Lathe, Flowers, and Miscellaneous Stuff

(Where the grouchy farmer rambles on and on and on about misc. stuff because he’s bored.)

What Is the Future of Ethanol?

Someone asked me about the long term future of the ethanol fuel industry, and I think I rather shocked him when my reply was that it has no future. None. Within ten to twenty years the entire ethanol fuel industry will be dead if current trends continue.

The entire transportation sector is on the cusp of a major change as consumers become increasingly interested in electric vehicles instead of gasoline and diesel cars and light trucks. The current generation of EVs are extremely good for the most part. They now have significantly expanded ranges, often on the order of 200+ miles before needing to be recharged. They’re good looking, comfortable, nice to drive, and are far less expensive to operate than gas/diesel vehicles, and require little maintenance. The biggest problem right now seems to be the lack of fast charging infrastructure, and that is a problem that can be rather easily solved.

So if current trends continue, the era of gasoline/diesel fueled transportation is nearing the end. And that means people using ever decreasing amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel. And that is going to cause huge problems in the farming business because almost 6 billion bushels of corn goes to make ethanol. That’s not a typo. In 2018, the last year I had accurate data for, almost 5.8 billion bushels of corn, more than 40% of all corn grown in the US, went to making ethanol. And in a fairly short time, that market is going to come to an end.

You’d think that the ag industry would be concerned about this. But the ag industry doesn’t seem care. As far as I’ve been able to see, the ag industry is doing absolutely nothing to prepare for the day when literally half of their corn market is simply going to disappear. And that kind of scares me. Apparently they seem to think they can keep bribing lobbying Congress to keep propping up the whole market through increasing blending requirements and other government intervention in the markets. What they should be doing is looking to the future and examining alternative crops to take the place of corn. Not even the government is going to be able to bail them out of this situation.

Lathe Stuff

Walnut and white oak

I’m having way too much fun with that new lathe. I’m new to using this thing so I’m still in the experimental stage, learning how to use the tools properly, how to prep the wood, etc. I’ve managed to crank out a few items that are actually pretty good looking, but that’s due more to the woods I used for the project than my skills as a wood turner. It’s hard to really screw up a lathe project when you start out with wood as nice as in that bowl up there in that picture.

The biggest problem is getting my hands on cheap wood to play with. So far I’ve been using up scraps left over from other woodworking projects, but I have actually spent real money on some premium hunks of wood. Really good wood, with excellent grain patterns and good color for serious projects gets expensive pretty fast. I’ve seen some hunks of “artistic” woods going not for tens of dollars or even hundreds of dollars, but thousands of dollars. But then again I’ve seen people glue up bits and pieces of old shipping pallets they got for free and turn out some pretty respectable looking stuff.

wow, I really need to learn how to do better lighting when I take these photos.

This bowl is a work in progress, made from ambrosia maple, and yeah, that little hunk of wood up there was expensive. I think it cost about $25 for a 6 inch square, 3 inch thick piece of that stuff. And I was surprised to get it that cheap. The stuff seemed really too good to be true when I read the ad, but, well, heck, I thought I’d give it a try and ordered four pieces of the stuff and, well, holy cow it’s nice. Incredible colors and grain patterns. It’s absolutely spectacular.

I’m still in the learning and experimenting phase of all of this. Not every attempt at turning something has turned out good. Some have been complete failures. In one case I was turning piece of oak and it literally exploded. If I hadn’t been wearing safety gear I’d have probably ended up in the emergency room with face injuries. Learning how to properly use the tools takes considerable practice. You can watch all of the training videos you like, read all the books, etc. but nothing except actual practice will get you to the point where you can do this with some skill.

Sometimes things turn out pretty good, though. Like this one.

This one turned out a lot better than it had any right to. I still need to make a lid for this one. MrsGF is telling me I should be trying to sell some of this stuff. Yeah, I don’t know about that. If I start trying to sell it then this turns from a hobby into a job. And sell it how? Etsy? Ha! There’s so much competition from similar products on Etsy I don’t see how anyone would even find my stuff. Just look up wooden bowls over there and you’ll see what I mean. And prices are brutally low, with decent wooden bowls selling for less than $30. Sometimes a lot less.

There is something not quite right going on there. I suspect a lot of those “hand made” bowls are mass produced junk being bought up wholesale by the vendors. You can’t turn hand turn a bowl, sand it, finish it, pay for the raw materials, equipment costs, supplies, plus your time, and then dump it for $20 – $30 and still make a profit on it. Add in Etsy’s fees… Sure, there are “art pieces” going for hundreds of bucks, but how many of those actually sell? Few if any, I’d suspect. Considering the amount of time I have in that bowl up there, plus the cost of the wood, wear and tear on the equipment, supplies, etc. I’d have to get probably around $150 to break even on that bowl up there.

Tree Problems

Speaking of wood, our pear tree is literally collapsing under the weight of the fruit. It just went completely nuts developing fruit this year. It’s almost impossible to get a decent photo of the damage because most of it is up at the top of the tree. Looks like at least three major branches have completely collapsed, snapping off or cracking because they couldn’t support the weight of the fruit. I knew the tree was overloaded but I didn’t think it would get this bad. It’s going to be difficult to see just how bad it is until the leaves start to fall. We’ve actually been thinking of taking that tree down. It’s leaning at a crazy angle that seems to get worse every year and it shades out areas where we’d like to grow other things. And while having fresh pears in the autumn is great, a few pears go a long way and probably 95% of the pears end up in the compost. Well, we’ll see.

Gardening Stuff

The gardens are going through one last burst of color before autumn comes. But some things are already starting to die back.

The hostas are starting to look pretty nasty up in front of the house. One thing with hostas is that once a leaf is damaged by bugs or anything else, it never grows back, so the accumulated damage from an entire summer of bugs, rain, etc. is pretty apparent. Still they do amazingly well for most of the summer. Once the frost hits in the fall they’ll die back and we’ll just leave them until spring. The old foliage can then be raked up easily.

The tomatoes are starting to die back as well. They’re still producing but they aren’t going to be around for more than another couple of weeks. They did really well this year. We cut way back on the number of tomato plants we put in, and even so we still had more than we really needed. And we’ve learned to use a calcium supplement to fix the problems we’ve had in the past with blossom end rot.

This is where we had the pattypan squash. While the plants did well, the squash themselves were a disappointment as far as eating is concerned. I’ve never had a squash before that literally had no flavor at all. No flavor, no aroma, nothing. I don’t think we’re going to grow those again. We don’t have a lot of space here to begin with, so growing something with no flavor doesn’t make much sense.

For the last few years we’ve been growing full sized sunflowers right outside of the south window of the living room. Not only do we get to see huge, brilliant yellow flowers right out the window, we get the added bonus of seeing flocks of goldfinches come swarming in to eat the seeds this time of year. They’re little acrobats, hopping and clinging upside down to the plants to get at the seeds.

And they’re chattering away at each other all the while. I think a couple of them got into an argument about politics the other day judging from how loud they were yelling at each other.

And that’s about it for this time!

A Little Bit of Everything

I have a ton of stuff going on around here, but none of it is important enough to make a single post so I’m just going to shovel everything into this one [grin].

Cheap crappy lathe

I’m working on another lathe project, this one a bit larger than the last two, and that cheap Harbor Freight lathe is showing the strain rather badly. I got this as a gift so I shouldn’t complain… Oh, hell, sure I should complain. This thing is just plain nasty.

Harbor Freight has a reputation for selling cheap, cheap tools of questionable quality. My experience with HF tools has not been good, and this lathe certainly hasn’t improved my opinion of their stuff. While it worked fairly well for tiny stuff, putting a substantial chunk of wood on it has brought out all of its faults. I already knew it was made from cheap, thin, stamped sheet metal, including the base. In a real lathe, the bases are made from heavy, cast and carefully machined cast iron or steel. So this thing flexes and vibrates and shakes and rattles. The bearing are worse than awful. The motor is woefully underpowered. According to the label on the motor it’s rated at 1 HP. I’d be willing to bet it’s not even a quarter of that.

So I have to decide now if I like woodturning enough, and will do it enough, to justify dropping about $500 – $700 on a good lathe. I still haven’t made up my mind.

MrsGF tried something new this year, pattypan squash. We really like squash, but we haven’t had much luck growing it here. Last year our acorn squash was overcome by powdery mildew, and other years we had other issues. So she thought to try this. And it seems to be working beautifully. The plants are ridiculously healthy and absolutely loaded with fruit. We’ve never eaten this variety before so we’re looking forward to trying it. We have about three now that are ready to eat so this week we’re going to try them.

Biking as Meditation?

Everyone thought I was nuts when I dropped about $600 on a bicycle after I retired, figuring it was something I’d do for a couple of days and then it would end up hanging in the garage and getting in the way. Instead, several years and about three sets of tires and three thousand miles later, I’m still at it. And I have to admit that even I am a bit surprised at how much I enjoy it. But I’ve always been a bit of an outdoors person. I spent most of my childhood at the farm down in the woods, watching tadpoles in the streams, sitting in the woods watching chipmunks gathering acorns, watching frogs, listening to birds and trying to spot them in the trees… It was a journey of learning, amazement, wonder, and beauty. Well, except for the mosquitos. And somewhere along the way I lost that, only to have rediscovered it now. I get out on the country roads around here, especially down on the trail, and I can start to lose track of time.

And birds everywhere! Especially down along the river by the old stone bridge on Irish Road. Herons, ducks, egrets, even pelicans come down to the river. Yesterday I was watching a belted kingfisher perched on a telephone line running across the river, eyeing the water, and every once in a while diving down to try to snatch a small fish. I can hear the cardinals calling in the trees, but rarely see that flash of red. I see more of those in town where the trees are more sparse and it’s easier to catch sight of them.

And the smells… I am blessed with (or cursed with, sometimes) a hypersensitive sense of smell. As I’m out riding I can smell everything – the chicory and clover along the side of the road, the corn, the alfalfa fields, people mowing their lawns or cutting hay, a whiff of tractor exhaust wafting across a field from a distant farm, the fuel the RC airplane guys use in their planes as I get close to their flying field off Hwy 57, the wood preservative on the wooden bridge over the river on the trail, the occasional dead animal in the ditch, the asphalt outgassing on a hot day. And more often than not, an undercurrent of manure from some farm emptying its storage pits miles away.

I took up biking originally for the exercise. I went from a job where I was on my feet all day, walking for miles a day, to essentially nothing, almost literally overnight. So I figured I needed to do something or I was going to blow up like a balloon. And while the exercise is important, yes, the other benefits of being outside, the sights and smells and sounds and all that goes along with it, probably does more to keep me healthy than putting on 10 miles or so a day.

Gardening Stuff

It’s been a spectacular year for growing stuff this season. Weather has been just about perfect so far. We’ve had an unusually high amount of rain so we’ve only rarely had to resort to dragging out the hose and watering cans. We’ve been blanching and freezing wax and pole beans about three times a week for a couple of weeks now. We’re rather sick of it, to be honest. MrsGF came up with a bean salad recipe that is absolutely fantastic, so she’s been using up the beans, along with some of the peppers and onions we’re also growing, and canning that. Holy cow that stuff is good.

The tomatoes are just starting to come in. Not enough to process into a batch of sauce or soup, so I’ve been dicing them up and throwing them in the freezer. Just wash ’em, core ’em, slice or dice them, throw them in freezer bags, and then pull them out whenever we need tomatoes for something.

Pretty soon though we’re going to be deluged with tomatoes, so we need to decide what we’re going to do with those.

And flowers. The whole yard is alive with flowers this time of year.

Anyway, that’s about it for now. Stay safe out there.

Crazy Gardens and Stuff

Well, it’s official. The gardens here have gone nuts. This is probably the best growing season we’ve had since we moved into this place twenty or so years ago. The ornamentals, the vegetales, fruit, everything is looking pretty much spectacular.

We put in a few raspberry plants a few years ago because MrsGF’s sister gave us some, or we wouldn’t have bothered because I can’t (or am not supposed to, anyway) eat raspberries because I have diverticulosis and seeds and nuts can cause it to flare up. They sit in a little 8ft by 8ft patch of the garden behind the garage and they never really did that well. Until this year. For about a week now I’ve been picking a bowl full almost every day. They’re starting to slow down now and will probably stop producing by the middle of next week. Beautiful berries. Just wish I could eat ’em. Sigh…

I wasn’t going to put squash in this year because we haven’t had very good luck with them. But MrsGF found a different variety and put in a few plants and they’re doing good too. So far no sign of powdery mildew which pretty much ruined them last year.

We cut back on the number of tomato plants we put in. Last year we put in 12 or 14 plants and even though it wasn’t a very good year for tomatoes we still had more than we could ever possibly use. We only put in six plants this year in the raised beds and, well, so far it looks like we’re going to get more off those six plants than we got off a dozen of them last year. They’re just barely starting to come ripe now and I’m looking forward to having fresh tomatoes again.

And dear lord, the beans… We put in two varieties this year, a wax bean and some pole beans and we over planted those as well, it seems. The picking season is only just getting started and we already are getting more beans than we know what to do with and are looking for ideas of dealing with ’em. We’ll probably be giving away a lot of produce this year.

We put in a few different varieties of peppers, and it looks like they’re going to be ridiculously prolific as well. I’m not really sure exactly what variety these are. They were labeled “hot pepper”, but no variety was listed. They aren’t really hot, though. They’re actually quite mild. There is a tiny bit of heat there, but they aren’t even close to jalapeno peppers. Nice flavor, though. I think I might try canning some of these as pickled peppers.

I’m a bit concerned about the pear tree. It’s so loaded with fruit that branches that normally are about head height are already being pulled down almost to the ground by the weight of the fruit. I think I’m going to have to start snipping fruit off the branches I can reach before we start having branches breaking off.

I call this the finch corner. The cone flowers and sunflowers are finch magnets, or will be in a week or two as the seeds start to develop more. In a fairly short time this whole corner will be swarming with finches coming for the seeds. Great fun to watch out of the windows of the house.

Let’s see, what else… Oh, I made a – a thing again!

Bottom part is cherry, top is… Well, to be honest I’m not sure what kind of wood the top is made from. It’s a piece of scrap I found down in the shop and thought it made a nice contrast with the bottom. You can see an indentation around the middle of the bottom part. That is going to be stained very dark, almost black, to add contrast.

What the heck is it? Who knows? It isn’t useful as a bowl or anything. It’s a sort of, oh, art piece? Maybe? Kinda?

Farm Catch Up: Why Are We Seeing Shortages?

Oh, oh, GF is trying to do artsy stuff again.

I haven’t done one of these in a long time so I thought it’s high time I took a look at what’s happening in the agricultural world. Especially now because the situation is difficult, to put it mildly. Well, not exactly agriculture directly in this article. I want to try to explain why we’re seeing empty shelves in the grocery stores when we actually don’t have any real shortages of product.

Empty Shelves

We all know that when this started almost immediately stores were stripped bare of sanitizer, sanitizing cleaners, hand soap, protective equipment like masks and gloves, etc. This was followed by store shelves being stripped of toilet paper, paper towels, and then food products, especially staples like rice, beans, flour, canned foods, butter, etc. And, oddly, even things with short shelf life like milk and cream. (Why in the world would people who almost never drink milk in the first place suddenly need to buy gallons at a time? I have no idea.)

But despite the bare shelves there are no real shortages, at least not of consumer food products. There are several factors behind the empty shelves you’re seeing in the stores. Hoarders (how much hoard could a hoarder hoard if a hoarder could hoard hoard?) and profiteers are behind some of this, of course, but the biggest disruptions are due to the way our manufacturing and distribution systems work.

We have what amounts to two almost entirely separate production and supply systems. The first is the consumer system that makes and sells product to you and me. It provides products that individual consumers want, in relatively small quantities that are suitable for individuals or families. The second is the commercial system that sells in bulk quantities to institutions like restaurants, schools, hospitals, prison systems, etc. and industrial processors that use those products to make still other products, like the processed food industry.

The result of this system is that we are in a rather bizarre situation where we have surpluses and shortages, of exactly the same products, at exactly the same time. Dairy is an example of this. Even while a lot of people are reporting shortages of milk and grocery stores putting strict limits on how much milk people can buy, we have such a surplus of milk on the supply side that a lot of farmers are dumping the stuff down the drain because they can’t find a processor to buy it.

So how the hell can you have a shortage and a surplus at the same time?

Well, we have a situation where most schools are closed, most restaurants are closed, a lot of businesses are closed, and a lot of people who would normally be at work or at school are now stuck at home. This means that meals that normally would have been eaten at school, work cafeterias, food trucks, restaurants, etc. are now being eaten at home. (About 50% of the money we spend on food here in the US is spent on meals eaten away from home.) Which means people are buying a lot more groceries, and more milk and dairy products in general for consumption at home. Add in the hoarders who, for some reason, think they need to buy six gallons of milk at a time (seriously, I’ve seen people doing this) despite the fact it will go bad long before they’ll ever use it, and it puts pressure on the whole distribution system delivering milk to grocery stores.

At the same time, schools are a major buyer of milk for the school lunch program, and they are largely shut down. As are restaurants.

So at the consumer level, the grocery store part of the market, we’re seeing increased purchases of products, while at the same time on the commercial side of things we’re seeing a dramatic loss of sales of similar products. So we’re having both shortages and surpluses, at the same time, of the same product.

Why not switch the commercial production facilities to produce for the consumer market? Well, you can’t. Production facilities used to make the half pint cartons for the school lunch program can’t be switched over to making gallon jugs for grocery stores. They use entirely different manufacturing and bottling equipment. The same is true for other sectors of the market. Attempting to switch from production of products for institutional and commercial markets to production for consumer markets is extremely difficult and very expensive. By the time a switchover could be done, the pandemic situation will have subsided and manufacturers will find themselves with manufacturing facilities that are now set up to make the wrong product.

Instead of dumping milk make cheese out of it? Can’t do that either. Cheese makers were already running at nearly 100% capacity even before this started. And even if there was the capacity to produce cheese, there isn’t any market for it because the cheese market is saturated to begin with.

The same is much the same with other products. The products are there, but those products aren’t in a form consumers would accept because they’re intended for the institutional or commercial market and are available only in bulk or in a form consumers don’t want. Toilet paper is a good example of this. While there are shortages on the consumer side, there is a glut on the institutional side of the market. With schools and a lot of businesses shut down, sales of TP for those markets has dried up. But the TP intended for that market would be entirely unacceptable for consumer use. The rolls are too big, or in sizes that wouldn’t fit a home TP holder, or the quality… Well, if you’ve used a restroom in a school you know what a miserable excuse for toilet paper that stuff is.

I have to mention the distribution system, too. Most companies, including grocery stores, switched to what is generically called a “just in time inventory” system long ago. That means that stores don’t stockpile product. You won’t find back rooms chock full of TP or canned goods or whatever at your average store. The store orders only enough product for a very limited amount of time. If they get deliveries every, oh, three days let’s say, they will order only enough product to deal with three days worth of normal sales. Why? Because storage costs money. Adding square footage to a store not only increases its build cost, it also increases its property tax bills, heating and cooling costs, electric costs, etc. So space devoted exclusively to storage of product is kept to an absolute minimum.

Normally this system works fairly well. But these aren’t normal times, so when a store gets hit by abnormally high sales of specific products, well, the whole system falls apart fast. When the panic buying started, grocery stores would see an entire day’s worth of a product sold out in an hour. Seeing the empty shelves spooked other consumers, who immediately panicked and started cleaning out the shelves of other products. Stores would restock as fast as they could, only to burn through several days worth of product in just a few hours thanks to panic buying.

If the distributors had an adequate inventory on hand it wouldn’t have been such a big problem. But they didn’t either. They were using the “just in time” system too, and were only stocking enough product to support their stores for a limited amount of time. Those stocks were depleted within days, and they were scrambling to get product from the flour mills, dried bean distributors, rice distributors, etc. to try to restock. The mills and packaging companies had more than enough bulk product on hand, but their packaging facilities couldn’t increase production beyond a certain point. Basically the entire distribution system began to fail under the strain of the panic buying and the increase in consumer sales.

The system is, finally, starting to adapt, at least around here. But as for what’s going to happen in the future, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

Borden Dairy Files Bankruptcy

Borden Dairy Company filed for bankruptcy. Borden said it had debts of $500 million and assets of only $100 million. It employs over 3,000 people. This doesn’t mean the company will completely go out of business, and the statement said the company will continue operations as it works out a way to get its finances straightened out.

Interestingly, Borden was listed as one of Forbes 2019 “Most Reputable Companies” back in May, where it was listed as number 16. Obviously Forbes didn’t look at the company’s actual finances when making up that list.

When companies like Borden and Dean Foods goes under, the pundits and the companies themselves are quick to point the finger of blame at anything and everything. The articles I’ve read about the Borden’s bankruptcy and the earlier Dean Food bankruptcy blame the decline in the consumption of milk, the increasing popularity of plant based “milk”, changes in diet, dietary fads, major retailers like Walmart building their own milk processing facilities, etc. They blame it on everything except the real reason, the company itself. Or, rather the management of the company. The company itself was unable to adapt to changing market conditions, and that is what drove them into financial failure.

Yes, consumption of liquid (drinking) milk has been declining. But this is a trend that has been going on for decades. They can’t claim that they were blindsided by this. Walmart made no secret of the fact that it wanted to build its own milk processing facilities. That was known for years before they actually did it. The growing interest in vegetarian and vegan diets that reduce or even eliminate the consumption of dairy products isn’t new either. This is a trend that has also been going on for years now. The same is true for the increased interest in grain and nut based “milk” products.

That Bordens and Dean couldn’t make it is due entirely to the failure of their own management teams being unable to adapt to changing markets.

I’m sitting here in eastern Wisconsin, just 20 miles or so south of Green Bay, and I’m surrounded by dairy companies that are doing pretty darn good. Over the last few years I’ve seen at least a half dozen major expansions by large processing companies, mostly cheese makers, including some multinational corporations. And they’re all doing pretty well. Why? Because they’ve been able to adapt to a changing market.

Dean and Borden failed because they didn’t adapt to an ever changing marketplace.

Dean Foods Files for Bankruptcy

Dean Foods said it has nearly $850 million secured in debtor-in-possession financing to continue regular operations until the deal is finished.

Source: Dean Foods Files for Bankruptcy, Hopes To Sell to DFA | Farm Journal’s MILK Business

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Dean Foods, one of the largest milk processors in the country, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday and is in purchasing talks with Dairy Farmers of America, a huge co-op.

This is one of those situations that surprised me but didn’t surprise me, if that makes any sense. I knew Dean has been in financial trouble for some time, and there were rumors going back months already that it was looking around to try to sell itself. But I didn’t think the company’s financial situation was quite this bad.

Dean has been struggling for a long time. It lost a major contract with Walmart not too long ago. Dean had been supplying the retailer with milk under the Walmart house brand, and lost a major part of that market when Walmart opened its own milk processing facility. Dean’s major problem is that it has always been a supplier of liquid (drinking) milk and that market has been shrinking for decades. Dean has never been able to adapt to that. It’s tried various things, tried rebranding, different products, even tried investing in plant based alternatives to milk, but nothing ever really worked very well for the company. It hasn’t made a profit in over two years, and that just couldn’t go on any longer.

I find myself wondering how much longer milk as a beverage is going to hang around as a major factor in our diet. For at least twenty or thirty years now the consumption of beverage milk has been declining, and all the hype and propaganda being pumped out by the various milk marketing boards and the dairy industry hasn’t managed to reverse that trend.

Fall Wrap Up

Although the temperatures are still ridiculously warm for this time of year, there’s no doubt that autumn is here and the gardening season is winding down and it’s time to look back at what worked, what didn’t, and start making plans for next year.

The tomatoes are pretty much done for the season. We’ll probably still get about 15 lbs or so off the last remaining plants and then we can clean out the raised beds. The tomatoes weren’t as good as I’d really have liked to see, but we still got more than enough to stock our shelves. There was a bit of blossom end rot at the start of the season, but we’d been doing calcium supplementation and that kept it from being a real problem.

One of two shelving units covered with canned stuff. A few of these are from last year but most were done in the last couple of weeks, plus almost as many on the other shelf. Gee, you might get the impression we like tomatoes around here…

The tomatoes all were canned in one way or another this year. We didn’t freeze any because the freezer is packed solid. We did pasta sauce, tomato soup and just plain canned tomatoes for use in things like chili. I didn’t keep track of how many pints and quarts we put up, but it was a hell of a lot. I think we used just about every jar we have. Our big canner can hold 16 pints in a batch, so it really doesn’t take long to do it. I’m writing this as I’m waiting for another batch of 14 pints to finish up.

Those dahlias I picked up for half price in June turned out way, way better than I could have hoped. Amazingly beautiful, long lasting flowers, and they’ve been in perpetual bloom since early July.

That stuff up there inside of those yellow buckets (the bottoms are cut out) is celery. The buckets protect them from critters and makes weed control easy. Works very well indeed and we’ve been growing celery like this for some time. We’ve been cutting celery off those plants since, oh, early August, I think. Cut a few stalks off and it just keeps regrowing. Incredible flavor, too. The thing with commercial celery is that it has little or no flavor. That’s not the case with the home grown stuff. The celery flavor is intense. Very intense. It kind of surprises people who’ve only ever had the commercially grown variety.

I talked before about the mild jalapeno pepper plants I planted in pots on the front porch as an experiment. That worked out beautifully as well. The two plants produced more than enough peppers to keep me satisisfied (I’m the only one who really likes jalapenos so just two plants were enough). And the flavor was very good indeed. They had the right flavor, but very little heat, just what I was looking for. The plants are pretty much done for the season, so I’ll pick the remaining peppers and the plants will go to the compost pile this weekend probably.

Two more successes were the wax beans and the bell peppers. The wax beans are in the front, the peppers behind them. We’d put in a row of green beans, but something ate all of the plants almost as soon as they sprouted, but whatever it was left the wax beans alone. The wax beans more than made up for it though. Great flavor, good texture, and ridiculously prolific. We’ve been picking beans every four or five days since early August and there’s no end in sight, they’re still in full blossom and producing beans.

The bell peppers seem to always do good in this location. We’ve been getting absolutely beautiful peppers off the plants this year. They’ve been well formed, growing to almost ridiculously large sizes, thick walls, firm texture, good flavor. A lot get eaten fresh but we’ve been dicing up and freezing some as well.

No pears this year.

Not everything was successful, though. We aren’t going to get any pears off our tree this year. The tree looks nice and healthy, but almost no fruit. The problem was the weather. When the tree was in full blossom the weather was still ridiculously cold and wet, so it didn’t get pollinated. In fact, I didn’t even start to see bees until two or three weeks after the three blossomed. Earlier in the year I counted about 20 or so pears on the entire tree. There are maybe fifteen up there now, and I saw today that something is eating them while they’re still on the tree. Birds, probably.

The other disappointment is the squash. It started out well but went nowhere fast. Only one plants looks reasonably healthy, but it’s much smaller than it should be and only has a couple of gourds on it. The other plants are much worse, with a few very undersized gourds that will probably end up in the compost. We get lots of blossoms, but very little fruit. I think this is the last year we’re going to try growing squash. It just doesn’t work out for us.

We need to start doing garden clean up much earlier than we normally wood. MrsGF is going in for knee replacement surgery in early October so we want to have everything done that we possibly can before then because after that, well, trying to get anything done outside is going to be awkward because I’m not going to want to leave her alone in the house with a bum leg while I’m out puttering in the gardens.

We’re already talking about putting in a third and maybe even a fourth raised bed for vegetables next spring. They just work amazingly well and are so much easier to take care of than a regular garden plot would be. We’ll probably keep putting veggies in the corner where the beans and peppers are, but the rest of our yard? The soil is so poor and gets so water logged in rainy conditions that it’s difficult, even impossible to grow much of anything except ornamentals.

That’s it for now. Time to pull the jars out of the canner and start cleaning things up.

Let’s see, what else? I’m putting together an evaluation of a new transceiver I just picked up a couple of weeks ago, a Yaesu FT-450D. I hear so many people complaining about how expensive amateur radio is that I wanted to do an article proving that it really isn’t anywhere near as expensive as people think it is, and the 450 is at the core of that piece.

Moving all my equipment to the new location in the basement is about half done, but is now on hold because of MrsGF’s upcoming surgery. I can’t be hiding down in the basement while she’s recovering from knee replacement, so I’m going to be leaving the big equipment up here so I have something to play with while keeping an eye on her and making sure she isn’t trying to do something she shouldn’t. I know her, and I know damn well that she’s going to try pushing things too far, too fast.

And here’s a picture of a cat. Just because.

Catching Up: Ham Radio and Tomato Soup

I mentioned before that I wanted to move out of the office/library/radio shack area that I currently share with MrsGF, and into a new workshop in the basement. Things have been rather busy here (plus I’m probably one of the laziest people I know, which doesn’t help) but things have been slowly moving along. The goal is to get everything moved and set up before the snow flies.

It’s at the point where I can start moving some stuff in there. I have all my tools, most of my test equipment, soldering equipment and some of the electronics moved down there now. I’ll probably start moving some of the radio gear down there too this week but my primary station, the TS-990 and the Yaesu VHF/UHF gear will stay where it is for the time being. The VHF/UHF gear will probably remain up in the office because MrsGF is the one who uses it the most anyway.

It’s still a mess in the basement and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to lay stuff out. There is still a ton of junk out of the frame of that photo that needs to get moved before I can move everything, but it’s getting there. Most of the ‘heavy lifting’, as they say, is done. And I need to add about 3 or 4 electrical outlets on that wall, plus a 240V outlet for the amplifiers before I can get the rest of the radio gear set up.

It’s been taking a long time but, well, hey, it’s still summer (technically anyway) and I have a lot of other stuff going on, but it’ll get done. Maybe. I did get that GAP Titan antenna up, after all. Took me 4 years, true, but it got up finally…

One very inconvenient thing is that I’m at the point where I really, really need to get into my woodworking shop (that’s through the doorway on the far left) so I can build frames, shelving, etc. to make the new electronics/radio shop convenient to use, but the woodworking shop is packed full of computer junk belonging to my son that hasn’t been moved out yet. Oh well, we’ll get it figured out.

The Great QRP Project

(Definition – QRP is amateur radio jargon for low power communications, usually transmitting with 5 watts or less.)

I’ve had the Yaesu 818 and the mag-loop antenna for some time now and they’ve been fun to play with, but the ultimate goal was to put together a QRP (low power) digital communications package that I could throw into the back of the car and take along when I go fishing or out taking photos. My favorite modes of communications are PSK31, FT8 and JS8Call, so I picked up that refurbished Lenovo laptop you see in the photo of the workbench.

I made some changes in the overall configuration. I was going to use a SignaLink interface to connect the laptop to the Yaesu because A) I had one on the shelf, and B) because, well, because I had one. But then I found out I also had a Yaesu SCU-17 USB interface and, well, where the heck did that come from? So I’m going to go with that instead.

(Side note: Where the heck does some of this stuff come from? I swear I sometimes think people are breaking into the house and instead of stealing stuff, they’re leaving things here.)

The SCU-17 comes with about a zillion different cables to hook it up to just about every imaginable radio, computer, etc. Except, of course, the one that I actually needed. That required cable was, of course, an “optional accessory”. Sigh… Nor did I have the connectors I needed to make one myself. Besides, my history of making specialty cables myself is, well, a bit embarrassing and the less said about that, the better. So off I went to the GigaParts website to order one and that should be here today (he said keeping his fingers crossed). (It came!! Hooray!)

Anyway, with any luck I should finally have the whole thing up and running properly by this weekend. Maybe. I doubt it, but hell, one has to be optimistic, doesn’t one?

I wanted to have the whole thing up and running before Sept. 21, which is WIOPTA (Wisconsin Parks On The Air), an event where amateur radio operators lug their radio gear out to parks, endure bad weather (it’ll probably snow), mosquitoes and ticks which will give you several exotic diseases that you can’t pronounce, and probably get you arrested because anyone with all that weird electronic gear must be guilty of something.

But then I found out only state parks qualify for the event and, well, the heck with that. I thought they meant any park in Wisconsin so I’d planned on doing it at the local one here in town. State parks only? Hmph… They charge money just to get into those places. Yeah, sure I get in for free because I’m a “conservation patron”, but still

(Side note: I should point out that being a “conservation patron” in Wisconsin has absolutely nothing to do with actual conservation. Conservation patron is a combined hunting and fishing license. Basically if it is legal to kill some animal in Wisconsin, whether it swims, walks or flies, the Conservation Patron license lets you kill it. This is why we need words like “irony” in the language.)

(Side note: I should also point out that I don’t actually hunt. Or do much fishing. So why do I have the license? Mostly to irritate people.)

(Side note: I really need to stop this side note nonsense.)

Tomato Soup

The tomatoes are finally starting to ripen up and even as I write this we’re canning tomato soup. If you’ve never made your own tomato soup with home grown tomatoes, you have no idea what you’re missing. The only problem with this stuff is that once you’ve tasted it you’ll never be able to tolerate the commercial canned stuff again.

So, how do you make the stuff, you ask? Here’s the recipe. Note: This recipe is admittedly huge. This will turn out about 10 quarts of soup. We generally only make a half batch at a time. If you want to do that, just cut all of the quantities in half.

Ingredients

  • 14 quarts tomatoes
  • 7 medium onions
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 14 sprigs parsley (dried is OK)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 14 tablespoons flour
  • 14 tablespoons butter
  • 8 tablespoons canning salt
  • 12 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • *Vinegar (to taste but go easy because lemon juice will be added later)
  • Lemon juice as needed (see method)

Method

Wash tomatoes. Cut into large chunks. You do not need to peel or seed the tomatoes as it will be processed through a food mill. Peel onions and coarse chop. Dice celery and mince parsley (if fresh). Put in large pot with bay leaves. Cook until celery is tender.

Typical food mill. An angled blade inside forces the food being processed through a strainer in the bottom of the pan. There are hooks to rest it on top of a pot. The liquid and pulp is forced through the strainer into the pot, leaving seeds, skin, etc. behind.

Process everything through a food mill. If you don’t have a food mill, you can force the mixture through a sieve but that’s difficult to do and very time consuming. Food mills are fairly cheap and you can pick them up at any store that carries canning supplies or on line.

You put the food mill over a large pot or bowl. The soup mix is ladled into the mill. Turning the handle causes the mixture to be forced through the strainer in the bottom, leaving seeds, skin, etc behind. It’s a bit of work, yes, but it goes a lot faster than you’d think and the results are worth it. The seeds, skins, etc. that are left behind can be composted.

Put the strained soup back in the pot and bring to a gentle boil.

Take the flour and butter and blend together to make a smooth paste. Add a bit of tomato juice. Add the butter/flour mixture to the soup and whisk vigorously to blend it in thoroughly. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Add salt, sugar and pepper.

Note – the original recipe called for 12 tbl of salt which I think is way too much. I cut that down to 8. and you could go even less if you like. Seasoning can always be adjusted when you heat the soup before serving

Note about vinegar: There are a lot of different varieties of tomatoes with different flavor profiles. Depending on how sweet your tomatoes are, you might want to add a bit of vinegar to give the soup a bit more of a ‘bite’, so to speak. You can also add some red pepper as well. The thing to remember is this is your soup, so you can season it any way you like.

Canning

You can use either quart or pint jars. I prefer pints, but it’s up to you.

We sterilize everything when we get started with this. Jars are not only washed but are rinsed with boiling water and the jar lids are put in boiling water. Is that necessary? Maybe? Why take a chance, though.

Fill jars to within 1/2 inch of the top. Add one teaspoon of lemon juice to each jar. This is not just for flavor, it’s for food safety reasons to make sure the soup has enough acid.

Wipe off rims of the jars. Put on lids and then screw on the rings and tighten snuggly.

Actual canning is going to depend on the type of canner you’re using. I strongly recommend using a pressure canner for this stuff. I know some people say you can just use a water bath, but pressure canning is actually faster and safer, so that’s what we do here, use a pressure canner.

pressure canner

Read the instructions that came with your canner to make sure you are setting it up right.

Put the jars in your canner and start the process. We follow current recommendations which is to process it at 11 pounds pressure for 15 minutes. If the pressure goes a bit higher than that it’s perfectly fine, but it shouldn’t drop below 11 pounds for the entire 15 minutes.

Here’s a batch I just pulled out of the canner a few minutes ago.

I think I’ve been babbling along for too long already here, so I’m off to irritate the cats for a while, fiddling with radios, etc.

Tumblr, and the Ever Popular Misc. Stuff

I have to admit that I haven’t been keeping track of what’s been happening on the blogging/social media platform since I abandoned it years ago. I just completely lost interest in it. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the service had simply disappeared because I’d heard little about what was going on over there following Verizon’s decision to eliminate “adult” content on the service. Since probably 60% of the content on Tumblr might be considered “adult” in one way or another, it didn’t bode well for the survival of the service, so I just assumed it was going to go the way of dozens of other social media services and gradually fade away into nothing.

But Tumblr is once again back in the news. Verizon just sold Tumblr to Automattick Inc., the parent company of WordPress. When Yahoo bought Tumblr originally they paid $1.1 billion for the company. Automattick bought it off Version for — wait for it — less than $3 million according to The Verge.

How the hell does a company go from a value of over a billion dollars to less than three million? Well, it wasn’t easy. Yahoo did the best it could to kill the service off, and Verizon tried to nail the coffin shut and bury it.

“Tumblr is a marquee brand that has started movements, allowed for true identities to blossom and become home to many creative communities and fandoms,” Verizon Media CEO Guru Gowrappan said in a statement. “We are proud of what the team has accomplished…”

Well, I’d be proud too. It isn’t everyone who can take a billion dollar company and drag it’s value down to the point where it’s worth less than a fancy house. Takes real talent to do that. (We really need a sarcasm font)

As for what WordPress is going to do with the thing, that’s anybody’s guess. From what I’ve been hearing even they aren’t sure what they’re going to do with it. I think they bought it more because it was cheap. Sort of like when you go to a garage sale and find that $500 piece of electronics you really wanted way back when being sold for $1 and you can’t resist buying it even though its obsolete and you don’t know what you’ll do with it.

Hemp

The whole hemp situation is just getting more and more silly. When it comes to hemp and agriculture I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much hype and nonsense being spouted by people who really should know better. I hear a lot of people proclaiming that hemp is going to “save” agriculture, despite the fact that no one seems to be able to actually make any money at it. At least not here in Wisconsin. Everyone I’ve heard of who has tried raising hemp here in Wisconsin so far has lost money on it. In some cases, they lost a lot of money on it.

And speaking of CBD, what a fiasco that’s turned into. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is being sold everywhere it seems. People are selling edible products laced with CBD (or what they claim is CBD) all over the place. There are supplements and food products and oils and lotions, even CBD products for pets for heaven’s sake. And all of them make various health claims. Depending on who you talk to, the stuff will cure everything from dandruff to cancer. And almost none of those claims are actually true. CBD seems to have some benefits for some types of epilepsy, and may be beneficial to help alleviate symptoms of arthritis, and that’s about it. Every other health claim you hear is unproven and quite probably an outright lie.

The other thing about CBD is that it isn’t legal to sell. At least not as it’s being sold by most places. Seriously. That link up there will take you to the FDA page that explains it. But to give you a summary, it is illegal to sell any food product, supplement or other product intended for human or animal consumption that contains CBD. The only exceptions are FDA approved drugs that contain the substance as part of their makeup, and there are only about three of those at the moment.

Why haven’t the feds gone after the places selling it? Well, they have, at least the more outrageous violators. But the rest, the FDA doesn’t have the money and other resources to go after everyone, especially when it’s being sold at every gas station, every convenience store, tattoo parlors, hardware stores…

The other problem is that you don’t know what the hell is actually in that CBD laced product you’re buying. There are no standards, no testing programs, no inspections, no nothing. So basically you have absolutely no idea what is actually in that stuff.

Ooo, purty flowers…

Antenna Update

If you remember from last time, I finally got the Gap Titan-DX vertical antenna up, but still didn’t have it functional because I didn’t have the right connectors for the coax. A trip down to the local Radio Shack (well, I call it that even though it isn’t really technically a Radio Shack any more) and a rummage around in the parts bins turned up the adaptor I needed, and it is officially on the air.

It still needs some tweaking. The SWR on some bands is higher than I really like, but I expected that. I haven’t yet tried to actually tune it by adjusting the stubs and it’s located right alongside of the garage and it’s aluminum rain gutters, which I’m sure isn’t helping things. Does it work? Oh, yeah! I hooked it to the Kenwood TS-990 with a Palstar auto-tuner, and it most definitely works very, very well. Mostly I’ve been using it with FT8 and holy cow, it gets out. It’s been giving me much better results than my OCFD antenna. I’ll put together a post specifically about the antenna with more details in the future.

ASF China Update

ASF (African Swine Fever) is sweeping through China no matter what they try to do to stop it. According to Rabobank (a huge multinational financial services company that specializes in agriculture) China will probably lose half or more of its pork production by the end of the year because of the disease. Just think about that for a moment – China is the largest producer of pork in the world, and it is facing losing half or even more of it’s pig population because of this disease. That’s going to have huge repercussions through the country’s entire economy.

Why is ASF so hard to stop? Because it is highly contagious (fortunately it doesn’t harm human beings), the virus can survive for a long time outside of the host animals, there is no treatment for it, there is no vaccine for it, and it kills almost all the pigs that come down with it. The only way to try to combat the disease is to try to prevent it from spreading, which is extremely hard to do.

That’s about it for now. Frankly I’m getting bored. It’s nice out and I could be out on the bike or puttering in the garden or playing radio, so I’m out of here 🙂

Garden Catch Up, Storms and Stuff

If you want photos of the storm damage, go look on news sites in this area. There are enough of those out there already. The gardens made it through the storms with little or no damage, somehow, so I can still take photos like this.

Northeast Wisconsin got absolutely hammered by severe storms, some of the strongest we’ve ever seen around here. The training I’ve had for SkyWarn taught me how to estimate wind speed fairly accurately, and I guessed we had wind gusts of up to 75 MPH here, and the NWS reports later confirmed that. It was scary here for a while. We were lucky, though. The worst of it seems to have skipped around this area. Other areas, especially just to the north and west of us got hit hard. There were three tornadoes. NWS reported winds of up to 120 MPH in Wrightstown, about 10 miles north of here. Outagame, Brown and Winnebago counties all are reporting very serious damage. Thousands of people are still without power around us, and the utilities are saying conditions in those areas are so bad from downed trees, broken power poles, etc. that it could be days before everyone has their power restored.

The only good thing about it is that the cold front that triggered the storms has finally brought relief from the extended streak of heat and humidity we were going through. My thermometer here recorded high temps well up into the 90s, with humidity of 95% or higher. The highest temp we hit was 97 according to the recorder. The heat index was well up in the 100s. I’m going to hate to see what our electric bill looks like. Our air conditioner was running full blast for days struggling to keep the temperatures in the house down to a reasonable level. I’m very surprised it’s managed to keep going at all.

While the extreme temperatures haven’t been good for people, the plants around here seem to have been loving it. Everything is lush and green and growing like crazy. Unfortunately we also seem to have a bumper crop of mosquitoes this year as well because of all the rain we’ve gotten. So here are some pictures of what’s growing around here.

The sunflowers are just barely starting to come into bloom. This is the first one that’s popped out.
this is a new one for us. MrsGF put this climbing rose in at the start of the season and it’s decided that it really likes it here. It’s tripled in size and and has been flowering almost continuously for the last three weeks.

Ah, our poor pear tree. It looks more lush and wild than it really is because you’re seeing the canopy of the tree immediately behind it as well. It’s reasonably healthy, but almost no pears at all this year. I’ve counted less than a dozen young pears on the entire tree, and I’m surprised we have those. When it was in flower it was extremely cold and wet, and there were no bees around at all, so it didn’t get pollinated.

MrsGF and I are both enormously fond of mountain ash trees (they’re actually not an ash, they’re part of the rose family, so the emerald ash borer doesn’t attack them). We have one in the backyard and we see seedlings popping up all the time, so we transplanted one into a corner of the hosta bed where it seemed to fit in, and it likes it there. The photo doesn’t do it justice. It’s really been thriving there. It’s more than doubled in size in the last month or so.
We tucked onions into the edges of the raised beds around the tomatoes this year as an experiment and it’s worked way better than we ever hoped. They’re absolutely beautiful. It’s a mixed variety of red, yellow and white onions, and they’re all doing well. Bulbs are about 2 inches thick and they taste amazing.
This is one of two jalapeno plants we have in pots on the front porch. They’re an experiment. It’s a new variety I found that claimed it had all the flavor of a jalapeno but without the heat. Now I love jalapeno peppers, but sometimes the heat gets a bit much for me. I’ve had mixed results growing them in the past, with a wide variation in the amount of heat they produce, even in fruit from the same plant. These have lived up to their billing. All the bright, crisp flavor but with very little heat. Just enough to remind me it’s a jalapeno. I dice ’em up and throw them in omelets, mac and cheese, anywhere I want to turn something bland into something a bit more interesting. I’ve been picking these little guys on a regular basis for the last, oh, two or three weeks. Even MrsGF has been using them. Definitely a success. I’ll probably be putting about 4 of these plants in next year. That should be enough to freeze to supply us through the winter.

The tomatoes have been going crazy. We planted way too many of them last year so we still have shelves full of canned tomatoes in the basement, so we only put in half as many plants as last year, and now that seems it may have been too many. They’re in full flower right now, and if they produce as prolifically as it seems right now, I don’t know what we’ll do with all of them. But that’s a good thing. I’d rather have too many. We can always give them away to friends and family if we can’t deal with all of them. We’ve managed to avoid blossom end rot once we switched to using the raised beds, but there were some signs last year we might be heading for a problem, so we’ve been using a calcium supplement to try to fend that off.
Wax beans and bell peppers in the background. The wax beans are amazing. We’ve been picking those for about a week now. They’re young and tender and delicious. We aren’t sure what happened to the green beans we planted. Something ate them off, leaving only the stems, almost as soon as they emerged, but left the wax beans alone. This area is fenced to keep the rabbits out so it wasn’t them. We aren’t sure what got them, and why they left the wax beans alone. Well, at least they left us those.

The raspberries are behind the garage where they get shade all morning and part sun all afternoon, and they really seem to like that. They’ve taken over that entire end of the garden and they’re loaded with fruit. I’m not supposed to eat raspberries or anything with small seeds, but I have to admit that I watch those plants like a hawk when they’re starting to fruit and it’s very rare that a berry escapes me and makes it into the house.