Archive for May 9th, 2011

Doing It Right

admin May 9th, 2011

Today Eric picks up two nucs of bees for our farm.  I’ve been wanting bees since we moved here a decade ago, but Eric had a lingering fear of stinging insects, and declined to support the project, so from one thing and another, we’ve always put it off.  Finally, for his 40th birthday last year, Eric decided to get over his fear of bees by facing it directly - he wanted his own.  This is the first major farm project we’ve ever engaged in where Eric took the lead. Even though I’d done considerable research on the subject myself in several previous years, I backed up and handed it over to him - the bees would be his bees, although I was happy and excited to help.  He spent much of the winter obsessing about the complex decisions to be made.

Beekeeping is among the more arcane and detailed segments of agriculture, and there is a long list of decisions.  Langstroth or top bar hive?  Foundation or let the bees build their own?  If foundation, what size comb?  Where should you get your bees?  Queen excluder?  No Queen excluder?  The old joke about Jews, “Two Jews, three opinions” goes double for beekeepers.  We sat down at the table with three or four beekeepers, all of whom had broadly the same goals we did (low input, sustainable, natural for the bees) and each earnestly told us about their choices - all of which were totally different from one another, and many of which were entirely contradictory.

Eric and I very different people, which is one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  I tend to rapidly formulate a working theory and jump in with both feet to test it.  Eric is more cautious, and wanted more and more information, more opinions, more discussions - probably wiser in many ways, since we are dealing with investments of hundreds of dollars.  Ultimately, however, like almost everything in homesteading or farming, in sustainability or parenting, we both knew we finally simply had to try - and probably make mistakes.

All of us, when we take up a new project, want to do it the right way.  When we are dealing with living things, this need is particularly acute - no one wants to kill anything, whether garden plants or livestock.  We all of us want to know as much as we can, want as much experienced advice as possible - and such advice is invaluable.  It gives us confidence, a sense of understanding, and if you can find people who do what you want, it can save you a whole host of stupid mistakes.

It can also open the door to a great deal of confusion - do you let the dam raise their kids or do you bottle feed?  One person tells you that goat kids raised on the doe become wild and hard to milk, another person tells you they are healthier and sturdier and plenty friendly.  How do you know?  Moreover, how do you know what your priorities are until you have some experience.  How different is the health difference?  How much do you like or dislike bottle feeding?  Do you need more milk or can you spare more.  What if you don’t know?

Should you sheet mulch to reduce weed pressure, maintain fertility and improve your soil, or do limited tillage?  How do you know?  On the one hand one gardener assures you that mulch harbors slugs and voles, a bigger threat to your garden than the weeds.  Another person tells you that the slugs and voles aren’t that big a problem.  Which is right?  Well, it may depend on your site, your other management practices, and how gross you find thistles and slugs, respectively.

A lot of what we do is based on imperfect information and not enough certainty - and at lot of times, we’re going to screw up.  The hope is that the screw ups won’t be dire - but sometimes they are.  Sometimes if disaster doesn’t strike we’re certain it is our superior management technique, or if it does, that we did it all wrong, and that a different technique would have saved us.  Sometimes those theories are right- and sometimes they aren’t.

That doesn’t mean that all techniques are equally good, or that there aren’t some real rules of management - but it does mean that all the advice in the world isn’t always enough to spare us some really big screwups.  You can read and study and talk as long as you want, and people who have had enough experience to become expert will offer good advice - and some of it will be relevant.  Sorting out what is and what isn’t, trying things out, accepting your failures and verifying that your successes come from the causes you think they come from - that’s your job as a farmer or a homesteader.

The bees come today - Langstroth hives, strips only, no queen excluders….so far.  That’s the starting point.  Now the interesting part begins - seeing where we end up from the start we planned.