Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Recipe with rabe

Rabe and white bean soup

Ingredients: broccoli rabe (rapini), pancetta, onions, garlic, hot peppers, white wine, broth, white beans, parmesan cheese

Preparing: Cook up some pancetta. Remove from pan and cook onions, garlic and hot pepper in the rendered fat. Add white wine and boil alcohol off. Add broccoli rabe cut to your preferred size and saute until bright green. Add broth and white beans (I use chicken broth and cannellini beans that have been soaked and cooked). Simmer for 20-30 minutes.

Eating: Serve with shaved parmesan cheese and some warm, crusty bread.

Dish history: When I was growing up we used to eat "beans and escarole" soup. My dad suggested using the rabe as the green. I added the pancetta and parmesan because they just taste so good.

Home soil testing

Moving into our new territory for digging, we've noticed the soil is much richer. So we bought a home soil test kit with fantasies that maybe our previous professionally performed test was conservative in its results (this is even in spite of the fact that 2 of our 6 inch spinach plants are already bolting).

Our little vials of soil, water and testing powders are color coordinated: green for measuring pH, purple for Nitrogen, blue for Potassium and red for Phosphorous. The test takes $5 of your savings, a half a cup of your soil and 25 minutes of your time (5 minutes of active time). That said, it is really worth every home gardener performing a test on their soil. Land deficient in nutrients grows vegetables, fruit and flowers deficient in size, shape, color and beauty.

However, soil testing is a science. Relying on one result could lead you down an ill-advised path. For example, our test showed neutral-ish pH (neutral is 7.0; with this test it's measured against a color scale that is not exact). Our sourced-out soil test performed in a laboratory revealed a pH of 4.95. So the home gardener would benefit from performing multiple tests (which would only increase your time, not necessarily what you spend: the $5 test kit comes with 4 pH tests and 2 each of the macronutrients). And once you've got results, you can call your county's agricultural extension office (of Cornell University in New York State's case)- the two I've dealt with have staff waiting on hand to give free, friendly advice on how to improve your soil.

So... we've set our fantasies aside and accepted the fact that our soil needs some sweetening this year. And now back to double digging.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

To mulch or not to mulch?

Mulch is a protective cover placed over soil to help retain moisture, suppress weeds, reduce erosion, and even provide nutrients. There are many different types of organic mulch material: lawn clippings, wood chips, pine needles, hay, straw, chopped leaves, shaved bark, sawdust, shredded newspaper, cardboard, compost or animal manure. What you apply to your plants depends on availability and the type of plant in the ground. 

Potato plant with chopped leaf mulch
We've got plenty of fallen leaves, pine needles and wood chips. We have to doctor the leaves before applying them as mulch: we run over piles of them with our lawnmower. This prevents them from matting together and actually doing more harm then good by not allowing water or sunlight to penetrate to the soil.

The type of mulch we apply depends on what fruit or vegetable we have planted. For example, pine needles, sawdust and wood chips are slightly acidic and can be applied to strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. These carbon-rich mulches also take a lot longer to break down than other mulches, so it is more practical to use them with plants that you will not pull up or that are perennials. Our vegetables, on the other hand, prefer chopped leaves or hay as mulch. It is amazing how much moisture they help retain.

That said, we've learned a few "don'ts" with mulch this year. I can hear Josephine, our Argentine farmer friend, always saying that whether to mulch or not depends on the person. Because despite all the good mulch does, it also attracts the bichos. Bugs. We've noticed our bean and Chinese cabbage seedlings have holes in some of their leaves. And some of our bean plants seem to have been nibbled to the point that they no longer exist. Our non-mulched beds do not have the same hole-y-leaf problem (but note, they are different plants).

Strawberry with pine needle mulch
I've also noticed more weeds in some of our mulched beds. I think this is for two reasons: (1) the mulch has weed seeds or weeds in it and (2) our soil is so inhospitable that even weeds can't survive unless they're planted or put there.

We've also learned not to mulch with radishes. We do have a controlled experiment with this one: the radishes that had been mulched actually try to grow in the mulch, and because it is so loose and not compact like soil, the "radish" does not get round, but rather long and skinny. The radishes that are planted and not mulched are developing as planned.

So mulching allows you to never have to use a hoe, but you might have bug problems or mulch weeds growing alongside your vegetables. If you don't mulch you might be carrying around your hoe every time you're in the garden... or you'll have to figure out a way to make weeding with friends a fun task.

Trigger finger

Although this is self-diagnosed, I think I have trigger finger. In my left pinky.

Every morning when I wake up, my least-used-finger (apart from typing "a's") aches, gets stuck in a closed position, and I need my right hand to straighten it. As the day goes on, it feels better and opens and closes almost like normal. From over-use (i.e., over-shoveling, over-forking, over-weeding, over-transplanting), I am wearing and tearing my poor pinky's tender tendon.

And it's only our first spring!

So I plan to splint it at night and while working, mostly because I can't choose the other home remedy: rest it for 4-6 weeks.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Recipe with radishes

I hope this isn't lame, but I thought I'd start posting simple ways to cook or eat a vegetable we are currently harvesting.

First on the list: Radish.

Ingredients: fresh radishes WITH greens; butter; salt and pepper.

Preparing: Select radishes with fresh greens (not wilting, browning or going bad). Wash well and remove any bad leaves. Cut the radish in half from the root to the top, being sure to leave some greens on both halves. Heat some butter in a pan and place the radishes in the hot butter; greens out of the pan and off of the butter for now. After 3-5 minutes (depending on how crispy you like your radish), add salt and pepper and move the greens into the pan. Saute for a few more minutes until greens are tender.

Eating: Eat the whole vegetable, greens and all. This method of cooking makes the sweetness of the radish come out, and it is oh-so-juicy.

Dish history: We had this several years ago for the first time at a friend's house. (Thanks, Cal.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

R.I.P., Sr. Copperhead

A perhaps more productive use of a hoe: killing copperhead snakes.

There are only three types of poisonous snakes in New York State: the timber rattlesnake, the massasauga and the copperhead. The former two have a rattle at the end of their tails. The copperhead does not. It has a medium brown body with lighter brown spots, a classic reptile pattern. These snakes are supposedly better left alone because they do not attack unless attacked themselves. In fact, they are quite sluggish and will stay still if you spot them and keep on walking.

But when you find one while raking up leaves in a part of your property that is heavily trafficked... in a pile you might very well have just picked up with your hands... and with a pet dog who doesn't know whether he's playing with or annoying a snake... your reaction is to get rid of it permanently.

So Jason took a sharpened hoe and beheaded the reptile with one quick blow. While the 2-foot-long body lay there lifeless, the head and stub of a "neck" held on to life for a few good minutes. The mouth opened and closed as if in pain or, rather, as if it wanted to take one last bite out of whatever hit him. It flopped over one way. It flopped over another. It twitched. And when it's eyes finally turned a milky color, we were positive there was no energy left in that thing. It was an intense few minutes, watching another living thing die. I felt badly, but I also now feel a tad safer. And it's a good thing we had looked up pictures of snakes to be able to identify the garter snakes from a copperhead, honestly, just one night before.

Please note: the video below is posted so that you all can witness the vitality of this snake's final moments and share in our empathy for life, not to celebrate or promote the beheading of wildlife.
video

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What's in the ground...

Here's an update on our planting status:

Bed #1: Peas (some from Argentina), strung up and starting to flower at about 12" high. Intercropped with radishes that are ready to be harvested.
Bed#2: Chives, Argentinian leeks (transplanted in to replace the spring onions that for whatever reason didn't survive) and parsley (from Argentinian seed).
Bed #3: Potatoes, should be ready to harvest some "new" ones soon and leave the rest in the ground for main crop. When we took a peek at a plant the other day, there were only a few wee taters... not sure if it's the soil or the seed.
Bed #4: Two rows of celery and celeriac. Intercropped with lettuce in between, which is ready to eat any day. Once the lettuce is harvested we'll "hill up" the celery family so they stay blanched.
Bed #5: Brassicas: Red cabbage, Tatsoi cabbage and DiCiccio broccoli. Intercropped with leeks.
Bed #6: Transplanted about 200 basil plants and direct-sowed cilantro, chervil and borage seed. Under plastic still to protect the basil.
Bed #7: Our tomato holding bed, rich with compost and kept warm with a plastic row cover. Now contains over 350 tomato seedlings. The heirloom Brandywines and Cherokee purples will stay there, and once beds 18-20 are prepped, we'll transplant out six other varieties, including Amarillo grande and Cherry amarillo from Argentina, Fargo pear tomato, Peacevine cherry, yellow short, and Bellstar paste.
Bed #8: Half acelga (Swiss chard) and half kale (both from Argentinian seed).
Bed #9: Spinach (Tyee and Bloomsdale) and lettuce (Ithaca and Blackseed). Both fully alive but not growing much (until I add the manure tea).
Bed #10: Direct seeded arugula (some seed from Argentina, the rest is Rocket), transplanted Yellow Cortland and Redwing onion and Spring rabe. The arugula needs to be thinned or we'll be eating the tiniest leaves ever. The rabe is flowering and going to seed... we'll keep one plant in to save the seed and re-plant with some Yukon gold tubers.
Bed #11: Humberto's bed: contains tomato, lettuce, radish, cucumber, broccoli, leek, jalapeno peppers.
Bed #12: 1/3 Early wonder beets, 1/3 carrots (Scarlet and Tonda), 1/3 parsnip. Transplanted some leeks with the carrots because they are good companion plants. Beets need thinning.
Bed #13: 1/3 Haricot verts, 1/3 Provider bush beans, 1/3 Jacob's cattle drying beans. Radish are intercropped on half the bed.
Bed #14: Direct seeded mixed greens: endive frisee, chickory, garden cress, bibb lettuce, Parriss cos lettuce.
Bed #15: Transplanted more brassicas: Chinese cabbage, Tatsoi cabbage and collards.
Bed #16: Skimmed and in need of double-digging! Future site for cucumbers, gherkin cucumbers and zucchini.
 Bed #17: Direct seeded zapallo (from Argentina), butternut squash, acorn squash, Cheese pumpkin and Crookneck squash.

In our herb garden: transplanted tarragon and oregano, planted some sage cuttings, seeded melissa, dill and shiso. Wild mint is growing near the cow barn. Rosemary is still too small to put outdoors.Thyme and lavender are in seed boxes.

In our perennial plots: 10 artichoke bushes, 5 horseradish roots, 3 rhubarb crowns.

Still waiting to be transplanted out: lots of kale, lots of cabbage, some broccoli and collards, cauliflower (which may never go out unless they form their "bud"), more celeriac, tons more leeks, asparagus (from seed!), more oregano. Fava beans also on deck.

Still to be planted for the fall crop: Brussels sprouts, baby bok choy, garlic, more spinach, kale and cabbage.

What we're missing for Longhaul's first year: hot peppers, fennel, rutabaga, bell peppers, eggplant, melons, kohlrabi and corn (from most-to-be-missed to least-to-be-missed, in our opinion).

Rock Hall-of-Fame Revisited

We've broken new ground. Just East of the site where the century-old vegetable garden used to be, mirroring our freshly dug and planted bed #'s 8-17, we are turfing and double-digging. The soil is much friendlier down here. But you can't have it all... the rocks are back and determined to make our joints ache. Could there be an ancient stone wall or foundation down there? The 300-lb-at-a-minimum boulders we are taking out one after another are just too close for coincidence. We've even had to leave two behemoths in the ground because they are wider than our 4 foot bed width and wouldn't even budge for 3 strong men.

Dare I say, "That's okay." Is living with rocks easier on our bodies and morale than impenetrable soil?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Healthy world: human help required

There’s something about preparing the soil for our vegetable beds that reminds me of Pizza Friday.  

On Fridays, we make pizzas and have fancy cocktails (well, martinis for me and red wine for Jocelyn).  It became a tradition on the farm in Argentina, when pangs of longing for NYC pizza and a night out would sometimes pierce our small farming community rural bliss.  So we started making our own pizza dough, thinking up toppings from the garden and local butcher, and pulling city-slicker clothes from the suitcases that had been abandoned under our bed. 

Pizza dough is simple: flour, yeast, salt, sugar and water.  But getting it just right is more difficult, more about the kneading process and getting a feel for what the right consistency of the dough should be.  Adding a pinch of flour or a few drops of water until it’s elastic.

Kneading the dough just right is what I’m thinking about with the pick-axe in my hands on Friday afternoon in our vegetable garden, double-digging another bed.  If you drove by on the road, it might just look like a guy slogging away at the rocky ground, but we’ve got a process here, a plan driven by the hopes that the soil will come out just the way we want it to.  

Just like pizza dough, it’s a pretty simple recipe and goes something like this: dig down a foot and remove the top-soil, break up the soil another foot down with a fork and mix in a good helping of manure, place the sod you removed back in the bottom of the hole for future compost, replace the top-soil and fork in lime and organic material.  Simple recipe, harder to execute in reality.  But it’s what we think is best for the future of our farm.

What I started thinking about is that while most people would accept the idea that human skill and involvement is needed to create the perfect pizza dough, most people would not automatically think the same would be true for a perfectly healthy soil -- or a perfectly healthy natural environment for that matter.  But I believe the work we are doing in the vegetable garden is helping the place be a better version of itself; more beautiful, more rich, more productive, more conducive to life, more a part of its natural eco-system.

One of the most important things we are doing by double-digging is loosening the soil so air, water and nutrients can better move through it and vegetable roots have room to grow.  The soil is largely compacted for natural reasons – thousands of years of little rain-drops hitting the ground like a herd of seven ton elephants if time was condensed (*disclaimer to this metaphor – using the unknown-as-of-then future vegetable garden as our wedding parking lot may have added to soil compaction).

So in our work we are helping to change a natural process which results in making the land more sustaining to life around it; not only ours and hopefully our neighbors, but soil micro-organisms that need soil with space and nutrients, birds that will feed off of the small life forms in the soil, bees and other insects that will feed off of and help pollinate our fruits and vegetables, rabbits and moles and squirrels and deer that will (hopefully only) stare longingly at the produce of our garden from beyond our fence, and the predators that will be drawn to stare longingly at the rabbits, moles, squirrels and deer…the list goes on and on up the chain.

On a farm, examples of this relationship between human help and a healthy natural environment are abundant.  Fruit trees need to be pruned so sun and air reaches the fruit; early fruit buds need to be thinned on each branch to protect the branch from breaking and to produce large, healthy fruit.  Fields need to be mowed every so often to protect against one dominant, fast-growing weed from squeezing out other beneficial grasses.  Vegetable beds need to be weeded and pests controlled to produce a bounty of food.  Forests need to be cleared of low-lying dead brush to prevent against fires and make space for new trees; invasive climbing vines need to be cut from trees before they kill them.  

But all of this work leads to a more important question: what does it mean that human help is required to do this?  In a natural system that we often consider to be so intricately complex and balanced that it goes beyond our full understanding and abilities of prediction, what does it mean that we have a necessary role in helping nature be it’s best, life-sustaining self?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Frost seeding follow-up

That cold winter morning seems so long ago now... when Jason woke up early to sow his green manure seeds in our pastures while the ground was still frozen and the spring thaw had yet to set in.

Nearly two months later and we are on stage two of our frost seeding experiment. Now that our red and white clover are beginning to grow, we have to mow back the older, more established grasses so that the clovers can see the sun and prosper. We hitched on a 3-bushel bagger to our two-decade-old walk-behind lawn mower, adjusted the blades so they'd take down the now 3-foot high Timothy but spare the small stuff, and let the mower take off. Mowing about an acre takes less than an hour. We'll cut again in late June, so long as the weather works in our favor.

Now we've got green to add to our compost pile and a nice pasture to admire.

Buying bulk

No, I don't mean shopping at Costco...

I'm referring to the purchase of grass-fed, sustainably-raised livestock. There are a number of local organic farms in the Hudson Valley who practice farming the way we like it and a great way to support them is to buy their product. We've reserved a whole lamb, a quarter steer and a Thanksgiving turkey; all to be ready for pick-up beginning in November 2011.

This meat is affordable, not cheap. For example, our quarter steer price per pound, hanging weight (which means prior to preparation), is $3.75/lb, bones, marrow, liver, tongue, and all the cuts you could want. A major perk is that the price for the loin is the same as the price for the chopped meat. We'll end up with about 100-150 lbs of beef this winter, to store, share and enjoy.

So I am challenging the notion of "cheap food." Why do Americans have a fascination with finding the best "deals" on the very things they put inside of their bodies? I used to, but no longer, feel comfortable with $2.99/lb meat bought at a big-box grocery store. Understanding we live in a culture such as we do, and that a pound of meat that costs less than a gallon of gas seems like the only option for someone with limited dollars who wants their protein source, I won't fault. But I do ponder the idea of buying bulk meat from a healthy farm as a group, so that the price is still right but you don't have to buy a chest freezer just to participate. This requires communication and coordination, but if you really stop to think about what you're digesting, it seems so doable.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Community Supported Agriculture

Our desire to eat local and seasonal food is growing across this country. Over the past two decades, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for tens of thousands of eaters to buy local, seasonal food directly from thousands of farmers. Our close farmer friend runs one in Virginia, our landlord participated in one in Brooklyn, and some of our neighbors here have joined a CSA.

Us Longhaulers have yet to be the eaters involved in a CSA, but we are hoping to be the farmers.

The basic gist of a CSA is that farms offer "shares" or memberships to the public. These shares provide up-front money in the springtime when farmers typically need it the most. In return for their investment, eaters receive farm products, usually a weekly box of freshly harvested vegetables between the months of June and December. This partnership is positive for both parties, for many reasons.

Personally, I enjoy the community and health aspects of a CSA. We have an opportunity to get to know the people who make or eat their food. CSA pick-ups create a time and space for fellow members to meet each other, maybe even harvest something together. Also, you can feel connected to the food you put in your body, knowing exactly the kinds of farming practices your farmer uses. A weekly box of freshness encourages consumption of fruits and vegetables and even inspires someone to cook up that rutabaga or rhubarb they've always been wary of.

* * * * * 

So while we were in Argentina, enjoying a long winter on Chacra Millalen, we wrote our Farm Plan. It is a manifesto of 100+ pages, packed with our own ideas and our efforts to boil down the wisdom we learned from our farmer friends and from great and practical agricultural thinkers and doers. We made the conscious decision to hold off on our CSA until year 2 of our farm. Even though this 1st year requires the biggest capital layout, we were skeptical of our virgin soil. We wanted to get as much going as we could without promising too much... we didn't want to disappoint our partners or neighbors. 

So I flipped through the Farm Plan just this morning. Sitting there on page 24 in our Future Directions section, (along with Learning Center, Policy & Advocacy and Catering), we wrote: "Our CSA program will serve 10-15 families. We hope to have a CSA model where upper income families help subsidize lower income families' participation." This is a core tenet in our model for farm sustainability, and it addresses my two favorite concepts of community and health. The Hunger Action Network provides profiles on many CSAs in New York State that share our values of equity. These amazing farms have implemented some great programs: donating produce to soup kitchens and food pantries, offering revolving loan funds or sliding scale share prices for low-income persons to be able to join the CSA, and accepting food stamps and WIC. We look up to these farms and are excited to join the food justice movement with them.

First harvest

We had our first harvest of broccoli rabe, sowed in our very first seed box on March 8, germinated on March 13, hardened off in cold frame on April 2, transplanted out as our very first transplant on April 7 and sauteed onto our plates on May 9. They tasted green and healthy, satisfyingly bitter, but not perfect yet. We've got a lot of soil improvement ahead of us.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Fruit Garden

Our "Old" Vegetable Garden has now been transformed to The Fruit Garden.

We spent the two weeks leading up to Saturday prepping the land... augering holes for the trees, forking the old vegetable beds, weeding, adding manure, compost and wood ash. We paid close attention to wise advisers, who said add a bushel of manure to the raspberries, put the blueberries in the most acidic spot you can imagine (which would be pretty much anywhere in our land, read here), don't add manure to the fruit trees, but do add half compost/half soil, some lime and bone meal to the tree holes.

The prep work paid off because we managed to transplant 3 low bush blueberries, 3 high bush blueberries, 12 raspberry canes, 100 strawberry crowns, 4 rhubarb crowns, 3 apple trees, 2 peach trees, 2 pear trees and 2 cherry trees.

We enjoyed the fruits of our labor this morning with Sunday breakfast, the newspaper and a haircut.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Compost tea, anyone?

Sometimes vegetables need a boost. Particularly those that live in soil that is deficient in nutrients.

There is an old custom of "steeping" tea that can be applied to your plants. By adding compost to water and allowing it to steep for a few days, you can create an organic liquid fertilizer that is nutritionally rich, well-balanced and easy to apply to your plants after they're in the ground. It also helps make your limited compost supply stretch a little further because you can keep adding water to the tea and use it so long as it still maintains some brown color and nutrients.

There are several commercial compost teas you can purchase and too many websites out there teaching you how to make a homemade version. We were inspired by Josephine, our farmer mentor in Argentina. Josephine filled a 55 gallon steel drum with sheep manure, egg shells, wood ash and some aged compost, filled it with water, and used a watering can to apply the tea to her crops. It was amazing to see them bounce back to life or add a few centimeters of growth in just a day.

And, of course, there are do's and don'ts to compost tea-making. A few that we're paying attention to: use well-aged compost (our "young" compost still has organic scraps in it and would not break down properly if we soaked it in water) and stir our tea daily (this adds oxygen to the tea that is needed to keep the aerobic microorganisms in there happy and alive).

And now we're inspired to home-brew other organic concoctions. I've got an aged horse manure tea in the works (even more important to stir this one often to prevent any anaerobic - i.e., smelly - activity) and just picked up 20 pounds of fish scraps from our local fish market. I'll bury the fish scraps for a few days, then collect the compost and make a fish emulsion tea. Best of all, we've got a fall trip to the ocean planned to haul as much seaweed as we can for, you guessed it, seaweed tea... supposedly the richest in nutrients of them all.

Putting our money where our mouths are (part II)

Back with an update on our attempt to move our money to a bank that will use it to help support the community we live in.  It's not a lot of money, but we'd rather know our deposit account isn't being used by the big banks to support things we don't agree with (think sub-prime mortgages, CEO mega-salaries, or investments in the types of corporations that generally take advantage of people in the name of profits).

First, I'm not good at this type of thing.  I’ve never been great at math, figuring out my taxes, or making shrewd financial decisions.  Luckily, with so many smart people working on good things out there and access to boundless information over the internet, there’s ready help to make the money move easy and informed if you know where to find it.

 Step One: Bank Sourcing

Our first step was finding out the local banks close to where we live.  The reason I’ve stayed with J.P. Morgan so long is probably convenience, so it will be important to make sure the new bank we choose remains convenient.   

I’ll be honest: change of personal behavior is incredibly difficult, so the easier we make it the better.  Maybe there’s a very thin threshold separating moral action or inaction, at least for beginners.  We’re farmers after all, and like everyone else facing a time deficit, it doesn’t lend itself to driving forty minutes round trip to make a deposit.

The “Move Your Money Project” has a simple website that can help you put together a list of small, independent local banks in your area in twenty minutes. 

After using all three tools they offer to find a local bank by entering our zip code, we had a list of five potential banks within 10 miles of us (a limit we set ourselves based on what we consider local while maintaining convenience): Hudson Valley Bank, Hudson City Savings Bank, Putnam County Savings Bank, Emigrant Savings Bank and Trustco Bank.

Step Two: Interviewing the Banks

There is something empowering about going through the process of choosing a new local bank based just as much on principles as self-interest.  Once the bank representative has finished pitching you on why they are the best home for your money based on your self-interest (convenience, protection against fraud, account fees), the tables are turned and you are in new, strange territory.

We walked into the nearest Hudson Valley Bank branch, located in the slightly run-down Beach Shopping Center strip mall that is obviously experiencing a slow death since the newer, larger strip mall was put in two miles down the road.  The bank branch itself was a bit worn and the only people waiting in the teller line were three Hispanic men dressed in worker clothes (this was a good sign to us, as Peekskill has become a majority Hispanic town in the last ten years, so the bank is serving the local population).

We were pointed in the direction of an empty desk and told to wait for Kendra. Kendra, when she emerged from the bathroom, was an African-American woman who went immediately into a canned spiel after we told her we were interested in learning more about a business checking account.   After learning about their account fee structure, we told her we wanted to move our money to a bank that was lending to the local community and wanted to ask her a few questions: what was their geographic market, what are their lending rates to local small businesses and community projects, what are their lending rates across different class and race lines? 

Kendra stopped and took a second look at us, focusing on us for the first time.  Then she asked us what our business was and we told her we were starting a farm.  Then we began talking about farming and about her memories of her grandmother’s house in Jamaica, how her grandmother had goats and chickens and a pig and nothing ever went to waste. It seems almost everybody has a grandmother or grandfather who raised their own vegetables or animals.

Then Kendra told us that it was the right thing to find out who you’re bank is lending to and if they’re practicing “red-lining” (discriminatory lending practices based on race or class) and that while she didn’t have that information at hand, it was information that was public and every bank’s "CRA" office was legally mandated to provide it to you.  When I asked her what CRA stood for, she told us these reports on banks were part of the Community Reinvestment Act.   

That act has a nice ring to it.

Step Three: Grading Banks on the Bigger Things

The problem with access to so much information is that there is so much that it is often impossibly time-consuming to find what you are looking for.  Modern information can be like a form of snow blindness, where corporations can hide how they are operating by being mega-transparent and drowning the investigator in mountains of paper-work and data. 

We needed to find answers about how our local banks act or don’t act in the interests of their local communities before making our decision about where to move our money, answers that most bank associates didn’t seem to have at their fingertips.

The CRA requires all federal regulatory agencies to examine banking institutions for CRA compliance, rating all banks on their CRA performance. Banks are graded on their lending practices across the  community they are meant to serve, including lending for community projects, small businesses, the amount of loans that stay in the local community (versus an investment in something 300 or 3000 miles away) and across lines of income and race.

 Most CRA performance reports can be found either through the the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency or the Federal Reserve Board.  These reports can help you get as good a big-picture as possible of where your deposit money will go once you open an account with any specific bank.

So we've decided to put together a banking report card before we decide to move our money.  Instead of being grilled by banks on our credit worthiness, income level, and asset wealth, we thought we'd grade them on whether or not they're benefiting our community. The way they used to do and should be doing now.

Now we've got some homework to do, waiting for a rainy day.  Hopefully, the third installment of this experiment will have our money in a place where it keeps working while we're not using it.  We like to think of it as our way of improving the community soil.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hairy vine, no friend of mine.

Wish I learned that one when I was a kid.

We have both been blessed with a lack of immunity to urushiol, the irritatingly itchy oil of poison ivy. Jason got the first case back on the first of March. There were no "leaves of three" to indicate to him that the vine he was whacking with the axe in order to clear a path for our deer fence should be avoided. In fact, there were no leaves anywhere because it was still winter.

So a tree expert alerted us to the fact that this perennial weed takes many forms. Fine. That hairy vine climbing up the wild cherry tree at the NE corner of our garden is off limits. Easy...

... if only. I got a case from cleaning up some rocks that must have touched that very hairy vine. Then I got another case while I was clearing a spot in the middle of our field to plant our perennial horseradish roots.

And finally today, after two days in a row of sunny, warm weather, the leaves of this persistent plant have shown face. Shiny, red, mini ones... climbing up the door of our tool shed, lurking next to our sunflower plot, and I even weeded one out of our arugula rows.

But we're in this for the long haul. We'll have to learn to live with this species, because it won't go away, no matter how deep you dig.