Monday, March 26, 2012

Interview with beekeeper Zan Asha

On Sunday, April 22, we'll be hosting two beekeeping classes with Zan Asha, one of the New York City beekeepers that appeared in the documentary Queen of the Sun. Here is a chance for you to get to know her better and learn a little about beekeeping. If you'd like to join us on April 22, click here to register for the classes on Antiquity Oaks in Cornell, IL.

Deborah: How long have you been keeping bees? 

Zan: I've actually been keeping bees for 6 years, but as a 3rd generation beekeeper, there is a wealth of knowledge through speaking with my mother, the daughter of the original beekeeper, my grandfather. Much of what I do with beekeeping is founded in the same WWII era, European principles my grandfather had: no pesticides and limited use of medications, and working with the bees based on their behavior and social structure, which is far more natural and productive, from bees' perspective, and therefore for the keepers.
 
Why do you keep bees?

There are many reasons, not least of which is preserving a lovely family legacy and history of keeping bees. There are a great number of interesting, if not funny, stories of my family keeping bees before some of the more modern amenities for beekeeping existed, and it's a good feeling to know that you are carrying some of those traditions along. But the beauty of keeping bees, themselves, is rewarding unto itself. Obviously, there is the prospect of having your own local, raw honey (which is farm more medicinal and beneficial than store brought honey, which has recently proven to be ultra-diluted, void of beneficial products, and often cheaply shipped from China!) but there are so many intricacies in learning how to care for bees, that is fascinating just working with them and observing them. You will also, in a sense, be helping yourself, in that bees have been estimated to pollinate up to one-half of all staple crops in the world. So you will continue survivability of what you eat and also the grazing material your MEAT eats. 

Tell us about your set-up -- number of hives, located where, what type of hives, etc.

I currently work with my landlady, who is a well known environmental activist in New York City, and this beekeeping project is known as Bronx Bees. We currently have 8 hives on the green roof of her building, in the Bronx. The green roof is an ideal space, and I'd recommend them in more urban operations: the location is out of line-sight of most people, the height allows for a clean and unblocked take-off for the bees (no bushes, people, or other obstacles to fly over), and the green-roof has been proven to keep a constant temp of 70 degrees in most weather. We currently use the Langstroth (box) hive, which is the most commonly used hive throughout the world. I would prefer to change some of these out for the Top Barre or even Warre hive, but this is the compromise that we have between her and I. Since the Langstroth is quite common, it is easy to change parts out, should we need to. 

What's the biggest challenge for a city beekeeper? Cities, by nature, are more crowded with people, and this is probably the hardest aspect in beekeeping: convincing people that bees are actually not going to automatically attack them on sight. Bees are actually much more REACTIONARY than people think, and will rarely attack first, unless you are directly over, or in, their hives. In that case, they WILL sting to defend their offspring or honey stores. Otherwise, I've actually stood in front and around their hives, and they will simply fly around you. But you may need to convince your neighbors otherwise, and this kind of diplomacy might be hard, especially during swarm season! This might also work against you, if you wish to keep bees but your landlord rejects the idea. Luckily, more and more cities are taking up beekeeping clubs and classes, so that's a good way to learn beekeeping. Other than that, in my experience, beekeeping seems no different in urban areas than anywhere else. 

What would you like to do with your bees in the future?

I guess you could say I am currently doing the things, in regards to beekeeping, that I had always hoped to do. My vision was always two fold: keeping bees in a natural (dare I say kind) way, and provide quality raw honey in New York City and teaching others to keep bees in this same fashion, and break a long cycle of commercialized beekeeping methods, which are probably more prevalent than people realize. I've been very lucky in the teaching aspect: last year, a fellow writer and farmer in Iowa, Maggie Howe, invited me out and actively promoted me in such a way that it actually became possible for me to teach large groups of people the amazing art of beekeeping. Since then I have been in Iowa and Illinois teaching these methods, which I think are particularly important in areas where commercial farming, GMOs, and pesticides are the norm. I feel I am teaching a lost generation of beekeepers to take up more organic practices and hopefully we can begin the process of learning and healing ourselves and our planet, in some small way, in our work with these extraordinary creatures.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Who picks your fruit?

If it were not for illegal immigrants, most Americans would be starving -- and this is not simply my little opinion. This is what "specialty growers" will tell you, and they are the farmers who grow the food that people actually eat, like fruits and vegetables. And they rely heavily on the labor of illegal immigrants. Depending on whom you ask, it is estimated that somewhere between 30-70% of our food is picked by illegal immigrants. And based upon my conversations with growers, I'm pretty sure the 70% number is closer to the truth. Last year I was at a conference and mistakenly wound up in a session on how to hire legal immigrant workers. Although I realized fairly quickly that I would not be using any of the information in the session, I couldn't leave because I was shocked by what I was hearing. Although the topic was not new to me, it was a perspective I had never heard.

All three of the Illinois fruit growers openly admitted to hiring illegal immigrants to work on their farms because they were unable to find enough employees otherwise. Even then, one man talked about watching thousands of dollars of apples rot on the trees a couple years earlier because he couldn't get enough people -- legal or illegal -- to pick them. So, then they talked about the guest worker program, which is very expensive. They said it cost about $5,000 to get a single worker into this country legally. And before you can do that, you have to prove that you tried really hard to hire citizens. In addition to providing copies of ads run in your local newspapers, you also have to run ads in three other communities with high unemployment rates, proving that you can't find Americans to do the jobs.

Since that day more than a year ago, when I saw a gray-haired man on the verge of tears worried about the future of his orchard, I've been paying attention to the labor articles when my copies of American Fruit Grower and Vegetable Grower News arrive every month. Because we have no employees, I foolishly ignored those articles in the past, assuming they didn't affect me. But this situation affects every person in this country because we all eat.

In US Apple Urges Congress to Act on Agricultural Labor, Dale Foreman, who grows apples, pears, and cherries, in Wenatchee, WA, was quoted from his testimony before the U. S. House of Representatives:
In 2011, we experienced the worst labor shortages I have ever seen. Tragically, we did not have nearly enough workers. The situation grew so dire that in early October we ran radio ads throughout our area asking for workers and offering them up to $150 per day to help us pick our apples. Even with the barrage of radio ads, we were only able to recruit three additional pickers. We needed more than 100.
In Help Wanted in the Fight For Labor, blackberry grower Gary Paulk in Georgia said that his state's new anti-immigrant law cost him $250,000 last year because he didn't have enough workers to pick all of his berries. The law kept many illegal immigrants out of the state, and he found himself 150 workers short of what he needed, as he watched 25 acres of blackberries rot and fall to the ground. The article goes on to say,
It wasn’t like Paulk just threw up his hands. He tried working with the state Department of Labor, just like state legislators suggested, because Georgia has a 10% unemployment rate. “I asked for 25 workers for starters, and I got one,” he says. “We have a family operation, and we all own a piece, so we all put applications in for workers, but we never got any more applicants.”
And Paulk is just one of many growers negatively impacted by Georgia's new hard stance against illegal immigrants. The Help Wanted article also says, "A study conducted by the University of Georgia noted that total losses to the state economy from the first year of its law against illegal immigration were estimated at $391 million." And that only includes what the farmers lost.

The U.S. government also lost all of those Social Security dollars. A lot of people mistakenly believe that illegal immigrants don't pay taxes, but that's not true. Typically they have a SS number that is fake, so when the employer pays them, they also pay into the SS system -- and that is money that will never be taken out by the worker because they will not be retiring in this country and collecting the money that they paid into the system. If all illegal immigrants were deported tomorrow, the Social Security Administration would suddenly find itself with $7 billion less paid into it next year, which is obviously not good.

Paulk said, "A lot of campaign promises were made, saying these people are taking jobs from Georgia residents, and myths like they don’t pay taxes, and that’s just not true."

There are a lot of reasons that Americans don't want these jobs, such as long days, no overtime, and often high temperatures. The incidence of heat stroke is twenty times higher in farm workers than other jobs. The biggest deterrent, however, is probably the fact that a job only lasts a few weeks. They're called migrant farm workers because they move from farm to farm and often state to state to pick whatever fruit or vegetable is in season. There is no job security, no benefits, and little room for advancement.

In Common Sense and Immigration, Pennsylvania grower Brad Hollabaugh said,
“Should the politics of the day result in America abandoning agriculture in favor of implementing restrictive immigration policies that have no transitory worker solutions, there will be a massive collapse in our food system. We all want a safe food supply. But the security of our nation lies in our ability to feed our nation. Jeopardizing our ability to feed ourselves is diametrically opposed to the intent of securing our borders.”
And his wife, Kay Hollabaugh, testified before the Pennsylvania Senate, asking legislators to not make E-verify mandatory:
“The E-Verify program has proven to be flawed. Simple reading of what has happened in Arizona should make that painfully clear. Unauthorized workers are slipping through, while U.S. citizens are being flagged as illegal. How can we possibly think that this is a system that is working? As a small business owner, this is yet the next piece of legislation that causes further paperwork and more man hours for the management of our business. We are already stretched painfully thin simply keeping up with the mountains of paperwork and regulations that already exist. Further, if we are required to use the E-Verify system and if our workers are found to be undocumented, where is the work force that is ready to step to the plate to harvest our fruits and vegetables? They do not exist. If our workers are found to be undocumented and they are taken away, we will no longer be able to harvest our crops. If you are scared of immigrant laborers, just wait until we have to be at the mercy of other countries to obtain our food. Now that’s scary.”
I really don't like talking or writing about anything remotely close to politics because everyone has their own pundits and politicians whom they love and trust, and if you say anything opposite to them, people tend to ignore you or get mad at you. That said, I had to go out on a limb here to talk about something that will never be solved by politics until people start talking about this honestly. And since I'm not running for office, I can be brutally honest. You see, politicians have a tough time talking about this honestly because it's complicated. It can't be summed up in a five-second sound bite. And even worse, their opponent could take a couple comments out of context and make it sound really bad. It is just easier for them to say what people want to hear -- export all the illegal immigrants and then everyone will have jobs. But that's not true. There is a labor shortage in agriculture, and it is only being made worse by this political rhetoric.

The sad thing is that the only people in Georgia and Arizona who are in pain are the farmers, and since less than two percent of the population is farmers, they don't wield much political power. And don't let the farm lobbyists fool you -- they represent the Big Ag corporations. Because we have a global food supply, the shelves in the grocery stores in Georgia and Arizona are still full, so the average voters there have no clue what's happening. After losing a quarter of a million dollars last year, Paulk has plowed under his 25 acres of blueberries and is planning to plant it in something that can be machine harvested like cotton. So, financially he might be okay down the road. However, as more farmers can't find people to pick their fruits and vegetables, more will move to crops that can be harvested by machine, and then we will find ourselves in the same position as Great Britain during World War II when people were starving because they had been importing most of their food.

Importation of food in the U.S. has been growing steadily. As I wrote in Homegrown & Handmade, between 1995 and 2005, we increased importation of tree nuts from 40 to 54 percent and processed fruit from 20 to 37 percent. By 2009, 30 percent of our produce was imported from other countries. This isn't happening overnight. Our food security is gradually slipping away, from one state to another, one farmer to another. As each blueberry field or apple orchard is abandoned, we will simply import a little more fruit. And before you know it, we will be as dependent upon the rest of the world for our food as we are today for our fuel. Instead of fighting wars for oil, we'll be fighting for pistachios.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Variety is the spice of life

 Homemade salsa with several types of tomatoes and peppers
A few months ago I was being interviewed on a radio talk show, and the host asked me if we ever get bored with our food. You know, since we grow almost all of our own, we must get bored eating the same thing all the time, right? Uh, no. Not even close! The simple fact is that we have far more variety in our diet than most people, and we are able to eat lots of foods that are too expensive or are simply not available to buy, such as purple jalapeƱos and red okra.

Amana orange tomatoes
In addition to our own beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, and the occasional goose, we also grow dozens of different vegetables that most Americans have never seen. While many people don't even know that there are any tomatoes out there beyond the supermarket red tomato and grape or cherry tomatoes, which are both red, we usually grow six or seven different types of tomatoes -- Amana orange, yellow brandywine, green zebra, and cherokee purple, just to name a few. The red tomato is actually my least favorite, although some varieties are more tasty than others. We make yellow, orange, white, green, and brownish-purple tomato soup. We use striped Roman tomatoes to make all of our own pizza sauce, which is more tomatoey than anything I've tasted anywhere. Green zebra tomatoes make a delicious quiche and a tomato-mozzarella-basil sandwich that is out of this world. And there are hundreds more varieties of tomatoes from which to choose!

Lettuces from the low tunnel in December
We grow a dozen different types of lettuce and salad greens that all have their own unique flavor and appearance, such as lolla rossa, oak leaf, florellenschluss, deer tongue, red iceberg, and more. Salad greens beyond the lettuce family include arugula and mache. And then there are red mustard greens, collards, Swiss chard, and spinach for cooking. By using low tunnels to grow through the winter, we are able to produce all of our own greens from September through June.

Sauteed summer squash medley with garlic and basil chiffonade
While most people are only familiar with zucchini and yellow crookneck squash, we also have lemon squash, golden zucchini, and patty pan, which is my favorite summer squash. In the winter squash family, we have acorns, butternut, blue hubbard, sweet potato squash, and my favorite, spaghetti squash.

Convinced yet? I could go on. We plant more than 100 different varieties of vegetables, and our garden is only one-seventh of an acre, which is half the size of most suburban lots.

In addition to the vegetables, we have fruit trees and bramble fruits. In their first year of production each pear tree averaged more than 25 pounds of fruit -- that was only three years after we planted them. In addition to eating pears fresh, we put them on salads and in desserts, and we canned them. We had plain canned pears and spiced pear butter, which is really tasty in oatmeal. With our apples, we canned plain apples, as well as caramel apple butter, applesauce, and apple preserves.

And then there is the maple syrup. Most people can only afford to use it on pancakes, waffles, and French toast, but we use it as the sweetener in a number of recipes, such as ginger cookies, granola, and pork roast. We just finished maple sugaring for this spring, and we have four and a half gallons. Sounds like a lot, but we'll use most of that before next spring arrives. We were able to make five gallons last year, and we've almost finished it. With the addition of bee hives on the farm, we are looking at almost completely eliminating the purchase of commercial sugar, which is often made from genetically-modified sugar beets.

Berries also tend to be too expensive for most people to use in abundance. Through the summer we eat a lot of berry crisps and cobblers, and we drink a lot of smoothies. I make a raspberry crisp that uses six cups of raspberries, which would cost about $20 from the grocery store -- and my berries are organic. We also freeze berries for using through the winter.

Speaking of smoothies, we make our own yogurt, as well as buttermilk and a multitude of cheeses from the common to the obscure. In addition to cheddar and mozzarella and the cheeses that everyone has heard of, we also make some that were totally new to use before we started making cheese, such as gjetost, an incredibly rich Scandinavian brown cheese made from whey.

As I said in Homegrown & Handmade, variety is one reason we grow our own food. So, if you've been thinking that you don't want to give up something that you're currently buying, think about it a little more. Maybe you don't really have to give it up. If it's one of those processed foods that isn't good for you, odds are good that you can replace it with something homegrown and handmade that tastes even better, costs less, and is good for you!

This post was shared at the Homestead Barn Hop.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Homesteading dreams

I'm really excited today to introduce you to Jenna Woginrich, author of Made From Scratch, Chick Days, and her latest book, Barnheart, which is her memoir as a 20-something, single homesteading woman. If you already know her or her work, then I don't have to tell you how incredible she is, but if she's new to you, then you are in for a treat! Some people think I'm brave, but it took my husband and me almost a decade of talking and planning and procrastinating before we found our place in the country. Jenna had the courage to do it by herself a couple of decades younger than I did. Yeah, I'm kind of jealous thinking about what I could do out here in a younger body!


What follows are a few thoughts from a recent post on her blog, Cold Antler Farm. If you want to know more, of course, you can head over there and read as much as you want. But if that isn't enough for you, Jenna has graciously agreed to give away a copy of Barnheart to some lucky winner. So, if you want a chance to win, post a comment at the end of this post by midnight Sunday, March 11, and tell us about your homesteading dreams! Sorry but anonymous posts are not eligible, so if you're not a registered user, be sure to put your name in the post, so I'll know who you are. I'll use random.org to pick the winner!

On Failing

I have absolutely zero fear of failing at this, at ANY of this. I have no fear of losing my corporate job, or my house burning down, or a horse breaking his leg in the field. I am lucky to be 29 as I write this, young enough to accept some serious failure if that is what life throws at me. If I lose my job I'll get another. If my house burns down I'll rent a trailer and rebuild it (that's why I pay for insurance). And if a horse I loved breaks his legs in the field I'll put a rifle to his head and shoot him. I'm not scared of loss, risk, or pain. Life is a sad, messy, and scary place and I accept the dark parts of it as much as the light parts. I refuse to spend a life setting myself up to not face these things and then label it "successful". I know a lot of miserable people with money in the bank and 401k plans who admittedly never really lived a day in their lives. They are already gone.

This is because people make decisions in their everyday lives as if they are planning on eventually running for Governor. As if someday down the line at a great, televised debate their poor choices will be pulled out of the ether and shoved in their faces. As if a moderator in a blue suit will whip out an index card while you sweat at the podium and read to millions of viewers: "Remember in 2009 when you wanted to buy that tractor, so you took out a home equity loan to buy it and build the tractor shed and the farm was foreclosed on 15 months later?! Why should we vote for you based on these horrible outcomes to your decisions?" Most people are terrified of things not working out, and being called out on them. It doesn't have to be a televised debate either. They're scared of being called out at a PTA meeting or dinner party, as if their mistakes are fodder for the sick comfort pot for those too paralyzed to make them themselves.

You can't go through life scared to fail. Lord knows I have failed several times with this farm, on this blog, and in life in general. I failed horribly in matters of the heart that I will never feel comfortable sharing on this blog. I failed my best friend Kevin, and I lost him. I miss him every day. I failed to keep that rental in Vermont because I insisted on this life. I failed at keeping my first sheepdog, Sarah. I failed at owning and raising a pack goat named Finn. I expect to fail some more. So be it.

The very best advice I can give is DO NOT be afraid of this. Do not let utter failure stop you. If your plans fail you will not be stabbed, or put in jail, or burned at the stake. Nothing happens but repairs and remorse, both heal in time. If someone points out a flaw, mistake, or risk then you raise a pint to that lesson and take a long drink. The correct answer to that moderator is "Damn right I got that tractor. Best 15 months of my life on my own land, there on than back of Ol' Green. Shame the farm failed, though." Had that example farm succeeded that tractor would have been just another risky, but correct, decision. Since it failed, it gets thrown in our faces by the other people safely watching from the docks while you set sail for a dream. Docks are miserable places, get off of them. You'll drown dry and standing.

On Money

I do not have a big savings account or a lot of money. I live paycheck to paycheck alone in an old farmhouse where the mortgage, utilities, upkeep, truck payment, insurance, taxes, and animal care all falls on my shoulders. My office job pays around $440 a week, take home pay. (There are waiters making more money than that.) I I keep my office job because I like it. I like the people, the design work, and I like knowing I have health care coverage in case of an emergency. It is a twenty minute commute and I can bring my dog with me so I consider it a blessing. The rest of my income is earned through Cold Antler. I run classes, workshops, webinars, CSA, yard sales, and go Six Ways to Sunday to get the bills paid. I have always managed to do it, even if just barely. I was scraping by just as tight in the cabin in Vermont with twenty chickens and three sheep on a cheap rental as I am now. Clearly, my expenses have gone up but so has my income. I am on my fourth book, holding a record number of events, and making it all work by the skin of my teeth no matter the time or energy needed to make it happen. I have always had enough, and I believe I will continue to make my choices work no matter what life throws at me. If things got tight I'd take on a roommate, sell antiques, teach music lessons, sell livestock, run more workshops, start public speaking, plan more book tours, and write, write, write till my fingers bleed and my computer lets out one last moan before the screen fades to black.

If supporting a farm that runs like this makes you uncomfortable, then do not support it. If supporting a dream that runs on fumes makes you feel as alive as it does for me, then support the hell out of it. I do the same for others like mine every chance I get.


On Being Realistic

Merlin, the Fell pony that Jenna is buying
I am not interested in what's realistic, never have been. Most people who say "realistic" are just using it as a synonym for conventionally manageable and emotionally safe. Let me tell you what realistic is. Reality is what is happening in your life right now. Not what you can afford. Not what people tell you is manageable. Not what you have been advised, lectured, or ordered to do. My reality is a small farm full of animals in upstate New York. My reality is keeping the mortgage paid, animals fed, fiddle strung, and inspiration alive and breathing in a way that is always moving towards my true goal, which is an independent and creative life as a writer who pays the bills with her words, workshop and blog, and pays for her groceries in blood, sweat, and tears on her own land. In my fairly eccentric and unconventional reality, Merlin is as realistic as it gets. He is simply what may happen next.

I am a firm believer in jumping into life head first, naked, and scared. What's the point of being alive if you aren't testing your heart rate and taking chances? After all, nothing is safer than a person in a coma in a hospital bed. For me, being vulnerable, being risky, being afraid... this means you are alive. I am this way with my farm, my relationships, myself. If I love someone I tell him. I have yet to be told one loved me back, but one of these days it is going to stick. If I want something I go for it. And if I need something I make it happen or ask those who can make it happen for me. I do this fully aware that I may fail miserably and many might shake their heads. But I wake up every morning excited about my life, which to me is worth all the risks, all these and more. There is nothing stagnant or comfortable here, shit I don't even own a couch to sit on, but that's how I like life. I see my life as a moving animal: always hungry, heart pounding, blood hot and looking ahead. Always, ahead.
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