Vacation Days

Fallen Leaves

It’s a crash landing after the apple harvest and a summer working almost every day at the orchard or the home, farm and auto supply store. Time to sleep, read and rest.

Four days off work is not enough to fully recuperate but it’s what I have.

Saturday was mostly at home resting, then cooking. Sunday was several long sleep sessions, reading and staying indoors. Today and tomorrow turn toward stuff I want to do and stuff I have to do, mostly the latter. There’s more on my list than will fit in the remaining 48 hours so it’s not really a vacation but more a time to do other kinds of work.

The most important things I do are related to full retirement. Specifically, submitting my application for Social Security benefits to begin after my birthday and changing our health insurance from my work to Medicare. I expect to spend much of today doing just that.

What matters more is figuring out how we want to live going forward. I am already up to my armpits in community organizing so there’s that for the time being.

Once our financial situation reveals itself after Social Security and Medicare, I want to change things around. I expect to slow down or quit at the home, farm and auto supply store next year to focus on writing, gardening and preparing our home for a long retirement. I expect to continue to work in the local food system — at the farms, and at the orchard — but the focus will be on our homelife. It’s been neglected for too long.

Needed work toward sustaining a life in our turbulent world.

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Potluck Beginnings

Basket of Apples

On Friday I clocked out of work at the home, farm and auto supply store for four days off in a row!

I drove straight home, dumped the coleslaw I made in the morning into a bowl and mixed it up one last time before the potluck. I grabbed a pair of tongs for serving and headed to the orchard for the 6 p.m. event.

The annual crew potluck is our biggest and only non-work event at Wilson’s Orchard.

About 80 people attended at the on-site Rapid Creek Cidery, bringing the best side dishes imaginable to go along with chef Matt Stiegerwald’s braised pork from hogs raised at the orchard’s farm.

We joked we weren’t sure if we were supposed to bring potluck table service. A veteran of many church potlucks brought a basket with plates, silverware, glasses and everything one would need. Most of us used paper plates and flatware. I enjoyed a glass of plain hard cider as aperitif before switching to non-alcoholic.

When serving began, I made a southern-themed plate with pork, my coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, dumplings and raw tiny carrots. One of countless possibilities given the many tables of side and desserts. All that was lacking was corn bread but it was a potluck after all.

My work pals were all there: the octogenarian who makes dinosaurs and showed off the scar from his recent knee surgery to all who were curious; the pilot who recounted his air-search for the other orchard, which he couldn’t find until I gave directions from ground level; the artist who gave a speech about entering the drawing for fabulous prizes mostly from the Orchard’s lost and found (think sunglasses); the data analyst who is sharp as a tack yet made a six-figure error on the cash register; the Ukrainian guest workers; and the crew of bakers with their families — it takes a lot of bakers to make all the turnovers, pies, apple and peach crisps and blueberry buckles we sell. The sales barn manager was there. She works non-stop from before the August opening until the end of the season. Actually just about everyone was there. Needless to say the conversations and meal, with a chance to win prizes, were delicious. That’s no apple joke.

We talked about when we might see each other again and confirmed that God willing and the creek don’t rise we would be back next year. My only regret was it wouldn’t be soon enough. Heaven help us if it’s not until next season.

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Public Health and Drinking Water

Solon City Council Nov. 1, 2017 left to right Lauren Whitehead, Mark Prentice, Mayor Steve Stange, Lynn Morris and Steve Duncan. Councilor Shawn Mercer participated via video conference.

My reaction to the Nov. 1 Solon City Council meeting was amazement.

I was amazed at how helpful council was being — a living demonstration of being good neighbors and Iowa nice.

Gallery Acres West requested a hook up to the city water supply. The City of Solon has no obligation to provide the service. Despite the fact Gallery Acres West has been delinquent in complying with the 2001 arsenic standards for public water systems, council politely and professionally is hearing them out. Councilors want additional information before making a decision. Mayor Stange said he would like a decision by the end of the year. Whether council votes for the final proposal is an open question.

Information of varying quality has come out over the subdivision’s proposal and related issues. Council is smart to sort through what’s been presented before deciding. However, the bottom line is leadership of Gallery Acres West decided homes could use high arsenic drinking water since 2001. It’s not the city’s problem.

Why didn’t the subdivision comply? During an Oct. 30 phone call with the president of their home owners association, who recently moved to the subdivision, I asked him that question. He told me it was the cost of compliance. With only 14 homes in their association compliance would run thousands of dollars per household. Who wants an unexpected expense like that? At the same time, who wants to risk public health because a community believes they can’t afford it?

In 2015, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources threatened legal action if Gallery Acres West did not comply with arsenic standards for their public water system. By then it had been 13 years since their first violation. Push has come to shove and Iowa DNR shouldn’t back down.

If Solon decides to help Gallery Acres West I hope council gets all the information they need. Based on Wednesday’s meeting it appears they will. In the meanwhile, 14 homes continue to use high arsenic drinking water.

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Overnight Soup

Deciduous Tree Leaves

In our search for truth and meaning there’s nothing like making soup.

Each batch can be spontaneous yet based in traditional flavors and processes. Soup uses what comes in from the garden, is stored in the pantry and ice box, and our kitchen skills. A gardener makes a lot of soup.

It is honest food.

Friday I drove straight home from work at the home, farm and auto supply store and got started.

I wanted to glean the garden before the weekend’s hard frost. I brought in carrots, eggplant, tomatoes, kale, bell peppers, Red Rocket and Jalapeno peppers, basil and broccoli along with a five gallon bucket of apples.

I’ve had an idea about making crock pot or slow cooker soup for a few weeks. The idea is to do the prep work Friday night and set the temperature on high. At bedtime I would turn it to low, letting the mixture slow-cook overnight. I hope to can fewer big batches of soup while continuing to use up vegetables at the end of the span between fresh and compost. A crock pot makes enough for four to six meals.

It began with a cup of dried lentils and a third cup of pearled barley in the bottom of the crock. I turned on the heat and added a quart of home made tomato juice then got to work prepping vegetables:

All of the carrots from the garden and some from the CSA.
The remainder of a head of home grown celery.
One large yellow onion.
Bay leaves.
Two leaves of green kale, including the stalk finely sliced.
Small tomatoes, quartered.
Root vegetables: kohlrabi, turnip and potatoes.
A leek.
Several broccoli florets with stalks finely sliced.
Dried savory and salt to taste.

The vegetables went into the crock as I cleaned and cut them. When prep work was done I added a quart of home made vegetable broth and covered with water.

That’s it.

In the morning the soup was flavorful, thick and hearty. I had a bowl for breakfast, leaving more than a half gallon in glass jars for the ice box.

In a turbulent society there is no better way to sustain ourselves than with a bowl of hot soup.

I plan to make more.

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End of 2017 Garden Year

Frosted Squash Plants

A garden never ends. First hard frost is forecast this week and kale will likely survive, tasting better after being kissed by cold.

If the ground dries out, I will plant next year’s crop of garlic. If it really dries out, I’ll remove stakes and fencing, mow everything down, and add to the burn pile. With the warmer fall weather these activities go later into each cycle. As Senator Joe Bolkcom pointed out yesterday, September was the fourth hottest on record with the first three being in 2014, 2015 and 2016. I scheduled time off work at the home, farm and auto supply store for gardening the first week in November.

I’ll analyze the garden results later but already know the basics: pick good seeds, rejuvenate the soil, cultivate more, and mulch, mulch and mulch. The composted chicken manure applied to some plots produced great results. Like many gardeners, I realize if the garden failed in any way it is mostly my fault for decisions made about planting, insects, cultivation and soil quality.

Because of engagement in local food production, our pantry is overflowing. Apples, potatoes, onions and garlic are plentiful. Winter shares from CSAs continue until Thanksgiving. There are abundant ingredients for cooking. It’s cooking meal to meal for the time being with big canning sessions giving way to large dishes with leftovers.

Eight days remain in the apple season after which I plan to take a weekend to consider the future. That includes health care decisions, signing up for Social Security, and getting back to reading. I may get my hair cut and take some needed personal time to recover.

I may even go into the county seat.

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Arsenic in the Water

Lake Macbride

Water is life. We take its quality for granted if the source is a public water system.

Consumers rely on drinking water standards developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Where we live municipalities do a good job of compliance with drinking water standards. There are few standards for private wells and the experience is uneven at best in unincorporated areas with public water permits.

In January 2001 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a reference guide for compliance with the new standard for arsenic in public drinking water, reducing the allowable amount from 50 parts per million to ten.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in many water systems. Neither number in the range seems like much, and at 10 ppm it isn’t. Public water systems have been required to comply with the new standard and if EPA persists in enforcing the new standard, all public water systems should be in compliance eventually.

Not so with private wells where testing and compliance is voluntary. A study published this month in Environmental Science and Technology estimates about 2 million people in the Unites States drink water from private wells with arsenic concentrations exceeding 10 ppm.

The change, initiated during the Bill Clinton administration, took time to develop and more time for communities to implement. The idea was to bring the United States into compliance with the World Health Organization standard for arsenic in drinking water. There are currently communities where the public water system does not meet the new arsenic standard, including one that has been the source of news here in Big Grove. Hopefully they are all working on complying.

There have been at least two deaths caused by cancer among the 85 homes on our public water system. Whether this experience is or isn’t connected to historic arsenic levels is a question that hasn’t been asked. I’m not sure of the merit of asking it, although there are studies with evidence supporting such a connection in larger communities. It is also unclear whether two deaths from anything would be statistically significant in a population of 300. In any case, our public water system has been in compliance with arsenic standards since the new treatment facility was brought on line more than ten years ago.

I doubt many home buyers look at public water or sewer records when considering buying a home even though the data is easily available on line. The proliferation of development in unincorporated areas raises an issue of the quality of management in home owners associations. The arsenic compliance experience demonstrates it is uneven at best.

People seek to escape municipalities. Gasoline remains inexpensive relative to average household income and there are perceived freedoms in living in a small, insular community away from city life. Commuting to a job within an hour’s drive from home is common in Iowa. There is a cost. Things that could be taken for granted in a municipality require attention and potential action in rural Iowa. Who has time for that?

The presence of arsenic in ground water is just one example of the issues of living in an unincorporated area. In a culture of affluence, the quality of water does not often come to the forefront. When it does there is a perception that money and technology will resolve it. That’s mostly true but it requires our engagement, something many people are unwilling to give.

It’s part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.

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It’s Not The Women, It’s The Men

Woman Writing Letter

Some of my friends and acquaintances are women who carry handguns.

I’m not worried about getting shot by my lunch partner. I also don’t feel more secure knowing she has a handgun in her purse. It used to be a bit jarring to see weapons unexpectedly in everyday places. Not any more. I’m confident in studies that show women are not the main problem with gun violence, it’s the men.

A common social behavior among men particularly, but with women also, is to assert their gun ownership into a conversation as a way of launching a comfortable jeremiad about why they own them, the positive features of gun ownership, and as a way of testing the waters in social relationships to identify where people stand. This is at the heart of what elected Trump, Ernst and others. Gun ownership and discussions about it are a way to sort people in society into “us” and “them” categories. It has consequences in the electorate, so it is important to discuss and understand.

In an Oct. 10 article in USA Today, Alia E. Dastagir wrote,

Data shows gun violence is disproportionately a male problem. Of the 91 mass shootings in which four or more victims died since 1982, only three were committed by women, according to a database from the liberal-leaning news outlet Mother Jones. Men also accounted for 86% of gun deaths in the United States, according to an analysis by the non-partisan non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation.

Men are more likely to own a gun — three times more, according to a 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center. This, despite marketing from gun manufacturers and groups such as the National Rifle Association to lure women.

Fast forward to Dastagir’s conclusion that to understand gun violence we must examine the cultural forces that equate being a man with violence.

Read her information-packed article here.

~ First published at Blog for Iowa on Oct. 18, 2017

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