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

Posts tagged ‘agriculture’

Advocate or Activist, what’s the difference?

In a recent community meeting, I was asked if I’m an activist or an advocate.  My immediate answer was that I’m an advocate.  Afterwards I pondered my answer because the word activist has always been less than desirable to me.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve often been called an activist and it was a description used to dismiss my work as being “radical”.  I believe the word was used in the context as being an insult and it invoked a picture of being a radical or militant person.

I think that most of us can agree that radical or militant behavior is less than desirable and is dismissed by many, putting the actions down to someone who is fanatical.  Radical or militant is often associated with violence an extreme and undesirable direction to follow.  I certainly don’t condone it and I believe that violence begets violence.

Over the past couple of years, a huge building binge of chicken warehouses by the poultry industry on the Delmarva Peninsula has invoked division within our communities.  This is what my conversation was about when it came down to the question of advocate or activist.  My involvement in the issues, is supporting what the community interest are and their interest was decided by those affected.  This is what defines advocacy or activism.

On the other hand, there are a few activists involved in the issues.  I say activists because involvement came from an already decided campaign coming from somewhere other than the community and represented concerns other than decisions made within the community.  Forcing the will of others than those affected, never works, and is doomed from the beginning.

Representing non-profit organizations, activist have a defined campaign in mind long before they disperse into communities.  I say this because most often funding for campaigns come from private foundations or individuals.  Most of us within the non-profit world who have ever applied for funding know that goals are decided for a specified amount of time and are for specific objectives.  The funds applied for are granted before the issues are defined by communities.

Any who’ve worked on any of the issues surrounding the poultry industry know that there are several factions within the community and most often those different factions don’t agree because they have differing concerns.  Finding the common thread within the community and moving forward with agreed upon concerns are the goals of an advocate and it goes a long way toward developing common allies within the community.  An alliance, if you will!

Attempts to bring together differing factions are sorely hampered by activists because they bring a previously decided campaign to the table which is often different than anything within the individual communities.  This becomes a weapon for industry to use and its representatives can often be heard saying that these activists have a hidden agenda which brings about doubt and further divides communities.

According to the dictionary the following applies –

  • Advocate – one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group
  • Advocacy – the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal
  • Activist – one who campaigns to bring about political or social change
  • Activism – the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change

It’s a fine line between the two words, definition wise.  However, understanding the difference between supporting or promoting (advocate) and a decided campaign (activist) easily defines the difference between the two.  One could say that actions speak louder than words!

Providing assistance to communities in efforts to address its issues within is essential to success.  Telling communities what it’s issues are and how it will address those issues won’t result in positive outcomes.

Eggs and Philosophy

Undercover Video reveals a not so pretty picture

A recent undercover video taken by Direct Action Everywhere and released on the Now This facebook page shows the worst of the worst about hens involved in egg laying.

The video made me sick and I’ve a message for industrial agriculture – “clean up your act”.  The conditions of the hens and the environment they are living in are horrific.  It’s actors such as this that make it hard for those of us who don’t even think about animal husbandry being such as what is revealed in the video.  Animal agriculture is going to have to start standing up and condemning these types of practices and behaviors.  Don’t make excuses, own it, and fix it!

The hard truth and what makes the point of rubber stamping for humane practices an armed weapon for those opposed to animal agriculture is that this particular farm is “Certified Humane”, a project of Humane Farm Animal Care.  According to the organizations website, the program certifies products from farm animals that meet program standards related to practices required in the raising of the animals. Farms and ranches are monitored annually and may use the Certified Humane Raised and Handled® logo. Charges levied are to cover inspections and program costs which include promotional materials which help promote the products of the producers that are Certified Humane®.  Trust me folks, the fees applied aren’t cheap and certification predominately include large numbers of animals produced.

The organization has a “Humane Farm Animal Care Scientific Committee”, presumably who develop the standards that farmers and ranchers must meet for certification.  The Committee has some heavy hitters participating on it and I must wonder, what in the world they were thinking when they lent their names to something that doesn’t even come close to the definition of “humane practices”.

I can’t continue without describing the organization responsible for the undercover video, Direct Action Everywhere, is a network of animal rights activists claiming chapters in 160 cities in over 30 countries.  The organization, developed in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2013.  It operates on the theory of “speciesism”.

Getting Educated about Speciesism

I’m not big on giving out labels or definitive categories so I had to do some research on this one.  The term delves deeply into the realm of philosophy.    According to Wikipedia speciesism is a prejudice similar to racism or sexism, in that the treatment of individuals is predicated on group membership and morally irrelevant physical differences.  Broadly speaking in the world of animal activism it means the exclusion of all nonhuman animals from the rights, freedoms, and protections afforded to humans.  June 5 is considered to be World Day Against Speciesism.  Who knew?

Without delving too deep into the topic of speciesism, it appears to me that it means every living thing is equal and has equal rights, no matter human or non-human.  I’m assuming if you don’t believe in this equality or you behave against the principal theory you are akin to a racist or sexist. I dunno, sounds good!

Of course agenda motivation is the driving force behind the video, why else would it be undercover?  Was it for the purpose of exposing Humane Farm Animal Care and name lending to a rubber stamping of the “Certified Humane” label?  Was it to expose the bad behavior of industrial agriculture?  Or was it a push toward the public to support veganism and animal rights? I think it’s all of the above.

On the other hand, what can be the excuses from industrial agriculture.  Historically industry will repeat all of the things listed above and describe the people taking the video as terrorists. They’ll say that the particular farm and the conditions revealed wasn’t like that when it was audited for humane standards and certification. My question would be, what changed in the farming practices between the standards audit and everyday practices?  Is it business as usual except when the humane farm animal standards audit is conducted?

No matter what your belief about what you eat, what is revealed in the undercover video is just plain wrong.  It doesn’t take a room full of philosophers or theorizers to figure it out.  You decide!

Pondering the Word “Natural”

Natural is the opposite of artificial or synthetic, right?  It’s something that isn’t altered or created by humankind rather something that comes from nature…… I think!

As I’ve often said, folks, it’s all in the words!  Something as simple as the word “natural” is under heavy scrutiny because of slick advertising being used on food labels that confuses consumers as to what the product is.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is seeking public comment asking if it’s appropriate to define the word “natural”, if so, how FDA should define the word “natural”, and to decide how the agency should determine appropriate use of “natural” on food labels.

which way do i go 2I have to stop here for a moment and say, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME”?
FDA doesn’t know if it’s appropriate, how to define the word natural, or determine appropriate use on labels?  Reminds me of a quote from Alice In Wonderland ~~~ “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here”.

Phew…  Sorry folks, I had a moment, sarcasm kicked in!
Moving on…..

How many products in the grocery store shout out a reference in some type or form of the word “natural”? As a consumer, is your purchase influenced by a shout out such as “all natural”?  If you say yes, you aren’t alone in your thinking.  Most consumers are filled with a picture that the product came from a producer who supplied them with something that was raised or grown in its most natural state.

The Gospel according to the FDA website

  “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

FDA shares food labeling oversight with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  USDA is in charge of the use of “natural” on meat and poultry labeling.  According to the Gospel of USDA –

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.  The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”)”.

The ambiguous meaning of “natural” as defined by regulations leaves consumers unprotected and confused.  Is it unreasonable for consumers to depend upon food labeling and have confidence in government agency oversight that ensures a product is actually what it claims?  Using the word “natural” on food labeling only refers to processing of the food not where it came from or how it was grown.  Most consumers do not know this!

A good example to ponder can be found in poultry.  According to USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service

Poultry is not injected with water, but some water is absorbed during cooling in a chill-tank, a large vat of cold, moving water. The chill-tank lowers the temperature of the slaughtered birds and their giblets (hearts, livers, gizzards, etc.). During this water chilling process, turkeys and chickens will absorb some of the water, and this amount must be prominently declared on the label. It is not unusual for poultry to declare 8 to 12% retained water on the label.”

This so called “chill-tank” is referred to by some as the “fecal soup bath” whereby processed chickens are dumped into a large tank or vat to cool down the carcass.  Akin to ground beef derived from many different cows mixed up together for packaging and shipped out for consumption, thousands of chicken carcasses co-mingle in the chill-tank.  The most commonly used type of anti-bacterial/microbial to prevent cross contamination of the co-mingling chickens is chlorine, however there are many other products on the market approved for use.  Chlorine does not exist naturally on our plant, it is made by humankind.

Yet I see many poultry products on the market with the words “natural” or “all natural” in large bold letters on the packaging.  Here is where the pondering comes in.  If chicken carcasses retain 8-12 percent water from processing (not naturally occurring original body water) the end product is altered.  Furthermore, in that chill-tank water that is retained from processing is some type of humanly added anti-bacterial/microbial that is not a natural derivative of our planet.  That would make the end product further altered from its natural state.

I suppose USDA’s ambiguous wording referring to the use of the word “natural” on meat and poultry labels absolves poultry products from not being “natural” under the term of “minimal processing” but for the life of me I can’t figure out how poultry products get around the term of “no artificial ingredients”.

There you have it folks!  In reality the word “natural” on food labeling is worthless and cannot be depended upon to really mean something.  Most of the food you eat is processed in some manner and therefore is no longer really “natural”.

To avoid years of studies, recommendations, and argument, not to mention waste of countless taxpayer dollars, why not just prohibit the use of the words “natural” and “all natural” on all food products or labels.  If the food industry insists on a definition to continue with marketing ploys for food products, wouldn’t it be less wasted time and much less costly to simply look the word up in the dictionary?

My next question would be why do we need two different federal agencies governing food labels?

Fair Farms Maryland Launches

A network of nonprofit organizations, farmers, consumers and businesses launched a campaign earlier this month aiming to reform Maryland’s food system that lacks adequate fairness, transparency, and accountability. I’m happy to say that I participate on the group’s farmer advisory council.

Fair Farms Maryland, convened by Waterkeepers Chesapeake and supported by more than 40 endorsing partners, is working to create awareness about the relationship between our food systems, the environment and public health.

A sub title on the group’s press release says “Fair Farms campaign showcases sustainable farmers who “”farm against the grain””.  I guess it could be said that I’m one of those farmers.  Sending my brain into overdrive is the “farming against the grain” part.

For example, Nick Baily of Grand View Farm in Forest Hill, MD says “we set out to prove that wholesome food can be produced in a way that regenerates the land, respects nature and the needs of the animals and reestablishes a lost visceral connection between consumers and their food”.

I started thinking that the goals of Nick’s farm shouldn’t be considered farming against the grain it should be the norm in farming.  I mean really, shouldn’t we all want to produce wholesome food, regenerate the land that gives to us, respect nature and the needs of our farm animals and have a connection with those who consume our food?

Another example, “Taxpayers heavily subsidize the intensive farming norm, while also paying higher bills for related health care costs and to restore the damage done to our environment” says Bob Gallagher, in Annapolis, MD, a board member of Waterkeepers Chesapeake and co-chairman of the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition.  Bob wrote a guest column “Let’s insist on sustainable food system”, in the Capital Gazette about the Fair Farms campaign.

Bob refers to intensive farming as the norm for food production. Without going into a lengthy explanation suffice it to say that I’m talking about industrialized food production utilizing methods without regard to public and environmental health, lack of respect for the land and animals that sustain us, and where the almighty dollar outweighs the inclination to produce food that sustains farms and communities.

Comparing the two farming methods, which are on opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s hard to reconcile how food production became so jumbled.  It befuddles me when thinking about the notion that food can be, and is, produced with total disregard or care of what is good for people, animals, and the environment.  It also boggles the mind to think that the goals of Grand View Farm aren’t considered as normal!

Taking it one step farther – what about just doing the right thing?  Seriously folks, I’ve seen so much denial, blame shifting, meetings behind closed doors, ambiguity, fear mongering, strong arming, influence peddling, deal making and breaking, and sometimes outright untruths from big ag proponents that nothing surprises me anymore.

I’m sure the first serve from detractors in the volley will be that the Fair Farms campaign is against farmers.  “This campaign is not about environmentalists versus farmers,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Fair Farms is about working together to reform a food system that is out of balance. We shouldn’t be rewarding farm operations that produce cheap food with steep hidden costs to the environment and public health. Instead, we need to find new opportunities to support those agricultural practices that will grow food in healthy ways for generations to come.”

Working together to reform a food system that is out of balance and growing food in healthy ways – sounds like good ideas to me!

If you would like to know more about Fair Farms Maryland   take a peek.  While you are there take the pledge to be a Fair Farms Consumer.  It’s free!

Residents Are Fed Up With CAFO Developments

On the Delmarva Peninsula the chicken industry has a presence that can be seen from major routes that visitor’s travel to visit our beaches. If one were to take a detour down any side road that presence would be highly notable. We are no longer talking about the occasional farm with a few chicken houses we are talking about huge developments of chicken houses. Thusly, what used to be farms are now classified as CAFO’s – concentrated animal feeding operations and called CAFO developments.

In today’s terms, the chicken houses are huge long buildings, 67 feet by 650 feet. That’s 43550 square feet of living space for chickens to be crammed into for six to seven weeks, 5 times per year. At best, the chickens are given three-quarters of a square foot to live on until they are sent to the processing plant. Using the figures above and giving the benefit of the doubt on exact living space per chicken, each building would house 58,000 chickens. Exact figures are hard to pin down. I’ve been told 3 different numbers the highest being 60,000 chickens.

Needless to say, there are a lot of chickens in one building, too many chickens that produce, roughly, 180,000 pounds of manure during the course of one 6-7 week period per house. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that cramming animals into a building with less than a square foot per animal and living on their own excrement for 6-7 weeks is going to brew undesirable and dangerous consequences.

The consequences are many. A constant diet of antibiotics/antimicrobials to counter diseases created by the model of cramming as many chickens into a given area comes to mind. So does ammonia emissions from the huge fans that exhaust bad air out of the buildings. Communication of disease to humans, such as avian influenza, is a scary one. Some have charged animal cruelty, environmental degradation, a huge contributor to the destruction of the Chesapeake Bay, loss of enjoyment of property and worthless property values. The list goes on……

A good example of CAFO development can be seen in Somerset County, MD where 6 residences sit right smack in the middle of 28 chicken houses. The CAFO development came long after the homes however the county never took into consideration the residents who would suffer the consequences. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is located 2 miles from the same CAFO development.

We’ve heard all of the excuses from the county and the state permitting this type of development. These excuses are the same that industry has hidden behind for years. Land zoned agriculture, Right to Farm, and county regulations for setbacks from roads and property lines. Who made up the planning, zoning, and regulations? The county and state with input from industry! Other input, if it was oppositional, went into the wastebasket!

With a burst of chicken house development suddenly occurring in the lower counties on the Delmarva Peninsula and some chicken companies offering incentives to build CAFO’s, residents are raising objections and well they should. What was once acceptable and allowed to run feral is now being resisted by local communities. In both Somerset and Worcester Counties in Maryland, residents affected from CAFO developments have raised objections and concerns to county officials. Well organized with legitimate and sound scientific concerns presented to the Somerset County, MD Planning Commission, residents have asked the county to revise CAFO regulations. Public Health concerns are at the top of the list of reasons for taking a look at permitted CAFO developments.

I’ve sat through some of these meetings and honestly have to say that it was akin to a dog and pony show on the part of the county. Other than a court room, I’ve never heard of a public meeting where the public wasn’t allowed to speak or ask questions. Furthermore, it is inherent that those making the decisions excuse their self from the process when a personal interest or conflict of interest would cloud their decision. Public servants have a duty to put personal gain and beliefs aside.

A moratorium on further building until regulations, considerations, and sound science can be looked at has been asked for and rejected. As the powers that be slowly draw out the process CAFO developments are advancing at a fast and furious pace.

From a moral standpoint and doing the right thing, industry should take into consideration those who are affected by its practices and not pay out cash to CAFO Developers that want to plow over anything and everything that is in their way!

A CAFO Intends To Be Our New Neighbor

After transitioning our farm from industrialized chicken production to an Animal Welfare Approved certified pasture based egg farm 3 years ago, a CAFO now plans to be our neighbor!  We’ve learned from the prospective buyer of the property neighboring us that he has plans to build a chicken CAFO.

It is unfathomable as to why any company would allow their chickens to be put next to a pasture raised farm with chickens on it.  The industry claims that strict bio-security is a mainstay of their operations and necessary to its survival.

Bio-security is the practice of measures taken to prevent the spread of disease on poultry farms.

Looking at the situation from an independent farm, raising hens in a pasture based system one has to question the rights of an individual farm.  What about the right of that farm protecting its chickens from viruses and bacteria’s spread by industrial chicken CAFO’s?

All appearances indicate that the independent farm has no rights and that the highly potential risk created to that farm by the chicken industry is of no concern.

Industrial chickens are vaccinated for many diseases.  Introduction of live viruses into an area where no viruses exist or introducing a bacteria or disease where none exist is a recipe for disaster.  That is basic 101 bio- security for any poultry producer.

In 2008, Johns Hopkins researchers found that poultry trucks driving to processing plants spread harmful bacteria into the environment, exposing other drivers, pedestrians, and rural communities to these bacteria.  Researchers consistently detected drug-resistant bacteria in the air and on surfaces inside vehicles while driving with their windows down behind poultry trucks (Rule et al. 2008).

In our case, a right of way from the county road will be mutually used.  Harmful bacteria will exist in the environment spread from the industry trucks entering and leaving the CAFO.  It’s reasonable to expect that our vehicles will pick up bacteria’s not only harmful to ourselves but also harmful to our disease free hens.  Walking to our mailbox could be harmful to our health!

Drug resistant bacteria spread by industry vehicles will not be the only concern.  County regulations allow for building of chicken houses to be 20 feet from property lines.  These huge buildings can hold up to 60,000 chickens in one house.  Air exchange is accomplished through fans only.  It’s not unreasonable to conclude that the same drug resistant bacteria’s that are found in feathers and dust blowing from trucks will also be exhausted into the air from housing.

Less than ½ mile down the road from the farm is a YMCA.  Joggers and bicyclist use the area for recreational activities and for YMCA sponsored events.  Schools use the sports fields at the YMCA for practices.  Are public and school activities to be discontinued just to accommodate a CAFO that wants to move into the area?

Clearly, the chicken industry has no thought or care of potential risks to human health nor any respect for the neighbor that their CAFO’s want to go next to.

All In A Days Work

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.