Tag Archives: Politics of Food

My book is finally complete!

Well it’s taken a long time for me to get this book finished but it’s finally done and out in the stores for sale! This is thanks to the hard work of the Caitlin Press Publishing crew. I am very happy with how it turned out. Vici (the owner of Caitlin Press) said she wanted to try to get it in color but was not sure it would be possible. But she managed the impossible and it looks great. There are many color photos inside that illustrate what I was up to. Some you will have seen on this blog and some are new.

It was a nice surprise to wake up to a box of my very own book on my front porch last week. Even funnier surprise to hear that my mum bought a copy for my dad for Father’s Day!

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Filed under Books, Educational, Food preservation, Food Sovereignty, Hunting, Learning to Farm, personal food sovereignty, Politics of Food, Recipes, Uncategorized

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

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

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

Raw milk pasteurizing

Once a week I pay $6 (the equivalent of 18 eggs or an equal amount in a variety of my fresh produce) as my ‘share’ for access to a cow from whom I get 1 gallon of milk. When I get the milk back to the kitchen, I skim the raw cream off, refrigerate it and put the milk in a pasteurizer. I keep the fresh cream for our coffee (and if you have never had fresh, raw cream in your coffee you are missing out!) and pasteurize the fresh milk so I can make it into yogurt or fresh ricotta cheese.

Here is fresh milk I am about to pasteurized by hand on the stove.
Here is fresh milk I am about to pasteurize by hand on the stove.

To pasteurize, you can either buy a home pasteurizing machine, which I have now done, or do it on the stove. To do this safely on the stove, bring the milk to 145 F degrees and hold it there at temperature for 30 minutes, then cool it quickly.  Before I bought my pasteurizer, I did it this way.

Once this process is complete, remove the pot from the stove and immediately transfer it to a sink full of cold water with ice cubes, and stir the milk until the temperature comes down significantly (when it stops dropping). Once cooled, put it in a clean container and store in the fridge as you would any milk you buy from the store.

Pasteurizer filled with milk and ready for processing.
Pasteurizer filled with milk and ready for processing.

If you use a home pasteurizer, follow the directions for use. With mine, I first pour the milk into the container that fits inside the pasteurizer, then place the container inside the pasteurizer and fill the machine with water. I then place the lid on top, plug it in, and walk away until it is done. That easy. My machine has a buzzer to let me know when it is done. NOTE: the first few times of use, you should check the temperature of the milk once the cycle is complete, just to check that the machine is calibrated correctly.

Once it has finished the pasteurization through temperature process, you then sluice the container with cold, running water until the milk is cool, much the same as the above process. Then transfer it to a clean container and store in fridge until you want to use it.

NOTE: other sources say you can bring the milk to 165 F degrees for just a few seconds and then cool it immediately for safe pasteurizing.

See the following links for further information about pasteurizing milk safely:

University of Guelf Dairy Science

Health & Beyond (see table 2)

See the following Blog to read the issues around access to raw milk in Canada:

The Bovine

Go to Hoegger Goat Supply for home pasteurizing machines:

Hoegger Goat Supply

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Filed under Food Security, Food Sovereignty, How to..., personal food sovereignty, Politics of Food, Preserving the harvest

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

Politicking with predators

Even these two are in competition for their livelihood.
Even these two are in competition for their livelihood. Photo: Michael Wigle, Jumping Mouse Studio

Living in harmony: a false belief system

Until two years ago, I had thought that I could live ‘in harmony’ with nature and wildlife. I didn’t own a gun and didn’t want one. I had the ‘citified’ belief of a newbie to the area that if I didn’t bother the bears, then the bears wouldn’t bother me–ditto for cougars, foxes, etc. However, it is simply not true no matter how much you want to believe it. Everything out there is trying to make a living just as I am. Unfortunately, when you are trying to make a living by raising all your own food, you present a sumptuous smorgasbord to a host of predators.

Not only that: if you do as I was doing–let an area of the land or lawn ‘go back to nature’ (as gardening tips in magazines for city-slickers suggest, in order to create habitat and lessen one’s carbon footprint)–what you end up with is just that: habitat. This is a great idea for urban folk and for those living in less wild areas than rural/remote British Columbia. There are wonderful stories of people living ‘in harmony’ with nature in this way: ‘Isn’t it cute to see deer re-populating this valley’; ‘We now have a riot of bird calls in the morning,’ and the like. However, I have come to learn that this idea cannot be applied universally, and certainly not to the conditions in which I live, because what I have managed to do here is create a wonderfully rich and diverse cover for the large predators (one that camouflages a cougar, for instance, quite nicely) as they find their way to that ‘sumptuous smorgasbord’.

This is a big topic and one that engages and enrages people depending upon their view and experience, of and with, the subjects. So here’s my story.

Facing reality: a shift in beliefs

So there I was on a gorgeous, sunny day quietly minding my own business, head down planting my strawberry runners into a new patch–which happened to be quite close to the area I had set aside to let nature have her way with. I was taking care to build the beds up into raised beds so that next year they would come on early, when suddenly I got the feeling I was being watched. At first, I thought I was just being silly and tried to shake the feeling off. However, after several minutes the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, so I paid attention. ‘Cougar,’ I thought, ‘I’m being watched by a cougar.’

I took a look around to see if I could spot anything and when I didn’t, I thought, ‘This is just paranoia creeping in, because you are alone on the farm without a dog (aka my early warning system).’ I went back to what I was doing. A few minutes later when the feeling would not go away, I decided that I had better listen to my instincts and head inside. I put on a pot of coffee and began to make my lunch. While filling the kettle I stared out the kitchen window at the new strawberry patch, and out from the long grass came the cougar. It was a big, full grown cat easily outweighing me.

Calling for back-up

I called the Conservation officer right away and he came running, literally. I’m lucky to live right across the street from the office. He and a biologist came with the CO’s dog and tried to track the cougar, but to no avail. ‘Grass is too long,’ he said. That perfect cover for the cougar also meant he couldn’t be tracked!

After lunch, I abandoned my Martha Stewart aspirations and got out my power brush cutter. As I mowed down the beautiful mixed grasses, wildflowers and lilies, I again got the feeling of being watched. This time I immediately came inside the house. Again, within a minute of my getting inside, out jumped the cougar. This time, he was headed back towards the CO’s office. Sure enough, a few seconds later his dog was barking excitedly and moments later the chase was on.

Unfortunately, the CO and his one dog were not a match for the cougar and it got away.  I say unfortunately, not because I want to kill cougars, but because I wanted that cougar killed. It has kept coming back and consequently, I no longer feel very safe on the farm. After that incident, I felt violated and unsafe in my own home. The feeling was akin to the feelings evoked by a home robbery I experienced in the city. Now I felt my personal space once again violated, but this time on a much greater scale. This cougar could cost me my life, or at least the life of some of my animals, and therefore my livelihood.

Myths and Realities

There are many issues here, too many for me to deal with comprehensively in one post. For example, we should really have more than one Conservation Officer in this area. It is really dangerous work and they should  not have to face these predators alone. But this issue in itself is huge, so I’ll leave it at that.

Another is, and this will upset some readers, that this cougar should have been shot. These kinds of predators need to be ‘trained’ (or retrained, as the case may be) not to come where humans are. One of the reasons that the large predators are coming back into cities 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. These animals have figured out that they can get away with being out in the day time, so every year there are more reports of them marauding on farms, and through garage bins in cities. If you don’t want to take my word for it, read the books by bear behaviour expert, Gary Shelton: Bear Attacks, Bear Attacks II, and Bear Attacks: Myth and Reality.

The bible on the realities of bear encounters.
The bible on the realities of bear encounters.

As for me, the issue of predators directly affect my livelihood: we have lost several chickens to hawks and foxes, baby ducks to eagles and ravens, and the Mallard drake to a fox. As for fruit trees, the bears have broken branches off the apples and the pears. Some people say, ‘Just go out and buy some more’; ‘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’; or (my personal favourite), ‘Well, you are in their territory.’ Am I really ‘in their territory?’ If so, isn’t all of the North American population? The reason we have the agricultural areas we do is because we’ve shot everything that moved there, and let them know they don’t belong here any more. It was a matter of survival and economics. After all, we all need to eat.

A right to livelihood

This is a personal economic loss. I am trying to make my living at home by what I like to call ‘direct economics’. Instead of trading my time in an office for a wage and then going to the store and buying food, I want to close that loop. Not only do I feel this is personally important to me, but I believe it is the best way I can help the planet: my food miles are very short, I don’t have to travel to work, my animals are treated decently (some would say spoiled), and I’m not polluting the water table.

Should I not have the right to own land where I chose to? To grow my own food, and make my living directly in this way?  To own fruit trees and raise chickens and turkeys instead of making a wage and having to buy them? If so, then I also need the right to push back a predator in order to protect my livelihood. If not, I will be forced to move to an already over-populated area (but an area carefully depopulated of wildlife), get a job, and be once again rendered totally dependent upon an agricultural system that is ruining the  environment (erosion, aquifer draining, desertification, water poisoning), mistreating animals, creating numerous diseases and mortal dangers for human consumers, and so on.

All is not lost

When I sat down to write this morning, I actually didn’t intend to go off the way I did above. What I had intended to write about was a bit more of a good news story and I was surprised at the turn of the tenor. Now I know first hand how a story can take a life of its own (I used to be skeptical when writers would say things like, ‘I didn’t know the story would go like this, or like that’).

Anyway, the good news is that mostly I do politick with the predators. After the cougar incident, we built more housing for the goats: by more, I mean more expensive and thus safer. In addition, I learned that when the bear comes and breaks branches on my apple tree, it is time to go pick all the apples as a preventative measure.  I have also come to several agreements with the bears. When I do harvest all the apples, I make three piles: one for fresh eating, one for preserving and one for the bears. I take the last pile out to the spot where she enters the property and dump them there. I have found that over the course of a few nights, she will come and eat them all and not bother to re-enter the property.

Also, I have several well established grape vines climbing on a pergola at the edge of the property; two green, two red. Every year a grizzly bear comes and eats the grapes. She likes the red but leaves me the green. She wrote up the contract and I signed on. To date, it is working nicely.

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Filed under Animal issues, Conservation, Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Politicking with predators, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Conscious conscientious decision-making

A state of dependency:

Someone recently asked me if I plan to feed my dog with my farm produce, as well as ourselves. Another, whether or not I was going to make herbal teas and sachets. Still another, whether or not I would grow wheat, oats, and barley, and would I have a cow. Believe me, when I first committed to the ‘Year in Provisions’ project, those thoughts drifted through my head, as well as a host of others. Things like, whether I could feed the other animals on the farm–goats, ducks, chickens, horse. Could I use my horse for roto-tilling the garden. Quite apart from the question of whether or not I’ll continue to have the luxury items of modern day that I can’t grow myself, I had to work through these and a host of other ideas as well.

More importantly for me emotionally, I had to work through the attachment I had to a salary. I quit my job and came back to British Columbia to attempt the project. In order to do this, I need to be financially supported by my husband; something I have not been comfortable with until now. I have never not been self-supporting financially before. Not only that, I had a good paying job at a University, which afforded me certain luxuries I’ve had to give up, and which came with all the benefits of a government job: social security, medical, dental, a pension plan, and paid holidays. It was a big emotional trajectory that I had to work through in order to get here. Moreover it is a risk. I am no longer building up my pension, I don’t have social security, I don’t have a wage to save with for my future, and I am completely dependent upon not only, the generosity of my husband, but also his ability to continue bringing in a wage. Suddenly, these too become luxuries I cannot take for granted.

A matter of time:

Since taking on the challenge of the project, and beginning to let people know what I’m up to, there has been no end of suggestions about what I could do or should do. It is a daunting undertaking.  In particular, figuring out where to stop and what my limits are has been difficult. In fact, it is an almost daily negotiation: should I buy sugar so I can make jam with all my fruit, should I buy vinegar  to can relishes and pickles, should I make vinegar myself from my own apples, etc, etc.? I had to decide whether I would be a  ‘purist’ or simply accept that some foods are necessary to make other foods last. Ultimately, I acknowledged that even the pioneers and cowboys had sugar, flour and coffee!

In the beginning, we talked about cutting out foods we couldn’t produce ourselves, such as olive oil, coffee, wine, beer, etc., as Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon of the 100 Mile Diet fame did, but ultimately we decided not to–because of the time constraints. Smith and MacKinnon spent their time sourcing local foods whereas I’m spending time growing it. What’s more, they’ve already done it–and for that I am grateful. What they have achieved–getting local eating on the media agenda, locally, regionally and internationally–is a major accomplishment. My hat is off to them.

We also decided not to cut out all ‘off-farm’ luxuries for socio-cultural reasons. Food creates community. Food is culture. Food is a social binder. Once you decide to cut out this or that, you can find yourself suddenly sitting alone on the bench (If you’ve ever gone on a strict diet you will know this!). In addition, this year, we knew we would be hiring a bunch of people to help us get barns built and green-houses built. The compromise we have made instead is buy regionally roasted organic coffee and to brew our own beer and wine at the local U-brew. I just couldn’t see myself explaining to ‘the guys’ why I couldn’t make them a coffee to keep them going at mid-day, or offer them a beer after a hard day’s work!

Life is a compromise!

In the end, I let the idea of rigorous ‘Personal Food Sovereignty’ go. I had to. For one thing, it was just too unrealistic a goal: I don’t own enough land, the growing conditions here are not conducive to grain, and I am only one person (albeit with a helpful partner). Moreover, I don’t have the funds to buy not only  the necessary larger piece of land, but also the requisite equipment needed to accomplish the above.

It was a good mental exercise to work through these ideas (and others such as, “How many cauliflower plants should I grow? How often do we want to eat chicken or fish?”). It has been, to say the least, a thought provoking exercise and something I encourage anyone reading this to ponder in terms of their own life. When you sit and think about how you would feed yourself, your family, your animals should you ever have to, it certainly sharpens the mind and focuses your energies! Once you suddenly realize just how dependent you are on ‘the system’, you will be humbled, if not shocked and somewhat un-nerved as I was.

What’s important:

This deep dependency on a system is not a feeling I’m comfortable with. Consequently, that has become my focus: extracting myself as much as I can from ‘the system’. I have made a shift from the original goal–to grow all my own food for  a year, to creating interdependency within my community and social circle. This goal, like my garden, is growing, changing, and continuously evolving based on its relationship to the outside world and my innate limitations.

What is important and what I can manage ultimately comes down to time, my community, and my priorities and abilities for living a rich life. Through the blogging world I have found a community of like-minded others who, by their own writings, have mirrored with scintillating accuracy my own feelings about the day to day of a small-holding. As this fellow blogger, Stonehead, states so humorously:

As always, there are just two of us working the [farm], one full-time and one helping out as and when. It means we cannot possibly do all the things that everyone thinks we should be doing, whether it’s tanning rabbit skins, keeping a house cow, making our own paint brushes from pig bristle, keeping the place totally weed free, making our own soap, or dancing the fandango on the rooftoop every hour on the hour while playing the bagpipes. We have to decide and adjust our priorities constantly to ensure we get the important things done first…

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Filed under Food Security, Food Sovereignty, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

First Steps in Food Sovereignty: what you can do.

A friend of mine emailed me about yesterday’s post, Food Sovereignty: latest fad or total necessity. He liked it very much. He is a conscientious person and keenly interested in food. However, like many people, he is not about to move from the city and take up the hoe, although he will enthusiastically ride my lawnmower when visiting! He asked me: What can us city-folk do? Now, I know that not everyone can grow their own food as I am doing. There is a variety of limitations each of us face: no access to land, lack of knowledge about how to grow food, or physical limitations. So the answer I gave him, in a nut-shell, is the following: Get out of the grocery store and go meet a farmer.

You can make your dollars count: quit feeding the mega-corporations and the venture capitalists that run them. Instead, put your money into a local pocket. Go to the farmer’s market and talk to the farmers there. Build a relationship with some of them. Farmers love to talk about the food they grow. They love to have feedback about the food they grow. They like to know that the work they are doing is valuable and appreciated (unlike most corporations, whose only interest is the economic returns they give to their shareholders).

You will get great pleasure from handing your hard earned dollars straight in to the hands of the person who works hard to grow the food that nourishes you. Not only will it support Food Sovereignty, both politically and personally, but also it might be the easiest, most rewarding and most pleasureable thing you can do for yourself and your local farmer. The bonus is that the food will probably taste better than anything you find in the grocery store, and it most certainly will be fresher!

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Filed under Food Sovereignty, Politics of Food