Why organic?

I’ve been learning Organic growing practices on my farms these last two seasons.  I thought I should go into Organic a little bit and explain why I think  it’s important.  Many people I talk to seem to have a poor opinion of organic or don’t understand why one would want to use organic practices.  I want to explain why I value organic and would prefer to see organic practices, both at a home gardening level and at a commercial farming level.

First of all, what does organic really mean?  Organic food is that which has been grown without the use of chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.  It is also not genetically modified – more about that later.  Fertilizers can be used on organic farms (in fact they are a highly critical ingredient), but they are made of things like ground up mineral rocks, composted animal manure, bone meal, kelp, and etc.  They cannot be petroleum-based or man-made compounds.  There are some organic pesticide sprays as well, made from things like dried flowers or elemental Sulfur.  However, even though these are technically classified as organic, many (most?) organic growers choose not to employ them and instead rely on techniques like crop rotation, trap crops, cover cropping, and fostering beneficial insects as predators, as ways to reduce pest outbreaks.

Organic practices, when used correctly, make the soil richer and a more hospitable place for growth.  The soils are more likely to be balanced, contain micronutrients, trace elements, and healthy bacteria and fungi.  Non-organic chemical pest control tends to kill off all the healthy soil life in addition to the targeted pests.  Therefore land that has been hit with chemical pesticides repeatedly tends to develop *more* harmful outbreaks because there are no beneficials there to protect against them.   Non-organic chemical fertilizers tend to be a heavy-handed dose of Nitrogen to give plants a short-lived growth spurt but they *imbalance* the soil and over time make it a less hospitable and diverse environment.  This is basically what people mean when they use the word “sustainable.”  A blanket statment with lots of room for qualifications is that good organic practices are more likely to be sustainable indefinitely, whereas conventional practices get you good crop once or twice and then require more and more inputs as the soil gets worse and worse.  Think about the meaning of the word sustainable.  Why would we want to do something unsustainable if a sustainable option is there?  Well, because the sustainable option requires more work and the unsustainable option is easy.  Easy, though, for now.  Eventually, following unsustainable practices is going to make for an awful lot of work.  Can we not think ahead and realize that unsustainable literally means it’s not going to work forever.  Can we not buckle down and do the work required to do it right the first time?

Back to organics, though.  The place where fertilizers and pesticides and other growing practices are classified as organic is within the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Organic Standards.  Farms that wish to call themselves Certified Organic must be certified annually by one of several approved certification groups.  They must show various forms of documentation and pay a fee for this certification.

As I mentioned before, many organic farmers choose to follow their own sense of best practices instead of doing everything allowable by the organic standards.  Similarly, many (most?) of the farms that I know of that are following organic practices are not Certified Organic.  These farmers are not willing to pay the money and jump through the hoops required to gain the USDA certification.  They prefer to make their good farming practices transparent to their consumers in the hope that those consumers will buy from them without the official stamp of approval.

On the other side of the coin, much of the organic produce you can buy in the grocery store comes from “Big Organic” suppliers.  These are huge farms, mainly in California, who, in my opinion at least, follow the letter of the Organic law instead of the spirit.  Although I haven’t worked on a farm like this, it is my understanding that the produce may not be all that different from conventional.  It is still industrial-scale, mechanized agriculture.  Grocery store organic, therefore, is good in a pinch but is not the produce I would generally choose to buy.  “Real organic” (again, my opinion), comes from the farmers market *or* your local food co-op type store.  In Seattle, PCC and Madison Market are the go-to places.  Any store that indicates the name of the farm where items were grown, rather than just the region, is going to be your supplier of the real goods.  I would recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food for a more eloquent description of Big Organic.

Let me take a little tangent now and relate something interesting I noticed when I was home in Michigan last August.  Of course the agriculture there is all corn and soy just like the rest of the midwest.  These are the two giants of the industrial crops – produced for animal feed as well as to be broken down into their biological components and made into food additives like lecithin, mono- and di-glycerides, and xanthan gum.  Yes, these are all corn or soy — I looked them up.   Anyway, I was intimately familiar with Michigan’s corn/soy landscape from my childhood, and I remember being aware that the fields surrounding our neighborhood were sometimes corn and sometimes soybeans.  Crop rotation was being practiced, at least on a very minimal level.  But this time, I noticed something funny – all the soybean fields had scattered cornstalks poking out of them.

Why is this funny?  It’s just last year’s corn coming back as a weed in this year’s soybean field.  Well, the funny – or scary – part is that there were no other weeds there.  The soybeans were growing out of bare ground except for the cornstalks popping up here and there.  I might not have noticed this except for the fact that I am now familiar with how the fields look on the organic vegetable farms I’ve been working at.  There are weeds everywhere.  Nature abhors a blank space, and everywhere vegetables are not, there are “natural” plants (i.e. weeds) coming in to compete.  As farmers it is our job to keep the weeds to a minimum at critical times for the vegetable to germinate and grow.  We do this using hoes, our hands, and sometimes the tractor.  Other times it is our job to make peace with the fact that the weeds are there — as long as they are not outcompeting our vegetables, the presence of these plants shows that our soil is fertile.

In conventional Ag, however, weeding is done with herbicides.  These chemicals kill off the weed plants so the farmer doesn’t have to do it by hand.  How come the chemicals kill only the weeds and not the vegetables?  You might well ask.  They’re both plants, aren’t they?  Well in some cases, the chemicals can be targeted to kill only seeds that have emerged and not unsprouted ones, so these could be applied when the vegetable seeds are first planted and before they have emerged.  In other cases, as with the soybean fields I noticed, the vegetable plants are made to be resistant to the chemicals so the chemicals can be applied while the vegetables are fully grown and will kill only the weeds.   The way they are made resistant is by genetic modification — insertion or deletion of genes from their DNA.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) is a term that I’d like you to learn if you haven’t already.

Monsanto produces “Roundup-Ready” GMO corn and soybeans.  This means that the DNA of these plants has been genetically modified — in this particular case it has had a gene from a bacterium inserted — in such a way that it becomes resistant to Roundup (Monsanto’s trademarked name for its potent herbicide composed mainly of the chemical glyphosate).  Are you tracking with me here?  You can now spray your soybean field with this toxic chemical that will kill every type of plant growing there except for the soybeans.   You can buy the chemical, and the seed that resists it, only from Monsanto which has patented both.

Seeing the stray corn plants in the otherwise weed-free soybean fields all across Michigan freaked me out because I was unmistakeably seeing Monsanto’s takeover with my own eyes.  These farmers had grown Roundup-Ready corn the year before in the fields that they were now using for Roundup-Ready soybeans.  When they doused their fields with Roundup this spring, it killed all the weeds and made the soil an inhospitable place for more weeds to grow.  There’s nothing there except soybeans — except for those corn plants that sprouted from last year’s fallen seed and are now growing there as weeds.  They’re GMO’s with the Roundup Ready gene too.

Doesn’t this just seem wrong at a very basic level?  I’m sure there are scientific studies on both sides (and how many of the studies showing Roundup does no harm are funded by Monsanto?) But isn’t it just common sense to think that 1) spraying large quantities of a chemical that kills things onto farmland is probably not good for the land or the people spraying it, and 2) vegetables that have been made able to withstand the spraying of this killer chemical and then doused with it multiple times might be a strange and unnatural thing to eat?

GMO food crops were first planted in the United States in 1996. In 2010 in the US, 93% of the planted area of soybeans, 93% of cotton, 86% of corn and 95% of the sugar beet were genetically modified varieties. (Wikipedia).

Zero in 1995.  Ninety percent in  2010.  Isn’t this unrestrained skyrocket to complete dominance of a never-before-seen organism a little scary, too?  I feel pretty sure that we were growing a hell of a lot of corn pretty darn well before 1996.  The rest of the world is taking a more measured approach to GMO’s.  Other countries, most notably the European Union,  whose governments are not controlled by Monsanto (sorry, perhaps this is the leftist propaganda getting to me), have banned various types of GMO seeds or have banned importation of GMO crops or require labelling, etc.

Not so the US.  If you’re in America eating a non-organic product containing corn or soy, or restaurant food that was cooked in corn or soybean or canola oil, you’re almost assuredly eating genetically modified food.  However, something important that I learned recently is, Organic (basically) Equals GMO-free.  I’m sure there are trace amounts or exceptions or whatever, but the organic standards say that organics can’t contain GMO’s.  These days I really do only buy organic corn chips and tofu because I really have decided that GMO crops is a practice I don’t want to support.

Everything about it just seems wrong — what about the patenting of seeds?  What about the fact that repeated applications of Roundup has now been shown to be creating weeds that have evolved resistance to this killer chemical?  These are whole big issues in themselves.  You can find plenty of information on GMO’s that will make it much clearer than anything I can explain here.   This statement from The Non-GMO Project is a good one to start with.  I like this bullet point from that document:

The scientifically demonstrated risks and clear absence of real benefits have led experts to see GM as a clumsy, outdated technology. They present risks that we need not incur, given the availability of effective, scientifically proven,
energy-efficient and safe ways of meeting current and future global food needs.

I believe that we as a society know what good farming and good food looks like.   We just choose to try to find ways to get around the fact that farming is hard and requires knowledge and skill.  We choose instead to attempt to outsmart nature by using heavy handed agricultural practices like thousand-acre monocultures, government subsidized commodity crops, GMOs and chemical controls.  These practices are not sustainable; they are a shameful mismanagement and misuse of our land and our farmers’ hard work;  and they result in a strange and off-balance food system that has totally perverted what we recognize as food and is making us fat and unhealthy.

Non-organic agriculture has only been widely practiced from the 20th century on.  It’s pure propaganda that calls non-organic “conventional” as it has only been conventionally done that way in the last 100 years.   My grandmother remembers the milkman and butcher coming around with deliveries, for goodness sake.  There’s local, small-scale, organic for you- but it didn’t have to call itself that.  It was just food.  Imagine how different that milk and meat was from what passes for the same items today.  I believe that we need to rescue our food system, not by bringing it back exactly to the way it used to be, but by bringing back a lot of the old time-tested elements and doing our best to ensure that we use our great amount of knowledge and technology wisely.

I believe that changes can happen as more and more people are currently recognizing the problems and making themselves knowledgeable about how to fix them.  I also believe that individual consumers who don’t care to get involved in food politics can still make small changes to their food-buying habits that will begin to have a big influence on restoring sanity to America’s food problem.  See if you can make some small steps; you don’t have to go “whole hog” (as it were) right off the bat.  Here’s what I would say about what to eat, starting with the best options:

1. Food you grow and raise (organically) yourself

2. Food you buy from producers you know and whose farms you have seen

3. Food you buy from any vendor at your farmers market (I believe it’s safe to assume the market management has some knowledge about the producers’ practices, and I support small and local over and above Certified Organic,  so I buy from market vendors even if they’re not Certified Organic)

4. Food you buy from a local co-op type grocery store (These tend to carry a lot of “real” organics and thoughtfully-chosen non-organics, plus are fun to shop at once you get used to them)

5. Food you buy from a restaurant that cooks from scratch and lists local/organic sources of meat and produce

6. Organic food you buy from a supermarket or food you buy from a restaurant that’s listed on the menu as organic (unusual)

7. (If you care about GMO’s): Non-organic food from a supermarket that doesn’t contain any corn, soy, or sugarbeet-derived ingredients.  Food you buy in a restaurant that hasn’t been cooked in corn, soybean, or canola oil.

Whew.  Okay.  Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts, and happy eating.

Love,

B

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A series of unfortunate events

Hey there blog world, it’s been a while since I wrote.  I had a wild few weeks and I needed time to let it all sink in before posting, as it turns out.  Let me begin by sharing what I had started writing on October 8th.

I don’t even want to write this post.  But in fairness I feel like I have to.  My self-congratulatory post about bunny building should be tempered with a writeup of the Universe-smackdown-vs-Becky events of the 2 weeks following that blog.

On a Thursday night I proudly posted those pictures of my bunnies in their sweet little home.  Two days later, after a normal Saturday workday,  I pulled up to the yurt in my car.  A lanky husky dog walked toward my vehicle.  What?  Another big dog raised its head from a little ways away.  Um, what?  My brain registered “dogs in the yard?”  …  “dogs eating something in the yard?” and then my eyes went to the rabbit cages and saw them empty, ripped open by canine teeth.

I screamed at the dogs.  I started crying.  I called Luke and Alice (in Michigan!) and a neighbor and animal control.   The neighbor helped shoo the dogs away and then left me alone to deal with the aftermath.  I cancelled my plans to go to Seattle that night.

The dogs had gotten into the run that I had just built.  Margie and her babies were killed.  Poor little ones;  I am so sorry.  The older pen housing Snuggles and her crew had also been attacked and bent but had been strong enough to protect its contents from the dogs until I got there.  It had appeared empty because Mom and all nine babies were so terrified that they had all crammed inside their little inner wooden house.  After I buried the dead, I sat with them until they came out and I watched Snugs lick and groom the babies.

I had a shitty evening, and everything felt wrong.  By the time I headed to bed it was way past my bedtime.  I had another little tiny cry, then decided to comfort myself with a snack before curling up in the fetal position for sleep.  I grabbed a handful of raisins, which I often do as a way to keep my chocolate consumption down to maybe only twice a day.  For some reason I looked at the handful before jamming it into my mouth.   I don’t even want to write about this.  You know how there are sometimes people that you meet, and you think, “Now you, your life is a mess.  You really don’t have your shit together.  You need to take a step back, clean out your filthy car, pay your goddamn bills, move out of your mom’s effing basement, (etc) and stop the out-of-control spiral that is your life.  Oh, and clean out your pantry because there are BUGS in your FUCKING FOOD.”

Yes, you guessed it.  Insult to injury: I was a little weepy,  going for a comfort snack, and instead something wiggled in the palm of my hand.  I looked into the raisin jar and saw a couple more fruit fly larvae.  I can’t even believe I’m writing about this – if you ever doubted that you are getting brutal honesty in this blog, doubt no more.  If not for my puke-phobia, maybe I would have vomited.  Instead, I HURLED the entire container of fruit out of the yurt door into the yard, sat down in a puddle on the floor and started BAWLING.

I cried it out.  And then I went to bed.  And then in the morning I got up and went to Seattle.  I had things to take care of — you gotta shake it off and resume life where you left off, slightly changed but more or less the same.

A week went by.   I got sympathy from my friends and colleagues about the rabbits.  Fun things happened on the farm and I felt fine.  Then came punch number two.  I don’t even have the energy to tell a good story about this one, although there are funny and crazy parts of it too.  Summary is that I was in Seattle for a wedding reception and my car got broken into.  Window smashed; laptop and lots of other stuff stolen.  Serves me right for carrying all my crap around like a bag lady.  I was staying overnight in the city and working Ballard farmers market the next morning, so I had all sorts of overnight stuff and farm gear with me.   I felt cold, numb, depressed as I gradually recalled each item that had been in the car that carried monetary or sentimental or daily-use value.  Composure so recently regained was again smacked away and I felt fragile, grasping at normalcy.

How intense and at the same time how fleeting these feelings are too.  In the moment in each situation I felt awful, felt mad and sad and betrayed and guilty and utterly off balance.   Feeling like life had just been turned end over end.  Simultaneously telling myself that this was not the end of the world; far from it; things like this and so much worse happen to people all the time.  At first the emotional reaction completely overrides the logical one, but gradually the logical one takes over so much that it seems silly to have gotten so upset and felt so down.  In each case, after a night and a day, I felt silly even telling people because I knew it might not seem like a big deal to them.

So.  On October 8th, Unfortunate Events #1 and #2 had happened.  I got them out of my system into blog form, but I left it as a draft.  I felt that I couldn’t come up with any conclusion, any lesson to be learned from the shit that had gone down.  A factual summary was about all I could muster.  But I really wanted to share the events with an audience and gain some sympathy.  So I stayed up really late (like really, really, late on a worknight) writing.  And then finally went home to go to bed in the freezing cold yurt, disgruntled with my inability to complete a pithy post.

So that’s how Unfortunate Event #3 occurred — at 1:30 in the morning as I was adding logs to the blazing fire in my woodstove as the last thing before bed, I lost my balance and fell toward toward the stove.  I put my hand out instinctually and touched my palm to the stovepipe.

I know the lesson for sure now.

Actually, I know a couple of lessons.  One is that burns really, really, REALLY hurt until they blister up and then they don’t hurt at all.   Another is that Sonja Spinarski will make a really fantastic Mom someday.  Who else would be willing to answer her phone in the middle of the night, talk me through pain, drive out to my yurt, bandage my hand, and tuck me into bed?   Thanks again Sonja.

But the main lesson I realized was: slow down.  Life was moving at a pretty frenetic pace all summer, and things had build up to the point where the fact that I couldn’t handle it all was becoming clear.  While sort of a bunch of random sucky coincidences, the Unfortunate Events were also an indicator that I needed to stop rushing around, take a little time to do things correctly, and take a little time to do nothing at all.  Hence the vacation from blogging — I needed to free up some scheduled downtime.   I have been taking time to read and write in my journal.  I have been consistently taking the time to remove unnecessary objects from my car instead of using it as a catch-all.   You better believe I’ve been taking my time with fire-building in the evenings.

Here’s a quote I often think about from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins:  “Rigidity isn’t stability at all.  True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced.  A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.”

What I get from this is that you never know what’s going to happen and it’s best to strive to be open to the possibilities and roll with life’s surprises.  I feel like I’m doing a better and better job of this the last couple years.   Even so, I’d prefer to have a majority of my unexpected, disruptive transformations be positive and awesome things like the discovery of farm internships instead of  livestock death, destruction of property, loss, and palm-scarring.  If I can work on myself and my habits to make that more likely, you bet I am going to try.   It’s a pretty basic lesson, really: try to embrace life without undue expectations and handle disappointments and setbacks gracefully when they occur, but also try to learn from mistakes and “live deliberately” to avoid unnecessary troubles.

The end.  Maybe next time I’ll write about some actual farming!  This is supposed to be Becky’s Farming Blog after all, not Becky’s Philosophical Ramblings Blog!  Thanks for reading,  Hasta luego,

~ B

The wisdom of Wendell and a struggle toward sustainable eating

I found myself on a four hour plane ride recently, feeling kind of down in the dumps about some things.  Seeking solace, I remembered that I had Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: On Culture and Agriculture in my backpack.  I opened it up at random, and read what Wendell had to say to me.

“Until modern times, […] a  man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair.  Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god.  And by the same token, since he shares in, depends upon, and is graced by all of which he is a part, neither can he descend into the final despair of destructiveness.”

This paragraph that I opened to speaks to me strongly as the same sentiment that I was trying to describe when I blogged about my epiphany at the coast.  I recognize exactly the humbled and awed, yet greatful and excited sense of opening he is talking about; the realization that we are here for a limited time and the strong urge to do and be all that we can during the time that we have.  I love reading Wendell Berry because every page seems to hold a nugget of wisdom that succinctly puts to words a whole mess of thoughts that were floating around in my head.  Wendell (I feel kind of like he’s my buddy and I think about him on a first-name basis) is clearly a very thoughtful man on many topics close to my heart, and he is able to put his thoughts into very moving words.  Reading his prose makes me want to be a better person, to forget about my petty problems and just hold onto that sense of gratitude, belonging and purpose that he writes about as I move through my daily life.

I was not raised in a religious household, nor have I been able to adopt religion upon trying as an adult.  But I imagine that these are the sorts of feelings and urges that religion addresses for people.  I don’t “pray” as such.  But I do, often, feel overwhelmed by a strong sense of gratitude, to life, for life.  When this full-heart feeling comes over me, often as I’m getting into bed at night after a full day, I say in my head a quote that I remember from Garrison Keillor, another thoughtful man: “thank you for this good life, and forgive me if I do not appreciate it enough.”

I often feel frustrated with myself for not living up to various of my ideals.  I have good moments of reflection and thoughtfulness but I don’t feel that I embody them in my actions every moment.  It’s hard to always be the way I’d like to be.  I’m not yet comfortable enough with myself, not yet living deliberately enough.  Still fumbling.  Trying though, and that is a good step.  I feel that I am still yet living life too glibly – with an inflated sense of self-importance, playing at being a farmer but without yet taking any big risks and in consequence, not yet able to achieve anything great or meaningful.

Here are a couple of other quotes from my plane reading, getting more into the agriculture-specific nature of Wendell’s writing:

“By now the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, and even water.”

“We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, particularly any form of hand work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from.  We have tried to escape sweat and sorrow, only to find that in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.”

“Whereas the exploiter asks of the land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: what is its carrying capacity?  That is, how much can be taken from it without diminishing it?  What can it produce dependably for an infitite time?”

“Consider the associations that have since ancient times clustered around the idea of food – associations of mutual care, generosity, neighborliness, festivity, communal joy, religious ceremony.”

“I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.”

“The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared food, confronts inert, anonymous substances that have been  sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived.  The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.”

I want to practice agriculture in large part because I love the experience of growing food.  But I also want to do it because I believe in the importance of the things Wendell Berry writes about: the connection to place, stewardship of the land, production of quality food; the basic authenticity of small and sustainable farms in contrast to the disconnectedness, wastefulness, and just plain irresponsibility of large scale agribusiness, whether it is vegetable or animal farms.  There are many issues and problems in the world, but this is the one I care about.  Conventional agriculture and food processing are not okay with me.   What I want to eat, and what I think that all people should be eating, is real food whose production we understand and ideally have helped participate in.

But I am not living up to my ideals.  I eat plenty of generic food from grocery store shelves and restaurants that was probably shipped across the country from corn farms in Iowa and I still eat meat of unknown origin.  Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be a hardcore, toe-the-line, “I only eat stuff I grew myself” nazi.  It also gets my goat when people lately apologize for the food they serve me not being organic.  I don’t want to be an out-there weirdo who has some strange food restrictions that she follows so “she won’t eat normal stuff like us.”  I recognize that there is lots of great food out there in the world that was not produced by people that I know personally and as a lover of food I still want to be able to enjoy it.

I’m happy that I am making steps.  A few years ago I didn’t put much thought into food origins at all.  I’m a lot more conscious of it now.  But I’m still sort of wishy-washy: “well, I get to eat lots of veggies from the farm and I love how it teaches me to eat seasonally – I never buy tomatoes out of season cuz they just taste bad, but I buy bananas even though they’re from South America… sometimes I can trade veggies for farm eggs but otherwise I’ll buy eggs from Trader Joes… I won’t buy Tyson chicken but I’ll get a restaurant hamburger because the menu says it comes from Oregon.” I think that this isn’t quite good enough anymore.  I want to do better and it excites me to be becoming more and more in control of my own food origins.  How do I keep making progress while still maintaining sanity and a varied diet?  Cut specific things out entirely? Try to approach an 80%/20% rule of “known” food to “unknown” food?  What about things like rice and peanuts?  Do I have to know where they came from?  It’s a quandrary.

But, I don’t think that Wendell would want me to feel bad because I share his idealistic aspirations for a sustainable food system but am not 100% living up to them.  Overall the feeling I try to take away is optimism that I am at least becoming aware of these ideals and doing a bit to live up to them by helping to produce good food for myself and others.

And I shall also attempt to be okay with my confusedness and frustration and know that I will never be entirely without them.  Wendell says: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Eat good meat: An anti-vegetarian argument.

My fellow apprentices and I learned about sheep butchery from Brandon Sheard, who came from Vashon and visited Betsey's farm. Good meat comes from small farmers who raise a small number of animals on pasture and do the slaughter and processing themselves.

 

Vegetarianism and then veganism have been increasing trends in our culture in the past few decades.  I recently heard an opinion that we are now entering a “post-vegetarian” culture where eating meat is now cool again, as long as it’s “sustainable” and “grass-fed” and (etc, other buzzwords).  I believe this is true, and I also believe it’s a good thing.  I understand that everybody makes their own personal decisions about these types of things, and if you’re veggie, that’s cool.  But I would like to present my thoughts on why vegetarianism might be unnecessary and maybe even counterproductive.

First of all, conscious vegetarianism can be great.  Blind vegetarianism is not conscious eating.  You’re in a bar in Washington state downing a plate of greasy nachos made from genetically modified, pesticide-laden corn shipped from Iowa topped with mysterious “cheese product” and hydroponically-grown, artificially-ripened tomatoes shipped from Florida, washing it down with a Diet Pepsi, but it’s okay because you’re not eating a cow?   Come on.  (Whew, there’s my crazy hippie farmer rant… got it out of my system… now I’ll settle down to logic.) (And, I eat bar nachos too.)

There are a variety of  reasons I’ve heard for being vegetarian.  One: You simply don’t like meat.  I can’t really argue with that one –  it comes down to personal preference – although I don’t really understand it as a person who loves eating food.  I love consuming food and that extends to as many different&new flavors and textures and eating experiences as possible.  Except beets.  I don’t really care for beets.  So I guess some people just don’t care for meat.  Okay, I’ll let you sneak by with that one.  Although maybe you haven’t had really good meat cooked really well.  🙂

Other reasons are given by the animal welfare-conscious: “I’ve seen the films and I know that millions of animals are suffering because of our demand to eat meat.”   And by the health-conscious:  “Meat is bad for you – it has fat and cholesterol and eating it will make me fat.”

Both statements are perfectly valid!  But is vegetarianism the logical conclusion?  Let’s talk about how these issues could be addressed.  Yes, one way is the straight-up elimination of meat from one’s diet.  But is this the only right answer?  Is this even *a* right answer?  My balance-craving mind thinks this is an inelegant & clumsy solution to the problem, swings too far in the opposite direction, and in fact is more like ignoring the actual problem instead of addressing it.  And of course, my food-loving palate rebels against the loss of such a large variety of potential edibles!  I would contend that both of the above arguments for vegetarianism are actually better answered by “practicing thoughtful meat-eating”: eating less meat and only that whose origins you know.

I should be careful to say that I myself am not practicing 100% what I preach here — not yet — but I have made steps in this direction and I have thought about what the ideal would look like.   So I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou; my committed vegetarian friends are awesome in that they have decided to take up a certain dietary policy for reasons that are important to them, and they have stuck to it.  I am only making an argument for a way of eating that I’d *like* to practice, not one that I’m currently living up to.

Be that as it may, let me try to convince you.

Yes, the animal cruelty issue is a HUGE problem.  Mass-produced, factory-farmed meat is a thoroughly disgusting proposition from start to finish.  It is completely understandable, and admirable, for an individual to take this problem to heart and cut meat out of their diet because they can’t stand to contribute to such an appalling system.   And a generation ago, this was probably the only course of action one could take.  But with the rise in sustainable meat production, I would argue that there is now another option and it is a *better* option for changing the system.  Here it is: Buy and eat good meat, and share it with your friends.  By so doing you will support a paradigm shift in the meat industry.

Why is this better than vegetarianism for animal welfare?  Well, I don’t think it is in question that people are going to continue to eat meat in this country.  A small portion of the population going vegetarian and eschewing meat entirely is not going to change this.  Animals are going to continue to be raised to become meat.  But *how* they are raised is the important part, isn’t it?  There are without a doubt better and worse ways to raise animals, and these result in better and worse meat.  People buy $0.40/lb ground beef and disgusting, water-injected Butterball “chicken” at Wal-Mart because they don’t know or don’t care about factory farming practices.  Also because this is what’s predominantly available.  You have to look a little harder to find the good stuff, and most people won’t take the time.  Because people buy this grocery store meat, there is a demand for it, and it continues to be produced following the same-old shitty practices.  But I believe that supporting alternative farming can start to change this.  There are small scale sustainable meat producers springing up all over, who raise their animals humanely and slaughter them with respect.  If enough people create a demand for this type of meat, it will start to become more prevalent and hopefully the demand for the other stuff will shrink.

What people who care about animal welfare can do is support the “good” producers by buying their meat.  Help these farmers to succeed and grow, and help more like them get started with small businesses.  More and more meat production can be moved away from the old system and into the new.  Share your “good” meat with your friends who still eat from Wal-Mart.  They will notice the difference.  This stuff is better both in terms of the life of the animal, and also in terms of the tastiness of the meat.  Dan Barber, the executive chef at a schmancy farm-to-table restaurant in NYC, gave a little talk to the young farmer conference I attended.  He talked about how lucky it is that “all the good things tend go hand in hand.”  Chefs’ main concern, he said, is deliciousness.  Sustainability is great, proper treatment of animals is great, but for a top chef it comes down to an amazing eating experience.  Luckily, he pointed out, the absolute best meat and produce taste-wise is also the best in terms of these other concerns.  When animals are raised in the most “natural” way possible (allowed to roam and eat the diet they would naturally eat), their meat, eggs, and milk are truly of a higher quality than those raised in confined, unnatural environments.  What makes them better can’t be completely described in terms of specific nutrients or qualities, but the whole is simply, unarguably better.  As more and more people realize that this is the case and start to make baby steps away from the scary factory food toward more “real” food, the demand will shift.  More and more animals will be raised in a manner that we feel comfortable with.  Support change by supporting practices you agree with.

Sure, “sustainable” and other keywords are losing their meaning through overuse.  How do I know if I’m eating “good” meat?  Is it because the package in the grocery store says “cage-free?”  No,  unfortunately not necessarily.  To really know, you have to get as close to the source as possible and learn a little bit about what to look for.

Look for heritage breeds.  I can tell you from personal experience that Cornish Cross chickens are scary and disgusting and have been bred almost out of recognition as a chicken.  But they are by far the most common breed of chicken meat you can find for sale.  Look for “pastured” – read Michael Pollan’s chapter on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm for a much better explanation than anything I can write of why this is the best.  Basically it comes down to allowing the animals to live in something as close as possible to their natural habitat and eat their natural diet.  The results of this system include healthier animals, healthier land (fewer animals per acre->less damage), and healthier meat (Google for many studies on increased Omega-3’s, etc in grassfed meat).  This “good” meat is more expensive.  Why?  One: land is expensive and it requires more land  per animal.  Two: since the animal is not being fattened up on “junk food,” it takes longer for it to reach its slaughter weight on this natural diet and it must be cared for for extra weeks or months, incurring more expense.

So the farmers following the best practices do have to charge a higher price — a price that actually reflects the true cost of raising meat.  How to deal with the high price of good meat?  Eat less of it.  This has the added benefit of being better for your health.  Many reputable sources have suggested that a healthy way to approach meat as part of your meal is to think of it more as a side dish instead of the main (or only!) dish.  Eat a little bit of really good meat along with your veggies, and you’ll enjoy the yumminess without overdoing the animal fats or overextending your pocketbook.

There is no denying that an animal still has to die for me to be able to eat meat.  I can understand that some people may not be able to get over that fact.  But I found that for me, getting closer and closer to understanding the source of my meat has made it easier, not harder, to eat it.  It was awe-inspiring and an extremely valuable though unexpected part of my apprenticeship to learn a little about Betsey’s attitude toward meat.  She feels strongly that meat should be eaten with respect, and that you show respect for the animal and realize the full import of meat-eating by doing the slaughter and processing yourself.  She made a couple occasions available to us to help her and see the process.  Literally voicing your thanks to the animal for its life.  Learning the butchering procedures and then putting in the time to do them yourself.  It feels real when you eat venison after you skin a deer and and separate its haunch into cuts of meat, seeing how the muscles fit together.  It’s not at all like grabbing a shrink-wrapped package of stew meat from the grocery case.

Of course most people won’t have the inclination to learn butchery.  They won’t have time or space or desire to raise and slaughter their own animals.   Of course not!   The logical step is to buy meat from those awesome few who do want to devote their time to raising meat animals in a way you can feel comfortable with.  But how to you find these people, and how do you know that their practices are good?  My answer would be two words: farmers markets.  Ask around.   What you’re looking for is, who do the vegetable vendors buy their meat from?  I guarantee that most of the veggie farmers are not vegetarians.   They might point you to some meat vendors who are there at the market.  But I bet they also eat meat that doesn’t even make it to the farmers’ market — meat that their neighbor raises, down the street from their farm.  You can get in on that too, if you’re willing to give it a little bit of effort.  Food doesn’t have to come from Safeway.  Build a relationship with a farmer and you can get your food straight from the source.  You will know where it comes from and be able to more thoroughly enjoy and savor it in good conscience.

…. The End!

Also: lettuce!

Food preservation: Reviving a lost art (Part 1 of 2)

The following magazine clipping hung on the door of our kitchen cabinet at the apprentice house all season.

The caption reads, “In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration assigned photographer Dorothea Lange to travel around Oregon documenting agricultural communities at the height of the Great Depression.   Here we see Mrs. Botner of Nyssa Heights in Eastern Oregon tidying her storage cellar, where she had placed 800 quarts of home-canned food to sustain her family through the winter.”

Mrs. Botner looks like a sturdy farm wife, but I enjoy her outfit: she’s wearing some stylish leather heels with her plain summer housedress.  She’s been working in the field and in the kitchen all day, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be lookin’ good while putting by some provisions in her root cellar!

Last January, I had the pleasure of taking a class on food preservation at a farmer conference in Stanwood, WA.  The instructor of the class, Mrs. Vivian Smallwood, was of the right age to have been this Mrs. Botner’s daughter.   White-haired and in her 70’s, Vivian came into class using a walker to teach us the canning methods and recipes she had learned from her female relatives of this bygone era.   Vivian is a “certified master food preserver” with the WSU extension agency.  She explained that she is the only one left with this title; there used to be others but they have retired and for a long time young people were never interested in achieving the certification.  Just recently, though, she pointed out, there is a resurgence of interest in her area of expertise.  In the past few years, the demand for her classes has increased to where she can’t keep up with it.   She told us that she’s pleased to know that people are coming back to an interest in preserving their own food, and she’s eager to share her knowledge.   “Feel free to call me on the phone,” she offered sweetly, giving out her home number in case we had any questions come up while we were doing our own canning.

I think this is such a telling example of the cultural shifts that have happened around food over the last century in America.  In 1939, people were still preserving their own food because they needed to do so to survive.  They raised their own meats, grains, fruits and vegetables and ate them fresh when they could; then they used preservation techniques so they could continue eating the rest of the year.  Packaged foods,  freezing, and even refrigeration were either unavailable  or too expensive to depend on.   Over the next several decades, the entire food system changed dramatically.  For my grandparents and parents, packaged and shipped foods became the norm, and why wouldn’t they?  Who would want to spend time harvesting and processing their own food when so much variety was cheaply available at the grocery store?

There have always been those that did canning at home.  Growing up, I remember seeing the jars of peaches and pears entered into competition for a blue ribbon in the community fair.   My mom made the YUMMIEST freezer jams and tried making cucumber pickles once.  But overall the practice of, and knowledge about, food preservation has been decreasing steadily over the generations.  Until, perhaps, now.

Based on Vivian’s experience and my own observations of happenings around Seattle, people are getting back into canning in a big way.  It makes sense for this to go hand in hand with the current upsurge of interest in local & sustainable food.  An increased number of people are growing their own gardens; similarly, home canning is gaining popularity.  Even more people have switched to buying  produce at a farmers’ market over a grocery store.  These folks are also discovering that delicious, small-batch, artisan products like jam, honey, pickles, and sauerkraut can be had at many farmers’ markets.  These are a much higher quality, more “real” product than the Smuckers, etc, from the supermarket.  It seems to me that we can have the luxury of all that grocery-store surplus and still crave a more authentic taste and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing the origin of our food.  We’ve hit a point where we are starting to realize that the extra effort that goes into making your own can be worth it.

I tried my own first forays into canning last fall with a jam project and some green bean pickles.  They turned out well enough to give me confidence to try a bunch more this year with farm produce.  Unfortunately, the time of year when all the extra produce is available for canning is the same time of year when you have zero time to do any canning because you’re so busy harvesting and selling all that produce.  But I managed to get some stuff into cans:

Pickled green beans, pickled cucumbers, pickled carrots, mixed-vegetable pickles. Raspberry jam, peach jam, plum jam. Tomato sauce, sauerkraut, and one can of chanterelle mushrooms.

 

I planned to write this post about my actual experience with canning, what I learned, and some recipes.  But I got a little wrapped up in some historical analysis and now I’ve written enough for one day!  So in part 2, I will share some canning basics so that we can all help carry on Mrs. Botner’s tradition and see our families through the winter with home-canned goodies.  In the meantime, here are some essential items for your canning Christmas wishlist.  Stay tuned!


A city season

I’m on the Seattle light-rail train, rumbling through the industrial area south of the city on my way to the airport. There is snow on the ground and more falling from the sky.

I’ve been in Seattle for the past week, catching up with friends and taking care of errands in between moving off the farm and heading back east for the Thanksgiving holiday. It feels appropriate that my transition off the farm was marked by a very obvious transition of the season. It rarely ever snows in Seattle, so a visible blanketing in mid November is enough of an event to make for a lot of “it’s a winter wonderland!” facebook status updates. It’s cold. The leaves are gone from the trees. It gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. So it makes sense, I keep telling myself, that I’m waking up in Seattle instead of on Bainbridge. I miss the farms, but there’s no farming to do right now! So it’s time to change it up and settle into a winter routine.

After Thanksgiving, I’ll be spending the winter working a software job in Seattle. I decided that I want to farm again for sure next season, and I lucked out – with this short term contract job I should be able to save up enough money to make it possible. I could see myself doing this dual life thing for awhile: working and living in the city December thru March and then spending the rest of the year farming. A transitory lifestyle clearly has its drawbacks — the post office’s forwarding address system is probably going to short circuit itself trying to keep up with all my recent moves — but being in new places and meeting new people also keeps life interesting.

So as much as I miss the daily life on the farm, I am really looking forward to a Seattle winter. I miss the farm “family” (Betsey, Brian, and the girls). But this week reminded me that I also have an awesome Seattle “family” of really dear friends who I can spend more time with now. This week was great as so many of my friends are unemployed or underemployed right now that I was never at a loss for friends to hang out with, even during the day on weekdays! A big goal for my winter is to spend tons of quality time with these people… you know who you are :-). I also want to log lots of miles on my bike, build something, re-learn Lindy Hop, and learn how to drive stick finally. (This last being a very necessary farming skill that it would behoove me to pick up before next season!)

Of course, when I started the internship I was looking at it more as a temporary break from “regular life” rather than a permanent shift in lifestyle. There are some important issues I’ve been putting off addressing that I’ll need to deal with soon if I intend to keep farming. For instance, I have a cavity I need to get filled, and I need new tires on my car. Questions to think about: Will I ever be able to resume adding money to my retirement accounts? Does that matter? How much private health insurance coverage do I need versus how much can I afford?

I didn’t fully appreciate how cushy my former job as a salaried software engineer was when I had it, with its high salary and great benefits. I could have been saving more. Now, though, it feels good to be making more conscious decisions about the amount and type of work that I do, how much time I take off, and how much money I really need to spend on “stuff.” Paying for healthcare out of pocket makes me appreciate it more. Trying to look on the bright side here. What I really love is the feeling of being a producer of something tangible. As an engineer I got used to a steady paycheck that didn’t depend at all on what I actually did that week. As a farmer, there’s a more direct relationship between work and reward: I make money by creating (growing) a product through my own effort & skill and then finding a way to sell it directly to a consumer. The amount I make feels a lot more tied to my own ability to work hard and work smart. Of course the regular paycheck is great, and I couldn’t argue with you if you pointed out how dumb it seems to purposefully walk away from a career with that kind of security. But I feel excited about growing food in a way I never felt about computers, and I feel like I’m reaching for the “work to live, not live to work” ideal. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

To that end, I’m visiting a few farms in the Puget Sound area to “interview” for a position for next year. There are two that I’m really excited about at the moment and I would be thrilled if either of them worked out. I feel sad when I think about not spending another season with Brian and Betsey after how much I loved being there this year. What if I don’t love my next farm as much? But I know that I’ll learn much, much more by moving on to a new place. Everyone has their own ways of dong things and it’s best for me to see several so that I have more information going into my own potential future farming endeavors. I’m looking for a slightly larger-scale farm for next year, growing a wide variety of crops and selling through a wide variety of market channels. I’m looking for a new community of people and a new piece of earth to get to know.

Ok that’s about enough. Kudos to you if you made it through all of that. Happy Holiday to all — let’s enjoy winter as we look forward to spring!

Thoughts on being done

So, October is over and the end of the season has come. It’s been a good fall as it was a good summer and a good spring. Looking back over the whole seven months, it’s one of those things where somehow all at the same time it feels like it’s been forever and it has also flown by.

The last few weeks of the apprenticeship were great — it was such a treat to relax a bit and enjoy the fall days as things on the farms were winding down. We finished digging all Betsey’s potatoes and sweet potatoes and put them into storage. We went through the piles of onions, throwing out the mushy ones (there were a lot) and cleaning up the good ones for sale through the winter. We were able to spend *half* days harvesting for Brian’s CSA instead of *all* day Tuesdays and Thursdays. The CSA members are still getting a lot of good hardy veggies — collards, kale, chard, beets, carrots, squash, broccoli. But since we’re done harvesting tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, etc, we have all this luxurious extra time to do things like PLANTING again! It felt so good to sow Brian’s cover crop and let the fields go to rest for the winter. The rye/vetch mix that we planted is grown in Seqim by Nash’s farm and it will do what any good cover crop should: 1) fix nitrogen in the soil so it will be available to the veggies next year, and 2) grow into a nice tall grass that will act as a “green manure” adding lots of good organic matter when it is tilled in next April. That cover crop really wants to grow; the seed sprouted within a couple days of planting and by now it is looking like a lush green blanket in the fields.

It was fun to plant cover crop because we’ve been doing very little planting at this time of year. Spring is for planting, fall is mostly for harvesting. With a noticeable exception: garlic! Garlic seed gets planted in Oct/Nov and grows over the winter so that it will size up for an early harvest next year in July. So this past week or so, whenever there was a break in the rain, Betsey would rush us all out there to get the garlic in the ground. 9000 garlic seeds to plant… it takes a little while. It is repetitious work but it felt *great* to be hands-in-the-dirt planting vegetables again, and this time with the perspective of the whole season behind us — I know what those little garlics are going to look like as they grow and how they are going to be harvested and processed next year. Betsey saves all of her own garlic seed, so we got to help with the seed selection process. What do garlic seeds look like, you may ask? Well they aren’t the type of seeds you might be picturing… you grow garlic by splitting apart a head and planting each clove. So you can get up to 10 or 12 new garlics from each head if you plant every clove. But Betsey’s process is a little more involved: you select the largest heads of each variety and then break the heads apart and save only the largest cloves from each for replanting. It’s fun to think about how we are helping nature out with a little natural selection of our own! Betsey has been able to significantly grow the size of her garlic heads by following this method for many years. She really is the garlic queen! In fact she dressed up as garlic for our final farmers market on Oct 30:

Goofy Halloween market: Betsey (garlic), Erin (farmin' Carmen Miranda), Renee (eggplant), Becky (cowgirl). Stacy is absent because she got roped into chicken processing at Brian's farm that morning.

I’m going to get sappy now, but I need to say that this apprenticeship experience has truly been one of the most transformative and wonderful times in my life, right up there with study abroad as an intense suck-out-the-marrow, taste every breath, feel fully alive and in the right place life experience. I have learned a lot about the hows and whys of farming; I have also learned a lot about myself and how to be in the world. I hope everybody can have such an experience in one way or another – obviously it’s not going to be growing vegetables for everyone, but I feel like there are a lot of people who are going along in comfortable but unfulfilled lives like I was who could use a radical life shift like I found, a kick in the head that says, this is your one life to live; get out there and make the most of it.

Some things that I have gained from farming. The obvious: The confidence that I can plant a seed and it will grow. That I can tell when a vegetable is ready for harvest. That I can make choices about how to grow food to maximize yield and quality while still using resources sustainably. Knowledge of the layout of chicken internals. The ability to confidently reverse an enormous van with no windows into a parking space. The not so obvious: An uncanny ability to estimate 8 oz and 1 lb of things without weighing. A newfound comfort level with spiders on my person and in my living environment. Inspiration on how to be a contributing member of a community where each person has a useful skill and trade/gifts are the norm. Inspiration on how to be true to oneself and still be a great boss and mentor. A little toughening up (Hands dirty? Wipe them on your pants and eat your lunch. Cut yourself? Slap some duct tape on it) in the face of new and interesting challenges (there are mouse turds in the kitchen… Okay, now there’s a dead mouse in a mousetrap to deal with.) An addiction to spending my days outdoors doing physical work and the realization that I can’t go back to life as I used to know it.

It is looking like I will have a computery-type job and a place to live in Seattle this winter. The pieces for both are kind of falling into place in the sort of effortless way that the universe sometimes hands you with a gentle nudge saying “this is the right thing to do…” I’m hoping that the job and the place to live in Seattle will be for Jan/Feb/March, and that next farm season will find me back to the land — if not here on Bainbridge then on some farm and doing this again.

Thanks for reading my blog. Here’s a little photo summary of the season, following a few of our crops from beginning to end. I took a million and a half pictures. I bet my colleagues got a little tired of all the camera-ing around! But it was great to look back through all the images and remember the phases of the farm season. Enjoy!

Weeding young garlic - April

Harvesting garlic - July

Garlic for sale - July

Garlic braided for sale - September

Starting brassica seeds in Brian's greenhouse - April

Transplanting seedlings - May

Harvested greens ready to be prepped for market -August

Beautiful vegetables for sale - September

Laying down drip tape on tomato seedlings - May

Tomato plants growing up stakes - July

Tomato harvest - September

Ripping out tomato plants & stakes at the end of the season - October

Planting potatoes - April

Potato plants beginning to grow - May

Digging potatoes - August

Potatoes front and center in Betsey's market display - August

Potatoes getting boxed up for storage - October