Potatoes in the Basement

Our basement is our root cellar, among other things.  Because of all the potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and garlic spread around the floor on tarps, it’s hard to navigate down there.  I love being able to go downstairs and come back up with potatoes we grew.  I just had some of them for breakfast.

When I was a little boy there was a building on my Grandpa’s farm that we called the “potato house.”  I well remember getting up potatoes and putting them there for storage.  I also remember my Granny sending me out with a basket to bring some in for cooking. Our basement serves as our potato house.

It’s important to let potatoes fully dry and cure for storage.  We spread ours out and use box fans to dry them for a couple of weeks.  After they’ve cured it’s best to put them in crates or mesh bags and keep them somewhere dark.  I haven’t done that with ours yet and some are starting to sprout as a result.

By early spring they’ll still be edible, even if starting to get a little spongy.  Potatoes have kept homesteaders fed through winter for a long time.  It’s important to save enough of them for planting in the spring. Seed potatoes are something you should only buy once.

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Food Safety?

Chris Blanchard has authored an interesting editorial in the latest issue of Growing For Market regarding the Food Safety Modernization Act. I’ve blogged about my objections to the Act several times.  In his editorial Mr. Blanchard goes beyond merely objecting to provisions of the Act which threaten the viability of small farms, and challenges the underlying rationale for it, arguing that it’s more about “food safety theater” than food safety, and that it’s about “maintaining the perception of food safety for the large corporations and trial lawyers.”  Here’s a bit of his editorial:

We already have safe food. Even the large, centralized mega-farms and distribution centers in the desert west produce safe food. In 2006, over 50 billion servings of fresh-cut salad greens and spinach were sold in this country – but an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak that fall killed five people, and spinach sales still haven’t recovered to a pre-2006 level.

Even at that, the Food Safety Modernization Act is not about keeping people safe. If it were, it would regulate all fruits and vegetables, instead of just “covered produce” – those items likely to be consumed raw. If I’m the rare weirdo who eats my beets raw and I die from salmonella poisoning, I’m just as dead as I would be if I got it from salad mix.

And if it were really about food safety, instead of food safety theatre, it wouldn’t exempt anyone: Small farms aren’t necessarily safer than big farms, they are just more likely to fly under the radar of epidemiological methods. Instead, the FSMA is about maintaining the perception of food safety for the large corporations and the trial lawyers.

The people who die in food safety outbreaks are not, by and large, young and healthy. In the 2011 Cantaloupe- Listeria outbreak, the median age of those who died was 81 years. It was the same in the 2006 spinach outbreak. This is the same as the average age of California residents who died from influenza and pneumonia between 2000 and 2007. We don’t have a fresh produce food safety crisis in this country, any more than we have an influenza and pneumonia crisis.

While I’m glad that our farm is exempt (for now at least), the question of why farms whose customers are nearby are allowed to farm in ways that would be deemed “unsafe” by farms whose customers are more distant, seems legitimate and puzzling.  But as I’ve mentioned before, the FDA estimates that the cost of complying with the Act will be over $4,600 for “very small farms,” enough to render many of them nonviable.

The editorial mentions another provision of the Act that will adversely affect us, and to which I hadn’t previously paid any attention.

The moment you handle another farm’s produce, you fall under the much more stringent Preventive Controls Rule. So, if you trim the outer leaves from a head of lettuce from another farm on your farm – or even cool a head of lettuce for another farm, or put a head of somebody else’s lettuce in your CSA box – you are engaged in “processing” and thus subject to a whole different level of regulation.

We don’t use or handle produce from other farms, but one of our best customers is another farm in our community.  That farm often buys produce from us to use in their CSA shares or to sell at their farmer’s market.  Under this law, they probably won’t be able to continue legally doing so.

Mr. Blanchard’s conclusion:  “We’re looking at unfettered enforcement of vague regulations based on outdated science to make it look like we are making our food safe.”

I’m sure that many of the folks who have been involved in getting this Act passed and implemented are well-intentioned.  But as is often the case, the unintended consequences of a government fix may end up being worse than the problem they were trying to solve.  And in this case maybe there was never a problem to begin with.

Goat

It’s likely that the folks reading this post don’t regularly eat goat meat.  In fact, it’s likely that the reader very rarely eats it, if ever.

But for much of the world, goat is the primary meat source, rather than swine or cattle. There are good reasons for this.  Some cultures disapprove of eating pork (or have never made it part of their customary diet).  Goats thrive on terrain that would be inhospitable to cattle.  In places that don’t have freezers and refrigeration the meat of slaughtered animals must be eaten right away and it’s a lot easier for a family or village to consume a goat than a cow.  And some folks just prefer the taste of goat.

Believe it or not, the United States imports more goat meat than any other country. Even though much of our country does not traditionally eat goat, the supply of goats raised in the U.S. can’t meet demand.  The demand is driven principally by the so-called “ethnic market”, primarily Latin Americans and Muslims.  Almost half of the goat meat sold in the U.S. is sold in the major cities of the Northeast.

Most of the goat meat eaten in the U.S. comes from Australia and New Zealand, the world’s largest exporters of goat meat.  Large feral herds supply most of the goats slaughtered there, making their cost of production very low.  Thus inexpensive frozen goat meat in New York City, for example, originates two hemispheres away.

We raise Boer goats, which are regarded by most as the premier meat goat.  We have Mexican-American customers who buy off the farm.  It is traditional to barbecue a goat as part of birthday celebrations, and they want a good-looking healthy animal for the party, not frozen meat from feral Australian goats.  The kids we can’t sell off the farm go to the livestock market.  A few end up as breeding stock or 4-H projects, but most end up in “ethnic” markets in the Northeast.

We’ve never offered cuts of goat meat, but I’m thinking of doing that next year.  I’m sure there are folks who’d like goat, but don’t want a whole one (and don’t want to slaughter it themselves).

I have to admit to being a little uncomfortable with selling our goats that way.  Goats are wonderful creatures, with individual personalities.  While I realize that keeping all the billy goats born here would create chaos in the pasture, it’s a lot easier mentally to send them off alive than it would be to slaughter them (even though I’m well aware of their destiny).  We try not to become attached to the young males, but nevertheless market day is always a bit unsettling to me.  I’m sure taking them to the processor (a modern euphemism for “butcher”), will be even more so.

No doubt some folks who are reading this are aghast at the thought that we would slaughter our goats.  All I can say to that is that I greatly admire people (like my wife and daughter) who have chosen to be vegetarian.  May their tribe increase.  But for the rest of us, it’s good to have a source of meat from animals raised humanely and ethically.  And as a farmer who takes animal husbandry very seriously, I know that we cannot keep the male kids without having perpetual war in the pasture.

Many times folks who have asked about our goats have seemed horrified to learn that they are meat goats.  “Why don’t you raise dairy goats,” they’ll often ask.  Implicit in the question is an accusation that by raising meat goats we are showing ourselves to be less compassionate than farmers who raise dairy goats.  When they ask that question,  I  respond by asking them if they know what happens to the male kids on dairy goat farms.  Of course they never do.  While our male kids live happy lives romping about our farm for three months or more, male dairy goat kids are killed at birth.  A farm manual I have recommends bashing them in the head with a hammer. When I tell folks that,  it usually puts to rest the idea that raising dairy goats is more humane than raising meat goats (it also should raise some issues for milk-drinking vegetarians, but I’ll save that discussion for another day).

I love our goats, but I’ve never eaten one.  Plenty of people have, however, and I know that when they did they were nourished by goats that lived healthy, happy lives.

So if there’s anyone out there in internetland who eats goat meat, I recommend you find a local goat farm and source your meat from there.  You’ll be helping a local farmer and helping break a system that sends goat meat over 10,000 miles to the consumer.

A New Season

The rhythm of life on the farm changes with the seasons. Now the days are shorter and colder.  We’re beginning to put the gardens to bed for the winter.  In those that are still producing food, we don’t have to worry much about weeds and pests. Things are slowing down.  Nature is calling for a time of rest.

But even as some tasks become less urgent or unnecessary, others rise in importance. Our woodshed, neglected by me during the busyness of summer, now stands empty. So every day I have to go cut the wood for that day’s heat.  That’s not a sensible system.  A few days devoted to cutting wood are in order.

It’s also time to bushhog the hayfields, laying them to rest until spring.  That project will take several days to finish and it has not yet begun.

Deer season has arrived.  Now is the time to stock our freezer with the only red meat I eat.  And this year we are going to start making our own venison dog food for Ginny.  So it’s time to add hunting to my to-do list.

Once the woodshed and freezer are full, and the fields are mowed, for a while we won’t have much to do other than keeping the fire going and keeping the animals fed. That’s when we’ll bring out the seed catalogues and prepare to start all over again.

It’s a beautiful and natural rhythm.

Cultivate Gratitude

Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Writing Discipline

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m finishing up a master’s degree in theological studies. At this point all my course work is done.  All I have left is to produce a thesis.  My topic–where the work of John Wesley would locate him within the contemporary food movement–has been approved. The project is outlined and the research is finished.

Now I’ve just got to get it finished.  Setting it all to paper is taking longer than I thought it would.

I’m not dealing with the classic Diablo Blanco.  I’ve started it and it’s all in my head. What I need is a writing discipline.  Instead of writing when the farming is done, maybe for a while I need to farm when the writing is done.

Hopefully in a few months I’ll be celebrating the completion of it.

In the meantime, it’s time to get to writing.

Farmland Price Boom

The prices being paid for midwest commodity-crop farmland continue to skyrocket.

The price of cropland in Indiana has increased 14.5% over the last 12 months.  That’s modest.  South Dakota cropland is up more than 30%  and North Dakota cropland is up a whopping 41.5%.   The price of Nebraska cropland has doubled over the past three years.  The story is the same throughout the grain belt.

In Iowa farmland prices  have increased 265% from 2004 to 2012 (as net farm income skyrocketed 340%).

iowa 49 2003

Throughout the five state district comprised of Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, farmland prices have increased 14% in just the last quarter (July 1, 2013 to October 1, 2013).   In southern Indiana and Illinois prices paid for farmland have increased 21-26%, over the last three months alone.

An article I read in the industrial-ag publication Progressive Farmer mentions a tract in Missouri that changed hands six times in the last 12 months, doubling in price. One person interviewed for the article complained, “Five million dollars won’t buy much these days.”

As Joel Salatin likes to say, “Folks, this ain’t normal.”