Saturday, January 24, 2009

Farmer Workshop - Sustainability Rant

The wife and I attended a Farmer's Workshop on sustainable food held in Dover, New Hampshire. We stayed for three speakers and lunch and the topics where:

  • Organic seeds (and why not to use Conventional Seeds)
  • Raw Milk (Pros and Modern Myths)
  • Heritage Poultry (And Why the World is Going to Hell)

[Subtitles are my own]

I am about as nutty as they come when the topic is sustainable food, but these three speakers (who are all local farmers, by the way) really walk the walk. The overall theme of the day is one I have been picking up subtly from a variety of sources including Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Put simply, our food supply, our food culture, is not sustainable. The average food item in American cuisine travels 1500 miles. Every food calorie requires 15 energy calories (in the form of petroleum, and all ensuing wars) to produce it. This concept was echoed across the three disparate topics.

Organic Seeds
The pharmaceutical companies have patented seeds. They've done insidious things like bred in a "terminator gene" which prevents farmers from harvesting and keeping seeds. That means that the farmer no longer owns his or her food or future. Every year, they must pay for seeds (and conveniently, the pesticide to protect it). 90% of all corn seed in this country in genetically modified. What can one small farmer do?

Buy and collect heirloom seeds. Seeds that produce open-pollenated, self-propagating, fertile crops. Harvest them, dry them, and grow more crops. Stop paying for our future by buying seeds from the Monsantos and DuPonts. Stop buying fertilizers that are derived from petroleum. Take control of our food.

Raw Milk
Most dairy forms keep their cows on at least 80% genetically modified corn (which is NOT a natural part of a ruminant's diet). The average lifespan of a conventional dairy cow is 42 months. 42 months, people. The average lifespan of a "sustainably" maintained dairy cow is 13 years. Do you really want to drink the milk from an animal that is so sick, it's lifespan is cut by over 75%?? Plus, raw milk is regulated by law to contain a lower bacteria count than pasteurized milk. That means you are guaranteed to have less pathogens in raw milk than in conventional milk. By law.

But let's look again at that conventional cow who is fed non-sustainable, genetically modified corn. Her milk is then bundled with 1,000 other cows and shipped, via diesel truck, to a pasteurization facility, where it is super heated to destroy contaminants. The heat also destroys valuable enzymes and vitamins. In fact, more vitamin C is destroyed by pasteurization of dairy in this country than is produced in our entire citrus crop.

Once sterilized, the milk is homogenized which destroys more proteins, all because we don't like the cream to rise to the top, which indicates age. Then a protein powder is re-added to the milk, plus things like vitamin A and D (to make up for the lack of sunshine the confinement cows are getting). Of course, they don't have to label that the milk has powder added because it's a ubiquitous practice in the industry (kinda like dunking poultry carcasses in chlorinated water). Then, the milk is shipped, again via diesel truck, to a packaging facility. Finally it is shipped, more gas and oil please, to your local store.

After ultra-pasteurization, the milk is so "dead" that it does not need to be refrigerated, but they do it anyway because we're trained not to drink "warm" milk. No one will buy milk off a shelf, but it's just as safe as the refrigerated milk using expensive energy to keep it cold. You can't make home cheese from pasteurized milk, which is fine because they want you to buy cheese as well. This living, complete food is dead.

The raw milk we buy comes from 25 cows which, in the summer, graze on 40 acres. They are fed minimal grain and dry hay to offset the rich nature of the grass. They are milked twice a day and the milk runs through sterile lines, is chilled immediately, poured into glass jars and put up for sale from the farm. Zero diesel miles. The majority of the roughage fed to the cows, including hay and haylage, is produced on the farm, without pesticides. They use diesel to run the tractors, but nothing is shipped in and oil is not used for "chemical boosters".

During that part of the presentation, the farmer took his milk and gave everyone a taste test between it and store bought vit D fortified milk. Then he took some warm milk and using only a jar for shaking, made butter in about 10 minutes. Then, he took more cream and made whipped cream in about 3 minutes. He also brought samples of his Quark (European farmer's cheese), raw yogurt, and raw Sauerkraut. This man was a food producing machine, and all used living milk as a base.

Heritage Poultry
Our modern chickens are the product of hybridization that favors cheap and ubiquitous corn. Corn which is the product of cheap and ubiquitous oil. Oil goes away, corn goes away, and those monstrous meat birds which gain a pound a week until they die at 10 weeks from a heart attack (if not harvested first) will cease to exist. They cannot exist on forage and free ranging, which is something the heritage breeds have been bred, oh for millennia, to do. The heritage breeds are slower growing, but they produce for longer. A modern production layer, if kept well fed, will produce 300 eggs a year and then die, burned out, at 18 months from reproductive problems. Her body is just a machine, and longevity is not required. A heritage breed will produce 100 eggs a year but lay consistently for 5 years and live into her teens, on little to no grain, on bugs found in your garden, in your orchard, and on table scraps.

There's 2.5 chickens for every human on this planet and 99% belong to one of 4 breeds. We have a problem. A major biodiversity problem. There are two main milking breeds of cow, and 8 species of plant provide human food (down from about 80,000). In the next 10 years, 50% of the world's rare poultry breeds will go instinct.

Once we get off our petroleum kick, how we eat will have to change because the 12 oz of meat in every meal is just not sustainable. One heritage chicken can feed you for four meals, more if you count stock and dumplings. No more eating of the breast and discarding the rest. We won't be able to afford it.

We won't be able to afford to feed any of our animals corn, nor should we. It's not any better for them than it is for us. Sustainable, pasture raised, bio-dynamic farming, which uses the naturally occurring manures and doesn't require calories from the Middle East is the only way we will be able to afford to feed all these hungry people.

It's a hell of a lot of work. But I know it starts with me.


Andrea said...

Wow. This is an awesome post, Daun. I just had a glass of gross, pasturized milk.... not going to look at it the same ever again.

I want to go to a convention like this. All these facts I didn't know about are so interesting... I want to learn more.

Daun said...

Be careful, the more you know, the more you'll turn into a freak like me. :)

The top two books you should read are:
The Untold Story of Milk
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Both are in the booklist on my blog front page.

None of the speakers today mentioned those books, but they all echoed what must be a common undercurrent about the danger of our food supply. I couldn't believe how consistent the story was, once you really listened.

Funder said...

Farmers who want to use heritage seeds should also get a good sympathetic lawyer on retainer. Dupont etc. will sue your pants off if you don't buy their GM seeds, yet are found to have GM plants on your land. Regardless of whether it's cross pollination, seeds that fell out of the neighbor's tractor onto your land, whatever. It's pretty depressing.

Cows and corn: Cows are ruminants, and the rumen is designed to efficiently digest grass (specifically cellulose). The rumen has a specific balance of bacteria that break down cellulose, etc. If you start feeding grain to a cow, it changes the pH of the rumen and upsets the microbial populations - which allows the cow to digest the grain, but retards its ability to digest grass. Anyway, I don't think it's the GM part of "GM corn" that's the problem; it's the corn diet itself that's so bad for them long term.

Also, I don't wanna hear about how good your milk is! I've been looking for a couple of years now, and I still can't find raw milk closer than 200 miles away. My choices are conventional milk or ultra-pasteurized organic milk. I drink the organic cause it tastes better, but I can only imagine how good real milk tastes. Soooo jealous!

Daun said...

Move to NH and you can be my lawyer. :)

Lest someone thinks you are kidding about the big companies suing farmers, I urge people to read the story of Percy Schmeiser.

Thanks for the info on the cows. I agree that "probably" the GM is not as dangerous as the corn, simply because the corn is so damaging. They did a study on feedlot cows which are fed corn to fatten them for three months before slaughter. A distressing number showed symptoms of liver failure. Yummy! Ah, who cares, right? They're going to be meat for humans anyway! We can feed them newspaper (and we do) and they get fat! Woot!

My point in bringing up the GM corn is that you can't escape it, even if you wanted to do the right thing. It's so omnipresent in animal feed. It's everywhere.

Sorry about the milk thing. Have you looked at Real Milk to see who has it in your state?

Daun said...

While waiting for your books to be delivered... :)

Start your journey here: Weston A. Price Foundation

KT said...

Daun, you are a real inspiration to me. My small garden has been a real challenge and I can't imagine attempting some of your goals. I feel like extending a helping hand but your farming knowledge will probably outdistance my gardening knowleged in a matter or weeks at the rate it appears you're absorbing info. One of my successes has been a strawberry patch that is taking over the world. They are All Star strawberries that I bought from my local conservation commission a number of years ago. I don't know if they have been genetically modified but I presume on some level they have because they are disease resistant. Anyway, if you are interested I would love to donate a bunch of my plants to your efforts and I would be able to deliver and help you plant them as well. I know this is out of the ordinary but there is plenty of time to get to know me befor planting time (katkthms at aol dot com). It's up to you.

sylvia said...

Great post, daun. Growing up, I never understood the adversion to raw's awesome! I was "picked on"
sometimes for the size dairy we had. Back then I took it hard, but now that I'm older I offer a big screw you to some people. Our cows went outside every day, even in winter...were fed silage/haylage, hay and minimal grain. Grain only in the milking parlor. They were BST free....and were around for about 8-10 years...milking 2xday. Most of the farm kids I went to school with had hundreds as oppsed to the 60 + - we had. They never left the freestall barn, and were milked three times a day, and were on BST. My brother used to work on a farm that never ever shut down the parlor. Their cows would produce about 100lbs a day....ours...45-55 lbs. I have a really good friend who is a feed/dairy science guy. Works for a large feed company out of massachusetts. Would LOVE for the two of you to sit down and chat. :D. Sadly, I think most farmers had to go the BST, high producing route to make it. Many are struggling today to stay in the black......

Anonymous said...

My favorite factoid about layer chickens...after they live for 50 weeks, they go to the rendering plant and become protein in chicken feed.

Will we learn nothing from the examples of kuru or BSE? Mad chickens here we come.

wonder if anyone would notice chickens in my city backyard?

Daun said...

I am completely overwhelmed by your generosity. I would love to hear more about your strawberries and your gardening. I have so much to learn! What could be better than spreading food through community support?? I will email you shortly! Thanks again!

Interesting. In the workshop, the dairy farmer said he yielded about 30 lbs per cow and are milked twice a day. He also supplies milk to Organic Valley and Stoneyfield Farm (yogurt). Yay for companies that haven't completely sold out!!

Real food is expensive. It's unfortunate that the "American Way" is to buy from Walmart. Lower prices are not always the answer. I think the farmers that can add value to the food, like provide people with options for guilt free consumption, or making organic cheese out of milk, will continue to command high dollar. How many salmonella outbreaks do we need to get people off of mass-produced, faceless, toxic food???

Check out Backyard Chickens. I can't believe how easy chickens are to keep and how beneficial they are. They truly are the easiest protein to grow, especially if you are only interested in eggs. Four hens can produce two dozen eggs a week!!

sylvia said...

I wanted to add that, eric thinks you have a wonderful attitude about all I just read to him. He's a tough one to impress. ;)

Austen said...

Okay! I know I just commented on another of your posts, but this one really talked to me!

You said that heritage chickens can feed you for four meals? I just had one feed two of us for 3 weeks! Roast it and eat off the carcass with stir frys and rice for a couple of days. Then pull of the remaining meat, make stock, add lentils and lots of veggies and eat soup for two weeks! It's delicious (if you, like me, can eat the same awesome soup every night for eternity).

Daun said...

Welcome! Where are you located? I would love to hear more about your chicken recipes. We just made chicken and dumplings but we used some lamb stock that we saved off a lamb rack. It added a ton of depth to the chicken and dumplings.

I would also love to hear more about your big jumper drafty!! There needs to be more drafty-jumper-sustainable-food people out there!!

Austen said...

Daun! I'm sorry I'm responding so late! I've been buried in getting my freelance Graphic Design business up and running. It's keeping me from doing other things I love.

I would love to share some recipes and ideas with you. Cooking is another passion for me, though my food blog is (like the rest of my life) a little behind in my priorities. I'm updating it this weekend.

Shoot me an email, and we can talk about drafts and food!

Also, here's the link to my old Belgian-jumper mare. She was a beauty, and I miss her.