Food is not always something that you put in your mouth and eat!

Late spring and early summer have been extremely busy on the farm. In May 700 new chicks (baby girls) arrived while our current flock of hens (the big girls) turned a year old.

We celebrated the big girl’s birthday with their version of a birthday cake, lettuce and tomatoes, their favorite treats. Although the baby girl’s arrival was a few days before the birthday celebration, they weren’t a birthday present for the big girl’s. Actually, the big girl’s weren’t too pleased sharing the attention.

We now have roughly 1,200 hens. The baby girl’s won’t start laying eggs until late October. They spend their days running around like a bunch of hooligans and practicing their flying skills, which by the way aren’t so great! 5212014 BR RIR DE 019
The baby girl flock is a mixture of Rhode Island Red’s, Delaware’s, and Bard Rock’s. They are traditional breeds of chickens and this is a first for us as our previous flocks have been all Rhode Island Reds.

Becoming 1 year old also brought on the first molt for the big girl’s. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term “molt” it can be easily compared to animals shedding. The big girls are in the process of losing their feathers in order to grow new feathers. This process can take as long as 6 months and since we let our hens molt naturally, they don’t all shed their feathers at the same time. Working with the flock every day I see some hens that are fully feathered, others are partially feathered, and some are downright naked!

While molting, the hens slow down on egg production and some stop laying eggs altogether. Growing new feathers while producing eggs is an extreme drain of calcium on the hens and nature decided, they can’t do both.

For the first time, we decided to try raising some turkeys and in June, 15 baby turkeys (poults) arrived. VOM Turkeys 6192014 007It’s hard to imagine that these tiny creatures grow into becoming the large Thanksgiving turkey we are accustomed to seeing. The poults are much more sociable than the chickens. They love human companionship and the grandkids had great fun sitting in the turkey pen while the babies climbed in their laps.

They were moved this week from their brooding pen to their new condo. We converted an empty horse stall into their new home and provided pasture space for them to forage. Turkeys 7182014 008Allowing them outdoor access for the first time was like a bunch of kids on a candy spree! They didn’t know which to go after first – grass, clover, or bugs. They now have our two horses for companions however the horses try to ignore them.

Unfortunate for me (or maybe not ), is that the turkeys are now visible from my window in the living room and it’s just a short walk to go visit them. I find myself looking out the window much more often than I should and then being drawn outside for a visit.

The new additions to the farm have also brought a lot more work. Some days don’t end until evening. Farming is hard work, but hey, I’m not complaining! Sitting on the front porch (yes, in my rocking chair) thinking about the accomplishments of the day, I’m rewarded.

My post last week about the “Walmarting of Organics” brought me gobs of email. The pot was stirred! But, that is a good thing and what “Food for Thought” is all about.

Every subject or issue has many viewpoints and I for one like hearing them, kind of like playing devil’s advocate with myself.

One particular comment from a share on Facebook got me thinking……..

“Yeah, but when when Walmart is making more of an effort at making organic products accessible to lower income folks than the existing organic/small foods institutions that make small farms possible, I don’t think we should be pointing our fingers just at Walmart. I hate Walmart just as much as any other greeny, but let’s talk about the food system as a [w]hole, about capitalism, about someone’s hunger and nutritional needs being a market to sell your goods when we really should be collectivizing in a way that INCLUDES rather than excludes our society’s most vulnerable people.”

Well said!

Looking at our food system as a whole is a daunting task and needs to be peeled away in layers like an onion. Not wanting to go into a detailed description of economic theories or by any means think that I can conduct a lesson on those theories; it is, however, well worth looking at.

Our main-stream food system is designed by corporate entities having a responsibility to shareholders, investors, and/or private owner. The bottom line is the almighty (or not so almighty) dollar. This system supposedly operates on the “free market or free enterprise” theory better known as capitalism.

Capitalism – in short definition is an economic system in which most of the means of production are privately owned, and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets. (merriam-webster) In print this definition looks good and fairly simple.

To further insure that the free market/enterprise operates fairly on the capitalistic system, laws and regulations as well as government oversight are in place. This is where it gets sticky!

There was a time in our country’s history where the laws and regulations were enforced. Anti-trust and monopoly come to mind. I don’t know about anyone else however I was raised by the belief that if you work hard you will do well, America is the land of opportunity, and so on!

Having lived in industrial contract chicken production and having heard comments such as it’s a free market from corporate types I can say that in the chicken industry there is no such thing. The chicken industry is owned and controlled by a handful of companies and it’s an exclusive club controlling the market.

Controlling the production (placement of chicken numbers on contract farms) determines the availability of the product for sale on the market and in turn controls what the market price will be. Furthering that control through flooding the market and driving prices down, squeeze competition out, we end up with a handful. Becoming fully integrated, whereby all aspects of the operation are owned and controlled by the same handful of corporations furthers a monopoly on the market and anti-competition.

Large-scale, integrated operations that increase efficiency and reduce production costs confer a benefit on firms that adopt them and may confer a benefit on consumers if the lower costs lead to lower product prices. In many cases the barrier is a result of anticompetitive behavior on the part of the firm -. (merriam-webster – relating to monopoly)

The chicken industry has been so successful that the majority of our food production system has adopted this model leading to a highly controlled mainstream food supply.

Industrialized food production is claimed to be the best method for feeding the masses including society’s most vulnerable people and in stamping out hunger and nutritional needs. This might be true, although I beg to differ. In adopting this model we have to consider the societal consequences created to maintain this method.

Industrial food production cannot sustain itself and is highly subsidized by the taxpayer – cheap grain prices for feed (farm subsidies); tax abatements (not paying a fair share of tax liability); public health (such as antibiotic resistance); environmental degradation (cleanup of industrial waste/manure). These are only a few of the ways we subsidize industrial food production which enables the handful of corporations to control the free market and reap the profits from the system.

Other types of food production such as organic, sustainable family farms, etc. are not subsidized. Production cost is actual therefore making prices higher in the marketplace.

In theory, one method of food production is supported and apparently favored by the government while other types of food production aren’t. Thusly, a skewed market exists.

Walmart’s adoption of an organic program is the first step toward creating an industrialized organic food production system. Relaxed (bastardized) organic standards have opened the doors for corporate agriculture to step in and produce maybe not so great food. You can bet your bottom dollar the industrialized organic food production system will follow the model of the industrialized chicken industry.

In addition, the Walmart organic move is for the purpose of drawing new high end customers. Economic indicators reveal that Walmart sales are stagnant. The company’s present customer base is society’s most vulnerable people and to spur company sales growth new customers need to be sought.

As an aside, the SNAP (food stamps) program is accepted in all grocery stores and most Farmer’s Markets. The availability of nutritious farm fresh, and/or organic food is inclusive of all through the program. The crinkle is that choice of food dollars spent leans toward not so great foods. Educational programs are lacking in providing society’s most vulnerable people information about wholesome and nutritious food availability and how to spend food dollars on better choices. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that anyone in this country should go hungry. There is no excuse for it and we as a society should be ashamed for allowing it to exist!

Back to the main point – Industrialized organic food production will become something that is no better than industrialized mainstream food production. It’s impossible to survive producing above cost therefore cost efficiencies of production will demand the need to cut corners. Industrialized food production does not sustain its environment and mass production creates uniformity with lack of care. Organic will mean nothing but will demand a premium at Walmart.

Yes, availability of organic will be inclusive of all. When all is said and done, I question what it will be that sits on the shelves of Walmart.

Grocery giant, Walmart, has set its sights on organics planning to drive the market prices down nationwide announcing an exclusive partnership with Wild Oats. Walmart claims that they will sell a line of 100 organic products at 25 percent less than 26 national brand competitors.

“We’re removing the premium associated with organic groceries” says Jack Sinclair, Walmart executive vice president of grocery. Need I say more?

I believe that most of us are familiar with the Walmart plan and how they have operated in the past. Driving competitors out of business until it’s the only game in town and then having prices creep up hasn’t been in keeping with the mantra go to Walmart and watch prices falling!

From a farmer perspective the new Wild Oats deal tells me that it’s about capturing a rapidly growing organic market, 10 – 20 percent a year by most estimates, and driving the small sustainable organic family farmers out of business. In keeping with its history, Walmart tells the producer what it will pay for your product and you can take it or leave it. Walmart buys in large volume and to acquire the volume the company will need huge organic suppliers.

By the same token, Walmart customers are traditionally either/or from poor areas, low income, rural, or food stamp recipients. I do believe in food equality meaning that everyone should have access to affordable healthy food choices.

What I don’t believe in is driving the food prices paid to the farmer down to the point of the small scale family farmer becoming listed on the endangered species list!

Open the door for industrial corporate organic food production – I’ve written in the past about the “bastardization of organics” and as I’ve said before, it is not about the real organic food producers it’s about the “posers”. With ever increasing relaxed National Organic Standards occurring, the road is being paved by government regulations for anyone to claim organic. Obviously, history is repeating itself as it did when corporate agriculture took over mainstream food production ushering in vertically integrated food systems, contract farming, and the theory of get big or get out!

It remains to be seen if the new Walmart – Wild Oats plan will be successful. If my local Walmart is any example, I don’t believe that the store will capture new higher end customers. In finding a decent grocery chain, I drive 30 miles. To find a really exceptional grocer it’s 120 miles.

My local Wamart is disgustingly filthy, rotten produce is offered for sale, the employees are rude to the point if you ask a question they behave as if you’ve bothered them, and empty spaces on shelves abound. It has all of the qualities of “if you don’t like it, tough”!

Walmart’s increased sales have remained stagnant. The company sees a rapidly increasing organic market and the sound of cha- ching! The entire deal surrounds the almighty dollar. It’s definitely not based on any warm fuzzy feeling of doing the right thing or providing access to healthy food choices for the masses. I’ve not heard or read one word related to this deal about any claims of corporate social responsibility or being a good citizen in local communities.

Speaking to the local economy, the deal will not provide a boost. Walmart won’t be buying from local farmers they will be buying from centralized mass producers. Efficiency will be the name of the game which translates to cutting corners.

What I find humorous about the deal is that corporations, such as Walmart, have in the past viewed organics as a niche market equating those farmers to left over hippies. Corporate agriculture types snidely snickered over organics as not being technologically advanced in food production. I say, hop on the bus, Gus – be a poser!

A very disturbing, to me at least, bit of news crossed my desk and I have to say I’m perplexed! New rules are now being proposed to dis-allow all farmers from using any antibiotics to treat sick animals without having what is known as a “Veterinary-Client-Patient relationship” (VCPr).

A little bit of history here folks! In the U.S. we use more antibiotics in animal food production than any other nation. Roughly, over 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used in industrial animal production. Notice I said “industrial”! Almost all concentrated feeding animal operations (CAFO) administer sub-therapeutic antibiotics routinely whether the animals need them or not.

There are several reasons behind the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics two of which come to mind are for the purpose of rapid weight gain and because the animals are raised in confinement in very large numbers in their own urine and feces. The drugs are not used to treat individual sick animals they are an attempt to correct the consequences of industrial confined animal production.

Mind you, corporations make these decisions not the farmers who contract to raise company animals. Going back to the time when I raised chickens under contract I can remember feed delivered by the company, before baby chicks were delivered, had antibiotics in it. I used to think to myself that the company knew that the chicks would be sick before they arrived on the farm!

This abuse of antibiotics used in industrial animal production which are medically important and resistance of bacteria to medically important antibiotics is a rising public health crisis. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter has legislation, “Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act” (PAMTA), a vitally important piece of legislation which would ban the use of 8 major classes of antibiotics on healthy livestock with exceptions to treat sick animals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also working on plans to phase out the overuse of some classes of antibiotics given to animals in feed and water. However FDA’s plan is voluntary. Not the magic bullet but it’s a beginning.

For many years, I’ve been a strong proponent of ending the overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal production, working with several organizations and the public health sector, to this end. Unfortunately, I have to part ways on this latest proposal, VCPr. It appears as if there is illogical reasoning behind the proposal. In other words, it lacks “common sense”!

VCPr requires that a vet have sufficient knowledge of the animals in question to be able to diagnose the medical condition and that the vet must be personally acquainted with the keeping and care of the animals to be treated. A timely examination of the animals by the vet or medically appropriate and timely visits by the vet to the operation where the animals are managed is required. This sounds good and will work for industrial animal production as all large companies have vets on staff. A perfect solution for industrial agriculture!

As a small independent farmer there are several reasons why I oppose the proposal. Firstly, I don’t have a vet on staff, as a matter of fact, I don’t have any staff! In my area of the country which is nothing but concentrated industrial chicken production, there are no independent poultry vets. This is the case in most areas of the country. A knowledgeable poultry vet is rare and is a specialty field of veterinary medicine. I could ask for a Sate Veterinarian but who knows if one would be available, if there is any such person, or if the vet could arrive in a timely manner to treat my sick chicken.

Small independent farmers don’t routinely feed antibiotics to their animals. It’s a fact! In my operation, I’ve never had the need for antibiotic treatment because the chickens have plenty of room, fresh air, sunshine, and indoor/outdoor access at will. However, should I have a sick chicken that I was unable to give treatment on my own, as proposed under VCPr, I would have to let the animal suffer and die or immediately euthanize an otherwise recoverable animal, not being able to meet the requirements of the proposal. I find that highly disturbing and I’m not alone in this thought.

Given the choice between treating a sick animal or letting it die will induce farmers to find antibiotics from other sources whether it be legal or not. A black market for animal antibiotics in the making!

Lastly, each year I spend up to $500 for a vet to come to the farm. Routine checkups are conducted on my 2 horses and 3 cats as well as any vaccinations they are due. Although I don’t know where I would find one, if I had to have a vet come and give routine checkups on each of my chickens I can’t imagine what the bill might be. Suffice it to say it would cost me right out of business. In addition I’m curious to know how the vet would know which chicken was which. I mean really, for the most part they all look alike!

The thoughts behind the proposed VCPr may have been well conceived in the world of “think tankers” however it’s readily seen that no thought was given or input solicited from small farmers. If the aim of the proposal is to endorse industrial animal production, it will. They have vets. If the thought was to not support and encourage small sustainable farms with high animal welfare practices the proposal accomplishes it. I can’t say what the thought process was however I can say that the proposed VCPr needs to be re-thought!

Further Information

Hog Battle

There’s a nasty virus spreading in the pork industry. Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PED virus) infects piglets under 4 weeks of age and has a 100 percent mortality rate. At present there is no vaccine for PED although the pork industry says that research is underway. The virus has been running loose in the U.S. since last year and is taking a heavy toll on herds.

On February 20, 2014 the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released an undercover video showing the pork industry’s current method of attempts to control the virus. The video showed overflowing boxes of dead piglets being eviscerated and the intestines of the piglets are then ground up to be fed back to the mother pigs (sows).

Although I’ve simplified the scenario above suffice it to say that reactions to the issue have broken out in a war of words between the industry and those who condemn the practice. The issue is quite a conundrum for me and I’ve mixed emotions about the issue.

The HSUS video brought on a disgusting thought process for me. Thinking about dead baby pig intestines being ground up and fed back to their mother’s is just plain gross! I’m not alone in my thoughts and most who’ve viewed the video are shocked.

On the other hand, the pork industry has come out swinging with reactionary measures of explanation. Baby piglets are dying by the millions from the PED virus. The virus doesn’t discriminate between large or small farms. Infected piglets suffer a horrible death from acute diarrhea. The practice of grinding up the intestines of dead infected piglets, known as “feedback”, is fed to the sows in an attempt to expose them to the virus in the hopes of building immunities and passing them on to future piglets.

The conundrum!

Not one who readily accepts explanations to something that has horrified me I had to look further in an attempt to get to the bottom of things. Being an animal lover I would not be able to stand by and watch millions of baby pigs die a horrible death without any attempt to do something about it.

There are several arguments out there against the “feedback” practice mostly being along the line of “consequences of industrial animal agriculture” (a payback). Most often I would agree with this however the best I can conclude is that the PED virus is affecting all types of hog operations.

Some industry experts claim the HSUS video is another attempt by the organization to stop the raising of animals for consumption. In this case pork! True or not, it isn’t going to happen.

Efforts toward development of a vaccine include utilizing the virus in some method of exposure to build immunity. Awaiting the development of a vaccine and approval by FDA will take time. Lots of time! According to some reports, the industry has already spent $1 million toward research.

I have to wonder how much has been spent and will be spent toward exposure of the “feedback” practice and reactionary measures by industry. In my humble opinion that money could be better spent! Maybe along the lines of finding answers to combat and stop the PED virus in its tracks! It appears that might be the more humane thing to do instead of wasting precious time and money arguing while piglets continue to die.

Here we go again! Hong Kong officials have confirmed the first human case of the deadly H7N9 bird flu and have raised its pandemic response level to “serious”. This comes after an outbreak of the deadly virus earlier this year. The World Health Organization reports there were 139 H7N9 infections in China as of November 6, 2013 and 45 deaths since April.

The H7N9 strain of bird flu (avian influenza) made its first jump from chickens to humans in March of this year. H7 viruses are primarily found in birds however this strain, never seen in people before, appears to have mutated to make it better adapted to infecting mammals. This raises serious concerns.

Officials say that the H7N9 virus doesn’t appear to have the ability to jump from human to human. The recent case reported, a 36 year old female was hospitalized in serious condition and four family members have fallen ill showing signs of the virus. While more research is needed to understand the H7N9 bird flu and its method of operation, it appears that those infected with the virus have the ability to infect those people who come in close contact.

In the past, the H5N1 strain of bird flu was of concern and it’s not clear yet if the new H7N9 strain of the virus is deadlier as this strain has undergone genetic changes.

All of the numbers of the different strains of bird flu are confusing. Researchers, the world over, have warned of a possible world pandemic of bird flu. The question now is what strain will it be? What was determined to be a bird flu virus strain, H7N9, not transmissible to humans, has reared its ugly head and become genetically different than previously known. It has adapted itself to infect humans.

There have been no reported cases of the H7N9 bird flu in the U.S. So far the virus has been reported in China and Taiwan. World travel could change this in a matter of days. Those traveling to Asia should report any illness with respiratory or flu like symptoms to their doctors.

Many attribute outbreaks of bird flu to concentrated animal production whereby tens-of-thousands of animals are raised in confined conditions becoming a breeding ground for disease. Historically, the vast majority of bird flu outbreaks in the U.S. have occurred at these types of operations.

One has to wonder if there is a warning here. At the risk of making myself susceptible for commitment to the loony bin, I have to question if altering the natural order of things has resulted in unintended consequences? Thinking about this brings to mind an old television commercial for Oleo margarine that said “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”!

An interesting tidbit of information crossed my desk which, after reading, I filed away as another one of those “head spinners” that I occasionally have. Yessiree folks, I closed my eyes, shook my head, and asked myself – for real?

According to a report from Politico and confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service China was notified last week that four of its poultry processing plants have been given the green light to begin processing chicken of U.S. origin and selling it back to the American public.

Processed heat-treated/cooked poultry products, typically known as “further processed” chicken, such as nuggets, patties, or even the pieces of chicken in your canned soup may now be processed in China and sent to American consumers for consumption. Raw chicken processed in China may come from the U.S., Canada, or Chile the only three countries currently approved by USDA.

Concerns expressed by food safety advocates abound given China’s record on food safety and deadly bird flu (avian influenza) outbreaks. However this issue appears to go much further. In a press release issued by Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, Executive Director, Wenonah Hauter says “it has been no secret that China has wanted to export chicken to the U.S. in exchange for reopening its market for beef from the U.S. that has been closed since 2003 due to diagnosis of a cow in Washington State with spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease……”. The U.S., in turn, banned poultry imports from China in 2004 after a bird flu outbreak.

Although the main focus of concerns on this issue has rightly so centered on China’s not so great food safety record, me in my infinite wisdom, focused further on the statement made by Food & Water Watch. My simplistic common sense manner summed it up as trading chicken for beef thereby resolving a “tit for tat” trade dispute.

I then tried to understand why in the world we would send raw chicken all the way to China to have it processed and then have China send it back to us for consumption. I wondered how many miles it was from my closet seaport, Norfolk, VA, to China. Suffice it to say that it’s roughly 6,757 miles! Furthering my need to know, I realized that the one of the major U.S. chicken companies has a processing plant 15 miles away from me. I’m sorry, but this makes no sense in so far as reducing the carbon footprint that we all are supposed to be mindful of!

Back to the heat treated/cooked poultry products. Every major chicken company in the U.S. has “further processing” facilities in America. While I in no way agree with industrial chicken production, I have to wonder why chickens raised and slaughtered in the U.S. would go to China for further processing and travel back to buyers in America to sell as cooked chicken products. In essence that chicken has traveled nearly twice around the world. Not to mention the American jobs that traveled out of the country with it. What does this say for boosting OUR economy?

Adding insult to injury the cooked chicken products coming from China will only have country of origin labeling for the buyer not for the consumer, the end user. This makes it impossible for consumers to choose supporting local or American made.

I understand, and have been told many times, that I need to think globally. Selling raw chicken to China of course will increase chicken production in the U.S. which is destined for export. The next step has China selling that same chicken back to U.S. buyers as a cooked product. I, by no stretch of the imagination, am a wheeler dealer of global trade however the only benefit I see in this global scheme is corporations increasing imports and exports. I see no trickling down effect of profits!

Many predict the approval of cooked chicken products from China as being a precursor to allowing raw chicken from China into the U.S. and that will have me wondering why we would buy chicken from China when we produce more than enough in our own country. Interested consumers will need to ask, which country did this chicken come from?

Increased trade is a good thing, so I’m told!

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