Saturday, June 4, 2011

Black Currants Passing in the Night

Last night I participated in an hour-long interview for a thing called the Prepper Podcast, talking with Pat Carson from Wild Horse Ranch (a quarter section located in Sandy Lake, about 35 miles northwest of Edmonton, Alberta—which Pat refers to as "the land of oil and money"; a shibboleth updated from "the land of milk and honey").

The Prepper Podcast is a network of radio hosts promoting survival, preparedness, and sustainable living lifestyles, and I was solicited by Pat to be the guest for his Life on a Wild Horse Ranch program, which holds down the 8-9 pm slot every Friday. As always, it was fun talking about community, the FIC, & sustainability, and the hour went quickly. Pat was an enthusiastic interviewer and it was easy finding the intersection between intentional community and his homestead ranch.

It turned out that Wild Horse Ranch is an intriguing amalgamation of interests, offering a distinctive trinity of foci:
a) preservation of the Carson Breed Mountain Horse.
b) development of wild black currants as a vitamin-packed food source with excellent medicinal properties.
c) a retreat center for Japanese interested in experiencing a taste of the "Western lifestyle." Yeehah! (I knew right away I was onto something unusual when I went to their URL and the opening page—for a remote location in northern Alberta, mind you—offered me a choice of continuing in English or Japanese.)

I feel reasonably confident that this particular trifecta is not duplicated anywhere in the universe. In fact, I seriously doubt you'd find any two of these specialties combined elsewhere.

I wound up on the program because I'm a spokesperson for the FIC and Pat wanted to talk about intentional communities. Fair enough. Unexpectedly, we also had a lot to share about homesteading. Though Sandhill Farm only goes back to 1974, Wild Horse Ranch goes back to 1887. Both places place an emphasis on practicing self-sufficiency, using technologies that we can maintain ourselves, and growing a high percentage of our own food.

Current Affairs
Most improbable of all was stumbling onto Pat's passion for black currants. (Apparently wild horses augmented—as opposed to holding back—his enthusiasm for Ribes negrum.) Currants, both red and black, are native to northern Canada, so it didn't surprise me that it was a feature of their homestead. What was surprising was how fond he was of them and what a long and special tradition his family has had with this relatively obscure fruit (apparently his family exported black currant jam to England during the Depression—which is analogous to exporting orange juice to Florida).

We have a thriving stand of black currants at Sandhill that has been highly emblematic of our homesteading tradition. The rootstock came from cuttings lovingly obtained from my Aunt Hennie's house in Elmhurst IL—a house that had been in my family's ownership from 1899 until it was sold in the 90s, after my aunt and uncle passed away. The Sandhill patch occupies a position of honor, right between our greenhouse and our main garden plot.

For many years, the sale of black currants was banned in sections of the US where white pines were being managed for commercial forestry, because it's a favored alternative host for the fungus that causes white pine blister rust. While this approach to control has since been discredited and the ban has been lifted, black currants remain a relatively unusual component of farmstead fruit production. While the plants need little care and are easy to propagate, there are two main reasons that folks are able to contain their enthusiasm growing black currants: a) the fruit comes ripe over a three-week period which complicates the harvest—you have go over the bushes multiple times to gather all the little darlings; and b) most people find the ripe fruit too tart to enjoy raw, preferring to employ them as the featured ingredient in jams and wine—which translates to more work. (When Julez was a member of Sandhill, she used to refer to black currants as dog breath berries—which was not meant as a compliment.)

How amazing is it that Pat and I are both black currant aficionados rooted in a multi-generational family tradition dating back to the late 1800s? It's such a delight when you happen upon a serendipitous discovery like that. I just hope someone got some useful information about cooperative living on last night's podcast, interspersed in the midst of our spontaneous black currant love fest.

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