Archive for the 'farming' Category

15
Oct
10

the redundancy of roosters

Yesterday I came upon two roosters tangled in electric netting. I never turn it on anymore–a good thing–but the situation was grisly even so.

They had been fighting, that leaping and kicking thing. One bird kicked the other into the netting. The attacker got his legs tangled, the attackee somehow got his head through a hole in the grid. There was a good deal of blood around the neck and head of both birds. They kept fighting for some time by the look of it!

By the time I came on the scene they were both spent, panting and bleeding. I tried untangling the wire, but their struggles to free themselves had tightened the tourniquet to an impossible place. I was loathe to cut the fence to free them. It was a hundred dollar fence, and the roosters themselves were worth less than nothing. No value, no function, save entertainment. (And they ARE fun to watch. Our friends Zoe and Mike coined it: “Chicken TV.” Really. You’d be surprised.)

I imagine a real farmer would have taken a tin snips to the birds, not the fence. But I am soft.

This is not one of those stories about how the worst things happen to me. Rather I think the motto should be, when it comes to farming, at least the halfassed way I do it, is “Dang, I didn’t see that coming.”

My agrarian woes have been bothersome, but in the scheme of things not catastrophic. No rain for 10 weeks? Just part of the deal. Plan for it. Beehives decimated by small hive beetles, until this year a bit player in the cast of pest players? It happens. Farming is hard.

Today the weather is changing. The wind’s howling would have meant a serious storm on its way just a few weeks ago. Now it’s just a typical autumn breeze. The washing is flapping hard on the clothesline. The sun is still warm, but as of today no longer quite balances the cool of the wind.  I think of the twins, who are having a pumpkin patch excursion at school today. Did I dress them warmly enough?

Just took a walk among the cows, checking udders, hooves, and reproductive equipment. They are mostly all big and healthy, and I think I am more prepared than I have  been for winter. But that is not saying much.

Today my New York friends will arrive for their annual Kentucky golf outing.

For seven years now, I have picked up my guests at the Lexington airport, usually on the late Friday flight. Dennis, Dave, and Richard appearing feet first at the top of the arrivals stairs. Always grinning and laughing about something, usually some crazy Campbell riff. This year, of course, will be different, as Campbell will not be there. I really can’t imagine what that will be like.

30
Jun
10

Baby steps in the right direction

This week, the FDA issued a “draft guidance” that in effect asks industrial meat producers to pretty please, at least think about limiting the practice of pumping massive quantities of antibiotics into factory animals meat machines.

The big lobbying groups, predictably, were outraged by this intrusion of mere science into their god-given right to make a bundle at the expense of the world’s health (both animal and human).

Tom Scocca at Slate sums up just how late this is in coming:

Forty-one years after the United Kingdom concluded that feeding antibiotics to healthy animals to make them gain weight could promote drug resistance in bacteria, 12 years after the European Union banned the use of medically important antibiotics in livestock for weight gain, nine years after researchers found widespread antibiotic-resistant salmonella in American ground beef, and four years after the EU banned all feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals, the Food and Drug Administration today issued a “draft guidance” urging “judicious use of medically important antimicrobial drugs” in the American livestock industry.

At Grist Tom Laskawy some excellent background on the issue as well as a slightly more optimistic view. “While this may sound like so much bureaucratese, it represents a strong statement by the FDA and suggests further action is forthcoming.”

This draft, though clearly preliminary and subject to industry feedback, also gives Congress a reason to move forward on legal restrictions knowing that a scientific consensus is forming — though in reality it’s unlikely a law could be passed much before November, if at all.

The question remains just how hard Big Meat will fight this guidance. The FDA wants to bend over backwards to limit problems for livestock producers by phasing in restrictions and taking their concerns into account. But will groups like the Pork Board — which denied the very existence of the problem to CBS News anchor Katie Couric in her blockbuster report on the subject — take the hand the FDA has offered? Or will they bite it?

Or will CAFO operators simply seek to bypass any regulation altogether, by claiming that routine doses of antibiotics are medically necessary to prevent disease in close quarters? I’m contacting an expert on this topic to find out if the FDA’s draft guidance indicates such loopholes will exist, and whether industry will head for them.

We know that subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock is unnecessary. The Danes have, somewhat famously, proved it by banning the practice and significantly reduced the threat of antibiotic resistance with no long-term effects on livestock health or productivity. The American Society of Microbiologists knows it. The FDA does, too. Even over a hundred House members and 17 senators (that being the number of cosponsors attached to the pending legislation) know it. With any luck, the industry will finally get the message.

22
Jun
10

Futureless farming?

I imagine there must be a proverb or several somewhere about the farmer who travels in springtime, when a huge chunk of the year’s work has to get done.

This year, I had to travel not once but three times in the crucial spring months, and since returning have been scrambling to rescue my little farmstead from total chaos. Calves still coming in, new chickens to tend to, the beehives thriving but needing a lot of attention, weeds galore in the garden. Weeds. Weeds. Weeds. WEEDS! (Did I mention weeds?)

But I think I’m getting there.

Which raises the question of “where is there”?

In general I’ve downplayed my farmerly ambitions by claiming only that I’m trying to feed my family better, and perhaps create a better sense of self-reliance. I do hold out a hope, not often expressed, that someday this farm will be our livelihood. Slowed food revolution, in this month’s American Prospect, makes me wonder how realistic that dream is.

The author, Heather Rogers,  offers a thorough look at the state of the American organic or alternative or sustainable farmer, seen from a policy perspective as well as through the eyes of Morse Pitts, who farms in the Hudson Valley and can charge what for me is a jaw-dropping price of $14 for a dozen eggs at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. In spite of this, and the fact that he is hard-working and resourceful, he still has had enough with a life that promises (and delivers) so many rewards, save one—the ability to earn a steady and decent living.

… despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that’s not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can’t afford to.

Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure — bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market — holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who’ve gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.

As he has done in so many other areas, the president raised hopes for progressive farmers to the sky, and then sent them crashing. An organic garden at the White House! Beehives! But not a heck of a lot of tangible things have been delivered to folks like us. And even modest things like the Know Your Farmer campaign have met with angry resistance. “In an April letter to the new agriculture secretary, agribusiness-friendly senators Saxby Chambliss, John McCain, and Pat Roberts opposed even the meager support the USDA is giving small unconventional growers. ‘American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs.'” Which of course is a hugely disingenuous piece of cow dung. And then there’s the “urban locavore” dig—a “trendy food choice” by well-to-do foodie snobs doing their evil mischief again. You know, if it weren’t for Alice Waters, America could be made whole again.

It’s a really good article, if not particularly encouraging for me, or for any of the other kooks out there who want to eat real food that isn’t farmed in ways that are killing the earth. I recommend you read the whole thing….

10
May
10

Lions and tigers and superweeds … oh, my!

florence in the garden

Florence scours our overgrown garden for callaloo

Who could have seen THIS coming?

A recent New York Times article on the rapid growth of “superweeds” notices that some species have done exactly what Darwin noticed living things do: under herbicidal assault, they adapted.

Now Roundup, Monsanto’s crack for farmers, is having trouble killing pigweed, and the expensive herbicide/seed program  isn’t looking like such a good deal anymore. But the large-scale farmers have a lot invested in industrial farming,  so many are just layering new poisons onto the Roundup, and are even encouraged to do so by Monsanto, which, the Times reports, “is it is taking the extraordinary step of subsidizing cotton farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup.”

Michael Pollan, one of the Room for Debate voices in a Times discussion on the subject, points out that this should come as a surprise to exactly no one.  “A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, ‘sustainable.’ Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.”

The Times parrots without comment the claim that no-till agriculture with “Roundup Ready” seeds is “environmentally friendly.” True, it reduces erosion and lessens runoff, but I don’t think everyone really understands what really goes on in this kind of agriculture. (Interested in the details of how glyphosate works? Check  out this fact sheet from beyondpesticides.org (pdf). “Environmentally friendly”? I’m not so sure.)

And here is where I would like to make a rather bold suggestion: Why not just call the superweed callaloo and eat it?

Pigweed is amaranth, after all, and amaranth is edible and nutritious, both as  leaves and seeds. When we first moved to Kentucky, Florence, our friend and one-time babysitter (from a past life when we were both had jobs and 401ks and benefits in New York), came to visit us. She looked into a field of what we called pigweed, and saw callaloo, a delicious green from her youth near Ocho Rios, Jamaica. She waded in, harvested a few large bags, trimmed it and cooked it up with lots of garlic and hot peppers and it was delicious.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to eat the pigweed laced through with Roundup of course. And I’m not sure the resistant palmer amaranth is the same variety of amaranth that we enjoyed. But if there are varieties of a “superweed” that are edible and nutritious, a smart farmer might take the hint from mother nature and grow the native plant that doesn’t need massive doses of chemicals to thrive.

Or not. Even if that farmer is dead-set on continuing with the commodity crop (and of course that’s where the (subsidy) money is), The redoubtable Rodale Institute has been  doing some great work with organic no-till methods.

20
Apr
10

Broody

Nature is weird and wonderful, and to my city-boy eyes nothing is quite as weird/wonderful as a broody hen.

Two years ago, I took advantage of two broody hens and stuck a bunch of eggs under each of them, and we got about 10 new chicks that year.

Last year, I tried the same with one hen, but she turned out to be stark raving mad. From my limited observation, broodiness has an at least tangential relationship to full-on insanity. The hen kept pecking her eggs, for reasons still unclear to me, and at the same time insisted on staying on the nest, which in short order became a sticky rotting mess. Only one baby chick survived, and that one was blind in one eye. I think because of that messy nest situation.

This subject of this year’s experiment seems tidy and calm, though frighteningly and obsessively focused, as are all broody hens. She seems capable of starving herself in her dedication to her compulsion. I have to remind myself to yank her off the nest once a day.

I hope in three weeks time we get a bunch of baby chicks out of her.

Now, really I am no expert on broody hens, having only had a few years to observe what is an ever rarer phenomenon in nature, as it has been deemed wise to breed broodiness out of nearly every variety of chicken you’ll see, because a broody hen is not a laying hen. That strikes me as a little shortsighted, and it also strikes Harvey Ussery the same way. Mr. Ussery, a contrary farmer in the best sense of the term, , has written an interesting article on the benefits of using, not fighting, broodiness.

06
Apr
10

Crusade for better foods … and get stomped

That episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution where he showed kids all the nastiness that goes into chicken nuggets—and they wanted to eat them anyway? As upsetting as it was,  it did save me the bother of showing it to my nugget-inhaling son, as it will probably achieve the same (opposite of intended) result.Vodpod videos no longer available.I don’t for a moment doubt Jamie Oliver’s good intentions in this food crusade of his. But he is a wealthy celebrity chef, and he  will get over it. He is probably already home in Britain, regaling his like-minded friends with tales of the benighted colonials over some delightful meal he’s just whipped up, along with a number of impeccably complementary bottles of tasty plonk.

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that speaking out about the garbage served to kids in schools can have career-threatening consequences. From La Vida Locavore, here is an excerpt from the  woeful saga of what happened to a school teacher who became concerned about what her students were eating. (Writing in haste today, so apologies for the extensive cut-and-pastiness).

Mendy Heaps, a stellar English teacher for years, had never given much thought to the food her seventh-graders were eating. Then her husband, after years of eating junk food, was diagnosed with cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure and suddenly the french fries, pizza and ice cream being served in the cafeteria at rural Elizabeth Middle School outside Denver, Col., took on a whole new meaning.

Heaps was roused to action. She started teaching nutrition in her language arts classes. She bombarded colleagues, administrators and the local school board with e-mails and news clippings urging them to overhaul the school menu. She even took up selling fresh fruits and healthy snacks to the students on her own, wheeling alternative foods from classroom to classroom on a makeshift “fruit cart,” doling out apples for a quarter.

Finally, the school’s principal, Robert McMullen, could abide Heaps’ food crusade no longer. Under threat of being fired, Heaps says she was forced to sign a personnel memorandum agreeing to cease and desist. She was ordered to undergo a kind of cafeteria re-education program, wherein she was told to meet with the school’s food services director, spend part of each day on lunch duty recording what foods the students ate, and compile data showing the potential economic impact of removing from the menu the “grab and go” foods Heaps found so objectionable. … The case of Mendy Heaps is a stark reminder that at least one voice is largely missing from the debate over school food that’s getting so much attention lately: the voice of teachers. Teachers see what kids eat every day. They have opinions about the the food and how it impacts children’s health and school performance. Yet they are almost universally silent.

… “When I got the memo, everyone became afraid,” said Heaps. “If I tried to talk about the memo, no one wanted to listen. I got a little support from a couple of teachers, but not very much. Everyone wanted to forget about it and they wanted me to forget about it too…The only thing I still do is write letters and try to get someone interested! I’m working on one for Michelle Obama right now.”

29
Mar
10

Sitting down with criminals to make laws about crime

Updated below.

I have not seen the first episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution but I plan to watch them all. While I enjoyed this summation from the Washington Post, I found it awfully snarky, and maybe more than a little dishonest.

“‘Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap”? Here we go again. A writer for a reputable mainstream media player purports to speak for the common man by defending (or getting defensive about) what really is a tragic obesity epidemic because he doesn’t like being talked down to by “a foreigner with meticulously rumpled hair and a funny accent telling them to hand over the fries.”

Or, as the morning deejays at Morgantown’s “The Dawg” put it to Oliver: “We don’t want to sit around and eat lettuce all day. Who made you king?”

I’ve written about this before. Point out that Americans’ diets are killing them, and you can count on being shouted down and characterized as elitists, snobs, and–the lowest blow of all–foodies! These attacks on locavores seem to come with great regularity from highly esteemed conventional media sources such as the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times and Slate. Their faux-populist message sows the seeds of doubt about the message of food activists, and gives cover to continuing business as usual.

In a sad, not unrelated development, and in case you thought steps were being taken to improve this situation, Jill Richardson’s great La Vida Locavore blog reports that the USDA had substantial input from … makers of junk food in the drafting of new nutrition standards for American schools.

Why is the junk food lobby at the table to make rules about nutrition? Would you have a criminal at the table to make laws about crime? The American Beverage Association, Coca Cola, Mars, Nestle, and PepsiCo were all included in negotiations for the new school lunch nutrition standards in [Senator Blanche] Lincoln’s child nutrition bill. Under the bill, the USDA will set one set of nutrition standards for all food sold in schools during the school day (including vending machines). This is a change from current laws, which forbid the USDA from setting rules over most food sold in schools outside of the federally-reimbursable school lunch (i.e. the meal served to kids who receive free lunch).

So here’s the question: What did public health groups give up by negotiating with the junk food lobby? What do public health experts think the school nutrition standards should be, and how far apart is that from the actual language of the bill?

Hmm. Cutting a deal with the very industries that are the engines for a national health catastrophe. Where have I seen this before?

Update: In a Firedoglake diary titled Lousy School Lunch Bill, One Step Closer to Passage Richardson wonders why “Democrats put their least loyal Senator in charge of one of their highest profile issues.” That Senator would be Ms. Blanche Lincoln, who somehow got to be the author of the child nutrition bill inspired by Mrs. Obama herself:

And Blanche Lincoln is no Michelle Obama. She’s not even as progressive as Barack Obama, who called for $10 billion in new money over 10 years for child nutrition, a number Lincoln reduced by more than half.

To put that in easier to understand terms, Obama’s proposal would have given up to $.18 in addition funds to each child’s school lunch. Lincoln’s bill gives each lunch $.06. Compare that to the School Nutrition Association’s request to raise the current $2.68 “reimbursement rate” (the amount the federal government reimburses schools for each free lunch served to a low income child) by $.35 just to keep the quality of the lunches the same and make up for schools’ current budgetary shortfall. School lunch reformer Ann Cooper calls for an extra $1 per lunch to actually make lunches healthy. So any amount under $.35 is no reform at all, and Lincoln gave us $.06.

Richardson goes on to put the awful facts of this matter in context:

Unfortunately, the only real way to improve the quality of school lunch is money. Schools need money for better food but they also need money for labor, training, and equipment. And the equipment needed is sometimes as simple as knives and cutting boards, essential tools for preparing fresh fruits and vegetables that all too many schools lack. And it’s money that this bill does not provide.

In the case of school lunch in particular, where the most vulnerable members of our society – low income children who cannot afford to bring a healthy lunch from home – are affected, the government’s failure to provide healthy food is utterly unconscionable. It’s also stupid, since an estimated 1 out of every 3 children born in 2000 will suffer from Type II Diabetes during their lifetime, and diabetes is one of the most expensive health problems to treat. Every penny we don’t pay now for school lunches is money we will spend later on Medicaid and Medicare for children who grow up to suffer from diabetes. But, as a House staffer put it to me when I raised that point, “the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] doesn’t score that way.” When the government tabulates whether or not a program is saving money, future expenditures on predictable, preventable health conditions aren’t added in.