Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Homemade Deodorant

I am often asked about my personal care products.  People are curious what I use and why.  When I started down the path to more natural body care, Antiperspirant  was one of the first products I tackled (I'm still in the process of figuring out other products).  Why Antiperspirant?  Well, I had two major motivators.
First, it occurred to me one day, as I thought about the function of our skin, that the skin is one of the body's foremost agents of detoxification.   Ever noticed how your skin smells like garlic if you eat a lot of it?  Or how you can smell a drunk person a mile away?  Your skin helps your body rid itself of impurities.  It seemed odd to me that I would willingly slather Antiperspirant on each day, trapping in bacteria and toxins that my body was desperately trying to expel.  What happens when we clog those pores day after day?  Who knows...
Second, I found several sources indicating that high levels of aluminum in the body are linked to Alzheimer's disease.  Aluminum is often found in pots and pans, cooking utensils, some baking powders and you guessed it, Antiperspirant.  There have also been several studies linking aluminum with breast cancer.  Whether or not these studies are accurate, I'm not keen on being anyone's guniea pig.  After thinking long and hard, weighing my options, I decided that being slightly less sweaty (I never did find an Antiperspirant that was effective for me) was not worth the potential risks.
So I took the plunge.  I stopped using Antiperspirant and switched to a "natural" deodorant (deodorants simply make you smell better, they don't keep you from sweating).  And....  my arm pits sweat like there was no tomorrow.  A monsoon.  It's almost like I had 20 years of sweat and grossness piled up in those pores.  Oh wait, I did.  It made me want to go running back to the Antiperspirant, but I realized my body was simply detoxing itself.  I gritted my teeth and kept my arms low for a few days.  Lo and behold, within a week or so, the sweating slowed down...the odor lessened... and  I felt fresh and clean, cleaner than I had felt in years.  My arm pits breathed a sigh of relief. 
Unfortunately, I was none too thrilled with the store bought "natural" deodorant.  It did a nice job eliminating any odors, but it made me feel slimy, or as my husband says "swampy".  Not a good feeling.  After some trial and error (and many tubes of deodorant from the store), I stumbled upon this homemade deodorant recipe.  By golly, it worked for me! 
I have been using this recipe for the past 2 years and I love it.  For a year, I kept a tube of Antiperspirant in the bathroom "just in case", but I found it completely unnecessary.  No longer do I have arm pits full of white, gunky stuff.  No more ruined shirts.  I tossed it in the trash and have never looked back. 
I can't guarantee this recipe will work for you, since we all have a different body chemistry, but it might be worth a shot and it's MUCH cheaper than store bought deodorants.  Here is what you need:
  • 2 tbsps baking soda
  • 2 tbsps cornstarch or arrowroot powder
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1-2 drops of essential oil
  • Container for the deodorant
    1.  Make sure the coconut oil is soft, but not melted.  Coconut oil is a solid below about 76 degrees.  Above that temperature, it turns to liquid.  You want the oil to be right around 75 degrees or so.  You may need to warm it (stick the bottle in warm water) or cool it (in the fridge), depending on the temperature of your house.
    2.  Place all of the ingredients in a cup or bowl.  Stir to mix well.

    3.  Pour the mixture into your container of choice.  I like to reuse an old deodorant tube.  This recipes makes almost exactly the right amount to refill a tube.  Or you could pour it into a small jar.  To apply the deodorant from the jar, simply dip your finger into the container (or scrape some off with your thumbnail if the deodorant is cold) and massage into your armpits.

    4.  Since coconut oil melts at 76 degrees, you will need to keep the deodorant in the fridge during the summer.  I know, that seems really weird.  It is.  But chilled deodorant on a hot summer day is a simple pleasure!  I keep mine right next to my coffee cream, so I see it every morning and don't forget to put it on. 
    *I like to use arrowroot powder instead of cornstarch.  The cornstarch gave me a mild rash.  You can find arrowroot powder at a health food store in the baking aisle. 
    *My essential oil of choice is Tea Tree Oil.  It smells fresh and clean, with the bonus of being highly anti-bacterial.  

    Remember, one of your skin's roles is to detox the body and remove impurities.  If you are eating lots of processed junk foods, you might smell, well... junky.  You are what you eat.  I wonder how much of our "body odor" is actually diet related.  Try switching to "clean foods" and see if your body starts feeling and smelling clean too!

    If this all sounds like too much work, you can take the route my husband does.  I bought him a large cosmetic powder brush and dumped some baking soda into a small jar.  After he showers, he dips the brush in the powder and dusts the baking soda on his damp arm pits.  Works great for him.  Or you could just do nothing - no deodorant, so baking soda, nada.  I end up doing that more often than not, when I forget to put on my deodorant in the morning! 

    Have you tried giving up Antiperspirant?  What worked for you?!?

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012

    How Sweet It Is... To Bee Loved By You

    Oh, my beautiful bees, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways...

    First, you did a marvelous job pollinating my garden.  We had an outstanding first year with the garden, produce overflowing.  I credit you for our success.  You have more than earned your keep at Third Day Farms.

    Second, my husband and I were humbled that you allowed us to work along side you all summer.  You permitted us to see the inner workings of your hive and taught us beautiful lessons about our amazing God and creator, a God of order and wonder, a God who cares deeply about even His tiny insects.

    And third... you blessed us with 5 gallons of honey.  5 gallons!  We were told by other beekeepers that this was the worst year they could remember for beekeeping and not to expect much honey at all, if any.  Those 5 gallons will save us almost $200 on our food bills this year (we use a LOT of honey, mostly in baking as a substitute for sugar).  Never mind that we invested almost 4 times that much money buying the equipment we would need to get started beekeeping!  Most of those items were one time expenses that will soon pay for themselves. 

    When we decided to embark on our beekeeping adventure this year, we had no idea what we were doing.  Some days I still feel like we have no idea!  I'm sure we made countless mistakes.  I can't tell you how many times I would read another beekeeping book and say to my husband "Oh no!  We forgot to  _________!  I hope we didn't kill the whole colony!"  Good grief, I could work myself into a tizzy worrying about what we did/failed to do. Oh well. We did our best, and I keep telling myself, we learn by making mistakes... and making sure we don't make the same mistake twice!

    We were not sure if we would be able to harvest any honey at all this year, so we were delighted to discover that our bees did indeed have some to share with us.  In order for the bees to survive the winter, they need about 60 pounds of honey to eat.  Any surplus honey beyond that is available for the taking.  Each of our hives had 2 "brood boxes", which could be described as the living quarters for the bees - the queen lives here and lays her eggs.  The main food supply is also stored here. Stacked on top of these brood boxes, we had a "honey super", which is where the bees store their extra honey. A strong bee colony can fill 2-4 supers over the summer.  A brood box contains about 40-60 pounds of honey and the supers hold about 30 pounds. 

    We left the brood boxes for the bees and took the supers for us.  Here is the tale of how honey makes it from the hive to your table!

    1.  Remove frames.  John and I headed out to the bee yard with the smoker and a large lidded plastic storage container.  We gently smoked the bees (don't want to use too much smoke or it make the honey taste "smokey") to calm them, and then removed the lid of the hive.  The frames in the supers were full of honey... and bees.  We gently brushed the bees back into the hive and quickly transferred the frames to the lidded plastic container. 

    Once we had all the frames we wanted, we closed up the hive and made a bee-line for the garage, where we had the honey equipment set up.  It's important to choose a bee-proof place, as the bees are drawn to the scent of honey!

    Pulling the last frame out of the super

    Frames in the plastic container, ready to be carried to the garage
    2.  Cut off wax cappings.   The frames are held over a basin or container to catch the wax cappings.  A bread knife is dipped in boiling water and then used to quickly cut off the wax cappings, releasing the honey.  As you might imagine, this was a hot, sticky mess. 
     Cutting off the wax cappings with a hot bread knife
    Wax cappings.  These are saved to be melted down into beeswax
    3.  Place uncapped frames in the honey extractor.   Honey extractor are essentially centrifuges.  The frames are loaded into the holders and then you turn the crank, flinging the honey out of the frames and onto the wall of the extractor.  There are several different styles and models of extractors, but they all perform the same basic operation.  Some, like this one, hold 2 frames, some can hold up to 20!  Extractors are expensive, ranging from $300 - $1,500, depending on size, quality and capacity.  Thankfully, a friend had a extractor we could borrow.  It had been stored in a barn for the last 20 years or so, but it cleaned up nicely and worked like a charm!
     A peek into the 2 frame honey extractor

    My husband and my dad spinning the extractor

    Honey flinging onto the walls of the extractor

    My son sneaking some honey - it was irresistible!!!  Notice some of the combs look a little funky. We're not sure why they built some of them that way...
    4.  Strain the honey. Once we had uncapped and extracted all 20 frames, we were ready to strain the honey.  First, we picked up the extractor and set in on a low table.  After that, we simply stuck a 3 gallon water cooler under the spout at the bottom of the extractor and allowed the honey to flow down, using a fine mesh sieve to strain out any pieces of wax.  Easy peasy.  Unfortunately, the weather turned on us during our extracting time and dipped down into the 50 during the day and 30's at night.  Let me tell you, cold honey drains sloooooooooooooooow.  The whole process of draining the honey from the extractor took us a few days.  Next time, we'll pay closer attention to the weather and choose a warm spell.
    Straining honey into the water cooler
     5.  Bottle the honey.  We could have bottled the honey directly from the extractor, but since it was so cold, we found it easier to drain into the water cooler, then bring it into the house to warm up.  Again, this process took a few days, but we end up filling 3 gallon containers, 5 quarts and 4 pints - just shy of 5 gallons total!
    Filling the bottles
    6.  Reserve wax cappings for use.  After straining all the honey out of the wax cappings container ( I placed them in a colander lined with clean cheese cloth), I was left with about 3-4 pounds of wax bits, enough to fill a shoe box sized container.  They have been washed and strained again.  Now I need to figure out how to melt the wax and what I want to do with it.  So many options!  Candles, lip balm, furniture polish, mustache wax (wait, what?), base for lotions and cosmetics...  I predict that my friends and family may be receiving some homemade lip balm, solid perfumes or candles for Christmas, seeing as how we spent all our money on the farm endeavors this year.  Put in your requests for lip balm flavors now! 

    Straining the honey from the wax cappings
    There!  That wasn't so hard, was it?  We found it just takes time.  It's not very much hands on work, just many hours waiting for honey to drain and refilling bottles.  We are excited to have this honey on hand and look forward to expanding our operation little by little so that we will have honey to sell someday (sorry, folks, we're going to use all this year's harvest).

     How do we use so much honey, you ask? Well, I use it in many of my baking recipes, such as granola, bread and muffins.  We try our best to limit our intake of cane/beet sugar and use honey and maple syrup as a substitute whenever possible.    We also use honey as medicine for sore throats, coughs and colds.  For a nagging cough and sore throat, there is nothing better than a spoonful of honey and some hot tea.  Honey coats and soothes the throat wonderfully.

    My husband eats raw honey (honey that has not been heated) on bread or toast to combat allergies.  I have shared this before, but since we started buying raw honey and cut out processed foods, my husband's seasonal allergies have disappeared.  Completely.  We gladly threw away all the allergy pills that he had been popping like candy.  He still struggles with asthma in the winter time (the dust bothers him), but no more hayfever!  My sister who is in med school told me consuming raw honey is like getting a vaccine for potential allergens.  Ingesting a small amount of local, raw honey might help you too!  Look for honey harvested as close to your home as possible (so that it contains pollen from the plants that bother you) and make sure it's raw (direct from the extractor, not heated).  Sure beats popping pills!

    We also use honey on minor cuts and scrapes.  Honey has natural antimicrobial properties (bacteria cannot survive in honey) and can be used to heal and protect small wounds.  I peeled a few cloves of garlic and let them steep in a small jar of honey for few months.  When it was ready, I pulled out the garlic and now I have garlic infused honey that I use on our cuts and scrapes (garlic is great for fighting bacteria, fungus and viral infections).  Not only does it work great, but it also tastes good :)  In fact, I think it would be a great topping for chicken breasts or pork chops!  You could also use this garlic infused honey as a sore throat remedy.  Goodness, I love finding multiple purposes for items! 

    When I think of all the uses and purposes for honey and it's byproducts, I become overwhelmed by God's goodness and creativity.  What a gift He has given to us!  Insects that make good things for us to eat... and heal us?!?.  Absolutely brilliant.  You surely outdid yourself on this one, God!    How sweet it is...

    Thursday, October 18, 2012

    One Bad Day

    "May all your animals live a glorious life, with just one bad day" - Joel Salatin
    I've been repeating this to myself a lot lately.  Our dear hogs were sent off to the butcher a few days ago and I'm still trying to sift through my emotions.  On one hand, I am excited to pick up our order of delicious ham, chops, bacon and sausage.  We worked hard caring for these creatures and I'm eager to receive our end of the deal.  But on the other hand, I have to admit I'm sad.  We raised these hogs from babies, and while we never allowed ourselves to get really attached to them, we certainly felt affection for them.  From the day they arrived, we made it a point to go in the pen each day with them, to scratch their ears and talk to them.  They were never elevated to "pet status", but we cared for them and were emotionally invested in them.  We named them, for goodness sakes.  In fact, my husband insisted on naming them.  Names have power, significance.  Names are a constant reminder that these are creatures who deserve respect and dignity.
    Awwww!  Look how cute they were!  Pearl was always the most curious one...  Little Rose and Ned were more subdued.
    We received countless questions along the lines of "How can you do that?  Raise them, love them, and then eat them?  Don't you feel guilty?"  "How can you eat something you have looked in the eye?"  The message I get is: "If you love animals so much, how can you bear to eat them?"
    Don't get me wrong.  I love animals. In fact, I could easily say I'm obsessed with them.  For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to make animals a part of my life.  As a child, my occupation choices were "zookeeper" or "veterinarian" -my life revolved around learning as much as possible about animals.  I was in 4-H.  I adore animals and enjoying all aspects of caring for them (I don't even mind cleaning up poop).
    Part of loving animals, though, is realizing that they are indeed animals, not humans.  While I firmly believe animals have feelings and emotions, I also believe they don't process thoughts like us.  We must be careful that we do not elevate them to human status - there is danger in humanizing animals ("Charlotte's Web" anyone?!?  I'm dreading reading that to my children, even though it's a great book).  The Bible clearly states in Genesis that mankind is to care for creatures of the earth, to rule over them.  God put us in a position of authority over creation and it's inhabitants and He expects us to treat them with the honor and respect that they deserve - it's a command, not a suggestion!.  I don't know about you, but to me, the word "rule" implies "to care for", "to protect", "to treat fairly and justly".   What a noble task God has given to us!
    Speaking of children, I want to state that we have always been completely honest and open with our children when they ask questions about where food comes from.  They have the right to know the truth.  As we drive by the industrial egg layer operations, I tell them what goes on in there and why we don't buy eggs from those places.  My 6 year old son helped my husband butcher our rooster.  When we brought the pigs home, we allowed our son to name one of the piglets.  Then we sat down with him and explained to him that we were going to take very good care of Rose - we could love her and pet her and bring her treats.  But one day we were going to butcher and eat her.  He was silent for a moment, wheels turning in his little head.  Then we informed him, "that's how we get sausage and bacon."  He perked right up.  "Ok!"  It made complete sense to him - we take care of the pigs and then they will take care of us in return by providing meat.  When other children come visit our farm, I don't beat around the bush.  We're not doing our children any favors by allowing them to keep believing that meat magically appears on the grocery store shelves.  We must teach them the truth about food. 
    Pearl, Ned and Rose in their final moments... relaxed and stress-free
    We are fortunate that there is a mobile slaughtering company in West Michigan.  We hired Keith DeYoung, of KDY, Inc. to come to our farm and handle the process (he handles the killing, skinning, eviscerating and then delivers the carcasses to a USDA approved processor, who transforms it into hams, bacon, sausage, etc.).  Our other option would be to find a way to load up the hogs in a trailer and ship them to a slaughter house alive.  We were reluctant to ship them, as any deviation from the hogs routine is extremely stressful for them.  I could not imagine the terror and stress they would experience, being transported in a strange vehicle and herded into a slaughterhouse.  People have been working hard the last few years to make the slaughter house experience as stress-free as possible, but like I said before, any deviation from routine can freak an animal out.  I couldn't bear to do that to our dear hogs.  We've also heard that stressed animals don't taste as good.  Any hunter out there will tell you that a deer that is shot and runs for a while doesn't taste as good as an animals that dies instantly.  Lactic acid is pumped into the muscles of stressed/scared animals and taints the flavor of the meat. 
    Pearl, our curious and mischievous girl
    Keith arrived with his specialized truck, drove right up to the hog pen and got down to business.  The mood was somber and serious.   The air felt heavy as I realized the gravity of the situation.  I could scarcely breath.  These hogs would be sacrificed for us.  No there was no joking, no chit-chat, no laughing.  Keith loaded up his rifle and it was over quickly.  My hogs felt no pain, no fear.  I had tears of relief in my eyes, thankful that our hogs maintained their dignity until their final moment.  There is nothing glamorous about killing animals, but Keith did it respectfully and honorably. I am grateful.
    I made myself watch the entire process from beginning to end...and no, it did not make me want to be a vegetarian.  On the contrary, it filled me with awe, reverence and thankfulness.  I will never, ever take meat for granted again.  I have witnessed first hand what it takes to get meat from the farm to our plates.  Friends, meat is a precious, costly resource (financially, physically, emotionally), which should be consumed thoughtfully and with joy, not with indifference or ignorance.  Be grateful.  Life is precious - another living, breathing creature of God died so that you could eat and grow strong.  I have looked my meal in the eye, cared for it, loved it... and I appreciate it all the more for it. 
    I would be lying if  I failed to mention that my emotions fluctuate wildly moment by moment.  One second, I'm grateful the hogs are gone.   They were an enormous amount of work for me, as I was feeding and watering them 3-5 times a day.  I was ready for a reduced work load and our reward of delicious meat.  Then the next second, I glance out my kitchen window, looking for the hogs as I did all summer long... and realize they are gone.  A strange sensation fills me... sorrow?  Regret?  Guilt?  I don't know what to call it.  We went into this hog raising endeavour knowing that we would eat them.  We tried hard to not get attached, but of course we did. 
    Where do I go from here?  I'm not sure...  I find comfort knowing that our pigs lived a fabulous life, well fed, happy, comfortable, loved and cared for.  As Joel Salatin says, we did our best to honor the "pig-ness of the pig", making sure that they were allowed to engage in the very activities for which God created them.  They were allowed to root in the dirt, wallow in mud puddles and roll in the grass.  My husband says they "won the pig lottery".  I'm not sure they could have had a more glorious life.
    The bad day is over.  We enjoyed raising hogs and are already planning ahead for next year (speak up if you want to buy a half or whole!).  I will watch the slaughter again and pray that I never lose my reverence and respect for their sacrifice.  It was powerful, indescribable.  I wonder how our world would be different if everyone had to look their meat in the eye before they ate, if they realized how sacred the act of eating another creature is.  It's easy to forget you are eating a living breathing animal when the meat comes chopped, frozen and in a shiny package.  I'm not trying to turn you off from eating meat - I'm simply trying to drive home the idea that meat is to be honored and respected.  I see the $1 burger as an insult to the animal that died so we could have cheap "meat" (I question how much actual meat is in those pink slime infused, chemical and preservative-laden atrocities called "burgers").  Eat meat.  Eat good meat.  Eat meat from animals that were raised humanely, by people who care for their animals.  If possible, look that animal in the eye before you eat it.  Your life will be forever changed.... and you will be stepping into that role of "ruler" that God intended for you.
    If you are grappling with issues of eating meat, there are several good resources out there to guide you.  Check them out.  If you have read another good book on the subject, please share with me!

    Tuesday, October 16, 2012

    Blue Eggs, Crowing Hens, Piggyback Goats...and other farm news

    Never a dull moment.  Yup, that about sums up our life right now.  I see people on Facebook posting things like "I'm so bored, blah, blah, blah..."  Bored?!?  What is this "bored" you speak of?  Life here on the farm is fun, a new adventure every day.  Even when I don't leave the house/property for days on end, there is always plenty to keep me occupied. 
    This spring, we purchased 5 Barred Rocks and 5 Araucanas or "Easter Eggers".  Of the Araucanas, one turned out to be a Rhode Island Red instead and one had a scissor beak, meaning her beak was crooked and did not shut correctly.  Poor little Crooked Beak could not eat the chicken feed - it all fell out of her deformed beak.  She  survived the summer by eating bugs and worms, but we felt absolutely terrible when we found her dead in the yard a few days ago, apparently starved to death.  I had been pestering my husband to put her out of her misery, but understandably, he was none too eager to kill her.  That was bad animal husbandry on our part and we feel cruel for allowing her to live in such a condition.  Hard lessons to learn.  You had better believe we will never allow another animal to suffer like that.  Forgive us, Crooked Beak.
    The Barred Rocks and Araucanas started laying about a month ago and we have been delighted to find a few "Easter eggs" in the coop, courtesy of the Araucanas.  The breed originated in South America and is known for laying blue, green and pink eggs.  Two of the three are laying blue/green eggs and the third is laying pink eggs, which don't look that different from the brown eggs laid by our other hens (we also have ISA Browns, Rhode Island Reds and a Buff Orpington).  Just in case you were wondering, the color of the egg shell makes no difference in taste or quality.  You pay more for blue eggs at the farmers market simply because they are pretty!  Brown eggs are no better/healthier than white eggs (I notice most "organic" or "cage free" eggs at the grocery store are brown - I think we've been conditioned to think "brown" = "better".  Not true).  Egg shell color only indicates the breed of the chicken. 

    Eggs from our hens - the blue ones come from the Araucanas or "Easter Eggers"
    In bizarre news, we acquired a new hen a few weeks ago, named Sally (she came with the name).  Sally was a "city chicken", raised by her owners in an urban neighborhood where chickens are not legally allowed (but every one looks the other way as long as your hens don't bother them).  Everything was great until Sally one day decided that she was indeed a rooster, not a hen.  Poor gender confused Sally - she stopped laying eggs and started crowing instead.  Of course, she had to go - neighbors in the city are not too fond of crowing roosters/hens/whatevertheyare.  So Sally found a new home at Third Day Farms.  She crowed for about 3-4 weeks, then changed her mind... and started laying eggs again.  I had never heard of such a thing!  Wonders never cease...

    Sally the crowing hen
    Toro, our Alpine goat has become incredibly attached to our hogs.  He plays with them all day and even snuggles up to sleep with them at night.  They even allow him to do this:

    Toro hitching a ride on Rose
    With the hog slaughter date quickly approaching, we decided Toro needed a new buddy to keep him company for the winter.  Just our luck, a friend's dad had a goat that recently lost her companion and was going to be spending the winter alone too.  So we played match-maker and now Toro has a new friend on the farm.  Her name is Lacey and she is a 12 year old Pygmy goat.  She and Toro were not too excited about each other at first (Lacey, the grandma goat was a bit annoyed with Toro's teenage antics), but we're sure they will be happy to have each other on the long cold winter days. 

    My husband has been working himself into a tizzy trying to get a million projects done before winter comes.  He is almost finished building the greenhouse in the garden.  Here is a photo of the work in progress.  He found the windows on Craigslist - they have been sitting in a barn for the last 50 years, after they were removed from a school.  I can't wait to work in there come spring time!

    Greenhouse in progress
     I've done a bit of reading about winter gardening in "The Winter Harvest Handbook" by Eliot Coleman , so I'm kicking around the idea of trying to grow some greens/lettuces in the greenhouse over the winter months... but to be honest, I'm just trying to muster up the energy to think about planting anything right about now! The garden is almost spent. We received a hard frost last night, so the tomatoes and pepper are officially done (but I have about 2-3 five gallon buckets full of bell peppers sitting in the breezeway - anyone want some!?!). A few straggler crops still need to be harvested, but I'm quickly running out of steam. I canned my last pints of jalapenos yesterday and I'm ready to retire the canner to the basement for a while. Whew.

    See?  I told you.  Never a dull moment. 

    Monday, October 8, 2012

    Baby Steps

    "I'm so overwhelmed, I don't even know where to begin."
    "How am I supposed to get the rest of my family on-board with this?"
    "I'm too busy to think about all this, much less cook anything!"
    "If we don't eat processed food, then what in the world DO we eat?!?"

    These questions and comments have been directed towards me several times in the last few years, as I shared with others how we have changed our diet... and most importantly, our lifestyle.  I feel your pain.  Remember, I was the Diet Coke addict who loved frozen pizza and Hamburger Helper, and fed my toddler pudding cups, Lucky Charms, candy and Pop-Tarts on a regular basis.   I know how lost, confused, frustrated and overwhelmed you feel by the simple question "what should we eat?"  And I have to ask the question, when did it get so darn complicated to EAT?  Good grief, we have to do this 3-5 times a day - it shouldn't be so hard!. 

    When people ask me where to begin on the quest for healthier eating, my first suggestion is:  READ.  Read labels on food.  Read the ingredients.  Read the nutrition information.  Read books about food and the way it is processed/created, not about specific "diets" (Atkins, South Beach, Mediterranean, etc.) - we're not going on a "diet" here, we're talking about a complete lifestyle change.  To see the list of books I have read that influenced our lifestyle changes, click here.  Read blogs.  Read on-line articles.  Read everything critically, but with an open mind.  Yes, there are a lot of crazy ideas out there, but there is often some merit to unconventional thinking.  As a side note, be careful when you read the phrase "studies show...".  Many scientific studies are funded by major food/agriculture big-wigs, like Kraft, Con-Agra and Monsanto.  Of course those studies are going to point favorably to their products.  Unfortunately, science is not immune from the sway of politics and money.  Sad, but true.  On the other hand, "alternative"or "natural" health claims often have little to no solid scientific basis.  But if we can't fully trust the scientific community because it's backed by huge corporations, then who CAN we trust?  Arggg!  I don't have an answer for that.  What I'm trying to say is that it's extremely difficult to find trustworthy information.  Sift through information carefully and critically.  Use common sense and trust your instincts.

    My second suggestion is: FORGIVE.  As you read, you will discover some startling truths, such as the fact that Yellow #5 has been proven to cause cancer, yet it's still rampant in our food supply... and you have been feeding it to your kids.  You will learn about the dangers of hydrogenated oils, GMO's, high fructose corn syrup, BPA in plastics (like your children's baby bottles) and the plethora of chemical cocktails that are found in processed foods.  Your anxiety level will rise, you will be overwhelmed by fear, betrayal and anger.  You will beat yourself up mercilessly.  STOP.  Just stop.  Take a deep breath.  You cannot change the past.  What's done is done.  From this point on, promise yourself that you will not look back.  Keep moving forward.  Forgive yourself for the mistakes you didn't know you were making and decide that you will be an agent of change from now on.  Instead of letting your new knowledge paralyze you, let the knowledge empower you.  And remember - our mighty, wise God created our bodies with the ability to heal itself.  All is not lost.

    Now you are ready for step three: ACTION.  This step is going to look different for everyone, since we're all at different staring points.  Also, the "action" step is a long step, perhaps never ending.  You will need to make conscious decisions about your food 3-5 times a day, every day, for the rest of your life.  And if you are a parent, you need to make the decisions for each one of your kids too!  Yikes.  It's a big responsibility, but you can do it!  Sometimes I comfort myself with the thought that every female mammal  (and some males) in the animal kingdom also has this job - to feed and nurture our young so that they grow up healthy and robust, so that someday they may do the same for their offspring.  Feeding our families is a big deal!  It SHOULD require time and energy.  I know many of you are busy (who isn't?!?), but I was always taught if something is important to you, you WILL find the time for it.  Maybe you do all your meal prep on the weekend, or one week night.  Cook dinner the night before busy days so you can just heat it up when you get home.  Dig your crockpot out of the cupboard and use it.   Delegate your spouse or children to be in charge of cooking a few nights a week.  Find a way.  The health and well being of your family is too important to NOT make healthy eating a priority!

    Since small children usually don't make the wisest choices (HA!), it's up to us to protect them and make safe choices for them.  Remember - YOU are the parent.  Since when did a 3 year old (or 15 year old!) get to dictate what the family eats?  Your child will not starve (I know from experience - I was a horribly picky eater up until a few years ago when I finally got so annoyed with myself for being picky.  Sorry Mom!).  Keep offering healthy choices.  If you start feeding them healthy from birth, then you will have a much easier time.  For those of you with older kids, the ones who crave junk food (did you know kids can actually get addicted to all the nasty chemicals in foods?), I'm not going to lie.  It's going to be hard.  May the force be with you. 

    So where to begin?  Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
    • Cut back your soda consumption to once a week.  Perhaps it becomes part of your family tradition  - pizza and pop night.  Or better yet, eliminate soda altogether.  Robyn O'Brien, author "The Unhealthy Truth" says that when she started calling soda "chemicals in a can" (which, quite frankly, it is), she found she could no longer bear to give it to her children... or drink it herself.
    • Eliminate any food with high fructose corn syrup from your diet.  This step alone will make a huge difference and force you to seek out better options.  You will be shocked to discover how many foods contain HFCS.
    • Ditch any foods that contain hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils.
    • Cut out foods that contain a # in them, like Yellow #5. 
    • Skip foods that have"artificial" anything on the label.
    • If you can't pronounce an ingredient on a food label (or know what something is), then don't buy it! 
    • Look for milk and dairy products that state "hormone free" or "rBGH free" on the label.
    • If a food has more than about 5 ingredients listed on the label, you should be suspicious.
    • Check out the "The Dirty Dozen" and try to find the organic variety of those fruits and vegetables.
    • Start by cutting out one junk food snack option and replace it with something better - fresh fruits (we loves apples with peanut butter), veggies with dip (homemade is best and super easy! Just mix seasonings of choices with plain Greek yogurt - viola!), trail mix, nuts, homemade popcorn on the stove (NOT microwave popcorn -chemical fest!), a piece of cheese, small bowl of plain yogurt with honey and fruit, a hard boiled egg...  get creative.  Once, you've mastered snack time, maybe you're ready to cut the junk out of breakfast or lunch. 
    • Adopt a version of the 80/20 rule - 80 % of your diet is healthy and you cut yourself some slack on the other 20%.  This is not "all or nothing".  Don't let your perfectionism stop you - just because you can't do something "right" doesn't mean you shouldn't try at all!  Maybe you start out with 20/80 and work your way up - hey, 20% of your diet being healthy is better than none!

    I hope I gave you some concrete ideas and places to start.  Pick one.  Do it.  Baby steps. 

    Get your kids involved.  Have them read the labels to you and ask them "Does that sound like something we should put in our bodies?"  Explain to them that you are making these changes because you love them and want to keep them healthy.  You don't want to see them suffering.  Kids will understand this, even if they still don't like the changes. 

    Rest assured that while it will be very hard in the beginning to change your diet and lifestyle, it WILL get easier.  As your children learn what "real food" tastes like, their taste buds will change and the junk foods they used to crave will taste fake, artificial and chemical-y.  Remember, some kids are addicted to the chemicals in the foods and you may notice some withdraw symptoms as you remove the offending food from their diet.  Be strong.  You are doing this because your love them.

    Step four is:  SHARE.  Share what you have learned with other people, in an open, non-threatening manner.  You cannot force people to change, but actions speak louder than words.  People will notice a change in you and wonder what is going on. 

    Sharing your new knowledge with others must be done with tact and respect. Remember, no matter how strongly you feel about a food issue, ultimately people and relationships are more important than food.  It IS possible to agree to disagree.  Many people will not want to hear what you have to say.  Hearing what you are doing makes them feel inadequate, or that you are telling them they are doing something wrong.  NO one likes to hear that.  Some people simply have no desire to change.  That is ok.  You cannot control people, so stop trying.  Some of your friends and family members may become angry and disgusted with you, or ridicule you.  This is normal.  Stand your ground and trust your instincts - who knows better than you what is best for your family?  No one.    I love this quote I found in the book "Urban Homesteading"  by Rachel Kaplan:

    "One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice."  -Mary Oliver

    The road to a healthier lifestyle and diet is long and complicated, with many unexpected twists and turns.  It's not easy and sometimes you will wish you didn't know what you know now... the phrase "Ignorance is bliss" keeps coming to mind.  There are days when I wish I could wind back the clock and not be constantly thinking about toxic chemicals, GMO's and other junk in our food supply.  Then I see another news story about the health of US citizens, I find out another person I love has cancer or some other terrible disease, I see children in schools struggling with ADHD... and I know I can't go back.  I cannot remain silent.  To those of you out there contemplating change, I advise you seek out a friend that is willing to talk to you about these issues.  You will need someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to encourage you and hold you accountable, someone to speak reasonably to you when disgust and frustration threaten to overtake you.  You're not in this alone! 

    So choose your baby step.  Start today and don't look back.  Don't let perfectionism bog you down - any action is better than no action!  Keep moving forward, keep learning, keep reading.  You CAN do it.

    "I am only one.  I can only do what one can do.  But what one can do, I will do!"  - John Seymour, author of "The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It"

    Thursday, October 4, 2012

    The Buzz on the Bees

    I just realized I have not mentioned anything about our bees lately!  This is our first season caring for bees and while I'm sure we are making many mistakes, they seem to be thriving despite our ignorance. 

    While I've been laboring in the garden, the honeybees have been tirelessly working beside me.  When I walk through the garden gate, I'm greeted by the hum of busy bees, racing to collect the pollen and nectar before winter comes.  It's a comforting, grounding sound.  Life is stressful at times - I feel like I'm constantly flying around, trying to do a million things at once, but not doing any one thing well.  When I feel overwhelmed, thoughts racing through my scattered brain, I purposefully head to the garden.  There, I can breathe again.  There, I am washed over with a sense of calm, peace and order.  There, I can smell the flowers, revel in the sights and sounds of the garden.  I lose all track of time.  It's a wonder I ever pull myself out of there.  But alas, small children (and animals!) need to be fed and cared for.   I can't hide in there forever.

    The bees, thankfully, require very little attention on our part. A family friend supplied us with a second bee suit, so now my husband can accompany me on trips to the bee yard. It's extremely helpful to have another set of hands to help out. We check the hives every 3 weeks or so. To be honest, we're still not exactly sure what we are supposed to be looking for, but it is reassuring to peek in the hive and see it swarming with bees and dripping with honey. After finding a queen in each hive earlier this summer, we gave up looking for her on subsequent trips - it's difficult to find her, as we've added additional boxes to the hive, and after having the hive open for about 10 minutes, we can tell the bees are getting angry (the tone of their buzzing changes), so we close up the hive as soon as we hear that. The bee population seems to be growing steadily and the combs are over flowing with honey, so it appears everyone is doing their job - the queen is making babies and the workers are making honey.

    When we purchased the bee colonies this spring, we started off with two "nuc" ("nucleus") colonies, which means the colony is already established with a queen and a food source (the nuc comes with frames filled with honey), as opposed to starting off with a brand new colony with a brand new queen.  Many people order their bees by mail (I wonder how the postmen/women like that!) and since the colonies are young, the first year is spent trying to build up and strengthen the colony.  Our nuc had the advantage of being "ready to go", kind of like buying a product with "no assembly required".  We moved the nucs into their permanent hives, consisting of one "brood box", the place where the queen lays her eggs, the workers care for the young bees, and collect honey.

    Brood boxes

    Examining a frame from a brood box

    As the colonies grew larger, we needed to add more boxes to the hives.  We added an additional brood box and then a small box on top, called a "super" (short for "superimpose"), or "honey super".  Honey supers are shallower in depth than a brood box, simply for ease of handling, I think.  A brood box full of honey can weigh 60 or 70 pounds!  A full honey super is closer to 30 pounds, much easier to lift and handle (the supers will be removed with the honey is harvested, so they need to be east to transport).  Hive boxes are built up over the summer, depending on how well the bees are doing.  It's not uncommon to see hives with 2 brood boxes and 3-4 supers on top.  We only added the one super, but I think our bees could have filled up another one given the chance... but alas, bees are a big upfront investment and we simply could not afford to drop anymore cash buying additional equipment.  Next year. 

    In between the brood boxes and the honey supers, we placed something known as a "queen separator".  This device is designed so that all the worker (female) and drone (male) bees can squeeze between the slats, but the queen.... well, her butt is simply too big.  She can't get up into the honey supers, which is handy because then we don't have to worry about having larve and baby bees in the supers that we'll be harvesting for honey.  Everything below the queen separator is her territory - everything above is fair game for us.

    The Queen Separator
    It's been interesting to watch the hive at work.  A few weeks after we set out the supers, we went back to check on their progress.  The frames, as seen below, have a sheet of beeswax foundation that is embossed with a hexagon shape.  The bees build upon that foundation, creating cells out of beeswax that will hold either brood (babies) or honey.  It's amazing to watch them "draw out" the cells and then cap the cells that are full of honey.

    A peek into the a new honey super.  Notice the embossed foundation and how the bees are "drawing out" or building the cells to hold the honey.  Capped (covered) cells full of honey can be seen in the middle of the frame.
    Every time we open the hive, we run across some beeswax that we need to remove to access frames.  We've been collecting it in jars and I intend melt it down to use in lip balms and lotions.  Maybe I'll get super crafty and make homemade lip balms for Christmas...  Me?  Crafty?  Ha!

    Beeswax to be melted down
    A friend let us borrow a honey extractor to harvest the honey (a machine that flings the honey out of the frames).  We hope to harvest this weekend.  I'm so curious to see how much honey we will get.  I've made it a point to seek out beekeepers at farmers markets and the like, and ask for advice and suggestions (and have discovered that beekeepers are a chatty bunch and LOVE to talk bees with anyone who will listen).  Everyone I've talked to says this has been the worst year for honey in their memory and feels bad for us.  However, to my untrained eye, it seems our little hives did ok for their first year here... so if this was a bad year, I can't wait to see what a good year looks like.  According to the books I read, a good hive can produce anywhere from 120 - 250 pounds of honey!  Now, of course we can't take all of that... the bees need the honey to survive the winter.  In northern climates, it's wise to leave 60-70 pounds of honey.  Anything after that is extra and can be taken without endangering the bees.

    Overall, we have thoroughly enjoyed having bees this year.  Despite the high costs of setting up the hives (I think we've spent over $800 when it was all said and done.  Gulp.  And we still need to purchase more equipment) and our total lack of knowledge about bees, I am thankful we jumped in with both feet instead of endlessly saying "someday, I'd like to get bees".  I knew if we didn't do it now, it might never happen.   Also, it turns out tending bees is not nearly as scary as I thought it would be.  In fact, it's actually quite peaceful... the bees are very docile (until you've had the hive open too long) and the buzzing sound is almost hypnotic.  It also helps that I have not been stung yet!  I think I would keep bees simply for the pollinating work they do in the garden.  The honey they produce is simply a bonus.

    We'll be sure to document the honey extraction process and let you know how much honey we end up with!