Posts Tagged ‘farming’
The response following my review of the “Earthlings” documentary has been so enlightening. There are so many passionate people on this little planet of ours, and also so many realists to play devil’s advocate. As long as there is suffering, there will be debate. But there will also be hope.
Thanks so much to those of you who have brought to light for me the questionable regulations behind organic farming. The Sunday after I watched Earthlings, I spent three hours between three grocery stores — Costco, Publix and Whole Foods — and found that the organic meat offerings were few and far between anyway. The butcher cases are full of antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed meats, but none certified organic that I could see. None of the meats in the Greenwise section of Publix are actually organic, nor are they free of all chemicals. The words classifying these meats are a dance around reality. A warm blanket to help us feel better about what is still likely a poor choice.
What difference would the USDA organic certification make in any case? Doesn’t a free-range chicken still have its beak burnt off to prevent it from pecking its cellmates? How much “free range” do they get? Are the birds still starved to promote molting? And doesn’t a fat and happy organic cow still have to die at some point before it’s carved up and delivered to our plates? What does that process look like?
And then there is the food chain. The natural order of life. Animals eat animals. Man created tools to improve this process. Does that make man more or less violent than the mother lioness who takes down a gazelle with her teeth to feed her cubs? Or even the geckos who tongue-lashes the moths that buzz around our porch lights?
It is in our nature to hunt. To gather. To thrive. But it is also in our nature to know better.
For me, the jury is still out.
I am not the kind of girl who goes vegetarian every time she hears a PETA horror story. I’ve always known where meat, leather and fur comes from, and I’ve still consumed, even craved, all of the above. I’ve read about slaughterhouses, animal testing and tanneries but — color me insensitive — none of it was enough to change my way of life.
Released in 2005 by writer/producer/director Shaun Monson and narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, this award-winning documentary film explores the concept of speciesism as it relates to racism and sexism, comparing the mass murder of animals to the Holocaust.
“Here we go again,” I thought, settling in for another vegan sob story about veal and foie gras. Yes, I know, chinchillas have feelings too – blah blah blah.
Then, in short clips illustrating the validity, frequency and severity of these claims, carnage filled the screen. Real-life and in high definition. Death. Ninety minutes of merciless, filthy, reprehensible, gut-wrenching death. Dogs, cats, cows, pigs, dolphins, whales, monkeys, tigers, foxes, elephants. All those big brown eyes screaming where their voices could not.
Shot over six years from animal shelters, factory farms, slaughterhouses, the leather and fur trades, sporting events, circuses and research labs, “Earthlings” is the reality animal equivalent to the worst bone-saw thriller movie ever made.
I know a few people who haven’t been able to make it past the first 10 minutes of this film, crying uncle when little piglets have their teeth cut, their ears clipped and their tails docked with the same pair of rusty bolt cutters and no anesthesia (this keeps them from chewing on each other in extremely confined spaces). Wincing while the Turkish handle their stray dog population by tossing street muts into the trash compactor. Holding their breath as cows who were supposed to be “humanely” executed by a quick bolt to the brain (but who has time to aim properly and make sure they’re really dead?) twist and contort, dangling inverted from one leg as they head to the slice-and-dice department to become ground chuck, ribeye and tender filet — all while fully conscious and writhing in pain.
Even workers at so-called kosher facilites, which are supposed to treat cows with the utmost sanctity and respect while processing, ignore all protocol, slitting throats and ripping out trachea while the living, breathing cow aspirates to death on its own blood. All in a day’s work! Can’t cut down on productivity, after all…
When I began my foray into eco-friendly living, I wondered whether it was OK to fudge on the whole organic meat thing from time to time, particularly on routine purchases like chicken, because who in this economy has room to double their grocery budget? The answer is no. If you don’t have the balls to burn that chicken’s beak off yourself and shove it into a place where it will likely go insane and start eating the other chickens, then no. If you aren’t bored enough beat a sow to death with a cinderblock for fun on the farm, then no. If you aren’t into slitting a bull’s neck and watching it choke on its own blood until it dies, in plain view of all the other cows, then no. Big-box meat of any kind is no longer an option. It is cheap for a reason — because a knife to the throat is cheap, too.
And if you think I’ve become a whiny vegan preacher, let’s see if you can make it through this film without wanting to slit the throats of a few farmers, fishermen or dog catchers. If you can watch the whole thing without thinking differently about the agony that permeates that fast-food burger, I’m not sure I want to know you.
Look around, and you may find alternatives to supermarkets: A small farm, maybe plowed by a neighbor, that will provide you with palate-pleasing, farm-to-kitchen fresh food that will change how you perceive, and taste, your dinner.
Internet-savvy, the new small farmers are enterprising and innovative. They are building new partnerships — among themselves, with farmers’ markets, restaurants or directly with consumers.
So, just as they seemed lost in history, small farms are bouncing back and, experts say, “re-invigorating” America’s local food system — slowly but surely. Bolstered by growing consumer awareness, these farms are putting a wide range of field-fresh produce, fish and cheese back on dining tables.
“It’s happening one person at a time,” said John Ikerd, author of Sustainable Capitalism and former professor at the University of Missouri. “In 2050, this will be seen as a historic time that witnessed historic processes.”
The emerging small farm industry became clear in the 2007 U.S. agriculture census. While farming in the past decade witnessed a concentration of large and corporate farms as traditional mid-sized farms bowed out, micro-farms, generally growers less than 20 acres, also emerged.
Between 2002 and 2007, the agriculture census shows, 291,329 new farms opened in the United States. Most of them were small farms in size and value.
Florida is no exception, the 2007 data indicated. Overall, 93 percent of the state’s 47,000-plus farms are categorized as “small farms,” defined by the USDA as having annual gross revenue of $250,000 or below.
However, more than half of the total farms in the state are actually very, very small in size, with annual sales value of less than $5,000. “Two-thirds are hobby farms,” said Bob Hochmuth, Small Farmers Coordinator at the UF-IFAS. But one-third of new small farmers, he said, are in with a long-term commitment.
At a small farms summit in Kissimmee early this month, the profile of the Florida small farmer surfaced. A good percentage of those in attendance were women, Hispanic and black.
Who are these farmers among us? A few intros:
A link to the past and future
Sixty-seven years. That’s how long Lantana’s Henry Williams has been a farmer.
“It’s just something,” said Williams, 78, clad in his signature blue-jean overalls and a cap. “I can’t get away from the farm.”
Every other day, he drives to the two-acre farm he leases, cuts okra, now in season, and brings it home in bushels. “Customers buy it as soon as I cut it.”
Who are his customers? His neighbors. Williams, a preacher on Sundays, has seen it all: Cities grew and consumed farmlands. New technologies forced others out. He stayed put.
“Farming”, he said, “made me a somewhat better person.”
Williams gave up schooling when he was 11 to tend to his 120-acre family farm in Alabama. “It’s not easy to be a black farmer,” he said. “Not easy to get land or credit.”
He moved in 1952 to Delray Beach, where he kept farming while managing a construction business. Fifty-seven years later, he’s still tilling land.
Williams sees the recession as an opportunity. “It will stop farmlands from becoming real estate developments. We’ll be able to produce food.”
Williams, a father of nine, doesn’t heed his wife’s advice to retire.
“I love seeing my plants grow,” he said. “I will farm until God calls me to him.”
The Ph.D. farmer
Nancy Roe, 60, and husband Charlie, 62, work hard to keep their 10-acre farm innovative and enterprising.
Rows of soil beds covered with plastic sheets hold the crops and keep weeds out. Drip irrigation waters the plants, and lowers the utility bill.
In addition to farmers markets and local restaurants, the Roes sell their vegetables to about 400 households that pay upfront to have their produce delivered in boxes. Usually, the household consumers enroll online around August, at the launch of a new season.
The Roes started preparing the farm in late July for the coming season. By doing so, they can provide fresh produce — potatoes, squash, peppers, okra, herbs and a range of vegetables — when other smaller competitors are not.
Drive west in Boynton Beach, and you’ll see a suburban community that sprouted from farmland. If you don’t know the Roes are there, you’d miss them.
Roe first worked the farm in the early 1990s while earning her Ph.D. in horticulture. Today, she typifies a national trend of a rising number of women farm operators, who comprised more than a million of the 3.3 million farm operators, the 2007 agriculture census showed. That’s 30.2 percent, a 19 percent increase from 2002.
“People are far removed from their food supply,” said Nancy. “They should know who grows their food and how it is grown.”
Each represents a different culture and cuisine. One thing binds them: organic farming.
“We also love good food,” chuckled Hani Khouri, an MBA-turned-goat-farmer who is a member of Redland Organics, a collective of organic farmers in Homestead.
They also share a mission: educating people about small farms and non-processed, no-pesticide produce. So, today, the group of eight farms, less than 10 acres each, is leading peers in low-energy organic farming.
From peppers to tomatoes to baby greens to fruits to eggs to goat cheese and ice cream — their product line is diverse and growing.
Trusted customers drop in to buy, and to hide away from the city. Their lush green farms, replete with a variety of trees soaked in the fragrance of flowers and fruits, are always abuzz with the chirping of birds and insects.
“When we began organic farming 10 years ago, we were not considered real farms,” said Margie Pikarsky of the Bee Heaven Farm, who founded the group. Now, more than 20,000 farms in the country, the 2007 agriculture census showed, are certified organic. Buying and sharing fertilizer, for example, through a collective basis saves them money. They can tap diverse markets — from farmers markets to retail and even wholesale. They can sell their produce year-round to consumers, commercial restaurants and regular folks who show up at farmers markets.
“We benefit from networking,” said Gabriele Marewski, a Redland member who is adding mushrooms to her offering, “and by sharing our products.”
They grow over 190 varieties of crops. But Jodi and Darrin Swank don’t use soil to grow what they grow. Instead, a nutrient-rich water solution is pumped 24/7 into a greenhouse filled with plastic trays used to grow greens.
If it sounds like something from a Disney movie, it is — sort of. Darrin, 42, saw a hydroponic farm model when he was 15 during a visit to EPCOT Center in Disney World.
Swank Specialty Produce in Loxahachee is only a half-acre farm, but the Swanks envision expanding their hydroponic effort to 20 acres in the future. As farmland shrinks and demand for locally grown fresh food grows, the technology will be an answer, say the couple, who have been running this farm since 2003.
“You can produce more on less land with hydroponics,” he said. “I plan to have my entire farm under hydroponics one day.”
Hydroponic farm acreage in Florida grew from over 2.8 million square feet in 1991 to well over 4.1 million square feet in 2001, according to IFAS.
Who buys? The Swanks sell to hotels and restaurants through a group of chefs looking for local and fresh food. They also provide their produce to about 25 households who pay upfront and then have the produce delivered year-round.
“I never saw myself doing this,” said Jodi, 44, a former travel consultant. “But now I enjoy farming.
The fish farmer
Andre and Sharon Fletcher took their first steps in farming last year, when their exotic pet fish business tanked with the economy. They quickly found a growing demand for tilapias, a freshwater delicacy that is common on restaurant menus.
Today, Andre, 51, and Sharon, 46, can pretty much educate aspiring fish farmers. One lesson: Don’t overmedicate fish, or they will all die.
“We made mistakes and learned,” said Andre. “It was not a good sight.”
On their two-acre Fancy Koi 2 Homestead fish farm they bought in 2006, the Fletchers are writing a success story. They are adding customers. Revenues are steadily increasing. And they are eyeing new opportunities in seafood.
The first-ever survey of small farms in Florida conducted by IFAS this year found that nearly 60 percent of the 300-plus respondents were first-generation farmers. The Fletchers, though, had few options.
Andre’s construction business has suffered in the recession. Sharon got laid off last year.
Now they tend full-time to the fish farm.
His farm is really a chain of circular tanks, with fresh water piped in. Each tank has tilapias of different sizes. The Fletchers are looking to diversify into farmed shrimp and lobsters, and switch to solar power to run their farm.
“The farm,” they said in unison, “brought us closer.”
On a summer visit back to the farm here where I grew up, I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture. It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all.
More fundamentally, it has no soul.
The family farm traditionally was the most soulful place imaginable, and that was the case with our own farm on the edge of the Willamette Valley. I can’t say we were efficient: for a time we thought about calling ourselves “Wandering Livestock Ranch,” after our Angus cattle escaped in one direction and our Duroc hogs in another.
When coyotes threatened our sheep operation, we spent $300 on a Kuvasz, a breed of guard dog that is said to excel in protecting sheep. Alas, our fancy-pants new sheep dog began her duties by dining on lamb.
It’s always said that if a dog kills one lamb, it will never stop, and so the local rule was that if your dog killed one sheep you had to shoot it. Instead we engaged in a successful cover-up. It worked, for the dog never touched a lamb again and for the rest of her long life fended off coyotes heroically.
That kind of diverse, chaotic family farm is now disappearing, replaced by insipid food assembly lines.
The result is food that also lacks soul — but may contain pathogens. In the last two months, there have been two major recalls of ground beef because of possible contamination with drug-resistant salmonella. When factory farms routinely fill animals with antibiotics, the result is superbugs that resist antibiotics.
Michael Pollan, the food writer, notes that monocultures in the field result in monocultures in our diets. Two-thirds of our calories, he says, now come from just four crops: rice, soy, wheat and corn. Fast-food culture and obesity are linked, he argues, to the transformation from family farms to industrial farming.
In fairness, industrial farming is extraordinarily efficient, and smaller diverse family farms would mean more expensive food. So is this all inevitable? Is my nostalgia like the blacksmith’s grief over Henry Ford’s assembly lines superseding a more primitive technology? Perhaps, but I’m reassured by one of my old high school buddies here in Yamhill, Bob Bansen. He runs a family dairy of 225 Jersey cows so efficiently that it can still compete with giant factory dairies of 20,000 cows.
Bob names all his cows, and can tell them apart in an instant. He can tell you each cow’s quirks and parentage. They are family friends as well as economic assets.
“With these big dairies, a cow means nothing to them,” Bob said. “When I lose a cow, it bothers me. I kick myself.” That might seem like sentimentality, but it’s also good business and preserves his assets.
American agriculture policy and subsidies have favored industrialization and consolidation, but there are signs that the Obama administration Agriculture Department under Secretary Tom Vilsack is becoming more friendly to small producers. I hope that’s right.
One of my childhood memories is of placing a chicken egg in a goose nest when I was about 10 (my young scientist phase). That mother goose was thrilled when her eggs hatched, and maternal love is such that she never seemed to notice that one of her babies was a neckless midget.
As for the chick, she never doubted her goosiness. At night, our chickens would roost high up in the barn, while the geese would sleep on the floor, with their heads tucked under their wings. This chick slept with the goslings, and she tried mightily to stretch her neck under her wing. No doubt she had a permanent crick in her neck.
Then the fateful day came when the mother goose took her brood to the water for the first time. She jumped in, and the goslings leaped in after her. The chick stood on the bank, aghast.
For the next few days, mother and daughter tried to reason it out, each deeply upset by the other’s intransigence. After several days of barnyard trauma, the chick underwent an identity crisis, nature triumphed over nurture, and she redefined herself as a hen.
She moved across the barn to hang out with the chickens. At first she still slept goose-like, and visited her “mother” and fellow goslings each day, but within two months she no longer even acknowledged her stepmother and stepsiblings and behaved just like other chickens.
Recollections like that make me wistful for a healthy rural America composed of diverse family farms, which also offer decent and varied lives for the animals themselves (at least when farm boys aren’t conducting “scientific” experiments). In contrast, a modern industrialized operation is a different world: more than 100,000 hens in cages, their beaks removed, without a rooster, without geese or other animals, spewing out pollution and ending up as so-called food — a calorie factory, without any soul.