Archive for February, 2012

Monsanto

I will be the first to admit that I’m not as politically savvy or active as I could or probably should be. For the moment, I’ll blame that on the fact that I’m still new to this arena and I need to learn a whole lot before I can make informed decisions. Maybe one day I’ll get over the fact that every time I try to learn about politics I get so bored and/or frustrated that I give up.

However, I do know enough to give props to the little guy when we stand up for ourselves. Monsanto has been making the lives of small farmers miserable for years now. They have a nasty habit of investigating farms that haven’t purchased their seed but might be growing it. It happens. Birds fly, wind blows, and pollen moves. If a farmer is saving seeds from their organic, open pollination crops and some of those seeds were pollinated by his neighbor’s Monsanto-purchased crop, then any seed that has the patented Monsanto genes is considered to be Monsanto’s property. Even if the organic or heirloom farmer is just as annoyed as Monsanto about the contamination. Apparently one of the tests to see if there has been contamination is to spray a field with Round-Up. Anything that lives is Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready version of said plant. I have to say, the logic is impeccable.

Any farmer that is caught with Monsanto genes in their crops without having purchased the seeds directly from Monsanto is then subject to a lawsuit for illegal use of the patented material. I think everyone is aware of how little spare cash farmers have. Everything they own tends to be tied up in the farm itself. That means that even if Monsanto doesn’t win the lawsuit, the fact that the farmer has to defend him or herself means time and assets that they don’t have to spare are spent in the courts. It’s a great way to “legally” eliminate the competition. Fortunately, it looks like enough people have gotten sufficiently fed up with this game to fight back.

Not so long ago, I hadn’t the foggiest idea of the things that went on behind the scenes of the agricultural world. I grew up in farm-country, too, so it’s not as though I had no contact with that world. Even now my understanding is very vague. However, on the off chance that you believe Monsanto is being vilified here- they’re just trying to protect their patents and make a buck, after all- check this out. I, personally, don’t shop at Wal-Mart, but I know a lot of people who do. A lot of people with children. People that don’t necessarily think to check labels, assuming the pertinent ones are there, because why would something be labeled food if it wasn’t safe to eat?

I am still very much in the learning stage, here, but what I am learning is disturbing. I expect that the more I learn, the less comfortable I will be with a lot of modern practices. There is a reason that urban homesteading and self-sufficiency is regaining popularity.

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Showcase 1: Dirt!

Garden Soil

Ok, technically, soil. Somehow, though, playing in the dirt is just more fun than playing in the soil.

A friend has offered to let me work with her in her young vegetable garden to see if we can have a better yield from it than she was able to coax out of it last year. I am looking forward to my own bed in the community garden this summer, but playing in this garden will give me a chance to work with an in-ground garden instead of a raised bed and help develop the native soil into something that is willing to grow non-native plants. It also means I get to play in the dirt in mid-winter instead of waiting for my garden to open in the spring.

Partially for my own curiosity, but also because it will give us some actual data to work from, we had samples analyzed. We dug several holes in the garden itself, though not many, as it’s a petite garden. I also pulled a sample from a side garden that was hosting junipers and not much else. The extra sample was an un-adulterated sample of the yard, as opposed to the vegetable garden that had bagged organic material added to it for the last growing season. It would give me a look at what I would be facing with “Colorado” soil as opposed to “garden” soil.

Colorado Soil

 I took the samples home to dry before we mailed them off to the Colorado State Extension Office for the basic soil test. They offer quite a few different ones, but the basic test offers quite a bit of information for your basic garden. For both samples, phosphorous, zinc, iron, manganese, copper, and boron were adequate to high, and well within normal ranges. The extra sample came back as low potassium, but the vegetable garden came back as high potassium. They also both came back with low electrical conductivity, so the soil wasn’t too saline. Both samples tested low in nitrate and organic matter, with the extra sample slightly lower in each.

There were a couple of surprises, however. The vegetable garden came back with a pH of 7.5 while the other sample was only 6.1. The explanation of that, in part, is probably that the vegetable garden had very high lime, while the other sample was low. The classifications of the soil types were also a bit of a surprise. The vegetable garden was loamy sand, or, basically, sand with a little clay and silt. The other sample was sandy clay loam, or a more even split of sand and clay with a little silt.

Drying things is so easy out here!

I have my suspicions that the high lime, and therefore high pH, were caused by additives in the bagged organic material added earlier. They were purchased from a large chain store, so they would not necessarily formulate the material for the local needs. Where gardening can be easier, the higher rainfall causes the soil to be more acidic, necessitating the addition of lime. We don’t have that problem.

 
For the vegetable garden, what we need is organic material, nitrogen, and possibly to lower the pH, though that isn’t necessarily a requirement. It is high, but not out of the growing range. For organic material, it took me a while, but I talked her into letting us use horse manure as soon as I can find a source. If we get it soon, it will have time to decompose, but if I’m not able to locate it by the end of the month, I believe we’ll do better with composted manure so that we don’t burn the young plants. Horse manure is going to be cheap or free, letting us use a lot to really work the organic material deep into the soil. The extension office offered several possible solutions to the low nitrogen issue. I believe the one we will go with will be ammonium sulfate, however, as that will also help us address the high pH.
 
Showcase 1- January 2012

It’s a small garden, only 66X75″, but that will just make it an exercise in efficient use of space. We are still hammering out the details of what to grow and how to wedge it all in, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what this dirt, er, soil, can give us this year.

Vulnerability

I went to the grocery store yesterday afternoon. I was genuinely out of some things. Namely, vegetables. However, the first flakes were falling for a storm that is expected to last into tomorrow, so the place was fairly busy.

Back in Pennsylvania, where I grew up, news like this would have cleared the grocery stores of milk, bread, and toilet paper. I remember one or two storms that really did shut things down for a few days, but most storms only offered a 50/50 chance at a snow day, let alone the grocery store shutting down. It seems that folks out here have a better grasp of that. Or I missed the rush.

I’d spent the previous 48 hours or so locked in my apartment with nothing but the flu for company. Just in case you weren’t aware, it makes for a lousy companion. However, my inability to do much more than make myself tea and heat up broth did give me some time to think. Between naps, that is. It started with the state of my larder. Basically, it’s your standard bachelor’s larder minus the old take-out meals and probably a few less condiments. I wanted veggies in my soup, and I didn’t have any. I don’t keep many, as I’m only cooking for one, so keeping a lot of them around would probably just be wasteful. Unfortunately, I hadn’t done my usual shopping the weekend before for an unknown reason, so my usually spare collection was flat out missing. Not having nutritious food around when you are fighting a fever is not a very good idea.

My own lack of ability to feed myself as I should have reminded me of a point that Sundari Kraft had made in class. Denver has enough food to feed itself for two days if it is cut off from outside sources at any given time. I believe that is a pretty standard amount of time for most cities. However, anything that is going to cut off outside access to food, is going to cut off other essentials, too. Most of the little food stores I have depend on my refrigerator and freezer. I also have electric heat. If I lose electricity, I will lose my food stores and my ability to keep my living area warmer than it is outside. Given today’s weather, it might not be too long before that means frozen pipes and no more water.

I know this sounds like fear-mongering, but I’m not talking about the Apocalypse or terrorists. I’m talking about good, old-fashioned natural disasters. I don’t care what your stance on the temperature of the globe is. The fact that weather has been getting less predictable and more intense can’t be denied. This is not a new problem, and has been a particular problem for cities. In fact, the Boston subway system, the T, was begun for exactly that reason. They watched their neighbor to the south, a little town called New York, lose 200 people to one blizzard in 1888 because there was no way to get to them for help. It’s an old example, but the name Katrina brings to mind a much more recent one. What happens when there are a lot of people and no resources?

I have lived in apartments for years. Most single people do until they are ready to purchase a home, if they ever decide to do so. It’s a convenient arrangement. They pay a fixed amount and then have few worries. The landlord is responsible for broken appliances and finding a new renter when the current tenant moves on to the next phase. But the more I learn and think about being independent, the more I realize exactly how vulnerable apartments can make you. The most obvious point is that you are not only on the grid, but you don’t have any alternative. If I lose electricity, I don’t have an alternative heat-source. I also can’t think of one that would be safe to use in an apartment due to ventilation issues. I have no alternative for cooking on my electric stove. My alternative for food preservation will be my deck, assuming it’s cold enough outside to keep my food from spoiling.

It’s not that owning a home or even living in the country makes you invulnerable. Growing up, our road often didn’t get plowed until Dad did it himself, making sure that we and our neighbors could get to the main road. Our well went dry once or twice, and the septic, well, that was always fun. It’s not even like owning a home or land means it’s yours. We don’t have to ask farmers anymore about how easy it is to lose your land. Just ask the neighbor who was foreclosed upon. But there were perks. We had a huge vegetable garden. When we lost electricity, we pulled buckets of water out of the pond to force-flush the toilets. We had trees on our property to stock the woodshed for our fireplace that later became a coalstove. My grandparents’ house even had an outhouse for a very long time.

“Being Prepared” these days seems to be relegated to the Scouts of both genders and those nutters that think the world is going to end for various reasons. After all, the corner convenience store is always open, and the grocery store is never closed for more than a day or two. If all else fails, the government will step in, right? But what happens if that isn’t true? What if you have to survive for a week or a month until help does arrive? Could you? Looking at my current circumstances, I’m not sure I could.