Friday, November 30, 2007

A few thoughts on sows and veal calves

from Brian D. King, the Education Coordinator at Devil's Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, CA. Devil's Gulch is a pretty spectacular little corner of the world with wine grapes, rabbits, pigs, sheep, guinea fowl and probably some other critters I'm forgetting to mention.
They host all kinds of educational programs for kids including a summer camp, and they're worth checking out.

Photo from barto's flickr stream

Sows are not careful, are very big, and the babies are very small. In the wild, the sows lose many to being stepped on or sat on; that is why they have 8 to 10 in a litter. Also, the sows are very protective and very dangerous. I have gotten a broken leg and a dislocated ankle form a pig that decided that I needed to be dead. The agriculture teacher at Ramona High School got his leg bit and spent a week in intensive care. I was helping one of my students with her sow that had a stuck baby. As I was trying to pull the baby out of her, the sow attacked the student that had raised the sow as a pet from a baby. I do not have time to tell you all the close calls I have had over the years that I have raised pigs or with my agriculture students.
If we are going to raise pork, sows must be confined the 2 days before birth to the first few weeks after. A three week-old pig is still very small and we still have management that must be done on the babies at 3 weeks. All a sow wants to do for those first 3 weeks is eat, sleep, and nurse her young. I should have you come out and see how violent a sow will get when all you do is pick up a baby pig. A 400 pound sow will get her front legs and her mouth over a 4 foot wall to kill you. I have also seen three 400 pound sows chase down, kill, and homogenize a healthy and fit coyote.

Photo from karlfrankowski's flickr stream

Veal – cows must give birth to give milk. Only the best heifer calves (females) are kept and less than 1% of the bull calves are kept as bulls. All the rest are left to die in the pasture, sad but true. The margins are so tight and labor is so expensive that it costs more to try to raise the calves for meat than to let them die. Some are raised for veal in shelters that are enclosed on 3 sides and have a roof. They are made the way they are to keep the calf warm. The calf can turn around but not run and play. In California, the calves do have sunlight (at least in all of the dairies I have been on – I have not been on them all). But again, if the farmers are going to have a loss raising the calves they will just be put down on the first day.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Not sure how to feed 600 pounds of Texas man

But here's how my mom feeds 360 pounds of Asian:

Clockwise from top: boiled chestnuts, hard-boiled eggs, sliced meatloaf, broiled salmon, sauteed lotus root with sesame seeds, salt-pickled chinese cabbage with sesame oil, sliced persimmons, brown rice

There's a great audio clip circulating the internet of an irate Texan giving Jimmy Dean a dressing down for shrinking their sausage packages from 16 oz to 12 oz. 12 oz of sausage, a couple dozen eggs and a T-bone steak are apparently *not* enough food for what he calls "600 pounds of MAN!" to eat first thing in the morning.

Now, food is a tremendously cultural matter, so I can't really say that what this guy should do is ditch the cholesterol gut-bomb for breakfast and eat Mama Hoshino style. But then, let's be serious here. Eating that kind of crap for breakfast is just not healthy, even if it makes me feel like a snooty food chauvinist to say so. I'm not saying drop the sausage altogether, but sausage *is* a pretty calorie-dense and fatty food that probably shouldn't be eaten every single day along with other stuff like it.

And as an aside - I'm not really sure what this guy is so hyped up about. A cursory stroll through the Jimmy Dean website indicates that their sausage is indeed still available in a 16 oz. package (or a 32 oz., or a 48 oz., for that matter). Maybe Randy Taylor, Texas Man, should have reserved his ire for the local supermarket.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is this inhumane?

Sow in a gestation crate
Photo from
clstal's flickr stream

No, really. I'm seriously asking that question. It's not a rhetorical jumping off point for me or others to express their indignation.

See, the Humane Society of the United States, among other animal rights groups, is circulating a petition to get enough signatures to add a ballot measure in California that would ban the use of gestation crates, battery cages and veal crates in hog, egg and veal production, respectively. Being that I'm not a hog farmer, a manager of a laying hen operation, animal behaviorist, large animal veterinarian, etc., I honestly don't know if this is a good thing or not. But I *am* a consumer of all those things (well, maybe not veal), I have an irrational love for farmers and I vote, so I wonder about the merits or drawbacks of these management systems.

Hens in a battery cage
Photo from clstal's flickr stream

But as it turns out, it seems damn near impossible to get a well reasoned and impartial exposition of the issue. Virtually all the material on the pro side is from hysterical, Chicken Little PETA fascists who, you get the feeling, would inveigh in the most strident tones against anything hinting at people using animals for anything other than cuddling...or something. The pro side is basically non-existent, at least on Google (perhaps less so at a diner in Iowa, but I can't get to that from my computer). So I turned to the American Farm Bureau's blog to try to find a real, live conventional hog farmer to ask. In response to my request for more information, I got this nuclear blast of rhetoric.

I find this all unfortunate because this issue could in fact land on a ballot next year, and 36 and a half million Californians could conceivably be called upon to vote on it. And aside from that, we all eat and we have an ever-increasing number of opportunities to vote for or against a particular farming method with our dollars. It would be nice if we could all make an informed decision, both at the polling station and the supermarket. Wouldn't it?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Another choice quote

Corn field in North Dakota
Photo from Matt Dente's flickr stream

From a promotional video for Pioneer Herculex seed:

"If we were to take 20 kernels off the tip of this ear on a population 30,000 stand, that's gonna be about a 6 bushels per acre loss; or $12; or you could even take it to $30 a bag."

Being that the extent of my exposure to farming is restricted to a season on a 4-acre organic farm, it's pretty amazing to me to consider the scale of what farming really is in this country. I'm not trying to shill for DuPont and all the other chemical companies-turned seed companies, but it's an interesting illustration of just how much food gets produced by a relatively small segment of the population.

Were we to have grown corn on the farm I worked on, it's doubtful that a few kernels here or there would have made much of a difference - we would have just sold the ears (assuming the damage wasn't grotesque) and that would have been that. Of course, on a 10,000 acre corn farm, few kernels off each ear can obviously add up to an awful lot of corn.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Pesticides in your pants

Photo from Kyleroth's flickr stream
Maybe you aren't too wound up about pesticide residues from the foods you eat (I tend not to be). But boy, I really hope all those Dole bananas I must have eaten as a child weren't making the people who produced them impotent.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Stick these where the sun don't shine

Up your nose, that is
Photo from mizinformation's flickr stream

Anyone who's ever bitten off more than they can chew in the chili department knows that eating spicy food can lead to a massive nasal flood.
This lovely sensation is apparently now available in convenient spray form. Eeep!

Am I a schmuck or what?

*Not* the soup to be used in your green bean casserole
Photo from landotter's flickr stream

Here I was, ranting and raving about Kraft OWNING the holidays with their green bean casserole, not even realizing that apparently, they INVENTED the thing to begin with. At first, I felt like it was perverse that the dish that every red-blooded American has to have with their Thanksgiving meal is actually a 50 year-old marketing vehicle for Kraft to push canned soup and canned fried onions to the tune of $70 million a year.

But on the other hand, it *is* easy to make, people do really love it and frankly, you don't have to have the foggiest idea how to cook in order to make a passable version of it. It may not meet my definition of what food is, but I suppose it's a step up from some of the other insane crap food companies try to pass off as recipes...after all, not everyone has the time or the inclination to make food out of actual unprocessed ingredients, right? Right?

Monday, November 5, 2007

More winter squash!

Delicatas are probably my favorite kind of winter squash. They have the perfect texture, aren't too moist or too dry and have a deliriously sweet taste that goes well with all things winter. The standard way of cooking them is to simply cut them in half, brush them with olive oil and then bake them until soft - at which point you can gobble the whole thing down, skin and all.

But that would be so easy. It wouldn't require hours of baking, boiling, pureeing, fussing and mess-making in the kitchen. So I decided to try making delicata gnocchi. Now, I love gnocchi, but I absolutely hate it when they're too heavy and you feel like you have a leaden torpedo of dough in your stomach from eating them. Here's what went into the dough:

The meat from 4 roasted, seeded delicata squash and 3 baked russet potatoes
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs

Instead of adding flour to the dough until it became manageable enough to roll out and cut into pieces, I just left it as it was and used a spoon and a pastry spatula to spoon the dough up, divide it and drop it straight into boiling water. This I served with fennel sauce:

3 fennel bulbs, browned in a covered pan with 2 tbsp olive oil
blended with
1 cup milk
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

I reserved some fronds off the fennel to mince and toss on top for an extra anise-y kick. As you can see, it wasn't the most elegant meal, but it was damn tasty.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Lemon bars!

Couldn't resist buying these citruses from DeSantis Bella Frutta at the market. They're a couple of Meyer lemons (the "it" lemon of the moment) plus a baseball-sized fruit they were calling sweet lime. Meyers come in a bewildering array of different colors (the ones at Whole Foods, for example, are light orange) and cover a pretty wide flavor spectrum ranging from almost tangerine-like to puckeringly sour. These had green mottling that I've never seen before and were very mild. The sweet limes had a very strong citronella scent to them that I actually found kind of off-putting, but the juice was delicate and very slightly sweet.

I suppose I could have made a batch of lemonade, or some lemon-ginger tea, but instead, I decided to give lemon bars a shot even though I was horrified to find out that lemon bars (which I love) are basically a big pile of sugar, eggs and butter. To give the bars a veneer of healthfulness, I made a whole wheat crust with crushed almonds (also from DeSantis!). Doesn't this look wholesome??

OK, so maybe it doesn't, really. Here's what's in it:

1/2 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup wheat germ
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tbsp honey
1/2 cup almond butter (so far so good...)
1 stick of frozen butter, cut into small pieces

Yeah, yeah, butter is full of cholesterol and will cause your arteries to harden, but without it, the crust would have been the consistency of dirt. And no one wants to ruin tasty lemon curd with dirt.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Today is World Vegan Day

Happy dairy cows at Deep Roots Ranch in Watsonville, CA
Photo from ChezPim's blog

Veganism is very polarizing. I'm not going to promote it or inveigh against it here, but I will say that I find it puzzling. It seems like a rational reaction to factory farming and all the disgusting things that are associated with mass dairy and meat production. But the underlying philosophy it espouses of not using animals at all for any human purpose doesn't make sense to me.

This is not because I believe animals are non-sentient milk, meat and egg machines. They're not. They're an integral part of the nutrient cycle that makes it possible for us to nourish ourselves. While it may be possible to farm vegetables without animal inputs, I have to seriously question whether it's better to flood the soil and water with synthetic fertilizers and spray crops with pesticides in order to avoid using animal-based organic matter.

Potting mix derived from dairy bedding for plant starts on an organic farm

In my (admittedly limited) experience in farming, it became abundantly clear to me that without using soil amendments like aged manure, blood meal, bone meal, fish meal and egg shells, you would have either unhealthy and low-yielding crops - or would have to turn to Dow Chemical and Monsanto for fertilizer and seed for plants that can thrive in an environment barren of natural nutrients.

Turning compost composed primarily of horse manure and hay

I wonder how many vegans, who are probably mostly urban- and suburbanites typically removed from any contact with animals except as meat or companions, are truly aware of how animals really fit into the soil food web (groan if you want at the use of this hippie-dippie, but still useful term).

And as for meat-eating and the ethics of that, I have to say I'd trust someone who works with and cares for animals every day to know their animals over someone who eats GMO soy hot dogs to avoid meat.