Houses of Straw

Leonard Leslie Brooke illustration
Leonard Leslie Brooke illustration
Sure, we all remember the children’s story about three pigs and a big, bad wolf, who could huff and puff and blow the house down (unless it was made of bricks). The stick house held up a little bit better, but the straw house didn’t provide much in the way of protection at all. But these days, houses made of straw and stucco are getting quite sophisticated. Even looking sturdy enough to stand up to a good, stiff breeze, whether it comes from a wolf or a hurricane.

Bales of straw (usually wheat straw) as building material isn’t exactly new, though perhaps not as old as the Three Little Pigs tale. late 19th century homesteaders out on the Nebraska plains are credited with building the first straw bale and mud-wattle houses, much as Oklahoma homesteaders pioneered stone and earth-sheltered homes with sod roofs. These early examples of hardy home-building with whatever’s handy largely escaped modern notice until the early 1970s, when the hippie “back to the land” movement took off. Most straw bale houses built over the following couple of decades were non-code off-the-grid shelters, but the benefits of bale construction have gained new fans.

Featured in this New York Times article is a rather spectacular example in the Catskills hand-crafted with loving care over a period of years by Clark Sanders. For the new revival in homesteading pioneers for the 21st century, there are a number of outfits and websites offering education in straw bale building techniques, helpful hints, and contacts for associated material like stuccos and plasters, wall lattice, etc. Some of the most interesting and useful are listed below. There are even some very nice straw bale house plans that can be built as offered or altered to your own site’s needs and combined with other green technologies such as earth sheltering, etc.

A relatively small straw bale shelter could be built fairly quickly and cheaply by new homesteaders on their land as a place to live while developing the various water and energy systems that will support something more permanent at a later date. If sited well and built sturdily, such a shelter built into a berm or hillside could later serve as a well-insulated root cellar for food storage, or a cool shelter barn for ruminant livestock. Just be sure your plastering job keeps up with the normal wear and tear of time, or the livestock just might eat their own barn!

Check out some of the listed sites and their offerings, see if straw bale construction might serve you well in some application. All told, the recurring benefit theme of this construction method is low cost. Which is always something modern homesteaders need to consider.

Links:

Straw Bale Construction
StrawBale dot Com
Bale Watch: 50 House Plans
A House of Straw

USDA: Sequester Impacts

Sequester_ImpactsWe homesteaders are among the citizens who pay a good deal of attention to the programs and operations of both state and federal agricultural departments because they can directly affect us (for good or ill). We often make use of our state ag departments’ extension services for education in things like beekeeping, land use, community ag promotional programs, etc. And we keep track – often with some trepidation – of the various ways that the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] can make or break our attempts to make our livings off the land and the work we put into it. Under this rubric come permissions and restrictions for selling our produce and other home-grown products to the public, to local and regional government programs, food banks, schools, etc., as well as all those expensive and tiring hoops we must jump through to obtain and keep certifications for organic labeling, etc.

We live on and off the land, and must keep ourselves abreast of the tricks of that trade. In this blog I have expressed some reservations about Tom Vilsack, who was appointed Secretary of Agriculture by President Obama some years ago, due to his corporate-friendly policies. Particularly in regards to Monsanto’s agri-chem and GMO activities, which are a considerable threat to organic producers. He has also been somewhat less than supportive of local producers being allowed to supply raw and processed foods to local schools and food banks, which we see as an important part of the ‘locavore’ – “Eat Local” movement. Buying and eating foods grown and processed close to home removes one of the most environmentally insidious government-subsidized cost-adds to our food supply – the costs of transporting foods grown in other states, regions and countries from farm to processor, and from processors to market. Almost all of it accomplished by the burning of fossil fuels.

The U.S. government has been operating for some months under what is known as “sequester,” one of those hostage threats Republicans in the U.S. Congress used to try and get their policies enacted despite being unable to win actual elections on the merits of their ideas. This seq uester has cut spending levels across the board fairly drastically, and crippled many government agencies and departments to the point where some of their most important jobs don’t get done. USDA is one of those crippled departments.

For example, the sequester has slashed government subsidies to school districts to help support their school breakfast and lunch programs. At the end of this month (October) schools will have to provide their own funding exclusively, though the government claims they will be reimbursed at some point. If the sequester is ever recinded, and now presuming those same Republican hostage-takers won’t keep the entire government shut down indefinitely while crashing the world’s economy by refusing to pay the bills for appropriations they’ve already allotted from the budget.

Concurrent drastic cuts and cut-offs to both the SNAP (Food Stamps) and WIC food programs are cutting deeply into the ability of families – many of them working full time but earning minimum wage – to put food on the table. With neither school feeding programs or food assistance from the government, a great many people will simply have to do without. We know that doing without food isn’t a particularly healthy way to live, but at least one party in our political system doesn’t think that’s a problem. I presume they and their families eat very well, thanks. We certainly pay them enough for that.

Both SNAP and WIC will run out of funds nationwide by mid-November. Just in time for the holidays! Funding for rental assistance has also been cut, and no new farm/business loans are being processed. Farmers who had previous loans through USDA and have sold this year’s crops can’t get the checks cashed because county offices for the Farm Service Agency are all closed. A freak autumn blizzard in the Dakotas killed thousands of cattle and horses, but the conservation arm of the USDA cannot help to get the dead livestock buried. This is obviously a serious issue for the immediate health and well-being of both rural dwellers and healthy livestock.

From here on, until and unless our government flunkies in Congress wake up and do their too well paid jobs, we are all on our own. Severe weather affecting farmers and ranchers will not be mitigated by the usual government emergency loans and/or mobilization of resources. Families going homeless and hungry through the winter will not be aided, nor will they or their pets or any farmer’s lost livestock get buried when they finally die. Hell, in another [not ag related] outrage of Congressional shananigans, the families of our soldiers dying in Afghanistan and elsewhere are no longer receiving the ‘death benefit’ they are entitled to, so not even our war dead are getting buried if the families don’t have cash on hand.

This situation is obviously untenable and cannot keep going for long, but I see no signs that the radical reactionaries in Congress are willing to do anything whatsoever that might save the nation from absolute ruin. If something doesn’t give very soon, by the time agricultural America gets started planning the spring crops there may be no national government at all and no help for anyone to access adequate food.

There are a few things we can do. First and foremost, call and/or write your congressional representatives and let them know this obstructionism must stop. Now. Let all your friends and family know how important it is that our representatives face harsh pressure on these issues. Get involved with your county and state electoral organizations and help draft decent candidates to challenge die-hards in next year’s elections. Think hard about running yourself if you believe you can do a good job, everyone you know will be thankful.

Get together with your homesteading and farming neighbors and meet with your community aid organizations (like Lions, Kiwanis, 4-H, etc.) to expand community shares programs, community gardens and crop set-asides to go directly to local food distribution services and schools for feeding hungry people. Do as much fund-raising as you can – host events, give public presentations, lobby county and state governments as well as local businesses and corporations – to replace necessary funding for programs to help our communities.

If we go ahead and act as if the federal government is no longer in the business of serving the people, we can make concrete plans to serve each other. Then, when (and if) the dust in Washington settles, we may find ourselves much more committed to each other and much more capable of doing for ourselves. Which, in the end, may be the best lesson the political class in D.C. could ever be taught by ‘We The People’.

Tiny Houses: Part 3 – Cities Developing Tiny Housing

tiny_houseThis blog has examined the new trend toward “micro-housing” in terms of sub-urban and rural settings in the articles Teeny, Tiny Houses in July of 2011, and Tiny Houses: Part 2 in March of 2012. The trend for small, efficiently-designed housing doesn’t look to be letting up any time soon despite a slight bounce-back of the general real estate markets.

Now we are hearing more about big cities either looking into developing “micro-housing units” convenient to downtown workplaces and shopping, at reasonable prices (and rental prices) for young workers, middle income singles and couples without children, and segments of the elderly population.

The Christian Science Monitor for September 25th asks, “Could you live in 150 square feet? Cities try out micro-housing.” They report that San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York have begun trials of ever-smaller ‘efficiency’ apartments – dubbed micro-housing – in the hearts of their metro areas. For those who would eschew living as Bruce Willis’ character in the movie The Fifth Element, the very thought of living in a single room is uncomfortable. For many singles, childless couples and young people coming out of college (where they’ve lived in a dorm room for awhile), living small in the midst of the city doesn’t sound so bad.

Think about it. If you work 8-10 hours a day (sometimes more), what do you really need from ‘home’ apart from some privacy, a kitchenette to store and prep the few meals that aren’t eaten out, a suitable bathroom, a TV chair, a place to do any take-home work they’ve got, and a comfy bed to sleep in?

There is a notorious lack of affordable housing in urban, downtown areas all over the country, and despite the recent economic collapse, the costs aren’t going down. The Japanese have long been pioneers in living in small spaces, but how many Westerners would be happy in 250 square feet or less? New York designer/architect Alexander Gendell, whose company Foliture specializes in fold-away furniture for tight spaces (think Murphy Bed), told CSM…

Low quality of life does not have to go hand in hand with limited living space, he says. He points to Tokyo, where the Japanese have figured out how to make every inch of living space count, he says. “It’s entirely possible to live well in 200 square feet of living space,” he says, as long as every function has been well thought out.

“We are certainly not the first ones to deal with this issue,” Mr. Gendell says with a laugh. “We are blessed in this country with more living space,” he says, but many other nations have proved that it is entirely possible to live in a more concentrated living environment – one that would be better for the planet.

Chicago has built thousands of downtown dorm units in high-density buildings in recent decades, for the income-challenged and homeless population. As housing prices in cities begin to rise again, these small units will become increasingly popular. Moreover, I’d be willing to suggest that as “living small” becomes a somewhat normal thing in cities, the suburban and rural movement toward tiny houses will also benefit. Even stay-at-home homesteaders tend to spend more time outside than in as we work toward our idyllic self-sufficient dreams, many of us are nearing retirement age and the children are on their own. The whole “Tread Lightly On The Earth” philosophy has merits that perhaps in coming years our city cousins can learn to appreciate as much as we do. They’ll need outdoor activities to occupy their time too, so perhaps we can expect a boom in rooftop community gardens as this micro-housing trend takes off.

City homesteading can be ‘a thing’ too!

A Timber Business That Doesn’t Cut Down Trees

timber_businessIn my very rural neighborhood with lots of small-acreage homesteads that have been going for generations, there is a lumber mill. Belongs to a neighbor, mostly just a big-timber circular saw and carriage under a sturdy roof with no walls, stacked hardwood logs he and his several sometimes/part-time workers have salvaged from acreage nearby being cleared for building and/or farming. For some years his main business was ‘machining’ those logs into the makings of log homes – from small cabins to big McMansions – for a local log home outfit that has since suffered the results of recent economic and real estate troubles.

Oh, he’ll still process logs if you really want log walls for a house or cabin you’re building, but mostly his mill has been silent lately. One of his backhoes is down, though his big front-end loader is still working on some development acreage a bit south of here. We’ve contracted him to do a big job on the steep front end of our half-mile driveway, the culverts of which were crushed by heavy railroad machinery years ago. That means that whenever we or the railroad whose access IS the front section of our driveway pay to have the thing re-graded after a season’s hard rains send most of the gravel into the road down below and carves deep canyons that’ll wreck the underbelly of any non-4WD vehicle, we can be assured that the next hard rain is just going to tear it up again. He also gives us the half-round slicings off the logs that he does mill, which are excellent wood stove fodder during the cold months.

But seeing his mill idle so much of the time these days is sad, in that none of us locals are very rich even during boom-times. And I’ve wondered what other things a person could do with a homestead sawmill that could tap into the still-strong rich-people retirement and vacation home market in this area. Son-in-Law has a nice wood shop in the next county north, as he is a master cabinetmaker and woodworking artist when he’s not teaching sculpture at the area’s Community College. Has all the routers and lathes and fancy edger-type machines that can turn hardwoods into cabinets or fine furniture or anything else that can be made of fine wood. In fact, there are quite a few fine furniture woodworkers in these mountains, as it used to be how the region earned outside money – Hickory, Drexel-Heritage, Ethan Allen… all the big names in expensive generational-quality hardwood furniture before the industry closed up shop and moved to China because Americans couldn’t afford it anymore.

When I went looking around, I found several good sites dedicated to the fairly “new” industry of salvaging ancient logs from the rivers that were used when the country was young to float harvested timber to the mills. Seems that cold water preserves this old growth timber very well, and when long-lost logs salvaged from the riverbottom mud are brought up and carefully dried, it offers some of the very finest hardwood to be had anywhere outside the virgin wilderness that cannot be logged.

For at least two hundred years the rivers in our country were used to raft logs from one place to another. The trees were cut and stripped of limbs, then tied together to float downstream to a mill. Many times the river would be running high and fast, and when these rafts hit rapids they broke apart. Many logs were lost to the rivers, where they waterlogged and sank into the mud on the bottom. The cold water preserved the logs – often harvested centuries ago from virgin old growth, and now they can be used to make fine furniture and hardwood flooring with grains that simply cannot be matched by today’s early-harvest tree farms. Even better for the few with the salvage and transportation equipment, the furniture and wood flooring that can be made from the logs commands a very high price in today’s markets.

Here in North Carolina salvage timber companies are mining rivers on the coastal plain of the Neuse and Cape Fear, but the bigger rivers just over the Continental Divide – which drain into the Tennessee and eventually the Ohio on their way to the Mississippi have so far escaped the big salvage outlets. Even three or four fine timber logs salvaged and trucked here to the mill and finishing shops would bring a pretty penny to the homesteaders who cared to take advantage of the opportunity. In the sounds and bays where timber once formed walkable surface from shore to shore, thousands of such logs wait to be mined.

Wired had a 3-page story on this new industry called Reservoir Logs that detailed the salvaging and eventual end use of these precious old growth logs.

If you’re on the shoreline or live nearby, underwater timber harvesting is remarkably quiet: no screaming chain saws or smoke-belching heavy machinery. In a steady, splashing procession, tree after tree bobs to the surface, where a small tugboat rigged with a pair of hydraulic claws grabs the trunks and tows them into something called a bunk, a partly submerged U-shaped cradle. I can see three bunks from the barge. Each stores up to 300 trees and can be raised onto a second transport barge that holds up to 1,000 logs. The Sawfish and its four-person crew will fill it in just four days.

Sure, in the highlands one could not be expected to deploy big ships and remote-operation submersibles, because the water’s not that deep and the logs not so tangled. The haul would be smaller, but the rewards just as big for the right people. For instance, consider what Desert Rose Banjo says about Recovered Old Growth Timber

Since its emergence onto the world market barely four years ago, recovered old growth timber has caused a tremendous stir in the musical instrument world. It is called submerged timber, old wood, sunken wood, water-logged wood, timeless timber, lost timber and a number of other names. Knowledgeable people are either embracing it or condemning it as “snake oil”, often both without ever seeing a piece of wood or playing an instrument using it…

Ah. The crafting of fine instruments from dulcimers to dobros to banjos to mandolins and violins has a storied history and a vibrant present in this region of True Bluegrass and traditional mountain music. Desert Rose investigated the product, and had the wood totally tested by an independent government laboratory. Its certified results documented and fully supported the claims circulating about the density, strength-to-weight ratio, modulus of elasticity and all other industry specifications. Moreover, the acoustic performance characteristics of the wood were measurably superior to land-harvest woods for making fine instruments and wind harps, wind chimes, tongue drums and vibes, etc. A single old growth salvaged hardwood log – say, maple or hickory, cherry or white oak – could make dozens of instruments, a few two-octave vibe keys, as many wind harps as any major estate could afford, and still have enough left to turn into a matched dozen fine Windsor dining chairs plus 24-foot table.

For those interested in researching this opportunity, check out some of the old growth timber flooring and veneers offered by such companies as Aqua Timber. And remember that salvaged old growth timber is environmentally friendly!

Proposed FDA Rule Angers Brewers and Farmers

American Craft Beer Week – May 12-18, 2014

cropsAh, good ol’ beer. There’s the cheap, light, basically glorified carbonated water with a slight kick, there’s the more expensive big name imports, and increasingly, there’s small to mid-sized ‘Craft Brewers’ who produce seasonal beers and everything from amber light to deep chocolate brown brews. Lots of people enjoy a good beer. The closest city to my homestead – Asheville, North Carolina – has gained quite a reputation as Beer City USA, with some serious competition in places like Portland, Oregon and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Many other cities are boasting successful microbreweries as well. Microbrews have become so popular, in fact, that many of the Big Beer brewers are buying in and happily marketing the stuff, or brewing big batches of seasonal beers under their own brand names.

Humans have been enjoying beer for just about as long as civilization has existed. More than 6,000 years ago brewers in Mesopotamia and Egypt were recording recipes for beer. Pharos were entombed with yeast and barley so they could enjoy their favorite brews in the afterlife! By the second millennium b.c.e. the Babylonians boasted 20 different types of beer. The Romans were fonder of wine, but beer was still brewed in Britain, Eastern Europe and Germany. By the Middle Ages home brews were a staple of the family diet, as beer was safer to drink than plain water. Plagues and famines in Europe left the task of making beer, mead and wine fell to monks. Who built fine breweries to provide pilgrims with food, drink and shelter.

There are a couple of bulky by-products of the beer brewing process – spent grain (sprouted and dried to produce “malted” mash), and with the introduction of hopped beers from Holland in the 1500s, used hops. Since these by-products are organic, the practice of recycling the waste products came naturally. The spent grain mash is used as a sweet feed treat for cows, sheep, lamas, horses, chickens and other livestock, while used hops are composted and/or used as mulch. Some microbreweries offer their spent grain back to the farmers who help supply the grain, or sell it cheap. The grain is usually still damp from the brewing process, so it goes quickly to the animals. Who appear to love it.

According to the website Craft Beer, the cycling of grain from farmers to brewers and from brewers back to farmers is the “farm-to-foam, foam-to-farm” cycle. At the Piney River Brewing Company’s 80-acre farm in the Ozarks, the cows eagerly abandon their pasture when they smell sweet mash on brewing day, get as close to the brewhouse as they can, and moo loudly for their bucket of spent grain. A couple of Colorado brewers donate spent grain to a local dog biscuit bakery, and the dogs apparently love it too. The Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Spent Grain Chef offers recipes for such delicacies as spent grain grapefruit bars, spent grain corn dogs, spent grain mini carrot cupcakes and more. The Alaska Brewing Company uses their spent grain in a biomass steam boiler to generate steam used in the brewing process. Brewers usually give the spent grain away to farmers if they’ll come get it, or sell it quite cheaply. Widmer, a larger brewery, sells theirs for $30 a ton. One dairy farmer near Portland, Oregon says “It’s a premium product. I pay virtually nothing. But it’s like putting honey on your cereal. It makes the cows want to eat more and we notice it in their [milk] production. That farmer goes through 20 tons of spent grain a week for his 300 cows. That’s feed he would otherwise have to purchase, adding to the cost of the milk his cows produce.

With all this sound cycling and recycling between the food supply and the beer supply, the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] just had to weigh in. Whether on behalf of the Biggest of the Big Boyz in grain agriculture (Cargill, ADM, etc.) or just because government regulators figure they have to think up some regulations nobody’s thought of before, they came up with a new rule on animal feed that would bring the spent grain from beer brewing under its regulation and possibly raise the price of beer generally.

Ginseng: New Research & Income Opportunity

GinsengResearcher Sang-Moo Kang at Georgia State University’s new Institute for Biomedical Sciences reports that ginseng can be used to treat flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). I have touted in this blog the scientifically demonstrated benefits of elderberry preparations as effective anti-virals and immune system stimulants, so am now happy to add ginseng for something more [scientifically] significant than just general tonic, energy-booster and libido stimulant, the traditional uses of ginseng.

Kang joined university and research institute partners in South Korea for a collaborative effort to document the health benefits of ginseng. Which is also purported to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory and immune modifying properties.

We all know the health and economic ravages of seasonal influenza, which kills 250,000 to 500,000 people world wide every year. Some of us actually remember stories from our parents and grandparents about the horrific toll of the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed 50 to 100 million people. That was 3-5% of humanity, which makes it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Given the viral propensity to mutate until it can best an average immune system, such not-quite critters present a constant hazard for life on planet earth.

Modern medicine, interestingly enough, does not have any kind of pharmaceutical toolkit of defenses against or treatments for viral infections. There’s oseltamivr phosphate [TamiFlu], and that’s about it. It’s not that effective at prevention or treatment, and side-by-side clinical trials during the swine flu epidemic a few years ago had elderberry tincture ahead on both preventing infection and shortening time/lessening severity of infection. The use of plant-based alkaloids and other compounds to promote health and heal illnesses is as ancient as humanity. Modern pharmaceuticals, however, are based on the chemistry of those alkaloids and compounds exclusively, ignoring any and all other compounds found in the plant sources that may aid the efficacy in select applications. Don’t let them fool you – there’s nothing ‘primitive’ or ‘unscientific’ about the knowledge of plant-based pharmacopeias. Just because our ancestors learned by observation and experiment instead of molecular manipulation it doesn’t mean what they learned is any less respectable.

Senate Passes Outrageous New Farm Bill

New_Farm_BillYep. As of this writing, February 4, 2014, the U.S. Senate has passed a new Farm Bill that has gone way out of its way to exclude any real farmers as well as more than two million people who rely on food stamps to eat, and channels all the supposedly ‘saved’ money back to Big Agribiz as crop insurance rather than crop subsidies. As you can see clearly on the chart over there on the left, no money is actually “saved.” All these new non-subsidy subsidies and millions of hungrier Americans will cost us all 58% MORE over the next 10 years.

The cuts to SNAP benefits (food stamps) in the bill are $8.7 billion over ten years (about 1% of the entire program). It also repeals $4.5 billion in annual direct cash payments based on acreage – planted or not – and put that money into subsidized crop insurance that benefits the big players. The Environmental Working Group estimates that just 10,000 policyholders receive over $100,000 per year in subsidies for the insurance (some over a million dollars), while 80% of the rest of the nation’s farmers will receive a mere $5,000.

Another program that will suffer under this new bill is Price Loss Coverage, where farmers are guaranteed a baseline price for 14 crops if the prices dip below a certain level when it comes time to sell. The raises the floor price, guaranteeing that the bigger players will receive more no matter how much of a glut there may be in the market. Another part of the bill will cover ‘shallow’ losses not covered under crop insurance deductibles, thereby ensuring full coverage for any crop losses suffered.

Moving away from direct payments and toward indirect insurance subsidies is an example of what author Suzanne Mettler calls “the submerged state.” So many federal social programs lurk underneath the surface that the public cannot get a good handle on who benefits from government largesse. “Appearing to emanate from the private [insurance] sector, such policies obscure the role of government and exaggerage that of the market,” Mettler says. And the vast majority of these programs benefit the wealthy, refuting the conceit that the rich boldly succeed without a government safety net protecting them

The bill is also cleverly crafted to ‘lock-in’ an overall rise in commodity prices that will be paid for by the taxpayers on April 15th and at the grocery checkout line. The disconnected political class probably thinks they’ve brilliantly crafted yet another shift of costs onto the middle and working classes in this country, while at the same time reducing government aid to the working poor, disabled, retired, and very poor so that they can pay more for food too. Just never forget, There Is No Inflation (our government tells us regularly). And since they refuse to count the costs of food, clothing, shelter or transportation, it works out great on their balance sheets.

But not to worry, some say, because all those “food insecure” children who can’t get enough to eat at home get all those free lunches at school, right? And sometimes breakfast, though many state legislatures are trying to impose severe budgetary limitations on that sort of thing as well. And then there’s the kids of working people who don’t qualify for free school meals, but who have trouble paying for them anyway. Why, just last week in Salt Lake City, Utah, 40 students at Uintah Elementary School had their lunches taken away from them after they’d sat down to eat, and promptly thrown in the trash. That’ll teach ‘em!

Honestly, it looks like the more the ‘haves’ in this country have, the less they want the ‘have nots’ to have. It’s a mean, mean climate out there, about which most of us can only shake our heads in despair. Still, things like this just make it more imperative that we homesteaders and small farmers and other independence-oriented folks make efforts to reach out to each other and our broader communities, work together to ensure the well-being of all even in our limited environs. Please check out some of the posts linked below about the political maneuvering, and about ways to help deal with hunger in your community…

Informative Links:

“Peak Food”?
Politicians Harming Americans. Again.
Hunger in the Heartland
Feeding The Hungry [3-parts, linked]

Politicians Harming Americans. Again.

Major Issues in Farm Bill Negotiations

AmericansAfter costing the nation plenty to pointlessly shut the U.S. government down for two weeks beginning October 1st, the Republicans in the House and Senate are now back at their job of desperately seeking ways to hurt as many Americans as possible.

Seems nobody was impressed by the shutdown grandstanding, which cost my region of Western North Carolina a million dollars a day to our biggest industry – tourism – at the very height of Leaf-Looker season. The Blue Ridge Parkway was open for driving, but all amenities were shut down. Smoky Mountains National Park was closed down entirely. All so the Tea Party wing of the Republican bloc could throw their little temper tantrum over the idea that Americans might be able to obtain affordable medical care under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010. So now that they’ve cried uncle on that, they’re going after SNAP [“Food Stamps”] big time as the Congress tries to clear its slate for the year for the session before the members go home for the holidays.

SNAP benefits are already being cut on November 1st as the 2009 stimulus bill, enacted in response to the Great Recession of 2008 when a consortium of the world’s biggest banks and insurance companies crashed the economy and threw tens of millions of Americans out of work, expires. The Senate version of the Farm Bill cuts $400 million from the SNAP program, while the House version seeks $4 billion in cuts. The two versions will have to be reconciled in order to bring about a bill the President can sign into law, so hold on to your napkins!

SNAP has been part of farm legislation for many years, as it is tied in with certain farm subsidies. Now, few of us small-time producers would be very upset if ADM or other huge Agribiz outfits lost their lion’s share of subsidies, but a growing number of us understand only too well how much of a good economic stimulus the program really is as our outlets have been authorized to accept SNAP benefits for produce and value-added food products we work so hard to offer our neighbors and larger communities. Worse, some of us are only too aware of how much this is going to hurt our normal customer base as children and families are forced to do without something so vitally important as food. In America! What is wrong with these politicians?!?

There are a number of petitions circulating to denounce these cuts, and I also urge my fellow homesteaders to get in touch personally with phone calls and letters to representatives and senators in D.C. Let them know that making hungry people do without food is NOT an acceptable fall-back position after your attempt to make sick people do without health care fails. There are mid-term elections next November. Make sure all eligible voters in your household are duly registered and can jump over the voter suppression hoops Republicans in several states (including mine) have erected, then vote for some real honest-to-goodness humans who don’t see their task in life as making sick people do without medical care, and hungry children do without food.

Energy: The Good News, The Continuing Struggle

Boston Globe
Boston Globe
First the good news. The Boston Globs reports this week that Massachusetts’ largest utilities have signed long-term contracts for wind generated energy from six wind farms in Maine and New Hampshire at a mere 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Which is actually cheaper than electricity from coal [10 cents/kwh], nuclear [11 cents/kwh] and solar [14 cents/kwh].

The utilities – National Grid, Northeast Utilities and Unitil Corp. – are together purchasing 565 megawatts of electricity, enough to power ~170,000 homes. The Cape Wind offshore project in Nantucket Sound is expected to serve more homes overall when it is fully on-line, but the price per kwh will be higher. As more wind projects get built, the price should even out in the face of competition, so we may all look forward to something eventually cheaper even than natural gas. Which at 6 cents per kwh is now the least expensive electricity generation technology, but that will inevitably go up as gas reserves dwindle and environmental regulation puts a crimp in the destructive practice of fracking.

Wind generation has tremendous potential in the most populous regions of the country, including the Megalopolis corridor from D.C. to Boston, and in Texas and California. The entire Great Plains is ripe for wind as well as solar, and solar technologies are enjoying a hefty level of research funding to see if its costs can be brought into competitive line with wind and hydro. New storage technologies for all renewable sources are also being researched and developed apace, while coal plants are being shut down and new ones aren’t getting built.

Now for the less-than great news. Confusing and contradictory signals from the Obama administration about approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta through the heartland has a consortium of 25 environmental groups signing on to a letter to President Obama urging rejection of the project. Tar sands oil is the most environmentally damaging form of petroleum to capture and refine, making the pipeline a serious threat to efforts to battle global warming.

Groups signing on are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Action, CREDO, 350.Org, Public Citizen, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sierra Club and others. For years groups of indigenous people in Canada and the U.S., farmers and ranchers from Nebraska to Texas and citizen activists as well as environmental organizations have protested the project.

Those of us who have chosen to live our lives in such a way as to serve as example of a more aware and involved partnership with this home planet are not usually at the forefront of civil actions pushing for better government and corporate policies related to energy, but we do need to increase our outreach to those who are on the front lines. Please do check in on groups in and near your area, maybe attend some gatherings or subscribe to newsletters, offer what you can offer to help support this important work. Even if it’s some fresh organic food, a nice place to hold a planning meeting, or an offer of shelter for participants from far flung places, we need to be part of the needed changes on as many levels as possible.

Who knows? There’s even a chance you could get to know some local/semi-locals who would love nothing better than to put in a little time on your project here and there, at planting or harvest time, maybe help with some very cool energy projects they could then use as inspiration to others along their travels and among their contacts. The real changes happen at home, not in D.C. Which seems always to be playing catch-up with what the people have already figured out for themselves. Changes that need a community’s commitment and support and labor are best done with the help of a community. So let’s get plugged in!

How ‘Food Security’ Killed the Farm Bill

The grand rivalry of political philosophies and established systems of government known as the good ol’ Cold War offered for many years the stark differences between Communist-style 5-year plans for food production, and Capitalist-style Big Agribiz dominated mega-farming. Sure, Big Agribiz has long been subsidized directly by public money (taxes paid by average citizens) just as in the old Soviet bloc, but the high profits accruing to those who control production and trade in food commodities goes to the corporation (which pays little to no taxes) and/or its shareholders through Wall Street and the commodity exchanges.

Food_Security

The United States won the good old Cold War some time ago, with most historians placing the actual surrender in 1991. I mention this because farm policy in the United States began including in the 1930s a government program designed to distribute the vast excess production of already-subsidized foodstuffs to the many in this country who were going hungry – thus belying (for practical propaganda purposes of our ‘enemies’ in the Green Revolution… er, War) our wondrous ability to produce far, far more food than Americans alone could ever consume. Not even expanding export markets managed to dent the surplus significantly, so the government again stepped in as final purchaser – at discount price – for bulk commodities like excess grain, milk, cheese and such. Which became the original generics with those plain black and white labels stamped with USDA generic descriptions and portioned out at the county extension level to community members who wanted or needed it.

That program morphed during the Cold War 1970s into the subsidy being switched from the farmers to the people, who were issued a sort of play money called “Food Stamps” [SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], which could only be redeemed for food. Now there’s debit cards, same restrictions. So that the poor, the working poor, people in temporary straits, etc. could at least eat and feed their children. Republicans of course don’t like the program, any more than they liked anything that became policy known as the “New Deal” back during the last Great Depression, or any later extensions of the “Great Society” that came later in Lyndon Johnson’s time. So the allotment in food stamps has been going down steadily in purchasing power as well as necessary funding over the past 15 years or so. Still, it’s something. With nearly half the population unemployed or underemployed, losing their homes and life’s savings, going hungry has become endemic even as the funding for the program has gone nowhere but down.

Thus has the issue of SNAP become a major stumbling block to Congressional passage of a workable Omnibus Agricultural Bill, in a Congress fatally crippled by partisan bickering to the point that its general approval rating is somewhere south of 20%. Every time a Congressional session fails to pass a new Ag bill, that entire section of our economy must remain funded at the last Ag bill’s level. Minus the cuts to SNAP they’ve included as riders on unrelated legislation in the last 4+ years, and the portion of USDA/FDA budget cut by the current Republican-caused “Sequester.”

People are going hungry in this nation. While that has always been true, the situation since the economic collapse in 2008 has grown much worse. Thirty Million More are now in the SNAP program than were there just ten years ago. 30 million MORE. Conservatives don’t like it one bit. The House of Representatives passed a farm bill earlier this month that removed the SNAP program entirely.

The Senate is entirely unlikely to approve the House’s bill. Its own version passed earlier contains $4 billion in cuts to the program, but doesn’t remove it from the agricultural end of things entirely. So for another year at least SNAP will be funded at current levels.

Time Magazine published an excellent in-depth blow-by-blow article on the situation, entitled How Food Stamps Killed the Farm Bill that is well worth a read if you are keeping track of things affecting the agricultural portion of our individual homesteading experiences.

It seems to me that our government can always find money to finance endless (and sometimes illegal) wars, to bail out the wealthiest segment of society and their business concerns (banks, Wall Street, insurers), and Big Brother spying operations hoovering up every bit and byte of our digital and telephonic lives. If they’re really so worried about the debt, there are a good many extremely expensive budget items that could be slashed in half or more without materially affecting the average American’s lifestyle and/or relative ‘security’. Taking food out of the mouths of hungry children and adults who would love to have a good job if there were any is mean-spirited enough to cause serious consternation. Shame, shame, shame.

It almost seems like since we don’t have the old Soviet Union to kick around anymore, all public-spirited programs designed to make life in the US of A look preferable are on the chopping block so that War, Inc. can maintain its global hegemony.

We who have chosen to live on this beautiful land, we who maintain and caretake it and those of us who try to make their living by living this way, have a stake in the ideals that made this country great and allows us to live where we live and do what we do. Everything this nation wanted so badly to be, and tried so hard to accomplish back in the days where getting rich involved imagination, skill and industry instead of just money-changing and unbridled greed.

Homesteaders are among the few in this modern world who still value the land and water, who caretake the wider nation and its beautiful places, who conserve and often practice skills and industry drawn from imagining that it can be done. And doing it. This country needs us, it needs us to care. And to sound alarms when alarms are necessary. Ex-President Jimmy Carter told Germany’s Der Speigel this week in an interview that asked his opinion of the NSA spying scandal, that “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.” He’s right.

We homesteaders are rural dwellers by choice, members of extended rural communities of like-minded people as well as the local old-timers who have always lived on and worked the land. Our thoughts and contributions are important in those communities, even if we’re ‘just’ artists. There’s a mid-term election coming up that is more than just your local Sheriff and Registrar of Deeds. There’s also a congresscritter who represents you in D.C. on the ballot, and maybe a Senator as well. And he/she/it only draws the loyalty of about half the voting population. Some concerted on-the-ground effort on our parts locally could help a lot to change the current gridlock situation in Washington. We must get rid of the stonewallers, get some representatives who will actually represent us.

At any rate, that’s my political rant for the quarter, and a heads-up about the political maneuvering in the nation’s capital that will end up directly affecting rural dwellers to a significant degree. There will have to be workable farm legislation soon. It’s going to have an impact on our lives, our environment and our plans for the future, one way or another. So please, my homesteading friends, don’t forget to vote – every chance you get!

Resources:

How Food Stamps Killed the Farm Bill
GOP Fumbles Farm Bill
Holy cow! A farm bill about farming