Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Meet Your Farmer

In many posts, I’ve suggested that the best way to find out just where your food comes from is to talk to the farmer that produces it. The opportunity for me to do just that arose recently during “Open Farms Day”. To encourage farming and food education, the province of Manitoba organized this event, which included around 40 open houses at participating farms. To take advantage of this opportunity, I took a 45 minute drive and spent some time on the Blue Lagoon, certified organic farm. Here are a few highlights.

My visit began with a walk through a chicken coop. The chickens barely noticed me, they were busy pecking at melon rinds outside of their coop. I couldn’t help but ask, don’t chickens eat grain? Sure, replied Stefan, a farmer and Manitoban chef. He explained that the chickens are happy to eat parts of their food compost, and they especially love fruit seeds. Stefan continued to explain that the melon rinds were left over from his gelato experiment.  In fact, Stefan explained that the chickens are great composters, they work food remains into the ground as they peck and graze. This year Blue Lagoon has not used any mechanical tilling of the soil. Instead, chickens are moved around to different soil patches. Just letting the chickens roam around can help transform the soil from hard unworkable land to aerated and more fertile ground.

Next, I hopped on a wagon towed by a tractor and was greeted by Stefan’s parents, Lori Ann and Rene. Clearly proud of their farm, which was recently certified as organic (the only one in St. Fran├žois Xavier), they explained how every patch of land has its purpose. In the fields you could find rows of veggies, each row a different species, and within rows different varieties. Less fertile land was filled with alfalfa plants. Alfalfa breaks up hard soil and also provides a natural source of nitrogen. It looked perfect if you ask me. But, as Lori Ann soon pointed out, things weren't as simple as they looked. She drew our attention to the live raccoon traps within the fields, as well as garbage bag flags used to deter hungry mammals. Some of their most common visitors are deer. Deer are especially fond of their organic strawberries. So much so these farmers confessed to have forfeited their strawberry crops over the past few years to curious and hungry deer.  

Because these flags are always moving, they are thought to simulate predators and discourage crop thieves
I inquired if animal thieves and crop pests present the greatest challenge for organic farmers. In response I was informed this was partly right, along with the challenge of maintaining soil fertility without chemical inputs. Lori Ann pointed out their cauliflower plants whose leaves had been chewed on by insects. In fact, there are only two things organic farmers can use as insect deterrents while retaining their certification. One is Btk, a bacteria thought non-toxic to organisms with the exception of some insects. The second is row cover, a cloth used to cover plants. Although Btk is an option, Blue Lagoon rarely uses it. They prefer to keep things as natural as possible. 
Cauliflower Plants

I was surprised to later find out that the only insect ‘pest’ this year had been the crucifer beetle, it was this insect that had caused the cabbage damage I noticed earlier. At the end of the tour, Stefan convincingly explained how their farm doesn’t actually have that many pests simply because they don’t grow too much of one thing.  Because this farm is surrounded by a matrix of canola monocultures, it was no coincidence that the crucifer beetle found them. Crucifer beetles eat cruciferous plants, which include crops such as cauliflower or canola. The beetles thrive on monoculture farms, such as the ever-expansive prairie canola fields. A vast crop of the same species is also a concentrated food resource for pests. In addition, because monocultures simplify the complex landscape, this means monocultures have less natural enemies around to control thriving pests. This is a clear example of the far-reaching impacts of industrial agriculture, even organic farmers can’t avoid them.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed the pros and cons of organic certification and the benefits of supporting farmers who aren’t officially certified but practice organic, or nearly organic, farming. I thought I would get an expert’s opinion on these subjects. Lori Ann enthusiastically responded that she sees a strong benefit in purchasing food that is certified as organic, as well as being an organic-certified farmer herself.  I smiled as she said, “this ensures that us farmers don’t cheat!” She explained how hard it is to watch as your crops are destroyed and not be able to do anything about it, no matter how tempting it may be to use something like chemical sprays. The threat of losing the organic certification is a big motivation in holding off on the chemicals.

I’ll leave the choice to support certified organic, or other sustainable practices to the readers. What I do recommend is a farm visit or a conversation with a farmer at any chance you get. Thanks again to Stefan, Lori Ann, and Rene for sharing their time and experiences as organic farmers.

For more information on the ecological role of biodiversity in agricultural systems: 

Altieri, M. (1999). The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 74 (1-3), 19-31 DOI: 10.1016/S0167-8809(99)00028-6

Saturday, 17 September 2011

How Would You Like Your Eggs?

Living in Winnipeg gives me the chance to connect with farmers who sell eggs from chickens that are organically fed, and free to roam. For all of us egg-eaters however, we’ve surely been in the position where we’ve had to choose between natural, vegetarian-fed, omega-3, free-range, free-run, or certified organic eggs, at the supermarket.  It’s just plain confusing if you ask me. In this blog, I hope to clarify what you get when you shop for eggs.

Thanks to the Vancouver’s Human Society, the “Chicken Out!” program has made egg shopping a little easier. Here is what this, and other sources have to say about egg-labels.

Free-run: Hens are free to run inside a barn, but lack outdoor access. However, this label is unregulated.

Free-range: This label suggests hens have “access” to the outdoors. But, this does not tell us how often or for what amount of time.  As Kelly Myers, an Oregon chef says, on an industrial scale this label is likely to mask the scenario of thousands of chickens found in a large shed with a small door (through which the chickens may or may not venture).

Cage-free: Hens are not confined in cages. This generally means thousands of hens are roaming around a barn floor.

Because Free-run, Free-range, and Cage-free labels are not certified, and thus unregulated, Chicken Out recommends visiting farms or checking references to be sure their practices live up to these standards.

Certified Organic: Of the labels, this is one of the best and it ensures the most space for hens. Hens can roam outdoors, they are provided with perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas. Certification means farmers are inspected for animal welfare.

SPCA Certified or Certified Humane: These labels are sponsored by humane societies. Hens are free-range or free-run. Like Certified Organic, hens have perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas. Farmers are audited for animal welfare.

Farm Fresh, Natural, Vegetarian-fed: These labels sound good, but they are unregulated and do not consider animal welfare. This means eggs come from hens raised in battery cages. Vegetarian-fed means no-animal by-products are used in the feed.

Omega-3: Omega-3 means a hen’s diet is supplemented with fish or flax omega-3 oils. One study looked for differences between oil content in certified-organic eggs versus omega-3 eggs, and found differences were negligible.  

Summary: Certified Organic and SPCA Certified/Certified Human, are the only regulated eggs which guarantee the best animal welfare as far as labeled eggs go. If you want to support Free-range or Free-run eggs, make sure to check their source because these are unregulated labels. Natural, Vegetarian-fed, and Omega-3 eggs, among others, do not account for animal welfare and are from battery-caged hens. For more specific information about farming practices and animal welfare standards click here

If you want to be safe, contact the egg farmers. This can even be done in urban areas where chicken farming is becoming more popular. Remember, bigger is not always better. My experience both in North America, and in Costa Rica, with very free-roaming chickens has opened my eyes to what happy, healthy chickens' eggs look like. Although egg size may vary with chicken breed, I bet you can guess which eggs in the picture below are from factory-farmed hens, and which are from the free-running, healthy eating kind.

One way to get around deciphering labels is to raise your own chickens! For the rest of us with chicken-free homes, here is a helpful guide to help with your informed egg-eating choices.

Other Sources:

A friend of mine has recommended the booked “Eating Animals” by Johnathan Safran Foer, for a more in depth discussion on this topic. 

Saturday, 10 September 2011

No Farms No Foods: Is Organic Farming Always Sustainable?

The more we learn about what our foods go through to be bigger, better and stay fresh, the more convincing it is for us to buy organic. However, due to high social and economic costs, organic certification is not always a viable option for small-scale farmers. In this blog I want to address a popular question, how do we support local farmers and still make healthy and environmentally conscious decisions?

To do so, I would like to introduce you to a family of pecan farmers who are health and environmentally conscious, but not certified organic.

I first met George and Becky this summer at the Auburn, Alabama Farmers Market. What caught my eye was their pecan honey granola. Before taking some home, I inquired if their products were organic. Here is what they told me:

“We prefer to use the word sustainable…”, George kindly explained. He added that they don’t feel that there is anything wrong with organic farming, but the costs of starting and keeping a certified organic farm are steep; these costs are often unrealistic for small-scale farmers. Instead, George and Becky explained to me, the sustainable farming practices they follow allow farmers to make a living while being as environmentally sound and as healthy as possible. Let me give you an example.

Becky and George started with a pecan farm. They did not want to use chemical fertilizers to keep the soil rich for their pecan trees, so they came up with a sustainable solution, planting clovers! Clovers provide nitrogen to the soil; therefore these plants serve as a natural fertilizer (the biology of this is a little more complicated). But the story does not end there. Clovers do not grow without pollination. To use clovers as fertilizers, Becky and George decided they would need a healthy population of bees. Conveniently, Ben, the head of the local beekeepers association, was able to help them start a small beekeeping operation. Now, not only do they have a fertilizer-free pecan harvest, but honey as well. 

The story is more complicated still. Wild grasses often take over in fields, meaning clovers have trouble growing alongside them. The easy way to get rid orchards of grasses is to use a weed killer. Instead, Becky and George looked for a sustainable solution. This time it was cows, which roam through their orchard while foraging (and cleaning up) the wild grasses. Since these farmers do not spray with pesticides, they also produce pesticide-free, grass-fed beef.  I’ll stop here because Becky and George’s story goes on, but, in a nutshell, this is what they meant by sustainable farming.

After hearing this story, I asked, if you are so careful to practice environmentally sound farming, why don’t you advertise as organic?

C. Leopold (Flickr)
George explained to me that although they do their best to be sustainable, there are still many challenges for farmers. For pecan farmers it is the “pecan scab”. Pecan scab is a hard-to-control fungus that attacks pecan trees with the potential to decimate entire pecan harvests. For now, these farmers spray pecan trees once a year to protect trees from this pest. If these farmers were to become organically certified, they would be required to have a pesticide-free farm for minimum three years (among other hurdles). Because there is no effective organic control of pecan scab, trying to go ‘organic’ may mean drastic losses on their orchard and drastic losses means big hits to their income.

Although Becky and George would like to eliminate all use of pesticides one day, for now they are satisfied with sustainable small-scale farming. As Becky told me, sustainable cannot only be defined in relation to the environment, there has to be something in it for farmers too. If not, there is little motivation to continue these practices.

Although I talk about pecan farming here, this story is not unique to George and Becky. After speaking with many farmers on this topic, I’m encouraged to look a little further past a label in order to best support innovative and sustainable farming practices.

Certified organic is an excellent choice when we are trying to reduce the amount of chemicals in the environment. But, there are many benefits to buying local as well, including supporting small-scale farmers engaging in environmentally-sustainable practices. As always, the best way to find out more about the food you eat is by talking to the people who grew it.

A great way to meet them is by purchasing your vegetables at farmers markets or through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks. Here are a couple links that allow you to search for farmers markets near you in Canada or in the U.S.A. 

For more information on the health and environmental effects of pesticides: