Archive for May, 2011

Decoupling resource consumption and economic growth?

May 15, 2011

We take as our text this morning a recent report from the UN, which says that on current trend global resource consumption will nearly triple by 2050. The report discusses various constraints on resource extraction, including scarcity, steadily decreasing ore quality (which thus requires more energy and water to extract), the accompanying increase in local environmental impact, and global environmental impact (chiefly climate change), and emphasizes the need to take steps to ‘decouple’ continued economic growth from resource use. This decoupling appears to happen naturally to an extent; while over the last hundred years resource use has increased dramatically, economic growth has significantly outpaced it, so the ‘resource intensity’ of the economy has decreased, despite generally downward trend in (inflation-adjusted) resource prices. But despite growing slower than the global economy, steadily increasing resource use will eventually bump up against the constraints of a finite planet, and we see evidence of this happening in the last decade or so, with commodity prices reversing their century-long downward trend:

Two questions come to mind – first, how far is it possible to go in terms of reducing the material inputs to the economic sphere, while still improving (or at least maintaining) something that most people would recognize as economic wellbeing? And second, assuming that it is possible to substantially decrease resource consumption while maintaining or increasing economic activity, will a meaningful fraction of the world’s economies actually execute that trajectory?

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Bees at work

May 13, 2011

Emily sends word that the bees are hard at work in the trees; the peaches are out and the apples soon to be. It sounds like most or all of the grafts on Nola’s 5-in-1 birthday tree are taking, and next chance I get I’ll turn over the stripe of orchard that’s going to host the pumpkins and squash this year.

Bees, take 2

May 7, 2011

The action didn’t stop Sunday. After cleaning up, I loaded the bottling gear in my car and dropped it off in Gorham for Joshua and Kelsey. I spent the night in Cambridge, and then got up early and headed for Billerica, where I picked up a pre-ordered 5-frame honeybee nucleus (“Nuc”) from Merrimack Valley Apiaries. This is a large honey and pollination outfit that features prominently in a book I recently read, called Following the Bloom, by a guy named Douglas Whynott. It’s an interesting read, about the tenuous business of trucking semi-loads of bees around the country, pollinating fruit crops, and producing literally tons of honey.

Last year my mom bought a package of bees, which she picked up in a parking lot in Yarmouth; the hive never took though, for whatever reason, and we resolved to use a surer method this year. A nucleus is actually a small working hive, complete with a queen, workers, and brood in the process of maturing. The nuc itself was a rudimentary plywood box with a slot in the front edge to let the bees come and go (it was plugged with window screen for shipment). The guys in the yard put it in a mesh bag for me for good measure, and it went in the back of the Corolla, and I headed straight for Five Islands. I got there before 11, and it was a nice quiet warm morning, so Emily and I hived the bees immediately. She has a headnet and gauntleted gloves, and I improvised with a white button-up shirt, a no-see-um netting mesh bag and plain leather work gloves. But in retrospect I think we could have done it bare-handed. With just a slight puff of smoke the bees were incredibly gentle and mellow, and the box was chock full of them. We unscrewed the nuc box with two sheetrock screws, pried the frames loose one by one, and dropped them in the hive in the same order they came out in. We closed up the hive and put in a quart jar of sugar syrup to tide them over, but as soon as we let them be for half an hour they were hard at work; we found them in the dandelions and the magnolia tree, and they seemed to be flying off into the maples and birch trees as well, which were thick with catkins.

There’s something strangely captivating in just sitting and watching a hive of bees coming and going; these tiny creatures with such remarkable evolved social cohesion and amazing navigation skills. They have hardly any processor power at all, and yet collectively they can perform a complicated harvesting task that we humans have no hope of pulling off. Hopefully they will make a difference in the apple harvest, both in Poppy’s older trees, and in our new ones as well. It also got me thinking more about flowers – normally I flip past the flower section of a seed catalog with a scoff, but seeing the bees working the flowers made me think about ‘ornamental’ plants in a whole different way…

Fifth Annual Orchard Weekend

May 7, 2011

Last weekend marked the fifth year that friends have descended on Five Islands to help with the orchard. After some grocery-type prep on Thursday, the action started Friday, when I went up to Waterville to the annual Fedco tree sale. I arrived right at opening on the first day of the first weekend (which is only for pre-order customers), but the place was already mobbed, with cars parked along the sides of the small dirt road. Besides my tree order I had a pretty long list of stuff that I was supposed to pick up for various people, and it’s a great experience to stroll through their warehouse. I also made an impulse buy – a left-handed pair of Felco pruners. Still, a trip to Waterville is a lot of gas and a half a day that could be otherwise spent. I think from now on I’m going to try to get my act together to do a bulk order earlier in the year, and have UPS deliver the stuff right to our door.

I got back to Five Islands mid-day, where Emily and I got a brush fire going to burn a pile of stuff that was in the way of making a new raspberry patch. Dave and I rigged and dropped a couple more trees that were interfering with our plans, and further fed the fire. Joshua, Ben Wilkins, and his boys arrived, and they helped out as well. We also rigged up a system with the small portable Honda water pump to wet down the surrounding area and keep the fire in check. With the late start the fire was still going strong at dinner time, and Emily kindly brought us a pot of mac and cheese for dinner at the upper cabin, which we followed up with s’mores. Other folks arrived as the evening went on and gathered around the fire, though I turned in, it having been a long day by that point.

Saturday morning we started with blueberry pancakes at #5 for breakfast. We are gradually improving our portable cooking capacity, and I had intended to be able to do breakfast at the upper cabin, but having to stay and tend the fire Friday evening threw me off my game. Joshua and Benedict then used the small Kubota to load up a trailer of rotted chicken manure and rolled it into the orchard, where it was spread in a ring around each tree. The crew also spread lime, and made a run to the shore for seaweed to spread around each tree as well. Cardboard that Dave had accumulated was spread under the fence lines to keep the weeds down, and Joshua, Ben, and co made a great start on a permanent (woven wire) fence at the south side of the orchard. Dave trundled around with the little Bobcat excavator, moving hunks of wood and preparing the way for the fence and the new raspberry beds, where we planted 20 new raspberry plants. For future reference, the northerly row is Kilarney (early summerbearing), and the second row is Polana (everbearing).

Because the newground to the south isn’t ready yet, we nurseryed the 10 or so new trees that I bought or grafted this spring between the rows in the orchard. In some cases we used a new technique that I cooked up that I have high hopes will reduce transplanting shock. We took the bail off a reclaimed 5 gallon drywall bucket, and made vertical cuts all the way down the sides in four places at the quadrants, allowing us to spread the sides apart. We then buried the buckets with the wings well spread apart, simultaneously planting a bench-grafted tree at the usual level inside the bucket and filling with good soil. The concept is that in a year or two, we will be able to tie into the wings of the buckets with rope and lift them with a tractor or excavator and extract them with minimal shovel work or root damage, and transport them to their final home, with less setback than if we transplanted them as bare-root, and significantly less effort than forming up a root ball around each one. I’ll report back in a year or two on whether the technique is worth anything.

Alexis and Joanna made a big mess of enchiladas and fruit salad for Saturday dinner, and I siphoned a keg of last years cider, which though a little blander than usual from the lack of tart apples last fall (owing to the spring frosts a year ago) has become pleasantly drinkable. As is becoming the tradition, dinner was at Joanna and Jake’s, with accompanying tomahawk-throwing contest lasting late into the night. This year’s winner was Ben Wilkins, who took home a pie cherry tree I had picked up for the purpose at Fedco. Saturday evening we also grafted a birthday apple tree for Nola; I bought a nicely feathered tree at Fedco and we grafted four different varieties of eating apple onto it. Hopefully they take and if we prune it carefully she should have a neat multi-flavor tree in a few years.

Sunday morning dawned clear and cool, and we ate fried eggs, bagels etc. on the upper cabin porch. A bunch of folks had to take off, but with a reduced crew we made some more progress on the permanent fence, planted a few more trees, and Eerik and Sara stuck around and did a great job mulching the new raspberries. Then, general cleanup, sorting of tools, etc. All in all a fun, very productive weekend, despite relatively modest and haphazard planning on my part as compared to previous years. By next year I hope to be ready to plant out the trees we’ve nurseryed in the expansion area to the south, and to get a start on the area between the existing orchard and the new raspberry patch behind the upper cabin.