Posts Tagged ‘organic’

NPIP – Exam Time for the Flock


Yesterday, at our request, a representative from the Department of Agriculture came out to visit and test our chickens in conjunction with the National Poultry Improvement Program.  NPIP is a voluntary program that provides testing for common ailments in home and commercial flocks.  NPIP helps us to ensure a safe food supply and avoid the transfer of disease through other means (after all, taking care of chickens is not a hands-off activity here at the Flying T).  In addition, it allows those who raise chickens to avoid unnecessary medicines and antibiotics.  Finally, by working exclusively with NPIP-certified hatcheries and home producers, we can reduce the chances that our healthy flock is infected by birds or chicks we purchase as replacement stock.

Some of the NPIP tests are required for 4H and other shows.

The actual process is quite simple for a relatively small flock like ours (23 birds)… or at least it should be.  First,  you need to make sure they’re contained.  To accomplish this, we simply turned off the coop’s automatic door after the chickens had gone to roost for the night.  Simple, right?

However, about an hour before the NPIP representative arrived, our son went to change the chickens’ water, and six of them slipped out the door.  The three kids and I had a heck of a time chasing them down.  Free range means no fences, and lots of places for them to hide, squeeze under, and run through.  It also means that trying to entice them back into the coop with grain doesn’t work well, because there are lots of other, more tasty things to sample out in the woods.  However, after a bit of running, diving, and even climbing the compost pile, we managed to get our escapees back into the coop.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated the exercise, and so I have no pictures to share.  They would’ve been worth sharing!

OK, it is a simple process, once you’ve got the chickens back in the coop!

We enlisted the kids to help, and they crammed into the grain room along with the NPIP tester, Tara.  One kid would go into the coop and pick up a chicken, then bring it out to Tara, who would start by banding their legs with a numbered tag (for our older chickens, this also required removing their previous NPIP tags).

Then, she turned them onto their backs, and plucked the feathers from a small area under the wing.

A quick scratch with a scalpel to draw blood, a few drops in a plastic vial, and the chickens were released to go .

Within about an hour and a half, the vials were filled and the process was complete.  Tara said that she recently did a flock of 250 birds, and that took all day (with several helpers).


The chickens were none the worse for wear (though they were a bit indignant).

We should get our NPIP renewal certificate in the mail in a few weeks!

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Can Handshakes and the Internet Make Better Food?


Earlier, I explained that while I believe Organic certification has benefits for certain consumers and producers, it also has some inherent flaws and weaknesses.  I believe there is a better solution for many of us.  Like many of the practices we’re finding to help us make healthy and ethical choices in the ways we produce, market, acquire, and consume food, this solution is an old one with a bit of assistance from newer technologies.

The old part of the solution is the handshake.  In lieu of third-party state-managed certification processes, farmers and customers need to know each other and talk face-to-face.  The farmer needs to know what the customer values and desires, in product, quality, and methods.  The customer needs to be able to trust that the farmer will produce according to those values and desires.  Both need to come to an understanding of what this will cost.

Photo by Growmark.com

The best way to achieve this is through face-to-face contact.  Even in this age of smart phones, tablets, social media, and near-instant communication, we haven’t found a true substitute for shaking another person’s hand and looking her or him in the eyes.  Meeting in person allows the best opportunity for the customer to express his or her values and desires not only for the type of food, but also for how that food is produced.  It also allows the producer to present the realities of whether or not he or she is able to meet those values and desires, and the costs of doing so.  If the perfect match of these values, desires, abilities, and costs does not exist, these meetings also present an opportunity for finding the best match through compromise.

I admit, the "Great Compromise" wasn't all about food

There certainly are obstacles to such meetings, especially in today’s world.  Increased mobility, urban concentration, farm consolidation, and the sheer business of life all drive us away from physical, personal meetings.

Consider how car buying has changed in just my generation.  When I was a kid and my folks bought a new car, Dad did most of the research, mostly by talking to friends and going to the library (for those who’ve never seen one – it’s a big building with books in it and these helpful people called librarians who put Google to shame when you ask “What would be a great book for a 7 year-old kid who likes dinosaurs, Star Wars, and hunting?” – they still exist, by the way, and I highly recommend you visit and support them).  A lot of that research was supplemented and guided by his previous experience with different manufacturers.

After he did that research, Mom and Dad (and sometimes us kids) would go down to the local dealerships and take a look at the floor models of the cars they were considering.  Over a couple visits, they’d talk to the salesmen about models, options, and prices, and probably take a test drive before making their final decision and buying or ordering a new car.  The transaction always ended with a handshake.

Spring forward a few decades.  The last new car we bought (and probably the last new car I will ever buy) was while we were stationed overseas.  We did almost all of the research on the Internet, ordered the car through a series of emails (and only one phone call) with a dealership in Germany, completed the paperwork electronically with a scanner.  The car was built, put on a boat, and then trucked across the country to Texas to a dealership there, and we never saw so much as a photograph.

When we returned to the States, my family stayed with relatives while I continued to Texas.  I landed, got in a taxi, and made a cell phone call to the dealership (the first time I had spoken to them) to tell them I was on my way.  When I arrived, the car was in front of the dealership, washed and ready.  It took literally 5 minutes to complete the delivery and temporary registration paperwork before I was driving to base.

To some extent, this is amazing, and in another it amazes me how little human interaction was required to complete such a major financial transaction.

Food is an even more important choice, and it has changed similarly.  Just a couple generations ago, my Grandparents got their milk from the farmer who produced them (to whom my Grandpa had sold the Ford tractor, and for whom my father had worked the past summer).  The following generation, raw milk was produced by local farmers we didn’t know and processed to a dairy we didn’t ever visit, but we did know the “Milk-O” (Aussie for Milkman) who sold and delivered bottled milk and yogurt twice a week.

Nowadays, most people’s milk is produced by immense corporate farms, transported hundreds of miles overland in tractor trailers to huge dairy processing plants, hermetically sealed, and then transported hundreds of miles more to warehouses and then grocery stores before the consumer picks it up from the dairy aisle, rings up the purchase at an automated register, and swipes a credit card, often not even needing a signature to complete the transaction.  In many places, he or she can do that entire transaction online and have the purchase delivered to the door by yet another party.

Don’t get me wrong – this kind of process is essential to a large percentage of our highly-urbanized population.

Yet, for many of us I think we can take the best part of our old ways – knowing who produces our food and how they do it – and combine them with the benefits of technology to overcome obstacles presented by our mobile, urban, and busy society.

As we move forward in our production and marketing plan, we are looking at how we can do that.  One way obviously is through the use of the Internet and social media to market our products.  This blog and our website are examples – with a few clicks, you can quickly research what we produce, how we produce it, and the values behind it.  Through comments and emails, we can discuss better ways to meet values and desires of potential customers.  Resources such as the NH Farmers Market Association,  New Hamphire MadeSlow Money, and others can help us network with consumers and other producers.  As we progress, we may take advantage of other possibilities – maybe virtual farm tours, or perhaps even live “farm-cams.”

These are all great tools, but we will always face-to-face meetings and handshakes at the center of our business.

Organic?


When we first started dreaming about our farm, “organic” was high in our priorities.  This flows out of our family mission, to glorify God in all ways, and to live that out on our farm by raising, managing, and using His creation in a healthy, sustainable, humane, and respectful manner.  Since we planned to produce food for others, organic certification seemed like the way to pursue this mission.

Rhode Island Red Free-Ranging at the Flying T

However, as we started researching exactly what organic certification involved, our dream crumbled a little.  This crumbling was due to two primary factors:

1. A realization that “organic” just wasn’t the utopia we’d imagined, and…

2. The unrealistic requirements for a very small farm to maintain both organic certification and solvency .

At the risk of making ourselves vulnerable to claims of “sour grapes,” I’ll say that the first reason was the most disheartening to us.  Previous to our research, we had held special reverence for the word “organic.”  We’d paid extra for organic produce, animal and vegetable, and assumed a lot about organic certification.

Organic certification requirements are pretty complicated – not as bad as the US tax code, but it’s obvious that the authors went to the same law schools.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it helps make sure that folks that stamp their goods with “USDA Certified Organic” have met certain standards.  For animals, those standards in a nutshell are:

1. Appropriate housing that permits natural behavior, including outdoor access.  Depending on the animal, this may include a minimum number of days on pasture.

2. Certified organic feed, including pasture.  Again, some types of animals require a certain amount of their feed to come from pasture (I believe Dairy cows are now above 30% of total Digestible Dry Matter, which is a good thing).

3. No antibiotics, drugs, or synthetic parasiticides unless they are published on the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) list.

4. Organic processing of meat, milk, and eggs.

5. Record keeping in accordance with the regulations.

6. An “Organic system plan,” a lot like a business plan that shows how the farmer plans to maintain organic practices.

7. Measures to prevent contamination of soil and water from production (such as manure runoff).

8. Absence of genetic modification, ionizing radiation, or other such interventions/contaminations.

This sounds pretty good, and it is.  But any time you get a bunch of lawyers to write rules for folks to follow, those folks are going to hire lawyers to make sure that those rules don’t get too much in the way.  Let’s use the organic chicken industry’s lawyers as an example, and to keep this from becoming a book, let’s focus on rules 1, 2, and 8:

Rule #1:  When the lawyers get here, they run square into the 2010 Access to Pasture rule, requiring that any bird raised indoors must have free access to pasture except in certain circumstances.  What this has been interpreted to mean is that a factory organic farm can raise 2,000 chickens in a 100′ x 40′ pen (2 sqft per bird) as long as those birds have free access to outside “pasture.”  This pasture can be enclosed and covered, and doesn’t have to have anything growing on it.  Access can be satisfied with some small openings leading to a few 30 sqft outdoor “porches.”  All the food and water is inside the big room, but if the birds want to leave that behind to go see the reflection of the sun, they’re free to do so.

Organic chicken farm, from http://www.myessentia.com

Rule #2:  Now if you’re running that many birds in that little space, there is no way they can support a majority of their dietary needs on forage.  Any vegetation that might exist at the beginning will be gone in a matter of days, and with it will go all insect life.  So 100% of their feed will have to be what the farmer provides.  Rule #2 requires that this feed also be certified organic, and most of this will come in the form of processed grains from organic farms, the various components of which were grown, harvested, and transported to the mill with fossil fuels, processed using more energy, and then trucked through the distributing train, again with fossil fuels.  Of course, it is possible that this farmer lives next to a grain mill that in turn has local access to organic corn, soybeans, alfalfa, limestone, monocalcium phosphate, kelp, diatomaceous earth, clay, salt, DL methionine, vitamin & mineral premix, garlic, horseradish, anise, and juniper berry (all ingredients of one brand of certified organic chicken feed).

Sadly, the Toyota Prius Combine release date has been pushed back again

Rule #8:  What can the lawyers do with this rule?  They can ensure Cornish Rock Cross hybrid chickens, most likely the organic or non-organic chicken you buy at the supermarket or farmers market, qualify as organic.  They’re not genetically modified, just specifically bred to grow extremely quick (usually harvested from 8-12 weeks of age), with sparse white feathers (easier plucking with no pigment left on the skin), and broad, tender, white breasts.  They also can exhibit extreme mortality rates past around 4 months of age due to heart failure, exhaustion, or skeletal problems.  They taste great, by the way, and I don’t have any problem with folks that raise them.  They just don’t fit into our plan right now.

Cornish Rock Hybrids - from tinyfarmblog.com - notice they're growing faster than their feathers

These principles, of course, also apply to other areas of agriculture, whether producing fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, milk, or other products.

This isn’t to say that organic practices or certification are bad.  We are not to the point yet where we can produce even the majority of our food on our farm, and though we patronize several farms in the area as well as farmers market, we still do a lot of shopping at the grocery store.  When making food choices for our family there, we lean heavily on certified organic produce.  The National Organic Program (NOP) rules and regulations are far from perfect, and subject to a bit of controversy, but by and large, they provide guidance under which which healthier and more wholesome food can be produced.

Not certified organic, by the way...

That’s where the strength of the NOP lies.  Though it’s obviously not perfect, in a world where the vast majority live in densely-populated cities far removed from farms, the NOP provides a framework for consumers to make smarter decisions about the composition and quality of their food.  It does this by holding larger producers accountable to these better (again, not perfect) practices.

Why do I say “larger producers?”

That gets us to point #2.  Besides the fees involved in organic certification, maintaining organic practices obviously carry some expenses that can be difficult for a small operation to bear and still present a price consumers are willing to pay  (Slowmoneyfarm has several excellent posts on this topic, particularly this one).  Much of this is because of competition with larger producers both able and willing to take advantage of the loopholes in the system such as discussed above.

Ability is one obstacle.  A volume producer will always have advantages that come with being able to purchase in larger lots and lower prices while combining and reducing other production expenses.  Still, if small farmers can find a supportive market, it may be possible to approach competitiveness here if they are willing to take advantage of some high-volume practices, though again Slowmoneyfarm does a good job explaining how this is extremely difficult.

That willingness to do this is the second obstacle.  Profitability (or perhaps even solvency) requires taking advantage of practices such as use of non-heritage breeds, stocking stables/pastures/pens at much higher rates, using higher levels of confinement to minimize labor costs, culling rather than treating many sick/struggling animals, and stockpiling feed.

Willingness is the obstacle that stopped us.  We have the facilities that with a bit of modification would make this work with organic chickens and ducks.  It would mean confining them and stocking both our laying and meat flocks at what to us seems an absurd density.  We would need to use non-heritage high-production hybrids for both operations.  Besides the problems these present to our values, such confinement would eliminate the benefits of free-range poultry.

Do you really want to put us in a pen?

We could do this also with meat goats.  Again, we would stock at much higher rates, and manage both the confinement systems and available pasture to ensure they maintained a 100% organic diet.  This would include separation from our poultry, horses, visitors (and probably our kids) to make sure that they didn’t end up eating something improper.

For all of our livestock, this would drive us to breed for size and speed of production, not non-production values such as temperment.

So what is a small farmer to do?

Photo by John Vachon.Oct. 1938. From the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. America From the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the Farm Security Administration-OWI, 1935-1945.

I believe the solution is an old one.  In lieu of third-party state-managed certification processes, farmers and customers need to know each other and talk face-to-face.  The farmer needs to know what the customer values and desires, in product, quality, and methods.  The customer needs to be able to trust that the farmer will produce according to those values and desires.  Both need to come to an understanding of what this will cost.

The only way this can happen is through local consumption… and that is a subject for another post.

Tri-Dye Jam


Tri-Dye Jam

God blessed us with some amazing fruit this year, both on our trees and in the bushes around the Flying T.

We picked berries through the summer.  Wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries were superb on the farm and in the neighborhood.  Our blueberries were a bust, but two friend’s blueberry groves were absolutely amazing.  We also did a couple trips to pick-your-own places to fill up on strawberries.  As berry season was coming to a close, our peaches arrived by the bushel.

The canning operation was in full bore several days during August and September, and one of the many fun experiments we tried was what we call “Tri-Dye Jam,” made completely from peaches, raspberries, and blackberries we picked right here.  We’ve been using generic white labels, but decided to have some fun with these ones.

Tri-Dye Jam ready for the larder

For Tri-Dye, we modified the Peach Jam recipe from the wonderful website, pickyourown.org, using 4 cups of peeled and diced peaches and 1 cup each of raspberry and blackberry puree.

And yes, it tastes as good as it sounds.

What Does Free Range Mean?


You can do an Internet search of “cage-free” and “free-range” eggs or chickens and see that there really aren’t a whole lot of legal requirements to claim those titles. 

"Free Range" Chickens at a Factory Farm

“Free range” at the Flying T means that as soon as our chicks and ducklings are safely able to live in the outdoors, we let them roam the farm. 

Rhode Island Red Free-Ranging at the Flying T

  Most of the chickens return to the coop at night to roost, and the ducks to the barn (some chickens may choose to hang out with the ducks in the barn, especially Henny Penny, aka “Chuck the Chicken Duck”), but otherwise they are out foraging for insects, bugs, spiders, worms, seeds, and plants during the majority of the day.  We don’t use pens or cages except in special circumstances (in order to quarantine new or young birds for a short time to ensure biosecurity, or to separate an injured bird to keep it from getting pecked, for instance). 

Chickens hanging out on a woodpile at the Flying T

 

Mocha foraging with her flock at the Flying T

 This does pose some risks (like predators) and costs.  We can only select breeds that are suitable for free-ranging.  Many “production” strains have many of their natural free-ranging, brooding, self-preservation, and other habits bred out of them so that they spend as much energy as possible either into growing meat on their bones or eggs to lay.  We believe the benefits, however, are worth it.

 Benefits:

  1. Free-range eggs have up to 4-6 times the Vitamin D, 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene than factory-raised eggs.  (article)
  2. Free-range ducks and chickens are miracle-workers when it comes to controlling ticks, barnyard flies, grasshoppers, and other pests.  This reduces the need for pesticides, which is not only better for all the animals on the farm… it’s healthier and better for us as well!  (citation and another). 
  3. Free-range birds are healthier than factory birds, and their meat has a firmer and more flavorful nature, and encourages us to return to more traditional harvesting, preparation, and cooking methods (read this article for good information and ideas).
  4. While factory birds are selectively bred to discourage broodiness (a female bird’s instinct to nest, incubate, and raise her own young) because a broody hen doesn’t lay eggs, our breeding plan actually encourages broodiness, allowing us to sustain the flock.
  5. A broody free-range hen will raise her own chicks/ducklings.  If you’ve ever raised either (we have… and actually, we are doing it again), you know it’s a lot of work and attention that could get spent elsewhere.  Our hope is that with our breeding plan, this is the last batch we have to hand-raise!
  6. Though we offer free-choice supplemental feed (especially in winter), free-range birds require a lot less of this, reducing our costs.  And since they don’t spend as much time in their roosts, clean-up is a lot less time-consuming also (instead, they spend a lot of time fertilizing our pastures and lawn).
  7. Free-range birds don’t tend to fight like confined birds, which is why even “cage free” and some “free range” factory birds have the tips of their beaks cut or burnt off. (citation)
  8. Finally, it’s just peaceful and enjoyable to watch birds range over the farm, stopping from time to time to peck at food, or chasing a dragonfly across the pasture.

New arrivals


A pic of the latest new arrivals at the Flying T, 15 Barred Rocks.  I took this just as I ran out the door to work and will update later with better photos.

Our website is live…


… not finished, but live!  Check it out at http://www.flyingtnh.com (or click on the link to the right).