Organic Shmorganic?

We are considering if it is worthwhile to obtain organic certification for our small farm. Our practices already meet organic standards so it’s just a matter of filling out the paperwork and handing over the money. The current state of organics makes us think twice about paying for the privilege to use the label.

I recently read that many people who prefer organic products don’t have any idea what the organic certification actually means. The consumer attaches whatever benefit they want to the product, be it higher nutritional quality, more humane practices or minimal environmental impact. This lack of knowledge is not surprising if you consider the history of the label and recognize the tension between organics as a movement and organics as an industry.

The beginning of the modern organic movement is often credited to the writings of Sir Albert Howard in the 1930’s. He observed traditional Indian farming systems that focused on improving the soil with green manure and compost. Over time, especially in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970’s, this sort of farming developed into a quasi-religious ethic that rebelled against industrial agriculture and consumer capitalism.

Organic agriculture was not standardized until 1990 when congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. Since then, if a farm grosses more then $5000 per year they must be certified by an approved agency to use the word “organic.” Sir Albert Howard would be quite surprised at the meteoric rise in sales of organic products since then. In 2016 the market for organic foods was $47 Billion, more then double what it was in 2006.

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The rise in demand caused the organic movement, which was based on a value framework, to function as an industry that aims to maximize profit and efficiency. This tension creates the conditions for oddities like organic Gatorade, scandals of fraudulently organic soybean shipments from Turkey, fights between Amish dairy farmers and organic mega dairies and the Amazon purchase of Whole Foods.

In this landscape it may not make sense for a small farm to buy rights to the organic label. Consumers are likely to hold onto an idealized concept of what an organic product means to them, which may not reflect reality. With organics seemingly trending towards big industry, it’s time for consumers to take responsibility for labels on their food and small farms to find a better way convey their value.

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Notes on the Future of Meat

Barak Obama’s first public remarks since his presidency took place at a technology and food summit in Milan, Italy. Among other things, he mentioned his eating habits: “What’s true is I’m not a vegetarian.” … “That doesn’t mean we can’t teach [people like me] to have a smaller steak… This also means we’re going to have to find way start producing protein in a more efficient way.”

People across the United States agree with the former president. ‘Flexitarian’ was added to Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2012 and the diet’s on the rise. How is it defined? Those “whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish.” There is increasing concern about the environmental impact of eating meat–everyone’s always nattering on about “ Cowspircy” on Netflix and subsequent vows of vegetarianism.

Accordingly, products catered to the conscious consumer are flooding the marketplace. Here is a look at the four main ways producers are addressing flexitarian needs.

Plant-Based Meat

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are leaders in the imitation meat sphere. Although veggie burgers and tofu products have long been scoffed at as unconvincing reproductions of meat, these companies understand the visceral joy of chomping into a hot piece of animal flesh and they aim to deliver the same experience.

Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat bills themselves as the future of protein. They currently produce both a burger and chicken substitute. Beet juice in the burger simulates blood and the patty sizzles when it hits the grill. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman mistook the fake chicken for the real thing.

Perhaps the best evidence of Beyond Meat’s success is chicken giant Tyson Foods’ recent investment–when the big boys in the field turn their attention you must be making waves. In fact, Beyond Meat announced on  May 25th 2017 that they are hitting the mainstream and will have products available in the meat section (rather than frozen food) in 280 Safeway locations.

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Eden and I tried the chicken and were underwhelmed.

Impossible Foods makes a burger patty out of potato protein, wheat and coconut-oil. Their secret ingredient is lab-made heme, which simulates animal blood. Impossible Foods endeavors to make their product as meat-like as possible: they conduct comprehensive research on factors such a smell, texture and the cultural significance of meat.

The Impossible Burger premiered in a few restaurants in San Francisco, LA and NYC. A new manufacturing plant with the capacity to produce 4 million burger patties per month opens this summer in Oakland, CA. With this scale of production, founder Patrick Brown believes almost everyone in America will be within an hour drive of an Impossible Burger by the end of the year.

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The Impossible Burger was like nothing else I have every eaten. Especially noteworthy was the heme, which really looked like blood.

As business continues to grow, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat will face the challenge of marketing their product outside of the coastal elites. Furthermore, they must prepare for an inevitable clash with the well-funded, entrenched, oh-so-American Meat Lobby. Steps are already being taken with the creation of a plant-based meat lobby group in Washington.

Lab-Grown Meat

Instead of building meat with vegetable components, some companies are trying to create the real thing. “Clean Meat” is produced from animal cells that are cultured and duplicated in a laboratory.

Lab-grown meat aims to be 100% indistinguishable from the real thing. In a highly publicized taste test between a lab grown and conventional burger in 2013 the judges decided it was similar to meat, but just not as juicy. The team behind that burger had forgotten to consider the fat content. On top of that, the price tag on the lab grown burger came in at $330,000.

A food researcher tastes the world's first lab-grown beef burger
2013 taste test- she looks skeptical.

Since the taste test, companies have been working on lowering price and improving taste. San Francisco based Memphis Meats has their lab-grown chicken down to $9000 per lb and project to be in supermarkets within five years. Netherlands based Mosa Meat is attracting venture capital dollars and claim to have the price of their burger down to $12 per patty.

Proponents of clean meat proclaim that moving meat production into the petri dish is the “second great domestication of animals” and marks the natural progression of food technology. If the lab-grown product can beat conventional in price and taste, I suspect that all fast food chains would adopt the lab grown version.

Ethically-Raised Meat

To appeal to conscious carnivores more producers are raising livestock with animal and environmental welfare in mind. This sort of meat appears under a myriad of labels including “ organic” “natural” “artisanal” “sustainable” and “ethical.” Grass fed beef is a good illustration of this trend. Rather then fattening a cow on grain—something ruminants are not designed to eat—cattle spend their entire life on grass. Though more time and space consumptive, this method of production is kinder to the animal, uses less outside inputs and creates a better tasting product.

Bill Niman, known as the godfather of sustainable meat, has been on the forefront of this movement. Niman raises cattle, beef and turkeys in a pastured system. The consumer demand for this kind of meat is so great that both of Niman’s enterprises were acquired by large food companies: poultry giant Perdue purchased Niman Ranch in 2015 and Blue Apron meal service bought BN Ranch in March 2017.

The problem with artisanal meat is the high price point. Even if consumers could afford this kind of food, the production systems required could not keep up with our current meat intake–people would have to (gasp) eat less meat.

As a small farmer I notice a desire for alternative small-scale meat offerings. People love the story of a rare blue footed French chicken. Customers want something that feels different from industrialized meat like rabbit.

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Hand processed rabbit

Insect Protein

What uses very little land, converts feed efficiently, is high in protein and lays thousands of eggs at a time? Bugs! The search for efficient meat will inevitably lead to the consideration of insects. From 10 lbs of feed a cow will produce 1 lb of meat, while a cricket will produce 6 lbs.

A 2013 UN report found that 80% of the world’s countries eat bugs and waxed optimistic that consuming more insect protein could combat global hunger.

In the USA cricket protein bars from companies like Chapul and EXO are extremely popular among the paleo/cross fit crowd. In fact, cricket farms cannot keep up with the demand for human grade crickets. (If you’re looking for a good business prospect, become a bug farmer).

Only one thing prevents bug protein from entering the mainstream American diet: the “yuck factor.” Western diets have long conceded bugs to be a no fly zone. Advocates are trying to break this stigma. For example, Bitty Foods uses cricket flour to make beautiful baked goods. And it might be starting to work–the extreme popularity of seasoned grasshoppers at Seattle Mariners games suggests that we are almost ready.

Though these meat production options are in competition for your dollar, I like to think of them as complementary solutions to the over-consumption of meat. In the next five years we might be deciding between lab-grown chicken strips, organic quail, plant based burgers, Salisbury steak and a seasoned cricket patties for a weekend BBQ. Which would you choose?

Local Food Abroad

Here are some food and farm related photos from Eden and Dylan’s trip around the world.

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St. Petersburg, Russia: The milk for our coffee came from this little truck down the street.
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Most of the food in St. Petersburg (including these delicious pickled items) is still grown in former Soviet Republics such as Georgia and Azerbaijan.
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Sturgeon Caviar is a delicacy. We decided to try some, but put it back when we were told the price: $100/oz. The Black Sea holds one of the only remaining fisheries for these prized eggs.
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Street market in Hanoi, Vietnam.
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Bananas are being cultivated underneath this main bridge in smoggy, Downtown Hanoi.
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This is Hang. She runs an organic tropical fruit farm and education center called Tropical Aroma in the rural Dong Nai provence in Vietnam. She is one of the few organic growers in the region and strives to teach new skills/provide work to youngsters in her village. Here she is drying bananas for market in Ho Chi Min City. She is always in need of volunteers, so if you’re heading to Vietnam, be sure to stop by.
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Cow in Vietnamese jungle. Nice horns, man.
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Weeding in the Vietnamese jungle
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This propriety composting system in Auto City near Penang, Malaysia breaks down food waste from local restaurants in six days. The secret’s in the sauce: a microbial blend that dramatically speeds up decomposition. 
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The compost is then used by this crew to tend a small farm plot.
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New Zealand Forgotten World Highway. A lot of the sheep in NZ have been replaced by dairy cows.
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Kiwi ingenuity: a homemade macadamia nut cracker cobbled together using bike chains and gears. Been working like a charm since the 70’s.
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Grumpy German teenagers sorting macadamia nuts. Because of a shortage of farm labor in NZ, a lot of farms rely on Volunteer/WWOOF labor.
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Puppies!
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Small farms are often associated with low-technology–this farm in the Canterbury region of NZ proved different. They maintained a herd of top-quality Dorper sheep (white specks in background) and harvested the sheep embryos to ship around the world. Latest batch went to Costa Rica. Bahhhhhhh.
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Again, getting milk for our coffee. This time from a roadside raw milk vending machine in Golden Bay, NZ.

 

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Back home now in Monmouth, Oregon rasseling wid dem hawgs. Stay tunes for more posts.

Your Grandma’s a Hipster and So Are You

Craft night commences at 6pm sharp every other Thursday and is much anticipated among the young farming community. We, the mostly first-generation agrarians with liberal arts degrees and botanical tattoos, enjoy a variety of trendy hobbies including sewing, card making, knitting, yarn spinning, and cookie baking. Between sips of herbal tea, the usual discussions bubble: canning tricks, casserole recipes and apron patterns…These parties are every grandma’s fantasy.

I have grown hyperaware of how my “alternative” lifestyle differs very little from my 88-year-old Munsie’s. Not only do we share a sense of fashion (I’ve had my eye on her red barn coat for some years now), but also a love of hard work, good food and orchards. Munsie grew up on a farm and, like me, understands a pig’s manipulative nature, the tediousness of egg washing and the necessity of food preservation.

Our notion of progress often suggests a future vastly different than anything we’ve ever known, but what if advancement means stepping back in time? Movement towards a greener world does encompass new discovery, but also becoming familiar with past ways of life, embracing the old. A sustainable future can’t rely purely on modern technology and brand new ideologies. As Munsie always says: there’s nothing like aged cheese and fresh bread.

Yes, my friends. Progress is the most unlikely convergence of your hemp-wearing, Noam Chomsky-reading college roommate and your cranky, slightly racist Great Aunt Edna.

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Corking wine with grandma-inspired hair

From “buy local” to “grow local”

As an aspiring farmer and local eater, the phrase “grow local” encompasses more of the values I want to see in our society, where the emphasis is less on a culture of buying and more on a culture of growing.

The benefits of growing your own food can be manifold—such as reducing your carbon footprint via the miles food traveled to reach your plate, knowing if any chemicals were used to produce your food, eating fresher, and becoming more in tune with nature. And it’s also easier to do than you might think. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned working on farms over the past two years is that it doesn’t take much time, effort, or space to grow a meaningful amount of food for one person.

I’ve illustrated below an example of growing kale in a container with potting mix—an easy way to get a plant started if you don’t have garden space or soil. Try it yourself or with your favorite vegetable. Maybe one day having vegetables growing at your house will be as common as having house plants.

Written by: Li Schmidt // Photos by: Ruven Stein

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A bag of organic potting mix ranges $15-$20. Try combining with compost to maximize use.
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For kale, use a planting pot that is at least five gallons. The plant will reach 3-4 ft in height once mature.
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Plant seedlings usually range $1-2 at a nursery. Seedlings give the plant a better chance at reaching maturity because of more advanced root development.

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Place the planted pot in a sunny location.
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Water with a gallon once a week or more, depending on soil moisture. The soil should be moist an inch under the surface of the soil.
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Harvest the lowest leaves on the plant 1-2 times a week and enjoy! Your plant will be harvestable for about six months with proper care.