. . . maple leaves, moon, sky . . .

... thoughts and news and observations ...

Mark has been a supporter of organic agriculture and an avid eater of organically-raised foods for most of his adult life. He joined forces with the folks at Organic Maple Co-op in the early summer of 2010. In Organic Maple Leaf Rag he explores the meaning and importance of the word “organic,” in food and agriculture. He also looks into the small world of organic maple syrup, and the daily activities of the Co-op. Both author and Co-op are based in Cashton, Wisconsin – a village whose weight in the organic-agriculture movement is disproportionate to its size.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

... leaf, bloom ...

I happened to look out the front door this morning just as a yellow wing descended onto a purple coneflower. It settled there, moving now and then -- as though a fluttering butterfly.

It was a small, yellow maple leaf, which had fallen from one of our trees. The morning was misty-white ... and drops kept falling from the leaves high above, hitting the small leaf that had landed among the echinacea blooms ... making it seem to flutter.

When I looked closer, I saw the leaf's stem had inserted itself into the spiny center of the coneflower -- just like the proboscis of a butterfly.

Cheers ...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Kickapoo Country Fair

A few weekends ago — luckily a weekend when the sun appeared above the muddy ridges and valleys of western Wisconsin — Martha and I were at the Kickapoo Country Fair, offering to fair-goers a treat that might something of a contradiction in terms: organic maple-syrup cotton candy.

It is something of a tradition for Maple Valley to offer the treat, at this fair. The event focuses upon sustainability, energy innovation, organic foods, and land stewardship. It has music, plentiful food, and events for children. This offers encouragement for entire families to attend.

For some of those families, the Kickapoo fair offers the one time in the year when the children are allowed cotton candy.

The parents say Yes to the idea — because it the candy is organic ... because it is not radioactive pink or blue ... and because, really truly, it is tasty.

You have to eat it quickly. Especially on a humid summer day, it has little staying power — because of the maple sugar. It becomes sticky. Then the strands begin melting together. The billowy stuff can actually start dripping.

The kids at Kickapoo are wise to this, of course. They attack it with abandon. Time for it to melt in their hands? Are you kidding?

The parents, too, are not too shabby in their cotton-candy-eating technique.

Not long after the event we received an unexpected thank-you card, signed by a couple who live in Hillsboro, Wisconsin.

“Dear Unknown Friends at Maple Valley Cooperative,” the note said. “We were so blessed by your representatives at the Kickapoo Country Fair cotton candy stand in LaFarge, this year. We had a large family asking for your delicious treat, and you shared out of your hearts!”

Well, we remember these good people. They did, indeed, have a large family ... and we could see the father steeling himself for the walloping cost of putting cotton candy in everyone’s hands. They had walked by earlier in the day: so the kids were primed for the promised treat. No doubt it was their reward for a day’s excellent behavior.

Martha and I just did what seemed best.

These things are not all about making money, after all.

Cheers ...

Local Sourcing

I was speaking today with a store manager here in the Midwest who noted that his store carries only local-source maple syrup. So he is not stocking the big brands.

Maple Valley is not among the biggest of brands — but we are undoubtedly bigger than the local syrup-producers in the region around that Indiana store.

I am wholly supportive of this local emphasis, even when it means the Maple Valley brand cannot find a place on the shelves of a store or two.

Organic Maple Co-op is founded on the notion that small-scale farmers matter, and that measures should be taken to help them succeed. If a small farmer has a local market, she or he should by all means capitalize upon it, and provide people with a product that is farmed, prepared, filtered and bottled nearby.

In recent decades, the whole-foods movement has begun to recognize the importance of local-emphasis ... despite the fact that the food-basket state, California, which has played so important a role in raising national awareness of whole foods and organic foods, would prefer to hold onto its status as the nation’s provider.

In the area of sustainable agriculture, the local emphasis is absolutely vital. Given the fact that our transportation system will undergo massive changes in coming decades, any system of food production or distribution that relies upon energy-intensive vehicles and upon the current transportation superstructure cannot be called truly sustainable.

This is a big-picture point of view — which is the point of view that interests me most.

At Organic Maple Co-op we are about to address the local-emphasis issue, for the region in which our blending-bottling plant is located. About that, I will have more to say ... before too long.

Cheers ...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why blogging ...

Since beginning with Maple Valley, I have had the idea of writing a blog — for maple syrup is interesting; and organic agriculture is, to my mind, a vital topic of the day.

I have hesitated ... for I did come across confirmation of a worrisome thought that I had been nursing, about the cost of our use of this electronic realm of the Internet.

The energy use involved in supporting the Internet seems to be steadily increasing ... and seems to be on a par with the energy use of such major transportation systems as air travel.

To blog about an issue that is, at its heart, environmental in nature, has something about it of hypocrisy.

By presenting material that will be saved in electronic memory, to be drawn up onto screens and then saved in countless temporary memories, I am helping create demand for the burning of yet more coal.

If it is a hypocrisy, it is one I share with others. I wish to acknowledge it from the outset, however.

Cheers ...

Why organic ...

We were at the science fiction convention named Diversicon, in St. Paul, just over a week ago; and since conversations between friends at conventions go any-which-way (just as conversations between any friends anywhere have a tendency of doing), the topic of organic maple syrup came up.

One evening, Claudia, who for years has been a conspicuous supporter of my occasional excursions into ink-and-watercolor artwork, told Martha and me what she had been told, once upon a time: which is that all maple syrup is organic.

Well, yes ... such a statement might be made. Trees are trees, and sap is sap; and the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers is relatively uncommon in the sugarbush. So on the face of it, “organic” might seem an appropriate word to use.

“Organic” is an elusive term. For decades, now, people interested in sustainable agriculture have been striving to define “organic” in special terms, even while corporate-industrial food representatives have been striving to undermine those terms.

These corporate-industrial food reps would love for all maple syrup to be ranked as organic. In general, they will encourage any perspective that helps them undercut the efforts of the true, soil-friendly agriculturalists of our time.

In the realm of sustainable agriculture, however, a process of certification for farmers has arisen, which creates a structure and puts strength behind the term. The structure is one that can be investigated, probed, questioned and analyzed.

In other words, it provides substance. “Organic” is a claim. Organic certification provides the substance that bolsters the claim.

“Organic” as a term, in other words, has come to signify more than a broad understanding of what is or is not “natural.”

Organic, in the realm of maple syrup, refers to the sugarbush. The woodlands being tapped must be treated in certain ways. Although certification requirements vary, among the various syrup-producing regions, it seems to be general that in order to gain certification, a woodland must not be a maple monoculture. The use of the land around the trees falls under some related restrictions. The farmer must observe practices meant to encourage not only woodland-ecosystem health but also individual-tree health – which usually means restrictions on numbers of taps, and against tapping trees too early in their lives.

Organic, as a term, also refers to how the food is handled. A bottling and distribution center for organic maple syrup must meet organic certification requirements.

Our own facility, for instance, meets such requirements; and we pursue some regular tasks out of the need to maintain our certification.

Facilities which handle regular, non-organic-certified maple syrup do not share our need to refrain from employing synthetic chemicals in matters dealing, for instance, with the cleaning of equipment, or with pest control.

As to be expected, at the science fiction convention, we mostly talked about matters other than organic food. Yet it was not an odd topic, for the weekend. Another friend, Greg Johnson, blogs about environmental issues, for instance, in addition to being a reviewer of new science fiction books.

Cheers ...

Why maple syrup ...

Martha and I have a pair of towering maple trees in our front yard. The one nearer the road, each spring, gives great satisfaction to the ants living in our yard and our neighbor Mary’s lawn. In the exuberance of its brief sap-flow, the maple fairly drips a tree-rain. Slightly sticky to the touch, the drops rank high as delectables among the six-legged clans.

The tree farther from the road drips much less noticeably – perhaps a sign of its being less robust, even if equally impressive of height. It suffered some wounding in the past. The remaining signs of that wounding make us wonder, sometimes, about how many years it has left.

We tap these two trees for their sap ... only in our imagination.

More pertinently, with regards to our involvement with maple syrup, a pair of buildings sit toward the northern part of what we call uptown, in Cashton (“uptown,” because of Cashton being located on a broad ridge, with the main streets occupying the higher parts).

These buildings house the offices, work areas and warehouse that are behind the Maple Valley brand of organic maple syrup.

Organic Maple Co-op, the idea for which arose after the Maple Valley brand was established, has its base here, too.

Not all the maple-syrup work here is sticky … although, come to think of it, even Martha’s work of packing up shipping boxes involves a considerable amount of tape. Between other tasks, she takes and deals with orders that come in via telephone, e-mail, and surface mail.

Distinctly sticky, however, is the work that has fallen into my hands, in recent months: for I deal directly with barrels of syrup … with pumps and hoses and tanks … with jugs and bottles.

Cheers ...