Author Archives: Amy Antonucci

Goats in Good Health

Happy, Healthy Honey!

I have always loved animals, observed wildlife and had pets. But the responsibility of caring for livestock is a different, daunting experience. So, I felt relieved and proud when, at our yearly veterinarian checkup, the doctor told us our goat, Honey “looks to me like a robustly healthy animal!”

My Animal Background

During my childhood, we had many pets (cats, gerbils, hamsters, fish, turtles, newts, a parakeet, a dog). But what I ask from and need to give to our working animals demands a greater level of involvement, decision-making, and commitment. I did not grow up learning the skills and mindset needed for such work.

My first jobs in agriculture were vegetable and fruit operations. A few generations ago all farms were diversified – they had both animals and plants. Nowadays, it’s much more common to find them focused on just one. I was also a vegetarian then vegan when I first got involved in farming, so it didn’t occur to me to think about adding animals.

Honey’s daughter, Lily

However, I developed health problems related to my restricted diet. With eggs, milk and meat back on my plate, I wanted to be sure the beings making those products were well treated, for their sake and mine (how can sickly animals ever produce healthy food?).

I also discovered good research on the benefits of animals appropriately used in agriculture. If I wanted my soil and land to thrive, animals were looking to be an important addition.

So, I read, researched and went to classes. I got bees, then chickens and ducks. While not at all simple, there is a lot of information and support for bee & poultry keepers. Moving on to four-legged mammals – that felt like a whole other world.

Cocoa, Honey’s half-sister

Getting Our Goats

We brought our first goats home in the summer of 2011. Honey and Cocoa were 3 months old. Every morning for at least the next 3 months, I woke up and said to Steve: “do you think the goats are still alive?” I was terrified of doing this wrong!

This feeling was especially strong because of the bad experiences people seemed to relish sharing with us.

We heard and read about the many health problems we were likely to see – diseases, mineral deficiencies and parasites. Coming from a background of organic farming, I believed that organic and natural management options were possibly the key to avoiding some of the problems, but most goat keepers I talked to disagreed with me. One even told me “if you feed the kids organic grain they’ll likely be dead within weeks.” Thus my obsession those early months with their possible sudden demise. Luckily I did find a few people having great results with natural methods so I didn’t feel completely alone.

Cocoa with her 2014 kids

Six Years of Goatkeeping

Now, six years later, I am happy to report that not only are our goats alive, they have thrived and multiplied! In fact, most of the problems we were braced for still haven’t come to pass.

We have not had problems with: internal parasites, lack of fertility, birthing complications, coccidiosis, mastitis, pneumonia or other infections, or low selenium. The three scariest goat diseases – CAE, CL & Johnnes – haven’t shown up since we were careful to purchase from disease-free herds and test regularly. I do watch them for copper deficiency, as we have seen some signs of that now and then.

They have thick winter coats and shiny summer hair. They behave appropriately, are friendly, curious and active.

The problems we have faced fall more in the first aid category: a dislocated leg, diarrhea after eating a poisonous leaf, a couple of winter lice cases.

At this point, I feel confident in saying that our focus on

Dam-raised kids, eating what nature intended them to

natural rearing has been a success. To be more specific, I think these practices have particularly helped: choosing healthy stock, dam-raising rather than bottle-raising kids, rotational grazing, a varied diet, mineralizing our land, no prophylactic medications, and little to no grain.

From my permaculture training I also remember to observe my animals and learn as much as I can from them about how they should live, what’s working or not.

She has a point, the grass does look greener on the other side! And, no, she’s not stuck!

Still, I do find some normal aspects of goatkeeping challenging: managing breeding including the stinky bucks, birthing worries, harvesting excess animals, and being there every single day to milk. And just generally still worrying about everything that could go wrong. Sometimes I wonder if this is really for me, if I can keep it up. But, when I look at how happy and healthy they are and when we eat the fabulously healthy products we get from them… it seems a shame to stop.

Next… breeding season is almost upon us and I plan to share some of that with you. Even some videos of their behavior. Alas, I can’t capture the buck smell for you – I’ll never be able to describe it adequately!

Smelly, Stinky Bucks!

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Speaking for the Bees

At the Concord NH MAM 2017

[Note: I gave a version of this talk at the March Against Monsanto Rally in Concord NH on May 20, 2017. This was also the day after the news broke that NH lost the majority of it’s honey bee hives over this past winter.]

I am here today to speak for the bees and the beekeepers.

As a chemical-free, permaculturally-based beekeeper I am extremely careful about what I put into the hive. But being a steward of bees means knowing the limits of my control over the world. That’s why I need all of you to help me and my bees.

A bee can travel as far as 5 miles from her hive. That’s 50,000 acres of land that she can cover – far more than I personally can protect for them. Any harmful substance that she contacts she will bring home to her hive where the queen is laying eggs, the next generations are being nurtured and they are creating their magnificent honey. What they bring back will have consequences for all those activities.

I received my first package of bees in 2005, so when the Colony Collapse Disorder news hit in 2007, I started getting questions about bees, most of which boiled down to: “What is the thing causing bees to die?”

I’m not sure what it is about humans, or Americans at least, that makes us crave simple answers. But, I don’t believe that thinking is helping us and I am not here today to tell you one or a few simple tricks to saving the bees. Instead I want to tell you a story about bees, humans, how we got here and how we might walk a better path for all of us.

It is still a simplified story, from the perspective of one human (me) who works with one type of bee, apis mellifera, the honey bee.

Let me tell you more about bees, to make sure that all of you are amazed and in love with them and the sweet, beautiful world they contributed to making.

The honeybee is just one of at least 20,000 species of bees. Bees began evolving about 100 million years ago, when wasps and flowers shifted their relationship from one of predator and prey to one of not just cooperation, but of symbiosis – they need each other now. Forming this partnership, called

A Single Poppy Flower, Opening

The Angiosperm Explosion by botanists, resulted in a tremendous increase in plant and insect diversity and, in our human eyes, beauty. (Iris Murdoch said: “People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”)

By now, 2017, there are over 200,000 species of animals that act as pollinators. Most of those are insects, with bees pollinating the largest number of plant species. There are others, though: birds, bats, and even some mice!

The fact that there is such a diversity of pollinators in existence, tells me how important they are. This is a job that cannot be left to just a few. We are lucky that this redundancy and resilience is built into the system given the losses that have occurred or might happen, but it’s time to heed nature and learn to respect and protect them.

A Sign Held at the Concord NH MAM 2017

There are now 8 bee species on the US endangered species list (7 in Hawaii plus the Rusty Patched Bumblebee). Even more disturbing, a study released in March 2017 by The Center for Biological Diversity found hundreds of North American bee species now face extinction. The reason for their decline is believed to be the complicated interplay of: loss of habitat, pesticides, diseases/parasites which move easily around the world with our current transportation system, and climate change.

But, let’s take a small step back… the trouble for our bees did not start in 2007.

The best way to track this would be by looking at colony losses over time or wild bee numbers, but that data isn’t available going back very far.  We do have information about overall colony numbers in the US going back to the 1940s, which American entymologist & MacArthur award winner, Marla Spivak, used to piece together at least a part of the story.

Spivak pointed out that honey bee colony numbers have been declining in this country since the end of World War II. In 1945 there were an estimated 4.5 million managed honeybee hives in the US and in 2007 that number had fallen to 2 million – despite an increase in crops planted that need insect pollination.

What happened?

A number of changes occurred, one being World War Two’s legacy of dangerous substances and technologies which we are still dealing with.

As a permaculturist, I am all for turning problems into solutions. But I am really coming to question the idea of turning swords into ploughshares in any literal sense, especially given the research showing the plough to be one of our oldest, ongoing agricultural sins.

Of course, these corporations were concerned with profit not peace anyway. Rather than shutting down their war-making factories in 1945, companies including Monsanto managed to keep running by setting their sights on a new target, and a chemical-dependent agriculture system started to take over. A DuPont Farm Chemicals brochure from the 1950s told us outright: “Man against the soil… rise from savagery to civilization.”

This new system concentrated crops into huge monoclutures, which could not support pollinators, but did create the opportunity for certain crop eating insects to proliferate in an out-of-balance manner, leading to a huge call for pesticides. With synthetic fertilizers now cheap and available, the practice of cover cropping, which had been great forage for our beneficial insects, diminished. And abundant herbicides meant weeds could be eliminated in crop fields and at our homes – but

Bees Love Dandelions!

many plants we call weeds are great food for many insects. (Let your dandelions grow!)   (See Marla Spivak’s TED Talk for much more detail on the post-WWII agricultural shift)

In his book Natural Prophets, Joe Dobrow describes our culture as we came out of that war as encouraging social and political conformity, respect for authority, patriotism, faith in science and government. But within a few decades other voices started to emerge – they are our predecessors.

Many people will remember that Rachel Carson predicted a silent spring due to a decline in birds linked to DDT, but not as many know that she also warned of a fruitless fall, a time when “there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.” This is what we face today.

(Of course, there are even more issues affecting agriculture and bees.  Farm policy, US diet patterns, food growing economics, and specific beekeeping economics are a few.  Remember that the world is complex!  But, I can only tackle so many issues here.  I provided some links for your further research if you are interested.)

What do we do?

A Bee, Making Honey

This winter I heard natural beekeeper Ross Conrad speak. He reminded us of the fact that one honeybee can only make 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime to contribute to her hive, which needs about 150 pounds of honey per year. And yet, she does not fall prey to the illusion that what she does doesn’t matter. She does not waver in her work or dedication. She knows her place in this world and embraces it.

We humans are not blessed with that certain knowledge of what we are supposed to do here. But, I believe that we are alive in a time that is calling us to find our place and make a contribution.

I know that we live now with some terrible examples of what humans can do, and we should let that inspire us to be very cautious. But, we’ve also been able to fix problems, such as banning DDT. The great news is that a lot of solutions in front of us will bring only benefits. A sustainable food production system can provide good food for pollinators, grow healthy soil which can pull carbon out of the atmosphere, offer meaningful work for people, and produce much healthier food for all of us.

So, I ask you to consider all these options to help bees: YES – plant for pollinators flowering plants, especially trees (make sure they are pesticide-free!), choose and grow your own organic food, buy local honey! ALSO – take back our food supply and our health from companies who do not have our best interests at heart. Work to curb corporate power (so we can stop these problems before they are started), promote peace, build more democratic institutions, organize your communities, attend rallies.

Don’t just resist – commit to participation and action as part of your life, not a task that will end when one politician or company is defeated. Let’s take back a sense of responsibility and ownership for our lives and communities, shake off the illusion that our actions don’t matter and support each other in creating a healthy world.

Poster at March Against Monsanto 2017

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Why Garden?

The Garden in July

I am a committed, joyful gardener who wants to teach everyone else to grow their own food, too! I encourage others to garden NOT because it’s easy and anyone can just do it. I have heard stories from people about how they tried gardening but ran into so many problems that the 10 tomatoes they ended up with likely cost them $15 each. It is frustrating and does happen! But I believe that it’s worth not giving up, rising to the challenge and learning the skills you need to have your own garden. Here are a few reasons why…

Environmental Benefits

For a few thousand years, many agricultural systems have created as many problems as they have grown food. The big traps we fall into are: monocultures, soil disturbance, and more recently, chemical use. Our current US conventional ag system is guilty of all of these sins.

Now, however, we have the information needed to grow in ways that can heal the planet. We can even reverse climate disruption if these techniques are implemented on a wide-scale! There are great people and groups leading new movements to change our large-scale food systems.

Another answer that I see clearly is that smaller food systems can be much easier to manage well and efficiently. More growers working smaller pieces of land can address problems of air & water pollution, water consumption, soil erosion and soil carbon loss while building a community’s food sovereignty (ability to feed themselves).

Garden, Mid-July

In your own garden, no-till is easy, diversity an obvious choice, and chemicals become unnecessary as you build healthy soil. You can eliminate food miles, use far less water, create healthy habitats for pollinators and other creatures, and sequester carbon in your own backyard!

Save Money

While there is the phenomonom of the $15 tomato, with a bit of skill and some good choices, gardening can absolutely save you money. The key is to identify what you like to eat, consider the prices for buying these, and find out which are easy crops to grow.

Beet Tops

Herbs and greens are pricey, high-end items, so if you love salad and basil, those should go to the top of your list. If you don’t like beets – don’t grow them. Even though they are an easy crop, this will feel like wasted effort in the end. Now, I know most everyone loves tomatoes, but – they are not easy to grow in New England! Tomatoes are a heat-loving crop that, in my experience, do better in dry conditions – does that sound like our climate? In our humid summers, there are numerous blights that will attack them, causing them to turn ugly and die before you get much from them. Actually, last year’s terrible drought in our area gave us the best tomato crops we’ve ever seen. If those conditions continue, maybe tomatoes

Zucchini

will become easy here, but meanwhile, be careful!

Don’t go overboard on one veggie either – remember that diversity is necessary in a healthy garden, and that by the 50th zucchini, it will start to feel less like well-deserved bounty and more like a curse.

 

Your Health

Every day there seems to be another study pointing to good nutrition as a key to good health. One of the problems we face is that much of our food contains fewer minerals and more chemical residues than in the past. You can buy certified organic (higher priced food in this case is actually cheap compared to health care costs). You can also give even more attentive care to a small plot you watch over and know you and your family will eat from.

Red Nasturtiums

We also now know that gardening has positive effects on mood. Less depression and anxiety is a great bonus, don’t you think?

 

Connection to the land

It’s great to admire, love and watch our landscapes and wildlife. But, I think it’s even better for us to understand on a visceral level how much we depend on the land, the earth. In the US, where so many of us have been here for merely a few generations, we often lack a sense of rootedness and connection to place. We move and travel and don’t like to feel “tied down.” I don’t believe this is working out well for us.

First, I think it makes it easier to tolerate and ignore wrongs being done to the land when we think we can just move on.

Let me share with you this excerpt from an interview with author and environmentalist, Derrick Jensen: “It’s really problematical, because we can talk all we want, but the truth is, if my experience is that my water comes from the tap, I will defend to the death the system that brings that to me, because my life depends on it. If my experience is – not my philosophy – but if my experience is that my food comes from the grocery store I will defend to the death the system that brings that food to me, because my life depends on it. If on the other hand, my experience, my reality is that my water comes from a river then I will defend to the death that river, because my life depends on it. If my experience is that my food comes from a land base, from not a land base, but this land base, my land base, my home, I will defend to the death that land base because my life depends on it. So that’s part of the problem, we’ve been made dependent on this very system that is killing us.”

Kale

Second, I believe many people would feel happier and more secure if they felt they did belong somewhere.  (Making this sort of commitment to a place doesn’t necessarily mean you own that land, by the way.)

How well do you know the place you live? How was it used in the past? What sounds do you expect to hear when you open your windows this spring? What does the soil smell like after a rain? Where does water run across the landscape? How does food taste grown there?

My life is enriched just by asking these questions and looking for the answers.

As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: “This is really why I made my daughters learn to garden—so they would always have a mother to love them, long after I am gone.” 

Red Oak Lettuce

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