Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Weathering life's storms

The radio announcers said that a major ice storm was coming. It was expected to land in my area last Thursday, bringing with it freezing rain, ice and hail. Thursday came and went and there was nothing, save for clear skies and a gentle breeze. Not even a sprinkle of spring rain. Friends several hours west of me reported icy conditions, but I thought the storm would die out before it made its way east.

Friday morning, 5:30 a.m., I woke to the sound of pellets smashing against my bedroom window, the bottom screen already encrusted with opaque ice. Standing on my tiptoes to peer through the upper window pane, I could just see in the dim early morning light the tree branches, the bird house and the clothesline, all perfectly encased in glass.

By 8:00 a.m. I was outside doing chores and splooshing through ankle-deep puddles of slushy ice. The trees -- cedars, tamaracks, white birches and pines -- bowed in deference to the storm, their thin backs hunched like very old men. "It won't get too bad," I thought. And still the icy rain fell.

I came inside just as the power flickered on and off and back on again. And still I clung to my convenient belief that everything would be fine. But by 10:30 a.m., the wind had picked up and I could hear ice shards crashing to the ground, shattering. Then from deep in the woods I heard shots like those fired from a muzzle-loaded gun. Trees falling.

I made sure all the animals were safely in the barn before shutting it up tight. Back in the house I told the kids (home as buses had been cancelled) to stay away from the trees. Better yet, stay inside. Still I ignored the nervous gnaw in my stomach and held firm to the belief that things wouldn't go bad. Minutes later, the power went out for good and the house fell completely silent.

We've been through this before -- twice in 2011 when windstorms knocked out power to 150,000+ homes. Back then I said, no, vowed, that next time I'd be better prepared. And yet as soon as the power and my comfortable life returned, my plan of preventative action was shelved. I didn't stockpile food or water, nor set up a permanent location for the generator, which is too heavy for me to move on my own.

I've written articles about emergency and disaster preparedness and I'm the first to say (preach?) that planning makes the actual emergency far less stressful than ignoring it and hoping for the best. But Google "ignore disaster warnings" and you'll find 8.2 million hits and hundreds of examples of people who fail to heed warnings of floods, storms or other major natural events. While sociologists have various theories on our propensity to ignore warnings -- sometimes it's because people feel they have no other choice (say when their home is situated on a flood plain) or because they believe things won't get bad -- I think I ignored the warnings because I simply didn't want one more thing to deal with.

Lately I feel like I've just been keeping the floodgates under control and one more drop of rain will cause them to break and a torrential cascade of water to flow. Lucas is away this month and while I know that he'll be back in May, he'll be going away again. As I've said before, his path takes him away from the farm and while I don't yet know what that means for me, or us, I know I'll be facing more challenges on my own. While it's easy for me to fall prey to "I'm such a victim" and feel sorry for myself, I want better for myself and my kids. I want to show them that I am self reliant and strong and I can manage, even when faced with a raging storm.

For three days I vacillated between moments of explosive frustration and surreal calm that descended in unexpected moments, like when I found myself gazing upon my daughter happily colouring under a halo of beeswax candles, or when my son came to me with a hug saying, "It could have been a lot worse, mum... this is actually a really great weekend." He was right.

My children helped me see the beauty in the candlelight, the profound quiet, the absolute darkness, and inspired me with their sense of fun and adventure. They felt safe and secure, despite the storm both outside and within me. I helped create that. And so while this past weekend gave me a practical life lesson (again) that it's up to me to better plan for the next inevitable power outage, more importantly I learned that I'm strong enough to get my family through this and future storms.

Wilderness experts say that it's not necessarily your training that gets you through a survival situation, but how you handle it -- do you stay calm or crack under the pressure of it all? As one expert put it, having survival skills is important, but having the will to survive is essential. Stress can crush or create a person, bringing out strengths and willpower he or she never knew existed.

Today there is once again clear skies and a gentle (now warm) breeze, and except for the downed trees that litter the farm's landscape there is little evidence of the storm. Nature doesn't hold on to her anger, and every day is fresh and new. That, too, is a good life lesson.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Just say no to GMO

Their future is depending on it.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Stop GM Alfalfa

I try to keep politics off my blog. These pages are meant to be an online diary of sorts, to document my attempts at a "simpler" life, not a soapbox for my (many) rants about our broken food and farm systems.

But I've ranted before and I'll do it again. Like right now...

While only (only?) four genetically modified (GM) crops are currently grown in Canada -- canola, corn, soy and sugar beets -- there will be soon be a fifth, if Monsanto and Forage Genetics get their way. That's why we need to stop the release of GM alfalfa -- the first genetically modified perennial crop to be introduced in Canada.

Alfalfa, popularly known as the "Queen of Forages" is the most important widely grown forage crop in Canada. In 2011, alfalfa was produced on over 25 million acres of farmland, or 30% of Canada's cropland.* It serves a variety of functions -- it's grown in mixed stands with other grass species then harvested and stored for high-quality hay or haylage for dairy, beef cattle and sheep; organic farmers (who can't use chemical herbicides or nitrogen fertilizers) use it as green manure in crop rotations to help build nitrogen levels, increase soil aeration, as well as outcompete weeds; and when planted in pure stands it's used for seed production.

In 2005, Monsanto received regulatory approval for glysophate-tolerant (aka Roundup Ready) alfalfa in Canada, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada approved Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA) for environmental release, animal feed and human consumption. But before the crop can be commercialized and sold in the marketplace, seed varieties need to be registered as per the Seeds Act, which in itself is a convoluted and classified process that takes place with no public consultation or disclosure.

The Canadian Seed Trade Association (whose members include Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, the U.S. forage seed company that has applied the Roundup Ready technology to alfalfa) is developing a "coexistence" plan for GM and non-GM alfalfa hay so that farmers can continue to serve both organic and conventional markets (though contamination from GM alfalfa will threaten our export markets). But alfalfa is an insect-pollinated, perennial crop and nature cannot be contained; it is pure corporate hubris to think otherwise.

According to a new report from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), "If GM Roundup Ready alfalfa is registered and commercialized in Eastern Canada, the flow of genes and traits from GM to non-GM alfalfa will be unavoidable."

We have already seen the disastrous results of GM flax and GM canola contamination across Canadian farmland. What's more, as more GM varieties are registered, fewer non-GM varieties become available.To add insult to injury, if patented GM seeds are found in an organic farmer's saved seed, that farmer can be sued for patent infringement. And the incidence of glyphosate-resistant weeds is growing; another Roundup Ready crop will only accelerate the development of resistant weeds.

Farmers will lose both money and markets if GM alfalfa is released. But if you think this is just a farmer issue, consider this: if GM alfalfa is released, organic farmers will lose an important high-protein animal feed. Without access to GM-free forage, what will happen to your organic meat and dairy?

As Wendell Berry famously said, "eating is an agricultural act." This assault on family farms affects us all.

To learn more or to get involved with the "Day of Action to Stop GM Alfalfa" on April 9th, visit CBAN's website.

* From CBAN's "The Inevitability of Contamination from GM Alfalfa Release in Ontario: The Case for Preventing the Introduction of Roundup Ready Alfalfa" (April 2013)
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