Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How we manage pests and disease

We strongly believe there are too many unknowns to safely use toxins in our food production, and we’re hopelessly optimistic when it comes to finding local solutions. This week we want to tell you about the local solutions we employ.

Before dealing with the biggest problem, varroa mites, we want to touch on some others. Unlike varroa medications, the antibiotics that other beekeepers put in their hives generally aren’t used in response to any particular problem. In other words, antibiotics are typically used to treat diseases that aren’t even there. These problems are easy for us to deal with naturally. It’s incredibly simple and it takes us practically no extra time to inspect for the foulbrood diseases. As is the case with most smaller scale beekeepers, we have never had a case of foulbrood, and we certainly won’t put antibiotics in the hive for a problem that’s easy to diagnose and isn’t there. Other diseases like nosema are rare and mild enough that doing without the antibiotic for that disease is even easier yet.

The parasitic varroa mite, on the other hand, is not an easy problem to deal with naturally. Yet, by taking advantage of all the little things we can, breeding our own queens, and keeping the scale of our farm under control we have been able to deal with the mites very successfully. To help minimize the problem we keep close records on mite levels in each of the hives and use the most mite-resistant colonies for breeder stock. We also use special screened hive bottoms that let some of the mites fall out of the hive. Then, the most important thing we do to keep mite levels under control is called drone trapping. Varroa mites prefer drone brood (brood=the bees in the developmental stages) to worker brood, so we keep one frame of all drone brood in each of our hives. We keep a record of when each frame is added, and then remove the frame after the drone cells are sealed with wax (10 days) and before the drones hatch (24 days). We feed the drone pupae to the chickens, place the empty comb in the freezer to kill any remaining mites, and then repeat the cycle. By cycling drone brood through our hives like this we have managed to keep mite levels below the treatment threshold in all but two of our forty-eight hives. Another point to note is that we test each of our hives for mites this time of year. Without testing we wouldn’t know where to target our treatment and would probably be left having to treat everything, but with only two hives to treat we can easily forego the quick and easy chemical treatments. What we use on the hives with marginal problem levels is a spray synthesized from coconut oil and regular table sugar and diluted heavily with water. It’s chemically identical to a compound found naturally in the leaves of some plants. The spray, sold under the name of sucrocide, requires removing each frame one at a time and spraying the bees on each side, and then repeating two more times over the course of a brood cycle (21 days). Instead of poisoning the mites, the spray creates a soapy-oily film that simply suffocates the mites but leaves the relatively larger bees unharmed. In general, our disease and pest management methods take substantially more time, but they save us money on chemicals, benefit other parts of our farm (like the chickens), give us a better and more up-to-date knowledge of conditions in the hive and the field, and they yield a product we’re happy to eat and to sell.

Honey quality: harvesting

We've advertised our honey as unheated and not more than coarsely strained, but that probably verges on techno-speak for many of our customers. We wanted to take a little time here to explain some of what the techno-speak really means.

So here’s a quick overview of the process that takes honey from the hive to your jar: to get the bees off of the honey frames we use a combination of escape screens (a board with a built in maze that the bees find their way out of but not back through) and a soft-bristled brush with which we simply brush the bees off the frames. (Other beekeepers commonly place foul-smelling chemicals on top of their hives that repulse the bees and cause them to move away off the honey frames.)

In order to get the honey out of the comb, the cells that the honey is in have to be uncapped (the wax cappings have to be removed to open up the cells for the honey to come out.) Most beekeepers use electrically- or steam-heated knives. Because these knives can heat and scorch the honey, we simply use a well-suited serrated knife. The next step is to extract the honey: this is where the honey frame is spun around inside a stainless steel tank in order to sling the honey out of the comb.  The honey collects in the bottom and flows out the gate into a bucket.  (Honey is too thick and the cells are too small for the honey to simply run out on its own before absorbing moisture out of the air that would lead the honey to later spoil.  The only real alternative is to crush the comb, but spinning it out leaves the comb intact for later use.)

We keep a strainer (about as coarse as a regular window screen) on top of that bucket to strain out things like the random bee that finds its way into the extractor. That honey then goes directly into a larger stainless steel settling/bottling tank and a week later, after the smaller bits of wax have all floated to the surface of the honey, we bottle the clear honey from the tap at the bottom of the tank. By taking advantage of the natural density of honey we avoid having to use any fine filters. We also avoid the heat normally associated with filtering: honey flows very slowly through fine filters, so large-scale honey packers typically heat it to enable it to flow better.

Another practice that we completely avoid is heating the honey that gets removed with the cappings. Some beekeepers will heat the cappings in order to get the wax to melt and rise to the surface. This would require heating to around 150˚ or more with “hot spots” sure to reach even higher. We simply let the honey strain out until we're done extracting that day (without any added heat).  Whatever honey strains out after that we keep for ourselves, mainly for mead making.
The other typical source of heat for honey is intentional heating to melt down any honey crystals in the honey. For producing liquid honey we’re fortunate to have honey varieties that don’t crystallize very readily, so we mainly avoid this heating by simply bringing you the honey before crystallization ever begins to set in. We also induce fine-grained crystallization in our “creamed honey” to bypass any undesirable crystallization.

The end result is honey that hasn’t had the flavor or the goodness cooked out of it; nor any off flavors cooked into it; the trace elements (including the traces of pollen that naturally occur in honey) haven’t been filtered out; it hasn’t been exposed to any chemicals; and it’s briefly stored in stainless steel before bottling in glass to insure that the container doesn’t add or take away anything from the honey.

The varietal scoop

Honey must be one of nature’s most varied foods. Around the world bees collect the sweet essence of hundreds of different plant species, most of which produce no other human food besides honey. We really enjoy these unique tastes and try hard to capture all the unique varieties of honey we can. It’s not possible to completely prevent the bees from mixing different nectars together, but to some degree varietal honeys can be harvested. Sometimes, as in the case of the sourwood tree, a flower will bloom at a time of year when very little else is in bloom. And not everything that blooms produces nectar or, for that matter, nectar that is sweet enough to attract bees. Some flowers, like the white Dutch clover that grows in many of our lawns, tend to produce very little nectar on high acid soils like we have in the Southeast. Maples and fruit trees bloom early in the year and are a great asset to the bees, but bees are rarely ready to produce a harvestable surplus that early in the year. If you were to collect pollen, the other foodstuff of bees, you would probably notice that at any given time almost all of the pollen would be the same color. This is because bees in a colony communicate with each other and will collect mostly from one species at a time. If we know that a particular plant is coming into bloom that generally produces a honey surplus we will put empty comb on our hives, and if weather and circumstances favor us we will harvest the honey as soon as the bloom ends and the bees have finished converting the nectar into honey. These are our varietal honeys. This spring (2004) the bees produced a very unusual honey, probably from the blackberry brambles, which bloomed prolifically this year. So much blooms in the spring that we can’t say this with certainty. Its uniformity, however, indicates that it is a relatively pure varietal, and we did our best to keep it separate from the subsequent nectar flow. We hope to produce one more small crop from the completely different set of flowers that are blooming now. Goldenrod has a reputation for producing a very strong, robust honey.

New ways to use honey

Sadly, some people don’t really know how to enjoy honey, and others have tragically limited their honey consumption to a small category of uses. We thought that sharing some of our favorite uses for honey might help to alleviate this sore situation. We’ll focus on perhaps the noblest use of all, which may also be honey’s most neglected use: the finishing touch. Just a hint of honey sweetness can completely transform a white sauce as in fettuccine alfredo, and it’s the perfect way to bring out the full flavor of the tomatoes in any red sauce, it blends beautifully with oriental flavors like soy, and it’s essential to an authentic bbq sauce. But don’t limit yourself to sauces: drizzle a touch of honey on a well-aged cheese with a crystalline texture like gruyere, parmesan, or aged gouda, or put just a few drops on your tomato sandwich or grilled-cheese, or drizzle over fruit or ice cream. If you’re reluctant to believe in honey’s power for a finishing touch, consider that almost every industrially prepared food has corn syrup in it. And what is corn syrup but a sorry, lifeless, unnatural substitute for honey? And remember, because honey is full of lively flavor, whenever possible wait until you’re done cooking to add the finishing touch of honey, so as not to cook off the nuances of the honey. And, of course, there are all the uses for honey where the sweetness can stand out more. A favorite light summer meal is raw quick oats with fresh fruit and either yogurt or milk, topped with a mild honey. We consider honey the only proper way to sweeten a salad dressing because of honey’s depth of flavor. And to state the obvious, honey is wonderful as the central flavor on biscuits, on toast, on bread, or on a spoon.

Creamed honey

One of the tastiest and most unique products we carry is creamed honey. In many parts of the world creamed honey is the standard, but bees in the Southeast rarely produce honey well suited to creaming. 2004 was such a year for us. Creamed (or set) honey is a soft, spreadable honey. It is nothing more than 100% pure honey where the natural crystallization process has been carefully encouraged. The unique chemistry of each honey variety affects how rapidly it will crystallize and what sort of crystal it forms. All we do to make creamed honey – and this is something you could do yourself if you were so inclined – is take honey that we already creamed and mix that with about five times as much liquid honey. We then keep the jars at 57 degrees, flipping them twice daily to make sure they crystallize evenly. This produces a fine, smooth, crystallized honey that’s ideal for spreading on bread and biscuits. (Heat will return the creamed honey to its original liquid state.) It’s a wonderful treat, especially if, like many in the Southeast, you’ve never tried it before. Most of our family now prefers it to liquid honey and consume more of it than the liquid.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Honey the conventional way

Unfortunately, honeybees have a number of serious pests and diseases. The worst of the problems have been illegally or accidentally imported from other parts of the world in the last twenty-five years. We see this as one of the ugly and inevitable side effects of producing our food all over the world.

Probably the worst of all the pests is the parasitic varroa mite. Our honeybees have little or no natural resistance to these mites, and so the mites have the potential to kill every one of a beekeeper’s hives in a single season unless the beekeeper intervenes. For about ten years after the varroa mite’s introduction to North America most beekeepers used fluvalinate (trade name: apistan), a synthetic pyrethroid, to control varroa mites. Fluvalinate is a moderately toxic chemical which at least has the advantage of being much more toxic to mites than it is to most other animals. However, overuse, misuse, and perhaps just the natural course of chemical use has led to enough resistance in varroa mites that most commercial beekeepers have moved on to even more toxic chemicals. The worst is also the most common today, namely coumaphos. Coumaphos (trade name: checkmite) is an organophosphate. Organophosphates interfere with naturally occurring enzymes called cholinesterases, which are essential for the proper working of the nervous systems of both humans and insects. Coumaphos is highly toxic by inhalation or ingestion and moderately toxic if absorbed through the skin. The symptoms of poisoning include diarrhea, drooling, muscle twitching, toxic psychosis, fluid retention of the lungs, bleeding, and even paralysis of the extremities. Symptoms can continue for up to 6 weeks, and they can continue to appear up to 4 weeks after exposure. Both fluvalinate and coumaphos are extremely persistent in the hive. They are detectable in the wax of honey supers for years after use, EVEN when the honey supers were removed at the time of treatment. Because of chemical build-up in the wax, it is illegal to produce comb honey from hives treated with coumaphos, but that’s a technicality most beekeepers are either unaware of or unconcerned with. Admittedly, much of the chemistry and toxicology of these chemicals is far above our heads, but we consider that all the more reason to avoid them. In other words, we really don’t understand the risks involved with these chemicals, but we believe no one else really can either. This is more or less our motivation for doing the very labor-intensive things we do as an alternative to the chemical-intensive norm.

Monday, January 14, 2008

No-knead bread

When this recipe came to me last year via my mother-in-law's neighbor I was thrilled. I'd been trying to make artisian type bread (chewy with a firm crust) with some luck but found the recipes long and the process slow. I was far from being able to share the bread with anyone beside our family. Then I tried this recipe and right away I knew this was a bread I had to share. I bake the bread in 2 1/2 quart white Corningware round casseroles. I can fit four in my oven at a time. If you're heating up the oven you might as well make some extra loaves to share! We've also had great fun with many variations including herb; cinnamon, nut and raisin; olive and cheese, and multi-grain. This is the original recipe but I use a bit more salt and bake it at about 425 for around 20 minutes with the lid on and another 12 minutes with the lid off. This will depend on how hot your oven runs.

New York Times No-Knead Bread
(adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery)

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
1 5/8 cup water
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Stone ground heirloom cornmeal

By the time our corn is ground into cornmeal it might not look like anything out of the ordinary, but there’s hardly a step from the selection of the seed to the grinding that isn’t markedly different from the modern norm. We first grew this variety of corn cooperatively with our friend Larry on his mountaintop farm. The seed is an heirloom from that farming community, which means it has been grown there for many years and seed has been saved over from each year to the next, a tradition we’re now continuing. Heirloom corn, like most heirloom crops, has a well-deserved reputation for exceptional flavor and quality. Unlike most conventional corn, which is yellow, this variety is white (although about one in fifty ears is red.) Because we didn’t have access to any land to grow the corn again ourselves this past year, we arranged for another friend, Jake, who lives near our new farm, to grow an acre for us. Jake grew the corn without the use of any synthetic fertilizers, and instead of using chemical herbicides to control weeds, he and his sons scraped out the weeds with the tractor and then by hand with a hoe. We stored the corn in our crib until it was dry enough to grind, but before we could grind it we sorted out any less than perfect parts, shelled it through a hand crank sheller, and winnowed it to blow out anything that wasn’t corn. We grind the fresh cornmeal more or less weekly using a granite stone grist mill. We hope you’ll enjoy the product of everything that went into this very special cornmeal. Once ground, cornmeal is best used promptly or stored in the freezer.

Buttermilk Corn Bread

2 cups cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon bacon fat or butter

Preheat oven to 375. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Pour in the buttermilk and honey and beat in the eggs. Melt the fat in a cast-iron skillet. Pour in the batter and bake in the skillet for 20 to 25 minutes, until risen and browned.

Cakey Corn Bread

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons honey
2 eggs
1 cup milk
¼ cup butter or lard

Mix together the dry ingredients. Add honey, eggs, milk, and fat. Beat until just smooth. Pour into greased 9x9x2 pan. Bake at 425 for 20 to 25 minutes.

Corn Griddle Cakes

Melt a couple tablespoons of fat in a cast-iron skillet. Mix cornmeal and a bit of salt with enough honey and water to make a sloppy batter. Spoon into hot fat and cook on one side until solid enough to flip. Cook on other side until done.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Milk and Honey Flan

2 cups milk
1/2 cup honey
3 eggs and 2 egg yolks
Warm milk. Beat eggs with honey. Stir in warm milk. Pour into 4 ramkin molds. Place molds in 9x13 pan with warm water. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve with fruit or honey.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Spoon bread with leeks

3 large eggs separated
2 1/2 Cups milk
1/2 Teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 Teaspoon salt
1 Cup cornmeal
2 Teaspoons baking powder
1 Cup fresh corn (cut from 2 or 3 ears)
2 leeks halved lengthwise, and sliced
fried ham or bacon
honey to drizzle

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 6-cup baking dish. Lightly beat egg yolks; set aside.

In a saucepan over medium heat, bring 2 cups of milk, cayenne, and salt to a boil. Sprinkle cornmeal into liquid, stirring constantly, and cook until thick and smooth, about 3 minutes. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup milk, baking powder, and egg yolks.

In a mixing bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Stir 1 large spoonful of whites into cornmeal mixture, then gently fold in remaining whites.

Pour half of the batter into prepared dish. Sprinkle on corn and leeks. Add ham or bacon. Cover with remaining batter. Bake until set and golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes. Drizzle lightly with honey. Serve immediately.