Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Local Food Week: a dairy farmer

Today’s guest post comes from Jen Christie, a dairy farmer in Ontario. We connected on twitter a little while ago. She’s been a great supporter of my blog so I was happy to hear that she was interested in writing a guest post for Local Food Week when I put out the call a few weeks ago. She also sent me a bunch of amazing photos (with captions!) to choose from to include with her post. I couldn’t choose just one so my apologies for the inundation of images today. Hey, it’s Friday :) For more from Jen, you can find her blogging at Savvy Farmgirl or follow her on Twitter @SavvyFarmgirl.

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My nieces helping feed hay in the new dairy barn.

Note: Even with all my travel, work and volunteering, my favourite place to be is still the farm. 

This post is a tribute to my family who works day-in, day-out and encourages me share their story through social media even though I’m not there alongside them everyday. It’s because of them I’m so passionate about agriculture.

Why do we farm? It’s a question my family has talked about a lot lately as consumers, environmental groups and government put increasing pressure on how we farm. For us, the answer is simple, although the work itself is typically not so much.

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My brother getting ready to combine corn in the fall. If it snows early, sometimes we have to combine in the snow to get the crop off.

We love growing crops and producing milk for Canadians to enjoy. It’s in our blood. Our farm has been in my family since my dad’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 1800’s. My mom grew up on a farm, which my Opa purchased after leaving his farm in Holland after the war. It’s been said that farmers grow roots in their land, and for my family, I believe this is true.

We are passionate about farming, and it’s nearly impossible to say what we we love most. When we talk about why we farm, my mom and dad and brothers will all name different reasons, then all agree with each other. Watching seeds sprout from the ground and then each day growing taller. Helping a new calf into the world. Listening to cows happily “munch” on hay at dusk. The satisfaction at the end of a hard day, feeling you did something.

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My brother helps his 5-year-old daughter wash her calf so she can take it to the local fair. Growing up, we all participated in local fairs, showing a different calf each year in 4-H.

The list is endless and among these reasons, there are also differences between my parents and brothers.

My dad loves the challenge of trying to breed the “perfect cow”. He started with a few dairy and beef cows from his parents and over the past forty years he grew our herd to 150 cows, with each generation getting better and better.

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My parents work together to roll out a bale of hay for the heifers. The hay is grown on our farm and baled into round bales or large, rectangular-shaped bales. 

By contrast, my youngest brother loves using data to make better decisions about cow care. We built a new barn two years ago and our cows are milked with a robot. The 60 cows we milk visit the robot whenever they wish, and the robot collects information he then uses to care for each one individually. Cow “Fit Bits” even tell him when a cow may be sick by monitoring her eating and walking habits!

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My brother sorts milk samples the robot has taken to test each cow’s milk quality.

My other brother loves being in the field. He loves big tractors and equipment and yes, probably some days, it seems he’s just a big kid playing with his toys. Behind the scenes though, he is always planning and trying to find ways to be more sustainable. He experiments with cover crops and is constantly striving to improve soil health, while also maintaining the amount of soybeans or wheat he produces.

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My nephew watches as we unload soybeans from the combine into the wagon. From there they are either stored for feed on our farm or trucked to a company who will export them.

Finally, my mom is fiercely proud of the calves she raises. She ensures they get a good start, paying close attention to each one of them as they grow up. She considers it our duty to produce a quality product which will make great butter, ice cream and cheese. She has done so, alongside my dad everyday for over thirty-five years, with rarely a holiday or a break. (I can count on one hand how many vacations we took as kids.)

Common for everyone is the opportunity to raise their family on the farm. Growing up on the farm served me well, teaching me the value of hard work, respect and compassion among other things. My brothers’ kids are following in our footsteps. At only 2, my youngest niece asks to go to the barn every night and her older brother knows the name of every piece of equipment. My oldest niece can explain to any visitor how the robot works and what we feed our calves and she is only 6!

It’s not all rosy though. Weather is always the biggest variable and of course, we have no control over it. Luckily, in Ontario we get pretty consistent heat and rain and we don’t experience the extreme droughts or hail Western Canadian farmers get. Equipment breaks and everything goes on hold to fix it. Cows get sick and sometimes even the vet can’t figure out why. It’s heartbreaking to lose an animal and it will often weigh on our minds when we do.

Then, there is the cost of operation. For us, land and quota are our biggest expenses. To continue supporting 3 families, we need to be able to grow. To make the cost more manageable, we try to add a little more land or a few more cows each year.

Despite the long days and heartbreak that comes with farming, my family wouldn’t do anything else. We love what we do and we love being part of a small community where everyone knows each other and pitches in to help.

For us, every week is “local food week” because the strength of our small town depends on its citizens buying from local businesses and participating in local events. We are grateful that Canadians buy our dairy products everyday and the least we can do is pay this forward by buying local and buying Canadian.

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The milk truck comes every other day to pick up our milk for processing into butter, cheese, ice cream, and pasteurized milk. 

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Licence to Farm Review (Rant)

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Photo credit: Randall Andrews

As a “consumer” this short documentary wasn’t made for me. It was made for farmers. Maybe that means that my opinions don’t matter. The beauty of having my own blog is that I can opine about anything I desire.

I had many thoughts as I watched the film. I’m very in support of farmers speaking out and as a non-farmer I often look to them for expert opinions. That being said, while this film purported to be about empowering farmers to speak out to me (and your opinion may differ) it felt like a thinly veiled piece of pro-GM (genetic modification) propaganda.

The bulk of the film was about how large-scale farms, GM crops, and pesticides are not bad things. The film urged farmers to speak out in the face of ignorant consumer demands. They also said that we (the unwashed consumer masses) need to hear about the benefits of GMOs and pesticides from the farmers, not from the companies making them. Personally, as a consumer I’d like to hear from both sources but even more so, from independent scientists who don’t have skin in the game. Sorry, I loathe that saying.

It bothered me that the implication was that consumers are too dumb to formulate our own opinions. Yes, I know, people are often irrational and misinformed. However, everyone is a consumer in some regard. Farmers don’t usually grow every single product they consume. You would think that there would be a recognition that a canola farmer (for example) while very knowledgable in that area is not an expert in all things farm. We are not mutually exclusive populations. We are all people. You don’t need to speak to us like “consumers”. Speak to us like human beings. Okay, despite how it sounds, that only bothered me a little bit. The thing that bothered me the most was the one-sidedness of the film.

Why does it seem like every documentary that comes out these days is wholly biased? I suppose it’s the funders, the sensationalism, or the certainty of the filmmakers that they’re in the right. Whatever the reason, it makes it me get my back-up, regardless of the message, even if I was on your side before I watched I’m less likely to be there after. If you’re only going to show me people who are completely biased then I’m going to be much less likely to buy what you’re saying. Don’t diss organic farmers and try to tell everyone that they eschew modern technology. Don’t try to tell me that only large-scale mono-cropping is a viable method of farming. Try to at least respect the choices of others; both within your field (haha) and outside it.


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Monsanto, GMOs, and a dose of condescention

I bit my tongue the other day when I was reading a deluge of tweets insulting people who were participating in the March Against Monsanto. I found the tweets offensive because they presumed that only farmers have the right to decide if genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are worthy of entry into the food supply. They also presumed that people who were marching against Monsanto were only concerned about GMOs and were ignorant of science. Someone actually said that, as long as you have enough to eat, you have no right to complain about or question the food system. Seriously? I think that we should question everything. As long as I’m putting food into my body I would like to feel confident that it’s safe, nutrient rich, and delicious. Of course, GMO is not the only concern when it comes to safety, the centralization of our food supply and the diminished capacity of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) are probably more concerning to me. As is the declining number of farms and farmers across the country.

To be honest, I take exception to both extremes. My concern with Monsanto is that they force farmers to become reliant on them for seeds. Patenting seeds is terrifying to me. We should not be allowing one company to have so much control over our food supply. My concern with GMOs is that we don’t know what the long-term impact of their introduction to the ecosystem will be. We don’t know what effect these new plants and animals (so far just salmon has been applied for approval in Canada but we’ve seen other experimental animals around the world) will have on the other plants and animals. There could be serious implications for biodiversity. We also don’t know what the long-term implications of consuming these GMOs will be. Sorry if short-term mouse studies don’t convince me of the safety of these new foods for human consumption throughout our lives.

Okay, now for the other extreme. We have research conducted on tumour-prone mice intended to demonstrate that GMOs will give us cancer. Lots of photos like this:

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And this:

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No, that one’s no GMO, but the extreme anti-GMO camp tends toward chemophobia and seems to lack an understanding of the fact that everything is comprised of chemicals. So what that ants aren’t into the artificially sweetened candy. That must mean that it’s toxic. Except, there are many foods, including lots of vegetables, that ants would not recognize as food.

While I am clearly wary of GMOs, I don’t see attacking each other and dismissing arguments out of hand as beneficial to either side. It’s making me want to tune out both camps and start my own subsistence farm in a very isolated location.


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Colour me surprised: Organic foods may contain pesticides!

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Last week consumers of organic produce got their knickers all in a knot over news reports of pesticide residue being found on “organic” produce. Now, I thought that we all knew by now that purchasing organic produce didn’t guarantee avoidance of pesticides. Apparently not.

Just a reminder… Organic food is not grown in isolation. There are pesticides in the soil, the rain, the air. Organic foods are not shipped and sold in isolation. There are many stages at which they may become contaminated with pesticides. Indeed, organic foods may also have pesticides deliberately applied during the growing process. Pesticides are allowable in organic farming, provided that they are not synthetic. For a list of permitted substances in organic farming see this from the Government of Canada.

Before we all give-up on organic produce, it’s worth considering a couple of things. One, it appears that the number of samples was quite small (the image at the bottom of the CBC article shows a sample size of 30 for the grapes). This could mean that the numbers are not an accurate reflection of the state of pesticide residue in produce in Canada. Two, only 1.8% of organic samples exceeded allowable limits for pesticides; 4.7% of non-organic samples did. In fact, less than half of the samples of organic produce tested positive for pesticides at all. While 78.4% of non-organic produce tested positive. Considering the numerous opportunities for organic produce to becomes contaminated with pesticides the number showing residue is actually quite small.

Yes, you’re taking a risk that your food is going to be contaminated with pesticides. That risk is present whether you choose organic or not. However, that risk is considerably greater if you choose non-organic produce. It’s also worth taking into consideration that by choosing organic produce you’re choosing to have fewer synthetic pesticides put into the environment. Over time, this may mean that your organic food will be less and less likely to be contaminated with synthetic pesticides.