Monday, May 31, 2010

Eating Local, Organic Fruit

Here Nora and Paul pit cherries, some we got from our own two trees, and some from a neighbor's tree.  We've been freezing and drying them.
   A couple weeks ago we began talking about what it would take to really get away from the conventional industrialized food system and all its pesticides, fossil fuel based fertilizers, etc.  We want to continue this week talking about fruit and what we would recommend for someone wanting to eat real homegrown fruit grown with old-fashioned organic integrity.  What would a person have to do to eat fruit that was grown the right way?  As with vegetables, one would have to eat the fresh fruit that was in season and put up fruit for the off-season.  Some fruits (notably blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc.) can be almost as good out of the freezer as they are fresh.  A lot of fruits are also especially well suited to drying/dehyrdating (figs, sour cherries...)  Unlike with vegetables, however, switching from grocery store fruit to homegrown fruit would require a lot more changes in what kinds of fruit we eat.  The fruits that are sold in grocery stores -- and therefore our habits and expectations as grocery store-bred consumers -- are largely those fruits that have lent themselves best to industrialization: fruits that are good for shipping and that have fairly long shelf lives, fruits that can be grown in large acreages with labor-saving chemicals, etc.  We think the kind of fruits that lend themselves to local, organic management are just as good if not better, but they're mostly not what we're used to or what we might go looking for.  Obviously, bananas and citrus aren't the fruits to look for, but other fruits that are grown locally, like apples and peaches, are generally dependent on extensive arsenals of nasty chemicals.  As much as Eric loves peaches and Melissa loves apples, learning just a little about how the local commercial orchards grow these fruits has made it really hard to feel right about buying them.  We do have some hope in growing cosmetically less perfect, disease-resistant varieties of apples, and we did plant a couple peach trees hoping against hope to harvest some edible peaches, but for us eating local fruit means turning primarily to other fruits.  There are some familiar grocery store fruits for which there are excellent local alternatives.  Even though conventional strawberries are one of the most pesticide-laden fruits there are, it's very feasible to grow strawberries organically.  We're just finishing an excellent strawberry year, and we hope you all got plenty these last few weeks.  Local blueberries, on the other hand, tend to be a very low-spray crop, even on non-organic farms.  (That's not true of some of the blueberries in supermarkets from other areas, whose pesticide residues we've been told have been linked to behavioral disorders in children.)  No-spray melons may be somewhat scarcer at farmers' markets, but that's something else to look for.  For a fuller variety, though, we think a person would really have to eat fruits that aren't common in supermarkets.  Figs have a short shelf life, but they're delicious and very well suited to organic management.  Mulberries (the fruit of a large tree, similar in appearance to a blackberry but with none of the bitterness) can also be grown very easily, and we've really been enjoying them lately.  Even some of the wild mulberry trees have really good quality fruit.  Persimmons are one of our favorite wild fruits -- some trees have lesser quality fruit but there are a lot of very good wild trees -- and they can also be planted.  Wild blackberries are more familiar.  There are quite a few old sour cherry trees in local farmyards.  Although they're called “sour cherries,” some varieties are plenty sweet and are excellent for fresh eating, although typically not as big as conventionally grown varieties.  Muscadines/scuppernong grapes fall into the same category as local blueberries, being a cultivated fruit that tend to be very low-spray even on non-organic farms.  We've been told that Asian pears (the pears with a more apple-like shape and texture) could also fit into that category.  And the list goes on: pawpaws, jujubes, raspberries, tame blackberries, serviceberries, mayhaws...  We wouldn't be satisfied simply with the fruit we could find at farmers' markets, but if you can go out into the country and find additional types of fruit, we think one can find a full assortment of fruit grown the right way.  If you're motivated to eat good quality fruit, we'd love to help you with whatever know-how we can share.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

We Have a Long Way to Go

   We watched three documentaries about food and agriculture during the off-season: "Food Beware," "Supersize Me," and "Food Inc.," all of which we recommend to you all.  We wanted to share some thoughts here that these movies spawned by focusing on the restaurant chain Chipotle.  The founder of Chipotle was interviewed in an addition to the movie "Food Inc."  We've never been to a Chipotle chain, but listening to the interview and reading about Chipotle on their website, it's clear that they are a leading example of the organic movement.  What struck us, though, was how little it takes to be a leading example.  We're inclined at first to think their standards are so weak as to be worthless.  On the other hand, we don't really know of a restaurant that holds itself to any stricter standards.  To gain some perspective on the whole organic movement, we wanted to point out what organic standards like Chipotle's do and don't mean.  How would you, as a consumer, evaluate their organic claims?  If you want to take the time, to understand better what we're responding to, we'd encourage you to first read what Chipotle says on their website about what they call "food with integrity."
    Here are some things we see.  The chickens Chipotle buys aren't given antibiotics and they're given marginally more space than other chickens, but they're still made of fully conventional grains, and they're still crowded in confinement houses.  Their chickens are given zero freedom to forage naturally for grubs and worms or anything green or fresh -- this is perversely touted as an all vegetarian diet.  The chicks meanwhile come from farms that don't follow any organic practices at all.  Their pork is similarly fed fully conventional grains (pesticides, herbicides, interspecies genetic modifications, etc.), and farmers can give the hogs pharmaceutical injections so long as they follow protocols for preventing retained needles.  The dairies that supply Chipotle can also keep cows crowded in confinement houses, not eating any fresh grass, use antibiotics, and use hormone injections for reproductive management (just not rBGH.)  Separating from the industrial system that dominates American agriculture is incredibly difficult, and Chipotle doesn't claim to have fully arrived, but the big question is where their approach will take us.  At the very least we should recognize that there's a very viable marketing niche heading in the same direction as the rest of industrial agriculture, just one step behind.  There's no real hope in that.  We think we need to be careful and work hard to put more integrity in our cause and to really seek after a more fully separate and self-sufficient system of agriculture.  Of course, we have to start where we are, and that's tightly bound and interconnected to our industrial system, but the sheer size and momentum of the industrial system will surely drag us further along with it if we don't pursue real independence seriously.
   It seems to us that the real problem is that various forms of industrialization (mechanization, labor-saving chemicals, pharmaceuticals, artificial fertilizers, artificial draft power, etc.) have gradually destroyed the system and culture of working knowledge, shared community, and face-to-face accountability that is our only trustworthy protection against industrial abuses.  It seems good to focus even more on shortening supply lines (for example, eating more home-prepared meals from more locally sourced raw ingredients) and on regaining real personal and community control of our food system (all the way back to the source of the manure that fertilizes the crops that feed our animals.)  It seems to us that any other strategy will only come back around to bite us in the rear.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Food Safety Legislation

   Despite the fact that we make our living farming, we only realized a couple months ago that major food safety legislation that will dramatically restructure our farming/food system had already passed the US House (H.R. 2749) last summer and is on the verge of passing the Senate (S. 510).  As diversified, organic farmers we see some fundamental problems with the pending legislation,
(1) Diversity is seen as a threat: food safety is understood as keeping animals as far away from produce fields as possible. What that effectively means is large monocultures (where border issues are non-issues) and animals correspondingly confined to feedlots and confinement houses, whose manure then accumulates in tremendous quantities, far beyond the ability of the immediate ecosystem to safely absorb, and thus posing the most serious safety issues (as evidenced by the recent food safety scares, particularly the deadly food poisoning outbreak with spinach, as well as the most recent lettuce outbreak.) Diversified farms, after all, aren't causing the outbreaks we're hearing about and that have energized the push for new legislation; quite the opposite: large, monocultural farms are. Well managed plant and animal diversity is the friend of food safety (as well as the friend of a lot of other good things), not the enemy.
(2) Huge regulatory burdens are placed on the farm use of manure. But what's the alternative? Conventional fertilizers synthesized from fossil fuels and other non-renewable mined sources. Why should the risks of chemical contamination of produce (and of drinking water and other indirect paths) warrant so little attention? The science certainly isn't there to support, on the grounds of food safety, the hard push away from traditional uses of manure to chemical agriculture, and that's precisely the trade-off. What about synthetic pesticides? Are we supposed to ignore all the risks they bring with them, both to food consumers as well as to water resources, rural communities, and ecosystems? The reality is that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides go together. The only practical way to place all these limitations on the use of manure is to open ourselves up to more chemical risks and proven chemical harm.
Even then, using petroleum-based fertilizers doesn't mean we have any less manure to deal with; it only means more manure winds up in places where it's a worthless waste liability, which is where the greatest food safety risks lie. The sensible question isn't how to avoid manure but how to best incorporate manure into our agricultural system. (We might also ask if ways of keeping and feeding and medicating animals make for less pathogenic manure.) No matter how hard we make it for farmers to use manure productively, the manure still has to go somewhere.
(3) “Good Agricultural Practice” cannot be defined in a one-size-fits-all format, and especially not by Washington. There is zero scientifically proven risk to letting weeder geese into a sweet corn crop (i.e. letting domestic geese eat the competing weeds out from under an immature sweet corn crop), and no reason to even suspect food safety problems, but official GAP would outlaw the practice. What if some people would rather have some goose poop fall three feet under their corn before the corn even forms than to have the corn itself genetically modified and then sprayed directly with chemical herbicides? (Transgenic sweet corn has already found its way into the fields of vendors even at our little farmers' market.) Obviously, the use of weeder geese isn't common practice (at least not nowadays), but there are 10,000 other such innovate farming practices GAP would outlaw. The end effect of a legislative definition of good farming is that a great deal of innovation and unconventional ways of farming will be outlawed, particularly on the kind of small farms that generate the least run-off and waste liabilities, don't rely on illegal immigrant laborers, depend least on foreign oil, provide the most viable, long-term alternative to cost cutting produce from China or Mexico, produce food with the least chemical residues, expose farmers and farmhands to the least chemical dangers, necessitate less highway and air traffic, demand fewer square miles of land be paved over, etc., etc. Have we not gone far enough in pushing these kinds of farms out of business already?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Farm Update

 Here's some news from the off-season.
   Winter held its grip without respite until well into March. We've had some unseasonably hot spells mixed in with the near frosts since then. Even last night, with a clear starry sky, we went to bed fearing how low the temperature would fall. Fortunately, at sunrise, it was 41, sparing the hopeful bumper crop of strawberries. We're also looking at an abundant spinach and lettuce harvest. The spring peas are coming on strong, but they're behind schedule. A cold, wet late winter had them planted the latest we've ever put them in. If it doesn't get too hot too soon they should still produce very well. The first of the beans and sweet corn, on the other hand, went in the ground earlier than normal. We're getting ready to set out our 300 tomato plants today.
   The main honey flow has started with the tulip poplars, blackgum trees, and blackberries all in bloom. The air force is hoping for clear, sunny skies to make its crop of honey. The bees came through the winter very well, but the consistent cold delayed their spring population build-up. We're already busy making up lots of mating nucs (nucleus/starter colonies) for next year's honey crop.
   Animal projects, in particular, like fencing have kept us busy through the off-season. We currently have two cows in milk, one of which is feeding a calf that we'll beef at some point this year. We also bought a little jersey heifer we named Dandelion for our future milk supply. The first calf born on our farm is now several hundred pounds of beef steer that we plan to finish on the high energy summer grasses. We're hopeful three of our nanny goats are bred for late summer milking. They and a fourth nanny continue to clean the brambles, weeds, and poison ivy out of our pastures and perimeters. The first of our hens hatched a clutch of biddies a few weeks back. She had been setting up in the hay mow unknown to us. She is successfully mothering her 16 biddies! Other hens have started setting as well. As we seemed to be getting ahead of the demand for eggs we sold down some of our flock. With over 50 hens remaining, though, we hope to have a good supply for the market season.
   The other big news is that we are expecting our third child in mid-July. Fortunately, it has been a gentle pregnancy for Melissa, so we're moving forward with the season pretty much as normal so far. Of course, there will probably be some interruption when the baby arrives.