Thursday, February 25, 2010

Honey Bees Are Coming Soon

My packages of bees are arriving on March 28th! I'm not ready for them, and there's a lot of work to be done before I will be ready, most of which would be a lot easier if the temperature were about 15-20 degrees warmer. They're predicting 8-12 inches of snow in the next 48 hours. We weren't expecting the ladies until sometime in mid-April, so I was sort of counting on getting all the priming and painting done in early April, when we could reasonably expect to see some days in the mid-50s F. I may actually need to fire up the heater in the garage to get this done. I'm not even sure we have kerosene in the tank, as we hardly ever heat the garage. We also need to figure our exactly where on our little property the hives will reside and build some stands to keep them up off the ground. Oh well. At least we have all the equipment we need (I think).

I've been reading books and online articles on beekeeping, speaking with local beekeepers, and attending classes to learn about keeping bees. There's an enormous amount to know. What becomes obvious very quickly once you dip your toe into the world of beekeeping, is that - aside from the myriad hard facts - there's a bewildering range of opinion and practice among beekeepers. It's rather intimidating for a first-time beekeeper to sort through and make decisions. Of course, I come to the table with my own set of beliefs and inclinations - not about beekeeping per se, but about how much chemical/medical intervention I'd like to use to support my colonies. If you've been reading here for any length of time, it's probably no surprise that I plan to follow natural/organic/low-intervention/biodynamic practices with my bees. I know I run the risk of losing my colonies by not routinely dosing them with drugs. That's a risk I'm willing to take.

Thus far, I'm drawn to a hodge-podge of different practices that don't fall into any established beekeeping approach that I know of. Here's a run down of all the decisions I've had to make before my bees even show up.

Hive type: Langstroth. This is the typical hive type of squarish boxes which stack up on top of each other, with movable rectangular frames inside each box. For each colony I have two deeps and two shallow supers. The shallow honey supers will be easier on my back, weighing in at only 35-45 pounds when full of honey. The alternatives just sounded heavier than I wanted to deal with. Back injuries are very common among beekeepers. I'd rather take a pass there.

Foundation type: none, just starter strips. This is probably my most controversial decision as far as established, conventional beekeepers are concerned. Top bar hive beekeepers, on the other hand, take this for granted. My objections to foundation are that it's either far too labor intensive for me, or that it introduces what is likely to be contaminated wax into a new hive. Also, I'm convinced that letting bees draw their own comb, with the cell size they want to draw, is better for the long-term health of the colony. There are obvious down sides. One is that my bees will have to work a lot harder to produce all of their own wax, which takes energy and time. Another is that they may not draw perfectly straight honeycomb, which will make it far more challenging for me to move and remove frames as I work the hive. It will also mean work for me to install the starter strips as opposed to using wax-coated plastic foundation, and this work needs to be done soon.

Feeding: Reluctantly, I plan to feed my bees on arrival, at least until they have a few frames completely drawn out with comb. Package bees arrive with no frames, having been fed only sugar water for sustenance during transport. I have a frame feeder - meaning a feeder which takes the place of one or two frames and sits directly in the hive. I plan to feed them with dilute honey from a local producer who follows organic practices. I know that everyone feeds bees sugar syrup, but it just doesn't feel right to me. I am especially concerned not to feed my bees sugar made from genetically modified sugar beets. (Most white sugar in the US is now made from these GMO beets.) I could, of course, buy cane sugar and avoid the GMO issue, but I will feed them dilute honey at least until I run out of the "clean" honey I have in my pantry. Also, I will add a little chamomile tea and a tiny amount of salt to their feeding syrup, as recommended in the Demeter standards(pdf) followed by biodynamic beekeepers in the EU.

Medication/treatment: Unless something drastic changes my mind, I'm going to fall on the non-toxic, low intervention side of things here. If you're not a beekeeper or aspiring beekeeper, you may not realize just how besieged the honeybee is by various parasites, and bacterial or fungal diseases at the moment. It is an exceptionally challenging time for Apis mellifera. Ultimately, my view is that bees need to develop their own resistance to various pests and regain their health through a cleaner environment and good breeding, rather than having weak colonies propped up through chemical intervention by humans. My opinion is that, in relying on chemical controls, beekeepers are simply breeding parasitic mites and bacteria that are resistant to those treatments, just as we are with E. coli in factory meat farming. To that end, I will try to support my bees by not introducing chemical insults into their hives, by following non-toxic treatments and practices that will aid them in ridding themselves of parasites, and by providing as much nectar and pollen forage, uncontaminated with pesticides or herbicides, on my property as I can manage. I plan to use many of the preventative methods described in Natural Beekeeping, by Ross Conrad, a book I highly recommend to aspiring beekeepers.

Races and queens: I have ordered one package of Italian bees and one of Russian bees. The particular strengths and weaknesses of races of honey bee are a little too detailed to go into in a blog post, but suffice it to say I felt like trying more than one race as a newbie beekeeper. I have chosen to have my queens marked but not clipped. Marking means that my queens will have a dot painted on their backs so as to make it easier for me to find them when I open up the hives. I hesitated over this because I assume the paint itself is a chemical insult. But as a brand new beekeeper I also see the value in being able to find the queen quickly so as to disturb the hive for as short a time as possible each time I open it up. In future I don't plan to have queens marked; there are other ways to ascertain that the queen is present and healthy within the colony, even if I don't become very skilled at finding her quickly. Clipping is the practice of cutting off at least a part of the queen's wing. I find this abhorrent, and much akin to declawing a cat. I would never do it. Clipping prevents the queen from flying, so that she cannot leave the colony with a swarm. This is feasible only because queens that arrive with package bees are already mated, and so don't need to fly to mate. Because my queens will be capable of flying, I may lose part of a colony to swarming. I'm reconciled to that possibility. Swarming is the only way nature has of forming new colonies of honey bees. If my colonies do well enough to swarm, so be it. I will consider it a job well accomplished, since only a very healthy and well established colony will produce a swarm. Not that I won't try to catch that same swarm if I can. But given the choice between wanton injury to a queen and the possibility of losing part of my investment, I'll avoid the unnecessary cruelty.

Honey harvesting: none this year, destruction method thereafter. This is another area in which I will follow an unconventional approach by the lights of most beekeepers. I don't plan to have anything more than a taste of this year's honey. Since my bees will need to draw all of their own comb, and since I will not feed them continuously, I would be surprised if they manage to produce more than the bare minimum of honey they'll need to get through the winter here. Even if they did, I would not harvest more than a spoonful. (I can't deny myself entirely, can I?) Next year, if things go well, I will harvest honey from a shallow super or two, using the destruction method. This sounds bad, but it's a low-tech method that doesn't require me to invest in a centrifugal extractor. To see how destruction harvesting works, check out this video from the Backwards Beekeepers.

I believe that destruction harvesting will work well for me as a backyard beekeeper because it's rather a simple process. I can do it in smaller batches than beekeepers working with extractors prefer to, because the extraction process is quite involved. If I had many colonies scattered across many locations, it might make more sense to get all the harvesting done in one fell swoop by means of the extractor.

I just want to wind up this post with a caution. Keep in mind, when reading this, that I have exactly zero experience in keeping bees at the time of this writing. I'm still very much in the learning stage with bees. What I've outlined above is only the best guesses I've come to after doing as much learning as I can in a short time. I strongly recommend that other beginning beekeepers do their own research and come to their own decisions about how they will keep their bees. I will certainly report on how the beekeeping project goes, and I'd be happy to discuss theory or practice with any other beekeeper, at whatever level of experience. But don't take anything I've said here as authoritative, because I most definitely am not an authority on honey bees.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Meet Lucy & Mojo, Plus the Best Cat Toy Ever!

We have cats once again.

Lucy is black but for a few white hairs in her ears, and a tiny patch under her collar. I've never had a black cat before and have discovered that she becomes nearly invisible against a navy blue blanket. This is especially true in dim lighting, or whenever she closes her preternaturally orange eyes. Her fur has the silkiest texture I've ever encountered in any cat. Her personality is completely sweet and trusting, but her appearance is sometimes downright demonic. We call her "The Hellcat" when she's looking particularly impish, and "Lulu" when she's playful as only a kitten can be.

Then there's Mojo: long, lanky, and stripey. Though well beyond the kitten stage, he's still not quite full grown by the looks of his big paws. I reckon he'll be growing into those. His personality is the oddest combination of skittishness and trust I've ever seen in a cat. He startles easily, but also gets comfortable with people (who aren't moving around) very quickly, and definitely wants to lavish and be lavished with affection. We're hoping that plenty of exercise and a little time will mellow out his slightly high-strung nature. He was cooped up in a small area before we got him. He is astonishingly strong and muscular for his sleek frame.

Fortunately his disposition is such that he doesn't bully Lucy, because he could easily roll her if he chose to. In fact, they get along just fine, which is a relief. Both cats came from shelters, and we paid less for them than it would have cost us for the feline leukemia testing, vaccinations, and spaying/neutering that they've already had done.

Much as I enjoy showing off the new additions to the family, there are a couple of frugality angles to this post. While Lucy and Mojo are pets, not livestock, they will still be expected to earn their keep. The old farmhouse we live in has mice in the attic. We can live with that, though we do set out traps and will leave the attic door open in summer so the cats have access to the rodents' chosen living area. What we can't tolerate is rodents in any other part of the house, especially anywhere near where we keep our food. Keeping cats means the rodents remain a respectful distance from our living areas. I will also want rodent patrol outside during the warmer months of the year. Voles and mice are not welcome in the garden, in the garage (where we keep our potatoes and other crops at certain times of year), nor where the chicken feed is kept.

So yes, our cats are intended to be both companions and mousers. To that end, we train them. And here's where the second frugality angle comes in.

Best cat toy. Ever.

When I met my husband-to-be, I had two cats, one of which was still a kitten (and whom we just put down in December). He adored them, which scored points with me. He also made them the best cat toy ever - I kid you not. More points scored. I say it's the best cat toy for two reasons. One, because it's insanely easy and cheap to make, and what little wear and tear it sustains can be easily repaired. And two, because cats find it deliriously compelling. I'm telling you, this toy is irresistible to young cats - far more so than those expensive feathery toys sold at pet stores. Even our fourteen-year-old cat would still take a swipe at it up to a month before she died. The only downside is that this is an interactive toy. You have to work it. But I've never seen another cat toy that cats will chase and chase and chase until they are lying on the ground, abdomens heaving, and panting open-mouthed, trying to catch their breath. Then they'll get right up and chase it some more. Fifteen minutes of this treatment will wear out a kitten to the point that a nap is in order.

All it takes to make this toy is a cheap length of spring steel, a pair of needle-nosed pliers, a tiny bit of gaffer's tape, and a few lengths cut from the twine handles of a brown paper shopping bag. The spring steel should cost about a dollar, if that. Choose one that is neither too stiff nor too flexible. You may want to buy a few pieces to ensure you've chosen one with the right amount of give, because I can't really describe it much better. You'll learn by observation. When you've got your spring steel, cut three or four short lengths from the twine handles, about 1"/3cm each. Poke small holes through the center of each piece and thread them onto the spring steel. Using the needle-nosed pliers, bend over a very short section at the end of the spring steel to create a stop. Bind this metal loop tightly with a narrow strip of gaffer's tape. You'll need to cut the tape to make a sufficiently narrow piece, and make it long enough to wrap around the metal several times. At the other end of the steel you'll want a little something to hang on to. Bend over a longer length of steel and bind it just the way you did on the far end. It doesn't take much; you don't need to make it the width of your hand. Just an inch or so will do, so that you don't lose hold of the toy.

Play with your cats by running the twine pieces along the floor, up the walls, or through the air above their heads. Young cats will learn to track these pieces with chilling efficiency. You are helping them hone their predatory instincts, and you'll find you need to change up the patterns of movement fairly often. I find it curious that young cats most enjoy play that trains them to do what they were born to do - the very "work" I want them to do for me. Eventually, the twine pieces will be chewed, clawed, and frayed into deterioration. It's trivially easy to replace them. Just take the gaffer's tape off the small hook, unbend it, thread a few new pieces of twine on, and redo the hook with pliers and tape.

One note of caution: if your cat catches this toy in her claws, do not violently yank it away from her. I made that mistake once with my last cat and found that one her claws was bloodied at the cuticle. It didn't seem to bother her; she was still eager to play and walked around just fine. But I felt awful and quickly learned to respect the grip she had on the toy.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Being Thrifty - Or Doomerish - With Seeds: Creating Your Own Seed Vault

During last week's big snow, I began a worthy but somewhat tedious chore. The seed orders for the year had all come in. Not only do I succumb every year to the lure of buying too many varieties of seed, but even the smallest packets provide too much seed for me to grow in a given year. I've always been lackadaisical about storing my seeds. And that has always given me the excuse to buy more seed - so that it's fresh and viable - the following year.

I decided this year would be different. I went through all the seed - both newly arrived and saved from previous years - and separated out the portions of seed that would be planted this year. Some was discarded. The rest of what was still viable would be saved for future gardens. This was somewhat tricky, because I plan to succession plant this year. So I'll need some beet, carrot, spinach, brassica (cabbage family), and lettuce seeds for early season planting, and some for late season planting as well. Because I removed seed from the original packaging I had to make properly labeled seed envelopes for each portion. And to make it even more involved, there are enough seeds in some packets that I could set seeds aside for next year, and still have plenty for years beyond 2011. I wanted those two groups separated into different containers. Oh, and some packets of seed I had agreed to split with other gardeners. A whole lot of repackaging and relabeling, in other words.

I used the cool seed envelope method that El wrote about last year. Hers is vastly superior to the envelope I'd been using previously. So check that out if you're interested. Once the seeds were all divided up into the appropriately labeled envelopes, and the envelopes assembled into groups by anticipated usage date, I typed up a list of all the seeds in each group and printed copies of them so I'd have a record of each group for my garden notebook. I had planned to vacuum seal the seeds in plastic bags, and then put them in canning jars. But I found that even using a wide mouth, half-gallon jar wouldn't give me enough maneuvering room with the larger packs of seeds. So I settled for just putting all the seed envelopes into jars with desiccant packs saved from bottles of vitamin pills, along with seed lists for each jar. I arranged the lists such that they were legible through the sides of the jars. The jars were then vacuum sealed. Finally, I wrote a reminder warning to myself on the canning jar lid and secured it tightly with a canning jar ring.

These jars are headed for my chest freezer. The warning is to remind me not to open the jars or the seed packages until they have warmed up to the ambient temperature of the room. Why? Because if I open up frozen packages of seeds in a warm room, moisture will condense on the seeds and hasten their deterioration. Twenty-four hours at room temperature will prevent this. Now I just need to excavate a spot in the freezer where the jars will remain safe from knocks from heavy frozen items.

Most garden seeds will keep well enough in cool, dark, and dry conditions for 2-3 years. A few will be viable only for one year in such conditions (onions, parsnips), while others may last as much as 5-10 (cucumber, tomato). But we have hot, humid summers where I live. There is no spot I can just leave the seeds and count on favorable conditions for preservation. The method I've just outlined provides nearly ideal conditions for seed storage. I expect to be able to use even the parsnip and onion seed purchased this year well into the future. By separating seed to be used next year from the remaining seed, I will avoid the need to bring all the stored seeds back into bright, warm, moist conditions until I'm ready to divide my remaining seed stores.

So: my own frozen seed bank from the work of a few afternoons. You might do something like what I've done because you're dedicated to saving money, or because you're serious about saving heirloom seeds, or seed you've produced yourself. You might (justly) fear that Monsanto is hellbent on converting the entire global food supply into genetically modified crops on which they own the patents. Or you could do it because you believe the collapse is nigh and that seeds are going to be worth more than their weight in gold.

If you don't have a vacuum sealer, ask around. You might be able to borrow one just for this project if you know someone who has one. Or you could work with ziploc bags and just seal the mason jars tightly with lids and rings. Of course, if you have any serious doomer creds, you know the deep freeze will only last as long as the electricity does. But dry, and dark, and in a vacuum is still a much better storage plan for seeds than a cardboard box sitting in the dining room.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rerun: Freezing Eggs

I got several requests for information about freezing eggs. So I'm running this oldie again. You can use this method whenever you need to deal with a glut of eggs, as I do at the moment. Or you can use it to prepare for a hiatus in egg laying from your own hens due to summer heat, winter dark, or moulting. Enjoy!

I've mentioned before that we got four older laying hens this past spring. They still turn out eggs like champs, despite the summer heat and their ages. I get more than enough eggs for us to eat. So I sell a dozen now and then to friends or family. Even so, I can still end up with surplus eggs on my hands. So, knowing that we're going to cash in these hens this winter, I've started preserving some eggs.

The classic reference for preserving all kinds of food, Stocking Up, gives very simple instructions on freezing eggs. Just add 1 teaspoon of table salt or honey for every cup of eggs and beat them really well. After that, I use my ice cube tray trick, ladling the salted beaten egg into the ice cube trays and freezing them. Oh, but before I do that, I spray the tray with baking spray oil. That helps the eggs come out of the tray much more easily once they're frozen. Each compartment of the tray happens to hold two tablespoons, which is equivalent to half an extra-large egg. So for any recipe that calls for an egg, I can just use two frozen cubes. Removed from the trays, these eggs will keep for up to six months in a ziploc bag in the freezer.

I probably won't be using these for scrambled eggs. But I will use them up in my baking projects, which always pick up in the wintertime. It's nice to run the oven then, and it's not self-defeating to warm up the house a bit. I like to stock my freezer full of a variety of breakfast muffins over the winter. And I'm planning to learn how to make panettone later this year too (with a view towards holiday decadence as well as gift-giving), so the stored eggs will come in very handy.

I know we're going to miss the fresh eggs when the girls stop laying. It will be very galling to have to go to the store and actually buy eggs. Having a supply of our home produced eggs for baking will take some of the sting out of it for us, I hope.

Of course, I could also store away some prepared foods that include eggs. I may well get around to making some quiche to freeze. Another possibility for when our potatoes finally come in is to make gnocchi with egg and then freeze the gnocchi. The gnocchi would store longer than the quiche, which should only be kept for a couple of months. But gnocchi are quite labor intensive to produce, so I'll have to see what other chores are on the horizon when the potatoes are ready for harvest.

In any case, now that I know the frozen egg trick, I'll never leave eggs in the refrigerator before setting off on a longish trip.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Yeah, We Got Those Quiche Made

While the snow fell, we dealt with eggs. So far, four dozen down, four dozen to go. I froze one dozen. Another dozen went into quiche with our own frozen kale, our garlic, and our dried smoked cherry tomatoes (rehydrated). And our good neighbor showed up last night to plow again, once the snow stopped falling. He got two dozen eggs. He's getting produce this summer too. I'll probably freeze another dozen eggs today.

My 6'2" (188 cm) husband, stepping off the path he dug to the chicken coop

This was the first proper snowstorm we've seen since moving into our home a little over three years ago. Yesterday was as quiet as a graveyard, delicious silence reigned as traffic dwindled to nearly nothing, and we heard no aircraft overhead either. There weren't even snowmobilers to mar the stillness. Don't ask me how deep it is out there. We already had about 5" on the ground before this storm blew in. This is respectable snow cover. When the snow stopped well after nightfall, all the outdoors took on an eerie, yellowish light. With white surfaces everywhere to bounce light around and around again, all was as visible as in late afternoon, but the world had an eldritch glow, very different from the blueish hue of daytime.

When the quiche were baked, cooled, and wrapped, I froze them. I have an enormous freezer right about now.

The snowbank just outside the front door. The quiche I could toss out, though I myself can't fit through the opening we can manage at the moment.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Sudden Glut of Eggs

What do you do when your farmer friend asks if she can park her car in your driveway for three weeks while she visits family faraway? You say yes. What about when she also asks for a ride from your place to the bus station? You say, "of course." And when she drops off eight dozen eggs along with the car because her husband forgot to give them away at work that day? If you're like me, you have a minor panic attack.

Eight dozen eggs! When she set the box down at the edge of my driveway, I asked what was in it. I thought she said, "a dozen eggs." An extra dozen eggs is no big deal. But lo, and behold, upon returning from the bus station, I found eight fully loaded egg cartons; not one. I was really glad it was winter and that the root cellar was cold, because finding that much fridge space would have been the first problem. Did I mention that our own four laying hens have been performing quite well themselves? It's not like there was an egg shortage here in the first place.

So...eggs. Eggs and...potatoes. Eggs and....guanciale. Eggs and...dried figs? Pumpkin? Beans? What am I supposed to do with all these eggs? I know, I know. I'll freeze some. I'll let some "age" so I can make deviled eggs. I'll make and freeze a few quiche. And I'll give some away. But still. That's a lot of eggs.

What's your favorite way to eat an egg? What's your best suggestion for dressing up eggs for a lunch or dinner?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

It's All So Exciting

I'm back from PASA's Farming for the Future Conference, and as usual, I learned a lot and got my winter dose of motivation and enthusiasm. I did a lot more shopping at the conference on this, my fourth year of attendance than on the previous three years combined. Partly that was because Brushy Mountain Bees had a sponsor's booth, and I was able to talk to someone to help me with my order, AND get free shipping on anything I ordered while there. I got the rest of the equipment ordered that I need to be ready for my honey bees to arrive in April. Then there were a few books and other items purchased because I really wanted them, and because the purchases helped support PASA.

Here's a laundry list of tidbits learned, things that excited me, and other lovely things that happened at the conference:

Biochar is a soil amendment, but does not itself add any fertility to the soil. In a raw state it will actually suck nutrients out of the soil and into itself. Its microstructure allows it to benefit sandy soil by improving water retention, and clay soil by improving drainage. Go figure. It's also a friendly home for soil microbes and mycorrhizae. A great use for it is to add it to animal stalls, where it can become "charged" with nutrients and microorganisms from the animal's manure so that it does not draw nutrients from soil, and where it can help control odors. The hooves of a sufficiently heavy animal will also help break down biochar into smaller pieces, which is desirable, as the animal walks on the chunks. It can also be "charged" by soaking it in urine for a few days. It's not good to breathe in charcoal dust, so you don't want to crush it too fine, and if your raw biochar is very fine, it's best to wet it or mix it into moist compost as soon as it's done cooling. The speaker referred attendees to this video for guidance on making a home scale biochar burner. The chief virtue of biochar, however, is that it sequesters carbon in the soil.

I tasted the best ketchup I've ever had in my life - by a mile. It was lacto-fermented and contained smoked chipotle peppers. The cook assured me that she would send me the recipe by email. If I do get it, you can be sure I'll try it this summer.

I heard about and saw pictures of a good root storage technique, apparently originally from Finland. A thick layer of dry fall leaves are laid down in a large bin. Then harvested and trimmed (but not washed) root vegetables are laid on top of the leaves so that none of them touch each other, and then they are covered with another thick layer of leaves. The bin is left uncovered. In a cool dark space the roots will keep very well for several months. The leaves should be fairly dry when collected and arranged. A refinement of the technique is to use a piece of row cover material (which breathes very well) folded over to contain the roots so that you don't have to search wildly for them or miss them entirely if your bin is very large. The enormous bin shown in the pictures was in a bank barn and made of cinder blocks.

I learned more about home curing meats and am now curious about attempting two versions of cured fatback: Italian lardo, and Ukrainian salo. Lardo is made with rosemary and other herbs you'd associate with Italy. Salo is seasoned with paprika. I have a tentative agreement to get together with two hog farmers I know when they hold their pork curing powwow. Paul Bertoli's Cooking by Hand, which deals with charcuterie, was lauded by the speaker. That book has been on my wish list for a while now. It just got moved to the top of the list.

I attended a humanure workshop by Joe Jenkins, the author of The Humanure Handbook, and came away thinking that the composting of human manure not only makes sense from the perspective of soil fertility and conservation of scarce resources (drinking water being chief among them), but that it's also entirely safe if done properly. I picked up a hard copy of the book, but you can get a free copy online.

Johnny's Selected Seeds was giving away a couple of free seed packets, plus a 14-month calendar. This calendar will carry us into 2011, until we get to the next conference and scrounge a free calendar for next year. When my husband raved to them about the broadfork we got from Johnny's a few years ago, and told them how we proselytized to other gardeners and have agreed to lend it out this spring, the representative gave him a pocket knife. It looks like it's perfectly suited for grafting fruit tree seedlings.

Edited to add: I found out something totally amazing about comfrey, which is already one of my all time favorite plants. As the comfrey leaves die down in the late fall, spiders shelter under them for the winter. If you have a plant large enough to cover one square yard of earth with its dead leaves (and this is totally do-able with a single established comfrey plant), on average 240 spiders are sheltering under there. That's a lot of predator habitat! So if you have comfrey, don't clean up the leaves that die down until late spring of the following year.

I put in the winning bid on a beautiful set of hand-thrown mixing bowls at the benefit auction. They nest together perfectly, and each one has a pouring spout. We've been on a nasty streak of breaking our mixing bowls lately. So let's hope we're finished with that trend. I thought it was a great opportunity to obtain a needed item from a Pennsylvania artisan, while giving money to an organization I wholeheartedly support. Much better than buying stuff imported from China. My husband made pancakes with these bowls this morning. Yum!

Each year the halls and corridors of the conference center are adorned with fantastic quotes that make me laugh, galvanize my determination, and generally transmit optimism. Wandering around to read them is one of the highlights of the conference for me. The Mark Twain quote above is one such. Another great quote at the conference came from Thomas Edison: "Opportunity is missed by most because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." I've never seen a quote repeated in the four years I've been at the conference. I wonder whose job it is to find these gems.

I learned a lot about dairy goats, even though I don't have any immediate plans to get any. Like bees, goats seem to be at risk of quite a few diseases.

I talked to a sponsor who was selling shiitake logs and got his views on Fungi Perfecti and another vendor of myco-products, Field and Forest. He greatly prefers Field and Forest because, in his opinion, their various forms of spawn are much more heavily inoculated than Fungi Perfecti's products.

I learned about a Pennsylvania shoemaker that handcrafts his shoes, sells them for $300 per pair, and reportedly will resole them for about $80. That doesn't seem all that different from some pairs of Birkenstocks and their resoling costs. The guy wearing the shoes said it's like getting a reflexology treatment every time he puts on his shoes, and that it's the closest thing to walking in bare feet he's ever experienced.

A blizzard arrived while we were in State College. But on the drive home on Saturday afternoon we found the roads well cleared and we got to watch a gorgeous sunset. As we neared home, the amount of snow that had fallen seemed to lessen, until we were looking at only 6" or so of accumulation. We weren't sure whether we would be able to get up our driveway, which has a short steep section just off the road. But we found that our awesome neighbor had plowed our driveway for us in our absence. I don't know what kind of goodie to give him the next time I see him, (he's not around much) but I've got my thinking cap on.

Best of all, we got to come home to a home we love. I'd even given myself the gift of a clean kitchen to return to. Made tea this morning with our own well water and nary a tinge of chlorine. Home is best.