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May 26th, 2014

Ambrosia

Nothing on the farm seems to work as hard–or with as much purposeful industry–as our honeybees. Sometimes I’ll just sit back on my elbows near the hives and watch the daily, wandering bustle of their lives: their black-banded bodies freighted with nectar from thousands of obliging flowers, their legs dusted in motes of pollen; so determined and ambitious, so organized. It’s hard not to feel like an idle slacker around them.


Being there:  All magical bustle and industry


We’ve been keeping bees (or they’ve been busily keeping us) for almost five years now and they’ve become so essential to the macro organism of the farm that it’s hard to imagine growing without them. Beyond their remarkable, ambrosial honey, they are the planet’s primary pollinators, responsible for thirty percent of the food we humans eat.

What they draw from the floral landscape, the raw honey we harvest, is one of nature’s miracles. Honey is the only food that never spoils (they’ve found edible honey in the tombs of the pharaohs), and, in its raw form, is an excellent anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal (it can even be used topically to treat infection). It’s rich in anti-oxidants,  a boost to your immune system, and local, raw honey (not the pasteurized yellow stuff at the supermarket) even helps with allergies: A tablespoon a day of raw honey from within a 100 miles radius of your home acts as an allergy immune booster, since the bees are processing the same pollen that’s making you seasonably miserable.


Deep, Rich, Raw: honey ready for CSA members


The world would be bleak without bees, of course, so deciding to keep them–despite their unpredictable wildness–is an act of stewardship and conservation(oh yeah, there’s the reward of all that honey too). But I learned the hard way that becoming and apiarist isn’t just about setting up a few hives and letting the bees work their magic untended; like anything on the farm, there’s a fair amount thoughtful management and care involved.


Sweet, pleated quince blossoms in the orchard are delicious spring forage for bees


We’ve had our colonies collapse, or swarm out of their sticky, comfortable digs for no apparent reason, or perish in the brutality of a polar vortex, but we’ve persisted each year. Besides pollination and honey, keeping bees makes you something of an activist. Since bee populations have declined precipitously and mysteriously in the last decade (most likely due to the overuse of systemic pesticides), caring for a few of your own hives not only keeps you in delicious raw honey, but makes a small but meaningful contribution to the survival of this remarkable species.  –Mb

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November 6th, 2013

Oblivion

“He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Now that a few frosts have left Stonegate “stripped of its finery”–its green, biomolecular skin turned to mush–the farm has begun a swift and certain journey towards oblivion.

SGF Nov. 13-6993

Anise Hyssop, along with other herbs and flowers, have been transformed into delicious organic teas and spices.

The lurking cold has crept into beds of greens, transforming tender leaves and stalks into slack ribbons of decay. Once-vibrant rows of cut flowers that persisted all season have been hung up and dried; Jezebels of seductive color forced to put on their veils.

SGF Nov. 13-6865The stable has been hung high with drying flowers.

It’s reassuring to see that the bees, despite their wildness, have done some good cognitive mapping of the property and beyond, know where the food and shelter is, and are now huddled in the walled domestic darkness of the hive, forming a winter clusters around their queens.

The chickens are spending more time cooped up, heading out occasionally to peck at fallen fruit and frozen bugs. On cold days–besides the wood smoke curling into the sky, or clouds of brittle leaves scattering about–they’re the only thing moving.

SGF Nov. 13-6625

Chickens, drumstick-deep in warm straw, are beginning to prep for winter.

November is post-mortem time. Time to sort through the pathology of what did or didn’t work, what grew well, what failed to deliver.  Seed packets are always as full of promise as they are seeds.

Flower and vegetable annuals live out a lifetime in a few months–birth, growth, decline, death. A nicely-framed physiological snapshot compared to us.

SGF Nov. 13-6909Celosia spicata ‘Flamingo Feather’ makes for beautiful dried bouquets.

Plants may not have consciousness as we know it, but they can tell us something deep about living; free from the existential burden of defining themselves, they just are.

We, on the other hand, are obsessed with self-definition–more than ever in a social-media world, where fretting about on-line likes, tweets and posts are a form of virtual existence and affirmation, and seem to give distorted meaning to it all (he says, writing a blog)

SGF Nov. 13-6955Hot peppers are being dried for their flaky seeds.

Just being used to be enough, to “tramp a perpetual journey,” as Whitman said. But sit in an airport, a bar or a café, or even walk down the street these days and you’ll see that everyone is somewhere else, no one is present.

Wherever we go, it seems, there we aren’t.

One thing farming asks of you, besides considerable patience and humility, is to be present, to be empirically engaged in the world around you. There’s no other way to do it. For me, this little farm keeps it real.  – Mb

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October 22nd, 2013

Where the Wild Things Are

If Hinduism has it right, and honey is one of the five elixirs of immortality, then I may be fated to a life everlasting, free of karmic debt; the fall honey flow at Stonegate Farm has been that good.

SGF OCT-4Bees are calmed with puffs of smoke.  They assume their house is on fire, and gorge on honey, not you.  You’re just another guy outside in a suit smoking.

Unlike the Spring harvest, which was translucent and sweet from the nectar of orchard blossoms, the fall forage from goldenrod, calendula, anise, cosmos, and borage has been transformed into a honey that is slow-moving and deep; a10w30 shade of sweet, raw crude.

SGF OCT-5Frames heavy with capped honey are removed from the upper supers.

When we pulled heavy fames of comb from our hives last week, the long, liquid pour of dark amber that emerged was remarkable. It seemed to contain all of the sun’s complex energy; elaborated by flowers and bees, ambrosia for us.

SGF OCT-7Female worker bees filling comb cells with nectar.

The harvest begins with a smoke–a universal sedative, it seems–to calm the bees (assuming there’s a fire, they gorge on honey, and not you, as a survival instinct). Then frames of comb are pulled from the upper hives boxes (or supers) and the comb in uncapped with a hot knife and spun in a centrifuge-like extractor until the cells are empty. The raw honey is then filtered of pollen, odd bee parts, and flecks of comb and decanted into jars. Then you just stare at it for a while with slack-jawed wonder.

SGF OCT-10Cutting caps from comb in the barn to extract raw honey.

It’s important to take only enough, of course. Though bees are terrific doomsday hoarders, they’ve stored all that honey for themselves, not for you. With autumn’s exhalation into winter, it’s requiem time at the farm, lacrimosa, and the bees know it. Taking their honey is a tacit but tense agreement between you and wildness: You manage the property and pay the bills, and we’ll share the sweet stuff.

They are truly wild and miraculous things, honeybees, and have been cultivated and coveted by humans for thousands of years. With their organizational rigor, their mysterious chemical chatter, the Euclidian symmetry of their hives, it hard not be impressed.

SGF OCT-12Deep amber honey filters through a sieve.

Most amazing is their selflessness, their collaborative understanding of the common good (are you listening, Washington?). Even if the colony is a kind of macro “self,” and individual bees are mere neurons, incapable of independent thought outside the hive’s collective consciousness, they seem to have created a utopian survival mechanism worth envying.  We should be so lucky.

SGF OCT-14Ball jars slowly filling with late fall honey.

Our cultured bees (Apis mellifera) not only create honey, of course, they are our primary pollinators, and are responsible for thirty percent of the food we humans eat.

So their survival is linked closely to our own, not only for the fruits and vegetables they fertilize, but for what they can teach us about working together to save our own hive.  –Mb

SGF OCT-20

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

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April 1st, 2012

Buzzed

How sweet they’ve been, the first days of Spring. Though March played with our sense of seasonal order, growling out like a temperamental lion, we harvested twenty pounds of honey this week; a sap of sweet, slow, amber translucence.

Our old school honey harvest meant using the slow drip method; letting gravity do its thing as open combs were warmed in front of the fire.


Our bees buzzed off sometime late in the season, so we feared the worst: That the honey stores had been plundered. But it seems our three Russian colonies swarmed like Cossacks, leaving empty hives and all of their hard-won honey.  So we’ve ordered Italian bees and queens this year. After all, a hive of matriarchal Italians is surely going to center around the making of food. Buon appetito for us!
It turns out beekeeping is as fraught with loss as anything else on the farm, the only constants seem to be the hives themselves. You don’t imagine a lot of neurotic bee keepers out there – one just can’t be type-A anxious and high-strung when working with all the unknowable quirks of the natural world. Hopeful resignation tends to reign. Bees have ideas of their own.

Newly-jarred honey, almost a gallon of it, glows on the window sill.


Because bees will travel far to find pollen, often beyond an organic oasis and up to seven miles from the hive, pesticides used on neighboring farms are a concern. For more than a decade, as bee populations around the globe have declined dramatically, pesticides have been thought to play a part in what’s become know as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Just last week, the New York Times reported on the increasing scientific consensus that neonicotinoids, or systemic pesticides that move through plant tissue and into their nectar and pollen, make bees more vulnerable to disease. These pesticides, rubber stamped by the influence-pedaled E.P.A, weaken the immune system of bees, mess with their sense of navigation, and stunt juvenile development.

A planet without bees is not just a planet without the miracle of honey: bees pollinate 30% of our fruit and vegetable crops. The imbalance will lead to increased consumption of petro-chemical grains and feed lot protein – already a scourge in our fast food nation.

If the vanishing bees are a warning, their decline may be prophetic. Monocultures made possible by corporate profiteers such as Monsanto, ADM, and Cargill will be all that’s left; acres of GMO produce dripping with lethal chemicals  It’s no wonder we’ve been kicked out of the garden by higher powers.

Einstein wisely said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” and small organic farms are on a mission to change consciousness, one bee at a time.  –Mb


Oeuffington Post

Free range eggs from our flock of hardworking hens are available for pick up!  They’re in the create by the front door.  $3/Doz.

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