Rotten Documentary

I just watched Netflix’s documentary, Rotten. It left me with a few distinct thoughts. Know your farmer. That includes your honey and tilapia farmers. Encourage your kids to play in the dirt and eat wild plants. Have them bring in a couple handfuls of plantains to toss in the dinner salad for the family. I had no idea garlic was such a troubled food. There is always more than one side to a story, and if there’s money involved, the side we’re hearing should probably be getting some serious side-eye. More and more often, there’s a lot of money involved.

Each of the six episodes had their own focus: honey, allergies, garlic, broilers, milk, and fishing, specifically in New England. As they are all just under an hour, they can’t cover all of the issues in each of those categories. Instead, they focus on the human costs involved. A big portion of most of them involves looking at the regulations in the given industry as well as import/export rules. The theme across all of them seems to be that the regulators are trying, for the most part, to do good, but there are so many costs for the people on the ground doing the actual work that most American farmers and fishers simply can’t compete in the global market. Particularly when the global market has every incentive to not play fair.

The flip side of that is that while the regulators are trying, they are invariably ignoring the people who know the industry and would love to help fix it. According to the folks doing the fishing, the regulators aren’t counting the fish accurately when they’re coming up with their quotas for the season. They’re also using a system that Norway has already determined is terrible for the small businesses as theirs had been mostly been wiped out by the time the system was implemented over here. I suspect that most of the people whose families have been fishing for generations would be willing to buy into a system that let them keep food on the table in their house and would ensure there are enough fish in the sea for their children and grandchildren to do the same. The dairy farmers said, “The farm used to support the family, now the family supports the farm.” As for the chicken growers, they’ve been handed all of the risks and none of the benefits in a system that will actually kick them if they’re down whether it’s their fault or not. People wonder why the number of farmers is dwindling alarmingly? This might have something to do with it.

American farming and fishing has its issues. It always has. I am not saying that the family-sized businesses always get it right and never make more trouble than they solve. However, through each of the episodes there seem to be three major themes that are causing problems: globalization, big money, and cheap food. If a shortcut can be made by using cheaper labor, diluting the food, substituting cheaper ingredients, or any other tactic that will increase the profit margin, it’s taken with no concern about the non-monetary costs. In America, we’ve gotten used to the idea of cheap food, so when we go to the store, we look at the farmed tilapia, not the wild-caught cod. If that tilapia was farmed on a local scale, that’s probably fine. Actually, fish farming is a pretty cool way to get healthy protein into food deserts as long as it’s done well. But the label at the store probably doesn’t tell you where it came from. When there’s big money involved, they can afford to bring in this cheap fish that was raised where labor costs are low. Unfortunately, that often corresponds with unsanitary conditions when raising and butchering them. It also sends money out of a community that probably can’t afford to lose it.

I suspect most people have heard about the adulterated honey from China at this point. Apparently it’s far more profitable to put non-honey syrups into jars, ship them to other countries, relabel them, and sell them in the US than to just sell actual honey. All of this while constantly keeping ahead of the scientists who are testing for non-honey Chinese honey. This leads to all sorts of messes over here like apiaries depending on shipping their bees all over the country for pollination contracts because honey prices aren’t enough to make ends meet. All of the bees in the country meeting once a year to pollinate almonds means that once per year they get to trade diseases. Thieves also know exactly where to find thousands of hives all packed up for easy moving.

What I didn’t know was that China also has a massive interest in garlic. As in, 90% of the world’s garlic is grown there. While you cannot dilute garlic cloves with non-garlic cloves, the processing to make bulbs into peeled cloves does not require any sort of skilled labor the way bees do. In fact, it appears that prison populations do a whole lot of the garlic processing. This labor is even cheaper than US prison labor and it has fewer quality controls. While most of the Chinese garlic exporters pay massive tariffs to get their garlic here, there’s one company that doesn’t. The large US company that they work with is disputing the allegation that they are using their influence to protect this particular company, of course. The lawsuit brought against the Chinese company also has some strange financial dealings on the other side, so it isn’t without concern. However, I think it’s safe to say that if we didn’t have large international companies trying to play the money games only they can play, the small New Mexico farmers could focus on growing garlic not lawyers and payouts for trials.

From the Netflix website, it looks like they intend to have more seasons of this documentary in the future. While it’s far from comprehensive on any one subject, I think the breadth of what they’re reviewing is important as well. It’s not just about making sure you pick up honey at the local farmer’s market instead of Wal-Mart. It’s about understanding that the knowledge necessary for this country to feed itself is being slowly strangled because in food, as in so much else, it is becoming strictly about the bottom line. Who cares what’s lost and damaged along the way. Who cares who loses as long as the big companies win.

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A Moving Meditation on Gratitude

I did not want to get out of bed on Monday morning. The clouds were thick and heavy with snow. The extra heater in my room had kicked on which meant the air was cold while I was perfectly snug under my four blankets and pile of pillows. It was Monday, which meant work was going to be nuts. It was Monday, which meant I needed to get rolling extra early to get to tai chi. Did I really want to go to tai chi? Was it worth it?

The clouds had started dropping their snowy burden by the time I hit the road. I was even going to be on time for once! When I got to the community center for class, there was chaos on the roof. From what I could see, they were putting on a new roof. In December. In Maine. In the snow.

The room was chilly as we were getting started, but the gentle movements kept us warmish. Among my classmates were an incredibly elegant woman, the woman I’d like to be at 90, and the woman I’m likely to be at 70. The group is cheerful and focused even as the room doesn’t warm up. The heater was broken, apparently. We all kept our sweaters and vests on and our rest breaks were shorter than usual.

I butted heads a bit with the instructor trying to determine whether the hips and shoulders move simultaneously or one leads and the other follows. She ended up telling me it was a beginner class and I really needed to ask that in a continuing- level class. Although she did suggest I learn a few more moves before I level up.

On the commute down to work, I found myself surprisingly grateful. I suspect those roofers make more than I do, at least I hope they do given their work conditions, but I have the skills/training/talent that if I end up with an outdoor job it will be by choice, not necessity. I was chilly in class, but I do have proper layers to wear and I know how to wear them making a cold building no reason to skip class. I’m grateful for all of those people who have trained me well enough in my physical pursuits that I can ask beyond-beginner questions in a new pursuit. I’m grateful I can touch my toes and square my hips over the correct foot. I’m grateful for the current instructor that takes it pretty well in stride when I’m being a pest.

I’m grateful that I have a warm bed and a backup heater. I’m also grateful that I know how to handle waking up in a cold room. Moving fast is key. I’m not sure I’m grateful for the job, but the paycheck makes reaching my goals more possible than not having a paycheck at this point in time.

I’m not always as aware of how good I have it as I maybe could be, but I was on Monday. It turned out, tai chi was totally worth it.

Regaining My Power: Financial Independence

Just to be clear, I’m not. Financially independent, that is. But becoming so is getting ever higher on my list of priorities.

I’m one of the 30 or 40% of Millenials living with their parents. I am one of the 19% of Americans with a negative net worth. I am one of the growing number of people that works full time but doesn’t make enough to cover my bills. Despite being employed for all but one year post-college, I was on the verge of homelessness before I moved into my parents’ attic. None of those years were at minimum wage, either.

My peers have been heard to say the following:

“I’m always going to be in debt, so why shouldn’t I go on that cruise?”

“You just don’t want me to have nice things (the occasional Starbucks) because I’m poor.”

“I wouldn’t buy a house even if I could afford one, they’re a financial trap.”

“I’m never going to be able to retire, so why shouldn’t I have fun now?”

You know what? This game sucks and I don’t want to play it anymore. The rules only apply to some of us and we’re the ones so exhausted by the merry-go-round of money in, money out, more money out, loan in, debt payments out that even if we can see how screwed up it is, we don’t have the energy to change it. Assuming we aren’t so afraid of losing our jobs that we wouldn’t dare make a peep.

Financial Independence means different things to different people. For some people it means being able to live it up and spend money like water. For others it means pursuing dreams the cubicle tried to kill. Getting there can happen lots of ways, too. All but zero expenses (freegans, anyone?) mean all but zero income needed. Spending money like water means you have to build/inherit a financial waterfall.

Right now my interest in financial independence is so that I can give a big middle finger to a system that only deigns to notice me to see how much they can convince me to spend and work to make a few people richer. People who are not me. I want to not fear losing my job when I say things like, “employees who are supposed to act like grown-ups should be paid like grown-ups.” If I get fired for it, I want it to be their loss, not mine. Over time I’m sure the focus will mature past profanity, but it’s not a bad place to start. Because it’s making me start.

So where am I right now? In the hole, like most people. Credit card and car loan debt equaling half my annual income. I’ve been tracking my income and expenses for a little over 18 months now, so I’m getting a grasp on where it’s all going. I have a job with overtime potential assuming I can balance it against not losing my mind, followed by the job. I’m not paying rent or interest on my loans thanks to generous parents. I have about $500 cash hidden away to give me a little feeling of control over life. Between actual savings and my 401(k) I have about $1400. Turns out I had more in the 401(k) than I thought!

Where do I need to end up? As a ballpark number, I need my monthly expenses times 300. The other way to get there is annual expenses times 25, but I tend to think in months. If I call my expenses $2,500, which would include rent money, that comes to about $750,000 in investments that allow for a 4% withdrawal without touching the principal. As interim goals, $30,000 in investments will give me $100 per month which would be enough to show up on my chart. $1,000 per month ($300,000) would let me pursue part-time work if I chose.

So how do I get there? After all, $30,000 is technically more than a year’s full-time pay at $14.00 per hour. As Grandpa is fond of saying, you can get rich slowly. It worked for him and for a lot of other people, too. I do pick up a lottery ticket when I think the universe really owes me, but so far the universe hasn’t agreed. In the meantime, this is where all of the tracking of expenses comes in. In the last few months what I’ve been spending on food has been steadily rising. Why? Because the “I deserve sushi instead of a home-packed lunch because work sucks” expenses were rising. The same thing was happening with my book expenses. After all, as an aspiring writer, of course I want the author to get paid. That only happens when you buy the book new. That, and the ones I wanted to get lost in were too hard to find in used bookstores. Now that I’ve identified those trends, I can ask myself if grocery store sushi will really make me feel better, or is it wishful thinking? Since I’ve already bought several books new by this author, wouldn’t it be ok to support a local business that will track down used copies of the rest for me?

This is going to be a long process. I figure I’ve got two years left on the outstanding loan balances before I can make serious headway on the investments, although I have started setting aside some money to invest. During this process I’m a fan of the “stop and consider” method of reducing your purchases rather than punitive thoughts. Some days sushi really will make me feel better. There are some authors I want to support more strongly than others. Telling myself I’m stupid and poor and need to get my crap together instead of being a needy wuss is just going to make me buy more books to drown those thoughts. The flip side of this is I need to work on making more money. Overtime, side hustles (come on, bees!), and job hunting are all on the table. The difference between what’s coming in and what I’m spending will determine how long I’m stuck in this lousy game. The bigger I can make that difference, the faster I’ll have the leverage to start changing the game.

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The actual numbers are beside the point. What’s important is that my income (blue) is almost always higher than my outgo (black). My debt is literally off the chart, so it’s being tracked in the red numbers up top instead of dots. Because the blue dots are almost always above the black dots, those red numbers are slowly counting down. Before I reach the end of the current sheet, I’m hoping to need to track my savings in numbers instead of my debt.

Regaining My Power: Success?

To live an average middle-class life it costs a family about $130,000 per year. To afford a two-bedroom apartment in Maine, a worker needs to be making at least $18.05 per hour. Nationally, to afford a one bedroom apartment, a worker needs to be making at least $15.50 per hour. Remember these numbers.

In the last few months I was offered and accepted a permanent position with a company. Like many similar companies, they do temp-to-hire most of the time which means that for 90(ish) days, their new employees are without insurance or job stability. It’s a 90-day interview. I like the company, they like me. Now that I’m a “real” employee I have insurance and paid vacation along with the limited job security one gets these days. They are proud to be offering competitive wages. I’ve certainly seen worse for similar jobs, though I have heard of better in the area.

I am making $14.00 per hour. Please refer to paragraph #1.

The solution to this, of course, is to “get a better job.” The problem is that this is a “better job.” I’m not flipping burgers, here. (The fact that burger-flippers deserve a living wage, too, is a discussion for another day.) This job doesn’t require a college degree to do the work but good luck getting an interview if you don’t have either a degree or a fair amount of work experience. It’s an office job where I get to be in a temperature-controlled environment and stare at multiple computer monitors all day long. This is supposed to be a job to strive for.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about this particular company twisting the screws on us poor workers. I believe that they genuinely believe they’re doing well enough by their workers with what they offer. I’m not silly enough to ask them to do well by their workers at such an insignificant level as the literal interface between the customers and the company, but I think they are earnest in doing well enough. The problem is the paradigm in which a company can earnestly offer wages that are competitive in the local economy yet still offer too little to allow them to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

This, of course, leads into my current personal struggle. I have had a job, mostly full time, for pretty much my entire adult life. I have not had a minimum wage job since I was shelving books at the library at 16. When I wasn’t employed, I was living off of my own money, such as it was. Since I sold my last horse, I have no outrageous spending habits to support. Yet, despite all of that, I am living in my parents house because it wouldn’t have been long before I was homeless if I hadn’t moved here.

I have a “better job,” and I have future prospects at the company, provided they don’t take offense at this post. Somehow I’m supposed to be grateful for this opportunity. But grateful for what? For another 30 to 50 years of mostly getting by, hopefully, while someone else gets rich off of my work? A coworker is making now what they were making the year I was born, so in 30 years I may still be making $14.00. If I’m not doing it at this job, it’s not like any other “better job” would offer me another option. My supervisor was kind enough to tell us permanent hires that they’re always watching us; it’s like every day is an interview. She said it very sweetly, she’s very sweet, but the very idea of 40+ hours worth of interview each week is rather exhausting. She’s right, though. There’s no such thing as getting a job and being sure to keep it as long as you don’t do anything really, truly heinous.

I have achieved success. I have a job that will almost pay my bills and firing me out of hand is slightly harder than when I was a temp. I have health insurance whose deductible is only two weeks worth of pay before it kicks in (that’s the pay before I cover silly things like food and rent). I have the opportunity to reach up into middle management.

Could someone remind me why I’m playing this game again? I’ve forgotten.

On Raccoons and Reality

IMG_6927As you know, I have chickens. I have them for eggs, meat, entertainment, learning, and just a little dependence taken away from The Man. This spring I got more layers, turkeys, and some meat birds to expand my flock. For the layers, I got ones that lay cool egg colors. The meat birds were to see if I could butcher them myself.

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Then the verb for my chicken keeping became had.

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Here’s the thing — I could blame the raccoons. I could get angry or weepy and then go out and trap and shoot every last one of ’em. Technically that’s not legal until October, but I doubt any of the neighbors would complain. Then I could go out and trap and shoot all of their relatives that wander onto our property. Then I could trap and shoot all of their relatives that expand into my territory. It’s mine, after all (more or less), so I get to decide what’s allowed!

Or — I could look at it through the lens of reality. Despite their reputations and super-villain masks, raccoons are not evil. In fact, I suspect that they are thoroughly amoral like the rest of the natural world. They didn’t go after my birds because they wanted to hurt me or push my healing back or so they could cackle with malicious glee when I came out to see the death and destruction. They killed my birds because I left delicious, easy food that couldn’t fight back in non-raccoon-proof containers. Er, coops. That’s all. That’s reality.

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I’ve been wrestling with an idea for a while and this situation helped me to define it. See, there’s the reality we’re sold and then there’s real reality. They aren’t the same.

Sold reality: Getting chickens is great for your health, encouraging exercise, fresh air, and laughter (have you ever seen a chicken run?). I’m taking business away from those awful factory farms and I’m doing my part to bring food knowledge back to The People. Maybe I can even start my own business with it. It’s happy and shiny and so Martha Stewarty!

Real reality: I accepted responsibility for animals that would find it difficult at best to survive in Maine without human intervention for a lot of reasons. Food and shelter from the elements were handled well. The massive amount of wildlife was ignored despite several warning shots. Also, egg businesses? They rarely so much as break even.

Now, I had a lot of excuses for not taking the threats more seriously. I may even have one or two legitimate reasons.

Raccoons and reality really don’t care.

This also extends far beyond fresh eggs and masked murdering bandits. This extends into every aspect of our lives, every decision we make.

My butt is dragging so hard on the way to work and I forgot to bring my mug to put coffee in. One plastic to-go cup won’t actually do any harm, right?

Raccoons, reality, and the Pacific Gyre don’t care.

I have to have a job to pay my debts and maybe, eventually, I’ll even get to pay rent again. The only jobs I can do are a 40-mile car ride each way. I gotta pay my bills.

Raccoons, reality, and atmospheric CO2 levels don’t care.

I need clothes. Not only are natural fibers out of my budget range, they’re such a pain to take care of. A few cheap, polyester outfits isn’t the end of the world.

Raccoons, reality, and the plastic we’re drinking don’t care.

I am not going to end this post with how we all need to go vegan and minimalist and if we hold hands and sing Kumbaya loud enough it’ll all work out in the end. I don’t know how to fix this. What I do know is that if we don’t become aware of the clash between the realities and do something to bring them back in alignment, real reality will win. It will win with extreme prejudice. That’s how reality works.

I also know that the first time a raccoon tries to get through the fencing with my new electric charger attached, I’ll be thrilled to report what to do with BBQ coon.

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