Monday, July 12, 2010

Blackberries (The kind you eat.)

Summer doesn’t seem complete without some blackberries. As a boy, I picked and ate wild ones and collected them for my mother to make pies. On our mini-farm, we planted and cultivated a thorn less commercial variety. The berries were so fat and juicy that one berry could make a mouthful. You wouldn’t want a mouthful, though. They were as sour as lemons. The raccoons wouldn’t even steal them. The berry sourness didn’t seem to bother our resident deer herd. Of course, the deer were eating the plant leaves and stalks rather than the berries. I guess that’s why the wild plants have thorns. But, we weren’t that sorry to see our blackberry plants all eaten.

This year we noticed that wild blackberry plants had invaded a somewhat soggy area that we had left uncut for wildlife. They gave us a bumper crop of wild berries; smaller and seemingly half seed. But, they were sweet just like I remember. The problem was a snake. It was a poison pit viper common in Arkansas called a copperhead. I saw it slither into the brush near the blackberries. We expect that snakes are possible anywhere we work outside. That’s not the same as knowing one is hiding where you plan to go. I wanted the berries enough to wade in there with the snake, though. Kit suggested that the copperhead was just making up its mind whether or not to bite me. Maybe. But, I’ve always known snakes to be pretty decisive about fanging someone.

We got plenty of delicious “free range” berries. Cobblers are easier to make than pies. Here is Drew’s simple recipe:

1. Buy some canned crescent rolls at the grocery. (We got them on sale plus having a coupon.)
2. Collect enough blackberries to half fill your baking dish.
3. Sweeten the berries to your taste with sugar or artificial sweetener.
4. Add a couple of spoonfuls of oil and flour and mix together.
5. Bake the berries in the dish at 400 F for 15-20 minutes.
6. Remove the dish from the oven and open the crescent rolls.
7. Spread the dough flat over the hot berries.
8. Return the dish to the oven for about 10 minutes or until the crust is nice and brown.

For some scrumptious turnovers, lay a few crescent rolls flat on a pan or sheet of aluminum foil. Spoon a few of the cooked berries onto the dough. Cover the berries with the matching half from the roll and finger crimp the edges. Bake until golden brown. Serve hot or cold.

Final note: When collecting wild berries, always take a shower afterwards to remove any chiggers a tiny biting bug that lives in grass and weeds. They are likely in the berry bushes even if snakes aren’t.

Grower’s Market

Little Rock has a “Farmer’s Market.” Most of the produce sold there comes from California or Chile. Therefore a group of local farmers have formed a “Grower’s Market”. You must grow what you sell. You can sell value added products like blueberry muffins, if you grow the blueberries.

These aren’t your traditional corn and soybean farmers. You’re more likely to see the men wearing an earring than a John Deer hat. Some of the women wear long dresses. The growers have calloused and scratched hands with dirt under their fingernails and first quality produce. The market is a colorful collection of tents offering a charming mixture of organic vegetables, goat cheese, and free range chicken eggs. And the customers are a health conscience group that would patronize such a market. Everybody is friendly with interesting stories. It’s a community of which you’d like to feel a part.

The organizers welcomed us warmly when we inquired about joining them as vendors. As lifelong gardening enthusiasts, we know how to raise commercial quality fruits and vegetables, especially in raised beds. The customers are there and willing to pay higher prices than in the grocery store. The problem is raising enough produce to make it worthwhile. So far, we’ve eaten or given away all that we can raise. Expanding production will require some capitalization … that is buying a tractor. Do you know how many squash you’d have to raise and sell to pay for a $15,000 used tractor? Do you think the tractor would last long enough to pay for itself?

Kit would like to offer baked goods at the “Grower’s Market”. I could grow the seeds for her prize winning poppy seed bread. Maybe I’d rather not grow any poppy products. But, state law does require baking all goods for sale in a commercially licensed kitchen. Home kitchens are ineligible. We haven’t given up on joining the “Grower’s Market”, because we love growing and baking things. And we could use some income. Still there are some formidable challenges to selling local produce.

Christians and the Sustainability Movement

When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s there were no deer (or wild geese) in rural areas. Virtually all of the deer had been killed through unsustainable hunting. Today deer (and geese) are everywhere. In many places, including our mini-farm they can be pests. Hundreds of thousands of deer are harvested by sport hunters just in Arkansas each fall. What made the difference? Careful management by state agencies was the major factor. Hunters themselves contributed through the fees they pay and by adopting an attitude of sustainable hunting.

I’m not a deer hunter. But, I think that sustainable management of deer is something that Christians should support. First, many people benefit and not just the hunters. The sport also creates many thousands of jobs and valuable food resources. Many non-hunters, such as myself, never get tired of seeing the deer (or wild geese) even if they can be troublesome in the garden. Successes similar to deer can be told about wild turkeys, waterfowl, sport fish and many other renewable resources.

Secondly, Jesus said “… love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39). He also said for us to, “Do for others what you would want them to do for you” (Luke 6:31) Both scriptural imperatives for Christians should apply not just to the guy next door right now, but to all of humankind including future generations. Some may think these future generations are of little concern, because Jesus will return in this generation. That would be fine by me. Jesus can come right now. I’m ready. But, the first century Christians thought Jesus’ return was imminent when it wasn’t. I personally think that Jesus’ return will still be awhile. Regardless, because we don’t know when Jesus will return, we need to consider the welfare of those who may live after us.

Today there is a “sustainability movement” much wider than the management of wildlife. Christians who are generally conservative politically can be repelled by some of the more liberal proponents of sustainability and reject the concept. I believe that this is short sighted and even offends many whom Christians hope to win to faith. Conservation of natural resources and limiting damage to the environment should be a priority for Christians in order to consider the welfare of others. Sustainability does not require defaulting to dubious forms of solar energy or crippling the economy in response to global warming. But, the deer example shows that application of sustainability can give tremendous benefits. Energy resources, air, water, and especially our oceans need sustainable management. Sustainability can demonstrate Christian love.

Saving Money with Wood Heat

Who doesn’t love the warmth and charm of a big open fire in the wintertime? Plus, we save perhaps $800 in heating costs each winter using firewood. Wood stoves are certainly more efficient than an open fireplace. But, we enjoy the atmosphere an open fire gives. And the wood is free to us. Wood heat is even environmental, a renewable form of solar energy. How about the CO2 released? We never cut living trees for firewood. The CO2 would be released anyway, when the dead trees rotted.

Common wisdom says that an open fireplace sucks the heat out of a house. That would be true, if we used other heat and a fire at the same time. Instead, we cut off the other heat and let the house get cool. The power companies tell us “You’ll save money leaving the thermostat relatively constant.” That’s true for heat pumps that include electric strip heaters. Most strip heaters kick in when the thermostat setting is 3 degrees above the room temperature. You might as well build a fire with dollar bills. One winter our heat pump failed. We didn’t notice, because the strip heaters kicked in to keep the house warm. That is, we didn’t notice until we got a monthly electric bill for over $700 in today’s currency. Now we keep our strip heaters disconnected.

Without strip heaters, turning the heat pump on and off saves energy. (Drew was a mechanical engineer with a graduate degree in thermal science.) Using no strip heaters does take longer to heat up a space. Cutting off the house heat isn’t practical for some. But, for us, it’s fun to have a cool house and a cozy zone. Tell the kids that you’re camping indoors. Most will love it. You’ll need to monitor other room temperatures in the coldest weather though. One year we froze all of Kit’s houseplants in a room we had isolated.

Summertime is a great time to collect firewood. Wood makes better fires, if the logs have time to dry and season. Any type of tree can make good firewood. The heating value of various woods is totally dependent on their density. A pound of hickory makes the same heat as a pound of popular or a pound of grass clippings for that matter. We even burn seasoned pine. Our hot open fires don’t allow creosol to collect. However, if you use a slow burning wood stove, you should clean the pipe or chimney for creosol occasionally regardless of what wood you use.

We cut up dead trees on our own property. Cutting and splitting is such great exercise, that we collect more than we need and give truckloads away. But, we also pick up wood on the road. Storms blow down trees, which the road crews cut and leave on the side for people to take. Utility companies also leave wood. We ask the residents, if the wood is near a house. Usually people are glad to have you haul it away. Once a policeman stopped when I was loading wood alongside the road. I thought that I must be in trouble. Instead he asked me to follow him to his house. There he had a big pile of wood and asked if I’d like to clean it up too.

Wood and fires have added a lot of quality to our lives. Sometimes I think, “If I had all of the time back that I’ve spent messing with wood and fires … then I could do it all over again.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Selling on eBay

Our financial advisor (Fidelity’s Green Line) assured us that we could retire on returns from our stock market investments until we qualify for Social Security. You know how that’s going. Therefore, we are trying to make some money selling on eBay.

My mother who died in 2004 was an antique collector and dealer all of her life. Many of her favorite pieces are displayed in our home. Mom’s idea of selling antiques was to price everything sky high. She would sit in her shop for weeks without any sales. Then somebody would show up and be happy to pay $200 for an item Mom had gotten for 75¢ at a yard sale. That excitement made it all worthwhile for Mom. The inventory from her last shop now fills every nook and cranny of our home. That inventory is what we are selling on eBay.

Here are some things we’ve learned about selling on eBay:

1. My wife Kit is a genius at this. She got a pile of antique books as tall as herself from the library and researched every piece. She runs our whole eBay effort.
2. Selling on eBay is hard work. Every entry requires research, careful listing, answering questions from prospective buyers, collecting payment, packing and shipping. It is a full time job.
3. You don’t make much money, at least not with antiques. The open marketplace has forced prices down. We sold a plate valued at $60 for $23.
4. Don’t mail the goods until you receive payment. Our biggest order, which included several items, was never paid for.
5. Insure breakables. Need I tell you this sad story?

But, selling on eBay has brought some fun moments. We sold an incense burner to a Mr Hu in Shanghai. How many people do you know who have exported stuff to China? Then there was one item that I would have sold for a dollar, if we’d had a yard sale. Some guy paid $171 for it. Now wasn’t that exciting? Afterwards, he sent us a nice note expressing how pleased he was. That was even more rewarding. I guess I’m more like my Mom than I thought.