Posts Tagged ‘community’

The Company Store

I just started watching a show that takes place in a turn-of-the-century coal mining town in Canada. It’s a Hallmark show that’s clearly shaping up to be a romance, so it’s rather saccharin, but it’s pretty cute nonetheless.

The show is about a silver-spoon sort of city girl who takes a position as a teacher out in this coal mining town. The mothers of the town had hired her to give their children the sort of education that would keep them from having to go into the mines themselves when they grew up. As if that weren’t challenge enough- three months before the teacher arrived, there had been an explosion in the mine, leaving a large chunk of her students suddenly without fathers. They only found the last of the bodies when she got there. This, of course, left a lot of widows in company housing without husbands to work in the mines to pay for the company housing.

This is a Hallmark show, so it does its best to gloss over much of the reality of working and living in a company town. However, by episode two, the notices had gone out to evict the widows and children from the company housing to make room for the miners the boss was looking to bring in. The teacher is working with the widows to try and figure out how they can stay in their own homes. She comes up with a solution that has a legal precedent and goes about setting it in motion. It’s thwarted because the supplies she needs would be from the company store and are suddenly unavailable for her to purchase.

If you aren’t familiar with what a company store was, they were a brilliant (devious, terrible) way for the boss to keep both the profits and the workers within the company. Mining towns were notorious for them. I believe railroad towns also frequently used them. It was an option for basically any business model that took their workers and isolated them away from any other store options. If the company store is the only place that you can buy your food, clothes, and other necessities, then that’s what you did. You paid the outrageous prices, you took on debt if you couldn’t pay cash, and, as the song says, you owe your soul to the company store. It wasn’t uncommon to work for the company until you died, trying to pay the debts you couldn’t avoid racking up.

What does this long-winded report on a slightly silly tv show have to do with anything? After all, we don’t have company stores anymore. There’s almost no way to isolate workers away from any and all forms of purchasing power. We all drive past Walmarts, Targets, and malls and have the right to stop in and spend our money in any or all of them as we see fit (or can afford). Sure we have debt, but it’s not to our employer. It’s to a bank or a credit card company. Totally different than that coal mining town.

Or is it? Look at America. The bulk of us work for anything from lousy to crap wages. Maybe an iPhone isn’t quite the necessity that a ribbed wash-board was in the coal town, but the advertising that we are immersed in sure wants us to think it is. So we pay out all of our cash for things that we need. Then we take on debt for things that we need but can’t afford. Then how do we pay this debt? We keep going to the soulless job with the crap wages because we don’t have/can’t see any other options. But between the things we still need and the money we aren’t making, our debt only gets worse.

Maybe we think company stores don’t exist because we have nothing to compare them to. Can’t see the forest for the trees and all that. I have been trying to think of companies that I know that are, say, 80% free from the corporate world. I think I came up with a small handful, but most of them are tiny, struggling, and unlikely to be noticed outside of niche communities in their town. There are few to no viable options outside of what has become normal. Normal, of course, being items that we are told we need produced in massive amounts with the absolute minimal inputs and created to be worn out in no time flat.

I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy, here. I’ve gotten over that. What I am saying is that the bosses are still more than able to keep the profits and the workers exactly where they want them. Has America become the company town for the wealthy elite? Have we all become workers in a coal town with no prospects and no future away from what is right in front of us? I don’t want to be right about this, but I’m also having a hard time seeing where this logic train could have gone wrong.

So . . . now what?

Tiny House Jamboree: Conclusion

Just like this post, seeing the Tumbleweed was totally worth the wait.

Just like this post, seeing the Tumbleweed was totally worth the wait.

I apologize for the wait. Moving, among other stresses, has pushed blogging a bit too far down the “to do” list.

My favorite speaker from the Tiny House Expo was Jay Schafer, one of the founders of the movement. His tiny home was designed and built in 1999 and was hands-down my favorite at the show. Of course, I have a growing love for little, simple cabins, which is essentially what his was. He is also the one that said the definition of a tiny home is any house in which every square foot is used well. The idea is that there are a whole lot of options between 100 square feet and 3,000 square feet because, in the end, it has to be what’s right for you, personally.

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Jay’s talk was about his personal journey, but he shared more than just a narrative and a flair for storytelling. He shared lessons he’d learned and philosophies he’d developed. And his laid-back, open manner made it clear why this is such a welcoming movement. He couldn’t have inspired anything else.

Personally, I'd need a little more kitchen, but it does keep you to the essentials!

Personally, I’d need a little more kitchen, but it does keep you to the essentials!

The step he suggests that you start with is to create a list of what you actually need to live. This could take two or three years, so be patient. He did this, himself, when he spent two years living in an Airstream trailer. While he was scraping ice off the inside walls of the Airstream, he determined that insulation was pretty high on the list of things you actually need to live. However, he also believes that your house does not need to be your whole universe. If you’re living in a tiny house village, there’s no reason you can’t share amenities like washing machines or a library.

You're not going to fit a whole lot of amenities in this living space, so pick the right ones. (Gotta say, the people watching that weekend was pretty fun!)

You’re not going to fit a whole lot of amenities in this living space, so pick the right ones. (Gotta say, the people watching that weekend was pretty fun!)

He hadn’t intended to start a tiny house movement. After all, tiny homes used to be normal. Hippy shacks, settler’s cabins, even caves weren’t the massive homes that have become normal. The word tiny came about because a “small” house was 2,000 square feet in the 1990s. Once he found out that tiny homes were illegal, though, it suddenly became imperative to live in one, himself. So he built a house called The Tumbleweed.

There was no ladder into that loft, and, unlike some of the more limber visitors, I wasn't about to do a chin-up for a peek up there.

There was no ladder into that loft, and, unlike some of the more limber visitors, I wasn’t about to do a chin-up for a peek up there.

Every self-built tiny home is a self-portrait of the builder. As Jay pointed out, so much of life is about home and how we live in the universe. Are you a community type that lives in a village? Are you the unibomber type that lives alone in the woods? I’m more the latter type, myself, but I can see the charm of living surrounded by people that have similar goals in life. The house is also about boiling everything down to the essence. What does home mean? Because it means something slightly different to each person, each home will express it differently. As they should.

When you’re building your house (or even having it built), there’s no reason to build to the lowest common denominator. I think that’s the problem with RVs, really. They aren’t built for beauty unless you’re willing to pay so much you may as well have it custom-built. The design should be not just efficient and useful, but also such that the materials aren’t ugly. Any material, from tin to mahogany, can be attractive or not depending on how it’s used.

I am heartily in favor of "home" including a kettle on the stove!

I am heartily in favor of “home” including a kettle on the stove!

One of the challenges Jay faced was finding room for his art materials. As any artist or crafter can attest, one’s stash of necessary materials has the potential to get out of hand pretty easily. Then he realized that art is simply the practice for real life. Real life is living artfully. Your glasses, windows, chairs, and walls can substitute for art.

Isn't that window an artful detail? I love it!

Isn’t that window an artful detail? I love it!

As of 2015, the minimum room size for the building codes dropped from 120 square feet to 70 square feet, though they still require a separate bathroom. (Don’t forget that building to code can happen without meeting the zoning standards. Legally, you have to meet both.) Codes are supposed to be to protect the health and wellbeing of the people- so where is the proof that these size rooms are really necessary for health and wellbeing? As a people’s movement, it is up to the people to push for more logic in the rules that are restricting us from building the house we need as opposed to the house we’re told to have.

You can fit a lot into this storage area- if you've done the internal work to know what you really need.

You can fit a lot into this storage area- if you’ve done the internal work to know what you really need.

Jay concluded his presentation by warning us that the biggest danger is from within. “Tinier than thou” exclusivity could drive out both newcomers and new ideas from those who have been with the movement since it started. There is also the possibility of corruption from within, like the organic movement. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean that it’s an efficient use of space or a way for the owner to really do the soul-searching necessary to live the life this movement is about. However, if we keep the movement of and by the people, it will continue to flourish.

Jay was my favorite speaker, not just because he was fun to listen to and had some very quotable statements, but because he exuded the self-assurance of someone who has figured out what they need out of life, what they want out of life, and how to go about fulfilling both. That makes him not just someone to listen to, but someone to aspire to. Just as each of our homes end up looking different, the way we express how we fit into the world will be different. But the ability to figure out who we are and what that place in the world is, is something that many people have trouble getting to. In no small part because they’re so caught up in their big house, big mortgage, and big piles of stuff that they just don’t have the energy left over to examine their lives in depth.

I have been thinking for a while, now, that I needed to get a better handle on my “stuff” and probably thin the herd quite a bit. Going to the Jamboree and particularly listening to Jay is giving me a positive reason to make the change. Previously it had been negative- I hate moving all of it when I move, I never have room in my rented room or apartment for all of it, storage units get expensive. But now I have something to work toward instead of away from. I will be working toward a lighter, brighter, more complete life than the one I had while burdened with all that “stuff.” It’s a much better reason.

No room for anything but the essentials for a good life!

No room for anything but the essentials for a good life!

Tiny House Jamboree- Colorado Springs: Part 2

I think kits are half-way between buy and build.

I think kits are half-way between buy and build.

One of the speakers gave a talk that I gathered is a new consideration for the movement. Laura Higgins discussed the choice to buy or to build. The decision is ultimately answered by designing your life around what matters. Is it more important to learn the diverse skills necessary to build a house- and make no mistake, it is a house- or is it more important to get into the house quickly? Is this temporary housing or a permanent move? If you’re building, do you have access to skills (yours or in your community), time (months), space for building, and materials (new or reclaimed). If you are buying, do you have the cash in the bank or financing? Having it built or buying a ready-built one will cost more than building it yourself, but the cost is usually known up front, unlike any building project, ever. In either case, have you walked through enough plans to be sure this will work for you? She even suggested taping out the plan on the floor so you can “live” in it to give it a dry run before building or buying. In the end, though, be open about your journey. People want to help and hearing about your journey may help them in return. Also, be confident in your decision. It is, after all, yours to make.

I'm not sure why there are complaints about these houses. It's adorable!

I’m not sure why there are complaints about these houses. It’s adorable!

Whether you build or buy, you will need to think about how you plan to use it and the codes and zoning that are associated with those uses. Because zoning trumps everything, that’s where you want to start. This is city and/or county down to HOA rules. They may include things like whether or not RVs are legal, minimum square-footage, and shape/aesthetic requirements. Once you’ve figured out those rules, then you can get into the building codes. The original tiny homes were what Darin Zaruba and Andrew Morrison described as “piece of shed on a trailer.” In other words, not to any particular code. The first code they discussed is the RVIA code, or the code for RVs. Tumbleweed and Sprout builders, among others, build theirs so they are registered as RVs. This means they are built to a national standard. Unfortunately, if your zoning doesn’t allow RVs, it won’t allow these tiny homes. The next step up is HUD code, or mobile homes. Unfortunately, it’s the factory that is certified. If you’re building the house yourself, this certification is not an option. The next step up is the IRC, or International Residential Code. They won’t certify a building on wheels, but why is your tiny house on wheels, anyway? Because you genuinely want to be mobile, or because you didn’t know there were other options? It is possible to build a tiny home to their code as long as you meet the minimum size and room number requirements.

Several of the lofts even came with models to show how spacious they are.

Several of the lofts even came with models to show how spacious they are.

There were some additional interesting tidbits from that talk. After 15 years of work, there is now an IRC National Strawbale Code. Change does happen if enough people want it badly enough. Legal egresses are not, in fact, about allowing you to get out if your home is on fire. The minimums are designed so that when you are unconscious from smoke inhalation, an average-sized firefighter can come in the building and save you. Given the size of tiny homes, and the fact that the bedroom is just a loft (IRC does require a separate bedroom) a second egress isn’t technically a requirement, but it might be a good idea to consider how you can skedaddle if anything goes wrong, because the house won’t last long enough for firefighters to get there. Apparently there is such a thing as the fastest tiny house- raced on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Could someone find me that video? I was not able to.

This arrived as a trailer and a kit on Friday. By the middle of Sunday . . .

This arrived as a trailer and a kit on Friday. By the middle of Sunday . . .

If you are interested in building your tiny house on wheels, Damon Deschampes talked to us about what to look for in a trailer. The original tiny homes were frequently built on utility trailers for lack of a better option. They are finding that as the originals age, utility trailers were less than the best choice. They are built for short-term hauling, not permanent, heavy weights. The laws concerning trailers change from state to state and they are currently fluctuating even within states. However, their research indicates that if you keep the height under 13’6″ and the width, including eves, under 102″, it should be road legal without additional permits. It is possible to get permits to move it if you build it taller or wider, but each state requires their own for each trip, so it’s inconvenient to build it bigger if you’re planning on keeping it mobile. You also want to take into account how you attach the house to the foundation because every time you move it, you are subjecting it to earthquake-like movements of 5-6 on the Richter scale and hurricane force winds. One last thought is to check the credentials of the experts you rely on. Make sure they aren’t snake-oil salesmen.

If we're going for productive land use, this one even has a chicken coop!

If we’re going for productive land use, this one even has a chicken coop!

Given all the interest in tiny homes and alternative living options, if you have land, there are people who are looking for places to park. Jan Burton and Sam Austin talked to us about ADUs, accessory dwelling units. They are actually legal in much of Colorado Springs, but check your HOAs and, if you live elsewhere, google ADU and your town. What they’ve found is that it’s great for increasing the population density without increasing the use of cars the way apartment buildings do. It gives rental income, often long-term, and allows homeowners to create living units, not developers. It’s possible to create an ADU either as an internal divide of a current house or as a detached unit. I suspect the internal divide would be easier to get past picky neighbors and HOAs, since the requirements on detached units tend to be stringent.

Once again, I’ve run out of room. My conclusion and favorite speaker will have to wait for Part 3.

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Tiny House Jamboree- Colorado Springs: Part 1

The houses were tiny. The crowd was not.

The houses were tiny. The crowd was not.

I was lucky enough to hear about the Tiny House Jamboree just in time to sign up to go. I didn’t get to make it the first day, a Friday, but I did make it for the other two. Me and about 17,000 other people. Apparently the turnout was . . . unexpected. But even with the long lines for food and tiny house tours, the people were cheerful and chatty. Like any group who finally finds others that share their non-mainstream interests. It happened to be in my back yard, but there were people who came from around the country and around the world to join in the festivities.

The houses came in all shapes and sizes.

The houses came in all shapes and sizes.

I listened to most of the speakers, and the one thing that struck me about all of them is that this movement may be going mainstream, but its arms are still open wide for anyone who wants to learn and participate. And it also embraces many, many different ways of expressing “tiny living.” Once upon a time, you had to build, and probably even design, your own house. Now, you can buy one pre-made. You still count as part of the community. One speaker even defined a “tiny house” as any house in which every square foot is used well. If you are fully utilizing every space in a 5,000 square foot house he might question your definition of “utilize,” but he believes that you count, too. It is not about shoe-horning yourself into the tiniest space you can manage, but about defining and using only the space you actually need.

I kind of fell in love with the Gypsy Wagon Stages they brought in.

I kind of fell in love with the Gypsy Wagon Stages they brought in.

In fact, it felt very much as if the tiny houses themselves were really secondary to what the actual movement was about. The movement itself seems to be about redefining each person and their place in the world so that instead of living the way society says they “should” live, they have the option to live as they, themselves, believe they should. Tiny homes tend to have tinier bills attached, and if you’re only living in 200 or even 500 square feet of space, you really have to think about the “stuff” that you spend your money on. If you’re freed up from the heating and cooling bills from a McMansion and you simply don’t have room to put yet another enormous TV, what do you do with your money? All of a sudden, you have options.

They call it a yurt, but, given the space on the inside, it might have been a TARDIS.

They call it a yurt, but, given the space on the inside, it might have been a TARDIS.

One of the speakers was Vina Lustado, an architect who was discussing design with us. She believes that beyond aesthetics, and function, design can redefine your lifestyle, environment, and community. In short, design is a process in which to solve a problem. She was brought to the tiny movement because, as an architect, she found herself constantly working for big projects for big companies with big budgets. It was all about big mortgages and big cars. Big, big, and more big. But all that big comes with big bills that tie you down. That didn’t sit well with her. So she designed herself a home and a life that didn’t require the big mortgages and big bills, which then let her branch off to start helping others with their tiny dreams.

Some people need gardens . . .

Some people need gardens . . .

Going against the grain can be scary, though. Andrew Morrison discussed this fear- and the fear that keeps us from doing a lot of the things that would make us better people and the world a better place. His definition of a tiny house is “human-sized.” The right size is defined by what is appropriate to you, personally. The hard part of this is that you can’t ask someone else what the “right size” is. You have to ask yourself, and be honest, about who you are and what your needs are. What are the things that bring you joy that you don’t do? Why not? Now, one layer deeper, really why not? According to Jack Hanfield, everything you want is on the other side of fear. Andrew pointed out that fear is also a message. What is it really telling you? You’re afraid you won’t be able to pay the mortgage. Then invert it- what you really desire is financial stability. He likes to invert things to give them a positive slant. Eliminating debt is less satisfying than building wealth, because you’re running from, not running toward. What is standing between you and your passions? How do you resolve or remove that block? In the end, it’s not about succeeding, it’s about not giving up.

I have lived in apartments that are not only smaller, but way less inviting, than the SimBLISSity House.

I have lived in apartments that are not only smaller, but way less inviting, than the SimBLISSity House.

Byron Fears had a slightly different take on how to define your space. As a designer and builder, he spends half his time trying to talk clients into bigger spaces. It’s not because he’ll make more money, but because most people don’t take into account exactly how much room they need for the stuff they love. He lives, and builds, up in Boulder. We like our outdoor play in Colorado, and that requires gear. Multiple coats, multiple pairs of boots, skis, backpacks, bikes. In fact, on a lot of his houses, he builds on a bicycle garage for just that reason. But there are also other things that make the house a joy. Do you like to cook? Make sure you have a real kitchen, not a hotplate and a dime-sized sink. Also consider your food shopping habits. Will that tiny fridge really work if you don’t shop daily? Take into account not just who you are now, but also who you want to be. Do you see a spouse, kids, dogs, grandkids in the future? Should you build in stairs, not a ladder, because your knee isn’t going to handle a ladder for too many more years? While the couch makes for an excellent storage space, it, and the loft, should also take into account comfort and being inviting to others. On the other hand, are there silly redundancies like a bathroom sink AND a kitchen sink? Do you really need both- and the plumbing for both? In short- are you using your space for living, or for silly crap?

Having a shed is just useful when you've got hobbies.

Having a shed is just useful when you’ve got hobbies.

I have a lot more thoughts, and pictures, so I believe there will be another post with more speakers.

Feeling Like Cassandra

I’ve been watching Hercules. The Kevin Sorbo one- sometimes you just need some silly in your life. It can get preachy on values and such, but sometimes it really whips out a gem. I’m not sure how intentional it was, but “Atlantis” is an amazing parallel for those of us that see our blue island in the solar system as sinking.

Bear with me here for a minute. Hercules’ ship is struck by lightening and goes down. He’s found washed up on the beach of Atlantis by a kind and, of course, beautiful woman named Cassandra. She knew he was coming because she has visions. This is also how she knows that something terrible is going to happen to Atlantis. The legendary Cassandra was actually born of Troy and was cursed by the god Apollo to be able to see the future but never be believed. There may or may not have been a broken promise on her part, but mostly it’s because she turned down his sexual advances. The parallel is close enough for the show that was using it.

This Cassandra knows she sounds crazy- and people think she’s crazy- but she also sees how the garden her father raised her in no longer produces as it should. Rather like the people that are recognizing that even with increased use of chemicals, our food yields are not rising and are, in places, falling, despite the fact that no one in a position of authority would ever admit to it. Of course, Cassandra can actually see this because she lives outside of the city. Like a crazy person.

She doesn’t live in the city because she doesn’t want to be homogenized in with the rest. She feels no need to “keep up with the Joneses” and even believes that the myths of the gods are true. (Hercules was very confused to find himself called a myth.) As someone who grew up in the country and has been forced to live in cities due to circumstances, I sympathize with her. Each life makes its own demands on a person, and you need to pick the life whose demands you can actually accept. However, most of our world, and her world, are wholeheartedly city people. At one point, she mentions that the birds are gone which is a sign that whatever will happen is imminent. How many city people would know that little fact?

The entire city is run on the power of crystals- I wonder if that’s where the cartoon Atlantis got the idea or if that’s a “known” fact by people that study Atlantis? It gives them crystal-wave ovens (and annoying salesmen to go with it) and flying machines. Even street lamps. Not at all a blatant parallel to electricity, I’m sure.

While Cassandra is given the chance to speak, along with a back-handed insult, she is cruelly rejected by everyone when she can’t produce hard facts to back up her assertion that they are in danger. The problem with climate change is that it is not really happening on a human scale. I remember the snows we had when I was a kid in Pennsylvania that they don’t have now. The difference isn’t just because I was shorter. It’s the difference between being able to sled down our hill for most of the winter or only a handful of times during the winter. Looking around at the size and severity of storms on the rise is concerning, but hard to point to as a hard fact. Memories can be wrong and Katrina, Sandy, and this late-season hail storm were flukes, not the new normal don’tcha know? I cannot say that 2014 is x degrees warmer than 2013 and 2015 will be y degrees warmer which will cause z, and you’ll see it no later than 2016. The planet works on her own schedule, and it’s not a human one. There will be ups and downs, good years and bad, but the trend is not going in a good direction if you can look past what it means to next week’s stock prices. Not to mention the fact that there is no real historical precedent for this, so it’s really hard to predict what we have no basis for.

“In Atlantas, order and progress are supreme. You might say they’re our religion.” Replace “Atlantis” with “US” and, well, you get the picture. There is a constant theme with the Atlanteans that technology will solve all of their problems and to live anywhere else is to live among savages and uncivilized people.

Another parallel is invisible slaves. No, I’m not talking about oil, though that is part of it. I’m talking about the actual humans that were hidden under Atlantis to mine their crystals and the actual humans hidden in third-world countries to make our stuff. The sailors that had been with Hercules hadn’t all died as he’d feared. They’d been collected off the beach by the king’s men and put to work in the mines so that the citizens would have no idea there were slaves on the island. Ok, so technically we have moved beyond barbaric things like slaves and colonization in these modern times, but try telling that to someone who works 10 or 12 hour days to make not quite enough to feed their family. At least when we owned slaves it was in our best interests to keep our investments alive and more or less healthy.

I was wrong about what finally does the island in. I thought it was going to be the sky-scraper proposed early on that had a remarkably familiar shape . . . It’s Hercules, so jealous gods doing a Tower of Babel on it would be pretty much par for the course. But it wasn’t. It was the very human folly of mining under more of the island than the island could support and not listening to the warning signs that the invisible slaves and Cassandra were seeing. Kind of like burning too much fossil fuel for our oceans and atmosphere to absorb and not listening to the scientists and citizens that were noticing the early warning signs like increased storm activity and increasingly acidic oceans.

The final and best, or worst depending on your view, parallel is the chaos and deaths of ordinary citizens because they trusted their king to take care of them, not realizing that their king’s interests were in keeping the status quo while Cassandra just wanted to save people. Our “king,” be it government, industry, the stock market, has a vested interest in negating the words of our Cassandras for as long as they can. Their reigns were build on the world as it was, not the world the Cassandras know will be, however imperfect their visions are. The question is, who do you trust, and will you decide before the island disappears?

Farm Lesson: Weathah

I had another idea for the first lesson, but part of farming is the ability to roll with what life throws you. That means that this lesson is currently more important.

In my family, we recognize two kinds of weather. Weather is sun, rain, clouds, snow- no big deal. Weathah, on the other hand, is when you batten down the hatches and put on your sou’wester because the nor’easter is going to beat the tar out of you. Not being a coastal state, Colorado doesn’t really go in for nor’easters, but we do have our own versions of weathah. One of the worst types for farmers being hail. Overnight between August 25 and 26, the farm got nailed by hail. The hail itself wasn’t so big, but it just kept coming until most of our plants were little more than stems, their leaves all shredded. This would have been bad if it had happened in spring or the early summer when most hail strikes, but because it hit at the end of August, it’s devastating.

The reason that this hail is devastating rather than just a royal pain is because it’s too late in the season for most of the plants to recover. Many of our crops have already set the fruit they were going to set and don’t have time to set new. This is particularly true of the winter squash that I’ve been looking forward to since May when we planted them. We are able to start harvesting many of them anyway, but we found very few that look like they’ll be able to keep the way they usually should. I’m starting to think of things in terms of self-sufficiency, and having squash that won’t sell well is one thing, but if this were being harvested to be our carbs for the winter, we’d be in serious trouble. Our potatoes are in great shape, since they were hidden underground, but just potatoes for carbs gets pretty boring.

The other aspect of this is that we went from too many jobs and not enough hands to not enough jobs and too many hands. If the farm weren’t backed by PPCF, most or all of us would have been out of a job on the 26th. As it is, our hours are being cut because there just isn’t enough to do. As a farm employee, I knew that the work would go from crazy to nothing pretty much overnight, but that wasn’t supposed to happen for another month and a half or two months. However, I also know that this is a job that tends to be feast or famine. Rather literally. When you can plan and prepare for the down times, they can be a wonderful break from the intensity of the work. However, this wasn’t in the plan. Having some extra time of is pretty nice, but it’s going to be less nice when I get the smaller paycheck.

We are telling our customers what happened and that we will have less to offer for the rest of the season, but I got the impression that only some of them realized what this actually means. I think most of them are so accustomed to going from farm stand to farm stand at the market and then picking up anything else they need at the grocery store on the way home, that our lack of produce means very little. They’ll just get it somewhere else. It’s not their fault, we’ve been conditioned this way for 50+ years. However, something like this could spell the end of a small farm, which would mean one less producer of local food. You can only always get it “somewhere else” as long as food is being brought in from “somewhere else.”

What this lesson is really driving home for me is the fragility of our food system. Whether you “believe” in climate change or not, I think it’s getting pretty clear that weather is getting more extreme. It’s not going to be long before weathah is as common as weather, and that’s a problem. For the time being, we can import what we need, but what happens if California dries up or, worse, falls into the ocean? What happens when gas gets so expensive that it’s not worth shipping food half-way across the country- or world- to us? How are we going to handle an already delicate food system that is going to be battered by too much need and not enough predictability of growing conditions? I don’t know, but we need to figure it out.

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.

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.

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.

Who Is John Galt?

I just finished watching the first two Atlas Shrugged movies. The third one should come out this year. I read the book a while ago, and I do still remember how the story ends- although I am curious how many minutes John Galt’s multi-page speech turns out to be.

I am not a follower of Ayn Rand. I think she was very traumatized by what happened in her country of birth and what she thought was happening in her country of refuge and that comes out in the story. However, I do think that she brings up some good points. It’s particularly telling that the story written in the 1950’s can so easily be moved to 2016. With how the economy (read, stock market and housing market) has improved in 2013, it’s not as clear a jump as it was in, say, 2011. It’s still a much easier sell for a future than it would have been in 2007, though.

What I pull away from her work is that innovation and hard work need to be rewarded. I don’t think an absolutely free market is the way to do it, but too much interference in the give and take is a problem. If we don’t let the brightest minds and strongest work ethics get the biggest cut, we’re removing a really big reason for them to share their bright ideas and work their fingers to the bone. If they get no more credit than the person that shows up and plays Angry Birds for half of their shift, why should they contribute more?

Don’t get me wrong- I am not happy with the differences between the 1% and the rest of us. The divide is too wide for a healthy society. However, I won’t begrudge those that started with little or nothing and made it to the 1%. Heck, even the ones who inherit their wealth, but then build on it through actual work are still pretty ok in my book. The problem is when they have the money and contribute nothing. Dagny inherited her wealth, but worked her butt off to keep her family’s business working- not just for money but because it was necessary for getting things done in the country. Her brother, James, is the kind of rich person that really, really doesn’t do our world any good. He wanted, and accepted, no responsibility even when his were the only shoulders left to carry it.

In the story, it’s the manufacturers and inventors that go on strike. In our world, I’m wondering what would happen if the farmers went on strike? What they do isn’t farming anymore. It’s strip-mining for grains and vegetables and meat. What would happen if there was a place for these folks to go if they wanted to walk away from the mockery of a living they’re making? If they all stop farming tomorrow, they lose their farms. But how long would they need to be gone before we start trying to give them their farms back again to run as they please? We don’t have anyone to take their places.

Food shortages aside, what sort of havoc will they wreak on a system that doesn’t even count “farmer” as a job on the census? For starters, it’ll be hard to bet on porkbelly futures if there’s no pork. The same with commodities like grain. That’s a hit for the stock market. Chemical manufacturers will lose a very, very large customer base if they aren’t selling pesticides and fertilizers. The same goes for pharmaceutical companies- to the tune of 80% of sales. I’m really not sure what Monsanto would do, and I really don’t want to find out. They have their hands in all aspects of modern farming to the point that you can’t grow heirloom plants anymore without risking them looking over your shoulder to see if you’re “stealing” their genes.

We can’t forget about the food shortages, though. How long would it take us to work through the backlog of processed foods? And the grain stores held against future need? Then what? We could import from other countries, but that gets expensive, fast. Particularly if they choose to exploit our situation. We aren’t growing any food, and we can’t afford to import food . . . but unlike food shortages of the past, the bulk of people can’t turn to gardens. They don’t know how, they don’t have access to land, or they aren’t allowed to use their land that way. I wonder how long restrictive HOAs would last under those circumstances?

If farmers walked away from their fields tomorrow, how long would it take us to realize that they serve a far more important role than they are currently being given credit for?