Saturday, December 17, 2011

blank spots

Man always kills the things he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?

-- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Thursday, December 15, 2011

the price of safety

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither." -- Benjamin Franklin

In his latest book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, Joel Salatin explains that one of the criticisms he receives towards his pastured poultry operation is that it isn't safe for the chickens. Salatin says that allowing chickens to run around free outside, pecking at grass and scratching for bugs, is better for their well-being because allows them to "express their chickenness" -- or, as my dad would say, "do chicken stuff." Some unnamed opponent argued that pastured chickens can't possibly be as happy as factory house chickens, because the latter don't have to feel cold or rain or worry about attack from predators.

We've lost about a third of our chickens this year to predators -- hawks, foxes, and a bear. The hawk came after the chicks when they were still relatively small. Most of the chicks ran under a big rock to hide, but two or three didn't -- and of course, they were the ones who got picked off. (Although one was heroically rescued by the puppy -- a story for another time.) Let me be clear that I didn't mourn the loss of those chicks. Half-grown pullets who are not smart enough to hide under a rock when the hawk comes don't have genetics I really want to pass along in my flock. The chickens lost to the bear, in my opinion, represent inevitable circumstance. There's not a lot you can do, short of locking them up inside a concrete fortress, that will keep your chickens safe from a bear. My dogs went out and chased it off after it had claimed just one grown hen, ripping a giant hole in the side of the coop in the process, which I consider an acceptable level of loss. The fox is more complicated. It came in the early morning, when it was still dark enough that I probably should not have let the chickens out of their coop to wander around anyway. And I shot her. She was a red fox, which is considered an invasive species around here as it's pushing out the native mountain swift fox. That alone could be enough justification to shoot her on sight. But I can't help but feel we're on the edge of her territory, and had I just waited longer to let the chickens out, the conflict might not have happened, and she might have lived another year to have little fox pups somewhere else. I don't regret shooting her, but she does remind me that it's much easier to reduce predator interactions before they happen than to deal with predators that have learned your homestead is a source of easy food.

What I have right now in my backyard are a half-dozen beautiful, alert, predator-savy chickens who come to the kitchen window to beg for table scraps. While I haven't named them, I can tell each apart individually, and sometimes can even tell which egg came from which hen by subtle variations in the coloring. I like to think that nature does a better job of weeding out the least fit than I could ever hope to, biased as I am by things like pretty tail feathers or friendliness to children. I can't imagine the logic that goes through the mind of someone who argues that factory house chickens are more happy, more nutritious, or in any way better for anyone than chickens raised like mine. I really don't even buy the argument that they are "safer," since an electrical outage in a heatwave translates to thousands of dead chickens in just 45 minutes due to the malfunction of their sophisticated house ventilation system.

But happier? More content? More able to express their chickenness?

I worry for a society where people conclude living in a temperature-controlled environment with a thousand of your siblings, not having to worry about pecking and fighting because you've all had half your beak cut off, is somehow ethically superior to running around on grass dealing with all of what nature intended. Isn't that the same logic that brought us such wonderful things as the Patriot Act?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

labor of love

"The family is the best source of labor for the small-scale farm. ... Why? Because farming is hard work, and the rewards at the start are measured more in satisfaction and pride than in large salaries. The farm family will do the work because it is their dream. It is their canvas, and they are painting it the way they've always wanted it to look."

-- Eliot Coleman, The New Organic Grower

Friday, December 9, 2011

Artois the Goat

What's more romantic than winning over your sweetheart by starting the business of your dreams -- illegal raw goats' milk cheese? Artois the Goat takes a hilariously over-dramatized look into the shady underworld of cheese in this indy fiction movie.

Watch the trailer on youtube or the full movie for free on hulu.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Monsanto's Bt corn still producing superbugs

About a week ago, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report expressing concern that Monsanto's genetically modified Bt-corn was causing corn rootworms to develop Bt resistance in at least four states.

Bacillus thuringiensis is not a pesticide -- it is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the soil and attacks corn rootworms and other insects. In healthy living soil, this bacteria should be able to help control populations of insects that damage crops. As the insects develop resistance, the Bt develops toxicity, in a balanced state of continuous evolution. It ought to concern organic growers everywhere that the vast oceans of Bt-corn are creating superbugs that vastly outpace the ability of Bt to keep up. It's akin to creating mice that are resistant to coyotes and housecats.

Monsanto isolated the toxin from the Bt and inserted it into living crops, essentially making the crop itself as deadly to insects as the soil bacteria. Their New Leaf potato was the first crop to be genetically modified with Bt, back in 1995. Since then, Bt has been added to dozens of other crops, including cotton, rice, and corn, the latter of which is heavily subsidized in the US by payments from the USDA. The EPA's report notes in several places that continuous corn planting -- year after year without rotation of even one other crop -- creates the selective pressure necessary to make rootworm resistance most likely. Scientists quoted in the report recommend, at the very least, alternating Bt-corn with non-Bt corn. But this would require farmers to endure sacrifice years, where they can expect most of their corn crop to be destroyed by the superworms already present in their fields, in an effort to pursue the greater good of reducing overall rootworm resistance.

After the initial assumption that the individual farmer struggling to make payments on his combine is probably not at all interested in sacrificing a year's worth of positive cash flow, my first question is this: Where exactly could a midwestern corn farmer find non-GMO seeds in the quantities needed for thousands of acres? Over 80% of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified -- about 11% of the world's total -- and sources for open-pollinated seed continue to be threatened. Monsanto has sued hundreds of small farmers for patent infringement when pollen from their GMO crops drifted into neighboring fields, making some farmers afraid to save their own seed at all.

On the bright side, the Organic Farmers and Growers Association is fighting back. In a lawsuit initiated March 2011, this association is asking a judge to declare that pollen drift, over which farmers have very little control, cannot be considered a source of patent infringement. I hope that one day, we'll see organic farmers suing Monsanto for the damages caused when their seed escapes and contaminates heirloom, open-pollinated varieties.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

all the trimmings

Never saw a more beautiful tree than this douglas fir we cut from our own backyard.