Stuff. And Nonsense. And Rain

Tariff Relief Plan Announced At Last. But Only If You Grow Soybeans

USDA finally announced some of the details of the tariff aid package and as a lot of people expected, for a lot of farmers they might as well not even bother. While soybean growers will get a pretty good deal, getting back $1.64 of the estimated $2.00 per bushel they’re losing, for a lot of others, the so called relief is almost an insult. Dairy producers are losing an estimated $1.10 per hundredweight because of the tariffs. They’re going to get a whopping $0.12/cwt. Yeah, that’s right, twelve cents. Corn growers are going to get $0.01 per bushel. That’s not a typo. They’re going to get one cent per bushel.

Why are soybean farmers getting almost all of the “tariff relief” while dairy farmers and corn growers get almost nothing? I have no idea.

Rain

IMG_1015Wow, have we been getting hammered! It’s been raining almost non-stop for days now, with one storm front after another rolling through here. That 5 1/2 inches showing in the gauge there was from just Monday evening. I haven’t heard yet what the grand total is for this whole event, but I imagine it’s going to be in excess of 25 inches for this area over the last few days.

They got hit even harder in the southern part of the state. One town down there reported 11 inches in less than 8 hours. Flooding all over, one person dead after getting swept away when trying to get out of a submerged car. Damage estimates were in excess of $100 million and I’m sure that number is going to grow dramatically because that was from two days ago.

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The town has good drainage, except for my backyard. It’s about 3 feet deep back there this morning.

We have pretty good drainage here because they re-did the entire town’s storm water system back in the late 1980s after we had a massive flood here that damaged just about every building in town, blew manholes covers off the sewers, and flooded every basement in town. The revised system obviously works or we’d be up to our necks in water by now.

Fortunately we’re looking at a dry spell now.

Tomato Stuff

Meanwhile I’m staring at about 30 lbs of tomatoes I have to deal with today… Not sure yet what I’m going to do with them. I’m thinking tomato soup? I’d better make up my mind soon because there are probably another 30 lbs to deal with out on the plants.

Still, it’s becoming obvious the season is coming to an end. The plants are starting to look like they’re coming to the end of their life span which, I have to admit, is something of a relief.

We put in two plants of a variety called Wisconsin 55, and they’ve been disappointing. Very little fruit from those two despite the fact the plants themselves are ridiculously healthy.

The Early Girl variety have been amazing. The fruit is small, about the size of a baseball, dense, brilliant color, not an excessive amount of seeds, and wonderful flavor and texture that’s been great for making into sauces and soups, which is exactly what we want them for. I’d say the texture is similar to that of a Roma tomato. And they’ve been incredibly prolific. I’ve never seen tomato plants produce quite this much fruit before.

The Early Girl variety is going to be on our “must plant” list for next spring.

Hmm, I’m also going to need to deal with about 20 pounds of banana peppers here in the next few days. I don’t remember what the variety is right now, but wow, they’ve been ridiculous too. The plants are 4 1/2 feet tall and they just keep producing more and more and more.

Most of those are going into the tomato sauces or are being diced up and frozen for future use. But we have so many now that I’m not sure what to do with them. We have more than enough in the freezer for use over the winter.

Amateur Radio Stuff

Not much going on there. I’m still playing with the FT8 mode. Well, I pretty much have to use it because my antenna isn’t very good and with band conditions the way they are it’s about the only way I can make contacts.

I’m closing in on the WAS (Worked All States) and while I claim I don’t really care, I find myself a bit excited by the prospect of having worked all 50 states. I’m only missing 7 states and I find myself keeping an eye out now for the ones I still need when I’m on the air. What do I get if and when I do it? Well, nothing, really. Just the satisfaction of having done it.

I really, really need to get that new vertical antenna up before the winter weather closes in…

 

What To Do With 20 Pounds of Tomatoes

We’ve been very fortunate in the tomato department this season, especially with the Early Girl variety that we planted. They’ve been ridiculously prolific. MrsGF already did plain canned tomtoes, chili sauce and we froze a lot for use later. But they’re coming on fast now and it’s getting hard to keep up. So Thursday I dealt with this:

That’s about 28 pounds of tomatoes in those two boxes,IMG_1003.jpg

So while MrsGF was at work I dealt with this situation. I made spaghetti sauce because, well, good lord this stuff is good. Once you’ve made your own you’ll never want to go back to the stuff you get at the grocery store. It’s fairly easy, although it does take some time.

Start with about 20 pounds of ripe tomatoes. If there are some that aren’t quite ripe yet, don’t worry about it, throw them in too. Wash them, then cut them in quarters. You don’t need to core or peel them, but do remove the stems.

Now get a big stainless steel stock pot with a thick, heavy bottom. Big because it has to hold at least 20 pounds of cut up tomatoes. You can’t use one of those cheap, thin bottomed stamped metal ones from the discount store because you will almost certainly scorch the tomatoes during the cooking process and ruin the whole batch. It must have a thick bottom, and must be stainless steel, not aluminum. The acid in tomatoes reacts with aluminum, and not only will it affect the flavor, it will stain the aluminum and even leach aluminum into the food, something you do not want. Aluminum, when ingested, has some serious health concerns.

Yes, a good, big stainless steel stockpot is expensive, but you can get good deals if you watch for sales and it’s worth it if you do a lot of this kind of thing.

And yes, you can do this in smaller batches if you can’t handle this much at one time. Nothing wrong with just doing 10 pounds and adjusting the recipe accordingly.

Dice up two whole onions and about a pound of green peppers or sweet banana peppers. No need to remove the seeds, they’ll be taken care of later.

Put about a quarter cup of olive oil (no, it doesn’t need to be the expensive stuff) in the bottom of the pot, put it on the stove, turn the heat up to about medium and put in the diced peppers and onions. Add about 6 nice sized cloves of garlic, crushed or finely minced. Cook them until they just start to soften a bit.

IMG_1004.jpgNow dump your tomatoes in. Yes, all of them at once. Bring the heat up to medium high. You’re going to have to bring this whole mess to a boil. You’re going to need a very sturdy, very long handled spoon or spatula so you can stir it up from time to time.

Bringing this amount of material to a boil is going to take time so be patient. And no, you don’t need to add any liquid. More than enough juice will come off of the tomatoes to turn it into, well, turn it into this:

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This rather nasty looking mess is going to turn into spaghetti sauce. Be patient. I know it looks like something the cat threw up at this point. Don’t worry and instead of thinking of how nasty it looks, concentrate on how good it smells.

You need to keep this mash boiling for about 20 minutes, stirring once in a while to make sure it isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning on. The long boiling process is necessary to make it easier to deal with the next step, putting it through a food mill.

IMG_1006.jpgThis is a food mill in case you’ve never seen one before. It is a heavy duty strainer with a crank handle, an angled plate that fits over the strainer part, and a nut on the bottom side with a scraper, usually a long, springy piece of wire, that holds the plate and handle in place.

It’s a simple tool that works quite well. The mash is put into the strainer basket, the handle is turned, and the plate presses the mash against the strainer forcing the juice and pulp through the holes while leaving the seeds and skins behind. to be discarded.

As you can see on the lower right, there are hooks on the side of the mill so you can set it on top of a pot to catch the juices and pulp that come out.

Put the mill over a clean, empty pot. Put about a cup of the tomato mash into the mill and rotate the handle. The good stuff that you want to keep will be squeezed out into the pot below, and the skins and other debris will remain on top. Once the juice and pulp is squeezed out, rotate the handle backwards to scrape the skins and debris off the strainer, and discard.

IMG_1008.jpgYes, it’s a rather messy and labor intensive process, and it’s going to take some time to deal with that entire pot full of mash.

Is there an easier way to do it? I suppose there is but we haven’t really found one. I suppose you could try running the mash through a blender to grind up the seeds and skins, but I’d think that might alter the taste.

It doesn’t really take that long to do it this way. Think of it this way, it’s a good opportunity to build up your arm muscles.

Once you’re done you’ll have a large amount of what is basically tomato juice and pulp. Bring out that big stock pot you used to cook up the tomatoes originally. Rinse it out, dump your juice into it, and put it back on the stove and crank the heat up to about medium high or high because you’re going to have to bring this back to a boil.

Now we add the spices. Everyone has different tastes, but this is what we use for this amount of juice: 2 tbl basil, 2 tbl oregano, 1-2 table thyme, 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp ground pepper, 1/4 – 1/2 cup of brown sugar. The amount of sugar depends on your tastes and on how acidic the tomatoes are. You can adjust that after the cooking process is done.

Now comes the part everyone hates most, cooking it down. You need to bring it to a full boil, then reduce the heat until it’s at a nice, gentle rolling boil. You want it bubbling nicely, but not so hot that it scorches on the bottom. This part takes a long time. You want to reduce this down by at least half until it gets to the consistency you want for your sauce. You need to stir it every 15 -20 minutes, making sure it isn’t scorching on the bottom. If you find it’s building up a sludge on the bottom of the pot, turn the heat down a bit or stir it more often.IMG_1009.jpg

Everyone gets impatient during this process but there isn’t much you can do to hurry things along. Just keep it at a nice, gentle boil, stir it once in a while. You’re going to have to reduce it down by about half to get the right thickness.

Once you get it cooked down to about the right thickness, we’re not done quite yet. We add two small cans of tomato paste, not so much for flavor but to help with the texture. It gives it a thicker, more pleasing texture. You can skip this part if you like, but we think it helps. Once the tomato paste is thoroughly incorporated (it takes a lot of stirring, tomato paste is difficult to get to dissolve completely sometimes) give it a taste. This is where you can add more sugar or a bit more salt to compensate for the tomato paste.

Now I’m looking at about 5 quarts of delicious sauce, so it’s time to can it.

I pressure can sauces like this. I do not recommend water bath canning for this kind of sauce. I have a big Presto canner that can hold up to 12 quarts. It was fairly expensive, I think it was about $120 when I got it a few years ago, but it was worth it because we use it a lot.

Follow the usual recommended procedures for prepping the jars and lids (i.e. wash the jars, sterilize them and the lids, etc.). Put the recommended amount of water in  your canner, put it on the stove and bring up the heat.

You want to “hot pack” the jars. That means the sauce is still very hot, just off the boil, when you fill the jars. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in each quart. This isn’t for flavor, it’s an added safety measure to increase the acidity of the product. Put on the lids and rings (use hotpads or heat proof gloves because they will be hot!) and tighten down. Place the jars in the canner and attach the lid according to its instructions.

IMG_1010.jpgI did these at 11-12 lbs pressure for 25 minutes.  I should point out that how you process depends on the canner you are using, the product you are canning, and currently recommended processing techniques. Canning your own produce is a great way to preserve your fruits and vegetables, but safety is the most important thing to consider when canning. Please be sure to follow all of the instructions and safety recommendations. Don’t just rely on some recipe you find in an old cookbook because a lot of those techniques are now considered unsafe.

The University of Wisconsin Extension system has a good website for information about how to safely can foods. You can find it by clicking the link above.’

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And this is what we end up with.

A lot of work, yes, but consider this. When you can your own, you know exactly what is in that product. There are no strange chemicals with names you can’t pronounce, no corn syrup, no “flavor enhancers”, just your tomatoes, peppers, onions, spices, salt and sugar. You can adjust the flavor to suit your own tastes, you can reduce or eliminate the salt if you’re on a salt restricted diet, you can add additional spices or leave some out if you don’t like one. And there is something enormously satisfying about pulling out that jar of your own sauce during a blizzard in January and allowing that amazing flavor to take you back to those hot, humid days of late summer when everything was growing, tomatoes were glowing red in the sun, and letting that aroma from that sauce transport you back in time.

 

Farm Catch Up

It’s been a long time since  I did one of these, so let’s see what’s been going on in the farming world.

Bayer Acquisition of Monsanto Wraps Up — As of Aug. 17, Bayer had finished divesting itself of various businesses to satisfy regulators so it could complete the buy of Monsanto and it will fully acquire the company and Monsanto as an independent company will disappear. Bayer actually bought all of Monsanto back in June, but could not fully integrate the company until it satisfied the conditions set by various governments.

One has to wonder if Bayer is thinking this might not have been such a good idea. Monsanto just lost a $200+ million dollar lawsuit in California which claimed glyphosate caused someone to develop cancer and I’ve heard that there are many, many more lawsuits in the pipeline over the herbicide. And if that isn’t bad enough, Monsanto’s dicamba blend herbicides could actually end up being banned because of continued wide spread damage being caused by the herbicide drifting long distances and harming other crops, gardens, trees, bushes, etc. Despite stringent application requirements the problem has not gone away and there is a lot of pressure to ban the stuff entirely except as a pre-emergent herbicide that can only be used prior to planting. That would pretty much destroy Monsanto’s sales of dicamba resistant seeds.

You have to remember that the lawsuit mentioned above was in California where apparently just about everything causes cancer, even coffee. Which it doesn’t. Coffee, I mean. The slight correlation between drinking coffee and cancer appears to be due not to the coffee but to the temperature of the beverage. There seems to be a link (a very slight one) between drinking drinking hot beverages over 140 degrees and esophageal cancer and some others.

Milk Labeling Controversy Continues — The argument over what products can use the label “milk” continues. Despite the fact that FDA has, for decades, had an official, legal definition of what “milk” is, defining the term as the secretions of the mammary glands of animals, various makers of nut, grain and plant juices have been using the term “milk” in their labeling for years. Protests about the mislabeling and demands for enforcement of the existing regulations have been ignored for decades. But it seems the FDA is finally going to do something about it because of increased pressure, and it looks like the agency might actually start to enforce it’s own regulations in the fairly near future. I’ve talked about this before so I’m not going to repeat that.

The interesting thing is that a couple of senators tried to slip an amendment into an unrelated spending bill that would have kept the FDA from actually enforcing it’s own rules by prohibiting “the use of funds to enforce standards of identity with respect to certain food.” The amendment would not have altered FDA’s definitions, but would have kept the agency from actually enforcing it’s own rules. Exactly why these two tried to slip this through I don’t know. I’m sure they didn’t get, oh, large campaign contributions from people or organizations linked to the nut “milk” lobby. (Here is where I wish we had a sarcasm font)

Anyway, the amendment was shot down in flames by the Senate. The vote was something like 14 for, 84 against.

I’ve long believed that what we really need is a better definition of the term “bribery” and a law enforcement agency willing to enforce it.

Wisconsin Loses 382 Dairy Farms In First Half of Year — That number should give you some idea of how bad the dairy industry is doing right now. Last year Wisconsin lost about 465 dairy farms. If the attrition continue at this rate, we’re on track to lose more than 650 farms this year. It’s easy to look for scapegoats, of course. The dairy industry itself is a primary contributor to the problems thanks to massive over production. This administration’s nasty little trade war isn’t helping, of course. I’ve seen estimates that this trade war has knocked about $1.50 off the price of milk as countries that used to import our dairy products are now looking elsewhere.

Tariff Relief Program — USDA announced at the end of July it would be starting up a tariff relief program to try to make the hit farmers in the US are experiencing a bit less painful. It announced $12 billion would be funneled to farmers in one way or another using existing relief programs. The exact details are a bit muddy, and USDA seems to be in utter confusion about exactly how this is going to work, so if you’re a farmer who’s been hurt by this, don’t expect any kind of relief any time soon. Considering Perdue, the Secretary of Ag, claimed well over a year ago that the administration would renegotiate NAFTA in just a “few weeks” and they’re still fighting over it today with no end in sight, I wouldn’t count on seeing any actual money coming out of this program for some time.

Another big question is exactly where this $12 billion is going to come from because Congress hasn’t authorized any spending for this program.

Almond “milk” Recalled Because It Has Real Milk In It — HP Hood, makers of Almond Breeze nut juice, is recalling more than 145,000 cartons of it’s product because it may have actual real milk in it instead of it’s nut juice stuff.

Still More Tariffs — The administration will begin to levy 25% import duties on still more Chinese imports soon. This time it’s going to be mostly industrial products like chemicals, plastics and machine parts. China has promised it will strike back dollar for dollar by putting it’s own penalties against US products in place. And it could get worse fast, with the US apparently considering tariffs on an additional $200 billion of Chinese products. The administration has uttered threats of putting tariffs on all Chinese imports.

What a lot of people, especially those who blindly back what the administration is doing, don’t seem to realize is that this while this may hurt China a bit, the ones who are really paying for it are us, and not just in lost sales to China. A lot of these products that are being imported from China simply aren’t made anywhere else, or are made in such small quantities that the domestic makers can’t even come close to meeting the demand.

Let me point out one thing that people don’t seem to understand. That 25% tariff isn’t being paid by China.

That tariff is being paid by the people who buy the product here in the United States. We pay it. If a manufacturer makes a product that includes parts and materials that can only be sourced from China, it has to pay that extra 25%, and that’s what’s happening right now. Yes it will cut back on the amount of purchases from China, but in a lot of cases there is no choice. You pay that 25% tax or you can’t make your product.

That extra cost has to be accounted for somewhere. At the moment a lot of manufacturers are absorbing that extra cost in the hopes that this situation won’t last long. But eventually they aren’t going to be able to keep that up and they are going to have to increase the prices of their finished product. So in the long run, the people who are paying that tariff are us, the consumers.

Lost Valley Farm Saga Continues — A mega dairy in Oregon called Lost Valley Farm is in the news yet again. The farm has only been in existence less than two years, and it has already racked up an impressive list of operational violations that is unprecedented in my experience. Illegal manure disposal, illegal pumping of water from aquifers, illegal generation of wastewater, failure to obtain proper permits, violations of permits… The list goes on and on according to the Oregon Dept. of Ag. (ODA). Most recently the farm was ordered to produce no more than 65,000 gallons of waste water per day to meet permit requirements, but allegedly has continuously violated that agreement by producing as much as 375,000 gallons in excess of the limits.

Meanwhile, the farm’s bank has been going after them. They took out a $60 million loan from Rabobank to start this thing up and the bank is not exactly pleased with things. The farm agreed to sell off the cattle to try to pay down debt.

And then declared bankruptcy the day before the sale was supposed to happen to prevent the sale and keep the bank from foreclosing.

The attorney for the owner of the farm claims they are doing everything the ODA is asking, that they’ve made significant progress in meeting the requirements, etc. ODA counters by pointing out the farm has been in almost continuous violation of of the deal. And the judge handling the case is considering contempt charges against the owner.

Drinking Straw Bans — Oh, brother… Just about everyone seems to be jumping on this call to ban plastic drinking straws. Using data allegedly developed by a nine year old kid, everyone seems to now think that plastic drinking straws are killing the planet and have to be banned right now. Almost every time I look at a media outlet I’m seeing yet another article about some restaurant or town or university or some organization banning plastic drinking straws.

Look, has anyone actually thought about this? Hmm? I’m not sure about the exact numbers because they bounce all over the place because no one seems to know the actual facts, but it seems that straws account for something like 0.0002% of the plastic waste being generated by people. I’m all for reducing waste, especially plastic waste, but there are a heck of a lot more serious sources of plastic waste to go after than drinking straws.

Some places are talking about going to reusable straws made of stainless steel or some other substance that can tolerate cleaning. Have you ever tried to actually clean and sanitize a straw? Basically, you can’t. If put in a dishwasher, the water isn’t going to actually get inside of the straw to clean it. Some might trickle through it depending on how it’s oriented inside of the washer, but not enough to do a thorough job. And as for hand washing, you can run water through it, but that isn’t going to actually remove anything clinging to the inside of the straw. Or you can get, oh, a tiny, tiny brush and wash each one individually, but of course no one is going to do that. Then you’re going to have to try to sanitize it, perhaps by soaking it in some kind of bleach solution. But water is a tricky thing. Because of things like the surface tension of water, you can get air gaps in small spaces…

Do you really want to be drinking out of a straw that’s been used by someone with, oh, hepatitis, for  example, or norovirus?

Well, that’s enough for now. You’re probably getting as bored as I am. And the way the garden looks outside MrsGF and I are going to be busy processing tomatoes for a while. They’re starting to come on fast right now.

Gardening: Tomatoes!!! We got Tomatoes!!!

IMG_0976I don’t think I’ve ever seen our tomatoes look quite this good. The plants are amazingly lush and have gotten absolutely enormous. The two Wisconsin 55 plants are about 4-5 feet across and would be probably 4 feet tall if the weight of the fruit wasn’t pulling the stems down. The tomato cages have proven woefully inadequate and have started collapsing. It’s ridiculous. The other variety we planted are Early Girl, a smaller tomato, but they’re just as lush and prolific as the 55s are.

And judging from the color, it looks like what MrsGF and I are going to be doing by the end of the week is processing tomatoes into sauce, soup, and just canning/freezing them.

IMG_0978I got the first ripe one of the season yesterday. I saw it peeking through the dense canopy of leaves, a flash of red, did some digging around and there it was. I still get a bit excited when I find the first tomato of the season. I found a total of three yesterday.  The rest are still pretty green but they’re coming on fast.

I’ve also found, alas, a few with blossom end rot. But only a few, maybe three or four. The rest look pretty good. Blossom end rot hits tomatoes and peppers both, and is apparently linked to a calcium deficiency in the soil. We were thinking maybe starting to save eggshells instead of putting them in the compost going down to the compost site and try an experiment with crushing them and soaking them in water and using that to water the plants next year. MrsGF said the nuns did that at the convent back when she was almost a nun. Yeah, seriously, MrsGF was almost a nun. How I “stole” her from a convent has apparently become part of the family oral history. Sigh…

IMG_0973The banana peppers are in full production and are just as loaded with fruit as the tomatoes are. We’re starting to chop and freeze them. They’re easy to deal with. Just clean ’em, dice them up, stick them in freezer bags or an airtight container and chuck them in the freezer and pull out for omelets, soup, sauce, pizza or whatever when needed.

There were supposed to be sweet banana peppers. Emphasis on the word “supposed”. Some of these stinkers are downright hot, with a few pushing the heat level of jalapeno peppers. The flavor is amazing, but the heat is something some of the family members don’t care for, so we’re going to have to use these with some caution. We have a few sweet bell peppers, but they don’t look like they’re going to produce very well this year for some reason.

IMG_0974MrsGF put in 3 squash plants this year in the garden at the back of the garage and they’re pretty much taking over everything back there like they did last year. The vines grow astonishingly fast. We’re constantly pulling vines out of the lawn, out of the raspberries, out of the rhubarb… They look like they’re doing pretty good too. We’re seeing some nice sized squash already and lots of baby squash just starting to develop.

We have 3 cucumber plants grown from seed and they haven’t been very successful this year. Very spindly vines and very few cukes. But that’s not a real issue because I’m the only one who really likes to eat fresh cucumbers anyway. As long as I get enough to make a fresh cucumber salad once in a while I’m happy.

IMG_0163Other stuff — I worked out a deal with Eldest Son on my Honda Goldwing. With her back and knee issues it’s almost impossible for MrsGF to get on and off a motorcycle any more, so the Wing has sat mostly unused since I got it. I’ve had it since 2013 and it has a whopping 3,400 miles on it. Sigh… So I worked out a deal with ES. I don’t want to give up on biking, so we’re doing a swap, his Honda VTX, which is really a one person bike, for the Wing plus some cash and other stuff.

We worked out the deal last winter but we still haven’t gotten around to actually swapping bikes, so the Wing is still parked in the garage. We were going to do the swap at the end of July but… Well, the Wing had a bad battery and the VTX needed new front fork seals so here there you go… The shop he goes to has a 2 week backlog for repairs. Oh well…

We used to do a lot of motorcycling, MrsGF and me. We took our BMW literally all over the country. We put about 50,000 miles on that bike in the few years we owned it and had a lot of fun. Then I traded it off on the Wing and– well, the problem was not long after that I got the Corvette too and, well, you tell me which you would rather do, go on a long trip on a motorcycle in the heat, cold, rain, etc, or go in a convertible Corvette which is comfortable, has a top you can put up to keep the rain out, air conditioning (it was 107 degrees when youngest son and I were out in SD with it), and a decent sized trunk.

Fuel economy better on the bike? Yeah, well, you’d be surprised at how poor the milage is on these big touring bikes and how good it is on the Vette. The Wing gets, at best, 34 mpg cruising at 55. Add MrsGF, our clothes, the trailer, and we’re lucky if we get 30 MPG on the thing when fully loaded.  And milage goes down fast as the speed ramps up. The Vette gets about 25+ if I don’t get silly.

Well, to be fair, the Vette has it’s own ‘issues’, so to speak. Like tires costing $500. Each. And oil changes costing about $100+ because it holds about 8 quarts of high end synthetic (i.e. expensive) oil. The only reason I can afford to operate it is that I don’t drive it much. And it sounds like a jet fighter taking off when you put your foot down because of the headers and Borla exhaust and, well, that part is more of a plus than a minus…

There’s an urban myth about this car setting off car alarms with the exhaust noise if you really rev up the engine and let it snort and, well, turns out it isn’t an urban myth. Not, of course, that I’d know about something like that from personal experience. Nope, not at all…

 

Catching Up With Stuff

I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting this blog recently because, well, to be honest, not a heck of a lot is really going on this time of year.

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The tomatoes are going crazy this year. They’re almost chest high and at least 4 feet wide at this point, and loaded with fruit. In about a week or two at the most we’re going to be able to start picking tomatoes. If we manage to avoid blossom end rot and other problems this year, we’re going to have more tomatoes than we know what to do with.

I’m not sure why they became this ridiculously prolific this year. MrsGF pointed out that we added a lot of compost to the beds this year and top dressed with a very mild fertilizer. But even so, this is a bit much. The wire tomato cages are starting to collapse from the weight of the plants and I’ve had to put in additional rods to keep the cages from collapsing.

I don’t know why I bother with the wire tomato cages they sell in the garden centers around here. They just can’t handle the plants we grow here. I think I’m going to have to go get some rebar or something like that, fire up the torch and weld up my own.

We put in 2 varieties, Early Girl and Wisconsin 55, and both seem to be doing equally well.

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We’ve been getting raspberries too this year. MrsGf’s sister gave her about a dozen plants a couple of years ago and they’ve completely taken over the corner of the garden where they were planted.

We aren’t getting a huge number, but enough to give us a nice sized bowl full every few days. I’m not supposed to eat them anyway. I have  diverticulosis which, fortunately, has never flared up on me, but I still need to be careful. I’m supposed to avoid eating things with seeds and chopped nuts, which means raspberries are on the avoidance list. But, well, come on, fresh raspberries right off the plant? I’m afraid probably half of the berries we get never make it into the house.

IMG_0935I picked up one of those goofy little roses in a teacup that you see at discount stores sometimes for MrsGF one day because I thought it would look neat on the window sill in the kitchen for a few days, and then it would probably die and we’d toss it and that would be the end of it. Well, MrsGF transplanted the dopy thing into a larger pot, stuck it outside and it’s been going crazy just like the tomatoes have. It’s quadrupled in size and has been putting out brilliant red flowers ever since.

We’re going to try to keep it through the winter and see what happens. If it makes it, great. If not, no big deal. It only cost me something like $5

Other Stuff:

I just realized the other day that I’ve put more miles on the bicycle than I have on the Corvette this summer. Nothing wrong with that but it does seem a bit odd for someone who enjoys driving as much as I do. MrsGF and I haven’t really managed to get away on a vacation this summer. Since, oh, 2007 or so, we’ve managed to get away for a couple of weeks or so to go somewhere, usually out west. And I used to go to South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming at least once during the summer by myself if I could. One year we took a three week road trip on the motorcycles with Eldest Son out to Maine.

One reason is MrsGF has been crazy busy this summer. The state is trying to bring an electronic health records system on-line before winter and she’s involved in that and you wouldn’t believe how difficult and complex that project has been. Plus she’s going to be on the road now for two days to do audits. She’s managed to get a few days off here and there, but any kind of real vacation for her is going to have to wait until October.

She’s still planning on retiring in March and is really looking forward to that. She’s already been looking into getting into the Master Gardener program. One local charity is pushing to get her on the board, and I’m threatening to run her for town council <grin> just to keep her busy..

Amateur Radio Stuff:

Right now there is considerably controversy about the Technician class license, which has become the entry level license for amateur radio.

AR is in a rather odd situation at the moment. We are seeing record numbers of new licensees. The latest number I’ve seen is that there are over three quarters of a million holders of an amateur radio license, most of them holding the Technician license. This may sound like amateur radio isn’t doing too bad since we have more than 750,000 people in the hobby and that number is growing every year. But there are some concerns.

First, most of those new Tech licensees don’t seem to be actually using that license. We should be hearing them popping up on those parts of the spectrum where they are licensed to operate. Only we aren’t. Tune in the local repeaters around here (and everywhere else, apparently) and you almost never hear any of the new licensees on the air. And we never hear them down on the HF (shortwave) frequencies where they are permitted to operate.

Second, the vast majority of Tech licensees never upgrade their licenses to General or Extra class to get access to all of the HF spectrum. They get the Technician license and stay Technicians.

A lot of people find this troubling. If these people are getting their licenses and never actually using those privileges, or using them only very rarely, why aren’t they? Obviously they were interested in amateur radio in the first place or they wouldn’t have gotten the license. So why aren’t they actually using it? And why aren’t they eventually upgrading to the General or Extra license?

The ARRL thinks it’s because the Techs only have extremely restricted access to the HF bands. Below 50 mHz, Techs can legally only use a very small portion of the 10 meter band for voice and CW. And below the 10 meter band they only have access to an even smaller range of frequencies, and there they can use CW (morse code) only. The ARRL believes that if Techs were granted expanded privileges on HF they would be more interested in AR and actually get on the air, and even become interested enough so they would upgrade their licenses to gain more privileges.

The problem with that is there is no actual evidence to support that belief. The ARRL is basing that on the results of a very flawed survey that almost no tech licensees actually saw or responded to, and on little more than wishful thinking.

The ARRL’s thinking in this is fundamentally flawed, I believe. The Technician licensees they’re so worried about haven’t upgraded because either A) they aren’t interested in HF at all and are only interested in VHF/UHF, or B) they aren’t interested in amateur radio in the first place and got the license for emergency communications, storm spotting, flying drones or are “preppers” of one variety or another.

In any case, any Tech who is interested in the HF frequencies can get access simply by taking the General license test. It isn’t that hard. Seriously. It isn’t. A current Tech license holder could easily pass the General with minimal preparation.

I don’t particularly care if the ARRL gets this past the FCC or not, to be honest. It isn’t going to effect me one way or the other. I rather doubt the FCC is going to grant the ARRL’s petition. I suspect the FCC will point out to the ARRL that if Techs want access to HF they should just take the General test.

 

Amateur Radio & Gardening, Hey, Why Not

The weather has been amazingly pleasant for a change these last few days. Everything is growing like crazy as you can see from the photo of the hosta garden in front of the house that I took yesterday. Wonderful plants, hostas; decorative, resilient, with so many different shapes and types it’s hard to keep track.

IMG_0875The corner garden here has been completely redone. In the past it was mostly herbs and decorative plants, but this year we more than doubled it in size, hauled in a tons of compost (well, my aching back claimed it was tons) and it’s being switched to mostly vegetables this year. MrsGF put in something like 20+ pepper plants of varying types (can you tell we like peppers?) plus two blueberry bushes and a couple of rows of beans down along the front. The soil in there is so utterly horrible that I did something I very rarely do, I raked in some commercial fertilizer as well. We’ll see what happens. It will either be wildly successful or everything will die off.

IMG_0873We were not going to make the same mistake we did last year by crowding too many plants into the two raised beds. It’s very tempting when putting in seedlings to crowd them in because it seems like there is so much wasted space, and forgetting just how big those plants get when they’re mature. We only put 6 plants in each of the beds this year and I hope that will help to eliminate some of the issues we had last year. While we avoided the dreaded blossom end rot last year, we did have some fungus problems because the plants were so crowded together.

IMG_0881And then when I was walking around the yard yesterday I nearly stepped on this guy. Yes, we have snakes in Wisconsin. You wouldn’t think they could survive our winters up here, but several species do quite well. Heck, until the 1950s or 60s we still had timber rattlers around here. This little guy… Little? Ha, he was a good two and a half feet long. He scared the heck out of me although I’m sure nearly being stepped on while he was sunning himself in the grass scared him more.

Amateur Radio Stuff

IMG_0863After the fiasco of wrecking the fold down mount for the GAP antenna, I put the crappy old Comet 250 vertical back up, hooked up the coax, went inside, checked to make sure everything looked OK, turned on the transceiver and — and immediately made about 6 different contacts all over North America with the thing on 40, 30 and 20 meters, running about 40 watts of power, less than it takes to run a modern lightbulb.

Sigh… radio propagation is weird sometimes.

I’ve been getting more and more interested in QRP operations. That’s amateur radio slang for very low power. QRP operators put out 5 watts of power or less. Often a lot less. The guys who are really good at it often operated with less than one watt of radiated power. They often use transceivers they built themselves or got as kits that can be ridiculously inexpensive.

There is a ‘gotcha’, though. Trying to make contacts using voice at those low power levels is damn near impossible. If you’re going to run QRP, you really need to go with good old morse code, or CW as it’s called.

Now I’ve thrown myself at CW on numerous occasions over the years, and failed miserably in learning it. The recommended techniques, the tapes, the CDs, none of them have worked. It all sounds like pure noise to my ear.

But then I ran into an IOS app called “Ham Morse”. It does have the more traditional teaching method, which doesn’t work for me. But what does work is that Ham Morse can also tie into the headline news feeds of various news organizations and sends the as CW at whatever speed you’re comfortable with. And guess what? For me, at least, this works. Now that I’m trying to copy actual meaningful text instead of single letters or groups of letters that have no relationship, my weird brain is actually starting to make the connection between those strange noises and the text.

The result is that I can copy CW at up to about 6 – 8 words per minutes. Maybe. Sometimes. Sort of. I’ve been listening to a lot of CW down on 20 meters trying to make sense of it all and despite all of the odd abbreviations and symbols and prosigns they use, I’m starting to pick some of it up.

Anyway, one of the reasons I’m interested in QRP is that the equipment is small, the antennas are small, you can operate with nothing but a relatively small battery. The whole kit can be thrown into a backpack easily, set up and taken down quickly. It’s ideal for someone who spends a lot of time on a bicycle like me. Would be great fun to sit out on the trails making contacts on summer mornings with just a wire hanging in a tree and a couple of watts of power.

http://offgridham.com/

I don’t make a lot of recommendations for websites or products or stuff like that, but if you’re at all interested in QRP operations, battery technology, solar power technologies and amateur radio, click the link up there at offgridham.com. Chris over there has provided a wonderful resource. He delves into alternative power technologies like solar, evaluates and discusses battery charging systems, battery types, etc. While it’s oriented for amateur radio, the material he covers is going to be of interest to anyone who is interested in unplugging from the power grid.

And that’s all for now.

Oh, I keep forgetting. I have email here. If you have questions or stuff you don’t want to put in the comments, you can reach me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com

 

Just What Is “Milk”?

South Mountain Creamery in Maryland is in something of a bizarre situation. The farm has it’s own bottling plant and sells milk directly to consumers, and it has the FDA going after it because it’s 100% real pasteurized skim milk is, well, 100% real skim milk and nothing else.

That’s right, the FDA claims the creamery cannot label it’s skim milk as “skim milk”. It is trying to order the creamery to label it “imitation milk product” or “imitation milk” when, well, when it absolutely is not imitation anything. The FDA claims it has to be labeled “imitation” because the product does not contain artificially added vitamins.

Now, a bit of background here. The milk you buy in the grocery store is not actually pure milk. Pretty much none of it is. It has vitamins A and D added to it. Basically the bottling plant throws a ground up vitamin pill in it. Why? Because once up on a time about 90 or so years ago, we had problems with vitamin deficiencies so the government began to mandate adding extra vitamins to milk. But the fact of the matter is that this hasn’t been necessary in, well, half a century, really. And there is actually a risk of getting too much A and D. Most European countries actually ban adding adding them to milk because of the risk of overdose. Too much D can cause heart arrhythmia and other problems and too much A can be seriously toxic as well.

And in any case, the amount of A and D being added may not even be what it says on the label to begin with as the New York Times discovered back in 1992 when  independent testing of milk samples found that the actual amounts of vitamins in the milk being sold varied wildly, and in at least one case back in 1992 the level of vitamin D was so high it was dangerous causing medical problems for at least eight people.

Now I’m not going to get into the debate about whether or not D and A should or should not be added to milk. I just want to talk about this whole labeling nonsense because, well, according to the FDA’s own regulations, the agency’s actions in this case seem to be just wrong. Here is how FDA defines “milk”:

[Code of Federal Regulations]
[Title 21, Volume 2]
[Revised as of April 1, 2017]
[CITE: 21CFR131.110]

 

TITLE 21–FOOD AND DRUGS
CHAPTER I–FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
SUBCHAPTER B–FOOD FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION

PART 131 — MILK AND CREAM

Subpart B–Requirements for Specific Standardized Milk and Cream

Sec. 131.110 Milk.
(a) Description. Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows. Milk that is in final package form for beverage use shall have been pasteurized or ultrapasteurized, and shall contain not less than 8 1/4 percent milk solids not fat and not less than 3 1/4 percent milkfat. Milk may have been adjusted by separating part of the milkfat therefrom, or by adding thereto cream, concentrated milk, dry whole milk, skim milk, concentrated skim milk, or nonfat dry milk. Milk may be homogenized.

(b) Vitamin addition (Optional). (1) If added, vitamin A shall be present in such quantity that each quart of the food contains not less than 2000 International Units thereof within limits of good manufacturing practice.

(2) If added, vitamin D shall be present in such quantity that each quart of the food contains 400 International Units thereof within limits of good manufacturing practice.

(c) Optional ingredients. The following safe and suitable ingredients may be used:

(1) Carriers for vitamins A and D.

(2) Characterizing flavoring ingredients (with or without coloring, nutritive sweetener, emulsifiers, and stabilizers) as follows:

(i) Fruit and fruit juice (including concentrated fruit and fruit juice).

(ii) Natural and artificial food flavorings.

(d) Methods of analysis. Referenced methods are from “Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists,” 13th Ed. (1980), which is incorporated by reference. Copies may be obtained from the AOAC INTERNATIONAL, 481 North Frederick Ave., suite 500, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, or may be examined at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). For information on the availability of this material at NARA, call 202-741-6030, or go to: http://www.archives.gov/federal_register/code_of_federal_regulations/ibr_locations.html.

(1) Milkfat content–“Fat, Roese-Gottlieb Method–Official Final Action,” section 16.059.

(2) Milk solids not fat content–Calculated by subtracting the milk fat content from the total solids content as determined by the method “Total Solids, Method I–Official Final Action,” section 16.032.

(3) Vitamin D content–“Vitamin D–Official Final Action,” sections 43.195-43.208.

(e) Nomenclature. The name of the food is “milk”. The name of the food shall be accompanied on the label by a declaration indicating the presence of any characterizing flavoring, as specified in 101.22 of this chapter.

(1) The following terms shall accompany the name of the food wherever it appears on the principal display panel or panels of the label in letters not less than one-half the height of the letters used in such name:

(i) If vitamins are added, the phrase “vitamin A” or “vitamin A added”, or “vitamin D” or “vitamin D added”, or “vitamin A and D” or “vitamins A and D added”, as is appropriate. The word “vitamin” may be abbreviated “vit.”.

(ii) The word “ultra-pasteurized” if the food has been ultra-pasteurized.

(2) The following terms may appear on the label:

(i) The word “pasteurized” if the food has been pasteurized.

(ii) The word “homogenized” if the food has been homogenized.

(f) Label declaration. Each of the ingredients used in the food shall be declared on the label as required by the applicable sections of parts 101 and 130 of this chapter.

[42 FR 14360, Mar. 15, 1977, as amended at 47 FR 11822, Mar. 19, 1982; 49 FR 10090, Mar. 19, 1984; 54 FR 24892, June 12, 1989; 58 FR 2890, Jan. 6, 1993]

If you can wade through the legalese up there, you will note that “milk” is specifically defined, and it says things like “if” vitamin A is added, and “if” vitamin D is added, they must be at certain levels. But it doesn’t say they must be added for the product to be called “milk”. Nor does it say anything about a requirement to label milk as “imitation” if they are not added. So if this is accurate, FDA’s claim that this creamery’s skim milk must be labeled “imitation” is not in keeping with FDA’s own regulations.

Now there may be some regulation, somewhere, that requires milk to have added A and D in order to be called “milk” but I haven’t managed to find any regulations that state explicitly that in order to label something “milk” it must have A and D added to it.

This isn’t the first time this issue has come up. About a year ago there was a case in Florida where the state claimed the Ocheesee Creamery couldn’t label it’s skim milk as “skim milk” and had to call it “imitation skim milk”, despite the fact it was 100% skim milk. The state lost and lost badly, ending up with the 11th US Circuit Court ruling against the state and Florida having to pay almost half a million dollars.

The other thing I find curious is that despite the fact that the FDA has a rather strict definition of the term “milk”, i.e. “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”, it doesn’t seem to have a problem with various nut and legume juices and extracts labeling themselves as “milk”, such as soy milk and pea milk and almond milk.