Thursday, February 06, 2014


4:30 PM, windless, quiet. This afternoon’s snowstorm has brought darkening skies sooner than I wished for. A couple hours ago the snow began to rain out of the sky and it continued to the point that the birds left the feeders and never returned. The critters of the woods and the birds all know the weather better than I will ever learn.  Snow is frozen rain and rain has not been plentiful in recent years in the west but has been “over plentiful” at our flower farm for parts of a couple years. Growing anything has been a challenge.
People like to honor new years with predictions and resolutions. I have never been set on doing either but often will offer a thought if pressed.  I did this with the Super Bowl and I doubt I’ll be asked for my opinions on that again. The only compliment I received that day was for the blackberry-peach jam marinade I made for one of the batches of chicken wings. Now those were special!
Lately I have been relating thoughts of our food supply to gardening. For three years now all our horticultural trade magazines have suggested that sales of fruit trees and shrubs as well has vegetable seeds have shown excellent increases. Gail and I have personally found this to be true. The year that berry bush sales were predicted to increase by 17% we gave raspberries and blueberries a try and they all sold. The next year sales were predicted to increase by +50% so we backed off and let the competition handle the increase here in Vermont. Everyone did very well. But with the positive come some concerns.
During the past few years we have seen weather conditions change. In the west drought prevails and widespread fires have taken down tens of thousands of acres of cover. Some water supply networks that historically served people and farms have closed off all water to farms.  Some researchers document that the west is the driest it has been since 1580. Many western cities have issued new rules involving water use and this is not setting well with a country that is used to turning on the spigot for cows or faucet for itself….and then letting it run …...forever.

The Farm Bill just passed and Congressmen are bragging about their participation. Vermont's own Sen. Patrick Leahy drinks a glass on milk on a TV spot and says we did fine. Just the same, there are things in America I cannot understand and don’t care for. The FDA just approved importing poultry from China because America cannot produce enough chicken to meet our needs. Chicken is one of those foods whose production has been mechanized to the point that few human hands are required. Apparently we cannot find those “few” hands. Here in Vermont dairy farmers have hired large numbers of migrant workers because they cannot find local labor. It may be wages, it may be benefits, it may be living costs, it may be that Americans find farm work demeaning but it’s all a surprise to me since farmers were the lifeblood of a new country before America had its own name.
Then there’s the friend or foe thing known as Genetically Modified Organisms. I recall many years back learning about GMO potatoes which were developed to counter the Colorado Potato Beetle I had grown up with. As a kid I remember being instructed to dust the potato plants which I did........"Dust until the leaves are white." they said.  The chemical used was DDT but other seriously dangerous dusts were used to kill the pink colored larvae as they devastated potato plant leaves. Looking back, I have no idea why those chemicals didn’t kill me. Probably there’s still time as chemicals have longer lives than people.
Potatoes went through an entire evolution of genetic change while at the same time US potato consumption has decreased. GMO potatoes are no longer a concern because potatoes are more often grown as a crop used in making starches to combine with food as opposed to being eaten as food.  Those starches are being used for processing paper and for making industrial lubricants, glues, pastes, and things I probably don’t want to know about. As a result of the change in use, fungicides and insecticides are not needed in the same quantity because getting starch from a potato does not require a clean skinned, tasty, good looking potato. And where are the latest, largest Frito-Lay potato growing fields in the world? China. And how are the Chinese pumping up potato production while minimizing time from planting to harvest? Water. Through extensive irrigation systems. Maybe we need a big government focus group to map some of these changes out.
And then there are honey bees, bumble bees and other pollinators needed for production of our foods even before we can talk about harvesting and processing and counting food shortfalls.  Again, there is a problem. Systemic chemical insecticides are thought to disrupt a honey bee’s life cycle.  We don’t seem to understand it and researchers are not sure they have all the pieces of the puzzle yet. They are certain however, that honey bees are in decline and this is serious. I raise honeybees and I can vouch for the fact that they do some weird things like swarming when they shouldn’t and trying to fly at night. Beyond chemical interference there is interference from GMO plants like corn. Focus on this for a minute.


Cattle food, whether for dairy or beef, has become very expensive. Domestic grain production for US farms has diminished in recent years, much more grain has been exported and corn has become the main crop. Lots of corn has gone to ethanol production and the rest has been increased to replace the grains. But corn just like potatoes, is susceptible to insects and corn was ripe for being genetically modified. Now GMO corn is planted all over and the same bee pollinators that are in decline are having more of a problem existing. Fields that were planted in grain crops that bees pollinated are gone and bees must go to GMO corn which is killing them.  Farmers have learned efficiency of field management and have planted corn to the corners of their fields with no margins for other crops key to bees. So think this cycle through. We grow grains which get too expensive so we export them to make money, grow GMO corn, kill pollinators to other foods humans need to live. With limited water, problems getting people to work and the impacts of climate change this whole food production thing has become difficult.

A thought for now is what can we do about safe food production for ourselves and world neighbors? We know how to farm and we need to get back at it. We need to cut out the subsidies paid not to farm certain crops and we need to grow more safe food that is better for us to eat. We can do that but it will require some training from school kids on up. Kids learn and question better than some adults.

So take a minute in the next few days and think about what you and your family eat, where your food comes from, how safe it is and what you would do if it fell out of supply. If you can
grow some food yourself, learn to do it. If you can grow food for yourself and others, do that too. Make a different kind of change for you and your family, your neighbors and your planet. You can, I know you can!



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