Saturday, February 23, 2008

I know why the caged hen squawks

Many people think that buying "organic" is the be all and end of all of all they need to know about purchasing their food. This is not true. It says nothing about how the animals are kept or treated. It is just common sense that if you stuff thousands of hens together you will get disease. Perhaps it is the hens revenge on us for treating them so badly. We should pay attention. It doesn't have to be this way.

Reprinted from the Grist website
The case for sustainable grown food as a healthier and safer alternative to industrial dreck is gaining force. Here's the latest, from Natural Choices UK:

A recent U.K.government survey shows that organic laying hen farms have a significantly lower level of Salmonella. Salmonella is a bacterium that causes one of the commonest forms of food poisoning worldwide. The study showed that 23.4 per cent of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4 per cent in organic flocks and 6.5 per cent in free-range flocks.

U.K. organic standards are run by an NGO called the Soil Association, which creates rules with consumers and smallish farmers in mind, not industrial giants. "The Soil Association insists on higher welfare standards for organic poultry than most other organic certifiers," the group declares in its organic-egg standards. The Association insists that hens be "truly free range," "looked after in small flocks," and have ample access to "fresh grass and air."

Our own USDA organic standards are much more concerned about how giant operations can cash in on the organic craze. So all we get on animal standards is that "All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors" -- a stipulation that has been subject to much, well, chicanery. Michael Pollan found "organic" hens stuffed into pens for his Omnivore's Dilemma research, their "access to outdoors" amounting to an unutilized concrete patch.

And the Cornucopia Foundation has documented that large-scale "organic" dairies for years stuffed cows into confinements and feed them (organic) corn.

As for salmonella and eggs, the issue seems to be about whether the hens are wallowing in their own feces. So if a large portion of U.S. organic layers are doing just that, it seems doubtful that our own supermarket organic eggs can offer the same benefit as those in the U.K. The egg study comes on the heels of a peer-reviewed U.K. study showing that organic milk cuts "the incidence of eczema in infants fed on organic dairy products, and whose mothers also consumed organic dairy products," by 36 percent.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Biggest recall of frozen beef in U.S. history

By now most folks have seen the video on UTube that was released by the Humane Society of the U.S. It shows workers at the Hallmark/Westland Meet Packing Co. kicking cows and using electric prods and forklifts to make them move. People who saw the video say it was sickening. I don't need to look, I know, and this is why i don't buy commercial lot meat.

Whle these acts are violations of a 2003 prohibition on downer cattle from entering the food supply as a precaution against mad-cow disease. The real reason for the recall should be INHUMANE TREATMENT OF ANIMALS.

According to public records, the privately held company was founded in 1985 in what is known as the Chino milkshed. The company has 200 employees and sells beef to institutional vendors such as the USDA's school lunch program and fast-food restaurants, including Southern California icons In-N-Out Burger and Jack in the Box.

Last year, the federal government purchased nearly $39 million of ground beef from Westland/Hallmark at an average price of $1.42 a pound. That represented about 40% of the company's roughly $100 million in annual sales, according to industry sources. There are very few inspectors at the USDA to check out plants. By reducing their budget the government is ensuring that this type of behavior continues so that they can buy cheap beef. Don't support it!!!

The heart of the matter is that meat can only be cheap if you fatten up animals quickly, polluate the water and land, speed up the lines to the degree that workers and animals suffer grave injuries and then you can have your cheap meat. But even then, it comes at as price which most folks are unwilling to think about and that is your long term health in eating this kind of meat.

While two staff members have been charged with animal cruelty all the owners of Hallmark need to be tried. Companies follow the lead of the CEO and the Executive Committee. Do NOT SUPPORT THIS COMPANY instead support the efforts of the Humane Society of America.

The list of products to avoid now and in the future is very long. However look at meat packages for the words WESTLAND MEAT CO or PACKED FOR: KING MEAT CO. Alternatively buy your meat from reputable sources...they do exist.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Immigrant Farmers: Resources and Accessibility

There are over twenty established and developing immigrant farming projects in the U.S. that provide resources to farmers. Many of the organizations work together in such a manner that they are not recreating the wheel but creating total new initiates or improving existing ones. Individual programs or organizations can be found under umbrella organizations listed at the end of this article so be sure to check them out. In this article I focus on the NFDP program.

New Farmer Development Program
The New Farmer Development Program (NFDP) under the City Council on the Environment of New York City has been instrumental in helping farmers from Latin America (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Uruguay) get started. This program was created in 2000 as a partnership between Greenmarket and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s NYC Program and is based in New York City. As such it supports farmers within the city, Hudson Valley, the Catskill Regions, New Jersey and northeastern Pennsylvania. The USDA Risk Management Agency made a large sum of money available to train immigrant farmers in 2000. After the 9/11/2001 attack some people wondered aloud about the security of our major highways as it related to food transportation. If one or two of our major highways in the northeast was put out of commission our access to food would be severely impacted. Thus preserving local farmland and strengthening our regional food security is really important and now with the cost of oil an economic issue too.

La Nueva Siembra (“a New Season”) is the NFDP’s comprehensive spring training course consisting of twelve three-hour classes offered weekly from June through August. The course introduces participants to regional farming conditions, sustainable agricultural practices, local marketing opportunities, land, equipment, and federal and state agricultural support programs for new and socially disadvantaged farmers. In addition to La Nueva Siembra, the NFDP offers workshops each year at local farms where project participants gain hands-on technical experience on topics identified by the farmers themselves.

Over the past five years, NFDP have been able to focus their training curriculum on the topics that are most critical to new immigrant farmers, such as local production schedules and techniques, basic equipment and machinery for new farmers, integrated pest management and organic standards, and direct marketing standards.

When new participants graduate from La Nueva Siembra, training farms in the city and neighboring counties provide an intermediate step as they move toward independent farming. The NFDP also facilitates mentorship’s for project participants with established local farmers. A mentorship provides participants with an opportunity to partner with an experienced local farmer and benefit from their expertise. Once they are ready to start their own farm business, NFDP helps them identify appropriate farmland for lease or sale through their broad partner base, introduce them to local farmers markets, provide access to NFDP participant-managed microcredit funds, and offer intensive technical support.

Funding sources to support this effort come from the USDA Risk Management Agency, the USDA Cooperative State Research, Extension, and Education Service; Heifer International, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, J.M. Kaplan Foundation, Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, and The City of New York

The NFDP has graduated 130 members since its inception and 17 individuals and their families have started their own farming businesses. These farmers come from countries such as Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico. Out of the 130 people that have graduated 30% have gone on to farm in some way on project training sites, established local farms with mentor farmers, or their own independent farms. The remaining 70% have gone on to work with community gardening organizations or have started their own gardens, while others have simply decided that farming or gardening was not the right decision for them.

Once farmers graduate and begin farming they tend to raise traditional ethnic produce in addition to the more usual fruits and vegetables. Mexican specialty crops such as papalo, pipicha, alache, epazote, huazontle, and squash blossoms are particularly popular with farmers and their customers. However, as these products are largely unfamiliar to most customers they won’t buy them in any kind of quantity, and thus farmers tend to only sell these products in neighborhoods with a large Mexican community.

Even though the farmers’ were taught basic book keeping and finance it is felt that very few of them actually keep records. For those that don’t, they learn very quickly through their own experience and the experience of other farmers what sells and what doesn’t. Also, as farmers build a steady and loyal clientele, customers will ask for specific products that they can’t find anywhere else.

For the immigrant farmers’ in this program only about 25% of them manage to make 100%of their income from farming and the rest hold down winter jobs. This is most likely because they have to rent land from other farmers. All the farmers own and operate their own, independent farm business, so they invest their own money, labor, and time into building that business. The NFDP simply provides access to information and resources, and serves as an advocate for the farmer when necessary. Since the inception of the program, one NFDP farmer has been able to purchase his land, and two more are hoping to do so in 2008.

Tello’s Green Farm
Walking around the village looking for somewhere not crowded to eat lunch I came up a Quartino, an organic and vegetarian restaurant on Bleecker Street that had a statement on the window menu that all their egg dishes where made from local eggs. This looked like a very promising sign of a good restaurant so I walked in and indeed I was not disappointed. I asked the waitress where the eggs came from and she said Tello’s green Farm, another plus for the resturant; the staff knew the sources of the produce. After lunch, I procedured to Greenmarket to interview folks for this piece and low and behold there was Tello’s farm stand at the market.

Nestor Tello was part of the first batch of farmers to graduate from the program in 2001. In Columbia he had worked with relatives on farms before he decided to become a veterinarian. Then in 1992 he moved to Brooklyn, NY. In 2000 he had the good fortune to read about the NFDP farming program in a Spanish-language newspaper El Diario and applied.

Nestor and Alejandra started off with 400 hens on land that was several hours away from where they lived in Brooklyn. So each day they had to travel from their home in Brooklyn to the farm where they were trying to get established and juggle full-time jobs. By the second year however, they were able to move to a closer farm site in the Hudson Valley and quit their jobs and take on farming full-time. Nestor rents his land but does have an advantage of a long term agreement with his landlord. In 2002, their chicken coop collapsed under the weight of heavy winter snows and they lost everything. They were devastated after so much hard work and things looked very bleak. However, the NFDP had been working with its participants to create a small loan program for its farmers based on the Heifer “Passing on the Gift” model. The Tellos’ received a “loan” of 2,000 laying hens.

Today they have 4,000 which are raised on 5-acres of land with another two acres reserved for growing vegetables. The hens are raised the way nature intended; on pasture. Every noontime they are let out of their chicken house until dusk and peck around eating grass and whatever else they can find on the ground along with corn. When I met Nestor at the Union Sq. market he told me that, “When I have my hens free, I don’t need to give them extra vitamins, antibiotics or hormones because they already have that support naturally.” Most of Nestor’s flock is Rhode Island Reds with some Araucana which are very popular because of their blue egg shells. He manages his farm with his wife and two Central American workers.

Making the connections
Connections were initially made when Nestor met chefs who were coming to the farmers markets (especially Union Square) to buy produce for their restaurants. He got started with a few chefs this way. Then, as chefs or other restaurant staff members moved to new restaurants or started their own restaurants, he maintained the connection and was able to develop new buyers through his old relationships. .

USDA Risk Management Agency –
USDA Cooperative State Research, Extension, and Education Service; -
Heifer International –
Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation –
J.M. Kaplan Foundation –

Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation,
The City of New York

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Integrated Pest Management

According to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Food and Agriculture, Jay Healy “a great majority of Massachusetts growers are strong proponents and users of IMP.” Since its adoption by our state’s farmers the use of pesticides has decreased by 50% from historic levels. IPM is the process of monitoring crops, the pests, and the weather and spraying only when conditions dictate.

IPM is a combination of four different techniques to prevent pest damage. The first two methods have been used since time immemorial. These techniques are:
- modifying pest habitat
- protecting natural enemies
- monitoring
- pesticides

When farmers rotate their plant crops from field to field so they are not planting the same crops in the same fields each season they are using a method of habitat modification. Keeping pests away from their basic needs of feed, shelter and water is another. This is done by closing doors and keeping window screens in good repair and cleaning up spills and crumbs which all limits their access to food and water.

Protecting natural enemies by using natural predators such as ladybird beetles in greenhouses for protecting the widely used ornamental exotic species of plants known as euonymus. These beetles have a voracious appetite for Euonymus scale, a pest that destroys these plants. Other examples are wasps that reduce silverleaf whiteflies on our favorite Christmas plants: poinsettias, and bacteria-based pesticides.

Monitoring pest populations allows practitioners to avoid unnecessary treatments. Various sticky traps are used on trees by many farmers. Soil sampling is done on a regular basis (weekly or monthly) and plant leaves are checked for disease. When disease reaches a certain level then pesticides come into play.

Chemicals or pesticides are only used when needed and other methods will not work. Under the IPM system the least hazardous pesticide and the lowest effective amount should be used.

Partners with Nature label serves to encourage growers to use IPM and educate consumers about it. While this is a Massachusetts label there are hopes in the future for a national label.

Before you completely rule out food grown using this method, take a minute to consider how much pesticide and chemicals you use on your kitchen counters, in your bathroom, and on your lawn.