Beekeeping to Save the World

— by Hannah Lee

Do you know that a world without bees means a world without food?  Farmers — from industrial to small-scale, artisanal ones- depend on these hard-working bees to pollinate the fruit trees.  These tiny creatures are like the “canary in the coal mine” for agriculture and their recent episodes of Colony Collapse Disorder have concerned scientists and environmentalists as well as agriculturalists.

More after the jump.

Among my favorite vendors at the Headhouse Square Farmer’s Market, the largest in Philadelphia, is Toni Price, a retired English teacher whose husband, Steve, is the chief beekeeper and honey bottler, for their Busy Bee Farm located in Tabernacle, N.J.  

Last year, their farm was awarded a Pollinator Habitat Grant from the New Jersey National Resource Conservation Service and the USDA.  As a Master Gardener of Burlington County, Toni handles the care and use of the farm’s lavender and other herbs, as well as her flock of free-range pet chickens. She’d invited my family to visit during the lavender harvest, so I visited her on a hot, sunny day in early July.

Their 22 pastel-colored beehives are scattered on their property on the Pine Barrens, also known as the Pinelands, a heavily forested area of coastal plain stretching across southern New Jersey, according to Wikipedia.  The Prices are now in Year Two of a three-year pollinator habitat grant: In Year One, they planted 35 trees and shrubs that are native to the Pine Barren.  In Year Two, they are adding perennial flowers and shrubs; and in Year Three, they’ll add native grasses.  They have sought out other federal sources of funding: an irrigation grant; a forestry grant, and a grant to build up to organic certification.  The last one cited is to finance the construction of a deer fence — some 8′ to 10′ high —  to protect the lavender.  The soil is sandy, not loamy, in the Pine Barrens, and that affects which crops thrive there, such as asparagus, sweet potatoes, and blueberries.  Their son’s friend is trying to grow organic hops on a corner of their property — hops are used in beer-making — and the 30-feet-tall decommissioned telephone poles used to stake the plants are a sight to behold.

Honeybees are not native to this country — they are actually from Africa — but the local bumblebees do not produce honey.  If you wish to learn more about Colony-Collapse Disorder and the crucial role that honeybees play in American agriculture, do try to find a showing of Queen of the Sun, a documentary directed by Taggart Siegel that has collected numerous film-festival awards.  

Some good news in beekeeping is the growing movement to appropriate unused land for beehives.  One such example is at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport where “1.5 million bees now call the airport home.” Not only is it a “creative, sustainable, and productive way to use otherwise wasted open space,” the beehives also provide employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated adults.  This movement has been growing in Germany since 1999 when “scientists realized honeybees could be helpful for monitoring air quality,” but O’Hare is the first American airport to get an apiary.  In fact, “it’s a return to the airport’s agricultural roots,” since O’Hare was founded on a former apple orchard and that’s memorialized in the airport’s three-letter abbreviation, ORD.  Now, that’s what I call a sweet story of synergy and it is a fitting message for the Jewish New Year.

Michael Solomonov and A Sustainable Lag B’Omer on the “Beach”

By Hannah Lee

Medford, New Jersey is the home of the largest Jewish day camp in North America (according to the Wikipedia) and that was the venue for Hazon‘s “Beach, Beer and BBQ” celebration of the holiday of Lag B’Omer on Sunday, May 22nd.  Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day — lag being the gematria for (numeric equivalent) of 33 — of the counting of the barley offerings (the quantity being an omer, about two quarts)  in the ancient Temple, commencing with the second day of Pesach (Passover) and culminating with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.  Traditionally, it is celebrated in Israel with bonfires.  As observed by the Chassidim, the bonfires commemorate

“the immense light that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai introduced into the world via his mystical teachings. This was especially true on the day of his passing, Lag B’Omer, when he revealed to his disciples secrets of the Torah whose profundity and intensity the world had yet to experience. The Zohar relates that the house was filled with fire and intense light, to the point that the assembled could not approach or even look at Rabbi Shimon.”

For everyone else, it is a joy simply to be outdoors.  For Hazon, it was an opportunity to link a ancient holiday to a celebration of the trendy– and important!-goals of a sustainable future.
I was eager to attend because Michael Solomonov, the chef and owner of the Philly restaurant Zahav was scheduled to serve as chef for the event.  Earlier this month, he’d won the prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic region (and one of three Jewish chefs to be so honored this year).  Last Wednesday, the Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan invited Michael to his Live Chat feature.

LaBan chatted with Michael Solomonov  and I got to post my comments to him: “I’m looking forward to the Hazon event that you’ll be “cheffing” for this Sunday.  One reason is that your restaurant, Zahav, is not kosher!  I want to be able to eat your food too!  Was your nuclear family (parents, siblings) ever kosher?”  Michael wrote back: “I grew up in a kosher-esque household so we didn’t eat pork or shellfish in the house.  We did, however, turn into bacon zombies the moment we stepped OUT of the house.  Seriously, if “kashruting” our restaurant wasn’t such a “balagan” in the States, we might have considered it more.  But my mission is to expose and celebrate Israeli food, in its entirety, and we would seriously limit our reach if we were kosher.  We don’t serve shellfish or pork or mix dairy and meat on any plate, so we call it “kosher style”.”  My 22-year-old daughter who is usually critical of “kosher-style” catering later commended Michael for his response.  Upon meeting the Chef that evening and identifying myself, he said that I was much nicer than some of the other posters who did not pass censure or decency for their comments.  So, I was all agog to go and I’d signed up my husband as driver and our teen daughter.

The JCC Camp in Medford has plenty of sand for the “Beach” as advertised.  It occupies 120 acres in Burlington County in southern New Jersey and it boasts of a lake too.  A small fair of vendors offering organic and sustainably sourced products kept us engaged until supper time.  I greeted Toni Price, whom I’d seen earlier in the day at Headhouse Square, the largest farmers’ market in Philadelphia.  Toni is a retired English teacher whose husband, Steve, is the chief beekeeper for their Busy Bee Farm located in the nearby Pine Barrens in Tabernacle, N.J.  Last year, their farm was awarded a Pollinator Habitat Grant from the New Jersey National Resource Conservation Service and the USDA.  As a Master Gardener of Burlington County, Toni handles the care and use of the farm’s lavender and other herbs, as well as her flock of free-range pet chickens.   She invited my family to visit on lavender harvesting days.

Negev Nectars was also on hand to offer taste tests of their gourmet products from small-scale Israeli farmers.   Their olive oil comes from trees nourished from an underground aquifer of brackish (salty) water- sparing the scarce “sweet” water from Lake Kinneret for human consumption.  I bought several jars of their kosher confitures, spreads, and honey for use as hostess gifts, in particular the items from Kibbutz Neot Smadar, since my husband’s sister is named Smadar.

Jack Treatman, Coffee Buyer and Vice President of Old City Coffee was on hand to explain how their coffee was harvested and culled by hand, with colorful photographs to illustrate his point.  The coffee beans, really the seeds of the plants’ “cherries”, are then raked into fields that resemble sand for drying.  The kosher certification comes at the point of roasting and Jack says that the only reason Old City Coffee is not certified is that its store in the Reading Terminal Market is open on Saturdays.

So, the BBQ dinner!  Michael’s food was a celebration of the flavors of Israel, executed with a modern flair and a gourmet spin.  I loved everything, especially the roasted cauliflower (even my non-crucifer-loving hubby enjoyed it!) and the grilled eggplant.  I cannot report on the meat– chicken shislik and chicken cooked al ha’esh from Grow and Behold Foods — which I didn’t eat because I’m a vegan-wannabe.   Dessert was s’mores made with marshmallows toasted on sticks over a real honest-to-goodness bonfire and chocolate from Holy Cacao,  which is made in small batches by observant Jews on the hills of Hebron “at the edge of the Judean Desert” in Israel.  Electric Simcha’s… Hasidic rock music and Israeli dancing added to the ruach (lively atmosphere).  I was so inspired by the whole celebration that I volunteered to work on the next Hazon event in Philly, especially if it involved Michael Solomonov.  And I’m happily married!