There is nothing more fun than taking kids out to learn where their food comes from. Especially when you get to feed them at the same time. So when maple sugar time rolled around again this year, I grabbed a couple of short folk and made my way to St. Marys, where McCully’s Hill Farm is having their annual Maple Festival Tour. It’s really easy to find, just north of town.
Go for the breakfast tour, Saturdays and Sundays for the rest of this month. For eight bucks a head, you fill your kids up with a slap-up pancake and sausage breakfast, and then, when they are weighed down and well-behaved from all the food, you all ride up to the barn, where they can visit with a variety of interesting and reasonably non-threatening animals.
The high point of the trip is the tour of the sugarbush, on a wagon pulled by honest-to-God Clydesdales, led by a driver who knows an awful lot about the history of maple sugar, and of St. Marys in general. Even the most troublesome of our crew was attentive, and surprisingly well-behaved.
On the way back we were shown how maple syrup is made in the sugar shack, with lots of really satisfying and informative fire-stoking and sap-boiling and syrup-tasting. By the time they left the sugar shack, I think they had learned a lot. At this point, though, I would recommend avoiding the topic of whether we could all go home and make maple syrup together in our own kitchen. Instead, distract them by having them run around the pasture a few times. Five times, at least.
It was pretty successful all round, and after the ride back we had a look around the store for interesting preserves, eggs, meat (they have bison) and other farm specialties. I got a really nice orange marmelade. It’s not really like a marmelade, more like an orange jelly, but very delicate. I like it a lot.
Then you go home, where hopefully the children will collapse for at least a little while. Make yourself a coffee, put your feet up, and congratulate yourself for being a great parent. That’s the part I like best.
I had a wonderful time at Seedy Sunday at The Local last month, and I’m just getting around to writing it up. I got variety of really interesting seeds that I’ll soon be starting on the front porch, but the best part of Seedy Sunday for me is always the presentations.
I loved the one on beekeeping, presented by Stuart Arkett. I’m quite fond of bees, and like to see them in my garden, but I’m a little overwhelmed at the idea of being responsible for a hive. But I needn’t have worried. It was illegal to keep bees in Stratford until last year, when Stuart presented a petition to allow it within city limits. After all, the city coat of arms features a beehive. Why not live up to our history? The city agreed, but followed provincial regulations, which require a hive to be 30 meters from a property line. That puts my beehive smack-dab in the middle of my living room coffee table, right next to my husband’s beer when he’s watching sports. So it’s progress of a kind, but, short of a divorce, it’s not going to work for me. I hope Stuart continues his work to promote urban beekeeping.
I really got a lot out of Stuart’s presentation. He told us a great deal about neonicotinoid pesticides and how they work. These are the ones that cause all the problems for bees. Some crops around here just can’t be grown without this pesticide, or a more expensive alternative. It gets put on some seeds, and when dirt is blown in the wind it’s breathable. The good news is that neonics are on their way out, due to increased government regulation, and also because after an insecticide has been used over a period of time, the insects just become immune to it. You do have to question an agricultural practice that has the end result of breeding resistant bugs, but let’s save that for another day. (More about neonicotinoids here)
We also discussed colony collapse disorder, which I’m sure you’ve heard about. Surprisingly, only three crops depend completely on bees for pollination: blueberries, cranberries, and almonds. These crops use trucked-in hives, a method that stresses the bees and weakens their resistance to mites and disease.
I have always wondered why the almond farmers don’t just raise bees within their groves. That would save time and trouble in transportation, and minimize the risk of infection to the hives. And you get honey. So I put my hand up to find out. Stewart answered that almond groves do not provide a complete diet for bees, as almonds are the only thing allowed to grow there. “But…” I said, “Why not allow a little extra vegetation, so the bees can thrive?” He smiled patiently, and explained that water is very scarce where the almonds grow, and no farmer would risk the expense of watering weeds. “But… “I persisted, “Why not reduce the ratio of trees to vegetation, just a little, to allow for bees?”
His answer was accompanied by the steely-eyed look farmers reserve for city-folk who want to give them advice. I could tell he’d been asked these kinds of questions before, presumably by people with a slightly vacant stare and flowers in their hair. He said that it is the obligation of farmers to produce the maximum from their farms. Farm families aren’t charitable organizations, and farm life is hard enough without creating extra, unprofitable work.
Well, it’s pretty hard to answer back to a statement like that. But then — and this is the interesting part — I asked him another question and got an answer I didn’t expect. I wanted to know why the bees produce more than the hive can use. Turns out they just do, it’s a bee thing. They keep working until there’s no more room for honey. Many beekeepers take all the honey from the hive and leave the bees with cheaper sugar water to last them over the winter. This is not as nutritious, and some hives die, but it works out in the long run. On his farm, Stuart doesn’t do this. He tries to calculate how much honey the bees will need to keep healthy over the winter, and he takes the rest as his share.
So in other words, he’s taking a reduced profit on his hives, hives he’s bought or built — to make things more comfortable for a bunch of bugs. He is not maximizing his farm profit. Seems to me there’s a contradiction. And I find that really interesting.
There’s a kind of a way we’re taught to think about how society relates to nature. We’re tough, we’re practical, we’re in control, and nature is a product. If you watch the news these days, particularly the weather news, maybe we’re not so much in control as we think we are. And I notice a kind of vague unease; it’s like we have a conflict between our heads and our hearts, and we try to resolve it by not really thinking about it very much. But avoiding it doesn’t make it go away.
I’m certainly no expert, but maybe the bees need more thinking about. Maybe agriculture needs more thinking about. Just because we’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way.
A little while ago I wrote a post about Red Rose Tea. I was suspicious of the fact that their tea bags don’t degrade in my compost, and I e-mailed them about it. Well, the good news is that they wrote me back. Here’s what they said:
Thank you for contacting Red Rose.
The new Red Rose tea bag material is poly lactic acid, or PLA. The new tea bag is an organic polymer made from plants sources. The tea bags are composed of 100% renewable plant materials. The new Red Rose tea bag material is tested by independent laboratories and has been shown to be completely safe.
Sealing Red Rose like our previous Red Rose tea bags and other single chambered (or pillow) tea bags on the market, Red Rose uses a heat sealable material. However, unlike most other single chambered tea bags in the market Red Rose is now 100% compostable and made from 100% plant material.
We truly appreciate your loyalty to our brand and products. Should you have any questions in the future, please do not hesitate to contact us again.
Sincerely, Red Rose Consumer Services
I like Red Rose Tea, and I like getting polite letters like this. Unfortunately, I am also cynical, and I still haven’t forgotten what they did to those chimpanzees all those years ago. So I did some research on poly lactic acid.
In my last blog post I talked about finding employment for feral cats. I was kind of joking around, but I do think that we should be considering ALL living things when we think about how our community works.
So I was interested in this post, which describes a project in Amsterdam that trains crows to pick up and dispose of cigarette butts. At first reading, it sounded like a great idea — the crows learn fast, they pick up the trash, and they get paid a peanut. What’s not to like?
However, a commentator brought up a point I hadn’t thought about. John Marzluff, a professor of forest sciences at the University of Washington, argued that ” it is unethical to ask a wild animal to do our dirty work. Crows have other things to do, being highly social animals and intelligent, and it doesn’t seem right to me to enslave them to work for us. Why not just pay people a good wage to do the work?”
Now, you’re probably thinking that we are getting into Philosophy 101 territory when we start worrying about making wage slaves out of crows. But I don’t think this is a silly argument. It seems to me to be a highly moral argument that we should be applying to the wildlife that lives around us. Perhaps when we start seeing nature as valuable in itself, rather than something that has been set up for us to use, we will learn to inhabit our communities in a way that promotes a healthy environment for humans and animals.
So what’s the difference between crows and cats? Basically, cats aren’t part of the ecosystem. We domesticated them and brought them here. So I think we owe them a free lunch or two. Or maybe even a career in rodent removal.
I love to go into Watson’s downtown. It’s such a cool store, and there’s a cat there who is soft as dandelion fluff. Sometimes you have to wait in line to pet her. I’ll bet that cat has made a few sales in her time.
Not all cats are as skilled in customer relations as the Watson’s cat. Some have attitude. Others are terrified, and will bite and scratch. A select few will even pee in your shoes, just for the fun of it. It’s difficult to place cats like this in customer service positions.
The good news is that some shelters in the U.S. have come up with an ideal solution to the cat placement problem. They provide neutered, microchipped, vaccinated animals free of charge to businesses with rodent control problems. This means that no poisons or traps are needed. Sometimes just the scent of a cat sends rodents running for the hills, but if not, more drastic measures are taken by the cats.
And it’s not just warehouses that provide jobs for cats. Barns and stables are, of course, the traditional place to find a working cat, but they are also using them in condos and suburban areas. In California they’re even using them to patrol dumpsters. However, not much seems to be said about what those cats are doing to the bird population.
In any case, outside patrol isn’t really a year-round solution for unemployed cats in Ontario. I wondered if there were any programs here that provided year-round indoor work. I checked around: The Stratford Perth Humane Society has two programs for unsociable felines; one is the “Barn Buddy” programme, where you can pick up a neutered/chipped/vaccinated cat with no adoption fee (though they would like a donation). The other programme, one you’ve probably heard of, is called “Return to Field:” they clip one ear, vaccinate/neuter, and have the person who brought the cat in return it to the same place. The cat is identifiable, and because cats are territorial, it not only hunts vermin but also keeps other feral cats away. However, I don’t think they last long in an Ontario winter.
So it seems to me there’s a place in our business community for a whole army of unemployed cats, who would not only reduce the rodent population, but would also reduce the need for adding poisons to our environment. Indoor work also avoids the bird problem. The “Barn Buddy” programme would work for this. All it needs is a little rethinking, and an advertising push to present it as a solution for businesses as well as for farms.