California sunflowers take root in Carolina

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The staple crop of the family ranch in California has long been canning tomatoes but to keep the soil from being depleted, other crops are rotated in on a regular basis, including wheat, lima beans, alfalfa and sunflowers.

The above example of Helianthus annuus was grown from seeds raised at the family ranch, but planted by yours truly in South Carolina.

It’s only about half the size of the sunflowers raised at the California reach, partly because I didn’t plant it until early July, and partly because the soil at my home has too much clay and isn’t nearly as good as that found in the Sacramento Valley.

Still, I figured I had a pretty good chance of getting plants to come up no matter the quality of the soil given that the sunflowers raised in California are grown for seed, to be sold and planted in Europe.

Note the bumblebee on the lower part of the flower. I’ve seen hundreds of sunflowers up close and most all, at least before they darken and die, will have a bumblebee or three on or around them. I can’t remember ever seeing a honeybee on or near a sunflower, however.

Amid ruins of Soviet dystopia, an avant-garde gem shines

There’s not a whole lot going for Karakalpakstan, the sparsely populated autonomous republic that occupies the whole northwestern end of Uzbekistan.

Once home to the Soviet Red Army’s research labs and testing sites for chemical and biological warfare, it’s a Grade A ecological disaster area.

In addition, the region suffers from extensive drought, largely due to exploitation of the Amu and Syr Darya rivers in the eastern part of Uzbekistan. As a result, the Aral Sea has all but dried up and crop failures in Karakalpakstan have deprived tens of thousands of their livelihood. If that weren’t enough, shortages of potable water have created a surge of infectious diseases

While the name Karakalpakstan may not ring a bell, you likely have seen the desolate pictures of the dry Aral Sea, which features grounded rusty Soviet-era ships, desert-like conditions and overall desolation.

To get an idea of how much damage the Soviets wreaked on the region, consider this description from the blog The Travel Lust:

The Aral Sea, situated in the Karakalpakstan State of Uzbekistan, was once the world’s fourth-largest in-land sea, it has since shrunk by 90 percent, the rivers that feed it were largely diverted in a failed Soviet cotton production project. The disaster had ruined the once-robust fishing economy around Moynaq town and left fishing trawlers stranded, … impoverishing the whole area. The whole area lost so much water that the whole area has turned into a salty sandy wasteland.

Added the website Strange Maps, “The former lakebed is the birth chamber of countless toxic sandstorms plaguing the region, keeping local life expectancy in check.”

Strange Maps adds, perhaps unnecessarily, that the capital of Nukus doesn’t exactly rank high on the list of the discerning tourist – or any tourist, for that matter:

Calum Macleod and Bradley Mayhew, authors of The Golden Road to Samarkand, one of the best introductions to Uzbekistan, describe Nukus as ‘a grim, spiritless city of bitter pleasures whose gridded avenues of socialism support a centerless town, only to peter out around fading fringes into an endless wasteland of cotton fields punctuated by the random, surreal exotica of wild camels loitering in neglected apartment blocks.’ Even those trying to talk up the tourist potential of Karakalpakstan ruefully admit that the Tashkent Hotel in Nukus is ‘abysmal … certainly a prime candidate for the worst hotel in the world.’

Apparently, the area does have one thing going for it: It’s home to the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art, after the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

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Hot Pockets: Now even worse for you

Pity the poor folk whose job it is to market Hot Pockets, those ubiquitous microwaveable turnovers filled with one or more types of cheese, meat, or vegetables.

For years, Hot Pockets were a staple of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s standup routine (see above), in which he effectively ensured that a generation of consumers would associate the food item with indigestion, diarrhea and a variety of other ailments.

There’s likely no amount of money or promotional effort that Nestle, which produces Hot Pockets, could ever come up with to overcome the effectiveness of Gaffigan’s biting ridicule, and now the company is facing another PR nightmare.

Nestle is voluntarily recalling an unspecified number of “Philly Steak” and “Croissant Crust Philly Steak and Cheese” Hot Pockets because they could contain meat that is unfit for human consumption, according to the USDA.

Gaffigan’s gag, of course, is that they were never fit for human consumption in the first place.

Anyhoo, nearly 9 million pounds of beef products were recalled last week by Rancho Feeding Corp. after regulators said it processed diseased and unsound animals without a full inspection, according to the Associated Press.

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Turning a sharp eye on the ‘good-old days’

child's grave

David Boaz of the Cato Institute pulls excerpts from three books to demonstrate how different – and difficult – life was not too many generations ago.

The first is from a Washington Post review of Flyover Lives, a family memoir by Diane Johnson, and describes, among other things, the once all-too-common reality of infant mortality:

It must be just about impossible for a denizen of middle-class 21st-century America to imagine the toil and suffering that Catharine Martin [born 1800] and her counterparts underwent every day: living in crude houses – mere huts when they first settled in Illinois and elsewhere – slaving at open fires to prepare food for their families, and worst of all watching children fall ill and having nothing in their powers to help them: ‘Within a year of her marriage, with the fated fertility of women then, Catharine had her first baby, and named her Catharine Anne, after herself. They called her Sissie. This baby was followed by Charlotte Augusta in 1830 and Martha Olivia in 1831. When they were one, three, and five years old, all three little girls died in the space of a week or two.’ Catharine herself was ill but survived to write many years later: ‘When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.’

Having walked through many an older cemetery and seen family plots with several infant gravestones – sometimes a half-dozen or more – next to those of their parents, I can only wonder at the grief previous generations often had to endure, and their ability to do so.

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Irish Famine: Tragedy 150 years in the making

irish potato famineFew dispute that the Irish Potato Famine stacks up as one of modern history’s great calamities.

Beginning in 1845, potato blight destroyed a significant proportion of Ireland potato crop, ultimately leading to the deaths of more than 1 million individuals and the emigration of another 1-million plus.

Many today place blame for the tragedy on the British government of the 1840s, namely its adherence to a combination of laissez-faire relief efforts, trade laws that curtailed importation of grains that would have helped offset dwindling potato stocks and a general indifference to the fate of poor Catholic Irish by ruling Protestant British.

But, as Stephen Davies of the Foundation for Economic Education points out, the underpinnings of the Irish Potato Famine began at least 150 years before Phytophthora infestans first began attacking Irish potato crops.

Following the defeat of England’s last Catholic king, James II, by Protestant forces led by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution in the late 17th century, a series of “penal laws” were passed by the Irish Parliament, which was dominated by the Protestant minority who had supported William.

The first law, passed in 1695, took away the right of Catholics to bear arms, while another forbade Catholics to leave the island for education and prohibited them from teaching or running schools within Ireland.

“The most important, however, was the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704),” according to Davies. “This prevented Catholics from buying land or inheriting it from Protestants, or from leasing land for more than 31 years. At about this time the potato was introduced as a major crop. The combination of the legislation and the new crop was ultimately disastrous.”

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Bees’ value to agriculture underestimated

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The economic importance of bees is significantly undervalued, according to a European study released this week.

Strawberries pollinated by bees were of far higher commercial value than fruit that was self-pollinated or pollinated by the wind, researchers in Germany reported Wednesday.

Bee pollination strongly increased the commercial value of strawberries by producing well-shaped fruit of increased weight, according to the study.

In addition, it increased shelf life, enhanced coloring and lowered sugar-acid ratios of most varieties of strawberries.

The study, by a team at the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Göttingen in Germany, comes on the heels of a 2011 report by the UN Environment Program that showed that pollination by bees and other insects contributed about a little more than $204 billion, or 9.5 percent, of the total global value of food production.

But the most recent analysis offers evidence that the 2011 estimate could have substantially devalued the agricultural impact of the bees.

The Germany team conducted its study by planting nine commercial strawberry varieties in an experimental field. Plants were either covered with special gauze bags to allow pollination by the wind or other parts of the plant, or were left open for visiting by bees.

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Southern cotton, hit by rains, late to mature

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A recent drive through rural South Carolina shows evidence of a healthy cotton crop, albeit one that was late to mature.

Cotton pickers and module builders are just now ramping up in the Carolinas, Georgia and many other parts of the Deep South, the result of a growing season slowed by unusually large amounts of rain this year.

Much of South Carolina, for example, has received 50 or more inches of rain in 2013, anywhere from 8 to 18 inches above average precipitation levels. The same appears to be the case across the region.

In years past, lack of rain has been an issue for cotton farmers, particularly in Texas, a major cotton-growing area, so why is excessive rain an issue?

It’s a factor for several reasons, according to Mark Crosby, Emanuel County (Ga.) extension coordinator:

Heavy rainfall caused excessive erosion on sloping fields and in places in fields where the water puddled, the cotton plants stood in water. The worst fields had areas where the cotton drowned, but, in much of the cotton land, the plants stood in soggy, wet soil for weeks and weeks.

Examination of the crop roots showed very little tap root development and shallow feeder roots. Shallow feeder and tap roots limited the plants ability to take up fertilizer because of a lack of oxygen in the soil.

As soils become more and more saturated and eventually became waterlogged, the effects on cotton plants included yellowing, reduced shoot growth, reduced nutrient uptake, altered hormone levels, and other problems. Some fields of cotton had symptoms of reddening leaves and stems being too wet, as well as typical nitrogen deficiency symptoms.

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