Received wisdom

Over the years I’ve tried to develop the habit of automatically double-checking any received wisdom I hear, especially if I’m tempted to embrace it in my own thinking. A good example came along this morning, when I read this comment on a weblog:

I have heard that the average credit card debt in America is somewhere in the $15K range which is just mind boggling.

Now, I don’t intend to embarrass the fellow who made this comment; I’ve heard similar things in passing, I think credit card debt is a big problem too, and I may very well have made such a comment when railing against it. But I’ve trained myself to watch for phrases like "I have heard" appearing in the same sentence with numbers and dollar amounts, both in my writing and in the writing of others, and when I see them I try to do a quick check (usually an internet search) to see if the number is accurate.

When I typed "average credit card debt" into Google this morning, the very first item on the search list was an article called "The truth about credit card debt." The article is short and worth reading. As to the figures bandied about (the usual claim is $8000), it says:

The surprising thing about this statistic isn’t that it’s so widely known. Rather, it’s that the statistic paints a picture that’s just plain wrong.

  • In reality, most Americans owe nothing to credit card companies.
  • Most households that carry balances owe $2,000 or less.
  • Only about 1 in 20 American households owes $8,000 or more on credit cards.

These figures are from the Federal Reserve’s 2001 Survey of Consumer Finances, one of the most comprehensive assessments of what Americans own and owe. (The survey is updated every three years; a summary of 2004’s results will be published in early 2006.)

Well, that is a bit of a surprise. Even better, I don’t have to take the writer’s word for it; there really is a Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, and it is trivial to find it on the internet. I did so, and was glad to see that it was the new summary (covering 2004 results). Here are the more recent figures, taken from this summary article:

  • 75% of American families have credit cards.
  • Of the families with credit cards, 58% carry a balance (meaning that 43% of American families carry a credit card balance).
  • The median balance is now $2,200, up from $2,000 in 2001 (median means that half the families with balances carry less than $2,200 and the other half carry more than $2,200).
  • The mean (average) balance is $5,100.

So a more accurate (and less impressive) description of credit card debt would be to say that 57% of Americans owe nothing to credit card companies, 22% owe $2,200 or more, and 5% owed more than $8,000 in 2001 (I couldn’t find the 2004 figure for this).

It probably took me five times longer to write this post than it did for me to locate and digest the information in it. I hope you find it useful, and I hope it encourages you to do some of your own double-checking on received wisdom.

Garden diary

Over the past couple of weeks our beans have come in, with a vengeance. We picked three times, taking a total of 168 pounds from the 91 linear feet we planted. The greasy beans and Kentucky Wonders produced about 1.5lb/foot, while the white half runners produced about 2lb/foot. We strung them all and snapped almost all, holding back a few to experiment with drying them.

Some snapped beans we raw packed and pressure canned, and some we froze. We also tried lacto-fermenting a few quarts of beans. The procedure is inviting enough; put the beans in jars with clean water, change the water every day for four days, then put on the lids and store them. But the smell on the last day was unpleasant, and we haven’t tried them yet so we don’t know how they taste (and haven’t found any description anywhere of how they should taste).

A few weeks ago we did a second planting of beans, but not as many—42 feet of white half runners, 10 feet of Jacob’s cattle (a soup bean), and 10 feet of asparagus beans (an intriguing bean that grows pods three feet long and more). Those will probably be ready around the end of August.

Our corn is doing well. The sweet corn is ready to pick, and we’ll be having some tonight. The field corn is also doing well, but since it is in a three sisters plot we will leave it until well after everything has died off before picking it. The squash in the three sisters plot is flourishing, but the beans never took off, and so we’ll only be getting a few of those.

As the summer wore on we got less diligent about weeding, and the corn in particular was starting to show it. The three sisters plot was especially bad, since the circles-of-seven were hard to weed with a hoe and really ought to have been weeded by hand but weren’t. Jerome has been so busy this summer that it’s been quite awhile since he visited, and when told me Friday that he’d like to come over Saturday night, we all scrambled on Saturday to get the garden in shape.

Fortunately we had just gotten a really good rain, the first in nearly two weeks, and the ground was perfect for weeding. Chris and Maggie hand-weeded the first planting of sweet corn, while Matthew ran the wheel hoe through most of the rows. Maggie also did a thorough job on our two beds of carrots, which never get enough attention since carrots aren’t particularly high on our list of preferred vegetables. Meanwhile I hand-hoed the second planting of sweet corn, then started the tedious job of removing the bean vines from the trellis netting so we could get some new plants installed in their place.

Jerome did come Saturday evening around seven. The garden tour felt like the mid-term exam that it was, but we got a really good grade. As did the soil—he had always been concerned about how much work the land would need before it began to produce properly, but it turned out that most of the crops were good and some of them quite good. The flavor of the carrots didn’t quite pass muster, even after 50 tons/acre of lime, but good carrots are notoriously difficult to grow in Kentucky. The onions and tomatoes look particularly good.

Jerome told us that he thought the section of potatoes was ready to pick where we had planted whole Yukon Gold seed potatoes (for some reason they matured faster than the rest), and so this morning we got after it. Since we had grown them aboveground in mulch, harvesting them was easy and even enjoyable—push aside the mulch in search of potatoes, which were fairly clean and did not need to be dug. We harvested about 70 linear feet of potatoes, and took out 265 pounds of them, with about 10% that needed to go to the compost heap. We’ll be baking some of those potatoes tonight to eat with our sweet corn.

There are another 60 or so linear feet of potatoes to harvest. The vines haven’t died back completely, so it’ll be another couple of weeks before we dig them (good thing, since the potatoes we dug this morning are spread out over the basement and will be curing for the next couple of weeks). The remaining potatoes were planted with cut pieces, some Yukon Gold and some Kennebec, so we don’t know if the yield will be comparable or more or less than this morning. But we’re certain to have lots of potatoes available.

Nashville farmers' market

Last Saturday I took a drive to Nashville to check out the farmers’ market there. The promotional materials on the web are slick enough, and Nashville is more than twice as large as Louisville and Lexington, the other two cities within reasonable driving distance of us. Plus, Nashville is booming, and there is a lot of new money there, something that has to be considered when you are thinking about getting into a high-priced niche market like organic produce.

The market is located near downtown, and the natural route to get to it takes you through a long stretch of housing projects and rough neighborhoods. A lot of the staff seems to be drawn from that area, so much of the time you are dealing with folks who look sullen and hostile, even if they don’t actually behave that way.

The physical facility is impressive. There are four long open sheds, two on either side of a central building with shopping and a food court inside. Each shed has an aisle down the middle, broken into sections on either side that are ten feet wide and thirty feet deep. Many long-established operations occupy multiple sections, with stands that are 30×30, 60×30, even 120×30 feet. There was easy access to the back of the sections, with many people using forklifts or trucks to drive up and unload stuff.

The core of the market is dominated by four or five long-established vendors. The produce looked fine, fresh and inexpensive, but there was no sense that they were catering to people who were willing to pay extra for a quality product. It was a perfect Saturday morning, but the place was not at all crowded. Most of the customers there seemed to be regulars in search of good deals on the week’s groceries. Nobody seemed to be there for the experience of shopping at a farmers’ market.

There is a new section, called the producers’ section, which I think is intended to cater to the pay-extra-for-quality crowd. No wholesale operations are allowed, you have to either grow it yourself or have obtained it from a farm within ten miles of your farm. But this was a ragtag collection of vendors compared to the established operations—a pickup truck full of sweet corn with two guys sitting on the tailgate; some folding tables of produce with people in chairs behind them, feet up on the table; one humble but nice setup with no vendor in sight, with two people wanting to buy something and wondering to one another if the vendor would ever come back.

The central building with inside shopping and a food court also suggested that they want to appeal to the upscale crowd. The businesses in there are relatively new—an oriental market, health products, a meat market, chinese fast food—but the space was a large warehouse area that had been broken up into booths, and it was badly lit and claustrophobic.

The market is almost exactly 150 miles from us, a 2.5 hour drive. The good news, I suppose, is that there is no particular reason for us to consider selling there.

Saturday

Saturday we scheduled a day trip to Lexington. Aside from church we don’t get out much as a family anymore, so this was a big deal. We needed to leave fairly early, since it is a ninety-plus minute trip. Chris and I were moving kind of slow, since we hadn’t gotten home till after midnight from playing music, but when I got up at 6:30 the rest of the kids were already dressed, downstairs, and making breakfast. We ate, I took a quick shower, and when I got out I found that the coffee water had thoughtfully been heated for me, and all the coffee apparatus had been set out (using the travel mug, of course). So I brewed a cup and we loaded up, and we were on the road by about 7:30.

Our first stop was at Good Foods in Lexington. Part of the purpose of this family trip was to show everyone places where we might be selling things that we grow and process. The kids were very impressed as they walked through the produce section and saw that many of the items were labeled as "Jerome Lange’s garlic" or "Jerome Lange’s white potatoes" or "Jerome Lange’s basil".

Jerome has worked with Good Foods for more than twenty years now, and is probably their principal produce supplier. He was there when they were a little hole-in-the-wall hippie coop, and he is there now that they have gone upscale and adopted the Whole Foods/Wild Oats look. His hope is that he will be able to use his name to help others in Casey County to also get their produce and other products into Good Foods.

Next it was on to the Lexington Farmers’ Market. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it was very impressive, especially for a small city of 300,000 or so. The market was right downtown, with booths strung along three city blocks. There were lots of booths selling the traditional selection of fresh produce, most of it locally grown, but there were also quite a few booths selling other things—one sold nothing but garlic products (braids, powder, pestos), another had a wide range of spices, a third sold expensive flower arrangements, many of them sold Amish cheese and butter, some had meats (pastured poultry, grass-fed lamb and beef). The setup was clever—each booth had its back to the edge of the sidewalk, where there was room to back up a truck that not only carries your product but might also have refrigerators and freezers inside.

It took us about an hour to walk the length of the market, studying the range of offerings, prices being asked, presentation, and so on. We saw our friend Steve and chatted with him for a bit. We’ve played music with Steve in the past, and he encouraged me and Chris to come up some Saturday and do some busking (i.e. play to passersby for tips). We will probably try that in the near future, just to explore the possibility. But mostly this was a brainstorming visit, as we looked at the sorts of things that were selling and what sort of experience the overall market was providing for its customers. Again, it was very impressive; I can imagine that it is high on the list of things to do when people with money are looking for a bit of entertainment or a place to take out-of-town visitors.

Next we headed over to Art Mize’s fiddle shop, which is only a few blocks from the farmers’ market. For awhile now we’ve wanted to go there after a lesson to look for a good fiddle for Chris, but it never worked out. But Art was available that morning, and so we crowded into his tiny shop around 11am.

Art is very knowledgeable about fiddling, fiddles, and music in general, and gave us just the sort of help we needed when faced with a major purchase of an instrument we didn’t really understand all that well. Once he knew the price range we were looking at, he lined up about ten possibilities on the counter and had Chris begin to play them in various ways—messing around with licks, playing low scales, playing high scales, and so on. He helped Chris to understand the differences he was hearing in the different instruments, and then to slowly begin narrowing down the choices. It took about ninety minutes to settle on the fiddle he wanted (which was actually at the low end of the price range), but when he picked it he knew why he was picking it.

We weren’t done yet, though. Next we spent thirty minutes trying out various bows. I never knew that the quality of the bow was very important, but Art showed us why that was true, both for playability and even for tone. The bow we ended up selecting was not the most expensive, but it was surprisingly expensive if you think of a bow as something that doesn’t contribute much to the overall package. It helped to think of the bow as part of the instrument, something that is not disposable but will live on as long as the fiddle.

Then it was time for lunch, and a few errands on the way home. Because we ate a large, late lunch there wasn’t a lot of interest in supper, which was good because we needed to get ourselves over to Jerome’s place for another music fest. Periodically a friend of Jerome’s from Cincinnati will bring about thirty students from the private school where he teaches, so that the kids can spend three or four days getting work done around Jerome’s farm. They usually stay for church on Sunday and then leave, and Saturday evening there is a musical performance for them. We went over to help out, and had a good time playing for a different sort of audience. (The songs about rough people seemed to go over the best, and fortunately any old-time musician knows dozens of them.)

Energy

On Thursday I delivered produce for Jerome to Lexington, so as usual I was up at 3:45am and over to his place by 4:30 to help load the truck. I had no reason to dawdle in town, so after delivering to Good Foods and to Steve at the Farmer’s Market I headed out and was back at Jerome’s by 9:30am. Meaning I could have been home by ten, but often I’ll stick around for an hour and get a lesson in farming or talk over plans and possibilities.

So I was probably home by eleven, and it wasn’t a half-hour later that Jerome called about the blackberries. Normally when I’ve done a delivery I’ll try to get a nap after lunch, but that day we ate and headed straight out to pick. And after supper I needed to go to town to get some containers for the berries, and while I was there I ran some other errands, and was home close to bedtime. So no nap that day.

Friday was normal hours, but I had to get over to Jerome’s by ten to deliver the berries. I stayed awhile to walk the garden and to talk, and was home for a late lunch, and finally I was dragging enough that I needed to get a nap. Which I did. I puttered a bit after I woke up, but when Debbie said that the beans really needed picking I accompanied her down to the garden, where we spent maybe ninety minutes picking about half the plants before we needed to head in for supper.

It wasn’t oppressively hot but it was warm, and after a fair amount of bending down and standing up to pick the beans I was running with sweat and pretty tired. We walked up the hill to the house, where Maggie had taken care of getting supper on the table. The meal was tacos and beans, and they were fine, but often after I’ve been working in the heat I have little appetite, so I only ate one taco and nibbled at the beans—but that tall glass of fresh milk looked really inviting, and so I savored it, and somehow it refreshed me.

Good thing, because right after supper Chris and I had to head out to Somerset, an hour’s drive away, where we were going to be playing music with Jerome and some friends at a lakeside birthday party. By the time we arrived my energy was back up to about normal, and we played for about two and one half hours without a break. Part of that was because Art Mize had come to play fiddle with us, and we love playing with Art so much that we don’t really want to stop.

The mystery to me is the ninety minutes of picking beans. I didn’t look forward to it, and I can’t say I enjoyed it as I didn’t, but it wasn’t oppressive. In fact, it was satisfying, especially after the fact as I sat at the supper table and drank my milk and rested. No other work I do has the same sort of physical aftermath. It is re-energizing, on many levels.

Preserves

We’re having some fun experimenting with preserves. When we picked those five gallons of beautiful sweet strawberries at Martins, Debbie put them up using a low-sugar pectin, using about one fifth of the sugar found in a standard strawberry jam recipe. The results were staggering, a jam that you wanted to spread on thick, tasting very much like fresh fruit. Next we picked up some nice peaches from the Mennonite produce station; Debbie prepared them the same way, with the same results. I thought that we might need more sugar for the tart blackberries, so Debbie did one batch with 2/5 the sugar, but it seemed a bit sweet so we tried again with 1/5 the sugar and it was delicious.

If you want to try this yourself, it isn’t too hard to find low-sugar pectin (Ball, Sure-Jell). But standard pectin can be expensive, costing as much or more than the fruit you use(I don’t know why). If you want to do this in quantity, I suggest you try to find something called Dutch Gel, which comes in Regular and Lite (low-sugar) versions. It is something like one-twentieth the cost of the other pectins—so cheap that I’m sort of suspicious of it, and a little troubled that I can’t find any infor about it on the internet. But it is commonly used by the Mennonites and Amish, and that’s where you’ll probably have to look for it.