Friday, January 28, 2011

A bit of springtime

Now it's the sage's turn to shine!

Chicken: the other red meat

Last night's dinner--baked chicken from one of the birds we raised last year on the farmstead.  Yowza! 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The inside s-coop

For the last month or so, ever since we got hit by multiple feet of snowfall and daytime temps in the single digits, I've kept the chickens locked up inside their coop.  Our coop is 12'x18' and I only have 25 chickens, so they are far from overcrowded.  Two south-facing windows and a suspended lamp provide extra warmth, and a heated base keeps the water fount from freezing.  Yesterday when the outside temps were below zero F, inside the coop it was a balmy 22.

We are getting about eight eggs a day now, and if we don't collect them each afternoon some of them invariable freeze and crack. Sometimes the chickens build a nest on the wood-shaving floor and I find an egg or two there.  As long as no one starts pecking at shells, I'm fine with that.

I've chosen my breeds for variety--lots of different colors of both birds and eggs.  I tend to stick with the utility strains, but last spring I did order a few leghorns, for the white eggs.  My only bantams are the silkies, which I hope to use as brooders this season.

At this time last year, I discovered my chickens had mites.  Knock on wood, no mites yet this winter.  Also, this is usually the point in the season when bare backs start showing up on a few of the hens.  Again, knock on wood, no bare backs yet.  Although, my least dominant roo is missing most of his tail feathers.  But what can you expect from rowdy roosters?

My chicks get free-fed grit and oyster shell, and a 19% layer mash.  They are given fresh water every other day and occasional table scraps.  For most of the year they roam free in a 50' x 30' fenced enclosure adjacent to their coop.  The fence is to keep predators (mostly dogs) out, not my chickens in.

Last spring we planted two pear trees in the chickens' enclosure.  Maybe someday we will order partridge chicks from the hatchery, and fashion our own Christmas cards.  Yet another entry on the long list of farmstead possibilities.

Golden Globe Award

I much prefer the Minnesota to the Hollywood variety.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Subsidy Sauce

Over the holidays my family and I stayed with my parents in the Cities.  One evening we had Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner.  At the bottom of the bag of biscuits and coleslaw were half-a-dozen packets of honey.  At least, I assumed they were packets of honey.  I grabbed one and prepared to tear it open, when the label caught my eye.

Honey sauce.  Honey sauce?  WTF?  (That's 'What The Fudge' to those who do not know me.  I only swear when I stub my toe--then I let loose like a Portuguese sailor.  Only I don't actually swear in Portuguese.  Although it probably would be less offensive if I did.  To non-Portuguese listeners, at least.)


Honey sauce?  Huh?  My eye read through the ingredients: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, honey, fructose, contains less than 2% of: caramel color, molasses, water, citric acid, natural and artificial flavor, malic acid.

I was dumbstruck.  I probably shouldn't have been, but I was.  I have long known that HFCS has infiltrated food to an alarming degree, from pancake syrups to breakfast cereal to baked goods to canned fruit.  Why should I be so surprised about it showing up in a packet of fast-food sweetener?

What hit me hardest was the fact that since KFC decided to substitute HFCS (and CS) for honey, HFCS and CS must be cheaper to buy than honey is.  My brain tried to wrap itself around this deduction.  High fructose corn syrup is cheaper to buy, and hence produce, than honey.  Again, I shouldn't have been surprised.  Maybe discouraged is a better term.  Depressed and discouraged.

Consider the steps, and thus the human effort (and other energy inputs) required to make HFCS: buy/lease crop land, plow it up, add chemical fertilizers to the soil, purchase corn seed, plant seed, spray chemical herbicides on the weeds that sprout up, mechanically irrigate during dry spells, spray chemical insecticides on the bugs that show up, repeat the last three steps as necessary during the summer, combine the corn, truck it to the elevator, transport it to the processing facility, break the corn down using mechanical force and chemical solvents, extract the sweetener out of the corn slush, transport the sweetener to a packaging facility while disposing of the corn mash (likely to the local cattle feed lot or hog barn).  Back at the field the farmer still needs to fall till his field.  Add to all of this effort the material costs associated with it -- seed, fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides, tractors, tillers, planters, sprayers, combines, semi-trailers, elevators, processing machinery, chemicals, etc.

Now consider the steps required to make honey:  buy/lease pasture land, install hives, check on them a few times during the summer, give them some sugar water or medicine if necessary, extract the honey, transport it to a packaging facility.  If you have hives in the north you may have to do some weatherization to protect the hives during the cold months, but not in the south.  Input costs -- bees, hives, protective clothing, smokers, medicine, honey extraction equipment, trucks to haul it to a packaging facility.

Another thing to think about is the although the corn syrup requires a lot more effort to make, much of this effort is mechanized.  Admittedly, bee-keeping is more physically demanding work.  Which I suppose makes it less attractive to farmers.  But there's gotta be a more than a few high school students out there, particularly in rural areas, looking for a summer job.  How can paying a few people to help tend your hives outweigh the fuel, machinery, and chemical costs of growing and processing corn?

I suspect that it doesn't.  I suspect the truth is that making honey DOES cost less (considering all the inputs and indirect costs) than making high fructose corn syrup.  And it doesn't pump chemicals into the soil, and it doesn't wipe out insect life with herbicides, and it doesn't add excess nitrogen and phosphorous into our watersheds, and it doesn't erode topsoil from repeated tilling.

So why are we eating Honey Sauce instead of Honey?

Ask a farmer about subsidies, and she'll tell you they can't farm without them.  They are telling the truth.  The cost of growing corn these days is so huge (with all those costs I detailed above), that without the subsidies the farmers would go out of business.

Here is an analogy.  Let's say I have a pair of boots.  I like the boots, they fit well and I wear them a lot.  Over time, however, my feet change and the boots (exposed to rain and sun) wear and shrink, and they no longer fit.  In fact, my feet start to hurt from wearing them.  Now, I have two choices:  I could keep wearing these boots, which are extremely uncomfortable, or I could get another pair.  If I keep these boots, I'm going to feel a lot of pain.  So much pain in fact, that if I wear them I will need to take a pain-killer.  Ibuprofin should do.  Ibuprofin is cheaper than good boots, and I don't want to have to go to the store to pick out a new pair, so I choose to keep using my old boots.

Over time, my feet change even more, and the boots get holes in them.  I could still get a new pair of boots, or I could just take more painkillers.  More, and stronger painkillers.  It isn't long before I'm taking several Vicodin a day.  So, I'm not feeling the pain, but my feet are a wreck.  This goes on, and on, and on.  I'm paying lots more for my prescriptions now than I would on new boots, but by now I'm too old (and too proud) to switch. And frankly, I don't care anymore because I'm addicted to morphine.

So you see, subsidies are the morphine of agriculture. If the painkillers weren't there in the first place, maybe I would have bought the new boots, maybe farmers would change they way they do things.  Maybe we'd have more sustainable (ecologically and financially) farming practices.  Maybe we'd have healthier farm communities and economies.

And maybe we'd get packets of real honey with our biscuits.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Carrot confusion

I just realized that the carrots I planted in my garden last summer, which I thought were Chantenay, were actually Jaune du Doubs.  Oops.  While doing my seed inventory, I saw the open packet and realized my mistake.  This makes a lot more sense, since Jaune du Doubs are long, yellow carrots, which is exactly what I harvested.  Many apologies to my local nursery, whom I accused of mixing varieties in their bulk sacks.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Nothing much

is going on around here right now, so I feel a little sheepish trying to squeeze a post out of total mundanity.  We had lovely Christmas and New Year's celebrations with family and friends.  Amazingly enough, we have gone through an entire month without anyone getting sick.  I think that's a record for us in wintertime.  The chickens are all good, the goats are all good, and the snowblower is still working which is a miracle in itself.  We are certainly putting it to the test this year.

I've just finished doing a complete seed inventory of my ever-growing stockpile.   It is six pages long.  I think I should have done the inventory BEFORE I mailed my orders to Johnny's and Fedco.  Oh well.  I have also discovered the online garden planning software at RH Shumway's website, and have been having lots of fun playing around with next summer's garden layout.  Check it out, it's free for a 30-day trial.

My very old Olympus 5.0 megapixel camera has finally decided to call it quits, so it may be awhile before you see any more photos here.  I must research a new, relatively inexpensive replacement.  Any suggestions are welcome.

Other than my work, two little boy birthdays and a few days of volunteering at the local co-op, there is nothing on my calendar for the rest of this month.  Which is just as well, as I am feeling a bit bear-like.  Growling, sleeping late and searching the pantry for nuts and berries.  Don't bother phoning or dropping by, I'm not sure I'm fit for decent company.  Call me in mid-March, I should be done hibernating by then.