Friday, April 22, 2011

Earthworms, Rouge Carrots, and May Sarton

As a bibliophile, I've picked up the habit of reading several books at once.  Usually, this creates interesting juxtapositions and I naturally synthesize the ideas I'm reading into my life, into my writing.  This week I finished two books: May Sarton's memoir Plant Dreaming Deep and Amy Stewart's The Earth Moved.

In The Earth Moved, Stewart discusses how earthworms intersect with humanity, in nearly always a positive way.  She also imbues them with human-like characteristics when she writes:

“Worms are ruminators; they sift through whatever surround them, turn it over, explore it, move through it.  They are deliberate creatures, in no great hurry, but always in motion, twisting and burrowing, shrinking and contracting, and eating.  They spend their lives in a kind of active meditation, working through the detritus in which they live, the bits of leaves and grass and particles of soil.”

What strikes me most about this image is that worms work incrementally, slowly, getting a little bit done at a time.  Working with what they have--the messy detritus of a life.  As finals and the semester is crashing down around me, I can't get out in the garden for a long day of work. I can't even make my kitchen cupboards as tidy as I like. We suffered a grain moth invasion, when an unopened package of dried figs in the pantry proved to be a nesting ground, which was just another stressful thing to add to my list.  When the pressure of schoolwork builds up at the end of the semester, it feels like everything starts to fray around the edges.  At times like this, I must remind myself to have the patience of an earthworm.

It's been a rough spring so far.  As typical of Northwest Ohio, spring is fickle.  It's cold and wet and gray and it just won't cooperate with our wishes for warm, sunny weather.  4 of the last 5 days have been rainy. The thermometer stalls out at 50 degrees, never higher.  Yet, thinking of moving in small increments like the earthworm, I managed to get sugar snap peas, two kinds of radishes, bok choi, dill, and an assortment of lettuces and spinach in the ground.  Yesterday, after spending the whole afternoon grading research essays, I know that if I could just a small incremental little bit of gardening done, I would feel better.  It made all the difference in the world. 

Rouge Carrots (notice the naughty kitten paw in the upper left-hand corner.)
Because gardening is now deep in my bones like writing and reading, I can relate when Sarton writes in Plant Dreaming Deep, “Making a garden is not a gentle hobby for the elderly, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire.  It is a grand passion.  It seizes a person whole, and once it has done so he will have to accept that his life is going to be radically changed."  Gardening has seized me.  Now that I've gotten my fix--during the one dry day this week--I can stop trembling with anxiety.  I am hooked on vegetable gardening because I never quite know the joys or sorrows I will discover each time I step foot outside.  The garden is a constantly evolving, shape-shifting creature all its own.  

 Yesterday, when I was planting peas, I found these rogue carrots that had escaped harvest last fall.  To my surprise, they were still perfectly fine.  And, just to make sure, our new black and white kitten, Tessie made sure to do a thorough inspection while I shot photos.  Although, she did a better job of playing with the carrot top fronds.

I chopped the carrots, and ate them for dinner in a lovely chicken curry that surprisingly, has pureed pumpkin (made with frozen puree from last year's pie pumpkin harvest!) as a secret ingredient to give the sauce body, richness, and a wonderful mild sweetness.  I found the recipe at Eat the Cookie, a great gluten-free food blog, also based in Northwest Ohio.

So, I will continue to grade essays, read books, and work in the garden as I manage the detritus of my life.  And, hopefully like the earthworm, I can manage it with infinite patience so I can be open to the surprise of carrots in April!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Meet your Meat

Put a face to your food.  It’s important to know where your food comes from.  If Food Inc, taught me anything, it was that the industrial agricultural system cannot be trusted.  Sure, they’re fine if you want hormone and antibiotic laden meat that endangers the well-being of the animal before it was slaughtered, endangers the land and watershed where the animal lived, endangers the workers that took care of it and butchered it, and endangers the person that finally eats it. The only thing that meat like this has going for it is that it is cheap.  But even this cheapness is a lie.  Industrial meat only appears to be cheap because the true price of a pound of ground beef or of a pork chop is hidden from the consumer.  Tax dollars pay for the corn subsidies that allow the beef to get fat quickly and as cheaply as possible on grain, even though cows are ruminants and are not anatomically designed to eat anything but grass.  Also, factory farmers receive numerous tax cuts and other government help to increase their profits and to keep food prices artificially low.

All in a day's work for the laying hens.
Last week, I had the pleasure of food transparency. I learned where my chicken and pork chops come from.  I took a tour of Graham Farms the home of Omega Meats just outside of Grand Rapids, Ohio.  Lindsay Graham is the best kind of farmer: small and sustainable.  His farming methods are good for the animal, good for the land, air, and water, good for the workers that produce it, and especially good for the people that eat his meat.  Think chicken without dangerous bacteria (something you can’t find at the local Kroger).  Think grass-fed beef with a correct and heart-healthy ratio of omega 3 and omega 6.  Think rich, golden-yolked free-range eggs that have more vitamin A than their factory farmed counterparts and are free from salmonella.  This would be reason enough to support Lindsay’s farm, but the thing is this meat (and eggs) actually tastes better too.   

Approximately 5 week old meat chickens

This year, Graham farms will have 25 acres in production.  On this amount of land, Graham can more than comfortably raises 400 Golden Comet hens as layers. (These are the same breed as my backyard hens!)  And, throughout the spring, summer, and fall, he raises batches of 300 meat chickens at a time, which are a Cornish Cross.  These chickens are allowed to express their chicken-ness.  When I was saw them, they scratched in the soil and preened.  They were able to roam outside for bugs—to get fresh air and sunshine. And because they are housed in movable pens that Lindsay rotates to fresh pasture frequently, there was fresh grass for them to eat, along with their organic grains. 
The coyote decoy in the background scares off chicken hawks.

The pigs too, looked happy and healthy.  They had their curly tails, which is something you’ll never see in a factory farm.  Industrial farmers cut off the pigs' tails because the pigs are under so much stress confined to a concrete crate that they become cannibalistic and would gnaw each other’s tails off.  Lindsay’s pigs were down right playful.  They oinked and snorted in curiosity as I approached, and one even let me scratch its back.   

The cows too, have a good life at Graham farms.  Since we’ve had such cold weather this spring, the cows aren’t yet on pasture—the grass isn’t ready for them to eat--so they were still eating organic dried hay.  Even though the 10 cows—a mix of Herfords and Angus—the blocky, body type that Lindsay told me produces best on a grass-fed diet--were confined to a large corral around the barn, unlike feed-lot cattle, they weren’t standing knee deep in their own excrement.  At this scale, their manure can be safely composted and not turned into a manure lagoon or nitrate laden run off that poisons drinking water.  

This is the face that I put to my food.  Lindsay is a farmer that I trust to raise food responsibly, ethically, and safely.  This is where I want to put my money. And seeing how much this is all worth in terms of my health and the health of everyone and everything on this food chain, I’m willing to pay more for Omega Meats than in the grocery store.  When people tell me they’d love to eat local and organic food, but that it’s too expensive, I just want to shrug and say, “It’s where your priorities lay.”  My husband is a full time student, and on my teacher’s salary we manage to afford it because we don’t shop at the mall recreationally, we don’t eat out that often, and we grow some of our own food.  We might not be able to afford quite as much meat as we would if we were only buying industrial meat from the local Kroger or Walmart, but I'm okay with that.  In this case, quality really does win over quantity.  Also, I don't feel like I can put a price on my health.  Eating meat that won't make me sick or lead to chronic disease, is worth every penny. 

Another criticism I hear about eating local is this: “I’d eat locally if it wasn’t so time consuming and inconvenient.”  It’s true that Lindsay doesn’t sell his meat 24hrs a day like Walmart, but I’m excited that he’s starting a Meat Buyers’ Club in Bowling Green.  For a fifteen dollar annual membership fee and a small delivery charge, members get twice monthly meat and egg delivery to their front door!  Orders can be placed quickly and easily online.  And, I can leave a cooler on my porch and don’t even have to worry about being home at delivery time.  So, if you live in Bowling Green, and you care about where your food comes from, support your local farmer and feel good about where your food comes from.  You can sign up here.