It's been a long time since my last post... with every good intention of staying on top of this blog and sending out regular posts, I must confess that being a farmer and a blogger at the same time (as well as running my other business diVino) does present its difficulties. It also seems the busier things are at the farm and the more exciting news I have to share, the less time I can find to write about it!
There has been so been much going on that it's hard to decide what to write about first, so, I'd like to segue on the fantastic publicity that the plight of the bees has been receiving recently (see for example the recent cover of Time Magazine -http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2149141,00.html) to tell you a story about our own beekeeping adventures and our growing love affair with bees here at Costa Digiano.
This post comes from an email I wrote to my family on May 8th telling the story of how Mirco and I witnessed one of our bee families swarm before our eyes! One of the most magical and awe inspiring things I have ever seen!
I hope you enjoy the post and please send me your comments or questions!
As the dear Abbot Warrè wrote "Bees render nature immortal". They are far more important than many of us may think.
May 8th, 2013
This morning Mirco and I headed down to our apiary to set up the new Kenyan top bar hives and the Warrè hives that we got. These hives are COOL, super cool, but that's for a different story:)
Luck or destiny would have it that at the exact time that Mirco and I were working away at the benches, no more than 3 meters from our two bee families, the blue family went ahead and SWARMED!!! The chances of actually being right there when it happened were simply miraculous, one in a million.
I knew something was happening because there was a complete change in the pitch of their buzzing... all of a sudden it was faster and louder and then woosh they filled the air!
It's impossible to see in this picture but we backed away to this distance and watched the dance. The bees started moving in a giant spiral formation (like a tornado or a galaxy or a spiral of energy or all of the above!) all around the boxes and way up into the air. They did this for probably 10 minutes and we had the distinct sensation that they were calling their queen out to join them.
Then the giant spiral of bees started moving like one big tornado toward the tree in the distance, slowly and totally deliberately, until they enveloped the whole tree inside their spiral and started settling into a cluster on one of the lower branches. You can see the cluster gathering just above where I hung my rain jacket earlier in the morning! and if you look close you can see that there are thousands of little specks everywhere, not pixels, bees!!!
We hung out and watched them for a long time:). My very own beekeeper - MIRCO - said "no rush, let's finish what we're doing and then I'll go get them". Yeah, like he'd been doing this his whole life!
After a while they totally settled down and it all gets quiet and peaceful again. And Mirco goes up for a closer shot. They have formed a casing all around their queen. it's like a temporary hive made out of their own bodies! miraculous!!!!
So, we finish setting up the bench (i'm anxious to get the swarm into a box but Mirco of course is totally relaxed and not in a hurry at all!). We go up and get the boxes and carry them to the apiary. Now I know this sounds easy but it was sick hard... it took us 15 trips from the truck down at the road and it was way harder than carrying casses full of olives uphill to the truck.... I was totally whipped, bonking without lunch, coughing from the flu I'm still getting over and basically feeling crummy BUT SO EXHILARATED THAT OUR BEES HAD JUST MADE A NEW FAMILY AND THAT WE HAD BEEN THERE TO SEE THE BIRTH!! Yeah! no rest for the weary, we had to get them into their new home.
So we chose a Kenya top bar hive for this swarm and set it under the branch with the swarm hanging on it, top off.
Then Mirco blows my mind because he walks right over, calm as can be he snips that branch right off and the whole swarm goes plonk right into the box. Then he picks up the branch and shakes the bees off of it. Then gently brushes the straglers into the box and puts the lid back on. Voilà! Again, like he had been doing this his whole life! A perfect swarm recovery. It was seamless.
Some of the bees went back onto the tree and we waited for a while to see if the queen was in the box or if she had moved back to the tree, but after about half an hour all the remaining bees had left the tree and gone to their new home. It was sounding very load in there but I think they will settle down soon.
See my beekeeper in his new beautiful apiary admiring the brand new family of bees that was just born.
1) bees know best PERIOD. They decided to swarm on the first day when the acacias were in full bloom at the farm. They know acacia means 2-3 weeks of endless bounty. this is a good time to swarm, no risk of hunger and plenty of energy to build your new home when you find it!
2) Actually i have many more reflections on why bees know best but I can feel that i might go into one of my tangents about leaving nature alone and the size of bee cells and the importance of natural comb in saving the bees and 70 million years that bees have been doing this so why in the world should we ever think we can improve on their absolute PERFECTION!!???? So I'll stop now before I loose you all:)
I'll finish with a quote from one of my heros Bill Mollison
"human kind will rediscover harmony with nature only when he will renounce the idea of his presumed superiority over the natural world"
And please everyone do what you can to help save the bees! There's a lot each and every one of us can do. For starters don't buy neonicotinoid pesticides and put pressure on local representatives to pass legislation banning these products. There's no simple solution to the problems that are afflicting bees worldwide but banning these pesticides, which are killing bees on a massive scale, is a very important place to start.
p.s. - since May 8th we have recovered 4 more swarms and bought 5 new families, bringing our apiary to a current count of 11 families. I caught the last swarm recovery on video and will post it soon!
Entlings - Planting our baby olive trees
In the end of March we started planting our new olive trees. 90 baby Mignola entlings! It took us about 2 months to prepare and plant. It was a lot of hard work, but some of the most satisfying and rewarding I’ve ever experienced! It gave us a real feeling of progress to see the orchard restored to its original plant density and see the Costa vibrating with energy and new life. It will probably be 30 years before our trees resemble “real trees” and begin to produce any significant amount of fruit. In the meantime we’ll patiently accompany them along their first few years, and enjoy watching them grow in the their new home.
The Mignola variety
Mignola is a rare variety, indigenous to the area around Cingoli. It produces an extraordinary and entirely unique olive oil with aromas that express forest berry flavors with notes of raspberries and strawberries. It's particularly rich in health promoting polyphenols, responsible for its bold flavor and bitter almond aftertaste.
Mignola is an endangered species. Almost all of the existing Mignola trees are centuries old (just like our old ladies) and this variety is rarely replanted due to the popularity of more common "national" varieties. The fact that it's notoriously difficult to harvest (Mignola literally "sticks" to the trees, requiring 100% hand harvesting) and that the ancient trees are often subject to alternating production years, have contributed to the gradual abandon on the Mignola variety.
Luckily we were able to find some four-year old Mignola trees at a local nursery and we are replanting Mignola trees at Costa Digiano.
Marking the rows:
First we decided where to place the new trees by measuring out the old grove and marking the new planting sites with bamboo poles. Our goal was to restore the original grove by filling in the “holes” in the ancient orchard where trees had previously been and had died or been removed. Our replanting follows the traditional low plant density of approximately 10m x 10m.
Digging the holes:
Then we hired our friend Max to come up with his giant back hoe and dig 90 holes, each hole 1m3. The dig was a lot of fun and it was fascinating to begin to see the soil variation in different areas of the Costa. It’s a large hole for a small tree, but it’s important to break up the earth surrounding the new trees to give their roots space to expand and develop.
We then began the long task of planting. Planting consists basically in shoveling 1 cubic meter of earth back into the holes and then placing the trees. I never could have imagined how back breaking moving that much dirt would be! Each tree has a spindly little trunk and needs to be supported by a tutor for the first few years of life. We used Acacia and Bamboo poles we cut down while clearing the jungle around the house.
After planting we went back and mulched all the trees with the organic mulch we've been making all winter. This mulch is useful in maintaining soil humidity (to reduce the need for irrigation) and adds organic matter to the soil while helping keep weeds away from the young trees.
Thankfully the spring was perfect with alternating days of sun and rain. However, June turned hot and dry and moved into a heat wave and then on to one of the worst draughts in a decade. Our little trees cannot survive these conditions without regular watering, so we’ve become creative in inventing systems to irrigate. Our latest system utilizes a siphon to gravity feed water from our well through a 100m long tube that runs into the top of the olive grove. From here I fill a 200L steel vat that I’ve tied into the back of the pick-up truck and I’m then able to drive around the farm watering each individual tree with a garden hose or a watering can. It’s quite time consuming but it’s the best system we’ve come up with so far. My brother Clay and I are designing a gravity flow drip irrigation system that will feed all 90 trees as well as provide the infrastructure for planting aromatic herbs along the rows, but it will take time and money to implement this, so in the meanwhile about 3 days a week are dedicated to watering the new trees.
Adopt a tree:
Planting olive trees is a big investment in the future and our baby Mignola trees are looking for sponsors to help support their planting and initial irrigation. A huge thank you goes to our dear friends and first 2 sponsors Jutta and Uli Rommelt from Switzerland, who adopted the first 2 trees in May and gave me the idea for adopt a tree! How it works:
Adopt a tree is a one time small contribution that will help finance the planting of the trees and implementation of our drip irrigation system. Your tree will feature a hand painted plaque with your name on it and a photo of your tree along with the possibility to pre-order our extra virgin olive oil before it’s released and quickly sells out. For more information on how to help support our project by adopting your own tree please click here
To visit the photo gallery
with more pictures of the new olive grove click here
Over the past 3 months we've often felt like we’re digging a canyon with a teaspoon, but progress is being made! And we have been very very busy....
Crazy winter weather
The winter started with a seemingly endless series of warm sunny days and hardly any rain or snow. Just when we were starting to wonder if winter would ever really arrive we were hit with the biggest snow storm since 1956, dumping over 1.5 meters of snow paired to freezing, blizzard-like conditions. Luck would have it that Mirco and I were in the US with the Indie Wineries Road Show (more below) and we missed the whole thing. Basically we sat helpless on the other side of the world worrying about our precious trees and praying that the temperatures would not drop any further. Olive trees can begin to suffer serious damage at around -5 degrees C. Reports were coming in of temps dropping to 6, 7, 8 below zero and loads of snow accumulating on branches with serious risk of breakage. We finally returned home to find things at the Costa better than we feared. There was no structural damage to limbs, but we did find some frost damage on quite a few trees. We won’t know the extent of the damage until the spring when the trees will kick out new vegetation and if we’re lucky the limbs will not have suffered permanent damage and will replace their leaves over the next year (if not they will they have to be removed completely). At this point we also have no idea whether the trees will produce any fruit at all in 2012… again only spring will tell. On a positive note we returned to find our Well overflowing and the rest of Costa is in good shape and glad for all the much needed water.
Our fingers are crossed for the full recovery of our trees and for a harvest for our Costa Digiano Single Orchard Cru olive oil in 2012….
Meanwhile, we’ve been hard at work with pruning the olive trees, packaging our 2011 extra virgin olive oil in time to have it shipped off to the US, Mulching and clearing mountains of brambles, climbing ivy and acacia forests that are covering every structure on the property.
This is a huge job considering the size and age of the trees and the fact that it’s likely been more than 30 years since they were last pruned. Many of the trees are surrounded by brambles and climing ivy, so our first job is to free the trees before we can start pruning. It’s a joy spending time with them and getting to know each one of our old ladies (I’ve also felt like the olive tree is feminine, I suspect they are Entwives:). There’s no better way to get to know your trees intimately than pruning them one on one.
Mirco treating with Propoli
2011 Costa Digiano extra virgin olive oil
In January a total of 1024 bottles of 2011 extra virgin olive oil left the port of Livorno headed for the US! There was much to do to prepare for the event. Each bottle was hand labeled, hand numbered, hand wax capped and wrapped individually in tissue paper. It was a whole lot more time consuming and labor intensive than I had anticipated... but after weeks of endless repetative work the 2 small pallets of oil are on their way and due to have arrived in New York any day now!
natural beeswax capping
wrapping each precious bottle
The well is now filled to the rim!
We’ve finally uncovered the well and are pleased to say that there is a lot of water inside. After the big storm the well is completely full! Our next steps will be analyzing the water and re-building the outer structure.
Giardino del Pozzo:
We’ve also almost finished clearing off the little jungle surrounding the well and are getting ready to lay down some sheet mulch to prepare the area for a small forest garden. We’ve removed all the brambles and climbing vines and most of the acacias. Next fall, once our sheet mulch has killed the roots of those jungle plants we will be ready to start planting some fruit trees.
The access road:
We’ve just finished uncovering the access road, which was previously an obstacle course of overgrown vegetation, so now we should finally be able to drive in (instead of leaving our car at the main road and hiking in).
We have discovered the joys (and periodic frustrations) of Mechanized labor! We’ve not got a steel bladed weedwaker (does magic on the brambles), and a chainsaw...
..and our latest big purchase is our FBC mulcher! We’ve been at work for days mulching mountains of debris, but we’ve barley touched the surface. I think there will be no lack of wonderful organic mulch at Costa Digiano!
And introducing Gianino! The Costa Digiano mobile!
After attempting for months to use the Volkswagon Polo as a makeshift pickup truck we finally gave in to the need for a more suitable farm vehicle... Gianino is a 1993 Fiat Fiorino pickup, all manual everything. So far we love him.
Indie Wineries 2012 Road Show - Coast to Coast!
From Jaunaury 31st to February 9th we were in the US for the 2nd annual Indie Wineries Road show! 20 wine producers (plus Costa Digiano!) touched 5 states in 10 days of portfolio tastings and events. It was quite a show, a whole lot of fun and a huge success for Indie Wineries! A big thank you to the owners of Indie - Summer Wolff & Christian Troy and to all the fabulous distributors! A special heartfelt thanks to our PA distributor and dear friend Scott Braunschweig who made the Indie gang feel like family while we were in Philadelphia.
Our next big project is planting our new olive grove. We have 90 new trees of Mignola on the way and we're preparing to get those into the ground as quickly as possible. More on that adventure in the next Blog!
We've just wrapped up our first week of work at Costa Digiano!! This is the COOLEST TREASURE HUNT I have every been on!
Last three days we've just started cutting back some brambles and cleaning around the house area. Today, we uncovered most of the pig stalls and we're seriously considering moving in there next spring;) heheeee
Under all the brambles near the stalls we found a big barn that was not anywhere on our maps. Basically it's just the roof sitting on the ground, but we'll take it!
Just what we need... a barn! And we thought all we were going to get there was a truck load of blackberries...
And then we went exploring into what looked like just a steep hill all covered in acacias, elderberries and a 6ft wall of brambles. Once we broke through the brambles we found this amazing little terraced woodland (with a view to die for) and an old road running through it that was completely hidden AND we found an amazing ancient stone well WITH water!!!!! This is the most amazing surprise, Hurrah!!! We had NO IDEA if there was still a well here or if it would be anything of any worth, but This is a serious well, like Medieval hamlet style old stone well. The inside is square and deep, walls all built in sheer stone blocks and it had (now crumbled) a little terrcotta roof and a wood beam with a chain and bucket! And there is water in there!! This just solved one of our biggest problems. Now, hopefully we should not need to do any well drilling. This thing has been in use for hundreds of years, so I think it should do us just fine.
Habemus Pozzum!! We have a Well!!
We've only just begun to explore this place and my feeling is that it is much older, much bigger and much more amazing than I had even imagined. Almost like this was more of an old community or gathering of houses near this old road (no longer in use) rather than a farmhouse.
I'm having way too much fun, so I need to get back out there and do some more digging:)
Some neighbors passing through to check out the new owners....
"It's better to be folly with one's own ideas than wise with with the opinions of others"
This super long post is my very first Blog. I've never written a blog before, but I thought the best place to start would be with an outline of the Project. And it's a big project, so it's going to take a while to walk through it. This is a dream project that we've been designing on paper for more than a year, and we are quite ready to get to work! In reality the organic farm will be a patchwork of projects pieced together with the help of Permaculture design principles and our ideas and intuitions on what we think are fundamental components of our system along with elements that we think are just absolutely cool in this context.
Permaculture provides practical tools for designing sustainable, biodiverse systems, where all the elements of the system work together in a kind of natural collaboration to the benefit of the whole.
In a classic permaculture design a farm is divided into zones according to how labor intensive they are. Zone 1 for example would be the closest to the household (Zone 0) and would include annual vegetable gardens and other elements that require daily care. Zone 2 and 3 may contain orchards and smaller animals such as chickens and pigs, while zones 4 and 5 will be the farthest from the home and generally dedicated to livestock and prairies.
Within these zones each element is carefully thought out and designed to collaborate for the maximum benefit of all elements within the zone. The key in this design is that we look to the biodiversity of natural ecosystems to inspire us, and rather than asking ourselves what we can get from the land we ask how we can work with nature to increase the overall health (and yield) of our land.
For me the elements are the projects within the project. They include things that are productive for the economy of our farm, such as the olive groves, as well as elements that are of fundamental importance to us within the context of our project, for example ways to minimize waste and enhance soil fertility such as composting and vermiculture.
The whole farming project will be carried out in biodynamic agriculture, because we truly believe in this practice and in its potential for enhancing soil fertility and boosting the overall life force of the land.
At the moment this is 400m2 of rubble... Up until 1969 it was inhabited by 3 farming families but has since been completely abandoned. The house is overgrown with brambles, ivy and elderberries so our first project will be uncovering it so we can get inside to take a look. After this we'll enlist the help of my dad - "green" Architect Burt Wadman (http://helios-homes.com/
) to make a game plan based on whether we can salvage something of the original house or whether the entire the thing will need to be taken down stone by stone. For us zone 0 really is a dream... of couse we'd love to live in our own house on our farm but we realize it's a long term project that will have to taken on bit by bit as our pocketbooks will allow.
In the meantime we've got plenty to keep us busy getting the farm going. Such as....
This parcel is just over 2000m2 and lies on the north side of the house. This is the area we'll dedicate tour our zone 1 including our annual vegetables and aromatic herbs (Potager garden), the pond and the forest garden. Zone 1 is meant, not only to be the richest and most productive area of the farm, but we would also like it to be an open "school ground" where people can come visit our farm, walk through our work in progress and learn about our project, permaculture and much more.
The elements of zone 1 will include:
Forest Garden - A Forest Garden is a garden modeled on a natural woodland. All the plants present in the forest garden are edible and laid out in a 3 layer pattern including fruit and nut trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables and herbs. The far side of the parcel will be dedicated to a small Forest Garden. We'll use a pattern called a woodland glade pattern (somewhat like a horseshoe), that will be south facing and should fit nicely into the space, growing out from the present vegetation of huge oak trees and reeds. This pattern also maximizes the south facing border area of the garden, giving us the maximum amount of light infiltration and plenty of space for yummy sun loving herbs. An extra benefit of this garden will be that it will provide a windbreak, shielding the tender annual veggies of our potager garden from the cold northern wind.
We will begin organizing the space for our forest garden over the next 10 months and planting fruit trees in fall 2012.
Pond - The pond is a fundamental element of this system. It provides a natural habitat for many useful animals such as frogs and dragonflies (which feed on pests) as well as swimming area for snail eating ducks. Not to mention the bounty of beautiful and edible plants that grow in and around a pond and the joy of simply being near it. The pond will sit more or less in the center of zone 1. It will be fed by a winter run-off creek on the far side of the zone that is currently causing some trouble on the access road, and so we will divert it into this pond. The pond will also provide water for the forest garden and the potager garden.
We are working on the design for the pond and hope to start digging some time in 2012.
Potager garden - Potager is a french word, which literally means vegetable soup. It's an ornamental vegetable or kitchen garden where herbs, vegetables, edible flowers and fruits are planted together to enhance the garden's diversity and beauty. A potager has nothing in particular to do with Permaculture or biodynamic agriculture, but it's the kind of beautiful and useful edible garden that we love and the biodiversity of the garden is quite compatible with the permaculture view. The potager garden is rich in annual veggies and so regular watering is a must. We'll be collecting rain water from the roof of the "house" and in the pond but we will also need to locate and perhaps re-drill the well on the property so that we can install drip irrigation
Critters - Zone 1 will most likely be the home of our chickens, geese and ducks.
For the moment we'll call the rest of the farm Zone 2/3. This includes the existing olive grove, which is just over 3 hectares of gentle slope below the house and zone 1. It also includes 2 hectares of slope above the house that is currently planted to wheat, but that we plan on replanting to olives in spring 2013. Zone 2 will also be the site of our Composting area our beekeeping zone and the meadows which will also include some more aromatic herbs and perennial veggies such as artichokes and asparagus.
Olive grove - the existing olive grove is planted to approximately 150 gorgeous, ancient olive trees. These are all a local native variety called Mignola, which really can't be found anywhere outside this small area of Le Marche. MIrco and I are in love with Mignola! It' an extraordinary and entirely unique variety. It's typical aromas express forest berry flavors with notes of raspberries and strawberries and it's particularly rich in health promoting polyphenols, which also give it it's bold bitter aftertaste.
In the spring of 2012 we plan on integrating the main olive orchard with approximately 50 new trees, all of the Mignola variety.
In the spring of 2013 we plan on planting the upper slope of the Costa to an olive grove featuring another extraordinary indigenous variety called Orbetana. The upper slope is currently planted to wheat. Once this is harvested in June we'll proceed to plant 2 cover crops and begin treating with biodynamic preparations to bring balance and fertility back to the soil before we plant the new orchard.
Composting Zone - our composting area will include several different kinds of compost: a biodynamic manure compost, a general veggie/organic compost mound and our worm composting beds. I'm particularly keen on the worm composting project. Nature invented the perfect recycler, the king of the soil - The earth worm! Not only do those gorgeous little critters eat anything organic they can get their mouths around, but they transform it into the richest and most precious hummus known on earth. Our trash is their treasure and we can feed our worms any kind of food waste, cooked or raw, meat based, vegetarian or vegan, you name it, they have no allergies and no food restrictions! Thankfully we've got plenty to keep the bellies of our happy guests full because Mirco's family owns a restaurant not farm from our farm and our worms will soon be recycling truck loads of left over Ravioli, duck ragù, olive all'ascolana and Tiramisù. And of course our worm composting will be biodynamic, so the biodynamic preparations will be added to our worm mounds and we'll be spraying with Fladen once a month (worms LOVE fladen). But I don't want to get carried away on the worm subject right now. I'll dedicate a full post (or several) to the magical world of composting.
Beekeeping - If worms are the kings of the earth, bees are the undisputed Queens of the air. Bees are also the fertility queens of the earth. Not only do they tirelessly supply us with honey, pollen and propolis but they are responsible for the impollination of nearly all the world's flowers and the subsequent production of fruits in general (it has been estimated that bees are responsible for 80% of impollination in agriculture and that 30% of the total human food supply is dependent of the work of bees). We should worship bees. And we feels it's our moral obligation as farmers to protect and promote the well-being and multiplication of these marvelous creatures. So there's a special place at our farm and in our hearts for the bees. More to come on our beekeeping adventures in future posts!
I'm sure there's much more I could say about our project, but I doubt many of you (except mom and dad;) have made it this far (which makes me think it's a shame I didn't write about the bees at the beginning of this post...;). If I've caught the attention of any non-family members, I hope you too will check back to see updates and stories on our work in progress!
Next week we're doing our first biodynamic treatment with 500 and Fladen, so I hope to get a post up with an account of that exciting event.
com·post noun \ˈkäm-ˌpōst, : a mixture that consists largely of transformed decayed organic matter converted into a nutrient rich substance used for fertilizing and conditioning land.
This is the story of our own organic transformation towards a different way of life. We've taken a crazy leap of faith, believing in a return to the earth, even for those of us that weren't born farmers or inherit a piece of land. We're starting our farm from scratch. We built our project on paper and it took us over a year to get financing to purchase our dream parcel of land (it seems like a miracle in these crazy economic times that we ever pulled that off at all), and now we're finally geared up, totally exhillarated and ready to begin this fabulous adventure.
Step by step this blog aims to document our work in progress, from our dream, to the creation of our farm, putting permaculture and biodynamic agriculture to practice, the work, the process, the harvests and our transformation from lives in the restaurant and travel industries to our new lives as organic farmers at Costa Digiano.
This is a work in progress and we invite you to follow us, with hope… or with skepticism… on a simple journey towards believing that transformation is possible.
Amy & Mirco