Sometimes when we are knee deep in the stories of the human impact on the Earth the days can seem a little dark. Human activities which make the headlines involve war, violence, pollution, corruption and other greed and hatred inspired acts. Sometimes we forget that there are people all around the world that feel the same way we do. Their small acts of compassion and self-sacrifice for a greater good, restores our energy to keep on, keeping on for a greater good in our small niches in this vast universe.
Having long known the value of compost, of course a compost pile has been on the “to do” list at Tiny Forest but before I get to that I’m taking a detour into the real low down and taking a worm’s eye view of the soil problems on this land.
There has been abuse. Hills of trash and debris built up for generations have created air pockets in the soil. While some of the material has been breaking down, much of the plastic, vinyl, metal, glass and so forth will take ages to break down in future lifetimes, not this one. Meanwhile new top soil has formed over them and so to clear them away would not only be costly and lengthy and create new erosion problems, it will also mean disturbing the land again. Each time a bulldozer has been brought in to help with the clean up, especially those things I could not do myself, it has also disturbed something else. A bulldozer is a two-edged sword. I am learning to live with the junk cars peaking out of tree roots, knowing I will be fencing them off before the goats are let loose in these areas.
There has been abandonment. While neglect and abuse can be corrected and many people purchasing land nowadays will encounter trashed parcels they have to clean up, the combination of abuse and neglect here has been followed by a decade of abandon. Uncorrected, the soil composition has broken down and top soil has been lost. A field of wild blackberries attests to the acidification of the soil. There is little nutritional value which is why the crops failed this year. Rampant fungus outbreaks take over patches and kill vegetation. Wanting to avoid chemicals, I have found very little to combat the plagues of insects, the fungus and the starved soil.
So compost pile will wait a little while longer. I have been reading how African farmers are gaining hard-won victories on their depleted soils. If they can do it on African soil, which has endured generations of abusive and ignorant agricultural practices, I can do it here. On to the Tiny Worm Farm.
First I reorganized my storage and came up with two Sterlite tubs and washed and dried them.
Next I drilled small holes in one of the tubs for air circulation. There are holes on the lid and all around the upper sides. There are also smaller holes drilled into the bottom so it can drain.
After drilling the holes, I placed three old plastic containers in the second Sterlite container.
This one, without any holes, will be the base which will collect the nutrient dense worm juice as it drains from the top bin. The bin with the holes is placed inside the second bin.
Then I put in some empty toilet paper rolls, fruit peelings and plenty of dried leaves and hay.
Worms eat the equivalent of their weight each day. So if I start with a 1/4 pound of red wigglers, I need to make sure they receive 1/4 pound of food scraps (minus dairy, oils and meat) everyday. This is one beneficial way to return one’s trash to the soil. Worm castings and worm juice are nutrient dense and can power the crops next year to fruitful bounty, improving the immune system of the soil and the plants in a simple, natural recycling process. Here is a link to the worm bin plans I followed.
Stay tuned for the progress reports.
Pee power. Flushing it down the toilet wastes a powerful and CHEAP fertilizer. Put the power back in your dollar: waste less, save more.
Plant a meadow – bee happy. Let’s share the Earth with all creatures.
My first attempts at marketing Tiny Forest eggs have met with interesting if unexpected results. If anything they will make good stories of the “good ‘ol days” when these become the good ol’ days but they also immediately offer unique insights into human nature. The realization that led me to leave academia so many years ago came in a blast, (or was it a slap?) inside my classroom when I realized that communication isn’t as easy as we tend to think it is.
The sort of communication we think we are engaged in depends entirely on an agreement of meaning. If we all agreed, for instance, that night is that period of time when the sun does not shine down its light upon our surroundings because it is not “above us” due to the Earth’s rotation, we can all understand when we see or read the word “night”. And we will all agree that night is not day, that period of time when the sun does shine down upon our surroundings. But after that it gets murky. Dawn, for instance is not so well defined. Is it sunrise? Is it twilight? Is it civil twilight? Is it even a moment instead of a series of effects caused by a rising sun? No doubt if you were raised on an ocean vessel it would be different for you than for someone raised in a rainforest or a mountain top or the east coast of a country compared to the west coast. We have different understandings in part due to the influence of our culture and upbringing but it goes deeper than that.
A word is not a thing; it is not the thing itself. A word is merely a convention. If in my classroom I spoke about the lovely oak in my backyard, each one of my students would have a unique inner visualization of that lovely oak tree, if they were paying attention. Search on Google for the answer to how many different oak trees there are and you will have a better appreciation of this statement. Depending on where you seek an answer, there can be as few as 60 oak trees or as many as 600 oak trees. So what oak tree do you visualize when you read the word “oak”? Or do you see a piece of furniture? Or a paint stain? Even if I were to specify the lovely oak tree is a Quercus palustris or pin oak, there would be a spectrum of meaning given to the pronouncement. Why? Because a word is not the thing it tries to convey. A word is merely a sign. And it is of signs that I began this post today, yard signs in fact.
My first sign announcing the sale of Tiny Forest eggs was double-sided but a little small. It announced “Fresh Fertile Eggs”: $3.00 for eating or hatching. I thought that announcing they were fertile would give them a distinguishing touch for my rural community where many people remember their good ol days included egg-gathering from their own flock of chickens. For me, it also had a connotation of having a rooster with the hens which is a more balanced or pastoral view of a flock of hens. I hoped that teachers or parents would be able to provide children with a memorable experience hatching eggs and raising their own backyard flock. Needless to say, the emphasis generated unforeseen situations. For instance, people wanted purebred fertile eggs and not the mixed flock of Light Brahma and Buff Orpington hens at Tiny Forest that are guarded over by a Light Brahma roo. The month before Easter was a busy month answering phone calls from people who wanted a hundred dozen or more. No doubt there was much disappointment not only in that they were not pure bred – I had no Buff Orpington roo and the hens laid communally, so there was no telling which eggs were form which hens – but also my small flock only produced about five dozen eggs per week.I was disappointed too. Gathering and keeping so many hatching eggs at the right temperature was not as easy as gathering and storing for eating.
Emphasizing fertility was not a good marketing strategy. I decided that I would emphasize that my hens free- ranged and I ordered another sign: “Free Range Eggs”, along with my phone number. This sign was about twice as large as the first one and also double-sided. I was so pleased when only half an hour after putting it up by the road, a truck stopped in front and I went to see if I could help them. Yes indeed I could help, the lady who was older and had visible symptoms of having had a stroke at some point, asked me what were “range eggs”? Well, it didn’t dawn on me quickly enough but rural folks in this area have their ways of speech and I am not a native. I answered the hens were free to roam during the day. Did I gather them daily, she asked? Yes, I gather the eggs every day. Well, she said, “I’d like to try some.”
As I walked back to the house I thought that I would offer these eggs for free. It was a gesture as much for the future business of this first customer as it was a show of compassion for the medical and physical hardships I thought she might suffer. So I went back to the house, took out a dozen eggs from the fridge and walked back to her. I handed over the carton of eggs, telling her they were yesterday’s eggs. She thanked me and got in her truck and said she lived down the road. I thought it was odd she hadn’t asked how much they would cost and that she didn’t offer to pay me anything at all, even though I would have declined and told her that they were “on the house” so to speak. It was the word “free” she had not mentioned with “range eggs”. And it is more than semantics. It is where our attention is placed. It is our upbringing and our expectations. Surely if she saw the phrase “Free Roaming Eggs” on a carton at the grocery store she wouldn’t ask the clerk what were “roaming eggs” and she wouldn’t put the carton into her purse and leave the store without paying, at least not successfully.
I would venture to say that she never reads the words on the cartons; she only looks at the prices and that she may not be very well- read on agricultural topics such as confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) or open air manure lagoons, or antibiotic resistance. My neighborhood is a lower working class area. Price might be the only factor when making a purchase. Not everyone considers the health and well-being of the animals producing food for human consumption. Some people in fact consider animals are just “things” to be used for human benefit. She would have not stopped if the price had clarified that the word “free” qualified range and not eggs. I placed a hyphen between Free and Range this morning. Semantics. It may or may not help.But I do care about the way the animals are treated. I do care about climate change, antibiotic resistance, water pollution due to factory farming run off and the suffering of all of us animal, human and planet.Supermarkets do not charge the true price of eggs. Those prices are based on subsidies and they are based on ignoring the effect of factory farming.
The following has been edited since first written. It has been revised based on consideration of feed and care costs and supermarket prices for inferior.
My approach and belief system regarding food is based on community agriculture, humane treatment of animals and sustainable practices. Pricing eggs at $3.00/ dozen, I can break even during the heaviest laying times of the year- in summer. Supermarket prices for “cage-free” eggs are $3.00/ dozen. I have thought about lowering my egg prices but the fact is I can’t afford to. When I am fortunate, I break even. But the planet is winning anyway. the animals are winning anyway. With these perks, not to mention my own supply of fresh, delicious cruelty-free eggs, I can wait a little longer to see a profit.
There are many parables about sewing seeds in different conditions, symbolizing the different conditions in life. Gardening provides many appropriate metaphors for our lives. For Tiny Forest, my first full year here (2014) has provided many unpleasant surprises and a lot of agonizing work. Starting all over at 50 and alone, the path has been rough and at times it seemed merciless. Worked, quite literally with my bare hands, and watered with many tears, the first Tiny Forest garden has started to arise. Trees that were sick a few weeks ago have greened up and strengthened. As I walk around and see the seedlings break through brick-like clay soil, and the first flowers blossom on my pie pumpkins, and the sunflower rows start to turn toward the morning sun, joy alights and I too blossom.
There are many ways to make this fabulously rich, deliciously sweet, exceedingly simple dessert but for an authentic Cuban dulce de leche, you start with fresh milk.* I’ve made it with fresh raw and store bought cow milk and with fresh goat’s milk. There is no difference in the method or the outcome. You may want to use a stainless steel pot so if you accidentally burn it, it is salvageable.
Equipment and ingredients.
A 6 quart stainless steel pot and a wooden stirring spoon.
1 gallon of milk – though it may sound like a lot, it boils down to about 8 small servings – or 4 generous dessert portions.
2 eggs – beat the eggs thoroughly and then whip the milk and eggs together before heating
1 to 1 1/2 cups of sugar – your preference, sweeten to taste
a splash of vinegar or the fresh juice of a lemon -from a lemon not from a bottle- – this will cut the milk and make it separate. if you use lemon, leave a peel or two of the rind inside, it gives a little tang to the finished dessert.
To start, beat the two eggs and then blend them thoroughly into the cold gallon of milk, add the sugar and stir and turn on your burner to a medium setting, bringing the temperature steadily to 180 or thereabouts- it doesn’t have to be as precise as cheese-making. Watch it and stir often to blend the sugar. Be careful not to let it boil. When the temperature is near 180 for a few minutes add a splash of vinegar or the juice of a lemon. The milk will curdle and separate.
If it does not, add a little more vinegar or lemon juice. Be careful on the vinegar – it should take less than a 1/4 cup. Once the milk curdles stop stirring and reduce the heat to a simmer. Let the mixture simmer slowly and the liquid will evaporate. It will thicken. If a film forms on the top, remove it. Do not stir it back in. When the dulce starts to thicken, stir the bottom once in a while to distribute the curds and prevent burning them. Though it is slow at first, when you are almost finished the process seems to speed up and it is easy to burn it.
- If you do burn it, just spoon off the unburnt top, which will still be good. Soak and scrape, and soak and scrape your stainless steel pot.
Once it is finished it will be a golden brown, with thick curds and thick syrup. Let it cool and then store in a glass container. If you used lemon rind you can leave the lemon rind in.
Serve cold and enjoy. Buen provecho!
*The good thing about this recipe is if you have raw milk which has clabbered, you can still use it. I wouldn’t use spoiled pasteurized milk from a store but if it is just off by a day or two it will still be okay. If the store bought milk has separated, throw it out.
“For a farm to be sustainable, good farm stewards take advantage of the reproductive capacities of the land and animals. This is a basic difference between a factory, which must buy finite raw materials, manufacture a product and sell it, and a farm, which relies on the bounty of regrowth and reproduction from living systems. The less that a farm captures this benefit of reproduction, whether it is for self-consumption or for sale, the less profitable and sustainable it will be.” (Delaney, 49)
I don’t know if Delaney was comparing a farm to a factory farm (confined animal feeding operation or CAFO) in her analogy, or if she was referring to the perceived difference between agriculture in general and industry. Of course in most of the U.S. (and the world) today, farming is synonymous with industrial agriculture, a fossil-fuel driven, pesticide and chemical- dependent, soil- depleting, environmentally- polluting, disease- causing monopolistic contortion of any semblance of sustainability.
“What is one?” The Buddha asked seven year-old novice arahant Sopaka. “Nutriment,” Sopaka replied.
Every living being needs food to live. The quality of that food corresponds directly to the state of health of every breathing being: animal, human or vegetable. To bring food to the masses industrial agriculture has ignored environmental health and the health of the ecosystem as a whole. For decades agriculture has capitalized on abundant land and fuel and technology to maximize short-sighted production and profiteering at the expense of health: soil health, environmental health, the health of wildlife diversity and human health. Voluminous governmental regulations steer investment and funnel favor toward industrial farms that kill us to feed us.
Humans are many. We are teetering on the brink of destroying our soil beyond the ability to renew itself. We can blame industrial agriculture all day long however and yet we still consume, consume, consume to the limits of our budget and sometimes beyond to the limits of our credit lines and sometimes beyond that to our detriment: psychologically, physically, emotionally, financially. When one person and family is ruined there is another to replace and continue the consumption. It isn’t just the groceries, though obesity, heart failure and diabetes is epidemic.
A multitude of insecticides are available directly off the shelf as a quick remedy to deeper problems of imbalance. We kill snakes and then buy rodenticides which indiscriminately kill birds of prey, and predators who feed on rodents. We kill keystone predators and lose the biodiversity of our forests due to over grazing by the prey that would have been food for those predators. We buy gadgets that leave a trail of toxic waste in our rivers and lakes. We buy and throw away. We buy. And it isn’t just this country. Greed and ignorance are human conditions. Fortunately, we can work to overcome them.
Training the mind to understand our desires deeply, little by little, over and over again the desires fall away on their own as understanding comes to the surface. Humans are not entitled to destroy the planet, we are not entitled to cause the massive suffering of other living beings for our enjoyment or palate. The basics of nourishment and healthy, safe living conditions have long since left the landscape of our decision-making in the West.We shop out of boredom, as a therapy for problems we do not want to confront. We shop for distraction and fun. Huge receptacles of industrial agriculture, the giant supermarkets and strip malls that line our roads in the same monotonous rows we have come to recognize as crop farming, drain the money from our wallets and the life from our farms and farmers, our soils, our waters and our air. Ironically, healthy food has moved away from the supermarkets and back to small farms
The emphasis is on small and community farms. Large farms, whether they are monopolized by parasitic cooperatives that pay meager wages to farmers, like the monster dairy cooperatives that control prices, or monster producers like Smithfield and Tyson who actually do not produce anything themselves, or farms that have guzzled their neighbors and have sprawled unsustainably into the american landscape with the excuse of surviving, are lethal to the food chain. A small and sustainable community farm is a place of regeneration, of seasonal growth and regional flare. It doesn’t stink; it doesn’t dole out carcinogens by the bushel. Communities need not fear it during a rainstorm. The food is fresh, flavorful, nutritious and varies with the seasons.
There are many models of sustainability, even McDonald’s has a model but when we speak of sustainability in agriculture we are speaking of reproduction. The reproduction of the land comes by way of nitrogen fixers to replenish the soil so it can continue to reproduce. Manure of the animal is not toxic waste in an open air holding tank but a vital nutrient for vegetation. It can be called closed loop because it recycles seasonally, dying off and emerging anew. Learning to live with the seasons helps us learn to live in grateful ways.
For some of us that means working the land and caring for the animals which care for us. For others it means using our dollars in eco-conscious ways. We can relearn our consumer ways to understand that not having something is not deprivation. It is the cycle of life, reproducing. There are times of having and times of not having and these are shared in our communities and with our ecosystem. We must try to reorient ourselves to seasonal vitality and pause in our pursuits to the pleasures of rest as we train our minds to resist the impulses which have become like an artificial heart pumping out desire after desire for a selfish, short-sighted existence at the expense of life itself. Life and farming are as much about muck as they are about feasting- each in its own time. And if we really want fresh tomatoes year round, we can learn to grow them in a container by the window.
(copyright reserved 2014 – no part of this original work may be reproduced without the author’s written consent)
If you have the goal of sustainability and working with hard-to-work-with clay soil, read this excellent article on how to improve your soil in a really downhome and homemade way.