Sunday, June 15, 2014

Is Anybody Listening?

This past week, the inaugural “listening session” of a newly formed, bi-partisan caucus of state representatives was held in Dallas. How effective this caucus will be and how well attended future sessions will be, remains to be seen. There were I’d guess, about 50 or so farmers, ranchers, market managers, and others from the local food scene in attendance at the meeting, which followed an upscale, high dollar ticket dinner the evening before. (Thank goodness many farmers and ranchers have friends in places with an extra ticket so some of us could attend it.) The monies raised from the dinner's ticket sales were said to be earmarked as funds for this caucus’ purposes. (Personally, I think they need to use some of those funds to hire someone or additional some ones, to organize/keep coordinated the information put out to the press and on their web site - for starters. The time as well as dinner ticket price was different depending on the source from where you sought the information, and the listening session wasn’t even listed on their events page.)

All said, the purpose for the caucus seems to be admirable, and the four men and one woman at the head of the room on Friday, appeared to be receptive to the concerns and suggestions brought forward by those of us who came to be heard. How far will any of it go from that room to Austin? Who knows? Even if this caucus convinced the rest of the House to sign on and pass something, without any support and representation from the Senate in this caucus, the bills, no matter how well written or needed, will end up dropped if it hits any opposition - and they all do. 

This lack of representation by both bodies of our state congress, was a point well brought up by long-time local farm owner and operator Robert Hutchins. (Who, by the way, had humbly mentioned the night before that enough money had been raised by private means to rebuild from the damages done to his farm last month by a tornado that ripped through the family’s home, took out small livestock and damaged much of the farm’s infrastructure. Kudos to you, the public, for your help!)

So a couple of questions pop into my mind that I didn’t really have time to even form before this all started;

  • Why not any Senators in this group? Bi-partisan is a good start, but let’s cross over further so we have both bodies of our state’s lawmakers working together. You know, so all of the time spent by everyone working on the issues might actually be, you know, effective?

  • What is the money raised from the $150 dinner tickets going towards? Specifically. I hope there is some major transparency in the budget, because if local food supporters who paid to go to that dinner where all of the food and labor was donated, find out the funds are primarily used to put people up in fancy hotels and rent fancy cars while out of town and feed them meals from places that don’t even use local food; I don’t think they’ll be very convinced this caucus is serious about walking the walk their talking.

This is a group that is supposed to be about educating the rest of the House on our issues, so I wanted to make sure the first lesson was clear. I mean I got the distinct impression some of these folks aren’t even aware of, much less directly affected by, the issues themselves as consumers, much less how they affect us at farm level.

For starters, they scheduled this farmer interactive meeting on only the second possible worse day of the week for those they invited – a Friday. You know, harvest and market prep day – at the start of peak summer season no less. (I guess they could have held it on a Saturday so none of us could have come. Be grateful, right?) We asked them to swear they’d never hold one of these meetings on a Friday again. Ever.

As for the concerns brought up by those of us fortunate enough to have experienced and loyal coverage back at our farms in order to be in attendance at the meeting, they were pretty much the same issues we’ve been talking about for many years and a few new ones, too.

(Food, Inc Logo)
  • Raw Milk – why is it not legal for the producer of the product to safely transport it to his/her customers? If you’ve not heard some of the reasons, you’ll get a real grin out of a few of them.
    • It’s better for each individual to go to the dairy farm where the milk is produced to pick it up themselves and drive it home, (often an hour or more). Why yes, because we all have ice machines to fill (and re-fill) coolers or refrigerator trucks in which to safely transport perishable dairy products back home, after we stopped for lunch or pick up kids and drop off Grandma who wanted to visit the cows, etc…. 
    • We want the consumer to inspect the dairy and see if it's a place they want to get their product from. Because we all have time to re-inspect state and or federally graded and already inspected food production places? When was the last time you were asked to visit the places where mainstream food is produced to be sure the inspector did his or her job? 
However, when calling a spade a shovel needs to be done, leave it to a farmer who has spoken countless times in front of government committees, media and individuals to help get this (and many other issues) passed. Hutchins again brought up an important point in that it was in large part due to the lobbyists paid for by the Texas Dairymen’s Association, and others, that this bill was killed - again. Not due to matters of so called “logic" that would defy even Mr. Spock. 

  • Organic Certification Inconsistencies – It seems that our local certification office, while currently staffed with some of the most helpful and friendly folks you could ask for, is seriously understaffed and in danger of not being staffed at all. Turn around time for applications, questions, and basic inquiries is apparently quite non-conducive to anyone’s needs and it’s the only game in town for Texas farmers to get certified in-state at a lower rate than out of state certifying agencies. Why is this important? Well, for those who choose to get certified, it is quite an expense. It seems our state’s TDA offices, also understaffed, haven’t re-applied for the federal funds that will help reimburse some of those federal expenses charged to farmers in the way of inspections and fees. No one seemed to know why or actually, that this was the case. The Collin County farmer who brought up the issue knows for sure though, because it’s the reason Kari Gates of Spring Creek Organic Farm was unable to renew her certification. Who has money to pay the government for farming safely, the way it has been done for generations before? It’s helpful for branding, for trading with 3rd parties and I imagine certifying one’s operation may have other benefits I’m unaware of presently. But at what cost? 
Dallas' March Against Monsanto Oct. 2012

  •  GMO labeling – We need and want it in our state.

    • This issue, we were informed, is surely a bi-partisan issue and we should do what we can to rally support from both sides of the aisle publicly. As in, it was up to us to rally support at a grass roots level.
      • Where the heck have they been? Did they miss the last 2 MAM world wide events – and those locally and statewide?  We have been doing our part at the grass roots level. And we're doing it by and while we are trying to save honeybees, farm land, educate the public on eating well, hold down other types of mainstream full time jobs and raise families buying healthy, local food, no less. Isn't organic food demand increasing by leaps and bounds? What more do they want us to do? It is their leadership we need down in Austin and assurance that they’ll not be swayed by paid lobbyists who have more time and money than the general public to spend convincing our elected representatives of issues we gather en masse to bring attention to.

  • Protection or exemptions from local legislation and actions that offend the integrity of growing food without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. I specifically brought up this issue as it related, in large part, to being crop dusted and fogged every time a single mosquito is caught in a trap carrying the illness our media and medical association makes out to be like the next black plague.
    • We all know by now that this disease in it’s most severe form, affects a minute percentage of the population, who are usually predisposed to catching many illnesses due to a compromised immune system to start with; and that the products used to try to combat the adult insect are under attack by many medical doctors and scientists worldwide, those who have been harmed by them, as well as the CDC’s very own efficacy report following Dallas’ aerial spraying a few years ago. (I know, run on sentence I suppose. But you get the point.) 
      • And a compromised immune system, incidentally, doesn’t necessarily mean you are old or very young. It could mean at the time you got bit by the infected bug, your body was busy fighting off something else you were exposed to. Perhaps a cold virus, allergies, a surplus of bacteria you picked up on some food when you ate out, or the onslaught of synthetic chemicals, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics it is exposed to from your regular intake of the SAD (Standard American Diet). The human body can only fight off so many things at once.
      • But when you are trying to provide clean food for those who can not consume the SAD, due to medical reasons, it’s a bit of a conundrum to be told by the city’s emergency services director, a handful of hours beforehand, that your farm is about to be fogged, (In the presence, no less, of an armed police officer who then basically issues you a verbal warning if you try to protect yourself or property from the spraying by interfering in any way, shape or form.). Fogged of course, with a product that is a known neurotoxin and under attack for being an endocrine disruptor as well as a known killer of small vertebrae and all insects that it comes into contact with; and could therefore contaminate not only the air I breath while inside my drafty old house, but the flowers on my plants and trees (which of course, become the nectar for honey and the vegetables and fruits we eat, from which I make a living.

Ah, but you’ve all heard my rant on this many times before, haven’t you? Apparently, though, our county judge needed a reminder. It had come to my attention that he thought perhaps we’d forgotten about the issue or thought less of its critical nature to our lives and livelihoods. Really? Looks like Tuesday mornings will be on the agenda for attendance at county meetings again soon. Sigh.

Other issues included, eminent domain abuses - farms being cut in half by water ways, gas pipelines, etc., with little to no recourse for the property owner vs private companies; what is "local"; what constitutes a "farmers" market; watering restrictions in urban areas, water shortages in rural areas and sewer water fees in both ; grants for useful things like infrastructure and equipment, not enlarging the already under supplied market, pickling vegetables - other than cucumbers; and the general feeling that we're not fully represented when it counts - and we should be.

The really important point about this post I hope you take away, comes in here when I tell you it is imperative that we regularly keep getting in front of local, county, state and federal government officials, in whatever legal and peaceful means we have available to us about the issues that affect us. Judith McGreary of FARFA said to me once that we can’t ever match the monies raised by those on the other side of the issues that most of us stand for. But we can hit politicians where they would feel it – elections. If they feel that their re-election could be at risk because enough of the voters were rising up against them based on issues they didn’t take to task for us, it can sway their decision; if staying in politics is their goal. (As opposed to taking a cushy job with one of the companies likely to benefit from voting the other way.)And the way to show those numbers is to show up in large ones at meetings, marches, petitions, phone calls, faxes and personal meetings with representatives.

I took a young WWOOFer to this meeting with me in order to hopefully instill in him the level of importance in being abreast of the issues affecting his potential livelihood and life as an eater, and more importantly, the critical nature of being directly involved and helping to rally support among your customers, peers and colleagues.

I wish I had given the upcoming meeting more thought and better planned a massive public invitation myself, given the way it seems “out of sight, out of mind” works when it comes to politicians and issues. I hadn't sent out notice of the meeting to my CSA or farm "followers" until the day before the event. But, in all due respect to myself, it was in the heart of spring season when I found out about the meeting and for some reason, I initially thought it was by invitation only, and I wasn't sure I'd have coverage on a Friday to attend myself. Not to mention that I have quite a few plates I’m spinning that require my attention to stay pretty focused on planning, ideas and problem solving of the day to day activities in order to stay afloat here at this farm. 

But next time there’s an event that involves getting the attention of politicians who we elect and expect to represent our views, you can betcha you’ll hear from me and I’ll be asking for your participation. And I’ll do it well enough in advance that you can plan to take a few hours off from your 9-5 job or incorporate it into your kids’ home-school day and be present with us so we can show these folks what we do have, in lieu of promises of lobbyists’ perks; numbers of concerned voting people – potential votes against them in upcoming elections.

Sadly, we can’t always count on a person’s integrity in the face of temptation. No matter how warm and fuzzy they seem to be when you meet and talk to them, they’re just like everyone else; broken, flawed and in some way scared of something. And we are all susceptible to making decisions out of our fears. It’s not easy to be courageous. But as the late Maya Angelou said;

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

Eat Your Food - Naturally!


Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Kids Are Going to be Alright

Everyone generally has some purpose behind what they have chosen to do for a living. Some choose their career for fame and fortune – no, not too many but it is a purpose for some. Certainly I don’t know many people who choose what they do for a living that have done so because it’s going to make them famous or rich.

They often choose it because a particular skill needed came naturally to them; it's what their parents encouraged them to do; it’s in an environment they enjoy being in; or it supports some specific cause they feel strongly about.

I’d have to say that, for those of you who do not know my story, the latter is what drew me into this world of farming and local food. I’ve always been an advocate for the little guy getting a fair shake, the underdog you could say. (In fact, that was one of my favorite cartoons growing up.)

And, the latter is what keeps me persistent about developing this place into a sustainable food production “hub” for the community of south east Dallas County where I’ve lived nearly ever since I moved to Texas some 22 or so years ago.

I don’t know too many who own and run small farms for a living that do this solely for the money either. Although, it can seem to bring “fast” cash after only a few hours of selling at a market. But let me tell you, if you have put your full time self into making sure those crops are selected, planted, cared for and harvested with dedication and purpose, it doesn’t feel like “fast” cash. The only part that is fast is the rate at which one runs out of one dollar bills for change…..

Having come from a family that sat down to eat most all of our dinners together as a family, (and even breakfast and lunch was served at home, in the kitchen at the table with my brother), I feel pretty privileged compared to many kids that I hear about today, who eat on the fly. My mom was able to stay home to plan and prepare balanced meals, three times a day, seven days a week. We weren't wealthy, she just cut lots of coupons and shopped sales like everyone else. And eating “out” was reserved for special occasions, or, a family owned pizzeria's pizza was delivered with the Sunday night family TV programs. That, incidentally, was also the only time I remember being allowed to drink soda. At home or in most cases, at all. It just wasn’t served to children that much as I remember. Not that those artificially flavored/colored, sugary fruit drinks that left u with brightly colored smile all over your face were much better for us; but even those were not common in our diet. It was OJ and milk for breakfast; milk for lunch and dinner. We were growing kids. We didn’t drink coffee, frozen or otherwise, or soda. It stunted your growth! Ok, ok, but that's what we were told.

I also learned to enjoy a wide variety of vegetables in my meals as a kid. Granted, often they were frozen and not garden fresh; but I lived in my grandmother's apartment building which had a concrete slab for a backyard. We didn’t have a huge garden in our yard from which my mom could pluck fresh our side dishes and salads. (An option I do now have that I find quite cool.)
But we were fed everything from Artichokes, thanks to a Sicilian grandma, to Zucchini. We missed a few letters in between like kale, Swiss Chard, turnips, and various others I suppose. But overall, I feel like I developed a wide pallet for produce. And cook as she did, my mom was a simple cook. Not a lot of fancy sauces or seasonings. I knew what Brussels sprouts tasted like, and I liked them! Cabbage was great to me – until they turned it into “sourkraut”! And I remember her growing beans or peas on the chain link fence along the alley and grabbing some on my way out of the gate to go play. That sweet flavor didn’t need any seasoning according to my taste buds.

And, much to the dismay and horror of many, all winter long we scooped the poop of our building’s 3 canine residents right into the usually snow covered opening in the concrete slab that became my mom’s spring garden. The tomato plants, cucumbers and corn she grew didn’t seem to mind that it wasn't on someone's approved list of items "ok to compost". 

The stories about kids’ diets that I hear nowadays though, don’t reflect the same kind of food variety filled options that my memories are full of. Many a modern day kid is seen sipping on a $4 coffee "ice cream shake", or even a regular hot cup of java; soda like it’s water, all while toting a bag of some kind of cardboard-like artificially flavored snack “food” or the less than prime parts of an animal shoved into an artificial casing wrapped in sugary filled dough slathered with preservative filled condiments. (Yes, I've been told I can be a bit dramatic, but I'm making a point.) 

I was recently told about a young boy who was participating in some kind of after-school or summer program and had been asked if he liked squash by one of the adult volunteers. The child looked up, puzzled a bit, and replied, “What’s squash?”.  The adult inquiring probably had the same puzzled look on his face and asked another question of the child about their normal meal contents. To which this child responded that his busy mom would bring home a loaf of bread and “cheese”. He would make himself 2 cheese sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and again at dinner. He did however get to decide whether he wanted mustard or “mayo”.


How do our children function on such diets? How do they grow? How are they not sick or full of allergies? How can we expect them to make good food choices later in life?

A diet of no one at home to nurture their mind or body, pretty much sets them up for specific issues later in life. And while many will be able to overcome these issues, many do not. If they’re never taught how to eat properly and why they should want to, much less how to prepare, heck, how to IDENTIFY a vegetable; how can they be expected to do this for themselves as adults. Or, if they have them, for their children? And so the cycle we seem stuck in today, had begun.

We were the first of the “latch-key” kids, learning to grow up on our own without a lot of parental benefits often afforded those with 2 folks around. But at least we had regular food in our fridge to choose from because before she went away, my mom taught me how to cook, make a grocery list and shop for food. Real food. And, they still taught "basic foods and nutrition" in high school. Many kids our age had healthy bodies despite the broken or dysfunctional homes some came from. But when you have neither, a healthy diet or a healthy family of origin, the odds have really been stacked against you. And it’s not always something folks really understand the consequences of until many years later into their lives. If ever.

This is something I feel pretty strongly about and something it seems is only slowly starting to be better understood. While the first 13 years of my childhood were filled with good meals, there were things going on around me that kept me from being able to say I came from a “Walton’s” type family life. And my younger brother, only 7 at the time we earned our place as a statistic, only had me to look to for the limited guidance I could give him regarding life. At least he ate well most of the time, but how could he really absorb a real sense of why it was important to feed himself well if I hadn't really been taught it yet?

At first we thought it was all A-ok to be on our own, because hey, now we could make those cool, sugary pop out of the tube cinnamon rolls for breakfast, whenever we wanted. Not just when it was our birthday or something. (IF our mom even ever made them. This may have been a food we discovered from our Saturday morning cartoon binges, and now shopping unsupervised, took home with us.) But even to us, Chef boy R Dee got old and we remembered certain things we had grown used to eating. Like artichokes and tuna casserole with peas. Our taste buds wouldn't let us get away with this silliness all of the time.

Thankfully, I knew more or less how to cook, and so I did my best to follow old menus my mom had previously used, with the aid of the cookbooks she made margin notes in; most of which are still on my bookshelf today. Artichokes, corn on the cob, green beans, and various other vegetables still adorned my aged 14, 15 year old prepared lunches and dinners. And breakfast was still milk and OJ – even though my brother insisted on Captain Crunch peanut butter cereal a lot. I wasn't really equipped to know how to reason with an 8 year old, so he often got his way.

But what about those kids who aren’t blessed with 13, or even 7 years, of good eating habits and guidance to fall back on? Maybe that six-a-day cheese sandwich child’s mom grew up on microwave popcorn and “cheese-food” sandwiches herself. This is the sort of situation that breaks my heart and makes me cry. Literally. And if I accomplish nothing else with this 14 acres I call Eden's, I will make sure that I do everything I can to show as many children as I can that good food can be just as cool as they think those pop out of a tube rolls and cardboard salt sticks in the shiny foil bags are. Adults, once educated with more information than they may have had previously, usually have a bit more power over their choices. And providing them with opportunities to gather that information is also something on my agenda. But a child is pretty much at the mercy of what’s in the pantry or fridge at home; whether or not he or she knows a cucumber sandwich would be better for them. And if they don't know how to prepare something, they're likely going for that bag of chips - even if it's not the only thing available.

Seeing kids grow up overweight to the point it has critically affected their health, not just their self esteem due to normal childhood teasing, is not fair. And I’m all about fair and justice, remember? At least give someone a chance to do things differently. So many times we choose the easiest solution, instead of the best one. Nothing here against busy moms and cheese sandwiches, but there has to be a better solution than that. Sometimes it takes nudging a person in a different direction, but it takes a community to raise a child. Right?

Our media bombards them at every turn. In our schools, on billboards as they ride down the street on their way to school or soccer practice – fast “food”, snack “food”, and anything other than images of healthy fruits and vegetables, bombard their minds everywhere they turn. If you have not ever been given anything other than false information, how can you be expected to choose differently?

Many kids, and I daresay adults alike, are not only bombarded with negative media about food choices, but are also under constant pressure to “go-go-go” without much time to let their natural instincts even try to kick in and encourage them to go for the apples instead of the fried salty snack. Quiet time is something used as a punishment – not a rewarding opportunity to listen to their little bodies tell them what it wants.

In the spirit of this goal, I have had it as part of my business plan to develop a children’s educational program here at the farm ever since I decided to expand my business from a garden center to an agricultural operation. I always encouraged parents to include their kids in gardening classes, but now I was becoming even more aware of the need to not only teach them to play in the dirt, but to also play in the kitchen with what they pulled out of the dirt. 

So, enter in FARM CAMP. It’s my first attempt, as I am the full time grower here, it's my first opportunity actually, to offer something at a really organized level that is very pro-active towards connecting younger children with food. With nature. With themselves.

The woman who is bringing FARM CAMP to Eden’s this summer has a long history of working with kids, and from what I’ve seen, living at a pace of life that allows one to hear and respond rather than observe and react. I really think this is a great and important first step for not only the farm, but for up to 10 lucky kids who get to be the first ones through this inaugural program. Jennifer will move on to open her own children’s education facility, but my hope is that it has started the momentum towards a full time, year round children’s educational program here at Eden’s that will bring many, many kids face to face with a chicken, a carrot and a squash. Some, for their first time ever.

Seeing the smiles on their faces as they come here to my farm, without fail, brings one to mine. And it does wonders to make those long, hot or cold, wet or thirsty dry, days – worth every uncomfortable minute. 

We borrow this planet for a short time – and leave it to those not even thought about yet. I hope to do my part to not only keep this slice of nature healthy for whoever follows me, but to help bridge that gap of knowledge about a lot of things like healthy eating, that came about whenever our society seemed to stop choosing the solutions that build strong minds, bodies and families and going for easy or convenient, forgoing potential consequences.

Eat Your Food - Naturally!


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

After the Running Around - The Reward

What a blast it was having our ice cream crank off last week! Our 5 kid judges
had a tough job ahead of them, tasked with selecting the best out of the best - all recipes save one, our vegan entry, were using fresh milk, (cow and goat) as well as other organic ingredients. This was no run of the mill ice cream treat! But it was a tough job someone had to do and these kids did great!

If you missed out on our 5th Saturday, it's ok, we'll have another special time in August when we open the door for entries to our pesto/salsa taste off. Guest judges include local area chefs who's discriminating pallets have been wowed by our entries 2 years in a row now.

CSA Member Clarke Hard at Work! (photo CSA Member Brian King)

After the market last week, several of our CSA members joined together for a potluck picnic and to paint our picnic tables with that paint I talked about last blog entry. We mixed up some pretty colors!
Sunny side up
So next time you sit down for a few to take in the farm at Market Day, you can enjoy the artwork of some of our members. We're not done yet, but I think you'll like the start.

I never did get lunch that day, but the smiles on the faces of all of those ice cream eating market day shopping folks was well worth the running around. I ate plenty at our CSA potluck picnic to make up for it! And I have a bunch of savoy cabbage in the fridge to make some of my favorite minestrone soup with - soon as some tomatoes ripen. :) 

Eat Your Food - Naturally!


Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Busy Day in the Life on the Farm

So I guess it started out like any other day, well, if you live on a farm that is....

It's a work share member day, so quick breakfast and out the door. Ah, needed to run 2 errands first, so out the door earlier than usual and back just as one of my members arrived. Then it was time to do AM chores as my homesteading residents are out of town this weekend. So, quick assignment for the volunteer and off to feed critters.

Back in time to help harvest, wash some veggies, weigh them and record. Then it's time to crank up our repaired tiller and do a little dirt work - fired up the first time and had all 5 horses running again.... but then? Well, it appears as though we've got a cracked something or another that works the throttle/choke. Great. That'll require another trip to the repair shop. So off to the barn until next week ol' Troy goes.

Ah, dropped off my cycling member at the train and looks like it's finally time to eat lunch - no wait, I am out of chocolate chips for baking later for market day. Off to the store while I'm out. And to pay the repair shop for the break job on the farm truck. And, to find little sacks for the cookies I'm going to get chocolate chips for... ok.

Wait, did we ever get paint for the picnic tables for tomorrow's picnic paint party? Nope. Back over to the friendly neighborhood big box store. JACKPOT! 2 gallons of outdoor tough stuff. ok, check that off the list. Now, back home....note to self - still need ice. Later. Lunch?

Really need to mow the yard before it gets dark so it looks neater for market, right? Ok. So here we go. Everything going fine back area done now out front - then all of a sudden.... wt heck?

A flat- REALLY flat. sigh. How am I ever going to get this thing back to the garage - from the front yard? Ever pushed a riding lawn mower?

John Deere to the rescue....and a rope - and wishes they'd have taught some knot tying in Girl Scouts.... or that I'd remembered it.

And now to back the disabled mower into the garage - or not. OK. Then I'll just push it in the rest of the way. Sort of. Good enough - the doors close. Mostly. Note to self; really need to fix those garage doors - before they fall off and kill something.

Ok, dark now, time to feed critters - oh, no!! Eve, what is that?! A baby bunny? I asked you not to kill/eat those.... sigh. Too late. Why can't she focus on the rats? Fur is fur to her I guess....

Feeding done - burying baby bunny in the compost pile done. To the house. Baking, newsletter - oh dear. I still need ice. And I'm supposed to make strawberry ice cream, too. sigh. Sleep? Lunch?

Eat Your Food - Naturally!