We got our first complaint this week. Actually, from the sound of it, it was at least three complaints. We have had things rejected before by retailers because they were expecting heads of lettuce and we brought bunches. Never have we had vegetables returned or complaints after purchase. We did have one person complain about worms in her corn the first year we grew corn. I explained that we did not use sprays or chemicals and gave her six free ears that week. In four years of growing certified organic veggies and fruits, we have not had a complaint. Being organic there is a procedure to follow and documentation to create when we do get a complaint. It is something that needs to be recorded and produced during the organic audit. Even if that requirement were not in place, we would still address the situation and make it right.
Therefore, it was a surprise to us when we got notice that there were too many holes and slugs in our mesclun mix. We do not wash our mix because it hurts more than it helps. After a rain, it is too dirty and we do wash it but the tender leaves can break, washing adds time and expenses to the process.
When it comes to amendments, referred to as organic herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, in liquid and powder forms, we tend to shy away from their application. First off, they are not that effective unless you spray often and almost daily. Secondly, it is expensive to do it that way. We rely on integrated pest management techniques like trap crops, purchasing beneficial bugs and nematodes, physical barriers such as floating row covers and glue traps. Sometimes they do not stop infestations but they do work better when compared to doing nothing.
Take for instance our Mesclun mix. It has gotten a lot of holes, pinholes, but holes no matter. Funny thing is I think it actually helps hold more dressing but that is a different point. Most importantly, the taste is not affected and the safety of the vegetable is unsurpassed. I would stand tissue samples of our mix up against any other for comparative analysis of foreign substances. However, looks count and we were on the losing end of that equation.
From a culinary standpoint the Chinese learned thousands of years ago that we eat with our eyes first. That is why classically trained Chinese chefs prepare the most fantastic looking dishes. Some of the dishes, I have seen, could pass as art they are so beautiful. From garnishes to actual dishes, Chinese cuisine is just stunning, which brings me to our dilemma.
Organic fruits and vegetables sometimes are not pretty. Look at some heirloom tomatoes, they have some funky looking shapes and sizes, but the taste of those ugly things are unequalled. Our mix had tiny holes in them but they had nothing sprayed on them and they tasted good. As consumers’ we have learned that if, the fruit or vegetable does not look aesthetically pleasing we pass it by.
Look at tomatoes, the IFC (Industrial Food Complex) has engineered tomatoes such that they grow almost perfectly round, withstand shipping long distances and have longer shelf lives. I do not know of a single person that would pick a store bought tomato over a home grown or local one when it is identified as such. Of all the people, we meet and talk to when you ask that one question, no one has ever said they prefer the store bought tomato. Yet, if you let that same person chose between the two tomatoes without them knowing which one is local, most times they will pick the one that looks better. It is how we have been conditioned.
It is a hard sell when the look of the fruit or vegetable is not perfect. When we give tours, whatever is in season we usually stop there and I will let people eat what it is. The first thing I do is pick it and eat it. Then I explain why I can do that here as opposed to doing the same thing in the clean environment of a grocery store. Most people would never eat something directly out of the ground (I would not have in the past). This too has been drilled into us, that we must wash our food before eating. Moreover, given the illnesses and worse, which occur, from the IFC, this is a good safe practice. You just cannot wash off the trace amounts of carcinogenic chemicals used in its production. Now if there has been a recent rain we do need to wash the soil off, but for the most part we eat it right out of the ground. I want people to learn that our food has nothing on it, that you can pull it out of the ground and eat it there with no ill affect, short or long term
Besides, the taste of what they are eating usually blows them away. It is the freshest vegetables most of them have ever tasted. They learn that yes, there are imperfections but the look quickly is dismissed by the flavor their palates are experiencing. Looks will be an uphill battle for us however, it is more important that the vegetables and fruits we sell are the safest, freshest and tastiest then the prettiest.
Our goal is not looks but health. The health of our customers, ourselves, our animals, the precious resources we use and the environment we inhabit. Besides, in many ways looks are deceiving.
Buy Local: Try ugly sometime, remember you cannot judge a book by its cover.
Raising Rhode Island Red hens has had its ups and downs for us. We've had to euthanize for illness and we've brought injured hens back to a laying state from a dog attack. The question of what to do when they stop laying has weighed heavy on us. I have written of the heartache, guilt and anguish that we face due to the outcome of this decision.
One day I had a tour for a group of city folks who are environmentally sensitive and wanted to learn about sustainable practises. For the most part it went well until we got to the hens. “What do you do with your hens once they are past their useful egg laying life?” My first thought was to say go to LocalHarvest.org and read our blog. But instead, I said, “I don’t know, our first flock is still laying and we are into their fourth year.” Actually we get about six eggs in a week from the five residents. Without blinking an eye the man says “It’s horrible the way hens are used for laying then disposed of, denying them a full life,” I wanted to ask if he ate chicken but I didn’t. He’d freak to learn meat birds are processed as early as thirteen weeks. He wants the hens to live out their life even though they do not produce. And that is a growing school of thought even though hens can live up to thirteen years. I had written about this and I wondered if I was being tested. I’ve learned that less is more so I didn’t say much on the topic.
I did relate some of my dismay with having to make economic decisions for the health of the organization that have the opposite effect for the hens. I explained feed costs and so forth and h elooked like he was genuinely interested in the plight.
When we got to the end of the tour I showed them the difference between a real free range organic egg and one purchased from the local supermarket. I also talked about the Mother Earth News article that pointed out the benefits of true “free range” eggs. True free range eggs are high in omega 3’s, lower in cholesterol and saturated fats and have seven times the amount of beta carotene. I then talked about the difference in price and how our eggs were basically three times higher than in a grocery store and I saw some heads shake.
The tour ended and we were selling vegetables and fruits but the eggs were not moving. Having extolled the virtues of free range eggs I asked did anyone want any eggs. “No, we are vegans” was the reply. My next thought was to ask if anyone wanted to adopt a hen. And, being the kind of person that has a dysfunctional "brain to mouth" evaluation system, I blurted the thought out. I got quizzical looks after the question until I started to explain.
We need help paying for the food; we’d take care of the birds but feed for them costs money. I’ve been worrying for a couple years about this. We can not take a chick, raise it from a day old and then dispatch it because they don’t lay enough to pay for their own food. But we can not stay in business if we keep hemorrhaging money. But in that instant in front of the group the idea just flashed. Adopt a hen or the bird gets it. A similiar threat was used before, on-line, by a young entrepreneur, why not now? Besides, a person bought pet rocks before, surely adopting a hen so it could live their life out was a beneficial way to spend.
I felt good about that idea but after everyone left I had time to think about how things would work. When you look at this world and in particular the US and know that people go to bed hungry every day the idea just pales. Why would people spend money on keeping a hen a live, so they can live their life out, versus giving to a food bank to feed the poor and less fortunate? I volunteered in a soup kitchen for about a year. I saw first hand the faces and families of poverty, bad decisions and working poor.
It was then that peace and clarity came to my mind. We can process the hens and give them to the local soup kitchens. A sense of warmth came over me when my thought was that the hen’s final purpose was for humanity and we could stay true to our values. It doesn’t lesson the pain we will feel and the associated guilt but at least we can hold on to the fact that the hen’s last act is helping feed the poorest and less fortunate among us.
The hens' demise has been on my mind since before we purchased the first flock. We are a humane farm and we have given our hens the best life they could live. I too believe that a hen should live a natural life but when you start to accumulate the amount of hens we have either we need to charge ten dollars a dozen for eggs, or we can process them or we can go out of business.
Going out of business is just what the Industrial Food Complex (IFC) counts on for the small farmer. They can not compete with local small farmers when it comes to safe, fresh and tasty foods that have a small carbon foot print and benefit the local economy. This movement is growing, more people are learning of the perils of our industrial food supply and thousands of people like us are doing extraordinarily hard work to provide safe, tasty alternative choices. We have found a way to use our spent layers as part of being a humane farm and that feels good.
Buy Local:From an actual local grower not a chain saying they do
Farming seems like an innocuous occupation, I think most people are surprised to hear how dangerous farming really can be. USDA census reports point out just how bad the percentages are per capita and it is not good. ABC did a study and found farming was the 5th dangerous job to have in the US. I’ve experienced the dangers first hand.
At the beginning of the growing season we spend most of orientation day on farm safety and personal safety. The staff learns about hydration and sun protection, as well as, the obvious dangers inherited with the equipment we use. They must learn and are tested on the symptoms of heat stress and heat stroke. Then there are the daily reminders, before each task begins, of what dangers they face doing that task.
Knowing how we feel when we lose an animal, having one of our workers get hurt would simply be devastating. When I had to take my wife to the hospital last year to get her ear sewed up I was sick for days. I didn’t eat, had trouble sleeping and was just miserable (see Dangers of Farming).
Injury is just not worth the price even though what we do is good for the earth, people and animals. Someone getting hurt over this activity is unacceptable. Growing vegetables should not be a life or death activity. Yet, the specter is always there and we try to be aware as much as possible.
This year I learned that danger comes in unknown forms and in an instant. You might think you know how to safely operate heavy equipment, or chain saws or any number of other deadly mechanized tools but sometimes danger comes from a completely different realm that was not anticipated or counted on.
We are very safe when people are on the grounds; we had a Daisy Scout troop visit the other day. They were young and excited about being on a farm and learning about the chickens and bees and good bugs versus bad bugs. We were prepared for their arrival; we had honey so they could see and taste what the bees produce and we would show them the hens and the eggs. With all those plans we forgot one issue.
It was a dark drizzly day when they arrived. We had to wait for one of the moms to get there so we hadn’t yet established control of the group. Much to my horror I see ten of the girls heading towards one of the hen houses and close to the electrified fence. Of course the fence was on and ready to shock any little wet hand that would come in contact with it.
A couple of days prior to the Daisy Scouts, our bee guy, Mike, was there to do maintenance on the bees. He has to move the hives in order for us to put up a high-tunnel. I went out to give him some locations to consider when moving the hives. I was about thirty yards from him when he looked up and saw me. “You must be brave,” Mike said to me. Some bees had already landed on my face but I wasn’t moving and I had my eyes shut and head down. “Or stupid,” I said in return and then all hell broke lose. Just the words were enough to set the bees off. I was stung at least six times in the right eye lid, five times on the left side of the neck and six times on the right side of my neck behind my ear. I took off running for my life, as I rounded the barn, my wife seeing what was going on, started putting up the window in the car.
We were going out to eat and I was only going to be a minute so she was waiting for me. I jumped in and didn’t bring any bees with me. We sat there. I pulled a group of four stingers out of my eye lid. There was a dark blue spot where the stingers landed. My wife got another two from the same eye lid and some from my neck behind the ears. Mike came over apologizing because that’s the kind of guy he is, it wasn’t his fault but he felt bad. I shook it off and said we can discuss locations later.
Then I made the second mistake of the night. Instead of going in the house, icing the stings and pulling the remaining stingers we went out to eat. As a male I have this gene that doesn’t allow me to seek medical attention unless something is hanging off or I am not strong enough to get out of bed. The gene is called something like avoidprofessionalattention chromosome or something close to that, I don’t know. I just know males are afflicted with it.
We are eating dinner and my right eye is swelling shut. By the time we finished dinner my eye, the top part of my cheek and the skin behind my ears were swollen. I don’t have movie star looks by any measure and these new features weren't getting me any closer. When we got home I put ice on my eye and neck.
The Daisy Scouts were coming in a few days and the local paper was coming the next day to take my photograph, for a story on the new farmer’s market opening. Sun glasses were the order of the day. The picture for the paper turned out fine and by the time the Girl Scouts arrived for there educational tour I had only discoloration around the eye, with most of the swelling gone.
They arrived in drizzling weather with gray skies. The Scouts were excited about the hens and wanted to get a closer look. I don’t remember what I was doing but I turned and saw them standing by the fence. “WAIT, DO NOT TOUCH THE FENCE,” I yelled in as stern a voice I could muster. I kept repeating the phrase as I ran to turn the battery off.
No one touched the fence and when the last Scout arrived everyone learned about worms, bees, lady bugs and what a vegetable farm grows. The baby hens and honey were a big hit as was the mesclun mix. Yes mesclun mix.
On a farm, danger is all around and in many forms. Sometimes something as simple as bee other times the slope of a hill. The work is hard enough and fatigue plays a big factor in safety. So we are ever mindful of the gift we have been given and make sure safety comes first. We just want to make sure everyone is around to work hard the next day.
Buy Local – From a farmer you know and trust. Your effort to visit is well worth their effort to grow.