Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #2: Shorten the food chain

We've all heard a lot in recent years about "eating locally"; that is, trying to be more aware of exactly where our food is coming from and choosing to buy locally-produced ingredients for our meals whenever possible. More and more restaurants, such as the Alder Wood Bistro here in Sequim, are getting behind this idea as well. More consumers are also realizing the benefits of buying locally-grown produce and meat, even visiting farms and buying directly from the producer.

What are these benefits? Well, obviously when you can buy directly from a farmer, the food is sure to be fresh. Also, locally-grown food, especially produce, is usually bought in season, which translates not only into better quality and flavor, but also lower prices: Produce bought out-of-season usually comes from another state or even another country, and you can be sure the cost of all that transportation is being passed on to you. In addition, if you've ever visited a local farm and bought directly from a farmer, you will have realized the difference it makes in the way you relate to what you eat. So much of our culture of eating involves relationships, and buying locally-produced food promotes beneficial relationships, not just with an individual producer, but with the community at large. Which brings up yet another benefit: keeping our money in the local economy.

What's happening here is we are shortening the food chain, the often lengthy and convoluted path food travels to become part of our next meal. Between the lines of the benefits outlined above are the less obvious costs, to us as consumers, and to our environment (and even our society) as well. A few statistics: On average, 7-10 calories of fossil fuel energy are used in the process of delivering 1 calorie of food energy to your plate. 20% of the total energy used in food production is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around. (Growing organically uses about 1/3 less fossil fuel than growing conventionally, but that savings quickly disappears if compost is not produced either on-site or nearby.)

By contrast, buying even part of the food we eat can make a big difference in the true cost of feeding ourselves. For example, if you buy a holiday turkey from us, the food chain is very short: We grow the turkey and slaughter it, and you pick it up within a day or so of slaughter. It isn't even frozen. Some customers have come up to help on slaughtering days, adding another level to their participation in their personal food chain.

Restaurants like the Alder Wood Bistro, whose owners Gabriel and Jessica Schuenemann are also helping to set a new standard in our community. They are committed to sourcing locally as much as possible of the food they serve, which is great for small farms like ours. They buy organic eggs from us, which are delivered several times a week, so the chain, once again, is short: From farm to restaurant to consumer's plate, the eggs have traveled less than 8 miles. (By way of contrast, any given ingredient in a typical American meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles by the time it shows up on your plate.)

Our farm is small. We don't have the room to sustainably produce more pork or poultry than we do now, since we are unwilling to compromise our standards of allowing the birds to range freely during the day. It has occurred to us lately that for a production level like ours, our relationship with the Alder Wood Bistro actually is a model for how small farms can be successful. So much of our national food production (and yes, even organic food production) is done on a huge scale, at a huge cost on a number of levels, many of which are kept out of sight. What if more small producers sought out relationships with local restaurants, or even small community grocery stores to help supply the growing number of consumers enthusiastically seeking to connect with these producers?

After all, for consumers to buy locally-produced food, someone has to sell it. Bypassing a number of links in the traditional American food chain by selling either directly to the consumer from the farm, or through a forward-thinking restaurant just down the hill, has become a crucial piece of the big picture for us. It's also an important part of the concept of Pot Pies and Egg Money.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #1: Purebred animals are more sustainable

As the first draft of my book "Pot Pies and Egg Money: The rewards of living sustainably with heritage-breed poultry" is nearing completion, I thought it would be a good time to summarize the concept of it. I have realized, in the process of researching and writing, that Pot Pies and Egg Money is a genuine reflection of our values and the kind of lifestyle we choose and strive to achieve. In fact, unlike most current books about poultry, it is less a "how-to" than a "why-to" kind of book. Throughout the book I have endeavored to share the steps we have taken (and the reasons for our choices) in our progress toward a more sustainable way of life.

What does "sustainable" mean? I have lately been reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (Penguin Books, 2006), and I agree with his view that the term has in recent years been overused to the point where, for many people, it has little meaning. He also suggests that anything unsustainable "sooner or later must collapse". For us, so far at least, "sustainable" has the most relevance in regard to our animals.

As most of you know, we grow heritage-breed chickens, turkeys and ducks, along with a couple of pigs for part of the year. The chickens and ducks are mainly kept for eggs; we keep a small breeding group of turkeys and raise about 20 every year to slaughter. The pigs, while grown for meat, also provide a valuable service by plowing up previously unused fields and eating the roots, allowing us to re-seed with grasses and clovers to create better pasture. Choosing the breeds we raise involved a lot of research and a conscious decision to keep only purebreds, also known as "heritage" breeds. From all we've read and heard, as well as learned from our own experience, it is clear to us that purebred livestock is the choice when the aim is sustainability.

For example, you may remember from a previous post that the Broad-Breasted turkey (a commercial hybrid) cannot mate naturally; it must be artificially inseminated. (Incidentally, you wouldn't be able to buy turkeys year-round if this weren't the case; purebred turkeys normally lay eggs only 4 or 5 months of the year.) Cornish Cross chickens, the ubiquitous grocery-store bird, has been bred to reach an impressive broiler size in 7 weeks or less. Obviously, these chickens are being slaughtered long before the normal breeding age of around 18-22 weeks (depending on variety). However, their warp-speed growth comes at a high cost: leg problems and sudden death from cardiac arrest are not uncommon.

I have no problem with those who are trying to make money in the poultry business and have found that they must raise these fast-growing hybrids in order to stay afloat financially. After all, in a sense, no business is sustainable in the long run if it loses money. Also, we don't raise chickens for meat (although we do occasionally slaughter a few roosters when we have too many of them), so perhaps my view doesn't seem to carry much weight. What I've said in the previous paragraph, however, are known facts, not just my opinion. That said, I hope you don't hear any judgment there; I assure you I feel none.

Aside from reproductive issues, another reason we prefer purebreds is the variety of instinctive behaviors that contribute to the long-term health of the farm. For example, one of my criteria for choosing a chicken or turkey breed is foraging ability. All our birds free-range during the day, and we expect them to do some of the work of feeding themselves. (Statistics suggest that foraging can account for up to 30% of a chicken's daily feed, but the numbers give no data as to which breeds were sampled.) Our observation has been that the birds spend a few minutes eating grain first thing in the morning, then head off to happily scratch and peck until it's time to head back in at night. In the wintertime especially, we make sure they get a little extra grain before bedtime, as a little boost in carbohydrates helps keep them warm through the long, cold nights.

Our Midget White turkeys also are excellent foragers. I noticed the first year we had them that they did a great job of cleaning up the windfall apples near the house, which kept the deer from coming into the yard. The ducks love to dabble in the freshly-plowed fields after we move the pigs to another paddock; they break up the manure piles and eat the larvae of intestinal worms, thereby interrupting the cycle of  parasites and disease. The pigs have thankfully retained their instinctive rooting behavior; they not only find a good portion of their own food, the rooting is also a super-efficient way to rid the land of the roots of weeds and other unwanted plants. The chickens and turkeys then follow the ducks, picking out leftover weed seeds and worms. This progression, by the way, also closely imitates nature; for example, woodland birds break up bear manure, in the process spreading around seeds from the berries the bears eat in large quantities in the summer.

We are still learning a lot about how to fully utilize purebred livestock on our farm, but we have already seen a little of the value of diversifying, step by slow step. In the next few posts, I will go into more detail about the other facets of sustainable agriculture and how we are working toward our goals. This is all just a teaser, of course; Pot Pies and Egg Money will give you the rest of the story.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ducks have started laying again, and a drake goes missing

Our wonderful Khaki Campbell and Blue Swedish ducks have started laying eggs again, after their usual mid-winter break. We've just been getting one egg a day, though, which makes me suspect that one or more of them are laying somewhere other than in their coops. (I guess we'll find out in a month or so, when a duck comes walking into the yard followed by a troop of ducklings.) Maybe this coming weekend's shift to Daylight Savings Time will make a difference? (Ha. As if you aren't all perfectly aware of my opinion about DST!)

As you probably remember, the Alder Wood Bistro loves our duck eggs, so they are happy to see them coming in. The higher viscosity of the egg white, compared with chicken eggs, makes duck eggs a good choice for recipes that call for separating and beating the whites, such as the Bistro's flourless brownie (Chocolate Bliss).

The other day, the ducks headed down the hill to the bog, one of our two large ponds. The ice that covers the bog for most of the winter (it's in a low area that gets little sun during the short winter days) had finally started melting, and a small part of the bog was clear. The ducks spent much of the afternoon happily splashing, dabbling, and fraternizing with the seasonal population of wild Mallards and Mergansers.

During their frolic on the bog, I heard a lot of noise coming from that direction, and it seemed to me that it was some kind of alarm or alert call. As we had seen bobcats twice just the day before, I grabbed a gun and headed down toward the bog. The ducks were indeed on high alert, but although I walked around for quite a while, I didn't see any trails of feathers  that would indicate a cat attack. I decided not to worry about it at the time.

That night, though, I noticed a duck was missing. (They had come up the hill again about an hour before dark.) They were just going into their coops when I saw this, and I didn't get a close enough look to see if it was a duck or a drake. Since the ducks had started laying, I thought it was slightly possible that they had a nest out in the bushes somewhere and had accumulated a clutch. This usually happens at least once a year, but generally more in the late spring and summer months. Anyway, keeping in mind the alarm calls of that afternoon, I thought it more likely that a duck had gotten snatched by a bobcat, or possibly an eagle.

The next morning I took a closer look at the ducks (who had stayed up in the yard rather than go to the bog), and saw that one of the Blue Swedish drakes was the missing one.The fact that the other ducks weren't inclined to go swim in the pond seems to confirm that it was a predator attack. Usually bobcats and cougars leave a trail of feathers behind as they retreat with a bird, but so far I haven't found the trail.

We love our ducks, and their eggs, and it's always upsetting to lose a bird. Fortunately we have lost very few ducks to predators, and it seems that the ducks are smart enough to stay away from the dangerous area now. We're thankful that they do come back to their coops at night, where we know they are safe from the nocturnal predators.