Thursday, August 26, 2010

Local Milk

  We want to continue this week sharing our thoughts on how to get away from the conventional, corporate food system and how to develop a dependable, community-based food system free especially of chemical and pharmaceutical dependency. This week our focus is dairy. Increasingly, dairy cows are being kept (like poultry and hogs) without any access to forage or any fresh feed at all. Fortunately (unlike poultry and hogs), real, significant fresh feed is a part of the USDA organic requirements for dairy cattle. Of course, as with all rule-based programs, there are producers that seek to meet the minimal letter of those rules without following the spirit of the rules in order to gain cost advantages and increase their market share. However, there is one fairly big organic cooperative with farms in Iredell and Rowan Counties (and all over the country) that has really impressed us with their integrity, and that's Organic Valley. If we had to buy milk and butter, etc., in the grocery stores, we would definitely choose Organic Valley. First, so far as we're aware, there is no other government-regulated dairy or cooperative with farms in North Carolina that sells organic milk. Second, we've seen a couple of the farms that sell to Organic Valley and we've talked to some of the farmers, and what we've seen up until now are real family farms with cows on green pastures. If you're going to buy government-regulated dairy products, the Organic Valley cooperative would be, by our recommendation, the best option (and well worth the price compared to the other supermarket options we're aware of.) [However, see here for later thoughts on the declining integrity of the Organic Valley brand.] Of course, even the best milk in stores still leaves a whole lot to be desired in terms of community accountability; dependency on "organic" grain and/or hay from halfway across the continent; dependency on conventional transportation, processing, and distribution systems; and other issues of sustainability.
   At this point we're forced to confront the hot button issue of "raw milk." We wish it hadn't become such a hot button issue. It's an issue that the mainstream food/agricultural system clearly feels threatened by. We would much rather just mind our own business and let the people that want the government to oversee and guarantee the safety of their food supply remain in their own little world. Ideally, we would definitely want to offer milk (and cheese and butter, etc.) from our cows and goats for sale, but as things are, we just want to steer far away from the whole controversy of distributing "raw milk." There are still a lot of things we can actively encourage you all to do, however. We are very happy to share what we know about keeping a family cow or goat, and we would love to help you figure out how to get started milking your own animal, if you're at all inclined. Even if you live in town or can't keep an animal on your own land, there are other ways to keep a dairy animal. We like the idea of a real "cow share" where several families share not just the milk but the actual work, taking turns milking over the course of a week, such that the milk is only ever handled by the consumer himself. In the past, we have milked neighbors' animals when they've wanted to get away or take a vacation. If these kinds of ideas interest you, we'd be more than happy to talk to you and try to help you become more self-sufficient with regards to dairy. Even if you're simply buying all your milk, we would encourage you to learn how to take control of more of the processing, e.g. butter and ice cream and cheese and yogurt, etc. Making yogurt is often a very cost effective thing to do at home. It may be cheaper to simply buy finished butter than to buy cream in the store and churn it, but the more you get away from the industrial food system, the more opportunities you'll find to do these kinds of things and save a few cents along the way, and, of course, enjoy dairy products that you can feel worlds better about. We'd be very happy to talk to you about any of these dairy-related things, so don't be shy!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Low-tech beans

  Our farm is as much a homestead as it is a "for market" production farm.  This means many of the things we grow or do are just for ourselves.  Dry beans, for example.  When we moved to this farm three years ago we had enough garden space to experiment with growing a larger variety of our own food.  So we pulled some dry beans out of the pantry and planted them.  To our delight, the kidney, black, pinto, white beans and black-eyed peas all gave a pretty good yields.  We've yet to have any luck with chick peas.
  Without a combine to harvest the crop, we were left with low-tech options.  So we hand pulled the dried plants and put them in feed sacks.  Then this week, we finished the final steps of getting the beans back into the pantry.  Since the plants were good and dry it took only a couple minutes of beating with a bat or stick for the beans to fall out of the pods and to the bottom of the bag.  The empty plants were lifted out of the sack and the beans were poured into a bowl.  Then we winnowed them in front of a fan to get the chaff out.  Before using them, the beans will just need a once over to make sure they are fully clean.

Queen of the okra

Our first ever WWOOF'er arrived just in time for peak okra season this summer. During her three week stay, Lucie loyally harvested the okra three times a week. Though she'd only eaten the vegetable for the first time this summer (during her volunteer time in Haiti before coming to our farm), she was hopeful it would grow well in her mother's garden back home in France.  We were grateful for all of Lucie's help during her visit.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Where to buy good poultry

We were asked recently where we would recommend to go to buy good chicken. Unfortunately, chicken is an especially "corrupt" meat, having more than any other animal product (about 100 years) of ever worsening factory farming history, which makes the industrial product especially bad and leaves us with very few real alternatives. “Hormone and antibiotic free” poultry can be found in some stores, but those are misleading claims: there are lots and lots of bad things about what goes into chickens, but hormones aren't one of them; artificial hormones are available for and used on cattle, but there aren't any available for poultry, so all poultry is "hormone free." Antibiotics, on the other hand, are used with poultry, so that would be a potentially substantive claim. However, are the antibiotics just being replaced with another pharmaceutical product that isn't any more organic but technically just isn't an antibiotic? There are so many additives in conventional chicken feed that we don't know if that's an option, but we're suspicious of any such claims from any corporate source. Even if it were true and substantive, “hormone and antibiotic free” still leaves a tremendous amount to be desired. To pick just what we see as the two biggest issues, we would want to see the chickens fed something other than pesticide-intensive genetically modified (GMO) feeds, and we wouldn't want chickens raised thousands to a confinement house without any significant fresh grass or grubs or other forage. We consider those pretty minimal expectations, but there's really no regular place to go and buy chickens that meet both those expectations. You can avoid the GMO feed by buying USDA certified organic, but then you're still buying confinement house birds from a very industrial system, and you're doing nothing to contribute to the kind of local, independent alternatives that empower communities to stand up to industrial abuses. Alternatively, you can find chickens raised by local farmers in movable range shelters -- not free range, but a huge improvement over confinement houses -- but those birds are almost always fed GMO grain that comes from the very same market pool as what's fed to conventional birds. (A straight-forward question to ask the organic-looking farmer at the farmers' market is if he feeds his chickens any GMO grain.  If he knows anything about how his chicken feed was grown and if he's honest, the answer to that question should tell you something of substance.)  So typically as a consumer the only options left today are either the chemical-intensive GMO grains (farmers' market) or the factory farm confinement houses (USDA organic.) Forced with one of those choices, we would probably have to choose the GMO grains, because small local operations at least carry some hope of future improvements. We would be very eager to support and encourage those producers to take responsibility for the grain they feed their chickens, though, or better yet find motivation to personally engage in that work yourself (instead of buying poultry/poultry feed.) Hopefully, if more people realize how bad things have gotten, some of them will be inspired to start growing their own grain on a small enough scale (maybe a fraction of an acre) to be able to withstand commodity pressures, and maybe that could even lead to some small surpluses to sell to friends and neighbors. We certainly believe that there isn't any good way to raise and sell chickens at anywhere near conventional costs, especially not without hardly anyone living on appropriately scaled (small), working farms anymore. As consumers we've consented to giving so much control of our food supply to forces so far outside of our control, that a lot of options have just disappeared, especially when it comes to grain farming and grain-fed animals like poultry, for which there are practically zero local options outside the commodity system. As communities and as individuals, we should expect our helplessness to lead to our exploitation, and that's where we're at.  Lest we preach too much doom and gloom, there are some much better options with grass-fed (ruminant) meats (especially cattle.) A partial solution to eating better poultry may be to eat less poultry (and less pork) and more grass-fed meat. We've got nothing against feeding grain to poultry, but the only easy way to avoid the abuses of modern grain farming is to avoid grain-fed animals, so animals that can be raised exclusively on grass (like cattle) at least offer some ways to avoid some of the worst abuses of industrialized agriculture. You might even think further outside the box and hunt wild doves or raise a domestic gray goose in your backyard.