Tag Archives: Food Security

Bears and fruit trees, part 4

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, pervasive false beliefs about the human-bear relationship. Some of these beliefs are even enacted into public policies and laws, and contradictory policies at that. For example, there is a lot of talk in the media these days about local eating: the 100 Mile Diet, re-localization, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and so on. There has even been some B.C. Ministry of Health interest in promoting the aforementioned with their recent ‘access to produce’ initiative. However, the Conservation Service (Ministry of Environment) seems to be at odds with this food security agenda by advising people to cut down their fruit trees whenever there is a bear-human conflict. This issue is the fuel that sparked this series of posts—when I found myself in conversation with some folks from the B.C. Food System Network who were alarmed by their Conservation Officer threatening them with fines if they did NOT cut down their fruit trees.

It’s a question of food security

While it may sound as if I would have all bears and wildlife destroyed, it is not the case. My position with respect to the human-wildlife conflict is rooted in terms of food security and community/rural survival: we cannot have food security when there are oppositional philosophies being enforced by different Ministries.

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. The other post of this series are:

1.How to make bears and fruit trees get along

2. Bears and fruit trees, part two

3. 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 #4: After all, you are in ‘their territory’

Some readers’ responses to one of my posts about the human-wildlife conflict provide a departure point for discussion of this false belief: “Any thoughts about the fact that you are placing tasty food morsels in the bear’s territory? Why are you keeping fruit trees in bear territory?” … “If you have animals and fruit trees then you are just asking for predators to come”… “Well, you are in their territory so you just have to accept this” (my personal favourite). The very concept of ‘territory’ is the essential problem. It is a neat fiction which presumes a boundary between the bears’ ‘territory’ and ‘ours’, and a contractual agreement as to where that boundary-line is. If so, where is it? At the edge of cities? around all rural areas? or should we all move out of the countryside and back into cities… again, where is the edge of the city? At this field, or that fence-line? As with so many issues, this debate is over boundaries, borders, and margins, and yet there is no demarcated boundary to any natural creature’s territory—only constantly changing niches or ill-defined ranges, constantly fought for with tooth and claw. The idea of identifiable borders is a human invention (viz. Hadrian’s, China’s, Berlin’s, Peach Arch Park and the 49th parallel) and we have difficulty maintaining even those (look at Gaza, or the Mexico/US border, or China and Tibet, or the Northwest Territory now Nunavut, to name a fraction of the infractions). Animals like bears do understand territory and mark theirs distinctively, but that territory is a living, changing thing, depending on each bear’s niche, condition, and the state of the food supply. That food supply is intimately linked to the general bear population; if the food supply or population changes, the bear’s fight for territory becomes more competitive; the delineation and extent of that territory shift and morph under these pressures. With respect to our current bear problem, a poor summer with few fish or berries coupled with an increase in bear population means their food source is too scarce in their own food shed, so the fight for territory between bears has become more vicious. Consequently, the weaker and younger bears that are denied access to prime habitat are pushed out of what we think of as ‘their territory’ and into ‘ours.’ Easy pickings are chicken houses, fruit trees, gardens and garbage; combined with a policy of ‘non-attractants’ it’s not long before bears consider ‘our territory’ theirs. When we add the fact that people are no longer ‘fighting’ back as we once did against these carnivores, their assumption is understandable. Unlike the bears along the river fishing for salmon, who drive us and each other away in order to protect their food source, we humans didn’t even put up a fight when they came and ate all our chickens, turkeys and ducks; nor did we complain when they harvested all our carrots, parsley, plums and pears.

So how do I establish and maintain my border? A border, however loosely defined, only has existence if both sides acknowledge and maintain it. In contrast to predators’ shifting borders, humans have always grown gardens, had fruit trees, and raised domesticated animals in this valley. While the bears’ boundary is shifting, our human boundary has always been clearly delineated (mown lawns, driveways, and often a fence, etc.), and we have throughout history educated the animals by trapping and shooting. Everywhere in the world, people have marked their ‘territory’ by shooting and trapping offenders in this way, and thus they have trained predators not to intrude across the humans’ clearly delineated, and relatively unshifting borders. Like dogs, bears and cougars can be trained, and that is why we have a residual idea that those animals have a natural fear of humans. But there is nothing innate about it; it is a learned behaviour and a direct result of an ancient human-wildlife conflict in which we have always been engaged.

I have come to understand that the remaining predators need constantly to be ‘trained’ not to come where humans are. One of the reasons that the large predators are coming back into cities in broad daylight, and generally to where humans are, is that we are no longer shooting at them. Consequently, they no longer see us as an equal predator, or even as a threat. Contrary to the misconception that these animals are innately nocturnal, they have figured out that they can even get away with being out in the day time, so every year there are more reports of their daytime marauding on farms, and through garage bins in cities. The assertion of my blog respondent, that I am in their territory, creates the misconstrued dichotomy of ‘their territory’ versus ‘our territory’, as if humans only ‘belong’ in cities, and that those cities have always existed. However, all North America’s great cities (the same goes for Europe, India, China and so on, though with different predators) were once the bears’ ‘territory’ before ‘we’ decided to stop being hunter gatherers and develop human settlements, based on cultivating crops.

The ‘our territory/their territory’ theory arises from a flawed preservationist philosophy, which mistakenly presumes that bears have a ‘territory’ which we humans have encroached upon, and now drives policy and legislative decisions in British Columbia (and North American in general, as shown in their responses to my blog). Am I really ‘in the bears’ territory’ when I am in the confines of my property’? If so, isn’t all of the North American population? And most of the European (or Chinese, or Indian, or African, etc.) population too, for that matter? The reason we have the few agricultural areas we do, is that we’ve shot almost everything that once moved there (hence the European eradication of wolves and bears and the dearth of them in large parts of the USA that they formally occupied), and continue to let the survivors know they don’t belong there any more. Our food security depends on our making more enlightened land use policies based on historical and biological realities, not these neat, fantastical conspiracies of cartographers.

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Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Fruit Trees, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable 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

Bringing it home

There is a lot of talk in the media these days about local eating: the 100 Mile Diet,  re-localization, Food Security, Food Sovereignty and so on.  There has even been some Ministry of Health interest in promoting the aforementioned with their recent ‘access to produce’ initiative. Meanwhile there is a host of legislators busy prohibiting farmers from producing, and consumers from accessing, this same food. Finally, there is another host of economists employed by the relevant Ministries who pay lip service to rural economic development but never consider in that equation small scale, traditional agriculture and its supports–let alone promote its viability. Instead they look to big industry to solve the economic crisis and brag about how many jobs this or that industry will bring to a community. Amid all this economic posturing, it would be refreshing if someone asked why 50 years ago a farmer of 20 or 30 cows (or many of the livestock options) could make a nice living and support a family (generally larger than today’s average size), but not today? Now the average farm size is huge, monocultural, less diverse and productive, and we have reverted to a feudal social system.

I had someone over the other day who wondered why I was struggling to make a living off the farm, let alone make it pay for itself. I was dumbfounded because I thought the answer would have been obvious: there is a limited population base where I live, few jobs are left, ethically raised food is more expensive than factory raised food, and–to paraphrase Joel Salatin–the government legislation coupled with the marketing boards have made nearly everything I want to do illegal. So this was my response: Do I think I could make a living off this land? Absolutely. Do I think I can make a legal living off this land? Probably not. I sent him off with this food for his mind, and handed him some ‘contraband’ eggs to nourish his body (my customers and I are happy with recycling egg cartons, which is a ‘no-no’ as far as the ‘higher-ups’ are concerned), and ‘soon-to-be-contraband’ salad greens–yes, the brilliant stroke of our previous Minister of Agriculture and Lands, Pat Bell, announced during his time in office, that all fruit, vegetables, honey and wine for sale will be required to be government inspected, by September 2009! Community food systems are healthy for local people and healthy for local economies. If the regulators really wanted to address the economic/environmental/rural community health and viability issues, they would think in terms of re-localization of our food systems, about de-centralisation of the production and distribution system, and about how to make local food systems robust, more efficient and economically viable for the communities they could support.

If we seriously began to support our small mixed farmers, a demographic shift would unfold from the over-crowded cities to rural BC. Along with this would come an increased need for adjunct skilled people, such as butchers, bakers, cheese-makers, and dairy-men and women. In addition to those would be the front end suppliers such as feed growers for the animals, and mechanics to fix broken tractors and the like. Imagine the changes that could take place if we began to promote a food inspection system that supports small scale, sustainable producers and processors (and one that puts ‘environmental impact’ back into the equation of food production), instead of throwing them out of business with regulations that prohibit their growth and development or require major financial inputs that only mega-corporations can afford. For example, when I look at the price of organic milk in the store, I’m relatively certain my goats could help make this farm a going concern–if only their milk was legal to sell, and/or I didn’t need to fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital equipment to meet the new regulations standards before I sell one litre of milk. If there were some exemptions to the rule for small producers, we could grow our businesses at a scale that makes sense to our conditions.

I’m glad I have as much control of my food as I do; I think everyone should feel this secure. But how can everyone, when the access to local produce is becoming more and more difficult. I think about the milk I was lucky enough to have had access to this past year. It was contraband and technically illegal. Why? When farmers (and shareholders) can drink raw milk safely, why can’t we, the general public? Why am I not free to choose where I get my milk from? If you don’t want to drink it raw, home pasteurization is easy; all you need is a pot, a thermometer, and a heat source. Not long ago that most people in this country knew this. Non-native North American traditions are based in being hunters and homesteaders; we are descendants of pioneers who colonized this land by being self-sufficient, and knowledgeable in the ways of food provisioning and preserving techniques.

What could be more integral to community than its self-provisioning of food? The famous anthropologist, Levi-Strauss, said that food was as important to culture as language. If this is true, then we are rapidly losing our culture to mega-corporations backed by our own government legislators. Why are we being forced to abandon our culture and traditions? Moreover, why are we accepting it? It is time to revivify our cultural traditions, and bring food back home and into the hands of our families and communities.

REFERENCE NOTE: Several people have asked for the reference to where the previous Minister of Agriculture and Lands, Pat Bell, said that the regulations for fruit, vegetables, wine, and honey will be changing. It was in a letter to The Vernon Daily Courier October 2, 2007, where a local resident wrote about the impact that the meat regulations are having on meat producers and warned that by 2009 the same will be true of fruit, vegetables and honey:

The Honourable Pat Bell, Minister of Agriculture  and Lands informed a meeting of the Union of BC Municipalities that they should get used to the new regulations because fruit, vegetables, wine and honey will face similar regulations by September  2009.

You can also search the Ministry’s web pages: http://www.gov.bc.ca/al/

The letter also warned that: These regulations would spell the end of the Farmer’s Markets. Also, we would no longer be able to go to a local orchard to buy our fruit as we have done in this Valley for 150 years.

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Filed under Developing Community, Educational, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Politics of Food, Uncategorized

Lotsa mozza

A fresh batch of mozzarella cheese. Photo: Gourmet Girl Magazine

A fresh batch of mozzarella cheese. Photo: Gourmet Girl Magazine

Got up this morning and did the usual chores. Took the dog for a morning walk and had coffee by the river. It’s the springtime morning routine. Got home and found an urgent message on my answering machine: “I’ve got extra milk. If you want it for cheese then come on over quick and bring containers!”

I immediately dropped all the plans I had for the day and set to collecting suitable containers to bring the milk home in. It  is not often that I get such a wonderful opportunity, in fact this is the famous first! I am now busy processing 4 gallons of beautifully fresh milk into mozzarella cheese. I’ll take one batch back to the farmer in thanks, and keep the other three for myself. Will post the how to and photos soon, when my hands are not so full!

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Filed under cheese making, Food preservation, Milk preservation techniques, Recipes

First attempts with Cornish Crosses

With any luck, this is what I'll end up with when these babes are full grown. Photo credit: JB Farms

With any luck, this is what I'll end up with when these babes are full grown. Photo credit: JB Farms

Spring has sprung here on Howling Duck Ranch and it is marked with the arrival of the new baby chickens. I have ordered 50 day-old Cornish Cross birds for meat. They are said to be easier to raise than the straight run Cornish broilers with less chance of heart attacks and water-belly that the broilers (regular supermarket birds) are prone to.

The arrival was not without its complications. They were supposed to arrive on Friday afternoon on the mail truck. However, around 11 am I received a phone call from the Williams Lake Post Office letting me know the chicks would be arriving there at 5:oo pm, oh, and could I please pick them up before they close. The Williams Lake Post Office is a nearly 500 kilometer one way trip away!

Needless to say I spent the better part of the afternoon in a panic trying to find someone to care for the chicks over the weekend and arrange for a courier company to pick them up on Monday and bring them in to town. Thankfully, the feed store owner came through for me, they picked the chicks up on Friday night and the only courier that comes to Bella Coola said they would bring them in on the truck on Monday. Even so, the feed store owner was worried about them making another long trip without food and water being less than a week old by Monday.

As luck would have it, someone from Bella Coola dropped into the feed store yesterday and the feedstore pounced! Would you mind taking these chicks with that order of yours? Being a neighbourly sort (as many of us who live in the sticks are) he kindly obliged and my wee-uns arrived safely last night in the gentle care of a man I’ve only met once last year at a party! He did a fine job as everyone arrived alive and well.

So, this morning’s chores once again included the now routine ‘poopy-bum patrol’. So far, everyone still looks well. In fact, I’ll be surprised if I lose any more (one was lost in the mail before making it to the feed store). If there are no other losses, this will be the best rate I’ve had. Usually with 50 chicks I expect to lose 2-3 chicks in the first week. Fingers crossed for these babes.

I decided to try the Cornish Crosses for two reasons this year: my customers wanted a heavier meat bird and I want to breed them into my range birds. I’ve been breeding a heavy heritage mix of bird over the past few years in an attempt to get the best of all worlds: a good egg layer, good meat bird, efficient range bird, and cold heartiness. In the end, the heritage breeds are only so big and don’t have the real ‘meatiness’ of the breast that we’ve become used to thanks to the hybrid birds of the commercial flocks.

I’m by no means doing a professional job of this. I’m not worrying about line-breeding or incubating generation after generation. Mostly my chickens take care of themselves. They do the mating and the hatching on their own. My only hand in the process is to cull the ‘Jenny Craigs’ (the skinny light bodied chooks) and ensure good breeding stock. So far, we’re all quite happy with the program.

This year however, now that I have these Cornish Crosses, I plan to separate some of the bigger hens and mate them to the Cornish Roosters. We’ll see if those plans pan out!

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Filed under Chickens, Educational, Ethical farming, Heritage foods, Sustainable Farming

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.

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

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

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

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.


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