Wednesday, December 28, 2011

GMOs in your garden?

It is miserable for a farmer to be obliged to buy his seed; to exchange seeds may, in some cases, be useful, but to buy them after the first year is disreputable.
George Washington
to Farm Manager William Pierce Nov. 16, 1794

I first read this quote when we visited Mount Vernon in 2000, and even though we were still city slickers back then, that quote has been stuck in my head all these years. I think some things are easy to remember because they simply make sense.

Every now and then someone will ask me what "sustainable" really means. It is far more than a feel-good buzz word, although advertisers may toss it around as if it were nothing more than that. A sustainable farm is one that can sustain itself -- it can go from year to year without external inputs. This is why modern agriculture is not sustainable. Modern farmers must buy their seeds, fertilizers, and chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other chemicals from suppliers every year.

If a farmer uses genetically modified seeds, they are legally prohibited from saving seeds for planting the next year, which means they have to buy them from the seed supplier year after year, reducing profits and making them unsustainable. The GMO seeds are also created so that they must be used with certain chemicals. Without the chemical fertilizers, the seeds won't produce much, if anything. And if you use an herbicide that is not linked to the seed you planted, you'll kill it. It's a great deal for the chemical companies, but not so great for the farmers.

This is why the sustainable garden uses open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. You can legally save the seeds from one crop and plant them in your garden next year just like George Washington because heirloom seeds are not patented, which means the technology that created the seed is not owned by anyone. I've heard some people say that they buy organic seeds because they don't want to buy GMO seeds. I can understand their confusion because when you buy food, you do have to buy organic to know you are not getting GMOs. The law does not require producers to label GMO foods, but the situation with seeds is completely different. Although the seed companies don't exactly put a big GMO label on their seeds, they do require you to sign an affadavit -- and don't worry about missing it! It is usually two pages with small print, and they won't sell you the seeds unless you sign the form saying that you understand the rules.

I recently received a catalog that included a "Squash Technology Stewardship Agreement" that included a section that began, "GROWER AGREES:

  • To use Seed solely for planting a single commercial crop.
  • Not to save or clean any crop produced from Seed for planting and not to supply Seed produced from Seed to anyone for planting other than to a Seminis-licensed seed company.
  • Not to transfer any Seed to any other person or entity for planting.

And it goes on and on about your responsibilities with the "Seed" (always capitalized), such as not planting it in any county, state, or country where it is prohibited. You even give them the right "to inspect and take samples from Grower's fields to confirm compliance with this Squash TSA." And you have to mail the form directly to Seminis, which is a subsidiary owned by Monsanto. If you think this isn't a big deal, just google "Monsanto sues farmers" and you'll have enough to keep you busy reading all day.

Whenever I get a seed catalog with a so-called "stewardship agreement" in it, I refuse to buy anything from that company for a couple of reasons. First, I don't want to support any company that supports GMOs, and second, it just makes me question their ethics, which makes me not want to do business with them. I know Big Ag says we need GMOs to feed the world, but they're wrong. We already grow enough food to feed the world, but 40 percent of it is wasted in the distribution chain, in grocery stores, restaurants, and people's kitchens. And people in third world countries don't need GMOs; they need refrigerators and electricity, so they can store food. And right now, most of the farmland in Illinois is quite literally wasted because it is used to grow corn and soybeans that are not consumed by human beings. More than 99 percent of corn grown in Illinois is NOT sweet corn, so it is either fed to livestock or turned into corn syrup, corn oil, corn starch, and more than a hundred other non-nutritive food additives, as well as ethanol. And the soybeans are used in the same way -- vegetable oil, soy lecithin, dozens of other non-nutritive food additives, and biodiesel. So, the GMO industry is not feeding the world, regardless of what warm and fuzzy stories they try to sell consumers.

If you're new to gardening or want some new options for vegetable seeds, I recommend Baker's Creek, Seed Savers Exchange, and Landreth's, and although I've never ordered from them personally, I know people speak highly of Southern Exposure.

But using heirloom seeds is only half of the equation for creating a sustainable garden. I'll talk about what else you need to do in my next post.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What's so bad about raw milk?

Maybe it's just coincidence or maybe it's just my imagination, but it seems that since Farmageddon was released, the heat has been turned up against raw milk. (Yeah, double enténdre intended.) Anyway, up until recently, some "experts" would just say that raw milk could make you sick. Well, yes, any food can make you sick if it is contaminated. I guess they thought that was not scary enough, so they are trying a lot harder now.

Here is a quote from the recent article, "Amish farms to hippie co-ops fight FDA’s inquiry over raw milk"
“We know there is a real risk with raw milk,” David Theno, chief executive officer of Del Mar, California-based Gray Dog Partners Inc., a food-safety consultant. “Is it okay to feed your kid vodka? It’s less risky than giving them raw milk.” 

Seriously? Could you cite the study that shows that vodka is safer for children than raw milk? That comment sounds like the last gasp of a desperate man. But if that doesn't make you feel like an irresponsible parent, how about this quote from the former Undersecretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Richard Raymond, published in Food Safety News --
But to buy this product and feed it to your children? Might as well lock them in your car on a 100 degree day while you stop by the casino to try and win the jackpot.

So, anyone who gives raw milk to their children is not only dumber than dirt, but is just plain cruel and hateful.

If Raymond had written his opinion piece for one of my college speech classes when I was teaching, he would not have received a good grade. He throws around lots of scary-sounding comments like, "nearly all milk-related outbreaks are from raw milk and cheese made from raw milk," but doesn't give us a source. He doesn't even offer any numbers comparing raw milk to pasteurized milk foodborne illness. His whole piece reads as if it were written by an advertising exec, rather than someone with any knowledge of food borne illness. These particular comment sounds quite damning:

Now milk is responsible for less than 1 percent of foodborne outbreaks. But it could and should be less than 0.1 percent because nearly all milk-related outbreaks are from raw milk and cheese made from raw milk.
Basically, if we eliminate raw milk, Raymond is claiming that we have just eradicated almost all dairy-related cases of food-borne illness, and . . . 
As I stated, the number of outbreaks linked to raw milk has been climbing recently. Between 1998 and 2008, the CDC identified 85 outbreaks from drinking raw milk. In 2010 alone, the number was over a dozen outbreaks.

How can you argue with that? Since Raymond did not offer up any sources, I was forced to search on my own. Since he seems to like the Center for Disease Control, that's where I began my search. Nowhere could I find verification of his numbers.

When looking at Trends in Foodborne Illness, I clicked on a link for "national goals" for reducing food-borne illness, which took me to the website for And there, using statistics from the CDC, I learned that
786 reported outbreak-associated infections, on average, per year due to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157, or Campylobacter, Listeria, or Salmonella species were associated with dairy products in 2005–07 
By saying that food-borne outbreaks in dairy products could be reduced from 1% to .1%, Raymond is saying that raw dairy accounts for 90 percent of food-borne outbreaks associated with dairy products, which does not even match the statistics from food safety lawyer Bill Marler, which claims that raw dairy accounts for 56% of food-borne illness outbreaks from dairy products. I find it interesting that the anti-raw-milk crusaders are always talking about "outbreaks" rather than number of people who become ill. One of the benefits to a local food system is that you rarely find yourself with an outbreak that makes more than a few people sick. On the other hand, when national corporations cause an outbreak, it is not unusual to have a hundred or more illnesses reported from multiple states.

In fact, according to Marler, there were 75 outbreaks associated with raw milk and cheese from 1973 to 2005 but only 47 associated with pasteurized milk and cheese during that same time. Sounds bad until you look at the total number of people affected. While 1,689 were sickened by raw dairy products, 19,950 were sickened by pasteurized dairy products, meaning that it is a far cry from the "safe" food that Raymond claims.

Raymond's one percent number does not pan out either. According to the same site, there were 200 annual infections associated with beef,  311 with fruits and nuts, 205 with leafy vegetables, and 258 with poultry. I don't even have to do the math to know that dairy represents a much bigger chunk of food-borne illness than one percent. Dairy makes more people sick than any other single food. Looking at the overall picture, dairy products are responsible for 45 percent of the food-borne infections. If Raymond was including allergic reactions to foods (which are counted as food-borne illness by the CDC), that might make the commercial dairy industry look far more perfect than it really is, but that would be comparing apples to oranges, which is why I only looked at food-borne infections.

Interestingly enough, there is no data broken out for raw milk. But why should there be? There is no data broken out for raw meat or nuts or leafy vegetables either. Everyone knows that if raw food is contaminated, it can make you sick, right? In April, eleven people were infected with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria from guacamole at a deli in Texas. In July, 15 people were infected with E. coli after consuming contaminated strawberries from Oregon. The list goes on and on. And if you have cooked or pasteurized food, it can become contaminated afterwards and still make you sick. Last week, an Indiana dairy recalled their cheese made with pasteurized milk because it was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. In February 2010, five people were infected with Listeria monocytogenes after consuming cheese made with pasteurized milk. In January 2010, eight people were infected with Listeria after consuming hog head cheese, a type of luncheon meat, produced by a Louisiana company that had also recalled its meat for Listeria contamination in 2007. In 2008, 268 people in a New York restaurant became ill with campylobacter after eating raw and/or steamed clams. This is just a tiny sample of all the various foods that make people sick on a regular basis.

I could go on and on. It makes no sense that some people get so excited about raw milk when the fact is that any food can make you sick, and no one is trying to outlaw sales of raw meat, fish, vegetables, or nuts, although I did hear a little rumble about outlawing raw nuts a couple years ago.

What really fries my bacon about Raymond's argument is that he says he wants the choice to buy pasteurized meat, but says he is denied that choice. Really, Dr. Raymond, when did the government outlaw pasteurized meat? Hmm, I can't find any source that says it's been outlawed. I guess industry just doesn't want to spend the money on trying to keep you safe from undercooking or cross-contaminating their product. So, Dr. Raymond wants the choice to buy a product that industry doesn't want to give him, and he wants to make it illegal for parents to give their children raw milk to drink -- because in his mind, they're as bad as a parent who locks their child in a car on a 100-degree day to go into a casino and gamble!

On the other hand, many states make it illegal to sell raw milk, and it is also a federal crime to transport milk across state lines to sell it. It makes no sense that the government merely tries to educate consumers about the possibility of salmonella in raw eggs or E. coli in raw meat, yet they are doing their best to make raw milk illegal and even bringing in SWAT teams to confiscate raw milk from farms and buying clubs. When is the last time you heard of an armed raid on your favorite sushi bar? Are children not allowed to eat there? Is anyone talking about prosecuting parents for child abuse if they let their children have raw seafood?

Ever heard of vibrio vulnificus? It is an infection caused by eating contaminated raw shellfish, especially oysters, which causes vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, but can be fatal. While most forms of food-borne infection have stayed relatively stable or decreased in the past decade, vibrio has gone up by 115%, which the CDC attritributes to, "the lack of implementation of available control measures." And how does one minimize the risk of getting vibrio vulnificus? The CDC recommends thoroughly cooking all shellfish before eating --
Although oysters can be harvested legally only from waters free from fecal contamination, even legally harvested oysters can be contaminated with V. vulnificus because the bacterium is naturally present in marine environments. V. vulnificus does not alter the appearance, taste, or odor of oysters.

So, why can people buy raw shellfish (or an over-easy egg or steak tartare) in a restaurant but not raw milk? I flunked Mind Reading 101, so I don't know what the people at the FDA or CDC are thinking, but I do know that there are big lobbies on Capitol Hill for the commercial dairy industry, which knows its milk needs to be pasteurized because their cows are not living in grassy green pastures. And there are lobbies for every other sector of Big Ag. Big corporations also donate lots of money to legislators. And plenty of people at the FDA came from industry jobs and will likely go back to industry jobs. But there are no lobbyists for small farmers with a few cows. And those farmers don't donate big bucks to any politician. And if anyone with a dozen cows or goats ever applied for a job at the FDA or USDA, they'd be laughed right out of the room as being unqualified.

I have never told anyone that they "should" consume raw dairy products, and I don't think that pasteurization should be abandoned entirely -- but I believe it is everyone's choice to eat or drink whatever they want. And it appears that the government thinks everyone should be allowed to eat whatever they want -- as long as that food is produced by a big corporation or someone that's lobbying in Washington. They seem to feel as if they've done their job to protect us by simply informing us that undercooked eggs or raw meat can make us sick. But when it comes to raw milk, they want to make it illegal from multiple angles.

What really frustrates me as a taxpayer is that millions of dollars have been spent to try to shut down farms that sell raw milk, even when there was not one single case of illness attributed to that farm. Yet big factory farms can cause large outbreaks of food-borne illness, get fined over and over again for breaking a variety of laws, and still stay in business. Where would you rather get your food -- from a small farmer that is trying and succeeding in producing healthy products, or from a big corporation that keeps breaking the rules, paying fines, and going about business as usual?

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Goats in winter

Giselle, five months pregnant, was warm and cozy
in the barn during the blizzard last February.
A common question this time of year is, "Can my goats handle the cold weather, or do they need a heat lamp or _________?" The funny thing is that these questions come from Florida and Canada and Alaska and everywhere in between.

In the vast majority of cases, if a human can handle the temperatures all bundled up, then a goat can handle the temperatures because they grow a thick undercoat of cashmere in winter. You may have noticed already that your goats are starting to look fuzzier -- or maybe not if you're in a warmer climate. Mine are looking quite fluffy though. Cashmere is so expensive because a single goat only produces a few ounces, although it's extremely warm!

So, how cold is too cold?

If you are having a blizzard, three-sided shelters
may not be sufficient to keep your goats safe and warm.
I know a Canadian online who had temperatures at 30 below zero Fahrenheit, which is definitely a problem for babies. They need heat lamps at that temperature, and she lost a baby or two last year when it was that cold, and they lost power. I'm in Illinois, and we have winter temperatures as low as 15 below zero, which the goats can handle with no problems. The only time I've had any issues with adults at that temperature was when they were giving birth. Both times that happened, they started shaking violently, so in addition to the heat lamps that I had waiting for the kids, I also covered the does -- in one case with a towel, and in the other case, I put an old sweatshirt on her.

If you have kids when it's below freezing, you need to be there to make sure they're dried off as soon as possible, or their ears can freeze. If it's below 20 or if they're outside and it's windy -- even at 40 degrees -- they can also get hypothermia really fast and die. Once they're dry, they're fine. If the ears freeze, the frozen part will fall off, but ultimately they're fine too. They just look funny. Unfortunately I learned from the Canadian woman online that when it's so insanely cold, a baby goat's feet can freeze, and if they're permanently damaged, the kid has to be put down.

As with chickens, goats need plenty of fresh air. Pneumonia is the second most common cause of death among goats, and it's poor air quality that causes it. Goats should actually be put outside every day unless you have really extreme weather, such as single digit wind chill or storm. Although our does come into the barn at night, our bucks live in three-sided shelters that are open to the south, and we make sure there is plenty of straw in there when it's going to be getting below 20 degrees.
The other thing to keep in mind is that heat lamps are the #1 cause of barn fires -- and we almost had one here, but luckily my daughter walked in when it was still a small fire in the straw, and she was able to put it out with a bucket of water. If you have temperatures below freezing, and you have newborn kids, be sure that your heat lamp is secured to the wall or something overhead and cannot be knocked down by a curious goat. Once the kids are a couple days old, they will be fine unless temperatures fall well below zero Fahrenheit.

If you're worried about them, a good alternative to using a heat lamp with kids is to either make little goat coats or little huts for the kids to curl up in. We put a small plastic dog crate in the kidding pens for the kids to sleep in, but I remove the door because it seems to get closed a lot if you leave it on. For my Nigerian dwarf kids, I use the sleeve of an old sweatshirt to make coats. The wrist band becomes the collar; the seam runs under the kids belly, and I cut two little holes for the front leg. If you have a buckling, be sure to cut away enough of the coat under his belly so that he doesn't pee on it.

The only thing I really do differently with my adult goats in cold weather is to give them warm water, which they really seem to love. All of them usually take a big drink every time I bring a new bucket of warm water to them.

So, as I was saying with the chickens last month, you don't need an insulated or heated barn to keep goats in colder climates. They'll do just fine with their warm cashmere coats down to temperatures as low as a human can survive with a warm coat.

Update Jan. 31, 2014: If you have kids due in the middle of winter, check out this post on Kidding in winter.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Give-away winner & how you can get an autographed copy

The winner of this week's give-away was chosen with a random number generator at, and it is Crow. So Crow, drop me an email, and I'll send the book straight to your friend Kayla!

For those of you who would like to buy an autographed copy for yourself or as a gift, you can buy them right here. Prices include shipping. There are discounts for multiple books going to one address, and if you want more than five, drop me an email, and I'll be happy to give you an even bigger discount. Books are sent via media mail, which takes a little longer than priority, so you should order by Dec. 16 to be sure your books arrive in time for Christmas. If you order three or more books by Dec. 16, I will also include your choice of a Homegrown & Handmade tote bag, mouse pad, or spiral-bound journal. I only have three or four of each of those items, so as they say, "quantities are limited" and "first come, first served."

Quantity of books to one address

And for those of you who live in central Illinois, you have another option! I'll be at the City Hall Shoppes in Pontiac on Saturday, December 17, so you can stop in, chat, and buy an autographed copy of the book.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Green smoothies

by Debra Garner
Guest blogger

The holiday season is upon us. For many the calendars are already filling up with dinner parties, office parties, family gatherings, lunch dates after shopping trips. How do you stay healthy during this busy season? My answer . . . Green Smoothies. I believe that green smoothies should be an addition to everyone's diet. I start my day with one quart of green smoothie every day. Not only does it keep me healthy during the cold and flu season but it gives me energy and helps me to keep my weight under control (and during the holiday season this is important).

In spite of all the spinach,
this smoothie is not green.
My advice to everyone is that on those days when you will be going to a dinner party and you want to partake in all the goodies, then start your day with one quart of green smoothie and have a big salad for lunch. If you are hungry between meals, eat an apple or a handful of raw almonds. Make sure you are not starving -- eat enough during the day, but make it a veggie and fruit day until you get to dinner. Then you can enjoy yourself at dinner. Another tip is to take little bits of all you would like to have. Seriously -- one or two bites of each item if there is a variety of food items that catch your eye. Only make one trip to the food table for savory foods and one for desserts -- and if more desserts catch your eye than savory then eat less of the savory dishes (aren't you glad you ate so much fruits and veggies during the day?) so that you can enjoy the desserts completely.

All other days start with a green smoothie and eat "real" unproccessed foods the rest of the day. This will keep you healthy through the holiday season.

My favorite "Green Smoothie"
3-4 cups of raw baby spinach washed well
3.5 bananas
1.5 cups frozen blueberries
1.5 cups of frozen strawberries

Put spinach in blender with enough water to blend it. Add bananas, blueberries and strawberries and enough water to fill blender (after fruit has been added). Blend well. If not sweet enough add other half of banana. This recipe makes a whole blender full of smoothie. There are many recipes online for green smoothies- sweet and savory. Do a google search and try a few different recipes. Happy Holidays!

Debra is a stay at home mom of seven children whom she homeschools. She is a former vegan who now enjoys locally raised organic animal products. She uses her knowledge as a certified raw food chef as a tool to teach others how to get more fruits and veggies into their meat/dairy based diets. She is also a weaver. You can find her shawls and more information about her life at home, product reviews, recipes and more at
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