"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, June 25, 2010

To My Farmsitter

Farmsitter Instructions:

These are divided into two parts: Farm, and house. Farm first.

There is one rule which is far and away the most important of all - if you do nothing else, please do this! Keep the door to the milking barn closed and locked at all times. The latch must be shot and turned down; if not turned down, Iris can open it. If the goats get into the milking barn, they will eat grain until they blow up and die. The grain canisters have lids, and please keep the lids on, but I think the goats would knock the whole bin over and work like crazy until they could get at the grain. Then they would die. So that’s rule number one, the alpha and the omega of farmsitting.

Okay. Now I know the hardest task, far and away, will be milking, so I’m going to go into detail here. I know you will have had some hands-on practice, but just in case. When you open the door to the milking barn, all the does will try to crowd in. Bodyblock all but one. Whichever doe it is will run in and jump up on the milking stand. Push her head down into the stanchion and lock it. Now she’s trapped!

There is a canister of clorox wipes on the shelf. They are there to clean off the teats before milking, but I only use them if it’s been raining and the udder is obviously muddy or gross. Use your own judgement. I do direct the first couple of squirts of milk into the hay on the floor - this clears out any bacteria that may have built up in the teat since the last milking. Third squirt goes in the jar.

The name of the game when milking is to extract maximum milk for minimum grain. The does really should not get more than one scoop of grain per milking (the scoop will be in the bin). However, you will soon notice that as long as they have food they are easy to milk, but when they run out they immediately start to kick and complain. Dole out the grain by small handfuls, but even so, they will run out of grain before you run out of milk. Three suggestions: wear old clothes to milk, because you WILL get the milk jar spilled on you at least a few times. It happens to me, and I’ve been milking twice a day for three years now. Number two: when they start to kick, slap them on the hindquarters (hard) and yell “no!” They all know what this means. It will buy you a few minutes. Lastly, if you need it, there is a bungi cord and some hooks to wrap up the hind legs with. Usually I get done without this, but I am well practiced. My guess is you will need to use the cord on Iris.

A few notes about Iris. By the time this stint is over, you will either love Iris or hate her. Maybe both. There are good things about Iris - she’s a beautiful goat. She’s healthy and smart, and she is a milk-making-machine. All of these excellent qualities have their downside. She is so smart she is tricky. She is the only goat who can open the barn door. When you are milking another goat, remember to shoot the inside latch, or Iris will open the door and jump in before you can stop her. She makes so much milk (about three quarts per milking) that it takes for freakin’ ever to milk her. Also she knows perfectly well about the grain/milk ratio game and she eats like a speed demon. She kicks like a mule. I often find myself cursing like a sailor while milk runs down my legs as Iris looks at me sidewise and laughs. Be firm and remember, you are smarter than the smartest goat. Probably.

It is important to try to “strip” the teat to get all the milk out. There is no such thing as a totally empty udder, so don’t go on forever, but when the flow visibly diminishes and the teat starts to look shriveled, wait a minute or two and then milk some more. Several more healthy squirts will come out. The second time the flow diminishes, she’s done. Leaving too much milk in the udder invites mastitis, which is what we want to avoid.

Getting the goats INTO the barn is the easy part. Getting them OUT after they have been milked is harder. Remember, as you try to get a goat out, the other goats will be trying to get in. Do NOT open the door before you have opened the stanchion and maneuvered the goat to the door. I sling my arm around the goat’s neck and catch them with the crook of my elbow and guide them off the stand and over to the door. Then I open the door and push the goat out (and I do mean PUSH) while blocking the other goats from jumping in. This works pretty well, but if you have trouble, I keep a stout switch up against the wall. Grab and lay about you with vigor. Don’t be shy; beat the HECK out of those goats if necessary. You aren’t going to hurt them.

You can expect about a gallon and a quart at each milking. Most of that will be from Iris. I don’t care what you do with the milk - by all means - drink it, share it with friends and family, whatever you like. But if it gets too much, you can also feed it to the dogs or the chickens. I won’t be offended! If you want to drink it, you should bring it in and filter it through a coffee filter and refrigerate it as quickly as possible. I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding this, but as a novice, you should expect some hairs and flecks in the milk. That’s what the coffee filter is for. Of course, if a goat succeeds in putting her whole foot in the bucket (as they sometimes do) that milk should be discarded.

Okay that’s all I can think of for milking. Feeding is pretty self-explanatory. The horses are on pasture, they need nothing. The goats should have hay in the feeder, but the feeder holds a whole bale and so doesn’t need to be replenished more often than once a week. In between,. just lift the lid and fluff it up so they can reach. The scoop for chicken food is in the chicken food bin - I just open the window of the barn and scatter it out on the ground. The goats and horses will come eat, but don’t sweat it. The chickens will get plenty.

Oh speaking of chickens, there is a broody hen in the coop. She’s one of the speckled hens. Just leave her alone and don’t try to gather her eggs. It would be nice if you could remember to scatter some grain inside the coop for her and use the hose to fill the waterer, but she’ll be okay either way. The hens like to lay in the hayloft and also in the hay feeder. You can expect six to ten eggs a day. Again - do what you like with them.

Water - just try to keep the buckets full. Morning and night is enough. If it is really hot and sunny, I guess algae might build up in the buckets. If so, dump them and squirt the high-pressure hose on them before filling them again. Pretty simple.

Um. It’s getting pretty late and I’m running out of thoughts. You know where the dog and cat food is. Feed the cat where the dogs can’t get it - I feed him up on the table in the playroom. Try REALLY hard not to let Lancelot (the collie) out. He goes over to the neighbor’s house and causes all kinds of trouble. In fact, the dogs don’t need to go out at all, really. They have the backyard and the playroom. Just leave the door to the backyard open so they can go out to poop. They can sleep outside or inside, doesn’t matter. If Ivory sleeps inside she will wake you up about seven A.M. to let her out to pee, so you might want to just have her sleep outside.

I have set up an account with the vet (number on the fridge) so if there is an emergency you can get the animals treatment. The goats can be transported in the van and I’ll leave you the keys just in case. Be aware, however, that I have been battling with worms and coccidia all spring. Simple diarrhea is not cause for the vet. It’s just par for the course at the moment. I have just wormed the goats and right now everyone is healthy. Hope they stay that way. I think I’ve covered everything. I’ll check again in the morning. Also, in the morning I’ll write out the house instructions.

Grass and Raptors

The neighbors are haying their 100 acre field. It smells like heaven around here... is there a better smell than fresh hay curing in the sun?

Apparently, there is, although I can't smell it. I've never seen so many raptors in my life. Dozens of hawks, vultures, and eagles have been swooping over the field for the last few days, drawn by all the little grass creatures that met their doom when the combine ran over them. I feel sorry for the rabbits, mice and snakes, but I do love to watch the birds.

I have seen several juvenile bald eagles, which is pretty cool.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nine Bags Full

A couple of weeks ago, a neighbor of mine who attends the same church as we do made an offer: she knew somebody who raised alpacas but who wasn't interested in the fleece (why would you raise alpacas if you didn't care about fleece? Makes no sense) and who had been storing her unwanted fiber for years in her barn. The woman was threatening to make a bonfire of it, but my neighbor intervened and said she would come and pick it up.

She knew that Rowan was a fiber fanatic, so she offered us all the fleece in exchange for lessons on processing and spinning it, and a hunk of fleece to work with. Are you kidding? we asked, incredulous. Bring it on!

Well, today, she brought it on. She brought a pick-up truck full of hefty-trash bags full of fiber. She told us that in fact the pick-up load represented only a fourth or so of the fiber the woman had, but that she felt a little overwhelmed and decided enough was enough. I couldn't agree more.

nine bags full

There was black fiber, brown fiber, white fiber - there was high quality firsts and low quality seconds. There was enough fiber to clothe the Russian army (to paraphrase my mom). I'm going to guesstimate that there is something like forty or fifty pounds of raw alpaca fleece piled up in my shed.

pretty nice white fleece

Plus, she said that if we want, her brother-in-law, a shearer, has access to basically unlimited quantities of fresh alpaca fleece. Apparently, there are many people around who own alpacas but are not interested in fiber. I know - beats me, too. So, suffice to say, we have access to enough alpaca to keep us occupied until basically the end of time.

Now we are planning a fleece-processing party - a nice sunny day, a trio of kiddie pools, some chicken wire stapled to sawhorses, an industrial sized bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid, and a case of beer. Maybe chips and salsa. Music. Make a party out of the hard, backbreaking work of processing fleece.

Many hands make light the work, and all. I love neighbors. I love it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Notes on a Field (Benign Neglect)

In nature, there is no such thing as a blank slate, but this property was pretty close, when we bought it. The previous owners had scraped down the entire back pasture and leveled it, leaving it all bare dirt and trucked-in sand. At the time, I was mystified as to why they would do such a thing, but now I know it was to hide the fact that they had buried tons of rubble from their old dairy barn (Spring Cleaning).

The front acre, on the other hand, was a different kind of clean slate: a perfect lawn, every last dandelion, daisy, and buttercup stoned into submission with heavy chemicals. Each of these areas has benefitted, over the last three years, from my benign neglect. Basically, I have done diddly-squat to either of these fields, neither to promote the good nor to repress the bad. There are exceptions (Weeds), but basically I have left "well-enough" alone, as far as active management is concerned.

I would love to be able to observe and take notes on the "natural" course of regeneration on the scraped-over back field, but of course I cannot, since I introduced livestock back there. The goats and the chickens and the ponies, and even the alpacas while they were here, have each had their peculiar influence on the area - what each species likes and dislikes to eat has profound consequences for which plants will thrive and which will die off.

Since I spend so much time out watching the goats, I know by far the most about what it is they prefer to eat. While there is a general hierarchy of favorite foods - fruit trees being number one, followed by blackberries, anything that grows in my garden, and then, in descending order, any young tree-tips, such as alder, willow, most species of evergreen, then roses and clover - there is a surprising variability between individual goats as to what they like to eat.

Iris loves dandelion flowers and will spend hours eating practically nothing else. Django and Cloud are the only goats who will eat thistles, and they will only eat the unopened flower buds, not the leaves. All the goats will eat burdock, but only after the burrs have formed, alas. They totally ignore the tender young leaves in the spring and then gobble the mature leaves starting just about now, mid-summer.

Oddly, all the goats will eat the poison hemlock. So far it hasn't done them any harm, but I take no chances and try my hardest to get rid of it before they all poison themselves. Also, they all love rhododendron, which is also toxic. I have to beat them off the rhodie with a stick.

Nobody will eat stinging nettle, more's the pity.

No tree will ever sprout in the goat-pasture, because the goats will attack it without mercy, but in the front area where the goats seldom go, many trees have spontaneously emerged. The most numerous are offspring of my neighbor's sour pie-cherries, but there are also alders and maples. I leave these be - I'd like more trees about the place, especially if they bear cherries. The most prevalent weeds in the goat pasture are buttercup, thistles of various stripes, milkweed, amaranth, nettle, and hemlock.

The early invaders of the perfect lawn were dandelion (of course), thistles, and creeping buttercup. Three years on, blackberry is making an appearance, along with many suckers from the antique pear (that thing spreads like wildfire) and dock. Recently, horsetail has been spreading up from the culvert. I don't really care about lawn except that I hate to step on thistles, so I may be able to just keep observing what happens there.

On the high flat compacted area where the dairy barn once stood there is a (seasonal) abundance of mushrooms. Shaggy manes are the most prevalent. According to my mushroom book they like compacted soil, and they are delicious. Speaking of mushrooms, the other day I was working in the garden when I saw some mushrooms that looked so exactly like button mushrooms from the store that I picked some. They smelled just like button mushrooms from the store, too. So I ate one. It tasted just like a button mushroom from the store. Now, three days later, I feel fine, so I'm going to call them button mushrooms and eat them from now on.

My property is certainly not a model of pasture management - I guess you've picked up on that by now. I'm not making any effort to create a particular population of plants here - although I encourage grass and discourage hemlock and other "bad" plants. I do rotate grazing, just to avoid any area being grazed to the ground and also to minimize parasite issues. Mostly I am just fascinated by closely observing the earth doing what it does, and trying to identify and name the factors that contribute to the mosaic of life that I see. I love knowing my property intimately, even if I can't do much to influence it's behavior.

I haven't even begun to talk about the bees, yet. Oh, the bees are so happy right now, with the clover and the blackberry in bloom!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

See, I'm Not Always Negative!


Just to prove it's not all gloom and doom over here, I thought I'd post this wonderful e-mail letter I received. One of the organizations I have worked with in the past, Community to Community, has a focus on food justice, and one component of that is helping urban people organize to produce more of their own food and take more control over what they have available to them to eat.

The Urban Farm movement is growing by leaps and bounds all over the country, but nowhere is it growing faster or more vigorously than in Detroit. Detroit has been through a lot, and recently it has been ravaged by the housing crisis. Entire neighborhoods are practically abandoned, with only intermittent services, no schools or grocery stores left open, and blocks upon blocks of boarded up homes.

But some energetic people have seen opportunity in this situation, and have been banding together to create a vibrant new urban agricultural movement. This movement is not only providing food, but hope and optimism and beauty. Community to Community is sending a group to learn from some of the people in Detroit with the hopes of bringing back the spark of an independent Urban Food movement here.

This letter just made me so happy and so hopeful! Ordinary folks can do so much! Bless the strong, resilient people of Detroit, and may their industry and bravery be a model for other blighted areas around the country and the world.

To: Food Crisis Working Group (Coordination and Grassroots Mobilization
USSF subcommittee)

Re: Networking Trip in Detroit May 14-16, Fresh and Brief 1st Report

Our delegation of food justice activists, composed of Karen Washington
(beloved urban ag leader from the Bronx), Lorrie Clevenger (hard working WHY
staffer), Jessica Walker Beaumont (Brooklyn organizer), and Stephen Bartlett
(Agricultural Missions, and Sustainable Agriculture of Louisville), was
hosted by Greening of Detroit whirlwind leader Ashley Atkinson who bent over
backwards to make sure we could meet with everyone we could who are involved
in the ground breaking and flowering that is Urban Agriculture in Detroit.

As a first time visitor to Detroit, despite what I had read and pondered
about the collosal de-industrialization that is taking place in Detroit,
aggravated by the recent financial upheavals, I was nevertheless sobered to
see with my own eyes neighborhoods where upwards of 20%, 40%, 60%, 70% of
the homes lie vacant, many of them gutted and burned hulls! Was I in
Sarajevo or Burundi after a brutal war? one could almost ask oneself. Was I
in the 9th Ward of New Orleans?! The space of Detroit is immense, enough
space to fit NYC, Boston and DC within its city limits, we were told. But
most of it sprawls in all directions, bounded only by the river that divides
the US from Canada. Public services like public transit, working lights at
intersections (many have blinking lights now due to lack of heavy traffic),
are conspicuously absent. Empty lots are more common than full lots. There
are "No Mow" zones, where nature is reasserting itself. Infrastructure of
all kinds is in disrepair, from side walks to street lamps. Local artists
have done massive and symbolic works of colorful protest art on the shells
of abandoned houses, as in the Heidelburg (?) project area.

But in the midst of that scene, you have an amazing thing happening!
Amazing people working. Beautiful manifestations of the human spirit for
beauty and wholeness and solidarity. The Urban Gardeners and Farmers Are
Arising! Empty lots are acquired by permission, or squatted upon, sowed in
all manner of edible plants, empty houses are restored in clusters around
community gardens, greenhouses sprout up along with the mushrooms people are
cultivating in shaded log yards. Trees are being planted, by the tens of
thousands by Greening of Detroit (the city has given up on that job, and
leaves it to Greening, whose summer staff swells to the hundreds). Our
intrepid guide kept making mental notes to herself about trees she saw doing
well or poorly in neighborhoods far flung along our tour route around the
city, many of which she had planted herself. These people don't seem to

We learned how tree planting and community garden organizing had literally
brought neighborhoods back from the brink of scenes from a Mad Max movie,
kept schools from closing, creating desireable places for people to live and
thrive and enjoy nature's beauty, to keep the houses occupied by people.
How gardens and food production has become the center of the life of
neighborhood clusters all across Detroit. We saw how a food industry
district is being revitalized by strategic and visionary leadership aimed at
rebuilding the local food economy with a strong commitment to distributing
the benefits widely, as in the revitalized Eastern Market full of flower and
produce vendors (beautiful rhubarb and greens!) surrounded by food
processors, including Halal meat merchants and butchers, as well as the less
savory style of butchering.

We visited the Black Farmers Food Security Network D-Town Farm on an
expansive plot of land amidst a "tree farm" park, surrounded now by a deer
fence and hosting bee hives, mushroom log lots featuring two victorian style
stuffed chairs innoculated with mushroom spores, soon to be mushroom easy
chairs!, a greenhouse, garden plots and fields ready for planting. A
Saturday crew including inquisitive children was doing planting and bed
preparation and mulching. A guided tour through the grounds with handsome
signage teaches visitors about the agricultural heritage of Africans and
descendents of Africans. Beautiful work being done. A restored agrarian
consciousness being cultivated.

We visited Brightmore neighborhood, and Reet (sp?), cluster leader and
gardener/farmer extraordinaire, with her bee hives, chicken coop and rabbit
hutch, greenhouses and extensive vegetable production. A new garden
serviced by a homemade raincatchment system for drip irrigation. Hundreds
of sunflowers being propagated for planting on lots where houses were
foreclosed, stripped and burnt, as a symbolic action saying: we resist this
decay with signs of beauty! Her 20 youth volunteer crew were busy marching
in a neighborhood pride event, replete with marching band and the urban ag
youth movement in identical orange t-shirts.

We relished the leisurely walk around the track of a school for pregnant
teenage or recently given birth teenage girls, so they can finish their high
school education, with the football field now the pasture for a horse, the
track dug up and prepared in raised vegetable beds, beehives of every
historical description near the orchard trees, including one in the trunk of
a once enormous living tree! Ducks, goats, turkeys, chickens. Agriculture
integrated into the school curriculum. A beautiful tableau. My thought:
"Had any girl purposefully gotten pregnant simply to get into this school?"
I asked. The answer: "We have our suspicions. We now allow highly
motivated girls to come, even if they are not pregnant."

We visited a neighborhood stalwart with her yard full of pot bellied pigs,
chickens, and goats of all sizes and colors. Neighbors stop by with produce
to feed the goats through the fence. We did the same after chasing some
goats back in under a chain link fence, feeding mulberry leaves to the
ravenous goats. We could have been in a marginal neighborhood in Latin
America or Africa at first glance of that yard, chock full of edible
clucking and baahing life! Right in the city of Detroit!

A community garden with its own outdoor movie theater and bonfire pit, right
diagonally across from a recently developed community center in a once
abandoned local home. Vegetables galore sprouting up and loads of compost
heating up. "We had a big bonfire one Saturday evening. A cop rode by but
didn't say or do anything." People erecting chicken coops behind hedges,
as they are technically illegal in the city limits. Neighbors out walking
on the sidewalks clucking like hens or calling like roosters to let them
know "they know." Peoples front, side and back yards turned over to
agriculture. "Hippies" growing their own tobacco, no doubt for ceremonial
use as we in a community garden in Louisville do.

A once-a-month brunch at an urban farmstead. Volunteers cook quiche and
vegan fare for Sunday brunch in the homestead, for donations from $5 to $20,
enjoyed by crowds of people on about 10 picnic tables overlooking the
greenhouse and the "rock climbing Yellow Poplar tree." (The proceeds to go
towards a certified kitchen project.) The big attraction for the able
bodied? The giant tree. You get in a harness and with a spotter holding the
other end of the belay, you climb up and up and up up on boards bolted into
the tree with rock hand and footholds, into the crook of the giant tree and
on up, finally scrambling up the last limb to the very peak of this
magnificent tree. As one young women farmer climbs the tree, the farmer
tells us he keeps doubling his farm each year... following the healthy soil
(he was going west, he said, but the soil tests were high in lead), so he
veered northward, borrowed some machinery, a Bob Cat, and builds up wide
raised beds sowed in mikuna and mixed greens.

There is so much land abandoned and doing nothing but growing tall grass,
that the possibilities appear to be endless. Some entrepreneurial,
corporate types are looking at doing some deals whereby they can do
intensive, no doubt "chemical" agriculture on a large scale across the city,
ignoring what is already taking place, a boom of small scale family and
community groups doing low-input farming for local markets and home
consumption. Young men and women on bicycles with trailers selling produce
here and there. Dilapidated houses fixed up and made warm with the idealism
of youth and cooperativism, maintained by the work of growing food and doing
local carpentry.

It is really happening in Detroit, as in pockets of de-industrialized cities
like St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh... the entire Rust Belt actually, but
the scale in Detroit is reaching certain thresholds for the development of
local food processing and marketing and certified kitchen initiatives beyond
what is already happening. A lot of that synergy is coming out of the work
of the organizations we witnessed who are doing community education,
extensive community and family gardening and farming and animal husbandry,
doing marketing cooperatively, organizations who are well organized enough
to issue calendars in January that have all the major events already
scheduled! Organizations that do 25,000 telephone calls per year to their
community constituents (numbering 16,000!) to get them out to trainings,
community meetings, markets, plant distributions. It was really inspiring
to witness the level of organization!! We witnessed the fourth plant
seedling distribution done as part of the Garden Resource Program, and
helped distribute herbs and vegetable seedlings to hundreds and hundreds of
people, besides a large greenhouse run by Earthworks, a partner of Greening
I believe. Tens of thousands of plants were distributed over three hours to
both families and community gardeners.

Sunday morning we saw the giant field or fields where our Food Justice
Canopy will be erected for the US Social Forum (with 30 or more other large
canopies), toward the bridge to Canada about six long blocks from the COBO
convention center, on what appears to be a large "brown field" surrounded by
chain link fences, now shin high in scraggly grass, but with a beautiful
view of the river and Winsor, Canada and the local fishermen out there
catching their next meal. (We won't be growing veggies in that soil!) So
the canopy area will be about a 10-12 (brisk) minute walk from the COBO
center on the walkway bicycle trail that borders the river. A cluster of
tall hotels dubbed the Renaissance Center including the Marriott lie just a
short walk from the COBO center in the other direction, past Hart Plaza
where US Social Forum events will no doubt be scheduled.

Keep alert for our next Food Crisis Working Group Grassroots Mobilization
USSF subcommittee meeting (date and time TBA). Our "canopy" scheduling group
meets on Wednesday 2 p.m. by phone to advance on organization of the tent
space. Jessica Walker Beaumont is volunteering with the USSF staff in
Detroit today and should have more info for us by the Wed call. We made
excellent and sure-to-be-lasting friendships with our hosts and fellow urban
agrarians and tree climbers, not to mention the Louisville-NYC nexus now
solidified among us. We got some excitement going about USSF and some
desire for some Popular Education style activity in the Food Justice tent
and possibly elsewhere. I plan to bring the props and script for the
"Mother Earth Says" agrarian struggle socio drama. Please bring drums,
banners, baskets, incense, songs, produce, stories, skit ideas... where the
Social Forum becomes magical is where we can use our bodies and voices and
visions all together to share from the heart and continue to build our food
sovereignty movement!

Peace through Grassroots Agrarian Community Renewal in the wake of our
failed industrialism, corporate-led globalization and financial capital
predation, (a mouthful). Food sovereignty is our future! Our progressive
agrarian sisters and brothers in Detroit manifest an on-going example of
that spirit!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Political Aside (WARNING: Major Rant Ahead)

I seldom post on political topics, although lately it's been kind of hard to avoid. Those of you who know me know that I have been a longtime volunteer advocate for immigrants. I have been a volunteer interpreter and translator for, among other organizations, the Northwest Immigrant's Rights Project and Community to Community. I am a volunteer interpreter at my local Interfaith medical/dental clinic and for several area churches and neighborhood organizations who provide services to low-income, non English-speaking families. I have been involved in helping immigrants for over twelve years now. I am married to a Mexican immigrant (who is now a U.S. citizen but who was undocumented when we met), and my children are brown and bilingual.

There are few groups in this country more powerless and voiceless than undocumented immigrants and their children. Imagine, for a moment, if you can, being forced by poverty, war, or natural disaster to leave your home and family and move to a completely unknown country where you do not speak the language, know anyone, or understand the systems you must navigate. Imagine your journey is dangerous and uncertain, that you spend your life savings and arrive here destitute and alone. Imagine that every day you have to live with the anxiety and fear of being discovered. That's the way things were fifteen years ago - now, on top of those hardships we must add a new xenophobic attitude that in some parts of the country is truly vicious. Now you aren't just hunted, you are also hated.

I have listened with utter dismay to the rise of cruel rhetoric and the increase in racist, inhuman sentiments expressed in the popular press. I could provide examples, but it is just terribly dispiriting. There was Glenn Beck making "jokes" about rounding up "illegals," killing them, and processing their dead bodies into a fuel source to be called "Mexahol." More recently, the republican congressman (can't remember name right now) who wondered why we can't forcibly implant tracking devices into undocumented aliens. "I can microchip my dog," he said, "why can't I microchip an illegal?" There is the ongoing spectacle of sheriff Arapaio's circus in the desert, where he constructs open-air concentration camps and marches prisoners through the streets of Phoenix to be verbally abused and reviled.

There are the new laws that target undocumented immigrants, and apparently the fervor of anti-immigrant activists is such that they do not even care that the laws they frame will also target brown skinned Americans, legal immigrants, innocent children, and tourists. Arizona's 10-70 is almost a copy of the hated "passbook laws" of South Africa's apartheid era. It forces all people who might be suspected of being "illegal" for whatever reason to carry documentation at all times or risk being pulled off the street and jailed for an indeterminate length of time while their status is investigated. Having worked with organizations who help legal immigrants and citizens to whom this has actually happened, I can tell you that such length of time is not likely to be less than a week and might be very much longer. Have you heard about conditions in our nation's detention centers? No? Well they are a national shame and a nightmare. The Supreme Court has over and over again upheld the principle that American citizens do not have to carry or show identification, but this law says that if you don't, some really really bad things might happen to you.

What kind of country are we becoming? Now Massachusetts has outdone Arizona, and your state may be next. The people were not even given a chance to vote on this next abomination. I am especially alarmed by the 24-hour anonymous hotline to allow people to secretly denounce their neighbors as "illegals," no evidence necessary. It reminds me of the speaking tube I saw in Venice, the one that ran straight from the public street to the interior of the Doge's Palace, where citizens were encouraged to denounce their neighbors for sedition and other "crimes." Those thusly accused were rounded up and taken into the Doge's dungeons for "questioning." Some of them never saw the light of day again.

But wait, no, I am especially alarmed by the punitive measures taken against the citizen children of undocumented immigrants to deny them housing, medical care, and schooling. In fact, I am so outraged by the whole idea and so sad and so ashamed I can barely type. As soon as I trust my voice to speak steadily I'll be calling my representative to voice my objection to similar measures being passed here. I will do so in the strongest possible terms that do not include profanity. Please do the same.


Aimee Day

Recently, the Massachusetts State Senate passed an amendment to the budget that targets immigrants and their families. Please call your State Representative and Senator to voice your opposition to the amendment, number 172.1. Ask them to tell the conference committee to remove the amendment from the bill.

Amendment 172.1 unfairly targets immigrants and their families and is costly to state and local agencies.

This amendment will be harmful for all residents, citizens and non-citizens alike.

  • It will install a 24-hour hotline for anonymous callers to report suspected undocumented immigrants. Callers will NOT have to provide a reason, and once your name is mentioned on the hot line the Attorney General's officewill investigate your status. This will be costly, result in racial profiling, and be used to harass lawful citizens.
  • The amendment will require redundant checks of immigration status for employment. Status is already checked through the federal I-9 form.
  • Anyone doing business with a state entity will have to verify the citizenship status for all employees using E-verify.
  • E-verify is prohibitively expensive for small businesses and individuals, costing up to $27,000 and has been found by theSocial Security Administration to have very high error rates which means citizens could lose wages, work time, and/or employment.
  • This amendment would deny public housing to citizen children whose parents may not have proper documentation. That increases homelessness.
  • Lastly, the proposed budget will prevent the children of undocumented immigrants from attending state colleges and universities, regardless of high achievement.

Call these representatives to sign Denis Provost's letter to the Speaker requesting amendment no. 172.1 be DROPPED.

Demand from the Ways & Means Chairs, Rep Charles Murphy and Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, to remove Senate Budget Amendment 172.1 during the conference committee.

The conference committee members are:

Rep. Charles Murphy (Co-Chair) 617-722-2990

Rep. Barbra L'Italien 617-722-2380

Rep. Robert Hargraves 617-722-2305

Sen. Stephen Panagiotakos (Co-Chair) 617-722-1630

Sen. Stephen Brewer 617-722-1540

Sen. Michael Knapik 617-722-1415

These Legislators voted No on this amendment. Thank Them for doing the right thing. Here is a list of those courageous Senators:

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz 617-722-1673

Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem 617-722-1639

Sen. Sal N. DiDomenico 617-722-1650

Sen. Kenneth J. Donnelly 617-722-1432

Sen. James B. Eldridge 617-722-1120

Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen 617-722-1578

Sen. Thomas M. McGee 617-722-1350

Sen. Stanley C. Rosenberg 617-722-1532

Sen. Steven A. Tolman 617-722-1280

Sen. Marian Walsh 617-722-1348

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Quesillo Chronicles

My cheesemaking experience now stretches back almost three years. I have had some notable successes, and several notable failures. At last, I can now reliably produce chevre, queso fresco, and cheddar - which isn't bad considering the poverty of my equipment. One of my cheeses is even achieving some local fame - some of my friends ask for it by name. That would be my "Smokin' Goat Chilpotle Cheddar," a delicious, spicy, lightly aged cheese with chilpotle pepper flakes in it.

But to be honest, my cheesemaking is pretty much hit or miss. My recipe books say things like "hold the milk at 86 degrees for 18 hours." I don't know what kind of equipment they think I have, but I'm pretty sure they are imagining something more sophisticated than a stainless steel pot, a flexible cutting mat, and the oven-light. The rest of my equipment consists of a colander, some muslin, and a tall stack of heavy books. I do the best I can with what I've got and I'm willing to tolerate a fairly high degree of variability.

my cheesemaking equipment

This philosophy has so far resulted in a lot of delicious cheese, but it has not been very successful at producing specific, recognizable varieties of cheese beyond "soft" and "hard." Case in point: Quesillo.

Quesillo is a delicious, fresh, stretched-curd cheese (like mozzarella) indigenous to Oaxaca - in fact, if you are lucky enough to find it here in the states it will probably be labeled "queso oaxaqueno." It is most like string cheese in that it pulls apart into long shreds and melts beautifully. It is sold in long ropes wound into balls. My husband has been asking me to make it for him since the first time I made cheese.

Stretched-curd cheeses are difficult. There is a way to "cheat" with a microwave, but I don't own a microwave and anyway am far too much of a purist/snob to do it that way. Basically, stretched-curd cheeses are made the same way as other cheese up to the first draining, then they are plunged into very hot water or whey and massaged and kneaded until they become very smooth and elastic. Then they are pulled by hand into long ropes.

Sounds easy but it isn't. Since I have had a major milk-glut, I decided to begin experimenting. At any given time I have several gallons of milk and five or six pounds of cheese in the fridge - there's really no reason to be frugal. You gotta break a few eggs, right?

My first three attempts were total abject failures. Usually, any cheese can be salvaged, you just judge the texture and taste and then decide what to call it and how to use it. I tried for creamy and spreadable and got crumbly instead? That's okay, just call it "salad crumbles" and proudly say "I meant to do that." It's goat cheese; it all tastes good.

Well not this time. My attempts at quesillo were completely unsalvageable. Only the dog enjoyed the results. I was frustrated and confused. I thought I was following the recipe. Annoyed, I decided to let it go for a while and go back to something I knew and make some more cheddar. Oddly enough, it was this batch that turned into quesillo. I left the burner on low instead of turning it off and ended up with a very thick, tough curd. When I tried to cut it, it didn't cut cleanly, so I drained it on one solid piece.

Something about the way the drained curd looked made me decide to try one more time... so I heated up the whey to a temperature lower than boiling but hotter than "ouch" and plopped the curd back into it to poach.

I stirred the curd with a wooden spoon for fifteen or twenty minutes, and it began to get stretchy and droop off the spoon like Dali's clocks. Then I got out a clean bowl and placed the curd in it and scooped hot whey over it and began to knead it like dough. Yes, it was very very hot and my hands were poaching too. I got out another bowl and filled it with ice water so I could dip my hands in it when they started to feel like the skin was about to peel off. I kneaded for oh I'm going to say thirty minutes, frequently returning the curd to the hot whey for another bath.

After a while, I saw that when I picked up the curd out of the hot whey it began to stretch more and more. That's when I started to pull it like taffy, folding it over on itself and pulling, folding and pulling, and dipping it in the hot whey whenever it started to lose elasticity. I broke it up into smaller clumps and pulled each one into a long string and then laid it out on the cutting board to salt it. When it was salted, I rolled it up into balls, just like the balls sold in the 20 de Septiembre market in Oaxaca.

Well, almost like that. My skills are not refined enough to produce really thin strands or really round balls, but it WAS recognizably quesillo and it WAS good.

My next batch, however, was another throwaway. I'm trying again tonight. Consistency is the hard part - it always is. It was when I was playing pool and playing chess and it was when I was painting and it certainly is the hard part of parenting and it probably always will be the hard part of all my endeavors. On the other hand, as my favorite English teacher in high school, Mr. McAllister reminded us, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On Being Extremely Busy

Many factors have combined these past few weeks to create the perfect storm of busyness.

There was the end of the school year, which meant all kinds of recitals and assemblies and whatnot, and this year it also meant getting the kids registered at a new school and all that entails - searching for long lost documents, making doctor's appointments for more vaccinations, banging one's head against the brick wall of beaurocracy. And since I am a teacher this year, it also meant grading final exams and writing report cards.

Then of course we are trying to get ready to leave on vacation for two weeks. That means finding a farmsitter (Farmsitters (Just Whose Expectations Are Too High ...), and trying to finish off the most urgent of the projects around the farm (Vacation Checklist). Many of these projects are labor intensive, expensive, and disgusting. The weather has made everything more difficult. There has hardly been a dry day in June. On one of the few, I dragged the milking stand outside and scrubbed the holy heck out of it. It had become really gross, what with goats jumping on it with their icky muddy feet several times a day. Now it's clean.

By far the biggest job that needed doing was replacing the barn floor. Here's a little tip for you: a Home Depot barn isn't really designed to work as a real barn. Oh, you knew that already? Well, you could've told me before I moved a herd of animals into one. After three years, the cheap particle board flooring was entirely rotten and the horses were putting their feet through the floor. Every time I went in, I'd suddenly plunge through a rotten spot and get my leg stuck up to the knee. Untenable situation, really.

But we had a hard time figuring out a solution. At first I thought I'd just fill the space below the floor with dirt and gravel and let them have an earthen floor. But that would rot the beams that actually hold the whole thing up. Then we thought maybe we should fill the space between the beams with sand and then cap the whole floor with cement. Then we laughed out loud as we realized how much that would cost. Finally I decided to just make a better version of the floor that was there before. Instead of particle board we would put down 3/4" plywood, and then lay on top a sheet of cheap vinyl flooring to protect the wood.

Homero worked a full 8 hour day cleaning out the barn as well as possible, and tearing out the rest of the old floor.

I didn't take a picture of the new floor, but it's much prettier than this picture! The vinyl makes it a little bit slippery and the horses aren't convinced they should go inside yet, but that will take care of itself.

Another thing making me crazy-busy, of course, is that it is high cheese season. I will never ever again sell off all the baby goats. I am a slave to the doe's udders, which fill with amazing rapidity and must be drained every twelve hours, rain or shine, come hell or high water. There is no day off. The kids are no longer in school, but my alarm still goes off at 7:00 so I can get out there and milk. The refrigerator fills up with milk quickly, and I must make cheese or cajeta every other day just to reduce the volume somewhat. All of us are getting rather tired of goat cheese (I KNOW), and so I've been fobbing it off on friends and family. I have experimented with making new kinds of cheese, and have FINALLY had some success. I'll post about that next time.

Lastly, I have houseguests. So as you can see, what with one thing and another, I have barely had time to wipe my nose after I sneeze, much less sit down at the computer and write. Hope y'all are enjoying a slightly-less hectic early summer than I am!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

He Doesn't LOOK Like a Bad Dog (Neighborly Relations)

This is Lancelot. Our dog. Our handsome, silly, charming, collie-dog. Who is a bad, bad dog. Oh, there are no bad dogs, you say, only bad owners?

Well shit, you're probably right. But still, this dog is not high on the list of good dogs. He's never going to make the Purina Good Dog Top Ten List. He's not really very bright (I thought collies were smart) and while he is extremely good natured and wouldn't hurt a fly, he most certainly would hurt a chicken (Bad Dog).

And now he has gotten us into trouble with the neighbors. Yes, the same neighbors with whom we have had animal troubles before (Chickens Cause Problems). I freely admit, all the problems I have had with my sweet elderly neighbor are entirely our fault. She has never done anything unneighborly, while I have let loose numerous animal hoodlums all over hell and gone, who tear up her garden, eat the cat food she leaves out for her cat, chase said cat, and apparently bark at her and scare her.

It is always important to maintain good relations with the neighbors, but it is particularly important that we do so with this neighbor, Mrs. J. Mrs. J. is the matriarch of a clan which still owns most of the property in a quarter mile in every direction. She has at least four children, and all of them live on their own piece of the family acreage, right on this stretch of the road. The family has been here forever, so all of the neighbors who aren't actually part of her family know her anyway.

In fact, this entire vicinity is in a rather delicate social situation. The property we bought belonged to another old-time pioneer family that owned a hundred and fifty acres. Between the two families, and one other that owns the same acreage on the other side of the road, they actually constituted the neighborhood for many years. It was only about 5 years ago that one set of neighbors (let's call them the L's) decided to sell their dairy farm and breakup the property into five acre parcels for luxury homes. Of course, we knew none of this history when we bought the five acre parcel on which sat the original farmhouse (far from a luxury home, BTW, more of a fixer-upper's wet dream) - the others had mostly been converted into luxury homes - excuse me "estates" - over the preceding three or four years. The third neighbor in this trinity (let's call them the K's) filled me in on the local history, including the fact that the J's and the L's had never really been good neighbors and had a fair amount of bad blood.

So we walk into this quagmire - the area is changing fast, and old farming families are having to sell off their property to pay inheritance taxes as the older generation dies, and those that remain are watching McMansions sprout up all over the landscape like poison mushrooms, raising property taxes and importing dumbass city-slickers (imagine me raising my hand, here). We take over what was once a nicely manicured and landscaped property and quickly begin covering it with junked cars, erecting a visible-from-space steel quonset hut, and building cheap wobbly fences that do not prevent our animals from marauding all over the area and despoiling neighborhood gardens.

Jesus, I'm surprised we haven't been shot in our beds.

So, yesterday, I am out on the front porch enjoying a spot of sun when a highly pissed (but icily polite) neighbor pulls into my driveway. She is the daughter of Mrs J. and she briefly informs me of the depredations of my evil collie-dog, and then further informs me of the laws pertaining to unrestrained animals in this-here county. Of course she is one hundred percent right and I am one hundred percent wrong and so I (quite sincerely) kowtow and fall all over myself apologizing. I assure her it won't happen again.

Later, being the guilty sinner I am, I can't stop thinking about what a bad neighbor I have been and continue to feel awful. It's hard for me to imagine anyone being frightened of Lancelot, but I am not an eighty-year old lady. I decide to write her a letter and slink over and sneak it into her mailbox when she isn't looking.

It goes a little something like this:

Dear Mrs. J:
Please accept my apologies for the trouble my dog has caused. Here is something to cover the cat food he has eaten (taped in $15). Please be assured we will do our utmost to make certain this doesn't happen again. My husband and I have been thinking about repairing the fence between our properties (author's note: said fence is basically non-existent) but some areas are only accesible from your side - may we have your permission to go onto your property to repair the fence ?
Again, I am very sorry for any trouble -

As my sister pointed out, there are basically only three possible responses to this letter -

1. some kind of polite acknowledgment that gives us permission to fix the fence

2. total and complete silence

3. a hostile response that basically says "hell no you can't come on my property for any reason."

I fear response #2 above all others - even if we were to get response #3, well, we would know where we stand. But if I get no response, what am I supposed to do? Go ahead and fix the fence? Ignore the situation for thirty years?

In the meantime, Bad Dog Lance (his new nickname) is living life confined to the backyard. More frequent poop-pickup.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

NOT Better the Second Day

Okay, so apparently I have a delayed reaction to bee-stings. It doesn't hurt but my wrist is swollen up like an inner tube and ITCHES constantly, and badly enough to drive me right out of my tiny little mind.

Thank God for Benadryl. G'night.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bee Man to the Rescue!

a marked queen bee

Today my bee mentor came over to help me figure out what was going on with my hives. I inspected them a few days ago and thought that I had lost both queens. I didn't see any eggs in either hive, nor could I find the queen.

Turns out, eggs and queens are just really hard to see. Both of my hives have queens - hive number two is still going strong with the queen I originally purchased, while hive number one has managed to produce a replacement queen who survived her maiden flight and is now producing eggs. That is actually quite a feat considering the weather - today is nice, but for weeks it has been unseasonably cold and wet. Bee Man told me he has lost all the queens he managed to breed this year (he is trying to breed them for sale).

What a relief! I was terribly worried. If I had not had any queens, I would have had difficulty finding new ones. No-one has them for sale locally and those available by mail are not only very expensive but this year have been remarkably unreliable. I might have simply lost my hives and the investment they represent (kind of a lot).

Bee Man caught and marked the new queen for me. That isn't her in the picture - that's a picture off the web. But mine looks just the same, except her spot is green. Hopefully I will be able to find her myself next time. Also next time I will know how to look for eggs - they are very very tiny, much smaller than a grain of rice, and sit on the bottom of the cells. They are completely invisible unless you tilt the frame back and forth until the bright sunlight hits them just right. Then they glow a beautiful pearly white.

The bees have not drawn out a lot of new comb, though, which isn't surprising considering the weather. However, now that the clover and the blackberry blossoms have arrived, they will go into high gear. Bee Man suggests I have second boxes ready within a week or two. Then, in late July after we get back from Mexico, I can add honey supers!!! I may actually harvest a little bit of honey this year!!

Oh I'm so excited. I love bees. I don't even care that I got stung again. It was through my shirt, so I barely felt it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Vacation Checklist

Our annual vacation to Mexico to visit family (postponed lo these last three years due to straitened circumstances) are fast upon us. We leave in something like three weeks. I have managed, thank the Lord, to hire a seemingly competent babysitter for the farm (Farmsitters (Just Whose Expectations Are Too High Here?)). Other farmwives will understand when I say there is no level of certainty that will allow me to relax and enjoy the vacation as I should: specters of mastitis, wormy anemia, and footrot will haunt me no matter how far I may wander.

That being the case, all I can do is my best to prepare for the worst. Here is my list of "things that must be done" divided into two categories: House and Farm:


1) pay bills. We don't want the electricity shut off (or the water, or the phone) while our house-sitter is here.

2) Clean the shit out of everything. If I were housesitting for someone, I wouldn't want to discover a moldy refrigerator drawer or a smelly secondary toilet. I would want plenty of clean towels and sheets.

3) Make a set of keys. Currently, I don't even own a set of keys for my own house. 'Nough said.

4) write instructions for everything - how to use the washer and the dryer, the TV remote, et cetera. Plus such things as how much to feed the dogs and where to put the food for the elusive cat.

5) work up a set of emergency numbers - which means contacting a bunch of shirttail relatives and begging them to be available in case of emergency. If they were readily willing to be available, I wouldn't be hiring a stranger, now would I?


1) stock up on animal food: full 50 pounds of goat food and chicken food, three or four bales hay, ditto straw for bedding.

2) make stop-gap repairs on barn floor: the floor is totally rotted out but a permanent fix is beyond our means at the moment, so a temporary fix would be something along the lines of:
a) break up and remove rotted plywood flooring
b) scrape and clean out subfloor as much as possible
c) lay cheap-ass treated particle board over studs
d) lay in a supply of straw for bedding

3) set up an account with both the veterinarian and the farm-store, so that any emergencies can be addressed by the farm sitter without a personal outlay.

4) Fix the lawnmower (again - don't ask) and do a final mow of both the lawn and the evil weeds. More to say about the weeds - next post.

5) Trim goat hooves. A long overdue task that haunts me in my dreams.

6) Write a detailed instruction booklet for milking and feeding. I know it sounds easy - "squeeze tits until milk stops flowing" but actually there's just a bit more to it than that. Things like "Goats will most likely jump up on the milking stand alone, but to get them off you must sling your arm around their neck and use the crook of your elbow to haul them down and guide them out the door..." as a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure instructions like the preceding are better demonstrated than explained via the written word, so I should

7) schedule a practice run for the farmsitter (compensated, of course) .

That's about all I have time to think about right now. No doubt there's a great deal more, which I will most likely heartily regret failing to address when I am on the beach in Huatulco and my farmsitter is sending me messages marked "urgent."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hollaback (and farm log 6/5/10))

Today, I learned about this very very interesting aggregator site Oil Zenith | aggregating peak oil, sustainability, economic collapse. I spent an extremely fascinating hour and a half or so there boinging back and forth between blogs on sustainable lifestyles, on adapting to the new low-energy reality, and on economic projections. Every site I visited was of high quality; there was not a single clunker in the bunch.

That's why I was so flattered when my request to be included was accepted within an hour! Your humble author is now featured prominently under the headings "food production," "sustainability," and "permaculture." I encourage you to visit - there is a plethora of absorbing links. So don't visit unless you have a couple of hours to kill.

Aside from killing a couple of hours on the computer myself, I managed to accomplish a few things on this beautiful sunshiney day:

7:00 am - milk goats

8:00 am - make pancakes for breakfast with the girls

10:00 am - go to farmer's market with eggs and cheese, trade for a crazy amount of spinach, and set up a date for my husband to pick up a carload of WVO from Veggie (oil) Man.

11:00 am - realize the day is far too gorgeous to spend all of it at home and take the kids to the park. Hit the grocery store on the way home and

12:00 pm - put some pork ribs in a slow oven smothered in a dry rub consisting of:
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tbspn sugar
-1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tbspn spice mix (in coffee grinder, mix 1 tsp cuminseed, 1 tsp black pepper, 6 allspice berries, and 3 or 4 cloves
along with a dozen potatoes for a roasted potato salad. Throughout the rest of the day occasionally turn ribs while

1:00 - 5:00 - herd goats and ponies while transplanting a half dozen cucumber starts. Drink a few beers. Watch kids play in the kiddie pool. Enjoy sun. Enjoy view of mountains. Think life is about as good as it gets.

Well, that brings us up to the present. Somewhere in there I took the potatoes out of the oven and made my favorite potato salad - chilpotle lime. Here's how I made it today:

- ten or twelve roasted potatoes, still with a little bite to them. I used red potatoes. Cut into eighths and put in a big bowl.

- 2-3 tbspns mayonnaise

- two chilpotles from a can of chilpotles en adobo, plus a little sauce

- juice of three or four limes

Put three preceding ingredients in blender canister and blend the heck out of it. Pour over potatoes, scraping out all residue.

- one full bunch green onions, finely chopped

- one full bunch cilantro, finely chopped

- salt and pepper to taste

Add remaining ingredients to potatoes and blend well, add salt and pepper to taste. I LOVE this potato salad and am proud of inventing it, but my kids hate it because it is too spicy for them. Boo-Hoo, that's why it;s good to be a grownup.

Picnic on the lawn, here we come!!!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Good News, Bad News

Whaddaya want first?

Whenever I am asked that question, I always ask for the bad news first. But I can't make that option make narrative sense, so here comes the good news first:

Yesterday was an absolutely glorious day. The sun finally decided to shine, and it shone brightly and warmly. I think the mercury hit 67 or 68. I could not spend a single minute indoors, my skin was so hungry for sunlight. I stripped to a T-shirt and worked just about all day long in the garden. There was a brisk wind, and large, threatening clouds marched across the bright blue sky. When they occasionally blocked out the sun, the temperature would drop immediately, but as long as I kept working I felt warm enough.

The first thing I did was clear out the greens from several planters. The lettuce was beginning to get bitter and the spinach was starting to go to seed. I picked a giant colander full of salad greens to eat, and gained fresh space to plant. In the sun room, I had a few tomato plants and a few winter squash starts (a variety called "sweet buttercup" that I am not familiar with but am hoping is something like hubbard. These were transplanted into the recently vacated tires.

A couple of weeks ago, on the last sunny day we enjoyed, I dragged one of the garden boxes out beyond the fence that protects the orchard from goats and used my fancy mother's day wheelbarrow to fill it with used straw from the barn. The idea was to let it compost a little and then cover it with topsoil and viola! A new garden bed. I simply laid the square down on the lawn and covered the inside space with empty feed-sacks (they ARE good for something!) before carting several loads of crappy wet straw over. Ooh, my back hurt that night!

When my husband cleaned out the parthenon (Nasty Weather and Unfinished Business), he found a jar of scarlet runner bean seeds. A big jar. I have no idea where it came from. Instead of bringing it into the house, as a normal person might do, he decided to simply empty the jar onto my new garden bed, right on top of the straw. Then, it rained for two weeks.

Well, you can guess, right? Now we have a veritable carpet of bean sprouts all over my garden bed. I'm going to make him build a trellis. I had been going to plant corn in that bed - now I don't know where I might plant corn. It's getting late - if I am going to plant any corn, it should be done this week.

Let's see - more good news.... We got a lot of grass cut. But that leads me into the bad news because I ran over one of the new apple trees. Earlier this spring I planted six trees from Trees of Antiquity, four apples, a greengage plum, and a cherry. All six were doing just fine. Until yesterday, when I misjudged the distance between my blades and the Ashmead's Kernel and severed it completely from its stem. I felt like a murderer. It was perhaps the healthiest and most vigorous of all six trees, and I simply ran right over it like a full-blown idiot. Ah well, what are you gonna do? I never claimed to be a good driver.

The other bad news is about the bees. Two weeks ago or so, I opened the hives and discovered that one of them had apparently lost its queen. They were making queen cells. Consultation with my beekeeping mentor (The Bee-Man Speaks) yielded the plan to check the hives again in two weeks to make sure that one of the new queens had survived her maiden flight and begun laying eggs.

Well, I opened the hives yesterday. I am still a fairly hesitant beekeeper and I am not confident in my ability to correctly observe what is happening inside a hive, but I can be fairly sure that there is still no queen in that hive. I did not see any brood at all. There is plenty of nectar, and some capped cells, but no eggs or larvae.

That's not even the worst. The SECOND hive, the one that looked perfectly healthy last time, also appears to have lost it's queen. I did see some capped brood and some well-developed larvae, but no eggs or tiny larvae. I couldn't find the queen nor could I find any sign that she had recently been active. Nor did I see any queen cells.

This SUCKS! My plan had been, if there were no queen in hive one, to combine the hives by laying a a few layers of wet newspaper on top of hive two and then putting hive one on top. By the time the bees chew through the newspaper, they will have chemically melded and won't try to kill each other. But that plan only works if one of the hives still has a viable queen. With two hives but no queen, I haven't a clue what to do.

Well, I do have one idea. Call my bee-mentor and beg and plead for him to help me. I am not even sure of what I saw - I don't want to make things worse by buying and installing a new queen if there is in fact still a queen there. But on the other hand, I don't know how long a hive can survive without a queen. Maybe they will all die or fly away unless I get on the ball. In short, I need a second opinion, and I need one quick. Maybe I can bribe the man with goat cheese.

God knows, I have plenty of that.