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This is Everything You Want to Know About Farming

There are way more than eleven dirty little farming secrets but for now, we will only deal with eleven. The eleven farming secrets I have chosen will make you a better shopper and better able to make the right food choices for your family. Advertisers want you to think they know what is best for you and they will go to great lengths to prove it. The internet stories are abundant on farming.

Not all of the information on the internet is true. Say what? This is especially true when it comes to farming. Most people come with preconceived notions of what is true in farming and that’s how they make food buying decisions. But what if you had truer information than the average consumer? You would spend your food $$$ wiser and with more clarity. Well, hold on to your seats because it’s about to get real in here. Forget the pretty farmhouses with white picket fences and the clean animals eating grass on pasture. Forget the notion that all farmers tell the truth and grow or raise with the same principles you have. You need to know the questions to ask your farmer before you buy a thing from him or her. In no particular order of importance, let’s get started formulating those questions.

1. Not Every Farmers’ Market is a Producer’s Market

Every farm stand in a farmers’ market looks basically the same. The farmers load their tables with the best product they have. They pick out the brightest colors and they pile it up to make it look inviting, You say what could be wrong with that?  Well, all farming is not created equal. All farms are not created equal and the stuff they sell isn’t either. Most farmers’ markets have a portion of tables where the product sold is not raised/grown locally. In fact, it may not even have been grown/raised in this country. It is pretty and probably cheap but cheap food has a very real cost. Just because they are selling produce or meat at a farmers’ market does not mean they are even farming or that they are farmers.

            Ask Your Farmer

If you ask, the vendors probably won’t know how the product is grown/raised. That’s because they probably didn’t grow/raise the product. They bought it at auction. Probably at the same place that grocery store buyers and large restaurants buy their stuff. It doesn’t matter if it is vegetables or meat. The result is the same. Farming practices of unknown standards are questionable at best. However, you will never know because they can’t answer your questions. Look at all the pretty peppers piled high in April in Missouri. They have vegetables that are out of season for the area. It is your job to know what is in season and when it is available in your area. If they say they grew them in a greenhouse ask a little bit about their growing practices. If they really are the grower they should be happy to talk about the way they grow and even be passionate or animated while talking. That holds with meat as well.

Asking questions puts the farmer on the spot. You can tell if the farmer is making up a story or telling you the real truth about their farming practices. If they are being truthful and trustworthy support them with everything that is within your ability. Like and share their Facebook posts, share their e-mails, tell your friends and family and most importantly buy from them. Their livelihood depends on it. If you don’t that farm may not be there when you need it.

2. Animals in Confinement

Many people today want to put the human condition onto livestock. Animals are not humans and if you are an omnivore that distinction is important. Meat does not magically appear wrapped in plastic in the grocery store. Well, it doesn’t do that in the farmers’ freezers either. To put meat on your table, an animal has to die. That is a fact of farming life. That’s why in farming we need to respect the life of the animals that are giving up their lives to feed us. Small farms set themselves apart in this aspect of farming. Large farms have an economy of scale working to their advantage. On a large farm, a certain amount of loss is acceptable because of the volume they raise. On a small farm, even a small loss is unacceptable if the farmer wants to continue farming.

            Ask Your Farmer

For the good of the animal or the good of the farm or both animals must sometimes be confined. Let me give you some examples. When weather conditions are unfavorable, i.e. snowy, icy, windy, or excessive heat the farmer may bring the animal in to protect it from the elements. If the farmer does not confine it the animal may injure, make itself sick or even kill itself. Before being put in with existing animals a new animal must be quarantined for a minimum of thirty days to observe the animal and have testing done. The animal may also be a carrier of communicable diseases or may be sick or diseased itself. You cannot always tell by looking at an animal if it is sick or diseased.  For treatment and observation, a sick animal that is exhibiting symptoms should be confined away from the other animals.

So if you see confined animals on a farm or farm tour before jumping to conclusions ask why the animal is confined. A good farmer cares more about excellent livestock management practices than appearances.

3. Heritage Purebreds are Not Always Better — Why We Have Cross-Breeds

If they have been bred without adding another breed to their genetics even Heritage Purebred animals have their problems. Crossbred vigor helps reduce illness, disease, and parasite load. That is part of what allows us to treat animals holistically. Animals that have good health traits bred in are less susceptible to disease or parasites in the first place. Our breeding animals are two full-blooded Heritage breeds but animals being raised for meat are a cross between those Heritage breeds. This also allows us to breed for the best traits of certain breeds. By doing this we have produced a hardier animal, more efficient feed conversion, better mothering abilities, better foragers, healthier animals, and a better-tasting bite.

             Ask Your Farmer

When choosing breeds much is dependent on the geographical location of the farm and the management practices of the farmer. To make informed food choices, you need to get the right information. Ask your farmer what specific traits he/she was looking for when he/she chose the breeds they are raising. Weigh the answers to your questions against your values for humane management in farming, the animal’s ability to be raised in a natural environment (expressing its’ unique animalness), and the nutrition and taste your family is looking for,

4. What Your Meat Eats

Animal diet is probably the single most important aspect of animal husbandry and probably the most overlooked by farmers. At different stages of growth, each specific animal has different nutritional needs and these needs must be met to ensure proper development. For each different animal’s age, an age-appropriate feed is required. Ruminants should have limited/no grain depending on the animal’s condition and hay/pasture availability and quality. Trusting the big feed companies to make a feed that is nutritious without medications/antibiotics and synthetic additives and minerals is an impossible premise.

Developing a feed ration that uses wholesome ingredients with no artificial additives, is age and species-appropriate, and will deliver a superior tasting meat or egg product is no easy task. Also, it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to provide quality salt, minerals, and grit for chickens. These and amino acids contribute to the quality of the end product and quality animals=quality meat. Everything that goes into the feeding of an animal ends up in the meat from that animal. Just think — medications, GMO soy and corn, pesticide residue, and growth hormones could potentially be in the meat you eat courtesy of the feed that animal ate.

               Ask Your Farmer

Make sure to ask your farmer what animal feeds they use including the brand name. Ask them if the animals have free-choice access to the supplements they need and what are the sources of those supplements. After you are given that information do your own research. Look up the brands on the internet and find the label information. Take notes. Then ask yourself if those are things you would want on your plate. If not find another farmer and do the same thing again. Rinse and repeat. Then when you find your farmer buy all your meat from them, you will feel better and so will your farmer.

5. Pesticides/Herbicides/Hormones/Antibiotics

Here is a dirty secret that not many people talk about. It gets swept under the rug as we buy the meat and vegetables we love from the farmers’ market. We assume that smaller farms grow organically and use none of the above. However, remember the example above about vendors selling at the farmers market who buy at auction well they are not farmers but sellers and likely do not know what’s in the food they are selling. Then there are the farmers who use pesticides and herbicides on their vegetable crop because God forbid you should have an insect or a weed. I will let you in a secret here some consumers are also to blame because we need beautiful produce without a blemish and that can only be achieved by spraying. So we need to cherish the ugly vegetables and buy them when we see them.

If we knew hormones and antibiotics were in our meat, eggs, and dairy products we would not like it. Not even a little. But you cannot see them. You have to ask. Poultry, by law, cannot be fed growth hormones yet companies advertise that their products do not contain them. Sorta like gluten-free where gluten does not exist naturally. Besides growth hormones, you can also count on eating pesticide residues. You cannot convince me that a ruminant animal needs to be fed GMO corn and soy to maintain condition or to taste good or to be tender. You will convince me that farmers who know what they are doing prove that theory wrong every day. Pigs and chickens eat more GMO corn and soy than any other livestock and they thrive without either. I have seen it work. I have done it.

               Ask Your Farmer

Before buying those vegetables ask if they have been sprayed with anything. Even the sprays used by Organic farmers have lasting effects on the environment and your health. Ask them about the methods they use to combat weed and insect pressure on crops. Find out from the person selling meat what they feed their animals and if they use growth hormones. Always question whether any dairy products were fed and the source. If it is conventional dairy you can be sure it contains the growth hormone bovine somatotropin (also called bGH, rbGH, bST, or bST). It is given to cows to make them mature faster and produce more milk. Be sure to ask about any medications that have been given to the animal and how long before slaughter they were given. Make sure that the farmers’ methods of feeding and treatment align with your values. If they do support that farmer with your food $$$.

6. Eggs – Cage-Free/Free-Range/Pastured and Then White or Brown

Here’s where it starts to get good. Few consumers are aware of the different egg labels and what they mean. So let’s examine them closer. Most people think free-range is the right choice because they think that the birds are running around all day being chickens. Commercially that couldn’t be further from the truth. Free-range means they have access to a small outside porch with barely enough room to turn around. Then there is cage-free. That simply means the birds are raised in a large building without windows and artificial light with thousands of birds and generally have no access to the outside. Pastured eggs are usually raised on pasture and the chickens’ pens are moved daily. There currently is no industry standard for pastured eggs.

People love the notion of vegetarian-fed chickens, however, chickens are omnivores. The word omnivore comes from the Latin words Omni, meaning “everything or all” and Vorare which means “to devour.” Chickens are like little dinosaurs who eat both vegetables and meat. They will eat worms, bugs, small frogs, and mice. If chickens are raised on grass it is impossible and in buildings, it is ill-advised to keep them on a vegetarian diet. In all probability, if it says vegetarian-fed on the label the chicken that laid those eggs never saw the light of day.

There is much debate on the internet and elsewhere about brown vs. white eggs and on a commercial egg-laying operation, there is no difference. Not in nutrition, quality, or taste. That’s because the hens laying the eggs are all commercial hybrid breeds. Egg color is determined by the color of the earlobe and the breed of chicken’s earlobe

               Ask Your Farmer

Buy your eggs direct from a farmer to ensure you are getting the freshest eggs possible and the most humanely raised. Be sure to ask your farmer how his egg-laying chickens are housed. Look for farmers that actually free-range on grass that provides a balanced diet and allows the bird to forage for some of its’ diet. Pastured chickens that are moved daily are also a good choice. Here a farm tour can go a long way to showing you they can be trusted. Also, ask what breed of chickens they have and why they chose those breeds. You may be pleased to find out their white eggs come from rare breeds and not commercial Leghorns.

7. GMO Truths – Hybrids/GMOS and Heirlooms/Open-Pollinated

Hybrid Seeds. Genetically modified (GMO) seeds. Heirloom seeds. Open-Pollinated Seeds. These labels are confusing. Every day some well-meaning reader leaving a comment like this one: “GMOs are perfectly safe. Farmers and gardeners have been cross-breeding seeds like this for thousands of years. Take off your tinfoil hats, people! Um… no. Just no. Farmers and gardeners have NOT been cross-breeding seeds like this for thousands of years. What those well-intentioned readers fail to understand is the fundamental difference between hybrid seeds and GMOs.

There has been much controversy lately regarding Genetically Modified Organisms. I believe they are here to stay and I say Just Label It! Arm yourself with the truth and you will be able to make important food choices and you can pass on the correct information to others. There is no debate here that GMOs are evil. I believe that they are and there is enough independent research to back that up. This is about defining GMOS and why they are different from hybrids. First, there are no GMO seeds available to the home gardener. However, if you are trying to avoid lining Monsanto’s pockets with more $$$ you can find out more about the Safe Seed Pledge here http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/pageDocuments/MDY2JSPBRC.pdf and check out this list of seed companies that have signed the pledge here http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/viewpage.aspx?pageId=261

GMOs vs Hybrids

Here is the dictionary GMO definition. The abbreviation for a genetically modified organism. A GMO is an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering so that its DNA contains one or more genes not normally found there. Note: A high percentage of food crops, such as corn and soybeans, are genetically modified.

Patience is a virtue when developing hybrid seeds. Wikipedia says “In agriculture and gardening, hybrid seed is seed produced by cross-pollinated plants. Hybrid seed production is predominant in modern agriculture and home gardening. It is one of the main contributors to the dramatic rise in agricultural output during the last half of the 20th century. All of the hybrid seeds planted by the farmer will produce similar plants, while the seeds of the next generation from those hybrids will not consistently have the desired characteristics. Hybrids are chosen to improve the characteristics of the resulting plants, such as better yield, greater uniformity, improved color, disease resistance.”

The difference is there is no DNA manipulation in hybrid seeds that are not naturally occurring in hybrids. Unfortunately, because GMOs aren’t currently labeled in the U.S., you have no way of knowing whether or not you’re eating them. Roughly 85% of all grocery store foods contain GMOs, and there are only a handful of sure-fire ways to avoid them:

1. Opt to buy single-ingredient certified organic food.
2. Choose Non-GMO Verified labeled foods.

Open-Pollination vs Heirlooms

However, if you really want to protect the diversity of our seeds and the varieties that have been passed down through generations and have unique flavors, colors and textures choose open-pollinated or heirloom seeds.

  • Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms.
    • Open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year.
  • An heirloom variety is a plant variety that has a history of being passed down to a family or community.
    • An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. While some companies create heirloom labels based on dates (such as a variety that is more than 50 years old), Seed Savers Exchange identifies heirlooms by verifying and documenting the generational history of preserving and passing on the seed.
                 Ask Your Farmer

Know your farmer and ask pointed questions about his or her growing practices, then opt to support GMO-free growing. Ask your meat farmer what they feed their livestock and if that feed contains GMO ingredients. Support farmers and their farming practices of contributing to biodiversity and local adaptation by using open-pollinated seeds and by saving those seeds. If you would like to try taste that is as old as agriculture seek out heirloom seed varieties and the interest they bring to your culinary adventure.

8. Land Costs/Inherited Land – Paying the Bills

Here are some interesting facts from the most recent census taken by the USDA in 2012:

  • The total number of farmers in the United States fell by 95,000 since the 2007 Census of Agriculture. At the same time, the total number of minority farmers grew – nearly 97,000 of them checked a race box other than “white” on their census forms. That’s a 6.9 percent increase from 2007.
  • The population of Asian farmers grew by 21.9 percent, the fastest rate of any minority group, up from 11,214 in 2007 to 13,699 in 2012. More than one-third of Asian farmers in the United States live in California.
  • The number of farmers of Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino origin also rose by just over 20 percent over the same period, up to a total of 67,014 – 22,353 of whom live in Texas.
  • Although the supposed rise of “mega-farms” receives a lot of press, 75 percent of all American farms grossed less than $50,000 in 2012, and just 4 percent grossed more than $1 million.
  • Just over half (52 percent) of the 2.1 million farmers in 2012 reported that farming is their secondary occupation. More than three-quarters of all farmers, though, have been at it for 10 or more years.
  • The United States had 95,000 fewer farms in 2012 than it did in 2007 and 7.5 million fewer acres of farmland. That’s equivalent to more than 11,700 square miles – an area only slightly smaller than the entire state of Maryland.
  • Over that same period, the average farm size increased slightly from 414 acres to 434 acres, while the median farm size held steady at just 80 acres.

One thing that might keep some young people out of farming could be the barriers to entry – land prices have skyrocketed in recent years, and some equipment, like tractors, can cost thousands of dollars. A lot of younger farmers have started farming on inherited land from their farming relatives. Some have started on leased land. Some have gotten government loans.

Paying the Bills

Farming is a business. Let that sink in. No matter how passionate the farmer, no matter how much they love farming, no matter how much they love their animals, farmers have to pay the bills. Farming requires a great deal of money to stay afloat. Infrastructures such as fencing and gates, equipment such as tractors, feeders, waterers, and seeders, and ongoing expenses such as livestock feed, feed supplements, and hay cost astronomical amounts of money. Profit margins are slim. Electricity, insurance, and spoilage just make it worse. Farmers must get the prices they ask or risk literally “Losing the Farm”. Also, realize for every layer of clean eating it costs the farm another layer of spending. Some examples of those layers are Organic, soy-free, free-range, grass-fed, Heritage, or Heirloom. You get the idea.

               Ask Your Farmer

Showing a very real and vested interest in your farmer and their farming journey will open your eyes to their very real struggles. Make sure to ask your farmer how he/she started farming. Ask how you can help support his bottom line. Usually, buying their product is number one but not always. You can ask him/her about ballot issues that affect them and candidates that support the food movement. Be sure to follow through with your plan of action. Your farmer and their business depend on it.

9. The High Cost of Cheap Food – Government Regulations/Subsidies/Farm Bill/Health Costs

Americans love cheap food. Most big-box grocery stores and chain fast food places are counting on it.

Americans spend less money as a percentage of income on food than people of any other country in the world. On average, only 6% of our household budget goes to pay for food, compared to the French, who eat through 14% of their income, or the Kenyans, who spend 45% of each paycheck on groceries.

Organic is usually slightly higher in price due to slightly lower yields and no subsidies. Small farms are hit harder by government regulations than their larger counterparts.

But even though it seems like we may be saving money on food compared to the rest of the world, what is the real cost of cheap eats? Let’s find out.

  • It Costs Tax Payers — Although fresh produce is out of the budget range of many Americans, the sick irony is that food, especially packaged food, is cheaper in the United States than pretty much anywhere else in the world. This is because the cost of crops like corn is kept artificially low by the government. Food in the United States wasn’t always this cheap, though. In 1960 our grandparents were spending about 17.5% of their income on food. Then, in the 1970s, Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, re-engineered New Deal farm programs that were meant to stabilize the food supply, into a support system for the factory farming of corn and soy. Starting in 1971, crops like corn, soy, and wheat started getting heavily subsidized. Corn farmers can make more money from their government subsidies than by actually selling corn. Of course, since farmers have such a wonderful incentive to grow corn, they grow lots and lots of it.
  • We End Up Spending More Money on Health Care — So how do farmers dispose of their artificially cheap product, paid for, in part, by taxpayer dollars? By selling it to food manufacturers as filler, preservatives, and binding agents. Surprise! All those mystery ingredients listed on food packages like citric acid, fructose, sorbitol, dextrose, lactic acid, MSG, malt, and diglycerides are all corn byproducts. And, each of these non-food ingredients contains calories.
  • We Pay for Cheap Food Twice — Documentary films like Super Size Me and Food Inc. have spotlighted the health consequences of cheap food, especially on America’s poor. But obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are not the only health problems linked to fast food. A Harvard Medical School study also found that children who eat fast food three times a week had increased risks of asthma and eczema. U.S. farmers actually produce the equivalent of 3,800 calories per person per day. This is at least 1,000 calories more per day than is recommended for moderately active people. So is it any wonder that Americans are fat?
  • It Causes Poverty and Hunger — As a result of NAFTA, Mexico has been flooded with cheap, government-subsidized corn from the United States. Mexico, which is the birthplace of corn, now imports a third of its corn from America. There are some huge problems with other nations becoming dependent on subsidized American crops. First, Mexican corn farmers who were unable to compete against the artificially low cost of imported U.S. corn were forced out of business. Obviously, when farmers lose their farms, they don’t grow food to eat, they don’t grow food to sell, and without work, they have no money to buy food. Millions of Mexican farmers lost their jobs due to cheap, imported food. Also, when poor countries become dependent on cheap imported foods, they risk a food crisis when there is a price spike in staple foods. This can lead to widespread hunger, which is what happened in Mexico with corn in 2007 and the Philippines with rice in 2008.
  • The Environmental Cost Is Staggering — To quote FDR, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Farming is difficult and expensive, so many farmers are forced to max out production or go out of business. This ‘go big or go broke’ behavior is not financially or environmentally sustainable. Monoculture farming, although extremely efficient, burns through resources like water and topsoil. Commercial agriculture is currently draining groundwater in the Midwest about eight times faster than rain is putting it back in. This could lead to a second Dust Bowl.
  • Animals Pay the Price — If you forced a dog to live in a small box for its entire life, you could be arrested for animal cruelty and your neighbors would treat you like a pariah. Most people don’t want to think that this kind of torture is the typical experience of factory-farmed chickens, pigs, and cows. Some animals will only see daylight on the day that they are slaughtered. Animal cruelty is the price of cheap meat.
  • The Working Conditions Are Terrible — Animals aren’t the only ones that subsidize low food prices with their bodies. Last year an investigation by The Guardian revealed that much of the shrimp that the U.S. imports from Thailand were the work product of slaves. But slave labor doesn’t just happen in the Third World. Thousands of farmworkers in the United States work in very poor conditions. More than 1,200 people have been rescued from agricultural slavery rings in Florida alone.
  • You Risk Sickness — While Chipotle is blaming its multistate E. Coli outbreak on Australian beef, it’s frankly shocking that this type of mass food poisoning doesn’t happen more often. For starters, it is common practice in the United States to feed cows chicken poop. Also, to cut costs, some slaughterhouses have managed to speed up their kill lines by 50%. Not only does this massive increase in volume result in more food contamination from fecal matter, but also more animal abuse and human rights violations. Stool run-off from factory farming, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in agribusiness parlance, pollute the water table and create dead zones in oceans and rivers
  • We’re Funding the Zombie Apocalypse — One of modern life’s existential horrors is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria caused by antibiotic overuse. So, while parents are becoming more selective about dosing their kids for minor illnesses, these same moms and dads are unaware that livestock in the United States — because the animals are constantly sick from a diet of garbage and from standing in their own waste — is pumped full of antibiotics. In fact, the FDA has confirmed that animal agriculture consumes 80% of all antibiotics used in America. While meat producers argue that they are not breeding superbugs along with their livestock, a team of researchers from the Translational Genomics Research Institute discovered that one in four packages of meat and poultry in the United States contains multidrug-resistant staph bacteria.
  • What Can One Person Do? — Ugh. All of this is terrible. Is it actually possible to eat responsibly without going broke or supporting human trafficking? Here are some things to consider.
  • 1. Don’t Waste Food
  • 2. Eat Healthy on a Budget — Leanne Brown created Good and Cheap, a free online cookbook for people living on the SNAP budget of $4 per day for food. Staying on a budget means cooking with what’s on sale and available.
  • 3. Don’t Eat Factory-Farmed Meat — Livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases. Eat more nutrient-dense meat and you will need a smaller portion size.
  • 4. Drink Less Sugar — Drink water instead of sugar-laden drinks.
  • 5. Shop Seasonally — Buy in-season produce. Produce that is shipped long distances are bred for shipping, not for flavor. In-season produce, allowed to ripen in the field, not only tastes better than produce that was picked green, but is more nutritious and much of the time is less expensive.
  • 6. Shop Locally — Just do what you can. Support your local farmers. It costs a lot of money to grow high-quality food, sustainably. Even if you cannot afford to buy all your food locally, every purchase counts, and local money is circulated back into your own community. Lastly, it pays to ask around. you can get tons of free backyard fruit and vegetables for free from neighbors who can’t eat through all their backyard produce and don’t want it to go to waste.
  • 10. How Size Matters – Scaling Up Helps the Bottom Line, the Customers Wallet, and Not Much Else
  • 11. What is Sustainable and Do Labels Matter?

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