Thursday, November 26, 2009

Joel Salatin - Man of many hyphens

The Cowichan Agriculture Association managed to lure farmer-speaker-activist Joel Salatin (he actually prefers the label Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist-Farmer) to come and spend the day speaking in Duncan last rainy Saturday. The house was packed - I'd guess around 200 folk, mostly farmers, many of them young - and he put on a good show, commencing with a slideshow talk about Polyface Farm.

From this we learned about his ways with cattle bedding, which were surprisingly complex. He keeps the cattle in a shed, roofed but mostly open, and lays down whatever wood chips (=carbon!) he can get hold of. This absorbs the cowpies and urine so that conditions are reasonably sanitary (any farm that smells bad is a badly managed farm, according to Salatin). He scatters corn into the chips every so often. And keeps layering like that until winter's over, by which time the bedding could be up to four feet deep. He has devised supports to keep the cows from toppling over, and cantilevers to keep their hay at mouth-level. Once the cattle are out in the fields again, he brings in the pigs, who root for the fermented corn and in the process turn over the compost, aerating it and making it ready to spread on the fields to grow the forage for his cattle. So pigs, cattle and farmer = all happy.

From there we go to the fields where the pasturing is similarly well thought out and involves chickens and a lot of mobile fencing. In fact mobile equipment is big in Salatin's vision: he doesn't believe in single-purpose equipment and he really likes to be able to move his animals around the fields - and woods - so that he can manage their feeding and the fertility of his soil at the same time.

He is truly a libertarian, wanting freedom from the shackles of government regulations which, he couldn't say forcefully enough, are intended for the industrial farming practices that have crippled farmers' ability to make a living, severed the eaters from knowledge of what they eat, and poisoned our food.

He was generous with his time answering questions and sharing opinions on everything from the timing of hog slaughter to how to cook grass-fed beef to why he likes hobby farms. He recommended many books, including New Rules for the New Economy by Kevin Kelly; Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond; and City Chicks by Patricia Foreman (whose husband Andy Lee wrote Chicken Tractor). As well, of course, as his own books, most notably Everything I Want to do Is Illegal.

And he described some of the innovations he's come across - evidently a pleasing sideline for him in his extensive travels - that are helping to save "embedded heritage local food systems from the machinations of large scale industrial food systems." Some examples: The Urban Farm Store in Portland, Oregon; the New Roots Urban Farm in St Louis, Missouri; and the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While he advocates the "just say no" approach to the enforcement of unreasonable regulations wherever possible, he also has a simple suggestion for all of us: learn to cook from scratch. "Opting out of processed food is the ultimate mark of independence."

And if that ain't enough, here's the man himself, talking food safety in Portland Oregon last summer.

Farmer Joel Salatin Talks Food Safety in Portland from Mayor Sam Adams on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Grains on the island

A bit of a pause here while I deal with my recent computer crash (a literal one, onto the floor) and so have delayed reporting on a couple of very interesting talks last week. On Thursday last, I attended a COG-VI meeting to hear a discussion of grain growing on Vancouver Island.

Tom Henry, to many a bit of a guru in this field, spoke first about his experiments with Red Fife wheat, using organic and conventional growing methods. He said that it was, in his experience, almost impossible to grow a flour-grade red fife wheat that was certified organic. The reasons were to do with weed control and nutrients. Organic growing, he said, means a later start than conventional, because you have to leave time for weed control: wait till the ground is workable, let the weeds grow, till them under and plant your seed. In order to gain enough protein to be usable in bread flour, the red fife has to be drought-stressed at the right point in its growing cycle. But a later planting means that the drought period comes earlier for the seedlings.

Prairie growers don't suffer this problem because of differences in climate, so it's easier to get organic red fife wheat with appropriate protein content from there. And easier to balance land use: he observed that in a small land base like Vancouver Island, it's hard to justify digging in a legume crop to prepare the soil for a grain crop; overall it would take four years to set up one crop. That having been said he also observed that until 1949 this was the best grain growing area in BC because of climate (although this was likely grain for animal feed rather than for milling).

Another interesting point that Henry raised was that most home bakers used to conventional flours run into difficulties using flours made from artisanal grains like red fife. This is back to protein: artisanal flours are typically lower in gluten proteins than the 'bread flour' we're used to which is extremely high protein (but lacking in the flavours and nutrients of artisanal grains). But if the proteins are good quality, even if they're low, you can get good bread with proper handling. In addition, higher protein flours absorb more water and the resulting breads keep longer. These differences can usually, as I understand it, be overcome to some extent by using levain or longer-rising recipes (perhaps like the famous no-knead bread recipes), and of course by mixing artisanal with high protein bread flours.

After Henry, we heard from Brock McLeod and Heather Walker, whose Island Grains project consisted of a very successful grain CSA last year. They invited members of the public - some farmers, some just interested people - to come and learn with them how to grow grains on a small scale and were awestruck at the response. 51 people had signed up in just three weeks. Participants were given a piece of land and shown how to plant, tend and harvest it, by having a series of speakers walk them through the various elements.

They took this on in a spirit of self-sufficiency, and were extremely low-tech about it, harvesting the grain with scythe and scissors; threshing in a pillowcase and blowing the chaff with a hairdryer. They are upbeat about their experience, and said that you could grow enough grain on a very small amount of land - 1,100 square feet - to make 60 lbs. flour, which amounts to a couple of loaves of bread a week for a year.

They're now using their website to share information about small-scale grain growing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fish fraud, winter veg and a bit of poetry

Long Ago In Italy... we had a splendidly mind-blowing talk from a veterinarian on the subject of fish fraud: how consumers were being sold cheap or endangered fish under the name of popular varieties. The reason was much the same as the one that has plagued most of our food problems nowadays: we are out of touch with our food sources. In the case of fish, we buy fillets and portions instead of the whole, head-on creature, so we are forced to trust commercial interests to tell us the truth.

Which we have been learning over and over is not the actual intention of commercial interests, who exist to make money at any cost. So, whoever's reaping the rewards of this deceit, here's an interesting article about fish fraud in Canada. Buyer beware.

The weekend's entertainments were totally fish-free, although there was enough water falling from the skies to drown a few.

Sunday we had the Winter Vegetable Potluck, generously hosted by Don & Ramona, which featured buckets of colour and flavour. Below, I diligently compare the tint of mulled wine with that of magenta bread (made with roasted beets).

Here's a healthy sampling of what people brought, including (clockwise from lower left): rutabaga chips; winter veg samosa; winter veg curry; magenta bread; leek, potato & everything tart; kale & beet; winter salad with pears, blue cheese and candied hazelnuts; roasted squash & chickpea salad with tahini; coleslaw; in the middle of the plate is a squash and feta bake with sunflower seeds, and a Japanese-inspired carrot & parsnip appetiser with soya sauce and sesame.

That appetiser was, in fact, the handiwork of Bill Jones, who demonstrated the Japanese mandolin on which his interns ritually lose bits of their fingers (but not he, luckily)

and then whipped up his treat, which he says can be made with burdock root instead of parsnip.

There were about 20 in attendance, which was pretty good considering the rain and fog that those of us from Victoria had braved on our way to Cobble Hill. But some of us will go a long way for a rutabaga chip, especially now that we've tried them...

On the poetry side, I was able to spend my Friday 13th doing a star turn - well, a mezzo-star turn - sharing the stage of Planet Earth Poetry with Wendy Donawa and airing a few more poems. Very pleasant time and a lovely crowd, nice to catch up with a few people I managed to persuade out into the literary realm for a couple of hours.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Food & drink down the drain; food choices; BC meat regulations

In all the talk about food - its price, its value, our disconnection from it - more needs to be said about how much we waste in the Western world. We're all bad: Canada, the US (a 2004 study found about half its food was wasted), but the UK is being studied more closely than others, thanks to WRAP which released an updated report this month that details food and drink wastage in Britain.

We've heard a lot about how our expenditures on food have declined over the past forty years; little has been said about the scale of our waste, which according to Statistics Canada's latest figures currently amounts to just about 30% in this country:
Canadians are not only spending more on food, but they are also buying more calories. Between 1976 and 2007 the number of calories available per person increased 9% from 3,118 to 3,384 kilocalories. Some of this food however is wasted, and it is estimated that in 2007 only 71% of the calories purchased were consumed. Food that was not consumed includes waste or spoilage in stores, households, institutions and restaurants, and losses during preparation.
Some interesting figures from elsewhere in this chart of per capita expenditure on food worldwide.

Here's a good piece on salvaging the dregs of liquids.

And another that explains how to make better food choices by understanding the fertilizer and pesticide load required by the produce you use. For example, compare bananas and beans - even before you get into transportation, bananas require 427 pounds of environmentally hazardous fertilizers per acre, compared with just 35 pounds for peas or beans.

Meanwhile, the Farm Food Freedom Fighters are asking British Columbians to write letters to try to change provincial regulations that are crippling small producers; the focus is meat production but the FFFF are battling other issues, like Monsantism of our food supply. Here's the pitch:
Please ask that farmers be permitted to sell healthy animals from their farm gates, without trauma, fossil fuels, time and extra cost, and without the increased threat of contamination that a visit to a government inspected facility can bring. Point out the lack of legal slaughter options for many farmers, and the cascading impacts (farm supply stores, feed sales including hay, impacts on farm tax status, food security, local jobs) this has on rural communities.

Please write to our Premier Hon. Gordon Campbell
or Room 156, Parliament Buildings, Victoria BC V8V 1X4

or Ida Chong, who is holding the meat regulation potato right now -
Hon. Ida Chong
Minister of Healthy Living and Sport
P.O. Box 9062 Stn. Prov. Govt.
Victoria, BC V8W 9E2

or our Agriculture man,
Hon. Steve Thomson
Minister of Agriculture and Lands
P.O. Box 9043 Stn. Prov. Govt.
Victoria, BC V8W 9E2


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Jolly good kick at bad food

Enjoyed this article about British comedian Alex Riley who gives food companies a kick in the pants about misleading labelling and unhealthy food practices.

In other news, anyone in the area is invited to Slow Food Vancouver Island's winter veg potluck next weekend (Sunday 15th); details on the website. And Facebook. And Twitter. (We are wired!)

Also invited you are to my Friday 13th reading at the Black Stilt, reading with Wendy Donawa:
Friday November 13 starting at 7:30 PM, admission $3 at the door.
Planet Earth Poetry series
The Black Stilt Coffee House
#103-1633 Hillside Avenue
Victoria, BC V8T 2C4

And moving along the diary a bit further, on Saturday 21st Joel Salatin (as seen in Food, Inc. and described in the Omnivore's Dilemma) will be paying a visit to Duncan, courtesy the Cowichan Agricultural Society.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Scary times

I visited Moss Street Market for its end of season finale, which happened to be on October 31, so there were some oddities around. Flash in the Pan was providing the music; sounded better than they looked!

Poor farmer had to wear a potato sack...

Some flies buzzing round the Haliburton stand

like beekeepers to the honey

The last thing I thought I needed was more apples, but this selection

was too interesting, and I weakened upon tasting the surprising Grenadine, the perfect Halloween apple?

Other items of interest to cross my path of late include the Spanish Nun video, in which Benedictine nun Teresa Forcades i Vila discusses the H1N1 business in terms that don't make one particularly eager to rush out and get the vaccine. (Assuming one could even do that!)

She makes mention of a largely unreported incident last February when Baxter released a flu vaccine to Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany that was contaminated with live avian flu virus, offering the potential to spread a lethal virus very widely; Baxter is one of the companies now making the H1N1 vaccine.

And she has a number of concerns about unique aspects of this vaccine: the lack of legal redress for any people suffering side effects that has been built in by pharmaceuticals and governments; the different way it works from regular flu vaccines; and the effects of making H1N1 vaccination mandatory rather than voluntary.

She also explains that the WHO's removal of the term "mortalities" from its definition of "pandemic" is why we are chasing our tails now over an infectious but not overly lethal flu instead of saving our international efforts for a pandemic that actually endangers the lives of high numbers of people.

It's kind of long (about an hour) but worth watching just to hear some things you might not get elsewhere.

BELL TOLLING for the Swine Flu (CAMPANAS por la gripe A) subtitled from ALISH on Vimeo.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that Sr. Teresa is the author of Crimes & Abuses of the Pharmaceutical Industry, which I'd say is a booklet worth looking at, as it addresses issues to do with abuses of power by pharmaceutical companies on the lives of impoverished and vulnerable people.