Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Apicultura- Beekeeping!

      This weekend Filipe and I participated in the first of a three part course in beekeeping. The course will take place over three weekends staggered through out the ‘bee season’ so we can track their progress and learn about the different stages of the hive. Filipe has experience with bees but for me it was the first time getting near the little guys. The course was in Portuguese of course, but the instructor, the wonderful Harold Hafner, is originally from Austria and as anyone who has learned a second language knows, other non-native speakers are often much easier to understand. Of course, Hafner also speaks English so after the lectures I was able to pull him aside for clarifications.
      In this first part of the course we learned about the different species of bees. Europe is home to many different types of honey bees, in the northern countries (as well as in parts of the U.S.) the bees are quite calm but in Portugal they (mellifera iberiensis) have what Hafner calls, a latin temper. They are not more dangerous, just more likely sting you, so those charming photos of the guys opening beehives in t-shirts that I so hoped would one day be me, can be forgotten. We were fully suited up and in two days of working with the bees I didn’t get stung once! 
Does this suit make me look fat? Ha, no really, I asked that.
      I’m sure the Southerners are curious about the Aricanized Honey Bee. We don’t have them here because they are not able to survive above the 30th parallel, or anywhere north of the deep south in the case of the U.S. They have migrated slowly  north since their introduction in Brazil more than 150 years ago. The African bee’s queen hatches two days earlier than the native bees  ( I say native but there were no honey bees in North and South America before the Europeans- pollination was left to bumble bees and insects) so when they come to new hive they are easily able to take it over. Their queen egg hatches first and the queen kills the others as they hatch. This is normal procedure in a hive and if they all hatched at more or less the same time as is usual it would be a battle for the fittest but the African bees two day advantage makes them the clear winner, and we end up with a lot of African bees.  The question I had was should we be afraid of them. Hafner doesn’t think we need to be as afraid of them as we are told to be. His mother lives in Florida and he says he has seen the shift from the ‘native’ Italian species to the African hybrid. He says they are slightly more aggressive, but what really sets them apart is that where a normal honey bee hive will follow an intruder maybe fifty yards, a hive of Africanized honey bees can peruse for up to a kilometer. Tip: if you’re being chased by bees run in a zig-zag pattern not a straight line! That said, it seems they are not so much more likely to sting you than any other species and in much of Central and South America beekeepers are not bothering to constantly purify their hives with new queens of a European species, as they are in the U.S. and instead they just go on raising the Africanized populations without much trouble.
Filipe showing his skills
      We also learned about the different types of hives. In the U.S. and much of Europe the box hive is the standard. But in many places older designs still persist. In Portugal they have long used the bark of the cork tree as a hive. We have one of these, but they aren’t as easy to use as the modern hive. That said, I think it’s nice to have one in the name of tradition. 
Cork Hive
      The best part of the course though, without a doubt, was the hands-on work with the bees. Going inside the hives and pulling out the sheets of wax we were able to locate the larvae, the pollen stores and, best of all, the honey stores! The bees whipped around our faces and crawled over everything but I must say I found the overwhelming buzzing quite soothing.  I’m looking forward to getting our own bees this month and trying it for myself. Wish me luck! 
My hives

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Portugal...In Portuguese

A chapel in the sea- Gaia

In Portuguese they use the same name for a Pigeon and a Dove,
But different names for a camel with one hump and a camel with two.

The neighbor's cow looking curiously in my front door- Cinfaes
 Small pinealpples and large ones have different names.
So do white raisins and red raisins. 

Fishermen- Foz

The same word is used for lending and borrowing. 
Camara means city hall
And puxe means pull.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Clothes Made From Nettles?

While reading Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey, I learned that Indians in Minnesota used to use stinging nettles to make fishing nets. I told Filipe about this, sure that this would be novel and interesting, he informed me (and I later confirmed) that during World War I Germany experienced a cotton shortage and turned to the ubiquitous nettle to make their soldiers' uniforms.

 Our farm is covered in stinging nettles and while I have discovered many wonderful uses for the vitamin rich weed, I had never heard of making fiber from it. I regularly make a tea from the leaves of the plant by picking them (carefully and with gloves) and boiling them. The sting (which is chemical similar to fire ant spit and is delivered through the sharp hairs on the underside of the leaves and on the stem) is eliminated after a few seconds in boiling water or when the plant is dried. I also use them to make a soup, much the same way as the tea but with potatoes and onions added and then pureed at the end. They can also be steamed and eaten with butter or used any way that you use spinach. In a flourish of culinary creativity I even made nettle gnocchi once, but just like every other time I have tried to make gnocchi it was a f-ing messy disaster. I also make a fertilizer for my garden by soaking large amounts of the whole plant in a barrel with water until the plant itself dissolves and the mixture takes on a pungent odor similar to manure. I then add a cup of this to each bucket of water when watering my plants. You can do this at home on small scale, the proportions are not important, just wait till it stinks and add a little bit to your watering can. 
Hurts so good
 Nettles can be found wild in almost all temperate climates and are packed with vitamins, particularly A, C and K and loaded with iron. But they are also very fibrous. Thinking that I had just come upon the most wonderful new eco-idea, fabric made from an abundant wild source, perhaps the end of cotton, I began to think of all the wonderful possibilities. Upon further research though, I found that my thinking followed many other ecologically minded opportunists. Apparently, nettle clothing is all the rage (if you’re into hippie, free flowing, formless wear, which I am not, yet.) Great Britain is even funding a research institute devoted to developing hybrid species of nettles for fiber (or fibre, as they would write,) and discovering new ways to produce fabric from these. The organization is aptly named STING- Sustainable Technologies In Nettle Growing. The country is also investigating subsidies for nettle farms. Recently a fashion show in Italy featured a designer whose clothing was made from the nettle. 

This was the least hippie style I could find
 So, perhaps I’m a little behind the curve, but I’m determined to give this a try. First the nettles must be harvested by cutting as low on the stem as possible and then put to dry in the sun for at least a day. Next it will be soaked in abundant water to break down the stems, about 24 hours, then the water will be changed (to prevent fermentation which would destroy the fibers) and the nettles will be soaked for an additional 24 hours. The next step is to remove what is left of the leaves and divide the stems, pulling the stringy ‘fibers’ that will be used from the woody center that will be discarded. Several sources claim that the leftover stems make great fodder and that cows and goats especially enjoy them. Waste nothing! Finally the fiber will be dried again and can then be twisted or woven to make thread, string or rope. Apparently, nettle fibers are stronger than both cotton and linen. Since making clothes is well beyond my level of talent, or desire, I had to come up with something more reasonable. I would like to try to make a kind of reusable grocery/produce bag like this:

Or maybe I will just make a rope, or some shoelaces. So there it is, and just when you thought we had exhausted the uses of this super weed! I look forward to sharing my results!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Alice In Farmland

Welcome to the blog for our new farming project! We have yet to name our farm, but things are moving fast. The property we are working belongs to a former professor of Filipe's. The land as well as our home have been in her family for generations, but her own work as an economist has kept her from having to the time to develop it. She was excited to have us come to live and work here, in part to protect her home and property from damage and theft that comes with sitting unattended and in part from a desire to see the land supporting sustainable, organic projects. The estate already has a substantial network of grapevines but no way to produce wine from them, although I find the grapes perfectly good for eating raw! There are also various mature fruit trees including fig, tangerine, cherry, apple, plum and lemon as well as kiwi vines. We have also planted some hazelnut trees and will be planting more fruit trees this week before it gets too warm.

     I have to admit that we aren't completely sure what the ultimate goal of this new project is, but developing low maintenance systems (think fruit/nut trees rather than green houses full of lettuce) is a definite desire of ours. Of course, since my work is limited to the farm for now, I am dedicated to making us as self-sufficient as possible. One goal of mine is to go all summer and through the fall without having to buy any food except rice, pasta and olive oil. We'll see. So far I have seeded and/or planted golden beets, purple carrots, collard greens, mustard greens, walla walla onions, okra, garlic, soybeans (to be consumed edamame style,) purple tomatillos, several varieties of heirloom tomatoes as well as arugula. In order for the produce to be certified organic, which would be necessary if I ever want to sell anything, the seeds have to come from a certified provider. I  chose High Mowing out of Vermont as well as some from Sow True who are located in Asheville, NC.
Seeding in egg cartons
I have also begun raising geese. My first two, Adam and Eve are only a few months old but growing fast. I also became the happy owner of two more small geese, but after only two days they got sick. I spent two days forcing them to drink vegetable broth with honey to stay hydrated and stayed near them to keep them warm in the night but still they died. It was less upsetting for me than I thought it would be, but I am still wondering what I could have done differently. The first two did so well and adapted quickly and energetically to their new surroundings. Filipe has had geese in the past and said I did everything right. Well, as we continue to try to understand what went wrong so the mistake doesn't happen again I also have to accept that life on the farm is not always roses and sunshine- though we have those too.
Big Babies
      Our other big starter project has been the bees. Several weeks ago I purchased two bee boxes. The hope was that a swarm, leaving behind their crowded hive, might chose to take up residence in our boxes. This has been known to happen and at first it seemed likely, as bees came and went with curiosity. Alas, two weeks passed and they remain empty which means that in the next weeks we will have to purchase a couple of nuks, or a small group with a queen.
     As the days get longer and warmer the work is increasing around here, but as I work harder so does the farm itself. Seeds planted begin sprouting in days, the geese have doubled in size in a matter of weeks and the fruit trees seem to go from bare to flowers overnight. I hope you'll follow along on our journey and maybe get inspired to grow some things yourself!