Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Back from India just in time for Spring

Back from abroad!  I had the good fortune to spend two weeks in India early this month.  Culture shock was immediate and eye opening.  The biggest thing that I took away from my trip was just how amazingly well things just sort of...worked.   India wasnt pretty, despite what the photo above shows.  It was chaotic, busy, acrid, depressing, exciting, exhilarating, tasty, maddening, philosophical, and did I mention chaotic?

One commonality I found between New Delhi, Calcutta and the "small" town of Jamshedpur was just how good the food was everywhere I went.  Street vendors, restaurants, roadside markets, intensively farmed plots next to the airport in Calcutta, gardens, everywhere you looked there was food.   It is very easy to be vegetarian in India.  My last few hours in Calcutta were at the hotel where a big fertilizer company was having a convention.  I suppose a country of over a billion people cant exist without quite a bit of energy directed at the production of food.

India is in a part of the world where they go for months without much rain to periods where they pray the rain will stop. This makes farming extremely difficult.  Drought to flood.  No fun.  Ive seen that at work here.  The biggest thing I took away was that the people I saw were all working as "organically" as possible.  These are people with no money for pesticides, fertilizers, tractors or even tools.  Yet, they were growing some of the most beautiful crops, intensively cultivated by hand.

Makes me wonder how we can do better here with the "advantages" that technology provides for us.  But is technology REALLY helping us, or do we use it as a crutch?  Are the methods we use for commercial agriculture really helping us "feed the world" or is the world already feeding itself nicely, thank you?   Industrial agriculture surely can produce massive amounts of products that are used less as whole foods but as ingredients in industry.  

I had a wonderful phone call today with a prospective customer.  We spoke at length about the idea of "organic" in the marketplace.  I know I have posted about this before, but it is definitely worth another post.  Just what is "organic"?  Is it a worthwhile goal to produce organically?   Are we better off eating organics?  Are conventional foods harming us?

I think that my philosophy on food should be made more clearly.  Im always wide open to change.  I know Im not always in the right.  I have plenty of ideas on how to do things better.  Always question your assumptions!  So, here goes: As far as growing vegetables, we use no fertilizers or pesticides or fungicides that are not approved for use in USDA Certified Organic operations.   We do use a very small percentage of seeds that are NOT certified organic, mostly if we cant find a variety that has been grown organically somewhere else.   Our beef and lamb are entirely grass-fed.  We do not spray our pastures with herbicides, or chemical fertilizers or anything else for that matter.  We do spread lime in order to bring the pH of the soil up closer to neutral.  We may at some time in the future apply chicken manure or fish emulsion or raw milk to the pastures or perhaps some other minerals if we find our soil testing shows deficiencies.  

As far as poultry, well, here is where I feel some pressure to do better.  I do NOT feed organic feed to my chickens.  The cost is nearly double for the feed.  I would have to raise my egg prices up to about 8 dollars a dozen to make it worthwhile.   My feeling is that the chickens diet is supplemented with pasture plants and bugs and worms and sunshine for vitamin D, and that is what makes the difference between my product and what you can find in the stores.  HOWEVER, I am fully aware of the problems involved with GMO corn.  I know I have had interest from one or two people in the past year looking for GMO-free and also Corn and Soy-free rations for the birds.  I really do want to switch over to all organic feeds for my birds, but the price has been prohibitive.  Im already charging more for my chickens than most people.  And Im definitely not getting rich!  Its probably the one thing I would change if the demand was there for all organic chickens and eggs.  

There are so many people claiming so many different things about organic foods.  Let me give you my perspective.  I could be wrong.  Please feel free to go all Chuck Norris on me in the comments!  My view is that the pesticides and herbicides that are in the food system most probably have little effect on any of us when we consume them.  We rinse them off, scrub the apples, etc. and 99% of the sprays wash off.  Most sprays are not approved for spraying on the fruits or veggies themselves within a certain period before harvest.  So, the impact on our health is probably minimal.  That does not mean that some people are not sensitive to these chemicals.  My motivation for growing organically is not necessarily for my own health but for the health of the environment.  I have more issues with runoff into streams and the bay and effects on pesticides with other creatures who interact directly with them.  

I make no claim as to the health benefits of Organics.  Im happy growing them for the environment, not for my own health.  Perhaps there are more benefits than I know about.  Im happy to raise grass-fed beef and lamb because I know that it makes no sense to use fossil fuels to bring the food to the animals when we can easily bring the animals to the food!  So they grow a little slower.  Better slower growth than all the associated issues with fossil fuels and their costs.  It just makes sense.  Its also much more sustainable.

My view is that sustainability is more important in the long run than anything else.  Chickens are particularly problematic for me.  Chickens have been bred over the last 60 plus years to grow fast on corn.  Plain and simple, the heritage breeds we have today are nothing like their ancestors.  These heritage breeds today are improved and have been selected to grow well on corn.  Great Grandma's backyard flocks were hardly fed, they were skinny, scrawny, and had lousy egg production.   People didnt get 6 pound broiler chickens.  At best they had 2.5 pound chickens!  And the chicken was tough.  It was not the chicken we have today.  Any animal that needs corn represents a problem to me.  I will keep a small flock of layers, but Im not very interested in the long term sustainability of chickens in the US.  Grass-fed lamb and beef is the way to go.  

So, lots of splainin' today.  Im ready for the season to start!  Im all fired up!


Anonymous said...

Cant wait for the CSA to start. Glad you had a great time. Lambing should start anyday for me. Hope all is well and hope the bookfair went well too. Brian H.

LindaG said...

We don't have any chickens yet, and hubby's grandma - the person who raised his chickens - has long since passed on, unfortunately; so I read as much as I can to learn what I can now.
And I've read a few people say they get good results from black oil sunflower seeds; but I don't know if this is in addition to cracked corn or instead of it.

As for food, the way I see it, the more commercial and 'technological' our food has become, the less healthy we, as a whole, have become. Somehow, I don't think it's just coincidence.
Good luck this season!

Anonymous said...

I feed my hens Blue Seal organic while I wait for Countryside Naturals (soy-free and organic) to make pellets. They get our leftovers and I give them as many greens as I can get my hands on for them, since they can't free-range all day.
I wish I could buy some sort of chicken feed that had animal protein in it and that it was not a "by-product". I toss them dry cat food sometimes but that has chicken in it...even though they would eat each other I don't necessarily want to feed them chicken.

LindaG--you can't feed them only sunflower seeds but you can toss that to them as scratch.

As for the organic part: even though they say that the sprays shouldn't be applied a certain number of days before harvest, we all know the follow-up and regulation is not what it should be. I wash everything organic and not. Plus I don't trust the source unless I KNOW the source like I know you and Annette.

SteveandAlina said...

Love your focus on sustainability and care for the environment. Thanks for all the hard work you do!