Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pennsylvania Dept of Ag releases new raw milk guidelines

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture released its new guidelines for the production and sale of raw milk. My home is one of just ten states where it is legal for farmers to sell raw, unpasteurized milk from their cows. Penn State University's Department of Animal Sciences has also released an explanation of the official guidelines.

Highlights of this document for milk producers:
-Raw milk permits begin 1 September and end 31 August, and need to be renewed each year.
-You don't need state-regulated milk bottling equipment on your own farm, if customers bring their own containers.
-Your farm's water supply must be tested. Probably something you should be doing anyway, what with all the Marcellus Shale fracking going on.
-Advertising, delivering, or exchanging raw milk is considered "selling" under the law, and doing any of these things without a permit carries a stiff penalty.
-Your Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture played a big role in making this legislation possible, so thank them!

Highlights for consumers:
-Raw milk sold by Pennsylvania permit holders is randomly tested for several different types of bacteria throughout the year. This gives you more assurance that the milk you buy is safe to drink than many other distribution programs can offer.
-Cows whose raw milk will be sold for human consumption must be tested annually for several different bovine diseases and certified healthy by a veterinarian, a requirement that pasteurized milk producers do not have to meet.
-Pennsylvania raw milk is also tested for pesticide residue, an assurance you can't get from even most organic produce.
-You can check the permit status of a PA raw milk dairy online at any time.

Monday, November 28, 2011

only important things

Away from major cities and the Interstate, winter traveling in Colorado is an adventure waiting to happen. Will that mountain pass be closed due to snow or avalanche? Will it close behind us after we pass through, blocking our route home? Is 4WD enough, or do we need chains? And maybe also a hi-lift jack, a winch, and a fairy godmother?

Well, folks, this family happens to be the proud owner of a 150,000+ mileage Land Rover. And as the narrator in this episode of BBC World proclaims, "Land Rovers only do important things." I can think of few things more important than a poor man's weekend adventure. When we realized that one of the remote getaways featured in this month's Rovers North magazine was less than two hours away from us, we were sold.

Temperatures in the single digits? Wind at hurricane speed? Snow drifts and ice without a single tire track? Land Rovers were meant to go where no one has gone before. Well, at least no one in their right mind, in the last 24 hours.

We made camp near treeline beneath Kite Lake, a few miles east of Breckenridge. The older dog, quite used to winter camping, snuggled down under her thick down dog blanket and fell asleep immediately. The pup, on the other hand, couldn't seem to stop wiggling. "I don't want to be covered up. No, wait, it's freezing, let me in! No, I've changed my mind, I don't have enough room to stretch my legs. Oh, actually, it's cold again..."

Leaving our miniature farmstead for a weekend getaway is a luxury we'll enjoy while we can. We left extra food out for the cat, made the chickens stay cooped up away from predators, and of course the dogs came along. The more animals we add, the more difficult such escapes will be. But never fear, I am planning to tap all of my extended family members for a weekend of farm sitting every now and again. (So if you're reading this, start preparing your list of demands in exchange for this work.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wall Street wants your military pension

The Young Farmers Coalition recently put out a fantastic report about the barriers that keep young people from starting farms, and how these affect America's food future. With the average U.S. farmer around 70 years old, some estimate that a quarter of our nation's food producers will retire in the next ten years. Recruiting new farmers is crucial, yet these young farmers cite lack of capital and poor access to healthcare as their primary struggles in starting new enterprises.

T and I are fortunate enough that we likely won't have to worry too much about either of these things. When I deployed to Iraq a few years ago debt-free, I put my entire tax-free paycheck for a year and a half into savings, a substantial amount that will likely be the down-payment for our farmland. And next year, T will hit 20 years in service and will be able to retire at the ripe old age of 38. We will have access to affordable healthcare through the Tricare for Military Retirees program, which charges a premium of about $500 a year for the entire family. We will have a small but steady monthly income from that pension, which will ensure that we'll have enough capital flow to buy gasoline and salt and coffee while we get our farm into the black. In short, the sacrifices we've made for the Army over all these years will translate into the perfect combination of benefits for starting a farm. We've earned them.

You may already know that in this age of federal deficit, Congress has been considering cutting benefits for military retirees. (I guess the $1,200 a month we will receive after five deployments and two decades away from our families just isn't fair to all of the other taxpayers.) But you may not know that this idea, and other similarly ridiculous ones, is the brainchild of the Defense Business Board -- a closed group of highly paid, Wall-Street bred civilian corporate advisors to the Department of Defense. Today's headline article in Mother Jones magazine, "Inside the Corporate Plan to Occupy the Pentagon," says that "a report from the board argued that paying soldiers and their families for 60 years after 20 years of service was "unsustainable," adding, "The 'Military Retirement' sacred cow is increasingly unaffordable." The board called for scrapping the system in favor of a mandatory 401(k)-style account whose savings could "be invested in higher yielding equities and bonds."

Clearly, this bunch of Wall Street investors are selflessly attempting to save the government money by advising the existing military pension system be scrapped, and instead invested on Wall Street.


As to their argument that paying people for 60 more years after they serve 20 is unsustainable, I first of all disagree with their math. The youngest a person can retire after 20 years of service would be 37, and very few veterans will live to be 97 years old. But more importantly, I think that the all-volunteer force is hopelessly unsustainable without the 20-year pension. Many of our most experienced, senior leaders are soldiers who are only staying in "till I hit my 20." Changing retirement benefits to require 30 years of service -- or, as the DBB recommends, eliminating them all together in favor of a corporate-style 401(k) plan -- would cause many of our most seasoned veteran leaders to decide that sticking it out for five or ten more years just isn't worth it. Even if we instituted the wildly unpopular option of a draft, this wouldn't solve the problem. Recruiting has really never been a problem -- lots of young people in America want to join the military. Giving up four years of your life and possibly a major limb in exchange for an almost-free college education is a big attractor. The problem is retention. It takes a particular type of person to want to stay in an organization which requires extraordinary sacrifices that are simply not comparable to any civilian job, not even police or firefighters. We are already offering bonuses of $35,000 or more to try to entice leaders to stay in after eight or ten years of service.

But hey, I'm a beneficiary of the current system, so what do I know. If T lives to be 97, the total cost to the government for his pension will be about $850,000. When you consider that a single brand-new F-22 Raptor costs $350,000,000, cutting benefits instead is clearly the way to go.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Last spring, we bought eight day-old chicks from our local hardware store. They'd been shipped in from Who Knows Where, and even the store manager wasn't quite sure what breed they were supposed to be. They were listed as "Ameraucanas," which in many places, means that they are mutt chickens whose parentage is unknown. (Ameraucana is a recognized breed, but the standard accepts so many different varieties and colors that the name becomes a catch-all. Sort of like labeling every dog in the pound either a "lab" or a "terrier.") I think we paid $1.49 for each chick.

Now that they're grown and beautiful, I'm beginning to suspect that they may actually be Welsummers. I base this partly on their color and shape, and partly on the fact that the hens lay eggs with brown speckled shells. Our chickens are extremely docile and friendly around people, but also ferocious around mice and small predators. None of the other breed descriptions I've read quite describe our flock as well as the Welsummer does.

Of course, I really have no way of knowing what breed they might be, and couldn't sell their chicks as purebred Welsummer flock-starting stock. But I'll say that our quest to identify their breed has kindled an interest in this heritage variety from the Netherlands that I would probably have otherwise never known.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

death by manure

Photo from
I have to admit, of all the hazards associated with concentrated manure pits found in industrial livestock operations, death was not the first to come to mind. I initially thought this graphic would belongs in the over-cautionary menagerie at Safety Graphic Fun.

Apparently, death by manure is a significant hazard. Farm workers can asphyxiate quickly from breathing in toxic gasses from sealed underground pits, or from drowning in above-ground manure lagoons. What a way to go, eh? Nationwide, about 20 people die every year from breathing in hydrogen sulfide, a gas unique to concentrated manure pits that are not exposed to the air. Two years ago, this gas claimed the lives of an entire Mennonite family, as the father attempted to unclog a manure pit pipe, and after he collapsed, his family members died trying to rescue him.

That snippet of news also made me think of how many people believe that just because something is "Amish made," it is must be high quality and environmentally sustainable. I grew up around Amish communities, and know first-hand that they are not immune to the problems of the modern world -- things like drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and dishonest business practices. I've encountered Amish families who believe that animals are property, something God has given you to take care of but not care about, and for whom this belief translates into treatment of livestock that is much harsher than I would personally find acceptable. There are, of course, many outstanding Amish and Mennonite family farms, but a label identifying the town or religious preference of its maker does not automatically denote wholesomeness.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

growth-promoting implants

Do I even need to explain why this is wrong?

A bulletin from the Penn State Ag Extension recommends "growth-promoting implants," complete with the preceding picture, as an answer to help family cattle farms make more money from their beef. I had to get over my initial sickening just to read their argument in favor of this procedure. It was, of course, purely economic -- implants cost just $2.74 and result in an average difference in feedlot weight gain of 56 lbs! This is an opportunity to earn more than $45 extra on every steer sent to slaughter! The potential impacts on the poor young animal's development, other than increased carcass weight, are not even mentioned. Animal welfare aside, the effect on young people of eating beef from cattle raised with these implants hasn't even been studied, as near as I can tell. Even though a Texas Tech University study found that the implants increase the levels of estrogen in the treated animals, and multiple studies have shown that excess estrogens can cause early sexual development and other problems in growing children -- I'm sure, as industry would like you to believe, that it's perfectly safe. Aren't you convinced?

If you buy beef from the grocery store in the United States, chances are good that you're consuming this stuff, since labeling isn't required. As a matter of fact, the USDA and the FDA are so convinced that it's safe, our government took the EU to the World Trade Organization Dispute Settlement Body to argue that their ban on treated beef imports was an "unfair trade barrier." The EU argued that banning it is a basic question of food safety, and therefore permitted under trade rules. Funny how the same scientific data can be interpreted so differently on opposite sides of the pond.

What boggles my mind about the Ag Extension bulletin is that it's brought up as a solution to chronically low commodity beef prices. Farmers raising beef in Pennsylvania can expect to receive around $1.60/lb for their whole year's effort in a cow/calf operation. But a quick survey of the information available at shows that organic, grass-fed beef is selling direct to Pennsylvania consumers for between $6 and $10/lb. Now, I do realize that this consumer price doesn't take into account the increased cost of fencing, land, hay, and such when you're finishing your own cattle on pasture rather than selling them to a feedlot. But I would certainly think that if you knew you could get almost ten times the price selling grass-fed beef direct to the consumer, you wouldn't be tempted to consider freakish things like implanting hormones beneath the skin of your calves. Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Last night we watched Dirt! The Movie for free on Hulu. The cartoon characters and message of hope made a nice change from the somewhat depressing agricultural documentaries we've been watching lately.

Two snippets I took away from this movie:

"Kids don't play in soil. They play in dirt."
One of the people interviewed in this movie has made his life's work helping kids find greener places to play. He pulls up concrete in playgrounds so they can become dirty, living places -- in other words, the kind of places where kids actually like to hang out. He says that some people were shocked, asking where children would take recess if their play area wasn't encased in a lifeless layer of "clean." (Maybe those neighborhood parents need to take a gander at Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv's book which argues exposure to nature, unstructured play, and dirt is critical to childhood development?) I can't help but recall a neighborhood child who, watching us dig carrots through the fence we shared when we lived in the city, asked, "Why'd you put those carrots in the dirt?" While his innocence regarding the way plants grow was comically forgivable, honestly, I was somewhat impressed that in the age of packaged meals, he still recognized a raw carrot as food. And what's with university professors insisting that you call dirt "soil," as if changing the word somehow makes you sound more intelligent, and feel more distant from that stuff beneath your feet on which all life depends?

"There is no such thing as waste until it's wasted."
The folks interviewed about compost included people in Maine who were making a good living composting fish waste leftover from fishermen. This waste had previously been dumped into the ocean, with no one the wiser, until eventually the EPA decided to tell them they weren't allowed to do that anymore. Without a cheap place to dump their refuse, the fishermen became interested in whether it could be brought onto the shore to be composted and feed plants, "like the Indians used to do." Well, of course! For me, this story made a good illustration of just how much living, decaying stuff goes to waste, every day, all over this country and surely the world. Massive, gi-normous, mind-boggling amounts of stuff. Stuff that should be in the soil, but isn’t. Stuff that shouldn’t be killing the fish in the Gulf of Mexico, but is. Fish guts, lawn clippings, leaf litter, human waste, Smithfield lagoons of pig manure, and of course, millions of tons of artificially created nitrogen dumped indiscriminately across the great plains, all washing down into our drinking water. We have a waste problem, and we have a fertilizer problem, which is insane when Mother Nature has already created a perfectly round system where these things are not problems but complimentary solutions.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

the first hundred years

"Well, my old hound has died of starvation
Him and me ate all the chickens in the pen
Well, I'm getting kinda hungry, but I won't give up yet
I think I still got one old settin' hen

They say the first hundred years are the hardest..."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

heat miles

A few weeks ago, Crunchy Chicken posted the 2011 Freeze Yer Buns Challenge. One of the participants, the North Park Homestead, described "heat miles" as something we should think about with the same devotion we offer to "food miles" in our efforts to locally source what we eat every day.

This year, with any luck, all of our heat will come within a mile and a half of our house.

When our 700 square foot cabin was built at the base of Pike's Peak in 1927, it had no electricity or indoor plumbing, and the woodstove was its only source of heat. Since then, it's been retrofitted with the world's tiniest bathroom, electric lights and water heater, and a small CoZy Heater, which is less of a furnace than a glorified space heater. But unlike many modern houses, this cabin was designed with the stove in mind specifically to be the sole source of warmth. It sits in the center of the house, facing into a large living room, with the doors to the bedrooms nearby. The stove insert sits partially into a wide chimney made of local pink granite rocks, mostly about 10 inches in diameter. Enough of the surface of the stove sticks out into the room for you to heat dinner or boil a teakettle on top, but enough of the stove is nestled back into the rocks to allow them to act as a heat sink. It can take us up to two days of wood burning to get the rocks warm, but once they are, they will radiate heat back into the house for another two or three days.

When we light up the stove on chilly 40°F autumn days, it quickly raises the temperature inside the cabin to 80°. Last winter, our electricity and gas were out for several days during the coldest week of the year. But even while it was -20°F outside, our stove still kept the inside of the house around 60, all by itself. Needless to say, I was sufficiently impressed. It does get chilly at night, but we let the fire die down rather than waking up in shifts to tend it. With two adults and two 60-lb dogs snuggled up under thick blankets, we couldn't much care if it gets down into the 40s while we're sleeping, and the rocks re-radiating the warmth from earlier in the evening keeps our plumbing above freezing. We could turn on the gas heater for back-up if we needed to, but we haven't yet this year, even though we've already had two mountain snowstorms.

I write about our woodstove not just to brag about how awesome it is, but hopefully to inspire some folks reading to think about alternative sources of heat. For us, like many folks who have elderly or very young family members, turning the thermostat back to 60 or 50 degrees isn't really an option. Maybe it's because I've had a prior case of hypothermia, which makes me especially susceptible to the cold. Maybe it's because we, like many soldiers, started developing arthritis in our 20's. Whatever the reason, even when I spend the majority of my days working outside, I can never seem to take off my heavy winter jackets without shivering when the temperature is much below 70°. It encourages me to think that I can keep my home at whatever temperature I want, as long as I'm willing to trek up into the woodlot and cut the renewable resource required to warm it up.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

health of the economy

“In America, when consumers are confident – as evidenced by increased consumer spending and borrowing – the national economy is said to be healthy. As it happens, what’s true for America isn’t true for the farmer. I don’t know how they balance checkbooks in Washington, but every time I increase spending and borrowing around our place, the household economy goes straight to hell.”

-- Peter V. Fossel, Organic Farming: Everything You Need to Know

Saturday, November 5, 2011

this is not my hobby

"Calling people who grow food part-time "hobby farmers" is like calling people in the National Guard "hobby soldiers." Most people would never dare peg the people who might give their lives to protect their country such an aloof term. The stakes are too high. When it comes to creating food, I feel the same way. And while the accountant down the street with the two-acre dairy goat and vegetable operation hasn't quit his day job, he still is providing food for your community. He deserves a higher title than "hobby." He is a farmer, end of story. He may be other things as well, but if he is making cheese and squash, he is learning a skill and providing a product to help keep all of us alive. The soldier might die for us, but the farmer lives for us."

-- Jenna Woginrich, "This Is Not My Hobby"

Truer words. Here's to being both.

Friday, November 4, 2011

since when does bigger mean better?

For the second part of my discussion on what "organic" means and why I support it, I'd like to address the myth that bigger is better. One of the most tired arguments against organic agriculture is that it might be a fine designer food for those wealthy enough to afford it, but it's just not big enough (efficient enough, cheap enough, productive enough, et cetera) to feed the whole world. Multinational agribusiness corporations like Monsanto claim that organic just can't keep up. Of course, they also claim that any method that increases the tons of crop yield per acre is sustainable because it will produce more food from less land, and therefore allow us to free up more land for forests. Or, you know, suburban housing developments and strip malls. Whoever has more money this week.

Monsanto may be the world-wide expert in getting the most corn, soy, and canola from an acre of land. (Although a Kutztown University study showed that yields of organic corn per acre were similar using organic methods, and that the organic yields were actually higher during years with poor rainfall.) But I don't think it's accurate to say that they are better at producing food.

In the United States, thanks to the last fifty or so years of Farm Bill legislation, we have a national system where low-quality corn is heavily subsidized by the federal government. This isn't the type of sweet corn you eat at your summer picnic. Most of this corn is destined to become another product -- ethanol, feed lot cattle, new forms of plastic, and of course, thousands of different types of food additives. Subsidizing corn production hasn't brought us cheaper food at the grocery store. What it has brought us is a new "food science" industry which is dedicated to increasing the proportion of grocery-store packages laden with high-fructose corn syrup and other junk devoid of actual nutrition. We are now seeing a resurgence of rickets, the 19th-century disease where children's bones fail to form properly due to Vitamin D or calcium deficiencies. Where in the past this disease was the scourge of the malnourished, it is now affecting children who are otherwise obese. Shouldn't it be a sign that something is seriously wrong with the way we produce and distribute food when children can be overweight from eating too much food, and still simultaneously suffer from malnutrition?

Globally, we humans are growing several times more grain than everyone on earth could possibly eat. In fact, one study concluded that if all the world's current conventional farmland were converted to organic, we would still produce more than enough tons of food to feed the global population, without bringing any additional land into cultivation. The problem is not, and has never been, that we don't produce enough food for everyone. The problem is that many people are too poor to buy it.

Do you remember the Green Revolution? It promised to bring new methods of cultivation, irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer to poor regions of India and other "third-world" nations. But as India native Vandana Shiva writes eloquently in her book The Violence of the Green Revolution, that promise just didn't hold up to reality. Chemical inputs, like nitrogen artificially synthesized from the air, come in exchange for money. In her words, "It doesn't matter how much bread you can buy for a dollar, if you aren't making any dollars during the day." Thousands of farmers mortgaged their land in order to pay for their first season of input, lured by the promise of increased yield. But at the end of the growing season, the prices they earned for their crops were not enough to pay their loans. (Sound familiar? The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies avoiding debt as one of the most important things a small farm can do to stay in business.) Many people suspect this vicious cycle of poverty and hunger is driving the startling increase in Indian farmer suicides.

By contrast, the aim of organic is to create a closed-loop system, where off-farm inputs are minimal. This means that the fertilizer you use on your crops comes from your own animal manure or vegetation compost. Ideally, it doesn't take money to buy those things -- and in fact, it reduces the money you have to pay to haul that "trash" away and store somewhere in a landfill. As a future farmer in the process of creating a business plan, this lack of initial capital is extremely attractive to me here in my wealthy nation. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development came to a similar conclusion in their 61-page report explaining why organic agriculture has a greater potential for feeding human beings in Africa than conventional methods.

Conventional farming hasn't convinced me it can grow more food. But it has shown that it's sinisterly effective at reducing the number of farmers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

the driveway

Sunshine and snow are two things that rarely ever occur together back home in Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

the basic premise of organic

Are chemicals ever acceptable? Does 'natural' mean 'safe'? Is it even possible to feed the whole world sustainably?

Digress with me a moment to draw a comparison. I teach basic land navigation -- use of a map and compass -- to junior high school kids. There is so much I want to show them, from shortcuts for accurately plotting latitude and longitude, to how to navigate past obstacles like swamps and giant rocks. But increasingly, I find myself coming back to the basics. Many of these kids start out learning, for the first time, that the arrow on a compass points north. That fact is so basic, I sometimes forget to even cover it. But soon, I find myself backtracking -- starting at the beginning. Without comprehension of the most basic concepts, the finer points are mere hubris. Lately, I find myself doing the same thing when it comes to political and ethical arguments for organic farming. I'm defending even basic choices my family makes, like taking the time and effort to sort out the recyclables from the compost.

Here's a basic question:
What is organic?

I'd like to hear your answers, but I'll start with my own. The first thing that comes into my mind when I say "organic" is the absence of chemicals. But that requires us to define chemical. I remember a high school teacher who maintained that every single substance ever known to man should be considered a chemical, to be precise, whether it was synthesized in a laboratory or naturally occurred growing out of the ground. I disagreed with this assertion in 10th grade, and I still do. A chemical, to me, is something that is deliberately synthesized by humans, and doesn't occur naturally. Natural systems have trouble breaking it down, because it's new and bacteria don't recognize it. And because it's new, its long-term effects on human health and the environment really can't possibly be known for many generations, no matter how many studies we conduct or what interest groups fund them.

In my house, we do nearly all of our cleaning with vinegar. We don't have oven cleaner, countertop cleaner, bathroom scum cleaner, or even bleach. We do this for money-saving reasons: From personal experience, the vinegar is just as effective for cleaning up all the things I used to use those other products for, and does it for less than a tenth of the price. We do this for space-saving reasons: I keep a 5-gallon jug, and a small refillable spray bottle, of vinegar in my cupboard and don't need to make space for thirty other types of cleaners. We do this for environmental reasons: vinegar is a naturally occurring substance, made from the fermentation of apples or other fruits. If I spill it outside or flush it down my drain, tiny creatures in my ecosystem know what it is and know how to break it down and recycle it. I'm concerned about the saponification of our watersheds and streams, and so I choose to use fewer chemical soap products. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, we do this to protect our family's health.

Have you ever noticed that household products that we deem safe to use on a daily basis suddenly become off-limits once you are pregnant? Pregnant women are supposed to avoid everything from tuna fish (mercury) to oven cleaner (toxic fumes) to conventionally grown apples (pesticides.) Were I to suggest these substances were inherently dangerous, many people would scoff -- my great-grandmother used those products, and nothing ever happened to her! (You know, except that breast cancer she almost died from.) But tell the same people that they ought to feel comfortable using them while pregnant, and they pause. Hey, maybe a lady carrying a tiny being inside ought to avoid regular apples. You know, just in case. Tiny beings can only handle a tiny concentration of pesticides, and several studies have shown that the human tissue containing the highest concentration of pesticides is breastmilk.

I'm sure there's some debate as to what concentrations of various pesticides, herbicides, and poisons is considered safe. But my conclusion is, if I know it's deadly in any reasonable concentration, why would I voluntarily introduce it into my home? Doesn't my family already face enough stress that is completely outside of my control? Reducing the number of poisons we ingest is one thing that is completely within my control.

Look for a part II of this discussion coming soon. I welcome your comments.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011