First world debt.

In the fall of 2009 our tenuous grip on financial solvency broke, leaving us with very few choices other than bankruptcy. Bankruptcy actually might have been the smartest choice, financially speaking. We knew other folks, and read about many in the news, who declared bankruptcy or went through foreclosure, and gamed the system brilliantly. I’m not saying that all those who declared bankruptcy or went through foreclosure were abusing the system, but some did, and they made me wonder if they actually had the right idea in a very self-serving kind of way. I remember one story in particular, about a local couple who simply stopped paying their mortgage, bought a brand new BMW instead, and waited for the overwhelmed bank to kick them out about a year and a half later. Can you imagine living rent/mortgage-free for a year and a half? I sure could do a lot with that money, and it wouldn’t involve buying a BMW. Our focus though was on keeping our house, and even though one type of bankruptcy makes such accommodations, we also didn’t ever want it on our credit record. So in a last-ditch effort to save our house, our credit, and our sanity, we entered into a debt management program.

Being in the plan is no cake walk. You have to commit to about 5 years, during which a significant chunk of your salary is automatically withdrawn from your bank account and sent to your various creditors. You can’t miss a payment, you can’t use any credit cards or any line of credit, and you can’t open any new lines of credit or you’ll be kicked out of the program.

When I think about what we gave up when we entered into the plan, it starts to sound like what the kids these days call “first world problems.” I cancelled my wine clubs. I cancelled all of our magazine subscriptions. I stopped buying chocolate. I turned off the heaters at 65 instead of 72. We stopped traveling together. We stopped going to starbucks. I reduced our netflix, our emusic, and any other variable subscription down to the most basic level. I stopped buying clothes. We stopped eating out. Doesn’t sound so bad right? Except it’s relentless. It’s not like you get to start buying clothes and wine again in a month or even a year. And there have been plenty of situations that have felt more like living in poverty than a bad joke about suburban excess. I had to take a second job for about a year and a half, and Greg took so many side jobs he sometimes worked 7 days a week. We had to use up all the allowed forbearance time on our student loans. I’ve had to delay some bills to pay others, barely making the deadlines and in some cases missing them by months. I’ve had to leave my groceries at the checkout because some unexpected bill caused the debit card to be rejected. I’ve had to feed us on big batches of bean soup because groceries are the only variable part of our budget, so sometimes that money went to pay bills instead. We’ve had to delay veterinary care for our animals, unless it’s life-threatening, and in that case or in the case of any other true emergency we’ve had to borrow money from friends. I am forever grateful to the people in our lives who were there for us in this regard, and to my friend who hired me for that second job, for being our lifeline. I’m not even sure they will ever understand how much of an impact they made on our lives. Without them we would surely be in bankruptcy right now.

There are so many things I don’t take for granted anymore. Simple things, like having a functioning heater in my car or being able to buy a new pair of jeans or being able to get bloodwork done on our sick kitty without having to wonder how we’ll eat for the next two weeks. We’ve always lived pretty simply and thriftily. Most of our debt came from gilding our little shack with “luxuries” like drywall and a roof. But this experience has pushed us to a whole new appreciation about what it means to do without. While I’m left with so much troubling doubt about our economy, and humanity’s unsustainable consumption and reproduction, I can only say that I know what the moral of the story is on a personal level. Maybe declaring bankruptcy and having our debt cleared would have been the right move, for selfish financial reasons, but it feels amazing to know that we got ourselves out of this situation (with a little help from our friends) and the experience was worth far more than a brand new BMW.

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The expense of beekeeping.

I never got into bees to make money. I don’t even think the professionals get into bees to make money. Yes, you pay a lot for great local honey at your farmer’s market, but beekeeping is more expensive than most folks realize. Ever since I put my honey on the (underground) market, friends have made a lot of comments about how much money I must be making. So let’s review some of the expenses.

To get started, you need $300 minimum, for a suit, equipment, and your first hive. Your first hive will just be a single brood box, with frames, and a top and bottom board. Bees are extra. $60 if you can pick them up yourself at a bee farm like Koehnen in Chico (plus your travel costs), or up to $125 if you buy them (with frames included) from a local beekeeper. Your new bees will outgrow that single box within a couple months. Another brood box will run you about $100, with frames. There are ways to make this cheaper by buying the box and frames in pieces and assembling them yourself, or starting from scratch and building your own, but it is merely a substitution of your very valuable time for money. An uneasy tradeoff for anyone with a full-time job and a farmlet.

An example of a single hive just starting up, and an established hive with two brood boxes and a super:
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Later in your first year you’ll probably find that you need some added equipment, and you’ll be lucky if you have a local beekeeping supply shop, so every time you order from Dadant shipping is at least $15. You’ll have to replace old brood comb occasionally, so you’ll need to buy new foundation, plus the special wire and tools to mount it on the frames. And you’ll need chemicals to treat for Varroa Mites, possibly antibiotics to treat for Nosema, Bt to keep your stored frames free from wax moth, and maybe pollen if your bees are having a bad winter. I never get out of Dadant’s website without spending at least $50. Speaking of a bad winter, you’ll probably have to feed your bees during their first winter, and maybe subsequent winters if you’re in an area experiencing a drought. You’d better get a Costco card for all that sugar. In the hardest months of winter I was buying 30 pounds of sugar every two weeks.

Here’s what a frame from the brood box looks like:
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When your bees are healthy and productive, and your local flora is finally producing nectar for them to turn into honey, you have to buy smaller boxes to go on top of the brood boxes, so your bees can store all that honey for you. These are called supers, and usually set you back about $60-$90 depending on whether you need frames with foundation. You need at least two of these per hive, and most beekeepers recommend more. If you do crush-and-strain to harvest your honey you’ll have to buy foundation by the case to keep refilling the frames. Those are about $1 per sheet and you need 10 to fill a super. My bees can fill up a 10-frame super in about 2 weeks. I have 6 supers. You can see how this is starting to add up. If you contract out with an extraction service so that you don’t have to keep replacing that foundation, you’ll be paying a service charge, plus 50cents per pound. And if you want to get your own extractor, be prepared to pay at least $800 for the barebones version. If you’re lucky enough to have $1200 laying around, that’s the one that will actually work.

Crush-and-strain is labor-intensive and expensive:
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Honey and wax returned from the extraction service in buckets, ready to be bottled:
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Now you need to bottle your honey. Mason jars are expensive these days, at a little over $1 per jar. Wholesale will save you some money, but there are big minimums. My orders have to be $75 at a time, and my jars with lids end up costing me anywhere between 50cents and $1 depending on their size. Bottling takes tons of time, sometimes costing me 5 hours to bottle a few gallons, especially when I do crush-and-strain. And time to me is more valuable than money. It is the most precious commodity I have.

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My honey sales right now are going towards recouping some of these costs. I don’t anticipate the demand to stay as strong once the novelty wears off and friends find it easier to just grab some honey while they’re at Trader Joe’s than to email me to arrange a pick-up or drop-off. So as I slowly sell honey in the future, the goal is to save up for an extractor. I’m not getting rich by any means. And neither is your local professional beekeeper, who has the added expense of managing a legitimate business. It’s one reason why beekeepers have been driven to provide pollination services, even though it compromises the health of their bees. But that’s another story.

So, my friends, I’m not trying to make money off of you. Right now I’m just trying to break even. Your local beekeeper is trying to do the same, and he’s also probably trying to keep his business running and support his family. Please support your local beekeeper, whether that’s me, or someone at your local farmer’s market. We promise not to sell you high-fructose corn syrup from China.

Transient bees.

A cool thing happened in our backyard recently. But first, a little background on bee swarms, for those who don’t know how they work…

When a hive feels cramped in its current living quarters, it splits in two and sends its old queen and about 60% of the workers off into the wild to find a new home. That group of bees settles somewhere temporary for about 3 days, while scouts find something more permanent. Once a location is agreed upon, they all move in. So anytime you see a ball of bees out in the open, like hanging in a tree branch or attached to the side of a building, they’re swarming and that’s just their temporary digs while they consult with their real-estate agents.

A few weeks ago, the smallest swarm I’ve ever seen gathered on the backside of one of my beehives. As a beekeeper, I’m always concerned with preventing my own bees from swarming because it kills their productivity, so I suited up the next morning and checked out this swarm. I brushed them into a cardboard box so that I could look for their queen, and I did indeed verify that she wasn’t mine. This was a little wild swarm, perhaps from the wild bees living in our soffit or elsewhere around town. Knowing that they’d be on their way to a more suitable home in a few days, I left them in the cardboard box on top of the hive where they had originally gathered. At least they’d stay warm at night while they were visiting. That evening when I got home from work they were gone.

Everywhere bees go, they leave pheromones. Especially queens. So I shouldn’t be surprised that when I didn’t get around to taking the cardboard box off my hive, a new swarm moved in and this one was here to stay. They’ve been in the box for maybe about a week now and they’ve started building comb. That’s one way to tell if a swarm is staying or moving on – they only build comb when they’ve found their permanent home. Again I needed to check this swarm out to make sure it wasn’t from my hives, and this time I brought my camera and got some neat photos of the early stages of hive construction. Please pardon the photo quality. I’m newly allergic to bees and have to fully suit up anytime I’m around them, while I wait for my HMO to drag its heels on my referral to start allergy shots. Taking photos in big leather gloves isn’t easy.

Here’s the box, right where I left it on top of my hive:
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Peeking inside:
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When bees swarm, they are primed to start making wax since they need to get comb constructed ASAP so their queen can start laying. They extrude the wax through glands in their abdomen. There are certainly better pictures of this online, but it was really cool to see it in person. The bee in the center of this photo is extruding:

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Here’s a close-up:
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And a better view of the comb they’re building:
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I can’t keep them, since I’m maxed out and completely overwhelmed by the number of hives I have already, so I offered them up to my bee club. Of course if there are any interested parties reading this, who live in the LA area and have an empty hive ready to go, email me at robindodge@onesheephill.com and they’re all yours. They seem docile enough right now, but they’re just moving in so I can’t vouch for their long-term behavior.

It was fun to be the host for a swarm for awhile. Maybe I’ll leave a cardboard box bee condo on my hives all the time, for transients and residents alike.

En Plein Air.

As soon as winter dormancy is over, I spend all of my free time digging, planting, weeding, mulching, fertilizing, pruning, and getting all hot and sweaty and covered in dirt and I don’t come inside until the sun goes down. It’s heaven, but it’s not all that conducive to making art. The garden becomes my canvas, and aside from being creatively fulfilling it also drains me physically. By the time I get dinner on the table (way too late) and get out to my studio I’m beat. So my artistic progress is slower these days, but I’m also more focused having decided to do a whole series of glass. I took a brief diversion to draw some daffodils, but here’s what I’ve been working on for the last couple of months:

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As for what I’ve been working in the garden, I know I have approximately 3 fans of my little video garden tours, so I made another one just for them. But anyone is free to take some dramamine and watch it:

More pastels of glass are in the works, as are more zucchinis and tomatoes and pumpkins and dirt and sunshine. I know we didn’t have a winter and we’re in the middle of a catastrophic drought, but I can’t help but love Spring, warm weather, and DST.

Around the farmlet in March.

Anyone who grows food will tell you that climate change is real. It’s actually really funny to see how this plays out in the ultra-conservative Big Ag media like Western Farm Press, as the mostly-republican growers split with their party on this and immigration. How climate change ever became political is beyond me anyway, but then again I’ve never understood Republicans and I understand Democrats so well that I’m a registered Libertarian. But that’s a different story…

I thought I was on the ball this year when it comes to starting the summer garden, but nope, winter passed us by and spring feels like summer. So, while I’m sprouting kohlrabi, radishes, beets, and lettuce, I also have tomatoes bolting out of their cold frames, Lady Banks roses blooming alarmingly early, and trees that are budding and dropping fall leaves all at the same time. In terms of food production, warm weather is fine as long as we have water (also a different story), but next year I’ll need to start the winter/summer garden rotation even earlier.

Here’s a look at what’s going on around the farmlet this summer-spring we’re calling winter:

Although I haven’t really needed the frost protection, these cold-frame shelves Greg built are doing an awesome job of warming up my seedlings. Astute observers will note ample starts of my favorite tomato.

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The kale looks all fluffy and happy after an application of blood meal, but it sure would taste a lot better if we could just get a little frost or two.

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The bees have done so well since my application of miticide that I was able to split one of my colonies and raise a new queen. That little hive in front will go live with my brother in agricultural paradise (AKA Napa) in a few weeks.

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The strawberry bed we started last fall is paying off. The slugs like it too.

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Tomatoes. In March. I love tomatoes, but seriously WTF.

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Alarmingly early gladiolas.

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Replacement chickens, for the chickens that were stolen out of our garden. Yep, seriously, somebody stole our chickens. We were raising 3 boys for meat, and 3 girls to transfer to the main coop, in a portable coop that I was going to move to a different garden bed every 3 months for weed control and fertilization. They were only about a month away from butcher/transfer, and somebody came in the garden at night, peeled back the fencing, and took off with all of them. Crazy, that we live in a town so safe that kids can play in the streets and run around town unaccompanied until dark and everyone leaves their front doors unlocked like it’s 1950, but people steal produce and chickens. So Greg is building me a “chicken tractor” that we’ll padlock to the garden beds. Personally I’d love to get guinea hens because apparently they shriek when strangers come on your property. They’d fit right in with the incessant barking from all the neighborhood dogs.

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Happy SpringSummerWinterMarch from my beautiful little ghetto paradise.

On participation etiquette, and farm conferencing.

Many years ago I interned with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, when they were installing computers in public libraries across the US. The job of the interns was to visit all the libraries in our area which had already received installations, and provide maintenance for the computers and supplemental training to the library staff. Since this was back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the internet, the training we offered was really basic, along the lines of Beginning Microsoft Word. I was really inexperienced as a presenter much less as a trainer, so audience management was a little beyond me at that point. I was about to give a presentation on Intermediate Excel at one library when a librarian approached me and explained that she knew next to nothing about computers but wanted to sit in. She said she would keep her questions to herself since she knew she was in over her head, so I agreed to let her participate.

She did not keep her questions to herself. She monopolized my time for the whole presentation, constantly asking me basic questions on subjects that the rest of the audience was already well versed in. It made the presentation really painful for them, and it wasted their time. It was a nice little lesson in managing your audience, as I started to learn how to politely defer her questions as the session progressed. Encountering people like her makes me wonder about the etiquette of participating in something you know nothing about.

This issue reared its head again recently when I attended the annual California Small Farm Conference. Although I’m not a farmer I am fascinated by the agriculture industry and enjoy learning everything I can about it. This is the third year I’ve attended this conference, and I find the programming to be really valuable. I learn a lot about the industry, and I always come away with some little tidbits I can apply on a very small scale on my farmlet.

The audience at the farm conference varies depending on where it’s held. It seems that anytime it’s held within driving distance of a major metropolis it attracts a zillion wanna-bes both young and old. That’s fine, and everyone needs to start somewhere, but it makes the issue of participation etiquette or lack thereof really noticeable. Some of the questions asked during the farm tours and during the workshop sessions were so far below basic they were almost offensive. Offensive because it wastes everyone’s time, and takes time away from other questions from people who are already at the same level as the presenter and want to move on. In some cases it was pretty clear that the people asking those very basic questions did not do any preliminary research or reading, but expect to absorb all the information they need to start a successful, profitable farm from scratch simply by attending a few workshops and networking with each other. As a librarian I completely understand not knowing where to start in your information-gathering process, but then the questions at that point should be a little different. “What resources should I consult to find the information I need?” is very different than asking the presenter to explain their topic plus everything that precedes it. It’s a little bit like that question every librarian has been asked, from people dubious that we need to know anything more than how to use a barcode scanner and date stamp, about what we learned in library school. And we all say sure, I’ll condense my 2 year Master’s degree and internships for you in 15 minutes, no problem, right?

A session I attended on grafting vegetables was one of the best examples of how the wanna-bes hijack the presentations at this particular conference. The presentation and presenter were amazing. Just two years ago I was at a presentation at the Heirloom Exposition on grafted tomatoes, and the presenter told the audience that we would NEVER be able to graft our own vegetables because unlike the relatively simple, easy, and standard practice used on woody plants like fruit trees, the technique for vegetables was far too complicated for the home gardener to master. In this presentation, the presenter walked us through it step-by-step, and then let us go at it with a flat of Green Zebra scion and Ace rootstock. The presenter allowed questions during her presentation, and about halfway through it all went off the rails, when a newbie asked what rootstock is. Then another newbie asked why the industry throws away the top of the rootstock and couldn’t they just plant it out? Then another newbie asked what verticillium wilt is and another newbie asked what roostock the presenter recommended, for nothing in particular. And yeah I know this might not mean anything to you if you know nothing about agriculture, but we were at a farm conference for goodness sakes. In a session on grafting vegetables. Which you really don’t need to attend if you don’t know what verticillium wilt is. The presenter handled it masterfully, but came away with a very skewed perception of the audience and the conference. She kept repeating over and over “oh wow, I really made a lot of assumptions about your level of knowledge, and I’m sorry about that, let me back up…” while half of us are sitting there wishing she’d go faster. We didn’t attend a session on grafting vegetables to find out what rootstock is.

I’m fascinated in a way, by the people who hijack presentations in this manner. It happens in any industry I’m sure, anytime you bring a group of people together to learn something at an intermediate or advanced level. Watching it from the audience makes me very mindful of controlling it as a presenter, although I don’t often get the opportunity to teach to an intermediate crowd. And it makes me appreciative of presenters and teachers who can handle this situation masterfully, as so many of the presenters and moderators at this conference did. I think they’re getting used to that wanna-be crowd.

All gripes aside, the conference was wonderful. Inspiring and fascinating as usual, and I brought home practical knowledge for my farmlet on native habitat for beetles and lizards, grafted tomatoes, leased land, and food processing. I hardly took any pictures since the farm tour day was cold and gloomy, but I did manage to capture the important things: baby lambs, farm cats, a farm studio, fascinating warning labels, interesting interplantings, and purty flowers.

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January’s redemption.

For those of us who like to spend as much time outside as possible, and as much time growing things as possible, January is a tough month. Even when it’s warm, as it so often is in Southern California, my garden still looks like a barren wasteland. Winter crop seedlings struggle through cold nights and short days, even in the cold-frames. All my favorite hiking spots are devoid of life, and it’s sometimes hard to find the beauty in so much brown. And there isn’t even any baseball, for goodness sakes. It’s a truly depressing time of year.

But there is one bright spot in January, around the middle of the month, when strawberry season begins, and the farm stand just down the road from us starts selling half-flats from the Oxnard fields for just 14 bucks. By April they’re down to 11, but 14 is fine with me, for this little ray of light in an otherwise gloomy month.

With our first half-flat of the year I made my first-ever crepes. All my life I’ve been told by various folks that crepes are SO hard to make, and they take a special pan and a special spatula and special skilz and blah blah blah all that is complete nonsense. I followed this recipe from Alton Brown, and used my little non-stick pan with the wobbly handle that I got from Ikea for like $5, and my same old workhorse of a plastic spatula that I’ve had for the last 8 years or so, and everything was easy-peasy. So, if you’re like me, and everyone you know has been yammering on about how hard crepes are, and you’ve never tried making them because of that, just do it. OK, if you don’t know how to turn your stove on, and you’re not sure what a spatula is, maybe start with bisquick pancakes or something. The rest of you, you got this.

I rolled my easy-peasy crepes around plain sliced strawberries, drizzled honey over the top, and dusted them with powdered sugar, and had the most delicious breakfast on a random Tuesday.

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I also made this wonderful roasted strawberry balsamic sherbet. It’s truly a sherbet, turning out a bit icier than the custard style ice cream I usually prefer to make, but with a buttermilk and sour cream base it’s a treat if you’re a fan of tart frozen yogurt. I wonder though, if it can be made a bit smoother and more creamy. Can you even make a custard base with buttermilk? This one might need a little more experimentation.

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I feel like I should also be presenting a strawberry trio, and maybe I eventually will or maybe I won’t, but for now I’ve been letting my art take me whichever way the wind blows. I’ll see how that all ends up at the end of January and maybe get back to the trios in February. Or maybe not.