Farming Misnomers, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies

Grass fed. Pastured. Organic. All Natural. Cage Free. Hormone free.

I’m sure you’ve seen all the various “natural” labels that have been added to egg cartons and packages of meat in all the grocery stores. They serve to encourage the consumer to purchase the blue package over the red package or yellow package. It screams “I’m a healthy product. These animals were treated right!” But is it? Were they?

“Greenwashing” is a term used to describe the labels on these packages of products that may or may not be entirely what they say it is. Ever hear of “vegetarian fed” chickens? I find this label to be the oddest of all. Chickens aren’t even vegetarians! Chickens love their bugs! There’s not much better than watching “chicken tv” and seeing an episode of “keep away” with a grasshopper in the beak of a hen as she tries to find a quiet spot to eat her morsel in peace; all the while, she’s chased by other hens who see her prize and want their own nibble.

But all of these labels are misleading or really just downright lies. Cage free and hormone free are interesting ones when it comes to buying chicken. Many people don’t even realize that broilers have always been cage free and hormones haven’t been used or allowed by the government for over 50 years for poultry. There isn’t even a growth hormone that can be taken orally! The thousands of chickens contained within one broiler operation would need to receive numerous injections for growth hormones to even work. So, while it’s not a lie, it’s massively misleading.

“Organic” has been a term that has found its way onto grocery store shelves in stores big and small across the country. There are multiple organizations that seek to certify organic producers and you will often find that logo alongside the word organic. But what’s the deal? What does that even mean? It’s meaning less and less the more common it becomes. Organic was originally intended to mean that the vegetable or animal was produced without the use of man made chemicals, without scientifically genetically modified organisms, and labor-intensive pest and weed control.

Instead, what we have seen, is numerous methods to skirt around the heart and soul of this term. Plastics are being used by the mountain-full to keep down weeds. New pest-control sprays have been created to kill bugs that utilize naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi. The water has been so muddied in regards to this term that it’s hard to really know what it means anymore. Not to mention that many organizations that certify that farmers and producers are organic allow self-reporting and rarely inspect these farms. That is not to say that all certifying organizations are shady or don’t do their due diligence, but it takes effort to know which ones to trust.

Then there’s “grass fed,” “free range,” and “pastured.” How much grass does a sheep or cow need to eat to be grass fed? A couple handfuls per day? As much as they want? Only grass and no grain? “Pastured” and “free range” sounds like that means they live full time out on the pasture. Does it? Can we really be so sure? Does an hour or two per day count? Many people hear “grass fed” and imagine cows idly chewing their cud while other cattle shove delicate grass blades into their mouths with their long and flexible tongues.

Unfortunately, this is sometimes far from the truth. Eggs labeled as coming from “free range” hens in the United States may never have even seen the outdoors. They may have never eaten a blade of grass or hopped after a cricket as it fled away. Grass fed cattle may eat chopped hay indoors day after day and only get out on grass for a few hours. They may eat mostly grain or silage.

When presented with all of these labels and phrases, it can be hard to know the truth behind them. What’s far simpler is knowing your farmer.

When I say that my sheep and cattle are grass fed and pastured, I’m pretty darn serious. When my first two cattle spent their days planning prison breaks because they thought the field at the bottom of the hill (acres away, not my property) looked far greener, I had to lock them up for a few weeks before they could be moved to more secure pastures. But while they were locked up in the barn, they received daily bales of hay and I scythed as much fresh, green grass as I possibly could. I would drag tarps full of heavy, wet grass and weeds to those two and load them up with all their rotund bellies could handle. So when I say “grass fed,” I’m serious.

When I say that my hens are pastured, free range, and cage free, I mean that I can barely even contain them inside the pasture. They find holes big enough in the fence to slip out; they fly over; they straight up climb the fence. They have two acres to roam, but they choose their own destinies around here. I’m just surprised I haven’t found any in my kitchen yet. Sure, my hens are subject to the predation that is typical of any farm that has free ranging chickens. Sometimes hawks, foxes, weasels, and raccoons will take some of my hens. But I understand that the best of life has risks. I won’t shut my chickens up like bubble boys and girls because the world is a dangerous place. I do my best to protect them, but aside from a secure coop at night and Abel to guard during the day, there’s not much else I can do unless I were to hold their wing all day and all night.

The final term I want to discuss is “all natural.” This one is a doozy and it’s one that I frequently use. It’s unfortunately rather ambiguous. What’s “all natural” mean? I’m not sure what those great big companies being sold at Giant food stores intend it to mean. To me, it means as close to what mother nature intended as possible. It means rotational grazing. It means fertilizing with real fertilizer (you know, the stuff that comes out the backside of an animal). It means using pigs to till up the ground so I can plant more easily. It means attacking pests by removing them by hand. Same with weeds. Sure, on rare occasions, I will use some naturally-based sprays to combat some of the more nefarious critters, but it’s certainly not the first resort. All natural, to me, means working WITH mother nature. She’s kept the earth in balance pretty well until we thought we were smarter. Diversity and rotation are keys to success when it comes to all natural farming and sustainable agriculture and while I’m no master just yet, my focus is to keep improving and keep providing the most delicious, wholesome food my little farm can produce.

May Happenings

What a busy month it is!  Everything is finally planted and growing at long last.  The garden is packed full of plants and seeds attempting to rise to the surface.  Now comes the part where I keep them in the clear by watering them and keeping the weeds and bugs away.  I’ve been updating the links in the availability section so that you can see the pictures and descriptions of the items that I’m selling.  Right now, Romaine lettuce and Radishes are for sale, alongside the Horseradish and Eggs that are always available.

Jane, the little mixed silkie chick that was hatched last month will be six weeks old tomorrow.  If you would like to see some pictures, check the facebook page.  Hopefully on thursday the five Easter Egger chicks will arrive.  I’m excited to see what they look like.  If everything works as planned, they will be given to one of the broody chickens who hatched last year’s clutch, named “Salt.”

After scouting out a few markets and debating the options, I’ve decided to go to the Millersville Farmers Market.  This market runs through October near Millersville University.  It is every Wednesday night from 4-8pm.  Each week has a theme and special focus.  This coming Wednesday, for instance, is the Wellness Fair.  June sixth is the Strawberry Festival and on August 22nd, it is the Summer Garden Party.  If you would like more information, you can check out their facebook in the link above or contact me to see what I’ll selling each week.

Why is organic so expensive?

Many individuals would choose organic if they could.  But this isn’t often feasible for those with lower incomes, school debt, or other financial issues, especially during times of economic downturn.  And those individuals frequently question why organic is more expensive, sometimes thinking that organic growers can simply get away with charging more.  This really is not the case.  There are many reasons for the price differential including pest and weed control, and growing methods.

While most commercial farms using petroleum based pesticides and herbicides that leach into ground water, remain in the plants, and create both super-weeds and super-bugs, organic producers stick to more time consuming, but much healthier means.  Spraying crops a few times is very simple and can be done using large machinery operated by a single individual.  This allows for instantaneous results and nearly guaranteeing that the plants will have no barriers to growing as large as possible.  Organic growers have a much different set of weapons for combatting pests and weeds amongst their crops.

Organic growers often rely more heavily upon man power than machinery and chemicals. Destroying eggs of pests manually, by squishing them, is a method of preventing hatching.    The adults and larvae can also be removed from the plants and squished or drowned in a soap and water mixture.  Other methods kill or simply deter the pests.  Diatomaceous Earth, which is essentially crushed crustaceans, stops pests in their tracks and can kill a number of them by creating microscopic cuts in their exoskeleton or drying out their mucus membranes, as in the case of slugs.  Many plants also deter various pests such as garlic and hot peppers and a number of herbs, which can be ground up and put into a spray bottle or simply grown near or around the crops.

There are fewer ways to deal with weeds, but these methods can also be time consuming. Prevention is an easier tactic that can be achieved by mulching or laying down cardboard or newspaper.  Mulch can be any smothering-type substance.  While plastic can be an organic tactic, it does not help to improve the soil over time like natural mulch.  Organic mulch cannot have chemicals in it, so commercially available mulch would not be used.  However, things such as leaves, straw, or grass are good choices that feed the plants, keep down weeds, and improve the soil over time.  Once the plants are growing, they can still be smothered, but other tactics may be put into action depending upon their location.  Boiling water and vinegar can both be used to kill weeds if they aren’t near crops.  But pulling them out, roots and all, is a sure method and then they can also go into the compost bin.

Finally, for fertilizer, rather than the blue crystals known to many, organic growers will use a number of seemingly random items.  Kitchen scraps make for great plant food.  Items such as coffee grounds, egg shells, and fish bones are great alternatives to chemical fertilizers and enable less waste to go into landfills.  Composted vegetables and plant-derived materials takes some time to make, but permanently improves the soil and provides long lasting nutrients for the plants.  Various types of animal waste is also a wonderful method a number of organic growers may use.  Nevertheless, spreading composted materials and using kitchen scraps takes much more time than watering plants every few weeks with blue crystals.

While buying organic does cost more, it may improve your life in the long run and will surely improve the lives of you children and grandchildren as we improve the soil and use less harmful chemicals.  When it seems like an organic grower is trying to scam you, just remember the amount of time and effort that went into producing that vegetable was much greater than that of a commercial grower who sprayed down his crops a few times and poisoned your drinking water.  Also, now that you know what methods go into growing organic produce, you can put some of them into action in your own garden!