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Family Heirlooms

by Cathi Gerhard & Gregory Susa

While Greg and I were growing up, a common site in the back of the family refrigerator was a jar full of seeds, often beans. Our parents and grandparents saved seeds from each year’s harvest in order to plant next year’s garden. Families passed them down through the generations and traded them with friends and neighbors to grow their collection of varieties.

These agricultural anthologies were valuable guarantees of personal wealth and sustainability. Food was grown and regrown at no cost, year after year, if the proper steps were taken. Because they were open-pollinated (propogated by natural means: birds, wind, etc), these seeds could be grown again and again to produce the same historic variety. Richly-diverse, heirloom seeds yield a wide array of colorful crops (ie: purple potatoes and carrots, yellow and pink tomatoes, or strawberry popcorn).

In the latter part of the 20th century, the practice of “food science” led to the development of many “convenience” products. Hybrid seeds were developed in laboratories to increase yield, and agribusiness replaced the family farm. Why grow it if you could buy it cheap? And if you still wanted to garden, why work hard to save seeds if you could buy new ones each year? The problems with hybrid seeds are many and often misunderstood.

Borlotti Bean, a variety of cranberry bean bred in Italy to have a thicker skin. Also known as French horticul-tural beans, they have an appealing sweet mild, some-times nutty flavor and are the heart of many northern Italian dishes. Original cultivated in Colombia.

Borlotti Bean, a variety of cranberry bean bred in Italy to have a thicker skin. Also known as French horticul-tural beans, they have an appealing sweet mild, some-times nutty flavor and are the heart of many northern Italian dishes. Original cultivated in Colombia.

  • They cannot be saved and grown again. This ensures that consumers will have to purchase more product every year, much like light bulbs (the original Edison light bulb is still burning). Big business keeps making lots of money.
  • Hybrid seeds are also genetically-modified and contain built-in pesticides. These chemicals enter our soil, and penetrate our water table. We ingest these poisons by eating their crops and living in contaminated environments.
  • Biodiversity disappears and nature’s ability to fight disease or pestilence dies with it, much like genocide.
  • Heirloom varieties are more flavorful and richer in nutrients. Try a taste-testing this summer at your local farmer’s market!
  • Cuts down on wasteful use of fossil fuels: consider the transportation costs of hybrid seeds as well as produce delivery. Organic, locally-grown foods are available without mass transit costs.

There are many resources for getting your own heirloom seed collection started. Our favorite is Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization in Iowa. They have great prices and an extensive historical catalog. To learn more about the anti-Monsato, non-GMO seed debate right here in Pennsylvania (or to locate local farms), contact the PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture: http://www.pasaframing.org/(412) 365-2985.

There’s much more to come about Farmers Markets in our May issue, and this fall we will talk about saving your seeds to start your own family heirloom collection.

A Mouse in the House (or Barn)

By Cathi Gerhard and friends

Over the holiday break, I was sitting at my desk working on the planning stages for this issue. Greg and Elizabeth were at work, and Robert was visiting his father: it was just me and the cats, while Bianca was having a winter run outside. All was quiet and peaceful except for the rat-a-tap-tap of my keyboard. I love days like this, especially in the winter when there’s no guilt about staying inside all day.

Typically these days begin about 5:45 am, and I work until after noon or one o’clock, with a cat or two circling to check on me a few times or birdwatch in the bay window next to my chair. This was a particularly productive day, until the relaxing silence was shattered by sudden terrifying screams and squeaks I couldn’t identify at first. In shock, I got up and walked around to the front of my desk and saw two cats: Winry Hughes with her paws inside Greg’s shoe; and Magic, the small black cat looking on from a short distance in the hall. Jim, of course, was nowhere near because he prefers his 16-18 hours of daytime beauty rest upstairs in one of our beds.

I quickly realized what was happening: the cats had cornered one of the field mice who often find their way into our old farmhouse, especially during the cold winter. I understand the need to control the rodent population around the farm. The cats and dogs do a superb job. But inside the house, images of Beatrix Potter characters quickly come to mind, and I cannot bear to face the truth and horror of nature’s order. So I scooped up the shoe and dumped its screaming contents outside onto the patio into a drift of snow. Too late to change my mind, I watched as the mouse fell to the ground – and so did one of the barn cats who likes to hang out by the back door, his head making an arching bob from shoe to snow. I turned my head to avoid the carnage sure to ensue, and went back inside. Winry and Magic were still looking around the pile of shoes. I sat back down at my desk and started to think about mice and cats and their eternal battle.

Here are few more stories about mice down on the farm, written by some LMP readers . . .

The Great Cranberry Famine of 1938
by Floyd Mauer
November 2012

Actually, it wasn’t wide-spread, and might not even qualify as a ‘famine’ by a strict definition of the word, but it did have an impact on the families living in the little hamlet of Bloomville, NY — especially on those who shopped at E.M. Powell’s General Store on Main Street. Our Thanksgiving menu had been built around cranberry sauce since the time of the Pilgrims and it was a recurring feature of the Christmas menu as well, but in 1938 few of us living in Bloomville found any of it on the table.

The absence of cranberries wasn’t due to a widespread failure of the crop in Maine. In fact, it had been a good year. The farmers had been up to their hips in the bogs for well over a month, and had shipped their product all over the country in the traditional wooden crates that held a half bushel each. Mr. Powell had received his shipment right on time. He took the lid off the box and displayed it on the bottom shelf near the wood stove where folks warmed themselves while waiting for their orders to be filled. He was counting on picking up a few orders from folks who hadn’t remembered to write ‘cranberries’ on their list and needed a reminder.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed the display. As I’ve told my children a dozen times, we didn’t have school buses in those days. It was three miles to the school in Bloomville, and if you didn’t want to walk, you got a ride on the milk truck that hauled the day’s milk to the Sheffield Creamery in Bloomville. There was one problem we had to live with. The deadline for getting the milk to the creamery was 8:00 a.m. and the school didn’t open until 9:00. While the weather was fine, we would hang out around the school yard. The boys would toss a ball, and the girls would sit around and giggle.

When the weather turned cold, as it always did by the first week in November, we looked for shelter. That meant Powell’s store, and Mr. Powell accepted us rather grudgingly. He had to if he wanted to continue to do business with our parents. I was there with a half dozen of my classmates, and we all agreed on what we witnessed that morning in 1938.

Mr. Powell had a cat — an ugly old tom cat that he kept around to prevent the rodents from taking over the cracker barrel. When he wasn’t chasing the rats and mice, old Tom would hang out in a cozy spot under the stove; but on this morning, he woke up, stretched a bit and got to his feet. He yawned a couple of times and then walked over to the shelf where the cranberries were displayed. While we watched in amazement, he climbed into the box with the cranberries and started to dig a little hole.  We were all farm boys, and knew exactly what he was doing! It was all over in a few seconds. We didn’t say a thing to Mr. Powell, but we said plenty to everybody else we met. In less than twenty four hours, there was a precipitous decline in the demand for cranberries, and it lasted for at least a year. I don’t know if Mr. Powell ever figured out why his stock didn’t move. Rob Maxon, the other storekeeper in Bloomville reported that business had never been better.

Famine is defined as an extreme and general scarcity of food, but in this case, the food was there, but nobody had any appetite. Is there a word for that? How about anorexia profunditas?

“Mice” by Rose Fyleman, 1932

Now a children’s book illustrated by Caldecott Honor medalist Lois Ehlert, Beach Lane Books, October 2012, amazon.com

I think mice

Are rather nice.

Their tails are long

Their faces small,

They haven’t any

Chins at all

Their ears are pink,

Their teeth are white

They run about

The house at night

They nibble things

They shouldn’t touch

And no one seems

To like them much.

But I think Mice

Are rather nice.

Mousy Musings 

by Dr. Nancy Mauer

I have taken many views on mice. Mouse was my childhood nickname.

My brother and I rescued a trio of “pinkies”  from a junk car when I was about eight. Surprisingly, our parents let us keep them, and we were successful at feeding them with an eyedropper. We named them Mustang, Torino, and Pinto. We transported them across state lines from our Grandfather’s farm to “return them to the wild” in our Maryland back yard.

Family friends had a hunting camp where we spent occasional weekends. One morning I had noticed a mouse nest in the cookstove. I warned the others about it. My friend’s mother assured me, as she struck a match, that it would burn up before she put breakfast in the oven. They had taken the view that the mice spent much more time at the cabin than they did, and seemed to peacefully coexist.

In my college years, I took a course on animal ethics. Considerable time was spent discussing rodent control, what is humane, and what is not. Consequently I have tried hard to keep the habitat that is my home unattractive to invading rodents (not easy when one has pets!). An old farmhouse I rented had a mud room in the entryway where I kept a bowl of dry food for my dog to help herself. Every morning there was a piece of kibble balancing on the baseboard above the bowl. After the third morning it seemed too coincidental that it rested there so precisely. On investigation I found a mouse hole, less than a half inch in diameter. The mouse fit through, but alas, his bounty did not. I have occasionally pondered whether he pulled or pushed trying to jam it through the hole, and wondered that his problem-solving skills did not extend to enlarging the hole or nibbling the pellet until it would fit.

Recently I was addressing my attic work room, where stalled hobbies languish for years at a time. I took a few minutes to review viruses that can be contracted from cleaning up mouse infestations, but since I’d never heard of a case of Hantavirus in Western Pennsylvania, I rolled up my sleeves and delved into the corners. At the back of a drawer I found a nest. Mostly paper, but luxuriously lined with soft green fibers that had originated from a bolt of velveteen I had inherited from my mother. She had intended to use it for interior decorating. I guess the mice were just fulfilling her dream on their scale. Score one for them! Indeed they had left other evidence of their presence throughout the cupboard; the rainbow of colors in a box of crayons comes through the mouse largely unchanged!

One Winter I worked at an aquarium. We had a wide variety of commercial feeds for the animals in the collection. Fish diet comes in varieties that sink, varieties that float, and sizes from twenty-grit to buckshot. Mice are not nearly as picky as fish, they loved it all.  The bags of fish feed were stored on shelves, and I learned to expect that a thirty pound bag coming off the overhead shelf would often be accompanied by a shower of fleeing mice and spillage of fish food that was broadcast far and wide to entice the next wave of invaders. We rallied behind old “Mr. Jinx,” sounding the battle cry “I hate meeces to pieces!

Junk Mail Satisfaction

Last month we had to put up a bigger mailbox to hold all the mail coming into our household. My mother and I love our catalogs – admitted shopping addicts – but the whole thing has gotten out of control. One day my mother counted 28 catalogs in her portion of the mail alone; and then there’s the plain junk mail that comes in envelopes. With my bad back, there are times when I cannot even go get the mail on my own.

There are special offers for everything, charities to support, sweepstakes to be won, and money to be borrowed. The lonely side of our selves actually takes the time to open, read and consider each thing. My mother is quicker than me though – I have a lot of piles everywhere around the house that are dealt with in marathon sessions, especially when the cleaning lady threatens to quit on me once a week.

Weekly reading is something I handle better than daily, however. Which means that while we subscribe to both the Latrobe Bulletin and Tribune-Review (because I still believe that reading news is better than watching television), I often don’t actually get around to reading the papers until the weekend. Mom lets me know who has died though, in case we need to attend a funeral. Come Sunday I am faced with a monster pile of scattered paper: newsprint, junk mail, catalogs, magazines, cardboard boxes, and various other printed material.

That’s when I start to consider the immense waste that is printed communication. We are information junkies, constantly in need of something new to feed our attentions. But the price for that comes from our natural resources – trees and other plant material used to make paper, not to mention everything that goes into the actual process of printing and distributing. I love the feel of books, magazines and newspapers in my hands: but I just can’t make the switch to all-digital except for the short blurb format of websites like Huffington Post, Facebook, etc.

I also value my printed material, some more than others. If I bought it, then I try to get the most from it that I can. If it’s junk mail, I would like to see it provide some useful purpose rather than going directly into the trash. One reason I do not direct-mail the Laurel Mountain Post is because of the waste factor – I print copies knowing that people will pick them up and read them, not just throw them out with the garbage and the daily paper. I also encourage my readers to recycle them in collection bins rather than toss them.

Which brings me to my own piles of paper trash. In the Summer 2013 issue of the Laurel Mountain Post, pages 20-21, my “Down on the Farm” column discussed the small joys of composting, and its big payoff. My strategy for tackling the paper problem is to start recycling it in various ways.

  • A heavy-duty paper shredder is my favorite toy. All my junk mail, especially the kind with personal information, goes through the shredder. Then it goes onto our compost pile as part of the decomposition recipe which yields nutrient-rich dirt for next year’s garden.

shred

  • Yesterday we worked on mulching some planting beds in preparation for annuals. After mowing down the grass along our stone wall, we then covered the intended bed with layers of wet newspaper. The next step was to collect grass clippings from our lawn, then spread in a deep layer over the newspaper, watering it down again. In a few days, it will brown up and look like regular mulch, but we will top dress it with cypress mulch for a prettier finish. Next year, these thick beds will have composted down into richer soil, resulting in a no-till and pesticide-free garden bed. Then we’ll repeat the entire mulching and top-dressing process annually.

paper

grass

  • Magazines are best left to the collection bins (or donated for arts & crafts), not the garden. Glossy pages and their ink types are not good things to add into the environment.

I still have to figure out a system for collecting and storing my paper trash until it’s time to recycle. I couldn’t bear it if the cleaning lady quit – rescue teams might have to be called in to dig me out from under it all.

Happy Birthday, German Queen!

I never thought I would actually write a story about a tomato. I do not like tomatoes – only things made from tomatoes, like sauces and salsas. I have never known the joy of biting into a beautiful ripe tomato straight from the garden. But I can appreciate the joy they bring to others, like my son.

This year we planted a variety of heirloom tomatoes in our new raised bed garden at Fairview Farm. I was most excited about one called “German Queen,” an inside joke at my expense. We’ve been watching our crop with anticipation all through July, and with the exception of some blossom end rots issues, things have been coming along nicely – and profusely.

Today is my birthday, and we decided to can our first batch of ripe fruit. Greg brought down some German Queens, along with Cherokee Purple, Mister Stripey, Beefsteak, Mortgage Lifter, Homestead, and Golden Jubilee. Pictured above is the most beautiful tomato I have ever seen – a huge German Queen, approximately 5 inches in diameter. I have to admit I can’t wait to taste it, or more importantly chop it up into some jars of canned tomato sauce for the winter. Happy Birthday to me!

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