I was a Democrat in my 20s, a Republican in my 30s. Now that I’ve hit 40, I’ve almost fallen over the Libertarian cliff. I think becoming a farmer had something to do with it. I just really don’t want government to tell me what to do. Part of me loves the idea of a tax on sugary beverages and Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on Super-Sized-Sodas. I agree that these sugar filled beverages, among other processed food, are at the core of the obesity epidemic that is leading to millions of dollars in unnecessary healthcare and federal tax dollar spending. I’m just not sure I want government to tell people not to drink soda. Especially because there’s a better way to limit people’s consumption of sugary beverages: and that is to eliminate farm subsidies and incentivize smaller family farms around the country that can make fresh food available to all people.
The invention of high fructose corn syrup (HFC) brought with it the downfall of American eating habits. All of a sudden, it became very easy to make EVERYTHING sweet. In nature, sweet is a luxury saved for perfectly ripe berries in the spring and fruits in the summer. Most natural sweet comes in mild forms: sweet corn, sugar pumpkins, sugar snap peas. Even maple syrup doesn’t come to us from nature in its highly concentrated form. We don’t get this huge blast of sweet from anything in nature the way we do from HFC. And that huge blast is what gets our bodies hooked. We are wired to indulge in sweet because it IS so rare in nature.
Our problem is not that we don’t have enough food – Big Ag is pumping out more food off of less land than it ever has in history thanks in part to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and feed-lot-raised animals. But fresh food is not in the right places. The only bummer about fresh food (food that is grown, not packaged) is that is has a very short shelf life. This means people need access to it often (compare the shelf life of a peach to a Twinkie). In reality, Americans want their right to choose, and not have our food chosen for us. But subsidizing big Ag ventures such as commodity corn and soybeans, the government is choosing processed foods for its citizens, especially those located in so-called “food deserts”. So take yer hands off my Big Gulp Mr. Mayor, but tell your colleagues in Washington to stop bowing to the status quo and start helping out rural, neighborhood, and inner-city farms.
Hopefully your CSA deliveries have started (or will start soon), or you’ve committed to heading to one of the local Farmer’s Markets this growing season (now that there’s one in Simsbury, Granby and East Granby). You’ll walk around and look over whose produce looks the best, decide which cut of meat you’d like to cook and make your decisions about what to buy based on looks, mostly. But what do you know about the farm you’re buying from? What are their farming practices? Being right there at the Farmer’s Market or CSA pickup gives you access to the farmer that you can never get in the grocery store. Take advantage of that! Get to know your farmer for your benefit and for theirs. Farmers love to talk “shop” and are usually happy to answer your questions. When I see someone at our farm store, I’m happy to take a couple of minutes to show them around so they can see how our animals live and what they eat. You may want to know, how do they grow their vegetables? What kind of herbicides or pesticides do they use, if any? How many of their fields do they rest in a year? How do they care for their animals? What do they get fed? Find out from the farmer, are there items that don’t sell as well as others? How can I cook something I’m not sure about? Click here for more questions to ask. Get a dialog going! And then spread the information you learned to help other people decide to shop for locally grown, nutritious, well-produced food that’s grown right here, by your neighbors.
When my husband and I started dating, I didn’t know anything about cooking. I grew up on pre-prepared food – macaroni and cheese, bags of salad, frozen fish sticks, jars of sauce. When I went to college I still didn’t cook for myself. I was the only one I knew who stayed on the university meal plan for all 4 years. What wasn’t to like about someone else cooking for you every day? And after 3 more years of 20-something-single-life-in-the-city, I had eaten more take out than I’d like to remember. My new beau was the first to suggest to me that we make spaghetti sauce out of… tomatoes! Over the past 14 years, I’ve come a long way.
It can seem difficult at first: my habit was to buy something pre-made at the grocery store, so cooking an entire meal from scratch seemed daunting. But I made little changes, teaching myself, taking pride and celebrating each accomplishment (who knew that jar of Prego was just a can of tomatoes, some garlic and Italian spices). I started reading the cookbooks in my closet – they’re full of fascinating information! Not just the recipes, but facts and techniques. I watched the Food Network whenever I could. And I relied on food mentors like my former boss, Stacey. Once I gained some skills, I began to apply them to lots of different circumstances. For example – I know how to make a flavorful braising sauce. So now I can use that braising sauce to cook chicken legs, a bottom round beef roast, or a pork shoulder. I know that cilantro and lime are the back bones of Mexican food; basil and oregano for Italian. So I can take whatever I have and turn it into something delicious. And I don’t have to pay someone else to prepare and package it for me. The best news is: I know what is in my food and where it came from.
The more I started to get to know different ingredients, the more I wanted to know how they were grown and when they were in season. That lead me to grow it myself or look to a neighbor/farmer to buy it. The more I knew about how the plant or animal grew, I began to respect that food and not want to waste any of it. Do you know how big a broccoli plant is (and how much real estate it takes up in the garden) compared to that little broccoli crown in the grocery store? Knowing stuff like this makes me want to make a broccoli slaw out of the stems. And this goes for so many other foods… bones, fat, feet, everything gets used in our house. Information like this leads us all to be better consumers.
The bottom line for me is: if it goes in your body, it is absolutely important to know what it is, where it comes from, and why you are putting it in your mouth in the first place (what nutritional value it has). If you have that frame of reference when you are looking at a Twinkie or a strawberry, it helps you make the better choice! Hopefully it also makes joining a CSA or shopping from a local farmer’s market sound more exciting. If you don’t consider yourself a cook yet, I hope you’ll think about giving it a try. It’s such an exciting time of year to be cooking (and eating) fresh, local ingredients.
Hey – if I can do it, you can do it.
I put a timer on the TV today. It has thrown my kids into a tailspin but they’ll get over it. Now that the weather is great, there’s just no excuse to be inside in front of the boob tube. So instead of watching TV or playing Xbox, the boys helped me with my afternoon chores: one pushed the baby stroller, one fed the bunny, one collected eggs. And they all watched me move and feed horses (an integral step in teaching THEM to do it some day). When they were finished with their jobs, they parked their baby brother on the lawn in front of the barn and wrestled in the grass. And climbed a tree. And played tag. And rode their bikes. And instead of spending my time rounding up boys from in front of the TV, I quickly got my work done.
Once they’re outside, they realize that they have fun. We all know that TV can be mesmerizing and time-sucking, I’m guilty of that too, but now is the time to GET OUTSIDE! Discover something! Take time to look around and notice nature and take an interest in it. Get dirty! My middle son, Atticus is the best at this (he’s also the hardest to pry from the TV). I love to watch him walk down the driveway after his school bus drops him off. It often takes him a while since he stops to inspect anything new or different along the way. A big rock, a piece of trash that has blown away, a small animal along the side of the driveway: these can all keep his attention for minutes at a time. It’s this kind of analysis and concentration that will help him later in life. I don’t think anyone looks back on their childhood and says, “I really wish I had watched more TV!” Another episode of Sponge Bob isn’t going to make any memories. But playing with your brothers, building something, rescuing someone, climbing trees, exploring our land…. That is what our boys are going to remember about their childhood.
Maybe in challenging them to play outside, I will challenge myself as well. Go for a run, spend more time in the garden, don’t get sucked back to my desk and computer, PLAY with those kids! The memory making process is on my shoulders as well. I don’t think I’m going to sit under the maple tree in front of the barn in my old age remembering all the time I sat at my desk. Memories will be about watching the kids play, things that I’ve built, animals I’ve cared for, beautiful weather I’ve enjoyed, and how lucky I was to work outside.
So Xbox and television have their place; but for the next several months, at least, I’ve got Mother Nature’s back and we WILL win.
Pigs are incredibly prolific. That mother of 19 kids and counting has nothing on a mamma pig. She comes into heat at all times of the year (unlike most goats or sheep who are bred seasonally) and, since she only stays pregnant for 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days, she can be bred twice a year. When it came time to reunite Floppy, our oldest sow, with Mr. Oink (papa pig), I have to admit I had reservations. I mean, Floppy had two litters in the past seven months and I wasn’t so anxious to get her knocked up again. So… maybe I was a little too sympathetic, having recently myself given birth to our fourth child. My husband was clearly sympathizing a little too well with poor Mr. Oink who had been, shall we say, lacking in female companionship for a good while. They’re back together again and seemed actually quite happy to reunite.
When Floppy gave birth for the first time I was right there with her, watching her labor through the night. She gave birth to 13 beautiful, tiny little piglets with only some help from me (though she probably didn’t need it). As I watched her labor for hours, I couldn’t help think of my husband who had watched me through this process three times already. How did he do it? I felt so helpless watching her. But women, even more so those of the porcine variety, are so strong! Floppy labored without complaint, and proceeded to nurse and care for her babies until they no longer needed her.
When it came time for Floppy’s daughter, Lucky, to give birth, I couldn’t help but wonder if she would be as good a mother. Shortly after her estimated due date, she was waddling around still swollen with baby belly. Trotting around with a bit of tarp in her mouth, Lucky went in to her house and quickly reemerged, still on task. I went out to check what she was doing and found that she had been building a nest for her yet-to-be-born bundles of joy. (Clearly she thought the bedding I had provided wasn’t good enough.) Lo and behold, the next morning I went in the house to check and there were eight beautiful baby piglets nursing. She looked up as if to say “What??? No problem!” No epidural, no husband to rub her back, no complaints of swollen feet or aching back. For our farm animals, motherhood is instinctive. I wonder what those piglets will be giving Lucky on Sunday? Maybe I’ll serve her breakfast in bed myself.
I’m not sure our kids know they are growing up on a farm. Ever since they can remember there have been animals, lots of space, and plenty of dirt. This is just what home is. My husband and I lived in New York City for years before they were born. He grew up in Granby, but struck out to the big city to escape the small town. I always had dreams of city life and loved every minute of the 14 years I lived there. We talk about our life there often, so the kids do know about cities. They have fun when we visit. But forget the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. It’s escalators, revolving doors, the subway and (gasp!) TV in the taxis that amaze my country mice when we go to New York. For now, I’m happy these things amaze them. That they don’t understand how you wouldn’t have the space to compost, or that you can’t grow much of your own food. They don’t understand the oasis and treasure that is Central Park because they have 50 acres of their own to explore every day. Farm life is giving our children lots of great life lessons and building character. Have you ever dug a 4-foot deep hole when you were 9? Talk about perseverance! Have you watched piglets or goat being born when you are 5? Compassion! Have you and your brothers been allowed in the back woods to explore by yourself (not knowing that mom can see through the still-bare spring foliage)? Common Sense! Earned money cleaning stalls by the time you were 7? Industrious! I suppose there are other ways to learn these character traits, but I’m happy our boys are learning these things now, before they need them for real when they’re on their own. Best case scenario: they grow up, move to the city for a while, appreciate the beauty of where they spent their childhood and move right back to start the cycle right over again.
SAVE A SAD COW
There are dog rescues, and cat rescues, horse rescues and bird rescues. Here in Granby, CT there’s even a rescue for chipmunks and squirrels. So why aren’t we rescuing livestock from their sad, filthy, feed-lot life? Are we so disconnected with our food that we don’t take the time to care? Or even worse, deliberately try to avoid thinking about it? Doesn’t the fact that we raise these animals for our own use (be it companions or dinner) mean we owe it to them to care about their quality of life?
Big agriculture livestock live a shockingly dissimilar life than the pictures on their packaging lead us to believe. Cows and sheep don’t graze on grass, they get pumped full of grain as they mingle with their neighbors as if standing on a subway car at rush hour. Chickens (even “cage free” or “free range” ones) don’t get to stand in the sunshine looking for bugs. They get their beaks cut off so they won’t peck their neighbor to death out of boredom or aggravation. They live their lives in an ammonia filled warehouse. Industrially raised pigs don’t get to wallow in the mud and root up the ground the way nature intended. They get their tails cut off so that in their stress and anxiety they won’t bite each other’s off.
Even if you’ve seen the movies (ala Food, Inc; and Fast Food Nation) and read the books (“Omnivore’s Dilemma”; “Folks, This Ain’t Normal”; “Animal Vegetable, Miracle”), many of us still can’t seem to quit our factory farm addiction. It is convenient, seemingly lower in cost, and (one even as a farmer of pastured animals I have a hard time getting around) – pervasive! The good news is we can vote for a better quality of life for these animals with our food dollars. By choosing what we buy, we vote for ill-treatment of animals, or we can vote for a life of low stress, fresh air and fresh food that nature intended them to eat. By taking our food dollars out of the industrial farming model and handing them over to farmers (even better – neighbors) that are sustainable and create caring environments for their animals, we essentially cast our votes. We don’t need politicians to do this for us.
Raising and eating herbivores (plant eating animals like cows, sheep and goats) harnesses energy from the sun and converts it into lean animal protein that is great for our environment and our health. Keeping animals on perennial grasses helps build soil rather than continuously stealing nutrients from it. Even omnivores like chickens and pigs can help convert some of the 30 million tons of food we waste in the US every year into delicious, sustainable meat.
But eating meat sustainably is going to mean eating LESS of it. The American diet of meat and potatoes at every meal is doing no good for our bodies, our environment or the animals we share it with. So if you’ve ever thought of rescuing a horse, or adopting a puppy from a shelter or if you’ve ever given a bit of food to a stray cat; consider “rescuing” an industrially raised cow, chicken, pig, or lamb from the sad life they lead in feed lots around this country. And don’t do it by giving up on meat! By raising livestock for meat we are giving them life (I have met very few “pet” cows and pigs). Do it by seeking out local farms raising animals the old-fashioned way: outside, in the fresh air and sunshine.
A blog about farming and food. Kate Bogli owns and operates Maple View Farm, raising livestock and growing veggies, with her husband Jason. The farm has been in his family for 65 years.