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.

Pruning Grapes and Fruit Trees

It’s into February now – the longest month of the year psychologically, so the shortest month numerically – and pruning the fruit trees and grape vines is the name of the game in my region. Even as we’re facing yet another nasty winter weather ‘event’, this one scheduled to dump a foot or two of snow on top of ice that will no doubt interrupt electrical service and make the animals miserable. Though it should be melted off by the weekend, when we’ll be back to more normal 50+º days. At least it won’t be bone-chilling cold as it was twice last month. Which is good, since we just finished replacing the incoming water pipes due to freezing…

Last spring and summer my region got so much rain that the apples and peaches went crazy. About 20 inches above what is considered ‘normal’ in this microclime, and this microclime ‘normally’ gets a good inch of rain a day (average) from mid-March through June. Anyway, two of my apple trees were so overloaded with heavy fruit that big limbs sank onto the grape arbor, and finally broke off altogether. The peaches – first year the volunteer from a seed in the old compost bin had produced full fruit – ended up with its limbs sunk onto the pumpkin patch, not broken off, but split along the bends. And the grape vines, which daughter had over-pruned the year before so I hadn’t pruned before season, were so thick I had grapes growing on the ground, even as sturdy fence poles supporting the arbor sank low over the upper end of the mints below.

So I’ve got the clippers, loppers, hand saw and chain saw set out on the shed workbench and ready to go to work once the snow’s melted. While grandson and/or hub are armed with the chainsaw, I’m going to finally get rid of the ugly back yard he-holly I’ve been hating for years now, and about half the boxwood out front that blocks way too much sun from the solarium.

Figure I’ll just cut the apple trees in half. They were originally those nifty Stark “columnar” apples I ordered on line nearly 20 years ago and planted too deep. Instead of being a 10-foot tall central, vertical limb with apples all around, they reverted and got 25 feet tall with branches everywhere straight up. Too tall for me to reach, I engineered a hand-claw onto a big plastic drink cup and duct taped it to a long sapling pole so I could pick ripe apples in the upper reaches, but I’m thinking just cutting them short should encourage more low level fruiting. If not, I’ll just take ‘em down and plant new apple trees on the upper terrace above the driveway next year.

The peach is trickier, because ‘m just not sure how to prune it properly. It’s nearly 30 feet tall after 4 years, so I figure it’s probably not a true mini. I’d like to encourage it to be short and thick, though, more spread out but less likely to droop to the ground when full.

I already know that any removed large limbs or portions of upper trunk need to be slant-cut so water won’t stand on the ends to encourage rot, and that I need to paint those cuts to seal them. But planning what cuts to make is a thoughtful job, for which it’s best to follow the advice of agricultural ‘experts’. For that purpose I’ve gathered some good sources – complete with detailed illustrations and instructions – and offer them below. Will take pictures of the before and afters, with more to follow at mid-season and harvest to show how well the project works for what I’m aiming for. Stay tuned, and if you will be pruning your fruit this month or next, please do check out the sources at the links below. They could help salvage older trees/vines, and increase your harvest!

Useful Links:

NC CES: Training & Pruning Fruit Trees
NCSU: How to Prune Peach Trees
Stark Bros.: Successful Fruit Tree Pruning
How to Prune a Grape Vine – Illustrated
Pruning Grapes in Home Gardens: Some Basic Guidelines

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]

Land Mines in the 2013 Farm Bill

7557830828_cd10ac63d7_mEvery five to seven years a re-vamped farm bill makes its way slowly through the U.S. House and Senate in slightly different versions, to be later reconciled and presented to the full Congress for vote. As usual, there are provisions, proposed new rules, and industry-sponsored riders slipped into the bills on both congressional levels that require some education for us homesteaders and smaller producers and which – once we know about them – will require some direct communication with our members of congress to argue for their defeat.

In what Mother Jones calls Congress’ Big Gift to Monsanto and AlterNet dubs The Monsanto Rider, the 2013 bill is shaping up to be one of the most outrageously Big Ag coddling bills in history. In fact, as AlterNet’s authors present, this bill is likely to require the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a permit for planting and/or cultivation of genetically engineered crops without consideration of environmental impact.

Even as the New York Times details the continuing corruption of the organic foods industry by Big Biotech, Big Ag and Big Food to create what it calls “Big Organic” that isn’t so organic after all. Corporations such as Kellogg, PepsiCo, Heinz, Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and others have managed to gobble up the vast majority of our nation’s organic foods industry, and by virtue of that standing, get to alter and amend the rules small producers, homesteaders, wholesalers and retailers worked so hard on for so long under the USDA Organic label. To the point where some of the remaining organic food businesses – like Eden Foods – have dissociated themselves from the USDA’s corrupted program entirely.

Most very small producers like myself don’t really have to worry too much about certification for the purpose of supplying our harvest to big producers, and I admit I have let my certification lapse because the “extra” money I’d hoped it might bring in doesn’t cover the costs associated with inspections and such. I have plenty of customers for what I do sell, all local and willing to pay a premium for my non-chemical, non-GMO practices. I know many other small producers who have also kept their customer base more local, for much the same reason. Our CSA shares programs, organic tailgate and farmer’s markets, many organic restaurants, bed and breakfasts, etc. are always looking for more, so the market isn’t saturated yet.

At the same time, most small producers and homesteaders I know are like me in that they do purchase quite a lot of food from the grocery store for our families. Not everything can be bought fresh off the truck from a trusted farming neighbor, in all seasons of the year. So of course the integrity of the national organic foods system affect all of us, and thus we must all care about what happens to the standards in an era of such gross corruption and collusion between government and business that nobody can trust anyone on that level anymore.

The Organic Consumers Association has a great article about the situation, which includes the entirety of the problematic riders in the Farm Bills on both sides of the congress. Its list of what the riders seek to accomplish:

• Outlaw any review of GMO crop impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, or any other environmental law, or by any other agency other than USDA.

• Prohibit other agencies (like EPA, wildlife agencies, etc.) from offering expert input in the USDA’s review process. If the USDA determines in its review process that potentially harmful effects may occur, those findings are barred from informing any approval decision.

• Force backdoor approval of GMO crops, even if USDA has not previously reviewed and approved them, through unreasonably short deadlines that result in automatic approval if time (180 days) runs out.

• Codify a dangerous policy of allowing transgenic contamination in crops and foods.

• Limit EPA’s oversight of biotech crops engineered to produce pesticides.

I encourage my readers to read the links provided and educate themselves about the new corporate corruptions of national farm policy responsibilities and goals. And to let their legislators know how they feel about this corruption and the proposed farm bill’s elevation of corruption to the status of national policy.

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]

Poultry Project 5: Duck Eggs… Yum!

duck_egg

Easter’s downy ducklings are now grown, and have begun producing eggs. Beginning three days ago we were finding one or two chicken-sized eggs in the coop when letting the ‘kids’ out in the morning from their secured night quarters. In fact, we amassed a total of 5 eggs over the weekend, began to wonder if maybe both ducks were female. There are several unscientific ways to try and figure out the sex of Pekin ducks, but none of them are very reliable. Worse, Pekin ducks are notorious for laying eggs wherever they happen to be when the mood strikes, and promptly forgetting it ever happened – described in the literature as “no maternal instinct to speak of.”

We’ve not found any out and about the yard yet, so perhaps our ducks will prove to be the exception and lay in their coop at night instead of littering the yard. Though since one of them is laying two during the night, I expect we’ll find some Easter presents here and there over time.

duck_eggThis morning when I opened the coop there was one chicken-sized duck egg, and one that was at least twice that size – a real monster of an egg that won’t fit into the egg crate! Given that ducks come in all sizes like people do, we will now have to re-name our presumed male, who is much heavier than the other and isn’t a male at all. We had scrambled duck eggs for Sunday brunch and they were delicious, but my family simply doesn’t eat enough eggs to keep up with production at this rate. Luckily grandson’s girlfriend has a co-worker who is eager to buy any and all fresh duck eggs we want to sell, and will pay 75¢ apiece for them. Though I’m going to charge a dollar for the Super-Size.

Doing my homework, I have found that duck eggs are higher in protein than chicken eggs, and the yolks are higher in fat. Overall significantly higher in nutritional value than chicken eggs but take a little getting used to. They taste fine, but if you used them in baking – like a cake – you need to cut back on the shortening (butter or Crisco) or it’ll turn out too rich. For omelets you’ll want to add a bit of water to thin them out some, but far as I can tell they can be prepared in all the same ways chicken eggs can be cooked – hard boiled, fried, scrambled, etc. Whipping whites takes a little more effort to get them started, but they hold their foam and shape even better than chicken eggs.

I’ll put all the money I make from selling the eggs in an “Egg Money” jar atop the ‘fridge, and that should pretty much offset the cost of bedding and feed. The eggs are said to keep up to 2 weeks without refrigeration, a month if they’re kept cold. Which is good, so there will be half a dozen at least for the customer, though I might sell the big ones one at a time.

Still haven’t managed to install the duck pond, though we have started digging. So the kids are still stuck with one of those cheap plastic kiddie pools, which I move around the yard every couple of days so it doesn’t kill the grass. They’ve got their sliding form down pat on the porch ramp, make us laugh regularly by how much they enjoy it. Figure we’ll next have to teach them to skateboard, and if we can manage to get Gladys to say “Aflac” WHILE skateboarding, we can make a fortune!

All in all, the ducks have proven to be wonderfully funny pets, love hanging out with people and other critters, and have even turned out to be excellent snake alarms. They keep the yard and garden picked fairly clean of slugs and bugs, don’t manage to snag butterflies very often. Their favorite thing is to take walks with us whenever we go to the top of the drive to get a cell phone signal, and chase the cats around the yard with their necks down and wings half outstretched as if that were the funniest thing ever. The cats don’t agree, but the dogs think it’s highly humorous.

Last but not least, we’ve figured out where the term “Lame Duck” comes from. Our fat used-to-be male duck can’t see his feet when he’s waddling around on the hillside, has taken several tumbles that have us considering some kind of barrier that would prevent the ducks from getting that far up the hill. Sprained his ankles so badly I was afraid they were broken, so I had to sit out with him all day for a week to make sure he didn’t wander uphill and learned to lie down when not actually trying to get somewhere. Poor thing was so lame he… er, she, didn’t know which leg to limp on. Googled to see what was to be done and discovered that these big ducks sprain their ankles quite regularly. I could wrap them, but that’s a difficult feat that would only last as long as it took for the duck to go swimming, so I didn’t bother. 50 mg. ibuprophen – I got the 100 mg. children’s chewables and half them – worked great as an anti-inflammatory and she’s much better now. More careful as well, which is fine with me.

Autumn project is to tear out the entire back deck so it can be re-planked, the old wood is rotten and beginning to give way. That will allow us to lay a concrete pad underneath, onto which we can put the coop – we’ll have it on lawn mower sized wheels to roll out for cleaning. Can go ahead and put in a concrete half-pipe drain next to the basement wall at the same time, which should finally cure the flooding issue every time it rains hard. Which around here, is every day all summer.

Ah, Homesteading! Always a Work In Progress…

Previous Posts to this series:

The Poultry Project: 1… Peeps!
The Poultry Project 2: Quills!
The Poultry Project 3: First Feathers
Poultry Project 4: The Great Outdoors