Garden Local Food

Pandemic Provisioning

Dinner March 16, 2020.

A foundational aspect of our lives in Big Grove Township is reliance on others when it comes to food. We use the international supply chain which brings items closer to home so we can buy them at the grocery store.

At the same time, we spend 24 percent of our food dollars on products where we know the face of the farmer. That’s a lot more than most families and it results in a pantry full of staples like potatoes, onions, carrots, canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, pickles and apple products.

Our regular habits prepare us for a month of quarantine without the coronavirus pandemic. We’d suffer for lack of milk and eggs, yet in a global society where millions go hungry each night, it’s more inconvenience than any kind of deprivation. We’ll get by.

The meal in the photo is our home food story. One third Farmer Kate’s potatoes, one third frozen organic broccoli from the wholesale club, and one third a commercial, mass produced soybean burger from the grocery store. The garden broccoli crop wasn’t so good last year and we’ve depleted the freezer of our own. That’s where the food supply chain comes in handy.

I don’t know if I’ll venture to work at the home, farm and auto supply store tomorrow. After the management team arrives later this morning I’ll phone in and see what protections they offer employees. I work in the warehouse and am isolated from most customer contact. All the same, retail is a people-contact job and there is more risk there than in staying home. If I choose to stay home, there will be no compensation.

I’d feel better about the isolation if it were warm enough to work in the yard. Yesterday morning patches of snow remained on the ground. It should melt today as ambient temperatures are expected in the mid-forties this afternoon. Instead of working outside, I read and wrote in the usual places. About 5 p.m. I started peeling potatoes and making dinner. It wasn’t much, but will sustain us as we ride out the coronavirus pandemic over the coming weeks.

Social Commentary

Watering Hole

Bar and Grill Parking Lot, March 13, 2020.

By last Friday traffic in bars, coffee shops and restaurants had slowed considerably. It was hard to determine whether it was because of the coronavirus, spring break at the university, or something else.

It made being a guest at the establishments a positive experience with little perceived danger of the virus being transmitted.

Our county now has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, 14 of 18 as of this morning. The high number is attributable to a local bank trip to Egypt where returning travelers were exposed to the coronavirus and contracted COVID-19.

The parking lot was packed at a bar and grill on Friday afternoon. From the look of things, it was a popular watering hole for trades workers. When my friend and I entered, every man was seated on a stool around the U-shaped bar drinking beverages, looking at their mobile devices, and talking with neighbors. The bartender was the only woman present. The rest of the bar was empty.

We ordered drafts of Bud Light so as to fit in and chose a table away from the bar.

What speech I made with a friend was not my normal one. The one I know by rote and by heart. The theme that never changes, come what may, “Radix malorum est cupiditas.”

It’s not that the worn phrase has no currency. Many are the emails from political candidates who say we must overturn Citizen’s United, then, in direct order, request a donation. The old saw still cuts wood. This prologue has never been in abeyance or irrelevant despite the waxing and waning of political candidates and their ilk. What’s hard is to listen.

What did I hear? Murmuration among the tradesmen making sense of their lives in a pandemic they hardly acknowledged. Individuals all. Resolute. Of strict father figure families no doubt. Gathered together around the bar in between a career that requires a pickup truck and a home that remained unseen that afternoon.

When we finished our beers and left, most were still present and would be until either the happy hour ended or home beckoned. It was hard to discern, but I suspect the watering hole was the best part of many of their days. So it was for mine.


Seeding During the Pandemic

Kale and Broccoli Seedlings at Two Weeks.

Most of the usual seeders were absent from the greenhouse as I made blocks for 3,840 seedlings. Those who did work tried to stay at least six feet away from each other, although it was hard given the confined space.

“You may be the vector,” I said to one.

“No, you are the vector,” they replied.

It was in fun, but a serious note rang heavy in the atmosphere. None of us wants to die from the coronavirus.

I worked mostly alone as the farmers tended sheep in the barn. There are now 45 lambs and they are not ready to be outside all the time. Before she left I reviewed my planting plan with the farmer, made adjustments, and planted the following for my garden:

Early White Vienna Kohlrabi, Ferry-Morse, 55 days.
Swiss Chard, Mixed Colors, Ferry-Morse, 30-60 days.
Fordhook Giant Swiss Chard, Ferry-Morse, 60 days.
Florida Broad Leaf Mustard, Ferry-Morse, 48 days.
Southern Giant Curled Mustard India, Ferry-Morse, 56 days.
Bibb Lettuce, Ferry-Morse, 57 days.
Buttercrunch Lettuce, Ferry-Morse, 65-70 days.
Parris Island Cos Lettuce, Ferry-Morse, 68 days.

I noticed the kale and broccoli planted March 1 germinated with a high rate. Some of the seeds planted last week have already sprouted, although it will take celery a couple weeks.

19,920 seedling blocks made during the first five weeks. The crew will begin transplanting to the high tunnel maybe this week.

Politics Social Commentary

Modernity of Social Distancing

Los Agaves Mexican Grill, Iowa City, Iowa at lunch time on Friday, March 13, 2020.

When it comes to “social distancing” Iowans know what to do. We tweak our normal behavior. Many of us are not socially close by nature so it’s not a big step.

Epidemiologists are using the term “social distancing” to refer to a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people and hopefully slow community transmission and spread of the coronavirus.

A grade school friend and I met in the county seat on Friday. His nonagenarian mother lives in an assisted care facility which was quarantined after he arrived in Iowa to visit her. He spoke to her on the phone, but couldn’t pay an in-person visit.

It was a tweak.

More tweaks are coming.

Last night Governor Kim Reynolds’ office issued a press release which said, “The Iowa Department of Public Health has determined, based on the new COVID-19 case and the announcement this evening of community spread in Omaha, Neb., there is now community spread in our state.”

The release continued to explain:

Community spread occurs when individuals have been infected with the virus in an area and cannot specifically identify the source of the infection, or do not know how or where they became infected.

Due to the detection of community spread, there are new recommendations for individuals with underlying conditions, and all Iowans should be prepared for cancellations and disruptions in routine activities.

Mitigation measures should be implemented immediately to have the most significant impact on slowing the spread of the virus.
Leaders of institutions and organizers of events should begin to act on their contingency plans related to large gatherings, including church services. Iowans should not hold or attend large gatherings of more than 250 people, and consider making adjustments for smaller gatherings with high risk groups.

It appears the governor is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines which include monitoring the progress of community spread and under certain conditions, making recommendations for social behavior. For now, school can continue, but not church where there are large congregations.

There is a political aspect to the coronavirus pandemic and it appears our state is taking reasonable actions if the federal government is lacking in its response. Regular communication and compliance with CDC guidelines should reflect positively on Reynold’s handling of the global pandemic’s mitigation in Iowa. As a former six-year member of our county board of health I don’t see a benefit to criticizing the governor as the state works to understand the progress of the disease and take appropriate action.

For our small family, it doesn’t take much to be socially distant. Yesterday I decided not to attend a legislative forum 10 miles from our home. I went to town to mail a package. On the way home I stopped at the pharmacy to see if I could buy a bottle of 90 percent isopropyl alcohol. They we sold out of all alcohol and sanitizing items. We’ll make do with what we have. Today I’ll go to the farm for our weekly seeding session.

A late winter snow fell, covering everything except the driveway and roads, which were too warm in this meteorological spring. For a day it was still winter by the calendar and by the weather.

There is never a problem staying busy at home. I completed the U.S. Census on my mobile device after reading in social media our state senator did his. It took ten minutes even after I had to re-do it. Between reading, writing, cooking, laundry, and preparing for planting, there was plenty to do. I put some bird seed out on the front door landing but they hadn’t found it by sunrise this morning.

While we were isolated, it didn’t feel that way. Iowans are used to working in isolation and with modern communications it is easy to stay in contact with friends and neighbors.

The news about the coronavirus from Europe, the Middle East and China is pretty startling. We really don’t know how many people are infected, although public health officials seem to be tracking the number of deaths.

Estimates of the impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic range widely yet are relevant. Global population was between 1.8 and 1.9 billion people at the time. The estimated number of deaths ranges between 17 and 50 million, maybe more. In the United States, the death rate was between 0.48 to 0.64 percent of the population or toward 650,000 deaths at the high end.

If we use the lower number in the range (0.48 percent) to determine how many deaths the 1918 pandemic would cause in the 2020 U.S. population, it would be more than 15.8 million. We are nowhere near that and likely to see only a fraction of that number with coronavirus. There is a modernity today that didn’t exist in 1918, with advanced public health and research organizations, better communications, and a resulting ability to coordinate between government and non-governmental agencies.

The phenomenon of social distancing looks to create a positive result. People will die of Covid-19 and the loss will hurt families. It will hurt us all. At the local level, we do our best to understand the pandemic and live our lives accordingly. We not freaking out. We are learning.

We’re sustaining our lives in a turbulent world that’s becoming infected by coronavirus. This may not be the last pandemic in my lifetime, so I hope we learn from it.

Social Commentary

Food Hoarders All

Morning Kale Harvest, June 2015

Because of the coronavirus, people are stocking up on food and sundries in case they are quarantined. Local retail business is up compared to last year. The wholesale club has been rationing specific items.

The retail outlet where I work twice a week has a large table in the employee break room where we pass the time talking, looking at our mobile devices or yesterday’s newspaper, and eating snacks and lunches. The consensus among this group of employed yet low-wage workers was we could survive a month or more of quarantine without stocking up. It’s how we do.

When my uncle died, Mother found a large number of one-pound boxes of dried pasta in his pantry. A person is in the store, it’s cheap, so why not pick up a package? Years of accumulation like that reflects a certain type of affluence. For those of us with a stable home life the amounts build up. A person has to work at it to use up the pantry and freezer. It’s a form of food security.

If we were quarantined and had no access to new food, the first thing to go would be dairy products. Fresh milk and eggs would be most missed, although cheese and butter would not make it a month. This discussion is hypothetical since there is an ability to receive home-delivery of most grocery items in our community. My next door neighbor owns the grocery store in town so I’m not worried about running out of food if quarantined.

We have plenty of fresh onions, canned tomatoes, dried basil and olive oil to make it through a month of pasta dishes. There is plenty of applesauce and pickles. We have enough apple butter to last more than a year. Kale? there is plenty in the freezer along with other frozen vegetables from the garden.

We’d test how far ten pounds of flour goes. We’d see if the yeast in the ice box is still active. If the yeast isn’t active, there would be biscuits and corn bread made with baking powder as leavening. There would be a big batch of soup made from celery, carrots, onions and potatoes. We have five cases of prepared beans, a large bag of garbanzo beans, and plenty of rice. The freezer has frozen raspberries, aronia berries and blueberries. We’d find out what we have.

As indicated above, this is theoretical as the community would support us on quarantine. As we settle into a weekend spent mostly at home we have no worries about food security. Sustaining our lives on the Iowa prairie is what we do.

Social Commentary

Getting Through a Pandemic

Sugar rationing at Costco Wholesale, Coralville, Iowa, March 11, 2020.

We have a Costco Wholesale Club near the home, farm and auto supply store where I work two days per week.

Wednesday is my day to pick up provisions there on the way home after work. Costco sells a lot of what we use in our kitchen but especially organic frozen vegetables, milk, butter, cheese, eggs, jarred olives, tomato paste, prepared black beans, raw tortillas, flour, sugar and the like. They are a good fit for our semi-veg cuisine and we like the USDA Organic shield on much of what we buy.

Costco was rationing provisions yesterday because of the coronavirus. Rationed items included water, rice, sugar, diapers, paper towels, toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, nitrile gloves and liquid handsoap.

While waiting in the checkout line, the woman behind me commented that I had no water or toilet paper in my cart, referring to a common social media meme about “Costco panic buying.” I replied we manage our own well so we don’t buy bottled water. The person in front of me asked the cashier if this would be a record sales day for the store. The cashier replied decidedly not. One has to wonder if those rationing signs on certain items increase sales more than the social phenomenon of “panic buying.”

A crew inside the entry offered to wipe down carts with hand sanitizer. A few members wore the kind of masks I keep in the garage to prevent breathing sawdust. More than anywhere else I go, Costco is a petri dish of international human interaction, mostly because of the nearby university hospitals and clinics. I declined the sanitizer and kept a comfortable social distance from fellow shoppers. If I die of COVID-19 you’ll know it was a bad call.

News this morning is the president twiddled his thumbs while addressing the pandemic to the nation from the Oval Office last night. Pandemic response seems outside his wheelhouse. The World Health Organization identified the coronavirus as a pandemic about the same time the president was preparing his speech. Also in that time window, actor Tom Hanks and his spouse were diagnosed with COVID-19 in Australia. At least the rich and famous can get a test kit and have results reported.

At the end of the day it was a regular experience, one among many. Our best chance to survive is to listen to health professionals and work to follow their guidance. That can be done. It’s all part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.

Social Commentary

Wheels Coming Off

Two Wagon Loads of Onions

This weekend was unsettling beginning with Friday’s news that OPEC couldn’t reach consensus on reducing crude oil supply. Russia dissented. In response, Saudi Arabia decided to slash prices and increase production by as many as 2 million barrels per day.

“This OPEC summit was among the worst meetings I have ever seen during the history of this organization,” Bijan Zanegneh, Iranian petroleum minister told reporters on Friday.

Oil prices fell so far, one could purchase two barrels of crude for less than the cost of a liter of Purell hand sanitizer in Manhattan.

Futures trading in the 10-year U.S. Treasury note yield dipped below 0.50 percent for the first time ever last night. It should be hella day when markets open this morning. One aspect of our being in debt is we own no stocks and therefore are insulated from daily market peaks and valleys, but still…

Speaking of hand sanitizer, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced last night the first three cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed in Iowa. The individuals live in our county seat and have been quarantined at home. I’m weighing whether or not to attend meetings in town this evening because of it. National leadership on identifying the emerging risks of coronavirus, and doing something to prevent a national crisis over the pandemic, has been absent. Our local warehouse club was rationing basic food stuffs, even though few Iowans seem likely to starve if they have to stay home for a while to avoid contact with the disease.

Also Sunday night, Yonhap News Agency of South Korea reported North Korea launched three projectiles toward the East Sea. The projectiles are believed to be missiles being developed as a result of stalled talks over denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. The U.S. is not leading efforts to rid the north of nuclear weapons, but rather seeking to distract us from our own nuclear complex modernization and testing of new nuclear weapons. American leadership is absent in compliance with Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Changes announced this weekend include the orchard where I worked the last seven seasons. On Friday they posted job openings for my manager and the bakery manager, who have worked there since before the current owners bought it in 2009. There have been discussions about extending the season to include other activities and produce for a couple of years. It looks like plans are coming to fruition (yes, that’s an apple joke), which means changes in staffing to accommodate new demands.

We’ll see if I’m invited back for the fall season, and if I am, whether I would work for a new manager in a new retail environment. Our personal situation has changed since 2013 when I first applied for a job there. The changes at the orchard are evidence of the shifting sand of a small business trying to survive in a competitive marketplace. If the job ceases to be fun, I won’t return.

Why all this now? It may be the beginning of all the wheels coming off the wagon of society. Whatever the causes, it is going to be a rough ride at least through this year, and maybe for a lot longer.

When I returned from my Sunday shift at the farm I walked the garden. It’s still pretty barren, garlic hasn’t begun to emerge. The plot where I sowed lettuce was dry with a few deer footprints in it. I went to bed worried about late winter drought. When I woke there was rain against the bedroom window. Welcome relief from the dry spell and a sign that all hope is not lost.