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Farm & Ranch

A Regular Bee Charmer

BeesIt started with a movie – as many things do. In Fried Green Tomatoes, one of the main characters climbs a tree and steals honey from a beehive to give to the person she loves. The object of her affection exclaims, "You’re just a regular bee charmer, Idgy Threadgood!"

I was fascinated by the idea that someone could be a bee charmer - that you could climb a tree and interact with the bees without being stung. And, if I’m perfectly honest, I’ve loved bees since I was a kid. There’s something amazing about them, from the efficiency of the hive to the way they communicate and, of course, the honey.

Over the years, I became more and more interested in beekeeping. I started buying books on the subject and learning about what it takes to maintain a hive and about the bees themselves. I learned that 95 percent of a bee colony is female, that only the queen lays eggs, that the worker bees (all female) do ALL the work (cleaning the hive, making the comb, feeding the babies, making the honey, collecting the pollen, collecting the nectar, etc. etc.) while the lay-about male bees just “service” the queen and keep her clean.

I learned that a bee colony is a collective and all decisions are made as a group. And, maybe the coolest piece of information I learned ... the bees actually have a language.

I was also exposed to the story of “colony collapse”. Colony collapse disorder is a phenomenon where an entire colony of bees will abruptly disappear for no apparent reason. In the U.S. alone, we've lost more than 5 million colonies, which account for nearly half of the country's the bee population.

The decline in the bee population tipped me over the edge. I took a class, joined a beekeeping club, and now…

Alex in her bee suitIn my little backyard, I have a single hive which I started this summer. Because I started late in the year, I bought some already established bees and am working to build a strong, disease-free colony that will survive the winter. Next year, I should be able to harvest honey!

I’m slightly obsessed (that's what summertime passions can do to you). I visit the hive every day, at least once. I stand by the hive and talk to my girls (this is to get them used to having activity around the hive).

Then, once a week, I take the entire hive apart, view each frame, look for the queen, and make sure nothing looks amiss. If I had my way, I’d do this every day, but I’m told it’s too disruptive to the bees.

Bees are quite docile – mainly because they’re all drunk on nectar right now but also -- I like to think -- because I work hard to make sure they’re used to me poking around their home. In the six weeks I've had them, I've been stung once because I stepped on a bee and I wasn’t wearing shoes. I always wear shoes now.

I love my bees. They're infinitely fascinating, and I could spend hours fussing over them. My summer hobby now has me on the road to becoming a "regular bee charmer."

Alex Aulisi blogs about many of her hobbies - including her new passion for bees - at www.mightydistractible.com. Find more photos of her beekeeping adventures on her personal Flickr page

30 Days of SummerEditor's note: What are your summer hobbies? Share your story in the comments below. Or visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page today and throughout the summer to join the 30 Days of Summer conversations. You can also check out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted by Alex Aulisi on Fri, Aug 02 2013 8:38 am

Got produce? Gardening tips to make summer's bounty last

Share your garden's bounty this summer.During summer, whether you have an abundant vegetable garden, receive a weekly community-supported agriculture box of veggies, or just couldn’t stop buying produce at the farmers market, you may be asking yourself, “What do I do with all these vegetables?”

Here are some ideas of what to do with excess produce before it wilts away.

Use a seasonal cookbook
Summer is a great time to eat fresh, local food. There are many seasonal cookbooks, From Asparagus to Zucchini, A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce is one of my favorites. I like that it’s published by Wisconsin’s FAIRSHARE CSA Coalition – they know their seasonal veggies!

I haven’t tried it yet, but FAIRSHARE recently published a companion to Asparagus, titled Farm-Fresh and Fast: Easy Recipes and Tips for Making the Most of Fresh, Seasonal Foods. It’s on my short list!

Basil drying

Preserve what you can’t eat
Garlic, many varieties of onions, and down the road, root vegetables and winter squash, will keep a long time. Just eat as you need them. Drying and freezing are a couple of great options for small-scale food preservation. I dry herbs by tying them in bunches and hanging in a warm dry place out of the sun (house or garage attic are great for this). A food dehydrator can dry just about anything. No need to buy one, I got one from a friend who had an extra, or keep an eye on your local second hand stores.

Freezing is a little more involved, but nothing that you can’t do with a little research and hot water (really). And if you want to learn more about canning, search online for a water-bath or pressure canning class. They are usually 2-3 hours each.

Share your bounty
If you’ve simply got too much food to eat and no time or desire to preserve it, share it!

  • Pack up extra produce and go introduce yourself to a neighbor you’ve been meaning to get to know better.
  • Encourage healthy snacking at work. Slice up some produce and bring in a vegetable platter. Boast about where it came from.
  • Donate it! Many food pantries now accept any quantity of fresh produce to share with their communities. My community garden organizes a collection bin and last year, we donated more than 300 pounds of fresh produce to several Madison, Wis.-area food pantries. Your donation won’t be on that scale, but will be just as appreciated.

Josh Feyen - the Urbane Farmer shares his “raised-on-a-farm” wisdom and writes about urban farming and organic gardening topics on his personal blog, too.

30 Days of SummerEditor's note: However you spend it, summer has a wonderful, effortless way of bringing us closer to the ones we love. In this spirit, American Family invites you and your family to join us for our 30 Days of Summer celebration.

Throughout the season, we’re featuring ideas - like gardening - for family fun and safety with our communities on FacebookTwitterPinterest and Google Plus. We’ll also offer opportunities for you to share your own summer experiences with us. Visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page today and throughout the summer to join the 30 Days of Summer celebration with your own comments, stories and pictures!

Posted by Josh Feyen on Mon, Jul 22 2013 10:40 am

Roots in Tradition, Seeds of Change

American Family Insurance supports sustainable programs like employee community gardens.For me, the start of a new growing season sparks ideas and opportunities for growth. Since this year’s growing season took a bit longer to kick into gear, that left plenty of time to dream and plan!

As co-lead for the American Family Employee Community Garden at the company's National Headquarters in Madison, Wis., I’ve had the pleasure of seeing new faces, new plots and new enthusiasm invigorate our garden’s third season. And without the support of an incredibly dedicated group of garden volunteers, participant gardeners, and corporate champions the garden wouldn’t be what it is today.

Here's a look at some of the 2013 highlights:

  • Enough gardener interest to justify four new 10’ x 10’ plots (bringing our total to 122).  
  • Commitment from our company's Food Pantry Committee and our garden community to exceed last year’s fresh produce donation of 388 pounds, which aligned well with our support of Feeding America during our Pledge to Plant a Row in May and June.
  • Utilize extra space for our community garden's Vine Patch. In its second year, this group of gardeners grows squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and melons. In addition, this space serves as the incubator for one gardener’s dream of growing her own Great Pumpkin! (Stay tuned for updates.) 

Interest in employee community gardens has reached American Family's St. Joseph, Mo., regional office, where a recently formed garden committee is exploring what it will take to bring a garden on site. The hope is that a garden will be in place for the 2014 growing season!

So, why would an insurance company bother with an on-site community garden?

Back in August 2010, I enrolled in a leadership class and was challenged to create something that would foster a more sustainable community. LeeAnn Glover, another American Family employee also in the class, joined me in the effort to develop a vision and plan for what is now the Employee Community Garden. The project aligned perfectly with American Family's goals of workplace sustainability, health and wellness, and employee engagement. The garden plan not only addressed forward-looking goals, but also reflected back on the company’s history.

American Family has deep roots in agriculture, going back to 1927 when the company was formed here in Madison. Back then, we were Farmers Mutual Insurance Company and the business strategy focused on insuring farmers (in 1963 the name changed to American Family Mutual Insurance Company in response to geographic and customer expansion). It didn’t take American Family long to grow beyond Wisconsin’s borders, but the company has never forgotten those agricultural traditions of integrity, hard work and community relationships.

Those traditions have manifested themselves through the garden’s personal-scale cultivation. The land continues to give back. The garden is a conduit by which employees and their families can experience the reward of a harvest, share fresh produce with those in our community who need it, and form new friendships as well as a new-found respect for patience in nature.

Posted by Angela Freedman on Fri, Jul 12 2013 7:29 amAngela Freedman is a compliance and ethics senior consultant with American Family Insurance and co-lead for the company's Employee Community Garden.

Getting more out of your garden with less work

Josh Feyen offers gardening tips to reduce your work this spirng and summer.Ever since I called myself a “lazy gardener” earlier this spring, I’ve been wondering if the word “lazy” comes from the French “laissez faire,” or “deliberate abstention from direction or interference…” In my case, the less I have to interfere in my garden, the more time I have to prepare and eat the food from it.

Here are two more areas where I significantly decrease work, increase fun and grow more vegetables.

Succession planting
Some vegetables are harvested or die mid-summer. Succession planting can make sure your valuable garden space doesn’t go to waste for the rest of the season.

  • Create a planting scheduled so you don’t forget to get those seeds in on time.
  • Watch the maturity time on seed packets. It’s no fun planting 50-day beets 30 days before the first frost.
  • Plant fast-growing plants near slower growing ones. For example, plant garlic (fast) near peppers (slower) - after your mid-July garlic harvest, the peppers will fill out and take up the empty space.
  • In late July or early August, plant beets, carrots or radishes, all of which will grow before the first frost hits them.
  • In September, plant lettuce.
  • In October, plant garlic for harvest next season.

Water once a week, even when it’s dry:

  • If your garden is well-mulched, plants only need water once a week. Take rain into consideration.
  • When watering, soak the plant for 30 seconds to a minute per plant on a low to medium water flow. The point is to deeply water occasionally rather than shallow water frequently.
  • Stick your fingers under the mulch, if it’s moist, your plants are happy – no need to water that day.
  • Overwatering can drain soil fertility, cause erosion and in many cases, makes for unhappy plants.
  • When watering, avoid wetting leaves or watering in the evening. Damp leaves lead to sunburn during the day, and fungal disease when damp overnight.

Editor's note: If you garden, consider taking the American Family Insurance Pledge to Plant a Row to Fight Hunger. Go to our Facebook page, take the pledge to plant a row of vegetables in your home or community garden. When they're ripe, donate them to your local food bank. For every pledge received, American Family will donate $1 to Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity. 

Posted by Josh Feyen on Tue, Jun 04 2013 3:23 pm

Safety consulting: A partnership with small business owners

Safety consulting for small business ownersBeing a third-generation agent for American Family, I grew up living and breathing insurance. My father, Kenny Lionberger, was an American Family agent for 47 years. My grandfather, Waldo Lionberger, was an American Family agent before him.

Compared to them, I’m a rookie having been an agent for only two-and-a-half years. Even though I’m relatively new at this, I know a good thing when I see it. And one of the best things I see is American Family’s Loss Control/Safety Consulting program.

When I work with current and prospective customers, there are three things I stress:

  1. American Family's superior products 
  2. Our excellent customer service, and 
  3. Our safety consulting programs for small business owners. 

Many of my customers own and operate wineries. As their businesses grow, they may be expanding their buildings or adding new equipment. When that happens, they often turn to me and American Family’s safety consultants for suggestions on making their buildings and employees safer. They aren’t required to follow the suggestions from our safety consultants, but they do because they know it will make their operations safer and less prone to losses and down time.

No one ever wants a loss or an injury, and this service can help prevent them. Advice from American Family’s safety consultants has gone a long way toward preventing losses and building strong relationships between me and my customers. They know I’m not just trying to sell them something. I'm working with them to be a partner in their businesses and find ways for them to be successful.

Editor's note: Contact your local American Family Insurance agent and ask about our Safety Consulting program

Posted by Raylene Hollrah on Tue, May 28 2013 2:41 pm
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