Thursday, November 30, 2006

My Crazy Scheme, Part 4: Change the World?

If you've been reading the first three parts of this series, you might be thinking, "Change the world, eh? I don't get it."

So maybe my initial claims were just a tad bit grandiose. But I ask that you hear me out anyway.

If things go well with the plans described in the second and third installments of this series, we'll be producing a good bit of very good food for ourselves. Combine that with the tiny fruit trees and berry bushes already in the ground, and a few more years of experience, and we may eventually be able to generate a decent amount of surplus without a lot of extra effort. (Though I don't ever envision a surplus of grain.) In addition to a wide array of vegetables, we can hopefully turn out an excess of apples, peaches, blackberries, currants, blueberries, gooseberries, serviceberries, (the cherries didn't make it), herbs, eggs, perhaps meat, and maybe even some processed things like dairy products, preserves, or baked goods. All while living a lifestyle we enjoy.

At this point, you think I'm about to say the words, "Farmer's Market," don't you? Or maybe "Community Supported Agriculture". You're close, but not quite. Closer to CSA than Farmer's Market. But not exactly right.

What I'd love to pull off is a very small, very localized subscription-based arrangement. Print up flyers and distribute to all the houses within a mile or two of ours (and maybe a few at the office too). You pay us a fixed amount, and we bring you whatever's ripe or fresh throughout the season, once a week, or maybe every other week. Maybe eggs and greens in the spring. Maybe berries and tomatoes and peppers and eggs in the summer. Maybe sweet corn and onions and apples and eggs in the fall. Maybe meat and squash and dried goods and root veggies in the winter.

The reason I think this can work is that we live in a rural area, but its heart seems to be in the suburbs. Many of our neighbors don't garden or raise livestock (outside of horses here and there). They just have very big lawns. They wanted "the country life", but it meant something different to them than it does to us. But even in that different vision, maybe there's a place for farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and eggs. Especially if they're better than what they get in the store.

I see several benefits to the subscription model. First, you can share the risk a little bit. In a good year, you get a little more for your money. In a bad year, you get a little less. Second, there's less impulse buying and more complete distribution of produce. If I'm sitting at a Farmer's Market booth, any given person walking by may or may not buy Brussels sprouts or parsnips. They may not know what to do with them. They may think they don't like them. They may not know what they are. In a subscription model, they get what we have. Maybe it'll encourage them to get out a cookbook and try something new. Maybe they'll give them to their grandma. Maybe they'll throw them in the trash. They bought them, so hopefully they'll be compelled to find a use for them.

While I'd hope to generate a little income from this type of arrangement, I don't envision it as a business. I'm not looking for fifty customers. More like five. The primary goal in my mind is not to pay the mortgage. The goal is to solve all of those problems in Part 1, in our little neighborhood.

Build community. What better way to get to know the neighbors and establish goodwill than by giving them food. A weekly face-to-face with a basket of goodies seems like a great way to start a friendly relationship. And as Elliot Coleman is fond of saying, they'll know the first name of the person who grew their food. [And maybe I can even infiltrate their conservative minds with my crazy ideas. After all, you can't spell "conservative" without "conserve."]

Reduce resource usage. We'd be reducing food miles from the US average of 1500 miles from field to table, down to one or two. It'll encourage local eating and seasonal eating without having to put a label on it or even have awareness of it. It'll eliminate the use of some tiny fraction of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, groundwater, and fossil fuels. Sure we'd be taking a few bucks out of Walmart's pocket. I think they can handle it.

Cut out the middle man. I don't mean the produce distributors or retailers, though I guess that's true too. I mean the cash system. I'd happily forgo subscritpion fees for some plumbing, electrical, or mechanical help. Or trade for unused materials like cinder blocks, storm windows, hay, straw, animal manure, or any number of other things that could be used for projects around our property. Or labor. If you want to put in a few hours at harvest time, you can have the pick of the crop, and a discount to boot. Barter is almost always mutually beneficial, especially if you don't worry too much about scorekeeping.

By not treating it as a business, I eliminate the focus on dollars and cents. If I were a good businessman, barter would mess up the bottom line. If I were a good businessman, I'd be tempted to worry about financial return on investment, maximizing production, tax loopholes, hourly wages, and all sorts of other stuff that led agriculture to where it is now. As Mr. Einstein said, "The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation."

If I were a good businessman, I wouldn't ever consider giving my customers seed packets, or baby chicks, or book recommendations, or gardening tips. That would lead to lost customers, or worse yet, competitors. To me, losing a customer because they followed in our footsteps would be the about greatest compliment I could imagine. And if they branch off into nut trees or wool spinning or honeybees or whatever, all the better. Remember my concentric circle analogy? That would create another set of beneficial concentric circles around somebody else's house.

And that, my friends, is the only way I know to change the world.

Will my Crazy Scheme work exactly as envisioned? Will it fail miserably? Will it turn into some sort of black market pyramid scheme leading to Federal indictments and tabloid headlines?

I guess you'll just have to keep reading this blog to find out...

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My Crazy Scheme, Part 3: Magnification

Last time I outlined my ideas for increasing our ability to feed ourselves from our own property. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is.

Making money in agriculture in today's world is nearly impossible. Land is too expensive, anything you might grow is already too plentiful, and the industrial model of agriculture is too efficient. Profit margins for farms, large or small, often hover between non-existant and negative. The deck is stacked against the farmer or rancher, in favor of the processors and distributors. Subsidies are designed to maximize farm production at all costs, even if it means supply is so abundant that market prices are well below production costs. (Even if it means a whole host of other negative things.) "Get big or get out" has been the mantra of agriculture since the 1950's.

But there is one wildcard in that stacked deck. It's often referred to as direct use economy. How can you justify owning a dairy goat when milk is $1.99 a gallon? Well, with one dairy goat, you might get 1/2 gallon a day. Seven bucks a week. But wait, let's compare apples to apples. Organic milk is more like $3.50 for a half gallon. Now we're talking about more like $25 a week. Raw milk isn't even available in most places. And no matter the price, milk from the store can never be as fresh or as local. I don't know how to price that.

At any rate, it appears that the surest way to make money from agriculture is not by selling what you produce, but by using what you produce (and producing what you use). Prices go up and down, markets go up and down, economies go up and down. Plants and animals just grow. They grow at the same rate regardless of prices or markets or economics. Have your grocery bills been creeping up, little by little? I'm hoping ours will shrink significantly, even as our food quality and nutrition increases, and our carbon footprint decreases.

There's a rapidly expanding movement to eat more locally produced foods. Phrases like "100 mile diet," "eat local," and "localvores" are turning up more and more. Michael Pollan's excellent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma might be the most fascinating and enlightening treatment of the subject I've seen so far.

So what's more local than your back yard?

It turns out, on further inspection, that this is not an entirely rhetorical question. Localization of food can be taken one step farther. (One step closer?) How? With heirloom varieties and breeds. First, because you can take your own seeds from plants, removing one more small link in the long chain of food production and fuel consumption. But secondly, because heirloom varieties were often developed to suit local geography and climate. If it was developed in your area, it's likely to be very well adapted to your area. Have you ever noticed how many of the old varieties and breeds have geographic names? Rhode Island Red. Kentucky Wonder. Jersey Prince. Long Island Improved. California Improved.

We're in USDA Hardiness Zone 5b. That's based only on how cold it gets in the winter. Other areas in Zone 5 include parts of Nevada, Nova Scotia, North Dakota, and New Mexico. I don't think we have the same soil type, daylight hours, humidity, rainfall, summer highs or frost free dates for as any of those places. Instead of one-size-fits-all Better Boy tomatoes, you can have an incredible array of things that won't just grow, but thrive, with very little help from you.

If you breed your own plants and animals, and selectively breed for those specimens that thrive in your local conditions, you can get some pretty significant improvements in just a few years. Things like: better production, better disease resistance, better germination... these are not trivial things.

So for the vegetable garden, I'd like to try an heirloom seed collection from Baker Creek Seeds, as well as the following varieties:
Click on the links for further descriptions and you'll see why. For several consecutive seasons, I'd like to expand and refine and adjust and adapt and see where it takes us.

The other thing that struck me while reading The Omnivore's Dilemma was the incredible preponderance of Zea Mays in our food chain. Known to you and me as corn, this single species is involved in tens of thousands of food items. Quoting from The Omnivore's Dilemma now:
Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you'll find. For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xantham gum, read: corn. Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the balogna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins. (Yes, it's in the Twinkie, too.) There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn. This goes for nonfood items as well: Everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn. Even in the produce on a day when there's ostensibley no corn for sale, you'll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce's perfection, even in the coating on the cardboard it was shipped in. Indeed, the supermarket itself -- the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built -- is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.
And you know what my first thought was, after I picked up my jaw and popped my eyes back in? Irish potato famine. Maybe it's my newfound doom-and-gloom influences, but being so dependent on a single, solitary crop seems like a bit of a bad idea to me...

In my next (and final) installment, I'll tell you about where I hope we can go with all this.

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My Crazy Scheme, Part 2: Little Tiny Steps

Last time I outlined the Big Hairy Problems I wish to solve with my Crazy Scheme. This time I want to look some starting points for solving them.

To be honest, I can't change the world. Maybe you can. I don't have the right skills for it. You probably already knew that though.

Imagine me, surrounded by concentric circles - like a giant target, with me as the bullseye. (No, I haven't been chasing black helicopters again.) In target practice, the bullseye is the highest point total, with the rings decreasing in points as you get farther from the center. That's how I imagine my ability to change the world. I can make the biggest differences closest to home.

So with that in mind, I've cobbled together ideas from my favorite authors, my own experiences, and concepts other people have had success with to form my own Crazy Scheme. There's nothing particularly original about any of the pieces. Maybe not even the combination of pieces. But it's a combination that makes sense to me. It's gonna take a while to get where I'm going with this, but they tell me patience is a virtue.

So our first order of business is to expand our ability to feed ourselves in our back yard. That gives us healthier & better tasting food, smaller grocery bills, a lower carbon footprint, and even a little extra exercise in the bargain.

In the garden, I want to adopt some of the tools and methods used so successfully by Elliot Coleman, as described in great detail, in The New Organic Grower, and Four Season Harvest. I don't need Coleman's scale at this point, but I like many of his ideas, from starting seeds with soil blocks to specific crop rotation techniques. I'll throw in some adaptations from other gardening methods and personal experience.

In an area adjacent to the garden, and of roughly the same dimensions, I hope we can raise some chickens, using some of the techniques described in Chicken Tractor by Andy Lee and Pat Foreman, again with variations to suit us.

To the north of the garden, I want to grow grains on a small scale, both for our own use, and for the use of our livestock. I hope to use techniques described in Gene Logsdon's Small Scale Grain Raising, with variations on the Three Sisters technique thrown in.

From there, the garden and chicken areas can alternate, year to year, providing continuous improvement in soil quality. Looking ahead, perhaps we can even scale up to the point where we can do rotational or strip grazing with the other livestock, where the donkey hits the pasture first, followed by the goats, followed by the chickens, followed by the grains and/or vegetables. But that's getting a little too far ahead of the game. For now, let's think small.

Now if all goes well, we'll have added a lot to our plate, figuratively and literally. The goat's milk, the garden, the eggs, and possibly the birds will feed us. The grass and grains and weeds and bugs and slugs and garden remnants will feed the birds. The manure from the birds and the livestock, along with judicious use of legumes and cover crops, will feed the soil, which will feed the garden. The grains will act as a slight windbreak for the garden. Mutual benefit all around.

So that's the starting point for my Crazy Scheme. Marginally ambitious, but not too Crazy. And not really world-changing. Not yet.

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My Crazy Scheme, Part 1: Big Hairy Deal

Ok, so as the TV blares on about spiffy HDTV sets, and sparkling jewelry, and stylish cars as the perfect Christmas gifts, and everything seems to be structured around buy more, sell more, everybody wins, ain't it cool economic growth, I see some major issues lurking in the misty background.

[Here's where you stick your fingers in your ears and say, "La-La-La! I'm not listening!"]

Now I'm not claiming I'm squeaky clean, nor better than anybody else on this front. But I'm becoming more aware that it's physically impossible for this to go on indefinitely. Which generation foots the bill for this party?

So, after thinking and reading a lot, I have come up with a Crazy Scheme to Save the World.

Or, at least, a Crazy Scheme. But first, I want to outline the problems I wish to solve.

Patience. All will be revealed.

Meanwhile, pardon me whilst I wax philosophic, in Part One of my four(?/!) part tome.

Problem #1: We All Need to Eat.

I'm stating the obvious here. Food is a requirement of life. Food used to mean pick an apple from a tree, or pull a carrot from the soil, and eat it. Now food means grow a kabillion tons of corn and soy, feed it to machines, turn it into a hundred different substances, combine them in various ways for lifelike texture, add in a dozen other components from hither and yon to make it taste just like homemade, or better, add in a little more chemistry to make it last a long time, wrap it, pack it, and ship it worldwide so it's on every grocery store shelf in every city. Then buy it and eat it.

But I feel that there are a myriad of ethical problems around most of our food supply. From unconscionable treatment of animals (and humans for that matter), to overuse of antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides, growing health problems, soil depletion, groundwater depletion, chemical exposure to workers, a subsidy system that is a mess, huge dependence on fossil fuels (and thus huge dependence on numerous political quagmires, not to mention pollution and climate change)... Shall I go on?

I don't think we can (or should attempt to) continue down this path forever.

Problem #2: No Man is an Island.

Most of us tend to be lacking in community. We give a friendly wave to the neighbor in the driveway. Maybe we exchange Christmas cards with one or two people on the block. But as a culture, we've become adept at creating cocoons around ourselves. We each have our own personal home theater systems in our family rooms, our own play structures in our back yards, our own sets of tools and books, our own traditions, even individual bedrooms and bathrooms in many cases. As Mia described so well a while back, it's often very hard to connect with the people who are geographically closest to you.

We drive in our glass bubbles of anonymity, raging against some other anonymous @&#%! driver who made us hit the brake pedal, and encountering thousands of others every day with whom we share not even the slightest hint of connection or recognition.

[A quick aside... I want to have a button on my steering wheel that is the opposite of the horn. When I push the button, I want blue lights to turn on - a highway equivalent of saying, "Oops! Sorry!" But back to the universal anonymity problem...]

We don't care about people we don't know, and we don't know anybody. There's no accountability.

Once upon a time it might have been, "Hey Jimmy! Nice catch last weekend. Your mom over her cold yet?" But now it's, "Hey kid, get outta my yard!" or "No, you can't walk to the Kwik-E-Mart. I'll drive you."

We need other people... Even people we don't like or agree with. It takes a village and all that. Especially if there's a crisis. 9/11. Katrina. Sometimes people pull together. Sometimes they don't. Who knows why. But the odds of pulling together seem higher if we can call each other by name.

Problem #3: Money sucks

There are a lucky few who don't have a mortgage, or who don't have bills to worry about. I haven't run across very many. Everybody loves money. Everybody hates money.

We perform services or we produce goods, and we get money. We use that money to buy the necessitites of life. (And then some.) We take somebody else's goods or services in exchange for that money, to buy what we need (and want). Money is a useful mechanism, but sometimes it's inefficient. Sometimes too much is lost in that exchange rate from my labor to money and then from money to your labor. Money isn't fair or equitable, and it doesn't have morals. Money doesn't care whether you make your mortgage or not. But it sure can cause stress and grief and headaches.

Problem #4: Limitations

Are we reaching the limit on how much cheap petroleum we can pump? Have we maxed out industrial grain production? Are we depleting aquifers? Or topsoil? Are the oceans being overfished? Have we put too much carbon into the atmosphere?

Has the world's population gotten big enough, or efficient enough at using things up, that we're actually going to start running out of certain resources? It's hard to know what to beleive. We've never used up anything before, except maybe dodo's. We're in uncharted waters.

Ok, enough problems. On to some actions...

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Saturday, November 25, 2006


Few things put a smile on my face or a spring in my step like tasty homemade food. If Lori ever wants to guarantee that I profess my undying love for her, she only has to step into the kitchen and perform a little magic.

Check out these English muffins:

The camera doesn't really do them justice. But then, I guess even the perfect photo couldn't really convey their true nature. Their true nature being, of course, extremely yummy.

I'm looking forward to cooking up some local eggs and local sausage to make perhaps the ultimate in breakfast sandwichcraft. And also, I love my wife.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

All blogged out

I have had too many things going to spend much time writing here lately. I've got some thoughts rolling around, but no time to write them donw. We've got a fairly busy holiday weekend coming up, and I'm guessing many others do to, so I'm taking a little break.

If you just can't do without some sustainable-eco-homesteady reading material, check out Beo's great series:
Eco-Vegetarianism: No Free Lunch
Eco-Vegetarianism: Part II
Eco-Vegetarianism: Part III - Grass Farming
Eco-Vegetarianism: Part IV - To Veg or Not to Veg

I was working on a post that would have been very similar in nature to these, but he covers it better than I would have.

Meanwhile, for those of you celebrating Thanksgiving this time of year, have a good one. See you in a few days.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Another day

Goodbye to PKH,
Not so close,
But not so far away either.
Following in her brother's footsteps.
All I can think of
are her two little girls,
and their daddy,
and their now childless grandparents.
42 is too young to go.
Live now.
Love now.
Don't wait another day.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Those Days

You know those great autumn days, where the sun provides just enough warmth to make the crisp air incredibly refreshing? You get some quality time with the kids, or with Mother Nature, or both. You spend the day doing something meaningful and fulfulling. You wear yourself out, and at the end the day, you hit the bed feeling exhausted, but extremely alive...

Today was not one of those days.

In addition to my (greatly abbreviated) rant about whether DirecTV sucks, I also found out today that due to a mistake or change on our property tax (still figuring out which), the cost of our house is going up about $350 a month. We were very happy to be eliminating our $300 a month car payment so that we could redirect those funds. Well, there goes that plan. An extra $350 a month, and we won't have anything more to show for it.



Monday, November 13, 2006

Does DirecTV suck?

Does DirecTV suck? If so, how much?

These are interesting questions to ponder.

Perhaps some research is in order.

"directv sucks" turns up 231,000 entries on Google.
"directv complaints" has 362,000 hits.
"directv terrible" results in 223,000 listings.

Directv has been charged with racketeering.

DirecTV has been fined twice for "Do Not Call" list violations.

DirecTV has been sued over poor high definition picture quality.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, DirecTV "orchestrated a nationwide legal campaign against hundreds of thousands of individuals" who purchased smart cards from third parties, and "made little effort to distinguish legal uses of smart card technology from illegal ones"

DirecTV also signed me up for an expensive package called "NFL Sunday Ticket", which would allow me to watch any NFL football game, if I wanted to. The only problem is I specifically declined their oh-so-generous offer. I can still remember the phone conversation, in September of '05, because I remember thinking, "Wow, the hard sell on some expensive package right off the bat, with all the telemarketing tricks. That's a bad way to start off with this company..."

Because it's billed through my phone company, and because there's lag time on the billing, (and because, let's face it, I'm slightly disorganized), I didn't notice the NFL Sunday Ticket on my bill until November. When I called to complain, they told me the season was practically over, and I had to pay for it. After much fruitless arguing, they offered to give us a month or two of some free premium channels which they never did.

Now this year, the same thing happens. They tell me I was set for "auto renew". They tell me it's my fault for not reading my bill. They tell me I can't cancel my account without paying penalties until next October. They've charged me several hundred dollars worth of service that I never asked for, never agreed to, and that I have repeatedly told them that I do not want. They would not appear to be overly concerned.

I will spare you the whole story. I don't want to get all pissed off right before bedtime. But let's just say that if you are considering DirecTV service, you won't get a recommendation from me.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

More about the Broadfork / U-Bar

I was going to post this as a comment on the previous post, but it got long enough that I figured I'd make it a separate post.

I bought a U-bar digger like this one available from Lee Valley:

After acquiring it, I read an interesting bit about this type of tool in Elliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower. He advocates one like this, available from Johnny's Seeds:

His argument is that although the wooden handles may very occasionally need to be replaced, they cut down on the weight. He'd rather use a tool that is lighter all the time and once in a great while needs new handles, rather than a tool that is heavy every single time.

He also advocates the curved tines rather than the straight tines, based on the fact that the straight tines will act more like a pry bar, whereas the curved ones will have more of a rolling action through the soil.

I've only ever used the one I have, but I kind of wish I'd read Coleman's thoughts on this before I bought mine, since his comments do seem to make sense. Unfortunately, I've never seen either version in a store or somebody else's garden, so it's hard to look them over in person, much less try them out. But I thought I'd at least share what I've learned.

The other thing I wanted to mention was that in clay soil that has not been worked much, mine acts a bit more like a shovel than a fork, prying up one solid chunk of clay instead of breaking through it. Once the clay is broken up a bit, it's much easier. But even in heavy clay, I can see some benefit to being able to turn over a 30-inch chunk of turf at a time, if you don't mind a workout.

If anybody else has experience with this type of tool, I'd love to hear about it.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

State of the Garden

Since I didn't build any cold frames, greenhouses, or similar arrangements this year, the gardening season is just about over until spring. So I thought I'd capture some of my experiences and highlights from the past year.

Newest garden favorite:
Brussels sprouts. Who knew? I grew them on a whim, having never formed a strong impression about brussels sprouts before in my life. I had no idea what the plant would even look like or how big it would get. They grew well (they're still growing, actually) and they were absolutely delicious. Yes, I'm serious.

Returning garden favorite:
Swiss chard. It's a leafy green that doesn't go to seed like lettuce and spinach do when the weather gets warm. In fact, ours didn't quit going until a hard freeze came along. And there's something cool about the colorful veins and stalks in the Bright Lights variety we grew - reds, yellows, oranges, purples, pinks...

Most important lesson learned:
Overgrown grass near the garden is bad. The way I had it set up, the grass was awkward to mow, and I let it go one to many times. Grass became my number one weed in the garden. In fact, I'm thinking of putting some cardboard and wood chips down around the beds rather than letting grass grow there at all.

Favorite small garden method:
Square Foot Gardening. It doesn't necessarily scale up well, but it produces a lot of food in a small amount of space. I went from a 16 square foot test plot to three beds totalling 96 square feet without adding much additional work.

Current favorite gardening author:
Elliot Coleman. I've read Four Season Harvest and The New Organic Grower in the past few months, and was greatly impressed by both. Coleman goes into great detail about exactly what he does and why it works. I'll always be somebody who picks and chooses techniques and ideas from different sources, and combining them to fit my needs, but Coleman's books are very readable, and the information he gives is pretty comprehensive.

Favorite tools:

Garden cart. I kept thinking about getting a decent cart for dragging stuff around the property, but was reluctant to spend the money. Finally, I got a nice cart with fat tires, sides that drop down or even come off quickly, and a comfortable handle (and at 20% off even!). Money well spent - I've found a dozen uses for it already. Since the sides and bottom are mesh, I even used it to sift soil from my big potato pots to find the spuds. Mini hay rides for the kids are an added bonus.

Fence post driver. After struggling to drive T-posts with a sledgehammer and other methods, I found that this hand-held fence post driver is much more effective at getting the downward force where it needs to be.

Broadfork. (AKA - U-bar digger.) I had heard of this tool before, and became aware of it's usefulness after reading a couple Elliot Coleman books. It's a bit of work to use, especially in our clay soil, but not nearly as much as trying to work the soil with a shovel, pick, or other hand tools. And it's much less of a hassle than rototillers or tractor implements when all you want to do is break up the soil a bit. It won't turn turf into fluffy garden soil, but it does a nice job of aerating without totally disturbing the natural soil structure.

Big Plans:
Expand from a starter garden to something much larger. Try some different crops and varieties and abandon a few altogether. Focus on open-pollenated varieties. Try growing and harvesting some grains. All that next year? I doubt it. But we'll see. More on this later...


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Toybox

Due in large part to some overly generous relatives, our kids have a lot of toys. A lot of toys with a lot of small parts, to be more specific. The pieces get scattered, they get lost, they end up embedded into the tenderest part of your feet in the middle of the night. And kids being kids, they get just as much entertainment out of the turkey baster and the lazy susan as they do out of the electronic singing turtle.

Part of our bedtime routine is that all the toys get put into the toybox. Unfortunately, from time to time, the volume of toys exceeds the capacity of the toybox. So every so often, after the kids are asleep, we gather up a bunch of toys and stash them away in the basement, or sometimes donate them to charity. But invariably, our son starts asking for some obscure toy that happens to have been culled in the last batch.

So I decided it was time to take a different tack on this problem. I suggested to my son that maybe he could help pick out toys that he no longer wanted, so that we could give them to the local thrift store. I explained that they wouldn't be our toys any more, but that other kids would be able to buy them and play with them. He's been to the thrift store several times, and usually, in addition to some "new" clothes, we bring home some toy for fifty cents or a dollar, so he has some idea how this works.

But much to my surprise, he loved the idea. He couldn't wait to give away his toys. So tonight, after several days of him pestering me, we got a cardboard box to put some toys in that he no longer wanted. He filled the box in no time and said we needed another box. Having no other boxes handy, we switched to a trash bag. I explained the concept again, to make sure he understood, and the comprehension seemed to be obvious.

He then proceeded to fill almost two large trash bags with toys. The pile of toys he wanted to keep was quite small, and the toybox is nearly empty. (I saved out some key toys for Amelia as he was purging.) He asked if we could go to the thrift store immediately, so the other kids could have his toys. It was too late to go, so I promised him we'd go over there tomorrow.

Now, what's interesting about all this was that as I'm watching him fill these garbage bags, I keep having to fight off these urges to save certain toys - for sentimental reasons, or because they're a set, or because I think they're cool toys. I have this temptation to go back and rescue a few things, and I'm torn as to whether to do it, or to just let him make his own decisions.

I'm also proud of him. I'm humbled by his generosity, and motivated by his aparently inherent understanding of "less is more." It'll be interesting to see how it plays out. If suddenly, three weeks from now, he goes into a screaming fit because he changed his mind about a toy that's long gone, or if he asks us to buy him another of something he gave away, it may be a bit of a hard lesson. The other possibility is that he just has a short attention span and gets bored with toys very quickly. But for now, I'll assume his intentions are good and his understanding is clear.

Now with the holidays approaching, I've just got to figure out how to rein in the relatives a little. Maybe I'll just tell them to keep in mind that whatever they buy may be selling for $0.50 on the thrift store shelf within a month...


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Don't Vote!

Please don't go out to the polls today. Stay home and relax. Watch some TV or something. You don't need the hassle.

I mean, the way I figure it, the lower the turnout, the more my vote is worth. Ok, just kidding. Mostly.

At my polling place, I was pleasantly surprised by a very short line, an easy to use voting system, and even a viewable paper record of my votes as they were cast.

It made me feel a tiny bit better than I did after watching the previously mentioned documentary on how insecure our voting systems can be. Now we just sit back and see how it all plays out...


Monday, November 06, 2006

Democracy in action

Another U.S. election season, another batch of hotly contested races coming down to the wire. Both sides are optimistic about the results. "Almost inexplicably upbeat," in certain cases.

If you live in a democracy, or something resembling a democracy, you might want to watch this documentary, from those wingnut conspiracy theorists, HBO.

Don't forget out and cast your "vote."

Wow. I used to swing both ways in the ol' voting booth. When did I become so partisan and cynical?


The way to a man's heart...

I've had some incredible food in the past year. Due to a combination of factors - better sources, more things made from scratch, fresher ingredients, and most importantly, a spouse who is very good in the kitchen - we've had a very good culinary year. I'm not talking about anything fancy like tuscan grilled foie gras with baby endive a la mode. I'm talking about basic, everyday food items. Here's my list of "the best ever" items I've experienced, right here in this house:

- Milk
- Eggs
- Bacon
- Bread
- Popcorn
- Pancakes
- Meatballs
- Lentil soup
- Roasted chicken
- Brussels sprouts
- Mashed potatoes
- Chocolate chip cookies
- I'm sure I'm forgetting some...

Why am I telling you this? Well, I was already working on this write-up, just based on the fact that it makes me happy. But I decided to rush it to press because, my poor wife spent pretty much the entire afternoon in the kitchen, diligently working on four loaves of the most wonderful sandwich bread... only to have them stick to the baking pans and tear apart when extracted.

For dinner tonight, I had numerous big hunks of fresh warm bread, soaked with butter from the farm market, a glass of wine, and an apple. Mmmmmmmmm.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Another peek inside the toddler mind

Our son is mildly entertained by a new show that has turned up on our TV. It's called The Upside Down Show. I'll admit that it's rather cute. It's a pretty silly show featuring two brothers, a pet fly, and a woman in a red suit who keeps appearing in the background for no apparent reason. It relies a lot on imagination - invisible elephants, pretend staircases, and so on.

One of the big gimmicks of the show is that the viewer has an imaginary remote. This remote has buttons for all sorts of things - the pause button, the rewind button, the humongous button, the upside-down button, the Irish dancing button... you get the idea.

So e5 comes in while I'm working the other day, and makes me freeze by pushing the pause button on his imaginary remote. And then scolds me for moving my arm (I had an itch) and again for moving my eyes. Before long I've pushed the upside-down button and strung him up by his ankles, and then the tickle button. He comes back with the keep-tickling button, the don't work button, and a few more buttons which I've since forgotten. But my favorite was when he told me he had pressed the "stop pushing buttons" button.

I guess he was done playing...


More on modern medicine...

The human brain is a weird thing. And doctors don't know half as much as we give them credit for.

Read this fascinating tale from Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, and see if you don't agree.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shedding some light

65 light bulbs.

Can you beleive that? There are 65 light bulbs in our house. Isn't that crazy? And that doesn't even count any of the fluorescent tubes.

Why do I know this? Because I got it in my head to gradually replace them all with compact fluorescent bulbs. I thought I'd just buy a multipack every time I was at the store, and before I knew it, I'd be done. It's estimated that 25% of the average electric bill goes to lighting. You can save a lot by just replacing the most common four or five bulbs, but I decided to go ahead and gradually swap them all out.

But it kept going, and going, so I started counting. I had no idea how well lit our house was. It doesn't really seem like we have a lot. I mean, we only have probably four lamps in the whole house. But I keep finding more bulbs that need to be switched out. Lots of overhead fixtures with two 60 watt bulbs instead of one 100 watt bulb. Bathroom fixtures with six or eight bulbs... Bulbs outside, in the basement, in the attic... Bulbs everywhere...

Why am I doing this? Here's why:

2 x 40 watts = 80 watts

...compared to:

9 x 9 watts = 81 watts

If I were to turn on every single lightbulb in my house, we'd be drawing about 700 watts from the power company. A good bit of power, but consider that back in college I used to have 3 halogen floor lamps sucking 900 watts between them.

So we could change the equation above to this:

1 x 300 watts = 300 watts vs. 33 x 9 watts = 297 watts

Yes, compact fluorescent bulbs cost more, but they're much cheaper than they used to be. They use way less power, they have a lifetime of five to ten years, so they will pay for themselves in pretty much any scenario.

Some people say they don't like the quality or color of the light, but I'd lay big money that if you were in my house right now, you wouldn't be able to accurately tell which bulbs were CF's and which were not. They've come a long way from the early days of CF lights.

Ten times the lifetime. One quarter of the power consumption. Once I'm done, those 65 bulbs will potentially eliminate somewhere around 84,500 lbs of carbon emissions over their lifetimes.