"At either end of any food chain you find a biological system -- a patch of soil, a human body -- health of one is connected, literally, to the health of the other."
- Michael Pollan
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The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family
The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making
Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2011
Web Resources


The Blueberry Years
The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family

By Jim Minick
2010, Thomas Dunne Books
$27.99; hardcover, 352 pages

The Blueberry Years lovingly, and in vibrant, story-telling prose, describes a 10-year attempt to provide homestead-style supplemental income by raising an acre of pick-your-own highbush blueberries. The young author and his wife, Sarah, renovate an old farmstead in hilly, copperhead-infested Floyd County, Virginia, while continuing their teaching jobs nearby, spending much of their non-teaching time clearing the land of "bull pine," planting 1,000 blueberry bushes, fertilizing (using certified organic methods), mulching, pruning, mowing and – after several years of such preparation – supervising the pickers who come to fill their buckets with huge, sweet, delicious berries.

The notion behind their blueberry venture emulates the lifestyle of Helen and Scott Nearing, as described in Living the Good Life, where a certain amount of home-based labor provides enough income during the year to allow creative (and other money-making) pursuits, such as writing (Jim) and basketmaking (Sarah), provided that the couple are otherwise debt-free. With their teaching jobs indeed paying off the farm mortgage in a very few years, and the blueberries yielding an optimum 6,000 quarts by the fourth year of the venture, all seemed to proceed according to plan, due in large part to the couple's relentless work ethic.

Minick's detailed description of the planning and labors it took to establish the farm would probably enable any reader to start a highbush blueberry business. How-to (or rather, how-we-did-it) chapters are supplemented with numerous page-long "Blue Interludes" on subjects including the history of highbush blueberry cultivation, blueberry health benefits, local and organic food, alongside profiles of blueberry advocates Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Colville and Elizabeth White.

Some 21 blueberry recipes conclude the book, along with a scholarly, five-page "Appendix of Sources."

In addition to “how-we-did-it,” much of book features Minick's vivid descriptions of the many pickers who visited the farm, along with some family history and warm portrayals of the few compatible friends they find. An elderly neighbor who raises strawberries and provides some useful tips, but scoffs at the couple's organic methods, appears throughout the book as a kind of reality-check to the couple's ideals and ambitions.

An even greater benefit of Minick's book lies in the author's candid assessment of why the venture failed, which is described with the same marvelous prose and wry wit that make the other aspects of the book such a pleasure to read. In the end, the factors that doom the project greatly outnumber the positives; the Minicks salvage their dreams by selling the farm to buy a much nicer place, with no copperheads in sight, and making sure to plant only a modest, 50 blueberry bushes (!).

A final delight in The Blueberry Years is Minick's affection for his wife, Sarah, playfully expressed on many pages, ultimately making the book a complex and candid story of how the couple survived their farm experience while strengthening their relationship.

As an account of the modern homestead experience, the book compares very well with the Nearings' writings (Living the Good Life and The Maple Sugar Book), and with Englishman John Seymour's Fat of the Land, and even with (dare I say it?) Thoreau's not-so-modern Walden, with the added benefit of asking if the self-sufficient, homestead lifestyle actually delivers on the promise of a fulfilling life based on time available for other creative endeavors, neighborly interaction, community involvement and marital bliss.

– Tim Nason, Dresden, Maine


The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making
by Henk Tennekes, Ph.D.
Weevers Walburg Communicatie, Zutphen, 2010
72 pages, download e-book PDF from www.disasterinthemaking.com for $12

Why are birds falling from the skies, their numbers crashing in mass extinctions? Henk Tennekes has an answer: He cites evidence in this book that the species suffering dramatic losses (mostly out of public view) in the past two decades – sparrows, swifts, starlings and many other insectivores – are struggling to find food, as insects such as beetles, springtails and earthworms are being wiped out by neonicotinoid insecticides, chiefly imidacloprid and clothianidin. "The excessive imidacloprid levels noted in surface water of ... [places] with intensive agriculture have been associated with insect decline and [subsequently] a dramatic decline of common grassland birds."

The author, a toxicologist in the Netherlands, documents the threat neonicotinoids pose, even at very low levels, their mode of action similar to that of chemical carcinogens. These persistent nerve poisons, applied since 1991 as systemic seed and soil treatments, cause ecological damage in two major ways: They kill insects of all kinds by devastating their nervous systems, and they migrate from soil into waterways, then disperse throughout local ecosystems. The cumulative impact of systemic insecticides on bees is addressed in the earliest sections of the book as a stern reminder that the security of the global food supply is at risk. We know that some growers in Maine are paying attention, since the contractor who trucks hives here to pollinate blueberries will not subject his bees to crops on which neonicotinoids are applied. Although blueberry growers therefore do not rely on neonicotinoids to repel insects on their fields, this class of chemicals is widely used on other food crops as well as on trees, ornamentals and turf. Tennekes points out that given the rapid spread of these persistent neurotoxins in the environment, once they are released, half-measures are not adequate to protect bees from exposure to them. Only prohibition will stem the crisis of colony collapse, and indeed such unconditional action has been taken in several regions of the world.

The Systemic Insecticides is a carefully referenced academic paper with nontechnical summaries at the beginning and end, and with remarkable landscape paintings reproduced within its pages. The artist collaborator is Ami-Bernard Zillweger, who paints wide-angle views of wildlife habitat and agricultural fields, along the edges of settled areas, that remind us how much is at stake. These are pictures that can be read equivocally, their radiant atmospherics as idyllic as they are foreboding, but the scientist's warnings of impending collase are ever less subtle: "...[C]ontamination with persistent insecticides that cause irreversible and cumulative damage to aquatic and terrestrial (nontarget) insects must lead to an environmental catastrophe. The data presented here show that it is actually taking place before our eyes, and that it must be stopped."

I am very concerned about the dire consequences of environmental pollution with these chemicals. In my opinion we face not only a threat to bees and other beneficial insects, but may be on the brink of an ecological apocalypse….. As a grandfather, I think I should do my utmost to avert a catastrophe taking place during my grandchildren’s life time, but as a self-employed scientist I find it very hard to conquer the might of an agrochemical giant ….. I hope that my plea will win your support, just as much as Rachel Carson’s plea was supported by the late President Kennedy.

– From a letter from Henk Tennekes, Ph.D., to First Lady Michelle Obama, Dec. 10, 2010

– Jody Spear, Harborside, Maine


Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2011
$19.95 + shipping & handling from www.worldwatch.org/sow11, wwpub@worldwatch.org, or 1-877-539-9946

Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet spotlights successful agricultural innovations and major successes in preventing food waste, building resilience to climate change and strengthening farming in cities. The report provides a roadmap for increased agricultural investment and more-efficient ways to alleviate global hunger and poverty. Drawing from leading agricultural experts and from hundreds of innovations already working on the ground, the report outlines 15 proven, environmentally sustainable prescriptions. These include serving locally raised crops to school children; vertical gardens (bags of soil poked with holes and planted with crops) in Kibera, Nairobi; preserving indigenous livestock adapted to heat and drought in South Africa and Kenya; and educating students about vegetable gardening, nutrition and cooking.


Web Resources

Garden writer Steve Solomon maintains an online Soil and Health Library at www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/01aglibwelcome.html. Australian libraries can provide clients with electronic copies of copyrighted materials for study when they are out of print and cannot be obtained through the usual channels of retail trade. Here readers can easily access Lawrence Hill’s Russian Comfrey, Sir Albert Howard’s Farming and Gardening for Health of Disease, N.A. Krasil’nikov’s Soil Microorganisms and Higher Plants, and dozens of other classics. While the publications are available free online, sending Soloman a donation of 20 Euros ($13.92 U.S.) will help maintain the library and enable it to grow.

The Potato Association of America’s updated Commercial Potato Production in North America Handbook is posted at www.umaine.edu/umext/potatoprogram/ .

The USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan, North Dakota, has a new Cover Crop Chart at www.ars.usda.gov/services/software/download.htm?softwareid=263 to help producers decide which cover crops to use in crop and forage production systems. Patterned after the periodic table of elements, it covers 46 species that may be planted individually or in mixtures. Information on growth cycle, relative water use, plant architecture, seeding depth, C:N ratios, forage quality, pollination characteristics and nutrient cycling are included for most species.



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