The Age of Plastic

Plastic, when you really look into it, is terrifying stuff. It is not biodegradable, it is only sort of recyclable, and it’s probably going to be what defines our layer of the geologic timetable.

I just finished reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Fascinating, and somewhat terrifying, read. There are so many things that will rebound without the pressures that humans place on them, but there are other things that we have done that are irreversible. Between nuclear waste and plastic, though, I think plastic is the one that scares me more. I grew up not too far from a nuclear plant. Dad used to say that it was the right place to be. If it went up, we weren’t going to have to worry about the fallout. With nuclear energy, it’s not easy, but you can make sure that you aren’t using energy from it. Plastic really can’t be escaped in the modern world.

It is only a guess, of course, but they are guessing that it will take around 100,000 years for bacteria to learn how to eat plastic. However, that only works if the bacteria can get to it. If it’s far out in the ocean, or submerged in the ocean, or buried in a landfill, it’s a little tough to get to. Compare that to Chernobyl which could be semi-habitable again as early as 2135. Of course, properly disposed of nuclear waste lasts a little longer- weaponized plutonium would take around 250,000 years to no longer produce dangerous radiation.

We’ve all seen those ads of seagulls or turtles being choked by the rings from a six-pack. It’s sad, and true, that a whole lot of plastic- possibly most of it- ends up in the ocean and a lot of it kills the pretty animals. What they don’t use in ads, and is scarier if you think about it, is what happens to that six-pack holder when it starts to wear down into smaller pieces. Eventually wind and waves and sun will degrade the plastic until it’s turned into tiny pieces that krill mistake for plankton. What ocean creatures rely on krill? Almost everything, directly or indirectly. Krill ingesting the plastic gets it started at nearly the bottom of the food chain. Small fish will eat the krill, concentrating the dose. Medium fish will eat the small fish, concentrating it further. It goes on and on until tuna and sword fish are just packed with the stuff. It doesn’t make a sexy PSA, but it’s got to chalk up at least as many deaths as whole six-pack rings.

I also recently watched Addicted to Plastic, which brought up some more interesting points. We’ve all heard of BPA by now. Did you know that we’re also all contaminated with it? Getting rid of your BPA drinking bottles is good, but only to stop adding on to your current chemical load. Another interesting point was that nurdles, those little plastic things that become anything, have a nasty tendency to absorb pollution from their environment. They aren’t small enough for krill to eat, but lots of smaller fish do dine on them. The pollution they absorb is then passed on to the fish to be passed up the food chain. I bet tuna is sounding delicious right now . . .

I Have Bees!

IMG_6840A week ago I installed two packages of bees from Georgia. I think they’re Italians, but they’re some sort of well-behaved, as-domesticated-as-possible breed. Whatever they are, it was probably only about 55 degrees, though sunny, when I slammed the boxes on the ground and shook the stunned bees into the hive (that’s how you do it), and nobody was particularly threatening. I was a bit of a chicken about handling them, but I’ll get over it.

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I left the queens in their cages hung on the back of the hive, but I did pull the corks two days later. I expect the workers have eaten through the candy stoppers by now and I’m hoping both of them will be laying by the next time I open up the hive. Technically you’re supposed to pull the cork the day you install the bees and then not touch anything for a week while they’re getting settled, but I’m just not that good at following directions!IMG_6859

I left each hive with a quart of 2:1 syrup (that’s two parts sugar to one part water) and a scattering of human-quality pollen all hidden under the second hive body to discourage robbing from each other and by other critters. I do plan to get to the point where feeding is a matter of final desperation, not a matter of course, but doing that with a box of bees is going to reduce your chances of a successful start. These girls have already been on a trailer being shipped up from IMG_6841Georgia stuffed in a box with other bees that are not their sisters and a queen that is neither their mother, nor is currently laying eggs. All of this is very stressful, and I need them to raise a whole new generation of bees before they die of old age and over work. That means supplementing them until we have more forage than a few hundred daffodils in flower.

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I will be tracking my hives to see how they do which means they need designations. It seems logical to name my hives after queens, so I’m starting with Amina (from Zazzau) and Boudica (of the Icini). The plan is not to name the queen, but to name the bloodline. As long as the queen in the A hive can be traced to the Amina line it will retain that name. If the line fails, the hive will be renamed. In other words, they can requeen themselves or I can requeen them from a split off that hive and keep the designation. If they’re doing so poorly that I requeen the Amina hive from a Boudica split, the line is dead and I choose another name.

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The one on the right is small cell foundation.

One of the things I’m tracking is the difference between standard foundation and small cell foundation. Since I have two sets of comparable bees that are not currently attached to any foundation, it seemed like an experiment was in order. Amina hive will be trying out the small cell while Boudica hive will be rocking the standard size. My interest in the foundation size has to do with the varroa mite that is causing havoc among American beekeepers as well as in other parts of the world. According to the conventional beekeepers, it’s pointless. According to the treatment-free beekeepers, they didn’t really have success in finding a balance with the mites until they were fully regressed to the smaller size.

My plan is to pursue treatment-free beekeeping to the best of my ability. You can find people vehemently for and vehemently against this in the beekeeping community. Bearing in mind that if you ask five beekeepers a question you’ll get at least six answers, I think that the final decision has to rest with the person or people managing each apiary whether it’s one hive or 1,000, as they will be the ones handling any fallout from it. My interest stems primarily from my concerns about the fragility of our current food system and my lack of interest in supporting the companies that I see as keeping it fragile. After all, Monsanto et al would go out of business in short order if we managed to remember how to feed ourselves without copious applications of chemicals and patented seeds. If I can work toward bees that can take care of themselves in the current, non-friendly environment, then I will be making one step toward a more stable food supply which is a step toward a more stable world.IMG_6876

Finding My Power: Day 500

IMG_6836This is day 500 of my 1,000 Day Project. My jade plant and I aren’t exactly exploding with growth in our current habitat, but we’re working on it. I have a new job that lets me see my chickens while the sun’s up and the jade tree is putting out some new leaves. I think the jade plant is doing alright with her life goals, but mine need some tweaking.

When I started this project, I set some pretty big, poorly defined goals. In 1,000 days I would have a viable farm. After 500 I would have a life worth living. What does that even mean? I am in a better mental and emotional shape than I was 500 days ago, but I’m hardly living the dream. In fact, I feel like I’ve made more progress on the viable farm thing- 5 of my 8 birds are laying, my worms aren’t thriving, but they aren’t dead yet, and my turkeys were hits as the guests of honor at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I even have vague plans for increasing my flocks this spring and my beehives are sitting in my room waiting to be assembled. I’ve learned things, too- ducks get eaten when the coop ramp is too steep and ginger is really hard to grow when the house is kept at sweater temperature.

So why have I made more progress on the goal that’s further out and, from the outside at least, ought to be a harder goal? A life worth living? It’s all internal- easy! Just make up your mind and do it! Farming? Just the housing alone is giving me headaches and wallet cramps. The problem seems to be that to live the dream, one must first define said dream. It gets worse when one realizes the standard parameters used to deliniate such dreams don’t seem to quite fit, either. I don’t want a mansion, I don’t want to loll about on white sand beaches sipping overpriced daqueries. I don’t want a corner office or a Fendi bag. (Yes, I had to google Fendi to make sure it was a bag brand.) So what do I want?

I . . . don’t know.

I also don’t think I’m the only person in my general age range that has this problem.

I have leftover wisps and scraps of dreams I used to have, but none of them seem to fit any more. Is that because the dreams are wrong, or because I’ve contorted myself so hard to meet outside expectations that I no longer fit what’s right? For example- I have the ability to dress in a way that is totally suitable for and non-offensive to a conservative corporate office in Maryland, a dressage show, an organic farm in Colorado, a dancesport competition, a small-piece assembly job in Maine, or going out to a club. But now that I have a new job and a touch more cash to rebuild my own wardrobe- I have discovered that I have absolutely no idea what my style is. I no longer have the pieces, but I know the rules to pull off each of the above styles more or less successfully. But when I have the chance to put together something that makes me happy . . . I find myself slapping my own wrist over choices that I think others will think are wrong. How am I supposed to make major, against-the-grain, life-altering decisions when I can’t even muster the ovarios to wear the leopard-print blazer that I got for a song at Goodwill? It even looks good on me!

So the next 125 days will be all about me. Daring to wear that blazer. Chucking (donating) those shirts that are functional and make me cringe. Asking myself real questions and NOT editing the answers. I’m a “smart” person, so enjoying really dirty, physical pursuits is supposed to be “beneath” me. According to who? Do I believe it?I have spent an excess of time in politically and religiously conservative places. I’ve managed to shed some of the baggage they gave me, but how is this still defining me? Do I really want that pair of sleek black heels, or am I just trying to look “normal?”

This is not about pampering and cushy “me time.” This is not about self-absorbed navel-gazing to the exclusion of all else. If I do this right, a lot of the next 125 days have the potential to be quite uncomfortable. After all, do I really want to know how far I’ve wandered off my own path? It’s also not about self-flagellation for being swept up in the culture whether it meshed with me or not. It’s about figuring out what matters to me so I can go about rerouting my path back to the right fit rather than a convenient, conventional one.

I read this post a while ago, and it’s been rattling around in my head since then. What I’m after is the self knowledge work that is the equivalent to the self care of paying your bills. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy reading the books I know I like and daydreaming about one day I’ll get to . . . in order to protect myself. But in doing so I’ve shied away from the hard, uncomfortable, possibly painful work that would give me the ability to rather than avoid the things that chip away at who I am, to instead be able to let them roll off my back. I can keep making myself smaller, less offensive, and more fragile, or I can figure out who I am so when someone says “You’re this,” I can say yes or no with actual confidence.

Finding My Power: To Farm or Not To Farm

This seems to be the perpetual question. On the one hand, if we don’t have farmers, we don’t have food. This should be pretty straight forward, right? On the other hand, it is difficult, verging on impossible to be a farmer and be able to afford to feed yourself. That should be a ridiculous statement, but it’s not.

In my blog about what it would take to gross $10,000, I only addressed the numbers generated from my interest in farming. This needs to be looked at from another angle, though. What are the numbers my current employment is generating and what are other possible income amounts broken down into the hours, weeks, and months they take to get to $10,000.

I am currently working at a temp job that I rather enjoy making $12 per hour. In Maine, I’m doing ok as a moderately skilled temp. To gross $10,000 I need to work 833.33 (call it 833) hours which is 20.825 (call it 21) weeks or 5 months. That’s a long time. It’s also not taking into account commuting time, gas, clothing requirements, or the fallout from not feeling like I’m contributing in any meaningful way to the world. Gas and commuting time are fairly easy to attach numbers to. I am commuting pretty much exactly an hour each way five days a week plus five 30-minute lunches, making my 40-hour week actually a 52.5-hour week. 40 hours times $12 per hour divided by 52.5 hours means that counting the commute and lunch, I’m being paid $9.14 for each hour the job is consuming. Gas is costing me about $38 per week and the vast bulk of it is for my commute. That means that 21 weeks of commuting costs me $798. At $9.14 per hour before taxes, that means about 87 hours are spent just paying for gas. That’s over 1.5 of my 52.5 hour weeks every 5 months are just paying for gas.

Let’s say I find a job with the same commuting and lunch time and cost, but I’m making $15 per hour for 40 hours. That’s 666.66 (call it 667) hours which is 16.675 (call it 17) weeks or 4 months. My actual time being used is still 52.5 hours per week, which means I’m actually being paid $11.43 per hour before taxes. 17 weeks of commuting at $38 per week is $646 or 56.5 hours. That’s just over a week every 4 months is to pay for gas.

Temping, like an increasing number of permanent jobs, does not offer insurance or any guarantee of hours. Unlike a permanent job, my temporary employer can send me home at lunch time and tell me not to come back for absolutely no reason other than they don’t need me. Poof- no more income. The staffing agency has it in their best interest to get me back to work as quickly as possible, but that might be days or weeks of unemployment. Have you ever tried to save an emergency fund on $12 per hour?

Farming also offers no insurance, no guarantees, and if you’re not careful, the potential to end up with no income and a pile of debt if it all falls apart. On the other hand, I will be using and learning skills that are actually useful in the real world. The world in which being able to feed yourself means knowing whether those berries are yummy or deadly. I have the potential to make my corner of the world healthier, cleaner, and better habitat for both my cultivated plants and animals and the local plants and animals that are using the same space. I can help to perpetuate skills, genes, and equipment that we will need when we realize that Agribusiness might not be working as well as advertised. Farming, particularly small-scale farming, demands a certain level of fitness that will keep me healthy long past the time when an office-bound body would fall apart. It has its own challenges for health, but at least you can often see them coming. I can build the business to embrace my strengths and interests and my income is limited only by my imagination and ability to manifest what I see.

Now comes the hard part. I have been told, am being told, will continue to be told that the responsible thing is to get a “real” job. I need to work on a skill set that employers are looking for. I need to invest time, energy, and possibly money in pursuing what society tells me is an acceptable, respectable, logical use of my time and energy resulting in a “fair” income. I will be paid what I am “worth.”

I was talking about this with a friend and he asked if I’d considered what I would regret not doing in 10 years. 10 years ago I was just settling into a job with a company that I had spent the previous couple of years building a resume to get into. It was a good, solid company. I knew people that loved working there. I was making more money than I had ever made before. I was studying hard to get the licensing to move up in the ranks exactly the way I was supposed to. I may have even had my first exam under my belt at that point. I was doing everything right.

I’m not saying I didn’t learn things from working there, but in the end, you learn things from walking face first into a wall, too. Just because everyone’s doing it and everyone’s saying you need to do it, doesn’t mean it’ll work. Not everyone can get through to Platform 9 ¾, and it turned out I’m one of the ones that can’t.

I can’t quit my job and start farming tomorrow. I do have access to land that I don’t have to pay for, which is more than most people in my situation can say. What I don’t have are a significant number of skills or the money for the infrastructure. 31 hives worth of materials (excluding bees) will cost me about $5,663- that’s 472 hours (12 weeks or 3 months) worth of work at $12 per hour before taxes and expenses. However, I can take the time I would spend looking for a “real” job, and the small amount of disposable income I do have and spend it on a small number of hives so that I can build the necessary skills. If things go well, the hives themselves may gradually generate the income needed to expand my operations. If things go badly, I won’t have spent more than I had and it could be chalked up to an educational expense.

I guess it wasn’t as much of a question as I thought.

$10,000

Money’s funny. One number can seem like so much or so little to the same person, depending on the circumstances around it. If I had to pay $10,000- wow, that’s a lot of money! Where would I come up with it? If I were to receive $10,000, it’s a lot of money up until I start paying bills. Then it goes mighty fast.

I was doing some end-of-year looking at my spending in 2016. I’ve been tracking it for most of the year to help me figure out where it all goes and why there’s never quite enough. The number $10,000 came about because it’s an annual budget of modest spending for one excluding rent, food, utilities, renters insurance, and internet. Just for giggles, I wondered what it would take to gross $10,000 from my farming ventures.

If you know anything about farming, then you are familiar with the fact that gross and net income are not the same and often very, very different.

Honey: 1,250# at $8 per #. That’s 31.25 hives (call it 31) harvesting an average of 40# per hive

Nucs (nucleus hives): 67 nucs at $150, but only 56 if I sell them for $180 each

Eggs: 20,000 or 1,666.66 (call it 1,667) dozen at $6 per dozen

It was just an experiment. Everyone knows farming has no security and little if any prosperity attached to it, but some of those numbers looked almost possible. I don’t have much information on the net income for each, but I could make some educated guesses.

For the eggs, with the numbers I’ve been collecting since I got my chicks in the spring, to gross $10,000 I’d be looking at a net of $-20,000 or thereabouts. Yes, that’s a negative. The housing is killing me. I’ll never make money off of the eggs, but eventually I would like to at least get them to pay for the eggs and old hens the family eats.

For the honey, I found a place where I can get a kit with two deeps and buy one medium super for about $173 per brand new hive (2016 prices). At $8 per pound of honey, that’s around 22 pounds per hive to pay off the woodenware. If I’m buying bees, that’s another $125 to $190 or 16 to 24 pounds. With average harvests in Maine in the 40 to 45# range, that means I should be able to pay off even a purchased hive with the first full harvest- which isn’t until the second summer/fall. If I am splitting my own bees and/or catching swarms, I can make a dent in paying off the bear fence in the first harvest, too. Looking at my 31 hives, they will cost $5,363 for the hives themselves, no bees, and $300 for the bear fence with a potential income of $9,920. (31*40*8) That leaves me with $4,257 to either purchase the bees or pay for my time to split hives and catch swarms.

Splitting hives will mean making at least some nucs for my own use, and I can certainly make more for sale. I’ve heard of available patterns for making nucs out of ½” plywood, about four per sheet. At $20 per sheet that’s about $5 for the box. I also need 5 frames and 5 foundations, a total of about $18. That makes the gear requirement around $23. Nucs are selling around here in the $150 to $190 range for local bees, more if the nuc was overwintered. As a newbie I’d probably start selling at the low end, meaning that after deducting the gear, each hive could net me about $127 less the cost of my time. If I manage to make 67 successful nucs to sell, minus $23 per nuc for the gear, I could have around $8,509 to pay for that time.

If I have 31 healthy, producing hives, making 67 nucs shouldn’t be that hard. If I can do both simultaneously, I could spend around $7,204 but gross about $19,970 to net around $12,766. Hm.

These numbers aren’t taking into account some very important information. It doesn’t include rent/lease/mortgage on the land I’m using. It doesn’t include taxes. It also doesn’t account for the hive bodies and nucs that I have to buy and/or build for the hives that are too weak to produce honey or split into nucs. It doesn’t have room for the farm up the way to spray their fields at just the wrong time of day with the wind blowing in just the wrong direction that wipes out most or all of my hives. It doesn’t take into account the time it will take me, a beginning beekeeper, to learn the skills necessary to take care of 31+ hives and build 67+ nucs.

The numbers are still very interesting.

Finding My Power: Which World?

I was listening to two audio books that randomly ended up perfectly paired. They both dealt with the idea that to live the best, brightest, most awesome life we can, we need other people’s support to make it happen. How each of the authors went about getting that support is all the more important as we gear up for the 45th President of the United States.

The first presents a world in which one goes for the deal. Find out what the market is looking for and give it to them. Test market and don’t start production until you’re sure there’s an audience. Buy your components and advertising cheap and sell your final product for as much as the market will bear. What you can’t get off your plate by streamlining in the process, outsource to the lowest bidder. Then, the payoff. Everybody wants to travel the world, and the global south will let you get a whole lot of bang for the bucks you have coming in.

I think it has some useful ideas. There are ways to work the system to your advantage. I’m particularly fine with doing that to large companies. They can handle it. Our culture runs on money, and making it is a reasonable goal.

The second takes a much more relational look at things. You have your strengths and gifts, they have their strengths and gifts and between you, both sides can come out ahead. If you’re travelling the world, couch surf and in return offer something of yourself. Maybe it’s return surfing, maybe it’s art, maybe it’s an experience, but it’s something that’s yours to give. Make money with your gifts because we all have bills to pay, and always pay your debts. But the payoff is wrapped up in the relationships that you’re building as you share what you have and others share what they have, allowing you all to build richer lives.

This one’s hard. It requires a balance between knowing and believing in yourself and your gifts with the ability to be open to asking for and accepting help. You need to be able to connect with people in a trust that we don’t see very often at this point.

The world as it stands right now supports the first book. If you buy low, sell high, and get a deal, particularly if it makes you rich, then you win. The second is a lot harder, particularly if your interpersonal skills are less than awesome. For the first one, you will be rewarded superficially, but I’m not sure whether it offers true long-term richness. The second one offers the real deal, if you can buck the current culture long enough to develop the relationships.

Right now, it’s all about tweets and “making deals.” Its about making sure that everyone pays up and no one gets a free ride. If you can’t bootstrap yourself into a better position, then its your fault, not the fault of a culture that doesn’t care about you unless you’re rich.

The thing about bootstraps, though? You can’t lift yourself by your own. But you can lift your friends, and they can lift you in return.

 

Tim Ferriss vs Amanda Palmer

A Good Winter’s Day

I had intended to write a post about some books I’ve been listening to, but then life intervened. It’s been wicked cold the last few days and I got to handle the fallout from a decision I hadn’t thought through sufficiently earlier in the year. When you live in a place where winter is the dominant season but you fail to take that into account when choosing your chicks, frostbite is a probable result. Particularly when the night before the temperature was around -10 degrees F.

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The white tips on her comb and the black skin is frostbite. The white spot in the middle I’m less sure of, but the comb does usually flop to that side. I brought her in the kitchen to thaw out the flesh before she spent the night in the garage which doesn’t dip below freezing.

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The rest of the girls seem to be doing fine in their winter quarters. It’s a partition in our garden shed that doesn’t have a roof, aside from the metal shed roof, so I don’t have to worry about condensation, but I’m also really not holding much body heat. The feed and water are tucked under the ramp up to the exit window so I don’t lose too much ground space that way. The waterer has a heated base that gives off some heat, but the girls seem to prefer getting cozy on the roosts when it’s very cold.

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My chicks are even so classy they have curtains! That bright light out through the window? That’d be snow. The curtains are so I can have the window open but maybe cut down on any breezes coming into the coop. Lucky for me, the only appropriately-sized curtains at the Salvation Army also let in light.

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The next morning it’s confirmed that her comb isn’t going to get better. I slathered on a little coconut oil to help protect the rest of it before I took her back out again. I waited until the afternoon when the temperature was a solid +10 degrees F. A chicken can survive with frostbite, but it’s a painful condition and in this case could have been avoided with just a little thought on my part. At this point, I’ll be keeping the two Leghorns through this winter and next summer, since they are very good layers, but I think they’ll go to the butcher next fall.

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I was also working on another project for my girls at the same time. Making suet cakes. Like a good Millennial aspiring farmer, I found instructions online. The connective tissue between the layers of fat is kind of weird, but the more you can pull out ahead of time, the better the melting process is supposed to go.

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For a long, slow melting, what better way to do it than on the woodstove that we’re using to heat part of the house? It’s not a cook stove, so the top is warm enough to keep the tea water hot, but not so warm that it’ll burn my tallow.

All-in-all it was a pretty satisfying day. I did make a newbie mistake with my birds, but I’m handling it and I’m working on fixing it for next year. I am having a hard time finding cold-hardy breeds that lay white eggs, though. Do you know any? I’m also working on a new skill since rendering fat can be useful as the basis for all sorts of practical things including soap, fried food, and a warming supplement for the chickens for the next wicked cold snap.

Happy Holidays, and stay warm!

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