Friday, October 31, 2014

Christmas Eve for CA Farmers!

There's a lot of green on the regional radar today, meaning there is a good chance of significant precipitation within the next 48 hours.  And I do mean significant, nothing like the drizzles and sputters we've had over the last 190 days or so.

That's right.  Here in the mid-latitudes of the great state of California, it's been 190 days since we've seen any rain whatsoever. And the six months or so before that only gave us about 5 inches or so.

To say it's dry is an understatement. But all that's going to end tonight, meaning today feels like Christmas Eve, for farmers anyway.  All day long we'll be watching the approach of the storm like children waiting for Santa, seeing if the front is strengthening (great!) or weakening (no!) and looking for those squall lines heading in our direction.

Most of us in this area are on good, deep wells, but our water has a very high minerality that, over time, can damage both the soil and the crops that are grown in it.  Minerals like calcium and magnesium are fine in small amounts, but without several good downpours, they will remain in the soil, next to the roots, and eventually diminish yields and damage fruit.  So we need rain.  Boy do we.

Of course we have not yet made it to Home Depot to buy our big rain barrels for attaching to our downspouts, but with 190 or so days of dust, dirt and who knows what else built up on our roof, perhaps the water from this first gully-washer is not the best water to save anyway.

But hopefully it's the start of a long and wet season for us.  We're hoping Santa brings us an early delivery of water that just keeps on coming.  That's all this farmer wants for Christmas, anyway.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

To Vet or not to Vet


Our dog Sputnik recently took a spill off Big Ag's lap onto the hardwood floor and developed a limp earlier this week.  Since I spent some time working in a vet's office as an assistant in the past, I knew how to examine the leg and his joints to make sure nothing was broken or his hip dislocated.  But the question always comes up when you own either livestock or pets:  When do you call in the services of the vet?

One thing I can tell you about vets today that was probably not widely true 100 years ago is that "growing your practice" is a huge goal among many new veterinarians.  There are constant advertisements and junk mail which arrive at your friendly neighborhood vet's office encouraging them in this.  Breakout sessions like "how to increase your profit margins," "how to effectively have your existing clients increase your bottom line," and "how more testing = more profits and better care" is not uncommon to see. It's all quite out in the open.  Some vets buy into it, some do not, and for us pet owners the trick can be telling the difference before our checkbook becomes drained.

But it's a little more complex than that too, because the ones who do buy into it -- who have taken the workshops and seminars -- actually have a good justification for doing so.  After all, spending more on each animal that comes through the door is not only good for business, it's good for the animal.  Tale this example scenario:  

You bring your dog into the vet with what seems to be a bladder infection.  An old school vet will send your dog home with an antibiotic or sulfa drug and tell you if it's not better within a few days to come back in. Hopefully that will fix things -- most of the time it will -- but not all the time.

 A new school vet will insist on running a blood panel to check for infection and kidney function, while also strongly encouraging you to allow them to do a bladder ultrasound,  in order to rule out cysts or tumors.  

The visit to the old school vet will cost you about $60 bucks (office visit plus meds).  The visit to the new school vet will set you back about $400 that or more, if you agree to their diagnostic protocol. But there's no question that all those tests improve the chances of diagnosing your dog's issue correctly.  The question is, do you want to spend that much, or take your chances on the pills and see what happens?

We're now in the position where we can provide first-world health care to our pets, if we so choose.  If your dog has a tumor, you can now see that he gets chemotherapy. But is that kind of care in the pet's best interest?  That's a highly personal question for the owner, and delves into a moral area that's as grey as a foggy day at the beach. I'm not sure I could put my pet through chemotherapy, because I'm not even sure I'd want to do it myself, if I had a serious case of cancer.

Of course if you're raising livestock, you also have to draw the line on what does and does not warrant a large-animal vet call.  We would not call the vet out for a chicken, for example, but would for a sheep or goat.  We would not do expensive MRIs or ultrasounds on any outside animal, and only on our inside pets if it would lead to a simple and damn-near guaranteed successful treatment protocol. 

We euthanize when necessary, whether it is a dog, chicken, or horse that is suffering and not expected to survive. But if the animal could survive, then we will do what we can, within certain financial limits.  We've spent good money treating colicky horses because it's an easily treated condition with complete recovery and many more years of life possible afterward.  But when faced with end-stage incurable Equine Cushings disease (this after many months of providing hugely expensive imported prescription meds to try and treat the lesser symptoms of it) we chose to have the vet come and euthanize our horse, rather than allow her to suffer.

So you do what you can and try and trust your instincts.  Regarding the most recently injured animal here, my own instincts were thankfully correct; after giving Sputnik half a baby aspirin and making him rest for a few days, his strained leg appears to be healing rapidly. But in this day and age, it's very difficult to know how much its appropriate to spend on a sick animal, whether it's the sheep out in your field or the cat on your lap.  

But I think the motto of not wanting our animal charges to suffer unnecessarily is always a good yardstick.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Put Down The Phone

My son finally admitted to me a few months ago that one of the problems he had with a woman he'd been dating was that she rarely put down her cell phone and stopped texting her many friends, even when they were on dates or in the middle of conversations.  

I felt sad for him, because I too have known the loneliness that comes from sitting in a restaurant or strolling the beach with someone whose face is buried in their "screen," but it was odd hearing it from someone so young. I thought everyone that age had just come to accept those interruptions as part and parcel of living, something that always made me sad because I spent so much of my life not having to deal with it.

I am sure there comes a time in everyone's life when they miss the world they grew up in, and so it may be with me.  For me, what I miss more than anything is the lack of "screen time," meaning the distractions of our handheld devices and computers, which are now capable of going everywhere with us due to smartphone technology, and which immediately diminish the real world we are currently experiencing due to their many attention-grabbing characteristics.  

But there's a long and storied history of this kind of nostalgia:  The old Victorians probably felt a loss when the flickering shadows cast by the gas lanterns and hurricane lamps were replaced by Edison's constant and bright electric bulbs.  Or our grandparents did, when television replaced sitting around the radio listening to music or serials, allowing the mind to conjure up what it would in its shadows.

But never has a technology so allowed us to never be alone -- and at the same time to be more alone than ever because of it.  If I had to think back on what would have changed the most in the advent of the cell phone and iPad, it probably would have been my trip to Europe in 1986, when I traveled across that continent with a backpack and was "missing in action," so to speak, for several months. Of course I was only missing in my regular world. In actuality, I  knew exactly where I was, and without getting too Zen about it, I found out this is all that ever really matters.

Those days and months by myself (or with new friends) changed me for the better, partially because traveling like that allowed me to disconnect from everything that was familiar back home. By doing that, I also disconnected from a part of myself which was no longer needed. Enter change, enter growth. Nowadays, world travelers are emailing missives or blogging their traveling experience like crazy, and if not, they are at least sitting in internet cafes getting caught up on all the US news while checking in with everything they left behind.  

I'm relatively convinced that all this communication defeats the purpose of the "walkabout," where you immerse yourself in a kind of global "absolute elsewhere" for awhile, in order to discover who it is you might become when no one you know is around to tell you exactly what that is.

I also wonder how technology twists and shapes the roots of new relationships as they are forming.  I know for me, with the two or three great loves I've had in my life, early on there was usually one evening (sometimes more) where a conversation of shared experiences started and then expanded, until it filled the entire night with tales of the paths that led us to that exact moment, and how auspicious it all seemed.  

Some of those conversations went on until, with sleepy eyes, we realized we'd spent the entire night talking and that the sun was coming up behind the park bench where we'd sat down hours ago.

Does this ethereal and cosmically romantic experience fundamentally change when your friends are checking in every couple of hours to see how your date is going, or there is a "chirp"every time someone comments on your latest Facebook post, or your calendar beeps and tells you that you have a meeting coming up at 11 a.m.? Yes, I suspect it does, probably just enough to ruin that golden flow of ideas and your perception of the light in his eyes that you lose when you turn away, if just for just a moment, and check the alert on your phone. It's gone and its not coming back. Those are moments you catch now, or not at all.

Put down the phone, people.  When you walk on the beach, look at the sun on the water.  Feel the spray on your face. And when you find the person with the light behind their eyes, hit the "off" button on your phone so you don't miss a moment of the experience. Maybe even light a hurricane lamp and sit together in the shadows listening for awhile. If we're willing to be open to it, life is able to supply us with a spectacular and unrepeatable past. But you have to be looking up in order to see it. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Homestead Snobbery/Onion Time

It's never a fun experience to be a homesteader, fresh out of your homegrown crop, forced to head into the supermarket to buy it there. Some kinds of produce feel OK for me to buy:  It's too cold in winter to grow avocadoes here, so I have no qualms about heading into town when I need avocadoes for guacamole.  Ditto for peaches; our tree is not large enough to produce more than one or two pieces of fruit yet, which means I will be visiting either the supermarket or Farmer's Market if I want some nice, ripe Elbertas.

But my Spring 2014 onion crop has now been consumed by us, and so the other day I had to throw three or four red onions into my shopping cart and that hurt. It's silly, because my pain was mainly because of 1) homestead snobbery, where I feel my own onions are vastly superior and fresher to anything grown at the market and 2)more homestead snobbery, where I feel snooty and self-sufficient because I know that (for most of the year) I can head outside and dig up some onions almost anytime I need them. Onions just aren't really ever on my shopping list -- at least not 95 percent of the time. And really, there is nothing better than an onion whose time from ground to skillet is less than 10 minutes.  It's true.

But even on the best homesteads, sometimes you run out of a crop before you have another one ready to go, and so it was with me and onions.  And so today I plant new ones. 

I will put about 10 onions in the ground today, another 10 next month, 10 more after that, and so on.  Sometimes this works, and the onions mature at evenly spaced intervals, and sometimes (like when we get a ton of late, warm weather like we've had recently) it does not, and they come of age at roughly the same time and I end up shortchanged at the end of the season.

Of course if I had some kind of cold storage or a cellar, I could harvest them all at once and store them, but since this is an old complaint I won't go there today.

But it does feel good to know that we're once again back in the onion business.  I cry when I have them, and I cry when I don't, but I'd rather cry over a fresh, pulled-from-the-ground onion than an empty onion bed any day.  And let's not even talk about the tears of shame which spring up at the onion bin at the supermarket when I'm standing over it. 

Yes, along with the pride of growing things yourself, there is also the disappointment when you have to start buying it at the grocery store again.  So I'll just say it. My name is Hot Flash Homestead, and I am a homestead snob. There.  I said it.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Waiting for fall to fall

Things in the garden and around the homestead are winding down.  The cucumber plants are fruitless, their leaves yellow and wilting, as are the leaves on the pumpkin plants.  The eggplants are still producing, along with the tomatoes, but that is about it.

We had a hot spell (Spell? Who am I fooling?  It's been this way since May) that has caused my new fall lettuce to get close to bolting and the carrots to grow at an almost impossibly rapid rate, so I will have to replant -- the lettuce at the very least -- towards of the month, and hope for cooler weather. 

So far that's been my main excuse for not cleaning up the beds and clearing away all those cucumber, squash and pumpkin plants -- it's just been too hot for too long and getting out there to water the lettuce and carrots is all I can stomach right about now.   

This is always a difficult time of year for me, as summer just doesn't seem to want to end, and I'm anxious to begin experiencing some kind of fall.  That is probably the biggest drawback to living in this area.  Don't get me wrong, in many ways it's the Promised Land, but if autumn is your favorite season you will feel shortchanged on a more or less annual basis. 

During these 90 degree October days, it's also common knowledge the longer the heat holds out, the more abbreviated whatever kind of autumn we normally have will end up being.  

In the meantime, my sweaters sit in the closet and it feels somehow wrong to be placing pumpkins and orange, yellow and red wreaths on the doors when it's still sleeveless shirts and shorts weather.

Monday, October 6, 2014


When I lived in the city, I awoke to the hum of the freeway most mornings.  If the city is like a body, the freeway is its circulatory system.  As it rises and and gets moving, the freeway-body responds with increased circulation, which is a kind of whooshing sound that grows louder and more urgent closer it gets to rush hour.  

If I was up really early (or came home very late), I'd see the newspaper delivery truck making its way down the street, throwing the LA Times into the lobbies of all the apartment buildings, just as dawn was breaking behind the skyscrapers to the east. Sometimes the mostly-nocturnal garbage trucks would still be finishing up their rounds and could be heard rattling their way home along the boulevard, fighting for space with the produce delivery trucks, which were outside the restaurants, blinkers on, delivering fresh goods for the day.  There would even be the occasional jangling of a dog leash as some early-riser took their Fido down the sidewalk to a postage stamp-sized patch of dirt near the corner, to do his or her business.

These were sounds that called you to alert, to action, as you dressed, gulped down some coffee and became part of the teeming masses headed into offices in order to Make Things Run, as the sun rose higher and the air warmed.  It was exciting to feel like a part of the machine, but for all the pavement I pounded in my business suit and Reeboks trainers, another life called to me, and after a time I left the city I had grown up in and headed into the suburbs.

The suburbs are different. The noise of the freeway, so much a pulse of the morning in the city, is a dim hum out there.  But at dawn and just after it, there are cars starting all up and down the street and the sounds of children clambering into them and being hauled off to day care or school, with cereal bars or sippy cups clutched in their moist hands. And there are the sounds of morning radio, blaring from the front seat of the same cars, where their parents clutch their own beverage cups and check their briefcases before heading out on their morning missions -- drop off the kids, head into work. 

If you wait another hour or so after that, the suburbs then begin to fill with the sound of the old gardening trucks and their clanky trailers, driven by the Mexican gardeners from  the "other part of town," who will arrive faithfully in the morning and finish their work before the day's heat gets too brutal.  With them come the sounds of lawns being mowed, bushes being clipped, and the ever-present whine of motorized leaf blowers cleaning off the sidewalks when they are done.  Sometimes there are mothers with infants, taking morning walks and pushing strollers along the sidewalks while talking into their cell phones. Sometimes there is birdsong. But most of the time the streets -- and the houses that sit on them -- are empty.

Now I live in the country, and here the sounds are completely predictable, and exactly the same on any morning of the week, whether it's Sunday morning or a Wednesday or a Saturday.  If you are up early enough, you will get to hear the last of the yip-yip-yip coyote songs, as the packs wind down their nights and retreat back into their dens. But more often the day here usually begins with the song of the brown thrasher, who nests in the bushes outside our bedroom window.  He also starts his song well before sunup, beginning just about the time the coyotes are winding down.  

But since he's so early, it's actually possible to roll over and catch another hour of sleep before the rest of the dawn chorus starts up, singing as they begin making their way down from the trees to start their day.  The roosters on all the other farms around us crow to greet the day, and all manner of animals can be heard calling out as their owners push wheelbarrows full with their morning rations towards their pastures and stalls - cow, sheep, goat and horse.

It's not a rush hour as much as a routine; everyone makes their own noises, everyone eats, and then everyone goes about their day. 

After about 9 a.m., the only sounds are birdsong, and the occasional call of the hawk or eagle floating high overhead.  But mostly, it's silent. Silence.  Such a strange concept after all those years of cities and suburbs.

I have lived through many mornings, in many places and in many parts the world.  Sure, I have my preferences, but I can also see the beauty and unique hope held within the mornings of all these places where I've called home and where I've stumbled out of bed and to the coffee pot.  

Every one of these places has its own symphony, and you need only be mindful to see the beauty in all of them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Late summer in photos

 The lettuce and carrots for fall are coming along nicely. They have a white fabric cover ready to go so they can be shaded at a moment's notice and stay nice and cool on the hotter days.  We're supposed to be 100 degrees on Saturday, if you can believe it.

 Our two Granny Smith apple trees bore their first decent fruit this year!  I'll bet we got about 20 apples in all, not bad considering we planted in 2012.

 But we have also had failure.  I have no idea why this Ollalieberry bush suddenly died on us. This will need to be replaced this fall.

 The west-facing wall of Big Ag's shop has been painted sky blue, to provide heat neutrality. The barn quilt will go on this wall, along with a couple of trellised plants on either side to further keep things cool, temperature-wise.

And we're still getting an abundance of summer goods, including plenty of tomatoes and eggplant (plus a few fall apples thrown in for good measure).