Welcome to our Holden's Hide a way farm

Holden's Hide-A-Way Farm is a diversified farm that produces a wide variety of meat product, in much of the same manner as a farmer would have 100 years ago. Our ideas on how to raise livestock come directly from mother nature. We raise grass fed beef and lamb because that is what mother nature intended. Our pigs are free to root and roam through out the warm seasons. Winters are spent in a barn with ample space and lots of hay to eat and root around in. Poultry is raised on pasture where they get lots of fresh air and can do the things poultry likes to do.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Politics, business and Organic Agriculture

Every once in a while organic agriculture hits the news. CBC this week reported on a finding by the CFIA (Canadian food inspection agency) that pesticide residues where found on organic foods. One sided arguments like the one reported are aggravating for farmers like me. While we are not a certified organic farm we use organic farming practices. So we do have a stake in the argument "organic vs Conventional " farming. The big argument is whether organic foods are worth the extra cost. Of coarse conventional farmers and anyone with a stake in conventional agriculture will say, no. This includes most government agencies. The main arguments forwarded by conventional agriculture is that there is no evidence that organic foods are better for you and that organic production can not feed the world.
The first issue is food quality. Can organic foods be proven to have any nutritional benefits over conventional food. Unfortunately there is not a lot of money to be made for big business in organic food production. That is why the only news articles we hear are degrading organic production. The truth is that even the certifying bodies that regulate organic agriculture in Canada allow for a certain amount of pesticide residue on foods. Why is this? It is impossible for a farmer to completely isolate their produce from the environmental hazards that conventional agriculture continually pumps into our environment. Even our forestry agencies pump this stuff into our environment. A certain amount of pesticide residue is going to found even in the ground water that everyone uses, including the organic farmer. What the above news report did not emphasize is that organic foods were found to contain over 75% less residue then conventional produce. These numbers are consistent with last highly publicized and controversial media release "The Stanford Study". So we have clear evidence that the chemical contamination and risk associated with it are substantially lower in organic foods. What conventional agriculture does not want people to know is that there is evidence that organic foods are more nutritious. Organic produce is only slightly higher in content of major vitamins and minerals. This is highly publicized. What isn't highly publicized is secondary nutrients because they are not considered vital to our health like vitamin C & D. Secondary nutrients like polyphenols and flavonoids are difficult and not often measured during these studies. Polyphenols are chemicals that a plant produces in response to environmental stress. A type of plant immune system. (The more a plant is babied the less it has to produce. This is exactly what conventional agriculture does. Utilizing chemicals to feed and protect the plant essentially producing fat and lazy plants.) The nice thing is that these polyphenols also help us. They are the antioxidants we need in our diet. Antioxidants are chemicals that go around our bodies capturing free radicals. Free radicals are responsible for many diseases most famously, cancer. Many scientist also believe that a lack of polyphenols is responsible for the increasing prevalence of our "dirty brain" diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.  Catechin is a polyphenol found in green tea that has even been found to help treat viral hepatitis. Underpublicized studies done in Barcelona included measurements of polyphenols and have found much higher content in organically grown produce. A University of California study concluded a ten year study that found organically grown tomatoes to have significantly higher amounts of flavonoids (polyphenols). In fact they found the longer are farm used organic methods, the bigger the difference. The study found conventional produce polyphenol were 79-97% lower. That is a dramatic decrease considering polyphenols are now being said to have as much or more of an influence on our health than vitamin C or D.
My unscientific evidence and method of comparison is that organic food tastes better and tends to be heavier. Taste is mother natures way of saying "eat this". Flavanoids are accurately named. They are responsible for much of the flavour in our vegetables and fruit. More flavour equals more flavonoids. If you take an organically grown tomato and conventional tomato of equal size, the organic one will be heavier. This is because there is more in it. All the extra nutrients have mass.  
The next argument big agriculture has is that organic production can not feed the world. However anyone in the food industry should know that production is the least of our concerns when is comes to feeding the world. Those starving people seen on Sunday morning TV are the victims of politics more than lack of world food production. We cannot feed the starving because the food will not get there, not because we don't have it. Even in North America we have our own issues of malnourishment and starving people. The fact is we waste enough food to feed our starving people. If you want evidence go check out the garbage bin behind your local restaurant and grocery store. Do you remember your younger days sitting at the kitchen table, your parents saying something like "eat your broccoli, there are starving children that would love to have your food". Eventually the broccoli was thrown out or fed to the dog hiding under the table. 
The third argument is really related to the above in some ways. The price of organic foods. Ask an organic farmer and they will tell you al about the hidden costs of conventional food. It is cheap at the grocery store, but we end up heavily taxed on it. Not so much at the till, but through government money spent. (Not to mention all the government subsidy programs are geared towards conventional agriculture) Conventional agriculture cost huge amounts of money because of environmental issues. Most of which we have not even started paying for yet. Some people don't see that as their issue, but we are spending huge amounts of money on health care as well. Many of the health care issues we have are directly related our food, and our over fed and undernourished citizens. The government recognizes this issue, but too much money is involved in conventional agriculture to make the necessary adjustments.Wold War one marked the beginning of industrial agricultural, coincidentally our public health issues have been on the rise ever since. If as much research went into organic agriculture and conventional agriculture our level of production would be much high. In recent years there has been a lot more effort put into making organic agriculture more competitive. New methods and an increase in demand is slowly bringing the price of organic produce more in line with conventional .
I have concentrated mostly on vegetable production here but something needs to be said about our meat, milk and poultry as well. The public often does not know that there is a difference in "feed grade" grain and grain for human consumption. One difference is that feed grade grain can have up to a 20% higher chemical residue on it. These chemicals are not adequately metabolized by the animals it is fed to. The result is the consumer ingests these toxins resulting in a higher residue level. Many of these residues are disease causing including cancer and the other diseases already mentioned. Combine this with the fact that our vegetables and fruit are lower in the nutrients designed to rid our bodies of disease causing toxins, and you have a recipe for illness. 
While organic certification offers some security, dishonest people can find away to rip off the system. It is a self governing system. However so is the chemical industry that supplies the agricultural industry. No government agency tests these chemicals or the genetically modified organisms used. Instead they rely on "independent" studies, paid for by the chemical companies. So don't believe everything you hear on the news. After all the news is in the business of drama more than fact. The only real way to guarantee you are eating health promoting organic is too grow it your self. Or buy it from a local farmer you can trust. I know a couple if your interested.     

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Simple Life

Last week Lynn was making small to a potential customer while manning our booth at the North Bay Farmers Market. The lady Lynn was engaged with stated “I really wish I could live the simple life”. This is a comment we have heard repeatedly, usually from people that watched way to much Walt Disney as a child and are completely disconnected from how their food is produced and the delicate relationship between a farmer and nature. Of coarse Lynn smiled approvingly at the lady, nodding her head and replied “it is a nice life”. To clarify the easy life I decided to write a little about our year and how and just how easy it was.

On a cold January morning I went down to the barn to begin chores. I opened the door and quickly went inside. Before the door closed I could hear the pigs rise from their night sleep. Immediately they begin screaming a high pitched deafening scream like only a pig can. Making sure I know that they deserve to be fed first. I ran for the food pails only to find out that they were not filled the day before. I began the task of hauling four five gallon pails into the mow, up our old wooden ladder. Filling the pails as quickly as I can just to try and shut the pigs up. In a factory hog farm, workers where hearing protection because the hogs screaming can be so load. By this time my girls show up to help me with the barn chores.  The pigs are fed and some more grain is gathered for the sheep. We don’t usually feed grain to the sheep, but the drought last year caused our hay to be of poorer quality so we need to supplement. I carried the 30 lb buckets of grain through the mob of 50 sheep to the feeder. This is an experience that many more people should have. In fact I think it would be great training for someone entering a rugby league. Try to understand that grain to sheep is like cocaine to addict. Now imagine carrying the sheep’s “fix” through the mob of addicts and trying to get it poured into trough. Not exactly like Walt’s depiction of the stock lining up nicely and waiting patiently for their grain. While the sheep wolf down their fix, I noticed one ewe that is bagging up. This means she is developing an udder. Something she should not be doing until at least March. Then I notice at least 4 more ewes that are bagging up. How does this happen when we planned out our breeding very carefully to make sure lambs do not arrive in the cold weather. However a few overly active ram lambs thought otherwise last fall. We thought they were to young for breeding. Obviously not. Well now we get to look forward to many nights of checking ewes in the cold weather every 2-3 hours all night and all day. A lamb born in  cold weather has little chance of survival, twins even less. A fact of lamb production is that the average lamb loss is 20% on Ontario farms. We lost three lambs this year. Well below the provincial average. But it has not always been that way. We have lost our share over the years. Good breeding, experience and luck mean a lot in farming.

February rolls around, a fun time for Lynn. The seed catalogues start arriving by mail. It’s the equivalent to when the Sears Christmas catalogue arrived when we were younger. Sound great to most but when she is done going through and making her lists of mostly needs and a few wants we tally up a bill of about $1000 in seed. Add to this row covers, a new tiller, green house supplies, soil, etc… I thought the list would never end. While Lynn finalizes her list I go and do a check at the barn. The ewes are starting to get close to lambing now and one of the sows are do soon to. I open the door to the barn and the pigs begin screaming as usual. Unfortunately they have already been fed, but now are as well trained as Pavlov’s dog to the sound of barn door opening. I check on the sow. She has eight little piglets in her pen. I hope she is not done because to be profitable a pig must have at least 10 piglets per litter. I check out the piglets they are all nice and healthy, so I put them under the heat lamp to stay warm. Piglets are naturally attracted to their mother’s udder at birth. The sow usually develops a fever shortly before giving birth and the piglets gather around her for heat. The problem is a 500 lb sow can easily squish a 1.5 pound piglet as she lies down or moves around. So the idea is get them comfortable under the heat lamp so that is where they want to be. I proceed to check on the ewes one has lambed a set of twins. As I get ready to leave the barn I hear the sound of a new born lamb coming from out side. Last night was cold, dipping down to -18. Out side there is a nice healthy little lamb. Jack the Great Pyrenees guard dog is watching over the little guy. The next few days are supposed to be warm so I decide just to leave the lamb outside with his mother. Lambs are very hard after they are dried off, warmed up and get a good drink of milk.

The next morning I arrive at the barn to find the power out. I enter the barn to the sound of screaming pigs and immediately check on the sow. Unfortunately with the power out the heat lamp off the piglets gathered around the sow for warmth. We lost four piglets that day. Devastating to us since the sow did not have enough piglets in the first place. Next I went to check the water. The pump is frozen and so is the water lines. The girls and I do the barn chores, but now they include hauling 10 five gallon pails of water from the house to the barn. A five gallon pail ways about 50lbs. The house is about 500 ft from the barn and up a slippery hill. We hauled water for one week every day until I was able to get a new water pump and unthaw the water line to the well. Not an easy task. Luckily sheep can make do by eating snow. In fact even when we offer water in the winter it usually freezes. Our barn water freezes usually 2-3 times ever winter. The hydro frequently goes out or someone unplugs the heat cable and forgets to plug it back in. What ever the case Lynn and the girls don’t like to tell me when it happens.

We made it though another winter, most of the livestock made it. We lost a couple lambs because a ewe could not produce enough milk and we did not notice. Our second sow farrowed and gave us only one living piglet. We are not sure why, the rest were still born. We lost one cow to bloat. She fell asleep on some frozen hay, melted into a hole and could not get out. Cows are built funny with their multiple stomachs they bloat easily. Basically bloat is the build up of gases in their digestive system. If the can not pass the gas it can place pressure on their diaphragm and heart. Ideally it would be nice to not lose any animal, but realistically that just can’t happen. Even with modern technology and safety equipment people pass away all the time. To think that doesn’t happen to farm animals would be unrealistic. After all the farm animals can not tell you when they are sick, the farmer must notice. Animals hide sickness well. In nature the sick are picked off by predators. Goats are the worst. Usually you will not know a goat is sick until their heart stops beating.

Lynn has been busy starting vegetable plants. Our house looks like a grow-op. Every window is covered in plants and we have four shelves with grow lights on the go. April rolls around and we should be starting to put the plants in the green house, but the weather is so cold we can’t risk it. By May we start putting out the hardiest of plants and start more in the house. Lynn tallies the numbers of plants we have. Over 1000 and that’s just the tomato plants. We did not sell as many CSAs as we wanted to and a few extra expenses surprised us so the cultivator/ditcher won’t be purchased this year. All these plants will be planted by hand and shovel. I estimate over 10000 plants by the time we are done. Planted, fertilised (with composted manure), watered and harvested. Of coarse this is all weather dependant.

Spring arrives but the heat doesn’t. Everything keeps getting pushed back. Our CSA customers have to be informed that the vegetables will be two week later than anticipated. Thankfully many of them understand. Last year we had a drought, this year we have cold weather. At least the animals are finally out on pasture. Many people think this is an easy time of year. After all the livestock just wander around easting grass right. NO. First of all we use electric fencing. The animals do respect the fence, but if it is not working they are out before we know it. Usually I know when the fence is not working when one of the girls says “Is that cow supposed to be in the garden”, or “are the sheep supposed to be in the neighbour’s grain field”. Things that take down a fence include tree branches, moose, deer, bears, atv riders, and fencing trolls. Pastures them self harbour certain problems. Sheep for instance eat grass so close to the ground that they very susceptible to parasites. Another problem is predators. Everything in the bush likes to eat lamb. We have guard dogs that live with the sheep. On some nights the dogs bark all night. We know there is something out there. Is it a wolf, coyote, fox, bear, moose or an angry chipmunk? We don’t know, but it makes for a restless night.

As it turns out the only predator this night was the ground hog that ate all the plants that Lynn spent all day planting yesterday. While checking on the damage Lynn noticed a whole row of cucumbers are turning yellow. They have the same living conditions as the row beside them. What could be causing the problem? I don’t know but we stand to lose a significant amount of money if we don’t find out.

The year is not over yet, hay season is coming. The weather is being predictably unpredictable again. Hopefully we get some heat and the vegetables start producing. I still have to get our irrigation system figured out. To top all this off Lynn just called me. We lost two ewes tonight. Why, I don’t know. One was old, but why two. When we started into sheep a farmer told me “sheep are born trying to die. It’s the shepherds job to keep them alive until the appropriate time arrives”. All in all the easy life is not so easy after all. We work 15 hour days at least. No relief ever arrives. We have people that are willing to give us a break. But we know better. Time off isn’t relaxing when you are worried if your cow heard is grazing down the neighbours corn field. Walt Disney lied to everyone. A more accurate perception of farm life would be gained by watching an old black and white western. Where the farmer and his family works day and night to keep a fence around the cows and keep the draught from killing the crops. All so he can pay the bills. The simple life. No. But we like it.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Heritage Crops and their Importance


In today’s agricultural world diversity is becoming a thing of the past. Much of the genetic pool is becoming dangerously shallow. Modern industrialized farms largely utilize mono crop production methods. These methods favor uniformity and limit diversity on the farm.

So what is an heirloom breed? Well an heirloom is basically a pure breed. An heirloom variety by definition would be a seed from a plant breed that is at least 60 years old. The plant breeds pure and pollination takes place the old fashioned way, with birds and bees being the main tool used. Remember that conversation your parents were supposed to have with you. This is where the term originated. The technical term is open pollination. The resulting seeds will produce exact genetic replicas of the parents. The development of these plants has been done for centuries by picking the vegetables that were the best, and keeping the seeds. Not by breeding different plants together. Heritage vegetables tend to be more flavorful, colorful and disease resistant. This process has been going on both intentionally and not intentionally since the beginning of agriculture about 7000-10000 years ago. An example of purposely improving a breed would be by keeping the seeds out of the best tasting tomatoes. A non purposeful improvement would be when disaster strikes, such as a disease outbreak. Seeds from the fruit and vegetables that survive are obviously more resistant to the disease. Heritage breeds tend to be more flavorful. Each breed is well adapted to its area of origin.

F1 Hybrid plants are bred by hand. Many times the seed company actually patents the seed produced. Two plants are cross pollinated to create a new variety of vegetable. The new variety is usually more uniform and many times is sterile. The sterility factor is great for seed producers because unlike heritage vegetables, hybrid seeds cannot be kept for planting the next crop. If the seeds are able to produce a plant, the plant would not usually breed true. Instead, most of the time, it will revert back to one of the original parent plants. Therefore the farmers are left purchasing new seed every year. By forcing farmers to buy new seeds every year, the seed factories in effect control food prices. New breeds can be created by cross breeding. However it takes 6-8 generations to establish a reliable crop. Then it will take even more time to improve the crop using traditional breeding methods.

The new creatures on the block are the genetically modified organisms or GMOs. These are plants that have had their genes altered by man. An example would be isolating the antifreeze gene out of a cold water fish and forcing it into a tomato plant hoping that the resulting plant would be more frost tolerant. The real danger here is that humans do not fully understand how the genetic material works, or how it will affect the end user. The process is usually over simplified by the scientists. For instance, just because you install the antifreeze gene into the tomato plant does not mean that it will “turn on”. Our DNA contains thousands of genes, but not all of them are expressed. After the gene has been added, scientists must add a promoter gene at the beginning of the DNA sequence, which forces the gene on, and a terminator gene at the end, which forces the gene off. Scientist also add a marker gene. The marker gene is usually a gene for antibiotic resistance. This allows the scientist to then dose the cells with antibiotic which will kill all non modified cells. Then the GM cells are multiplied before being added to a plant. The most popular method is to use a bacterium which infects the plant. The bacterium used is a genetically modified version. The original bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens) is a tumor causing variety that injects its DNA into a plant, which causes a tumor. The genetically modified version injects the modified DNA instead. This is still a very simplified version of what happens, but you get the idea.

The problem with GMO food is that they hit the market with very little testing. In the USA, where much of our food comes from, the FDA has no GMO safety testing requirements. All research that supports GMO foods is voluntarily provided by the companies that produce them. However independent studies are beginning to prove otherwise. In fact Jeffrey m. Smith’s book Genetic Roulette discusses new evidence of the risks associated with GMOs. Some of the problems are directly related to the gene insertion process. Including unwanted gene expression, gene relocations and promoter genes turning on unwanted genes. An example would be GM soybeans (90% of the soybeans planted in the USA are GMO). It has been found that these soybeans produce less cancer-fighting isoflavones. GM proteins in soybeans, corn and papaya are similar to know allergens and may cause allergies. One of the scariest facts I have read is that the transgenes survive digestion and can transfer to gut bacteria or move into the blood and organs, including passing through the placenta into the fetus and through the blood brain barrier. GM soybeans have been found to transfer genetic material into human gut bacteria. Once in the human gut bacteria, the transferred portion of the transgene produced herbicide-resistant protein. If the antibiotic-resistant genes that have been inserted into most GM foods on the market are able to do the same, then antibiotic resistant diseases could develop.

Another expert in the field Dr. Pusztai released his findings on experiments using lab rats. The results were not in favor of GMO foods. In fact the result ended up getting him fired, and his team was released. However the after a huge uprising in the UK he was allowed to tell his story in parliament. The results of his study showed that rats fed genetically modified potatoes that were created to produce a “safe” insecticide called GNA lectin showed potentially pre-cancerous growths, smaller brains and testicles, partially atrophied livers, and damaged immune systems. Most of the changes happened within ten days. Another group of rats were fed normal potatoes spiked with GNA lectin, some at 700 times more than what was in being produced by the GM potatoes. These rats showed no ill effects. Dr. Pusztai concluded that the problem is the actual genetic manipulation that is causing the problems.

So why does it matter that our agricultural products are less genetically diverse? Our crops have been bred for centuries. Each breed was bred for unique traits that were or are important to the farmers in the area of origin. The breeding may have developed a variety that is resistant to disease in that particular area, or possibly adapted to the climate and local pests. Less genetic diversity is leaving our crops more susceptible to disease outbreak. GM foods have hit the market with full force. It is estimated that over 90% of corn and soybeans grown in the USA are GM. On top of that over 80% of the products at your local grocery store have one or the other as an ingredient. From an economic standpoint, buying heritage vegetables prevents the big corporations from patenting and controlling our sources of nutrition. We must remember that corporations are responsible to their stock holders, not their customers.

Robert Holden


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Letting sleeping horses lye

Beauty is enjoying the break in the cold weather. Lynn and Christina saw her down from the house and thought the worst. However after running out to check on her they found she was simply sleeping. If fact Lynn said she was so soundly asleep she was snoring (and passing gas, she is a lady). Christina had time to run back to the house for the camera. Beauty kept sleeping until the cattle ate her bed from under her.

A reminder for everyone that we will be at the seed exchange on Saturday the 23rd, at St. Andrews church. Doors open at 1:00pm and close at 4:00pm.
On Sunday we will be having our organic vegetable and bio-dynamic farming information session. We will be taking about and comparing our natural farming methods with conventional farming methods, including the controversial GMO vegetables and animals. All aspects of the farm will be discussed with special attention paid to our organic vegetable CSA program and buying clubs.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Honey it's cold out side, lets think spring.

After last weeks cold spell that swept across Ontario it seems strange to start thinking about spring, but now is the time.
Lynn and I recently began our spring advertising campaign. this year our main focus in on our vegetable CSA program. We will be hosting an information session on February 24th at Les Compagnon in North Bay. The information session will touch on our organic practises and some of our ideas regarding food production. We will also be explaining and answering questions regarding the CSA program. I do not speak in front of people very often, so it will be an experience for me. Other area of interest that will be discussed will be our new meat and egg marketing programs. We will be changing this year to a share program.in share programs consumers pay an up front fee for the meat and/or poultry they want. The remaining balance will be paid on delivery. The advantages for the consumer are smaller payments at time of delivery. The advantages to us (the farmer) is we have starting up capital that, so we do not have to risk our savings or use credit. Another benefit to the farmer is that a commitment has been made by the consumer, so we are ensured that the meat and or poultry will be sold. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a similar concept. Consumers pay for a membership or share in the farms vegetable bounty. The vegetables on our farm are all organically grown. We use compost and organic fertilisers and various organic pest control methods. When compared to our meat producing, vegetable production has far fewer outside influences. Some of the issues with meat production include the fact that on other business and organisations are very involves, such as the abattoir and Canadian Food Inspection Agency. For instance when we produce meat, the livestock is dropped off at the local abattoir. We rely heavily on his butchers and packers for the end product. This is especially true will beef and pork because of the variety of cuts. Luckily for us we have a very good local abattoir. Vegetables on the other hand are pretty much entirely in our control. The vegetables go from the field to the baskets to you. We pick them fresh, when they are ripe and ready. Our soil is very sweet soil and produces exceptional tasting vegetables. At last count we were up to 35 different vegetables, with several varieties of each. Lynn particularly loves growing tomatoes. I usually have to be the voice of reason when it comes to how many varieties should be grown.
For more information on the information session give us a call, or visit our new web site at www.holdenfarm.net. We look forward to seeing you. I will be posting some more educational blog post in the near future. I have been doing allot of research for some articles I am writing for the Alive and Fit magazine and the Baytoday.ca. I can tell you the more I read the more I believe in the process we use to grow our food. I encourage everybody to do some research on commercial food production. However it can be very aggravating.

Monday, 14 January 2013

So many new faces

Well its time for some new boys around the farm. Every year we have to bring in a new boar for the pigs and a new bull for the cows. We made a trip this year out of town, all the way to Cornwall. Approximately 1400km round trip.
First of all the boar. We wanted this year to go back to a breed we had in the past, a large black. The name pretty well describes the breed. We have a sow that is of the same breed, so now we will get some purebred little large blacks in the spring. Large blacks are a heritage breed that dates back centuries. They originated in Britain. It is believed they are a cross between old British breeds and an oriental breed. They are noted to be excellent producers of bacon and ham. They have well marbled meat, much like the black Angus cattle. The meat is very tender and slightly pinker than most pork. The breed almost went extinct because of the industrialisation of pig farming. Large black pigs were the traditional pastured pig. They were often employed in orchards because they root less and graze more than most breeds.
New boar, enjoying lunch
See the long loin
We are very excited about this purchase. We have not named him yet, but we are contemplating a few names. He is about 4-5yrs old now and 600lbs. His temperament is good, but he is a boar, so we have to be careful around him.
Bandit, trying to figure out how to get to the girls

The next purchase was a new bull. Bandit, we did not name him, is half belted Galloway and half Piedmontese. Both are very old breeds. The Galloway is closely related to the Angus, in fact they were once included in the same herd registration book. However the Angus has been bred for years now to increase size and growth rate. Galloway's instead have been bred for meat quality and hardiness.
The heifer in the picture with the bull is a new addition as well. She is his half sister. You can by her coat that they have much thicker fur than Angus. If fact Galloway's have tested second in hair density tests. The only bovine species to test higher was a buffalo. Piedmontese are an ancient breed that are noted for double muscling. They produce larger muscles and they are leaner than most cattle, while keeping a smaller frame. Shortly after this picture was taken the bull decided he was ready to meet the rest of the herd. He pushed open the big wooden gate, breaking the chain that holds is closed.
I almost forgot to mention the colour. My girls call them the Oreo cookie cows. Not all Galloway's are belted. They come in a variety of colours including white, brown, red, dun, and black. All except white can have a belt. The belt is a dominant colour pattern, which means all of our calves next year should have a belt. The belt has no significance other than they look different.

Another addition we picked up along the way was a little black orphaned ewe lamb. The brown/white lamb in the picture was born here. She is the result of a ewe that I bought at an auction.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Local Food

Local Food

There has been a lot of publicity recently about food safety and quality of food we serving our families. One of the best ways to make sure you are getting what you are paying for is to get more involved in the production process. The easiest way to get more involved is to buy locally. Locally produced meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables offer considerable benefits over conventionally raised and grown foods. We are lucky enough to live in an area that has an abundance of farmers and food producers. When you buy local you get the chance to develop a personal relationship with your local farmers.  You get to know how they produce their products, and the reasons why they chose their methods. Believe it or not there is more than one way to grow a tomato. We are constantly bombarded by the industries latest catch phrases and marketing lingo. From naturally produced, organic, sustainable, free range, grass fed, corn fed, the list goes on and on. The Canadian Food Inspection agency (CFIA) controls labeling of food items in Canada. However I think they have a hard time keeping up with the latest language.

Consumers need to be aware that not all local food is created equally. I remember talking to a local farmer that was growing all natural vegetables. He believed they were natural because he used the manure produced from his cattle operation as the main source of fertilizer for the garden. After a short inspection of the picture perfect garden I asked him how he kept the weeds under such control. He proceeded to tell me that before and after rotor tilling his garden he sprayed it down with round up. For those who do not know, round up is a very popular herbicide and is a major bone of contention between conventional producers and those of us that promote a more natural and sustainable method of production. The farmer legitimately did not recognize that fact that using an herbicide such as round up was not natural.

Buying local means you will usually be receiving the best nutrition for your dollar. The main reason we spend so much money on food is for the nutrition it offers us. Other than clean water and clean air food is the next most important requirement for our survival. You will notice that I did not say “clean food”. That is because we are proving that humans can survive on food that is not necessarily clean. How long we survive and the quality of life we have however is very dependent on how clean our food is. Every year that goes by more research suggest that many of our ailments are directly or indirectly related to the food we eat. I recently read a book called “Wheat Belly”. According to the books reviews some people do not entirely buy into the author’s argument against wheat, however he does bring forth many good arguments about how our food factories are putting shareholders interests ahead of the consumers. Conventional producers are fighting back though. In 2011 Stanford University released a publication that stated organic food is no more nutritious than conventionally produced food. The statement made quite a stir in the organic industry. However when researched further you will find the type of study was a meta analysis. Basically they compile a bunch of other studies and make a finding. How they decided which 200 or so studies out of the thousands available to include I don’t know. For me they lost a lot of credibility when I read on Dr. Mercola’s website that one of the co-authors had published a paper finding no link between smoking and emphysema.  

Everyone has an opinion on how many toxins and pollutants are safe, and which method of food production is best. On our farm we subscribe to a more holistic system. Many small local farms believe the same and try to produce meat and vegetable products in a way that is sustainable. Direct marketing to consumers is challenging for small farms. All of the laws implemented by the CFIA are geared towards large industrial type farms. We deal closely with local abattoirs that have to implement costly upgrades and incur increasing costs that are geared towards larger factory size abattoirs. However when was the last time one of these small abattoirs made the news for selling contaminated products? It really only makes sense. The small family run abattoir has a vested interest in the end product.  The factory worker does not.

This fact works the same with a small family run vegetable farm. When you have a vested interest in the farm and a passion for growing the best vegetables you can. The product will always be better. Small family run farms are taking advantage of new marketing systems and technology to produce better vegetables and making them easier to access for customers.

Farmers that prescribe to a natural way of growing meat and vegetables are realizing that our ancestors were doing things right. Take care of the soil and you have the biggest hurdle beat when it comes to all types of farming. The new catch phrase for beef farmers, when asked what do you grow? The response is grass.  A good beef farmer takes care of the grass. Make sure it is eaten when it is the most nutritious. If the grass is to long they waste it and won’t grow as well. Too short and the grass will take a long time to recover and will not be digested as efficiently.  Speaking of cattle, Cattle are ruminants. Just like sheep and goats. They can make use of higher fiber plants like grass and turn it into energy and protein. Many argue that they should not be fed grains. Grains are not a natural diet for ruminants. There were no natural fields of corn, soybeans, or wheat on the Great Plains for the buffalo to graze. By feeding these high energy and protein grains to ruminants we change their body chemistry. Many of the unhealthy attributes blamed on red meats are actually because conventional farms are feeding them unnatural diets to increase growth rates and make the meat fatter. When looking for local beef or lamb specify 100% grass fed. A grass fed steak will have higher omega 3 fatty acids and the total fat content in comparable to skinless chicken breast.

A true diversified farm will include some livestock as well as vegetables and fruit. Each and every product has a role on the farm. Livestock produce manure that when mixed with bedding and composted provides some of the best nutrition for the soil. Small farms that produce poultry, eggs and pork usually buy in feed. This feed is processed by the livestock and results in very nutritious manure. Buying in feed or other soil amendments is necessary. When selling off products whether it is a tomato or a side a beef the farmer is really selling nutrients. These nutrients need to put back in some form. This is where conventional farming has gone awry. They continually spread nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous in the form of chemical fertilizers. However that is not enough. Evidence of this can be seen on the prairie provinces in Canada. In areas that once had soil thicknesses measured in feet, built up by centuries of manure from buffalo and other animals, they can only be measured in inches now. Intensive grain production and erosion has sucked all the nutrients out of the soil. There are studies showing that the nutritional content of grains today is lower than grain produced 50 years ago. This is a direct result of poorer nutrition availability in the soil.

A handful of healthy soil is contains millions of forms of life from bacteria, single celled protozoa, to earth worms. Not to mention a whole host of insects. It is often said that a handful of earth has more living organisms than people on earth. Conventional farming makes soil very inhospitable for these creatures. The petroleum based synthetic fertilizers, insecticides and fungicides kill the microscopic life forms. This leaves the soil in almost a sterile state. Farming in a sustainable way promotes this microscopic life. After all these little workers, work for free all day and night breaking down left over materials from past crops, composted materials, some even fight off disease, harmful insects and predators. The worms aerate the soil allowing oxygen and moisture to reach the roots of the crop. By limiting the exposure to harsh chemicals and feeding the soil with compost we can grow these little helpers. Combining these methods with an effective and planned crop rotation we can eliminate our dependence on chemical inputs. Rotating crops allows us to effectively limit disease and pests on the farm. One of the reasons conventional production has such a reliance on chemical inputs is the battle against insects and disease. By planting potatoes in the same field year after year we make life very easy for Colorado potato bugs, scab, verticillium fungi and other potato diseases. Not to mention that the potato continually removes the same nutrients from the soil year after year. The farmer has no choice but to continually add these nutrients back into the soil through chemically derived fertilizers. On a sustainable farm the farmer would add compost to the area and plan to plant another crop in the area next season. The farmer would also recognize that potato, tomato, eggplants and peppers all belong to the nightshade family and share many diseases. A better choice would be to plant a crop like peas or beans, which will fix nitrogen in the soil for the next crop and so on. All of the reasons for crop rotation are still being explored, but the fact remains it works. For instance potatoes planted after sweet corn grows remarkably better. Large industrialized farms have a difficult time rotating crops in a sustainable manner. The equipment in an average potato farm in P.E.I is worth in excess of $300000. It is hard for these farmers to change crops with investments like that. A small diversified farm will have an investment of as little as $200-$300. (The price of a good pitchfork and a used roto tiller) The rest of the work is pure manual labor.

There have been many technological advancements to help the sustainable farmer. For instance plastic mulch is very effective at increasing soil temperatures in the spring, holding moisture in the ground, and suppressing weeds. While plastic mulch does not sound sustainable or environmentally friendly it is very effective at helping sustainable farmers compete without adding chemicals to their produce. The mulch can last for many seasons if taken care of and there are types that claim to be biodegradable.

One of the biggest hurdles for a sustainable farmer is marketing the product. When we started farming one of our primary goals was to provide good wholesome food to the public at a fair price. This turned out to not be an easy task. While growing the meat and vegetables was difficult enough we found that marketing agencies, food inspectors and health departments were not going to make life any easier for us. While all three organizations have good intentions (or so they claim) they make direct marketing difficult. Eggs, chicken and turkey are all controlled by marketing agencies that restrict our sales not only in numbers, but I have to sell them to people at the farm gate. Some creative sustainable farmers have discovered effective ways to work within the marketing laws. We sell meat at the North Bay farmers market. Most people think that is great, fresh lamb, beef, pork. However the local health unit had something to say about that. We are only allowed to sell frozen meats. Many people think fresh meat is the best, however properly frozen meat is just as good and sometimes better since the freezing process can actually tenderize tougher cuts. However try selling that fact. Vegetables have proven to be much easier to market. Providing the vegetables are sold whole and not processed in any way.

Some newer ways of direct marketing farm produce have begun to emerge in Ontario. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a new trend here, however it has been around since the 1960s in Europe and Japan. CSAs began as a response to some consumers fears about food safety and the urbanization of agricultural land. The way a CSA works is a consumer would purchase a subscription. The subscription lasts for the entire growing season. The consumer’s investment would give them a variety of fresh and in season vegetables on a weekly or bi-weekly basis at a fair price. As the consumer they purchase a subscription knowing that they are accepting some of the inherent risk associated with the crop. In other words if the potatoes are infested with potato bugs, the consumer realizes they will probably receive less potatoes. However when one crop does poorly, usually another will pick up the slack. Last season our corn was terrible mostly due to the drought our area experienced. However it was our best year we have ever had for broccoli, cauliflower, and tomatoes.   

The advantage for the buyer is substantial. First of all, nutritionally speaking, fresh vegetables produced in an organic, ecological and sustainable manner are much better for you. It is a proven fact the vitamin content is superior. They contain more of the cancer and disease fighting substances that vegetables are noted for. Buying vegetables locally ensures that the vegetables are fresh and picked ripe. Many grocery store fruit and vegetables are picked before they ripen, then they are chemically ripened or some will continue to ripen on the shelf (bananas). The next advantage to a CSA buyer is price. The price of a CSA may seem steep, but in reality it is usually a deal. Our CSA is priced at around $200 less than the commercially grown vegetables at the grocery store. Thirdly the CSA subscriber will have a closer relationship with the farmer. This allows the subscriber to be confident in the product, and allows questions to be asked. The fourth reason for buying into a CSA is taste. This relates to the fact that the vegetables are fresh. But there is more. Organically produced vegetables are grown in healthier, more ecologically sound soil. We have found this gives a fresher, stronger and sweeter taste to our vegetables.  In fact when picking vegetables we have found it is hard to keep the kids on track. They spend as much time eating as they do picking.

Nothing tastes like a fresh carrot right out of the soil. An added bonus is we know that our vegetables do not carry the chemical residues that commercial vegetables do. A quick search of “the dirty dozen” on the internet will make you scared of eating conventional vegetables.

The more research I do into our food production systems, the more I feel comfortable farming the way I do. The “advancements” in genetic modification and chemical use is truly frightening. The effect it is going to have on our health, our environment, and our future does not look encouraging.