Vermont Almanac Welcomes Trevor Mance to the Board

When we make broad statements like humans have been amending soil for millennia, we run the risk of making history seem like one straight line. It also implies that we keep getting better at it, when the truth is much more complicated. If we look directly at the soil, then sure, it was great when farmers in the nineteenth century  started amending soil with bonemeal and guano. They were learning that they couldn’t take without giving anything back. But the big picture was awful, with guano mines in the Philippines being worked with slave labor and at least some of the bonemeal a byproduct of a market hunting industry that was driving wild animals to the brink of extinction. Today conventional farming relies on synthetic fertilizer, which is certainly a step up from a human being being whipped in a guano pit, but it still carries its own host of complications. The 10-10-10 pellets many of use — myself include — fertilizes soil without building it, so it’s a short term boost followed by a long-term depletion.

From where I sit, one of the more hopeful trends in the art of amending soil is compost, as we watch, in real time, this endeavor get turned from a backyard pursuit to big business. The whole promise of the industry is built on the common-sensical idea that if we take the food waste out of our wastestream, we can take a CO2-producing waste product and turn it into a CO2-sequestering product that builds soil. And while the history of ag, really the history of capitalism, warns us to be wary of big business, big business needs to be a partner in this if we’re going to make any dent in a global problem.

There are many reasons why we’re excited to welcome Trevor Mance to our board, among them his business acumen and vision. I can vouch first hand for his gifts, since as his older brother, I’ve known him his whole life and all but the first three years of mine. But in the context of the Almanac, it’s great to know someone on the forefront of the compost question. Trevor works for Casella Waste Systems, the largest wastehauling company in Vermont, as their compost operations manager. If he and his team, along with all the other players in the industry, can figure out a way to make large-scale composting logistically feasible and cost effective, then there’s the opportunity for landscape-scale good.

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Marjorie Ryerson to the Board

According to a recent National Geographic story by Paul Salopek, less than one percent of the world’s total water supply is available to drink. The next line editorializes: “And yet, we squander this treasure like fools lost in a dessert.” The piece goes on to document a water crisis that’s unfolding in India.

We’re so lucky to live in a temperate place that’s water rich, and yet that’s not to say we’re immune to water issues. The newscast this morning announced beach closures on Lake Champlain due to cyanobacteria blooms that are fed and emboldened by land use practices. Our moderate drought, coupled with an August water table that’s usually low, has reduced a lot of streams to a trickle. Just the other day a friend used his well to fill a new pool, and a couple hours in the water slowed to a trickle and turned rust colored. Oops. It’s an illustrative story – kind of the world in microcosm.

Spend some time with Marjorie Ryerson and water will inevitably come up. It’s been a muse to her for years, and was the focus of her 2004 book Water Music. In that compilation, she teamed up with 66 musicians from around the world to celebrate water in photographs and words and music. The project grew into global Water Music Project (www.water-music.org).

Marjorie has been a professional writer, photographer, editor for years, and was a legislator in the relatively recent past, so a lot of Vermonters will know her this way. Those who studied writing at Johnson, Castleton, or Middlebury’s Bread Loaf campus over the past two decades will know her as a teacher. She’s been an outspoken advocate for the Vermont State College system in the midst of its funding crisis – it’s an issue that ties directly to rural Vermont in the fact that Vermont Technical College (originally the Vermont School of Agriculture) still counts farming and Ag among its core programs. It’s how many first-generation-to-go-to-college students get there start.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to welcome Marjorie to our Board of Directors.

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Chuck Wooster to the Board

We subscribe to a USDA newsfeed, and so we get press releases concerning food that’s being recalled. Over the past three weeks there have been alerts concerning around 100,000 pounds of meat products, from taquitos and chimichangas that had hard plastic in them, to meatballs, chicken, and meat patties that were released without inspection, to an ambiguous near-17,000 pound jag of “meat” that was “misbranded.” (They forgot which company they were packing for? They forgot what animal the meat came from?)

Let’s be fair about this: If you look at the historical trend line in food safety in this country, it’s clear that the USDA and the packing houses have done and are doing a remarkable job in ensuring that the food we eat is safe. And there have been no reported injuries or sicknesses from any of the product that was recalled. In a sense, the recalls are an example of a system working. Still, the system itself is sobering and overwhelming. If the past three weeks are representative of a year, that would mean over a million pounds of meat will be recalled. The scale is so large. The players so ambiguous. (Ever heard of BrucePac? Hafiz Foods? Coco’s Italian Market?) The system itself just feels so disjointed, and overwhelming, and so divorced from the land, that it makes you stare long and hard at everything on your plate.

Virginia Barlow and I had the pleasure of walking around Chuck Wooster’s Sunrise farm the other day – we were there to ask Chuck if he’d be on the Vermont Almanac board. And what we saw there was an antidote to the sinking feeling I got trying to wrap my mind around the recalls. The chickens in the cooler at the CSA stand had, just weeks earlier, been scratching in the pasture on the hillside. We walked up and saw their replacements. Chuck and his crew are the farmers and the packers and the marketers – the whole food supply chain is on display for the consumers to see. They can also see how the farm is an integrated, circular system – how the land and the vegetables benefit from the animal manure, and how the animals in turn benefit from the healthy land.

It was a great visit, and Chuck agreed to be on our Board. Besides his many other talents, Chuck will be bringing real world farming experience and a vision of what healthy agriculture was and can be again. Having him as an advisor and a partner in this project makes the publication stronger, and we’re thrilled to add him to the team.

Abuzz

The pleasure of my summer has been watching the food plot I planted in May come along . . . has been watching the wildlife garden I planted in May come along . . . has been watching the . . .

It’s hard to come up with the right descriptor.

I broke ground in May for a wildlife garden in the back-backyard, up against the tree line. The problem with calling it a wildlife garden is that it sounds so Ranger Rick. As the proud father of a three-year-old, I’m nevertheless trying to hold on to a bit of my adult self. It is a food plot, but I’m uncomfortable with that blunt, clinical phrase in the other direction, especially with the implication that its sole purpose is to hang a tree stand over. To be clear I’m not above meat-hunting, and if a fat doe presents a legal opportunity this fall while availing herself of the forage, there’s a chance she’ll end up in the freezer. But the goal here is a lot bigger than hunting. It’s about giving back, to deer but also to every other animal that wants to avail itself of the planting.

The original plan was a buckwheat crop that I’d knock over right about now, to be followed by a fall clover planting. In theory, I want to kill the buckwheat before it goes to seed. But in practice, I just can’t bring myself to do it. When I envisioned helping animals I was picturing mammals, but this planting is so abuzz with thousands of insects that I’ll likely miss my window.

In the quiet morning you can hear the buzz emanating from the quarter-acre plot at about 50 feet off. I spent some time this morning standing in the chest-high flowers, just feeling the pulse. There were hundreds if not thousands of honey bees, and bumble bees of all different species, but most remarkable were the pollinators I’d never taken the time to observe. Little yellow jacket mimics that hovered like hummingbirds. Jewel-colored flies and wasps of all sizes. Black insects with orange bottoms and soft, moth-like wings. Dainty wasps with hornet-butts and delicate, French-looking wings. Aggressive-looking horsefly-sized flies. Nondescript flies. Ants of every size and shape.  Tiny butterflies that you could spend a morning trying to ID.

I remember interviewing an entomologist for a story years ago, who told me that while there were something-thousand known insects in the Northeast, there are likely thousands more that have yet to be classified. There’s a chance that some of the pollinators I was watching have never been documented. And with the well-known struggles pollinators are having these days, there’s a chance some could go extinct without ever being “known.”

And so the buckwheat stands, and the clover planting is being pushed off until the buzz dies down.

Taking Responsibility

Wendell Berry once pointed out that if we believe that the ultimate reality is political, and therefore the ultimate solutions are political, we’re going to have a hard time doing right by the land.

I’ve been thinking of this as Vermont unrolls its new mandatory composting regulations. As of July 1, residents are required to keep vegetable waste out of the trash, though in reality ANR will not be searching garbage bags for compliance. If these composting regulations are to lead to a greater good, people will have to buy in and change their habits. The private sector will need to figure out how to absorb or pass on the extra costs. Homeowners will have to figure out how to discourage or live with more crows and skunks and coons and bears. Farmers are going to have to figure out how to incorporate finished compost in lieu of synthetic fertilizer, even though it’s more expensive and harder to handle. If people are going to be motivated to do this, they’ll need to see the earth as something more than dead matter upon which they drive to and from work.

Berry’s point is that when we see things through a political lens, it’s easy to sub out the hard work to others and then Monday-morning-quarterback the results. Politics – especially these days – also turns simple things into complicated, existential things. The relatively straightforward issue of not throwing a banana peel in the garbage can become an affront to our personal liberty and right to make a living, or a dramatic first step towards a worldwide eco-revolution. The reality is that the politics here are a nudge, trying to push society in a less wasteful direction.

If we’re to do the enormous work of learning to live within our means on an increasingly fragile planet, we need to start with simple steps that are manageable and that we can each be responsible for. For those of us who live in rural areas – which geographically speaking is the majority of us – we now have to scrape our food scraps into a bowl and walk it to the hedgerow each night. I can handle that.

Composting can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Here’s the years-old compost pile in my hedgerow. We compost everything, including meat scraps. It doesn’t smell unless you’re standing on top of it. We ignore the crows and opossums. We delight in visits by foxes and bears. We’re not trying to make a finished product.

The Year of the Earwig

According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2020 is the Year of the Rat. That sounds about right, so far. But at least in our old farmhouse, it’s the Year of the Earwig. We’ve been inundated with them the last few weeks, the way we are at other times of the year with house flies and lady bugs. But rather than simply being a nuisance, earwigs have a disgusting factor to them. Sort of the country version of cockroaches. And right now they’re everywhere: on the bathroom floor, on the kitchen counters, on our toothbrushes. The name “earwig” has an even more disgusting, though mythical, origin: the folklore that these insects would crawl, or wiggle, into your ear to lay their eggs.

At the moment, our earwig population seems to be multiplying exponentially. Which, after doing a little research, I now realize isn’t far from the truth. Female earwigs lay as many as 60 “round, pearly” eggs in shallow soil, and the insects reach the adult stage in about 70 days. It also turns out that earwigs prefer hot, humid environments—so the recent weather has been perfect for them, and perhaps that’s why they’re so plentiful and active this year. “In their search for food and shelter, earwigs crawl over the ground and readily climb houses, fences and trees,” according to UVM Extension’s website. “They forage at night and hide during the day in cracks, hollow stalks of leaf whorls of plants, tubular lawn furniture, and hollow aluminum doors, and under the husks of corn cobs. Their invasion of houses begins sometime in July.” I can confirm that invasion has begun.

Every piece of firewood in the pile seems to cover a colony of earwigs.

We haven’t resorted to traps, and putting insecticide on our toothbrushes seems unwise. So we’re left to manually exterminate them, one at a time. The truth is that, despite the menacing looking pincers on their abdomens, beyond the possibility of a pinch, earwigs don’t pose much of a threat to humans. Gardeners, however, may feel differently—the damage that earwigs do to plants like lettuce, beans, and even raspberries can be severe. We’ve definitely found that there’s no escape outdoors at the moment; we’re stacking firewood right now and each piece in the pile seems to be covering an entire earwig colony.  Though I doubt they are eating too much of our wood.

The good news is that earwigs only live one year, with many dying during the winter. So by the time the Year of the Ox comes around, this batch will be no longer with us. Hopefully they disappear from our house long before that.

Versatile Milkweed

It’s hard to think of another wild plant that that has more uses for humans than milkweed. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten in spring – they’re often referred to as “poor man’s asparagus.” This time of year, the flower buds can be harvested to make capers. Later this summer, the immature pods can be used to make a side dish that tastes somewhat like okra.

Milkweed is named for the sticky white juice in its stems and leaves, a lightly toxic, bitter latex that is neutralized when you cook it. During rubber shortages in World War II, this latex was considered as a rubber substitute; in the same period, milkweed floss was used in life vests and other gear for U.S. troops, substituting for kapok. It has been shown to be a better insulator than down.

The latex can serve as a natural bandage for wounds, owing to its quick-drying elasticity that doesn’t wash off. It serves the plant by deterring insects and grazing animals with its bitter taste, though not so much the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Contrary to popular belief, monarch caterpillars are not immune to the latex – according to research cited in the book Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal, about 60 percent of monarch caterpillars die when they eat it, either from toxins in the latex or because it seals their mouths shut. What’s in it for the caterpillars is that those who do survive become toxic themselves to would-be predators.

Medicinally, milkweed is used as a folk remedy to treat warts and moles. (Many folk remedies are based on the “doctrine of signatures,” which holds that plants that look like a body part can be used to treat that body part, making it no surprise that milkweed, with the wart-like projections on its fruit, has been used in this manner.)

Cherokee, Iroquois, and Rappahannock sources document its use as a laxative and diuretic; early American physicians used it to treat asthma and rheumatism, as well as for other maladies.

Its practical uses extend beyond medicine. According to Arthur Haines’ book Ancestral Plants, the stems make good cordage. The hairs attached to the seeds are also a useful tinder source.

A Buckwheat Planting for Soil Health

The people who founded this publication all come from the forestry world, a craft that’s a lovely mix of art and science and voodoo. One of the things that fascinates me about it is the lack of control. You never start with a blank canvas – even clearcuts have unpredictable seed banks – and so you’re managing a forest that has its own ideas about what and how it wants to grow. You’re also working on crazy timescales: 10 years, 30 years, 70 years, 100 years until you see the results of your inputs. The best foresters I know practice the craft like the best teachers I know. They evaluate, then meet the trees/pupils where they are. They help the site reach its maximum potential, which in different scenarios means different things. They balance economic productivity with wildlife habitat goals and ecosystem health.

This is all so different than traditional agriculture, where your goal is to grow a crop. Sure, you’re still worrying about ecosystem health, albeit in different ways. But where it comes to the ground you’re cultivating, you buy seed that’s already been selected for overachievers, you create as blank a canvas as you can each spring, and then you grow towards a goal of maximum yield. The whole endeavor ends within the span of a growing season.

These differences between Ag and Forestry feel both foreign and exhilarating to me. And I guess the part that appeals to me most is the ability to build and strengthen the soil, which is something you can only do very passively in the forest.

I’ve been working on the soil in two garden plots this year around my house, one for the family, one for the wild animals. The first step was to drag an old International Harvester two-bottom plow out of the hedgerow and use it to turn the earth. It’s 1930’s – 1940’s vintage, but it worked elegantly. This was followed by a pass with a set of disks of the same era, which did show some signs of their age. I ran into some snags in the garden plot – we’ll get to that in a different dispatch. But the food plot went better, and I was soon picking and piling clods. (Some are reading this and wondering why, if i’m interested in soil health, did i even plow at all? The simple answer to this fair question is that using a cool old piece of equipment with my three-year-old was more appealing than strapping on a backpack sprayer full of chemicals to kill sod. We’ll get into no-till systems in more depth in future content.)

When the field was prepped, I seeded it with buckwheat. The goal is to grow a crop for the soil, though crows and chipmunks (among other animals) love the seed, and it’s being munched by deer and cottontails as it grows, and it’s flowers will soon attract pollinators, especially honeybees. The plant’s roots loosen topsoil and the stems store phosphorous, which then gets released as it decomposes to be used by the next crop, which in this case will be a perennial clover mix.

Buckwheat is relatively easy to grow. Its big black seeds are highly visible and thus a breeze to broadcast. It’s not known to be particularly drought tolerant, but it weathered the drought we’re in like a champ. I used an old set of harrows to cover the seed. Knowing the implement was less than ideal, I overseeded to compensate. The charts call for 50 lb./ac; I probably seeded closer to 80 lb./ac. But seed’s cheap, so for a quarter-acre plot we’re talking maybe an extra $10 to overdo it.

You can see from the picture above that the results have been pretty good. Buckwheat grows fast, so in a few weeks from now it’ll flower, and a few weeks after that it’ll be ready to get turned in. If I were transplanting the next crop, I would cut and leave the buckwheat residue in the field to maintain soil stability and suppress weeds. But since I’m seeding, I’ll likely till it in. The downside to this is that I’ll be breaking up soil aggregates, the upside is that I’ll have a better surface for the clover to germinate in.

A real farmer across the road is rehabbing an old corn field with buckwheat this summer, too. Here’s a picture of his crop in as it breaks into flower. It smells 80 percent sweet and lovely and 20 percent dank and sour.

Side Hill Cider Mill

Apple Balsamic Vinegar of Vermont hit the shelves just last fall. Made by Side Hill Cider Mill in Vershire, it’s a highly unusual product. Neil Hochstedler, the owner, has found only two other producers – one in Ireland and a small company in Massachusetts. He said his idea “seemed like a natural and logical” extension of his existing cider vinegar business.

Neil’s been deep into apples since the 1970s, when he picked and pruned for a living. He brought his work home with him, grafting and pruning apples at his own place. Before long, he was producing more perishable apple juice than he could use, and he turned some into cider vinegar, which he has been selling for several years. Too much vinegar inspired him to diversify his offerings, so he created a balsamic line. With help from Sebastian and Sabra Ewing of neighboring Flag Hill Farm, they pretty much invented a commercial-scale production process and have gotten started on marketing.

Not unlike the more familiar balsamic vinegar made from red grapes, Neil’s process begins with boiling apple juice to a sweet syrup, which is done in a small sugaring evaporator.

To make cider vinegar, the sugars in apple juice are first fermented to alcohol and, in a second fermentation step, acetic acid-forming bacteria that have survived the fermentation process are augmented with selected acetobacters which convert the alcohol to vinegar.

To make apple balsamic, the cider vinegar is mixed with the sweet apple syrup until the acid level is right. The mix is then aged in wooden barrels, with some oak chips thrown in. At every step, things can go awry. As Neil says, “There have been a lot of setbacks.” But he finds the complicated relationships among the ingredients and conditions fascinating, and when the right apples, aeration, time, and temperature have been provided, the result makes it worth all the trials and errors.

Neil’s other job is as a machinist, which has come in handy: he’s converted a carpet steamer into a tool that shrinks the sleeves on the bottle caps and has modified aquarium pumps to aerate tanks of vinegar. The kind of electric mats made for starting seeds keep the tanks warm.

The label on the Apple Balsamic Vinegar of Vermont says that it’s “Organic * Gourmet * Handmade * Subtle * Complex,” and where it’s sold, mostly at farm stands and coops at this point, it’s being gobbled up. Somewhat unexpectedly, Neil even likes the sales part, especially when he meets anyone interested in vinegar. It seems to have become an obsession. Now there’s a storehouse of tanks, drums, and casks that should keep him obsessed for a long time.

Snapping Turtle Nest

Editor’s Note: Our friend Carolyn Haley, from East Wallingford, checked in with this Dispatch.

Two Junes ago, this turtle – or its relative – settled into a shady, moist corner of our yard. The thing is the size of a serving platter. My first thought was to be concerned about our indoor/outdoor cats, who might investigate and get their limbs snapped off.

On that first appearance, I consulted the local animal warden as well as an expert on turtles I found online. Their advice was to ignore it, and it would move on. It did. And we never saw an outbreak of mini turtles.

I dismissed the experience from my consciousness, that is until the snapper turned up the next year in the same place at the same time. And then sure enough last week, while I was bringing in the bird feeders, I saw a large lump in an open sandy area of the side yard that serves as our kitties’ natural litterbox. It was the snapping turtle, digging down into the soft dirt with both her rear legs, then pushing the sand out sideways. She was, of course, dropping eggs rather than poo.

The site is an anomaly in our heavily-trafficked yard, where four 100-foot pine trees once grew. We had them taken out a decade ago to save the house from getting crushed in a blow-down, and the area has never grown in. Hence its popularity as a litterbox. And, apparently, an incubator.

I watched her – entranced – for at least an hour. But the real-world question is: what do we do now? There’s a pile of eggs smack in the middle of a daily transit path for humans, animals, and vehicles. Should I mark it with a stick and wait to see what happens? Internet research indicates hatching could occur as late as October. By then we will have transited the patch a dozen times with a lawnmower, not to mention daily foot traffic and weekly vehicle traffic.

I cringe at the thought of potentially cat-maiming creatures erupting from the soil as the cats squat above them, lost in concentration. I also cringe at the thought of what the cats – who let’s face it, are no angels – might do to these innocent turtles when they’re interrupted.

Just another example of the endless, precarious balance between people and nature.

Editor’s Note: We checked in with our friend David Carroll about all this. Carroll is an author, illustrator, and naturalist who’s been observing, and fighting to protect, turtles for 50 years. (His memoir is entitled “Self Portrait with Turtles,” which gives you a sense of the devotion.) Here’s our email exchange:

Hi David,

. . . One of our writers filed a piece that details a snapping turtle nest that, unfortunately, is right in the middle of a heavily-trafficked part of her yard. She wants to mow. She needs to drive a vehicle through there.

What would one do if they found themselves in this situation? And if there’s an option to move the nest, what are the best practices one would follow?

Thanks for humoring the question. Your name is the first one that springs to mind when I think turtles.

Carroll Responds:

Of course the best option would be to welcome such an event and walk, drive, and work around the site; it is not such a huge area. Maybe have the compelling experience of seeing the nest hatch out. But she clearly wants her yard. Moving a snapping turtle’s nest is a real project and has to be done correctly – all eggs kept in their present position, at the same depth. Maybe she has a naturalist, biologist, herpetologist friend who might want to undertake relocation.

Mowing over the nest would do no harm, driving would not impact it if tires did not directly run over it (and maybe the nest would survive even that). Stepping on it (hardly seems necessary) would not be harmful – they lay eggs fairly deeply and usually reach back under a shelf of earth. She should know that the eggs are not likely to hatch until sometime in September, possibly into October, depending on how the summer temperatures go. Unless there are barbed wire fences along both sides of a very narrow pathway, leaving it up to fate with minimal thought beyond avoiding heavy impact or digging would seem the best route to take. I’ll show more of a bias (tilted heavily toward turtle) – what good are, how important are, lawns anyway? But then, our house insurance company has characterized our place as “overgrown” – maybe it’s time to buy a ride-on mower?

My bias aside, I am grateful that she shows concern. I hope you can make something useful out of this. Good to hear from you in any event.