Posts Tagged ‘priorities’

Regaining My Power: Choice

What is choice, really? Do we have it? Are we sure?

The other day at work I asked, perhaps a little too loudly, if it was 5:00 yet, or Friday, yet, and someone piped up that we always have a choice. I have the choice to stay, or to act like it was Friday at 5 and make a bee-line for the door. It’s been kind of a long couple of weeks, so option B may or may not have gotten considered almost seriously. But I didn’t do it. I made the choice to finish out the day, to finish out the week. I chose to be there.

Right?

On the surface, yes, I made that choice. But if you really start to think about it, “Everything is a choice” is a rather disingenuous statement. There are about a million different directions to dive with this idea, but I thought I’d try and keep it on the surface. See just how many diverse places in our “Land of the Free” where the choices offered aren’t really choices.

I haven’t been sleeping well for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that heat, humidity, and I are not friends. If I had chosen to walk out of work that afternoon to go home and take a nap- something that would have been a good choice for my mental and physical health- I think it’s pretty safe to say that my employer would have chosen to tell me not to return. I’m sure that I’m not the only American worker who can’t take the chance of an impromptu vacation because we aren’t making enough each week to have built a rainy day fund. So it really wasn’t a choice.

Speaking of choices at work- what about choosing to have an unpopular opinion? If you’re in the rank and file, that choice- even if you’re right and it needs to be said- could have disastrous consequences for your career.

Back to the Land of the Free thing- how about our current choices for President? More of the same vs a young Hitler. What an awesome choice. Love him or loathe him, at least the Democratic Socialist would have offered a genuine choice! Something different than door A or door B that lead into the same building. And as far as I can tell, yes, the young Hitler is a fairly logical place for us to be given the political climate in the last 10 or 15 years.

You have the choice to live in your own home. Your corporate neighbors have the choice to make the air and water around said home poisonous, flammable, or carcinogenic. But you do have the choice to stay there or leave. If you can afford to.

You have the choice to take care of your reproductive health. Don’t let the harassers or the chance of getting shot stand in your way!

You have the choice to grow open-pollinated, wind-pollinated, organic food crops in an area that mostly grows conventional wind-pollinated crops. Just make sure you’re never down wind of your neighbors and you’ll be fine!

You can choose to go to college and get that degree that you’ve been told you need to get a good job. What’s a good job, again?

You chose to grow a beautiful garden full of vegetables instead of non-edible flowers and shrubs? Your home might be your castle, but don’t pretend it’s your pantry!

You can choose to own a tractor (or iPad, or GM vehicle). Well, maybe.

You can choose the perfect home for your land and family. As long as it conforms to everyone else’s views.

You can choose to be seen lending your support (or doing your job) at a peaceful rally or protest- just don’t get shot!

I can’t be facetious about the choices that led to needing those rallies and protests.

I know that I’m presenting more problems than solutions here. And I’ve only scratched the surface of the problems. But this is where I am in finding my power. The more I learn, the more I find out just how little power- just how little choice- I really have. Does a “yes” mean anything when “no” isn’t really an option, given the consequences that will probably or will definitely follow that “no”? No, it doesn’t.

We need to rethink this “choice” thing and whether or not we like the ones we’ve been given. Or perhaps start to figure out how to make our own options to choose between. If we’re given A and B, maybe we should all start choosing C.

(Apologies for the age of many of the linked articles. I have no Google-fu, and I haven’t been collecting all of the most recent examples of the above “choices.” I’m sure you’ve seen as many as I have, though- maybe more as I’m not all that well informed, yet.)

Regaining My Power: Piles of . . .Stuff

I suppose I shouldn’t swear in my title, so let’s just call it stuff. Lots and lots of things that at one point or another I needed, or wanted, or acquired. Most of which has been spending a whole lot more time in boxes in storage than actually being used in the past three years or so. I was living in shoebox apartments or renting single rooms, yet I had so much stuff I had two (small) storage units for several months. When I moved out to Colorado, I had 3/4 of a 4’X5’X8′ U-Haul trailer and nothing I couldn’t carry myself. I left my bed behind, and a very large bookcase because I knew I didn’t have anyone to help me carry these things from the trailer to my apartment. What I did have was as many boxes of books as I had boxes of clothing. And I included my costumes in the clothing count.

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What one finds overwhelming is relative.

When I left Colorado, the trailer was the same size and stuffed to the gills. This was after aggressively shedding stuff for months because even without knowing I was moving, I knew I was overwhelmed. The inanimate objects in my life were controlling my time (how many trips do I have to make for this move?), my space (I swear this apartment had a floor before I moved in!), and my money (why am I paying to store a table, chairs, and a sewing machine that I can’t use because they’re in storage?).

A lot of the stuff arrived and then stuck around because I was sure that any month now, I would be starting my own farm. I would have a house (or HUD home, I wasn’t picky) to furnish and gardens to start. I needed the table a friend had given me that was the perfect height for a standing work-table. It was just silly to get rid of a perfectly good hose that I hadn’t used in 18 months, but I would have to have on my farm. I’ve always wanted a treadle sewing machine and, well, so I didn’t do what I’d promised myself and wait until I was settled to find one. It found me. But I was going to have space for it soon!

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I need every single thing here! Whatever they are. Except for the sled. The sled isn’t mine.

Well I don’t have a farm. And if I’m honest with myself, I have absolutely no idea when, and at this point if, I will have one. I know I will be moving at least one more time (out of my parent’s house) and probably more than once. I need to address what is, not what I wish would be.

With so much of my stuff stuck in boxes for so many months, it turned out I could live with a lot less stuff than I thought. I don’t need a bed. I quite liked sleeping on a 4″ thick futon pad right on the floor. I don’t need three crock pots, even if they are different sizes. In fact, I can cut down on the number of pots and pans I have altogether, since I’m not that much of a cook. Really, most of that stuff in the box labelled “random crap” is just crap. I don’t need to keep it. As for tables and chairs? All they do is take up space. I don’t entertain, and I don’t care if I’m sitting on the floor, so who does it bother?

Just before I moved I started hearing about the KonMarie tidying book and method. At first it sounded sketchy, but I kept reading because I had to do something and it was very popular. When I got to Maine, the book was making the rounds of the family, so I got to read it. I had already been coming to the conclusion that the things, the objects I was holding on to were holding me back from the changes I needed to make to become who I need to be. The book simply confirmed that yes, the items you have can affect who you are. So only keep the items that ring true now.

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And here we go . . .

What better time to start organizing and shedding stuff than when you’re unpacking from a move? My clothes and books had ended up mixed together quite a bit, so I started with them. It was really freeing to let go of the clothes that no longer fit, and hadn’t for years. Will I ever be a size 16 again? I sure hope so, and I hope it’ll be on my way to a 14 or a 12. Will it be soon enough to make lugging all of these clothes around make sense? No. I’ve learned how to work with a small wardrobe. I don’t have to break the bank to clothe myself at a new size. I think I was holding on to half of them more because I used to look good and I didn’t want to forget that. Finding a cute blazer when you’re a size 20 is a whole lot harder than when you’re a 16.  But by the time I’m a 16 again, I might not need a blazer. Who knows?

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It wasn’t until I had all of my clothes together that I realized I had so many layers. I think I need to do this on a regular basis to reacquaint myself with whatever I have!

Of course, the KonMarie method has a little extra-special challenge for those of us that look at the pile of things to be sorted and realize that it would be a lot more efficient to toss ourselves in the bin bag for lack of joy-bringing and be done with it.

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These piles are each close to knee-high. 

In the end, I’ve sent four or five boxes of clothes and books to the thrift stores and tossed more in the bin (loving the British English of the translator). I haven’t done much sorting lately, but the start I made gives me a reason to believe that once I do find the time, I will be able to chip away further at my piles of . . . stuff.

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This pile is smaller than the other one. Honest!

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?

Farm Lesson: 1+1 =/= 2

We live in a very linear world. The only right answer for one plus one is two. Given how our world is constructed, it really has to be that way. If one plus one sometimes equals 11, well, the cogs that make the widgets work might not fit. Farming, however, is not linear. Not even if you’re good enough to be able to plow straight lines. Sometimes it’s a good thing- one doe-goat plus one buck-goat tends to equal one to four kids. On the other hand, one lettuce start plus one lettuce start planted in the same hole will get you, at best, two half-heads of lettuce. Half-heads are fine of you’re just growing for your dining room table, but they don’t sell very well at market. You have the same problem with onions and garlic- only you’ve invested many more months of labor to get two half-bulbs.

What’s the point of this lesson? Farming is as much an art and craft as a science. There is a lot of information out there to be found, and most of it is very, very helpful. However, it’s too easy to rely on someone else’s answers that are presented as “the answer.” If you take a strictly science, linear, only-one-right-answer approach, you might be successful for a while. Maybe. But I am willing to bet that you won’t be making the land entrusted to you the best that that land can be. As a former Girl Scout, I do feel that we should be leaving things better than we found them, not worse. It isn’t until we embrace the art and craft of farming- and really embrace our piece of the land- that we can listen to what the land is asking us to do.

Where it’s wet, the land often asks for lime because the soil is too acidic for a lot of plants to really thrive. Most farming and gardening books are written by people in wet environments. After all, most of the food and ornamental plants we grow originated in Europe and passed through the East Coast to get to Colorado. Taking the books at their word and adding X amount of lime to your soil on an annual basis is, probably, not a terrible thing to do if you live where it rains quite a bit. If you do that in a dry place, like the Eastern Slope of Colorado, you will ruin your land in very short order. There is a reason that it’s almost impossible to grow blueberries around here, but lavender tends to grow like a weed. It is too dry to have the acidic soil blueberries need, but your lavender will almost never be over-watered. Which is a good thing. You can even talk about grass in these circumstances. There is absolutely no reason you can’t have a very pretty green lawn. However, all of the water and chemicals that have to go into keeping a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn green are because the land around here simply cannot support a grass that was bred in and for the well-watered South-East. If you found a local grass (or even better, grass mix) that you found attractive, you could cut your watering in half or better. You would also be promoting healthier soil because you could reduce or eliminate chemical additives.

I really enjoy reading Joel Salatin. I think he’s got a lot of good things to say, and he’s really not afraid to go against convention. However, he lives in Virginia. I was reading one of his writings and he insisted that the water laws out West are ridiculous. There’s no such thing as not enough water. It’s all in how it’s managed. In Virginia, that’s true. It’s about getting rid of excess water more than anything. However, I know people who have what are called “junior water rights,” or newer water rights on their property who have not had access to water some years. Yes, they bought the rights that were available (that’s often a separate transaction than purchasing the land), but the senior water rights in the area had first dibs on what was available. If it’s a dry year, the availability might not trickle down to the junior rights. This is a problem that is specific to dry areas of the country, so it is not really addressed outside of the areas to which it applies. Therefore, the statement that he is so sure about cannot actually be applied to this area.

How the land needs to be managed is more complicated than wet versus dry, north versus south, sea level versus altitude. It comes down to each individual property- and even each area within the property. Did you know that in the Andes, there is a type of potato for each direction a slope can face at each altitude? We’ve forgotten how to think like that in a country that only grows french fry potatoes. However, if we can re-learn that our front yard has different circumstances and therefore different needs than our back yard, we may not have identical landscaping to our neighbors, but we can have landscaping that works with our land instead of against it.

As an aspiring farmer, I am having to nurture my inner artist as well as my inner crafter. It’s the artist that can look at a property and see that with this elevation, that soil type, and so much shading, 1+1= purple. It is the crafter that can take the answer of purple and turn it into the plants and animals that will not just survive, but will potentially improve the piece of land. My land is not the same as your land, so your answer may be mauve, or teal. Or 42. The only thing I can tell you it won’t be, not exactly, is what that book or podcast or YouTube video says it has to be.

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?

My Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanna Ranch Movie

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

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

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

Bee School Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bee School Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.