Category Archives: Food Security

To bee or not to bee

beeonwhiteflowerSince living in New Zealand, where there are more kinds of honey on any grocery store shelves than I ever thought could exist, I have wanted to keep bees. In New Zealand, until very recently, all honey had been organic by default. The country did not have veroa mites and very few bee diseases in general, so the apiarists could raise bees in natural conditions (sadly, this is no longer the case as the veroa mite moved into the country in about 2002). “Bees are the easiest animals you’ll ever keep on your farm,” was the typical response to my queries; thus this thought has remained with me.

Since my time in New Zealand, I have wanted to add bees to my repertoire on the farm. Keeping my own bees would be the answer to getting off the grocery store dependency for sugar. For a couple of years in NZ, I lived without sugar when I was lucky enough to live next to ‘Tony-the-Greek’ who kept his own hives and always gave me some of his honey. When I ran out of Tony’s honey, I could drive about a mile further down the road and buy more from ‘Robin-the-honey-man,’ who had his extractor not far from our house. At the time, I did everything with honey: sweetened my coffee and jams, baked with it, even used it as a skin softener.

To date, I have never been ready to accommodate bees by early spring, when  you need to get organized and order them. This year I finally thought I had the time to do this, and began the task of finding the equipment and different sources for the actual bees. There is a lot to learn about bees that I hadn’t counted on. Once I began my research I was soon quite discouraged: “You’re living in a very marginal area for bees,” was the answer I got from two agricultural specialists. Further inquiries with the two local fellows who have historically (or in one case, still do) kept bees confirmed what the professionals said. These two men have either lost all their hives or all but one hive over the past couple of years.

Apparently, bees like warmer weather than we get here–they don’t appreciate our wet weather or the damp–and they need acres and acres of good fodder (think wildflowers like fireweed and clovers) in order to keep healthy and well fed. Because Bella Coola is in a rain forest, coupled with the fact that we have very little cleared farm land, there simply is not enough fodder to support a colony of bees. If that wasn’t enough to put me off, the local experience is quite the opposite of the New Zealand experience. Bees are not the easiest farm animal to keep in British Columbia–even in a better, warmer, drier location. We have a higher number of diseases and thus the amount of work involved and numbers of times you have to tend to your hive are far greater than the time I have to dedicate to such an uncertain endeavour.

So, like the growing of great tomatoes and shell out beans, bees have been crossed off the list of things I can do well, given my geography. Despite the fact that the maple and birch syrup take a huge amount of energy to extract, that is a much more environmentally suitable solution to my sweetener needs than honey. Location, location, location–it’s not just good advice for real estate speculators. Now I know why most of Canada’s honey comes from the Prairies!

11 Comments

Filed under Agriforestry, Animal issues, Educational, Food Security, Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming

Learning to dabble

It was exactly one year ago this week that I got home from Saskatchewan, having quit my job at the University. I wanted to come back to the farm and grow all our own food for the year. I fantasized that I would have so much time on my hands: to read a raft of books that I’d wanted to for years, to ride my horse every day, to do everything from making our own maple syrup, to milking the goats, to making our own mustard and other condiments–was I ever wrong!

The reality was that I rode my horse only three times last summer, read nary a book, didn’t even get the goats bred (mercifully realizing there was simply no time), and bought mustard and mayonnaise. I did manage to make maple and birch syrup!

While my ‘Year in Provisions’ project has been successful (I have learned a lot of useful skills along the way and I still am living off the bounty of the past summer’s labour), what I was unsuccessful at was letting go of my guilt. I felt guilty that I was no longer earning a wage, and I couldn’t let that go. I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, but I was driving myself overly hard in order to ‘make up’ for my lack of cash. I went at the project last year with such a guilty vengeance that I managed to seriously hurt myself.

Despite the fact that my husband was totally supportive of my project (and still is), I created this mindset all on my own. Because of this, I didn’t enjoy the work as much as I had envisioned enjoying it before I left Saskatchewan. Instead of biting off what I could actually manage sensibly, I took on too much. The final straw that broke the camel’s back was when I set to converting an extra 3000 square feet of grass into a vegetable plot, far too late in the season to be realistic. The result was I spent several weeks on crutches having blown both my knees out working up this new garden spot.

Fast forward to this summer, and the project is on again. In February we had about a ten day stretch of really nice weather. Suddenly I felt totally behind and stressed right out: I’m not ready, I haven’t gotten my seeds yet, I haven’t set up the tomato beds, I need to plant the green manure crop, sharpen the tools, clean the garage, make labels for the eggs, build a raised strawberry bed, and so on.

After a couple of days (and an exhausting reverie of unnecessary, self-inflicted mental anguish) the weather once again returned to its normally frosty late winter state, and I began to relax. As I felt my body unwind, I finally realized what I was doing to myself. I recalled what a friend said to me one day last summer when she looked at my crutches: “You’re too old to be that stupid.” Apparently you can work yourself nearly to death when you are younger than 40, but older than that and, well… she’s right. Getting older should mean getting wiser.

One year older and a bit wiser, I recognized that if I didn’t ‘get a grip’ I’d likely hurt myself again this summer. So I have vowed not to push myself to the brink of disaster. I am going to consciously enjoy the fact that I am living my dream: I’m developing a farm, growing my own food, learning useful skills, and  am surrounded by wilderness and animals.

I finally accept that I can’t do it all. This year my goal is to learn to balance these aspects of my life better, and realize that these moments of my life are fringed with joy. Instead of being obsessive about not being normal, I’m beginning to dabble.

My mobile napping unit.

A new found use for my wheelbarrow: it's my mobile napping unit.

10 Comments

Filed under Food Security, How to..., Just for fun, personal food sovereignty, To do lists

A spoonful of sugar

birchsyrupimageAs part of my ‘Year in Provisions’ project–which isn’t really a year long gig at all but rather a complete change in life-style and way of being in the world–I have wanted to extract myself from the dependency of store-bought sugar. One way of doing this would be to get bees (which is on my wish list and my list of things to do!) The other way, and the more traditional in my part of the world, is to tap trees, extract their sweet sap and render it down into a sweet, tasty syrup.

The kind of spile that was lent to me by a local man.

The kind of spile that was lent to me by a local man.

This year I  managed (finally) to get organized enough before the trees were out in leaf, and it was all too late. What spurred me in to action this year was the two weeks of really warm weather we experienced at the end of February. I suddenly felt behind in everything during those ten or so days and realized that if I wanted to give tree tapping a try, I’d better get moving. Luckily it got much colder again (luckily?… did I actually say that out loud) and the trees have remained in their hibernation state.


Traditional tapping, first cut through bark with a knife.

Traditional tapping, first cut through bark with a knife.

Last week I found a local man who has experimented over the years with both maple and birch syrup making. Not only was he kind enough to tell me about his experiments and provide advice, but he also  lent me 10 spiles (the official thingys you tap the trees with) and ten ice cream buckets to catch the sap in. Not wanting to inadvertently poison myself,  when he dropped off the tools I showed him what I thought were my Douglas maple trees. I needed the verification because locally they are called ‘Vine Maples’ and not being a woodsman, I really wasn’t sure if I was on the right track or not.

He assured me they are indeed a Douglas Maple and that they are repudiated to be one of the best sugar maples in terms of flavour. Such good producers, he’s stopped tapping the birch trees altogether and is now focussing on just the Maples. He told me excitedly he’s found a few Norway Maples and he is going to experiment with that type this year.

Traditional tapping with live branch from parent tree.

Traditional tapping with live branch from parent tree.

Yesterday, I tapped the three maples on my property and seven of the birches. I have found  through internet research that you can mixed the two saps and form a uniquely flavoured syrup. The maple provides a better conversion of sap to syrup than the birch (40 to 1 versus 80-100 to 1). So the blending of the two saps should make the rendering process less time consuming than straight birch sap–or so my theory goes!

Birch tree tapped with its own branch and bucket ready to collect the sap.

Birch tree tapped with its own branch and bucket ready to collect the sap.

Sadly, I found my camera is on the blink so I don’t have pre-syrup pics for you of my own tapped trees. However, I found a very interesting set of photos and gleaned them, and this idea, from the web. It shows the traditional way (without metal spiles) of tapping trees. Just goes to show how simple this process can be! I just might try it as well and not bother to buy spiles.

If you are wanting to try the Birch Syrup without having to do it all yourself, here is a list of possibilities:

Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup

Birch Boy Alaska Birch Syrup

4 Comments

Filed under Educational, Food Security, Heritage foods, How to...

Rod and Gun Club dinner and dance

David Hall's cougar watches over the Rod and Gun Club annual dinner and dance.

David Hall's cougar watches over the Rod and Gun Club annual dinner and dance.

Last weekend we held the annual Rod and Gun Club fundraiser dinner and dance. In preparation for the dinner, the members of the Rod and Gun Club prepared the meat they hunted this fall, butchered farm raised food animals, and taxidermied animals for the display. Earlier in the year, I helped Clarence butcher the turkey he planned to donate and also helped his son, David, skin and butcher out the cougar which he recently prepared for the display. The dinner provided me the opportunity to bring my duck breeding venture to a close. I butchered the last of the Muscovy ducks and took them to the dinner.

Gary carving the elk, moose and grizzly bear roasts.

Gary carving the elk, moose and grizzly bear roasts.

The vast array of different foods there was surprising given the small community and was a testament to the amount of ‘industry’ the people in this valley are involved in. I could have tried every kind of meat on offer but managed to limit myself to what I could fit on the plate and still be able to remember which meat was which by the time I got from the smorgasbord back to the dinner table. On offer was nearly everything one could imagine and then some: deer, moose, caribou, elk, wild boar, duck, turkey, beaver, llama, black bear, grizzly bear, and of course, David’s cougar. He presented it freshly roasted as well as smoked sausage and hams.

Animals of hunting trips past on display at the game dinner and dance.

Animals of hunting trips past on display at the game dinner and dance.

I tried everything except the caribou and beaver. I had tried caribou before and the beaver just wouldn’t fit anywhere on the plate by the time I got to it, though it did look delectable having been made up into a beautifully presented stir-fry. I was surprised to see that the dinner even catered to vegetarians, with salads of various kinds and several versions of tofu, vegetable stir-fries and bean dishes. I also took a home made loaf of bread and others had made rolls and biscuits. The meal was scrumptious and most of us ate far too much, but I did manage to save room for dessert!

What struck me most about the dinner, besides the fact that it was such a  unique example of local culture and something particular to this valley, was the fact that the vast array of meats differed little from each other. I was expecting to notice a greater difference in texture and taste between the carnivorous animals and the ruminants. My favourite meat was the elk, with the cougar and the grizzly bear roasts tied for second place. So similar in taste and texture were most meats that I’m certain I could feed my mother a grizzly bear roast and tell her it was beef! Of the options I sampled, the animal that had the most distinctive taste was the llama.

The Rod and Gun Club puts on this dinner and dance every year to raise money for the club and to raise awareness of hunting and animal conservation. Many would find it curious, if not ironic, that the hunters in this valley are some of the most aware of conservation and environmental issues and the most active people in terms of environmental conservation and preservation of animals. They are by far the most knowledgeable bunch of folks I have ever had the pleasure of learning from about the complexities of the natural world around us and the balance of nature.

2 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Cougars, Educational, Food Security, Hunting, Locavore, Politics of Food

Cougar capers come to an end

These cougar tracks were made in front of the Fish Hatchery buildings.

These cougar tracks were made in front of the Fish Hatchery buildings.

The day before yesterday, two hunters ‘let the games begin’, and came out winners. Not only have we been victimized by marauding bears this week, but also there has been a cougar, as one neighbour succinctly put it, “terrorizing the neighbourhood”. The cougars ‘games’ began several weeks back when it killed and ate several pet cats, attacked at least two dogs and killed one (that I know of). It has also been feeding on deer from the wild, and was finally spotted again two days ago.

Thankfully, cougar hunting season is open and a couple of hunters took up the challenge and started tracking the cat. The first couple of times, it led them through people’s barns, yards, and even through someone’s shop (and the people hadn’t known it was there!). In the end, the the daylight hours proved too short and the cougar too elusive.

The alarm was raised in the morning when a hatchery worker arrived at work and, spotting the tracks in the snow all around the buildings, immediately notified the hunters. It led the men on a merry chase for several hours in the worst of conditions we’ve had this winter: bitter cold, extreme slush, lousy footing, and icy streams. It led them across several streams (they broke through the ice up to their crotches), then back and forth several times until their dogs finally treed the cougar just beyond the airport, not far from my house, and they shot it; it was a healthy adult male, weighing in at 128 pounds.

I’m relieved because I have seen him around my place, prowling at night. Thanks to him and the raucous vigilance of my dog, many a sleepless night was had these past few weeks. It makes for nerve wracking animal husbandry efforts, knowing that there is a cougar on the prowl, particularly when I have to go out to the goat pen in the wee hours of the morning and again at night in the dark (4.30 pm), to fetch them out or in. With a nod to the cougars’ recent habituation to our community, many people have said about my goats, “Enjoy them while you have them.”

I worry for my animals every day, and I’ve lost lots of them to the various species of resident wildlife. When a cougar is on the prowl, I worry about my goats and dog especially. But what is a girl to do? On the one hand, it is good to leave my dog out because she is my ‘early warning system’ and, for an inexperienced cougar, possibly just enough of a deterrent to make him change his mind. However, the reality is that she is no match for a determined cougar and so she may lose her life if I let her stay outside–even during the day (dogs here are often referred to as ‘cougar bait’ because so many are taken each year).

Cougars are getting more and more bold here in the valley, and we are the worse off for it. Not only have they taken dogs from yards; they have begun taking them right in front of the people walking them, and, on at least one occasion, while one was still on the leash! To date they have killed our pets and attacked adults, severely injuring them, and I fear for our school children who walk to school and play on the school grounds during recess (two cougars were spotted on the Native school grounds last year). Is this any way to live?

When discussing our problems with cougars the other night, the Conservation Officer (who had been dispatched from Williams Lake to deal with our chicken-killing marauding bear) told me we shouldn’t fear cougars. Instead, he said, we should respect them. I felt like saying, ‘Tell that to Cindy Parolin’s family, or to her son, who was attacked first by the cougar, and whose life she was defending when she lost hers, because the cougar killed and half ate her alive before someone shot it.’ Or say that to the myriad other families who have lost loved ones to cougars (or bears), sometimes in their own backyards.

If I don’t have to fear cougars, why have there been these deaths? Why does all the literature on cougars (even from our own Ministry!) advise us to defend ourselves strenuously if attacked. It warns us not to play dead because, unlike non-predatory type bear attacks, when a cougar attacks it intends to kill and eat you. Cougar attacks are always predatory, yet this man, whose job is to serve and protect the public, believes we shouldn’t fear them? Puh-leeease.

The cougar I no longer have to fear.

The cougar I no longer have to fear.

Most people in the valley who hear that kind of statement laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Why? Because they know what a cougar can do to you. The doctors and nurses here know what the cougar (and bear) injuries look like. They know that it only takes 4.5 mins for someone to bleed out if a jugular vein is cut by a claw or fang. Not only that; they are acutely aware of the severely limited operating capacity of our remote hospital. They know just how lucky the few who have been attacked were, to get away with their lives.

In addition, the people here know that there has been a recent change in cougar (and bear) behaviour, and that the new Ministry of Environment policies outlawing the hunting and trapping of cougars and bears as a preventative protection measure are at least partially responsible (and likely the major contributing factor) for the change in predator behaviour.

Unfortunately, the majority of our population now resides in cities, and this majority is creating the policies that us rural folk have to live with. The sad thing is, even though many people have lost their lives because of this thinking, the rules and legislative policies are still not changing. Our society is running an incredibly dangerous experiment by presuming we can ‘live in harmony’ with wildlife. We can’t, never have, never will. It’s a dangerous fallacy and a ridiculous fantasy.

12 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Conservation, Cougars, Ethical farming, Food Security, Goats, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food

Needless suffering

More politicking with predators

Over the past few weeks, my neighbours had a collective loss of all their chickens, several turkeys and many ducks, to marauding bears. By the grace of God, my chicken sheds still stands unharmed and my chickens unravaged (however, I did lose the last of my female Muscovy ducks to a fox two nights ago). Two days ago, I ran into Clarence while out for lunch and he invited me to go with him to survey the damage that a bear had wreaked at a friend’s place two nights before. He wanted to read the signs and understand what happened: he would reveal the story while I recorded and photo-documented the scene.

What remains of Gladys chickens

What remains of Glady's chickens

As we approached the chicken shed we passed through Glady’s orchard. As Clarence surveyed every inch of the snow he described what he thought had taken place. Because of the size and shape of the footprint, he realized it was a full grown adult grizzly bear, while the pile of carcasses told him it was planning on returning.

Like a butcher, the bear first cleans out the guts to preserve the meat for when she returns.

Like a butcher, the bear first cleans out the guts to preserve the meat for when she returns.

The proximity of her chicken shed to her house tells me it's a bold bear.

The proximity of her chicken shed to her house tells me it's a bold bear.

Clarence concluded that on the south side of the shed (photo above), the bear actually had the smarts to slide the plywood open and then tear through the heavy wire to get at the chickens. (Note the proximity of the chicken shed to my friend’s house, which tells us the bears are not afraid of humans.) On the north side, the shed was not so lucky. The bear tore off the plywood covering and wooden slats that held it ,before ripping into the wire. Clarence showed the difference between the claw marks and teeth marks on the wooden walls.

North side of shed where the bear ripped apart the 2 x 6 inch wood and plywood covering of the window.

North side of shed where the bear ripped apart the 1 x 6 inch wood and plywood covering of the window.

Clarence soon determined it was actually two bears because there were two distinct prints in the snow. He reckons it is a mother grizzly and her two year old cub. We followed the tracks and saw the fence they broke getting into the property. They left fur on the wooden fence and barbed wire fencing, too. We found where they had bedded down and eaten some of the chickens.

Where the bear bedded down to eat, notice the chicken feathers everywhere.

Where the bears bedded down to eat; notice the chicken feathers everywhere.

Once we came across the bear bed, the hunter in Clarence almost took over: “I bet they’re bedded down right now within a 100 feet or so…Oh my achin’ back, that trail is hot…that’s an old army expression…wanna walk a ways into the bush with me?” As attractive as that offer was, upon cooler consideration we concluded it would be better that we were both armed before rummaging further afield through the dense forest at dusk in pursuit of the ‘robbers’, as Clarence affectionately called them.

In his forty-two years in this valley, he has never observed bears not hibernating at this time of year. Officials will likely say this is because there were not enough fish in the rivers this summer; more experienced people here in the valley tend to subscribe to the idea that this is because we are no longer trapping and shooting the bears, so they are no longer afraid of humans. In the case of these two bears it is probably a combination of both.

The bears did come back that night, and for two more nights, to finish off what they’d left behind. Once they were done, they moved on to yet another neighbour and cleaned out her chicken shed, too. Altogether at least seven households have been attacked and their livestock completely wiped out. Normally under these circumstances you could call the Conservation Officer and they might bring a cage up to trap the bear. However, we are presently without a Conservation Officer and had been since June and are likely to be until April (if we are lucky).

Our community should have been able to deal directly with this situation by phoning any number of equally qualified and experienced, willing hunter-neighbours. They could have effectively and safely destroyed the bear immediately, either themselves or by using the Ministry of Environment’s bear trap, which sits idle in the snow just across from where I write. (Like the fire and ambulance service, we could have a resident volunteer team ready to go into action; actually we already have the team, just not the permission to act.)  But British Columbia’s laws prohibit this kind of common sense approach. Instead, our community had to wait to plead the case to the Ministry which took days, even weeks. Fortunately the bear didn’t decide to enter someone’s house during that time.

As I write this post, my dog is barking her head off letting me know something is out there, but it’s nearly time to close up the shed and put away the animals. Meanwhile the Conservation Officer from Williams Lake has just begun his six hour drive to get here…

11 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Conservation, Ethical farming, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, personal food sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Crack and sniff: How fresh are your eggs?

Because they all look roughly the same on the outside, the only real way to know if you have bought healthy, fresh eggs, is to crack them open. The following information will help you determine whether your eggs are fresh and if they have come from healthy chickens, or are old and have come from poorly fed, stressed birds.

First rule of thumb: it is best to bypass the cheap, supermarket brand egg.

These are usually produced in vast factory ‘farms’ (though certainly not my definition of a farm, hence the ‘single quotes’) with upwards of 500,000 birds in one facility. The birds are caged in buildings that are artificially lighted and ventilated. The feed is most likely a mixture of conventionally grown corn and soy, undoubtedly contaminated by Genetically Modified Organisms and laced with antibiotics; these confinement operations must lace their feed with antibiotics in order to keep disease from spreading among the hens. They contribute to the amount of antibiotics we humans are ingesting (along with milk, cheese, and other animal products that come from confinement operations). There is not much goodness in eggs like these.

‘In-store’ freshness tests

The shells should be dull, not shiny. The eggs should feel strong, not so delicate that regular handling threatens to crack them. Hold one up in front of a light: sometimes you can see through them well enough to see the size of the air sac inside–it should be small and lopsided or angled.

‘At-home’ freshness tests

  1. Place the eggs in a large bowl of cold water. If they float, they are quite old.
  2. Once cracked open and lying on a plate, the yolk of a fresh egg will ‘dome up’ and stay up, while the white will clearly be thicker in the middle part, thinner on the edges. (A family that buys eggs from me has morning breakfast contests to see who’s yolk stands up the highest.) The yolks should be a deep yellow-orange, not pallid yellow; this deep orange color will tell you that the birds have had access to fresh greens, like grass and mixed pasture. They should also be virtually odor-free.
  3. Another test you could perform (though you will know well enough by the above two methods whether your egg is fresh or not) is to break the egg into boiling water, as if to poach it. Most supermarket eggs break up into tiny pieces on contact with the water, whereas fresh eggs will hold together.

‘Get Crackin’: shaking the hand that feeds you

If you seek out eggs from a small local grower, consider asking the following questions to learn more about the eggs you buy:

What do you feed your chickens? The ideal feed is a combination of grains, legumes, grasses, greens, worms and insect–in other words, pasture raised with free access to grains, to supplement their range diet. Less than ideal, but still acceptable to many, are organic lay pellets and organically grown corn and soy. At the bottom of the heap are commercial lay pellets, conventionally grown corn and soy, and cottonseed meal.

Do you use antibiotics? If the health of a whole flock is threatened, then the judicial use of antibiotics can usually be tolerated by the consumer, as long as eggs from that period are not sold. The answer should not be, ‘Antibiotics are routinely added to the feed ration.’ (Nevertheless, this is the practice of conventional agricultural operations. )

How many birds do you have? In this arena, small is beautiful–and better. If the birds are separated into smaller flocks–maximum 100 to 150–the chickens can maintain a healthy chicken society and a natural pecking order, and thus will be less stressed.

What are living conditions like for the birds? The birds should have regular access to the outdoors. Their living quarters should not be cramped, and they should be able to express themselves as chickens. In other words, they should be able to run around, scratch for worms and bugs, and have personal space to get away from marauding roosters if they want to. If chickens are given enough space, they are less likely to become stressed and/or diseased.

How fresh are these eggs? Small producers sometimes store eggs for days or weeks until they have enough to make a delivery. Eggs should not be older than 10 days when they are brought to market, and should be labeled with the date of harvest.

Are the eggs fertile? If the producer keeps roosters, the flocks will better resemble a natural chicken society and the hens will be less stressed. There should be a good ratio of roosters to hens; 1 to between 1o and 20 is a good balance, depending upon the breed and aggressiveness of individual roosters. Many producers say they cannot keep more than one rooster because they will fight. This is a sign that the birds do not have enough space to get away from one another! A healthy, happy flock with enough personal space will not fight to the death, or pick on another bird and kill it.

What breed are your chickens? While this likely doesn’t matter much to individual egg quality, you may want to know for your own personal reasons. There are reasons beyond freshness and animal ethics to consider. For example, do you want your dollars going towards helping a farmer keep a heritage breed alive, develop a breed with special adaptive characteristics for your area, obtain farm status to lower their land tax, or increase food security in your neighbourhood by being able to be economically viable? These options are not only interesting philosophical motives, but also politically oriented, in that they help ensure increased food security by keeping the gene pool of chickens varied (which makes them less susceptible to a host of problems), developing regional characteristics in a local flock, maintaining important animal husbandry skills alive, and helping a local farm be or stay viable. These are all interesting, conscientious ways to spend your hard earned dollars.

May I visit your farm? While you might never do this, the producer’s response will give you an idea of whether he or she is proud of the operation or ashamed of it.

When asking these questions, remember that life is a compromise. In an ideal world, your farmer’s feed would be organic, the chickens would have constant access to fresh pasture, and they would roam around a large space, never at the risk of being predated upon. However your farmer has many variables to consider in creating a healthy, vibrant yet economically viable, ecologically sustainable farm. How much you’re willing to pay for the end product is a big part of that juggling act!

In the end, it is always better to shake the hand that is feeding you. You will have the confidence of knowing where your food is coming from, and where your dollars are going and what they are supporting. You may also develop strong relationships between yourself and the grower, and indirectly strengthen your community bonds (what academics call ‘social capital’).

Isn’t that better than mindlessly letting your dollars get funnelled through a chain supermarket check-out to an unknown conglomerate far, far away?

7 Comments

Filed under Chickens, Conservation, Educational, Ethical farming, Food Security, How to..., Locavore, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Egg ‘profits’

A couple of years ago I asked one of our local grocery store managers (there are two grocery stores in the valley)  how many dozen eggs per week the store sold: the answer was 1500 dozen. That means  our community spends annually at least $312,000.00 on eggs, and likely twice that considering the second store! We are a remote, economically depressed community. Imagine if all that money kept circulating in our valley instead of the majority (the local stores keep a small percentage  of that money in retail mark-up) going to an anonymous corporation  a thousand kilometers away.  If we could develop a local food system, this money would be used to support small family farmers, who could farm in an ethical manner as I do. Then, our community would  not be supporting which treats animals inhumanely, raisies eggs of questionable integrity,  and polluties the environment with long distance egg travel–and let’s not even start on the idea of freshness!

Why am I on about this? I was recently crunching the numbers to see if I could make my farm economically viable through the egg business. Here are my preliminary calculations:

  • I am trying to build my flock up to 99 laying hens and am almost there. Hens only lay well for approximately 40 weeks per year(industrial producers might achieve 46-50 weeks by confining the birds in artificial conditions, stimulating them with artificial light, mutilating them,  and feeding them antibiotics and hormones). So:
  • 99 hens x 1 egg per day (almost) x 6  days per week = 594 eggs per week;
  • 594 eggs per week divided by 12/dozen = almost 50 dozen per week;
  • 40 weeks (to give the benefit of the doubt) x 50 dozen x $4.00 per dozen (average cost based on local grocery store)= $8 000 gross income.
  • That doesn’t sound too bad until you factor in the feed cost (which has increased dramatically recently) and the costs to build a henhouse, buy the chickens as day-olds, transport them to the farm, provide electricity for lighting and/or heating to raise them and keep water from freezing during the winter, provide bedding material (including trucking it to the farm), and pay the occasional vet bill. Oh–and factor in the mistakes, blunders, ice storms and power outages (e.g. 47 new chicks and no extra room in your bra to keep them warm!). How much is left of the gross income? It doesn’t take a sharp pencil or further detailed calculations to realize there will be next to nothing left over at the end of the year!
  • Other expenses that must be factored in if you are to make a serious ‘go’ of it include: the up-front cost of the building to house the hens, nesting boxes, roosts, waterers, feeders, and special lights for heating the chicks as newborns; egg cartons and their labels (legally you can’t re-use cartons!); and annual taxes –which are not lessened unless you obtain farm status, an increasingly difficult thing to achieve.
  • Additionally, there are labour costs. Like many small farmers, I have chosen to work on my farm rather than develop a career (for which I am well qualified) which would give me a good wage, full benefits replete with life and disability insurance, a pension plan, unemployment insurance and paid leave. Instead of selling my time to an employer, I choose to spend it conscientiously:  caring for my birds; checking their feed and water daily; letting them in and out twice daily; changing their bedding regularly; collecting and cleaning eggs; putting them in cartons daily; delivering them to customers; doing the specialty chores (which take an inordinate amount of time) like giving them greens or conducting the Poopy Bum Patrol; creating an ecologically sustainable farm; contributing to local food security; practising local economic development; increasing my community’s social capital; advocating for food sovereignty through meetings, discussions, educational workshops, and writing this blog; researching, reading and learning from mentors and trail-blazers.

In fact, as I write, the powers that be are considering upping the amount of money which a small farmer like me needs to make on a farm of 2 to 10 acres from $2500 per year to $10 000.

That increase in requisite gross sales volume will put many small farms in British Columbia, Canada,  out of business. According to Statistics Canada (2006) there are 19 844 farms in B.C. 9466 of them make less than $10 000 gross sales each year. In other words, if the powers that be have their way, nearly 9 500 family farms will go out of business!

The increase in required gross sales revenue, coupled with the Egg Producers Marketing Board’s ceiling of 99 laying hens, make it impossible to keep a two acre farm in non-industrial egg production alone.

Ah, you say, what about economies of scale? Why not get bigger? Why not have more hens? Because I’m not allowed to, that’s why.

Here is the British Columbia government’s regulation:

The British Columbia Egg Marketing Board (BCEMB) issues egg layer quota to registered egg producers. An egg producer is legally required to obtain quota from the BCEMB if they have more than 99 layer hens. Registered producers with quota are bound by the BCEMB’s Standing Order to produce eggs according to provincial and federal legislation.

The BCEMB Standing Order defines a layer, applied to chickens, as a laying hen, layer, and any class of a female chicken hatched for the purposes of egg production that is aged nineteen (19) weeks or older.

[See BC Egg Producers Board for more information; but be forewarned, it is difficult to wade your way through to understanding the rules and regulations–I’m still wading.]

The British Columbia Egg Producers Board governs how many laying chickens anyone is allowed to keep, without getting ‘quota’ (say, 10,000 or more). This legal exclusion of chicken numbers between say, 100 and 9,000, severely limits the ability of a ‘would be’ farmer to grow and develop a sustainable, economically viable, environmentally-more-sustainable-than-the-system-we-are-locked-into, local business.

Somewhere in these pages, there seems to be a window of exemption for  a flock of 99-399 flock limit, but I have yet to be able to find out how this is achieved. The next  stage up is 1000-3000, the ‘Small Lot’ farm. There is an application form on the website; however, it is not as easy as filling out the ‘Small Lot Authorization’ application form. You cannot simply grow your business the way you you see fit: if you want to be bigger than 99 or 399, you must decide which of the categories–Free Run, Free Range, Organic, Certified Heritage Breed (along with requisite mountains of paperwork, reporting, etc.)–you wish to comply with, and the mountain of paperwork you are willing to submit yourself to.

Here is a sample of the less-than-crystal-clear legal requirements:

Small Lot Authorizations – The Board has established a Small Lot Authorization program to a maximum of 10,000 layers.  A person who wishes to keep or maintain more than ninety-nine (99) layers but three hundred and ninety-nine (399) layers or less, must apply annually to the Board to be exempt from: the requirement of obtaining a licence, registering as a Registered Producer and paying marketing licence fees if they do not market their eggs through a Federally Registered grading station. The following conditions apply: (i) No person shall keep or maintain, in concert with another person or persons, such layers in facilities contiguous to or a part of each other, such that in aggregate, the number of layers kept or maintained, would if kept or maintained by one person in such facilities, require that person to obtain a licence and register as a Registered Producer. (ii) No Registered Producer shall permit a person exempt from the requirement of obtaining a licence, to keep or maintain layers in the Egg Production Unit of or in facilities contiguous to or that ordinarily would constitute a part of the Egg Production Unit of the Registered Producer. (iii) The producer is certified organic, certified heritage breed, certified free run or certified free range by an agency meeting the criteria contained in SECTION 7(p). (iv) For certified heritage breed flocks the applicant must demonstrate that 99 birds is too few for the maintenance of a viable heritage flock. (v) If the producer direct markets their eggs ungraded at the farmgate the producer must be in compliance with the Agricultural Produce Grading Act, Shell Egg Grading Regulation.  Should a producer decide to market eggs as Canada Grade “A” the producer must also pay Marketing Licence Fees on product marketed through a registered grading station. (vi) Priority for entrance into the Small Lot Authorization program will be given to applicants producing specialty eggs, including certified organic, certified free run and certified free range in regions outside the Lower Mainland. (vii) Persons currently holding laying hens that may qualify for a Small Lot Authorization have until December 31, 2006 to complete and submit an application for Board approval. (viii) If required, a waiting list system will be established for the Small Lot Authorization program.

This is not the end. You must meet the ‘New Entrant’ requirements. What are they? Ah, well … all is on hold, and has been since June 13, 2007 when the Egg Producers Board put out the following letter:

June 13, 2007

To : New Entrant Applicants

From : Mike Gillanders, Operations Manager

NEW ENTRANT WAITING LISTS

At their meeting May 30, 31, 2007, the BC Egg Marketing Board (BCEMB) reviewed the BC Farm Industry Review Board (BCFIRB) decision on eligibility for New Entrants and addressed the waiting list process that has occurred over the past several years while the BCFIRB reviewed the New Entrant policies. Due to uncertainty of how waiting lists would work and who would be eligible, the process has been very confusing for everyone involved.  The BCEMB Directors therefore resolved to replace the New Entrant selection by waiting list with a New Entrant selection by lottery. As a consequence, the Standing Order will be revised to remove the sections dealing with Waiting Lists and a new section will be drafted to detail how a New Entrant Lottery will operate. Once the new policy is approved, the details will be posted on our website and you will receive a copy.  Any persons who have paid the Waiting List fee will receive a refund.

Despite the fact that I don’t have inordinate material aspirations, the limitations imposed by the BCEMB are painfully prohibitive to my aspirations of working from home and increasing our community food security. It’s no wonder there has been a mass exodus from the rural communities and family farms, and a concomitant burgeoning of cities and their environmental issues. Why would anyone want to try to develop a farm and raise food for their communities when the profits are too low (or non-existent), and the barriers are too high?

When you cannot grow your business as you wish (build your chicken flock up to a reasonable number–beyond the allowable 99 but in keeping with your farm size and sustainability–without having to jump major ‘exemption’ or ‘special status’ hoops that might provide you with an actual profit at the end of the year), what is the incentive to farm? How can a small egg producer in BC avoid throwing in the towel and working off the farm, returning to the city, and becoming part of the unsustainable urban flock?

 

8 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Ethical farming, Food Security, Locavore, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Food Security & Food Sovereignty: Tasty rhetoric, unpalatable realities

The Non-existence of Food Sovereignty in BC

The idea of ‘food sovereignty’ is an attempt to address the complex issues that directly impact the ability of individuals, families and communities to respond to their own needs for access to healthy, culturally adapted foods. The concept was developed by a global farmers’ movement La Via Campesina and was launched to the general public at the World Food Summit in 1996. While there is no universal definition of food sovereignty, the most common one referred to in the international community is as follows:

Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies, which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.

The concept of ‘food sovereignty’ is certainly on the media agenda here in British Columbia, Canada: position papers, new civil servant positions, news items, best-selling books. But what of the ‘ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate [legislation and/or policies]’ fitting a people’s ‘unique circumstances’? How is our government doing? Take the recent changes to the Meat Inspection Regulation (MIR) for example. It has put more processors and producers out of business than has created new processors;  consequently it has reduced the community capacity to produce meat, and reduced the quality of our meat (thanks to the smaller custom operators going out of business). It has created more dependence upon an already unsustainable and ecologically questionable food production and distribution system.

The overall result of recent legislation, then, is Food Insecurity, with food sovereignty obviously not even being considered: communities are more dependent upon a centralized food  production and distribution system (and all its ethically and environmentally questionable  and unsustainable practices) instead of a decentralized, locally controlled, economically diverse (and thus more stable and sustainable) system. Not only that, communities are socially unraveling due to the inter-dependency that is being lost as producers ‘throw in the towel’. The only recourse for consumers is to buy from an anonymous supply chain.

‘Culturally appropriate’ foods are foods which are grown in your area, or gathered from  the wild in your area. These, too, are becoming scarce: for example, wild stocks of salmon have been depleted due to the commercial fishing industry, while custom facilities that formerly handled the butchering, wrapping and packing of hunted game may no longer afford this time because of their financial responsibilities due to legislated upgrades.

Here is an overview of the Meat inspection regulation:

If the meat is intended only for your personal use, you have two options for the slaughter of your livestock:

1. You can take your animals to an abattoir for slaughter. This can be either a fixed or mobile abattoir. By September 2006, all B.C. abattoirs that produce meat for human consumption must be licensed.

2. You can slaughter your own animals. It is okay if friends or neighbours help you with this task, as long as nobody is paid or otherwise compensated. If you slaughter your own animals, you cannot sell any of the meat, nor can you use it in any transaction that is commercial in nature, such as regular trading or bartering for other goods or services. Nor can you sell products, such as sausages, or meals made from this meat.

What sort of schizophrenic logic is this? Meat that you slaughter yourself is fit for you and your family to eat, but not for the neighbours who helped you? (The same ill-logic applies to poultry slaughtering and milk products in B.C.) If you, the farmer, are able to decide whether or not the food you have just processed is safe, why shouldn’t your neighbour, who helped you, also be able to discern this?  Or a customer who wishes to buy directly from you? After all, isn’t your customer going to scrutinize your farming and butchering practices just as diligently as, if not more diligently than, the government inspector?

This legislation has effectively shut down ‘farm gate’ sales. Not only does it mean a loss to farmers’ incomes (and diversification of economy and skills), but also a loss to communities’ food security and food sovereignty.

Oh, and if you thought you might get around the legislation by doing it for free, they have that one tied up with the following note:

Note: if the slaughtering of animals is part of the ordinary course of somebody’s business, even if it is done for free, it would be considered operating an abattoir. So, a farmer who sold live animals to his/her customers and offered to slaughter them for the customers for free would need to be licensed as an abattoir.

While our government’s minions produce tantalizing feasts of rhetoric about such things as rural economic development, food security, and food sovereignty, their ‘one size fits all’ approach to so-called food safety legislation is the equivalent of a  Hostess Twinkie in terms of nutritional value. It undercuts the contemporary interests of British Columbia’s citizens, creates greater dependency on the corporate food production system,  and increases a community’s food insecurity.

Food (In)-Security in B.C.

How does this change affect people in B.C.? Some producers and processors are happy about the change. I have spoken to a beef producer near Quesnel who is quite happy with the change, because she can now supply people in Vancouver with her pasture fed beef. That’s because she lives within an hour’s drive of a licensed abbatoir.

Other producers are not so lucky. Many producers in more populated areas are used to having access to custom slaughtering, but now find themselves without a processor who is willing to do custom orders. Because of the Meat Inspection Regulation changes, many smaller slaughterhouses, who did the majority of the custom and specialized work, are now closing down (or already have closed). They simply cannot afford to make the requisite changes required to meet the new standards. (Two of these inordinately costly abut rerquired changes are: provide a separate office and bathroom facility for the Meat Inspector; provide an automatic, hands-free hand-washing system for the slaughterer/staff. See Plant construction and equipment guidelines for more information.)

I have to ask: If surgeons who cut you open can move washing taps with their elbows, why can’t someone who is butchering an animal? After all, the surgeon expects the body she is working on to live, whereas the butcher doesn’t. Further, I don’t have a separate office in my house for my own business, but I need to supply one for a government inspector. Is he/she planning on moving in? What does this separate office and separate bathroom have to do with meat safety?

There is still a third kind of producer and community that is affected entirely differently than the above two examples. Many rural/remote communities never did have a processor near them, and instead relied on doing it themselves and/or with the help of the local butcher or otherwise experienced and knowledgeable people. These communities are now without any facility to legally process their meat, and have no hope of ever having one because of the cost and lack of legislated economic viability.

Because of British Columbia’s geographically diverse topography and vastly dispersed populations, there are many communities which will no longer have the opportunity to be self-sufficient in their meat producing and processing capacity. Take Bella Coola where I live, for example: the closest provincially inspected slaughter facility for red meat is over 500 kilometers away (in Beaver Valley) and the closest poultry slaughtering facility is around 900 kilometers away (Chilliwack or Salmon Arm). In economic terms,  for the local farmer and his customers these facilities might as well be on Mars. This is without considering the environmental and animal rights concerns.

Not to worry, the new Meat Inspection Regulation has addressed us rural/remote folks:

Producers in remote and isolated communities face special challenges because they may not have access to a licensed slaughter establishment.  Some of these communities may need time to carry out feasibility studies before developing construction plans for new or updated facilities.  In these limited circumstances, a Class C transitional licence applicant can apply for an exemption from the requirement to have a construction plan. This will allow the applicant to continue operating and selling direct to the consumer until feasibility studies are done and construction plans can be completed.  As with all Class C licences, the meat produced must be labelled as uninspected and not for resale.

Transitional licenses are valid for six months, and renewal is subject to continued progress towards a fully approved and licensed operation.

In exceptional circumstances, in remote and isolated areas, the Minister of Health has the authority under the Meat Inspection Regulation to exempt transitional Class C license applicants from the necessity of getting an approved construction plan, if in the Minister’s opinion it is necessary to maintain slaughter capacity.

Well, thank goodness for small mercies. We don’t have to take any responsibility for our community and make the decision for ourselves; the Minister will decide for us whether or not it is ‘necessary to maintain slaughter capacity’! Five generations of my family have been waiting for the Minister to tell me if what we’ve been doing for 120 years is worthwhile.

What have we gained by this change in legislation? It has shut down local producers, put a stop to farm-gate sales, and put many small specialized custom operators out of business. Several producers have been driven underground–the only available option left to them. Larger producers now have huge debt for the upgrades and consequently can no longer ‘afford’ to do custom orders; as a result, small-scale, often specialized, producers have nowhere to get their meat slaughtered unless they contravene environmental and animal rights standards by shipping their animals huge distances. Further, these custom operators may now be overloaded.

How does this new regulation support food safety, or eating locally, or rural economic development, or food security, or food sovereignty? The answer is: it doesn’t.


9 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, personal food sovereignty, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Howling Duck Ranch’s own peas, pea soup

Dried Alaska peas for seed and soup.

Dried Alaska peas for seed and soup.

This year, in the attempt to achieve ‘Personal Food Sovereignty’, I decided to experiment with some legumes. I grew (or rather, attempted to grow) the main legumes we like to eat in general, and generally eat often.

Thus, I attempted to grow the following with varying degrees of success: lentils, cannelli beans, black turtle beans, garbanzo beans, broad beans, pinto beans, soya beans, and adzuki beans.

Attempting to become sovereign in legumes turned out to be an extremely educational experience: an utter failure on the one hand and a completely enlightening experience on the other. Not only were most crops a definite failure, (several varieties  barely made their presence known in the garden thanks to their penchant for warmer climes), but also of those that tried to participate in the project–through sheer will and determination–didn’t go the distance. They simply didn’t make it to the dry shell out stage of maturation before the rotting rains of our fall pounded them into a pulpy mess.

Despite the miserable failures, there were several key learning points along the way: I learned the growth pattern of lentils and, thus, why I won’t attempt to grow them again–too small, too difficult to hand thresh,  too little food value return for the work involved. I also learned which ones I will try  again next year, for example, black beans, but not for its dried shell out possibilities but rather to eat at the green stage–they are extraordinarily yummy as a green bean.

Peas laid out on my kitchen table drying.

Peas laid out on my kitchen table drying.

I did  have great success with was my Alaska pea crop. Upon realizing that most of the legumes I was experimenting with were simply not going to amount to much, I summoned the peas and insisted they rise to the occasion. I was planning to let some go to seed anyway, and already had enlisted a few exceptional plants–marking them for seed saving purposes for next year’s crop.

I had not been able to find any information on the subject of letting the regular garden peas going to the dried stage for soup and dahl making purposes, but throwing caution to the wind I decided, ‘why not?’

Another reason I decided to let some of the regular fresh pea crop go to the dry shell out stage was that the food value relationship versus time must be better at the dry shell out stage. It occurred to me one day while harvesting the fresh Alaska peas for dinner, I was conscious of just how long it was taking to get enough for two for dinner–a long time! So, I rationalized, considering it takes just as much time to shell out fresh as it does the dried, but as a dry bean, the protein and carbohydrate value has increased significantly, why not  let these peas turn into legumes? They may not be the right pea for habitant pea soup, but in terms of local eating, food security, self-provisioning, etc., they would have to do!

Here is the recipe I developed for my own pea soup peas!

Howling Duck Ranch’s Own Peas, Pea Soup

3 tbsp Olive oil (but any oil will do, and if I had access to beef or pork tallow/lard, I would use that).

1 large onion

1/2 cup diced carrots

1/2 cup diced zucchini

3 garlic cloves, sliced thin

salt, to taste

fresh ground pepper, to taste

Herbs to taste: thyme, savory, sage, parsley, oregano

Spices to taste: allspice (if using, cut back on pepper)

3 cups dried peas (soaked in 6-8 cups of water for several hours)

More water as needed for cooking soup

Soup stock: ideally use boiled salt pork or a ham hock.

If you don’t have access to salt pork then substitute with one of the following: ham flavoured stock, or bouillon cube, or home made stock from pork bones (in a pinch, I have even cooked bacon and used the drippings as the stock base), you can also make it vegetarian if you wish.

Directions:

Caramelize the the veggies, cooking the onion first in oil, then carrot, garlic and zucchini. Add salt and pepper, and cook until veggies are soft. Add the soaked but drained peas, pour in enough water and stock to cover by an inch. bring to a boil. After bringing the peas to a steady boil, turn the heat off and cover for 10 minutes.

At this point, you can transfer the whole pot to a slow cooker and cook on low for 6-8 hours. Alternatively, keep boiling the soup until the peas turn to mush. Add desired herbs and spices, adjust salt and pepper to taste.

This soup demands to be dipped and dredged, so serve it with good, hearty, home made bread.

13 Comments

Filed under Food Security, How to..., Preserving the harvest, Sustainable Farming, Vegetable gardening