Sunday, March 31, 2013

Local Water Rights

Drinkable water is becoming scarce in many parts of the world. Although here the water supply sufficiently serves our communities, this supply can be easily taken from our control. I attended a hearing in one of our neighboring towns where a multi-national company is seeking to enlarge its control over the local aquifer. This is my observation of the meeting.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission held a meeting on March 7th in Fryeburg, Maine. The intent was to hear public comment regarding a proposed agreement between the Fryeburg Water Company and the parent company of Poland Springs, Nestle Waters North America, Inc. The agreement would allow Nestle to lease land and to extract massive quantities of water from an aquifer that serves Fryeburg and surrounding towns. The agreement spans 25 years with four five-year extensions, a total of 45 years. It specifies a minimum of 75 million gallons of water to be extracted annually. Nestle and the Fryeburg Water Company claim that the agreement will provide rate stability and a consistent revenue stream for Fryeburg Water Company’s customers.

The meeting hall was packed to overflowing with residents and interested parties. most of whom were in objection to the agreement. Reasons for the objections varied. A major concern was with the length of the agreement. It would be the longest such agreement for water extraction in the nation. Although, for now there is plenty of water in this aquifer, droughts could possibly happen during that span of time, and cannot be predicted. Suggestions were made to have a much shorter time frame in order to monitor and revise, or even curtail the plan if necessary. A nine-year-old resident expressed his concern that he would be 54 before he may have the opportunity to vote on the next extraction agreement.

Sustainability issues were raised by many residents. Water used by residents, and local businesses and farms goes back into the ground. Water that is extracted and shipped away depletes the local water supply. Extracting massive quantities will change the flow of waters toward the ocean as well as the nutrient levels of the water. This will impact fish habitats and breeding areas, affecting areas far beyond Fryeburg.

The size of the Nestle company, a large multi-national, was brought into question. Objections were made as to how a small town can effectively deal with this huge corporate entity. Reference was also made to a previous citizen vote to not allow expansion of Nestle's procurement. For this, Nestle sued the town. And winning the case got what it wanted in spite of voter objections.

The history of Fryeburg Water Company was also questioned in regards to its debt issues and monitoring procedures. Examples were cited of failures to test all of the three wells it manages. Currently, monitoring is done jointly by Nestle and the Fryeburg Water Company. It was suggested that an independent monitoring agency would better assure that information is transparently shared with the community.

The proposed agreement addresses potential water shortages resulting from extracting and other causes, but reduction rates are the same for Nestle as they are for residents. Citizens cited this as unfair, since Nestle could make up differences from their other extraction sites, while Fryeburg residents could not.

Citizens from Shapleigh, Newfield and Kennebunk testified about their communities having rejected offers from Nestle to extract their water. These and other towns in both Maine and New Hampshire have successfully voted to prohibit massive water extraction in their communities.

Even though Fryeburg has very low water rates and Nestle contributes $56,000 to the property tax base, residents overwhelmingly pleaded with the PUC commissioners to reject the agreement. There will be a Public Utilities Commission hearing in May and the final decision may come this summer. -G.H.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An Update on our Cold Frames

Before yesterday’s rain, I shoveled two feet of snow off two of our cold frames. There is a third cold frame still buried under snow. After one snow storm brought us over two feet, and another bringing a foot the following week, the cold frames have all been buried for a month. The snow pack provides a thick blanket of insulation protecting them from freezing night time temperatures.
After shoveling the snow, I opened the frames and marveled at the contrast between the green sprouts and the white banks of snow surrounding the cold frames. With days above freezing now, I'll be propping the frames open during the day.
The mache is green and healthy

The cold frames are now a part of a daily routine. This begins with a hike in the woods with our energetic dog, Murphy. Then I prop open the cold frames, and we go indoors and Murphy gets his breakfast. In the evening, before the temperature drops down into the 20's, Murphy and I have our evening trek, then I put the windows back down onto the cold frames. Not much work to that.

This year we had baby lettuce and mache until late in January, only harvesting the thinnings. The patch had been thickly seeded in late August, and  the seeds were covered with a thick layer of compost. The dark color of the compost absorbed the sunlight, kept the soil warm, and the seeds germinated.

After taking out the thinnings for our salads, the weather was cold and we kept the windows closed on the frames. Now, there are lots of well-spaced little plants that will grow as the weather warms. They will be ready to pick by early April- just when we're getting ready to plant the main garden. As spaces open up in the cold frame, I’ll throw in more seeds and cover them with some compost. That's all there is to it. Not much effort for getting fresh, organic salad greens for a good part of the winter. And all for the cost of some seeds and a little labor. -G.H.

Monday, March 11, 2013

All About Asparagus, Part 2

After the asparagus has been planted (see our previous post on asparagus), growing it takes patience and it goes like this. Year one. Plant the crowns. Years two and three. Resist temptation.

During this time, especially if the shoots are small, it’s important to resist the urge to pick them. They are actually part of the plant itself, not the fruit, so harvesting too early actually weakens the plant. The shoots grow into ferns which provide energy that goes into developing a healthy crown and a strong root system. A healthy, mature crown will then put out a multiple of spears.

Keeping the asparagus bed free of weeds helps to prevent fungal disease. The easiest way to accomplish this is to provide a layer of mulch. Mulch performs several functions; those of keeping the soil moist, and limiting weed growth. In winter in cold climates it also protects the crowns which stimulates the shoots into earlier production. We first tried using straw for mulching, but found it a breeding ground for slugs. We now use leaves, raked every fall into piles that are then placed onto all of our pathways. With forest all around our garden, leaves are abundant.

There is a possibility of Asparagus beetles invading the patch, although we haven’t seen them here. There are two types of beetles that invade asparagus patches so if you think you have them, Google “asparagus beetle” to find a strategy for dealing with the type you have. The beetles feed on shoots in spring and the ferns in summer.

Asparagus spears can grow as much as ten inches in a single day. They are ready to pick when the stalks reach around 8 inches tall and the spears are still tightly closed. The harvest season should last approximately six to seven weeks in spring through early summer. The number and diameter of the spears will dwindle toward the end of the season, showing that the crown is getting distressed and the harvest time is over.

When the spears begin to dwindle, stop harvesting. The remaining spears will grow into ferns. Let the ferns keep growing through summer and into autumn. They will reach heights of up to five feet.

In the fall, when the ferns turn yellow, cut them to the ground. Asparagus rust is a wind-borne fungus that may overwinter on plants that are not cut down. Cutting the ferns in the fall also keeps asparagus beetles from overwintering on uncut plants. -G.H.

Roasted Asparagus

Asparagus is one of the most loved veggies, with a mellow and delicious flavor that uniquely says spring. A favorite way to enjoy it is to pick and eat it right there in the garden. Those spears surviving a trip to the house are equally wonderful whether steamed, sauteed, roasted, or added (at the last minute) to a stew. However you choose to prepare it, don't overcook. Asparagus is best while the spears are tender but still firm. Here is a recipe for roasting it.

Asparagus spears, trimmed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
(optional) Balsamic vinegar
(optional) Parmesan cheese for grating

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Drizzle the spears lightly with olive oil. Toss to coat. Arrange the spears spaced apart in a single layer on a baking pan. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and pepper. Place in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until lightly browned and just beginning to turn tender. Remove from the oven, and arrange on a warmed serving dish. Sprinkle with a few drops of (optional) balsamic vinegar and grate (optional) parmesan cheese -to taste- over the top.

Monday, March 4, 2013

All About Asparagus, Part 1

After a winter of eating squash from the closet, green beans from the freezer and sauerkraut from the crock in the basement, we look forward to picking fresh veggies in spring. There are a few early favorites that usher in the season. Parsnips that have overwintered in the ground, and fiddleheads picked from stream beds (until our patch gets going) are early delights. As delicious as these are, they can't compare to the joy of asparagus. 

Here are a few things we’ve found out about asparagus; a gathering of info from many different sources in addition to our own experiences. We suggest contacting your local extension service for tips on growing it in your area.

Asparagus, according to Wikipedia, is a member of the lily family. The name comes from the Greek word ‘asparogos,’ meaning shoot or sprout. Asparagus is one of only a few truly perennial vegetables and can yield spears for 15 to 20 years or even longer, although the spears do get smaller at the plants age.

Besides being one of the earliest veggies for harvest each year, asparagus is one of the earliest vegetables cultivated by humans. Record has it that the Macedonians were growing it around 200 BC. Egyptian tomb drawings include pictures of it. Ancient Greeks and Romans considered it a cure for nearly every ailment. As Romans conquered most of Europe, they brought asparagus with them, and asparagus emigrated to America along with European settlers.

Asparagus can be started with either "crowns" or seeds. The "crowns" are usually one or two years old and are the way most asparagus beds are started. The one year-old crowns are less likely to suffer transplant shock. Seeds take longer to produce spears but are said to be more resistant to diseases that may be introduced into the bed from crowns.

When we started our patch, we had the soil tested. The results showed that the ph was too low, so we added some lime to bring it up to the specified level of around 7.0. Potassium was also indicated so we added that too. A sandy soil is said to be best, as well as a sunny place and fortunately our chosen site met these two requirements.

We'll be expanding our garden this year and expect to be starting some new crowns as well as seeds. Planting asparagus crowns is a process that takes some time. After our first try, we found, the following year, that the tops of the crowns were too close to the surface. So we pulled them out and planted them all over again. Kind of a setback, but we do want to have some to eat someday.

Planting starts with a trench. The width needs to accommodate the roots - set the crown on the ground and spread the roots out around it to be sure the trench is wide enough. The roots will grow laterally, not downward. The depth of the trench finds variance amongst sources. The minimum recommendation is 6 to 8", but as much as a foot or more is also indicated. A call to your local extension should resolve what is good for your area. The plants should be 2 to 4 feet apart in the row.

Once the trench is excavated, create a shallow mound of dirt for each crown. Set a crown onto each mound, fan the roots out in all directions, then backfill the trench with 3" of soil. The hole will be completely filled later. Water thoroughly. After about 6 weeks, when the plants begin to sprout, add another 3 inches of soil. The plants will go dormant in the fall. Then, if theres dirt left over, it's time to fill in the remainder of the furrow.

In the next post i'll finish the asparagus tale- lots more to tell! -G.H.