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Farming in Focus: June Blueberries

I have been up to my ears in blueberries lately. We have four well-established bushes in our yard that keep my family (and some friends) well stocked in blueberries for almost the entire summer. And, since Oregon produces nearly 40 million pounds of blueberries each  year, making our state the second largest producer of blueberries (after Michigan), I thought it was fitting to visit a real blueberry farm to see how it’s done on a MUCH larger scale than my backyard. So, a few weeks ago I drove down to Albany and visited Berries Northwest for June’s Farming in Focus. (I put off this post a few weeks in favor of the two-part sunscreen guest blogs.) I hope you enjoy and are inspired to go make a blueberry pie.

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Anne Krahmer is a 6th generation farmer and a 3rd generation blueberry farmer. Krahmer’s family grows blueberries on over 500 acres, 350 of which are in Albany, OR and the remainder are in Claskanie and St. Paul. Krahmer’s father started the operation in the 1990s and Krahmer grew up on the farm. She was hand picking berries at five years old and started on the berry picking machines at nine. Krahmer joined the business in 2009 after working in farm and ranch appraising in Salem for seven years. “I like this better,” she said. “It’s never the same and you never know what’s coming.” This year has been a difficult one because of the weather. I expected Krahmer’s operation to be booming because of the heat wave we’ve been having but she said it’s actually the opposite of that. The heat impacts the quality of the fruit; a lot of the bushes have been over-fruiting, meaning when it gets hot the plants puts lots of resources into making fruit, but then they don’t all ripen or the size of the fruit varies tremendously.

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About half of Krahmer’s production is picked by hand for the fresh market. Hand picking is the best way to guarantee the finest fruit, which is what is needed and expected for the fresh market, but with that comes the complications associated with managing migrant workers. Krahmer doesn’t know on any given day how many workers she’ll have show up to pick in the fields. “On Monday we had 50 people show up, the next day we had 38. By Wednesday it had dropped to 16. Thursday we were back up to 48, then 58 on Friday.” A lot of that is dictated by what else is in season – for example, when strawberries and blueberries are ripe at the same time, workers will abandon picking blueberries  in favor of strawberries. Strawberries pay more because those farmers don’t have the option of harvesting by machine, but blueberry farmers do. As the season wears on, grapes ripen in California and workers move on to that market. Krahmer said sometimes the workers’ cell phones will start ringing and they’ll walk off the field right in the middle of picking and head to another farm where they’re paying more that day. She said she tried a weekly attendance bonus, but it didn’t work because it ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

blueberry harvest-hands

Hand pickers are paid by how much they pick at $0.35 per pound. Most are making about $100 to $150 in a four- to six-hour work day. The average worker picks about 40 to 50 pounds an hour, but the top pickers can pick as much as 80 to 100 pounds per hour.  Let’s compare that to my family of four that can pick about five pounds in an hour. Granted, about half of what my kids pick goes into their mouths, but still. That is seriously fast. I asked Krahmer for tips and she told me wearing the bucket right on your waist and cupping your hands leads to more efficient picking.

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Almost all of Krahmer’s hand crew are migrant workers from Mexico, and very few of them speak English. The berry industry is facing a labor shortage that Krahmer says is changing the fresh market. A lot of that has to do with labor immigration politics. “These workers want to work here for eight months and then go home and see their families,” Kraher said. “Lots of these workers have families back home, but the border makes it hard to get back home.” Krahmer said part of the labor shortage is also because of an increase in the Mexican economy. If they can find jobs at home, there is no incentive to come to the US to harvest fruit.

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I asked Krahmer why they don’t employ more non-migrant workers; for example, I only saw one white person picking by hand in the field. “We hired 15 white workers this year,” Krahmer said. “She [the one I met] is the only one still here. People think picking blueberries is easy, but when they discover it’s hard work they don’t want to do it.” If a picker doesn’t pick enough to make minimum wage, Krahmer is required to pay them minimum wage anyway. Krahmer said if the minimum wage goes to $15 as a lot of people hope, she won’t be able to afford a hand crew and she probably would have a hard time even getting a crew. “Who would pick blueberries in the sun all day for $15 an hour when you could work in an air conditioned building and make the same?” Krahmer said. “Consumers want more and more fresh fruit and organic options, but they don’t always understand what that means in terms of increased labor.” She said if the minimum wage goes to $15 an hour, she’ll only be able to do about 30 percent or less fresh market instead of the 50 percent she does now. That has an impact on her bottom line as well as reduced availability because she makes about $1.85 per pound for the fresh market compared to $0.75 per pound for the frozen market.

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Krahmer’s operation uses a digital system to help workers keep track of how much they pick. Each worker wears a name tag with a bar code on it. After they dump their buckets on to the trays, the supervisor scans their barcode before weighing the berries. The system keeps a running total of how many pounds that worker picks each day and the worker gets a printout with their name, date and total pounds picked so far that day. Krahmer said the system is very good, but occasionally there are problems that she must sort out during the day. For example, once a worker checks in to one weigh station, they must continue to weigh at that station all day. If they go to another station, the system encounters problems.

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All of Krahmer’s fresh blueberries go to Driscoll’s, which has a reputation for safe fruit and high quality. In order to sell to Driscoll’s, Krahmer’s operation must be Global G.A.P. certified, the highest certification available. That certification covers all stages of production, from pre-harvest activities such as soil management and plant protection product application to post-harvest produce handling, packing and storing. For example, all the buckets must be washed daily with a chlorine and water solution, and the buckets must sit on what’s called a “baby tray” in the field to keep them off the ground. After the berries are picked, they travel in a refrigerated semi truck that Krahmer leases to travel to Watsonville, CA where Driscoll’s is based. There they’re washed and sorted.

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Krahmer gets an update from her field manager each day on the quality of the berries being picked. This is important because if there is too much red (not ripe enough) or the berries are too soft (overripe or too hot), Driscoll’s will reject the entire shipment. They’re also looking for damage from birds (shown on the left) or from pests and disease (shown on the right). Krahmer uses electronic bird squawkers to keep the birds away, and while she says they work very well, they’re not perfect. Krahmer also has to spray insecticide to prevent damage from the Spotted Wing Drosophila, a fruit fly that arrive in Oregon in 2009 and lays its eggs in the berries. Processors test the fruit for presence of SWD by soaking the berries in a salt water bath that causes the larvae to crawl out of the berries. Once SWD is detected in a grower’s berries, they’re essentially trash. Not even the juice market will take them.  In the spring, Krahmer sprays fungicide to prevent fungus that deforms the fruit. She says they’re very careful about what they spray because in April she hires between two and six bee hives per acre to pollinate the crop.  They also have instigated a new native pollinator project through Oregon State University on their farm this year that hopes to attract native bees. “We really watch what we spray,” Krahmer said. “We don’t want to kill the bees.” While it might seem like the vast majority of the work gets done during harvest, there is work year-round on Krahmer’s farm. After the harvest, they promote growth of the plants and starting in November they hand prune every single plant. That generally takes until February or March because at 1,200 plants per acre and over 500 acres, that’s a lot of pruning. They also do what they can to try to time harvest as early and as late as possible because that’s when the market is most lucrative. They do this by tenting some of the fields and selecting different varieties that ripen at different times.

blueberry harvest-10One of the coolest things I wanted to see on Krahmer’s farm was the mechanical harvest of blueberries. Unfortunately, all I got to see was the machine sitting in the field because by the time I got there they were finished picking. The crew started at 5 a.m. when the berries were cool and by the time I got there at 10 a.m. they were done. Krahmer told me as it gets hotter, they’re going to have to go to night shifts. I’m still hoping to get some images of mechanical harvest in the next few weeks, and if I do, I’ll be sure to post an update here (maybe even with a video!) so you can see it for yourself. Stay tuned!

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Farming in Focus: May – Green beans and more

I know, I know. I’m late on this post again. Think of it this way – my Farming in Focus post will just surprise you – you never know when it will show up! I have a really good reason for holding this post for almost a week, though. I was waiting for the pea harvest! The peas in my garden were getting pretty close to picking in May a few weeks ago, so I emailed a farmer friend who I know grows peas and said, “Hey, when do you guys harvest peas? I’d like to profile you for my May Farming in Focus!” Unfortunately, they weren’t harvesting peas, but they were getting ready to plan green beans, so I jumped at the opportunity to photograph some green beans going into the ground. I was all ahead of schedule with this post until I got an email just a few days before the end of the month that said, “We’re getting ready to harvest peas now!” So I decided to hold it to include some pea harvest photos (because… obviously that’s worth waiting for.) But then it rained, and rained, and rained some more. So we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Which is a good lesson about farming – you can’t control the weather. I took the pea harvest photos just yesterday. Hope you enjoy.

This month I visited Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul, OR and met up with third generation farmer, Brenda Frketich.

Frketich-5Frketich and her family grow nine crops on a total of 1,000 acres. About 300 of those acres make up the home farm where Frketich’s parents live. Right down the road Frketich lives on 55 acres with her husband, Matt, and son, Hoot. Those nine crops include hazelnuts, ryegrass seed, tall fescue grass seed, green beans, peas, wheat, radish seeds, cabbage seeds and crimson clover seeds.

Frketich-7Until recently, Kirsch Family Farms only grew two crops: grass seed and hazelnuts. For years they did what a lot of farmers do – they regularly traded fields with neighboring farmers in order to rotate crops on the same land to preserve soil quality. But, as Frketich said, “Every farmer has their own way of farming,” and in order to maintain consistency in practice, they decided to learn how to grow their own rotation crops. Over recent years they’ve picked up seven additional crops that allow a rotation model they control. Frketich told me it’s definitely harder this way, and some of the rotation crops are riskier to grow, but it’s still better to not have all your eggs in one basket.

Frketich-6Frketich told me her favorite crop continues to be hazelnuts, even though for a long time her family wasn’t planting additional hazelnut trees because eastern filbert blight made it really difficult to grow them profitably. Eastern filbert blight is caused by a fungus that creates cankers and die back on branches and requires multiple fungicide applications to control. That changed when Oregon State University recently released a blight-resistant hazelnut tree. Now, as Frketich is doing,  many Oregon hazelnut growers are planting new orchards once again.

Frketich-8As I drove to meet Frketich, I kept seeing fields of crimson clover dotted with tiny seedlings, and I could not figure out what was going on. It turns out that in the first few years while the hazelnut trees are getting established, farmers can grow crops in the rows between the trees. This makes total sense – the trees are not big enough yet to form a canopy and block the sunlight to the ground, but they must be planted far enough apart to accommodate their future growth leaving a bunch of open ground. That seemed so clever to me until Frketich told me that it’s actually more of a constant trade-off. Sometimes you want to spray to control weeds in the crimson clover but you’re limited in what you can apply and the timing of that application because it might damage the hazelnut trees, and vise versa. For these trees in the picture above, this will be the last year they grow side-by-side with any other crops.

Frketich-2There are only three crops Frketich grows to actually eat, and green beans are one of them (peas and hazelnuts are the other two).  This year they are planting about 52 acres of green beans, split into two different plantings – one in May and one in June. Frketich told me this is basically to split the risk; the weather in Oregon is iffy this time of year and splitting the planting dates helps alleviate some of the risk associated with lack of control over the weather. They know the risk all too well. This year one of their pea fields got too much rain after planting and rotted in the ground. Fortunately, they were able to rent the land to a pumpkin grower, but that’s not always the case, and it’s a huge investment of time, labor and input cost to have that field not produce a crop. Before the green bean seeds even go into the ground, Frketich told me they’ve already been over this ground about 15 times. That includes passes to work the soil, and incorporate fertilizer, pre-emergent herbicides and moisture. I asked Frketich why they didn’t use a no-till approach with green beans and she told me no-till only works for some crops. Crops like green beans and cabbage need loose soil to establish a root structure, whereas crops like wheat don’t, but they do use a no-till approach when possible.

Frketich-1This is what a green bean seed looks like before it goes into the ground. Why is it pink? It  has a seed treatment on it that helps protect the seed as it germinates and emerges. The planter creates a furrow in the ground and drops ten seeds per foot and then covers the furrow back up as it passes by. The green beans will emerge in about seven days.

Frketich-11While green beans are getting planted on one part of the farm, Frketich’s husband Matt is applying a fungicide to their grass seed fields on another part of the farm to treat for rust. You can see why it’s called rust – it looks just like metal rusting on the blade of grass. The fungus restricts nutrients that the plant needs to develop seeds, which is exactly the kind of thing a grass seed farmer doesn’t want. Kirsch Family Farms grows turf grass seed (as opposed to forage grass seed for animals). Most of the seed they grow ends up in residential use and golf courses.

Frketich-10I had never been on a sprayer before, so I was pretty excited when Matt agreed to let me climb up on the truck and go for a few passes with him. I was particularly impressed with the technology the truck uses to apply the fungicide. The GPS guided sprayer is so precise that it knows exactly where it’s already been, so even if you drive over the same area you’ve already sprayed, the “auto boom” feature will turn the sprayer off so you can’t over-spray. So I said to Matt, “You mean you could just drive around willy nilly all over the field and it would turn on and off as necessary so you’d never apply twice in the same spot?!” “Well, yes, you could do that,” he said. His tone told me that was probably the stupidest idea he’d ever heard, but I thought it sounded pretty fun. The truck also has auto-steer which means he doesn’t even need to touch the steering wheel on fields that are more or less rectangular.

Frketich-3I grow cabbage in my own garden, and most people know what a cabbage plant looks like, but I’ve never seen cabbage flower and go to seed. If you’re growing the crop to eat the cabbage, you don’t want it to bolt (produce a flowering stem) because it impacts the flavor of the cabbage. But when you’re specifically growing the plant for the seeds, that’s exactly what you want. Frketich told me they even split the cabbage heads to induce bolting.

Frketich-4Another thing I didn’t know is that cabbage seed production requires a pollinator. Sitting on the corner of this field of cabbage were about 40 bee hives that Frketich rents for the duration of the bloom on their 26 acres of cabbage. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the bees need the pollen and nectar to produce honey for the beekeeper, and Frketich needs the bees to pollinate the cabbage flowers so they get a good seed crop.

Frketich-14This is a pea harvester! Kirsch Family Farms has a contract with Norpac Foods, so all of the peas they grow end up in bags of Flav-R-Pac frozen peas.  Norpac determines the variety of peas Frketich plants as well as the planting date so they can properly stagger all the harvesting contracts they have. When it’s time to harvest, Norpac sends out its team of harvesters  operating on a 24-hour schedule. The workers put in 12-hour shifts from 7:00 to 7:00. In fact, the harvesters arrived on Frketich’s fields at 3:00 a.m. so by the time I got there Friday morning at 10:00, they had already moved on to the neighbor’s field. But, no matter, we just drove over to the neighbor’s farm to watch these bad boys harvest at one acre of peas per hour! The team operates four harvesters for a combined rate of four acres per hour.

Frketich-15That’s right, I climbed up on a moving pea harvester to get this shot! I could actually hear the pea pods crunching as I stood up there. Inside the harvester is a giant drum that spins and throws the pea pods against a screen to break open the pods and filter out the peas, leaving all the pods and plant material behind. I couldn’t help but marvel at the efficiency of this beast – imagine having to pick and shell all those peas by  hand.

Frketich-13When the harvester is full of peas, it off-loads them into this “dump chief.” Then…

Frketich-16… the peas are dumped into a truck to be carried off to the cannery for cleaning and packing. That’s a lot of peas.

Frketich-12In the end, all that’s left behind on the field are the empty pea pods and plant material. Frketich has a nice trade set up with a cattle farmer – he comes and rakes up the leftover plant material and carries it off to feed his cattle. He gets the feed, and it cleans up the field for Frketich. She says she’s talked to other farmers who have tried not cleaning up the field, but the vines take so long to break down that you end up fighting them for a long time after the peas are gone.

I hope you learned something, because I sure did. And I had a blast climbing up on farm equipment! If you want to learn more about the trials and tribulations of Kirsch Family Farms – check out Frketich’s blog Nuttygrass.

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Q&A with Simplot Scientist Nicole Nichol

It’s been more than 20 years since genetically modified crops (or GMOs) were first introduced in 1994 with the Flavr Savr tomato. In those 20 years a lot has changed – for one, the Flavr Savr didn’t stay on the market (it was discontinued after three years) and now we have eight more commercially available GMO crops. It’s been nine years since the most recent GMOs (sugarbeets and alfalfa) were introduced in 2006. I like to think of the existing GM crops as the first generation of GMOs – a generation that focused on benefits for the producer by protecting against pests. One of the reasons I so strongly support GMOs is not because of what they’ve done so far (although it has been impressive) but because the technology has  incredible possibility to revolutionize both our impact on the environment and the nutritional profile of our food. We are quite literally on the brink of a second generation of GMOs that have the potential to reduce waste, use our dwindling resources more efficiently, and make our food better for us. Of course, the only sticking point is that we have to convince people to stop demonizing the technology so we can actually realize the possibility of what lies ahead.

Which brings me to the Innate Potato. No pressure, or anything, but I seriously hope the two newest GMO crops (the Innate™ Potato and the Arctic® Apple) can change the way people think about GMOs. Why do I hope that? Because these two biotech crops are directly and intentionally aimed at benefits for the consumer. And, best of all, they were not created by Monsanto.

Thaner family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

Nichol family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

So, today’s post is a Q&A with Nicole Nichol about the non-browning/low-acrylamide Innate Potato which has recently received USDA and FDA clearance. Nichol is a Biotech Regulatory Compliance Specialist at Simplot Plant Sciences. She helps to make sure Simplot follows all the regulations when working with biotech crops.  Before that she was a Transformation Associate Scientist in Plant Sciences for three-and-a-half years, where she used Agrobacterium to mediate the genetic engineering of plants.  Nichol grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado that was pretty devoid of agriculture due to the altitude.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and a master’s degree in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology from Michigan State University  where she studied GM potatoes for drought tolerance.  She now lives in Meridian, Idaho with her husband and three kids ages 6, 3, and 14 months.

Warning: this post is pretty sciency. When you ask a scientist questions about their science, expect to get very sciency answers. That said, it’s incredibly interesting stuff. Read on.

It’s MomSense: What are the benefits of Innate potatoes?

Nichol:  Innate potatoes in general have the benefit of being biotech potatoes that only use potato genes to alter the desired traits. In a sense we are doing precise breeding.  You could achieve the same traits using conventional breeding but it might take decades, if not longer, to get the same quality of potatoes.  Our first generation of Innate potatoes have two traits: non-browning/reduced black spot as a result of downregulating the PPO enzyme and reduced acrylamide as a result of reduced levels of the amino acid asparagine.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about acrylamide – what is it?

Nichol: Acrylamide is a naturally-occurring chemical compound found in many foods and beverages. In our diet acrylamide is formed during the Maillard reaction which involves heat, reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and the amino acid asparagine.  Acrylamide forms in coffee, prunes, potato chips, breakfast cereals and many other foods.  We have basically been consuming acrylamide since we discovered cooking with fire.  The more toasted or burnt your toast or fries are, the more acrylamide it is going to contain.

It’s MomSense: How much is present in a serving of french fries?

Nichol: From 39 samples of fries from Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. the mean level of acrylamide was 537 µg/kg (WHO, 2002). Or to try and put it in more familiar terms 0.000537 grams per 35.3 oz.  A large fry from a quick-serve restaurant is 5.9 oz.

It’s MomSense: How much will the Innate potatoes reduce acrylamide levels?

Nichol: Innate potatoes will reduce acrylamide levels by 50-70 percent over the conventional variety (depending on the variety of Innate potato and method of cooking).

It’s MomSense: What does the science actually say about acrylamide and cancer in humans?

Nichol: The toxic effects of acrylamide in food have been described as negligible in the literature (WHO, 2002 and Lineback et al., 2012). Neurotoxicity has been observed in rodent studies using a chronic drinking water method.  The WHO Consultation concluded that the NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) to be 0.5 mg/kg/day for humans.  The estimated average chronic human dietary intake of acrylamide is 1 µg/kg body weight/day, meaning the average person would have to eat 500 times more acrylamide than they typically do in a day.

In laboratory studies, acrylamide has been shown to be carcinogenic. Using somatic and germ cells in Petri plates, acrylamide can induce changes to DNA.  In studies using acrylamide treated rats they did have a slightly higher incidence of tumors.  After looking at all the data available, the WHO in 2002 declared acrylamide to be a Group 2A classification—probably carcinogenic in humans.  The classification falls in line with other carcinogens that are formed in food as a result of cooking.  The WHO also recognizes that further studies are needed to have a better understanding of the carcinogenic potential of acrylamide.  Their recommendation is to follow general healthy eating habits that moderate fried and fatty foods.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about the non-browning aspect – is there anything actually harmful about eating a browned potato, or is it purely aesthetics? How much does this reduce the browning?

Nichol: There is nothing harmful or unhealthy about eating a browned potato. Although this may appear to be purely for aesthetics, this does have an impact on consumers, processors and growers. It is estimated that 1.4 billion pounds of fresh Russet potatoes (the ones you buy in the grocery store) are wasted each year in the U.S. because of the browning and bruising.  If all Russet potatoes were converted to Innate potatoes, the U.S. would save 400 million pounds of waste in the retail and food service channels and a significant portion – perhaps upwards of 1 billion of the estimated 3 billion pounds discarded by consumers according to the Journal of Consumer Affairs.   Along with the less waste this would also save $90 million in producer costs, 60 million pounds of CO2 emissions and 6.7 billion gallons of water.  In our Innate Russet lines there is a 35-44 percent reduction in bruising compared to conventional Russets.

Innate vs conventional potato

Innate potato (left) and a conventional potato (right), 30 minutes after being peeled.

It’s MomSense: Back in the 90s, Monsanto and others were working on a GM potato that got abandoned largely because McDonalds and the fast-food industry said they wouldn’t source GM potatoes. In light of the recent Innate deregulation, McDonalds again affirmed it wouldn’t be sourcing this new GM potato, either. Seeing as Simplot is a large supplier of McDonalds potatoes, that must have come as no surprise. Why do you think the market is ready now and wasn’t in the 90s? How does McDonalds’ decision impact Simplot?

Nichol: I don’t know if the market is that different now than it was in the 90’s, I think our traits and how we are handling the market introduction is what is going to be the difference for GM potato this time around. Our traits touch the consumer, the processors and the growers.  For our market introduction, we are being very limited in who and where the crop is grown so that Innate potatoes will not be in potato market categories that are commonly exported.  Currently we only have deregulation in the U.S. and until deregulation is complete in other countries we will have a strong stewardship program intended to keep the potatoes away from the process and dehydrated markets.  In addition, we have a very limited amount of Innate potatoes at this time and it will be a few years before we would have enough seed inventory to supply quick serve restaurants.

It’s MomSense: What makes this product different from other GM products? I’ve read this is a cisgenic product, why is this an advantage?

Nichol: To date, this is the first commercial GM product that has sourced the genes for the traits from the plant’s same gene pool. The term cisgenics has been used to describe genes from within the same gene pool of the target species.  Transgenics generally refers to genes sourced from species outside of the targets specie’s gene pool.  Another way to think of it is that a cisgenic plant could be achieved through conventional breeding, where a transgenic plant can only be achieved using biotechnology methods.  We also do not use antibiotic marker genes in the development of our commercial Innate lines and the marker genes are typically used to develop other GM crops.  Antibiotic markers are safe, we however wanted to stay all within the potato genome for our products.  In some ways this made it a little harder for us to produce our Innate potatoes but we think it will help in consumer acceptance.   We have decided to call our technology “Innate™” to focus on technology that doesn’t involve foreign genes.

It’s MomSense: Where do the genes come from? Would it have been easier to do with transgenics?

Nichol: The genes come from Solanum tuberosum (the common cultivated potato) Ranger Russet variety and Solanum verrucosum a closely related species. Our traits are achieved by turning down the gene expression and this is actually best achieved by either using cisgenic approaches or synthetic DNA sequences.  It would have been less work to include an antibiotic resistance marker gene and this would have been a transgene.

It’s MomSense: This would be the very first GM product with a direct consumer benefit, and it feels like this product was intentionally aimed at consumers (has a healthy angle because it reduces carcinogens, and has an environmental angle because it reduces food waste, all using genes from within the potato family.) Do you believe this product will change the way consumers view GMOs? Was that part of the goal all along?

Nichol: It was part of the vision from the beginning to have a biotech product that has direct benefits for the consumer. If we end up changing consumers’ views of GM products, to being more positive overall, I think that will be an ancillary benefit.  My personal opinion is that 10-20 years from now fruit and vegetables with the non-browning trait will be just as common as seedless produce is today.  (And just to be clear those seedless varieties were not produced with biotech methods.) There is already the Arctic Apple, and just imagine avocados, bananas, pineapples, etc. that won’t turn brown!

It’s MomSense: I understand this product uses RNAi. Many folks get that confused with Terminator technology that is widely demonized by the anti-GMO crowd. Can you explain what RNAi is, how it’s used in this product, and how it’s different than Terminator?

Nichol: RNAi, or RNA interference, is a way to downregulate gene expression. Terminator technology refers to the overall way to keep pollen or seeds of genetically modified plants sterile.  Cells from bacteria to humans use gene downregulation all the time to ‘police’ what is going on in the cell, it does not mean it will lead to sterility.  The confusing part is that you could use RNAi to achieve the Terminator effect.  It’s like saying birds lay eggs, but not all eggs are from birds.  Initially the anti-GMO crowd came out very negatively against Terminator technology.  However, there has been a renewed interest in this technology by the same crowd that was once against it.  This is because there are difficulties in maintaining pure organic (a.k.a. GM free) seed stocks.

If you want to learn more about RNAi I recommend the tutorial from the PBS NOVA series.  It has a good ‘non-science’ analogy: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/rnai-explained.html.

RNAi evolved as a defense mechanism against viruses and that is why it is present in bacterial, plant and animal cells.  Normally in a cell double stranded DNA is the template to make single stranded RNA.  Single stranded RNA is the template to make proteins, and proteins are the all-important building blocks to life.  RNAi comes in, and like a defensive player in sports, it will double up the coverage making the single stranded RNA partially double stranded.  This defensive RNAi is very specific and will only double up on the single stranded RNA if the templates match.  Once the match is found that whole piece of single, and partially double, stranded RNA is chopped up like yesterday’s newspaper in a shredder.  The result is whatever gene (DNA) made that RNA will not be made into the protein and so the gene is considered downregulated or silenced.  In our Innate potatoes we use this RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the PPO enzyme that causes the browning and another RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the amino acid asparagine.  If you are reading this and have some basic biochemistry knowledge you may be wondering how we can “silence” an amino acid, because amino acids make proteins and are definitely necessary.  This is possible because the amount of RNAi can vary.  So to bring back a sports analogy if you have three defensive players (RNAi) and five offensive players (regular single stranded RNA) the three defensive players will only be able to partially cover their opponents.  Thus we only get partial gene downregulation.  And just like in sports, sometimes the defense can still steal the ball and score when they are outnumbered; we can still have less acrylamide with there still being some asparagine out there in the cells.  We have also used a tuber specific promoter so that this gene downregulation only occurs in the tuber (the part of the potato plant we all know and love) and not in the leaves or roots or other parts of the plant.

The other unique point about potatoes is that they are a vegetatively propagated crop, they are not grown from botanical seed.  This means that when you grow a potato plant you use a tuber, or at least a piece of a tuber that has an eye.  That eye will sprout, as you have probably seen happen in your pantry, and those sprouts will grow into a plant.  This process can go on and on, year after year, and never requires pollination to get a new plant.  This means that the risk of gene flow from our Innate potatoes to conventional potatoes is not a concern.  So although RNAi and Terminator technology are not related, there is no purpose to using Terminator technology in biotech potato production.

It’s MomSense: Why didn’t Simplot decide to stack this technology with farmer benefits like disease or pesticide resistance?

Nichol: As I mentioned above, the Innate potatoes do have a farmer/grower benefit in that the grower is able to capture more value in their harvested crop with less of the potatoes going to waste due to black spots and browning. As for also including a trait like disease or herbicide resistance, the disease resistance is actually in the pipeline.  We have a potato gene from Solanum venturii (another close relative to the cultivated potato) that confers resistance to potato late blight.  Potato late blight is the disease that caused the Irish potato famine and it is still a big problem in potato production today.  It is a fungi like organism (an oomycete to be exact) and growers have to spend lots of money and time spraying fungicides to keep the late blight at bay.  This trait has been stacked on to our first traits and will be available in our second release of Innate potatoes.  We hope to have deregulation from the USDA for our second version of Innate potatoes by the end of 2015.  We are also working on introducing more genes for late blight resistance to have more global, long term resistance along with resistance to PVY, a virus that results in yield loss and is carried by aphids.

It’s MomSense: The Center for Food Safety and other critics claim RNAi is “untested” and inadequately regulated. Of course, they say this about all biotechnology, so I don’t think it holds much water, but the one point they make is interesting – that somehow this application of RNAi impacts the potato’s ability to fend off pests. Is there any truth to that? Has that been thoroughly tested?

Nichol: PPO has been shown in some literature to be induced when a pest is feeding on the plant and thus is thought to provide some resistance to the pest. However, there was little research on potato plants so we investigated this issue extensively while working on the development of these potatoes.  We found that because we are only downregulating Ppo5 (one of several PPO genes) in the tubers and not in the leaves this reduces the risk of increased loss due to pests. Also there are several genes that code for different variations of PPO and we only silenced one of them.  After growing and storing potatoes across the U.S. for several years there were no significant differences in pest or disease issues in our Innate potatoes compared to the conventional varieties.  RNAi is a very specific mechanism within the cell.  Only the specific double-stranded RNA will be degraded for that specific gene.  The potato DNA that we inserted is very specific to target Ppo5 and Asn1 (asparagine gene) and our studies have not found any “off-target” gene downregulation.

It’s MomSense: Will we ever see the Innate potato in the supermarket or is it exclusively going for commercial use?

Nichol: We hope to have Innate potatoes available in grocery stores as both whole potatoes in the bag like you are used to buying and as washed, peeled, and cut raw potatoes in packaging in the refrigerated produce aisle. Again we will initially not have a large supply to have it in all grocery stores for the next year or two, but we definitely want to get these directly to consumers so they can recognize the value in a reduced bruising, non-browning potato.

It’s MomSense: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Nichol: I briefly mentioned our second version of Innate potatoes that will include the late blight resistance and we have also included downregulation of Invertase. Similar to the PPO and asparagine downregulation, the Invertase downregulation is achieved through RNAi and this will only be in the tuber.  Invertase is involved in converting sucrose to glucose and fructose (those reducing sugars previously mentioned).  With less reducing sugars there will be even less acrylamide formation than in our first version of Innate.  Up to 90 percent less acrylamide than conventional potatoes.  Another benefit to less reducing sugars is that you can store potatoes in a colder storage for longer.  Traditionally certain varieties of potatoes are stored between 46-50°F, for about 4-5 months.  There are other potato varieties that cannot be stored.  Our Innate potatoes with downregulated Invertase can be stored at colder temperatures for possibly a longer time period; even converting varieties that could not be stored into a variety that can be stored.  This is important for potatoes that will be processed into fries or chips.

innate friesconventional friesInnate Burbank (top) and conventional Burbank (bottom), second generation with reduced Invertase.  The dark brown color in the conventional Burbank fries are a result of higher reducing sugars content.

Lastly, I would just like to emphasize that there is no evidence that any commercially available GM crop possess any more risk than traditional crops in terms of health for humans, animals and the environment. As I mother I have no problem feeding Bt sweet corn to my kids and I can’t wait to feed them Innate potatoes from this year’s harvest!

References

Lineback, D. R., Coughlin, J. R., & Stadler, R. H. (2012). Acrylamide in foods: a review of the science and future considerations. Annual review of food science and technology, 3, 15-35.

World Health Organization. Food Safety Programme. (2002). Health Implications of Acrylamide in Food: Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Consultation, WHO Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland, 25-27 June 2002. Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.

Thornton, M. (2003). The rise and fall of NewLeaf potatoes. Biotechnology: Science and Society at a Crossroad. National Agricultural Biotechnology, Council Boyce Thompson Institute, Ithaca, New York, 235-243.

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Farming In Focus: April – Dairy

This is my second Farming in Focus post as part of a new project where I visit at least one farm each month and do kind of a day-in-the-life of a farmer through photo essay. This month I focused on dairies – I visited three, in fact. I had an ulterior motive, though, because I’m simultaneously working on a story about milk labels (more on that later) so I wanted to sample a few different approaches to milk-production, if you will. I visited one dairy in Oregon and two dairies in Washington as part of a trip I took to Spokane for the AgChat Pacific Northwest Regional Agvocacy conference.  This is also why I’m a few days late with this post – I have too much on my plate!

First I visited Cloud Cap Farms, an organic dairy in Boring, Oregon. (It’s really not all that boring, though, it was really interesting.)CloudCap Farm-1Melissa Collman is a fourth generation dairy farmer. Her family’s  dairy has been in business since 1924 and chose to go organic in 2004 as a way to financially stabilize their business. Organic dairies get paid a contracted price for their milk, where most conventional dairies get paid a fluctuating price based on current market value. Part of being organic means they are unable to treat their cows with antibiotics. One way that they reduce the need for antibiotics is to “hutch” raise their calves (each calf in it’s own hutch with an outdoor paddock) instead of “mob” raise them (all together). This way if one calf gets sick, they don’t all get sick. After about 60-90 days, they are moved to a group environment. If a cow does get sick, they try to use alternatives to antibiotics, but in the event that a cow gets something like pneumonia that can only be treated with antibiotics, they either treat with antibiotics and sell the cow to a conventional dairy or, very rarely, euthanize the cow.

CloudCap Farm-2One difference Collman has noticed since they went organic is that they feed their cows less than they used to, and as a result the calves are smaller and require less assistance in birth and the cows have fewer Displaced Abomasum (DA) or twisted stomachs. As a downside to not feeding the cows so much, they produce less milk. Part of that difference is because the components of the feed is different – for example, they can’t feed cottonseed or beet pulp because they can’t source it organically, and even if they could it would be cost-prohibitive. They currently feed their cows a forage-based feed with about ten percent grain, whereas when they were conventional they feed them about 25 percent grain. While the contracted price they get for their milk stays the same, they do suffer fluctuations in feed costs.  “It’s been a rough few years for us, I’m not going to lie,” Collman said. “The cost of feed is going up and not going down – the drought in California is hurting farmers. I really feel for my conventional counterparts who don’t get that contracted milk price.”

CloudCap Farm-3Something that really surprised me as I was walking around all three dairies is the amount that cows poop. Seriously, non-stop pooping. They poop where they lay, eat, sleep. They poop when they get up, they poop while they’re laying down. It sounded like someone continually dumping bags of oranges on the ground (and I’m not even going to talk about the pee-faucet those cows turn on.) So, what to do with all that poop? Most dairies have a lagoon to which they move all the manure. On Collman’s dairy, they flush manure water down these chutes and out into the lagoon. They separate the “solids” into a compost that they use to fertilize their alfalfa fields and re-circulate the manure water to wash out the barn. Stinky, but efficient.

CloudCap Farm-4One requirement for organic dairies is the cows must be on pasture, but Collman’s dairy was pasture-based before they went organic, so that made it a little easier for them. “I still thought we were amazing farmers as conventional farmers,” said Collman. She noted that she doesn’t believe organic is just a marketing ploy, that they truly believe in what they do and this production method is a good fit for  her family. “But what’s best practice on our farm isn’t necessarily best practice on another farm,” she said.

 

Next I visited Stauffer Dairy, about an  hour north of Spokane, Washington.

Stauffer farm-1

Brandon and his wife Krista milk about 150 cows on their first-generation dairy they started in 2009. They also have three young kids who were dashing about the whole time I was there, climbing on fences, hanging on Krista and trying to coerce me into coming to see their baby chicks. They seemed immensely happy to be there and to show me their way of life. Part of that way of life is to rake out and level the stalls twice a day, as Brandon is doing here. All the stalls get new pine shavings weekly. The heifers were moved from outside to be checked by their veterinarian before being moved to summer pasture and in this photo are in a corner of the freestall barn that isn’t normally used for milk cows. Krista also pointed out that some of the stalls need to be repaired. “Cow size stalls  and young heifers do not mix well. As you can see they made a mess and it is a work out to clean up after them.” Summer pasturing provides a welcome break for that particular chore.

Stauffer farm-2

While the cows were in the parlor being milked, Brandon was cleaning out the barn. (I like to think of him as a manure management engineer.)He drove this tractor equipped with what looked to me like a reverse-snow plow and shoveled those massive amounts of manure I mentioned before into their lagoon. Unlike Collman, their dairy is not set up to flush the manure into the lagoon, so they must push it out manually. Yes, those wheels are covered in cow manure and yes,  he’s smiling about it. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job. Props to him, though, he didn’t bat an eye. The tractor scrapes all the manure to a slot that then transfers it to the lagoon. All the Stuaffers’ manure is used as fertilizer for feed that is grown for their farm as well as a neighboring dairy farm.

Stauffer farm-3

After filling up with feed, Brandon feeds the heifers in a transition pin (a heifer is a young female cow that has not yet had a calf.) The heifers stay in this transition pen for a short period after they are weaned off milk to be monitored for health, and checked by the veterinarian to make sure all is well. Then they are vaccinated for bangs (Brucellosis, a reproductive disease) and moved to pasture.  Stauffer farm-4The Stauffers purchase all of their feed – they feed a combination of alfalfa hay and silage, mixed with grass, barley and corn. Hay is dried forage like grass or alfalfa where silage is fermented forage.  I mentioned to Krista that Cloud Cap Farms has experienced fewer assisted births and DAs since they went organic. I asked her if they felt like conventional dairies suffered more in that regard than organic dairies. She told me, “Each farm is different. On our farm, we rarely have a DA, maybe once a year. As far as pulling calves, it is not common practice on our farm.”stauffer-6The Stauffers have 25 calves on whole milk right now. The feed changes as they get older, but one thing that remains constant is that they are feed alfalfa hay and/or silage as well as barley for their grain.

 

The last farm I visited was Douglas Falls Creamery and Barton Hay in Colville, Washington.

Barton farm-1Angie Barton and her husband, Dennis, own Douglas Falls Creamery, a certified raw milk micro-dairy on 470 acres two hours north of Spokane. They can only farm 80 of those acres (the rest are mountainous) but they lease an additional 100 acres  for a total of 180 acres to grow alfalfa, alfalfa/grass hay and barley or oat hay for the local goat, horse and family cow market. Barton is an animal expert with 40 years of experience  – she started working with goats when she was five years old. On their farm they have horses, Jersey cows, Icelandic and Friesian sheep, Alpine goats, one donkey, one pony, one llama, guinea pigs, two pot-bellied pigs, Blue Slate turkeys, laying hens, banty chickens, ring-necked doves, Japanese quail, emus (seen in this image), geese, Muscovy ducks, guinea fowl, pigeons and two dogs. They also have Barton’s four children and her niece living with them on their farm.

Barton farm-2I’ll freely admit that I’m not a morning person (and my husband will back me up on this) but I got up at 5:30 a.m. to take pictures of Barton’s twin daughters, Ellie (seen here) and Claire doing the morning chores. I said to Claire, “You do this every single morning?” and she said, “Yes. And every evening.” I said, “How do you go on vacation?” and she said, “We haven’t gone on vacation all together since we got cows.” Twice a day from March through November Ellie hand milks six to eight goats. And it was 30 degrees out there!

Barton farm-3 Barton got certified to sell raw milk in September of 2012 and they sell approximately 75 gallons a month at $4 per half gallon, the rest they mix with grain to feed the chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and about five butcher hogs per year. In order to sell raw milk, you must have a small herd – Claire milks between three and five cows twice a day. They fully recognize the risk associated with raw milk and Barton told me they only do it for the taste, she doesn’t believe there is a nutritional advantage. “Jerseys have higher butterfat which we skim off mostly, but the milk is sweeter,” she said. “I’m not sure if it is because of the Jersey breed or not being heated or what we feed them, but I always say it’s like a fresh peach off the tree compared to canned peaches. I continue to tell my customers that pasteurized milk is the safest and that we don’t drink it for any other reason than the taste and that we know we can do a safe job, but there is always that risk.”

Barton farm-4

Barton says selling the milk provides them with enough to pay the costs of feed and a little extra, but they also have a hay business and Dennis has a seasonal full-time job. Dennis grew up on a dairy farm and has been in the haying business all his life. She says between all that, it’s enough to get by. “Although we don’t make our living entirely by farming, it just seems to be what we were meant to do and I can’t imagine living and raising a family any other way. I am so thankful that we have this opportunity.”

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Farming In Focus: March – Out Like A Lamb

This kicks off the very first post of my Farming In Focus project! My plan is to visit a different farm each month and do a sort of “day-in-the-life” of a farmer through photography. There are a number of reasons I’m doing this project  – primarily it’s to shine a light on what real life farming is like. I was recently at a training seminar put on by the Center for Food Integrity, and one nugget they shared that amazed me was that “most consumers are seven generations removed from agriculture.” That explains a lot about why consumers are sometimes confused about how their food is produced. How can we expect consumers to see through ridiculous marketing claims when in truth, they really don’t have any idea if chickens are raised using hormones or not? (If you read my series on egg labels, you already know that answer: all poultry is produced without hormones.)  So this project hopes to help, in some small way, bridge that gap.

Another reason I’m doing this project is because while I do have quite a bit of knowledge about the workings of agriculture, I haven’t spent that much time on a farm. In fact, I’ve never farmed a day in my whole life.  I visited a number of farms while working for Monsanto, but that consisted of mostly row crops. Here in Oregon, I have the benefit of being surrounded by great agricultural diversity, and this is my plan to get out there and learn more about what goes on in my own state. Hopefully  sharing what I learn with you will help us all learn a little more about agriculture.

Lastly, while I like to think of myself as an amazing writer (I’ll pause here for your applause), my degree is actually in photojournalism. Shocker, I know. I love doing documentary photography, and this will give me a chance to do it more.

I decided to focus on sheep for March, primarily because a friend of mine  posted on Facebook that she was shearing her sheep this month in preparation for lambing season.  Unfortunately, my friend lives eight hours away, so I started searching for someone closer! I ended up visiting two different sheep farms, one smallish and one more medium to large sized. Plus, it worked so well with the adage that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb!

The first farm I visited was SuDan Farm outside of Canby.

SuDan farm-1

Susie and Dan Wilson raise about 1300 grass-fed lambs per year, which Susie says is on the small end compared to some farms. They also raise about 30 pastured turkeys, 100 pastured chicken, pastured eggs, and produce many wool products which they direct-market. “We’re not organically certified,” Susie said.  “When people ask if we are I say no because we want to keep food affordable. If we had to get organically certified we’d make no money and we’d have to double or triple the price. When people ask that, though, they don’t care so much about that as they do animal welfare. If my animal needs a medication to help them, they’re going to get it.”

SuDan Farm-2

While Dan grew up in a farming family, Susie is a nurse practitioner by training but has always wanted to be a farmer. She started knitting when she was five and has been spinning since the 80’s. She started her own small-flock shearing business because she figured if she was going to be a sheep farmer she needed to know how to shear. She met Dan and has been farming with him for 15 years. She knows wool well and sells all her own fiber online and at  local farmers’ markets.

SuDan Farm-3

SuDan Farm had about 40 lambs when I visited this month. They keep about 40-50 each year for their own breeding stock, and the rest are sold either as breeding stock or sold for meat. SuDan Farm supplies wholesale lamb to 30-40 restaurants, including many well-known local restaurants like those at Timberline Lodge and OHSU. They also provide lamb to local food carts, wineries and caterers.

SuDan Farm-4

Susie has one lamb that she’s nursing along away from the mother until it’s big enough to re-join the rest on the pasture. Most ewes have single or twin lambs. When triplets are born, Susie takes one of the triplets away because ewes are not well-suited to raise triplets and often will abandon one. This way, all the triplet lambs survive.

SuDan farm-5

The day I visited was pretty much pouring rain. Aside from giving me (and a few other visitors) a tour, Susie was posting fleece on Facebook and sowing seeds in her greenhouse for their own vegetable garden.

SuDan Farm-6

Dan told me if it hadn’t been as wet as it was the day I visited he would have  been rototilling. As it was, he was repairing a trailer that they use to haul anything from compost to lambs.

SuDan Farm-7At 74, Dan told me he’s working pretty much every day. When they’re not delivering meat to restaurants they’re working the Portland Farmers Market every Saturday year-round at Portland State University and the Milwaukie Farmers Market every Sunday, May through October. The rest of the time, he’s working on the farm.  He told me a vacation day is when he doesn’t do anything in the hours between feeding the animals in the morning and feeding them at night.

 

The next farm I visited was Crescent Lake Farms on Sauvie Island.

Trupp farm-1

The first thing Lynn Trupp does each morning is fire off a shotgun shot to scare off the thousands of geese who are eating the pasture meant for the sheep.  I was trying to get a picture of him firing off the gun, but even though I was expecting it, the shot made me jump so much I missed my chance. Instead I looked off to the field and literally saw the horizon lifting up with geese. Lynn said in addition to eating the grass, the geese also eat the first crop of alfalfa. He later showed me his neighbors wheat field that had should have been twice as tall had the geese not eaten it down to the ground a few weeks ago.  They’ve tried everything to keep the geese away, but nothing works very well. “Sometimes I scare them off for the day, but sometimes they just move over a bit or come right back.”

Trupp Farm-2

Lynn’s wife Mary is the fourth generation on this farm, and Lynn himself grew up a sheep rancher near Eugene.  In addition to roughly 750 sheep, they also have a couple hundred cattle, as well as some chickens, emus, rabbits and any number of other projects their daughter, a veterinary technician, keeps for fun. This year they have 300 mother ewes, each giving birth to one to three lambs. The rams are kept elsewhere. After scaring off the geese, Lynn gets to work feeding the animals.

Trupp Farm-3

Unlike SuDan Farm, Lynn and his wife don’t direct market any of their lamb, all of it goes to a slaughter house. He said in the past they’ve tried to sell it themselves but he got tired of folks trying to haggle him on the price and trying to slaughter the lambs on his property. All the wool they shear goes to Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland.

Trupp Farm-4

Just like Susie, Lynn takes away the triplets from the mother ewes to make sure they all survive. He had about a dozen triplets he was feeding a milk replacement similar to formula. Some of the lambs needed to be bottle fed, while some of them could drink their own milk. As soon as they’re big enough, they’ll join the other lambs in the communal pen.

Trupp farm-5

In addition to it being the end of lambing season, it’s also calving season. Lynn usually leaves all the calves with the cows, but this one needed special help – it’s never been able to stand up. Lynn thinks perhaps it got stepped on during the birthing process and has a broken back. “I’m probably wasting my time,” Lynn said,  “but you never know.  I’ll make a harness and get her up and moving around. Sometimes these things heal themselves.” If not, the calf will have to be euthanized.

Trupp Farm-6

After feeding the triplet lambs milk, he feeds the older lambs spent brewers grain that he gets for free from a local brewery. Well, not exactly for free – he has to pick up the six to seven tons every week, which isn’t a trivial cost in transportation. He considers it well worth it, though, as it makes a great feed product for the lambs.

Trupp Farm-7

The heaviest part of lambing season is over – there are only about 45 pregnant ewes left that will mostly produce only a single lamb each because the majority of them are first-time mothers; they were only born a year ago themselves. Lynn feeds them  alfalfa that he grows himself. I asked him if the pregnant ewes eat the most, but he told me they don’t eat nearly as much as the nursing mother ewes.

Trupp Farm-8

While I was following Lynn around, he discovered a brand-new pair of lambs born less than two hours before I got there; they were still wet. After the lambs are born, Lynn moves them and the mother into what’s called a jug pen to make sure everyone is doing well and nursing. Ideally, they stay in the jug pen for two to three days, but Lynn said when they’re in the thickest part of lambing season, sometimes they only get to stay in the jug pen for a few hours before they’re moved out to make room for a newer set. Lynn has about 40 jug pens that need fresh food and water two or three times per day. The gestation period for a sheep is five months. A ewe’s milk is very high in fat and lambs gain almost a pound a day.

Trupp farm-9

Three hundred mother ewes means at least three hundred, maybe six hundred lambs. Each one of them must be given vaccines, and have their tails docked. The males also must be castrated. Lynn does all the work himself, sometimes with the help of his daughter as seen here. He can do it alone if need be with the aid of a special harness.  Starting in April they treat the lambs to get rid of worms every thirty days and run the whole flock through a foot bath to prevent foot rot about every three weeks.

Trupp farm-10

Every day Lynn drives the perimeter of his pasture on an ATV to both deliver food for his guard dogs and to check for lambs that have been killed by coyotes.  That white bucket contained more dog food than I have ever seen given to a dog, but as soon as we drove through that fence, a huge white dog came running from about half a mile away. I love dogs, but he did not look friendly. “If he’s friendly, he won’t be good at his job,” Lynn said.  Lynn’s dogs spend their life on the pasture guarding the sheep from coyotes, which explains why they need so much food. Lynn’s family owns 230 acres for those dogs to patrol. Trupp farm-11Thankfully, we didn’t find any dead lambs that day, and Lynn said so far this has been a pretty good year – he’s only lost a few lambs to coyotes. A few years ago, he lost about 70 lambs to coyotes.  In our drive around the perimeter, we saw places where the coyotes were digging under the fence and evading Lynn’s traps. I asked Lynn if he was concerned about the recent wolf sighting on Mt. Hood, and he said, “Yes, I’m very concerned. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be here.”  After driving out on the pasture, Lynn took me in  his truck to check on the cattle that he keeps on rental pasture in the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area owned by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lynn drives out to check on the cattle at least once or twice a day to look for cows that are having trouble calving and also just to have a presence since the area is open to the public. In the past, Lynn said he’s had trouble with people slaughtering his cows, so the more he’s present, the less likely it is that will happen. “If I’m honest with you,” he said, “there’s always something that I should be doing. I don’t always get to it all, but there’s always something that needs to be done.”

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On Getting Older and Being Thankful

The other day on the walk home from the bus stop, June said to me, “Can I call you Mom instead of Mommy?” “What’s wrong with Mommy,” I asked. “It sounds too babyish,” she said, “all the kids at school say Mom instead of Mommy. I’m going to call you Mom now.” Then she tossed her backpack at me and scampered off to play with the neighbors.

J&J visit-16Next fall I’ll have two school-aged children. Not babies anymore, just kids in school. I’m not a “new” mom or a mom with “two little ones” anymore. No one smiles at us in the grocery store anymore and says, “oh, what an adorable baby!” Now we’re just the annoying family with two loud kids. The novelty has worn off; I’m just a regular old Mom. Wait, old? Older, at least – a few weeks ago I actually posted on my personal Facebook account asking my friends what kind of mop they use. Some friends lol’d and said, “haha, look how old we are” but I was all, “haha, yeah. But what kind of mop do you like?” Because, you know, that shit’s important to me it seems. Whatever else happens in life, at least I’ll know I got that mop thing all squared away.

So now I’m just a regular Mom figuring out the best way to clean the floor. And before that makes me feel old and sad, I’m going to head it off with a finger-wag at myself: You should feel grateful that you get to worry about which mop is best. People are always saying, “First-world problems, right?” Aside from that being something that people say, don’t forget the truth in that. If there’s one thing we should all be thankful for this time of year, it’s that we got lucky enough to be born in America and not in Liberia or Iran or the Gaza strip. Because that means I get to worry about what mop to use and not if my child will die of Ebola or be abducted from school by the government and never seen again.

We’re lucky to have choices at all. And plumbing. We spend a lot of time these days quibbling over where our food comes from, how it’s made, how it’s packaged, and what we eat it on. We should be ever so thankful that the conversation can be about whether food has GMOs in it and not if we’re going to have food at all. I’m thankful that we live in a country that has the most abundant, affordable, and safest food supply in the world, supplied by hard-working farmers. And I’m thankful those farmers have the choice to use technology to grow that food, or not. I’m thankful we have the choice to buy whatever kind of food we like:  organic, GM and conventional. We’re lucky as hell that we have grocery stores on every corner jam-packed full of affordable food. I’m thankful that I have the luxury of buying a cart full  of groceries and spending a whole day cooking tasty food with my mom in the comfort of a warm house with running water and electricity.

KC-CO visit-105Another thing that I’m reminded of as I get older and become Mom. Remember when you were young and holidays were a whirl of cookies and decorations and holiday parties and snowball fights and the hardest thing you had to do was wait until Christmas morning to open all those gifts? It felt like all that stuff just “happened.” The decorations went up while you were at a friend’s house, the food made itself, the gifts appeared (wrapped and all) and after the meal you just carried your plate over to the sink and that was all. Someone even made sure you didn’t burn your Christmas money in the fireplace when you tossed in some wrapping paper. That shit does not just happen, oddly enough. Now I’m the one baking those cookies, working the schedule to fit in all the holiday parties, washing wet mittens, crawling around in the knee-wall space finding the decorations and doing mountains of dishes. I know next week my husband is going to say, “I do NOT want to put up those Christmas lights. It’s cold and it’s raining. Can we just punt and get one of those inflatable snowmen from Costco?”

So aside from being thankful this year that I live in America where food is plentiful and cheap, I’m also thankful that my parents made holidays fun and effortless. I’m thankful that I didn’t even know cranberry sauce came in a can until I was in college, because my mom made everything from the cranberry sauce to the gravy from scratch. And she made it look easy. My dad put up the Christmas lights every year, without fail, and he made sure we went as a family to pick out and cut down our own fresh Christmas tree. They tried to keep Santa alive for us as long as they could – even one year going as far as using my dad’s shoes in the fireplace ashes to leave tracks on the carpet. There were always cookies, and lots of gifts and it was awesome. And they weren’t doing it so they could post pictures on Facebook and all their friends could virtually high-five them for making it such a Pinterest-inspired Christmas. They were doing it for us. And I’m thankful for that, because it makes me want to do it for my kids as well.

Finally, one more thing I’m thankful for. I’ve written before on how I’d like to go back to work, and as I look at those options I’m thankful that I’ve been afforded the opportunity to spend these last six-and-a-half years with my littles, because all of a sudden they’re not so little anymore. I’m lucky to have a healthy family that gets to enjoy this holiday together with bellies full of good food and warm memories.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Why you should oppose mandatory GMO labeling

Note: Today’s post corresponds to a radio interview I did that aired today on the Ag Information Network’s Daily Farm and Ranch Report (audio clip at the end of the post.)

Next month Oregonians will vote on whether to require mandatory labels for foods that contain genetically modified organism (GMOs). While the supporters of Measure 92 want you to believe this is about your “Right to Know” what’s in your food, that it’s about transparency,  consumer preference, and choice, it’s not. What it’s really about is getting more people to buy foods that don’t contain no on 92GM ingredients (like organic), and in the end, it’s about banning the technology all together. Mandatory labeling is not based on science, because there isn’t any debate in the scientific community about the safety of GMOs. This measure will prevent progress of a beneficial technology, it will mislead consumers, and it will force all of us to pay for one group’s ideological preference. Not only that, but two nation-wide, voluntary labels already identify GM-free products for consumers who do want to pay extra – organic and voluntarily labeled non-GMO products.  Here’s why you should vote no.

Mandatory labeling presents an unnecessary barrier to the progress of a technology that is immensely beneficial

The United Nations estimates that food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to feed our growing population. Not only will we need to rise to that immense challenge, we’ll have to do it with more people on the planet taking up more space and using more natural resources while climate change is making it even more difficult to grow food. Even though this seems like an unattainable goal, we have tools to make it happen, and biotechnology must be one of them. Let me be clear, biotechnology is not a magic bullet; it won’t solve the problem alone. We’re going to need everything we have, every production method, every idea, every innovation. Instead of embracing all of the tools we have, what we’re doing with mandatory labeling is putting up a warning sign to consumers that will likely encourage them to buy something else. Why is that a problem? Because if consumers send a loud and clear message that they don’t want this (safe and useful) technology, researchers will stop investing in it. It’s already incredibly difficult to get a biotech product to market (and it should be, the safety testing and regulation is and should be rigorous), but with less interest and less funding, it will be even harder and the result will be less innovation. And that may not bother you because you have plenty of food now and plenty of money to buy food, but it will have consequences for those who don’t have plenty of food, money, and land, and it’s irresponsible not to consider the welfare of that portion of the population.

Mandatory labeling is misleading because it implies that food produced through genetic modification is harmful

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

Current mandatory food labels (like allergy warnings about peanuts or trans fat declarations) tell consumers about nutritional differences and potential health risks in food. Consumers will likely infer a warning from this GMO label that foods containing GM ingredients might be harmful or different when the science supports just the opposite. GM food has been on the market for almost twenty years without a single incident of adverse health effects. Thousands of studies, from both industry and independent sources, have verified, and continue to verify the safety of these products – they are the most researched and tested products in agricultural history. In fact, every major scientific body and regulatory agency in the world has declared these foods safe, including those in Europe (they are not disallowed there due to safety.) There is no debate in the scientific community about the safety of these products, so there is no need to scare consumers away from them with a punitive label.

Additionally, these labels don’t actually provide good information about what consumers are eating – this measure would require that some foods that don’t actually contain any detectable GM ingredients (like sugar and oil) be labeled as containing GM, and some foods (like meat and dairy) that have also been produced with GM ingredients won’t require a label. Genetic modification is achieved by changing DNA, which leads to changed proteins. Food that does not contain DNA or protein (like purified sugar, oils, and corn starch) do not contain these detectable markers of GM and cannot be tested as GM or non-GM. The only way to know is by following the ingredients from farm to table. Supporters of this measure claim that other countries label GM, but many of those, like New Zealand, don’t require labeling for these kinds of ingredients. The only way manufacturers would be able avoid Oregon’s required label is by providing “sworn statements” declaring these food ingredients have not been made with genetic modification. Without this paper trail, even ingredients that didn’t come from GM crops would require the warning label.  And because there’s no way to test for it, it opens the door for a lot of he-said/she-said disagreement and lawsuits.

Mandatory labeling forces all of us to pay more for one group’s ideological preference

My friend Tiffany Marx, mom, farmer, and vice president of Oregon Women for Ag, is voting no on 92.

My friend Tiffany Marx, mom, farmer, and vice president of Oregon Women for Ag, is voting no on 92.

Studies of measures similar to Oregon’s suggest that this will cost about $400 a year for a family of four. The proponents of this measure want you to believe that the cost is as little as printing a label on a product, but that’s naïve about how complex the food production business is. Even if you put aside the considerable cost associated with the record-keeping systems required for conventional foods to avoid the “contains GM” label, there are unavoidable costs down the road. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume there is no cost associated with just slapping a “contains GM” label on a product that’s going to be sold in Oregon. What do you think the response will be to this label? You can probably group consumers into three categories: those who already oppose GM, those who support it, and those who are on the fence. The first group already avoids GM by buying organic or foods voluntarily labeled as non-GM. The second group won’t change their buying habits. It’s the third group that this label targets – and their likely response will be to not buy that product because it appears to be a safety warning. So sales of that product will plummet in Oregon and the manufacturer could make the decision to drop GM ingredients. That forces the price up considerably because non-GM ingredients cost more. Who do you think will end up paying for that?

Which leads me to the point: if you choose to avoid GM you already have that choice, and you, and you alone, should be the one who pays the extra cost for an extreme precautionary decision not based in science. We currently have two options for consumers who choose to avoid GMOs: organic that is by definition non-GMO, or foods voluntarily labeled as GMO-free. This is not about safety, it’s about preference. Why should we all pay more when options already exist for those who want to avoid food made from GM?

This measure doesn’t address the problems people have with agriculture

Too often the conversation about GMOs is muddled up with people’s dislike of modern agriculture. There was a great quote in this month’s National Geographic article “The Next Green Revolution” about GMOs. Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute said, “We do feel a bit betrayed by the environmental movement, I can tell you that. If you want to have a conversation about what the role of large corporations should be in our food supply, we can have that conversation – it’s really important. But it’s not the same conversation about whether we should use these tools of genetics to improve our crops. They’re both important, but let’s not confound them.” A lot of people are pushing for mandatory labeling because they want to send a message to Monsanto, or they don’t like pesticides or patents on seeds, but mandatory labeling is the wrong way to address those issues, and it won’t even do that. Read this article from Grist about four issues GMO labeling won’t solve, and see if you still think it’ll accomplish what you think it will.  If we really need a labeling system for GM ingredients, it should be done on a national level, not by a patchwork state-by-state approach, and it should be implemented by the FDA and based on sound science, not fear mongering and marketing.

ban gmo image

Source: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/

One of the great things about US agriculture is its ability to provide diverse options for consumers. There’s room, and necessity, in agriculture for all types of production: conventional, organic, and GM. This labeling initiative disparages one type of agriculture solely for a marketing advantage, and that’s unacceptable. There is a lot of talk in the media about who’s contributing to the No on 92 campaign, highlighting that Monsanto has contributed the most. But the “Yes” side is getting funded by groups who make money by getting you to fear conventional and GM agriculture. Not only will their bottom dollar be impacted by this labeling initiative, they have openly stated their end goal is to ban GM technology. Mercola.com is one of the biggest contributors to the Yes campaign. Yes, the same Joseph Mercola who sells controversial dietary supplements on his website, has been warned by the FDA to stop making illegal claims about his products, who is anti-vaccine, and who apparently doesn’t believe HIV causes AIDS. He also said in an article on his website, “Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85 percent of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market.” Other groups like Whole Foods, the Organic Consumers Fund, and Bob’s Red Mill are contributing with the hope that mandatory labeling will increase their market share and ultimately their profits. So don’t let them convince you it’s about your “Right to Know.” They don’t want you to have the choice at all, they want you to boycott GMOs and buy their products.

Please vote no on Oregon Measure 92 and stand with science. Below are more resources for you to explore.

Mom Brings Science to Her Blog, It’s Momsense

Vote No on 92

Oregon Citizens Review Panel rejects measure 92

The Oregonion editorial panel recommends a No vote

Oregon’s Right To Know by Marie Bowers Stagg

GMO Labeling in Oregon by Brenda Frketich

Why I Think Mandatory Labels for GMO’s is Bad Policy and Why I Think It Might Be Good Strategy and Why I Still Can’t Support It by Marc Brazeau

Oregon Voters Should Say “No” to Measure 92 by The Farmer’s Daughter USA

Sugar beet growers believe labeling requirements are misleading

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Breaking Down the Labels Series – Eggs Part 1.3: Feed/Supplements and Certifiers

Last time I outlined how the chickens live, but there are also labels that talk about what they eat and with what they are supplemented. (I know, right? Man, that’s a lot of labels.) Chicken feed is primarily grain-based (corn, soy, wheat, sorghum, barley, oats), but can include animal protein like meat and bone meal, and also includes supplemental vitamins and minerals.

Vegetarian-fed eggs come from chickens that were fed a vegetarian diet. As I said before, chickens are naturally omnivores, they eat egg in hay-1meat. This is the single most mystifying label to me. Why would you feed a chicken a vegetarian diet? “It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of the diet of the hen,” Satrum told me. “However, the Internet has done a good job of scaring people about animal proteins. Meat and bone meal is a by-product from slaughter houses and it’s a very good product. It’s cooked, it’s cleaned, it has lots of protein, phosphorous, and calcium. If it wasn’t used as an animal feed it would probably be in a landfill somewhere. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We don’t do it for the bird; we do it because it makes the marketing easier.” You heard that right, from a third-generation chicken farmer, his answer was basically: because the Internet told them so. So how do farmers make sure these chickens get the proper nutrition from a vegetarian diet? Satrum told me they supplement with non-animal derived protein often from soybean meal and mined calcium and phosphorus. Instead of feeding the chickens an existing product that has lots of the nutrition they need, we put it in a landfill and feed them stuff we have to mine out of the earth … OK, then.

Omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens that have been fed a diet supplemented with things like flax seed, marine algae or fish meal to increase omega-3 levels. There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, but the bottom line is that they are believed to play an important role in your health: normal blood clotting, brain function, prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and some inflammatory and auto-immune diseases.   Chhatriwalla told me that several studies have shown that the supplementation of chicken feed with omega-3 fatty acids will produce eggs significantly higher in omega-3’s, some as much as a 40 fold increase. “That being said,” she said, “levels that high would not taste good due to the fishy aroma of omega-3’s.”  All eggs naturally contain about 30 mg of omega-3 per egg, supplemented eggs around 100-200 mg. The tricky part, Chhatriwalla pointed out, is that no one really knows how much omega-3 you need.  Health experts recommend one serving of omega-3 rich foods per day (around 1000 – 1500 mg).  You can get that through about a serving of fatty fish like salmon, a tablespoon of canola or soybean oil, or a handful of walnuts or ground flaxseed. You would have to eat six to seven omega-3 enriched eggs to get that requirement.

Hormone-free eggs are quite possibly the most blatantly misleading label, because there aren’t any eggs that have added hormones. The USDA does not allow the use of hormones in poultry production. This is so misleading that the FDA requires any label making claims about no added hormones include a statement that says, “Hormones are not used in the production of shell eggs” in order to prevent consumers from thinking some eggs do contain added hormones. That’s not roundabout at all…

IMG_20140628_111548178Antibiotic-free labels are also a little misleading because all eggs in the US are antibiotic free, even if they don’t say so, because by FDA regulation, any eggs produced by hens being treated with antibiotics for illness would not be sold for human consumption. “In general antibiotics are used rarely in commercial egg production, because pullets, young hens, are vaccinated for appropriate diseases and management conditions keep the vectors of disease away from the birds,” said Hermes. “Stated simply, commercial layers raised indoors rarely get sick.” He also pointed out that in organic production, any medicated birds, young or old, must be removed from the organic stream, none of their eggs can be labeled organic. I found that part particularly interesting. So what happens to the “organic” hen when she’s recovered and off antibiotics? Can she be moved to a non-organic stream? “That is what is supposed to happen,” said Hermes, “however that assumes that the organic producer has a place to put these now ‘non-organic’ birds and an outlet for non-organic eggs.  The large commercial producers with some dedicated non-organic production could do this, however the logistics are difficult in these cases. The small producer with a few dozen or even a few hundred hens may not have an outlet.  In most cases I suspect that these birds are euthanized.” That right there is a reason, in my opinion, to not buy organic or antibiotic-free eggs. If you needed a reason.

Organic eggs come from hens that have been fed an organic diet without any direct-fed animal protein (but I think they can still eat bugs if they catch them.) I’m including this in the food and supplements section because the organic feed part is the only thing that really differentiates these eggs. Certified organic eggs are verified by third-party certifiers as mandated by the National Organic Program and must also meet other requirements: they have to be cage-free, they have to have access to the outdoors (but amount, duration and quality is undefined – for example it could be a parking lot and the birds may not even use it) and the use of hormones and antibiotics are prohibited (the hormone part is redundant since it’s prohibited in all poultry production, organic or not.) We’ve already discussed all those other elements, so the only thing new is the certified organic feed.  You’re probably already familiar with my thoughts on organic, but if not, see here and here.  To sum it up, you’re not limiting your exposure to pesticides in any meaningful way by eating organic eggs, and there is no substantial nutritional difference.

Third-party certifiers

chicks-1Oh yes, there’s more. If just the different ways of raising hens and what they’re fed isn’t enough, there are also claims on labels that talk about the third-party certifiers. It seems this is a way to make it easier for the consumer to know if they’re getting what they think they’re getting; a voluntary accountability system, so to speak. That would be fine if there weren’t a handful of different ways to get certified, making it even more complicated than before. Each certification system has different requirements for the duration and quality of indoor/outdoor systems, how much space each bird gets, what they eat, etc. I asked both Karcher and Hermes if they could recommend one certification system that they thought did it best. They both agreed they’re just variations on a theme. In fact, when I asked Karcher which one he could recommend that could help a regular person feel like they’re doing the “right thing” without getting duped he said, “Ha! When you find the answer to this one, please share!! Seriously though, every third party certification is, in my opinion, a one-up from the other one to entice the consumer to believe that this particular certification is the best. If consumers take the time to read the certification programs, they would find slight differences amongst them. Depending on what a ‘regular’ person believes, will ultimately dictate which program is the best.”

At the very least, most of the third party certifiers have definitions for what free-range and pasture-raised means, so that’s something. I’m not going to go more into the specifications of all the certification systems because it’s too lengthy, and I had a difficult time finding a good scientific source that listed each certification system without disparaging the others.  Eighty percent of all eggs produced in the United States are produced under the United Egg Producers certified guidelines, so that’s a good place to start. Others to look into are: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, and Food Alliance Certified.

One very last point that’s worth noting: it’s easy for consumers to change their opinions on how laying hens should be raised. It’s not so easy for producers – they have already committed significant amounts of money to certain production systems. Imagine that you’ve already got millions of dollars dedicated to conventional housing systems and then California voters decide they don’t like your system. You can’t make that change quickly or easily, and, ironically, if you’re a small producer it might be financially impossible. It’s going to take time, and as consumers, we have to appreciate that. “In my experience of nearly 27 years in Poultry Extension,” said Hermes, “the poultry and egg industries are committed to producing safe, high quality products for their consumers, while being dedicated to the welfare of the birds.  So while public opinion in recent years has decided that caging is bad for hens, even though the science favors cages for their physical well-being, industry can’t make sweeping changes that cost millions of dollars over night.”

That’s it! That’s all I think you need to know on eggs. Now I’m off to have an omelet. I hope this helps you use your Momsense to make informed decisions as well. Stay tuned for the next in this Breaking Down the Labels Series: a look into labels for the actual poultry we eat.

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Breaking Down the Labels Series – Eggs Part 1.2: Housing Systems

Last time I gave you my conclusion, today I’ll talk about housing systems.

But before we get to that, let’s settle the egg shell color debate: brown versus white. This has nothing to do with the inside of the egg; it is completely dependent on the kind of hen who laid the egg. Different breeds lay different colored eggs, but the inside is exactly the same. brown vs white eggsBrown eggs come from red-brown feathered breeds that tend to be larger than other breeds and require more food, which could explain why they’re more expensive. The inside of the egg is only affected by what the hen eats. (Laying hens require a high-protein diet but will eat just about anything they can find or scratch from the ground: bugs, grass, seeds, fruit, etc. Commercially-produced chickens generally eat a grain-based diet.)

Housing (sources for label definitions: Egg Nutrition Center)

There are two primary differences between how hens are raised: they’re either in a house their whole lives, or they’re outside for all or some of their lives. You can imagine why a farmer (and a consumer) would want to put chickens in a house  – it makes it easier to control what the chickens eat and collect the eggs, and it protects the birds from predators, parasites and disease. On the flip side, it may restrict some or all of the birds’ natural tendencies, like the ability to spread their wings, forage, dust-bathe, nest and perch.  Within the house, birds can either be in a cage or not. Cages allow easy collection of eggs and help keep the house clean and the birds healthy – one of the major obstacles in raising chickens is managing the manure. Cages allow a conveyer-belt system to continually remove the manure. Obviously, the size of the cage can greatly restrict birds’ natural behaviors, and many cages don’t allow birds to turn around. That being said, caged chickens have the lowest mortality rate of any of the systems. Cage-free systems have increased hen-to-hen aggression and incidence of broken bones that both contribute to higher mortality rates. While cage-free systems definitely allow the birds to perform many more natural behaviors, they are inherently dirtier because manure cannot be removed as well or as often.

Conventional eggs (those that don’t have a label saying anything about the housing of the chickens) come from hens that have spent their whole lives inside a cage inside a house. It is the most restrictive production system as far as space for the bird, but also the most affordable system.

  • Pros of this system: lowest mortality, cleanest houses, lowest cost.
  • Cons of this system: least amount of natural behavior for the chicken, some feather and foot issues due to cage confinement.

Enriched-colony eggs are a newer development. This is in-between conventional and cage-free – a few birds together in a bigger cage with areas for natural behaviors. Satrum is working on converting some of his operation to enriched-colony housing. “It’s a cage but it’s a much larger cage, like a big condo cage, with nesting and perching and scratching areas – kind of cage-free but in a caged environment.” This change is largely driven by economics – the most affordable eggs are from conventional systems. Enriched colony is lower-cost than cage-free but with some of the benefits of cage-free.  Larger cages have been in the news lately. In 2008 California passed Proposition 2 which mandates that by January 1, 2015 all egg producers in California and all eggs being importer to California come from hens that can lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely (this isn’t exactly the same as enriched-colony, but similar.) California is currently battling a lawsuit over Prop 2 from other states that fear future restrictions on livestock production as part of the slippery slope California may have started.  In 2012, the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society attempted to pass the Egg Bill that would have set national standards for egg production making enriched-colony housing the norm. That bill met fierce opposition from the meat industry for the same reason California is currently being sued and never passed. Despite resistance from the meat industry, I would bet that enriched-colony will soon be the standard for egg production.

  • Pros of this system: very low mortality, hens are able to perform some natural behaviors in a limited way, less disease and injury compared to cage-free and pastured, and affordable production cost.
  • Cons of this system: not many. The only I can come up with is that the hens are still caged.

cage free cartonCage-free or free-roaming (not to be confused with free-range) are eggs from hens that live inside a house for their entire lives, and may not have access to the outdoors, but don’t live in a caged confinement inside the house so they get to engage in some natural behaviors like perching and nesting. Some farmers may choose to also give these hens limited access to the outdoors, but they don’t have to and you can’t assume that simply based on the label – the label only means they’re not inside a cage.

  • Pros of this system: birds get to perform lots of natural behaviors.
  • Cons of this system: higher mortality, broken bones and injuries, increased respiratory problems due to dust, and higher hen-to-hen aggression. Preliminary results from a recent study indicate that ammonia and particulate matter is considerably higher in cage-free systems, and workers are inhaling more particulate matter from manure and litter on the floor. This system also requires more labor for egg collection and manure removal.

(Here is a good resource to see and compare conventional, enriched-colony, and cage-free.)

Free-range eggs are from hens that have been allowed access to the outside. This is a bit misleading, because there are no government regulated standards for free-range, meaning these birds could be living an identical life to a cage-free bird, with the addition of a door that leads outside. Because there are no regulations about the length, duration or quality of outside access, this “outside access” could just as easily be a parking lot as it could be a grass pasture. The birds may not know the door is there, or use it, but they have access to it, so they qualify. To be fair, they could also be spending a large amount of time outside, but you don’t know that simply by reading the “free-range” label.

  • Pros of this system:  the same as for cage-free with potential for additional freedom if done correctly.
  • Cons of this system: the same as for cage-free, with the addition that it has the potential to be intentionally misleading. To avoid this, see the section on third-party certifiers.

Pasture-Raised Eggs

hens nestingThere is a lot of hype about pasture-raised eggs these days. It seems like the end-all-be-all for the foodies, so I decided to give it some extra discussion. I have a feeling that when people choose to buy cage-free/free-roaming or free-range eggs, they think they’re getting pasture-raised, but they’re not. Pasture-raised eggs come from hens that are actually living on a pasture, in a barnyard-like setting, not in a house or cage. These hens are allowed to forage for grass, bugs and whatever else they can find, but likely their diet is supplemented with a grain-based feed because there simply is not enough forage to provide an adequate diet.  The birds are provided a nesting house where they go at night and to lay eggs.  There are no regulations for pastured eggs, the USDA does not recognize a label definition for pastured eggs and there are no standards. If you’re buying pastured eggs (at about $6-$8 for 12 eggs compared to the $2.50 for 18 eggs I pay for conventional eggs) you should make certain you’re getting what you pay for. Visit the farm, or at least contact the producer.

Like I said, I visited a farm that raises pasture-fed chickens.  It was a beautiful farm and I learned a lot, but I’m not going to name it here because the owner and I have a difference of opinions on organic and GMO and he preferred to go un-named. I understand that, and I’m ok with it – there is room in agriculture for multiple approaches, and that’s what enables choice. His operation utilized a rotation and multi-species model that moves chickens, pigs, sheep and cows around the pasture on a schedule that allows the animals to feed on the pasture without ruining it. After a tour of the farm, I was blown away at how much attention is paid to the soil and how much work goes into making sure the animals don’t over-use the pasture. Unlike a conventional chicken farmer who might only need to be an expert in chickens, he has to be an expert in chickens, cows, sheep, pigs, and grass and soil science. It was a cool system, to say the least. My husband and I got to taste-test the eggs that my kids collected while we were on the farm (after visiting the egg-washing room).

Conventional egg on the left, pastured egg on the right.

Conventional egg on the left, pastured egg on the right.

Could we see the tell-tale pasture-raised orange yolk that indicates a diet rich in fatty bugs? Yes. Could we taste a difference? Yes: they were definitely richer tasting than our conventional eggs. Enough so that we would pay $6 per dozen? No – like I said, we eat a lot of eggs. But maybe we would if you could make an argument that this approach is better for the environment or more nutritious.

So is it more nutritious? Chhatriwalla told me that unfortunately there aren’t very many studies that have analyzed the nutritional content of eggs from pasture-raised hens. There are a few and one concludes that while the fat and beta-carotene content were higher in range-produced eggs, the authors noted that it was not great enough to prove a true nutritional advantage of one egg type over the other. What about an environmental advantage? While at first glance it might seem this approach seems more in-line with the way nature intended, it doesn’t seem to be the most efficient use of resources. “Pasture-raised is fine for specialty,” said Satrum. “It’s difficult to do true pasture-raised on a large scale.  As long as you have a small production and lots of land and a warm climate, it can be done just fine. For a commercial producer, you need lots of space. You won’t find commercial producers doing a pasture production, it’s very rare.” As I noted in the beginning, the natural way comes with the good and the bad, including higher incidence of mortality, disease, worms and predation. These downsides do reduce efficiency (and increases cost), and it requires a lot of land that could be producing more for people to eat. If we didn’t have a growing population that needs to eat and finite resources, it would be fine. But we do. And frankly, not everyone can afford to pay a dollar an egg for something that’s pretty much nutritionally the same.

  • Pros of this system: best opportunity for the birds to perform natural behaviors.
  • Cons of this system: higher incidence of mortality and morbidity, reduced resource efficiency, highest cost, no USDA recognized label definition and no standards.

What else should you know about housing systems?

chicken-1So which is better: caged or uncaged? “Anything that adds stress is a negative to the welfare of the chicken,” Satrum said. “Air quality and cleanliness of the house is going to impact the hen. There’s always a little bit of trade-off with the different systems. In the traditional cage systems, the more modern ones are very clean, they have very good air quality, there is very little dust in the house and that’s beneficial for the hens. Cage-free has more space and exercise per hen, but it’s a maybe a little dirtier environment. A lot of it comes down to the management of the farm and the design of the buildings, none of that you can really tell from a label unless the farmer’s being very transparent.” Satrum mentioned that the equipment for cage-free is also more expensive and the labor costs are higher,  which translates to a higher cost to the consumer.  “In terms of animal welfare,” Satrum said, “It’s probably going to vary from farm to farm. Generally as we get more experienced at cage free, we’re getting better at it.” He told me that the mortality rate was initially pretty high in cage free, it’s improved a lot, but typically there is still a higher hen mortality rate in cage-free production. Of course, there are ways to manage that. You’ve heard of a pecking order, right? That’s a real thing. In large groups chickens have to establish a social order of bonds and to do that, they peck at each other. There are ways to deal with hen-to-hen aggression, one of which is to alter the beak of the bird. I read a lot of terrible things about beak-cutting online, but you can’t always believe what you read. “Beak trimming/cutting is pretty much a thing of the past,” said Satrum. “Today the tips of the chicks’ beaks are actually precision laser treated at the hatchery right after being hatched.  This one time treatment makes it so that the tip of the beak does not grow a long sharp hook on the end but still maintains a completely natural appearance and function.” Karcher and Hermes also agreed that beak-trimming can be ok when done correctly. “A few moments of discomfort during the trimming process results in much less injury due to normal hen aggression later,” Hermes said. He also noted that work is being done to breed hens that wouldn’t need beak trimming. Another thing to note is that beak trimming is not unique to cage-free production, it’s standard practice in laying hens regardless of the housing system.  Beak trimming is not the only way to control hen pecking; Satrum mentioned special lighting and proper nutrition can also limit pecking.

Another controversial issue is forced-molting. “Molting is a natural process, generally occurring in the fall,” Hermes said. “All adult birds molt so that damaged feathers can be replaced.  During the molt process, energy and nutrition are used for growing feathers rather than producing eggs, so cessation of egg production also occurs.”  Forced-molting is basically imitating that process in an indoor setting.  Again, reading online give you the impression that producers force-molt by starvation, but that doesn’t seem to be the industry standard. “Feed withdrawal molting is not endorsed as a practice in the industry,” said Karcher. “The common practice is a non-feed withdrawal molt where hens are provided a diet that has sufficient nutrition to maintain her, but doesn’t provide the nutrition needed to produce eggs. At the same time the diet is changed, the lights are reduced from approximately 16 hours to 8 hours which signals her physiologically to stop producing eggs.” It’s a natural process that will happen anyway, it’s simply enhanced in a production setting.

My next post will talk about feed and supplements and third-party certifiers.

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WTFF, Oregon? Why The Fear Farming?

oregon field-1Every seasoned parent has had the experience of someone who doesn’t have kids giving them advice on parenting or waxing eloquent on the right way to raise kids. We all know how that feels. Sometimes they say it out loud and sometimes they just say it with their eyes. The point is we’ve all been there and it’s annoying for a good reason: they haven’t been there and they don’t know.

Why am I talking about this when the title of this story is about farming? Here’s why: there’s a measure on the ballot in Jackson County, Oregon that will let county voters, many of whom don’t know the first thing about real farming, dictate farming practices. To me, that feels a lot like people who don’t have kids telling me how to parent. Now, before you get all hot under the collar, I do know that farming impacts more than just the farmer: we all put food in our bodies and we all share the environmental resources and impact. And I’m also not saying we shouldn’t be aware of the practices farmers are using; I’m on board with the whole watchdog idea. What I object to is using fear and scare tactics to convince people to ban a technology they know very little about and don’t use. Especially when that technology provides real benefits and isn’t a threat.

15-119

Courtesy of Protect Oregon Farmers Facebook page

Here’s the background if you don’t know it: measure 15-119, for which the voting period ends on May 20th, would ban the growth of genetically modified crops in Jackson County. The measure is spear-headed by Our Family Farms Coalition. OFFC claims that organic farmers are at risk of contamination from GM crops and the only way to fix that is to ban farmers from growing them.

When I first heard about this, after I took a few cleansing breaths, I tried to think of some reasons this might make sense. Maybe Jackson County has some unique growing conditions that make it impossible for organic crops to co-exist with GM crops as they do successfully in the rest of the United States. Because GM crops have been grown in the US since the mid-90s, and as I just wrote about in my last post, it’s proven technology. There are established ways for different farming techniques to coexist without impacting your neighbor.  So what makes Jackson County unique?

I talked to Scott Dahlman, executive director at Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a non-profit that promotes education on agricultural technology, to see what I was missing. His answer, “Jackson County is a unique area, but there is nothing unique about it that would make it more susceptible to cross contamination.” But certainly there must be some farmers who have suffered financially as a result of GM contamination, right? Turns out, no. “They’re using fear,” Dahlman said.  “They ‘might’ get cross pollinated. Some organic farmers tilled under some of their crops because of fear, but they never had it tested to confirm contamination.” He then pointed me in the direction of a USDA report to the Secretary of Agriculture from 2012 that discussed creating a compensation method for farmers who have suffered economic loss as a result of contamination from GM crops. “They committee met for two years,” Dahlman said, “They didn’t come up with a compensation method because they couldn’t find a single incident of that happening. A big part of that is because under USDA standards, as long as you don’t plant GM seed, even if it’s cross-pollinated you don’t lose your organic certification.” It says clearly in the organic standards that certification is process-based and the unintended presence of GM material alone won’t result in the loss of certification.

So I had to ask him, what’s really going on here? The bottom line is that Syngenta grows GM sugar beet seed in Jackson County and some people don’t like that. Dahlman told me that GM seed production goes back at least 17 years in Jackson County, so it’s not something new in the county. A few organic farmers discovered Syngenta grows GM sugar beet seed and “now they know,” Dahlman said. “It’s really about awareness. Although they hadn’t had any issues before, once they discovered [GM seeds] were being grown there, a few organic growers started raising questions. One of the chief proponents of the ban is from California, from Marin County where they have had a ban on GM since 2000. That farmer said ‘why don’t we just ban it, we did in in California.’”

Aside from the fact that it probably violates Oregon’s Right to Farm and Forest Act, and Dahlman believes if passed the measure would unfortunately go into costly litigation for the county, the whole premise of the measure drives a wedge in the otherwise inclusive farming community. “It’s really sad down there right now,” Dahlman said.  “Our organization is big on farmers being able to farm the way they want. If for you that’s organic, awesome. It’s about what works best for you on your land. We’re starting to see one small group of ag basically ban the ag they don’t agree with. Traditionally you’ll have farmer to farmer disputes, but at the end of the day farmers are really good about keeping a big tent. So this is really sad to see.”

15-119 no

Courtesy of Protect Oregon Farmers Facebook page

Two other points that need mentioning: 1. Dahlman pointed out that lots of farmers who object to the measure don’t even grow GM crops, but they don’t want preclude their use of future innovation that might solve problems in their crops. It turns out, even some farmers who don’t grow GM crops don’t want this. 2. Oregon has already said this is nonsense. The state passed a bill last fall prohibiting Oregon counties from banning GM crops. The only reason Jackson County still gets to vote on it is because they already had it on the ballot when the bill was passed.

The GMO-ban supporters started a fear campaign, and now they’re trying to use that fear to convince voters to take away farmers’ choice to use a technology that has been available and approved for 20 years. One of the reasons farmers like GM so much is because it provides flexibility and convenience. You don’t have to like that (repeatedly tested and proven safe) technology and you don’t have to use it, but you shouldn’t be allowed to take it away from others who do choose to use it.

Let me put it another way. Moms use a number of technological advances that make life easier and simpler that I can’t imagine voters taking away. For example, in the 50’s and 60’s, two car families became the norm. Two cars enabled women to work outside the home, the establishment of suburbs and after-school sports, and many other things that are now accepted ways of life.  Could you make an argument that having two cars is bad? (Think increased gas, pollution, traffic, accidents, etc.)  Yes. Should we ban having two cars? No.  It’s the same for farmers with GM crops – these new technologies made such a fundamental change in their farming practices by providing flexibility and pest control options, that they revolutionized their day-to-day operations, and they would never support the government telling them to dial back the clock 20 years by banning this technology.

Let’s imagine a group of moms in your county spearheaded an effort to ban cell phones because of the risk to our children (i.e. distracted driving, they’re reducing kids’ abilities to interact socially, and potential effects from radiation). Imagine they used fear and scare tactics to convince voters that cell phones are too risky. I don’t know about you, but I’d be outraged. I use my phone to take pictures of my kids, show them what scorpions look like when we read that word in a book, rearrange plans on the go, call for help in an emergency, find my way out of a nature walk when we get lost (tip: take a picture of the posted map before you start), and someday I will give my kids cell phones so I can get in touch with them and know they’re safe. Can you really imagine banning a technology out of fear merely because voters haven’t really taken the time to understand the technology or appreciate the real benefits?

You may not live in Jackson County, but if you do, I urge you to vote No on 15-119. If you don’t live there, help me spread the word that taking choice away from farmers is a bad idea.

Here are some resources for further reading:

On the Jackson County issue:

Believe science, not ideology, in GMO debate     Medford Mail Tribune Editorial

Professor Martina Newell-McGloughlin Discusses Genetic Engineering

Jackson County, Oregon Voters – No on Measure 15-119     The Farmers Daughter USA blog

 In opposition to Jackson County Measure 15-119 GMO ban     oregoncatalyst.com 

Local Issues with Larger Repercussions?     Nuttygrass blog

 

On GMOs:

2000+ Reasons Why GMOs Are Safe To Eat And Environmentally Sustainable     Forbes blog 

A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops     New York Times

GMO Thought Experiment: What would a world look like without GMO crops?     International Business Times

 

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