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Push the bees where they want to go

  • Posted by howies
  • 6 November 2008


A stinging insect that evolved 35 million years ago collects nectar from plants. It converts this into honey and stores it so that it can survive the winter as a social unit. To protect this store of honey, each worker bee is armed with a sting which is capable of producing severe irritation, and, at worse death.

There is no substance in nature (unprocessed) that is sweeter than honey. In a world without sugar, bees’ nests were prized discoveries and great efforts were made to steal the honey. Some of the earliest cave paintings show men with ropes and ladders, and flaming brands, climbing up to bees’ nests to hack off some of the comb to get at what must have seemed like an impossibly sweet substance.

Now it all seems so much more civilised; bees are kept in wooden beehives, managed by beekeepers who have an intimate knowledge how the social organisation of the hive works, and are able to manipulate them to their own advantage, to produce colossal crops of honey and also to provide much needed pollination to the huge acreages of crops like almonds, oranges, apples, courgettes, tomatoes, etc.But in fact it only seems that way. Anyone who works with bees knows that you are really only a bystander. Bees still do what they want and their behaviour is ultimately determined by the weather. If you keep bees at the bottom of your garden, you are sharing your garden with a wild animal, which, like most wild animals, lives a precarious life at the margin of survival. It will swarm if it wants to and go to live elsewhere, and will only produce a honey surplus over and above its daily needs if the sun shines. And this is actually the point. Keeping bees gets you honey, but is also gets you a way into the way nature works. By understanding the way bees respond to all the different aspects of the natural world, the beekeeper is able to recover his own relationship to the natural world through bees.

Beekeepers are much more sensitive to things like the weather because they understand the importance of sunshine to the bees’ ability to gather nectar. You soon come to realise that you can only get what nature gives you.

Gerald Cooper


“Grow your own. Or eat less.”

That was the choice the people of Cuba had in the early 90’s.

The USSR collapsed in 1990/91 and as it fell, Cuba’s ability to feed itself collapsed with it. It relied on USSR for foreign exchange to allow it to buy imports such as food, fertilizer and importantly, oil Almost over night it had 80% less oil to play with.

Its 11 million people would have to look elsewhere for its food beyond importing it. And quick.

Cuba had to produce twice as much food, with less than half the chemical inputs. Over 1.3m tonnes of chemical fertilisers a year were lost.

What followed was two years of what they call the “Special Period" or periodo especial.
Basically, they had less to eat while they were working on their plan B. (During the this time calorie intake plunged from 2,600 a head in to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993.)

The leader of this revolution was necessity. They had no choice but to grow their own. They had no choice but to go organic. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice. Land was switched from export crops to food production, and tractors were mothballed. They got some new tractors called oxen. (in the late 80’s there were just 1,000 pairs of oxen. There are now over 300,000 pairs)

People were encouraged to move from the city to the land and organic farming methods were introduced.

They learnt how to be good farmers again. They learnt traditional farming methods: Integrated pest management, crop rotation, composting and soil conservation were all implemented.” The country had to become expert in techniques like worm composting and biopesticides. (Worm farm technology is now a Cuban export.)
The biggest change could be seen from within the city of Havana: Vacant lots, old parking lots, abandoned building sites, spaces between roads, any available site (even rooftops and balconies) were taken over by thousands of new urban farmers trying to feed themselves and make some money.

In Havana alone 30,000 residents tend 8,000 community gardens and small farms producing vegetables, fruit, eggs, medicinal plants, honey, and such livestock as rabbits and poultry. These urban farmers produce 30%-505 of the city’s vegetables and perishable food. And all this produce is organic because chemical pesticides for agriculture are not allowed within the city limits. 
These small organic farms and gardens located in urban areas became known as Organiponicos.

As a result of having to go without came a need to find news of doing things and mostly rediscovering old ways that had been forgotten. Cuba now leads the developing world in small-scale composting, organic soil reclamation, irrigation and crop rotation research, animal powered traction (oxen) and other innovative practices.

This same lack of resources meant that Cuba leads the world in sustainability of their urban agriculture system really is. The Cubans can’t "cheat". They can’t use fertilizers. They have no choice but to depend on the fundamental organic principles of using resources that were locally-available and renewable.

For example, cut banana stems baited with honey are used to attract ants that are then placed in sweet potato fields and have led to control of sweet potato weevil. There are 173 established ‘vermicompost’ centres across Cuba, which produce 93,000 tons of natural compost a year. Schools eat the food that they grow in their own grounds.

Of course, Cuba is still reliant on imports for rice, meat and milk. Its sugar cane crop is very reliant on chemical fertilizers, it has problems with (saliantation) of its soil, but this forced experiment has worked.

Now, gardens for food take up 3.4% of urban land countrywide, and 8% of land in Havana. Cuba produced 3.2m tonnes of organic food in urban farms in 2002 and, UNFAO says, food intake is back at 2,600 calories a day, while UNFAO estimates that the percentage of the population considered undernourished fell from 8 per cent in 1990-2 to about 3 per cent in 2000-2. Cuba's infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US, while at 77 years life expectancy is the same.

How would we cope if almost overnight our oil got shut off?

Return to simple

  • Posted by howies
  • 6 November 2008


Nature is my passion – it’s been my obsession for as long as I can remember. 

When I left the academic world to become a pig farmer a couple of years ago I was determined to get back to a more simplistic, natural way of life.  My plan was to live and work on my own farm, raising free range animals and growing food as nature intended. I wanted to get back to basics. The idea was to put into practice some of the more traditional British farming methods. I wanted top quality, seasonal, fresh produce so I set about creating an environment and infrastructure on the farm to support this.

The type of farming that we practise here on the farm was commonplace before the Second World War; free range, low intensity – oh yes, that good old-fashioned farming. Five years on and I am proud to say that our farm produces rare-breed pork of the highest quality from slow-grown pigs that lead a completely free range life, roaming over pasture and woodland where they are able to root for wild garlic, chestnuts, acorns, tubers and grubs.

The variety and quality of food harvested from our nation’s countryside is one of our greatest assets. We have a wealth of farmers and small producers who grow or raise some of the best meats, fruit, vegetables and cheeses in Europe. The heartening thing is that there is much more interest now in where our food is coming from, how and where it is produced and who has produced it, not to mention the plethora of manuals and cookbooks out there telling you how to cook it! The growing interest ?in the provenance of food, environment and healthy diet means that people are more aware of what they are buying, cooking and eating. 

It is cheering also to see that in many parts of Britain we have viable, lively local food economies, which bring together the farmers and consumers via small convenience shops, butchers and farmers’ markets. It is a growing trend – farmers’ markets are starting up all over the place, food festivals and shows draw larger and larger audiences and, at last, we seem to be waking up to the fact that it is not particularly difficult or expensive to eat real food. It occasionally takes a little bit of effort to seek out and maybe a little thought and time to prepare.

So, once home with a bag full of these wonderfully fresh, seasonal ingredients, what to do with them? I like to do as little as possible – one of my favourite dishes has to be slow roasted belly pork. A superb piece of free range pork, skin scored and sprinkled with sea salt to produce crunchy crackling, slow roasted for a couple of hours produces one of the richest, most comforting meals you can think of. Served with steamed vegetables, a dollop of creamy mash and the juices from the pan, this is a simple, traditional and wholesome supper. Fabulous!

Jimmy Doherty

Before Glue

  • Posted by howies
  • 6 November 2008


New technology isn't always the answer. Doing things the old way is often better for the environment. This table was made from wind fallen Welsh oak, found within a few miles of the maker. No glue. No nails. No screws. Yes, just wooden pegs and a mallet. The only bit we are not proud of is the 478 mile round trip we had to make in our battered van to deliver it.

Chew on this

  • Posted by howies
  • 6 November 2008


In these days of carbon counting, our focus is often guided toward what we believe to be the higher impact aspects of life – heating the house, flights and car journeys mostly. But what about the food we eat? The term ‘food miles’ is often banded around, but do we really know the entire story?  The truth is our shopping baskets are spewing out more greenhouse gases than we first thought. In fact, scientists now know that our love for food accounts for up to twice as many emissions as our love for driving. So, is the simple answer to shop local? When you look at the supermarket shelves and see grapes from New Zealand, tomatoes from Spain and apples from Africa, locally-grown produce sounds like a logical answer, doesn’t it?  Well, it does until you learn that the term ‘food miles’ is solely focused on the products’ CO2 emissions. But, when you throw other harmful gases like methane and nitrous oxide into the equation, then the food production process becomes a whole lot dirtier. Those two gases alone are known to be way more harmful to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Research shows that farm to fork transportation accounts for only 11% of food’s total carbon footprint, with up to 83% of the emissions coming from the food production process itself. The remaining 6% going into wholesale and retail, refrigeration and lighting.  The most emission-intensive foods are red meat and dairy. That’s down to the amount of fertiliser and food that farmers use to rear cows and the amount of CO2 and methane they expel (the cows, not the farmers). You might be surprised to know that the carbon footprint of a tasty steak is the equivalent to that of a 19-mile journey in a 4x4 and that a simple bowl of cereal creates the equivalent stink of driving 4.5 miles (the main culprit in your bowl being the milk rather than the cereal itself).  So, one way of reducing your carbon food-print could be to give meat the chop entirely. Switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could cut your annual carbon footprint by the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per person. That might be a bit too much of a leap for some meatlovers, so perhaps another way could be to simply reduce the amount of red meat we eat. Maybe replacing it with a nice free-range chicken. Chickens eat less grain and fart out less methane, so, in turn, cause a lot less damage to our atmosphere.  I guess there’s no simple answer and we all have to make our own choices in the end.  Just some food for thought.

Facts: Fertilisers and manure release nitrous oxide, which is 296 times as good as CO2 at trapping heat and remains in the atmosphere for 114 years on average.
By 2050 meat consumption is expected to reach 465 million tonnes per annum

Bring back the hippies

  • Posted by howies
  • 6 November 2008


True organic farming requires learning and acquiring a deep and long-term understanding of a farm’s ecology and its crops. It is about a subtle management of the environment to grow our crops with the minimum interference and disturbance.

Spraying a field with a nerve poison to control aphids and thereby killing all other insects by accident is as violent and ignorant as a Nazi book burning; planting phasealia to attract adult hover flies and lacewings whose larvae will eat the aphids is a peaceful and truly knowing one. Annihilating all soil life with the fumigant mythyl bromide to kill a few weed seeds and pathogens when 99.99% of the soil’s population is beneficial is as dumb and intellectually lazy as expecting carpet-bombing Vietnam to lead to peace and freedom. Using the last of our fossil fuels to make nitrogen fertilizer which clover could provide for free and without contributing to global warming is the mark of a blinkered economic system incapable of seeing beyond a self-destructive worship of the free market and greed. How could we be so dumb? Organic farming is smarter in so many ways; it is more than just not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; it is about our relationship with the planet we live on, including the seven billion people we share it with. At its best it is about humility, understanding and learning from nature rather than arrogance, domination and destruction. It is about peace and respect rather than violence.

I know this is wild stuff and I sound like a hippy but I don’t care. My early years as an organic grower taught me that if you go to war with nature without the back-up of an arsenal of fossil fuel based agro-chemicals you will loose. That made me angry initially but with loosing comes humility, re-evaluation, introspection and fundamental learning. Looking back over my early years as a grower it is hard to believe how personally I took it when things went wrong. It was all about ego and my fields were my empire. Perhaps the self-centered arrogance would have subsided with age anyway but I am convinced the vulnerability inherent in organic farming helped.  For most converting farmers there comes an epiphany when they realise they have got the relationship wrong; that organic farming is not about substituting ammonium nitrate with chicken shit, pyrethrum with soft soap or herbicides with flame throwers, that the conflict is unnecessary and ultimately self-defeating and that the key to organic farming is observation, empathy, humility and understanding rather than power.  

Nature can provide what academics would call the “elegant” solutions that include balance and the subtle relationships between organisms that make chemical farming’s clumsy, energy consuming, often thoughtless abuses seem grotesque by comparison; it has so much to teach those who are receptive and organic farmers normally become more receptive than most. If Bush and Blair had spent their bonding time on an organic allotment with their hands in the soil rather than driving a golf cart around in bomber jackets they would have realised that they were not omnipotent and their countries might not be fighting their unwinnable wars.

Guy Watson founder of the Riverford Organic Veg Box Scheme and co-author of the Riverford Farm Cook Book.  www.riverford.co.uk

Aberteifi & Fish

  • Posted by howies
  • 6 November 2008


The river Teifi is 75.8 miles long and is one of the largest rivers in Wales. It is also one of the most pristine and least modified river catchments in lowland Britain.

Cardigan (Aberteifi in Welsh) used to be a thriving port for trading as well as ship building. But the development and activity of the slate quarry caused a build up of waste material in the river, making the river shallower in places, which in turn prevented access by larger boats. This was seen to be the cause of the end of the sea trading port.

The Teifi is renowned as one of the best rivers in Wales for salmon fishing. However, fish stocks have been under steady threat since the 1960s. This was due to the use of drift nets by Irish Sea trawlers. In 2006 drift nets were banned and since then salmon numbers in the Teifi have been on the rise.

Mostly sewin, salmon, brown trout and bass are found in the Teifi. A reasonable year’s run will contain around 20,000 fish. The average Teifi salmon weighs around 9lb, but they have been recorded up to as big as 30lb.

The Teifi is famous for its rich history of coracle net fishing. This used to be the only real source of income for many of the town’s folk. Now in Cardigan there is only one fishmonger and one lobster/crab seller.

Fishmongers have closed and been replaced by large supermarket chains. One man and his boat are fighting back, his name is Len, and you’ll see him come rain or shine out on the bay catching lobsters and crabs (and sometimes a cold). When he has something to sell you will see a sign outside his door (but only when he has caught something).

10 longest rivers in the world

  • Posted by howies
  • 30 October 2008


1 Nile (Egypt) 4,157 miles
2 Amazon (Brazil) 3,969 miles
3 Yangtze (China) 3,915 miles
4 Mississippi (USA) 3,896 miles
5 Yenisei (Russia) 3,450 miles
6 Ob (Russia) 3,449 miles
7 Yellow (China) 2,900 miles
8 Amur (Russia) 2,714 miles
9 Congo (Zaire) 2,716 miles
10 Lena (Russia) 2,647 miles

Source: wikipedia

A Drawer Count

  • Posted by howies
  • 30 October 2008


I counted 14 batteries in my drawer at home. I bet if you went looking, you could find some too.
My problem is I don’t quite know what to do with them. But I do know they are pretty bad things to throw in the bin. So I just put them in a drawer hoping the battery fairies will come. But damn them, they never do.
So given the fact that between us we buy around 680 million batteries a year, you’d think recycling them would be easy.
But the stats and my drawer tell a different story. In fact, we recycle 1 in a 100. A measly 1%. We are the worst in Europe by a mile (or a kilometer, as they say). So what’s the big deal?
Well, before they start life, the energy needed to make a battery is 50 times greater than it will give out. And if that isn’t bad enough, there’s the pollution.
You see, household batteries are responsible for between 50–70% of all heavy metals found in landfills. And no one knows what happens to them when they are in the landfill.
But when you have some heavy metals like mercury (not great for the brain cells), cadmium (not great for the kidneys), lead chemicals (not great for either brain or gut) in such numbers, well, you don’t want this stuff ever leaking out into the air, water or food chain.
Yet we dumped 22,000 tonnes, or the equivalent of 110 jumbo jets of toxic heavy metals last year.
There are loads of facts, and I could go on and on. But like those single use batteries, I just ran out of energy.

To find out what areas offer a recycling service for batteries, search this site under ‘batteries’.

Or better still – use rechargable batteries.

Battery ingestion hotline 0202 625 333

the home of news and information for recyclers and all those involved in sustainable waste management in the UK today.

recycling information for batteries, mobile phones, I.T equipment and others

provides a directory of where you can dispose of your batteries

information on the current situation and impending legislation

Waste Watch is the leading environmental charity dedicated to the reduction, reuse and recycling of household waste.


Householders & students should call Recycle Now Helpline for local recycling facilities
0845 331 31 31

Small to medium businesses should visit or call Envirowise 0800 585 794

Big business should visit http://www.business.gov.uk/

Additional Information on a new law about to be introduced:

Batteries and Accumulators Directive – published 2006

it is a producer responsibility piece of legislation’ dealing with the recovery and recycle of the disposing of batteries
battery manufacturers, producers, distributers will be responsible for the safe disposal of batteries. The legislation set targets on the recovery and recycle of spent batteries
a ban on disposal of untreated certain types of batteries

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