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

Posts tagged ‘pasture raised’

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!

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.

It’s Turkey Time

As some of you know we raised a few Heritage Bronze Turkeys this year mostly to see how they would make out on pasture rather than in confined controlled housing and feeding.

The vast majority of store bought turkey’s come from industrial mega farms which confine and control the living environment and implement a continuous feeding program. The genetically mixed breed of turkey is meant to have a broad breast and to grow rapidly. These turkeys become so large that it’s impossible for them to mate naturally and artificial insemination is the only way that fertile eggs are produced for hatching.

Our newly hatched turkey babies (poults) arrived last June and were about the same size as a baby chick. I knew absolutely nothing about raising turkeys and it was an exciting, but scary, moment when I realized that okay, they are here, now what do I do with them?

If anything the turkeys became an exercise in building family as all of the grandkids had to come and see the new babies. As a matter of fact, our oldest grandson, Noah, was with us on one of his weekly summer visits and the turkeys’ arriving was a big surprise for him. Needless to say, he fell in love with them and most days we had to drag him out of the turkey pen.VOM Turkeys 6192014 008

There is no question that baby animals are cute and cuddly and explaining to the kids that we were raising them for Thanksgiving dinner was hard. Much to my surprise they looked at me and said “I know”. So much for thinking that it was going to be tears and screaming over the turkeys!

At four weeks of age we moved the turkeys into what I called, “the turkey condo”. My husband and son had converted an unused horse stall into a home for the turkeys and they had our horses for company. We installed electric fencing to surround their pasture, not to keep them in, rather to keep foxes out.Turkeys 7182014 008

I found that turkeys are much friendlier than chickens. They love having visitors and will follow wherever anyone would like to take them for a walk. On the other hand they are kind of strange creatures slanting their heads sideways to look at you took some getting used to.

As thanksgiving has drawn nearer and people have found out that we have turkeys, I’ve had numerous requests to buy a fresh turkey for Thanksgiving. I’ve gently turned folks away and hopefully pointed them in directions of where they could buy the same type of turkey as what we have. Selling on farm is not an option for us as State regulations would require us to build something akin to a processing plant.

Slaughter time has come and it’s not something I’ve not looked forward to. And here I thought it would be hard for the kid’s! This brings me to a point of the understanding of where food comes from. 10698459_953630784665250_3111914355740412800_n

Animals raised for food don’t just magically appear at the grocery store although if you ask most school aged children they will tell you that their food comes from the store. I can say that the grandchildren understand that the animals are raised on the farm and they are what people eat.

It comes down to the turkeys are for Thanksgiving dinner. How they were raised and the life that they had is what makes the difference. Having raised industrial chickens for twenty three years it never crossed my mind when the company removed them for slaughter.

When I think about it now relating to the turkeys I think that Thanksgiving dinner is appropriate to say that I will give thanks to the turkeys, among other things, for providing a holiday meal for family to share and for sustaining human life. I know that our turkeys were raised and cared for in the best way possible, and for a time they were part of family life. They were raised for a purpose, not just as a thing, and raised in the best animal welfare standards that any turkey can have. They were stunned before slaughter which is the most humane method possible.

Our turkeys will be the centerpiece, not just on the dinner table, but also something that family comes together over and memories are made. No matter where your Thanksgiving turkey comes from this year, take a moment to thank the turkey along with all of your other thanks. Happy Thanksgiving!
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P.S. I’ve had many requests about how to cook a heritage pasture raised turkey. I’m in no way an expert on this subject as this will be another first for me. I’ve done some reading on the subject and I got some advice from my youngest daughter, Natalie, who cooks one every year. She soaks her turkey in a brine for 24 hours before cooking.

What I can tell you is that heritage pasture raised turkeys are not self-basting so make sure you use oil or butter along with your chosen spices and herbs and generously rub onto the breast between the meat and skin before cooking.

Here are a few ideas:
Local Harvest – http://www.localharvest.org/features/cooking-turkeys.jsp

Pintrest has several recipes – http://www.pinterest.com/bighornranc1222/pastured-chicken-recipes/

Martha Stewart – http://www.marthastewart.com/347005/roasted-heritage-turkey

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.

Big Chicken Worming Its Way In To Organics

The big boys, industrial animal production that is, have slowly been worming their way into organics.  I’ve often called it the bastardization of organics which is no criticism of true organic producers only those who want to take over organics and make it just like the mainstream industrial food system they already control.

The latest comes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).   A 60 day comment period on the Final Rule, Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) in Shell Eggs during Production, Storage, and Transportation (Layers with Outdoors Access).  What to comment on is a draft guidance document to clarify how egg producers can comply with the original rule”.  The document that I printed out from the FDA website was a questions and answers type deal and interestingly enough it starts out – Draft Guidance for Industry!

While the Final Rule for prevention of SE in shell Eggs (the Egg Rule) became effective in September 2009 we now have to have more comments allowed to regulations that went into effect 4 years ago.  Talk about waste of taxpayer dollars, this might be a good place to cut spending to balance the budget.

I’ve no heartburn with ensuring food safety or preventing SE, it’s a must in today’s food system.  As a matter of fact we have testing done on our farm for SE and Whole Foods who we sell our eggs to requires it of all egg producers they purchase from.  What I do have heartburn with is that FDA is taking aim at those who allow real and true outdoor access for their laying hens and more specifically  certified organic which outdoor access is required in the National Organic Standards.

Since 2009, USDA has been allowing certified “organic” industrial sized farms that reportedly confine as many as 100,000 hens in a building to sneak around the organic requirement of outdoor access with screened in porches which allow a small percentage of the confined hen’s outdoor access.  The screened in porches can have flooring of concrete, dirt, or grass.  I can guarantee that there is no grass available for hens to naturally forage on in a screened in porch that provides outdoor access for 100,000 hens however USDA has been seeing it differently, allowing the porches to be claimed as legal structures.  Before you know it this will become the new “free range”!

FDA’s new guidance document includes covered porches as one of the four types of outdoor access systems for organic being used.  This has many of the real organic producers who implement real outdoor access in an uproar.  Decidedly, USDA and FDA have legitimized and paved the way for industrial organic production.  Before long, the National Organic Standards for eggs will be so eroded that the only difference between an industrial and industrial organic egg will be the type of feed fed to the hens.  That my friends will also become debatable as more often than not the organic feed supply will be compromised.

Back to FDA’s food safety “guidance document”!  Recommendations are that SE can be prevented through avoiding contact with wild birds.  Theory is that wild birds are a carrier of SE.  Oh please!  I’ve heard this same old song and dance with avian influenza in recommendations for biosecurity.  It’s an industry line that is supposed to legitimize confinement.  Nothing more and nothing less!

FDA is recommending to organic egg producers noise cannons, temporary confinement, netting to cover outdoor area, or structures with roofs (meaning porches) to avoid contact with wild birds.  I’ve many arguments against this.

First and foremost – Remember the giant egg recall for SE contamination?  The eggs recalled were from industrial farms raising tens-of-thousands confinement hens not from hens outdoors on pasture. What wild birds were flying around in the confinement houses?  Research abounds indicating that the threat from SE contamination comes from large scale industrial operations not from small scale pastured poultry.  It couldn’t be coming from the filthy conditions inside of confinement houses, could it?

Getting down to the nitty gritty, porches or structures with roofs is not outdoor access.  Let’s get real about this. When consumers think of organic certified that picture includes animals freely roaming outdoors on pasture.  FDA’s new guidance document misleads consumers as well as confuses them as to what organic is allowed to be.

Having a noise cannon to play with might be fun!  I wonder if you need a permit to own one and if there is a background check before you can buy one.  Are they expensive?  While you’re blasting away to scare wild birds off your hens will be taking shelter and shaking in their boots.  I imagine you will have some mortality in your flock as your noise cannon scare your hens to death.  I don’t think that using a noise cannon would be in the best interest to the welfare of your hens.

Utilizing “temporary” confinement until the threat of wild birds goes away might become permanent confinement as some wild birds don’t really go away.  Netting to cover the outdoor access area would be an unrealistic approach.  True organic includes maintaining soil health and is accomplished in part through pasture rotation.  It would be way too costly  and impossible for a real organic farmer to cover all pastures with netting.  Maybe that is the aim of the recommendations – make it too costly to allow hens on pasture and they will switch to confinement!

It appears that nothing is sacred anymore.  Ironically but not surprising is that the organic movement was scoffed at by industrial ag not so long ago dubbing it as coming from “left over hippies”.  Now that organic has become a huge market it is something the big boys want into and to take over.  It’s all about money and industrial ag knows that organic is big bucks these days as more consumers question where their food is coming from and how it’s raised.

This is not something new for industrial ag.  Takeover is what they do best.  Going back in history the same scenario can be seen when vertical integration and contract farming was ushered in and independent farmers were ushered out.  History is repeating itself and the deck is being stacked in favor of industrial ag.  Independent farmers had the choice of jumping aboard the train or get out of the business before the train runs you over.  Will the same be said for the future of organics?

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!

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!