Honey harvest!

This month I finally “robbed the bees.” I took the tiniest amount, just a few small jars, but I felt rewarded all the same.  They were on their own this summer and burned through most of their food. I’ll feed them a little sugar syrup this fall to get them through the winter. This is bona fide honey, though. All from nectar.

Crushing the comb is the cheapest, lowest tech way to harvest honey. It’s messy, and it means the bees have to start over again building a frame of comb, but no biggie.

Oops. The girls make quite sturdy comb.

I turned around and he was staring with drool hanging from his mouth, which he’s only ever done with pancakes and meat.

I used a bucket and paint straining cloth. After a few days most of the honey dripped, minus any debris like bee legs and antennae. Yummm. 😉  I can use the wax for a candle.

So there it is. It’s almost time to close up the hive for the winter, meaning leaving my hard little workers alone until early spring. Wish them luck!

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Why the pitiful corn was worth it

The rain-starved corn fields make a sad sight in America’s breadbasket this summer. Here’s a photo showing what these four-foot stalks (if the farmers are lucky) produce:


Sadly, I didn’t snap this photo in Indiana, but my front yard in North Carolina. Because failing to sufficiently water a plant creates the same effect. My sad little ears. Too big for stir fry, too small for a satisfying typewriter chomping. Rarely did I pry my zombie body off the couch in the evenings during the dreaded month of July, when the corn was being pollinated and especially needed TLC.

I have successfully grown some peppers and tomatoes, at least. And hey, my mint plant, which is creeping across my garden with plans for total domination, thrives. (Why yes, mint happens to require absolutely no attention.)


But what I was learning during the day more than made up for my disappointing patch of corn. All summer I’ve helped farmers as they zip from task to task: snap off green beans, pick watermelon. Smooth out a row, plop beet transplants into it and lay the drip (irrigation) tape. Sometimes I ask questions, but often I’m learning by doing and witnessing their decision-making.

And the common-sense moves. I’ve learned some the hard way: respect the blades of the clippers or slice your finger. Don’t pull tough clumps of weeds for four hours without gloves, or have raw, aching hands the next day. Mostly I learned the most efficient ways to do dozens of tasks. Farmers hustle because whatever you don’t finish on the list of tasks rolls over into the next day, and timing is everything. Weeds grow … like weeds … and choke out your baby onions plants. If you wait even a week late to plant broccoli, the heads won’t grow quite as large as they could have.

Above all, I’ve learned just how hard you’ve got to work, day after day. Many nights my back aches, and I hesitate to say that sometimes the heating pad qualifies as my BFF.

And what will surprise none of my friends and family: functioning before 8 a.m. is torture. My night owl curse is wrapped into my double-helix. What can I do?

But just when I began wondering how much longer I wanted to deal with the heat and early alarms, summer has begun ceding to autumn. That’s a major reason I love being part of the outdoors and witnessing the miracle of nature. Everything moves in cycles. Everything fits together. More on that later.

In the end, I’ve decided I can do this, and I still want to.

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Carryin’ on in the Cackalacky heat

Meet Clementine. She has nothing to do with this post, although she does reside on one of the farms I toil away on.

I’m two months into a North Carolina summer. Here’s a taste of a typical day for me dealing with the subtropical heat.

6 a.m.: <Electronic death shriek! Death shriek! Death shriek!> Hit snooze

6:05 a.m.: Snooze

6:10: Why am I doing this?

6:15: Frankenstein-in-a-rush walk toward coffee maker <cue beep sound from television show “24”>

6:25: Sing Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started” and dance poorly to irritate/entertain Jonathan. Jonathan: “Don’t you need to be getting ready?”

6:30: Talk to coffee to entertain Jonathan. “You are my only friend.” Tell Jonathan I think I’m gonna die from tiredness. Jonathan: “You won’t die. Aren’t you supposed to be there by 7? You’re gonna be late.”

7:05: Arrive and pretend to be fully functioning cognitively while harvesting, washing and bundling onions and chard.

9 a.m.: Shovel compost onto rows to prepare for brussells sprouts. I’m definitely getting a lot stronger.

10 a.m. Harvest tomatoes, chat with farmers. Hey this isn’t too bad. And I’m waking up.

10:30 a.m. Pick blueberries. Oh hello, mystery bug. You’re beautiful. Hopefully you’re a beneficial insect. You look somewhat like an asparagus beetle, though. Hey, cute little toad. Hop along that way, before you get stepped on. Man, all those suckers in their cubicles! This is the best job ever.

11:30 a.m. Pull up irrigation drip tape. This humidity sucks. We need to move to the mountains.

Noon: Lunch. Sweet, sweet air conditioning!

12:30 p.m. Weed, then plant flower seedlings. Sunblock and sweat dripping down my face. Why do I even bother putting this stuff on? God, I wish I worked in a cubicle.

12:45 p.m. “Mystery bug – get the *#@% off me!” <Flick>

1:30 p.m. Contain relief when farmer says we’re switching to indoor/shady work. Spend the rest of the washing and sorting tomatoes, trimming tops off onions, pulling edamame pods off plants and planting broccoli seeds.

4 p.m. Leave with a bucket full of free tomatoes and a strong sense of accomplishment. This is the best job ever!

4 to 7 p.m: Be utterly useless.

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Groundhogs and grumpy George. Meet the farmers

I’m a about month into my summer as a farm hand. Hmmm — “apprentice” sounds more glamorous.

Most of the farmers work smart, so we’re not in direct sun too much after 1 p.m. But 100 degrees is tough no matter what. I’m a little surprised at how well I’ve dealt with it so far. Mind over matter, I guess.

I work alongside some real characters. Here are a few of them:

Monday farm: I know these folks because my bees have comfortably resided at their farm for two years, enjoying almost two acres of vegetables and raspberries blossoms. Their two sweet mongrels love to lean on me and slurp my face while I try to pull weeds. Here’s scrappy Ellie, also known as the flying dog thing in the movie “The NeverEnding Story” :

Tuesday farm: One of the farmers is a good ole boy in his early 50s. The back window of his truck has NRA and Confederate flag stickers, and he likes to talk about hunting the groundhogs who chomp into his juicy heirloom tomatoes. He hasn’t disappointed in his promise that I’d learn some new phrases and sayings from him, which sadly I cannot repeat in this blog.

Wednesday farm: This farmer, who we will call George, is a baker trying to get into vegetable production, and he admits he has a lot to learn. We  recently hammered together roosts and nesting boxes for his 50 new hens, and it wasn’t pretty. But at least I had warned him that I, too, had no building skills.

George doesn’t throw away anything. The coop construction involved digging through deep piles of lumber scraps, selecting the non-rotted boards and yanking rusty nails from them. One day we bagged up about 150 milk jugs because the sun had made them brittle and unusable as planters, to his disappointment.

George is a kind-hearted curmudgeon. I’m determined to get a smile out of him more than once or twice a day.

Friday farm: The storytelling and “hey, watch this”s of the four-year-old in this cute family maintain a level of noise and chaos that makes me feel right at home. Her parents met in Nepal during stints in the Peace Corp. He is quiet and focused, and she is as chatty as I. The farm is beautiful and hilly. Some of the small vegetable and flower fields are set apart, separated by trees.

So there it is. My goal is to start updating this blog frequently again. That is, after I get home in the evenings, sweaty and covered in dirt, and lay on my back on the living room floor for a half-hour…

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The farmer with allergies?

Hannah passed away in early April, but reflections on my sweet old hound will wait for a another day. We’ll talk farming instead.

Some people, myself included, get confused as to why I’d want to leave journalism to sweat on a farm for little income. Journalism offers stability and … oh, wait, never mind. At any rate, it pays better than running a small farm. And there’s the air conditioning.

Ahhh, air conditioning. Compressor, condenser, evaporator. Never has there been a sweeter combination. But that machine’s sweet relief is a double-edged sword here in the tropical wonderland known as North Cackalacky. The more time you spend with it, the more miserable you feel on July and August days when the humidity is thick enough to slice through.

I’ve recently started working on farms two days a week and soon to be more, and I’m acclimatizing to the heat (here’s how it works). People say I’ll get used to it, and I sure hope they’re right. Around 1 p.m. on Friday I was trudging up a hill, a bucket of larkspur and zinnias in each hand, headed toward the tiny air conditioned room (I guess they like it, too) where the flowers and vegetables sit until next morning’s market. I thought: “God, I hope I am correctly interpreting your path for me, and the dream to own a farm is the right one.” And  for the first time that day the wind cut through the stifling air, blowing my sombrero-sized straw hat behind me. I smiled and said. “Ok.”

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the everyday obstacles: allergies, the fatigue I sometimes battle and the pale skin that I’ll carefully have to protect forever. (Last week I was trying on extra large, lightweight men’s shirts in a Ross dressing room. A little awkward.) Then there is trying to save up for land and the challenges of running a business. But I’m keeping my well-covered head up.

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No stopping time — dogs grow old too fast.

Every six months or so we think “Well, this is it. Hannah’s come to the end.”

That time rolled around again 11 days days ago. She suddenly stopped eating, could hardly stand and was urinating in the house. Most likely it was a kidney infection, but we’re not sure yet.

I’m not going to publish how much money we’ve spent on vet visits, medicines and two under-anesthesia procedures for Hannah. Money we shouldn’t have spent, financially speaking. What about savings for farmland? The ability to help other dogs in need?

But we’ve always felt a responsibility to make up for the cold existence she must’ve had before us. A woman found her on the roadside, emaciated, with fractured bones and infected with heartworms. Her teeth were worn to nubs, most likely from gnawing on a chain or the bars of a cage for a long time.

I can’t describe the feeling – many fellow dog lovers know what I’m talking about – of watching a distrustful, hurting dog slowly seek your attention more and more, sitting closer to you and nuzzling under your elbow. One day you realize you love one another.

After we let the vet remove most of Hannah’s teeth, which we didn’t know where causing pain, or at least discomfort, she was like a new dog. That is, after the second surgery, which arose from complications during the teeth removal.

We said then “If Hannah has just one year of comfort and peace, it was worth it.” Worth the financial and emotional exhaustion.

She’s had almost two years, and what a gift it’s been. But her arthritis has grown worse. We have no idea how old she is. We’re not sure when we can afford treatment other than pain pills, heating pad and massage. We’re doing what we can.

She’s doing better, but isn’t back to her old self. How bad is she hurting? If only dogs could talk.

Like my grandmother Diddy says: “Getting old ain’t for sissies.”


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I’ll reap what I sow: Sugar snap goodness

Last week I planted pea snaps at home and in the church garden, and I wasn’t stingy. I have trouble getting others at St. Joseph’s to take home most spring vegetables, but the sugar snap peas never survive fellowship hour.

I mixed in this beautiful compost, which began as horse manure a year ago. Shoveling while standing knee deep in manure wasn’t a party, but it was worth it. Pretty much when it smells like dirt, not manure, it’s done. You know you were wondering.

Peas are easy to grow. (Maryland folks: hold off ‘til the first week of March for your planting.) First, build a trellis. There are so many ways to do it. I used bamboo poles and strung twine across them. I was lazy and only did the first rung for now. The vines grow FAST, and if they don’t have something to wrap their tendrils around, they’ll cling to each other and become one giant, floppy tangled mass.

Coat them in pea and bean inoculant just before you plant them. You make a slurry with this black powdery substance that is made of rhizobia bacteria, which help the peas fix nitrogen from the air into the soil. Inoculant is cheap, and you’ll get the best yields this way. Make a one-inch deep trench along the trellis and plant the peas one or two inches apart.

In canine news, the vet told us the old girl has osteoarthritis.
The doc doesn’t want to add more pills to her regimen. We’re holding off on expensive therapeutic treatments for now and managing the pain with the heating pad and massages. Sounds nice, eh? She sighs, stretches and yawns (I wonder why dogs yawn when they’re content) when we rub her muscles.

It’s strange how fast dogs become elderly. The passage of time really hit us when we saw this photo from her first week as our pack member in 2007. She was but a pretty, middle-aged thing.

But she sprints and bays at the park. She does this alone at the far end of the field, but hey. She loves when I chase her there. And she enjoys long walks.

I think she’ll be around for a while. I wouldn’t have said this two years ago, but I want her around as long as possible, snoring gently at our bedside, begging for treats and alerting on cats.

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Crop rotation: Screw Sudoku

In my golden years, I won’t need to follow health experts’ advice to solve crossword puzzles or math equations to keep my gray matter from dissolving.

I will just huddle over this, trying to create a crop rotation plan.

I spent four hours trying to create an 8-year plan with eight fields, trying to fit crops into good spots by following the dozen rules about what crops should and shouldn’t follow one another, returning the proper nutrients, alternating root depth, aligning harvest times, etc. I was relieved to find out that others struggled for the same amount of time on this giant logic puzzle.

Most people in our society have no idea what farming entails (especially sustainable production), and it’s not their fault. The closest they come to agriculture is shopping in the grocery store, or if they’re lucky, driving past a field of corn. They think there’s not much to it. The other day my mom asked how my first test went in my crop production class, and I said the test was pretty easy. She replied: “Well, it IS farming.”

Jeeeeeeeeeeez, ma! Love you, mom. You are super supportive, even though I know you wonder, like most people, why someone with a college degree would want to hoe rows all day.

Sure, pulling carrots is pretty mindless (and awesome — I got one with four legs the other day.) But there’s so much to running a healthy and profitable farm.

There are calculations for irrigation depending on month, water pressure, evapotranspiration rates, number and length of rows, etc. You must keep a close eye on your soil’s macro- and micro-nutrient levels. Then there’s the identification and management of insects, fungi, bacteria and viruses; impossible to kill weeds; and macro- and micro- nutrient levels in your soil.

Anyway, you get the point.

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Clumsiness and soldier bees

See how the veil’s netting is pulled away from my face?

I didn’t wear it that way yesterday, one of several mistakes that led to a big ole red knot on my chin.

I’d forgotten my smoker at home, and I hadn’t gone into the hives for more than two months. I figured I’d remove just the lid and peer down into the top box to see how things were. I geared up. Jacket, gloves, veil. I knew without smoke there might be a particularly gung-ho soldier bee or two that wanted me gone.

They were a little nervous, but I was able to get up close. The moment things turned is when I bumped into the lid, which was propped against the side of the hide, and it fell. A group of soldier bees zoomed around me and I felt a little sting on my chin. I’d forgotten to pull the veil away from my face after I tucked it into my shirt, and a bee was able to get her stinger partway through. I’d probably be hiding in my house like Quasimoto if she’d gotten it in deeper.

During my practical exam to become a certified beekeeper, the proctor told me to pull out the veil, and yesterday probably will be the only reminder I need. (Oh, you didn’t know I’m a certified beekeeper in the North Carolina Master Beekeeper Program? I’m kind of a big deal.)

Ross Conrad writes about the importance of being focused in the bee yard in his book “Natural Beekeeping.” When you’re not you often get clumsy or do something silly. I did have a lot running through my mind at the time, and most of it wasn’t related to my little friends.

It’s a warm winter – I don’t want to think what this means for summer – so the honeybees have been out foraging many days. Here are some on my rosemary bush. I always wonder if they’re wild or “belong” to someone.

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Chicken hair cuts and textbooks

I was so excited to start my sustainable agriculture classes yesterday that I forgot my camera to get you some pictures of the practice farm there. So this is the rare post that doesn’t have a photo, although I did throw in a link to a YouTube video.

Seven a.m. is a painfully early wake-up time for me (yes, I know I’m spoiled), so I tried to not be too hard on myself when, barely awake, I whispered to the woman next to me: “I can’t believe I’m asking you this. I feel like I’m back in the seventh grade, but can I borrow a few sheets of paper?” I’d forgotten my notebook in the car.

The best part of the day was not part of either class, which focus on growing produce. After my Crop Production class the farm manager asked who wanted to learn how to clip a chicken’s wings. The more brazen members of one flock in an open-top pen were habitually flying over the fence to forage for bugs and tasty weeds, and their droppings, though nutrient rich, are a food safety hazard. Luckily, the very nervous guinea hen named Swandalina wasn’t an escapee. But she did “sing” sporadically during the entire two-hour farm tour. Listen to the lovely guinea hen call here.

Clipping their wings is as painless as a hair cut to them, the farm manager assured me. But you suspend the poor bird upside down and snip off some of their feathers on one wing, leaving them to fly crooked and low when they attempt to escape again. I think the farm manager sensed that I was about to chicken out slink off (“Well, I’d better grab some lunch before my next class…”) and basically handed me a chicken. I gently turned Roxie upside down and she hung motionless for a moment until the farm manager stretched out her wing, at which point she flung herself upwards. I held her at arm’s length as she flapped her wings in my face and let out a “SQUUAAAAAAAAAAAAAK!” I let her calm down again in my arms, and the second time was a success. I snipped seven of the long feathers near the tip of her wing.

The students in my classes are a motley crew, ranging from 18 years old with  no growing experience to knowledgeable former farm interns in their 20s to career changing 30-somethings like myself. There were, of course, several hippies in the mix. During introduction time, one guy with long blond hair and a parka said “The only thing I’ve ever grown in marijuana.”

I’ve waited three years to take these classes, and I’m hungry for the information. Jon and I hope that I having a certificate in sustainable agriculture (six classes) may help us get a loan or grant for land someday.

But I haven’t decided if raising livestock for meat will be part of our business, considering my reluctance to snip a few feathers. But who knows what the future holds!

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