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!

Wild Herbs Endangered By Poaching

wild_herbs[Slide show of poachers from Mountain Express]

My southern Appalachian homestead was originally purchased more than twenty years ago as the high country standard of “13 acres more or less, graded.” That means they took an overhead map (probably one from the USGS with elevation lines), put a 1-acre grid over the top of it, and counted the acres within the boundaries. The fact that it is so steeply graded means there’s a bunch of land that if flattened out, would add greatly to the total acreage. We have walked the land a lot, and the true number is nearly 25 acres, most in thick stands of third-growth temperate hardwood forest. There are a few scattered giants, trees that are at least two hundred years old, but the rest has been logged and/or burned more than once since white folks drove the Cherokee west.

There were large stands of wild ginseng and black cohosh growing on the rich tilth of well-shaded hillside when we got here, and I began the project of re-planting and managing (against invasives) of these valuable medicinal herbs. To a lesser degree we’ve got a smaller stand of introduced goldenseal in the bottomland of the smaller creek across the ridge, and we also occasionally tend collections of other marketable wilding herbs fancied by herb dealers and shop owners. September is the big month, when in my region the roots and herbs are gathered, dried and taken to one of the itinerant licensed herb dealers servicing the region.

As the herb season is in full swing in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, an age-old problem has reared its ugly head as the price for ‘sang (and black cohosh, an at-risk medicinal) has skyrocketed. Poaching.

Last season wild-managed ginseng topped $800 a pound, definitely the “gold standard” among wildings in these parts. It takes a lot of roots to equal a pound dried, and they must be kept intact enough for the dealer to determine their age. Some years ago when wild American ginseng first made it to the endangered plants list, restrictions were imposed to the ability to sell your crop. Wild roots are not marketable at under 5 years or over 15 years. This was done in hopes of salvaging the truly wild stands from poachers, who aren’t shy of who’s land they’re stealing from.

Illegal harvesting of ginseng has become so rampant that the U.S. Forest Service cut the number of 3-pound national forest harvesting permits by 75%, but as much as 90% of diggers don’t bother with permits in the first place.

“Dramatic declines of wild ginseng populations over the past decade suggest previous harvest levels are no longer sustainable,” Forest Supervisor Kristin Bail explained in a June 20 press release announcing the changes. “It is in everyone’s best interest to further limit the amount of the harvest to help ensure the plant’s future sustainability.”

So it is increasingly falling to us rural landholders, if we have the ability and conditions, to preserve this plant to the best of our abilities. Both for our own income purposes as an annual cash crop with careful management, and as preservation of a valuable botanical in its native areas. There are definite plusses for committed homesteaders in putting even the wild areas of our ‘steads into some kind of production that can help support our lifestyles. A good overview of the project comes from NCSU, Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals.

Of course, poaching ginseng on either private or public land is a crime (punishable by fine or prison time, or both). Alas, it is a crime that is seldom prosecuted. Robert Eidus, licensed ginseng dealer and owner of the North Carolina Ginseng & Goldenseal Company, puts it this way…

“I’m allowed to buy from people who steal from other people,” adds Eidus. “It’s the last illegal, sanctioned business in America.”

Ginseng can be – and is in many places – grown in artificially shaded plots and usually sold young. Wisconsin grows about 95% of the farmed ginseng in this country, a $70 million crop for the state. But this ‘sang usually sells for a mere $18 to $24 a pound – nothing close to the $800+ a pound wild ‘sang is earning. If correctly managed there is no discernible difference between forest-managed and truly wild ginseng, though well-managed beds chosen for their thick tilth of forest floor will return larger roots than wildings that may have rooted in shallow tilth or in beds choked with sizable rocks.

Good managers never harvest a root without planting a few small young roots or several seeds. It takes two years for the seeds to sprout, so it’s important to get them before the deer do when they ripen to bright red, and further to discourage deer from foraging where your ginseng is growing. But fear not – even if deer do eat your leaves and seeds one year, the plant will come back next year as long as the root is still in place.

Meanwhile, in my area the N.C. Ginseng Association is actively recruiting homesteaders and landowners for development of more forest managed ginseng crops. Other herb companies in areas where ginseng grows are organizing the same sort of thing, which might offer newcomers to the idea of forest farming some valuable knowledge and physical help to get started. You may end up having to police your own crops for poachers, though, so a little tidbit of wisdom I was taught back during my childhood by a wild ‘sang manager in eastern Kentucky should be kept in mind.

“Don’t tell people about your crop.” Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a dog either. Good for keeping poachers, deer AND bears away! Do give it some thought, consider if your land is suitable for ginseng. And/or black cohosh, goldenseal, spikenard, elder or any other of the increasingly valuable botanicals marketable these days.

Useful Links:

Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals
Botanical Bandits
WildGrown: NC State wildcrafting survey
Cultivation and Marketing of Woodland Medicinal Plants
NC Ginseng Dealers 2013/14 [PDF]

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

The Mountains Cry: A Vibrant Voice Passes On

Mountains_CryThis blog has covered many environmental issues, perhaps the one dearest to the heart has been the astounding destruction wrought by King Coal on the beautiful, peaceful, ancient mountains of southern Appalachia in the name of profit: Mountaintop Removal. The [West Virginia] State Journal reports that long-time environmental activist and tireless mountainkeeper Larry Gibson died September 9th at the age of 66 while working at Kayford Mountain, his family home in Raleigh County. Larry was born at Kayford Mountain, and spent the last decades working to protect Kayford and all of these majestic mountains from King Coal and the rampant destruction of mountaintop removal.

Larry Gibson traveled across the country to speak at schools, churches and other public gatherings to spread his simple gospel about these mountains: “Love ‘em or leave ‘em – just don’t destroy them.” Gibson established the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation in 2004 to support mountain communities threatened by King Coal and its mountain-shearing machinery, and the family requests donations to the Foundation in lieu of other expressed condolences. A private funeral is planned, with a public memorial service to be announced later.

One of the most heartfelt remembrances is from Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign, entitled The Mountains Weep for Larry Gibson. Rest in peace, friend.

Please see the post The Last Mountain: A Call to Action for many more links to coverage of Mountaintop Removal Mining in this and other blogs, educational resources and activist groups.

Extra $ on Your Outbuildings

solar_outbuildingI was reminiscing the other day to my gathered grandchildren about the annual childhood vacation journeys my family used to make from wherever we were living at the time to my paternal grandparents’ home in central Kentucky. Dad let us take turns as navigator in the shotgun seat, getting us from point A to B in a day’s drive, using nothing but those “little blue roads” through the rural countryside he loved so much. Occasionally one of us kids would get us good and lost, then the next in line would have to find a way out. He was never in a big hurry, we often spent more days than necessary getting to Grandma’s house.

One of the things I recall most fondly were the painted advertising barns we’d see along the way. “See Rock City” barns no matter where we were or how far it was from there to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ubiquitous tobacco barns in Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky painted to advertise for Mail Pouch or Red Man or some other cigarette, chew or pipe tobacco. Some very unique painted barns advertising for local or national businesses. We used to keep a page of the trip log for listing those, along with each eagerly anticipated Burma Shave series of one-word jingles and the usual list of state license plates seen along the way.

Those old ad-barns are quickly falling into distantly remembered history, as tobacco bases become increasingly rare and as the barns themselves deteriorate. Some have been salvaged as ‘conversation piece’ paneling for fancy rural log McMansions, pulling in a pretty penny for those who dismantle rotting outbuildings in a newer generation. In an age of interstate highways lined by boring billboards, seeing a unique working barn with a real advertisement on it is becoming a rare occurrence.

Would it surprise you to find that barn painted advertising is making a comeback? It surprised me, but then again, I don’t go far from home very often, and then mostly via interstate. But barn painted advertising still has its uses, and can return money to a landowner equivalent (or better) than from simply renting space for a billboard to be erected. All it requires is that the farm/homestead have frontage on a well-traveled roadway, and a good sized barn that can be easily seen from that roadway. Thus ‘selling’ the side and/or roof of a barn or other large outbuilding to a company for advertising could possibly be a good source of ‘extra’ income for homesteaders to think about.

You can do this yourself, though it wouldn’t be as quick a turnover to income as going through a company that contracts ads for billboards and such, that might consider your barn. For local companies, check with advertising directors to pitch your location and visibility of your outbuilding(s). This can work for regional companies as well, but national companies generally go through those advertising firms. You could try both, take the deal that offers you the most for your offered advertising space. Lucky homesteaders may in this way earn extra income just for having outbuildings visible to the public, and in return get a showpiece of a barn that can someday be worth even more as salvage!

And don’t forget to consider that you can always advertise on your visible barn/outbuilding your own farm logo if you belong to a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] cooperative, offer Agri-tourism attractions and/or B&B accommodations, or deal directly with the public for U-pick or fresh harvest produce, eggs, honey and/or meat. In such ventures advertising pays, and being visible to the public can only help.

Links:

Barn Painting & Advertising
Merced Sun-Star article
Rock City: Barn History

EPA Halts MTR Permits for Review

The ‘Breaking News’ headline at the anti-mountaintop removal website I Love Mountains brings tears to the grateful eyes of we lovers of these ancient, beautiful and abundant mountains…

EPA

Hope renewed across the Appalachian coalfields – Obama Administration suspends mountaintop removal permits for further review…

Obama’s new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced this past Tuesday that the agency would be delaying somewhere between 150 and 250 permits issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers to coal companies to flatten mountains and destroy watersheds in their desperate quest to extract the last of the sequestered coal with as few paid miners as possible.

What the EPA will be reviewing are blatant violations of clean water regulations former President G.W. Bush waived in his 2002 “fill rule” and a last days repeal of the stream buffer zone rule that would allow coal companies to ignore any and all impacts of the water supplies of rural residents, towns and cities dependent upon these mountain streams for drinking water supplies.

The map above (h/t Appalachian Voices) shows graphically how open strip mines and MTR directly affects the very poorest regions of Appalachia. One might suspect that these areas are happy to have the good jobs these operations offer, but the reality is that this kind of mining is equipment-reliant, done with machines and not men. For instance, King Coal once provided 120,000 decent paying jobs in West Virginia, but now fewer than 20,000 citizens call themselves coal miners. The people whose environment is being raped are getting nothing of value out of the deal. And may indeed be harmed significantly as their water supplies are systematically polluted, sickening their crops, livestock and families.

As reported on this blog in several posts linked below, some of the people in these poor counties have better ideas about what to do with their mountains, things that will improve everyone’s life, make them leaders in clean, renewable energy supplies, and create green jobs for local residents. Especially check out projects like Coal River Wind, which proposes to harvest the wind instead of the mountain itself.

Another great article with good links and pictures is Hope is Alive in Appalachia!!! by Kossack ‘faithfull’. So get off your duff – call some legislators, sign some petitions, and spread some love of mountains in your circle today!

Links:

Old King Coal vs. Reality
Hope is Alive in Appalachia!!!
Old King Coal, a Filthy Old Soul
Coal River Wind
I Love Mountains