal to a wider audience, I need to move outside of what amuses me and think about how to make things that appeal to others that will also entertain me. Like the idea for a white hat with an orange and blue mane. That could be fun.

In the end, it was a good learning experience and worth another go. I’m hoping for cold, but not snowy, weather next time and to see all of you there, looking to buy a hat. (Don’t just show up for me, though. There are some awesome people there.) Being a crafter is hard, but the more people realize that a crafted item is often superior to a manufactured item, the easier it will become.

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