Sunday, January 24, 2010

Slaughterhouse Blues

in case you can't make it out, that there's a swastika 

     A couple of months ago my small town made national headlines when the Humane Society released a video showing employees at a local slaughterhouse mistreating sick calves while a USDA inspector watched. Again, this is a small town, and there are a lot of rumblings about what occurred that deserve mentioning. For starters, Ron and Colleen Bushway no longer owned Bushway Packing, although they received a stunning number of death threats after the incident. Previously, the Bushways ran a custom slaughterhouse until they sold the business to Frank Peretta, who used the facility to process animals (from near and far) into ground meat to be shipped to New York - although custom slaughtering for local farms was still available. The individual who shot the video completely infiltrated himself into the lives of the employees, spending his free time with them, drinking their beer, etc... A common quote you'll hear is "it was him who said 'throw some water on him first'" in reference to a clip from the video where a sick calf can't stand after being repeatedly shocked with a cattle prod. An animal who cannot stand cannot be slaughtered.

Grand Isle

I watched the video both cut and uncut , and yes, I found it shocking. However, I suspect that like many other people who saw it, I kind of missed the point. What's shocking to me is everyday life in a slaughterhouse and the amount of desensitizing that someone who kills animals repeatedly must endure. There is no love or kindness shown, no matter what catchwords are printed on the packaging or how appealing the accompanying picture of the farm might look. Slaughterhouses are either clean or they're not. They are either following the rules or they're not. They are never appetizing.

photo by Gillian Klein

The closing of Bushway's means something more to the state of Vermont: we're now down a slaughterhouse, which is problematic. There is a strong "Buy Local" movement here, and many people purchase meat directly from farms, as whole, half, or quarter animals. Likewise, local organic meat is in high demand at our many health food stores, no matter the price. At the NOFA Direct Marketing Conference many farmers shared their concerns about the lack of slaughterhouse choices. Longer waits for processing are becoming more common and satisfaction is hardly guaranteed. A friend who attended the Meat Regulations workshop told me that one farm had been given all of their meat ground, after having specified particular cuts; another farm mentioned that they always factor in this type of loss, as a vegetable farmer would for crop damage. One complexity of this issue is the aspect of timing; everyone wants to slaughter at the same time, and therefore becomes a number to the facility instead of a loyal customer. Farms that are able to spread out their processing schedule over the course of the entire year are experiencing better relationships with slaughterhouses as well as better results.

photo by Gillian Klein

At this point we are still talking about small, local farms selling both organic and conventional meat. The price tag here can be upwards of $18 per pound, all for the notion that you are eating a well cared for animal with exposure to clean water, fresh air, and sometimes green pasture. Often times, especially with ground meat, you are really eating culled dairy cows who may not be put on pasture if it's preferable for the farmer to control their grain based diet. No matter how carefully a farm may raise their animals, they lose all control as soon as they reach the slaughterhouse. So, knowing a farm and respecting their actions does not mean that their animals are killed humanely, which is probably most heart wrenching to the farm itself. Federal and State laws prevent farms from selling meat which has been slaughtered on site  (however, in Vermont there are limited exceptions for poultry.)

Cheap meat is what most of America eats, let's say $2 and $3 per pound for conventional, and $8 or $9 per pound for 'organic', 'natural' or 'hormone free'. All of this meat comes from factory farms located mostly in Nebraska and Colorado and easily makes up the majority of what is available for purchase in stores and restaurants in the US. Factory farms are rightly not farms at all, but rather industrialized feed lots. I have seen them, and again, not appetizing, Animals are crammed in by the thousands, they are routinely medicated with strong doses of antibiotics, and they are fed foods which are incompatible with their genetic make-up. You may have heard the list of concerns before, but here are some facts that you may have missed:

  • cheap meat caused the swine flu , bird flu, and many other viruses we have yet to meet. Any living being without access to sunlight, clean water, and personal space suffers a compromised immune system. Factory farmed pigs live amidst their own feces and are exposed and re-exposed to mutating viruses daily. Clean, well cared for animals who live outdoors have less exposure to viruses and have much stronger immune systems to fend them off. This principle crosses over to gardening - well tended, uncrowded, and weeded tomato plants were able to stave off last season's blight longer than those that were uncared for. Basic science.
  • "there is shit in meat." The now infamous quote from Fast Food Nation, or at least the one that grabbed most people's attention. Factory farmed cattle are constantly covered in feces, and after they are hung and skinned, it is very difficult to keep the feces out of the final product in a crowded kill room. This is how E. coli makes it into ground meat in the first place, but just because there's no E. coli in your meat doesn't mean that your meat doesn't contain shit. And just because you don't eat fast food doesn't mean that the meat you purchase doesn't come from the same feedlot. Our government hot lunch program provides school kids with some of the lowest grade meat available. 
  • veal is not baby cows. I just learned this recently. The culinary term for veal refers to a calf that has been milk fed by its mother for about 12 weeks - it's the milk that makes the meat so tender and gives it a grayish hue. Technically young male calves are called veal in books, but on farms are called 'bull calves" and are culled young (2 days old in our scandalous video) to be put into ground meat. So, not eating veal does not mean that you're not eating baby cows.  
  • what about dairy? Vegetarianism is a common response to the social, political, economical, and environmental impacts that industrial meat production has introduced to the world. While I admire this (wear it loud, wear it proud) it does not solve all of the problems. If you eat any dairy products, rest assured that those animals will be introduced to the slaughterhouse system at some point, as they have to remain productive to be considered financially viable. They are not a byproduct; they exist solely to make milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese for those of us who wish to purchase those products, and when they are done they 'are done'.

dairy cows, Milton
        You may or may not know that at our farmers' market, I sell sandwiches, many of which are all about meat. Last season I sold local organic beef, along with both chicken and salmon from Costco. Truthfully, the vegetarian wraps that I make from our garden are the most creative and inspired (spring pea falafel with candied radishes & creamy curried greens, and patty pan squash fritters with basil cream & sungold tomato relish) but they're not big sellers. People want meat. The most popular booth at our market is a Bosnian restaurant that creates really delicious food, straight off of the Sysco truck into styrofoam boxes with nary a local product involved - and people can't get enough. I have changed my menu this year to represent what local organic meat I can get: beef, lamb, and pork.

    spring pea falafel wrap

    So, what are meat eaters (and sellers) to do? The Vermont Agency of Agriculture could probably set some incentives for the opening of new slaughterhouses. I would like to see some effort given towards changing the law so that local farms can slaughter on site. That being said, the latest supreme court decision ( which has me vomiting on the hour) seems to be saying that all laws have already been bought and sold, especially those that give the advantage to mega-corporations. So, really, what are meat eaters to do?

    Friday, January 15, 2010

    Winter Sowing (tomatoes, too...)

         A friend of mine is an employee at a National Gardening Association demonstration garden and has been telling me about their success with allowing lettuce to bolt. They just choose a few heads, neglect them, and in the spring they have lettuce sprouting up way earlier than if they had planted by hand (seems easy enough, as long as you remember not to weed out the sprouts come spring.) I've actually experienced this in our hoop house by planting for winter too late, and watching those seeds pop up months later. The timing was particularly bad (the lettuce was at maturity for my first market of the season,) but the plants were strong and beautiful.

    May 2009
         Most cold climate seeds are designed to sleep their way through winter,  allowing temperature and moisture to prompt germination in spring. Weeds are thought to have such an advantage in the garden because they've experienced this dormancy naturally. When we start our own seeds, we're often instructed to methodically trick them into reacting as though they've experienced winter, in order to urge their germination. Scarification (nicking a seed coat with a razor prior to sowing) is simply mimicking the cracking that occurs in a seed hull after a season of freezing and thawing. So, why not just sow your seeds outdoors in autumn, and see what happens? Well, you could, but you'd be sure to lose some to wind, birds, and burrowing critters. But we've all seen volunteer squash come up in the compost, right?

         Winter sowing is a method of setting seeds outdoors in lidded containers to allow them to scarify and stratify naturally for spring. Although this method is really helpful for specialized northern plants, success has been experienced with warmer climate plants, as well. I happen to have a lot of wildflower seeds with picky instructions, and I'm also totally interested in experimenting with some tomatoes just to see what can be achieved in the hoop house without heat. This is a big issue where I live (at least to me) because a lot of the tomatoes that we buy over the summer are started really early by heating a green house with oil, propane, or wood - just because the public (myself included) can't wait for tomatoes to be ready in September, only to disappear within a month. I'm curious if winter sown tomatoes grow into stronger and more cold tolerant plants that can withstand some of the temperature swings we have in April and May. If so, then maybe they can be protected with an extra layer of plastic instead of being heated, and still produce early.

    Pomykala Farm's tomatoes and heater

    At (the best instructions for winter sowing anywhere) Trudi recommends saving plastic chinese food containers, cool whip tubs, and 2 liter soda bottles for sowing. If you live where I do (in the middle of nowhere) and eat like I do (not much soda and cool whip) look for foil catering trays - at Costco they're 30/$6.36. I happen to have a lot of plastic starter flats with lids on hand.

    I set the whole operation up on the kitchen floor because it's mop-able. The trays were perforated, but I made sure to cut slits in the lids for air transpiration - I have fried countless little plants by not allowing the heat and moisture an obvious escape route.

     each flat was seeded, and larger seeds like these Turk Cap Lilies were covered with soil

    I made duct tape labels for each tray, written in permanent marker

    I set all the flats outside on tables and makeshift tables for the time being. I made sure to avoid places where our steep roof dumps snow (I woke up to no less than 7 'explosions' last night...)

    each lid then got weighted down with a piece of wood in case of high winds

    and lastly,  I made a diagram of what I planted where, as I've never had much luck with labels

    Here are the wildflowers and natives that I sowed: Nodding Onion, Rose Mallow, Obedient Plant, Jacob's Ladder, Anise Hyssop, and Turk's Cap Lily. I also sowed 2 flats of Alpine strawberries, Blue Solaize leeks and 6 kinds of tomatoes: Moonglow, Green Zebra, Nyagous, Crnkovic Yugoslavian, Opalka, and Black from Tula, all from Seed Savers Exchange. Will winter sown tomatoes be more resistant to blight?

     last season's tomatoes finally got the blight in late August

    I dont feel even close to done, but I ran out of (thawed) soil. Can I sow right into plug trays? Can I sow trays in the hoop house without using lids if I regulate the moisture?  I plan to try it all, as I have little use for seeds that need to be started indoors - what a drag. And what great gifts these flats would make - I can think of friends and family that would love this little experiment in their own yard, especially if they didn't have to do any of the work. Can you imagine how great it would be to start all of your seeds now? no lights, no watering, no getting the timing wrong. Have I convinced you to try? C'mon, just a quarter pack of tomato seeds in a cool whip tub...

    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    Frozen Carrot Harvest

         This is what I woke up to this morning, just before 7 o'clock. Beautiful enough to make me get out of bed and find my camera, which is remarkable since it was only 52 degrees inside! (I came home last night after the NOFA Conference to a broken pellet stove, and I'm pretty stingy with the propane backup heater. At least we have the back up heat;  this was not always so - tears were cried and mothers were called.) See how the lake has almost frozen over? Anyday now.

         Since I was up and needed to check the water in the chicken coop, I decided to get some carrots from the hoophouse for juicing. We always keep a good stash inside, but I've been watching it dwindle down to nothing, thinking that 'later' would be warmer. 'Later' turned out to be -2F, and I think I got about 3 intact carrots, with the rest coming out in 2 and 3 pieces. They made delicious juice - could have been warmer, though...

    Friday, January 8, 2010

    Grocery List Seed Planning

    My seed shopping, swapping, and saving for 2010 is mostly done. Now I get to look over the piles and plans to figure out what I might have overlooked, and I find the best way to do this is with a grocery list. Every year the garden gets bigger, a little more well cared for, and less and less food makes it to the compost pile as waste. We love canning pickles, jam, and chutney, but freezing food is our number one priority. By noticing what I still end up buying at the store every winter, I have a chance to try and cross something off that list for next year.

    Here are the items I still seem to buy:
    Vegetable broth (although I froze 16 pints)
    Fire roasted canned tomatoes (how do I replicate this taste?)
    Tomato paste
    Apple Cider (& ac vinegar)

    • rice - I have a continuously wet spot in our yard that has promptly killed everything I've tried to place there, and I have a dream that someday it will be a sweet, tiny rice paddy. I've done enough research to know the obstacles, like needing lots of sun, warm water flowing through, and (in Vermont) making sure that you've planted the proper variety. Unlike the long grain rices grown in California (which is what you'll find for sale on the web) Vermont 's climate is best suited for the short grain, stickier rice, Oryza sativa var. japonica. To begin Project Rice Paddy, I plan to just set the plants out in 5 gallon buckets to make sure that there is in fact enough sunlight - I can just move them around if need be. A Vermont couple has had great trial results via a SARE grant , and host lectures where they hand out plants - I hope to hear them speak at the NOFA VT Winter Conference (probably no plant handouts in March, though.) However, my boss/friend is heading to Japan in a couple of weeks , and she and I are on a mission to locate some seeds for her to return with. Can't wait, as this is really at the top of my 2010 geeky gardening list - please, leave any knowledge you have in the comment section...
    • ginger - I love to put ginger in soups and more recently stirfrys, and it's a mainstay in our carrot juice concoctions. Unfortunately, we can't grow the the heat - loving tuber that we buy in the store, but we can grow Wild Canadian Ginger, Asarum canadense. It's a pretty plant, but I've heard that it can be poisonous to certain people in certain quantities. Juicing is all about maximum potency - sounds like an experiment!

    today's carrot/apple/ginger/lime juice

    • fresh herbs/indoor garden - this 2010 mandate has been set: all herbs will be potted. This way, I can bring them in to extend their seasons, carry them into the hoophouse when freak weather is threatening, and if I put them on bleachers in front of the chicken coop, maybe they'll provide a refreshing scent. The real trouble is that to bring plants inside our house means that someone should probably install some windows. We've been living with a window-less second floor for 2 years, just staring up at the framing and spray foam. So, huge south facing windows could mean an indoor garden, lowered heating costs, and maybe something interesting to look at!
    • parsnips & celeriac: I buy parsnips and celery all the time to put in soups (lentil is a house favorite.) I've been so busy staggering and rotating that I totally missed out on some long season crops. Parsnips are 130 days, and it's not uncommon to plant them in June and harvest them the following spring. While celery is only 80 days, it is not a lasting crop here, and therefore a waste of my time. Lately I've been buying local celeriac instead of California celery, and it's been fantastic to cook with. We've had it in soups, roasted, pureed, and even sliced raw in potato salad and I'm a fan. Celeriac is 110 days and can be stored. So here's the plan: I'm converting a large part of my 2010 outdoor garden to long season crops - leeks, carrots, celeriac, brussel sprouts, parsnips, etc... 

    Riki's grilled tomatoes from the freezer

    As far as everything else is concerned, most of it is about planting more and freezing more. Before I finished writing this post, someone gave me a bag of their own frozen fire roasted tomatoes - grilled on the bbq, duh. Popcorn will be a first for us, as will tomato paste (we've made ketchup, though.) And I'm hoping that apple cider turns into a neighborhood affair - seems like a good plan to me.

    Do you plan your seed shopping with your grocery list? What do you buy that you could grow instead?

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    Industrial Food Freezer, Anyone? Anyone?

         Last night we had a Farmers Market board meeting, minus the only male, which means it was on the lengthy side. Once again we have been contacted about a mobile quick freeze unit which freezes and stores about 1400 lbs of produce and/or value added fruits and veggies. The unit, designed and built in Vermont, has made some tours and has some pretty serious strings attached. For starters it's big - about 11 feet tall and 20 feet long. We would need to house it under cover for 2 years. It must be insured on several levels, including driving and workman's comp. Any prep work and pre-blanching of vegetables must be done in a commercial kitchen that we would provide. Our understanding is that within the state of Vermont,  nobody wants it. Or maybe they do, but they can't assume the responsibility and expense. Out of state offers have come in, and the Agency of Agriculture is giving one final gentle prod, but will then sell the unit.

    ice fishing at the Causeway

         We are a small rural community (Grand Isle County.) We have farms, an unemployment issue, and a definite lack of available local food throughout our cold months. A lot of people here buy their groceries at beefed up gas station/convenience stores. A trip to Burlington will get you root vegetables, a scavenger hunt for some local winter greens, and a whole lot of mysterious frozen fruits and vegetables. By this I mean that at the Co-op you can by no-name organic and conventional frozen pineapple, mango, berries, corn, etc.... My first thought was that the store really got to work at the height of each fruit's season, and washed, peeled, and cubed until they could freeze enough to sell us throughout the off months. Brilliant. But, do they really? Or do they just re-parcel already frozen inventory on a weekly basis, right after they unload the truck? The official answer is that they arrive frozen from Woodstock Farms, often times having been grown in Thailand. I think you can also buy the same products in their original branded packaging in the same aisle.

    Keeler Bay Variety

          Every year some of our food shelfs turn away a local overabundance of winter squash as they are already inundated with them, and lack the necessary refrigeration space. Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro (where JP & I lived for a several years) has recently made a name for themselves by selling their packaged and frozen winter squash throughout the season. If you don't have a root cellar. winter squash will only make it so far. And it's hard not to appreciate the convenience of having your squash already peeled and cubed for you (unless you're a stuffer.) At a certain point in winter, even die hard 'Buy Local' shoppers are purchasing winter squash from parts unknown. Local frozen squash would be a blessing, as would pureed tomatoes, applesauce, corn, berries and vegetable broth.

    Rockville Market Farm Squash

       Here's the situation in a nutshell: just like an individual Zone 3 gardener struggles and fails to preserve the entirety of their explosive harvest for winter, Vermont as a whole is also struggling and (get your tissues) failing. Farmers are far too busy trying to earn their immediate income to focus their efforts on food preservation. Not all farms are able to pay for quality employees, and by this I mean skilled laborers; adults working with the same crops over enough years that they become adept and speedy with that particular harvest. People who you can leave in charge if you have to go away fro the weekend. Without these employees a farm's actions are limited, and food preservation is not at the top of the list.

    Blue Heron Farm

         So far, the solutions in place are mostly non-profits; gleaners and donators rather than preservers. I can't pinpoint the moment, but at sometime in my adult life I started to sour towards the concept of non-profits. Why can't communities becoming more self sufficient and healthy be totally into profit? Why do farms have to donate their leftovers instead of sell them? Why can't we buy local frozen produce in the winter, instead of trucked in 'fresh' food? And why can't we create jobs instead of over-stressing our food shelfs? Just so we can pat ourselves on the back and say we're good volunteers? Maybe it's because there is funding available for nonprofit ventures, but not for profit driven business models. I don't know the answer today.

    my freezer

         I do know that Vermont is nowhere near able to feed itself. Anyone watching the weather this week and the freezes in the Southeast can see that it's important for all northern states to make some progress in this direction. Seasoned gardeners eventually get the process down by staggering their crops, having harvest parties, and working really long days; communities as a whole need to follow a similar model. I'll be following this issue myself, and will keep you posted on the fate of the Mobile Quick Freeze Unit that could. Or maybe you want it? Anyone? Anyone?

    Sunday, January 3, 2010

    Beehive Maintenance

    The hives, like us, are snowed in! Our friends came along to the farm to help us dig them out. I like to keep the entrances clear for ventilation and the all important 'cleansing flights' (bees don't go to the bathroom until it's warm enough to do so outside.) Each of my hives is set up on a screened bottom board in an attempt to control varroa mites. Other then blocking the entrances, snow is actually a positive asset, as it's a great insulator in these cold temperatures.
    Here we are pulling in all our gear through the blizzard:

    Ernie waited for us so patiently, tethered to a plow. Adam and Christine who own Blue Heron Farm have recently experienced (yet another) dog attack on their organic chicken flock, so we made sure our friends kept their guy tied tight.

    Shoveling and listening to the hives. Some were definitely abuzz, but others were harder to hear. I actually don't hear very well, so when I don't hear anything, I don't lose all hope.

    Cleaning the entrances and removing the dead bees, below. Each of these hives went into the Fall with  a metal mouse guard, in order to prevent critters from nesting inside. Now that the snow has fallen and everybody has found a spot, the bees are better off with a fully exposed entrance. We did find one mouse guard about 4 feet away from the hive, so we'll see if the bees are hosting any guests in the Spring. This same hive did have a mouse nest last year, but bounced back nicely - what a mess to clean up!

    and, here JP is drilling a ventilation hole into one of the hive boxes. Okay, should have been done long ago, but better late than never. Bees can actually maintain really well in low temperatures, but cannot tolerate moisture. Zero ventilation will allow ice to develop, which is a death sentence. I used to just visit the hives around this time and prop the outer cover open with rocks to allow the moisture to escape, but that's a bit risky with animals and wind that could knock the cover off completely.

    Now that the hives are shoveled and ventilated it's easy to see how uneven they've become from frost heaves. While this is concerning, it's got nothing on what mud season holds in store. The hives will sink and teeter, and it's pretty scary all around, but that's the deal with the the wet clay on our island.

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    Happy New Year, Happy Birthday, AND an Honorable Mention! (with recipes...)

    Every New Year's Eve (that we can) my friends and I gather for a lingering dinner party and overnight.  Each couple prepares a course to serve, and often times we play parlor games while we wait for whatever's coming next. You know - paper and colored pencils, 60 seconds to draw a combination of whatever 2 animals you pull from a hat, like Rooster/Lobster or Iguana Pig. Lots of fun, especially when you can't draw, as your mind will take over whenever there's a time limit involved, as though your life depends on it. But your life doesn't actually depend on it, unless you're laughing so hard you choke on your food.

    This year my course was a savory sorbet, served  in between Gillian's Fried Oyster Salad and Katie's Try, Try Again Cheese Fondue. JP, who always has to work out of town at the most inconvenient times wasn't around to help me work the ice cream maker (which is really the only appliance he has mastered) so while my Carrot-Apple-Lemon sorbet tasted fantastic, the texture was a bit crumbly. Nobody Cared.

    The recipe was rather simple - I juiced about 2 cups of carrot juice with 1/6 of an unpeeled lemon and 1/2 an apple. I boiled it on the stovetop with 1/2 cup of sugar (I was too unsure to leave it out) for 2 minutes and then refrigerated the mixture for a couple of hours. I then strained it and processed it in the ice cream maker and put it in the freezer. Pretty easy! Cleaning up the juicer was the worst part, as usual. I'd like to try it again with no sugar at all, or maybe agave syrup.

    I also brought roasted garlic, homemade seed bread from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day , as well as pickled beets, preserved apple chutney, and bread and butter pickles all from my garden. These were a big hit. Sadly, the beets are now gone, but I have a 4 x 8 bed of Chioggias in the hoophouse right now that I think I should harvest and pickle, as the tops did not withstand the latest cold snap.

    New Year's Eve is also my sister's birthday, and last night was a big one. She turned 40! And while "40 is the new 20" to many, she pointed out that she herself is not Courtney Cox, and 40 feels a bit different to her. Touche! Here is the Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake I made her:

    I decided to make it just before I went to work in the morning, and used a quick recipe I found this summer; Easy Dark Chocolate Cake . For the frosting, I used a hand mixer to beat a package of cream cheese, a few heaping spoonfuls (3/4 cup-ish) of Marantha No-Stir Organic Peanut Butter (simply life changing,) and about 1/2 cup of whipping cream. After they were well combined, I beat in about 1 1/2 cups of confectioner's sugar. The other recipes I saw online didn't have the whipping cream, but I thought it made a huge difference. I also noticed that they had extreme differences in the sugar content, but I found the 1 1/2 cups to be on the sweet side (one recipe called for 5 cups!) So, taste as you go... And my sister doesn't like bananas, but I think this cake is screaming for them!

    Here is a picture of my friend Katie 'cooking.' She brought a girlish apron, and her cookbook is a blackberry, but even she considers it just a costume. Her cheese fondue is always a "keep'em guessing"theme, and we all love it - can't wait for next year!

    and, a tragedy - Gillian's $20 FryBaby deep fried it's own lid, Oops! At least the oysters were safe...

    Lastly, I was so happy to wake up this morning and find out that I won an honorable mention for my entry into  Mary Ann of Gardens of the Wild, Wild West 'Why I Garden' Essay Contest  -
    Happy New Year!

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