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Monday, January 30, 2012

Birds of Different Feathers Flock Together…

Feathered feastThe cat crouches by the deck slider, trying to make himself invisible, not an easy thing to do when you’re black and white and weigh twenty pounds. His tail swishes herky-jerky, animated, as if it has a life of its own. On the other side of two panes, not four inches away from his stiletto canines, a little mocha-headed bird taunts, hopping back and forth nonchalantly foraging for the seed scattered there. This serene scenario reminds me of a comic strip I read some time ago. A couple are preparing for a two week vacation, and the wife has sent her husband to the store for supplies. He returns and she checks the inventory he has been sent to collect. “Where’s the cat food?”she complains, “you forgot the cat food!” “No, I didn’t,” the dutiful spouse replies as he hands his wife a ten pound bag of birdseed….winter hotel

Eight inches of new snow cover the deck, my payback for this season’s much repeated comment: “We’ve had a mild winter so far.” The power is out…the road and driveway unplowed…the snow’s too deep for the wheelbarrow…I have to haul wood to the house an armload at a time. Are we having fun yet? The answer, strangely enough is, “Yes”--thanks to the birds. The snow is too deep for them to forage in the garden, and they have flocked to the bird feeder. The feeder only has three bays and can serve about that number at a time. They’ve formed a food line on the branch above the feeder. Feathers puffed against the cold, they await their turn at the seed. The hungry are impatient and rush the feeder, bump and jostle their way for a foothold at the bays. More birds arrive, seem to burst from trees and shrubs. Others drop from the sky and vie for the seed that falls from the feeder. I scatter a couple handfuls of seed across the snowy deck and am no sooner in the house than the deck is a flurry of bird activity. The backyard comes alive. To accommodate more visitors, I hang another suet block on the feeding pole. Soon both blocks are festooned with small birds pecking away at the greasy seed. A jay bullies them away. Then a flicker commandeers the block and the jay retreats. I have a veritable bird circus going on right before my eyes.

There is something therapeutic about watching birds. Their antics produce a soothing effect in much the same way the aquarium in the dentist or doctor’s office does.Kyle's b-houseWatching the languid, quiet glide of fish, suspended in their narrow world of water, neutralizes—at least for the moment—that root canal or delicate examination you are about to endure. When the action lags or shifts to some other area of the yard, I cast another handful of seed across the deck and sit back for another episode of “birds.”

Most of the birds are juncos—generically known as “snowbirds”--perky little studies in brown with a saucy flash of white as they take flight. The male of the species has the chocolate-dipped head; the female’s a more subdued milk-chocolate. The snow has coaxed other species out of the landscape, though in lesser numbers. Flocking together with the juncos on the deck are a half dozen White-crowned sparrows of both sexes.Two blushing heads stand out from the rest: a pair of House finches have arrived for their share of the feast and bob for seed alongside the others.

A couple pair of Spotted towhees, a colorful bird smaller than a robin and with the fitful tail of a wren make regular forays from the hedge for spilled seed. Notorious hedge dwellers, towhees tiptoe along the top of a shrub, dive suddenly into it, only to pop out at the bottom somewhere; like a diving duck, you’re never quite sure where the bird will reappear. Towhees have the red breast of a robin but unlike Mr. Redbreast, the towhee sports a white apron and wings peppered with white spots. When the snow disappears, the towhees will scratch, like chickens, through the duff looking for a hearty meal.

Varied thrushes, stocky, starling-like birds wearing black and orange V-necked sweaters thread their way through the throng of juncos. This bird looks, excepting the black V at its throat, like a patchwork robin. The first Varied thrush I saw on our property I mistook for a Western Meadowlark until I remembered the meadowlark is an east of the Cascades native.rustic nestbox

Our two lowland species of chickadees, the black-capped and chestnut-backed, feast at the suet blocks, preferring the shorter wait time. They flit back and forth from tree to feeding post, extracting one seed at a time from the suet, return to the tree where they consume the kernel, tidily wipe their beaks on a twig, and return for seconds, thirds, fourths….

Among such a host, one bird always seems to stand out, distinguishes itself to the point it must be given a name. Last year it was a female junco whose head feathers were white chocolate instead of dark, an anomaly explained by my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L as “something went wrong in the egg.” Far into spring “Baldy” was a regular visitor at the backyard feeders. This winter’s standout, at least during this snow event, is another junco. This little female has an injured or deformed left leg and is easy to spot among the fifty or so of her fellows digging for seed. While the others hop about on two legs from one kernel to the next, she has to squat in the snow to eat. She seems to have compensated for her handicap quite well, however, and with the flit of a wing and a one-legged hop, little “Hop-a-Long” quickly finds another tidbit. And she will not be bullied, either, but aggressively defends her space. No lower rungs of the pecking ladder for this little gal.

Another regular at the suet block is a female Hairy woodpecker, not to be confused with the smaller “Downy,” and distinguished at least by the thicker, more business-like beak. Because of her smaller size she allows the flickers and jays to serve themselves first and patiently waits her turn on the feeding post, passing the time by pecking about on it, honing her beak. She clings to the bottom of the block and feeds upside down, chipping away at the suet, sending chunks to the ground where they’re pounced upon by the ground feeders. In a rare stroke of genius we named this little visitor “Harriet.” (“Harry” has yet to make his appearance.")

There is bird activity at the kitchen window, too, although you must be discreet and patient to observe the tiny blur at the syrup feeder. For nearly a month now we have been feeding a female Anna’s hummingbird. Unlike our migratory Rufous hummingbird, Anna’s winter in the Pacific Northwest; however, this is the first winter appearance of one of these little sprites on the place. She first appeared at an empty seed feeder, inspected it on all sides, moved on to the wind chimes, came away empty there, and flew away disappointed and hungry. I quickly mixed some syrup and retrieved the window feeder from storage. She discovered the feeder the next day and has been a regular ever since. Apparently the little lady had been scouring the neighborhood in search of a meal for some time. The neighbor noticed a hummingbird at her strand of Christmas lights flitting from one bulb to the next hoping to get lucky; she called me for the formula (FYI: one part sugar: four parts water) and has her feeder out, too. AnnieWhen she comes to the window, no sudden movements or she rockets away. You can literally see her little belly swell as she siphons down the syrup. Three or four sips and then she jets into the maple tree and perches on a nearby twig to insure a speedy return to the next drink. As she moves from side to side at the feeder, the iridescent triangle (gorget) at her throat flashes red, laser-like. Today she huddles on a snow clad twig, a tiny mite of a bird looking very uncomfortable and out of context; she should be flitting to and fro in the summer’s honeysuckle and crocosmia instead of shivering away on a snowdrifted twig. Nights, when the temperature drops to freezing, I bring the feeder inside to keep the syrup from freezing. As she already has a name, we have yet to come up with one of our own. Perhaps we should, though: “Anastasia?” “Annette?” Or how about just plain “Annie?” She’s certainly living a “hard knock life” these wintry days….wren nest

The snow persists.The house is still without power. But thanks to the woodstove the room is warm and comfortable. Boiling water gently rocks the teapot. In futility some time ago the cat gave up on the host of birds dancing just beyond his nose and, as is the knack of all cats, has found the most comfortable place in the house. This morning that spot is the easy chair beside the humming woodstove, and if you’ll excuse the expression, the cat has gone catatonic. But just a minute…a paw jerks…a lip lifts a whisker or two…an ear twitches…the cat is dreaming. And just what does a cat dream about after a morning spent watching birds? I wonder….

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Finish Your Food for Thought…Then You May Be Excused…

From dairy to market“The Good Old Days” is just another term for the past, and we know the past has passed, leaving us only fuzzy memories of the “good” as we become the “old.” Jim Werkhoven mourns the passing of the good old days of dairy farming but takes pride in the Werkhoven Dairy’s keeping pace with the latest technology in his industry. “Things were a lot simpler then,” he says, and I tell him about a conversation I heard the other day on the radio. A service station owner, who has been in business for forty-one years, called the show to tell the hosts that when he opened his station, all that was needed to conduct business was a business license (the Good, Old Days) he was required to renew annually. But they’re gone, the Good Old Days, and in these enlightened times he now deals with fifteen or sixteen licenses and permits annually to run his station and spends at least four hours a day just to manage the paperwork they generate. Jim nods in agreement—his industry, too, has been smothered by bureaucracy, he replies, as he fishes his Android phone from his shirt pocket, fiddles with it a bit, and slips it back again. (Jim, if you’ll recall, was on the phone when I knocked at the door; he will retrieve the ‘Droid from his pocket several more times during our visit and actually talk on it at least twice.)

I think about Jim’s phone and realize it could well serve as a symbol for the “New Age” dairy business, represent the cutting edge of modern milk production, every bit as invaluable a tool as the heavy equipment used to feed the stock and farm the fields. I remember, also, the computer monitor conspicuously perched on the desk in Jim’s office, how he couldn’t pass it by without viewing a page or two. I’m sure each cow in the Werkhoven herd has its own profile stored on a spreadsheet on that computer, the number on its ear tag cross referenced with cost basis, annual milk yield, age…(even a cow has no privacy these days. A lady’s age?…please!).

The ladies at trough

Jim tells me much of the milk produced in the state is shipped overseas. I ask if the milk is exported in dehydrated form (“Instant dry milk,” or “blue milk” we kids called it back in the day when the milk for our large family came in a big cardboard box with the portrait of one of Carnation Farms’ contented cows prominently displayed on the front). Jim nods but then adds that many processed foods contain milk products: whey for instance. “Read the labels, sometime,” he tells me. (And later I did just that. Jim’s right. I checked the packaged cereals section and many varieties like Special K, Honey Roasted Almond flakes and brands that combined nuts and flakes contained milk. Interesting, too—in the “ingredients” information, the products that contained milk noted its presence in bold caps, most likely a mandate by the USDA to warn the lactose wary. Some even disclosed that “equipment processing milk” had been used in the making of their product. And Oreos? Yes, even some Oreo products contained milk.)

Jim’s pocket signalled him. “It’s Andy. I gotta take this,” apologizes Jim. Andy was supposed to be a part of our morning’s conversation but instead he was en route to Seattle on business. Jim stands as he takes the call. He’s a pacing talker and strides back and forth during the conversation. I sipped my coffee for the next few minutes while the brothers discussed percentages, acreage, and hundred weights. There was a little advice from big brother, too: “Andy, don’t let them give you any guff ( of course dairymen don’t really say “guff”; it’s not “guff” they wade through daily as they work the barns). If you don’t like what they offer, say ‘No deal’ and walk out.” There was something reassuring about two brothers working as a team, Android connected, laying down a hard line of business—most likely to middlemen. Once Andy’s issues are resolved, Jim pockets the phone, shakes his head a time or two and returns to the chair.

Our conversation moves on to government and its role in the demise of “simpler times.” We both agree government and its regulations create cumbersome layers of bureaucracy that stifle business rather than support it. Jim believes some regulation is a necessary buffer between producer and consumer, but too often government intrudes and creates stumbling blocks that trip up effective business practices. “Take our digester, for example,” Jim complains. “We produce enough methane to accommodate another generator, but if we were to increase our capacity, we’d be required to wade through another layer of permits, comply with more regulations, and we’re just not ready for that aggravation right now.” Jim thinks the bureaucracy created by the Puget Sound Clean Air Act is a big part of the problem. “Methane is a clean-burning gas, but the fact we’d be doubling our electricity output brings a whole new set of rules into the mix.”Valley flamer Jim believes, as do I, once a bureaucracy is born, its primary purpose is to insure its survival—its survival and further expansion--and Jim is certain business would be better off without so much of it. He’s not too keen on the Department of Agriculture either and cites the soil samples annually mandated by the Department as an additional unnecessary burden placed on the farmer.

Jim’s pocket summons him again and he’s up and out of the chair talking to Ed Broers. Again the talk seems to be about acreage, percentages and hundred weights—with a few verbal barbs tossed in (“No, Ed, I’m not STILL in bed!”) Once the Broers’ business is done, I ask about the ponds containing the dairy’s liquid waste byproduct (in Werkhoven parlance “manurrr”). “Do you have to drain those ponds every spring?” I wonder, recalling the big tractor trailing a large hose that feeds an injector attachment which pumps the poo back into the soil. “No, that’s part of our spring fertilizer program,” Jim tells me. “It’s pretty much eliminated the need for commercial fertilizers.” This season as soon as the corn was harvested, the Werkhovens planted pasture grass to optimize their acreage. “We hope to get one cutting of grass before we seed our corn…just that much more feed. The injector attachment would rip out the grass roots, so we’ve purchased another piece of equipment that punches holes in the ground and the liquid is sprayed over the holes and seeps into the ground that way.” Once again Jim pulls the phone from his pocket, looks at the screen, frowns, and holsters it again. Must have been a random call, I think… much like our morning’s random conversation that’s meandered from milk and Oreos to poo infusion.terra hypo

So, Jim, thanks for the coffee and the time you took to talk to The Ripple, and while you may lament the passing of the good old days and feel at times mired in the paperwork and bureaucratic guff that hampers today’s dairy industry, when you really think about it, isn’t it amazing how you can sit there in that comfortable easy chair, sip your coffee and oversee the business of a large dairy operation from the pocket of your shirt!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Food for the Table…Food for Thought…Back with Seconds…

Werkhoven DairyI’m here in dairyman Jim Werkhoven’s parlor, hot on the trail of that elusive glass of milk. However, my main concern at the moment is gravity: Jim’s green coffee cup is balanced precariously on the arm of his easy chair and every time he waves his arm, I’m certain the cup is history. “I think the whole organic thing is really about marketing,” Jim says, as the cup miraculously survives another sweep of his arm. “You know,” Jim informs me (another narrow miss), “it takes a carbon footprint fourteen times greater to produce organic than it does regular.” This is surprising news, and while I’m not sure how Jim came by this information, I know anyone involved in the food industry these days has to be very aware of what going “organic” entails.

I have talked to other Valley farmers about certified organic produce. Ed Broers advertises his berries as “organic,” and I know when he replaced old plants with new canes a few years back, he was required to use “organic” metal posts instead of the chemically treated posts from the old field. Before the Aldens left potato farming and the Valley, I talked to Jan Alden a bit about organic. She said in order for a farm to be designated certified organic, it must be pesticide and herbicide free for at least five years. “Use Roundup on your weeds,” she said, “and wait five years before you’re eligible for organic consideration.” Two or three years ago Kelly Bolles and I talked tomatoes and discussed the application of copper fungicide to prevent late blight. I was surprised when Kelly told me that copper spray is considered an organic application.

All three of our local supermarkets have organic produce displays and near as I can tell the only difference between organic carrots and regular is the former still have their tops and cost nearly a dollar more a pound. (Certainly not fourteen times more expensive, but costly enough for this frugal shopper to choose topless instead.) A thirty foot shelf of vegetables displayed at the foot of a folksy sign in Fred Meyer’s produce section touts its produce as “Organic.”

“Organic?” From the retail perspective I wonder what the term means. I decide to put that question to a Fred Meyer’s purveyor of produce who is restocking bins in the section. “Bob,” his name tag reads, is dodging customers, rolling his stock cart back and forth to allow them access to the “regular” onion varieties, but now he is about to be victimized by The Ripple. “Excuse me,” I apologize, “your organic produce? Just what exactly does that mean?” His answer initiated the following interesting conversation.

“With ‘organic’,” Bob replies, “you have two designations: you have your ‘organic’ and you have your ‘100% organic.’” This means another question, of course: “100% organic?” Bob tells me that means the produce must be 95% chemical-free. “And ‘organic,’?” “For that designation,” Bob replies, “I think the product must be at least 75% pesticide/herbicide free.” I wonder where GE figures into the designation. Bob says he thinks “organic” allows genetic modification although he’s not entirely sure. “I learn a lot from customers,” he says. “Some are very well informed, have read and studied the research on the subject.” Other customer behavior puzzles him, though. Soy milk, Bob continues, is a popular item among customers who believe regular milk might be tainted with antibiotics and other chemicals, but he is not so sure theirs is a wise choice. “Do you know how much formaldehyde is used to process soy milk from soybeans? A lot! I’d rather take my chances with regular milk, myself. (And these, I think, are most likely the very folks who shy away from dairy products derived from cows treated with the growth hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin [rbST]; they’ll take formaldehyde over rbST any day.) Bob continues to say he is far more concerned about potential health issues posed by customers who handle the produce and may have MRSA or hepatitis. Apparently, though, “organic” as a marketing tool is working. Bob says when Fred Meyers first included the organic section, a lot of that produce had to be thrown out. “Now hardly any is thrown away,” he says. “I guess people must be buying it.” When I ask him if produce managers at Safeway and Albertson’s would give me the same information as he, Bob thinks their answers would be about the same.

Bob prefaces some personal history by informing me that fifty/sixty years ago people mainly shopped “the middle of the store.” He tells me he grew up on a 235 acre farm in North Dakota. “People back then grew most of their produce and raised their own meat and eggs,” Bob says. “They would go to town once or twice a month for coffee, flour and sugar…you know, the staples. We raised chickens and Hereford cattle and had plenty of eggs and beef.” Bob explains that his family’s farm was self-sufficient: “We raised alfalfa to feed our cattle. Grain also--enough would be reserved from each crop for feed. Now the big food conglomerates own most of the farms in North Dakota…you couldn’t make a living from a 235 acre farm these days,” he remarks. We talk about some of the cost cutting measures the big corporations used to pad the bottom line. “Take wheat farming in the Dakotas,” Bob says by way of example. Ranchers would first cut the grain, rake it into windrows, let it dry for two or three days, then combine it. Nowadays that step has been eliminated by spraying the wheat after the kernels have matured, killing it. Then the combines take to the fields and cut the standing grain. And there you go again, adding more chemicals to the soil.” I thank Bob for taking the time to talk with me and let him return to navigating around customers and unloading those crates of “regular” produce. I choose a half dozen nice non-organic yellow onions, bag them, and head for the dairy section, careful to give the lockers brimming with soy milk a wide berth.

“We don’t use antibiotics on our cows,” Jim says. “And we’re careful to use feed that is produced pesticide/herbicide free.” (It’s my guess formaldehyde doesn’t figure into Werkhovens’ dairy equation either.) In short, I’m sure Jim would tell you, waving his arm a time or two, the milk and cream that come from the Werkhoven Family Dairy is as nutritious and safe as mother’s milk. But one last nervous glance at the arm of Jim’s easy chair and I think if there’s cream in that teetering, green coffee cup, I’m not so sure the cup would agree.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Food for the Table…Food for Thought…

January sunsetBy the time I finish my morning domestic chores and check the inbox, it’s 8:20 a.m. One new message, key stroke conservative and short. I feel my face flush when I read: “How does 8:15 a.m. work for you at my house? Jim.” In a panic I shoot a reply: “Jim, if you receive my message and still have time, give me a call.” 8:15…I should have known that by then Jim Werkhoven would have already put in a half day’s work. I didn’t want to miss this interview. Catching any of the Werkhovens when there’s a lull in the action is almost impossible.

But there was one the other day. I had just made my turn at Sargent Road and was heading home when I heard a vehicle slowing behind and the next thing I know, there’s a red pickup at my elbow and a gruff “How you been, stranger?” from the driver “Any news for The Ripple?” I ask. “No, things have been pretty quiet.” I commend Jim for choosing renewable resources for his Christmas tree this year and recycling last year’s aluminum tree. He laughs, “Oh, that’s the renters.” Renters? It’s then I learn Jim hasn’t lived in the house since last fall. “Yeah, we bought the old Ray place, renovated it and moved in sometime before Thanksgiving.” This was news to me; The Ripple certainly dropped the ball on that story.

Jim had been sorting through priorities of where his energies would be best spent the rest of the day but decided to stop for a chat instead. I’m curious about this year’s silage crop. Jim tells me it was better than expected given the short growing season. Our conversation wanders from there through the farming industry until I stumble upon a topic that strikes a nerve. “You know,” Jim shook his head, “People need to know where their food comes from.”

That’s why I’m now rushing around the house trying to find my misplaced socks. I want to hear what Jim has to say about all that goes into bringing that tall glass of milk to the table to bathe our Oreos in. The phone rings. Jim on the other end. “Come on down,…second house on the left on the dead end road.”

I’m on the back porch of the second house on the left on the dead end road. I can see Jim wandering around inside, phone to his ear (if you know Jim, that configuration is a familiar one). A couple of raps and I’m admitted. Jim quickly finishes his networking. The phone slides back into his pocket and I’m given a brief tour of the new spread which ends in the parlor where I’m motioned to an easy chair and handed a cup of coffee.

We exchange small talk for a while before I remind Jim of why I’m here. That topic that came up the other day alongside the road? Jim smiles and I think I’m about to shadow my glass of milk all the way from that big hay truck hauling Basin hay as it compression brakes (in  front of the house… in the dark…while people are trying to sleep…) on its way to the feed lot at the Werkhoven Dairy to my table where that dry Oreo awaits. But first, it’s down to Northern California and another topic. The Werkhovens visited relatives there over the weekend and one subject that came up during the family banter was genetic engineering (GE): the relatives opposed it, Jim, the farmer, was—is—a strong advocate of applying the latest genetic research to food production.

“We need this science if we’re going to be able to feed the world’s exploding population,” Jim exclaimed, stating he believes some of the current geopolitical unrest stems from not enough food to go around, either because of plain scarcity or prohibitive high costs. “So why are these folks so set against GE? I asked. “I don’t know”Jim replied, “I guess they object to fish genes spliced into other food sources or something….” I told him that could quickly be remedied by serving a few lemon slices with dinner. Jim laughs and then asks me if I know what a rutabaga is? “Sure do, it’s a turnip with a skin condition,” I say. “Do you know where it comes from?” Another easy question; you find them rubbing elbows with turnips and parsnips in the grocery store, the produce section. No… a rutabaga, I’m surprised to learn, shares the genes of a turnip and a cabbage, a genetic cross between two different species.

“Is any genetically modified plant or animal a hybrid, then?” I asked. Jim said it was. If this is the case, nature has been tweaking its biological genome since the first amoeba split in two. The 19th century pea pickin’ friar Gregor Mendel took time from his monastic offices to observe certain characteristics of the peas in his pea patches. His studies gave science the underpinnings for our modern genetics.

Interspecific (the sharing of traits between species) hybridization occurs regularly in the backyard garden. Why else would my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L stop by in early summer with her bucket, paintbrush and clippers to snip a few manly blossoms from my zucchini plants and transport them to her lady zucchinis that yearn for some male companionship? In fact if you want to play at Gregor Mendel in your own garden, you needn’t limit your studies to peas. Just plant a row of sweet corn next to a row of Indian corn and you’re in for a colorful surprise when you husk that ear of Golden Jubilee. Or plant your squash, gourds, and pumpkins together in the same corner of the garden, save the seeds, and see what curiosities crop up next summer. In my dahlia garden last season one flower in a hill of salmon-colored blossoms presented as half pink, half peach. There’s a variety of red delicious apple named after my sister, its discoverer, who in her teenage years was paid by the hour to walk through the orchard row by row and look for apples that had a deeper color than others on the tree—thus the patented “Claudia” red delicious variety. One of North America’s most beautiful butterflies, the red-spotted purple (Basilarchia  astyanax), hybridizes with the White Admiral (Basilarchia arthemis) where their two ranges coincide. And so while we plod through our daily routines, Mother Nature, journeyman genetic engineer, in the characteristic way of all women, quietly goes about rearranging her genome, never quite satisfied to leave things just as they are.

Hybridization occurs most frequently between species and subspecies and is rarely found in nature interfamily and never between orders, and it is this fact that gives rise to the criticism of GE. Man, through his science, needs to, as critics would have it, “meddle” in the genetic affairs of plants and animals to achieve whatever kinds of hybridization he desires. In an earlier post (“The Valley of Spiders,” 9/25/11) I mentioned recent experiments with mammal cell culture (cows) and genetic material from spiders (that’s transferring genetic matter from one taxonomic class to another, by the way) to produce thread five times stronger than steel. Just as Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein experimented with the “stuff of life,” to give birth to a monster, critics of GE fear monstrous things will happen to us humans if Man persists on tinkering with plant and animal genetics, fussing with the essence of life itself. “We need to butt out of Nature’s business and leave her alone,” they say. “Stop treading on her painted toenails!”

Jim Werkhoven, I’m sure, would counter with this argument: if science and other technologies have been employed to increase longevity and decrease infant mortality worldwide, both of which contribute to the earth’s rapidly expanding population, why not apply GE to increase food production and bolster the world’s food supply to meet population demand? Now we’re caught up in Dr. Frankenstein’s dilemma—we have a moral obligation to use science to feed what our science has helped create. The critics of GE fear what we all fear, the unknown, and fact of the matter surrounding GE is that our technology, as in pharmacopoeia, has outpaced cause and effect. And in our recent past there is certainly precedent for consequences when Man attempted to manipulate the natural world. Remember DDT? Note, too, it was through biologists’ hybridizing that the “Africanized” honeybee (Apis m. scutella) became the scourge it is.This bellicose strain is not only a threat to humans and livestock, but also to beekeepers because of genetic transfer to less aggressive strains of Apis mellifera queens they purchase from southern states.

Let me remind those stubbornly opposed to GE that the mule, a beast of burden and work (remember “40 acres and a mule?”), very much a part of our pioneer heritage, and still used by the U.S. Army today for transporting supplies through the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, came about through human matchmaking between a donkey and a horse. The critics of GE need to accept change—or raise food for their own consumption—and  good luck sorting through seed catalogs to find non-hybrid stock. One well-documented website The Ripple consulted,, states that the United States leads the world in acreage devoted to GE crops: 68% and further states that 70% of processed foods in our supermarkets contain ingredients derived from GE. Those who really fear GE foods can avoid this risky lifestyle by purchasing only “certified organic” foods which “purport” to exclude anything GE.

Organic foods? Just one of the many other topics that came up during my conversation with Jim, each in itself worthy of a post. My coffee cup was empty, and as I stood to leave, I realized I didn’t know much more about the dairy business than I did when Jim handed me that steaming cup of coffee an hour and a half ago. “I didn’t find out much about that glass of milk, did I?” I chuckled. “A rather random conversation, wasn’t it!” Jim laughed, “Random is pretty much the way I operate.” So for the time being anyway, those Oreos will remain dry, still waiting patiently for that tall glass of milk.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Fireside Chat and Visit…

Jerald and Tina visitNo fireplace hearth, though, just the cozy warmth of our woodstove we shared the other day with our former Valley neighbors Tina and Jerald Streutker. When they lived in the Valley, every couple months we used to trade visits with the Jerald and Tina and chat over tea and cookies. Now that Jerald and Tina live in town, our Valley schedule always seems in conflict with their Merrill Gardens’ (Jerald and Tina’s home these days) town schedule. We hadn’t seen Tina since last Christmas season and even longer since we’d seen Jerald before the the pair moved to Merrill Gardens and hadn’t yet moved from their new house in town. Just before Christmas I called to extend our Christmas wishes to them but no one picked up the phone. After two more tries, I gave up.

But Tina must have felt our good intentions from the Valley and to my surprise called me the next day. I told her we were having problems arranging a visit and certainly didn’t want to drop in announced. “We can’t seem to get together in town,” I remarked, “Why don’t I come in, pick you up, and bring you out to visit for a while?” Tina said, “Oh, you don’t need to do that”…she could make the drive to the Valley herself. “Traffic has changed quite a bit since you lived here,” I warned. “Why don’t you let me chauffeur you out and back?” Tina agreed. “Is Jerald invited?” she asked. “Most certainly,” I replied,  “if you think he’s up for the trip.” We set up a 2:00 p.m. meeting time early the following week.

I arrived promptly at 2:00 and was surprised to find our usually punctual guests weren’t waiting for me in the foyer. I went in search of them, had hardly reached the front desk when they appeared, Jerald rolling comfortably in a wheelchair powered by Tina. Both were smiling broadly, obviously happy to see a familiar face from the Valley. And I was relieved to find my face was familiar to Jerald, too, was greeted with a hearty “Hi, Terry!” I extended my hand and received a nice, firm handshake, and once I felt that friendly grip, my earlier concerns faded away. Tina and I wheeled Jerald out the door to the car (“Brrrr,” Jerald said) and with surprisingly little difficulty, he maneuvered himself up and out of the chair and into the front seat where he promptly buckled himself in. I loaded Jerald’s walker in the trunk, helped Tina situate herself comfortably as my backseat driver and with Jerald my navigator (“All clear this way!”) off we went to the Valley.

As we approached Tualco, I asked Jerald if the scenery looked familiar. “Very familiar, yes…,” he chuckled. I wanted them to see their old home place, so I turned the corner and slowly drove past. “Look at all the apples on the lawn!” Tina exclaimed and I knew she was thinking about the pies and sauce she used to make from the apples on that tree. I turned around in Ed’s driveway and after slowing once again by their house, (Tina: “I see Brett has made a gravel driveway to the basement”and then, “My, my…all those apples”), we headed for the woodstove and our long overdue visit.

In our driveway in front of the garage, I positioned Jerald’s walker for easy access. I was amazed at his mobility; Jerald pushed himself up out of the seat, saddled up the walker, and headed for the woodstove, hot coffee and snacks. With me running interference on the obstacles, he forged ahead through the garage.  When he saw my wife, Jerald grinned, gave her a big kiss, and with Tina close behind, proceeded to his place of honor next to the purring stove.

For the next hour we shared family news with our old neighbors—our role as soon-t0-be grandparents-- followed by news of the Valley. Jerald, I was surprised, was listening and engaged in the conversation. The coffee and cookies sustained Jerald for about the same amount of time. Then either the comforting warmth of the woodstove or a special ingredient the mother-in-law added to her date-nut pinwheel cookies, put Jerald to sleep and throughout the rest of our visit he napped.

When it came time for us to say good-bye and chauffeur them back to Merrill Gardens, Jerald was so comfortably anesthetized by the woodstove, he didn’t want to wake up, and I thought we were going to have to put him up for the night. A little encouragement from Tina and my coaxing him with “Let’s take a drive,” finally brought him around. Jerald skillfully shuffled that walker through the garage and soon our company was buckled in and ready for the trip back to town. “That was  fun,” ( a sentiment he was to repeat twice more) Jerald said as I settled in beside him. He put on his navigator’s hat again at the end of the driveway: “All clear this way,”and we were off.

Knowing my passengers were enjoying the holiday light display on Lewis Street, I drove along slowly from one illuminated residence to the next. I could tell Jerald and Tina were having a good time out and away from their cloistered Merrill Garden’s routine. As I approached the Gardens, I thought about our neighbors’ longtime presence in the Valley, where they had lived the better part of their lives, and how they were now living in town, removed from their one well-kept acre on that corner in the Valley. I turned into Merrill Gardens’ parking lot and asked Jerald if things looked familiar to him. “Yes,” he replied, “You know… it’s not a bad place.” I helped them both from the car and into the facility, wished them a “Happy New Year. As I left our friends in Merrill Garden’s warm, holiday festooned lobby and walked out into the chill of the winter’s night, I recalled Jerald’s parting words: he was right…it wasn’t at all such a bad place, and as I drove through the cold winter rain back to the Valley, it was a comfort to think of them there.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Are You Ready for Some Football?…From The Ripple’s Sports Page…

Tualco FieldFootball fever has come to the Valley, and for this edition The Ripple has added a special sports page to cover the news.

As the old year slips into the new, football fans across the country huddle in front of HD widescreens to watch their favorite teams do battle on the gridiron.  With bowls of chips and dip before them and bowls on the flat screen, they are bowled over by one bowl game after another. Now football has come to the Valley, and The Ripple, ever faithful to the news, was on hand to cover the first annual Tualco Valley Pasture Bowl.

I’m afoot in the Valley this last day of 2011 when I hear a sound that should not be heard this time of the year: the offensive thrum of a riding lawnmower. Now there’s an unwritten Valley covenant whose bylaws state: “No yard mowing until March at the earliest!” I stride on until I find the scofflaw at work. Brett de Vries, the offender, is about to make the final passes on the field in front of his red barn. Brett is not alone. A young man armed with a shovel is doing some scoop work in the field. Thinking he might be leveling mole mounds to make the mowing easier, I asked him what he was shoveling up and dumping over the fence. “Cow manure,” he says. Then I remembered Brett had pastured out the field to four cows for lawn mowing duties last summer.“Just leave it there,”I tell him. “If Brett is so fond of mowing, those patties will make the grass grow that much faster!” “Can’t do that,”I’m told. “There’s going to be a football game here later. Hard to get good traction with these piles underfoot.” Football in the Valley? Hmmm…. “When’s kickoff ?” I asked. 1:30, I learn…about an hour from now. Just time enough for The Ripple to get organized.

1:45 and The Ripple has arrived in time to cover the pre-game show, most of which, it appeared was lining the field. “Why don’t you reinstall that hotwire,” I tell Brett. “No question, then, when a player steps out of bounds!” The grounds crew was hard at work running tape measures, string lines, directing spray paint.Lining the field Traffic cones to mark the fifty yard line and end zones added official color to the field. Players trickled in from parts unknown, wearing uniforms of a colorful and highly idiosyncratic nature. Among them all age groups were represented, as were various shapes, sizes and athletic abilities. Obviously something had gone horribly wrong in last year’s draft. The motley group immediately went to work on their equipment, adjusting kneepads, socks, lacing their game shoes. Some black-streaked their cheeks to cut glare. Glare What glare(Glare this time of year in the Valley?) Someone wondered about the whereabouts of a certain player. Turned out he was in the kitchen boiling his mouth guard.



Team hodge podge

The Tualco Valley Pasture Bowl featured flag football. This year’s contest pitted Team Blue against Team Yellow.opposing colors The teams were coed and in the choosing of sides, special attention was given to alternate the selection of male and female players.

A cheer staff of one (when she wasn’t playing right guard or tackle) flourished her pom poms, urging the crowd to show their team spirit.We've got spirit, yes we do!

After a forty-five minute delay (that mouth guard…a watched pot never boils…), it was finally kickoff time. The players donned their colors and game faces. 34 gettin' toughThis game had the potential to be a contest of epic proportions.The  players’ faces beamed with excitement and enthusiasm spread quickly throughout the fans lining the field. The Ripple was given special press privileges: a front row seat on the fifty yard line.

One exciting game!

Team Yellow won the coin toss and elected to receive. After a brief rehearsal of the rules (“no unnecessary roughness,” especially in the groin area), the teams lined up. The crowd tensed on the sidelines and a hush fell over the field. A sole referee blew an official-sounding whistle.Then a swift kick. The ball sailed into the air. At last the game was underway. 

Kick off!

Several plays and a few possessions later, it appeared that compliance with the rules had deteriorated into random chaos. For further clarification, The Ripple conferred with the whistleblower, who soon after kickoff and a few unheeded tweets, had returned the ineffective whistle to his pocket with a shrug and ceded control of the game to the contenders. He explained the parameters in general as: “On each possession a team has three downs to make it to the fifty yard line and three more to make a touchdown. Possession turns over if a team fails either way.” It appeared these guidelines were the only remaining vestiges of game rules.

Go Team Blue!
With no shrilling whistle at each play, the game seemed to morph into a curious blend of soccer, lacrosse, and hot potato. Forward laterals seemed to be the favorite departure, the ball hopping back and forth across the line of scrimmage (the lacrosse and soccer players) almost like a tennis match. On one play I noted at least three receivers, each downfield from the other, shoveling the ball from one to the next. “Knee down, dead ball” was all but forgotten as some players crawled and wriggled their way for extra yardage. The designated official just shook his head and smiled, his pocketed whistle “officially” retired from duty. Some huddles lasted longer than an official time out. What were they doing? Planning the halftime show?  Hut! Hut!

Team Blue drew first blood on a Hail Mary pass that dropped into the end zone and the open arms of a surprised teammate who happened to be standing in the right place. Controversy arose after the “go for two” play (Tualco Field has yet to erect goal post, affording no “point after” opportunities) went awry.The debate revolved around whether or not a player had possession of the ball on a bobbled pass reception in the end zone.

Going for two
A contentious player approached The Ripple’s photographer for an “instant replay”review of the play in question, but at the time his camera was focused on the cheer staff, not the field, and unfortunately the play went unnoticed.Cheer fires 'em up

Competition was fierce. Spectacular plays ended in high fives and chest bumps. With such intense play, injuries were inevitable. When one did occur, the injured rushed to the first aid station and gulped down some painkillers. The Ripple overheard some of the players say they had practiced preventive medicine and dosed themselves ahead of time --pre-injury—some even anticipating the day after effect. for the injured reserves

As the clock ticked down to the first annual Tualco Valley Pasture Bowl halftime, both teams resorted to elaborate plays to score against the opponent. I saw faked handoffs, complicated backfield reverses, one of which almost worked. Team Blue executed an onside kick that would have been the envy of any NFL pro. The best kickoff, in the opinion of this reporter, was a perfect, whirling spiral with awesome hang time. The kicker? A lady soccer player, of course.

on side kick

At halftime the score was Team Blue 30, Team Yellow 24. The Ripple did not stay to cover the second half—in part because there was not yet a consensus on whether either team was capable of playing a second half. Mostly, though, this reporter had caught a chill spending nearly an hour covering the game from an unheated press box.

The Ripple’s post game analysis: for Team Blue and Team Yellow in spite of the competitiveness it was obvious the Pasture Bowl wasn’t just about scoring goals but rather another goal…just being together…enjoying an afternoon of healthy, active fun with friends and family. And while The Ripple missed the half time show and the second half--if it was played--it was quite apparent Teams Yellow and Blue on that account were both winners!