A Brief History of Maple Sugaring at our Homestead and a Summary of our 11th Year of Sugaring

We just finished our 11th year of maple sugaring at Ahimsa homestead.  This year was about average.  We started sugaring in 2008 during at the end of our first winter at Ahimsa.  The previous homesteaders (Dorothy and John) had done maple sugaring on the land for a number of years.  They left a maple pan and a couple warming pans.  Dorothy and John did their boiling outside on a temporary maple arch made out of cinder blocks.  We tried this the first year with some success however we were unhappy with the challenges of boiling outside and the fact that the cinder blocks only lasted one season.  The intense heat is really hard on them.  So the next year (2009) we invested in the “half pint” evaporator from the Leader company in Swanton, VT.  This evaporator was recommended by folks as a good basic hobby evaporator for doing 50 or less taps.  This suited us well as we generally do about 15 – 20 taps.  The most we ever did was 30 for a couple years when we were sugaring with another couple. 

Our original maple setup (2008) consisted of an old galvanized metal maple pan sitting on cinder blocks with a piece of old metal roofing as the floor of the firebox.

Maple sugaring season generally runs from late February to mid-to-late March in Central Pennsylvania. The ideal conditions are sunny days in the 40s and nights in the 20s. However due to climate change the ideal conditions are often not present instead we often experience weather that is too cold or too warm. This has led us to the practice of needing to tap more than once. In our early years we tapped once and were done now we often tap in mid-February but then have to re-tap in mid-March. In this way if the weather is wacky we can get a second sap run with the newly tapped trees to compliment the flow from the older taps. The flow slows as the bore hole gets sealed up with debris from the tree. We boil whenever we collect enough sap to make a few quarts of syrup. Depending on the weather we can get up to 10+ gallons a day but sometimes only a couple gallons – the flow is highly weather dependent. The ratio of sap to syrup is approximately 40:1 (40 gals of sap = 1 gal. of syrup) but this varies by year with some years having a higher concentration of sugar. We fuel the arch with dead pine trees from the property. Pine burns hotter and it will even burn pretty good when wet (unlike hardwoods) and the burn is hot enough and the pipe run short enough that we never have any issues with creosote build-up.

We use 2 gallon aluminum buckets with a lid and stainless steel spiles.
Maple pan boiling away on our little “half pint” arch

The process is a pretty simple one. Once we get enough to do a boil we fire up our small maple arch, get a good rolling boil going, and boil it down, down, down all day. We spend the day splitting the pine and feeding the fire about every 20-30 minutes. We pick a time to stop adding sap (typically we do about 40-60 gallons a day) and keep at it until it boils down enough to get a “foam up” (sap foams when it starts to get close to being syrup). After the first “foam up” we generally take it off and finish it in the kitchen. This gives us a lot more control over the process. We’ve had some disasters in the past taking it down too far outside. Syrup will catch fire if you are not careful! We use a maple hydrometer to test the density of the syrup (66% sugar content). When its done we take it off and hot water can it for 20 minutes to make sure the jars are definitely sealed. For many years we simply poured the hot syrup into the canning jars and let them self seal but after loosing several quarts to mold (the jars hadn’t completely sealed) we decided it was safer to can them.

Finished syrup hot out of the canner

We only sugar for ourselves and not for resale. We enjoy the work as its one of the few outside homesteading tasks to do in the winter (other than firewood which is a non-stop endeavor!). Our goal is to produce 5-10 gallons of finished syrup every season. Generally we meet our goal. Our lowest productivity year was 2 gallons and the highest about 12 gallons. This year we did about 6.5 gallons (a pretty typical year). We did note that the sugar concentration was lower this year probably taking about 45-50 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. There’s nothing like the taste and smell of your own maple syrup. We use it in most of our baking and cooking. The 5-10 gallons lasts us for the year.

School of Living SkillShare – Growing veganic Ginger and Turmeric

Interview with Kelle on her ginger and turmeric growing experience. Originally posted as a SkillShare article on the School of Living’s web site.

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StellaLou Farm

I want to share a post that I worked on for the School of Living website. The post is about growing turmeric and ginger and is our first SkillShare entry. Take a look and grow some ginger! Here’s the link!  OUR FIRST SKILLSHARE: GROWING GINGER AND TURMERIC

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Veganic Vegetable Gardening Basics by Kelle Kersten

Part 1-What Plants Need to Grow

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Plants like Kale can tolerate some shade

The ideal garden plot would be in the open, and would have loam soil (intermediate in texture between clay and sand) with a small amount of organic matter (plant and animal residues at various stages of decomposition), which is the type of soil that provides optimal moisture and nutrient retention. Nevertheless, I can attest that you can still produce a bounty of vegetables in areas with partial shade and/or sandy or clay soils. Big Norway spruces shade one corner of my garden in the afternoon. While my yields may be lower for some of the crops that require full sun (such as peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, peas, and squash), I have found that I still get an adequate harvest from any crop I grow in that part of the garden. You could also grow more shade tolerant plants such as lettuce, kale, celery, carrots, chard, and broccoli in shaded areas. In the summer lettuce actually benefits from either natural shade or shade cloth to protect it from the hot sun.

 

Incorporating organic matter into the soil will remedy both a sandy soil that drains too rapidly and does not retain adequate nutrients and a clay soil that holds too much water. In addition to improving the water and nutrient retention properties of a soil, the organic matter itself provides plant nutrients. Veganic gardeners use only plant materials as organic matter, including compost, leaves, hay, grass, kitchen waste, and sawdust. I dig in compost before I plant and then apply hay or grass mulch on the surface around the plants. The mulch protects the plants from extreme fluctuations in soil temperature, retains moisture, prevents soil erosion, reduces weed growth, and eventually breaks down into nutrients used by plants.

Many growers will test their soil to determine deficiencies of specific plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. They will then apply materials that are rich in any needed nutrients. I prefer to be less scientific and follow the pattern of nature whereby plants thrive on the natural decomposition of plant and animal organisms. My maxim is to put back in the soil what I take out. I have started to chop up most plant residues after the crops die and leave them on the soil surface to supplement the compost and mulch mentioned above. Basically I observe the growth of my plants and assume they are getting adequate nutrients if they grow well. If something looks a bit yellow, indicating a possible nitrogen deficiency, I may dig in more compost around the plant and/or apply a tea made from soaking comfrey plants for several days. Comfrey is a plant that brings up nutrients from deeper in the soil. I have not found that I need to add any other fertility materials to my soil.

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Bed with drip irrigation

Water is another essential component of any gardening endeavor. Plants need about an inch of water per week from rain or watering. I follow that as a basic guideline, however, I will adjust according to the weather, watering more if the weather is extremely hot, dry, and windy and watering less if it is cloudy and cool. I regularly check the soil to see if it is still moist an inch or so below the surface and water accordingly. Since I have large gardens I utilize a drip irrigation system. The advantage of such a system is that the water is targeted at the base of the plants thereby conserving water and reducing the incidence of fungal infections caused by water on leaves. The disadvantage is that when I water I have to water every plant regardless of whether or not a particular plant needs water. In a small garden one could individually check and hand water every plant for optimum moisture provision.

Part 2-Planting and Maintaining Garden

Over the years I have tried to pattern my gardening methods as best I can after nature, which means I minimize tilling with machines and hand digging, and I try to keep the surface of the soil covered most of the time. Tilling with a rototiller or plow and, to a lesser extent, digging with a shovel compact the soil underneath the area that is loosened. Additionally, the intricate soil community of organisms is disturbed by these activities. That being said, I still use a rototiller and/or shovel to break up the soil for a new garden plot and then rake and remove the big pieces of grass roots. Since I only have a thin layer of topsoil on top of compacted clay and gravel, I make small raised beds separated by narrow paths by digging up the paths and putting the topsoil on top of the growing bed. This increases the depth of rich and crumbly soil from 4-5 inches to about 10 inches. I add an inch or two of compost and mix that into the soil with a shovel. After smoothing out the surface of the bed to make a flat growing area, I plant my seedlings or seeds in 1-3 evenly spaced rows, depending upon the crop. Then I lay down drip irrigation tape and cover everything with mulch. I keep the mulch away from the base of each plant because mulch can block light rains from reaching the plant roots, decomposing grass can heat up and damage the plants, and mulch can hold moisture at the base of the plant and rot the stems. I water my plants thoroughly after planting. If I am planting in April or early May I will cover transplants and seed beds with row cover for frost protection. I used to only cover more frost tender plants such as lettuce, beets, and carrots, but now I cover everything but the snap peas. Global climate change has brought erratic swings of temperatures, which makes seedlings less able to withstand frost. I plant my warm weather crops like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, beans, squashes, and cucumbers after June 1st when there is virtually no chance of frost.

 

Throughout the season, I add more mulch as it decomposes, remove weeds, and water as needed. When I water I always give the plants a good soak. Surface watering leads to shallow rooting which makes plants weak and vulnerable to drought. Even with the mulch I have to do a fair amount of hand-weeding.

In subsequent years, I plant seedlings right into the mulch without digging the bed at all. I make a hole in the mulch, mix in two pint containers of compost, and then plant. For seed planting I clear a bigger area of the bed and mix in more compost because the mulch could obstruct seed germination. I usually wait until the seedlings are a couple inches tall and sturdy before pulling the mulch back around them.

This is a limited overview of basic growing practices, so if you have questions, please feel free to contact me at magicjubilee at yahoo.com.

Garden pictures, July 10, 2016:

 

The Myth of “Humane” Meat

This is a guest post by Claire Holzner, originally published at The Vegetarian and Vegan Association (VAVA) blog at http://vegetarianandvegan.org/2016/06/humane-meat/

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We know that factory farms are terrible places. Animals are crammed by the thousands into sheds, bred and manipulated in unnatural ways, and usually killed before they are fully-grown adults. These huge farms also produce immense amounts of pollution, all for the sake of meat and dairy products which are often contaminated –- so we compassionate consumers try not to buy from such places, right? You want a better alternative, so you buy local or “humanely raised” meat at a co-op or farmers’ market. You make this effort because you care about your health, the environment, and probably also about animals. You prefer that animals have decent living conditions and a swift, painless death. If you take your concern for animals to its logical conclusion, you would not eat them at all.

Killing animals for food is not necessary. When you buy “humane” animal products you are still paying for animals to be killed needlessly as there is no nutrient in meat, dairy products, or eggs that we can’t get from plant foods, and in cleaner forms. (Vegans do need to get vitamin B12 via supplements or fortified foods, but so do many meat-eaters. B12 is not an animal product.) Foods made from animals’ bodies contain many non-essential and unhealthy substances, such as growth hormones (some added, some naturally present), cholesterol, and saturated fat, which are not found in foods made from plants.

Labels like “humane certified,” “cage-free,” “grass-fed,” and “free range” imply large differences from factory farming practices which do not exist. The animals raised in these alternative ways might have more space or be able to go outdoors, but in fact there are more similarities to factory farming than differences. Procedures like tail-docking, de-beaking, and other mutilations without anesthetic; total denial of natural behaviors; and brutal transport conditions are routine even on “humane” farms, but would be considered immoral if done to dogs or cats. And all farm animals, including dairy cows and egg-laying hens, are slaughtered while they are still young animals.

When we buy from “humane” farms we are still relying on farmers and meat producers to define for us what they are doing to the animals, but until we visit the farms and slaughterhouses we really have no idea. The labels and certifications are not rigorously enforced or backed by institutions that truly value animal welfare. Those who sell “humane” animal products profit from our concerns about factory farming practices and thus are not reliable sources of information about how the animals lived and died.

“Humane slaughter” is an oxymoron. There is no “humane” (compassionate, merciful, or kind) way to kill a creature who does not want to die. All animals fear death. “Humane” meat does not come from animals that lived a full life and died of natural causes or were euthanized. All of those animals were killed well before the time of their natural death.

Could you kill a pig, chicken, cow, or turkey, by yourself? If not, why pay someone to do it for you? How humane is a farmer who has treated an animal relatively well and even allowed the animal to develop a trusting relationship, yet sends him or her off to be slaughtered? What a betrayal of trust. Let the animals live and find something else to eat for dinner.

For most people eating animals is the most egregious form of violence they ever commit. Most people don’t rob, rape, or murder people. We want to think of ourselves as kind, compassionate, and fair — yet in our society most people, every day, unthinkingly cause animals to be killed and mistreated to obtain their flesh and milk and eggs. This unnecessary violence underlies our lives and its effects seep into our psyches and our behavior. If we eat animals, we are always trying to justify, consciously or unconsciously, our harshness and cruelty. When we end the daily violence of confining, commodifying, and killing animals, our society will be much less competitive, unfair, and harsh. Seventy percent of the grain and legumes grown world-wide is fed to farm animals, who very inefficiently convert the nutrients into animal “products.” Water use is highly inefficient as well in this conversion. Fully fifty percent of the water used world-wide for all purposes is used for animal agriculture. When we stop breeding farm animals more food will be available for hungry people and there will be less conflict for scarce water and fuel resources. We already have the tools and knowledge needed to create a more peaceful, fair, and loving society; we just need to use them.

Don’t look for a better way to do a bad thing: instead, look beyond the two common options of factory farm products and “humane” animal products. Taking animals’ interests seriously means opting out of animal agriculture. If you haven’t yet, try going vegan for a week or two. We are fortunate to have access to such an abundance of plant-based foods that eating a healthy vegan diet is surprisingly easy and involves no sense of deprivation. So many books, websites, recipes online, vegan products, and caring people are available to help us get the violence out of our diets and to help us create a kinder, more conscious society.

Growing Ahimsa Veganically by Kelle Kersten

Note: This article was originally published in American Vegan, Fall 2015.

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Ahimsa Village homestead

In 2005 my husband and I set out to create Ahimsa Village, a vegan community and sustainable living education center, in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. We purposely chose the word Ahimsa, the Sanskrit word for “nonviolence”, because we aspired to embody nonviolence in all aspects of our lives. The Village part of the name signified our vision of a group of people with a variety of different interests and skills coming together to establish a sustainable and relatively self-sufficient community. Although the community has not yet manifested, we have planted and nurtured several gardens, a fruit and nut orchard, and a blueberry patch, providing much of our food, especially in the warmer months. We have also conducted many educational programs over the years. It seems that we are evolving into being a resource for vegan homesteading. In this article I will share some of my thoughts about our veganic growing practices and veganic growing in general.

The word veganic merges “vegan” with “organic.” Like organic growing, veganic growing does not use any of the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically engineered materials, sewage sludge, or irradiated materials that are used by conventional growers; and it emphasizes maintaining the health of the soil in order to grow healthy plants. However, veganic growing goes beyond organic growing in that it endeavors to minimize and/or eliminate harm to animals. As a way of explaining the important elements of veganic growing, I will look at veganic growing from three different levels. In actuality, these levels are not clearly separate, but the separation aids in the explanation.

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Ahimsa veganic garden

The first level involves the materials used in growing crops. Since veganic growers do not want to be part of any animal suffering, they do not use any materials that are derived from animals. Instead of using materials such as manure, blood meal, bonemeal, feathermeal, and fish emulsion, veganic growers use plant materials for fertilization. I use grass and hay mulch, plant-based compost, green manures (crops, such as buckwheat and clover, that are cultivated into the soil or left on the surface to provide nutrients for the food crops), crop residues, and comfrey tea (water from soaked comfrey plants) to nourish my crops. When I first began to grow veganically I called a local fertilizer manufacturer to inquire about the availability of fertilizer without any materials from animals that I could add to my potting mix. The salesperson actually seemed irate with me for even thinking about growing without manure and other materials from animals. So I blended my own potting soil using peat, perlite, vermiculite, and alfalfa meal. A few years later I found a local company that made potting soil out of coir (coconut husk), perlite, and other plant based materials. After using that potting mix for a couple years, the company added a fertilizer blend to their potting mixes that contained bloodmeal and bonemeal. Accordingly I went back to blending my own mix, using what I thought was plant-based compost from the local town. This year I found out that the town collects kitchen waste and composts it with the yard waste, and so there may be small amounts of animal foods in the compost. I use a large amount of this compost because I also apply it to my garden beds. I am questioning whether or not I should be a strict veganic grower and not use the compost or be more flexible since the compost is still mostly plant material. Ideally I would make enough compost myself and not have to import compost. Therefore one of my future goals involves developing a method for composting our copious weeds. I contemplate also transitioning to more of a permaculture system (creating gardens that follow the patterns of natural ecosystems) in which crops would eventually self-fertilize, thereby eliminating the need for applying compost.

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Veganic basil

The second level of veganic growing flows naturally from veganism and ahimsa: Veganic growers hold a clear intention to avoid or minimize harming animals in and around the garden. In my gardens and orchard I use fences, netting, hardware cloth, and floating row covers to exclude animals. I also grow a variety of flowers around the garden to attract beneficial insects. Additionally, I rotate crops and grow a diversity of crop species, helping to keep pest populations low enough that crop damage is generally minimal.

I disclose that I use diatomaceous earth (DE) to prevent slugs from decimating my young seedlings. The organic mulch creates the perfect environment for slugs and every year their population explodes. Before using DE I had an entire planting of lettuce totally eaten down to soil level overnight. Hence, in spite of my conflicted feelings about causing harm to slugs, I apply DE to most of my seedlings after transplanting or germination. I quit applying it when the plants are big enough to survive predation. I also take care to not harm nontarget species such as bees by never applying DE to plants when they are flowering and not applying it on a windy day.

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Veganic garlic

Protecting the soil with its community of living creatures constitutes another important aspect of veganic gardening. Because any disturbance of the soil, such as tilling, will adversely affect the soil community, vegan growers minimize tillage. They also protect the soil from erosion and drying out by keeping the soil covered with plants and mulch. Since establishing my gardens I have not done any rototilling in my main garden. I try to keep mulch on the beds most of the time, transplanting directly into the mulch with minimal soil disturbance. For direct-seeded crops like carrots and beets I clear away the mulch, loosen the soil with a shovel, plant the seeds, and then replace the mulch when the plants are big enough to not be buried.

The third level of veganic growing has to do with the relationship the grower has with the animals and plants in the garden. I am aware of people that communicate with the spirits of animals and negotiate sharing of produce from the garden. Instead of waging war against the animals, the humans respect the animals and honor their need for food. Similarly, when people are in touch with the spirits of their plants, they find out specifically what the plants need for optimum growth and are then able provide what is needed. While I am open to the possibility of this type of communion with plants and animals and also recognize its value for creating an ethos of ahimsa, as of yet I have not experienced it myself.

In closing I will touch on an aspect of veganic gardening that is often forgotten: Ahimsa includes compassion toward ourselves as well as toward animals. I can be very hard on myself for not being the “perfect” veganic gardener.” This attitude leads to feelings of anxiety, deficiency, frustration, and a mental state that is not conducive to envisioning creative ways to enact ahimsa more fully in my growing practices. Therefore, in the spirit of ahimsa, I aim to accept my imperfections and remain open to discerning more compassionate ways of gardening veganically.

Veganic Gardening Resources
Organic Vegan Network, www.veganorganic.net
Veganic Agriculture Network, www.goveganic.net
www.veganic.com

 

Late summer pictures of gardens and homestead

We’ve had a pretty good garden year thanks to the regular rain this summer.  Take a visual tour of our veganic homestead…

Ahimsa Village –Gardens and orchard after severe winter

Amazon Review of Will Tuttle’s World Peace Diet book

The following review was written by Kelle of the World Peace Diet by Will Tuttle.  Originally posted on Amazon.com.

World Peace Diet bookThe World Peace Diet is a must read for any environmentalist, social activist, animal rights activist, and spiritual seeker. Dr. Tuttle masterfully presents a compelling premise that all of our environmental and social problems, including global warming and war, are rooted in a cultural mentality of reductionism, anthropocentrism, exclusivism, predation, desensitization, disconnectedness, and domination. According to Dr. Tuttle, our culture started developing this mentality around 10,000 years ago as humans began herding animals for food, clothing, and other human needs, and then this mentality spread to treating humans and the environment in similar exploitative ways. While it is impossible to irrevocably “prove” that herding animals “caused” war, violence against women, slavery, inequality, poverty, and other social issues, what is clearly undeniable after reading this book are the contemporary connections between animal agriculture and environmental issues, between eating animal foods and human health issues, and between animal agriculture and the tremendous suffering experienced by animals. Yet most people deny these connections. Dr.Tuttle explains the reasons for this denial: People inherit their animal-based diets from their parents along with the cultural mentality that diminishes their natural compassion for animals. Their diets and this uncompassionate mentality are reinforced as they grow up by teachers, doctors, religious organizations, peers, and the media. With the suppression of compassion, people see animals as things to be used to benefit humans rather than as beings with as much of an intrinsic right as humans to live for themselves in the way that nature designed them to live. With the suppression of compassion people see the environment as a resource to be used for human benefit rather than as the intricate web of living beings and non-living materials that support life on this planet. With the suppression of compassion people see other people as things that can be manipulated to serve selfish interests rather than as beings with lives and interests as valid as one’s own. This book beautifully shows how it is this loss of compassion and the subsequent blindness to the interconnections of all beings and the earth that underlie all the world’s problems. Dr. Tuttle calls for a vegan revolution to address these problems. This revolution goes far beyond refraining from using non-human animals for food, clothing, medicines, entertainment, etc. It is truly an evolution of consciousness, an expansion of humanity’s love and concern to include all beings and the earth. I have not read any other book that so powerfully shows the connection between all of our problems and the beautiful simplicity of the solution.

This is not just another animal rights book telling people to quit eating and wearing animals. It goes to the heart of humanity’s destructive and elitist relationship with the rest of the world and guides people to recognize our real relationship of interconnectedness and to live from that realization. Dr. Tuttle respects the difficulty that people will have with going against their acculturation by becoming vegan, and directs vegans to lovingly support them as they transition rather than to aggressively attack them for not being vegan. Throughout the book he paints a vision of a joyful and harmonious vegan world based on love and connection rather than exploitation and disconnection. People are asked to give up using animals, but by doing so, they will help co-create a more harmonious and joyful world for themselves and other creatures.