Tag Archives: Ethical farming

Bears and fruit trees, part two

Because of what I do and where I live, I am often talking with people about the human-wildlife conflict, and am continually surprised by what I hear. There are many misconceptions about our relationship with nature in general and with wildlife in particular. During these discussions, I notice there are several persistent themes (false beliefs) that are pervasive about the human-bear relationship. What I hope to do over the course of several posts is to examine these key themes and shed light on these common false beliefs. Other posts in this series are, ‘How to make bears and fruit trees get along‘ and ‘Bears and fruit trees, part three.’

As ever, I welcome your feedback and comments as they can add to the discussion and help me develop my position.

False belief #2: We are not in competition with bears

Many people don’t understand that, despite trappings of modern civilization that buffer us from this reality, we are in direct competition with wildlife for our existence. Not only have we lost sight of this fact, but we have also begun to believe that there is a way to ‘live in harmony’ with nature and we work hard to convince ourselves this is achievable.

If you are one of these people, then you are wrong to think this way and here’s why.

Everything out there is trying to make a living just as we are, from the bears, to the fish, to the squirrels, to insects, and bacteria. Since humans have walked on this earth we have been in direct competition with nature for resources and thus have fought to protect these resources. If we weren’t successful, we starved.

Historically, humans hunted for our food and thus we understood our direct relationship with the natural world. We understood that if the wolf population was too high the deer numbers would be low and this would threaten our chance of survival. Consequently, humans understood we needed to kill some wolves in order to protect the deer numbers and, in this way, indirectly protect our own species‘ survival. We understood we were, and must be, part of that equation.

Today, every time we spray our lawns with insecticide, every time we build a new home, each time we pave a road, each time we build a shopping mall or a university, each time we fell trees to make lumber, every time we fill our gas tank, every time we buy some product that has been shipped half way around the world, every time we buy packaged food from the grocery store, and so on, we displace and destroy (or already have replaced and destroyed) the native plants, insects, birds and animals — and the resources they depend upon for their survival — that previously existed in the are area in question for our benefit.

Today however, few people would recognize the environmental cost to changing a track of forest into agricultural land and the inputs necessary to raise a cow, or a pig, or even an acre of soybeans to grow food for humans. Few would understand that it is environmentally more sound to keep the forest in tact and harvest a moose who is perfectly suited to that forest and requires no artificial inputs, let alone be willing or able to make the lifestyle changes necessary to manage that resource.

Only those who can afford food can ‘afford’ to entertain this false belief system.

Few people in North America today rely on hunting or raising food on their own land for their direct economic survival. Instead, we have accepted that large swaths of nature should be severely altered (if not completely destroyed) in order that we can live in city suburbs, and that agricultural (and other) products can be made cheaply and can be transported long distances to us. So it is not that we are no longer directly in competition with nature, rather that the competition is out of sight and out of mind. We are no longer aware of it because we don’t see direct evidence of it on a daily basis.

California’s bears and other flora and fauna have been displaced and/or all but been destroyed, its landscape severely altered to make way for suburbs, highways, orchards and market gardening, and its waterways re-routed for irrigation, as have the Okanagan and Frazer Valleys in British Columbia, great swaths of the prairie provinces across Canada and the USA, and the Niagara region of Southern Ontario. These areas are some of the major agricultural production areas on which we North Americans depend most for our food production and, therefore, survival. That these areas were once wild, and remain domesticated only by force and vigilance, is an idea forgotten or ignored only by those who can afford to buy food instead of growing it themselves (provisioning). It is only those whose economic livelihood is not threatened, those who live an indirect economic lifestyle by selling their time for a wage so they can buy food, clothing, housing, etc., for their (indirect) survival, who can afford to uphold the misconception that we are not in direct competition with wildlife for our existence.

We all are in competition with nature, even urban dwellers. Ironically, it is urban dwellers who are, not only the most food insecure because they are more dependent upon an agricultural production and distribution system that is completely out of their control, but also often the most unaware of how much competition they are in with nature for their survival. How many urbanites consider the tons of pesticides that are sprayed annually on wheat alone to keep the average crop from succumbing to weevils? While weevils are not bears, they too compete directly with us for our wheat!

Which brings me to two other important points about direct competition.

The privilege of living close to nature

We have developed strategies for competing with all aspects of nature, from traps (mice and rodents), to fungicides, herbicides, insecticides (molds, weeds, bugs), to windbreaks and rip-raps (erosion by wind and water). We have become so conditioned to these agricultural weapons that we no longer see them as such. We certainly don’t see weevils on par with squirrels, or squirrels on par with grizzly bears.  Many bear enthusiasts would not object to a farmer spraying crops to prevent weevils from destroying it but would be horrified if the same farmer shot a bear to protect his apples. However, if you were dependent upon the apple crop for your livelihood, or to keep you from starving, you wouldn’t. The privilege of a full stomach affords us the luxury of seeing these two actions as vastly different.  Today, most North Americans would tell me to go buy the apples from the store and save the bear because they are no longer engaged in direct economics and can afford to be blindly unaware of the cold hard realities of what it takes to put food on their tables.

If you have a stomach full of food bought from the grocery store, then you can afford to see squirrels, deer, hawks, and bears as part of the wonders of nature and feel ‘privileged’ that they are traipsing through your yard and let them eat your berries, apples, and carrots. But even then, there is a big difference between tolerating squirrels, deer, and hawks, and tolerating bears and other large predators. Squirrels can’t kill you but large predators can. In order to keep our yards and communities safe, we cannot tolerate large predators in our human settlements, period.

However, if you are dependent upon the food you raise for your economic survival (directly or indirectly) you cannot even afford to let the squirrels eat your strawberries or the deer eat your apples. Imagine that every time a deer came in to your yard you lost 1/3 of your annual wage. How long would it take before the joy of seeing a deer to wear off? How long could you ‘afford’ to feel privileged at losing 1/3 (or more) of your annual salary? In order to have food security, you must have the right to defend the food.

In Defense of Food

In short, humans have a right to livelihood. By that I mean the right to grow food instead of selling our time, collecting a wage, and then spending it at ‘the store’ (where cheap food magically appears). We therefore have the right to defend our food sources just as we did in the past. Salaried employees don’t lose wages when a bear comes through their yards, why should a provisioner or farmer? Some will argue that that should be part of the cost of ‘doing business’ as a farmer. Many will argue that I (and other farmers) should buy electric fencing, install bear proof feed bins, build bigger, stronger, bear proof chicken houses and so on in order to prevent the bear conflict. I am against this line of thinking for three reasons: this argument is based on false belief #1 (that humans can control bear behaviour by removing all attractants); there is little enough (if any) profit to be made in farming these days and the additional cost would make their products out of reach for many consumers; and finally, fencing out large predators and leaving them to roam the neighbourhoods around fence lines does not promote human safety.

If we want sustainable farming to be something that younger people choose as a career, if we want food security for our communities, if we want to have agricultural animals raised ethically and humanely, if we want good clean safe food, if we want the right to livelihood, then we have to support those who are willing to do the work and make it worth their while. Otherwise, we will have to accept that those farmers who could get well paying, secure jobs elsewhere, should get them; that we will have food insecurity; that we will give up our right to livelihood; and that we will have to rely upon the corporate agricultural production and distribution system.

Finally, because we all need to eat and that act displaces large tracks of wilderness in order to ensure our survival, then the cost of maintaining wilderness with its full compliment of flora and fauna, in parallel with local food security, should be borne by all society, not just those who choose to live close to the wild and raise our food.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Gathering from the wild, Hunting, personal food sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Making bears and fruit trees get along

I’ve recently been involved in a discussion with the BC Food Systems Network about the relationship between bears and food security. In terms of food security, this issue is an extremely important one for anyone living where large predators exist. I plan to write about it over several posts in order to dispel some common misconceptions about the human-predator relationship in terms of food security, and to propose some practical solutions.

Please feel free to voice your opinions in the comments section. I welcome the input, as it gives us all a chance to talk about this important issue. Your comments also provide me with food for thought, and the chance to develop my ideas.

How to make bears and fruit trees get along

A member of the BC Food Systems Network recently wrote about their community’s experience with the Conservation Service. According to this source, the COs in their area, instead of dealing effectively with any nuisance bears, are threatening people with fines if they don’t cut down their fruit and nut trees. While outraged with this Ministry’s attitude, I’m not surprised by it. Here in the Bella Coola Valley, too, people are being advised to cut down their fruit trees by the Conservation Service, instead of being offered support, protection (part of their motto!), and–oh, yes–conservation.

False belief #1: The ‘remove the attractant’ theory

In terms of food security, the idea that we must ‘remove all attractants’ to prevent bears from entering our communities is a dangerous line of thinking (particularly in light of our economic times). The logic may sound reasonable when you are living in the city and dealing with a bear in your garbage can. However, it is not consistent with the goals of food security, because in rural BC there is no limit to the list of attractants. Therefore, we cannot have food security in our communities and be consistent with these Ministry guidelines.

Most specifically, and to put it simply:  if we ascribe to the notion that humans can control bear behaviour by ‘removing the attractants’, then we cannot raise food. Fruit trees, berry bushes, carrots, and parsley all attract grizzly bears. Chickens, ducks, sheep, goats, and rabbits, all attract grizzly bears. The duck feed, the goat feed, and the chickens’ corn all attract grizzly bears. Fields of corn and oats attract bears. Beehives attract bears. (Many of the above also attract a host of other predators that threaten our food security, such as eagles, foxes, wolves, cougars, mice, owls, hawks, martin, weevils, and so on.)

If we are to be consistent with the ‘remove the attractant’ theory, then the next ‘logical’ step is to pass public policy laws that forbid people from raising their own food. In order to ‘remove all the attractants’ we will have to cut down all the fruit trees, plant no vegetable or herb gardens, and get rid of all the feed and grain for our agricultural animals–chickens (see Needless Suffering), ducks, geese, goats, pigs, turkeys, sheep, and so on–lest we be seen to be ‘baiting’ the bears. Instead, maybe we could free range our agricultural animals? No.  To be consistent with the ‘non-attractant theory’ we must leave it to the corporate agricultural producers who can afford (both ethically and financially) to keep animals indoors, behind Fort Knox type fenced areas, or on feedlots.

New Jersey Example

The idea of removing the attractants simply doesn’t work. This line of thinking got the state of New Jersey into its conundrum with their bears. They have gone a long way down this path, having made city wide efforts of removing the ‘attractants’ from their city streets and neighbourhoods. They have made huge efforts to limit the times in which garbage could be out on the street for collection, and even made centralized collection stations. Nevertheless, despite the fact they have removed all the so called ‘attractants’, bears have NOT stopped coming into people’s yards. Now accustomed to viewing human settlements as good food sources, bears are now entering houses. We should learn from their experience instead of continuing down the same path.

If we are going to have, and support, real food security in our province, we have to change the way we look at this problem. If not, then we will eventually lose the right to keep fruit trees, grow gardens, and raise animals for food. The evidence of this is revealed in the current attitude of British Columbia’s Conservation Service Officers.

Living under siege

The idea that humans are responsible to not ‘attract’ the bears is ridiculous. Humans have always grown gardens, had fruit trees, and domesticated animals in places where large predators roamed. Since humans have been on earth they have been in direct competition with other large predators for their food (livelihood) and, by shooting, trapping, snaring, or other aggressive measures, have trained these wild animals not to intrude into their human settlements. Until very recently, we have known and understood our relationship with the natural world; part of our role was teaching wildlife what is appropriate behaviour. We have lost that understanding now that most of us buy food from the grocery store, agricultural production is out of sight and out of mind, and the closest we get to a grizzly bear is by watching the Discovery Channel,

It is time to re-educate ourselves to re-educate the bears. Even the Conservation Officer Service acknowledges that humans  can ‘teach bears bad habits’, so why not teach them some good ones?

To view the series of posts on this topic, see:

Part two

Part three

Part four

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Filed under Agriforestry, Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Ethical farming, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Fruit Trees, personal food sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming, Vegetable gardening

Food Safety 101

Two headline stories from the USA on food safety caught my eye today: `Georgia Peanut Plant Knowingly Shipped Contaminated Peanuts’; `Study Links Corn Syrup to Toxic Mercury.’

1. The FDA has issued one of the largest food recalls in history after eight people died of salmonella poisoning. A Georgia peanut plant knowingly shipped products contaminated with salmonella on a dozen occasions over the past two years. There are 40,000  cases of salmonella reported by people in the USA every year, many more go unreported, and it kills 600!

2. And a pair of new studies has revealed traces of toxic mercury can be found in many popular food items containing high-fructose corn syrup. The sweetener has become a widely used substitute for sugar in processed foods, including many items marketed toward children. To listen to/watch/read the report, go to:
http://www.democracynow.org/2009/1/29/food_safety_georgia_plant_knowingly_shipped

Meanwhile, back at home in Canada, we’ve had our share of problems this year. In September 2008, Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest meat processor, contributed a serious outbreak of Listeriosis in their deli-style products which killed, oh, about 20 people. This outbreak, in a country that has recently made substantial investments in food inspection, occurred at one of the Federally licensed and inspected facilities. Recently, we have been victim to E. coli-tainted spinach from the U.S.; cantaloupes from Costa Rica contaminated with salmonella; pet food and infant formula both containing a toxic chemical imported from China; and the latest, a recall on Black Diamond Cheese slices which are purported to contain small bits of plastic mesh. This week,  the  Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Hygaard Fine Foods EST 318 are warning the public not to consume certain Hygaard brand sandwich products described below because they may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. These products have been distributed in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, and Ontario. Anything containing peanut butter (Chocolate Dipped Honey Peanut IsaLean Bar, granola bars with peanut butter flavouring, and a host of others) has also been recalled because of the risk of salmonella from the tainted peanut butter. In addition, Les Cultures de Chez Nous Inc. brand sliced, washed leeks and S. Bourassa (St-Sauveur) sliced leeks may be contaminated with listeria monocytogenes. Those are just some of the public safety warnings that the CFIA issued THIS WEEK!

Food imports increased 21.5 per cent from 1996 to 2006. Federal health officials say they’re becoming more and more worried about the fact fresh fruits and vegetables shipped to Canada from other countries, including those with lower safety standards, are making up an increasingly large proportion of cases of food-borne illness. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspects less than 10 per cent of imported shipments of low-risk products, which includes a majority of fresh produce that comes into Canada. The CFIA doesn’t scrutinize products based on the country of origin, but instead looks more closely at high-risk food products, so a major portion of the food Canadians eat will never be inspected by the federal government before it goes on store shelves. One article I read said, “As the number of outbreaks and illnesses linked to foreign food continues to mount and an increasing proportion of the Canadian diet is made up of food imported from other countries, there are serious questions about whether food growers and sellers, as well as the government, are doing enough to keep what Canadians eat safe.” Is it really reasonable that we should rely not only on our government to regulate safety, but also that the foreign growers will ascribe to our (so called) standards?

All this raises serious questions about the security of Canada’s food supply. Why are we importing lousy food and exporting our high quality food? Why are we allowing low quality foreign food onto our store shelves, all the while developing more and more prohibitive legislation that paralyzes our local food producers under the guise of public health and safety?

Ironically, the very food that we could have some influence over, we are busy making it more and more difficult for farmers to produce and  our fellow citizens to access! One would think that such a rise in the number of cases involving food-borne illnesses would create a strong public desire to change the food production and distribution system. Unfortunately, a desire for change won’t come until the masses realize that the government cannot ensure food safety: local farmers, in concert with the watchful eye of their customers, can.

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Filed under Educational, Ethical farming, Food Sovereignty, Learning to Farm, Locavore, personal food sovereignty, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

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.

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

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?

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

A time to kill

I shot my first live animal yesterday, and I was not on a hunt. I caught a young red fox trying to dig his way in to my turkey pen. This was the same little fellow that had been prowling around my place every night for several weeks now, keeping me awake thanks to the vigilance of my dog. I’d seen him on several of his mid-night ramblings but not bothered to try to shoot him; I just let Tui (our dog) out to take care of him, and she was enough to chase him off.

Yesterday, however, was a different story. He showed up around 3:00 in the afternoon, give or take. I’d just sat down for coffee with my husband, when we noticed the turkeys’ sudden agitation at something. They were ringing their alarm bells, pressing themselves up against the near fence-line and generally making it well known they were not happy about being captive.

My husband ran towards the turkey pen and shouted that he’d spotted the fox. Upon hearing the word ‘fox’, I leaped into action and ran to the house to get my gun (a Ruger .22 semi-automatic). When I returned and closed in on the turkey pen, the little fox was still trying to dig his way in and wasn’t at all alarmed by my presence: not something you want in a wild animal. I took aim through the fence. Once he felt my presence, he stopped digging, sat down, and looked at me, unblinking.

Admittedly, he was a cute little thing, so I paused to consider what I was about to do.  Should I shoot him? Should I let him go on his way? He’s so cute, can I really do this? But I knew I had to shoot him now. He would be back, and if bad luck would have it, it would be when I’m not home to deal with him. It was a case of killing a fox to save my turkeys: my animals, my livelihood, my food security. Typically, you know when a fox has been in the chicken house because they kill everyone in there. It is not enough for a fox to kill just one chicken or turkey and leave, like an eagle or a hawk. It is the signature of a fox to kill everyone, and I could not risk losing my turkeys to him.

After considering all this, again I took aim. I was about to shoot when I realized the shot I had was not a good option. There were two layers of cross-wire fencing to shoot through, so it could end up in disaster. The bullet could hit a wire, ricochet and miss him all together, or worse–hit one of my turkeys. I decided I would risk letting him escape this time, and tried to get a better shot.

While I was repositioning myself, he went around the barn and behind the paddock fence-line. I ran around the other side of the paddock and into it, so I could take aim through the fence and not have it in my way. Meanwhile, he took off to the other side of the slough.

Once across to what he thought was safety, he sat at the base of a tree and, again, turned and looked back at me. Yes, he was cute. Yes he was a young one–probably only a year old. He had such a sweet face, I almost lost my nerve. Again I took pause for a brief moment, but ultimately mustered up the courage to shoot: he would just be back if I let him go. I hit him in the chest and he barreled over backwards, recovered his footing, and took off at a lope.

Now came the really difficult part: I had to try to find my way across the slough (not an easy task) and then track him through extremely dense bush. I got my dog and my husband rounded up to help with the job. We found the blood trail and followed it, but it was rough going. The undergrowth here is full of brambles and –worse–Devil’s Club, which can take out an eye if you are not careful.

I now know that following a blood trail sounds easier than it actually is. I had never done it until yesterday. It was not easy–even with the dog trying to lead the way. We got caught up for far too long trying to get across the slough and even longer trying to get through the dense brush. Finally, we got through the bush and came out on my neighbour’s driveway. We followed the blood trail along the driveway, through the back of my neighbour’s garden, and finally out in to the field that he’d crossed and into the deep forest at the edge of the field.

He’d obviously come to the farm along a similar path, and so, once in the field, the dog got confused and we lost more time–tracking him back and forth along the two paths, coming and going. Eventually, we passed a patch where he’d urinated on his way to my farm. I knew it had to be on his way to the farm and not his return route because the urine was still wet. Not only that: when we finally picked up the blood trail again, it was along a slightly different path. We backtracked along the blood trail and followed it to where he crossed another slough and continued deeper into the forest.

It was not long after this point that I decided to give up. The dog was beginning to look uneasy, the light was going, the rain was coming, and, having passed two fresh piles of fresh bear poop, I figured that being in this dense forest with nothing more than a .22 was not wise. If the dog was nervous walking in the footprints of a bear, so should I be.

I felt bad for not being able to make sure I’d finished him off. There is no doubt in my mind that he will bleed to death, but I would have liked to have finished the job myself. The downside of this is that he’s out there suffering; yet there was and is nothing more I could do. To have continued to track him that late in the day, and with such fresh bear sign around, would have been dangerous. Furthermore, it has rained hard overnight so the trail of blood and scent will be gone today.

The upside of this event, however, is twofold: he won’t be back, and last night I got my first whole undisturbed night’s sleep in weeks.

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Filed under Animal issues, Food Security, Politicking with predators, Turkeys

A pig in a poke

the cages in which the pigs will spend their whole lives.

Factory pig farm: the pigs may spend their whole lives in these confined conditions.

I was recently talking with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. He had asked me what I was up to and so I told him about my small farm, my homesteading work and my provisioning project. Interested, he probed me further:  Was I growing my own veggies, how about wheat, did I have fruit trees, what about protein? and so on. Inevitably, the conversation settled on the horrific revelation to a contemporary ‘civilized’ person: “You mean you kill your own chickens!?” Yes, yes I do.

The tension mounted as the conversation took the obligatory tour through the all too familiar terrain one gets dragged over by uninformed–so called ‘civilized’–hypocrites: ‘Oh, I could never kill an animal… Oh, those poor chickens (rabbits, cows, pigs, etc.)’ and my favorite: ‘How could you kill the animals you know and then eat them?’ All this from the mouth of a meat eater.

I have had it with the selective morality of animals rights proponents, both professional and amateur: there are no moral lines in the sand to be drawn on this issue, only varying degrees of complicity and awareness. At one end of the spectrum are those ‘friends’  who insulted their friend and would-be hostess (see the Yellow Legs post for this background story) by rejecting her home-grown lunch in favour of an anonymously raised and slaughtered (and quite possibly factory raised and processed under abysmal conditions) pig at the neighbourhood pub. At the other end are those who have chosen to walk the talk: those small holders who know first hand just how intelligent, curious, funny and, yes, tasty pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows and the like can be.

In Western cultures, animals were once honored and looked upon as spiritual forces and/or god-like creatures: serpents, cats, doves, lions, and (where I’m from) wolves, ravens, coyotes, eagles and so on. But agricultural peoples have never anthropomorphized the animals they worked with every day, and eaten. Sure, the Hebrews told stories about sheep and goats, and the Greeks told stories about hares and tortoises (Aesop), and the First Nations told stories of raven, coyote, and salmon, but only to illustrate important lessons and human concerns; the animals themselves were not sentimentalized into humanoids.

In nineteenth century Britain however, under the influence of the Romantics, animals were enlisted into the newly fabricated ‘cult of childhood’. Generations of children have, since then, grown up surrounded by humanized animals: in England, Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty and Mole, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggywinkle; in the USA, Brer Rabbit, Roosevelt’s Teddy Bear, the Forrest Service’s Smokey the Bear, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and the ultimate avatars from Looney Toons, Walt Disney and Pixar which infest our imaginations. As a result, we in the Western world have difficulty avoiding the anthropomorphized animal–it’s everywhere, from cereal boxes to toilet paper.

Here on my farm I not only name several of my animals but also I anthropomorphize the heck out of them through my story-telling. I certainly don’t make a habit of naming everyone, but it sometimes just happens; Yellow Legs was a good example of this. I watch them all, and by observation I learn about their unique personalities, their likes and dislikes. The old adage that you can’t eat an animal that you’ve named is almost true, and the ones I do name are often not eaten, but kept as breeding stock or egg layers.  However, I am able to eat those animals I have named (‘Yellow Legs’ for example) because I am aware of the hypocrisy and pernicious sentiment of any other option.

None of this detracts from the wonderful fact that these animals can give such joy when they are alive. Who knew that a chicken has a personality, that turkeys are curious and intelligent, that a goat can have an eating disorder, that a dog would like morning coffee (so long as it is instant), or that a duck would mope for days after its mate got taken by a fox? It’s ironic that this close observation which comes from closing the loop makes it even more difficult for me to consume these animals, yet consume I must, because the alternative is to go back to purchasing from the factory system, when my new intimate knowledge of farm animals and the fact they have personalities makes me even more horrified by how they are treated by corporate agriculture’s factory systems!

In the case of my farming colleague whose ‘friends’ decided to turn their noses up to the food she presented to them, ostensibly because they ‘knew’ the pig, I have to ask: How hypocritical can you be? Animals in agri-business suffer terribly in life and in death, but, unlike the gorillas of Burundi, the grizzlies of the Great Bear Rain Forest, or the baby harp seals of the Canadian Arctic, they usually don’t get the publicity, the sympathy and the cheques. While there are those who might self-righteously have an owner arrested for the way he or she treats their dog, but ignore or simply not respond to the concentration camp-like conditions behind the walls of intensive livestock operations. What are the criteria which put an animal into the ‘food animal’ category rather than the ‘pet’ category? And what makes even a food animal like a pig into an animal those ‘friends’ refused to eat? And why does someone consciously monitor where their money goes when once a year they cut a cheque to some ‘animal issues’ organization, but not pay an ounce of attention to the abysmal conditions for animals which their expenditures support three times a day?

One of my motives for starting to farm as I am, was to close this loop of hypocrisy. I had gone from meat-eating to vegetarianism to veganism and back again. I had realized that there is no clear line on one side of which lies digestive virtue. After all, even a vegan must consider the loss of rain-forest to soy bean fields, the environmental cost of transporting that soy bean to their plate, or the inordinate amount of energy used to convert it into tofurkey, wrap it in attractive packaging and get it to the store-nearest-you-in-time-for-Thanksgiving, and so on. The least hypocritical position is to make one’s ecological footprint as small as possible; this means extracting oneself as much as possible from the corporate agricultural system. In other words, get out of the supermarket and into the local farmers’ market, and/or grow some food yourself.

Eating is a political act. When I kill and eat the chicken which was happily grazing outside my door in the sun yesterday, I am keeping my ecological footprint small, and in terms of eating, I am not being hypocritical. I am also not supporting the corporate agricultural system and its innate animal abuse. How you spend your money on the food you choose to eat has direct influence on how agriculture is practiced and, ultimately, how hundreds of thousands of animals are treated. If you care about animals, then go find out what your hard earned money is supporting, three times every day.

Today, few of us have the opportunity to know the animal that nourishes our bodies. Few of us even consider the animals we eat in the same category as the bears, gorillas, or baby harp seals.  But we should; they are all animals worthy of the same ethical consideration and humane protection. If anything, our food animals deserve more from us. In the food factory system they are not free, not in a natural environment, their bodies are doctored by humans in many ways, their natural life cycle of reproduction and mothering is denied, interrupted or distorted: their sole purpose for being is to be turned into food. Knowing these facts should be the ground of any ethical decision-making. I wish I had been with my farming colleague’s group of ‘friends’ ordering their pork lunch at the pub. I would have explained how their food was made, and if one of them said, “What are trying to do? Put us off our lunch?” I would proudly answer, “Yes.” With a bit of luck, we’d all end up back at the hostess’s table where they’d started. If you eat, knowing agriculture and its practices is your responsibility; it’s your money that is supporting it–spend it consciously.

Please see the Humane Farming Association for information on the realities of factory farming. They have very good educational packages available for purchase and/or download for those who teach or work in food related education, or if you are simply wanting to know more about where our grocery store food actually comes from.

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Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming, Turkeys

Yellow Legs

Yellow Legs.

Just one example of yellow legs.

While in New Zealand, I acquired a flock of chickens that were made up from an assortment of ‘hand me down’ and otherwise general cast-offs that were all very good at living on our farm. In other words, they were good at free ranging for their own food and generally looking after themselves. All I provided them with was safe housing and water.

We were building a house on three acres and one of the contractors, Ian (who built our driveway), not only kept chickens but also ‘showed’ them. I had never heard of such a thing but was curious enough to ask about the ins and outs of showing chickens. Not only did he give us the grand tour of his chicken facility, but also he gave us a ‘chicken starter kit’, vis-à-vis some of his less than show-perfect stock. He was getting out of a certain breed, and was happy to let them go to a good home.

He had been showing chickens for years by then, but related to us a charming, self-deprecating story of his first attempts at showing. A newcomer to the exciting world of chicken showing, he began his career with Leghorns. It was the only breed he knew. He bought a breeding pair, built them suitable housing and a run, and proceeded to take great care in feeding them, talking to them and paying an inordinate amount of loving attention to them (I think his wife on occasion had been jealous of the chickens).

He began to breed some of his own. When it came time to go to his first show, Ian hand-selected two of what he thought were his most beautiful chickens; a cock and a hen, lovingly incubated and hand-raised. Both were plump, well plumed and had gorgeous, yellow legs. He took them to the show and stood there proudly displaying his stock. When the judges came by to appraise them, he was shocked when some of them snickered and generally looked down their noses at his birds; he was completely dismayed when his chickens came in dead last. He was the laughing stock of the chicken show. What he’d failed to do was check to see what the ‘show’ quality guidelines were for the Leghorn chicken: legs were to be white; what Ian thought a charming attribute was in fact a show-stopping conformational fault. When relaying this story to us he said sadly, ‘You know, some of them go so far as to bleach the legs to make them whiter before a show!’

Fast forward 7 years and we are now in Bella Coola, BC. I have acquired another bunch of hand-me-down, cast-off chickens. I don’t care. I’m not going to show them so I’m not worried about their pedigree or their adherence to breed specific guidelines. In fact, I am quite happy to see them interbreeding and am always fascinated to see how the chicks turn out.

Consequently, we end up with all sorts of shapes and sizes. I cull the roosters that don’t get along with our stud rooster Pavarotti, and also the smaller birds, because I am trying to develop hardy chickens that can handle the cold winters here, and that are good dual-purpose birds.

Because I’m not paying attention to breed conformation, it was inevitable that someone with yellow legs would appear eventually; and he did. ‘Yellow legs’ was a very striking bird. My husband–who had forgotten all about how Ian been the laughing stock of the New Zealand chicken breeders’ show–loved him (maybe this is a man thing); night after night, he would return to the house after putting them to bed and wax lyrical about his beauty: “He’s got these really beautiful yellow legs.” I reminded him of Ian’s story, but he was undeterred. Eventually, ‘Yellow Legs’ became a star of the farm. I would watch him walk, and with each step, I would say: “Yellow…legs…yellow…legs…yellow…legs”. As it got closer to slaughter time, my voice changed intonation and I pretended to be the rooster himself: ‘Yellow… legs… yellow… legs… David likes my… yellow… legs.’ Sometimes I would chant it to my husband as if this might save ‘me-now-Yellow-Legs’ from the fate of the dinner plate.

RCMP uniform.

RCMP's yellow legs.

We went on like this for months as the roosters grew. Eventually, friends were exposed to the drama and also Ian’s background story, and Yellow Legs became a bit of a community legend. Once, a friend and I were on a road trip to Williams Lake when an RCMP officer walked out in front of us. Without missing a beat, she suddenly blurted out, ‘Yellow Legs, yellow legs, yellow legs’ in time with his foot-falls (the RCMP uniform has yellow stripes down the black pant legs). I burst out laughing and hoped he didn’t hear. How on earth would I explain the ridiculous effect of his RCMP uniform on me?

Some time later that year, this same friend and a host of others were over for dinner. There was good food, fine wine, great dessert and lots of laughter. There was a plate full of chicken and the people were helping themselves to it al gusto.

This rooster, having heard what happened to 'The' Yellow Legs, is reluctant to show off his legs.

This rooster, having heard what happened to The Yellow Legs, shows some reluctance to show off his pair of yellow legs.

The friend who had been in Williams Lake with me picked up a drumstick and began to devour it, then suddenly burst out, ‘Oh my god!’ The conversation came to an abrupt stop; her hand, still holding the drumstick, had shot out of her mouth and was now poised at eye level over the centre of the table demanding all eyes’ fullest attention– ‘Is this Yellow Legs?!’

Taken aback, but not willing to lie, I admitted that, somewhere on the plate among the pile of drumsticks, were Yellow Legs’ legs. Of course I couldn’t confirm that the one she was holding was indeed the show stopping star. After a short pause of what could only be described as contemplative consideration, someone uttered a brief toast in honor of Yellow Legs. We all had a good laugh and continued eating: ‘Yellow legs, yellow legs, we all liked his yellow legs.’

Sadly, this conscious celebration of an animal’s life so that we could eat was not the reaction that a farming colleague faced when she presented to friends of hers a sumptuous dinner of roast pork, which she had raised and cooked herself. Upon hearing that the pork was not bought at the supermarket but instead was one of the pigs they had ‘met’ on a previous visit to the farm, these so-called ‘friends’ refused to eat and chose instead to take their meal at a local pub.

What did they order when they got there? Why, roast pork of course. The snubbed hostess, being much more polite than me, bit her tongue and didn’t reveal that she often supplied that pub with her own pork.

See: A pig in a poke for more on the issues related to this topic.

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Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Ethical farming, Food Sovereignty, Politics of Food