21 October, 2015

Capitalism still sucks. News at 11.

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant the other day about an article on veteran farmers. The two farmers featured in the piece were both officers, and that’s no mistake. The vast majority of programs that provide grants and low/no interest loans to help out veteran farmers are for people who already own land. Land takes money, and officers are in a much better position to be able to get a loan or lay out the cash for enough land to farm than enlisted people. This means that huge numbers of veterans who want to farm are unable to access programs simply because they don’t have the land to get started. Encroaching urbanization in many areas is driving up the price of an acre of fertile land to put farms out of reach of a generation of folks who would love nothing better than to be part of our nation’s agricultural web.

The division between enlisted and officers starts early. While someone who has just joined the military as an enlisted person might get one class on financial management skills and avoiding predatory lenders, a new officer is offered a low-interest car loan. It’s all very well and good to tell young enlisted people to stay away from shitty lenders, but they aren’t offered guaranteed access to good lenders, while a million exploitative used car lots and payday lenders spring up at the gates of every base. Financial management is a learned skill, and as enlisted folks are increasingly drawn from impoverished communities they haven’t had a chance to learn those skills and the military doesn’t help. Between low pay that qualifies some families for food stamps and the lack of financial literacy classes, some enlisted people come out of the military with credit worse than if they’d never gone in.

Homelessness and unemployment are also perennial problems among the veteran population, largely among former enlisted. An officer has a college degree and experience in managing people and systems. But how does someone who spent four years shooting people for a living translate that into skills that the private sector can understand, let alone finds desirable? We lure young people into the military with a promise that they’ll have job skills when they get out and the ability to pursue a college education, but offer them no help in pursuing either one of these things. If you can’t navigate the bureaucracy of your local college or university’s admissions office and office of veterans services, you’re going to be shit out of luck.

Offering enlisted folks a chance to buy a farm, whether through loans or grants, plus mentorship and guidance to get them established, would offer so much to both veterans and to the country. Our nation’s farmers are aging and family farms are increasingly being replaced by large corporate endeavors. It is not in the country’s interest to have a few large multinational corporations take over the agricultural landscape entirely (they already dominate it) and it is not in the country’s interest to waste the talents of veterans. Yet we seem willing to do both, by excluding veterans who can’t come up with the initial capital to buy a $500,000 piece of property.

It’s time to actually put our money where our mouths are as a nation here in the US. We say we want family farms and diverse agriculture, but we reserve subsidies for giant monocropping operations growing corn and soybeans and let talented veteran farmers interested in diverse, sustainable agriculture fall by the wayside. We let farms be sold to developers and build subdivisions where the only thing their fertile topsoils grow are very nice lawns while simultaneously espousing an “eat local” philosophy. Our actions and our words are not compatible, and it’s time to insist that the government back us up with policies designed to support veterans, diverse agriculture, and farms not lawns.

31 August, 2015

The question of regulation

My friend Captain Awkward  pointed me in the direction of this long read on the poisoning of Parkersburg, WV by DuPont last week and ever since reading it, I’ve had government regulation on my mind. There’s a growing push by people like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm and the Weston A Price Foundation to reduce government regulation of foodstuffs in the United States, mostly on the argument that it will make it easier for small farmers to sell consumers things they want to eat, like raw milk. Many people I know are on board with reducing or eliminating government regulation, arguing that people should be able to buy whatever food they want.

The problem, of course, with this is that it would allow people and corporations to sell whatever food they want. Historically, businesses have not been known for adhering to stringent food safety practices unless forced to by government regulation. To say “Well then people should know their farmers” is completely unrealistic in an age when the vast majority of Americans live in cities and simply do not have the time or money to make a pilgrimage to a small farm or farmer’s market to buy the week’s supply of meat, milk, and eggs.

Attempting to place the burden of determining which foods are safe and which foods are not on the consumer is an attempt to return is to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s worth remembering that before federal laws and regulations existed, people regularly died  from or were sickened by contaminated food. A and when I say “contaminated” I don’t mean accidental contamination, I mean practices like soaking rotten meat in borax and red food dye to pass it off as fresh.

Likewise, the big push for the legalization of raw milk erases risks like tuberculosis and listeriosis. Any law that allows me to sell raw milk from my health-tested, happy herd will also allow some others to sell raw milk from animals with zoonotic diseases, processed using equipment of dubious cleanliness. The list of people from whom I would get raw milk is short and select. Raw milk handled properly beginning with the health of the animal giving it is quite safe, but handled without regard for the fact that it’s a really great food for pathogenic bacteria as well as people there’s a very real potential for it to kill someone. The same goes for meat slaughtered at home rather than at USDA-approved processing facilities. History gives us no reason to assume that agribusiness will adhere to safe food handling practices without the threat of government intervention, which is why I cringe every time Joel Salatin talks about something that isn’t agriculture methods.

Much like the anti-vaccination movement, people advocating for the end of food safety regulations seem to have forgotten a long, bloody history and that we only reached this place of safety because the federal government got involved. Industrial ag has spent the last century deliberately attempting to weaken the laws and agencies that place human lives above their profits, and now they’ve found allies in libertarian small farmers who only see their own profits, not the systemic risks of turning over food safety to the likes of DuPont.

We’ve seen over and over again that corporations will kill for one more penny of profit for shareholders. The article I linked at the beginning is a heart-breaking story of communities where people are dying due to a lack of safety regulations. Destroy the USDA and the FDA and versions of that story will be told in every home in America.

21 August, 2015

Sustainability part 5: human labor

Yesterday I talked about sustainability in the micro level and got into money. Today, let’s talk about another micro-level resource that’s seldom considered: human beings.

As many of my readers know, I’m disabled by chronic pain and fatigue. This means I’m more focused than many on ways to conserve human effort, and if I’m brutally honest it’s at the heart of many of my sustainability efforts. For instance, I talked about conserving the genetics of disease- and parasite-resistant livestock. Not only does this mean I need to use fewer medical interventions, it means I’m spared having to wrestle a relatively large, extremely irate ruminant while I attempt to administer those medical interventions. Having free range poultry means no need to shovel out a chicken coop. Using no-till and biointensive growing methods for plant crops not only sustains and improves soil health and conserves water but also means that once a bed is established we never again have to engage in the heavy work of digging it over.

A guinea hen struts past the camera, head cocked.
Most tilling here is done by poultry, who will pick out and eat weed seeds and grubs while they do it.

Still, it’s unavoidable that some heavy labor is involved. Deep bedding the ruminant stall may mean I don’t have to dig it out weekly, but it still needs to be dug out. I’m lucky to have a group of friends who can be bribed with food and are willing to help with farm tasks from mucking out stalls to rounding up sheep and loading them in the car. Communal labor used to be a major part of agriculture, as neighbors gathered to shuck corn, build barns, shear sheep, boil down syrup from sorghum or maple sap, etc etc. Industrialization has indeed conserved human labor, but it’s also undoubtedly isolated farmers. Another sad knock on effect has been to isolate the vast majority of human beings from the sources of their food.

Agriculture must be healthy and sustaining for the human beings it serves. While there’s no going back to pre-industrial agriculture while still feeding everyone in industrialized nations, the choices we’ve made to produce that food have been questionable at times. We’ve reached a point where agriculture at the macro and micro levels can be dangerous to everyone it touches, from farm withers exposed to pesticides to consumers eating fish contaminated by bacteria from manure run off to the Chesapeake Bay with its dead spot fed in part by excess nitrogen run off from surrounding farms.

A crowd of goats and sheep chews their way into a stand of brush.
We certainly don’t need to do any bush hogging here.

Yet calls for more sustainable agriculture practice often fail to resonate, perhaps because they often center livestock. It is very difficult for many people to relate to a chicken, no matter how nasty, brutish, and short that chicken’s life is. Framed with human beings at the center, sustainable agricultural practice becomes more relatable, which in turn may lead to pushes for legislation that supports and subsidizes more ethical practices the way we currently support and subsidize industrial ag.

Meanwhile, down here at the micro level, me and my friends will be shoveling out this goat stall.

1 September, 2013

Genetic Diversity in Dairy Goats

As I mentioned in my last quick update, I’ve made a conscious decision to cross in a meat-type buck this year, hoping to capitalize on his genetics for parasite-resistance and good hooves. I mean, man, you should see Henry’s hooves. He has amazing hooves that require no fooling with, which is a huge improvement over my dairy does.

The problem I find with the dairy goat world is that there are conformation shows. Conformation shows give me hives, because they reward a specific look but don’t reward things like hardiness, dairy production, and good hooves. The show-winning goats tend to come from herds where the breeders are engaging in some very tight line-breeding to lock that winning look in. The problem here is that tight line-breeding is difficult to do well if you aren’t willing to raise the resulting animals and ruthlessly cull the ones who fail to thrive.

Couple this with some weird genetic superstitions in the livestock world (e.g. it’s ok to breed father to daughter but not mother to son, which from a scientific point of view is an utterly meaningless distinction) and you wind up with things like the prevalence of the G6S gene in Nubian goats, and goats who need regular doses of wormer and frequent hoof-trimming to thrive. These things are problems. The fact that goats are difficult to AI has meant that on a broad scale the Popular Sire problem isn’t as bad as it is with, say, show dogs, but regionally you will still run into the same thing as people rush to the local herds that are winning awards and breeding to those bucks. It’s another huge loss of genetic diversity.

I”m not saying, mind you, that show goat people don’t care about their goats. I know for a fact that many of them love their goats as deeply as I love mine, and care for them incredibly well. It’s just a question of long-term goals for your herd, and I am fundamentally lazy. If I can breed up a dairy herd with good (but not necessarily stellar) production, consisting of goats I hardly ever have to worm with hooves I almost never have to trim, I am all over that. If I can take it further and improve feed efficiency so that the goats in my herd can keep up a healthy weight with smaller portions of grain and hay, even better.

So I’m totally fine with not being able to sell the kids from these first generations for premium prices. But I’m also certain that as I improve my herd, I will find other goat people like me, who are less interested in maintaining purity of breed and an extreme type than they are in hardy, efficient goats that are fun to be around because you can spend all your time with them smooching their noses instead of collecting poop for parasite testing or worrying over their feet.

And I do think the dairy goat world needs to take some cues from the meat goat world, where the goal is animals who thrive on an absolute minimum of human intervention. For that to happen, the goats have to be incredibly healthy, hardy, and resilient, and a goat who can handle what the world throws at it physically without stress is going to be a happier goat in general. It doesn’t mean we dairy goat people have to be less involved with our goats, but it does mean that we need to be very thoughtful and careful about our choices.

There’s also an incredible need for education in basic genetics and what they mean. Breeders need to know what a Coefficient of Inbreeding is and what it says about the risks you’re taking when you cross two animals. Instead of selling babies as young as possible to get them out of the way, we need to be keeping them for at least a couple months to see how they grow and how well they thrive. We need to be keeping track of how often our individual goats need worming, and treating parasite resistance as a trait that’s just as important as good conformation. We need to understand what the tools we use to evaluate goat health actually tell us, rather than using them blindly and half-taught.

Without this shift, we’re going to remain locked into an ever-escalating war with parasites, as one dewormer after another becomes useless because the parasites have evolved to resist it. We’re going to be dumping more and more poisons down our goats because we haven’t been making the choices required to ensure that the goats themselves can take care of the parasite load. We’re going to remain locked into a war that requires stronger and stronger antibiotics to fight off bacteria our goats can’t handle themselves. And we’re going to be spending huge amounts of money on grain and hay that are usually not organically grown and thus add to our carbon footprint, when we could be breeding toward goats who thrive on pasture and sequester carbon while they eat.

30 August, 2013

3 June, 2013

The Case Against Purebred Livestock

The more I work with chickens and goats (and dogs for that matter), the more convinced I am that the designation “purebred” for animals is not only useless but harmful, and that livestock shows, in which animals are judged for conformation rather than production, are a poison to agriculture.

There’s certainly a case to be made in favor of purebreds, in that they can be very predictable in terms of appearance, behavior, and important measures like feed conversion (the amount of food an animal needs to produce milk, eggs, meat, wool, or some combination thereof). But the downside is that limiting the gene pool artificially is actively harmful to populations.

In goats, we’re starting to see a problem in Nubians because of the G6S mutation, a recessive that can cause a goat to fail to thrive and then drop dead suddenly at quite a young age. Scientists estimate that 25% of the population of Nubians has it, and so far not nearly enough breeders are testing for G6S status on their Nuban herds, which means it can pop up unexpectedly. For the small breeder for whom each animal is a friend and pet as well as milk producer, the emotional impact can be terrible. For commercial dairies, it can represent a serious loss of income to have doelings start dropping dead.

Among chickens, you see formerly productive breeds that are no just feathery lawn ornaments. The Buckeye, for instance, was bred to be a thrifty, hardy free-range bird that required minimal human input to put meat and eggs on the table. Extensive breeding has made it a bird that is more comfortable sitting in coops eating pellets from a feeder rather than a wily hunter of bugs and seeds. When I went looking for a free-range Buckeye flock to try and bring some actually useful Buckeye genetics in, I couldn’t find a single one within range of me, and there were perishing few nationwide.

The popularization of the incubator, brooders, and wide availability of pelleted feed, along with the growing crop of people who just want a couple hens for the back yard, means that the chickens our great-great-grandparents knew are hard to find. Incubators allow every single egg to hatch, even those that produce weak chicks who need coddling in a brooder. Likewise the coddling in a brooder allows chicks to live that don’t have the physiology to handle local weather conditions, diseases, and parasites. These chicks grow up to be the chickens who need constant deworming, climate-controlled coops, and other interventions to survive. Which is all very good and well if you want a couple hens for your backyards, but when you want meat and eggs for your table that sort of chicken is not terribly useful.

Meanwhile, people like to pay premium prices for “purebred”, show-quality chickens, or even just purebred rare chickens. Often these birds are the product of extremely limited gene pools. While some people will assert with a straight face that inbreeding does not affect chickens, they are either lying because they want to sell you poultry or they’re woefully ignorant. Loss of genetic diversity will get you chickens who fail to thrive, drop dead mysteriously and unexpectedly, who have poor feed conversion rates, and who are so damn stupid they won’t even come in out of the rain (nota bene: show quality silkies are NOTORIOUS for this).

Part of the problem, a big part of the problem, is that people are raising livestock for pets these days. Our ancestors avoided the pitfalls of inbreeding by ruthlessly culling any animal who didn’t perform and putting it on the dinner table. Today’s “homesteaders” are often unwilling to cull this hard, and that goes triple for people who are hoping to cash in on the craze for expensive rare breed livestock.

And therein lies the rub. While it’s important to preserve these reservoirs of genetic diversity, it’s equally important that they not be degraded into uselessness by a refusal to cull animals that don’t perform by removing them from the gene pool one way or another. Otherwise we just wind up with more sad fat Buckeye chickens sitting in cages at shows, unable to fulfill the promise of their ancestors.

9 June, 2012

Let’s talk about food, shall we?

It’s appropriate that one of the search strings that lead someone here recently was “lady of the manor food” because, hey, this lady of the Manor loves to talk about food, and think about food, and have conversations about food. Not just food as in “what recipe should I use to consume the excess of milk and eggs in my fridge?” but food as in “Is the US food system actually supplying us with healthy foods and treating its labor fairly?” Also food as in “Is Monsanto actually run by Satan, or did the Prince of Lies deputize someone to manage that horrifying business policy?” Oh, and food as in “Can we adequately fund the USDA, the FDA, and state agencies responsible for food safety please?”

One of my favorite issues is the way agriculture has lied about the safety of local foods. Many states, for instance, have adopted a model law that was drafted in part by the dairy industry that outlaws the sale, barter, or trade of raw milk and raw milk products. Coincidentally the one in Virginia also removes the requirement for dairy farmers to test their animals for brucellosis and tuberculosis. The dairy industry would tell you these tests don’t matter when all milk is being pasteurized. I’d say that it’s unethical not to test for them and remove sick animals, even those who are sub-clinical, from the herd. My goats are all tested for pretty much everything a vet can test a goat for, which means I have no fear of drinking their milk — they can’t give me brucellosis or tuberculosis since they don’t have it to give.

All I have to worry about, then, is food spoilage bacteria like Listeria, but then commercial milk is not necessarily free of these things, either. As we’ve seen from Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in vegetables like spinach, the US food system is far from immune to dangerous incidents of contamination. In my kitchen, boiling and bleach ensure that the instruments that touch my milk stay clean and safe, just like the health testing on my goats ensures that the animals that give the milk are healthy. And yet I can’t offer to sell any of my milk to anyone, which makes me sad because a) I am unemployed and the money would be nice and b) I would like more people to be able to taste what they’re missing from pasteurized, homogenized milk. The fresh milk we get from May and Josie is sweet and creamy and complex and makes store-bought cow milk taste like slightly slimy water.

I could sell eggs, but labeling laws cripple the small farmer who can’t afford USDA accredited facilities. I cannot say my eggs are “fresh” or “cage free”, even though both of these things would be true. It can take a couple months for eggs to work their way from the farm to the grocery store, whereas the longest any of my eggs hang around is a couple weeks, and we consider those dreadfully old and suitable only for dog food. The fact that I cannot advertise my eggs as “cage free” is particularly galling, given that what I mean by “cage free” is “my chickens have a spacious, secure run with nice places to perch and access to a comfy, weathertight house, and get free-range time when I can supervise them to keep predators away” and what the commercial egg industry means is “these chickens live in a huge barn and never get to see the sky, but at least we didn’t stuff them into a space the size of a piece of paper.” Hens in the egg industry are still debeaked, because they’re still kept in conditions so overcrowded that chickens will turn to vicious acts of cannibalism out of stress and boredom.[1]

And now that Monsanto has started moving into the home gardening business, it will be even harder yet for people to avoid Big Ag. People are going to have to be exceedingly careful to make sure that the seeds they get for their own gardens are not genetically modified organisms, if GMO crops are something they want to avoid. I would not be incredibly startled to find that Monsanto plans to make sure the vegetable seeds they sell produce plants that are infertile, so that gardeners and small farmers can no longer save seeds from a crop that has worked particularly well for them.

It is, basically, a frightening and frustrating time to be doing this small farm thing, and most of the frustration is down to the undue influence of industrial agriculture. Industrial ag has a death-grip on the US food supply and intends to keep it, one way or another. As the local food movement grows and people become more aware of the issues surrounding food in the United States, the ag industry is turning more and more toward legislation to ensure that local food is at a disadvantage in the marketplace, if not outright banned. The original dairy law in Virginia, for instance, did not even allow people to consume raw milk from their own animals, meaning that anyone with a couple dairy goats who didn’t have a USDA certified facility for milking and pasteurizing was breaking the law. Luckily the law was amended after protest, so I’m not a fugitive from justice for drinking my own milk.

The best thing we can do together is keep having conversations, and keep an eye on legislation in our particular area. We need to encourage farming practices that protect the land and water, which industrial farming emphatically does not. We need to encourage farming practices that support growing diverse crops that are tailored to the biomes they grow in, to reduce the reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers as well as pesticides and herbicides that strip the environment of the things that keep it healthy, like soil microbes. We need to encourage farming practices that treat animals in the system humanely, and that provide a fair wage and safe working conditions for the people who labor in it.

And when we spot legislation that’s clearly tailored to make sure that industrial agriculture and the few companies that have a monopoly on it can keep behaving in ways that damage the environment and endanger not just the farm workers but everyone who has to breathe the air and drink the water nearby or eat the food that they produce, we need to speak up loudly enough that legislators can hear us. Just a few people on a letter-writing and phone-calling campaign to a politician’s office can have a disproportionate effect in local and state politics, where most of these laws are enacted.

[1] I LOVE CHICKENS, I DO, BUT THEY ARE VICIOUS BASTARDS SOMETIMES. SERIOUSLY.