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04 September 2010 @ 11:00 am
My tomato crop was pretty much a bust this year. The combination of a) wet, wet summer and b) failing to purchase baby plant varieties resistant to blight meant I only harvested about 25 pounds of decent-quality tomatoes from 11 plants. (Normally the yield would have been 6-7 times that.)

I did have a nice crop of onions and peppers, including habaneros, jalpenos and cayenne. With these I canned 16 pints of way hot salsa, so at least we've got that. (Husband = happy!)

I'm considering canning apples this year. The two trees are loaded with apples. Normally we just toss them to the cattle, but here's the thing.

Earlier this summer I volunteered to make lemonade for a fundraiser. I found a recipe called "Lemonade for 100 People" that involved first making a syrup with sugar and water. In an attempt to be ready to produce huge quantities of lemonade quickly, but also keep costs low, I made an excess of the syrup ahead of time. Unfortunately, lemonade sales were quite modest. So I have about a gallon of sugar syrup.

It turns out that this same syrup is what you boil to pour over cooked apples when you're canning them. And you can use these canned apples for cobblers and pies.

I hate throwing food out. And while tossing the apples to the cattle isn't exactly a waste, why should they be the only beneficiaries? They'll get their fair share and more (the cores and the bruised parts and the too-ripe stuff) AND I'll use up my sugar syrup.
10 August 2010 @ 09:29 am
At my food buying club my friend Renee's son, Josh, and his little brother were running and shouting. She was on the phone but used finger-snapping and hand gestures to tell the boys she wanted them to be stiller and quieter. Then she handed Josh a pencil and what appeared to be a workbook. He took them, looking pained. I was near enough to see that it was all math problems. No pictures. Mostly long division. Half of page one's problems were done.

He's maybe a 2nd or 3rd grader.

Then she gave him a little lecture about how Math is Everything. When she resumed her phone call and turned her attention elsewhere, he threw the book on the floor.

Josh probably thinks math is tedium. How many kids are lost this way? I wanted to take Josh and his brother outside and twirl them around or something. There would be plenty of time later to talk about centrifugal force, or whatever.

Why do we insist on making learning distinct from play? No wonder kids get turned off.
28 July 2010 @ 11:20 am
My sister turned me on to Mad Men (the TV show) awhile back. I've enjoyed the first 3 seasons using DVDs and thought I'd try downloading the new season via iTunes. I bought a season pass for $30.

The first episode took 26 hours to download on my creaky satellite-based internet connection.

That was bad enough, but now I find I cannot play it smoothly. It proceeds in fits and starts, especially the video.

It is unwatchable right now on my PC. I admit I didn't read the fine print when I bought my pass. Could my processor speed be too low? It SHOULD pass muster. Ran a diagnostic that clocked it at 2065+ MHz.
27 April 2010 @ 10:54 am
Nicole Reising is an intern at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Children's Health Protection. She's also a sophomore at Indiana University studying non-profit management.

She blogged recently about the value of eating a meatless diet as a means of environmental protection. A firestorm of protest has ensued from the Farm Bureau and other conventional farming interests. They're particularly upset because the blog, "Greenversations," is within the purview of the EPA, a federal government agency.

In my experience, Farm Bureau and its friends think nothing of crushing the reputation of the author of such a mild piece, because the real goal here is to frighten anyone else who would dare question conventional agriculture. This woman deserves support for her view, and the bullies who are berating her need to be exposed for what they are.
22 September 2009 @ 11:33 am
My dad has once again changed his mind on just where he might want to live, should his Parkinson's disease require more assistance with his ADLs (a medical term for Activities of Daily Living...things like dressing, bathing, fixing a sandwich, etc.) than my step-mom already provides for him. Essentially, he's been mentally adjusting to the idea of living in a so-called  Assisted Living facility. Up until yesterday, he was most interested in facilities in the Midwest. That's where he grew up, spent his working life and raised a family, and that's where his wife wants to return someday, when she, too, is older and more ill, so that she can be near her Iowa relatives. Currently they live in her home in Arizona.

Right now he and she are visiting here in Iowa for several weeks. While his wife takes a side trip to see her ailing brother in Kentucky, Dad has asked that  my sister Carol and I accompany him to at least two Iowa AL facilities. So we have two appointments next week, over 2 days. ( I found both places after a rather exhaustive search. I first focused on the Phoenix area and also on the six cities near where each of Dad's six kids lived, then looked for comprehensive care places in those areas; he had said he wanted to be near family. Comprehensive care means a place that can handle just about any living arrangement senior citizens might require, from independent living arrangements  to full-fledged nursing homes, and everything in between, so they can theoretically accommodate your changing needs. While Parkinson's disease slowly debilitates and is incurable, drugs can control the symptoms--increasing rigidity, motor and balance issues, dementia--and patients can live for decades, slowly declining.)  I am more-or-less Dad's financial adviser, and Carol is a medical technician who has dealt a lot with elderly in-laws and nursing homes and such. So Dad wanted us both on hand for these visits. Carol has to drive some 8 hours from her Wisconsin home to be on hand for this. I'm much closer, though still 2 hours away. She and I had already nixed the idea of a facility in her area, although she and her husband have generously offered to temporarily house Dad at their home. He husband is a physician.

Then yesterday I get a call from Dad, who's in Iowa. He puts me on speaker phone so Joy can also participate in the conversation. I find out that his meds were adjusted five days ago, and he says his brain has been foggy ever since. He and she have canceled some of their social outings because he's afraid he won't be able to remember people's names. They're on the verge of canceling a big birthday dinner party 2 weeks hence. Joy still plans to make her Kentucky trip, but she insists that Dad not be allowed to drive without her also being in the car, in the passenger's seat.

Fine. I'll drive us to the appointments.

Yes, keep the appointments, says Joy. But "your Dad now has no real intention of returning to the Midwest. The appointments will only be to gather financial info so that comparisons may be made with the costs of AL facilities in the Phoenix area. And before we do that, we'll look into hiring this woman I know who works in people's homes as a sort of nurse assistant. That way your dad can stay at my house, in familiar surroundings, until he really has to go somewhere else. I can't do this without help."  None of Dad's kids live in Arizona.

(This from the woman who insisted that she'd never allow anyone to come into her home for such a purpose. So I guess Dad isn't the only one who's had a change of heart.)

I have all the financial info already. Why keep the appointments if he has no intention of ever living in those places?

"Well, that way your dad can't say--once we're back in Arizona--that he wishes he HAD looked at those places because maybe the Midwest isn't so bad after all."

Um, okay. I'm starting to see the pattern here. This is, after all, the same guy who was set up to have an MRI four different times and never did go through with the procedure, even while under mild sedation. He totally freaked out each time. He appears to have a sort of undiagnosed claustrophobia, along with everything else. And like plenty of older people, he is hyper-sensitive to being railroaded into decisions. That's okay. I always knew this had to be HIS idea.

"I just don't want to be a burden to anyone, Hon," he says. "But I am so damn confused right now. I need to be in familiar surroundings. And Phoenix is where my doctor is. So as long as Joy lets me stay at her house, I think that's where I'll be best off."

Okay. I'd been looking forward to having him live closer to me, but I see his point.  Only thing is, I'm almost certain he'll change his mind again. It's like his way of maintaining a modicum of control over his life, even while the disease slowly robs him of motility and neural function. At least if I look at it this way, it's more understandable.

I just hope he doesn't change his mind about even visiting the facilities, or at least that if he DOES change his mind about it, he does it BEFORE Carol makes that 8-hour drive.

And I guess it's probably time to open the envelopes from the Phoenix facilities I'd contacted months ago, but failed to open, because by the time I'd received them, Dad had said he was only interested in Midwest places.
18 August 2009 @ 01:21 pm
Check 'em out!  www.flickr.com/photos/relishtray
14 August 2009 @ 05:04 pm
Spent the first week of August in Baja California Sur with some extended family members and their friends. We stayed at a rustic fishing resort on the east coast of the peninsula, on the Sea of Cortez--some call it the Gulf of California. The guys did their big game fishing thing, but the usual deal is catch-and-release, which was mostly adhered to, although the rule is that the highly skilled Latino boat captains can lay claim to any big marlins that are caught by the gringos since no catch would occur without the captains' expertise.  These fish sell on the open market in a nearby village; even one such fish can represent  20% of a captain's annual income.

Keith went fishing only one day of the 6 full days we were there--not being an avid fisherman--but he hooked a 300 lb marlin that took every one of the seven hands on deck, and two hours, to haul in, on that day. Not knowing precisely how to hold the pole, he severely blistered some fingers in the process. The fight in that fish, he said, was awesome. Pictures forthcoming.

Drank lots of beer and Margaritas and marveled at the wildlife all around. Besides marlins there were sailfish, rooster fish, dorado (mahi mahi), tuna, dolphins (Keith saw about 1000 dolphins in his one fishing day), pelicans, seagulls, turkey buzzards, lizards. We counted five cats that lived at the resort and I saw one of them eat a lizard he had captured; the lizard was easily one-third the cat's weight. I couldn't believe how systematic this cat was in the effort, but I'll spare the gory details. There were also sea turtles just up the beach laying eggs on the shore the evening before we left. Found out that the turtles often only PRETEND to lay eggs for the first few nights, as a decoy, before actually doing the deed--a cool ploy to outsmart enemies.

My favorite activity was snorkeling.  Had never done this before and it was fascinating! Every time I went in, I saw twenty more species of fish than the previous time. Beautiful colors dancing everywhere.

It was HOT, even at night. The resort is laid out in a series of bungalows, each with its own air conditioner. The power went out with some regularity, usually in the middle of the night when everyone's AC was blasting away. Most nights this was easily fixed by the security guys on duty, although one night there were also high winds that broke a plate glass window onto a bed that my sister had been sleeping on only minutes earlier.

This week we are hosting two young women from Tufts University who are doing a documentary project on corn and corn farmers. More on this later.
15 July 2009 @ 05:17 pm
My niece recently allowed her six-year-old son to accompany her boyfriend, who's a trucker, on a three-week haul all over the eastern half of the country.

It appears that the wide-ranging trip was not only wasted on the youngster (he can't remember any details of the ride), but that the boy may have suffered some health consequences, judging from what the mother was saying to us the other day.

The child, who was overweight to begin with, gained "another fifteen pounds on the trip," she told us in a mortified tone. 

And while she said that she encourages him to move about more, and play,  "He's lazy," she complained. "He gets tired just walking around."

I'm thinking: this kid needs to see a doctor. I'm thinking: how much exercise can a six-year-old get sitting in a big rig most of the day? And what was he eating on this trip? It would take some serious planning for a situation like this NOT to be a weight-gain + artery clogging fiasco, right?  Did the mom discuss any of this with the boyfriend before the trip happened?

I guess most people would stay silent.  I found myself thinking that the kid's health was at stake.

So I waited for an appropriate moment and then called my sister-in-law (the child's grandmother) and offered to pay for him to have a physical if indeed he hadn't had one recently for whatever reason. Grandma assured me that he has regular physicals and that she is currently making sure he's getting plenty of exercise and eating right (he's staying with her for a couple of weeks this summer while the mom is in another state). I had to couch my concerns in pretty gentle language to avoid implying that the family was failing the kid, but Grandma was magnanimous and thanked me for my concern.

She related how, that very morning, the boy had spent an hour at the local public swimming pool (swimming lesson), and how the two of them had done a fair amount of dog-walking that afternoon. "And in between, he was on the pogo stick!" she reported. "And we're eating good stuff. Fresh green beans this evening."

So I feel better about this. And I was glad to hear that she had already planned some talks with her daughter on the wisdom of letting the youngster take any further trips with the boyfriend, at least until he's older.  But did I overstep? Just because I perceived that the kid may have needed outside help--does that justify intervening in a family's dynamics? What if they hadn't been relatives?
20 June 2009 @ 11:22 am
We bought six young steers in April. (We've been buying five or six feeder calves each spring for many years now; this is the first year they were all boys.)

As with every group of cattle we've purchased, they're a joy to have around. They romp and play and kick their heels up. They bellow and moo pleasantly. They munch on the lush pasture south of the house, an idyllic sight. This particular crew is very tame; we rub their foreheads a lot (Keith is especially fond of this activity) and several of the animals push the others out of the way to get to us. We have to be a bit wary--after all, each weighs around 850 lbs. right now

Very occasionally over the years, our cows have escaped the pasture to explore areas beyond. We are not cowboys and our dog is no shepherd, so we have only a limited understanding of how to get a herd of animals, or even just one, to go where we'd like. Our neighbors would prefer untrammeled flowerbeds and that their cornfields were left uneaten, as would we. But over the years, any time our cows got out, we've become better at rectifying the situation.

On Monday morning at 11:30 a.m. I was just leaving the house to drive to the office when I was greeted by one of our friendly steers standing in the driveway in front of the garage. Keith had left for the office hours earlier. I actually felt fortunate for the encounter, since I could easily have driven off without noticing the breakout, if he'd gone anywhere else but that spot. I spoke to him; he stayed put. I found a feed bucket and walked toward the pasture, thinking I could get him to follow me. It didn't work. He wandered toward the grain bins, ignoring me.

At the pasture I could see that the other five cows were still there. So the freewheeling steer was the only one out--for the moment. I wanted to find the location--perhaps a broken fence--where he'd busted or jumped through, since that was apparently the weak link in our containment system. But I didn't dare spook the other animals, since they could easily break through the same opening, wherever it was.

Ramblin' Joe, meanwhile, was moving west toward my back garden. Young tomato plants, peppers, broccoli, and cabbage were going to be his for the taking. I needed help. I called Keith at work. Fortunately this was one of Sara's work days, so she could cover for Keith, and he took off for home immediately.

Waiting for Keith to arrive, I walked toward the cornfield beyond my back garden, taking the long way around so as not to startle Joe. We slowly moved west in tandem, perhaps 45 yards apart, he munching grass as he went, me tracking him, although the buildings between us blocked my view of him from time to time. He stopped in an area of tall grass and scrub trees, a shady, restful spot that luckily was bordered on the west by another fence blocking him from the cornfield itself. I, on the other hand, entered the cornfield and moved south toward his resting place. I couldn't tell if he had entered my garden or not, from my vantage point. But I could keep an eye on him now.

Keith arrived, and we communicated by cell phone to size up the situation. It took Keith only a little while to find the damaged area of fence that had allowed Joe to escape and get Joe to follow him (via feed bucket) back into the pasture through the gate. (We decided later that Joe had by then decided to try to rejoin his brothers; he just needed a bit of gentle persuasion.) Keith then rigged up a temporary fix on the damaged fence and made sure the animals had plenty of water, and we both washed up, had a sandwich, and headed to the office.

That evening, Keith bolstered his fence repair further, and we celebrated with a glass of wine. How lucky that I was on hand to recognize that we had a problem; how fortunate that Keith could get home quickly to solve it. How wonderful that these huge animals trust us (well-just Keith, evidently) well enough to follow us around. And how amazing that Joe apparently walked right past my back garden without entering it. We'll really enjoy those tomatoes and peppers later this summer, knowing what could have been their fate.
07 April 2009 @ 06:25 pm
This is as good a time as any to begin journaling about my activist side. We think we have a minor win at the moment, and those are rare, so it feels good to tell about it.

One day I'll expand on the over-a-dozen years I've already spent working on these issues. But the latest episode is enough for now.

This spring the Iowa Senate passed a bill that would have allowed factory farms to ladle manure on top of snow and frozen ground. Most factory farms--in Iowa these are generally confinement buildings housing at least 1250 hogs apiece, and many such 'farms' sport at least two, sometimes four, and occasionally many more such buildings--have on-site storage for something like 6 months of manure.  These days we're talking about manure pits beneath the buildings, as opposed to the earthen lagoons that used to be the norm. So you don't usually SEE much manure--it's hidden from view--but it's most definitely there. The buildings are designed in such a way that the floor beneath the hogs is a grate, and urine and feces fall through the grate to the pit below. Imagine how awful this is, to live out your life in this sort of setting. This is animal abuse, in my opinion. And then there's the minuscule space allotted to each animal--so minuscule that sows cannot even turn around--but all of this is perfectly legal in most of these United States. The livestock industry is so powerful in this country that in most states we get nowhere by making an animal abuse argument. So, we concentrate on other areas.

The manure is mixed with water so that it can be transported through flexible pipes into, for example,  huge manure wagons. Full pits are partly sucked out, the contents transported to nearby fields that are part of a factory farm's "manure management plan," and the manure is "knifed" into the ground. This is possible, of course, only at times of year when no crops are growing on that ground, and when the ground is not frozen. In Iowa, fields are crop-less from about Thanksgiving until mid-April, so factory farms roughly plan on applying manure, say, in early April and again in late November. Weather can interfere with this, however. since--for instance-- you never want to haul a super-heavy manure wagon onto a wet field. That compacts the soil and can dramatically reduce crop yields, especially in spring. So that's why factory farms want the 'flexibility' of being able to place manure on top of frozen ground (into which it cannot be 'knifed,' since the ground is too hard) or on top of snow (which tends to cover most Iowa crop ground for 4-5 months each winter).

The problem is that manure--and we're talking thousands upon thousands upon thousands of gallons-- that is not knifed into the soil, tends to slip and slide to the lowest areas, just like water does when the snow melts, or when it rains. So you get what's called runoff, which FOULS surface water. Factory farms like to complain that they suffer under the weight of SO much regulation that of COURSE they don't dirty the water. This is bullshit. Iowa has some of the dirtiest water in the nation, and factory farms are a big reason for that.

Last spring Iowa had heavy rains, and there  was lots of this sort of runoff. Tests showed super-high ammonia levels in surface waters, and so we petitioned the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to begin the process of writing a new rule that would restrict factory farms from
putting their manure on frozen or snow-covered ground. Such rules can take a year or more to finalize. They're still tweaking it, having only just completed the set of public hearings that's required every time any such new rule is formulated. It could be stronger, but it's a good start.

But the Iowa Senate's bill would pull the rug out from beneath the new DNR rule. The bill basically legalizes manure on snow or frozen ground except for a 2-month late winter period, and even then, manure could be ladled on such ground in undefined 'emergency' situations.

I was most recently at the capitol a week ago trying to stop this bad bill. Also at  the Legislature that day were dozens and dozens of livestock producers. They had come to feed the legislators free steak sandwiches and to ask them to pass the bad bill. The activists I work with don't have the resources to persuade our legislators with freebies like that, so we were severely outmaneuvered. Still, we held a press conference and made our case as best we could. What we were trying to do is to make sure the bill, which had already passed in  the Iowa Senate, could somehow be stopped before it also was passed the Iowa House. But the situation looked pretty bleak.

Then, something amazing happened. We found out that the Kansas City  regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency--which is part of the federal government-- had sent a letter dated March 30 to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources stating that the bad bill, if enacted into law, was essentially going to put the state in the position of violating the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). I won't go into the details of what that means, but suffice it to say that this is a BIG STICK that, in the Bush administration, would not have been wielded, but in the Obama administration, apparently IS being wielded. Woohoo!

The upshot is that that suddenly the Iowa Legislature has become very silent concerning the bad bill's future in the House. In essence, if the bad bill is enacted into law, the EPA could make good on its Big Stick threat. And if the bill DOESN'T get enacted, the DNR rule will not be undercut (unless the legislature goes nutso and negates the rule, which seems unlikely).

We are not quite ready to call this a win, and stuff happens almost daily that moves the ball in this game to and fro. I also wish we didn't have to rely on the federal government's clout just to make commonsense stuff happen. But I'm sure glad they're around right now. Maybe, just maybe, we've turned a corner.