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Archive for October, 2010

And lest you all imagine I have my head stuck up my ass…

No, as I have said before, I do in fact realize that the reality of the agriculture situation means big commodity farms aren’t going anywhere in the immediate future. As several of the farmers we spoke to pointed out, if the poultry industry goes, so does the grain industry. And if both of those go, there are a lot of farmers who are going to be bankrupt with land to sell, and with land prices the way they are around here, they aren’t going to be bought up by small scale sustainable farmers. They’ll be bought by developers, who will grow houses. And then the eastern shore will look like the western and the bay will really be fucked.

I am not going to sit and argue that the poultry industry needs to pack up and leave the shore, no matter how much the part of my brain that also wishes I could understand my cats meows as English would like them to. So long as the poultry industry is here, we are at least staving off some of the development pressure, and believe you me, all the grain farms in the world are better than housing developments (which, if you ask me, need to be regulated as much or more than farms. Let’s shut up about TMDLs for a while and go create some regulations about how much fertilizer suburbanites can dump on their lawns).

The problem is that the poultry industry, as it stands, isn’t sustainable (meaning capable of surviving in the long term). Even most farmers will admit this. It becomes more and more expensive every year to deal with the increased nutrient management regulations, to continue to buy fertilizer and feed and the rest of it (because of rising oil prices), and to exist, one way or another. Sooner or later farms are going to start crumpling under the pressure. It would be awesome if we had something waiting in the wings to swoop in and save the shore from development, but the reality is that no one’s got an economically valid alternative as yet.

Perhaps you are surprised to hear my concern about alternatives being economically valid. It’s true, I don’t give a shit about the economy. What I do recognize, however, is the stark reality that if something isn’t economically valid, it’s not going to do jack shit to stave off the developers. For all that I love local food, it simply CAN’T replace large scale ag on the eastern shore given the current situation. To start, small scale farms or otherwise, it would take at most two counties to feed the entire shore (for those of you from elsewhere, there are 9 counties on the shore). So what would the other 7 do? There aren’t that many people here, which is a good thing. And to be honest, there isn’t that much land that is really suited for ag, either. But I’ll come back to that.

If we’re really going to fight off developers, the farms that are currently producing commodity grain and chicken need to be converted to producing commodity something else. Some people tried to do just that, not that long ago- they tried to get grain farmers out of doing grain for chicken feed and into doing grain for people feed, which can get a much higher price. They weren’t successful. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to transition a grain farmer to anything other than grain, due to the fact that all of his resources (read: money) are tied up in very expensive equipment designed to farm grain. You can’t just walk up to a grain farmer and be like, hey! Why don’t you grow some squash? It’s simply not possible given the current situation. Where would the money come from, to start?

So what’s the answer? I don’t know that there is just one. There are so many factors. Even if we convert farms to something other than grain (for example, if we could use some of those federal economic development funds that they are currently wasting on highways), all that food has to go somewhere. Say we converted all the CAFOs to some kind of pastured animal operation. Even though we wouldn’t have as many animals on the shore, we’d still have a lot. And where would they go? The logical answer of course is to the western shore, where all the people are. But to do so you need infrastructure- trucks to transport everything, and probably some kind of distribution center, and more processing and packaging. This is sounding pretty appealing to people on the shore, who are pretty damn short on jobs, but doesn’t that make it more or less the same as the commodity grain?

There are some advantages. The food would be traveling a shorter distance (who knows where Perdue chicken ends up). Rotational grazing, as I explained yesterday, makes a lot more sense and is generally more environmentally friendly than a CAFO. You’d probably end up with a lot of much healthier food than you have when you are dependent on grain. And having more diversity among our farms will take a lot of the pressure off the bay, not to mention improve the chances of the shore surviving an economic depression. But it’s not what I would define as local. I still want to be able to go up the road to my friend’s farm and butcher a chicken and take it home and eat it. But there’s all those people over there on the western shore, and they have to be fed somehow- right? And if we want to preserve the eastern shore from development, don’t we have to keep it all in agriculture, to feed… someone?

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Capital News Service: Switching to Grazing Helps Farmers, Chesapeake Bay

Well, duh.

The first thing I thought of upon reading this article was: yeah, obviously. Doesn’t everyone know that? But then I remembered that someone recently told me they had been asked by a coworker, quite seriously, what a potato tree looked like, and I shut right up. No, people don’t know that rotational grazing is better for farmers and for the bay.

Big commodity farms such as those described yesterday are always facing the same issue: nutrient run off. Any farm that involves a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) means there are a lot of animals in a very small space, and this means at some point they are going to have to deal with a very large pile of shit. Literally. All those animals produce a lot of manure, and if you are keeping the animals indoors, in a small space, you need to remove the manure and put it somewhere else. Usually this is on a field, in the case of chicken manure, or in a lagoon and then on a field, in the case of cow manure. One way or another, lots and lots of it gets spread around in fields. There are an awful lot of regulations that manage the amount of manure that can get spread around, and where and when and how, and this can become rather onerous for farmers, but the intention is to prevent the majority of the manure from ending up in waterways which lead to the bay (causing algae blooms and dead zones).

Now, it is very true that manure belongs in fields. Plants are big fans of manure, generally. The problem is not spreading manure in fields, the problem is that there is so damn much of it. It usually gets spread in the fields all in one go, and usually before there are plants in the fields, which means there are plenty of opportunities for the manure to wash off. Don’t get me wrong. Most farmers are very conscious of this and attempt to do whatever they can to limit the amount of manure that runs off. But the ultimate issue is just that they are attempting to slap band aids on a system that doesn’t work in the first place.

Compare the above to rotational grazing. Instead of keeping cows in a building, where you have to remove the manure constantly, you keep cows in a field of grass. The cows eat the grass. They shit. You move them before they eat all the grass, so that as soon as the cows are gone the remaining grass goes, wow! Lots of nutrients! And absorbs the nutrients and gets bigger and more plentiful, so that you can later put the cows on the grass again. If managed properly (and there are plenty of ways to mismanage rotational grazing), there should be almost no run off at all. The manure is spread around evenly, and not in such large quantities that the grass can’t absorb it. You also don’t have to move the manure. You just have to move the cows, which are much easier to move because they have feet. You also don’t have to move feed, because the feed is right there (the grass). Feed is probably the most expensive input in your typical CAFO. Grass, aside from whatever work you may have to do to seed it, is pretty cheap. Especially when you have ready made fertilizer that spreads itself.

Here is another example that makes me go, “duh, isn’t it obvious?” One of the farms we visited was a grain/ poultry operation. This is pretty standard for a lot of the shore. Farmers grow grain, and then they ship their grain to a broker, and then the broker sells it to someone who manufactures feed, and then the feed is shipped back to the farm. In the process, a lot of mysterious (seriously- the farmers didn’t know either) ingredients are added to the feed, and it is ground up. From my point of view, this seems like an awful waste of time. All of this happens on the shore, so in theory it is “local”, but it still involves a lot of trucking when the grain originally started out about fifty feet from the chickens.

Why, I am forced to ask, can’t you just take the grain and feed it directly to the chickens? The dairy farmer we visited at least ground the grain on site to feed to his cattle, though he did import a lot of supplementary ingredients to mix with it. The funny thing is, chickens will eat almost anything. They like grain fine, but they also love bugs and tomatoes and watermelons and more or less anything you give them. Chickens who wander around on the grass get all of these things (ok, not the watermelons). They especially get protein, from the bugs, which is one of the things I believe is typically added to grain to make it into “feed.” However, when chickens live in a shed (as they do on CAFOs), they get none of these things. You have to provide them with all these supplements.

Not to mention that when chickens are on grass, and you move them around a lot, their manure gets spread around and you don’t have to do so much shoveling.

The point is, there are some clear issues with conventional farming, and one of them is the relative sense of doing an awful lot of work to “manage” manure and run off, when you could just as easily (actually, much more easily) let them manage themselves. The difference, of course, is the same difference between using solar energy and petroleum energy. You can’t charge as much money for the one, because it’s just there. Not to mention that in a conventional farm, it is all about the inputs: add x to y to z and you get a. Rotational grazing requires an awful lot of thought and creativity, and there is no one answer.

Nor is the answer simply swapping out conventional farming for rotational grazing. But we will get to that more tomorrow…

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I really want an ice cream maker.

But every time I think about this I think, wow, what waste of energy. And then I think, what will I do when we run out of oil? What will I do when there’s no more electricity?

And so I’m hoping to find a hand crank ice cream maker that doesn’t require electricity- except, of course, for the freezer that freezes the ice cream. There are many things that will no longer be possible for me to make so easily once we really start feeling the effects of peak oil. For example, my magical yogurt maker, that will make yogurt in eight short hours, without me doing anything but plugging it in.

There is a concept that I’ve recently learned the name of, called “transition.” This, apparently, is what I’ve always been talking about without ever knowing there was not only a name but a whole movement based around it. The concept is that at some point we are going to start feeling, to the very depths of our daily lives, the effects of peak oil. We won’t be able to make food from fossil fuels any longer. Something will happen to prevent us readily having processed foods on the shelves in the grocery store. Long distance travel will become prohibitively expensive. And so we will be forced to find other options- namely, food grown locally, by our own communities.

I spent last week traveling around to a variety of farms for work, which means I can’t really write about them the way I would if I had traveled to them on my own. A number of these farms were very large scale and produced commodities, which, if you aren’t familiar with ag terms, means things that can be mass produced. Chickens, corn, soybeans, milk. You can also produce these things for retail, meaning on a smaller scale, where you sell direct to consumer, as opposed to selling to a broker or some other kind of intermediary, who pays you one price for your goods (for example, $4 per bushel of corn), and then turns around and sells it to someone else (for example, a company that makes corn syrup) for another price.

One of the things that came up in all the conversations, however, even the ones with small scale farmers, was oil. How are the rising oil prices going to affect your business? Well, obviously they are going to make things more difficult. All of the commodity farms rely on tractor trailers to haul their products away. They rely on diesel fuel to run their fancy farm equipment. They rely on oil based synthetic fertilizers to make their crops grow, and more tractor trailers to bring them the rest of the inputs they need to make their farms run. More and more, large scale farms are relying on computer systems to make their operations more efficient. GPS tracking in tractors monitors exactly where in the field yields were highest and lowest, so that additional testing can reveal deficiencies in the soil. Soon there will be technology on the market to also monitor the health of the plants as the tractor drives by, so the tractor, or the computer in the tractor, will know how much of which chemical to spray on that particular patch of ground. At a dairy we visited, cows were all monitored with wireless transmitters that recorded how many steps each cow took and compared it to their average so that the computer could determine which cows were healthy, which were in heat, and which were normal. A computerized system measured how much milk each cow gave, and gave commands to a series of gates to isolate cows that were giving less than their average so they could be checked for illness. The farmer could check all of this information on his iPhone as he drove around the farm doing his daily chores.

This is all well and good, especially the idea of spraying less because a computer can determine what does and does not need spraying. However, it assumes two things: one, that this type of farming is best for everyone involved, and two, that there will still be the oil that is needed to power all these things in the future. I’ll deal with the first in another post, but as for the oil one- well, walking around these farms, I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to them when the oil finally dries up. They won’t be able to farm, that’s for sure.

Transition is all about moving away from things that won’t be possible in the future to things that will. Learning how to grow your own food, for example, and how to prepare food without the help of electric devices. Learning how to make your own cheese, and spaghetti sauce, and chicken stock, and bread. Most importantly, learning how to produce food in a way that can continue without the help of oil, because honey, I’m here to tell you it’s not going to last. It CAN’T last, no matter how much some people may wish it can. And if we don’t work on puzzling out how to transition, things are going to be royally fucked when the time comes and there is no longer any food on the grocery store shelves.

So, no electric ice cream maker for me…

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A Georgic Odyssey: The Agricultural Photographs of Edwin Remsberg

Pretty pictures! Of farms! And some interesting facts. I even learned a few things.

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Being a Grown Up

I will be the first (or maybe the second) to admit that I still have a lot of childish tendencies. On certain days of work, you can see me sit back at my desk and full on pout, and usually when this happens my train of thought looks something like this:

“I don’t WANNA!”

Followed by more pouty thoughts about how all I really want to do is stay home and read books and bake cupcakes and make pretty things like fairy costumes and dresses and quilts and hats. And pet my kittens.

Unfortunately no one has the leisure time to sit around and make pretty things and pet their kittens, at least not anyone I know. I keep telling myself that one day I will just suck it up and start my own business and concentrate on making my etsy store functional (yes, I have an etsy store!), but I haven’t got enough business sense to fill a teaspoon. Or at least this is what I tell myself. In reality I really, really despise doing most of the things that are associated with business. Paperwork, for one. Forms of any variety. Budgets. Spreadsheets. Keeping track of expenditures. Setting up my own health insurance. Figuring out how to pay taxes…

I have been able to skate by in the past few years avoiding most of these kinds of things. I have also avoided what I think of as “political” emails and meetings, by which I mean the kind where you have to be really careful about what you say in case you step on people’s toes. I have always, rather stubbornly, insisted that people just get over it. I try to be honest in all my dealings, and somehow those political type emails just sound contrived. They are contrived. They end up being a load of horse shit, because you aren’t saying what you’re really thinking, you’re trying to dance around a subject to keep from hurting anyone’s feelings. And yet, somehow, everyone gets offended anyway. This seems to be happening to me a lot lately, and it’s left me wondering why it is that I bother.

As my friends say, it’s what you have to do if you want things from someone. Which is all well and good, and I realize I’m playing a game. I really do. I’m not averse to trying hard not to offend people. It’s just that people seem really ready to be offended, and over things that aren’t really worth getting offended over. Nine times out of ten, they are upset because they misunderstood something I said in an email, and ten times out of ten it’s because I was being deliberately vague in an email to make sure I was a) not promising anything directly and b) not mistakenly stepping on someone’s toes. Now, if I had just been honest and said, hey, this is what I think, I’d like to know what you think so we can find some overlap and get things done, I can only imagine it would have worked out better in the long run. But no. That’s not “how it’s done.”

Fooey on that. I find it immensely frustrating to censor myself at every turn, not to mention exhausting. People keep asking me if I’m serious about wanting to farm and the first thought that crosses my mind is usually, “well, apple trees aren’t going to snap back at me…” My next thought is of sitting on a porch drinking homebrew and playing music. But the first is definitely that I won’t have to write any more of these irritating playing it safe emails.

What is ultimately more frustrating than the emails themselves are the responses of people I talk to about how much I hate the emails. If there is one response that gets me sore more than any other, it is “that’s the way it is.” If this response were to something like, “oh, I am so annoyed that things fall to the ground when you drop them,” I could understand it. I would not be so annoyed. But when this response is to a complaint about the way people act, I find my temper immediately rising. Not because it’s not true. Yes, it is that way right now- we do live in a capitalist society, and people are in general more concerned about their own affairs than those of others, and you do have to be overly polite and contrived in emails when you are asking favors of people you don’t know. But you know why all those things are true? Because people made them that way. We all have to go to work every day and deal with all this nonsense because people made it that way. And if people made it that way, other people can unmake it. It’s not like gravity. It’s something we all have control over. So if we all got together and decided that jobs with desks just made us miserable and that we all hate writing emails like this, we could just change it. Only people don’t believe they have that power. They are willing to accept that’s “just the way it is.”

Call me childish, but I think it’s far more immature to simply accept things you hate as “the way things are,” just because you can’t see an immediate way to change them. I believe it would be far more mature to do everything in your power to shape the world so that many people are far less miserable than they are now. But that, of course, takes a lot of work. And people don’t like to accept responsibility for things they see as being the fault of “society,” as if that were something more than a big group of people.

At least I have this blog to spout off my thoughts, uncensored. At least for now…

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Dear readers,

Thank goodness things are on their way back to normal. You will probably notice I haven’t been posting very much lately. This is because I have had no time. But starting today, things are getting back on track. Not that I’m not ridiculously busy. Just that things are not as mental as they have been over the past few months. Soon it will be winter, and there will be lots of cooking, and lots of farm conferences, and lots of working to make local foods even more awesome than they are now.

In the meantime, pictures of chicken noodle soup.

I had been craving it for weeks, ever since I had a cold, but my cold happened to correspond with the week I had two vegans staying with me so chicken soup was not about to happen. So last week I got busy and finally got my soup. I’ve discovered that chicken noodle soup is relatively easy to make. Chop some veggies (in this case, garlic, onion, and carrot), melt some frozen stock (I decided to do it with some of my beef stock, just for the fun of it), cut up the chicken, dump it all in a pot. Cutting up chicken is always made more entertaining by the fact that one of my cats loves chicken, raw, cooked, or otherwise, and will mill around my ankles meowing loudly at me until I give her bits. The other cat has yet to even try it. She’ll just sit and stare, and occasionally will smell it if I offer her a piece, but otherwise she’s not interested. Which is curious as she’s the one that meows all morning until I give her raw food. Clearly she has no taste.

Anyway, all of these things go in a pot with some spices. I was actually, for once, really excited to cut up chicken because I had recently spent a Williams and Sonoma gift certificate on a fabulous new knife, which cost a fortune but OH MY can it cut things up! I was so impressed I could hardly stand it. Now I am going to protect this knife with my life. No one else is going to touch it unless they can prove their knife handling capabilities with one of my lesser knives. Which means I might need to hide it from my housemate…

While the soup simmered, I used the bones and some of the fat to make more stock. I should have taken pictures of that, too, but it always looks a little disgusting. I was just intrigued to find that it was a different color than it normally is. Kind of yellowish. Not sure what the reason behind that was. I still have a lot (A LOT) to learn about eating meat. Every time I cut up a chicken I am still not sure what bits are ok to eat and which aren’t. Are you supposed to eat the bits that are all bloody, for example? I wasn’t sure, so I fed them to the cat. She didn’t seem to mind.

At last, chicken noodle soup, heavy on the noodles (because I do love noodles), and a beer. Too bad I can’t seem to vanquish the lingering cough from my cold as easily.

It’s not the most appealing looking soup, is it?

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Ok. I know. How can you be mad at Stephen Colbert? He’s funny, he makes fun of the stupid things people on the far right do, and he generally reminds us all why we don’t watch Fox news. I want to establish before I go on that I have always been a fan of the Colbert Report. I have watched the show for ages, whenever I get time (often on my lunch breaks).

It pains me therefore to be pissy at him. Or, I should say, at the writers. I get that it’s satire. And maybe, deep down, he agrees with the raw milk advocates he speaks to on his show. But considering how few people understand the arguments about raw milk, he makes some of the strongest advocates look like complete idiots, and that certainly isn’t going to help our cause at all. In this segment, he interviews workers from Rawesome about this raid. Yes, the one where federal officials invaded their food club with guns drawn.

Colbert Report, October 6, 2010
Jump ahead to about 6:45 in the video to see the raw milk segment.

He starts out by showing video of Tea Party members and Christine O’Donnell. And then relates them to the members of Rawesome- who have nothing to do with either. He then, reasonably enough, lays out what happened. Federal officials invaded the space at gunpoint. And then here comes the former FDA agent… speaking about the dangers… who is then contrasted with the guy who talks about the vibrations in raw milk. I’m not sure what he’s on about, but he certainly doesn’t make things look any better for the raw milk team.

God, every time I watch it I just get more pissed off.

This is the same thing that happened when raw milk was discussed on NPR. Each time, raw milk advocates were portrayed as nut cases, while the FDA agents are portrayed as these sensible, science based experts who only have Americans’ best interests in mind. We’re just here to help, they protest. If you’ve ever watched the Colbert Report, you can also figure out whose side he is usually on. And this time I’m pretty sure he’s on the side of the government agent, who he makes fun of, but who was edited to sound like the one who knows what he’s talking about. Remember, the whole schtick behind the Colbert Report is that he pretends to be a right wing commenter, and makes fun of the people who he typically actually agrees with, while making it obvious that the other side are actually idiots. And here it is again. Ron Paul, mixed in with images of silly looking zombies. The guy from Rawesome, made to look like an idiot for saying he can choose to get dysentery if he wants to.

THAT’S NOT THE POINT.

Yes, I choose to risk getting diseases by drinking raw milk. But do you really think that if the risk was that high, I would be drinking raw milk? No. Obviously not. I am not an idiot, Stephen Colbert. I drink raw milk just like I drive in cars, and, gasp, go outside my door in the morning. I drink raw milk because I am pretty damn sure I am going to be safe when I do so. And the reason I am so pissy at the government is because they have no more right to tell me not to drink raw milk, whatever they may believe happens when you do so, than they have to tell me not to go outside my door in the morning.

There is plenty of debate online about whether or not the Colbert Report was really making fun of the people from Rawesome, or whether he was really on their side. It is true that it’s good the footage finally got out to the public, who if nothing else should be appalled that federal officials felt the need to go into a private buying club offering raw products as if they were entering a cocaine den. But I don’t know how much it helps us when he turns right around and fails to present ANY of the arguments in favor of raw food- and why so many people are willing to take so many risks, even the risk of being raided by federal officials with guns, just to drink some milk.

Here’s a take on it by The Complete Patient.

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