Here Comes the Rain Again…

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Those sages of our time… the Eurythmics… at least had the forecast right for the Willamette Valley yesterday and today. Here Comes the Rain Again indeed.The winter rain has returned in earnest and I’m not really sad about it – normally I would be complaining something fierce. Whining about wet feet, wet clothes… wet head; but in fact, I’m very thankful.

For those of you that aren’t from the Willamette Valley and aren’t aware of the current conditions around here – we’ve been under drought conditions for the past several months – We had a pretty dry summer, and an extremely dry fall – thus far the winter is shaping up to be the same. In fact, we have a couple of really rare winter wildfires burning in parts of the state! All of those should be quantifiable indicators but the TRUE indicator that it’s really dry… is that the Californians that have come to Oregon for our incredible summers.. ARE STAYING!! No… seriously… they didn’t all move back at the beginning of October when the rain starts… like they normally do! They’re overwintering!

All joking aside – we have had a total precipitation in the month of January of 1.47 inches of rain. Ordinarily – we average around 6.5 inches… December, November, October, and September… all the same story… We have next to no snow pack currently, and the reservoirs are already the lowest I can remember seeing them in a very long time…

All of this adds up to the potential for a very dry summer.

… BUT – if there’s one thing Oregon can do – it’s surprise you. A few years back – we experienced Juneuary… where it snowed at the valley floor on the 6th of June. We’ve had other June’s where it has just POURED rain for most of the month… but the ordinary deal we have with the weather around here is that it gets to pour buckets of rain for like 9 months out of the year – and what we get in return is 3 good months of awesome weather. Year after year – we gladly make the trade…

However, this year – the weather didn’t get the memo.

It has really reinforced my need to get our water collection system up and running on the coop – get the gutter hung, piped to the barrels – and put that roof to work. Turns out It’s more difficult to to garden if you’re on water restrictions – it’s bad enough at this point, it might just impact what and how we plant this year if it doesn’t start shaping up in the next month or so… so somewhat new territory for us here at the Little House on 17th Street.

If there’s one thing gardeners and homesteaders for that matter are good at doing – it’s rolling with the punches.

Interestingly – all of the almanacs seemed to point to a horrific winter up here in the Northwest – so far, it seems as though all of that has headed southeast of us. Realistically, it’s not worth worrying over, but worth keeping an eye on for planning purposes… because garden planning season and the time to start seeds is right around the corner…

What are your favorite dry weather crops?

Which crops do you plant that don’t require heavy watering during the summer months?

You Are What What you Eat Eats…

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You are what what you eat eats. – Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food)

Here at the Little House on 17th Street, we’ve been thinking quite a bit about the above quote after finding the neon red honey in our hive in the past couple of weeks.

We’ve come to realize that this urban homesteading experiment we’ve embarked upon – however noble – has the potential to unravel before our very eyes with certain factors that are outside of our control, and frankly, that is somewhat unnerving.

You Are What You Eat

The age old adage is certainly true, you are what you eat… We began this renovation of our home and yard in an attempt to get the adulterants out of our food supply. We weren’t interested in eating food-like substances chock full of all of the preservatives, chemicals and genetically modified components they can cram into them. All of that can be mitigated by simply growing your own and purchasing intelligently. The problem with that concept however is when the surrounding environment – in our case, suburbia – decides to slowly interfere with your plans…

You Are What What You Eat Eats:

The truth is, when you live on an urban homestead – you have no control of what is being done beyond your fence. You don’t know if the flowers that your bees are visiting have been sprayed with insecticide, you don’t know if they’re visiting trees treated with Safari, whether they’re invading the local cannery and drinking long and deep at the vats of HFCS and Red 40. You have no control of where the roots of your plants go – if they leave the boundaries of your fences, and absorb glyphosate from individuals attempting to keep their weeds down in their little corner of manicured suburbia. For that matter, you don’t really know what the previous homeowner did in the soil… you have no idea whether your chickens are eating bugs that have been sprayed at the neighbors house and simply immigrated across the border to our homestead to die…

…things are truly outside of your control.

It’s a strange irony that at the times when you try to control for all these variables by raising your own chickens and growing your own foods, that the foundation you have built your homestead upon can erode so easily with the coming or going of food chain elements, or the past sins and indiscretions of the homeowner… in all honesty it makes you feel particularly vulnerable.

It has also got us thinking – what is truly organic? Can every little variable be controlled for and guaranteed that what you’re buying in the store that is labelled organic is truly organic? Don’t get me wrong – it’s got to be significantly better than what is being done conventionally – it’s not being sprayed directly, it’s not GMO, the list goes on – but it’s kind of scary to think that even if you do wish to opt-out of the conventional industrial farming model – that it may not be possible to keep it completely unadulterated due to the actions of those who don’t wish to opt-out…

Food for thought. You are what what you eat eats…

The Morning After…

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Photo Credit: Mark Collier (Associated Press)

Yesterday, May 25th, over 1 million people took to the streets of 400 cities worldwide to angrily protest the growing political influence and seeming unwillingness by regulatory agencies to actually DO SOMETHING about an increasingly powerful Monsanto Corporation.

I first became aware of Monsanto through Michael Pollan’s book, “The Botany of Desire” in the early 2000’s – I had no idea of their existence prior to that, they just weren’t on my radar – but even by then, the Monsanto corporation had a long and illustrious history of producing products that bettered people’s lives gave people cancer.

First came the artificial sweetener Saccharin (later found to cause cancer), then they moved into the PCB market (later found to cause cancer), the 30’s and 40’s saw them enter the nuclear weapon age as they worked with the Manhattan project (later found to cause cancer if the blast didn’t get you first), the 50’s and 60’s saw the advent of Agent Orange (later found to cause cancer – are we seeing a pattern here?) and DDT (which nearly wiped out the raptor populations in the world – putting numerous species on the endangered species list, oh yeah – and it’s been linked to breast cancer…) The 70’s brought the development of the herbicide Glyphosate (RoundUp – which recent studies have linked to both cancer and Parkinson’s disease…) and additionally Monsanto has done work in Bovine Growth Hormone (where do I even begin? No really, where?), as well as genetic modification of seeds (which is the primary reason for yesterday’s march, P.S – GMO corn was recently linked to cancer in lab rats…)

To be fair – it hasn’t all been bad – they’re one of the first groups to mass produce LED lights, (they’re fun – and as far as I know don’t cause cancer), as well as numerous medicinal drug advances within their pharmaceutical division, etc, (some of which are anti-cancer drugs… which.. hmm… well… wait… so they make numerous products that CAUSE cancer, then develop significantly expensive chemotherapy drugs which help to TREAT the cancer they have caused?!?! Just making sure I’ve gotten this correct…)

The reality is – if there is a dollar to be had – Monsanto will be there, tongue lolling ready to fetch it.

They are a corporation, and a many tendriled – very large, unethical corporation at that. As a corporation, profit drives their bottom line. That’s just simply the nature of the beast, and I’m not one to pound the podium and rail against corporations, but with Monsanto in particular – I have to draw the line.

Monsanto has put their products and their profit on a higher pedestal than the human food supply itself.

I have a problem with that.

Frustratingly, the very people who should be regulating them, the USDA, the FDA, Department of Agriculture, Congress, the Senate, and the President are the ones in bed with them. The US Congress recently passed HR 933, and the hotly contested Section 735 a few months back – a spending bill to prevent governmental shutdown which just so happened to have a provision in it which shielded Monsanto and allowed a run-around of current law – to allow the planting of GM seeds without USDA approval. (Because you know… those are two closely related things…)

HR 933 basically handed the keys to the Ferrari to a drunken Monsanto and said, “Have Fun.”

With the passing of HR933, and the unsuccessful attempts at repealing the section of the bill that shields Monsanto, the United States has told Monsanto, do whatever you want. We won’t even attempt to regulate what you’re doing.

The big irony in all of this is that the First Lady is on a big campaign for healthy kids, good nutritious, organic food in all inner city neighborhoods – yet her husbands own actions are contrary to that message.

This is business and politics… Pure and simple, and politically, Monsanto’s influence goes straight to the top. Former Monsanto employees make up a large portion of administration appointments to the USDA and FDA, (The very regulatory agencies that supposed to regulate companies LIKE Monsanto) Senators on both sides of the aisle are taking significant campaign contributions from Monsanto dollars… Notably Missouri’s Roy Blunt who received nearly $100,000 from Monsanto employees, and is believed to be the one who added Section 735 to HR933.

… but how did it get to this point. Why are we here?

It’s simple, because WE let it happen.

We desired the perfect food. Completely pest free, uniform in shape and color — the same exact fruits and vegetables, regardless of what store we purchased them at… with no imperfections. Strawberries that weren’t that proper shade of red, lumpy misshapen potatoes, grapes that were a little soft or half-raisined… no thank you, perfect… every time.

We want them NOW and we want them in large quantities, and we want them year round.

The problem is, the only way to make that happen is to mono-culture huge tracts of these fruits and vegetables, spray them and continually amend the soil with chemicals to reduce the disease and pests that plague them – OR – genetically modify them to be resistant to pests and diseases… so as to produce the food that the purchasing populace desires.

Have to ship a tomato from Argentina in the middle of winter to Wisconsin, because you’ve just got to have a tomato to make that special dish for your Christmas get-together?  Monsanto has the answer to your quandary… you’ll need shellfish genes spliced in to resist bruising in transit since it has to be shipped so far, additionally, if there are any pests or diseases it’ll be rotten by the time it arrives, so we’d better make sure we eradicate any of the pests or diseases that might affect it.

…You’ll need an herbicide, pesticide, fungicide, and gene modification – so we’ll invent them, patent them, and sell them for a BIG profit.

As a corporation, they are providing a solution to what WE have asked for in our food supply and they’re making billions in the process.

WE allowed Monsanto’s rise to power… and as hard as that pill is to swallow, it’s basic economics – simple supply and demand…

So, while I can appreciate the anger and outrage found in yesterday’s march, it’s too little too late.

It’s like waking up after a night of drunken revelry and getting upset that your friends let you get a tramp stamp…

We’re the ultimate cause of this… but we’re also the solution. Because their political influence goes straight to the top, politics and marches will have little to no effect. If we want to make lasting change, and we want to slow down the Monsanto juggernaut, it has to be grassroots.

Here’s the battle plan.

1) Grow your Own: We have to get to the point where we produce our own food. Organically, in our backyards, front yards, side-yards, guerrila gardened in the yards of foreclosed homes, hell strips, or parking lots.

2) Eat Real Food: The stores sell real food and they sell industrialized food. We have to eat the real stuff.  As consumers we have to make a change from purchasing the foods that are engineered and contain ingredients we can’t pronounce to the food that has single ingredients. (ie. Apple – “Contains Apple”)

3) Grow Heirloom Varities and Reserve the Seeds: Gardening is one of the solutions, but if we’re running out buying hybrid seeds each and every year, we’re actually helping Monsanto out as they have their fingers in the hybrid seed machine as well. It doesn’t make sense to grow plants that can’t reseed themselves. Why not spend a little extra money and buy heirloom seeds, and reserve your seeds each year – ensuring that you can grow more of that same plant in subsequent years. Trade seeds with others in seed exchanges, support seed companies that don’t sell GMO seeds, growing your own is only half the battle, growing heirloom varieties is the next step.

4) Buy Local, and Purchase in Season: If you can plan your meals around the seasonal offerings that your area has to offer, we avoid having to buy random vegetables from far-off locales. There will always be something you can’t get locally, but if we’re able to plan carefully we can help to reduce the need to ship food across the globe in the dead of winter.

5) Support Local Farms: In addition to buying in-season, support the local farms that you know offer organically grown fruits and vegetables and don’t use GMO seeds. If you support these farms, they will be able to expand and remain in business, money talks. Support your local farms by frequenting farmer’s markets and supporting those farms who share the same ideals as you do.

We have a responsibility to do better. We have to care more about where our food comes from, and we have to take a more direct role in providing for it in our own homes. If we hope to make any sort of lasting change in this battle, it won’t come from political protests or holding a sign and chanting. The only way that this gets changed is by taking a direct role as a consumer in the process.

So now that it’s the morning after, put down the sign…

…and get out and get your hands dirty.

Garden Trellis Evolution

Here at the Light Homestead, we have always monkeyed around with the concept of vertical gardening, but to be perfectly honest – we haven’t done a great job of it.

There was our first attempt at holding back peas with small bamboo stakes (4 foot) driven into the ground vertically, and horizontal bamboo poles woven through the vertical poles like a basket. The peas brought those down by season end, and we had a mess on our hands where the peas outgrew the 4 foot poles.

We bought bigger bamboo poles, ran a top pole across the span, lashed it all together with twine, then ran our twine grids, and the peas and beans managed to wreck that too before the season was out, and once again, we had a mess on our hands.

We used the tripod style trellis, but didn’t really like how it worked.

We’ve used the one you can see in the header photo that the pole beans grew up on – we liked it, it worked really well, but it took up a lot of space, and was really difficult to set up initially.

So as we started laying down the plans for this year’s garden, we started seriously thinking – how can we do this differently? What can we do that will provide us with a strong enough trellis that won’t get battered in the wind, that is tall enough and strong enough to allow the peas to grow up it. Not to mention, something versatile enough design-wise to grow peas, beans, our vining heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, etc.. The answer came to us in Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening book.

Metal frames – he advocates steel pipe, but I decided ultimately on galvanized electrical conduit.

Thing 2 and I made a trip to the neighborhood Home Depot, and picked up the supplies we needed. Typically we like to scrounge up our parts and try to do it on the cheap, but unfortunately, the peas we’re supporting needed the support now. No time to scrounge.

Perusing the electrical conduit aisle, we found the lengths of 1/2 inch conduit that we needed (10 feet) for $1.95 each – not terrible. The connectors to give us our 90 degree connection though, those were outrageous. $4.45 a piece and we needed 6. BLECH! They were the only 90 degree connectors they had… we picked up the ones we needed to take care of the length for now until we come up with a better system (already got it figured out – and will detail later)

We picked up lengths of 1/2 x 3 foot rebar, and we were off.

We came home and made the cuts to the conduit that we needed to – the top bar to make it equal to 4 feet with the connectors needed to be 45″, so we cut three of those.

Then we trimmed down the pieces we already cut to 6 feet high, leaving us with about 3 inches of waste. Not too shabby.

We continued this process so that we had enough to do a 12 foot run (3 trellises)
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Began to connect the 90 degree connectors to the top bar (notice the two additional garbage cans for potatoes!)

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Once the top bars were all together, all that was left to do was connect the vertical posts on both sides of the top bar, drive the rebar into the ground on 4 foot intervals, sliding the vertical posts over the rebar anchors, and then lash the whole thing together with twine.

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Here the poles are up and sitting on the rebar over the center of the peas, really sturdy – I was pretty impressed by that.

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Once the twine was on them, they were very sturdy, and it should work great for the peas this year.

Here’s the problem.

At $2.78 cents each for the rebar pieces, $1.95 each for the lengths of conduit (took 2), and a whopping $4.45 a pop for the elbows (2 per trellis)… the grand total for a 4 foot length of this frame was $18.36. Even if you had access to lengths of 1/2 inch rebar, you’re still talking $15.00 a pop, which is pretty pricey for a trellis.

So, while these are nice – and I really like how they came out. I’ve already decided based entirely on cost, what I’m going to do for the rest of them in the garden is take 2 10 foot pieces of conduit, bend the last two feet into a 90 and pick up a butt connector for $1.78, that will connect the two together. (Total expense for the remainder of our trellises with that design is $11.78 -$5.56 if I can get 2-3 foot chunks 1/2 inch rebar free – and we get the added bonus of a near 8 foot trellis.) Quite a bit better price overall too – for an exceptionally sturdy trellis which can be removed each season and stored. Might look into putting some sort of nylon grid system on it that will last better season after season than the twine, but we’ll see.

What about you – what kinds of trellises have you used in the past? What has worked well for you?

Too Cold to Work Outside…

Things have ground to a halt here at the Light Homestead — as the temperature has dipped into the below freezing realm, the ground became the consistency of finished concrete, and our will to work outside in yard has waned considerably.

The lager is bubbling away happily out in the garage, it’s about halfway through the primary fermentation at this point despite the fact that the beer is sitting at 42 degrees — well below the optimal range of the yeast — they’re chugging away quite nicely. A tasting of the wort last night when I took a specific gravity was good – the beer has good taste, good bittering, good mouthfeel, just needs to finish doing its thing, and this should turn out really good.

Other than that, the work on the chicken coop has come to a stop until the weather gets a bit more hospitable. Retaining Wall and Patio Projects are not going to progress until Spring or if/when we get an unseasonably warm period… so as my wife and I looked around for something to do that is semi-progressive – move the chains a bit so to speak — we looked more towards the planning and preparation realm.

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The other day I put together this file in Excel that maps out and divides our back garden into one foot squares in order to Square Foot Garden the back beds. A planning template. We haven’t fully utilized this method in the past, but have experimented with a combination of what we knew of Bartholomew’s methods, and John Jeavon’s biointensive methods. Since reading Mel’s book, we realized we didn’t know half of what we thought we did. This year we’re going to spend more time focusing on the square foot gardening principles, for the sheer fact that it enables you to divide a very large space up into more manageable chunks. For us – as busy as we are, it will be easier to go out and weed/cultivate/prepare/harvest a few smaller chunks here and there, than to feel like we have to do the entire bed in a sitting. Realistically – it all still has to get done, but it’s like the old adage about eating an elephant… one bite at a time.

So we are spending some time planning out the garden using the new template. Shannon spent a good part of the day making her absolutely awesome homemade hamburger buns. We used some tonight for our dinner of smoked tuna boats. (A good friend gave us the tuna, and we canned up a BUNCH of it this past May.) My favorite is the smoked jalapeno and garlic.

We also went through our old grocery receipts today and figured out how many pounds of dry beans, rice, flour and other staples we used in 2012 – which will help us figure out from a preparation standpoint how much to have on hand to help fill the larder, as we’ve set a goal to work towards having 6 months to a year of our staples on hand.

Today was one of those days where it was hard to see progress, despite having made some. Most of it was on paper, and not where it counts. Hopefully the weather thaws a bit in the near future, enabling us to get back to our normal 40-50 degree winter weather. Seriously… the kids need to go play outside…

…Bad.