Tuesday, November 4, 2014

trees-- growing to the sky

daughter.  and plums.

I was working in the backyard last week with Hunter, a fellow blogger- whose blog has also gone partially dormant.  We were making cider from apples he had foraged from around town, and the last of a batch that I had gotten from an orchard near Le Sueur.  We had a lot of apples to work through and it took most of the afternoon.

It was a pretty much perfect fall day- golden sunshine, a little chill in the air, but not enough to make a jacket really necessary.  The smell of apples while we worked.  A little breeze.  A few clouds.  Smell of some smoke from a neighbor's fire. 

While we worked we both noted that the blogs that we've followed for years- the ones dealing with peak resources and climate change adaptation and global economic stuff seem to be falling by the wayside.  Going dormant like ours.  And why is that?

Are things really different this time?  Are trees going to grow to the sky?  Will the Dow reach 40,000 and the Singularity dawn upon the eastern horizon?  Why shouldn't everything we want to happen, just happen because we want it to?

Because of gravity.  And those laws of physics and stuff.

About which I am not an expert.

I am an expert, of sorts, on plants though.  And I don't know of any trees that do grow to the sky.  

The hard limits which have always been there, are still there, and printing money hasn't changed that.  Of course, I do have a job at present, and that makes my worldview reasonably rosy- and I'm working on starting a business, which makes it rosier yet.

But part of the reason behind that business- is the creation of resilience- moving into an industry that is needed- or at least wanted- during the best and the worst of times.

Right now- my desk job- my real job- is as a landscape architect.  I learned a lot about design and planning and theory and plants while in school, and now I mostly design sidewalks and parking lots.  Not a necessary profession in a world where few things are being built.  The recession of 2008- the last time that people suddenly needed fewer things built- hit people in my profession hard, and many haven't returned.  Those that remain are worked harder, sometimes for less pay.  It's not a pretty picture, but one that a lot of people have learned to live with.

I don't know that it will get any better either.

Now- take the area  I'm moving into- manufacturing wine, cider and mead.  Making alcohol.  That's a product that's always in demand.  Using ingredients from city trees, or surplus from agricultural production or distribution moreover.  It's resilient in the way that a job designing parking lots isn't. 

The decentralized supply chain is a central part of it.  This year so far, we've picked apples from trees half a block off of Lake Street in Minneapolis, plums from a lot just across from downtown St. Paul, organic apples from a cabin in western Wisconsin and the previously mentioned organic apples from a small farm in Le Sueur.

We've juiced them all and they're fermenting in our basement right now.  The trees they came from won't grow to the sky, but they will produce fruit every year- so long as the sun shines and the soil is alive. 

So long as the climate doesn't change too quickly or too radically- those trees will provide us with the raw material to make something delicious and potent- the way they have for thousands of years. They are the real source of wealth.   They won't grow to the sky- but who can pick fruit in the sky?  I'd rather have the fruit on the ground.
In that vein- if you would like to support our effort to start Urban Forage Winery and Cider House, take a look at our kickstarter video.  I've posted the link below.  If you like what you see, consider making a contribution.  Even a small one helps. 

Thanks for continuing to read eighth acre farm even as I post less often and put a greater amount of energy and time into this new venture.  I appreciate it.


Urban Forage Kickstarter link here

Monday, September 1, 2014

a summer to test a gardener's mettle

late august rain garden.  this is one area that did really well this wet and cool summer
It would have been a hard summer for gardening even if my focus had been completely on it.

It wasn't and my garden showed it.  Both my backyard and my community garden space look worse than they have since I started them.  The rain garden (above) looks great.  Not because I did a lot to maintain it, but because it gets most of the water that comes off the roof of our house, and half of the water off our garage.  There's some happy ferns in there, and some phlox and a (new this year) japanese maple.

There's the newish job and the winery startup, and this Saturday a surprise with a plugged sanitary sewer line at our rental place that resulted in me spending most of a beautiful day in a dark basement with a wet-vac slurping up fecal matter. 

That aside-- it was a gorgeous weekend-- with kids getting their last swim of the summer in our neighbor's front yard.  The neighborhood kids and ours decided to bring all the pools and waterslide all to one yard and make their own water park.  So they did, or the dads did, and it was fun.  Dads (and a mom) also having beers while kids play.  It was nice to be in town and have others in town as well- a wonderful end to a rainy, cool and really busy summer.

Cool and rainy enough that we never used air conditioning this summer.  We have a couple of window units I install in the bedrooms each year on the first really truly hot and humid day of the summer in order to be able to be able to sleep.  But they were never really needed.  We spent a night or two in the basement, but that was it.  No AC-related backache for me this summer.  Thanks global weirding! 

Of course, I may have to install them during a heat wave in November now.   You never know. 


So I dug out my purple potatoes and onions this last Saturday, after marking out paths and plot boundaries for 20 more plots at our community garden.  The garden is doing well, maybe even better, without me being at the helm, and that's good to see. 

As one gardener commented last year- "This is becoming less of a community garden and more of a gardening community."  Which I think is a good way to be.  Gardeners have stepped up and filled vacant roles and taken charge.  So I get to do more actual gardening- at least in theory.

I had a great crop of crabgrass in my plot this year.  I finally dug over the entire plot this spring, and I can say with confidence that the tilling allowed a lot more weeds to grow.  I haven't had crabgrass anywhere close  to this in the first two years there.  I did a no-till experiment the first year- tilling only half of the plot, then did minimal till the second year.  Relatively few weeds both times.  This year- a thorough turnover and a crabgrass explosion! 

For anyone interested in the results of the no-till experiment- the no-till side had soil that was a bit denser, and still compacted, but not to the point that I had expected after two years.  I could dig to about 6 or 8 inches on the no-till side, and 8 to 10 inches on the tilled side.  Both sides had improved organic matter, and both had earthworms.   The sides were remarkably similar, for having been treated so differently. 

So I guess I'll continue with minimal tillage and layering  on organic matter.   I think a balanced approach- that roughs up the surface soil, but doesn't deep dig, at least not every year seems to work.  Weedier in the early spring, but over the course of the summer, less weedy if I can get at the May weeds. 

I have no idea where I'll be at next spring and summer with my garden.  If all goes well with the Kickstarter campaign, I'll be equipping a winery next April or so.  Which won't leave me a lot of time for planting stuff.  Although, in theory, the idea behind this is to allow me to spend more time as an urban agriculturalist, or at least the producer of value-added urban agricultural products.

There is beauty in the busy-ness of starting a business.  Hard to see the beauty sometimes, but I'd be busy with something else if I wasn't doing this.  I apologize to you if you've been disappointed by my lack of updated posts here at eighth acre farm.  I never intended to let this blog go dormant, but other things pulled at my time- particularly that other blog- the Urban Forage one- that has had a bit more urgency to it, given all the other things going on.

I will keep posting here- maybe not often enough, but still here.  Cheers.  And happy fall.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Urban Forage Winery and Cider House!

last fall's crop of hard cider
I may not have been emphatic enough in my last post.  I tend to do that.

But yes, we ARE starting a business that makes wines, ciders (and mead!) from local fruit and honey.

It's a windy, bumpy road- starting a business that makes alcohol in Minnesota in 2014.  A bit easier than it may have been a couple of years ago, but still a bumpy road.

I spent a considerable amount of time while I was unemployed lobbying for the passage of a bill in my state legislature that would allow urban wineries to be treated the same as farm wineries.

I had no luck there.  The Minnesota farm wineries know that they have a good thing going and don't want to let anyone else in on it.  Right now they pay a tenth of the licensing fee of a non-farm winery and are allowed to make a full range of products, including hard liquor and have a bar, and have on-site retail sales.   Me, being in the city and not the owner of a large tract of land, must pay the full fee and sell through an approved wholesaler and so on and so forth.


our first piece of professional equipment- a rather attractive 300 liter stainless fermenter
I am pondering the options.  Open a brewery- or at least a business that is licensed as a brewery, and comply with the regulations (silly as they are) that require that I mix everything I make with at least 25% barley sugar (also known as malt) to magically make them into beer.  So I can make cider, mead, fruit concoctions- with 1/4 malt syrup, and they can be sold under far fewer restrictions than can the same beverages made solely with fruit or honey.  Then, I can have a bar- or taproom as it is known in Minnesota- and I can sell bottles of cider and mead for home consumption.

On the other hand- I could go for the more expensive and restrictive winery license- and produce wines, fortified wines, meads and ciders which are completely gluten-free and made from pure extracts of whatever I choose to make them from and make them as strong as the yeast will allow them to be.  This is the purists' route, and of course the route I'd prefer to go- except that it may not be monetarily viable- at least in the short term.  One of the tiny little problems with going this route is the fact that the only outlet for my wines, meads or ciders would be, by law, through a wholesaler, who would then sell to a retailer, and who would both take a rather large cut of the profit and leave me with relatively little.

Yes, the law makes no sense.  Some people have advised me to buy a farm, which I admit I've thought about.  But that would also mean selling our house, uprooting our kids and a adopting a completely different lifestyle, not to mention the possibility of failure being much more catastrophic if I'm unable to get a job in whatever rural area we'd end up in.

our kids and a couple of their cousins- gathering dandelions in Highland Park
No- I love the city, and everything that goes with it, good and bad. 

One of the good things about the city for an aspiring winemaker is the glut of fruit and flowers that grows all around and never makes it into food or forage.  There are countless apple and plum and mulberry trees going unpicked within a few miles of us because the owners are too busy to pick them, don't know what the fruit is, are afraid of bugs, or simply don't know that they can pick the fruit off of their tree as easily, if not more so, than they can pick fruit from the produce section of Whole Paycheck.  It's that fruit that I want to harvest and make into wine and cider.  And mead from the nectar, gathered by the hardworking bees of the city.

That's my vision.  For now, I am still working full time as a landscape architect.  Harder than ever at the new job.  I sit at my computer, looking out the window and wondering what else I could be doing at that moment- what opportunity is passing by that I'm not taking advantage of.  What fruit is falling off of a tree unnoticed.  What license I should be applying for that I'm not.  What person should I be calling to talk about labels?   So much to do, and so little time.

How many dandelions do you need to make a batch of wine?  About this many.

The newest batch, now in the new 300 liter (about 80 gallons) fermenter is a batch of dandelion wine, with some lilacs added for extra bouquet.  It's the flavor of Minnesota in May- the essence of the most loved and the most hated of the flowers of Minnesota.  At least that is what I'm shooting for.  It'll be ready to try in September.  Just in time for our Kickstarter campaign.

If you'd like to learn more see our new website:  urbanforagewinery.com and/or our facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/urbanforagewinery



Monday, April 7, 2014

steampunk dehydrators & other fun things

the steampunk dehydrator

I had some fun over the weekend cobbling together a solar dehydrator for Gita.  She wanted to dry out some bitter gourds that she had purchased at the Asian food store, and didn't want to smell up the house (because they don't smell good) or burn lots of energy using the electric stove to dry them out.

So I rummaged around in the basement storage room for an old electric grill which I knew had been down there for years, and which I had looked at before and thought that it might have potential as a solar cooker.  It's an old West Bend electric frying/grilling thing that has a black metal base and a glass cover.  From the looks of it, it's between 10 and 15 years old.

Also in the basement junk closet was a bathroom medicine cabinet with a beveled mirror.  It was in perfectly good shape, but it didn't fit in our remodeled and reconfigured bathroom.  So I repurposed it as a solar reflector.

It was a simple - and kind of ugly- combination, but it worked fairly well to dry out the bitter gourds. 
In the spirit of John Michael Greer, I'll call it a steampunk dehydrator, rather than a bathroom mirror married to an electric skillet.

 As for the bitter gourds, Gita will powder them with a mortar and pestle and eat the powder mixed into other foods over the next few months.  It's apparently an effective Ayurvedic remedy for preventing cancer and other ailments.  I've tried them (in whole form, not powdered) in curry, and they're really, truly bitter, but it's a flavor that grows on you over time.  If you enjoy really bitter foods, you can find them at most Asian food stores, or at many farmers' markets these days.


So I started a new job today.  Much the same as my previous one- but in a different location and with a little bit different mix of projects.  I'm still a landscape architect for a consulting firm as my day job.  The upside is that now I'll be working mostly on designing schoolyards and their associated parking lots and retaining walls, rather than parking lots and retaining walls for oil refineries and chemical plants. 

It also comes with a pay raise, which is a bit of a surprise after being laid off, but a very nice one.

The last two months have been a bit chaotic, what with all of the running around that the unemployment deities make a person do to justify the weekly check, the jobsearch itself, and the additional duties that come from suddenly becoming a house husband and primary caregiver for two beautiful kids.

Additionally, I've been pursuing a longtime dream.  Something that has been slowly but surely growing over the last year, and which I haven't discussed in this blog, at least not yet.

Not that it isn't relevant to the eighth acre farm.  It is.  It's all about local organic food production, and making something out of that food.  It's also about resilience in the face of peak oil and climate change.  And it's about building community around something that very much brings people together-- liquor.

Yes, liquor.  In this case it will be produced by the fine establishment to be known as Urban Forage Winery and Cider House.

It's an idea that has been brewing for a while, and which still has a long way to go, but if you'd like to follow our progress, I'll be blogging about it at the Urban Forage Winery and Cider House blog.  I may be posting there a bit more often than here, since that's where my energy is focused at the moment.

We're hoping to kick off a Kickstarter campaign soon, so if you're feeling generous, feel free to participate!  I'll give details as the time gets closer.


Friday, February 7, 2014

leading economic indictor- my job

well, now I have more time to spend with the kids
   So, last Friday I got a call from the head of Human Resources while I was sitting in my cubicle trying to finish a project that I was supposed to turn in before the end  of the day.  In a very nice voice he asked, "Would you mind coming down to my office, Jeff?"

Of course.  Why wouldn't I?  But I knew exactly what the call meant as soon as I got it.  The same call I've heard that others had gotten a few years ago when layoffs happened in waves, each month or so during the depths of the Great Recession.

I  walked down the stairs,slowly, to the HR Director's office.  I've been there before to chat.  I had designed his patio and some of the landscaping for his yard, so I stopped by every so often to see how things were going and to say hi.

The Vice President of the Architecture Division was there too.  I pretty much knew he would be, because I had heard that this was what happened when they were going to lay you off.  Make you reudundant.  Kick you out the door.  Send you a pink slip.

So we had the obligatory awkward conversation. Your workload had been low for the last couple of months.  It isn't your fault.  We'll have you back as a casual worker if we have more work to do soon.  Oh, and your health insurance ends today, sorry.  Here's a form to sign if you'd like to get severance pay. Think it over, and get back to us.

At least they didn't walk me out the door as I've heard they've done to others.  I suppose I didn't pose much of a threat.  I've never made a stink about anything in the past and I suppose they knew I wouldn't about this either.  Even so- I decided that I wanted to clean out my desk that afternoon and make sure I didn't have to come back again.  For what, I can't really say.   Maybe to face the humiliation of seeing everyone, knowing I'd been laid off, when they weren't. One other guy, an architect, was laid off at the same time, but I still didn't want to face those who were left behind if I didn't have to.

It felt very different than I had imagined, being laid off.  In the past- in 2009 and 2010, when seemed like layoffs occurred every odd Friday there was a sort of funereal air about the office as the rumors drifted around of who had lost their job that day.  Of who may be next.  Would it be me?  Back then I had two very young children at home.  We had an infant and a toddler and I desperately didn't want to lose my job.  It would have been close to catastrophic at that time, and fortunately the axe never fell on me.

But I imagined it, and I prepared, to the extent that it was possible.  We saved some money.  Never enough, but more than we may have otherwise.  We gardened like crazy and canned food.  We looked into alternative employment.  I imagined that the act of being laid off would be as gloomy and funereal as hearing about the layoffs of others, but without the welcome rush of relief of making it through another Friday without the call to the HR office.

The reality was very unlike I had imagined it.  I dreaded the walk down the stairs.   I knew who I'd see in the office, with the exception of the CEO.   I heard he sat in on some of the firings in the past.  He didn't show up for mine.  It was just the three of us, and a fairly friendly conversation.   My voice caught in my throat at times, but I kept it together.  Because, as they were taking my job away, they were also offering me a sort of liberation.

I cleaned my desk out in a haze.  I was out of a job I'd had for seven and a half years.  But not a job that I particularly liked or wanted to hold on to that badly.  A job where I could have done so much, but where I mostly designed parking lots and designed the minimum necessary green stuff to meet the minimum requirements of whatever city or county or watershed district the client happened to have their facility located within.

I sent an email to all my co-workers thanking them for seven and a half years of companionship and mentoring and growth and left my contact information in case anyone wanted to be in touch.  I wasn't sure if my email would work for very long, so I wrote it quickly and sent it without editing.  I could have written more but I didn't.

A technician I hadn't talked to very much during my time at the company, but who I enjoyed talking with when I did, walked out to my car with me, and waited with the push cart full of my desk stuff, while I pulled my car from the parking ramp around into the waiting area to load up my four boxes of books and office junk.  We talked for what have must been a half hour- about how the job sucked.  How the older folks in the office did next to nothing but earned twice our salary.  How people our age were always the ones who were laid off and how it made no sense for the future of the company.  It felt really good, and I wished I had had this conversation with him a year ago, when it could have reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of my co-workers and the company itself.

Also unexpected were the short letters and notes I got that day from (now former) co-workers who had also been laid off in the past and who offered messages of condolence and hope for better things to come.  They were heartfelt and uplifting in the way that a Hallmark card isn't.  Those were the best part of the layoff day, and they made all the difference.

My heart felt light  as I pulled away from the gloomy turnaround in the underpass between office buildings where I once worked.  I was leaving and not coming back and that was OK with me.


So this last week has been one of readjustment.  Of my spending more time finishing off our home renovation.  Fortunately we've already purchased most of the expensive stuff, and what remains is doing the hard work of putting it all together.   I have plenty of time for that now.  And dropping off and picking up the kids from school.   And working on new job leads, as well as the prospect of self-employment, now that I no longer have a 'no-moonlighting' agreement hanging over my head.

It's liberating- as much so, or even more, than it is depressing.  The initial shock was hard to take.  Now, seven days later, it feels pretty good.   Today, Gita and I spent the day at a seminar held by a St. Paul based non-profit on starting our own business.  I would have had to sneak out of work and feel guilty to attend something like this before.   Now I can do it honestly on my own time.  Now I can say 'yes' to people who are asking if I have time to take a look a their yard this spring.   That is, if, in fact I don't have a full-time gig lined up by then.  I can, in fact, look at all the opportunities that I haven't had the time, energy or ambition to pursue in the last seven and a half years as I was bound to a place which churned out parking lots and highway medians with abandon. 

I would have had difficulty walking out of there on my own- so I owe them a certain amount of gratitude for making the decision on my behalf.

On to bigger and better things.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

polar vortex redux

frost covered garage
If I had a nickel for all the times I wanted to leave Minnesota in the mid-winter I'd have a big jar of nickels by now.  I love my state, but it's so damn cold here in the winter sometimes.

It keeps the riffraff out.  At least that's what people say.  Of course if that's true, why hasn't it kept me out?

This cold is hard to deal with.  It's supposed to get no warmer than minus four tomorrow in Saint Paul.  But it's also beautiful at times.  I woke up the other morning and went to get something out of the garage- can't remember what- but found the door and lock covered with a delicate lacework of snow that was blown onto it by the snowstorm the night before.  I couldn't open the door- not because it was frozen shut, but because I had to get a camera to take a picture of it before I made a mess of the scene by opening it.


dormant garden

There isn't a lot I can do for the garden right now.  I'm glad to have the break.  It's under almost two feet of snow, so there's not much to do but plan for the next garden season.  Which I haven't done yet.  Too much to do on the kitchen remodel, and I still haven't gotten my gardening mojo back after last year's disappointing season.

I know it'll be back at some point.  The return of garden  mojo usually coincides with the freakout over the length and severity of the winter.  Usually some time in February.  I can feel it coming pretty soon.  If I didn't have cabinetry to work on, it might already be here.

There are little things here and there I've done lately for the garden.  One sub-zero morning a week or two ago I found a frozen dead squirrel on the sidewalk as I left to go to work.  I picked it up by the tail and it was stiff as a board.  I could have tossed it in the trash, but opted to toss it on the snow-covered compost pile instead.  

Of course this violates the 'no meat' rule of composting- but if it's in the middle of winter, in sub-zero weather, I wonder if it freeze-dries enough not be too stinky when it thaws out.  I guess I'll find out some time in mid-March.  My compost needs some extra nitrogen anyway- I've had lots of 'browns'- that is, the dry, high-carbon stuff like sticks and leaves and sawdust, and a general lack of 'greens'- high nitrogen stuff- this fall.  A dead squirrel is definitely a high-nitrogen score, so I'll keep it and maybe tuck it under some leaves in the spring if I can.

the frozen garden gate

One positive thing I can say for these Minnesota deep freezes.  It  might take care of the Emerald Ash Borer problem, at least for a while.  Somebody did some research somewhere that showed that 98% of borers are killed off by a -30F deep freeze, and a good number are also killed off by a -20F freeze.  

We have a big ash tree at our rental place in Minneapolis, and I've been watching it for signs.  The borers have been found less than a mile away, and it's probably only a matter of time before they take it down.  I'm hoping this will buy our ash- a beautiful tree- a few years of life.  Maybe.

Another thing the deep freeze brings out is climate change deniers.  The Weather Underground and Updraft blogs seem to be troll magnets whenever this happens.  I don't know if anyone else is sick of seeing the "Where's Al Gore?" comments every time it gets cold somewhere.  I am.  As if a cold couple of days negates years of climate science.  Are these people paid by BP to comment on this stuff?  Because that's kind of what it sounds like.

Where is Al Gore, indeed.  Somewhere in Tennessee in a very large house.  A hypocrite?  Maybe.  But that doesn't negate the pile of evidence in favor of a changing climate.   Killing the messenger doesn't negate the message.  And where were the deniers when the temps were over 100F in Minnesota this summer?  And last summer?  I should call them to come and help me install my window A/C units in May when the temps are over 90 and the air is thick enough to cut with a knife.  It might be good for them to get out and do something useful for a change.

apricot tree on the left, plum on the right
I will, by the way, post some pictures of our renovated kitchen next time, I promise.  Thank you for asking about it.  It's almost to the finish point, but not quite, and I'd like to wait until the countertops are in before I go and put it on display for the whole world. 

It's looking pretty good.  I'll say that.  It's been way too much work, and not a lot of fun going without a kitchen for months on end, but the end is in sight and the change is good.