Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm

Sustainable Living

Rainforest Roundup

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 18.

Yesterday’s Monsanto Project post explained the importance of choosing organic, shade-grown coffee.  I hinted that fair-trade matters, too.  Here’s the interesting thing:  It doesn’t just matter for purposes of social justice.  It matters even if all you want to do is avoid supporting Monsanto.   

It seems the coffee farmers in Colombia, the world’s third-largest coffee producer, began to suffer substantial losses in the “coffee crisis” of the early 2000’s.  Competition from international growers increased while Colombian labor regulations limited farmers’ ability to lower production costs.  Unemployment skyrocketed, young people joined the Marxist guerillas or paramilitary forces in an escalating civil war, the World Bank and U.S. oil interests got tangled up in the affair, and coffee farmers became desperate.

So desperate that many of them turned to growing illegal plots of poppy and coca to supplement their incomes.  You know, in order to afford the basics.

The farmers’ survival tactic didn’t go unnoticed by the U.S. and its War on Drugs.  Nor did it go unnoticed by Monsanto.

Almost 70,000 gallons of Roundup were sprayed in Colombia in the first months of 2001. In 2000, roughly 145,750 gallons were sprayed over 53,000 hectares (205 square miles). With a retail price between $33 to $45 per gallon (Monsanto refused to confirm the wholesale price for such volumes), this represents a cost of around $4.8 to $6.6 million – paid to Monsanto by US taxpayers. ( J. Bigwood, Earth Island Journal, 2001-2001)

This spraying is not done from the ground.  It is done from airplanes.  Sure, the drug plants die and the government pats itself on the back…but that isn’t all that happens.

The Colombian rainforest is not Roundup Ready.  The glyphosate (and additives that appear to make Roundup and Roundup Ultra even more toxic than glyphosate alone) coats much more than its intended targets.  It destroys entire ecosystems, from natural foliage to food crops like bananas and manioc to native fish.  Hunger threatens the indigenous peoples as a result.  In 2009, Ecuadorians filed a class action suit for harm caused by pesticide drift across the Colombian border. 

“The US State Department believes the spraying of herbicide in Colombia is not harmful to the environment or to humans,” said its spokeswoman Susan Pittman.  Contrary to government officials’ and manufacturers’ claims of non-toxicity, at least five inquiries have found that Roundup causes serious human health problems. (T. Williams, The Public Record, 2009.)

And yes, some of that Roundup does wind up on the coffee.

Extra Credit (sorry, WP is having hyperlink issues again!)

Colombian Coffee Crisis:

Fair Trade Coffee in Colombia (pdf):

Coffee, A Dark History by Antony Wild (book)

Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series:

Cream? Sugar? Glyphosate?

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 17.

The coffee I’m sipping is organic.  When I bought it, I wasn’t sure that was important, but a little reading has assured me that it is.

It seems that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is a favorite herbicide for use on coffee plantations.  Glyphosate has the unfortunate effect of significantly reducing microbial populations in the soil, leading to poor soil quality, defenseless trees, and the need for even more chemical herbicides and fertilizers.

It also has the even more unfortunate effect of endangering human and animal health.

Furthermore, coffee trees grown in full sun are deprived of natural predators for their pests, which means they require even MORE chemical application for continued production.

Looks like I’d better make sure my next pound of coffee is not just organic, but shade-grown.

…and fair-trade.  Tomorrow’s post explains why.

Bonus note:  I usually drink my coffee black, but if you add anything to yours, bear in mind…

  • Flavored and non-dairy coffee additives nearly always contain GM HFCS and/or soy.
  • Non-organic cream is usually laced with rBGH.
  • Half of the sugar sold in the U.S. is from sugarbeets, 90% of which are GM.  If you must use sugar, choose organic cane.


Catch up on any Monsanto Project Series posts you’ve missed.

House of Cards

 I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 13.

You’ve heard the argument:  Earth’s human population will grow to 9 billion by 2050.  GM crops are necessary to feed the world.

Fear not.  Monsanto is here to save the day.

According to their website“Monsanto is one of the world’s leading companies focused on sustainable agriculture. We discover and deliver innovative products that support the farmers who feed, fuel and clothe our world.”


If GM crops are so wonderful, why was U.S. fertilizer use five times higher in 2007 than in 1960 (look at the “rate per fertilized acre” data), while crop yields increased by only 50%?

If GM crops are so wonderful, why did Monsanto recently admit that its Bt cotton resulted not in improved yield, but in resistant bollworms in India?  (Click that link!  I especially enjoyed the part about how Monsanto blamed the failure on the farmers, then proceeded to direct them to deal with the problem by applying more pesticides.)

I hope the farmers can afford those pesticides.  Small farmers in many developing countries certainly can’t.

Just as in the so-called Green Revolution of the 1940’s through the 1960’s, attempts to force Big Ag-style monocultures on poor farmers results in overplowing and higher irrigation requirements, leading to loss of topsoil, leading to the need for more chemical fertilizers to keep crops growing in the absence of naturally rich soil, leading to a damaged ecosystem more susceptable to pests, leading to the need for more chemical pesticides to keep crops growing, leading to farmers who can no longer afford to farm, leading to even more overcrowded and underfed third-world cities.

And don’t forget that Monsanto won’t let farmers save their own seed.  They have to buy it every year.

Who are we feeding now?  The World…or Monsanto?

Furthermore, Big Ag-style monocropping is hardly what you’d call “environmentally friendly.”  According to the U.N. Environment Program:

“Convententional/industrial agriculture is energy- and input-intensive. Its high productivity relies on the extensive use of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fuel, water, and continuous new investment (e.g. in advanced seed varieties and machinery).” ~ Agriculture: Investing in Natural Capital, March 2011

Fortunately, organic polyculture is demonstrably capable of increasing yields — without destroying the environment, creating resistant weeds and pests, or forcing third-world farmers out of business.

In fact, as Mark Bittman recently pointed out in the Times, “Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellecutal…and physical:  the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization.”

A 2008 paper from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the U.N. Environment Program put it this way:

“Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously … Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.”

It boils down to this:

 A food system built on dwindling natural resources, even if it “feeds the world” for now, will eventually starve us all. 

A food system that replaces the natural resilience of biodiversity with monocropping, even if it “feeds the world” for now, will eventually starve us all.

A food system that takes the next generation of seed out of farmers’ hands, and fills those hands instead with unaffordable chemicals, can’t “feed the world” now, let alone later.  It will starve us all.

Extra Credit: 

Debunking the Stubborn Myth that Only Industrial Ag Can ‘Feed the World,’ Tom Philpott, Grist, March 2011

Agro-ecology and the Right to Food, U.N. report, March 2011

Botonist Sue Edwards’ conclusions from her work in Ethiopia.


Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

The Bastards and the Bees

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 10.

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” ~ Albert Einstein

I don’t know about Einstein’s 4-year estimate, but he wasn’t far off the mark.  Bees are necessary for the pollination of 30-60% of the human food supply (depending on source).  At least 85 different commerical crops, including peppers, tomatoes, and strawberries, rely upon bees to ensure the next generation of produce.

And yet, the world’s bee population is experiencing dramatic decline.  At first, only honeybees seemed to succumb to the mysterious “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD), but by 2009, it became apparent that bumblebees are affected as well.

CCD is characterized by massive die-offs of bees while away from their hives, apparently because the bees’ central nervous systems are affected such that they lose their ability to navigate.  In short, the workers leave their hives and don’t come back.  New workers are sent out.  They also vanish.  The hive is ultimately abandoned and, contrary to what we usually see in nature, the hive site remains devoid of other insect life.  The bodies of bees found to have died as the result of CCD are commonly infected with multiple fungi, bacteria, and viruses.

CCD has been observed in much of the U.S. and Europe, accounting for a 50-90% decline in bee populations in certain areas.  At first, it seemed that a fungus, bacteria, or virus might be responsible, but additional study has revealed an even more worrisome theory:  Monsanto is behind the death of our bees.

There seem to be two ways in which Monsanto and its Big-Ag buddies are impacting the bee population.  Both are related to pest control in major crops — one via insecticide, the other via genetic modification.

Root worm is the bane of corn farmers, which naturally made it a target for pesticide producers.  Enter clothianidin, an insect neurotixin produced by Bayer and applied to seed using an adhesive manufactured by Monsanto.  This toxin, which was supposed to be buried with the seed and therefore harmless to beneficial bugs, actually is absorbed into the roots and is incorporated into all the plants’ cells.  It contaminates not only the bees that touch it directly, but also bees that pollinate other plants on which the affected bees subsequently alight.

When clothianidin was applied to the German corn crop in 2008, 330 million bees died.  The chemical is not banned in the U.S., and is regularly applied to corn, sugarbeet, and sorghum.  In fact, “seed treatments,” among which clothianidin is common, come standard with all corn seed; untreated seed must be obtained by special order.

Soy seed, too, is commonly treated with clothianidin or its ugly cousin, imidacloprid.  Imidacloprid is another Bayer neonicotinoid.  Banned in France and Germany for the sake of the bees, it is widely used in the U.S.

What are the symptoms of bees poisoned with small doses of neonicotinoids?  Not immediate death, but confusion and inability to navigate.

Sound familiar?

It gets worse.  Not only has Big Ag seen fit to contaminate seeds, soil, and potentially surface and groundwater with known neurotoxins, but Monsanto took it upon itself to turn plants into insecticides.  In 2002, the company received approval (based on Monsanto’s on “research”) to market Bacill Thuringiensis (Bt) corn.  Bt is a bacterial toxin which, when genetically inserted into Monsanto’s Bt corn, turns the plant matter into poison.

Bt’s toxic proteins pierce the gut membranes of insects that ingest the GM plants or crops treated externally with Bt, which is sold to home gardeners as Dipel and does not preclude labeling as organic.  It affects not only the targeted corn borer caterpillars, but beneficial organisms like monarch caterpillars, New England silk moths, and bees as well.

Monsanto’s studies deemed Bt corn — as well as Bt potatoes, cotton, and soybeans — safe for bees because it doesn’t kill them directly.  Never mind the sub-lethal effects, characterized by compromised immune system response leading to death due to fungi, bacteria, and viruses that the bees could ordinarily combat.

Sound familiar?

Am I the only one wondering how the myraid food products made with Bt corn might affect the human immune system?

And get this:  Due to years of cross-contamination, it is unlikely that Bt corn can ever be eliminated from our environment.  Too bad the same isn’t true of Monsanto executives and the agencies who supposedly regulate them.


Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

Growing Pains

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 8.

The food I trust most is the food I grow myself.

This year, I’m more excited than ever to see In the Night Farm’s extensive garden space freshly tilled and waiting for a few more weeks of warmth to replace our frosty, Idaho nights.  Rhubarb and onions have already unfurled from the earth.  My cold-weather annuals — kale and snow peas — can be planted this weekend.  I might even risk half a packet of salad greens in the hope of an early harvest. 

I’m just one of many gardeners and small-time farmers eager to replace supermarket vegetables with homegrown fare.  Hours and sweat are a hefty, but worthy, price to pay for guaranteed organic, non-GMO, Monsanto-free produce.

But is it guaranteed?  Not necessarily. 

Here’s Monsanto’s list of seed brands.  Unless you live in agricultural country, most of the names are likely unfamiliar.  But look under “vegetable seed brands.”  See Seminis?  They provide seed to some very familiar vendors:  Burpee, Park Seed, J.W. Jung Seed, Germania, and many others that are making their way from garden centers to neighborhoods as we speak.

Fortunately, the internet is full of lists like this one, and a brief search will put you in touch with scores of sources for organic, heirloom seed.  My favorite is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a company with a conscience, a massive selection, rapid shipping, reasonable prices, excellent customer service, and a free seed packet with every order.

Unfortunately, even buying from a reputable  company may not be enough.  Consider contamination.  Can you be sure the heirloom seed you saved from last year wasn’t cross-pollinated by your neighbor’s Burpee bounty?  It may not be GMO (yet), but it’s still Monsanto.  You have to wonder.

As for GMO cross-contamination, there’s no question that mutant crops have infected the globe.  Ask Percy Schmeiser.

Extra Credit: The Global Spread of GMO Crops by Peter Montague and Organic Seeds Increasingly in Danger of GMO Contamination from Nutrition Business Journal.

Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

Farm Facade

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 4.

It’s an easy day for me.  I won’t  be leaving In the Night Farm, except to ride, so I run no risk of directly exchanging money for Monsanto. 

Indirectly, though, I still participate.  My refrigerator and furnace whirr softly.  Later, I will cook breakfast on a stove.  I’ll call my well pump into action to water the horses.  How much GM corn ethanol is burned to keep the hydroelectric plants running to bring me electricity?  To ship my organic food?

And beyond the borders of my farm, the horror continues.

Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

Resource du Jour:  Want more?  Watch The Future of Food, a full-length feature that expands on the video above.  Netflix has it. 

Gas Prices

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 3.

Okay, here we go.  Another tough one.  My little Hyundai’s tank is nearly empty, and I need to fill it without Monsanto’s help…or rather, without helping Monsanto.

The obvious problem is that most gasoline contains about 10% ethanol.  Ethanol is made from corn.  86% of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.

If I buy ethanol, I buy Monsanto. 

This is special:  Just last month, the USDA deregulated Syngenta’s Enogen, a corn seed genetically modified to make ethanol production easier by inducing the crop to produce an enzyme that hastens the chemical conversion of starch into sugar.

Syngenta, incidentally, is Monsanto’s rival.  Lawsuits fly between the two like arrows.  Normally, an enemy of Monsanto would be a friend of mine, but I have to make an exception for Syngenta.

In a twist as alarming as it is bizarre, many of the very same Big Ag trade associations that pump unlabeled GM foods into our grocery stores are screaming bloody murder about the Enogen approval.  It seems they’re alarmed about liability issues when Syngenta’s specialty seeds cross-contaminate the human food supply.

I worry about that, too.  The difference is that I actually care about the human lives at stake.

Perhaps the Enogen blow would feel softer if ethanol was, at least, good for the environment.   Alas, plant-based fuel additives burn more fossil fuel than they save, and monocropping is murder on ecosystems.

All the more reason to avoid ethanol.  But how?

My commute is 35 miles each way.  Walking, cycling, and horseback riding are out of the question.

Homemade biodiesel for my truck crossed my mind.  Briefly.  Until I remembered that it is made from leftover restaurant fryer fat…which is usually GM soybean or other vegetable oil.


Google to the rescue!  Twenty minutes of searching yielded this site, which lists stations that still sell 100% gas.  I’ll be testing it this afternoon.  It had better be accurate, or I’ll have to fill up on ethanol so I can get home to feed my menagerie.

Which reminds me, I’m running out of chicken feed. 

Oh, dear.


By the way, I found an updated statistic on cotton.  93%.  That’s how much of the U.S. cotton crop is GM.  Worldwide?  49%. 

Is anyone else feeling ill?


Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

Funny Business

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 2.

I have a fantastic assistant.  At my real job, I mean.  Not for blogging.  (Alas.)

Said assistant is accustomed to my strange ways.  When I hold meetings, she special-orders me meaty, eggy, oil-dressed salads to enjoy while everyone else scarfs sandwiches or pasta alfredo.

And yet, even she raised her eyebrows at me today.

I asked her to cancel my special lunch order for today’s meeting.  Why?  Because almost every catered salad is a veritable Monsanto’s Delight:  GM vegetables, rBGH-laced bleu, commerical chicken raised on GM corn, and dressing consisting of flavored GM canola and high fructose corn syrup.  Yum yum.

If I want to avoid Monsanto, I’m going to have to prepare my own meals.  All of them.

And so, I shall bemuse a roomful of people by sitting at the head table during a working lunch, eating my homemade salad of wild salmon, organic spinach and avocado, and Carlson’s lemon-flavored fish oil from an enormous plastic tub.

And Monsanto won’t get a penny for it.  Ha.

Speaking of Monsanto, this video is worth your 10 minutes:

Kinda makes you wonder what else we aren’t supposed to know.

Homework:  Share the video on Facebook, if you feel it’s important.  And visit the Millions Against Monsanto page.


See all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

Corporate Fluff

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

Today is Day 1.


It’s such a huge topic that I scarcely know where to begin.  And so, I will begin with an assumption:

I will assume that you know Monsanto is a massive, politically influential company that sells agrochemicals while engineering and selling genetically modified organisms to tolerate heavy application of said chemicals prior to their unlabeled distribution to the public.

This series will consider Monsanto from as many angles as possible, in no particular order.  Gather them as you would puzzle pieces.  The picture will assemble itself in your mind.

Because crops influenced by Monsanto have found their way into amost every crevice of the modern American grocery store, food will be my most immediate concern during this 46-day Monsanto fast.  Fortunately, my paleo way of eating has already nixed many of the major concerns:

  • Processed foods (nearly all of which contain GM corn, soy, artificial sweeteners, or GM additives such as amalyse, catalase, and lactase),
  • Conventional animal products (livestock is fed GM grain & soy, and dairy contains BGH and/or chymosin, a GM rennet used in most cheeses), and
  • Conventional produce (often GM, and not labeled as such).

Instead, I eat local, organic, grass-fed meats; wild fish; organic dairy (if any); and organic produce (preferably locally grown from heirloom seed).

There are a few items I’ll need to remove from my diet in order to avoid supporting Monsanto.  Canned tuna comes to mind, because it contains soy (often GM, courtesy of Monsanto) as part of the vegetable broth.  I’ll need to double-check the labels on miscellaneous items like hot sauce and vinegars.  Canned tomatoes will have to go organic, pricetag notwithstanding.  And nuts?  I wonder if they’re sprayed with Monsanto’s pesticides.  Better check.

So far, this looks a lot like a Whole 30.  Fair enough.  I was going to do one in April anyway.

Unfortunately, the food is the easy part.  Avoiding Monsanto means doing more than taking extra care about what goes into my refrigerator. 

For example, I hope I don’t have any need to withdraw cash.  Dollar bills are made of cotton.  And cotton is GM.

Clear back in 2003, 73% of the U.S. cotton crop was GM.  By 2007, 43% of the worldwide cotton crop was GM.  I’m almost glad I can’t find a more recent statistic.  Monsanto, of course, is happy to provide plenty of seed — supposedly to reduce pesticide use (1/3 pound of chemical pesticides and fertilizers is required to grow enough cotton for a single T-shirt) — but introducing a variety of new hazards, such as overpopulation of insects not targeted by the GM crops.

I wish I knew more about the health consequences of GM cotton, because we eat the stuff.  Despite being a “non-food crop,” cotton permeates our food supply.  It is used as a filler in livestock feeds.  Cottonseed oil appears in myriad processed foods.  And ‘linters,’ short cotton fibers, are used in a variety of emuslifiers, thickening agents, and fillers.

How about textiles?  Good thing I’m not a fashionista, because it looks like I won’t be buying any cotton clothing during Lent.  Unless I want to go naked, however, I’ll need to wear the cotton I already have.

Back to the cash.  I wonder how I’ll pay at the farmer’s market.  How will In the Night Farm’s customers pay for their duck eggs and strawberry plants?  Are Craigslist purchases out of the question for the next 6 weeks? 

Is it impossible to navigate modern America Monsanto-free?

We shall see.  So far, it doesn’t look good.


Resource du Jour:  GMO Database, courtesy of GMO Compass.  Type a food into the search box on the left (scroll down to find it) and check for updates on its genetic status.

See all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

I’m Giving Up Monsanto for Lent

I am not Catholic.

But, I am pissed off.

And this is as good a time as any.

For the 46 days between March 9 and April 23, I am going to do my best to avoid supporting Monsanto in any way.

I suspect that doing so will lead me down (ahem) interesting paths as I explore just how deep the company’s claws have sunk into our politics, economy, and environment.

I’ve heard that to control a nation’s destiny, you must control the education of its children.  I’ll buy that.  But if you want an even deeper hold — an even more immediate and desperate one — why not control the food supply?  And while you’re at it, you might as well think big.  Go international.  Do it in the name of Feeding the World.

Enough.  I want to know if we can still escape.  The best way to find out?


So, the rules:

1.  No purchasing GMO foods or food products that contain them as ingredients.  All produce, including canned or frozen, must be organic or an item as-yet unapproved for alteration.  Any dairy must be free of rBGH. 

2.  Insofar as possible, no purchasing other products that support Monsanto.  I’ll share with you as I do my homework, but I suspect this list may include such items as gasoline (corn ethanol?), stocks, household products, livestock feed, and more.  It’ll be interesting to discover whether I still have a choice in these areas.

And, the caveats:

1.  I do have a few non-compliant items in my pantry; my budget demands that I use up what I have, but any new purchases will follow the rules.

2.  I’m bound to make mistakes.  I suspect Monsanto products are more pervasive than I know, so I’ll be obliged to make corrections as I learn.

So, feel free to add cautions to the comments.  Warn me of the places Monsanto hides.  And join me if you dare.


See all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.

Coming Soon to a Supermarket Near You

…if AquaBounty Technologies gets its way.

They’ve developed a genetically modified salmon that grows at twice the normal rate, thanks to artificial changes to the genes regulating release of growth hormone.

So-called safety testing was done by the company that developed the GM fish. The FDA will review that company’s data but not attempt to replicate the research as they consider whether or not to approve sale of the GM “AquAdvantage” salmon for human consumption.  (Washington Post articleNPR story.)

If approved, the GM salmon likely will not require labeling as such.  Presumably, it will still need to be labeled as farmed, rather than wild…

…but we all see what GM canola and alfalfa are doing to their wild/unaltered neighbors…

How long before this technology escapes? And then what?

I’m looking for ways members of the public can influence the FDA’s decision, and will add suggestions to this post if I find any.  In the meantime, please spread the word and share your protest ideas (or disagreement with my point of view, if you like) in the comments.

ETA:  Okay, here you go — FDA Public Hearing Notice.  Hearings are to be held September 19-21 (but don’t wait; I know from experience that public hearing dates can and do change).  The best email address I’ve found so far for written comment is  I’m still on hold at 888-723-3366 in an attempt to obtain better contact information.

Through November 22, written comment regarding the labeling of AquAdvantage GM salmon may be submitted at or the Division of Dockets Management, Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.  Be sure to cite Docket No: FDA-2010 -N-0385.

(Comments regarding labeling?  Submit by November 22?  Gee, it almost sounds like they’ve already decided to approve the GM fish, even though the public hearing won’t be held for over a week.  Imagine that.)

Growing Costs: The Value of Food

I’m going grass-fed. I promised.

My freezer is nearly empty of conventional meats. A pound or two of bacon remains. And some organic ground beef from Costco, which is New Zealand grassfed mixed with American organic grainfed. After that’s gone, I’m all in.

I’ve found a vendor of quality, local, grassfed meats just one town over. They sell beef tenderloin for around $20/lb, but I’ll be ordering the ground beef, stew beef, and mixed cuts of pork that average $5.50/lb.

I may have to close my eyes while entering my credit card number. I will try very hard not to think about conventional prices of $1.98 for ground round or pork shoulder at $1.79 or whole roaster chickens under $3.00 on sale.

This, after all, is simply how much food ought to cost. Unsubsidized, allowed to mature at a natural rate without being poisoned by a grain diet that would kill them in months despite heavy antibiotic loads, if they didn’t go to the slaughterhouse first, livestock is not cheap to raise.

In fact, given the dinner I enjoyed last night, $5.50/lb for local, grassfed beef looks downright reasonable. Yesterday evening, I cooked up two, broiled lamb chops with mint pesto and side of sauteed summer squash and onions with thyme.

Simple, right?

Sure, if you picked it all up from the grocery. But I didn’t. Those chops came from lambs born here at In the Night Farm. I grew the herbs and onion. The squash came from a co-worker’s garden.

Cheap, right?

Hardly. Not even if you picked it all up from the grocery. Which I didn’t.

Those chops came from lambs born here at In the Night Farm, remember? They were grass (actually, mostly hay) fed, which meant they took their time maturing to slaughtering size. Quite aside from the daily labor of caring for livestock, the monetary cost can’t be ignored. Care to have a look?

Quality alfalfa/grass mix hay runs $125 a ton around here. That’s about $0.0625 per pound. A sheep eats 5 pounds a day, for a daily feed cost of $.32. The sheep in question was 450 days old when slaughtered, and therefore consumed $144.00 worth of hay.

Well. That’s not too bad!

But wait. I also had to feed my breeding stock — one ewe and one ram. I’ll only add in the price of one parent, since the lamb I’m calculating was a twin.

So, $144 in lamb feed plus $144 for its mama’s feed (and that’s assuming I didn’t have to feed mama during gestation, which of course isn’t true), for a total of $288 in feed.

Now, add butchering costs. I paid $207 for both lambs, so let’s call it $103.50 for one.

$288 in feed plus $103.50 butchering = $391.50 for one lamb.

How much meat is in a lamb? About 40 pounds.

$391.50 / 40 pounds = $9.79 / pound.

Oh, my.

Is it worth it? To eat a healthy animal? A healthful animal? An animal I raised from birth, cared for daily through winter’s snow and summer’s blaze? An animal that, well-nourished, can provide real nourishment in return?

An animal that gave its life for mine?

$9.79 per pound.

That’s value.

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A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude
Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living
The Organic Pocketbook: A Struggle Survived

The Organic Pocketbook: A Struggle Survived

You’ve heard of debtors prison. Even if it still exists somewhere in the world, I will never go there. I was reared to be responsible with money. Very, very responsible. If a fool and his money are soon parted, count me among the wisest folk you’ll ever meet. For me, a major spending spree runs about $150.00 and involves durable goods. I’m positively allergic to debt.

My dad once told me that money is choices. For me, like many women, it is also security. In my case, this means not only my own security, but also that of the 40 of so critters that depend on me for everything from fencing to feed.

I’m telling you this so you can understand what it cost me to go grocery shopping today. Normally one of my favorite activities, today’s shopping trip made my stomach literally ache with indecision.

There sat organic avocados, $1.89 apiece. Beside them, conventional for $.78. Organic tomatoes, $1.99/lb. Conventional, as low as $.89. Cherries, $1.99 for a pound of organic, or the same price for two pounds of conventional. Baby spinach, $4.99 or $3.50? Zucchini, $1.29 or less than a dollar?

But I said I would do it, and if there’s one thing I hate more than irresponsibility with money, it’s irresponsibility with words. Integrity is doing what you said you would, even when no one is watching. Even when it hurts.

And so, despite sufficient stress that I’m considering downing an extra teaspoon of fish oil before bed, I checked out of the store with $23.86 worth of produce. Even though my garden is currently languishing between early crops (greens, peas, rhubarb) and later ones (tomatoes, squash, peppers, beans), that should last me a week.

So, let’s multiply that up to about $100 per month for produce. Huh. Not so bad, actually. My former food budget was $200 per month. (Yes, it’s possible. I live alone and cook virtually all my meals.) $100 for produce is steeper than my comfort zone — I need to spare funds for meat and a few extras, like coconut milk and nuts! — but it’s not outside the realm of reality.

Because I’m not really that crazy about money. My bedroom walls, alas, are not stuffed full of hoarded cash. I’m quite content to spend money on priorities: my horses, my farm, adventure, knowledge, and certain people.

Including myself, I suppose. My health. My choice not to slowly poison my cells with daily doses of pesticides and genetically modified mystery plants.

If money is choices, there aren’t many more secure than that.

Hungry for more? You might also like A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude.

Down Under: Root Cellar Update

It’s been a long time coming, but In the Night Farm’s root cellar is nearly complete.

The big hole, dug nearly two years ago with the help of a generous neighbor’s backhoe, now features an underground room lined with shelves. Many of the shelves (which still need to be bolted to the walls) are vented to provide air flow beneath root crops like onions, sweet potatoes, and Yukon Golds.

Yes, potatoes! Many believe these to be a less-than-primal food (and I haven’t eaten a white potato in months), but homegrown taters are a sensible indulgence I’m more than willing to enjoy. If you’ve never tried them, you must! They’re as different from commercially grown potatoes as are garden tomatoes from those supermarket imposters.

There’s also plenty of space, down here in the humid chill, to hang herbs, store sealed packages of dried fruit from the apricot tree and tomato vines, and cluster jars of home-canned dills. We might even throw in a few bottles of wine.

The walls are reinforced, the cracks sealed, the tin ready to go on the roof…and it’s time to start filling in the hole. Now, there’s a primal workout I’ve looked forward to! Really. Digging in the dirt, particularly with a real goal in mind, is tremendously satisfying. Ask any kid.

Poultry To Go

Check out this portable poultry coop:

I found it on CraigsList. The seller wanted $150.00, which seems a fair price when you figure in materials and labor, but Ironman and I are going to build our own using this as a model.

The dimensions, as posted in the ad, are 9 feet, 9 inches in length, 4 foot base width, and 30 inch height. I imagine it’s fairly heavy, and indeed the ad states that the seller moves it around with a tractor. No problem there; it just so happens that I have a tractor.

The primary purpose of the portable coop, as anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma will know, is to be able to move your birds safely around the farm so they can forage for fresh plants, insects, grubs, and whatever else they fancy.

You know, real food. The things poultry was designed to eat, instead of the grain-based, packaged feeds that practicality demands for the bulk of their calories. When the chickens and ducks eat real food, the eggs they lay show up on our table with a proper balance of nutrients. That’s a prize worth the investment of a bit of time spent with a screwdriver and staple gun.

And, there’s another advantage. Ironman and I have been wondering for a while what would be the best way to house the guinea fowl we’d like to introduce to the gardens of In the Night Farm.

Squash bugs and grasshoppers have been a real problem in years past, and we’re loathe to use poisons to control them. Chickens will gladly consume the pests — but they’ll scratch up the plants in the process. Not good.

Guinea fowl, however, are reportely excellent garden hunters that snap up insects without harming the crop. They can also be quite loud when disturbed — but we figure that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Out here in the the country, it’s nice to get a heads-up when someone drops by.

Thing is, one buys guineas as tiny and defenseless keets that should be raised near the area in which you intend them to spend most of their time as adults. Constructed using a tighter wire weave than was chosen by the Craigslist seller, our portable poultry coop should make a suitable guinea nursery before returning to its usual duties.

Ah, the projects. They never end. But then, neither do their rewards.

Related Posts
Practically Impossible, The Challenge of Sustainable Living

Sheer Quackery

Are these not the cutest things ever?

They’d better be, because they’re a bloody nuisance! I spent more time last week than I care to admit chasing loose ducklings around my master bathroom. The little buggers may be only a few days old, but they’re quick — and good heavens, can they scream when separated from their buddies!

As you might expect, I have a better reason for raising a flock of ducklings than cooing over their downy wings and teeny, duckbilled yawns, or even the adventure of midnight duckhunts involving reaching around one side of the toilet while attempting to block any escape route with a convenient trash can. No, Ironman and I have decided to raise ducks for eggs and meat.

Duck eggs are slightly larger and higher in cholesterol than chicken eggs, and their shells have a smoother, waxier appearance. (I know this because we bought a dozen from the local co-op to make sure we liked them before investing in duck housing and stock, which totaled about $300.) They taste quite similar — perhaps a touch milder and richer — but the difference is as subtle as that between the eggs of chickens on different diets.

As for the meat, well, I’m all for any option that will spare me conventionally raised products. Unfortunately, for reasons I discussed long ago in this post, our ducks will still eat a fair amount of grain, though I’ll do my best to get some real food down their gullets as well. At least they won’t be pumped full of antibiotics.

After doing some homework on duck husbandry and deciding to go ahead with the project, Ironman and I built a duck shelter and playground next to the chicken coop and chicken yard. (I think it turned out pretty well, myself!)

Next, we stopped by a local hatchery for a box of ducklings. Because ducks are only sold straight run (not sexed), we had to buy extras in order to ensure that we’d get enough females to keep for our breeding flock of 8 or10 ducks and 2 drakes. The extra drakes will make some lovely meals in 9-14 weeks. (Sorry, boys.)

I selected breeds based on the characteristics that were most important to us: egg production, meat quality, and mothering instinct. The yellow ducklings are Pekins. They’ll grow into white-feathered adults that are large, quick-growing meat ducks. The brown ones are Khaki Campbells, which are renowned for their egg laying capacity — up to 300 eggs per duck per year! The ones with striped faces are Rouens, which are good egg layers and reliable setters to boot. They’ll be responsible for raising future broods.

We bought six of each breed, but two of the Rouens didn’t make it. One died within hours of leaving the hatchery; the other held on for a few days but eventually succumbed. I’m not certain whether this is because Rouens are a more delicate breed, or because the Rouens we bought were a day (or even a half-day) younger than the others and couldn’t quite compete. Thankfully, the remaining four are doing swimmingly.

Speaking of swimming, there’s no question that these guys know they’re waterfowl. They certainly love fouling their water! Ducks have no choice in the matter, actually; they require water-sloshing to clear their nostrils and throats of sticky food-mash. Nevertheless, this tendency was a bit of a problem during the few days they lived in (and sometime out of) a blue wading pool in my bathroom. Try as I might, I could not keep their pine-shaving bedding dry for more than an hour at a time.

So, they’re outside now, in a 3×5 foot, cat-proof section of the duck pen. I put them out there yesterday after much internal debate regarding whether they’d be able to handle the lower temperatures and spring winds. They’re only six days old, after all, and haven’t the benefit of Mama’s toasty underbelly to keep them warm.

The 250-watt heat lamp proved sufficient, however. I checked on them this morning, after a windy night in the low 30’s, to find them yawning and preening, stretching their tiny, web-footed legs, and looking sweeter than any chocolate duck that ever found its way into my childhood Easter basket.

Betcha they’ll be just as tasty, too.

(On the subject of tasty poultry… I finally have my desktop computer fixed, which means I can edit photos again, which means that I was able to upload a photo of my Hottie Hen with a Pig Pizza — recipe and photo here.)

A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude

When I was in high school, my family owned a whitewater rafting company. Our offerings of four- to seven-day expedition trips down wilderness rivers attracted mostly outdoor-types from the West, but we also booked the occasional city slicker.

Mary Jo, a hefty and good-natured soul with glossy, black curls and florid cheeks, was one of the latter. She hailed from Boston and was startled to learn that there really wasn’t any point in packing her alarm clock in her waterproof gear bag. (Nope, not even with an extension cord.)
Along about Day 3 of Mary Jo’s trip, we were floating through open range, where cattle spend the summer feeding on the vast acreage of public lands. Mary Jo, spotting a pair of Herefords drinking along the bank, exclaimed, “Look! Wildlife! What kind of animals are those?”
Sure Mary Jo was kidding, the nearest guide joked, “Oh, those are Oregon elk. They’re very rare!” Imagine his surprise when Mary Jo pulled out her camera and started clicking away. He did some fast talking to spare our guest the embarrassment of hauling out her photo album and showing all her friends back home the elusive “Oregon elk,” which almost anybody would recognize immediately as garden-variety cattle.
That night in camp, we served up an Italian feast of wine, garlic bread, salad, and spaghetti with marinara and meatballs. Mary Jo ate with her usual gusto. Watching her from across the circle of canvas chairs in the fading light, I wondered if she had even a passing thought connecting her “wildlife” sighting with the meal rapidly disappearing from her plate. I was saddened to conclude, probably not.
Saddened, I say, because although Mary Jo may have been an extreme case, she is far from an anomaly. Too many people these days believe that food comes from the grocery store. I once heard of a woman who, listening in on a discussion about the danger a single plant disease could pose to our inadequately-diverse food supply, said “Oh, I’m sure they’ll always have flour at the store.” She, like Mary Jo, clearly had no concept of the sacrificial exchange that fuels our bodies.

We the People, with our fast food joints and deep freezes, are so far separated from farm life that we rarely consider that from the T-bones we gnaw once hung the loin of a cow with a swishing tail and liquid eyes. That neat mound of poultry breast was made to nestle warm about a clutch of eggs. Those egg yolks formed to nourish chicks ’til they grew large enough to hatch.

I’m not saying I have a moral problem with eating meat or eggs, any more than I have one with tearing carrots from the soil and scattering my salad with their precious roots. Zucchini grow to ensure there is seed for the next generation, not to be sauteed in my breakfast hash, but saute them I do. To live is to take other lives. Any farmer knows there’s no escaping the fact, no denying it, no point feeling guilty about it.

But I do believe there is benefit in understanding it — not just believing it intellectually, but experiencing it firsthand — for in understanding there is value, and in value, gratitude.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to be reared in agricultural country should be at least halfway there. We visited U-pick orchards every fall, plucked wild blackberries from their vines, perhaps retrieved eggs from the nests of disgruntled hens. Some of us even fattened stock for slaughter.

I was eight the first time I observed the death our annual beef cow. The man from the packing plant shot her three times, right there in our barn, before her sway turned to a topple and her topple to utter collapse. He hooked a chain to her hind legs and winched her outside to his truck, where he peeled away her chestnut coat and spilled her foul-smelling offal among the weeds.
My mother worried that I, an empathetic child who had bottle fed that animal as a calf, would be put off our daily meals of hamburgers and steak. But I was untroubled. Somehow, with the innate wisdom of the very young, I understood.
Not all children have such opportunities. One of my best friends grew up in the jungles of Chicago. He claims once to have stumbled over a pile of milk bottles and thought he’d found a cow’s nest. Does that mean he shouldn’t be permitted to eat meat, because he hasn’t paid his dues?
Of course not. But I do think those in his position should look for opportunities to connect with the lives and deaths that feed them. From farmers markets to bookstores, there is plenty of recourse for those who wish to understand their meals. A number of authors have addressed the concept of late, all from different perspectives. Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), and most recently, Lierre Keith (The Vegetarian Myth) come readily to mind.


For the most adventurous — and wisest? — more creativity could lead one to a farm on butchering day, to feel the blood from chickens’ throats run hot across trembling fingers, see the feathers float on scalding water and stick like rain soaked leaves to pluckers‘ wrists. To pull the trigger that ploughs a painless path through the brain of a hog, or gut a fish from the neighbor’s pond, or simply gather the bosoms of ripe onions as they press up from the soil, strip peas from their pods, sever the stems of living herbs to rub beneath a turkey’s freshly-denuded skin.
I remember one blustery day in early spring at In the Night Farm. A freshly-slaughtered lamb had hung for several days from the north deck, aging beneath its burlap wrap. Meanwhile, out beyond the horse paddocks, lambing had begun. I spent the entire day running between the kitchen, where I rinsed and packaged chunks of carcass for later meals, and the lambing jugs, where I knelt in the hay to draw colostrum from ewes’ udders and coax it down the silken throats of newborn lambs.
I ate lamb that night, with the smell of sheep’s milk still strong upon my hands. The following winter, I butchered the wooley babies whose lifes I had saved. Come spring, I nurtured several more.
Death. Life. Death feeding life feeding death feeding life. The unbroken circle. Don’t feel guilty. But please, don’t forget. Real food costs more than pennies for pounds.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Stop by and see what else is on the menu!

Who Needs a Tractor?

This is the wall that Travis built.

It is every bit as heavy and awkward as it looks. Unfortunately, it belongs in the root cellar, which is 200 feet away from the driveway where it was constructed. We tried picking it up to move it. Yeah, right. Maybe if there were six of us.

So, this is the way we move the wall that Travis built.

Of course, this wasn’t our brilliant idea. Log rolling is an ancient technique. Anthropologists theorize it was used to move Stonehenge’s monolithic sarsan stones 20 miles about 5,000 years ago.

Hmm. Easy though it was, I’m glad we didn’t have to move the wall that far.

Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living

You’d think that owning on a farm would make sustainable living relatively easy. Grow a garden, raise some livestock. Hoe and weed, water and feed your way to health and self-reliance. After all, this is how most of the world’s population has lived for thousands of years! Sadly, these days, the simple life is anything but.

Take my latest research on natural chicken feeds. Motivated by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explains the myraid benefits of eating eggs and meat from chickens that eat as nature intended, I’ve been looking for ways to eliminate commercial layer pellets from our hens’ diets.

Feeding poultry a natural diet eliminates the use of (and the need for) antibiotics such as coccidiostat and results in food products whose nutritional content is properly balanced. Like most livestock raised en masse, chickens that eat typical commercial feeds take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s. In livestock and the humans who eat it, this balance should be tipped the other way, in favor of omega-3 fatty acids.

Balanced fat consumption leads to lower rates of heart disease, cancers, and mental degeneration, so I’d like to know that the small quantity of poultry and eggs I consume represents an appropriate nutritional profile. Hence, my interest in feeding chickens like nature intended — as hunting and gathering omnivores. It’ll only take one acre per chicken.

One acre per chicken?

Let’s see. One acre per chicken…fifteen chickens…Call the real estate agent, Honey. Looks like we need to buy the property next door!

So much for keeping my hens nourished without supplemental feeds. Surely, I thought, there’s a way to feed them naturally without quadrupling our mortgage.

As it turns out, there is. I’ll need: a wide variety of living plants, wild seafood, additional protein in the form of grass-fed meat and milk, nuts and seeds, varied grains (freshly cracked, of course), boiled soybeans or other legumes, sea salt, and oyster shells for calcium.

What? I can’t afford wild salmon for myself, let alone for my chickens!

And it isn’t just the chickens. Raising healthful lamb requires irrigated pasture or extensive range, quality hay, and oats. Pesticide-free gardening means losing part of the crop to insect damage. Irrigation requires electricity to run the pump. Rototilling large plots requires gasoline. Even our organic fertilizer started out as expensive horse hay, and this year’s diesel prices will drive that bill even higher.

And so, in an attempt to fund a more sustainable lifestyle centered around local foods, we are forced to drive nearly forty miles into the city to work. Gas costs us a fortune these days, though we carpool whenever possible and make no gratuitous side trips. We bought a motorcycle to cut back on consumption, at least when the weather cooperates. (I took my first ride on the new bike the other day. Ye gods, I’d forgotten!)

Day after day, I am appalled by the expense of trying to do the right things to spare our land and bodies from the behemoth of our industrialized food system. Why do you think most poultry growers, whether commercial or gentleman farmer, buy pelleted feeds? Twenty-five bucks will buy you a month’s worth of scratch grains and layer pellets for a flock like ours. It’s easy, too! Just open the bag, scoop, and serve.

As much as I would like to, I simply cannot afford to feed my chickens on soybeans, seafood, and hand-split corn. In this instance, like so many others — purchasing enough land to grow our own crops, installing solar panels and a propane refrigerator, even building the oh-so-sensible root cellar — converting to sustainable living is a proposition that implies tremendous financial strain.

Some people manage it. You can read their stories at the Backwoods Home Magazine forum. I suspect, however, that the majority have either lived long and well enough to free themselves from debt — including home mortgages — or are not trying to create a self-sufficient homestead while preserving and promoting a rare breed of horse. Reading the BHM forum is, for me, both inspiring and discouraging.

So, what now? Shall we move back to the city to eat factory farmed poultry and pesticide-laden, chemically-fertilized, genetically-modified broccoli while we wait for cancer to set in? Or, shall we, like other small farmers across our nation, continue to struggle against the economic and political tide?

A horse trainer in my area likes to say, “Start where you can, not where you think you should.” I find that his advice applies to more than just horse training — it’s useful in our progress toward sustainable living, as well.

For now, I’ll hand-pick a daily bucketful of weeds and grass for my hens. I’ll save them vegetable scraps from the kitchen and check prices on bulk legumes at the grocery. I’ll even look into the cost of canned wild fish. While I’ll still buy pelleted feeds, I’ll restrict their use as much as possible.

This decision, like replacing a truck with a motorcycle but still commuting to work, represents a compromise between practicality and perfection. Such choices are often unsatisfactory, but for now, for us, “ideal” isn’t an option. Surely doing our best is better than doing nothing at all.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we’re going to make this small farm work.

…but I also don’t know how to give up.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Be sure to drop in and see what else is on the menu!

Digging Deeper

Gardening at In the Night Farm is more than a hobby. We believe in the nutritional, economical, environmental, and political importance of locally grown produce, and there’s nothing more local than our own backyard.

Commercial agriculture, which runs on genetically modified corn and fossil fuels, wreaks havoc on the land and the bodies of humans and animals who consume the resulting “food.” We’re constantly seeking new ways to reduce our dependence on the system.

The switch to local foods is a slow process, not least because we suffer from the typical American addiction to seasonless variety. However, as we grow more accustomed to eating seasonally, we are able to create more meals around our own produce.

Another limiting factor is expense. America’s agricultural infastructure is designed to benefit the monoliths who pump out massive quantities of cheap, poor quality food. Local farmers, particularly organic farmers, are forced to charge more for their crops — sometimes more than consumers are willing to pay.

At this point, Travis and I only dabble in actually selling our produce. We hope to move enough eggs and vegetables this year to cover our own costs associated with raising chickens and crops. If we’re really lucky, we’ll net some extra dollars to put toward a greenhouse.

Our primary goal isn’t to turn a profit, but rather to turn our soil into healthful meals. This is easy during summer, when the crops come on one after another, so quickly we can’t eat them all. But what about winter?

This year, we’re investing in several items to extend the usefulness of our harvest. First, we bought a Foodsaver to preserve the quality of frozen berries, vegetables, and meats. Second, we expanded our collection of canning jars. (Note: Used jars are readily available on Craigslist — it seems few people use them anymore.) Third and most ambitious, we’re putting in a root cellar. Here’s how Travis spent part of the weekend:

Luckily for him, he was able to barter some computer work for backhoe services to dig most of the hole. In the photo above, he’s trimming the sides and bottom in preparation for building the underground structure.

At the moment, the root cellar quite an ugly scar on the hill, but once its walls are built and its roof on, we’ll shovel dirt over the top and let time adorn it with grasses once again.

Come winter, our bounty of potatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, squash, dried hot peppers, and more will be nestled safely under the farm, awaiting a much shorter trip to our plates than the thousands of miles endured by most grocery store produce.

It seems that, sometimes, the journey of a thousand miles ends with a single step.

Playing Chicken

In the Night Farm’s chicken coop consists of two sections. The first and largest is known as Harlem’s Harem.

Harlem is our rooster.

A Non-Bearded White Crested Black Polish (we think), Harlem showed up in a friend’s urban backyard last summer. Why yes, of course we have room for another animal.

The second section of our chicken coop is known as the Broody Bay. When a hen decides to set a clutch of eggs, she is said to be “broody.” A broody hen stops laying and eats and drinks little until her hormones get out of the way — typically by raising a brood.

Last fall, my lovely Sooty hen, a small Black Australorp, turned broody. We let her set, and four of the eggs hatched.

Three of Sooty’s chicks grew into beautiful cockerels. I am sad to say will also be tasty cockerels. But, if I’m going to eat a little meat now and then, I want it to come from critters that haven’t been stuffed full of chemicals.

Note: For an entertaining, intelligent, and enlightening read about the origins of most American meals, pick up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Anyway, when you live on a farm, you learn not to name some of the animals.

Sooty’s only pullet (young female hen) did get a name. Henrietta, who sports a small crest like her daddy’s, now lives in Harlem’s Harem. Her eggs are easy to identify by size and shape, so if she gets broody, we won’t accidentally let her raise any inbred chicks.

Right now, Penny is the broody one.

Penny was Travis’ prize in the Great Chicken Caper of 2007. This was an unpublicized event in which we responded to a Craigslist ad for free chickens — as many as you can catch. Let me tell you how many that is: Not Many.

Anyway, we’ll let Penny set a clutch of Aracauna eggs soon. Though relatively non-descript in appearance and unenthusiastic winter layers, heritage Aracaunas are a favorite of mine for their beautiful, blue-green eggs.

Seeing as we knew almost nothing about chickens when we bought (or, in Penny’s case, caught) them last year, we were lucky to get some that go broody. Many chickens, including some strains of Rhode Island Reds and Sex-Links, have had their brooding instinct bred out of them in the name of increased production.

Vegetables aren’t the only things losing ground to hybridization for factory farming. Heirloom chickens, also known as heritage chickens, are getting harder to find. Smarter, hardier, more disease-resistant, and longer-lived than their modern brethern that are often incapable of reproduction without artificial insemination, heritage chickens are trying to make a comeback with the help of dedicated farmers and the American Livestock Breeds Conservency.

Don’t worry — I’m not an alarmist, nor even a standard-issue liberal. I’m just another small-time farmer observing that our national obsession with hybridized plants and animals incapable of procreation puts us on a crash course with Fate. Perhaps the sustainable, local, and organic farming movements help us swerve in time.

All the more reason to let Penny raise Aracaunas.


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