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

Posts tagged ‘food’

What Came First – The Chicken or The Egg?

Here on the farm, we are making preparations to expand. Yes, I said EXPAND! The great egg adventure has blossomed into something viable. Imagine that folks – viability on the farm. More Girls for Bird’s Eye View Farm and of course more eggs. Our current supply can’t meet the demand for product.

Back in January, I participated on a farmer panel at the Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (FH CASA) conference and our great egg adventure was used as one of several “case studies”.

Becoming a case study is something that I never considered when we first began. All joking aside, I had my doubts. Jumping into it was a leap of faith. As I told conference attendees we were flying by the seat of our pants in the beginning and in opposition to my colleagues successful case studies presented, I bluntly told folks – “do not follow my model”! Being a Guiana pig means making all of the mistakes and figuring out solutions.

If I had to do it over again I would have…… how many times do we say that in a life time? Exploring marketing and distribution would have been first before putting the Girls on the farm. I would want to know that I had outlets for product and have it figured out how I was going to get product to market – Note to self: Marketing and distribution, figure it out first.

Thinking back, I recall being told several times, don’t worry, the product will sell. That put me in a comfort zone and allowed me to relax and enjoy raising the Girls for 22 weeks. And then the eggs came! Getting the first eggs was a thrill and heartwarming because our grandson and my husband found the first ones. But then, more eggs came, lots of eggs!

Of course there are steps in between collecting eggs and selling eggs to consider such as washing, packaging, and cold storage. Washing and packing is done by hand (machinery is expensive) and a spare refrigerator works if you don’t have too many eggs. As the Girls increased egg laying the necessity for much larger cold storage space was presented. As any farmer knows, utilizing and modifying what you have is imperative for economic reasons – waste not, want not. There are not many of us who can go out and purchase a walk in cooler at the blink of an eye. Lucky for us, my husband ingeniously converted a pump room into a walk in cooler at a relatively low cost.

As the eggs started piling up the task of marketing became necessity! Marketing is a humbling experience for one who has never done it before. Thankfully, being an Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) Certified farm also meant that AWA lent a hand in marketing, free of charge. Who can afford to go out and hire a marketing firm to sell product? Sales began slowly and I had many sleepless nights wracking my brain thinking about markets. There are several ways to sell product. There is a lot of trial and error. Finding the way which best suits the individual takes time, patience, and persistence – lots of it.

Once the market was found, meeting the requirements of a buyer is something that never entered my mind until it was put before me. Researching Federal, State, and Local laws for production, processing, packaging, distribution, and selling is enough to make one’s head spin. Understanding and compliance is not the end of it. Each market or buyer has individual requirements and is something one should be well aware of before entering the market. Insurances, licensing, and permits for individual localities are a must.

Different types of packaging are something to consider such as chef’s preferring bulk (egg flats) in 30 dozen cases or consumer’s preferring half dozen or full dozen cartons packed in 15 dozen cases to suit the buyer and what sells best in the market place.

What size eggs do your customers want? Regardless of what some would have us believe, hens don’t lay uniformly sized or shaped eggs. Depending on the egg laying cycle of the hens decides what you get and how many. What do you do with eggs that don’t meet your customer’s preference?

Distribution – getting the product from farm to market can be a nightmare. Spending a good twelve hour day making deliveries each week was exhausting. Ensuring that product is kept sufficiently cool and as required by law is a must. Taking cost into consideration the question arises, will distribution cost outweigh profit margin expected after production and processing cost?

In my case, the chicken came before the egg! Was it a wise move? Probably not! However, I don’t have regrets over the roller coaster ride it presented! Settling on a market and developing a partnership with our buyer has been a relief to all of the unknowns mentioned above. I feel as if the farm has reached a point of serenity and life has leveled out over the past year. While not becoming complacent with where we are I’m a happy camper! Although eager to move forward I also realize that adding more hens presents new challenges. A new chapter in the great egg adventure!

Hoodwinking Egg Consumers

I received a heads up this morning in my email about an issue of consumers being bamboozled by labeling on egg cartons. A lawsuit was filed in California by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) Suing Bay Area Egg Producers for False “Free-Range” Advertising. Imagine that!

Named in the suit are Judy’s Family Farm Organic Eggs (Judy’s Eggs) and Petaluma Egg Farm for violating California’s consumer protection laws. ALDF assisted by the law firm Fazio/Micheletti, is asking that Judy’s Eggs be prevented from using images implying that its eggs come from hens which are not confined and in an outdoor environment. Packaging contains a written message that states “hens are raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to roam, scratch, and play”. Actually folks, the hens are crammed into sheds with no outdoor access according to ALDF.

I’ve talked about this in earlier posts of The Land of Confusion and I really hate to say “I told you so” but hey, if the shoe fits…….. This issue is not confined to California it’s happening all over the country!

While the class action lawsuit aims to prevent the use of images which dupe consumers into believing the eggs come from “real” free range hens I can hear the arguments from the defense about the use of words.

What exactly does “hens are raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to roam, scratch, and play” mean? Under the ambiguous wording of current allowances for “free range” it could possibly mean that although the hens are confined in large open sheds they aren’t caged therefore they are free to roam, scratch, and play. Open sheds could mean that fresh air is allowed in through windows or curtains however there are no doors or openings for the hens to go outside. In addition, organic standards only require that hens have access to the outdoors.

Those who make our laws, regulations, and standards have allowed for loopholes leading to the bastardization of free range. Ever since the market demand for free range and best animal welfare practices soared, those who are looking only for company profits have infused the market with deception. Furthermore, our government, so far, has let the vagueness in word meanings to continue.

For those of us who practice real free range and implement best animal welfare practices it becomes a frustrating merry-go-round. For all intents and purposes the idea of free range, high animal welfare, and organic wasn’t conceived upon the notion of how can we play with words and pictures to rip off consumers. We work hard to achieve the level of farming that consumers are looking for and personally, what I think is self-satisfactory. Allowances for greed to rare its ugly head and diminish those efforts, is unacceptable. Four words keep surfacing in my head. Morally and ethically versus unfair and deceptive!

Maybe in the next go round of writing laws, regulations, and standards a section should be added specifically stating what the words don’t mean. In other words – free range doesn’t mean that animals only have access to the outdoors or that they have room in a confined building to roam, scratch, and play.

Many Thanks and Some Thoughts

I’ve been overwhelmed this week with many heart felt comments and well wishes for the farm and my work. I have to admit that I’m stunned! All joking aside….. I sat here at my computer in amazement. I had no idea that so many people cared or recognized how horribly messed up our food production system is.

Food INC gave a glimpse into the food system that dominates our country and for my part I can say that I’m only one of thousands of farmers. Many of you have commented on the difference in my appearance or looks from Food INC to now. One commenter described me as looking haggard during my Food INC time and I have to agree. It’s a look and mental condition that I recognize well in the faces of my farmer friends who are stuck in the industrial system.

Taking that a step further…. I know so many who are stuck with no way out. They’ve been beaten down to the point of exhaustion. Many have lost the will to fight a power that is so great that there is no place that can’t be reached through wealth and influence. Facing complete financial ruin for one’s self and family is a powerful tool to ensure silence and compliance. I view myself as being blessed and lucky to have gotten out from under the thumb of corporate agriculture however I haven’t forgotten the many who haven’t. It will take a tidal wave of voices to free farmers from the restraints that bind them.

You are the people who will force change through spending hard earned food dollars in different ways and by electing officials who can’t be reached through wealth and influence. Other than the status quo!……….

The changes here on the farm have been dramatic and in my neck of the woods, the Delmarva Peninsula, our way of raising chickens is almost unheard of. A funny incident that happened a couple of months ago brings this point home – A man and woman were riding bicycles past the farm and I was out with the chickens. I could hear the woman shouting to the man “oh my God those chickens are out of the chicken house, they’re loose” and kept pointing and shouting! I had to holler back to assure her it was okay “they are free range chickens”.

Implementing a whole new way of farming and having the freedom to make all the decisions about how things are done is a refreshing and rewarding experience. Wanting to get out of bed and face the day on the farm is no longer a dreaded thing.

Having said that, I won’t gloss things over and say it’s easy. Along with the refreshing and rewarding – it’s hard work. I’m no longer just a farmer! I’ve learned about selling product; designing packaging and labeling; collecting, washing, and packing eggs according to food safety regulations (and learning the regulations); and coordinating deliveries and being the delivery driver…… the list goes on! These are things that independent farmers have to do.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have had excellent tech assistance through the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program. Having been audited and certified by a third party, AWA, other than knowing that we are raising our girls in the best welfare practices we can, benefits have been assistance in all of the things I mentioned above. Without AWA? I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

For those of you who’ve asked about where our eggs can be purchased. Bird’s Eye View Farm eggs are available at Whole Foods stores in Annapolis, MD , Harbor East and Mount Washington in Baltimore, MD. They are also available at Cowgirl Creamery in Washington DC, Arrowine, Westover Market, and European Foods in Arlington, VA. We don’t sell meat chickens.

Having so many wonderful people, most complete strangers to me, joining me in my great adventure is the best. Somehow, saying “thank you” to all of the kind words, thoughts, support, and wishes, seems lacking. But it’s all that I have….. Thank you!

Land of Confusion – Part III Is It Organic?

The summer has been busy on the farm and has kept me from my favorite pastime – writing! As I’ve been outside working I’ve conjured up all kinds of topics of discussion in our land of confusion called farming. I know, I keep intending to bring the subject of genetics into my next discussion but there are things that keep leading me astray.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Has Organic’ Been Oversized” written by Stephanie Strom on July 7th captured my attention and I’ve been thinking of little else.

What disturbed me the most was the admission by Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director at the Organic Consumers Association saying “I understand that there are very few 100 percent organic businesses left…”. If a consumers association readily admits what has been whispered among us farmers out here trying to the right thing I have to ask myself what’s the point in trying to produce under a label that has been bastardized like the rest of our food system. Is it any wonder that farmers and consumers are confused?

Becoming organic certified is an expensive and time consuming prospect for a farmer. In doing so, farmer’s intention is to produce food for consumers that is free of GMO’s, additives, chemicals, and the list goes on. Traditionally organic has had the implied meaning of food in its purist form.

In 1990 our government set into motion the Organics Food Production Act requiring the U.S Department of Agriculture to develop national standards for organically produced products and to assure consumers that agricultural products sold as organic meet consistent, uniform standards. A National Organic Standards Board was created to make recommendations in the development of organic standards and certification. The 15 member board was to be representative of interested parties: farmer/grower; handler/processor; retailer; consumer/public interest; environmentalist; scientist; and certifying agent. Okay, that sounds easy enough!

At the time organic products were a niche market being produced by farmers labeled as left over hippies and the production and sales didn’t put a dent into the mainstream food market. I distinctly remember in the mid 90’s meeting many of these so called “hippie farmers”. Being part of the industrialized food production world my mindset was not in the same mode as theirs and I wondered why in the world they would create so much more work for their selves on the farm when chemicals could take care of most of the work.

The organic markets began to develop and grow. By 2011 organic products demanded premium prices, consumers had become more aware of where their food was coming from and how it was being produced, and organic food was a $30 billion dollar industry. Consumers wanted better food without all of the junk.

Enter the “big boys” and let the bastardization party begin! Like Mr. Potter in the NY Times article I believe that the “so called organic food” needs to be challenged. I want to know where the protection is for the farmers who are doing all of the right things to be truly organic and where the protection is for the consumer to be totally assured that they are getting the real deal. According to the NY Times story – “Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore.”

Some believe that the organic standards are being watered down; green washed, and corrupted by corporate agribusiness giants who have entered the organic markets and are industrializing it. When I hear comments from the big boys saying that the demand is greater than the supply and that the demand requires the scale that only they can provide I say “look out”! Faux organics are here and confusion abounds.

This past year, I had reason to question organic and its relationship to raising chickens. I became aware of the fact that if I were to put 10,000 chickens into one of my chicken houses, feed certified organic feed, and allow them access to the outdoors, I could have an organic farm. I didn’t need to worry about the land around the chicken houses because no chemicals had been used over the past 3 years and I could easily fence in a “sun porch” for outside allowance and nothing said that the chickens actually had to go out.

In my mind organic was about much more than just what was fed to the chickens. 10,000 chickens crammed into a confinement house conjured up memories of the days of industrial production. What type of product would I be producing from animals living a miserable existence having only a look at the outdoors but never really experiencing it? The waste created from that many chickens would have to go somewhere.

A friend laughed at my irate comments over this and told me to go to the meeting of the National Organics Standards Board and express my thoughts. Then told me “come back and tell me if they heard you or if they even cared”. Something like – let me know how far you get. I knew it would be a waste of time. After reading the NY Times article and Mr. Potter saying he had done exactly as my friend suggested I do and got nothing but being allowed to speak for 3 minutes and then a “thank you”, I realize that this issue is much bigger. Assuring the integrity of organic food won’t come through government process it will only come from consumers knowing their farmer and seeing how their food is produced.

Maryland Becomes First State to Ban Arsenic In Poultry Feed

Proponents and advocates of banning the use of arsenic in poultry feed in Maryland are celebrating a hard won victory. On May 22, 2012, Maryland Governor, Martin O’Malley, signed into law, legislation banning arsenic in poultry feed. The bill goes into effect January 23, 2013. Maryland is the first state in the country to pass such a bill.

The legislation is a hard won victory for Environmental, Public Health, and Food Safety advocates and three long years of work is worth a celebration. Organizations such as Food and Water Watch, a Washington DC based non-profit appear to have their sights set on other states as well.

The use of arsenic in poultry feed has been a practice since the late 1940’s. Its use was intended for killing coccidiosis an intestinal parasite found in chickens. Referred to as “cocci” in the poultry industry the parasite reproduces in the intestinal tract of chickens and interrupts positive feed conversions raising the cost of production. Side benefits discovered by industry were faster weight gain (growth promoter) and added color. Arsenicals became more important for faster growth rather than killing intestinal parasites.

Mostly unknown to the outside world, arsenic is a routine feed additive for industrially produced chickens no matter if cocci is present or not or diagnosed by a veterinarian. Thinking back to my days of industrial chicken production there was a time when the higher ups of the company we contracted with told us we had a cocci problem. This went on for several months until we asked for a visit from the company vet. After having that visit and the company vet telling us we didn’t have a cocci problem feed conversion issues disappeared. Arsenic in the feed delivered by the company didn’t disappear as it continued to arrive in the company feed.

Banning the use of arsenic in poultry feed and specifically mentioning Roxarsone, is a great first step. I worry about this piece of legislation because there are ways around it. Loopholes!

Arsenicals are available in liquid form and can be delivered through the drinking water. Since the Maryland legislation specifies “feed”, industry in its infinite wisdom could use water administration of arsenic.

The legislation also specifies “commercial feed” and one wonders what the definition is for those words. Theoretically, there is no buying or selling of feed within the relationship between a poultry company and the farmers it contracts with. Although feed usage is used in the complicated formula administered by the company to pay farmers at the end of the flock there are no actual cash transactions when the company delivers feed to the farm. Technically, the company owns the feed.

Secondly, feed formulation is a “trade secret” and is proprietary information of the company. How will any government agency have authority to test feed ingredients? Claiming TOP SECRET will be a way out for poultry companies.

I have to applaud Maryland legislators in their efforts. However after the applause dies down, there are issues left in the dust.

I was particularly surprised with concerns listed over the use of arsenic and concerns excluded. The law specifies that it will be “abrogated and of no further force and effect if a specific arsenical additive receives approval by the US Food and Drug Administration if it includes evaluation of human food safety, impact on the environment, safety to animals, effectiveness of drug for its intended use, and chemistry and manufacturing procedures”.

Nowhere is there any mention of the effects on the farmers who are forced to be exposed to arsenic on a daily basis having no choice or say in what the company delivers to the farm. I gave testimony before the Maryland Senate committee hearing asking legislators to pass the bill for the sake of the farmer who has no choice in the matter. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that legislators are informed or had delved into the company/farmer contract relationship or how that system works.

The tangled web of how the poultry industry operates is nearly impossible to figure out unless one has operated within it. I look for future battles over the current law and judiciary proceedings over the loopholes that the Einstein’s within the poultry industry will use.

It Never Ceases to Amaze Me!

Although my next post was to be a continuation of the Land of Confusion this week has been one of those weeks! Un-freaking-believable is a more apt description! Of course I’ve been completely sidetracked from talking about genetics in farming.

One of my repetitive sayings is “it never ceases to amaze me”. This usually accompanies me closing my eyes and shaking my head as if trying to clear it in order to take in the latest assault to my brain. I’ve done this a lot this week. More often than not, it takes me a couple of days to absorb “the latest” and to wrap my mind around it.

I should be of a very jaded mindset in regards to the meat and poultry industries and their relationships with government/politicians in power. I don’t discriminate when it comes to political parties – I call it as I see it.

One of the latest revelations to my brain was the release of emails between Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, and Perdue, mostly through the company’s attorney. Cozy, is a polite description. This really shouldn’t have come as a surprise because in the recesses of my mind, it was something that I already thought and something that many had speculated about.

Through a Freedom of Information request, Food and Water Watch, a Washington, DC based nonprofit organization, emails between O’Malley and a Perdue representative were obtained and released to the public. It’s interesting, informative reading and certainly lends credibility to theories as to why taxpayers in Maryland are picking up the tab for industry and its share of pollution caused by company owned chicken poop! This is one of those “indirect” subsidies that continue to prop up cheap chicken.

On another subject, and leading back to the saga of The Land of Confusion, I’ve had several conversations this week about objections to farmers using the term “pasture raised”. I discussed this in my last post, The Land of Confusion Part II and from what I gather it has ruffled feathers of some who have adulterated the term “free range”.

In my mind and in the minds of many other farmers who are practicing the method of “pasture raised” it’s a term used to inform consumers that animals are REALLY outside on pasture. The animals REALLY do eat grasses, bugs, and worms and are able to forage.

The term “pasture raised” most definitely goes above the term “free range” because some have coined the term “free range” to conjure up a picture in consumer’s mind of animals being out on lush green forage. In reality, those who’ve bastardized free range through the definition of animals only needing to have “access” to the outside created the need for farmers who actually let their animals outside and provide actual pasture, to clearly define their farming methods.

It appears to me that coining of phrases can only be used if it suits the purpose of a select few. Like it or not, this argument is something that USDA is going to have to address. The high jacking of labels for the sheer purpose of greed has been going on in the farming community for quite some time. Closing loopholes through clear definitions of what actually happens on the farm needs to happen in order for farmers who REALLY do what they say they do can be the only ones to claim the phrase or term and consumers can be assured. To further add credence to the need for this to happen can be found from several sources who’ve felt the need to search out and write about this issue. The latest comes from Rodale

It’s perfectly clear where I stand on this issue and I’m sure that we can look forward to a huge and long battle! Of course we will see a lot of wheeling and dealing during this process and the flexing of money, power, and influence.

While there were other assaults to my brain throughout the week I haven’t quite decided what to make of them so discussion will have to wait for other posts. Hopefully, the next post will get back to the subject of genetics and the effects created by them in farming and food.

The Land of Confusion – Part II

Although I started out with explaining the confusion of a visitor to the farm over different farming methods, the saga of The Land of Confusion continues and expands after being bombarded with questions from readers. Before going forward I have to go back to my first post and explain to the many who’ve asked how I decided upon “The Land of Confusion”.

While I was writing the first post about animal confinement, fancy names for hen cages, and thinking about why these names are thought up, the song by Phil Collins (one of my favorites) Land of Confusion kept popping into my head. I have a tendency toward equating situations to music. It’s not something that I consciously do, it just happens. At times, it can be annoying, especially when I’m trying to concentrate.

I left off last time bringing into the conversation the term’s “free range” and “pasture raised” and how things can get really fuzzy. Again, I say it’s all about words and what kind of picture those words conjure up in the consumers mind.

Free range in my mind first conjures up the old song “Home on the Range”. What a lovely thought, right? Animals freely roaming the “range” with lots of lush grass to forage on – is NOT what it’s about. Free range varies greatly from farm to farm. Providing “access to the outdoors” is the key to free range. It could mean that the animals have huge pastures to forage in or it could mean that the animals have a small penned in area on dirt.

According to USDA, the term free range for poultry means that farmers must show that the “poultry has been allowed access to the outdoors”. What USDA doesn’t say is that the farmer must show that poultry actually went outdoors, for how long of a time period, or if grasses are readily available in the outdoor space.

In the beginning of the “free range” movement farmers who practiced this method intended for it to mean that their chickens were foraging outside on grasses and for the most part not confined. These were small scale farmers practicing a farming method which allowed for natural behaviors of chickens to abound. As the term caught on corporate agri-businesses saw opportunity in a market that was appealing to consumers. Legal minds went to work figuring how the phrase “free range” could be coined to suit the needs of industrial sized production and capture market share.

In my travels I’ve seen fenced in dirt lots running the length of an industrial sized chicken house that were considered “free range”. I found this method of farming to be appalling and although there is no legal definition for “free range” in my opinion the term has been adulterated. I don’t believe that this is the picture that consumers have in their minds when thinking about “free range”.

Enter the term “pasture raised”. When farmers saw what was happening to the original intents and purposes of the free range method of farming they saw the need to clarify. Farmers use this term to set their selves apart from “free range” and its meaning is the opposite as well. Chickens that are identified as “pasture raised” are outside on pasture and have access to shelter (indoors). To be more specific the chickens have continuous and unconfined access to pasture throughout their life.

To further complicate matters the “organic” seal of approval relates more to the diet of chickens than to how the chickens are raised. Again, the original intents and purposes of “organic” have become muddled whereby industrial agriculture has inserted itself into organic farming. Today there are several corporate giants that are synonymous with organic. The chickens only need “access” to the outside.

Another confusing type of phrase that is used to grab consumers describing laying hens and how they are raised – “cage free hens provided ample space and allowed to roam freely”. General thought would be that these chickens are not kept in cages and have lots of open space on the farm to roam at will. I’ve seen this type of wording used to define cage free hens raised in confinement buildings and never allowed outside. One might say that this is a misleading statement however there is nothing that says that the hens are outside roaming freely it just says that they are not caged and are allowed space to walk around. What it doesn’t say is that the space and freedom allowed is inside a confinement building or that the chickens aren’t allowed to forage. Technically this isn’t illegal.

As a farmer it’s hard to sift through all of the confusing language to figure out what method is right for the individual farm. Having now lived on both sides of the fence, so to speak, the choice was a no brainer. One could say that our farm took a drastic approach going from one side of the spectrum to the total opposite side of the spectrum.

Having become totally disgusted with industrial mass production of chickens and the methods used to adhere to the demands, from the farmer aspect and the animal aspect, changing to the complete opposite method was an easy transition. Knowing this doesn’t diminish the frustration when trying to explain different methods of farming to consumers and for their part, consumers are similarly frustrated in not having clear and concise language to understand what each claim or type of wording means.

A concise explanation about different claims of how chickens are raised and fed can be found here.
Not All Eggs Are Created Equal

Enter genetics. Most unknown to non-farmers is what type of animal is used for production. Maybe back in the 1920’s and 1930’s people were assured that a chicken was a chicken. What I call the “mix-master age of chickens” is today, a high stakes profit driven formula. For those who don’t know what a “mix-master” is, simply put, it’s a blender.

There’s a game that kids play called “mix em up, match em up” which is akin to the mix-master age of chickens. Genetics is an entirely different subject and we’ll talk about that in my next post about the land of confusion.