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’.

Bayer & Monsanto Killing Bees

The numbers are in, and they add up to devastating.

bees Bee Informed Partnership this month released its preliminary report on honey bee colony losses in the US for 2013-2014. The partnership, along with the Apiary Inspectors of America [AIA] and the USDA have been surveying beekeepers for 8 years in an attempt to get a handle on how many of the nation’s bee colonies are succumbing to what has been a mysterious mass die-off called “Colony Collapse Disorder” [CCD]. Last winter 23.2% of managed honey bee colonies died. That’s lower than the previous year’s estimate of 30.5%, but it does confirm that harm is still being done to these important pollinators. Loss estimate for the 12-month period between April 1, 2012 and March 30, 2013 was 45.2%. The bees are still dying, and now we know why.

Dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies have been published over the past decade linking CCD to pesticide use, and honey bees aren’t the only victims. More specifically, the culprit is a group of insecticides called neonicotinoids. Rather than being sprayed just on the surface of plants, neonics are absorbed and spread through the entire plant, including pollen and nectar. They persist in the environment and can accumulate quickly. This has led to contamination of surface water, groundwater and soil, endangering species inhabiting those ecosystems.

Neonic pesticides are manufactured and marketed primarily by Bayer Crop Science and Monsanto. The Natural Resources Defense Council [NRDC] sued the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] after it failed to release Bayer’s underlying studies on the safety of its neonicotinoids. EPA approval for neonics hinged on the claim that amounts in pollen and nectar were non-lethal to bees, but studies have shown that even at low doses the pesticides have effects that impair bees’ learning and memory. The EU has banned neonics, but EPA is not considering doing so in the US. 30-50% losses annually is unsustainable, and about a quarter of the food Americans eat relies on bee pollination.

In March of 2012 the Canter for Food Safety [CFS] joined with 25 prominent beekeepers to file an Emergency Petition to the EPA asking for suspension on the use of certain neonicotinoids. When that brought no action, CFS and a coalition of 4 beekeepers and 5 environmental and consumer groups filed a formal lawsuit against EPA for failure to protect pollinators as well as seeking suspension.

Check out the Sierra Club’s Pollinator Protection Campaign to see how you can help convince Congress and the administration that bees are more valuable than Bayer’s or Monsanto’s profit margins.

January’s Ice & Ills

herbsThis has been the coldest January in my neck of the woods for so many decades that not even the record-keepers can recall a colder one. Despite what we considered very clever precautions in the week before last’s super cold snap (negative temps), we ended up with a busted pipe in the basement wall anyway, forgot to drain out the exterior faucet pipe after we’d turned it off and drained the hose, then filled the tub and jugs and bottles, turned off the pump from the cistern and opened all (but that one) faucet to give the water room to expand as it froze in the incoming underground pipe. Ah, well. Needed to re-solder that darned thing anyway, I guess.

Back to single digits tonight as I type this, going to remember to drain that one this time too. Then we’ll use the tub water to flush and the bottled water to drink and cook and wait for the ground to unfreeze again. Which, if it doesn’t warm up significantly, may be quite awhile. Sigh.

Meanwhile, the family has managed to escape various winter bugs, viruses and even flu this year (knock on wood), thanks to the ample happy elderberry harvest this past summer. Unfortunately, one of the grandsons thinks he has developed walking pneumonia – and has the chest rattles to place it well below bronchia – but won’t have the money to get it diagnosed or buy the prescription until next month when his student loan finally gets credited. We can’t afford to cover him up front either, though I did get a $5 “raise” on my Social Security check this month. Big Whoop. Now I can get the ‘better’ cat food… (another grumble, for another time).

What is “Walking Pneumonia,” you may ask, and what does it mean? First, pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs, and its pathology no matter what qualifier you put on it is just that simple. The complications come from the various causes, the multiplex of symptoms, and variety of treatments. Millions of Americans get pneumonia every year, and not all of them have the flu. Cough, fever, chills, difficulty breathing, general weakness, light-headedness with activity, skin rashes… the symptoms are myriad.

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

Incoming Fruit!

Pear-Grape Jam & Pear Butter

fruitDespite the April freeze, which managed to hit after a March so warm that all the fruit had already blossomed, a goodly amount of concord and muscadine grapes managed to overcome the stress, and the cinnamon pears are falling at easily twice their usual size. And while harvest is a few weeks early this year due to the extraordinarily warm spring, the fruit is super-luscious from a summer of more than ample rainfall.

After the hail got my corn crop and the super-weeds got my tomatoes, it’s nice that something’s coming in with enough abundance that I’ll be able to trade pear butter and jam for all the crops that failed in the lower terraces. Will need another two or three dozen half-pint jars before it’s over, but August is its usual perfect weather (August and September in these mountains are absolutely the most perfect-weather months of the year, though not the most colorful). It’s cool enough to start the indoor processing, so that’s just what I’m doing.

Processing is a several-part ordeal, but will then give me plenty of pear mash and grape mush to construct the goodies. Today I have enough pears to fill my heavy stock pot half full after chopping, about 18 individual pears. Wash and remove the stems. Quarter and then half the quarters. Even bruised areas are good, just be sure to excise any actually rotten spots. Add enough water to keep the pears from sticking (about half a cup), and bring to a boil covered over medium heat for about 12-15 minutes. Stir it a few times to make sure all the pieces get good and soft, remove the lid and simmer for another 5 minutes to reduce the originally added water. Push the resulting ‘stuff’ through a sieve to get the seeds and skins out, stir in a tablespoon of ascorbic acid (available in the canning section) or two tablespoons of lemon juice, and set the pulp aside.

Then it’s the grapes’ turn. Add a quart of stemmed grapes to a half pint of water and again bring to a boil covered, over medium heat. When it’s been going for about 10 minutes mash with a potato masher to separate the innards from the skins. Continue to boil lightly uncovered until the innards liquify (about 10 minutes). Sieve the results as with the pears to remove seeds and skins. Reserve juice.

Now you’re ready to make Pear-Grape Jam…

Easy, Low-Sugar Pear-Grape Jam

• 3 1/2 cups pear pulp
• 3 1/2 cups grape pulp
• 4-inch sprig fresh rosemary
• 1/2 cup raw local honey

In a heavy stock pot combine the pulps, honey, and rosemary. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes or until liquid is reduced by about a cup.

Remove from heat and let steep for 5-10 minutes. Remove and discard the rosemary sprig (be careful to not lose any of the needles). Pour or ladle the jam into hot, sterilized half-pint condiment jars, leaving 1/8″ head space. Wipe the rims clean and attach sterilized lids, screw on the caps finger-tight.

Process 10 minutes in water bath canner, cool on a wire rack. Before storing make sure the lids have popped to indicate vacuum. Should fill 6 half-pint jars.
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Ball makes very pretty half-pint jars, which are just the right size for gifts or trade. These can be further “fancied” for the purpose of gifting by cutting out circles of bright fabric to place over the lids but under the screw caps. Great hostess gifts for the upcoming holiday parties, and as part of Christmas edible gifts of fudge, cookies, dried veggie crackers and jam.

If you, like me, have way more pears than grapes, you can always just make pear butter to gift or trade (or delight your own family with at breakfast time)…

Easy Pear Butter

Process pears as above, then sieve to remove seeds and skin. Return to pot and add [per 3 cups of pulp):

• 1 tbsp. ascorbic acid
• 1/4 cup raw local honey
• 1 1/2 tbsp. cinnamon
• 2 tsp. ground ginger
• 1 tsp. ground allspice
• 1/4 cup orange juice

Slowly bring mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes. Ladle into sterile half-pint jars. Wipe lips clean and attach lids, screw caps finger-tight. Process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes, remove and cool.

Livestock: A Rabbit In Every Pot

rabbitI’ve been looking into the various classified ads locally for livestock I want, to get an idea on budgeting first for proper quartering and actual animals. Chickens are of course a first choice. Also want bees, been looking at hives and queens for sale. If I can site them properly, bears shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Goats are sometime in the future, will need more fencing than we’ve got.

On those classified pages I discovered an awful lot of meat rabbits for sale, and remembered some homesteader friends in Virginia about 25 years ago who were big into meat rabbits. At the time we’d recently become vegetarian and I rejected the idea for our just-started homestead, but all these years later I think the ease of raising rabbits might make them an excellent livestock choice… so long as I don’t have to be the one who slaughters and prepares them for sale. There are surprisingly ample markets locally for good rabbit meat, especially organically raised. Even including some of the high-end eateries and B&Bs who are my regular fresh organic herb and sauce customers.

I ordered a book entitled Raising Rabbits to Survive, which promises to be a very handy reference and educational tool. Even better, the book comes with 5 supplemental books covering just about everything you need to know.

In the meantime and most serendipitously, I also encountered an interesting 5-part blog series about the same subject, which is immediately accessible. Looks like this is something my homestead should be seriously aiming for, before the year is out.

Many of you, like me, will remember raising and keeping rabbits as pets as kids back when we lived in far more urban areas, and think bout how rabbits as livestock could be a considerable cog in our self-sufficiency machinery as homesteaders. Because homesteading these days isn’t always about living way out in the country.

Rabbits are quiet, they don’t take up much room, and with proper care and feeding will readily reproduce on an amazingly quick schedule. You might be surprised that there’s a market for rabbit meat, but homesteaders I knew a quarter century ago raised meat rabbits as well as chickens and goats, for that very purpose. They never could manage to saturate the market. Go surfing through some of the internet’s ample offerings of food and recipe sites for “rabbit recipes.” You’ll get way more than just a camp version of rabbit stew. Things like honey roast rabbit, Chinese sweet and sour rabbit, fried rabbit in breadcrumbs, Louisiana Creole rabbit… the possibilities are endless.

One Rabbit Recipe site notes that rabbit meat is high in protein, low in fat, uric acid, cholesterol, sodium and calories. It is also easily digested and is recommended in diets that restrict red meat. Rabbit is all white meat, fine grained and has a mild flavor. It substitutes well for any recipe calling for veal or poultry. I haven’t personally eaten meat (other than fish) for about 40 years, but I’m not averse to growing rabbits as an organic meat offering if I don’t have to do the slaughtering. I’m fairly sure I could find someone locally who would do the job for a cut of sale price at any of a dozen local organic meats suppliers and cooperatives.

So. How easy or hard is it to go with raising rabbits as a homestead food stock? Apparently not that hard, or even terribly expensive. If you’re willing to do the work. Here’s an overview of the series by DawnG I mentioned, and hope interested readers will take the time to check each installment out. They each contain valuable and useful information.

Part 1 introduces the many good reasons to consider rabbits as livestock, and lists some of the downsides. Such as how difficult it is to not love them as pets. Which for many of us, might be overwhelming.

Part 2 talks about food independence on the homestead, even if you don’t plan to make money (or trade) on your stock. Very good rundown on the details of proper housing for the rabbits, food and watering details, and things to look out for. DawnG also suggests supplying your rabbits with toys, as their teeth grow perpetually and they need things to chew on as well as to play with.

Part 3 looks in depth at rabbit food, commercial and supplementals. She includes the proper protein/fiber ratio for producing the best meat, and varying feed requirements depending on season. Some of the supplementals are things our homesteads can provide quite readily for free, which means they won’t be an added expense. Grass hay, sunflower seeds, fresh or dried fruit, fresh veggies and herbs, weeds and lawn clippings, etc. I figure all the bruised and otherwise compromised fruit and veggies I usually compost could go through rabbits first. Then I could compost the droppings!

Part 4 looks at the best breeds to get as your original breeding stock, and what to look for in each one as to health and pedigree. I had no idea there were so many meat breeds, or that there are show rabbits, and stud rabbits, and an entire sub-business involved in selling such rabbits to other homesteaders for starting their stock. Maybe that’s something a vegetarian could go for as far as participating in meat production.

Part 5 gets into the nitty-gritty about… um… rabbit sex. How old your buck and does should be before you let them breed, what to look out for, what records to keep to ensure your best breeders are the ones producing stock (and not getting eaten), and how to care properly for pregnant does and fresh litters. Also advice on paying attention to mothering traits, culling does that don’t measure up.

All terribly interesting, not very expensive an investment, and something to seriously consider as part of our homesteading adventures. The economy isn’t scheduled to get any better for at least a decade, as social support systems are scheduled to be cut to the bone or entirely eliminated. Self and community sufficiency is only going to become more and more important in the coming years, we homesteaders need to be ahead of the game.