The Politics of Food

We enjoyed a wonderful morning with our friends from the Venango County Tea Party Patriots; Paula and I presented to the group on the topic “The Politics of Food.” Starting with a brief discussion of world views and how your world view affects your politics and your actions, we moved to a bit of history on the “food wars” including the work of German chemist Justus Von Ljebig, known as the “father of fertilizer”, who laid the foundation for the chemical-industrial philosophy of agriculture, and Sir Albert Howard, often referred to as the father of the organic farming movement. We discussed the state of society pre, mid, and post – WWII and the effect of the war on families, society, and the food supply; and we looked at the effect that Earl Butz had on agricultural policy in the U.S. in the 1970’s.

We delved into the current state of agriculture, including the “deadly six” chemical giants that control most of the food supply; the onerous regulations that force small farms and producers out of business or underground; the concept of “locavorism” and “food activism”; and what we at Big Oak Ridge are attempting to do.

The talk was well received, and we enjoyed our time with our patriotic friends!

The State of the Flocks and Herds.

Yesterday was an amazing 65 degrees in NWPA. Apparently we just needed a break after a long seige with the respiratory flu. We decided it would be a good day to do a bit of hoof trimming and worming and let the animals out to get some fresh air.
I am happy to report that the goats are doing VERY well. Everyone has gained at least a few pounds but our young stock has doubled in size. At least two of the big goats have active kids on board so we are eagerly waiting for the big event. Our big buck has gained 60 lbs since his last weigh in. He weighs 150 lbs at just one year old and his new son is 40 lbs at just two months. They are nice looking bucks.
We also have a couple of massive roosters from the chicks we raised last year. They are getting a bit gnarly with each other so we let them out yesterday to run off some steam. The young hens seem to be laying nicely so we are enjoying fesh eggs again.
The weather has dropped back to “normal” winter temperatures but it was nice to have a one day break and dream of spring.

An Update and a Request from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA)

The first few days of 2013 brought some extraordinary events that will likely affect the sustainable agriculture movement for many years to come.

First there was the debacle on New Year’s Day when we woke up to find that the so-called “fiscal cliff” deal in Congress, hammered out in the middle of the night, also included a 9-month Farm Bill extension with some curious features. While retaining the subsidy programs for commodity crops, essentially all of the more-or-less sustainable provisions of the bill were missing in the extension. This is an unprecedented event – as just about everything happening in Washington DC is these days – and the situation will remain this way unless and until a new 5-year Farm Bill (or additional extension) can be passed with some of these provisions that sustainable ag advocates had fought many years to establish are restored. Let’s just say, we’re not holding our breath, but will let you know what’s happening as the situation unfolds.

But another huge event that happened, just a week ago today, was the long-awaited release of new food safety regulations by the FDA, representing almost 2,000 pages of material that must be absorbed, understood and responded to by public comment within 120 days. These regulations are coming two years after the new Food Safety Modernization Act was passed and signed into law, and a year later than required by the law itself – the long delay was almost certainly a result of the recent presidential election. There are in fact still some parts of the new regulations to be released presumably later in 2013.

The two main pieces of regulation are titled respectively as the Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption, which is rather self-explanatory, and the Current Good Manufacturing Practice and Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food, which is more easily understood as the rules for food processing facilities. The full text of each is available on the PASA website at the link provided. Before anyone gets frustrated by the length of these documents, please be aware that the bulk of each is in the form of a preamble, and the actual proposed rules are relatively short by comparison.

PASA has been involved in this process since the very beginning – in the spring of 2009 – and we’re not about to back out of it. However, now that the “rubber is hitting the road” so to speak, we’re going to need the help of many of you out there to do our jobs thoroughly and most effectively. Namely, we need some of you who will be directly affected by these rules to read them and give us some feedback in the shorter term, and as the comment period comes to a close in the springtime, we’ll need many others of you to join us in writing relevant comments for submission to FDA.

Brian Snyder, Executive Director

(you can view Brian’s entire letter here.)

Our dear friend is gone!

13 years ago on a freezing February day, we brought home a tiny white ball of fluff. Quixote became our family friend. He kept me company when the kids were in school and wandered our farm surveying his domain. Each Spring he got wanderlust and took off through the woods for a couple of days but otherwise he was a good and loyal companion. 8 years ago he bagan to lose his eyesight until he was completely blind. As we debated putting him down, our daughter, Erika, pleaded with us to let her take him home with her for his “retirement” He has lived with her family for the past three years enjoying the pampered life of a house dog. Today Erika and Matt were forced to make the hardest trip anyone will ever make with their pet, the final trip to the vet. Quixote lived a good life and brought lots of enjoyment to everyone…we all loved him in spite of his uncontrolable fur. We will always remember our loyal friend RIP Quixote!

The New Year- Week 2

Hard to believe that the first week of the New Year has flown by already. The Day Care has been pretty quiet for various reasons but life is super busy otherwise. In the slow spots, I have been cooking and processing butternut squash. I like the fact that I can pick the squash in the fall and not have to do anything until after Christmas. When the weather gets super cold, the squash starts to wither and it’s time to get it in the freezer. I steam it a bit which makes it easy to remove the skin. I usually just toss it in the food processor and mill it smooth but this year I decided to leave a few big chunks whole. I like to put them in the crock pot with a beef roast instead of potatoes and we also like to roast it. Yummy! So far I have done about 4 bushels and over 40 bags in the freezer. Yes! We LOVE squash.
We have been working diligently on our rental house. It took us a solid month just to clean up the mess.There was MUCH to do. The contractors finished repairs and renovations the week before Christmas. It looks great! But now I have to totally repaint the entire upstairs and at least one room downstairs, plus patching and touch-up to the rest of the rooms. New carpet is coming next week so we are under a real time crunch. A few brave souls have come to help me paint and it is slowly getting done. We are also painting ALL of the woodwork and installing a new hot water tank and dishwasher. Seriously praying for a tenant who will appreciate all of this hard work.
The year is booking up with game nights and family visits and a new list of seminars is SLOWLY coming together.
We’re working on our weight and fitness so that we can keep up. With all of these things going on, winter will be over before we know it.

I can guarantee you this won’t be good for small producers.

According to this NY Times article, the FDA is proposing “sweeping new rules to stop food contamination.”

The big Agri-industrial complex is screwing up again, and unfortunately the public has heard about it, so we have to pacify the masses by making it look like we’re “doing something.” We’ll make sure, though, that any new regulations we come up with will have minimal impact on the true culprits (Big Agribusinesses) but will, in fact, serve to further lessen the burden of competition for them by driving more small producers out of business.

Seeds and Genetic Engineering

The following is an excerpt from the PASA Newsletter. The full Newsletter can be viewed here.

I was especially interested that while the situation for non-GMO seed is critical, Dave points out that there are still alternatives. Farmers need to get on board and stop being manipulated by the deceptive combination of government “incentives”, Agri-Industrial espionage and strong arm tactics, and other pressures to “join the collective.”

For another article on Dave’s work click here.

Over the past several years, I’ve been struck by the degree to which farmer access to crop seeds of their choice has become increasingly limited. Imagine, some 95% of our soybean crop is genetically modified with Roundup resistant genes in the seed. With such a large proportion of the crop modified in this way, farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to find conventional (non-modified) hybrids that are adapted to their soils and local climate.

In the northeast, a similar problem is occurring with corn and alfalfa. In this way, input and seed manufacturers (often one and the same) control the seed that is locally available, and in turn the pest management that will be employed. As pest management practices have become entrenched and more simplistic (over reliance on the herbicide Roundup for example) pest resistance has skyrocketed. The industry has responded to the herbicide resistant weed problem by inserting additional herbicide resistance genes in crop seeds, thereby facilitating more herbicide use.

If we choose this path, we will lock farmers in to fewer and fewer choices of untransformed cultivars. What’s more, this “gene stacking” will increase use of herbicides by some 2-3 times current levels. This industry practice is driving a transgene facilitated herbicide treadmill, where each turn of the mill drives up herbicide resistant weeds herbicide use. Our farmers and our agriculture deserve better.

I am encouraged that there is an alternate path to the treadmill, and PASA farmers are on that path. It includes a more diverse agriculture designed on ecologically-based principles. Through my years as a PASA member, and through participation in farm walks and sessions at the annual conference, I have so enjoyed learning about the
diverse approaches that make up this alternate path.

Join me at the variety of conference programming and events that will give farmers and eaters the skills and knowledge they need to protect seed diversity and encourage safe pest management practices!

  – Dave Mortensen, Penn State University & PASA Board Member

Yummy “locavore” breakfast

This morning I tried something a little different (for me.) Paula made some cream cheese with herbs in it and this morning I put some on my toast instead of my usual butter and jelly. It was very good with my farm fresh eggs!

Back to the grind! Watch out for mountain lions!

New Year’s Day was a day of planning and reflection and making lists…always optimistic that we will finish the list of projects before the end of the new year.
Today we are back to the grind…Kent in his office and me in the Day Care space. The kiddos sure didn’t want to be back on schedule any more than we did…they promptly went back to sleep.
I guess my day will be much like any other day…milk to skim, meals to plan, laundry…the usual.
The fields are white and beautiful and it has been VERY quiet in the neighborhood. We did receive a phone call on New Year’s Eve from one of our neighbors….he had spotted some large tracks in his yard and followed them in a circuit around the surrounding area. He says one of the other neighbors had seen a “large cat.” The cougar/mountain lion rumors have been circulating in our area for several years even though the Game Commission denies their existence. Just a little element of excitement and a reason to keep the goats closed in at night. Happy New Year!

New Year at Big Oak Ridge

Well, Christmas number three at Big Oak Ridge ended as our daughter Tara, son in law Jon, and granddaughter Addie left early this morning. Now we face that slightly hollow feeling of having the house all to ourselves again – at least for a few days. Now we turn our attention to the New Year ahead.

I’m eager to reflect on and digest what we have learned this past year. I would like to use the information we have gathered to plan our road map for the coming year. There are many things we would like to accomplish, but we are going to probably have to pare the list down to what we will have the time and resources to accomplish. A few of the items on our list:

  • A high tunnel or hoop house: One of the things I learned a lot about this year is the differences between green houses, hot houses, cold houses, high tunnels, hoop houses, row covers, cold frames, and all the other various and sundry versions of “season extenders” available. This year we failed to get this aspect of our gardening off the ground, much to Paula’s chagrin. In 2013 we need to have a “win” in this area. Basically we are hoping to build a high tunnel/hoop house, possibly one that is moveable like the ones at Four Seasons Farm.
  • Hogs: We are expecting (hoping?) that we will have milking goats soon, and one of the great things to do with extra goat milk is raise hogs. Milk fed pork is just about the finest pork you could ever want to eat. We’d like to pasture the pork and use the milk as a supplement.
  • Chickens: We have chickens now – Buff Brahmas – and our hope was to establish a self-sustaining flock of dual-purpose chickens. The Buff Brahmas were good setters, but poor hatchers (less than a 25% success rate I think) so we’re thinking we may have to try another breed. We also want to try to get set up to try pasturing the chickens.
  • Wood heat: Having an alternative source of heat has been “on the list” practically since we built the new house. We would like to clear some more land, so it seems only reasonable that we would put the trees we cut down to good use. We’ve been discussing the possibility of a Rocket Mass Heater type of stove.

So, those are just a few of the projects we are considering. We need to fit all of this in between and around our lives, our jobs, and our limited resources, so we’ll see how it goes. We are full of the optimism that a New Year brings though, and our New Year’s resolution is to live every day to the fullest, enjoy each day we are given, and use our time as wisely, effectively, and efficiently as possible.

We look forward to sharing the New Year with all of you!

Kent and Paula