Category: farming

What chicken cages have to do with pork

hen house

Photo by Flickr user robotika, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Frank Morris recently produced a great piece for NPR about opposition to California’s efforts to improve the living conditions of egg-laying chickens. As he describes,

most U.S. hens live crammed into very close quarters, according to Joe Maxwell, with the Humane Society of the U.S. And he says that’s just wrong.

“There are some things we should not do to animals,” says Maxwell.

California voters felt the same way, and six years ago they passed Proposition 2, requiring California producers to provide cages that are almost twice as large as most chickens have now. The Legislature followed that with a law requiring that all eggs sold in California be raised under those conditions.

Six farm-country states have joined a lawsuit against California over the issue, with support from other parts of the animal-ag business. As Morris details,

Don Nikodim with the Missouri Pork Association calls it “a clear violation of the U.S. Commerce Clause.”

Now, why would pig farmers care about henhouse restrictions?

Because when a huge state like California slaps restrictions on food it imports, farmers all over the country become alarmed. And Nikodim says this won’t likely stop with eggs.

“Logically, the next step is, we should extend our authority on how you produce pork to other states as well,” he says. “Then is it dairy, is it beef, is it corn — go down the list.”

Nikodim is worried that restrictions on cramped pig stalls, called gestation crates, may come next.

Check out the full piece here.

Diversity and homogeneity in agriculture around the world

sunflower farm

Aerial view of a sunflower farm. Photo by Flickr user Milan Andric [mandric], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Last week NPR’s Dan Charles reported on rising uniformity in world agriculture. As he details,

Increasingly, there’s a standard global diet, and the human race is depending more and more on a handful of major crops for much of its food….

[Authors of a new study] uncovered two big trends.

The first: “Hey, actually, there’s places where diets are diversifying, where they’re adding crops,” says [researcher Colin] Khoury.

In parts of Asia, such as China, rice is a declining portion of the average person’s diet as they add other foods that are now more available. In the U.S., meanwhile, people are eating more imported foods, like mangoes and coconut water.

But here’s the second discovery: Those bigger menus of food also are getting more and more similar to each other, from Nanjing to Nairobi. Everybody is relying more and more heavily on a few dozen global megafoods.

Many of those foods are part of what you’d call a standard Western diet, including wheat, potatoes and dairy. But other megacrops come from the tropics, such as palm oil….

Smaller crops, meanwhile, are getting pushed aside. Sorghum and millet, for instance, are grown quite widely around the world, but they’re losing out to corn and soybeans. Other small crops that you only find in certain areas could disappear altogether.

Check out audio and text versions of the story (as well as links) here.

Eat Wisconsin fish, urges UW campaign

EatWiscFishLook what showed up in my Twitter feed today. I don’t generally act on organizations’ suggestions that I give them a bit of my attention, but I had already planned to mention the new Eat Wisconsin Fish campaign today, and I figured there was no need for this bit of outreach to derail me.

So, what’s the scoop? As Aaron Conklin describes,

More than 90 percent of the seafood eaten by Americans is imported from other countries. That’s a puzzling statistic for those of us in Wisconsin, where a proximity to two of the five Great Lakes and a fleet of fish farms gives us access to a wealth of delicious Wisconsin fish.

That’s one of the reasons why the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute is using the month of March to launch its Eat Wisconsin Fish campaign, an effort designed to educate consumers about the benefits of eating local fish.

The Institute has complied a wealth of information online. There’s a good dose of boosterism in the campaign, so you’ll have to dig a little deeper if you want the full story. For example, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates Lake Trout from Lake Michigan as a fish to “avoid.” As the UW Sea Grant Institute’s website describes,

Historically, lake trout, along with whitefish, sturgeon and herring, were one of the “big four” species of Great Lakes commercial fishing. As early as the 1880s, lake trout numbers began declining, probably due to overfishing and pollution of their spawning areas. However, it was the invasive sea lamprey that nearly wiped out lake trout when the lamprey entered the Upper Great Lakes in the 1930s. Today, Lake Superior supports the only remaining naturally sustaining population of lake trout in the Great Lakes.

Lake trout are a favorite target of sea lamprey, eel-shaped parasitic fish that have no natural predators in the Great Lakes. Sea lamprey have been managed since 1960 by using the selective chemical TFM that kills young lamprey in streams and rivers. This keeps lamprey numbers low, but without continuous treatment the lamprey population would explode again. After TFM treatments lowered the numbers of lamprey, fisheries biologists began restocking the Great Lakes with lake trout. Some remnant wild lake trout populations in Lake Superior remained, and they eventually fully recovered. However, wild lake trout were completely eliminated from Lake Michigan. The lake trout rehabilitation program in Lake Michigan, coordinated by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, began in 1965. Since then, 2-3 million yearling lake trout have been stocked each year, funded by the federal government. The fish grew well to adult size, but they failed to reproduce. Finally, in 2013, the Green Bay office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the discovery of a significant number of young and wild lake trout in several areas of Lake Michigan. It appears that lake trout are finally reproducing again in Lake Michigan. While it will still take significant effort to completely restore the population, this is an important step forward.

If you’re a fish eater, do consider local fish. But, like all aspects of the modern food system, it’s worth being curious and getting informed. Consider the pros and cons of wild versus farmed, the problems and strengths of different catch methods, concerns regarding specific species, and more.

Importantly, all diners—but especially women of childbearing age and children—should take into consideration health concerns regarding their consumption of inland (non-Great Lakes) fish.

UW-Madison yields bounty of organic ag research

Three colour carrots

Photo by Flickr user Thom Wong [The Sunday Best], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A new report [PDF] highlights research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that’s meant to contribute to the success of organic farming in our state (and beyond). As Bob Mitchell writes for UW-Madison News,

The report, published by the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, summarizes 23 studies conducted by researchers in the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) in partnership with farmers across the state. The scientists are evaluating production practices for many of the state’s main agricultural products — dairy forages and pasture, soybeans, potatoes, vegetables and fruits, among others — as well as farm management and marketing.

The report also takes a more in-depth look at how some of the organic research projects have benefited the state’s farmers.

The study summaries make for pretty interesting reading. For example, Mitchell highlights efforts to develop an organic, no-till system that’s been 8 years in the making. Another that caught my eye in the report is an ongoing USDA-funded program to develop better organic carrots; as its summary explains,

Significant progress has been made in carrot breeding for conventional production systems, such as breeding for nutritionally superior varieties across multiple color classes including orange, red, purple and yellow. While these high-value carrot varieties are in demand, much of this germplasm has not been improved for organic systems. Organic producers need varieties that germinate rapidly with good seedling vigor, compete with weeds, resist pests, take up nutrients efficiently and are broadly adapted to organic growing conditions.

For more, check out Mitchell’s overview and the full report [PDF].

Lawsuit alleges little truth in Simple Truth chicken

The fabled Disco Kroger these days.

Photo by Flickr user jcburns, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanks to Rodale News, I just learned about a lawsuit against grocery chain Kroger over their house-brand, Perdue-raised “Simple Truth” chicken. As P.J. Huffstutter writes for Reuters,

“Looking to profit from growing consumer awareness of, and concern with, the treatment of farm animals raised for meat production, Kroger engaged in a deceptive and misleading marketing scheme to promote its ‘Simple Truth’ store brand chicken as having been sourced from chickens raised ‘cage free in a humane environment’,” according to the complaint.

“In fact, Simple Truth chickens are treated no differently than other mass-produced chickens on the market.”

As Emily Main explains for Rodale,

Cages are commonly used in factory-farm egg production, but rarely for chickens raised for their meat, also called broiler chickens. Broilers are frequently raised in large, enclosed—and, often, windowless—buildings, crammed in so tightly that the animals have little room to move, despite not being confined to cages. In those cases, the ["cage-free"] label has “virtually no relevance to animal welfare,” says The Humane Society of the United States.

Caveat emptor.

Where are the organic eggs?

Organic Eggs

Photo by Flickr user Dave Hunt [davehunt82], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yesterday my favorite NPR reporter, Dan Charles, took a look at the organic egg industry. More specifically, he provided the answer to a question recently posed in the face of some empty shelves at a Whole Foods: where are the organic eggs? As he describes,

Demand for organic eggs is indeed increasing, but production is also down.

The reason behind that shortfall highlights an increasingly acute problem in the organic industry.

Most chickens eat feed made from ground-up corn and soybeans, but America’s farmers are not growing enough organic corn and soybeans — especially soybeans — to feed the country’s organic animals….

It’s led to the following situation, which on the face of it seems bizarre. The U.S., a soybean superpower, ships conventional soybeans all over the world to feed animals in places like China. Meanwhile, in China, farmers are growing organic soybeans and sending them here.

Those expensive, imported soybeans are one of the reasons some domestic farmers have suspended organic egg production. The full story, which considers why Chinese rather than US farmers are growing organic soybeans for our egg layers, is worth a read (or listen). Find it here.

The dairy shift: Fewer but bigger farms

breakfast

Photo by Flickr user mhall209, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Abbie Fentress Swanson of Harvest Public Media recently reported on the shrinking number of small dairy farms as consolidation in the industry continues apace. As her piece begins,

Donnie Davidson’s family has been producing bottled milk in Holden, Mo., since the 1930s. But the 63-year-old farmer decided to sell his herd of 50 milking cows in November after the roof on one of his barns collapsed from last winter’s snow.

Rebuilding the barn would have cost about $20,000. Then there were the costs of renovating a silo and paying for hired help since Davidson’s children won’t be taking over the business. It made financial sense to close the dairy, and grow crops and build a herd of beef cattle instead.

In the past decade, more than half the nation’s dairy farms have gone out of business, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data [PDF]. About 2,500 dairies closed their doors in Missouri. Thousands more have shut down in Iowa, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Colorado.

For full text and audio versions of the story, head here.

Get your farm-themed eValentines @ModFarm

J and I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day (though since stores are empty, sometimes we make a Target run on February 14; I know, we’re hopeless romantics). That said, maybe you’d like to send your food-and-farm-loving sweetie a little something to express your affection. Check out five charming e-cards by artist Roxanne Palmer at Modern Farmer. The messages are appropriately punny (“Let’s goat steady”), and you can’t beat the price (free!)

Image by Roxanne Palmer via Modern Farmer.

What the farm bill means for sustainable ag

Last Friday, President Obama signed a new, nearly trillion-dollar farm bill “after four years of bitter arguments over farming subsidies and Republican efforts to reduce financing for food stamps,” as reported by Michael Shear in The New York Times. In the end, what did this “sprawling legislation” include, and what will it mean for US agriculture? The folks at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have taken stock and concluded that there’s both good news and bad news. For their take, check out their recent post in Civil Eats, get highlights in the graphic they produced (see below), and head to their website for the first in a planned seven-part series that drills down to make sense of the details.

From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Collicello Gardens: An experiment in small-scale, urban farming

Sam Frere and Dan Warren. Photo via Modern Farmer

Andrew Jenner recently wrote about a couple undergraduates and their first foray into farming (in the lot of the rental they lived in as roommates). As he writes for Modern Farmer,

In the spring of 2012, two students at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, surprised their landlord with an unusual request from a pair of college kids. Sam Frere and Dan Warren lived in one of those sprawling old houses converted to a college rental, and they’d come up with a plan to turn up every last bit of its front, back and side yards into a farm.

When their landlord OK’d the idea, they moved ahead full-throttle with their scheme. Before long, the bedraggled patch of grass out front erupted into a forest of sunflowers, kale, basil and melons. Around the side, their tomatoes went berserk on a regimen of vermicompost that Frere and Warren harvested from their worm colony in the basement. They had onions, carrots, pole beans, squash and much, much more, with big ambitions to match. The two had bonded as freshmen over an intense interest in innovative horticulture and planned to earn full-time livings farming less than a tenth of an acre.

It’s a thoughtful piece that’s well worth a read. Check out the full post here.