Friday, September 19, 2014

The London Dispatches: Beekeeping in the Park

My family owns 40 acres of land in Virginia, which my father gets to develop as his own sustainable wilderness. Though not a homesteader, he does have dreams of an ecologically friendly house there one day. In the meantime, he gardens, has planted an orchard, dug a pond…and has started keeping bees! I’ve only visited my family a handful of times since they moved to Virginia and thus have only seen my dad in beekeeping action once or twice. When a notice about a beekeeping open day for BeeUrban came to my attention, I resolved to head to Kennington Park to see more.

Kennington Park is close by a small area known as Oval, notorious as a site of criminal execution—particularly of 18th century highwaymen. Today it abuts the Park which itself contains an odd mixture of old and new urban and social developments. Also in the 18th century, John Wesley, a founder of Methodism, preached here on social issues and reforms that concerned him and his followers. A house designed by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, for the 1851 Exhibition shows his plan for providing new and better housing options for working class Britons in the 19th century. In the 20th century it has often been a gathering place for civil protesters.

Prince Albert's idea of urban change.
BeeUrban's ditto.
BeeUrban, therefore, might be small but it’s in the right place to encourage new ways of thinking about urban agriculture. Running a “Bee Barn,” a timber building constructed near the park keeper’s lodge, BeeUrban transformed an unused garden into a bee paradise and uses its facility to provide education and training to those wanting to learn more about beekeeping. School groups, sponsoring businesses, and community volunteers are all welcome. BeeUrban manages three apiaries, including the Kennington Park site, and participates in educational and outreach events across London. They provide classes on candle and paper making, cooking, hive construction, and more.

I happened to show up on a particularly lucky day! The insects were merrily busy in the garden and plenty was happening within the barn itself. Barnaby Shaw, the head of BeeUrban, and another volunteer were harvesting honey and allowed me to view the process as they chatted to me about honey-based events in Britain and their production rate. A relatively mild winter last year meant that a higher proportion of bees survived the winter than the previous year and the hives they have on site have produced about 300 kilos he told me. This honey is sold from the Bee Barn, or from the Kenning Park Café, just a short walk away.

Trimming the caps off the individual comb cells.
Preparing to spin the frames to release the honey.
I was initially surprised that the tools of beekeeping seem so rudimentary, but I learned that it’s hard to improve on the design of traditional tools. Simple hand tools to scrape hives, cut combs, and drain honey do not need to be complex to be effective. There is lively debate on which types of hives may be preferred, but a great deal of beekeeping seems to involve just allowing the bees to do what they have evolved to do and benefiting from their industry.

And  the results are lovely!
Bee health is so important to sustainable agriculture and it’s troubling to scientists and farmers alike that their populations are plummeting. Many groups are working to understand their rapid decline more fully, but it’s safe to assume that human beings are involved in the loss in various ways. According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, two species of British bees have gone extinct since the start of this century and two more are seriously threatened. The loss of bees could prove devastating to agriculture as neither nature nor human effort has ever produced a more wonderfully successful pollinator.

When human beings think of extinction, we normally think of large animals which are lost to us (such as Ice Age megafauna) or dangerously close to gone now (such as pandas and tigers). But the truth is that our choices about energy, food production, transportation, and lifestyle affect life forms straight down to bacteria. These changes can and do affect us in return, and we need to properly appreciate the symbiotic relationships we share with even tiny creatures like bees.

Members of BeeUrban's observational hive.

 Which is why groups like BeeUrban, who create and cultivate healthy bee populations and the green spaces they need to thrive, and foster understanding of these tiny but vital creatures, are important. Later in the day that I visited, a BBC program was planning on interviewing Shaw. I will definitely be tuning in to the show when it airs later in the month. BeeUrban is doing good work and deserves all the support it can get.

How have insect populations affected your area of the world? Have you experienced the changing numbers of bees personally or in a way that’s affected your farm or garden? And do you have any stories about beekeeping to share? Let us know in the comments!

Cadence Woodland is a freelance writer, editorial assistant, and marketing consultant. Her journalism has contributed to the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and other venues, but she can be found most often at her blog where she writes about her adventures across the Pond in London.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Infertility in bucks and does

As we head into breeding season, some people wonder about the prevalence of infertility in goats ...

Luckily, infertility in bucks is rare. An inability to get does pregnant is usually related to nutritional deficiencies, which is why a good mineral is essential for bucks. As a buck gets older, his sperm count may go down, meaning he can service fewer does in a day, which is something to keep in mind if you have two does go into heat at the same time. Older bucks may also start to have problems with arthritis or other aches and pains that make it difficult for them to mount a doe.

If a young buck has been bred to multiple does and never settled any of them, a visit to a veterinarian is in order to make sure he is genetically a buck. An intersex goat may appear to be a buck on the outside, even though lacking all of the necessary anatomy. Based on emails I receive and posts on my online goat forum, it seems that a lot of people worry about the ability of their does to get pregnant. The reality, however, is that less than 1 percent of does have a genetic inability to get pregnant, so it isn’t something that you are likely to experience unless you have a sizeable herd. Freemartins and hermaphrodites are very uncommon in goats, but a quick physical exam by your vet or anyone trained in artificial insemination will tell you if your doe is physically capable of getting pregnant.

The most common reason goats do not get pregnant is a mineral deficiency, and this is fairly common. Copper and selenium both play an important role in a goat’s ability to come into heat, get pregnant, and stay pregnant for five months. If several goats in the herd are having fertility problems, you should look at your feeding and supplement program to ensure that it is providing adequate amounts of copper and selenium. 

It is possible for does to have cysts on their ovaries, which could keep them from settling, but it is not common. A cystic doe may appear to come into heat every week or not at all. This can be tricky for an inexperienced goat keeper, who may not notice a doe coming into heat if it isn’t one of the more vocal ones. A cystic doe can be treated with hormone injections available from your veterinarian.

In does that have freshened before, it is possible that a subclinical uterine infection from the previous delivery is keeping her from getting pregnant or staying pregnant. This is more likely to occur following an assisted delivery where the attendant had their hand inside the uterus. Some people will automatically administer antibiotics to a doe after an assisted delivery with the assumption that it will take care of the risk of infection. A low-grade infection, however, may not have any other outward symptoms, so you would have no idea whether the antibiotics had worked until you found yourself with a doe that wasn’t getting pregnant.

This is an excerpt from Raising Goats Naturally: The Complete Guide to Milk, Meat, and More by Deborah Niemann.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Want to visit here or there?

My fall schedule is filling up fast, which means that I'll get the opportunity to meet a lot of you not only in Illinois but also in California and Texas.

Starting this weekend, we're opening up our farm Antiquity Oaks to the public Saturday and Sunday as part of the Third Annual Livingston County Farm Crawl. It is totally free to stop in, check out the critters and chat with us. You can also buy our goat milk soap, a book, wool products, or some farm-fresh produce.

Next weekend, we are hosting the Third Annual Mid-America Homesteading Conference in Joliet, IL. In addition to me talking about goats and livestock guardians in two separate sessions, my husband Mike will be doing soapmaking and mozzarella making demonstrations, and we have a great line-up of other speakers, including author of Pure Poultry, Victoria Miller, who will talk about canning, living off-grid, and raising poultry. Click on the link for the schedule, list of speakers, and registration information.

In September, I'll be speaking at the National Heirloom Exposition, so I will finally get a chance to meet some of you who are California.

Throughout the fall, I'll be doing several classes in cheese making at community colleges in Normal and Oglesby, Illinois, as well as the National Goat Expo in Bloomington, Illinois.

I'll be heading to Austin, Texas in November to do a half-day workshop on creating value-added products with rare breeds of livestock at the national convention of the Livestock Conservancy (formerly the American Livestock Breed Conservancy).

If you are ever wondering what I'm up to, you can check out the Event page of this website for my speaking and teaching schedule.

Monday, August 18, 2014

4 tips for an eco-friendly lifestyle

by Tiffany Kresinski

There are tons of ways to modify your lifestyle to become more sustainable these days but, if you’re like me, you don’t have the time to incorporate them all. Since making the commitment to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, my family and I have begun making small changes to our lifestyle. I firmly believe that making small changes as an individual is the first step in working towards a better environment as a whole. I’ve also made it a goal to learn about some of the larger initiatives taking place around the globe, learning to adapt my own life to support the grand-scale efforts. By improving our own lives, we aid the efforts of big businesses and people who are trying to help the environment - together changing the direction of our planet.

1. Don’t just recycle – upcycle

Recycling is a great way to sustain an eco-friendly lifestyle, but there is more to it than collecting empty bottles and cans in a bin. It’s a good idea to think twice before tossing something to the curb and consider ways to convert those items into something useful, without having to melt it down first. If you’re interested in learning more about how others are using upcycling, I suggest reading up on William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle project. This is just one of the examples of big businesses, and architects who are making strides in improving how our population operates.

2. Make small modifications to appliances

Peter Busby and Eric Corey Freed are two others making strides in sustainability. Busby’s sustainable design initiative, and Freed’s organicARCHITECT help encourage businesses to build the most efficient buildings possible. Their ideas are geared towards corporate buildings, individuals can contribute by making small changes in their own homes as well. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "appliances account for about 13% of your household’s energy costs." Take a look through these minor adjustments from the department’s site to help decrease your energy bill:
• Make the switch to energy-efficient light bulbs, they might be the more expensive initially, but will last longer and help you save on your electric bill - saving you money in the long run.
• Defrost freezers and refrigerators as frost buildup can decrease the appliances energy efficiency. This might seem like a hassle, but I like to take the opportunity to really clean out the fridge as well, combining the two projects makes them more manageable.
• Uncovered foods release moisture and make the compressor work harder so be sure to wrap foods stored in the refrigerator, not to mention leaving foods uncovered causes them to go bad faster, smell, and ultimately ends in wasted food!
• Save energy by air-drying clothes on lines or drying racks. Honestly, its possible to cut back on how much laundry you do altogether - if a shirt you wore to work isn’t dirty, don’t wash it. Cutting back on the frequency of washes will help the clothes last longer and save you money.
• Invest in a timer. I know we can all be a bit guilty when it comes to over-using water, and it wasn’t until I put a cooking timer in our bathroom to cut down on shower time that I actually got better at this. Adding a timer, and doing simple things like turning off the water when brushing your teeth, can add up to huge water savings.

3. Cut down on the trash

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 4.38 pounds of waste were generated per person, per day on average in 2012. Rethink your trash habits with these tips:
• I’m not the best when it comes to remembering to bring reusable bags every time I shop, but I do make a conscious effort to reuse the plastic bags around the house after I get them; whether it's as garbage bags, lunch bags or for storage, reusing these prevents me from buying new ones and contributing to the waste problem.
• Store food in reusable containers instead of disposable plastic bags. Spills are prevented this way too!
• Bring your own mug to coffee shops - some have programs where you may even receive a discount for doing this.
• Bring your lunch to work in a reusable lunchbox (or get some more use out of that grocery bag), rather than spending money for brown bags.

4. Sustainable cleaning

Another method to decrease your environmental footprint that often goes unnoticed, is the use of organic cleaning supplies. Certain cleaning products can have a negative impact on the environment. Organic cleaning supplies are available at most grocery stores, but you can also make everything from all-purpose cleaner to laundry detergent with simple recipes. Other household necessities, such as insect repellent and air-freshener can also be made at home without the toxic ingredients of store-bought versions.

With these simple, budget-friendly tips, you can kickstart your eco-friendly lifestyle. Little changes go a long way, and before you know it, your eco-friendly habits will have a positive impact on those around you.

Tiffany Krezinski is a wife and mother who strives to "live green." She is always looking for new ways to improve her lifestyle and support the environment, keeping track of her experiences on her blog,

Photo credit earth: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

Friday, August 15, 2014

The London Dispatches: Garden Museum

Summer time is garden time, and if there’s anything the British are famous for, it’s their gardens. For this latest installment, I decided to delve a bit further into this beloved pastime to try and see if anything can be done about my own black thumb (I have managed, in my time, to kill an astonishing number of plants. A source of great amusement to my family).

Gatehouse of the palace to the left, church to the right.
The Garden Museum is located in a former church, St Mary-at-Lambeth, which abuts Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury (the principle leader of the Church of England, under the sovereign). I find this utterly fitting; gardening is almost a religion in Britain. The Garden Museum claims to be the first of its kind dedicated to its namesake subject and opened in the 1970s.

The church itself has an amazing history! Several notable people are buried here included the mother of Queen Anne Boleyn, Captain Bligh of the Bounty, and members the Tradescant family. The Tradescants are particularly important and inform the Garden Museum’s mission because John Tradescant the Elder was an early English naturalist and botanist who travelled widely and collected a vast array of seeds and plants. His work predates that of Darwin and Gregor Mendel by nearly 300 years! This collection eventually opened as the first ever public museum in Britain. The family introduced a number of plants to English gardens that are still hallmarks of gardening today.

Captain Bligh's memorial.
The Tradescant family's memorial. This is a 19th century recreation of the 17th century original and contains a very unique design. Most reliquaries of the time were religious in nature, this one refers to the natural world and John Tradescant the Elder's travels - note the crocodile!

 The interior of the church houses a few exhibits, a café, study areas, several books on horticulture and gardening, and a special exhibition space.

The garden outside in the former churchyard is a “knot” garden (referring the design of its layout) and is composed entirely of plants that would have appeared in a 17th century garden like John Tradescant’s.

All the plants in the garden are labeled, along with the year of their scientific description, and some even included quotes from British writers or scientists about the uses of the plant in question.
I mentioned that gardening is a cultural pastime here, but in many ways, it’s more than that. For centuries, being a gardener was a respectable profession in a way I don’t think we’ve seen in the U.S. For one thing, we have far fewer grand estates and for another, we’ve been a nation of settlers in our own right for whom gardens were once a necessity, but have lately been replaced with consumer food culture. Several of the exhibits demonstrated to me how long personally owned food gardens operated for the majority of the population, even in a growing metropolis like London. 

Agriculture has been a part of British life since time immemorial, but towards the end of the Renaissance and into the early Modern period, gardens took on a very different role. Once warfare declined enough so that a family didn’t necessarily require a fortress to live in, things like architecture and landscape development and planning for beauty became much more important. There’s even a political aspect to land management. Many of the grand estates with their immaculately produced landscapes and gardens were only possible after the landed gentry and aristocrats fenced in their land (called enclosure) for more controlled livestock and agricultural production for their own profit, instead of relying on the symbiotic relationships that peasants and aristocrats previously lived with for hundreds of years. The natural beauty we tend to romantically associate with Britain, gardens included, was often only possible because of vastly unfair social systems, rigid class structures, and even outright oppression. Modern horticulture is a complicated thing, but it was interesting to learn that ideas of land, food, and production have always been complex issues. Our 21st century conversations and battles are simply the latest iteration of a much longer dialog.

Years of personal and professional gardens represented alongside their work.

It was a real pleasure to learn so much about British gardening in a place dedicated to an absolute love of the skill and pastime. I’m not sure I’m ready to embark on a program to turn my balcony into a paradise (everything would be dead in a week…), but I’m toying with the idea of trying another houseplant to start. With more education and effort, I think I might be able to manage it.

Cadence Woodland is a freelance writer, editorial assistant, and marketing consultant. Her journalism has contributed to the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and other venues, but she can be found most often at her blog where she writes about her adventures across the Pond in London.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Natural alternatives to deodorant and antiperspirant

In spite of claims that underarm antiperspirant is harmful to health, it is still used because we think we need it. Of course, no one wants to stink, but there are natural alternatives that work for most people. I had periodically used plain alcohol under my arms over the last twenty years, but I didn’t do it regularly because I was worried about it drying out my skin. I also felt guilty about tossing a cotton ball in the garbage with every application.

Two years ago I decided that I shouldn’t make a decision based on assumptions, and I started using alcohol daily to see what would happen. To eliminate the waste factor, I put the alcohol in a spray bottle and put a squirt under my arms every morning. It worked perfectly well as a deodorant where it hit the skin, but I wasn’t getting full coverage with a single squirt, so I cut the alcohol by 50 percent and started using two squirts. If I feel like I missed a spot, I will do a third squirt. After a couple of months I also added a few drops of lavender essential oil simply because I like the way it smells.

I also realized that I didn’t need to use my deodorant spray on days when I’d showered first thing in the morning. Bacteria cause underarm odor, so if you do a good job of washing under your arms, there won’t be any bacteria there until you have been sweating for a few hours. The other thing I’ve learned is that if you sweat a lot—as in sweat pouring off your body as you work outside in the middle of the summer—you don’t stink. When the sweat is pouring off your body, it doesn’t sit under your arms, where the bacteria can grow. Your clothes, however, are a different story. Once they’re soaked in sweat, bacteria starts to grow, and by the next morning your clothes can be quite smelly. Since most of us are able to shower on a regular basis and have clean clothes to wear daily, deodorant is not as necessary as advertisers would like us to believe.

If you don’t like the idea of using alcohol, try using baking soda or apple cider vinegar. Alcohol works because it kills bacteria, but you can also create an unfriendly environment for bacteria by using baking soda or vinegar, which each work by pushing the pH either too high or too low for the bacteria to thrive. There are also a multitude of deodorant recipes online that make a paste out of baking soda and coconut oil or one of the other oils discussed earlier. People who use these say that a tiny amount is all that is needed to avoid odor. I have tried using a variety of other oils under my arms and discovered that they also eliminate odor, even without the baking soda.

What about antiperspirants? Trying to stop your body from performing a natural function falls into the category of messing with Mother Nature and usually doesn’t have a positive result. Although research results have been mixed on whether antiperspirants cause breast cancer, it seems prudent to avoid using something that really isn’t needed. Regardless of whether they use an antiperspirant, most people who work in an office don’t sweat much. And people who work outside have sweat pouring off the entire body, so there does not seem to be much point in stopping one small area from sweating.

Dress shields, also known as clothes shields, can be used to deal with a serious problem of sweating under the arms. There are disposable and washable varieties available, but of course, disposable products are not ecothrifty. The washable varieties either pin to the clothing or strap onto your arm and shoulder with an elastic band. You can also buy undershirts or camisoles with the shields already sewn into place, and you can find them with various levels of absorbency.

Savings: Commercial deodorant costs $3 to $9 per container, and an equal amount of baking soda, alcohol, or oil will cost you less than $1. The alternatives to deodorants and antiperspirants are so inexpensive that by switching to a natural one, you almost completely eliminate the cost from your budget.

This is an excerpt from Ecothrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Would you like some sodium carboxymethylcellulose with that?

A few days ago, a friend said that one of her friends on Facebook had gone on a rant about how something natural is not necessarily good. The most outrageous example she gave was tsunamis. Just because tsunamis are natural does not mean they are good ... as if we would choose a tsunami instead of a ... human-orchestrated disaster?

Unfortunately, many people have no idea why some of us choose to live a life that is as natural as possible. As I wrote in Homegrown and Handmade, I prefer to use natural products because they have been around since the beginning of time, so we know which natural products are bad for us, such as arsenic.

The longer something has been around, the more we know about it. Throughout history, people have always made some poor decisions, such as using mercury in the production of hats during the 18th and 19th century. The use of mercury caused dementia in the milliners who made the hats. Although mercury is considered a "natural" element, it doesn't exactly grow on trees. It was the commercialization and processing that caused problems for us. It was the science of the times that even caused people to do such crazy things as consume mercury as a medicine. And then science said, "Oops! That stuff is poisonous!"

As for things that do grow on trees or bushes, people did figure out ages ago which ones were poisonous and which ones were nutritious. When a food is in its simplest form and someone gets sick from it, it's pretty obvious what caused the problem. When you eat a processed food and get sick, you may have dozens of possible culprits that could be causing the reaction.

Things that are considered cutting-edge science today may be viewed as dangerous in a few decades as we learn more. When bisphenol-A (BPA) was put into commercial use in the 1950s to make plastic bottles and line cans, scientists firmly believed that it was 100% safe. They also said that it did not leach into foods and drinks that were in the containers. As it turns out, scientists had simply not invented a way to detect the BPA that was leaching into the food and drinks. In the 1990s, they said, "Oops!" A Harvard study also showed that after consuming a single serving of canned soup, you will have BPA in your urine for five days. Studies showed that it did cause health problems. It is an endocrine disruptor, which can cause thyroid problems, and it mimics estrogen, making it especially questionable for children. It is no longer used in production of baby bottles, and companies are looking at alternatives for making other bottles and lining cans.

So, when I have to decide whether to eat foods with or without chemicals, I choose to go with the natural ones, the ones that are as close to nature as possible. I don't make this decision because of any misplaced nostalgia, but because I prefer to consume things that have been tested as much as possible. If billions of people have been safely eating them since the beginning of time, I find that far more comforting than something that has merely been tested for a few years in a lab by a company that hopes to make millions of dollars.
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