The magical Indian Bean Tree

As is traditional, this Thanksgiving of 2016 I’ve been giving thanks, and I am most grateful for growing up rural on a working farm, and just as grateful for that happening in a time when farming wasn’t so industrialized that knowledge of the past wasn’t devalued or forgotten.  So often now, the  knowledge, especially the knowledge of nature that I saw used daily by my depression era parents, is considered “lost.” Happily, many individuals are working hard to bring it back and one of the areas where this occurs is with “native” plants.

One reason for the new interest in natives is that there’s a growing awareness that our pollinators are suffering from loss of habitat (not to mention all the poison used in modern “traditional” ag) — and that if we plant the right plants, i.e., natives, we can help re-create habitat that will aid pollinators and other beneficial insects.  And concern is merited. Pollinators are integral to plant growth–and agricultural effort.  We need our pollinators and our bees.  To this end, environmental studies are conducted, people are hired, and meticulous scientific inventories are conducted on parcels of land selected for study.  All of this is a good thing.

But selective effort isn’t enough–we need a widespread realization–and widespread shift–in how rural properties, both agricultural and residential, are managed.  Two key changes would have dramatic impact. One is abolishment of the use of synthetic pesticides. If we can get rid of the poisons that are routinely used in landscaping and in agriculture, the benefits would be rapid and dramatic–I’ll explain in just a bit.  The other change that would help would be to change our addiction to mowing, to pristine golf-course style lawns and landscapes.

This past year I tried something on the farm.  I didn’t mow.  Not one bit, after bush hogging everything last November.  The result? When my reviewer came for the farm’s annual Certified Naturally Grown audit, I discovered that he had interned at the Smithsonian and was also working on his master’s in environmental science–and had certificates in permaculture.  He got out of his SUV and the first thing he mentioned was about the “bluestems.”  I didn’t quite know but quickly learned that native grasses–true natives–were all over the farm’s meadow areas.   There were others–and some I’ve learned about since.

The other thing that I’ve done was to abolish synthetic pesticides and herbicides. No Roundup.  Zero.  The only thing I’ve used has been hot pepper spray and in some cases, a vinegar and salt solution (the latter will kill anything).  And that’s been the case for 19 years.  And the results show, in pollinators, and in animal and plant life.  So often, I find a plant I can’t identify, like the one below.IMAG1734.jpg

During our walk around the farm that day in October, a bitterly windy day, at one point we looked up and saw a Monarch, struggling against the wind as it flew to a wild daisy plant, much loved by pollinators.  It was the last one I’ve seen this year–but amazingly, I’ve seen quite a few. Later, at the end of the visit, when I looked over the forms, I was happy to see a comment about “incredible diversity.”

My approach to farming, rooted somewhat in that depression era practicality that I was raised around, but also in a very modern awareness of the essential need to protect our biodiversity and to keep clean habitat–not just for animal life, but also for human health–has taught me to value the softer vistas of waving grasses, to check what’s emerging that might be something of value.  One surprise this year is in the photo at the top.

Out in the paddocks, where the goats and donkeys keep the grasses down and “controlled”, bluestems and other native grasses aren’t emerging as much in the other areas, but there have been these two strange 30 foot tall stalks with large leaves a foot across. I’ve been wondering what they were. Turns out that these are Cigar trees, or Indian Bean trees–an important Native American medicinal.  Another name for these are Catalpha Trees.  Native Americans used the seed pods for asthma and whooping cough–and the bark as a substitute for quinine.

Ten years ago, I would have cut those saplings down immediately.  Now, I wait to see what is emerging from nature.  Maybe that’s the most important lesson of all–that if we work with nature–rather than in reaction to, if we manage with an open mind to value, as to what is and isn’t a “weed”, rather than mowing everything down to a 1 inch swath or poisoning everything to eliminate anything not “planted”-our environment will do most of the work to restore itself.  And humans will benefit.

Can our communities, so focused on the ultimate mowed lawn, transition themselves to a place where nature is welcomed and not banned?  Hard to know, but if they could, wouldn’t that be wonderful.

Of course, yes, we need to manage the environment–but only where we need to do so. In addition to the Bean trees, this approach this year brought so much Saint John’s Wort, a highly valued medicinal that grows in meadows. Yet without some control, meadows and fields become forest, so this November/early December, fields will get bush-hogged, saplings–except for plants like the Indian Bean Trees–cut, and garden beds ready for cultivation. But all in moderation and all in intentional coordination with, and appreciation of, the power and cycles of nature.

There’s a full moon in the photo of the bean tree–the September Harvest moon of 2016. Seems fitting.

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Biodynamic farming– birds & herbs

I’ve been slow to update: 2015 was so, so, so busy. But Spring 2016 is here!  Another year and more changes.  The flock is being downsized to allow more focus on the herbs and “Simpleherbals Teas for Wellness.’

A book on the teas, a pocket guide to these simple herbs that have been used traditionally, is almost finished and will be available at the markets and online.

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As for the farm, it’s moved back to where I started–with a biodynamic approach. All herbs, greens and herbal teas, wildcrafted or cultivated, are Certified Naturally Grown (CNG), which is a non-government, non-profit alternative to the USDA organic certification.  In addition to meeting all the standards for CNG,  the approaches here follow biodynamic principles (I am a member of the US Biodynamic Association) which emphasize working with nature on many levels.

What is more holistic and sustainable than following the patterns of nature? Sometimes weeds are actually beneficial plants that are naturalized. Understanding that farms are natural systems and working with those systems–and within them–is good for both the environment and for human health–and human spirit.

For more on the herbs, please visit Simpleherbals.com.  For more on biodynamic approaches,  please visit the association’s url listed above.

For the birds, please read on!~

The poultry here are managed very traditionally!  Here the hens free-range–true free range–and are fed a supplement of non gmo, non soy grains.

Birds are raised humanely from day 1 of life.  The flock is managed bio-dynamically

What does this mean? Unlike typical pastured eggs, the hens are raised and allowed to range with cockerels, replicating a flock in nature. Birds don’t have their beaks trimmed or wings clipped.  The cockerels protect the flock just as in nature, leading the birds in to roost at night.  Birds make their own dustbaths (essential for their health) and get a varied diet of bugs and grasses, along with their supplement of grain.

Under biodynamic management, hens are allowed to go broody and to hatch out eggs, and raise their own chicks–making for a much healthier bird.

While birds raised this way don’t have the production levels of industrial farms, the flavor of the eggs are superior and are extremely nutrient dense–and the birds have a much better quality of life.

In 2016, Terembry Farm will be developing its flocks of Americaunas, Cuckoo Marans and Silver Phoenix.

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Dime

Eggs: to refrigerate or not, that is the question

And, goodness, we’ve been asked this question a lot in the last two weeks at the local markets. In Europe, eggs are rarely refrigerated.  In the US, it’s mandatory.  We’ve also gotten lots of questions about egg production in general, and how long eggs will keep.  Here’s some background information on eating healthy eggs that may be helpful!

1) What are the chickens eating? Do you care about organic and/or non-GMO feed?  Is the forage area clean?

There is increasing evidence that GMO food technology may be harmful to our health, and 98% of the corn, a staple of chicken feed, commerically produced in the US is GMO. The World Health Organization has declared the pesticide primarily used with GMOs a probable carcinogen; Russia has banned all GMOs;  Europe requires labeling.  Even Pope Francis has recently expressed concern about GMO Impact on human health.   So what poultry are fed is an important question. Producers should be able to demonstrate that they are feeding a non-gmo or certified organic feed—or have certification to back up their assurance.

If chickens forage, that is great, but also ask what they are foraging on.  Was the property sprayed with pesticides, or was sludge applied (bringing with it heavy metals?)  Again, a farm that is certified to be free of pesticides has gone through a review process.  If the farm hasn’t, ask to visit.  Ask how pesticides are managed.  Ask about sludge aka “bio-solids.”. Does the farm use “bio-solids?”  Sludge is the application of municipal waste. I recently looked at a copy of a sludge permit form–because of the heavy metal content (not to mention all the pharmaceuticals that get flushed down the drain), farms that apply bio-solids aren’t supposed to grow certain things, as some plants can take in toxic levels of heavy metals.  However, what’s grazed on land that has had sludge applied has very little regulation.  It’s a common practice. Sustainable farms concerned about healthy food avoid it like the plague.

2) How are the eggs handled?

Eggs have a bloom which if not washed off, will provide a protective barrier for the eggshell. Eggshells are porous.  Here we keep the eggs in a cool place out of direct sunlight immediately after gathering and inspect and pack eggs daily. We move our eggs quickly so eggs for market are one-two days old and are stored in a cool roomEggs for retail stores and restaurants are refrigerated.

Once eggs are refrigerated, they should stay refrigerated. Since we get asked this question about refrigeration a lot, here’s a brief overview of history behind differences between European and American egg producers.

In Europe, there isn’t as much focus on the cleanliness of the eggs. In the US, that cleanliness is a must—and for farms subject to USDA inspection, washing and refrigeration is mandatory. Producers who don’t follow the rules can be shut down. European shoppers also shop differently from the US; they shop for only a day or two of food at a time. US shoppers usually buy a week of food, or more.

But back to the systems.  Both work.  The European system doesn’t wash and leaves eggs non-refrigerated, albeit usually in a cool place. The US system washes and refrigerates. Either way has a good safety history.  Either way leaves the flavor intact.   (I did a blind test on my farm intern.  He could not tell the difference between refrigerated eggs and non-refrigerated eggs.)  One benefit to refrigeration is that un-refrigerated eggs have a shelf life of 21 days while refrigerated eggs have a shelf life of 50 days. 

Unlike most producers in the US, here our eggs are free-range and the health of our flock is better, usually better than birds in any type of containment system (unless they get eaten by predators).  We go out of our way to ensure a healthy, non-gmo, pesticide-free grain to augment what they get from forage. And when we pull up weeds like morning glories from the garden, guess what the chickens get to eat?

Production cleanliness goes beyond just having clean straw in the hen house.  Management of livestock requires thought and understanding of all aspects of their environment, including exposure to toxins that might be on the farm. What chickens eat is extremely important for health concern.  Another question to ask if birds are being fed medicated feed.  That will add antibiotics to the eggs.  We don’t feed it, but medicated feed is a staple in area feed stores. Another question to ask is if the birds are managed by the producer from day 1 of life, or if they are buying pullets at 3 or 4 months of age, and didn’t control the earlier production.  Many people buy pullets and then shift to organic practices but the birds will still retain the toxins from earlier exposure.

We manage our birds—all of them—from day 1 of life.  We buy from only one supplier to ensure good health from the start.

Producers who get certifications have their operations inspected and visited.  In 2014/2015, we had two, Project Non-GMO for the poultry, which included development of an SOP and a months –long review process, examining how the birds are managed from day 1.   We also have Certified Naturally Grown, which means we’ve had a review for how the entire farm is managed so that it is managed to support organic, not conventional processes.  [Update:  For 2016, we’re transitioning the flock to a non-gmo, non-soy supplemental feed and hope to have the eggs Certified Naturally Grown by the end of the years, but the flock will need to be on certified organic grains for 9 months for the certification. ]

3) What’s the difference between pastured and free-range and conventional eggs?

There is a big difference.  Pastured eggs come from hens that are kept penned up or fenced in a small area and moved around the pasture, so that they can eat the grass.  They do not free range.  Free-range birds are exactly that.  The hen house door is opened in the morning, and they go out and forage all day, eating bugs and grass and tasty weeds.  Free-range and pastured flocks are generally healthier. Most producers don’t do free-range because of the additional management required to address predation.  (A loss of 10-15% to predators is not unusual but many farmers find a livestock guardian dog a good solution.)

Here both pastured and free-range have been tried and the decision was to stay with free-range, because of the improved quality of the egg. Our yolks are a good flavor and good color because our free-range birds, unlike pastured, get a more diverse diet.  They go where they choose and aren’t confined to just grass.  We also find that holistic flock management helps with egg quality, too. Conventional poultry methods keep the birds in cages or in a large house.  That’s not as sanitary as either free-range or pastured, and the eggs don’t have the richness of flavor of either free-range or pastured.

Keep in mind that some of the eggs certified organic in the grocery store, or that advertise “cage-free” birds may only allow the birds 1-2 square feet of space, keeping them in a contained area.  Organic egg production rules don’t necessarily keep in mind the quality of life for the bird.

4) Why does the USDA mandate washing and refrigeration?

Around the turn of the century, egg producers in the Midwest sent un-refrigerated eggs that were 3 or 4 weeks old into the big urban centers like NYC—without automobiles, shipping took more time then.  By the time eggs got to the consumers, they were already at least month old and subject to all sorts of conditions. On several occasions, very serious outbreaks of Salmonella occurred, and quite a few people died. This was one of several food safety concerns at the time. The US government stepped in, mandating washing and refrigeration.

5) Keep in mind that local may not equal organic or sustainable.

A good number of large area farms that are not certified organic or Certified Naturally Grown use sludge and synthetic herbicides, and for dairy, growth hormones. Just because food is produced locally does not mean that the production practices are toxin free.  Asking about production practices is important.  Don’t fall for the “we get our grain from the Amish” line.

Back to the topic of healthy eggs!

Understanding that how eggs are managed affects their shelf life is important.  If you want to have eggs un-refrigerated, it’s best to use them within 21 days from their laying date.

Otherwise, refrigeration is recommended.

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Resources

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/09/11/336330502/why-the-u-s-chills-its-eggs-and-most-of-the-world-doesnt

http://blog.fooducate.com/2013/11/26/why-must-we-regrigerate-eggs-while-europe-doesnt/