Monday, April 29, 2013

Book review: Second Nature by Michael Pollan

Having established himself as a titan in the world of food writing, Michael Pollan’s most famous works are about the food we eat: where it comes from, why it matters. But Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education by Michael Pollan focuses on gardening – as art, as sustenance, as culture.

I was interested in this book on gardening in particular because I wasn't the primary gardener in our house for the two summers we've lived here. I helped primarily in the cooking and preservation steps. But this year, I want to get my hands dirty and actually learn more about how to nurture and take care of the food we grow. (Also, we want to add another raised bed to grow food specifically for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which will accept produce donations this summer.)

The book goes back to Pollan's childhood experience with gardening - both on his own and in the shadow of his grandfather, who was a dedicated and prolific gardener. It follows him through the establishment of his own gardens (flowers and vegetables, as well as trees) on his own property. 

One of the most fascinating topics he covers is that of the American obsession with lawns. In many places, HOAs and city officials can fine you if you don't mow your grass according to their standards, and people across the country have been fined or cited for turning front lawns into vegetable or flower gardens. We don't have much of a front lawn, and being in the city if we grew veggies in our front yard, people would swipe tomatoes as they walk by. But our back yard is sizeable for the area in which we live, and we have no shame in covering grass with compost bins, chicken coops and raised beds. We have no use for large swaths of grass where we just have to burn gas mowing it all summer. I wondered as I listened to this section whether or not I'd have the guts to fight an HOA that would try to tell me what to do with my lawn. (Probably not, which is why I refuse to live anywhere with HOA oversight.)

I was happy that composting was featured in the book as well. We have two compost areas in our yard in addition to several bins. Getting the chickens last year has helped the compost area become more robust, since they are prodigious waste producers. It's hard to think of compost as a "way to give back what we have taken," as Pollan describes it, when you mostly see a pile of pine shavings and chicken waste, but on the microorganism level, it is definitely true. 

The statement in the book that resonated most with me was that "improving the land strengthens one's claim to it." As of this weekend, we have lived in our house for two years. We've started gradually turning it into a homestead - which to me is that exact feeling: this is my land and my home, so I will work to be a good steward of it and the resources it provides.

This is not a book that will give you step by step guides to gardening. Rather, it's a pleasant and almost lyrical philosophical examination (interspersed with lots of interesting facts) of gardening that if nothing else makes you want to go out and put your hands in the dirt.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Make it Yourself: Granola

Cooking and baking were not skills I was born with. (Ask my parents and sister about the first meal I cooked for them when I moved out on my own. It was, let's say, not a success.) I started to cook more when I was in graduate school and lived with my best friend, since there was someone else to eat the food besides me. Over time, my skills developed until I was more than proficient in the kitchen.

I didn't realize, however, until I started to do more research about our food system and what I was putting in my body, that I was relying too much on processed foods for things I could easily make at home for less money and better quality.

Much is made now of the DIY movement in foods - to make things at home like bread, yogurt, cheese, etc. And that's very valuable (not to mention delicious). But if the thought of making cheese at home gives you a nervous twitch, start small. My favorite homemade granola recipe couldn't be more simple. I love to eat it as cereal with raw milk or put it in yogurt for a snack.

This recipe makes about 12 half-cup servings, depending on how much you add in the way of fruit and nuts.

3 cups uncooked quick oats
2 cups puffed rice cereal
6 Tbs. honey
1 tsp. canola oil
1/4 cup apple juice
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. slivered or chopped nuts (I love almonds and pecans)
1/2 c. dried fruit (I love cranberries, raisins and sour cherries)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix uncooked oats and puffed rice cereal together and spread on a non-stick baking sheet with sides; bake for 10 minutes, stirring once.

Meanwhile, whisk honey, oil, apple juice, spices and vanilla together. When oats and puffed rice are done, spoon into a large bowl; set pan aside. Add nuts to cereal mixture and stir to combine. Pour honey-spice mixture over cereal mixture and mix thoroughly to distribute and coat completely; spread mixture back over pan.

Return pan to oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more, stirring every 5 minutes. (Note: Be careful that granola doesn't burn - especially cereal along sides of pan.) 

Remove from oven and cool. Spoon into bowl and stir in fruit. 

Recipe adapted from Weight Watchers (of all places). Probably the only WW recipe I encountered during my brief stint with it in grad school that I still make today!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Reading (and viewing) this week

I’ve written on GMO labeling before, and this is an issue that is constantly evolving and changing.

On Wednesday, we took another step forward as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) (otherwise known as my new heroes) with 9 Senate co-sponsors and 22 House co-sponsors, introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act that would require food manufacturers to label any product containing GMOs. If not properly labeled, the product could be classified by the FDA as “misbranded.”

It’s about time. I am working on drafting a letter to send to my legislators here in Pennsylvania, and when it’s ready, I will share so you can pass the word! 

Speaking of legislative advocacy, Ellen DeGeneres had a representative from the Humane Society on her show to talk about Ag-Gag laws. Ellen’s got a wide audience and huge following, not only for her general awesomeness but her advocacy work on the part of animals. I’m really happy to see someone like Ellen educating and encouraging people to take action.

Definitely looking forward to Mark Bittman’s new Flexitarian column. He says the goal is “to marry the burning question “What should I be eating?” with another: “How do I cook it?”

Michael Pollan talking to Stephen Colbert about his new book, Cooked

Yet more proof that eating antibiotics in meat is detrimental to our health: government researchers have found bacterial varieties in meat that are resistant to antibiotics.

Environmental Working Group has some great information on superbugs in meat.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I don't need a food savior, thanks very much

I’ve been reading the advance reviews that have come out about Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, as I wait for my copy to show up at my door. I was curious to read a review that Pollan himself tweeted out on Tuesday, done by The Center for Consumer Freedom. Judging from a cursory glance through their website, they seem more like the Center to Advance the Interests of Industrial Agriculture, so I’m not surprised they are not fans of the work of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and the like. (I think I qualify as one of their “food radicals” though. You know, because I don’t like pesticides in my produce and antibiotics in my meat.)

I haven’t read the book yet (though I am hoping to start it this week). But I was struck by a few of the arguments (read: utter nonsense) that this group was making which are not dependent on me having read the book for analysis. Here are a few of their statements, and my take on them.

Like his previous efforts, the book calls hard-working Americans to more hard work in the kitchen, because Pollan believes that slaving over a cutting board is better for our souls or our health than allowing industry to help ease the load.
I would consider myself a hard-working American. I work 45 hours a week in corporate America and commute for an additional 12 or so. And I do think that it’s true that cooking and food preparation can sometimes be hard work. (A 12-hour day of tomato canning can be brutal on your feet, no doubt.) But I have yet to recall the last time I slaved over a cutting board. Unless you work in a kitchen for a living, I doubt that most Americans who cook would consider themselves to be slaving over their cutting boards. Cooking is time intensive, which I’ll discuss in a bit, but is it work that the average hard-working American can manage? Most assuredly, yes.

I haven’t read Pollan’s supposed argument for cooking being good for the soul yet, so I can’t say how much I agree or disagree. But I can tell you that I’ve never heard anyone claim that eating a bag of Doritos or heating up a frozen Lean Cuisine was good for their soul. (On the contrary, 10 years ago in my diet food days, frozen diet lasagna was pretty much the antithesis of being good for my soul.)

Pollan’s “solution” to the non-problem of people occasionally eating out is raising taxes on restaurant food, since in the Church of Foodieism not cooking is a sin.
Pollan was just interviewed in New York Magazine and mentions in the interview that he eats out several times a week. So I’m not sure where the idea of Pollan vilifying people for eating out comes from. Eating out can be a great joy. Our family loves to eat out when we can, particularly at local, non-chain restaurants that support our community’s economy and agriculture. But there’s a difference between eating out as a special meal to be enjoyed and eating all of your meals outside the home and on the go.

I’d venture to guess that what Pollan would say was not such a great thing is the eating-out habit of one of my regular customers when I worked at McDonalds in college – the one who complained that her son already had 4 of the same Happy Meal toy. (As the toys were cycled out on a weekly basis, that’s a few too many Happy Meals for your kid in a 7-day span, lady.) I don’t think the Center for Consumer Freedom is leaving any room for common sense here.

There’s nothing wrong with home cooking and quite a lot to be said for it, but ultimately it takes time and effort that some people simply don’t have or would rather spend on other things. Punishing restaurant eating would unfairly target low-income people who work physically demanding jobs over long hours.
The authors of this review argue that some people would like to spend their time on other things besides cooking. I understand that. I have a lot of friends who don’t share my love of cooking and think of it more as a chore than a joy. Those friends are also by and large clean eaters. They don’t resort to processed garbage foods, but they do have simplified diets. You can still eat healthy food in your home if you don’t like to cook. Also, cooking doesn’t have to be a grand production. And you don’t have to do it every single day. (Hello, Crock Pot. Nice to meet you.)

I have personally known people who truly work 80 hours per week to support their families and are juggling keeping a roof over their children’s heads and food in their bellies. These are the people who can truly say that they don’t have the time for cooking meals at home. But the majority of people who say they “don’t have time” to cook have a lot of other things going on in their lives that they could live without. You don’t have time to spend 25 minutes cooking a meal, but you have time to keep up with six TV shows per week? Or 3 hours a week to spend at the golf course? Don’t even get me started on how much time people waste on Facebook. The average “hard-working” American’s TV consumption alone makes this “people are just too busy” argument a complete fraud. We are too busy for the things we don’t prioritize.

I’ve been guilty myself of falling into the “I’m too busy” trap. But when I look back at my week, how did I spend my time? In five years, it won’t matter if I missed an episode of my favorite TV show to cook dinner. But the healthy lifestyle I prioritize now will pay off over five years. Less illness, better physical fitness, and let’s face it – a healthier family.

A close cousin of the “I’m too busy” trap is the “It’s too expensive” trap. It’s obvious that healthy food costs more in our society than unhealthy food. But Americans who do not go to bed hungry at night in general already eat too much food. And those who say they can’t afford organic produce or to buy from a farmer’s market? I’d be willing to bet at least a fair share have smart phones, data plans, cable or satellite TV service, laptops, SUVs or time shares. We pay for what we prioritize.

The authors cite low-income workers as being unfairly targeted, but the answer to low-income individuals getting healthy food is not processed corn by-products in shiny packages. It’s better wages and food prices that reflect the actual cost of production. In this country we think we’re lucky if we can get health benefits for our family for under $500 a month, but we balk at paying $1 extra per pound for produce that wasn’t sprayed with carcinogens. (Not to mention the fact that the worker who got sprayed with the same carcinogen probably has no health insurance, but that’s another essay entirely.)

I also felt like the tone of this essay was incredibly patronizing. As if they were trying to hold my hand and tell me that the quality of my life would be so much better if I’d just entrust my food to the industry’s hands – that they could lift a burden I begrudgingly carry around. Be my food savior, if you will.

I would say that anyone who has eaten a meal at the Next Gen House knows that we have no use for a food savior. We consider the time and effort we put into food preparation and cultivation in our house to be worth the other things we sacrifice. We don’t have cable, but we subscribe to a CSA. We can’t do everything we want to do in life, and that’s okay. We chose to spend last Saturday canning jelly instead of doing any number of things you could do with a free, beautiful weather Saturday. But cooking for our family and for others when they are guests in our home or need a meal is a priority, no matter how much time and effort it takes. If that makes me a food radical, get me a bumper sticker.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

spring blooms

Spring has brought a few flowers up in our front bed. I have absolutely no flower tending skills, though I hope to change that to some degree this summer. This weekend, I noticed we added tulips and some blooms on the bleeding heart plant.

Monday, April 22, 2013

canning and preserving: grape jelly

In preparation for the coming gardening season and in order to help us shop smart, Mark and I inventoried our freezers to see what we had on hand. What did we have the most of? Grapes. Coming out our ears. Two summers ago, my grandpa's concord grape vines were overflowing with grapes, which my parents helped him pick. We froze most of them because we were up to our eyeballs in that season's garden produce and couldn't deal with them quite yet. 

They have been in deep freeze for about 18 months, so we decided to spend a day making batch after batch of grape jelly. Note that first, you have to make juice from the grapes to remove the seeds. We had some extra juice we had made on hand, as well as a few containers from my grandpa of juice. Since it only takes 4 cups of juice to make 7-8 half pints of jelly, we have enough grapes to make jar after jar of jelly. (Exhausting our half pint jar supply, which is quite large to begin with.)

The juice is such a beautiful, vivid purple. But its stain potential is potent (see a photo below of our counter after it had endured a day of jelly-making).

Canning jelly or jam is about the easiest thing to can, so if you're thinking of getting started canning, I'd suggest you start with jelly or jam. It's really hard to mess it up, as long as you have the right equipment and follow instructions.

Jellies and jams are canned in a hot water bath, as opposed to a pressure canner. Hot jelly is ladeled into hot jars, which soak in hot water with their lids and bands while you're preparing the jelly. Remember to only use actual home canning jars and not recycled spaghetti or condiment jars. (Most of our jars are Ball, but there are other brands. I have some antique Atlas jars from my grandma that still work.)

Bands can be reused, but only if there is no visible rust on the inside, which can interfere with your seal. You cannot reuse lids, so it's fine to write the name and date of your product on the lid once the jar has been processed. 

So what ingredients do you need for jelly? Fruit, pectin (liquid or powder as the recipe demands), and sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. We buy our sugar for canning at Sam's because it's more cost effective than tons of little bags.

For this grape jelly recipe, which is the standard Ball Blue Book grape jelly, you dissolve 7 cups of sugar in 4 cups of grape juice. Yeah, 7 cups. We like to cook our jams and jellies in our dutch oven. It conducts heat very well and makes it unlikely that you will scorch anything.

While you bring the grape juice and sugar to a boil, you can have your clean jars, lids and bands soaking. We get the temperature up to 180 to make sure anything that escaped your cleaning is dead.

Once the sugar and juice mixture boils, you add a pouch of liquid pectin. Pectin is a gelling substance made from apples and citrus fruits. We use the Ball brand because it's convenient and is pre-measured to go along with Ball recipes, which we primarily use. Pectin eliminates the back-breaking, long cooking recipes that required you to just cook it down and cook it down until it thickened. Pectin helps this recipe to take less than 10 minutes.

Once you've finished the recipe, it's time to skim the thick pink foam that develops on the surface of the jelly.

Once your jelly is skimmed, it's time to get it in hot jars. Use a jar lifting tool to get your hot jars out of the water and use a funnel to get the jelly in the jar without getting it all over the lip of the jar. We use a funnel that came in a generic home canning kit.

Fill the jar until you reach the appropriate amount of head space. Head space is the distance between the product and the top of the jar and it is the required amount of air that needs to be in the jar for a proper seal. Each recipe is different, so make sure you check yours.

We also use a washable head-space tool that makes for quick measurement instead of trying to use a ruler. It's worth the few dollars to get the right tools.

Using a magnetic wand, retrieve a lid and band from the hot water and tighten it "finger-tip tight." (Not enough that you have to twist your wrist hard.)

Place the jar on the canning rack that you insert into the canning pot. Your pot is full of hot water at this point, which is where the steam is coming from here. We usually do 7-8 half pints depending on the batch. Good canning racks will be built to be suspended from the sides of the pot like you see below. 

Drop the rack into the water and wait for it to boil. After the water boils, process for the recommended amount of time. If you're in our house, watch some Star Trek. (God bless you Mark, for installing that kitchen TV.)

After the jars have processed and you've waited for the recommended rest time with the heat off, remove the jars with a jar lifter and let them sit to cool. We always use a clean, folded kitchen towel to rest our jars  and we like to let them sit overnight.


You'll know the jars have sealed when the middle of the lid stays depressed and you hear a popping sound of the vacuum being created in the jar. We've always had success getting our jellies and jams to seal.  (Another great reason to start canning with jellies and jams; it's almost foolproof.)

Label your jars with the contents and the month and year canned. Store them in a cool place. We have a basement canning cabinet that belonged to my gramma; every time I fill it, I think of her filling it year after year with her own canned goods.

Then proceed to try and clean your counter, which looks like this. Good luck with that.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Reading this week

Cook Your Own Food. Eat What You Want. Think For Yourself. (Michael Ruhlman)
If you read no other article I recommend this week, read this one. It's a great manifesto and one I agree with wholeheartedly.

Ball Heritage Collection jars
As we're gearing up for canning season, I can't help but drool over these beautiful blue vintage jars. (Never mind the fact that I have mason jars coming out my ears.)

7 Things You Need to Know About GMOs (Rodale)
A write-up of take-away messages from a film called GMO OMG that debuts at the Yale Environmental Film Festival. (Includes a trailer for the film. I am a documentary nerd and cannot wait for this film to be released to a wider audience.)

Calamity for Our Most Beneficent Insect (NY Times)
An editorial from the NY Times in support of bees

A Constitutional Argument Against the So-Called "Monsanto Protection Act" (
Fantastically reasoned argument (by a lawyer, no less) about the legality and constitutionality of the "Monsanto Protection Act"

Hunger, Obesity and Nutrition; Observations from the Field in Pittsburgh (Center for American Progress)
Interesting article about food deserts right here in Pittsburgh and the challenges faced by these communities; also includes information on great projects that are locally trying to solve this issue, including Just Harvest getting city farmers markets to take EBT cards, edible gardens, and buying clubs.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: The Way We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

When I chose The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, I had no idea who the authors were, but thought it would be an interesting book to add to my library of food journalism. I didn't realize that Peter Singer was a world-renowned moral philosopher and the author of one of the first books that brought to light abuses in the factory farm model: Animal Liberation. Jim Mason is also a well known author in this field and is an attorney as well. 

Together, Singer and Mason seek to address the realities of what we eat and make readers question the ethics of these choices. I will say I did not expect to be so challenged by this book - not in the sense that it was difficult to understand - in fact, the text was incredibly accessible. I was morally challenged by this book and forced to examine my food choices in ways I never have before, even though I consider myself to be a very ethical eater and consumer. It reminded me of my college philosophy and literature classes, but in a good way.

Singer and Mason frame the narrative through the stories of three American families and their eating habits. The first family is lower-middle class, shops at Walmart for groceries and eats at fast food restaurants, and is very budget-conscious. The second family is upper-middle class and considers themselves conscientious omnivores (though the father is vegetarian), very thoughtful about the environment and make some effort to be conscious of animal welfare issues. The third family is entirely vegan and considers their lifestyle to be a method of activism (and I'm assuming upper-middle class at the least, though I actually don't know how clear that was in the text.) 

(I should note that it would be easy in a book like this to vilify the family that shops at Walmart and eats at McDonalds and buys factory farmed meat, but the authors don't do that at all. Rather, they present the reality of feeding a growing family on a limited budget as one of the circumstances that have to be considered in determining what ethical choices to make.)

Throughout the book, Singer and Mason discuss the grim realities of factory farming, including meat, dairy and egg production, with some details that are actually difficult to listen to (and some sections even contain warnings for readers about graphic content). They also discuss labeling and issues of fair/whole trade, workers' rights and environmental issues. The book is too full of substantial content for me to even attempt to distill it here.

However, I think it's worth noting the initial question that Singer poses in the beginning of the book: can the choices we make about food consumption have ethical implications? If you believe that the choices you make about food can have moral or ethical implications, what are they? How do you determine what is an ethical or moral choice?

I personally believe food consumption does have ethical implications; part of this stems from my own faith and belief that I am called to be a good steward. But even without a religious imperative, we do not live in a vacuum. Unless you hunt and gather and produce all of your food with no assistance from anyone or anything, your food choices affect others. This book asks you to consider how what you purchase and consume affects animals, the environment, the welfare of communities located in proximity to these factories, and the other people who work there. 

The authors acknowledge the weight of these ethical implications and how our food choices are part of a complex web. To make one ethical choice, for instance, buying local produce to support farmers in your community, means that you are not purchasing food from developing nations, where the farmers arguably need the money even more. No one person can make decisions that can satisfy all potential ethical obligations, and ultimately we simply have to do the best that we can. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough. For anyone that is questioning how he/she can make better choices or why we should make different choices in the first place, I encourage you to read this book. Let it stretch your brain and your ideas like it did mine. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On breaking down a chicken

Excuse my fantastically off-center phone photo

On Sunday night, Mark taught me how to "break down" a whole chicken. As part of my commitment to try and eat only meat that comes from a verifiable farm, we are going to be dealing with many more whole chickens in our cooking. When it dawned on me that I had never successfully broken down a chicken before, I knew I needed Mark to teach me so I could share the burden. (By successfully I mean without hacking it to uneven pieces and leaving most of the meat on the carcass.)

So Mark taught me, and I broke it down on my own. I felt a sense of accomplishment knowing that we had breasts, wings, thighs and legs to eat, as well as a carcass to roast for stock. Mark grilled up some of the pieces to put in a baked risotto I made for dinner and that was that.

But I keep finding myself coming back to the process of doing it and of getting my hands on the chicken, feeling where the joints came together and popping them out of place. Running the knife along the rib cage to separate the breasts from the backbone. Plucking a few loose feathers out of the skin.

When you only buy pre-cut and trimmed chicken parts from the grocery store, it's really easy to forget that they came from a chicken. They just look like pieces of meat. But when you break down a whole chicken, you end up getting very close to the body of the animal and it's impossible to forget that it was once a living creature. Somehow you're more grateful for the sacrifice that's going to feed your family for that meal. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The necessity of bees

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’m afraid of bees. They don’t induce the level of terror in me that clowns do, but I am still the one that closes my eyes when a bee comes near me and pretends like a toddler that I am invisible to what I can’t see.

It’s for this reason that I have largely ignored headlines about the plight of bees. With so much to worry about in the way of factory farming and GMOs, how could I possibly add bees to my list of concerns? Turns out, bees are an important part of our food chain. Not just important, but essential.

Insects pollinate $18 billion to $27 billion worth of U.S. crops each year, which amounts to essentially a quarter of the American diet. The number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. has steadily declined from a high at the end of WWII, but starting around 2005, that decline has accelerated rapidly.

Colony collapse disorder has wiped out between 40 and 50 percent of the honeybee colonies that pollinate our fruits and vegetables. Scientists don’t know exactly why this is happening, but more and more researchers and beekeepers are attributing this disorder to the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on crops. In particular, a class of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, derived from nicotine, is blamed (at least by European regulators).

Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides, which means the chemical is embedded in the seed, so that the plant contains the chemical that kills the pests that eat it. Because neonicotinoids don’t degrade as quickly as other pesticides, bees which keep coming back to the same plants (as they are wont to due) keep picking up more and more pesticide to bring back to their hives. This creates a build-up of the pesticide that in small doses might be harmless, but in large dosages are lethal.

Of course pesticide industry-sponsored research has concluded that the neonicotinoids are safe. The European Union, which is typically much more concerned with strict agricultural standards than the U.S., recently failed to pass a ban on neonicotinoids, though individual nations in the EU have passed their own bans.

Beekeepers and partner organizations in the U.S. just sued the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) asking them to immediately suspend use of two specific neonicotinoids. (Read more about the lawsuit here.) There are already not enough bees available to pollinate California’s almond crops (a very large export and staple in California’s economy).

Even if you don’t have an interest in the welfare of the bees as creatures that don’t deserve to feast on chemicals, there is an economic factor involved for all of us who eat American fruit and vegetables. Crop failure means smaller harvests and higher food prices. The costs that farmers have to pay for bees to pollinate is also increased when the supply of bees is low, which translates to higher food prices as well. 

Remember when you were in elementary school science classes, learning about ecosystems? How damage in one part of the ecosystem affects another? Protecting our ecosystem from those who would seek to exploit it (I’m looking at you, pesticide manufacturers) is the job of the EPA. We need to call upon them to recognize that the welfare of all of the parts of our ecosystem matter, and that includes bees.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

Reading this week

The New Pork Gospel (One Earth)
A new article by Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland and some of the best food journalism out there today, profiling Russ Kremer, a leading advocate for better hog farming. His story is intriguing and inspirational.

Taping of Farm Cruelty is Becoming the Crime (NY Times)
Article about Ag-gag laws across the country. The woman tries to make a comparison between agricultural practices and open heart surgery to support these laws and it is quite honestly the most ridiculous abuse of metaphor I've ever seen.
Dateline: Hormone Disruptors (NBC News)
Reporter Andrea Canning has herself and her children tested for hormone disruptors (like BPA) and has some interesting (and not at all surprising) results (The above link is to part 1.)

Farmstand App 
A new app that allows you to find local farmers' markets and see what's fresh. Only for iPhone so far, but hopefully some day for Android!

Why You Shouldn't Wrinkle Your Nose at Fermentation (NPR)
Fermented foods have tons of benefits. Healthy for you and delicious to boot. There's nothing like freshly fermented sauerkraut, and kombucha is quickly becoming one of my favorite beverages.

What's New in Food Marketing? Protein! (Food Politics)
Marion Nestle rounds up recent discussion on pumping food products with extra protein as a marketing ploy.

Hello, My Name is Porterhouse Chop (NPR)
Pork industry is renaming cuts of pork in order to help consumers understand cuts of meat. I swear, the food industry thinks we're all six years old. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Crossing lines we said we'd never cross

You may have heard some news recently about a so-called “Monstanto Protection Act” that was an Agricultural Appropriations Bill (HR 933) that contained a provision (in section 735) allowing companies to harvest GMO seeds, even if an injunction or other litigation is pending against them.

Watch as John Stewart brilliantly sums it up for us. You stuck what where now?

It should be noted that Senator John Tester (Democrat, Montana) stood up against this provision and called it out for what it was. At the time of this episode of the Daily Show, no one had fessed up to including the provision. Later, Senator Roy Blunt (Republican, Missouri) came forward saying he worked with Monsanto and was responsible for its inclusion. This is no surprise, as he is known to be a friend of Big Ag and has lobbyist ties to other processed food companies that do not support GMO labeling. He gets plenty of money in his war chest from Monsanto. (To read more on Monsanto, check out Food & Water Watch's Monsanto: A Corporate Profile.)

All of the issues with GMO labeling and Big Ag aside, it makes me so utterly disappointed in our government that anonymous, secret riders can be snuck into any bill, particularly one that would avert a government shutdown, which are almost inevitably going to be signed into law. It represents the highest level of corruption, greed and fraud that politicians can be bought. It wasn’t even just votes that were bought on an issue that was out in the open, but Monsanto effectively purchased a law that benefits their business to the detriment of the environment and our health, behind everyone’s back. Even when Senator Tester stood up, not enough people listened. Our government is for sale to the highest bidder.

When you are making your choices about what kind of fertilizer to buy for your garden this summer, look into who makes those products. Are you buying Monsanto products (RoundUp, Scots, etc.)? If so, you’re helping to subsidize the purchase of our government. You might not think $20 here and there matters, but until Americans start standing up one by one and saying “here is the line and I will not cross it,” we can expect these companies to continue to buy their way into our government.

This probably sounds melodramatic. But I truly believe this is how democracy vanishes. Crossing the lines we said we’d never cross.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Raising backyard chickens

I took advantage of a relatively mild day recently to go out and take some photos of the chickens while they were out "free ranging" in our yard. I had to use my zoom lens and sit far enough away from them that they wouldn't freak out. (Though watching them run is hilarious, and they are fast little buggers.) This weekend while they were out, a cardinal landed in our yard with a few other smaller birds and some sparrows. The second the cardinal landed and the chickens noticed, they sprinted toward it and the cardinal got out of dodge, as it saw its doom approach. 

People often ask us what it's like to raise chickens in our backyard, since we live in an urban area and don't have much land. Once they get over the shock that our borough does allow chickens, they have lots of questions. Because Mark is the chickens' primary caregiver, I thought it might be more informative if I "interviewed" him about why we have backyard chickens and what it entails.

What made you decide to raise chickens?
The facile answer is that I’m cheap. Since I love eggs for breakfast, and I refuse to buy the grocery store confinement eggs, I was paying about $5/dozen for eggs from a farmer. I figured that, if I got some chickens of my own, eventually, like any investment, I’d get ahead of the game acquiring my own eggs. In addition to that, I think my Libertarian independent nature likes the idea of being in charge of my own food sources and not being beholden to anyone. It was really nice to think to myself that, when my old farmer was having issues with keeping up with egg supply, I was not worried because I still had my own eggs from my own chickens.

What kind of space and shelter do chickens need?
I guess that depends on who you ask. While chickens are technically a tropical animal, they are amazingly adaptable and the varieties I own (Black Australorp and Ameraucana) are hardy in both hot and cold weather.

As for space, I’m not Tyson, so my answer sure as heck isn’t “just cram them into a cage ‘til no more fit”. From all I’ve heard and read, they really don’t need a ton of space. A couple of square feet per chicken at minimum. Technically, you could keep chickens in a parakeet cage in an apartment, although I wouldn’t recommend it unless you were fastidious about cleaning. The footprint for the henhouse/run I keep my 4 chickens in is around 4 feet by 6 feet. During the winter, they stay in there and are fine. I try to give them veggies and things to peck at so they don’t get bored. I also like to let them out when the weather is nice so they can spread their wings and move around a little more. Chickens do love to tear up gardens beds and such to dust bathe so, while I don’t worry about it now, I will have to fence in the beds when things get warmer and I plant outside.

As for shelter requirements, technically they only need a henhouse. A fenced in run, while a nice protection against predators, isn’t necessary. Within the henhouse they will need nesting boxes to lay eggs (usually one box per few chickens) and then somewhere higher up to roost at night. I also recommend a door on the henhouse that can be closed up at night as a protection against nocturnal predators as well as a windbreak. I also installed vents in mine to give them some air flow, which is very important when it gets hot in summer.

What do they eat?
Chickens are omnivores so I have to chuckle every time I see Perdue bragging about feeding their chickens an all vegetarian diet. Chickens LOVE meat. While I feed them mostly a balanced organic feed, they go nuts over meat scraps. They have even been known to get cannibalistic on an injured member of the flock. I’ve never had this happen but I’ve heard stories. Chickens are really about as close as you get to modern dinosaurs (some studies have shown an evolutionary link between them and T Rex!) and, if you watch them eat meat, you can sure believe it.

Really, chickens are great pre-processors of just about all kinds of kitchen scraps (with the exception of a few things that are poisonous to them like avocados) and generate a prolific amount of waste that is very nitrogen rich and thus can be composted into great fertilizer.

What do you do with their waste?
As I mentioned, chickens produce a lot of waste. A…LOT…OF…WASTE. They pretty much exist to eat, lay eggs, and poop like crazy. Thankfully, their waste is highly prized for its nitrogen content so, once composted, it’s like gold for gardeners (so being called chicken shit really shouldn’t necessarily be an insult!).

I built a couple of giant compost bins from old pallets and am using them to compost down the waste and bedding materials (newspaper, wood shavings, and straw) from when I clean out the coop. It is important to note that you absolutely have to compost the chicken poop though because it is too “hot” (nitrogen rich) right away to immediately apply to gardens. It could burn your plants. 

How much does it cost?
Most of the cost of chicken ownership is front loaded in getting the infrastructure set up for them, such as building and/or acquiring a coop. I used all new materials for mine but even so, including the cost of tools (this was my first carpentry project so I needed several power tools) I think I came in at under $300. Having gotten better at carpentry and more comfortable making my own plans and using reclaimed materials, I could have made a coop for probably a fraction of that. If I had to do it today, I’d go to Construction Junction and buy building supplies. Once you have the infrastructure costs out of the way, you really only maybe need to buy feed (it all depends on how much you let them free range and how much you feed them in scraps) and things like bedding material (which is cheap) and cleaning supplies. The feed I get them costs $25 for a 50 lb bag (and that’s on the expensive end because it is organic) and lasts about 50 days (chickens eat about a quarter pound of feed per chicken, per day). The bedding material of wood shavings is only a few bucks for a bag that lasts several coop cleanings. The bale of straw I bought last year for the nesting boxes still isn’t used up and we’re going on 11 months here.

My chickens probably lay at least 1.5 dozen eggs a week so I figure that, in about a year, they will have paid for themselves.

What have you enjoyed about raising chickens?
There’s a lot to like about raising chickens. I love the fresh eggs. It’s the whole reason I got them. I know where the eggs came from, I know how they ate, and, as such, am not afraid of using them in even raw egg applications like eggnog and Hollandaise sauce. I also love being close to and in charge of my food. It’s the same reason I hunt, fish, and garden. I like being responsible for what I eat. I enjoy educating others about chickens as well. It’s a hoot to see people the first time they come over and go see the chickens in the run. Most people have never been so close to a farm animal before. Finally, a nice side effect of it is bartering. I didn’t get chickens for this purpose but, since they lay eggs quicker than I can eat them, I get extras that I give to the neighbors to chicken sit when we’re out of town and trade to friends as well (such as a buddy who hunts elk and such and has given me some delicious steaks in return for some eggs).

What has been the hardest part?
Chickens are pretty easy animals to raise and care for. There isn’t a lot to hate. There’s a couple small downsides to it but the good outweighs the bad. Chickens can be loud sometimes. Even without a rooster present, a lot of times one of the hens will kind of take on that role and can make a heck of a racket sometimes. Cleaning the coop, which, in summer, I do every couple of weeks, is a dirty job. Finally, if you are someone who likes to sleep in, chickens might not be for you. Once the sun is up, they want out of the henhouse and dawn comes earlier than you might think.

As long as you don’t mind spending an hour or so every couple weeks cleaning out the coop (and there are bedding methods such as “deep litter” that let you stretch out the period between cleanings much longer) and don’t mind rising with the sun, chickens are a great way to take control of the food you eat and truly feel a connection to it. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pennsylvania HB 683 - Open letter to my legislator

I've never written an original letter to my elected representatives before. I've sent form emails that other companies encouraged me to use, but I've never taken the time to write my own letter. PA's House of Representatives convenes again next week, and I decided that I should contact my representative to let him know how I feel about House Bill 683 - PA's proposed Ag-Gag law. My letter appears below. Feel free to use my letter or amend it to send to your representative. Don't let this bill fly under the radar. (My husband wrote his own letter, and already received a response from our representative, who didn't know what the bill was and wanted to learn more. He actually called him in person. Contacting your representatives matters.)


Dear Representative _______, 

My name is Joanna Taylor Stone, and I'm writing to express my vehement opposition to PA House Bill No. 683, regarding “the offense of interfering with agricultural operations,” sent to Judicial Review Committee in February 2013.

I work for a health system, and as part of my employment, I know that I am covered by whistleblower protections that exist to allow me to feel confident to report fraud or waste as it pertains to the use of government money. House Bill No. 683 would strip away whistleblower protections for workers in agricultural operations intending to document animal abuse and cruelty (animals that end up in our food supply), food safety violations, workplace violations or environmentally destructive practices. Even the transmission of this information would be outlawed, which does not encourage media outlets to be able to communicate this information to consumers.

We as citizens know that the best defense to libel is the truth. If an agricultural company has nothing to hide in its facilities, it shouldn’t matter if the daily operations are documented. Transparency leads to quality and safety in any industry, and that is especially the case for agriculture, as what we don’t know could kill us. Hidden camera investigations are one of the most useful tools in eliminating fraud and mistreatment. Consult any number of videos taken on farms right here in Pennsylvania and you will see that it is imperative that what goes on behind these closed doors is exposed for consumers to see. Only then can we make informed choices as to whether or not to support corporations who abuse animals, workers and the environment to achieve their profit margins.

As a resident of _____, you represent me in the PA House. One of the hallmarks of our democracy is the right to free speech. Ag-gag laws that attempt to silence those who would speak up and expose fraud and abuse are an egregious violation of that right.

I urge you to do what you can to oppose this bill and encourage your colleagues to do so as well. 

Thank you for your time,

Joanna Taylor Stone

Friday, April 5, 2013

Ag-Gag Undercover

Perhaps what I want the most from our industrial food system is transparency. I think if everyone knew how our food gets to us, and how the system works from the inside out, we would be able to stand up and demand more of these companies. 

But how do people know what is happening if it becomes illegal to show what goes on there by taking photographs or videos? How do we know what is happening when a worker would have to risk going to jail to expose the conditions in which he/she works? 

Laws are being considered by many states, Pennsylvania included, that would make it a crime to "interfere with agricultural operations" by taking still images or video recordings inside industrial agricultural facilities. Some of these laws would also make it a crime to share them, so media organizations would potentially face felony charges as well. They are called Ag-Gag laws, since they aim to silence anyone who tries to show the hard truth about what happens in these confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and industrial farms. 

No federal laws exist governing animal cruelty when it comes to agriculture, and any state laws are typically very weak (having been watered down by lobbyists from the industry). Finding no help in the law, many people take to hidden camera investigations and publish the findings, hoping to try the factory farms in the court of public opinion. 

In a country that zealously guards its rights to free speech, how can we consider punishing someone with felony charges for telling the truth? How can the federal government subsidize through the Farm Bill an industrial food system that isn't open to public scrutiny and in fact does everything it can to keep its operations behind closed doors?

I recently came across this article in The Atlantic concerning Ag-Gag laws, by someone who took undercover footage while working at a pig farm right here in Pennsylvania. I followed the link to the video that the author published through Mercy For Animals. 

I'm going to be perfectly honest. I have seen documentaries and undercover footage from industrial farms before. It's what got me to start considering the realities of what I was eating. But each time I see these videos, I have to pause them after a minute or two to close my eyes and wish I hadn't seen it. Because once you see it, you can't forget it. To think that we let this happen simply so we can buy cheap bacon.

I've embedded the video below. Watch what you can. Sadly, there are hundreds more just like it. 

The next time that you hear of an Ag-Gag law being proposed where you live, call your government officials and spread the word to anyone that will listen that we have to stand up to protect the truth.