Thursday, December 11, 2008

US sheep producers: you have a chance to right a wrong

Sometime in the next few months, sheep producers across the US will have the opportunity to end the regressive sheep production tax that was imposed on us in 2002 under the checkoff program.

I am not opposed to taxation. I am opposed to foolish programs, and that's exactly what the American Lamb Board has set up with the money that is collected on every sheep that is slaughtered in the US or imported from overseas.

The checkoff program was created to increase demand for American Lamb, generically. What an odd thing, considering that we can't fill the demand for lamb with our current levels of production. But producers lined up in 2005 with visions of "Got Milk" dancing in their heads and voted (quite narrowly) to impose the tax on themselves.

You've got three years of receipts now since your last chance to review this. Has the program worked? Has it improved your bottom line? Do you see any more American lamb in the local supermarket? By any objective measure, unless you are working for the ALB or one of the ad agencies it hired, the answer is no. There is less American lamb being produced today than there was in 2005. Tax an activity and the activity will tend to decline, don't you know.

What the American sheep industry needs is not promotion, but infrastructure. We need kill plants. We need distribution channels. We need storage. We need production planners. We need shepherds. We need knowledge. The production tax addresses none of these issues, even tangentially.

How many shoppers or food service buyers are looking at the lamb on offer and making a decision about whether to buy American lamb or New Zealand product? None. Usually the NZ product is all that's available. Because in NZ, they have kill plants, distribution channels, storage, production planners, shepherds, and knowledge. They can put the product in front of the chefs and shoppers year-round. We can argue about quality, and we should, but telling people that they shouldn't buy lamb from NZ because it's low quality and then having nothing to offer them to replace it isn't a great strategy.

Even if the American Lamb Board's generic promotion campaign was wildly successful and American Lamb became a brand that consumers recognized and demanded, it still does most small producers no good. Our customers already want American Lamb -- it's what we produce. We are essentially being asked to subsidize the branding of the commodity market, which tends to drag down the image to the lowest common denominator. And folks, let's be honest. There is some right horrible American lamb out there.

In order for the referendum to pass, it must pass two thresholds. First, it must gain a majority of the votes of sheep operations. Second, it must pass based on the volume of sheep represented by the operations. If it only had to pass one way or the other, the big producers would decide the question. But it must past both ways. That means your vote counts equally whether you have two sheep or 10,000.

Inertia is a powerful force. Unless we work hard and make sure that everyone who is eligible knows the issues and votes, the production tax will stay in place. You can also expect a strong pro-tax campaign from the ALB, the American Sheep Industry Association, and the state sheep associations, which will have money and organization behind them. I hope that sheep producers reading this blog will be active, and not just vote against the tax but also talk to their sheep-producing friends and neighbors to bring this chapter to an end.

Thanks for your consideration.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

'Tain't season

'Tain't foliage season anymore.
'Tain't deer season anymore (closed at sundown).
'Tain't snow machine season yet.

'Tain't light very long in a day, and 'taint easy to get your work done. And the weather, well, 'tain't pretty, and sure as shootin' 'tain't settled.

Single digits either side of zero tonight. High temps in the teens tomorrow with high winds. By Wednesday, up into the 50's with rain showers, and back into the single digits on Thursday night.

If it weren't for breeding season, this would be the worst part of the year.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Roll with me, Henry

Etta James and the Peaches' record Roll with Me, Henry was banned because it was so dirty. Well, there are a bunch of sheep on top of Cass Hill in Westmoreland singing that nasty song these days.

My new Ile de France ram, Henry, had four of them bred before he was even back to their pasture with them, and five more this morning. Henry has yellow raddle paint on his brisket so he leaves a mark on every ewe he serves.

Come April 23, we should start to see the results of Henry's efforts. I can't wait -- there's nothing like wobbly new lambs on green grass. Sure it was cold and slushy this morning, but Henry's planting the seeds of spring.

I shouldn't focus only on Henry. I have three new rams working with three different groups of ewes, but for some reason I am most excited about Henry's progeny.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Where good lambs go ...

Foreword: This essay was originally published in the Spring 2008 edition of Vermont's Local Banquet, a quarterly magazine celebrating local, sustainable food and farming. I republish it here in keeping with the season. Since it was first published, a few things have changed. Adams Farm, the slaughterhouse that I had used for years, has re-opened with a new plant and more capacity. The group of producers that I am working with has developed a few good business models and is moving closer to making some decisions about whether to move forward with another slaughterhouse, and a private concern is reportedly getting close to starting renovations on a plant that has been closed for nearly 20 years. Slaughter capacity is still tight in this part of New England, but not nearly as bad as it was in 2006 and 2007, and the trajectory is going in the right direction.

In good weather, the drive between southwestern New Hampshire and the Capital District of New York state can be breathtakingly beautiful: there’s the view from Hogback Mountain, the wind farm in Searsburg, the Bennington obelisk. But at 4 a.m. during a December snow storm, while pulling a trailer loaded with lambs over a foggy two-lane road, the drive is tedious at best and can be downright hairy.

I am a sheep producer in Westmoreland, N.H., just over the Connecticut River from Putney. When I started calling around last August for a slaughterhouse in which my lambs could be processed, the nearest USDA-approved facility that could give me a December appointment was in Altamont, N.Y., about three hours from my farm. On the phone, they told me my lambs had to be delivered at 7 a.m. on the appointed date, and if I didn’t show up on time, I’d be out of luck. I signed on, knowing that the drive would be long, but I had no other choice.
Such has been the nature of things for folks involved in the direct marketing of local meat since two of the largest slaughterhouses that serve this area burned down within six months of one another in 2006: Fresh Farms Beef in Rutland burned in July, and Adams Farm in Athol, Mass., burned in December. No people or animals were harmed in either fire, but at Adams at least one steer that was awaiting slaughter was shooed out of the burning building and never seen again. And 13 of my lamb carcasses were in the cooler awaiting cutting and wrapping when the place went up. Adams Farm is rebuilding, but permitting, financing, and insurance hassles have postponed work and the hope is now that it will re-open this fall. There is no indication that Fresh Farms Beef will rebuild.

So when we farmers started raising our animals last spring, we knew that finding slaughter capacity later in the year was going to be difficult. All the remaining slaughterhouses within a reasonable distance were putting their existing customers’ needs first, and rightly so. Thinking that five months would be plenty of lead time, I started to make calls in August. One place told me they weren’t accepting any new business, period. Another told me they were already booking dates from May 2008 on. I had been using Adams Farm exclusively to process my lambs for the past seven years, and had a good rapport with the folks there. At these other places, I was just another guy with 40 or 50 lambs to process in December. I represented work that they didn’t have time or the physical space to handle.

Not so long ago, New England had lots of little local slaughterhouses that handled the sort of business that my farm provides. Local butchers were known and respected members of the community. New Hampshire poet Maxine Kumin describes Amos, one such local butcher, in her 1992 poem, “Taking the Lambs to Market”:

a decent man who blurs the line of sight
between our conscience and our appetite.

That line of sight has been so thoroughly blurred by agribusinesses, with their massive feedlots and associated meat packers, that unless you buy your meat directly from the farmer who grows it, you probably wouldn’t know that there’s a crisis in slaughter capacity around here. Slaughterhouses are generally not featured prominently in the Chamber of Commerce’s listings of local attractions, but they are as crucial to a local food supply as farm machinery dealers, large animal veterinarians, and backyard mechanics – all of whom are getting thinner on the ground every year.

This winter’s recall of 71,500 tons of beef from an industrial-scale California slaughterhouse – the largest food recall in history – points to the importance of having relatively small, community-based facilities where there’s regular contact between the management of the plant and the farmers who raise the animals that they process. One USDA inspector who had gone from working at a mega-slaughterhouse to a local plant in Washington state told a farmer friend of mine about the difference between the two: at the factory plant, he had 40 seconds to inspect each animal, pre- and post-slaughter; at the local plant he has 40 minutes.

If the inspector has to move at that sort of outrageous pace at the industrial-scale plant, so do all the workers. Speed leads to mistakes, and when the inspector is that pressed for time, it can lead to those mistakes being missed. We consumers then pay the price in the form or E. coli outbreaks, worker injuries, inhumane treatment of animals, and the slaughter of animals that have not been properly cleared for use in the human food chain. Local slaughterhouses are subject to something even more powerful than USDA inspection: the opinions of the farmers and meat customers who want things done right and will call them on shortcomings.

Within a month of the fire at Adams Farm, a group of farmers in the Brattleboro area began meeting to determine how to expand slaughter capacity in the region. At this writing, more than 400 producers from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York have responded to a questionnaire about the need for slaughter services. Many have identified the lack of slaughter capacity as the main factor limiting an increase in their production.

That’s certainly the case for me. I currently produce about 135 lambs for market each year. I could easily triple that with the land I currently have access to. But if I were to increase my production, the lack of local slaughtering capacity would mean that the majority of my lambs would have to be sold at a commodity auction, where the highest bidder would purchase them for a much lower price than my direct customers pay. Selling to direct customers means I can stay in business; selling to auction threatens my livelihood.

But hauling lambs six hours round-trip to the slaughterhouse a few times a year also threatens my business: I lost money on every lamb I direct marketed in 2007, in large part because of the fuel costs associated with hauling my lambs and meat to and from upstate New York three times. My customers were understanding when I increased my prices last year, but I didn’t feel I could ask them to cover the entire cost of what I hope will be a single-year problem. It has been heartening to attend meetings with fellow producers and even members of the Localvore community who not only get that there’s a problem, but who actively want to do something about it. It’s pretty easy to get a group of farmers to complain about something; getting them to agree on a problem and the best path to a solution can be a little like herding cats. But it seems the cats may want to be herded in this case. It’s frustrating to look at a project planning chart and see that the very best we can hope for is a plant that might open in 2009 or 2010 if everything goes well.

As I write this, the results of those producer surveys are being tabulated. Within a few weeks we should have a pretty good handle on exactly how much demand there is for a local slaughterhouse or even a meat processing plant (which takes meat from slaughterhouses and turns it into retail cuts). That’s the first step. Next step will be figuring out how to site, staff, and run the place, and how to raise the capital needed for such a project.

In the meantime, bear with your local farmers as we try to deal with this critical piece of the local food infrastructure. We’re working to fix it, and, with a little luck, make it better than it was before 2006.

I’m hoping that more folks will be able to put my lamb in their freezers, that I’ll be able to price my products fairly, and perhaps make a living at this sheep business. And maybe the next time I drive over Hogback, I’ll be able to enjoy the view.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Good Lord, have mercy on our souls

This is too much. People killed a human being trying to get at the cheap plastic crap in Wal*Mart on Long Island. They couldn't wait until 5:02 a.m. No. They had to be the first ones at the friggin' trough.

There's a 34-year-old man dead in Long Island. Shoppers trampled him to death. They knocked him down, ran over him and pounded him to death with their feet.

I hope the blood stains don't wash out of their sneakers anytime soon.

'Tis the friggin' season to be jolly.

Remember this: There is nothing in any Wal*Mart worth killing for. And if you work at one of these hell holes, remember this: there is even less in Wal*Mart worth dying for. If they rush the door, let them stampede. Just get out of the way.

On behalf of my fellow humans, I apologize. I am ashamed.

Xmas tenticles

Oh, ow. My hair hurts.

Xmas has now crapified Thanksgiving. Several chain retailers were open yesterday, in case the American Consumer just couldn't wait until 4 a.m. today for the "door buster" sales.

When I was riding home from our dinner at my parents' house, listening to NPR at about 6:30 p.m., they played an interview with a woman who was camped out outside some big box store so that she could be first in line when they opened the next day. Lady, everything inside that store is crap. There is nothing in there that you need. You are going to have the honor of being the first little piggy at the trough so you will have the bestest chance of getting the choice lumps out of the swill. You go, girl.

People on one of the Border collie web forums started trading tips about where to get jingle bell "srunchies" to put on their dogs' legs and collars in early November. Why you would want your dog to jingle four times for every step it takes is beyond me, and what self-respecting dog would allow such nonsense is an even more troubling question. But it seems there are enough people who want it that these things are mass produced and are now apparently widely available. I hope the dogs are ripping the scrunchies to shreds as soon as the owners' backs are turned; that we can count on dogs to restore sanity to the world.

I've heard reports that some Lowe's Home Improvement Labyrinths had XMas crap on display in late September. I saw XMas decorations on a private residence in October -- before the leaves were off the trees, before there had been a frost. Just a couple of weeks shy of a quarter year before the actual holiday.

People! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

I used to love Thanksgiving, and I still do. But it is under seige by the same commercial boogerheads that have destroyed XMas, Halloween, and all the other holidays of the year. To the barricades! Defend this last bastion of non-commercialized, reverent celebration! Don't buy crap you don't need with money you don't have! At least not for one day out of the year.

All kidding and annoyance aside, please, take a moment out of your busy schedule of consumerism, contemplate what you have, give thanks for it, and pass a little bit of it on. Sure it's a day after Thanksgiving, but you were too busy filling out your advance order at Amazon dot com yesterday, so do it today.

And listen to this commentary by Willem Lange.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Honor thy meat

At this time of the year, we’re approaching harvest of the lamb crop. I don’t like to use that euphemism for slaughter, but it is becoming more and more common as civilians try to reconnect with their food supplies – an effort that I try to support with all my energy. If a little bit of euphemism is needed to blur the line of sight between the conscience and the appetite, so be it. (That clever turn of phrase is from Maxine Kumin’s poem, Taking the Lambs to Market, published in her 1992 book, Looking for Luck.)

When I started this business, most of my lamb customers were older than me. They were remembering what lamb was like when their parents or grandparents kept sheep when they were kids. While many of those folks are still with me, more and more, I’m finding that my new customers younger than me. Not just because I’m getting older, but because young families are starting to feel that they need a better connection to their food supply than an array of Styrofoam trays in the meat department at their local supermarket.

But they’re still not 100 percent comfortable with the fact that they’re eating an animal that was once alive, and buying it from someone that had a personal relationship with it. Here are some common questions from people who are negotiating this road:

Q: “How do you eat meat from animals you knew?”
A: “I don’t like to eat meat from an animal I didn’t know!”

Q: “How can you slaughter those sweet lambs?”
A: “Precisely because they are so sweet. And juicy, and nutty, and …”

Q: “Don’t you feel bad when you take them to the butcher?”
A: “No. I feel pride in a job well done. I feel thankful for the lambs, the ewes and rams that produced them, the sun and the wind and rain and minerals in the soil and all the other millions of things that have come together – yet again – to put high quality protein from happy, healthy animals in your freezer.”

What always strikes me as odd is the fact that most of these people have fewer questions about the meat displayed so tidily in the back of the supermarket than they do about my lamb. They are faced with the choice of mindlessly picking up a package of steaks at Price Chopper or thinking with me about how they want a whole lamb carcass cut up. Sure, the Price Chopper thing is easier on lots of levels – less planning, it’s ready to cook tonight – but even the ones who know the production system that produced that steak seem to be able to turn off that part of their brains long enough to get the stuff cooked and eaten.

My lambs live a very good life that ends very quickly. The feedlot steer that produced those steaks at Price Chopper probably lived a life where slaughter would be a relief of suffering rather than the quick end to a good life.

But still, in a time when people have lost touch with their food, I suppose that if it helps to talk about harvest rather than slaughter, processing rather than butchering, and schedules rather than kill dates, it’s a small price for me to pay. It’s interesting how many people who start out worried about being responsible for the death of a cute and happy lamb end up being lamb customers. You can almost see the change in their body language when they make the decision to overcome their squeamishness and place the order.

I don’t ever want to give the impression that I take slaughter lightly. When I hand over my lambs to the care and custody of the place that will end their lives, I do everything I can to ensure that the end will be quick and painless as possible and involve as little fear and stress as possible. There are good food science reasons for doing this: meat from frightened animals can be tough and taste off. But that’s not why I take the care I do. It’s because these are my lambs. They’re good sheep. They’ve done all that I’ve asked of them. There’s no way I’m going to let the last day of their lives be any worse than it has to be.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fiddlehead, the bottle lamb

Today I've read a couple of AKDD's posts about her experiences raising bottle lambs on her excellent blog, Vet on the Edge, and it put me in mind of some of my bottle lamb experiences. I should state from the outset, I hate bottle lambs. Hate them for many reasons. First and foremost, because they represent the failure of a ewe to mother her own lamb, which usually means either that I have failed in management or she has failed in mothering. The implication of this is that one or the other of us has broken our contract. Either I have been remiss in my shepherding, or she has let me down.

The economics of bottle lambs are horrifying. Lambing is, in many ways, the end of a cycle as well as the beginning. When a newborn lamb hits the ground, I have put all the time, effort, and expense of a winter's feeding into its mother with the expectation that she will produce a lamb or two (or occasionally three) to pay for all that keep, and perhaps, return a little profit to my enterprise. In my flock, the cost of production of a newborn lamb is about $70. Over the next six to 10 months, I will continue to spend money on it -- even if the mother is raising it -- in the form of labor, supplemental feed, veterinary supplies, wear and tear on my truck, etc., etc. By the time it is ready to go to market, I will have a total cost of production of about $100 to $105, and if I'm lucky I'll get paid $125 for him.

Add two bags of milk replacer -- about $90 -- to the normal cost of producing a market lamb, and I've gone from making $25 to losing $70. In other words, I have lost my margin on three other lambs just to pay for the rearing of that one. And that is to say nothing of the fact that caring for one orphan takes more time than tending to 50 lambs being reared by their dams. During lambing, my time is a precious resource. Bottle lambs take my attention and focus away from the lambing flock, which can precipitate more problems, or let little problems turn into larger ones.

So when I came across Fiddlehead for the first time an hour or so after her birth, I was only slightly upset that she was dead. Fiddlehead was a tiny lamb, one of two born to a 12-month-old ewe lamb. Most ewes that young only have a single lamb; few will have enough milk to raise two lambs even if they are both vigorous. At that age, the dam herself is still growing, so less of her energy can be directed to reproduction and lactation than when she is fully grown. Fiddlehead's twin was full-sized and vigorous, full of colostrum and raring to go. The dam was attentive to both lambs. She was pawing and nickering at the small, lifeless heap in front of her nose. I picked her up and held her up to my ear, and, lo and behold, there was the hint of a breath sound and, yes, a heartbeat. Damn.

Now when I say tiny, I mean it. This was a lamb that could fit in the palm of one of my hands and not drape over the edges. She tipped the scale at 2 pounds, one ounce. Thirty-three ounces. She had no chance of survival. A normal newborn lamb weighs four to five times that much. She was unable to stand. I told myself the humane thing to do was put her down. I was carrying her to my truck for just that purpose, when two ladies out for a walk and enjoying the pastoral scene spotted me and my dire cargo.

"Do you think it'll survive?" one of them asked hopefully.

"Not very likely," I replied.

Fiddlehead begged to differ. She lifted her limp head, summoned what little strength she had in her under-developed lungs and bleated loudly.

"Oh! How sweet!" came the chorus from the roadside.

"Damn." I thought to myself. "So much for the quick and painless death option." Sure, I could have just taken her off and done the grim deed out of their sight. But I am a shepherd. If a lamb -- however wretched -- wants to live that bad, I try to find a way to give it every chance.

It was 48 hours before Fiddlehead could stand. Three more days before she could suck on her own. I carried her around in my jacket or shirt pocket. But once she got her feet under her, she was as full of life and obnoxious as a only bottle lamb can be, following people around and butting dogs and cats that dared get in her way.

I lost a packet on her. She never grew well. Never amounted to much. I should be angry at myself for letting those ladies guilt-trip me into making a bad economic decision. Instead, I'm glad that they helped me stay a shepherd.

But I still hate bottle lambs.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Welcome, Henry

A new ram has joined the Edgefield flock. Henry is a six year old Ile de France ram, who will take the place of Buddy, my old Texel who is now shooting blanks. He came to me from Todd and Kelly Shuttleworth of Shuttleworth Farm in Westfield, Vermont. He was an even trade for one of my Coopworth rams.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A photo of me with my sheep

If you ever wondered what I look like, here's a picture. It's a few years old. I've lost some weight since it was taken. I'm the one standing next to the John Deere gator, and that's my now-deceased guard dog Big Guy in the lower left-hand corner. In this image, I have just finished feeding a group of sheep on the farm I used to run in Amherst, Mass. If you look very closely, you can see Joe the Border collie in the back of the gator

Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan

By Bill Fosher, copyright 2008 all rights reserved.

Michael Pollan’s opening paragraph – or should I say salvo – has the power of briefly stated, commonsense advice. It’s seven words long, and I daresay they could be the most important seven words that Americans will ever read, if they take them to heart. Here they are:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

If we would all follow those three rules, our health would improve greatly. There’d be less heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes, obesity. Contrasted against the confusing landscape of government food pyramid and Mediterranean diets, with their recommendations for so many grams of this and so many servings of that per week, those three simple rules are a beacon for people trying to improve their diets.

Then Pollan spends the next 200 pages muddying the waters.

I mean that in a good way, mostly. Pollan looks at the reasons behind confusing and contradictory dietary advice that we are bombarded with every day. It’s confusing because so much money depends on the decisions people make about buying food, or the other things that we eat, which Pollan refers to as “foodlike substances.” It’s contradictory because much of what the experts are saying is so nuanced and finely crafted as to be virtually meaningless if you read the fine print. But no one does. And in some cases, it’s contradictory because what we know one year turns out to be wrong the next.

The first important thing is to understand what Pollan means when he advises us to eat food. Food is oatmeal, eggs, apples, a lamb chop, a head of lettuce. It’s in its natural form, or very close to it. Foodlike substances are packaged, highly processed items, such as Go-Gurt, the tubed, squeezable product that contains some yogurt and a lot of artificial ingredients to make it sweet and squeezable. Think toothpaste with cultures.

Pollan sharply criticizes the science of nutrionism as reductionism at its worst and most dangerous. He points out – perhaps a little more often than necessary – that these are the people who brought us trans fats in the form of margarine, which was supposed make us healthier but instead turned out to be, well, the closest thing to poison ever sold in a dairy case. He writes about the political forces behind food labeling laws and their corrupting influence on the process. Even organic certification comes in for some justified criticism.

I read In Defense of Food with the keen eye of a 46-year-old heart attack survivor who feels he is being given some very bad – or at least inappropriate – advice by the team of well-meaning dietitians, doctors, and rehabilitation specialists who are supposed to be helping me reclaim what’s left of my health. Diet is one of the main things that need to change in my life if I am to avoid a second heart attack. But the advice I was getting seemed wrong to me. It was pushing me towards more processed foods: Breads with added fiber and long, incomprehensible ingredient lists; frozen or canned vegetables; packaged meals. It wasn’t until I started to read Pollan’s book that I started to understand the two reasons for this.

First, the sort of stuff that they were recommending was basically health-enhanced versions of the stuff that most people eat. To be a little crass, they have to put the hay down where the goats can get it. The problem is that I had already moved away from most of these kinds of foodlike substances years ago, so eating Cocoa Puffs (which carry the American Heart Association’s heart-healthy logo) seemed like a real step backwards.

Second, and perhaps more insidious, was the reductionism that Pollan keeps in his crosshairs. Health professionals want cardiac patients to monitor saturated fat, sodium, total calories, carbohydrates, protein, and so forth. You can’t do that with food that doesn’t come in a package. There is no “Nutrition Facts” label on an ear of sweet corn at the farmer’s market.

In fairness, I should say that everyone who has talked to me about diet since my heart attack has said that fresh fruits and vegetables are excellent and should be a major part of the diet. However, that is about the extent of it. The next 20 or 30 minutes would be spent on how to identify the “heart-healthy” foodlike substances in the supermarket.

Pollan’s criticism of nutritionism as science is that it attempts to break foods down into component parts and to look at those parts out of context of the food that delivers them. He points out that people who eat lots of foods rich in antioxidants tend to have less cancer. Nutrition science has identified the antioxidant chemicals and put them into pills. When people take the pills, they don’t work. So, apparently, there’s something going on in kale and carrots that we don’t understand and haven’t figured out how to measure.

In retrospect, I realize that the problems with my diet lay in the fact that I had broken two of Pollan’s three rules: Not too much and mostly plants. I was, for the most part, already eating food, but I was eating too much overall, and not enough of it was plants. This last one is a particularly hard reality for me to face, as I raise food animals and enjoy sampling my work and that of other like-minded farmers. I used to joke that I love leafy green vegetables. I just want to run them through a lamb first.

This is where Pollan’s book really shines. He points out that food that is grown on healthy soil and under healthy conditions will confer health benefits on the people who consume it. It’s not magic, it’s micronutrients and fat composition. Pasture raised animals will produce food products that have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleaic acids. A carrot grown in ground rich in organic matter will have all the stuff it needs to make the antioxidants that protect us from abnormal cell growth than could be the precursor to cancer. More importantly, healthy foods have all the ingredients working together; they are more than the sum of their parts, Pollan contends.

He also talks about the health of a food system: if you shake the hand of the farmer who grows your food, you don’t need a whole regulatory infrastructure to protect yourself from tainted food. Farmers who have the opportunity to sell directly to their customers suddenly get feedback about the food they produce. Pollan rightly points out that in the commodity food business, the only feedback farmers get from the market is price. In the effort to drive down production costs, they often forget that they are producing food for human consumption, not a commodity for sale on the Chicago Board of Trade.

None of this is exactly new. Wendell Barry has been saying this sort of thing for decades. But Pollan puts them in the context of a set of rules for personal behavior that fits with today’s “What can I do?” mentality, not in terms of government policies.

Unfortunately, Pollan falls into the trap of nutritionism for long stretches of his book, using the logic that gave us margarine to argue against margarine, essentially. He does confess to having done so, and claims his need to do it proves how little good information about food is available. It’s a little hard to swallow. But the advice that he gives about avoiding the chronic diseases and developing a healthy food economy are worth slogging through the deconstruction of nutritionism.

I referred to Pollan’s first paragraph as an opening salvo. In a very real sense, this book is a subversive insurgency in its simplicity and its means of providing ways for people to change their personal behavior, government and scientific advice be damned, for the better. The simple fact of the matter is that if we keep getting fatter and sicker, the medical costs associated with chronic diseases stemming from the Western diet will make the Social Security crisis look like a walk in the park. No kidding: they will bring down our economy. Not “may,” not “could very well;” they will destroy it. Normally, the idea of making the world a better place one person at a time strikes me as feel-good pap, but in the case of diet, it really does come down to changing personal behavior. The changes that Pollan recommends need to reach into the vast majority of households to have their effect on society as a whole. It’s not enough for my family to eat a healthy diet. Our community must also do so. Otherwise we will be fighting each other in the streets for insulin.

The government can and must play an important role in enabling change. How realistic is it to think that a single mother of five living in the inner city can buy a whole lamb from me at $4.50 a pound? Right now, not very. Her ability to find me and afford my product are very limited. That’s where government policy will have to play a role. It’s a series of government policies that have set up the corn belt, the dairy belt, the wheat belt, the beef belt and all the other belts, along with the commodity exchange and transportation infrastructure that underpin its longstanding cheap food policy. It’s a set of government policies – corrupted by corporate food processing and industrial agriculture lobbying power – that have allowed the makers of Mazola to place a “limited” health claim on corn oil.

It’s a question of deciding where we’re going to treat our health problems. The medical system is very good at pulling people out of the sink when they’re circling the drain. I’m living proof of that: my grandfather died of a heart attack at my age, and as recently as 20 years ago my heart attack probably would have been fatal. But that’s perhaps the most expensive way to save a life. The blockage of my left anterior descending artery has been repaired, and I’m on a drug regime that will last years – parts of it for the rest of my life. I’ve had hours of counseling and supervised exercise. I’ve missed lots of work to tend to my health crisis. I put the total cost of my heart attack at about $85,000 so far, and I’m just five months into the 40 years that I should have left. One wonders how far that $85,000 would go if it were applied to producing a healthy food supply and getting it into the places where people need it most. I bet a lot more than one person’s life could be saved.

The basic fact of the matter – and this is Pollan’s strongest point – is that nearly everything the government and science is trying to do to improve America’s diet is basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, when everyone in the wheelhouse can clearly see where the iceberg lies. We still have time to change course, but not much.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

What's a pet worth?

There's a couple in Vermont who will go before the state Supreme Court shortly to argue that they should be allowed to sue their veterinarians for compensation for pain and suffering relating to the death of their cats.

You can get the details here by listening to Vermont Edition.

The gist of it is that the couple's cats were being treated for hypertension using a compounded medicine that they allege was improperly made and contained a toxic dose of one of the medications. They further allege that their veterinarians failed to recognize the cats' worsening condition as symptoms of toxicity until it was too late to save them.

The couple is asking the supreme court to make law that would allow them to seek compensation for non-economic damages -- loss of society and emotional suffering -- for the loss of their cats. It should be pointed out that the facts of the case have not yet been settled. It remains for a trial court to determine whether the alleged malpractice has even taken place.

Under Vermont law -- and most other states -- the amount of money a pet owner can collect for malpractice is limited to economic damages. That is, the market value of the pet at the time of its death. Market value is defined, roughly, as the amount that someone would pay for an animal of the same age, breed, and condition as the one that was lost. In this case, the couple has dropped its claim for economic damages and is seeking only non-economic damages.

I hope the Vermont Supreme Court breaks from its tradition and restrains itself from making law. This is the court that has ordered the Legislature to pass laws allowing civil unions and equitable school funding -- both laudable actions in my opinion, but in both cases the court stuck its nose where the judicial proboscis ought not be stuck -- into the Legislature.

If pet owners are able to start collecting for pain and suffering for the loss of pets, veterinary medical malpractice rates will skyrocket, and veterinary medical care -- already a major expense for those of us who farm and keep a large number of working dogs -- will become even less affordable. A few pet owners will get some monetary compensation that will not bring back their beloved Fluffy, and oh, by the way, the trial lawyer will keep at least a third of that award.

Clearly there is a difference between a pet cat or dog and a cow or sheep. Even in the wildest definition of the value of sheep, which was seen in Vermont's BSE-infected flock, the limit was the value of the animal plus the value of the offspring that she would have produced during her lifetime. But most people would not hesitate to spend more than the pet's economic value -- in some cases several multiples of it -- on veterinary care. And more and more, those of us who allow our decisions about veterinary medical expenses enter the equation when we're deciding what course to take with our animals are considered heartless and cold -- even irresponsible.

The proper forum for the discussion about the non-economic value of pets is not the courts. It is the legislature. The right to collect non-economic damages for wrongful human deaths is established by statute, not by judicial decree. There's an old saw that tough cases make bad law, and it's never been more true than this.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fear: the great motivator

Journalist Daniel Gardner has a new book out called The Science of Fear: Why We Fear Things We Shouldn't and Put Ourselves at Greater Danger. I haven't read it, but I've heard him interviewed on a couple of NPR shows, and I find his hypothesis very interesting and his examples spot on.

For instance, in recent weeks in California there have been a couple of apparently false reports of attacks by mountain lions on hikers. One man said he was attacked in Palo Alto, but police and federal trackers could find no sign of a big cat on the man or in the area where he said the attack took place. This from the San Jose Mercury-News:

Interviewed by police to see whether he might have fabricated his account, the unidentified 50-year-old Portola Valley man "stuck with his story," said Palo Alto police Agent Dan Ryan, suggesting that "if it wasn't a mountain lion it was perhaps a dog."
Easy mistake to make. But the point is this: because this guy, who apparently had some reason to need an unassailable excuse for not being somewhere he was supposed to be, came down from the hills screaming "mountain lion," a public saftey effort that cost thousands of dollars was launched and hikers were kept out of the public park where the attack was said to have taken place.

Another rocket surgeon, this one from Orange County, fabricated a story about being "scratched" by a mother lion when he tried to pat one of her cubs. Here's the story from the LA Times.

Scratched. On the arm. Right. That's what an angry lioness will do to defend her cubs. Hookay.

First of all, let me say that the human genome would probably be better off without people who think they should play with mountain lion cubs. But, since that's apparently not what happened here, it's beside the point. Again, a massive public safety effort was launched, the park was closed, and a nearby elementary school was locked down.

(Thanks to Luisa at Lassie, Get Help for calling my attention to these two anecdotes.)

Fear of attack by other top-level predators is probably one of the most visceral fears that humans have. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! The fact that there have been just 16 cougar attacks in California in the last 118 years -- or about one person attacked every 7 and a half years out of a population of 36.5 million -- does nothing to alleviate that fear. It's programmed into us on the genetic level. When we lived as hunter-gatherers, those of us who feared lions, tigers, and bears lived to reproduce. Those of us who didn't fear them, well, there are fewer of us who can trace our ancestry to that kind of person.

But there's a multiplier effect. Human beings are social. We tell stories. We don't have to see our friends be eaten be eaten by a mountain lion to know that we should avoid them. We just have to hear a story from one of the elders of our band about someone who got eaten -- even if it happened two or three generations ago -- to know that we should avoid places where big cats rule. Societies that respected the danger of top-level predators tended to be more successful than those that didn't.

Gardner makes the point that the media has supplanted the role of the band's elders as story tellers. But because of the fact that newspapers have to publish every day, and they can't tell the same story over and over again, we get a false impression of what is dangerous. His example was child abduction by strangers.

When such an abduction takes place, it's big news. It is big news precisely because it is rare and scary. The fact that it is big news means that people talk about it. It becomes part of the tribal lore, and people alter their behavior to avoid this risk.

How do they alter their behavior? The don't let their children ride the bus to school (or heaven forbid, walk). Children are told to stay indoors. They are supervised at all times. All activities are structured, vetted, and safe. Children are told not to talk to strangers.

Now, there is no question that stranger abduction is a real danger. But all of the things that parents do to protect their children also carry risks -- risks that are much greater than the risk they are avoiding. Children are 26 times more likely to die in a car crash than they are to be abducted by a stranger. Every ride in a car carries that danger. Children are kept indoors, where they play video games and are generally inactive. Lo and behold, we have an epidemic of childhood obesity, carrying with it health risks that will substantially shorten the lives of the children who are affected. (In 30 years, it will be normal for a 30 year old to be a type II diabetic. Think about that.)

It is the nature of journalism to report the unusual: man bites dog. Sure, car crashes in which children die will get some space in the news pages. But stories about long term threats such as obesity and lack of risk judgment aren't exactly front-page, above-the-fold material.

Lack of unstructured, unsupervised play prevents children from developing the ability to evaluate risk. In pre-stranger-danger childhoods, children's ability to hurt themselves was limited primarily by their own strength and ingenuity. As children grew up and became more dangerous to themselves, they also developed the ability to assess risk and determine whether they could do something safely or not. They developed an understanding of risk as they became stronger and smarter. Nowadays, because children aren't allowed to do anything that might be dangerous, they don't understand how to take risks. So perhaps the first time they have the opportunity to do something without adult supervision is when they are 16 years old -- as strong as an adult, but without the judgment -- and we give them a driver's license, a three-ton hunk of metal with a 200-HP engine and a loud sound system. And we're surprised when they engage in risky behavior. We thought we taught them so well.

Being eaten by a mountain lion would sure screw up your day. No question about that. But for the one in 274 million chance that Californians face of meeting this grim fate, do we really need to unleash the power of the Federal Government? Do the taxes that I pay, here in New Hampshire where the very existence of cougars is doubtful, really need to support a tracker to go looking for a "rogue cat" that someone apparently made up in a fit of delusion or out of a need to explain an absence? Should we clear out the parks? Do children really need to be locked into their school? Or would we be better off sending them outside to burn off some of the deep-fried chicken fingers and chocolate milk we served them for lunch?

One of the things that I really liked about the Waldorf school my stepkids attended was that they went outside to play every day, no matter what the weather: rain, snow, biting cold. Outside play was part of the school day. They were expected to dress appropriately -- and of course mountain lion attacks weren't really a consideration in western Massachusetts. Now, I can't claim that there are no obese kids in that school, or that the socio-economic demographics of a private elementary school wouldn't tend to limit childhood obesity. (If you want to tie your brain up in knots, think on this one: in the US, the child of a poor family is more likely to be obese than the child of a wealthy one.) But it is a step in the right direction.

And that's what we need here. Baby steps back toward rational decision making. Let's hope Dan Gardner's book points a few folks in the right direction.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A model for an Internet privacy policy

This from the web site of Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys

"Our privacy policy is you'll receive news tidbits only from Banjo Dan because we're not organized enough to profit from your email address in obnoxious ways. To unsubscribe, just reply to any newsletter and ask to be removed. It's not an automated process for the same reason that we won't give your email address to anyone else."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Nothing to do with sheep or anything ...

Just two quotations from some of my favorite musicians.

"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." — Steve Earle.

"I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table." — Townes Van Zandt.

Imagine what those two minds could have done without heroin.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The difference between quiet and silence

I have a thing about noise. Human-generated, mechanical, intrusive noise can make me nuts. But that doesn't mean I like silence. What I want is quiet. As I write this, I am sitting in my house with windows and doors open, listening to the sounds of the woods around me. I hear a wood thrush, a robin, an Eastern wood pewee, rose-breasted grosbeaks, some sort of woodpecker drumming, and leaves rustling in a morning breeze. If I stepped outside, I would also hear a distant hum of wheels on Interstate 91. And in a few minutes the fridge will kick back on, and even this laptop makes some sounds in addition to my keyboard clicks. Now there's a jet flying over, way up high.

When we moved into this house three years ago, we very seldom could hear the traffic. The highway is more than a mile away, and there were thick woods between us and it. But the landowner across the road stripped out his timber, and now the noise comes right up the hill. When the wind is from the north, or when the pavement is wet, it can be loud enough that I have trouble sleeping.

Right now my sheep are pastured in a very quiet place on top of Cass Hill in Westmoreland. They are about a mile from the nearest public road, and surrounded by dense woods. Last evening I sat there after setting up a new paddock and listened to them eating, and rustling through the tall grass and weeds as they sought out prime vegetation. When they moved away from me, I started to be able to hear the wild sounds -- not all that different from what I hear at home, but without the background thrum of traffic and with a few of the birds of denser woodlands that were driven away by my neighbor's rapacious harvest of his land.

All was quiet. But it was far from silent. Silence is the absence of sound; quiet is the absence of noise.

In recent months, I have been recovering from a heart attack. Over and over, health professionals tell me that reduction of stress is going to be critical to my recovery. In my cardiac rehabilitation classes, we have had sessions where we were supposed to sit quietly, concentrate on our breathing, and relax deeply. I found it nearly impossible to do. Does anyone else remember the signs we used to see along the streets: "Quiet: Hospital Zone"? Until this spring, I hadn't spent much time in hospitals -- I went to great lengths to avoid darkening their doors, as a matter of fact. Hospitals are some of the noisiest places!

Large institutional buildings create noise even if they aren't full of people. Florescent lights buzz; ventilation systems woosh and whir; plumbing churns, gurgles, clangs, and thumps. My cardiac rehab class was in the basement of a community hospital, and our classroom was off the corridor that leads to the employee cafeteria. So there were loud conversations outside as people came and went for their coffee or meal breaks. The laundry was also nearby, so great carts of sheets and towels were wheeled by. And the elevators were directly across the hall, so there was the constant ding and sound of the doors opening. And just for good measure, every now and then, the PA system would go off:

"BING! Dr. Smith, 5832 -- Dr. Smith, 5832."

I found it next to impossible to relax with all that noise. But up on Cass Hill, I could focus on my breath and feel the day's tension melt away as I did so. Even though the sounds were erratic and some were as loud -- and perhaps louder -- than the ones that I heard at the hospital, for some reasons, they didn't intrude as much. Is it just because they weren't human-generated (although one could argue that I am responsible for any noise my sheep make) or mechanical? I think so.

Natural quiet is nearly impossible to come by these days. I have been consciously seeking it out for a number of years now, and when I can get a few minutes of it I relish it. And now, I have a valid medical reason to do it.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A more fitting tribute to Molly

Molly in a training session, circa 1997

I want to celebrate her life, and her effect on me. It still hurts that she’s not there in the morning while I drink my first cup of tea, and that she’s not here right now, reminding me that it’s time to feed the dogs. I still look for her on our walks, wanting to make sure that she hasn't gotten confused and lost. But that’s my problem: compared to what she gave me this is a tiny price to pay.

A lot of people who know me and knew Molly think they understand the bond between us; a few of them do. Very few. One friend gave me a bumper sticker that said, “God help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.” She thought it represented Molly’s adoration for me.

She did adore me – and the feeling was mutual. But Molly held no illusions about me. I am exactly the person she thought I was. She knew my shortcomings, and when she could she covered them for me. When she couldn’t, she tolerated them with varying degrees of annoyance. That bumper sticker should have said, “God help me if my dog tells where I’ve hidden the bodies.”

Perhaps as important, I held no illusions about Molly. I know she wasn’t the greatest sheepdog that ever lived. I’ve probably got a more talented dog in Tweed right now, but as big as Tweed’s place in my heart is, it doesn’t compare to Molly’s. Molly was competent and workmanlike, but not really stellar. But she tried her best every time I asked her to. Who can ask anything more than that in a dog?

There are some great stories about Molly. There was the time when 500 sheep on an island vegetation management project broke out. We thought we had them all back inside the fence, and were getting ready to get home before we were going to have to run against the tide. Molly was nowhere to be found. After about 20 minutes of searching and calling, I saw some motion out in the salt marsh, and here came another packet of sheep. Molly was behind them, bringing them on a dead line for where I was calling her from. If we had left when we thought we were done, those sheep (it turned out to be 12 of them) would have been swept out by the tide or eaten by coyotes.

I had a habit of talking to Molly like she was another person. I do this with all my dogs, more or less -- I don't talk baby talk to them or change my voice very much. But Molly had a large vocabulary and paid attention to me most of the time, resulting in some interesting conversations. There’s the time when one of my stepdaughter’s boyfriends was visiting. He was sitting on the couch, and Molly was curled up on the floor in front of him. I walked into the room and casually asked, “You want to go outside and take a leak?” Imagine his relief when Molly got up and accompanied me. He thought this was some sort of bonding ritual I was expecting him take part in with me.

Molly had a beautiful sense of the pressure needed to move sheep, and she also knew how to turn it down a notch when she needed to. She could avert her eyes just enough to allow a truculent ewe to back up a step, collect her lambs, turn around, and trot off where she needed to go -- giving the ewe just enough space to leave without losing face.

There was the time when we moved a stray lamb, one backwards step at a time, down a narrow path on a cliff face, to his calling mother.

I’ve said it before, and it’s true: Molly made a shepherd out of me. She showed me doors that I wouldn’t have seen without her. Molly gets some of the credit for anything that I do right with my sheep flock or the dogs that I’m working or training.

Selfishly, I hope that my relationship with her wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime deal, but it probably was. I hope that her ghost visits me when I get lazy and reminds me to straighten up and fly right. I hope to see her in my dreams at night after a good day’s work, with the white tip of her tail – the shepherd’s lantern – leading the way down the darkening trail from some high pastures toward home, and toward rest. I hope to see her in the young dogs coming up. Most of all, I hope that I can be worthy of her memory.

She was a good dog. To paraphrase James McMurtry, she'll no more be here, but she'll never be far.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Molly, Jan. 3, 1993 - May 15, 2008

I cut off my right arm this afternoon. At least that's how it feels. Molly is gone.

She'd been gone for a while, truth be told. As she had so many other times in my life, she was waiting for me to see what should have been obvious. In the past, she was waiting to help me; this time she needed my help. I wish I could have offered it more selflessly.

Rest easy, old girl. Thanks for everything.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Wolves at the door

The National Wildlife Service has confirmed that the canid that killed at least 13 sheep in Shelburne, Mass., last fall was a gray wolf, and that it appears to be wild, not an escaped captive. The wolf itself was shot and killed when it returned for another meal at the farm; undigested lamb bones and wool were found in its stomach.

Biologists are puzzled by the wolf's appearance so far from any known established population. The nearest packs of gray wolves are in Quebec and Ontario. Some gray wolves are occasionally seen in Northern Maine, but they aren't believed to be established there.


Before last fall's visitation by the young, 85-pound male, the gray wolf was thought to have been extirpated -- that is, locally extinct -- from Massachusetts since before the civil war. As far as I can learn, there have not been any further sightings of wolves in the area, but that's one of the hallmarks of wolves: you don't see them. The mere fact that this guy was seen taking sheep one day and shot and killed the next makes me wonder if he was as healthy as folks are saying. He also killed a large number of animals, eating only a few bites of each. This is also unusual behavior for a healthy wolf or even a coyote. It's more like a dog.

His appearance and confirmation is probably going to start a movement to reintroduce this top-level predator into its former range in New England. Let's hope that it isn't done as willy-nilly as it was done in the areas surrounding the Great Lakes, where wolves were "reintroduced" into places where there was no historical evidence they had ever lived, and where the only food source for them is domestic livestock. A pack of wolves preying on a flock of sheep can make a shepherd long for the days of coyotes and domestic dogs. I know of one shepherd in Minnesota who has had livestock guardian dogs killed by introduced wolves, and who has had to increase both the number and aggression of the guard dogs that she uses just to stay ahead of the wolves.

There's historical evidence that my part of New Hampshire was, in fact, home to wolves. So if there's going to be reintroduction, it will probably happen around me. I hope that the wildlife biologists have the common sense to work with livestock producers before the killing starts. They can have us working with them, or they can have us working against them. It's as simple as that, and it's entirely up to them.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Visualizing 143,000,000 pounds of ground beef

When we talked earlier this week about the largest food recall in US history -- that of 143 million pounds of ground beef from Westland/Hallmark in southern California -- my focus was on the true cost of food. But here's another thing to consider. If most of this beef hadn't already been served up at fast food restaurants and school lunch programs all around the US, the task of recalling it would be monumentally expensive. A big recall has already put one processor out of business in recent months.

But anyway, let's consider the logistics of recalling 143,000,000 pounds -- or 71,500 tons -- of ground beef. A semi-trailer can carry a load of about 45,000 pounds, or 22.5 tons. If we assumed that the entire cargo of a semi was just ground beef -- that is, no packaging, pallets, etc. it would take 3,178 semis to carry the beef. A typical truck and trailer is about 70 feet long, so if you lined them up bumper to dock lock, you'd have a string of trucks a little more than 42 miles long.

Of course, the hamburger was shipped in 40 and 50-pound cartons on pallets, so figure that there'd be another 15 to 20 percent of packaging weight, and add that to the line and you start to get a line of semis about 50 miles long.

And I don't know enough about logistics and shipping to know whether ground beef in boxes on skids is a cargo that can use up a truck's weight limit before running out of space.

But we don't really need to worry about a 50-mile long string of tractor-trailers pulling up to the Westland/Hallmark plant because, after all, most of the meat that was recalled has already been eaten.

But clearly the logistics have become an issue. In an interview on Vermont Public Radio last week, the director of food service for the Ferrisburg Public Schools said she was still awaiting instructions on what to do with the cases of beef that have been sitting in her freezers on hold since Jan. 31, when the USDA first issued a warning against using the beef.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Too expensive to burn?

Cargill announced yesterday that it is canceling plans to build an ethanol plant outside Topeka, Kansas. The basic reason is that corn is now to expensive to use a feed stock for ethanol production, in Cargill's estimation.

Corn closed at $5.25 per bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade -- and I can remember a year ago lamb feeders in the midwest saying that they couldn't afford to feed lambs corn that cost $3.50 a bushel.

So whither corn? Is the irrational exuberance out of the marketplace yet? How will the federal government meet the conflicting goals of increased ethanol use, improved land conservation practices, and cheap food? Is this just a ploy by Cargill to try to put some downward pressure on the price of corn? Cargill is, essentially, in the business of adding value to corn by making it into various products from pork to ethanol to high fructose corn syrup -- if its basic raw material is too expensive and it can dial back perceived demand just a bit, perhaps production won't trail off, but prices will?

The timing of the announcement makes one wonder about this. Nearly all the major corn production for 2008 is pretty well locked in. Seed and fertilizer has been ordered and in some cases paid for. Land has been leased, removed from CRP plans, or otherwise committed to production. And Cargill looks at its Topeka plans and says, "Eh? Maybe not." It also mentioned that it has not made any decisions about three other plants that it has on the drawing boards.

For a company like Cargill, used to controlling absolutely everything in a "vertically integrated" supply and production system, it must be maddening to not be able to precisely control the cost of corn, when so much of their business model depends on it. But perhaps, just perhaps, it has figured out a way.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Speaking of the Valdez

Exxon Mobil is currently fighting a judgment against it in the Valdez case. It doesn't want to pay $2.5 billion in punitive damages. Sounds like a lot of money. But it's just shy of 9 days' earnings for them.

This is the world's smallest violin ...

Punitive damages are meant to punish and deter bad behavior, such as putting a relapsed alcoholic at the helm of a supertanker plying the waters of an extremely sensitive ecosystem. Hard to see how such chump change is going to make Exxon Mobil think twice about anything.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The further cost of cheap food

The largest food recall in US history has just taken place. Officials at the Westland/Hallmark meat packing plant were recently ordered to recall 143 million pounds of ground beef, some 37 million of which were sold to the the federal school lunch program, and which, officials acknowledge, has mostly already been eaten.

The recall, which covers meat dating back to February 2006, is due to the fact that non-ambulatory cattle may have entered the food chain in violation of food safety laws. At the same time, two employees of the Southern California slaughterhouse are charged with criminal animal cruelty for the way they handled these so-called downer cows.

Say what you will about the Humane Society of the US -- they are a crooked bunch -- but they managed to get their hands on some incredibly damning video shot at the plant. It showed two workers using a forklift to shove, prod, and lift down cattle out the way. They were also captured on tape pulling down cattle around by one leg over manure-soaked concrete yards, using a shock prod repeatedly on cattle that could not stand, and turning a high-pressure hose on a down cow.

Westland/Hallmark appears to be trying to pass this off as a couple of bad employees in an otherwise good plant. In a statement on the company's website, president Steve Mendell defended his company's record on the humane treatment of animals entering the plant.

"Words cannot accurately express how shocked and horrified I was at the depictions contained on the video that was taken by an individual who worked at our facility from October 3 thru November 14, 2007," Mendell said in the statement. "We have taken swift action regarding the two employees identified on the video and have already implemented aggressive measures to ensure all employees follow our humane handling policies and procedures. We are also cooperating with the USDA investigators on the allegations of inhumane handling treatment which is a serious breech of our company’s policies and training."

Both employees were fired.

Mendell went on to defend his company's food safety compliance thus: "Finally, I proudly assure our customers that we comply with all USDA requirements, including the requirement that only ambulatory livestock may enter the harvest facility to be processed for human food. I am confident that we have met this high regulatory standard."

The reason the meat was recalled and the plant shut down was because since 2006 there has been a ban on downer cattle entering the human food chain. Apparently the animals in question in this case were cleared for slaughter by the USDA inspector on site, but at some point between that clearance and their slaughter they became non-ambulatory. The regulations require that the inspector be notified and the animal re-inspected. That didn't happen in this case.

I don't know very much about Westland/Hallmark, but it appears from the video to be a plant that specialized in what are known as cull cows -- dairy cow that are being sold for meat for one reason or another. There are more and more of this kind of cow entering the market these days because, with milk prices at record highs, dairy farms are attempting to push cattle for higher and higher levels of production. Some of the large factory dairy farms are now averaging just one lactation per cow before some major system fails and she has to be sent off as a cull.

Typically cull cows are a source of hamburger. Their milk production keeps the level of finish or fat very low in their meat, making it less desirable for steaks and roasts. In the industrial food system, this source of lean meat is desirable because it can be sold as is -- ever buy "diet lean" hamburger? -- or mixed with cheap suet to make any grade of hamburger.

But hamburger production is a high-volume, low-margin business. All the meat must be removed from those dairy cattle's bones more or less by hand. There's tremendous pressure to move product through the system. Hundreds if not thousands of cattle are slaughtered every day at a plant like the one where these atrocities took place. Downer cattle are, at the very least, a bother, and at worst, might mean that someone's quota gets missed.

Plants like the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse can't exist without a large supply of cattle within a reasonable shipping distance. With the concentration of dairy in the irrigated areas of Southern California, plants like this one become not only possible, but virtually a necessity. When a single dairy farm is milking thousands of cows -- even tens of thousands in some cases -- there will be a certain number that will leave the farm every day.

On the alter of cheap milk, we sacrifice cows as we push them for maximum production. When they break down, we ship them off for hamburger to a plant where, in the name of cheap hamburger, we sacrifice our humanity. It's all very carefully kept out of sight and out of mind. Neither of these businesses would be possible without the artificially environment of irrigated cropland in the arid and semi-arid regions of California -- an environment made possible by taxpayer subsidized irrigation schemes and crop programs.

So what can you do? If you don't have one already, buy a freezer. Find a local source for your meat. Talk to the farmer or rancher who raises the animals, and order a half or a quarter of a steer. Talk to them about where and how their animals are slaughtered, and how they're handled and raised. Pay a little bit more for your meat if you have to. It's a small price to pay for your humanity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The end of cheap food?

On the NPR call-in show "On Point" today, the topic was increasing
food prices. Host Tom Ashbrook had an agricultural economist on,
talking about the factors that are driving up food prices. In his
intro, Ashbrook talked about the rising theft of pigs in China,
tortilla riots in Mexico, and increased milk prices here in the US.
As possible causes, he mentioned the ethanol boom, and said - among
other things - that "farmers are sitting pretty on high prices."

Well Tom, let me give you an idea of what "sitting pretty" looks like
to this American farmer. It looks like all the small dairy farms in
my neck of the woods have been run out of business or gobbled up by
larger neighbors. Those larger neighbors are pulling in record
amounts of money for their milk this year - two years ago, the prices
were at an all time low. And despite the fact that prices are now at
historic highs, most of them aren't making very much more money than
they do when milk prices are "normal," because the cost of grain to
feed the cows, fuel to plant and harvest hay and other fodder and the
fertilizer to grow it have all skyrocketed in the last few years.

In the fall of 2004, I could buy a 21-ton tractor-trailer load of
shelled corn delivered to my farm (then located in Amherst, Mass.)
for $2,520, or $120/ton. Today, that same delivery would cost me
$4,095, or $195/ton. So in three years, the cost of corn delivered to
a farm in central New England has increased 60 percent, or 20 percent
per year at a time when the general inflation rate has been about 3
percent. Those damn Iowa farmers must be making a killing, right?

Nope. They're not the ones making it. Food and Water Watch Policy
Analyst Patrick Woodall points out these facts. "In 1980, the
farmgate price for corn was $2.70 and a new Ford Mustang cost about
$6,000. Today, the base model Mustang runs about $19,000 and corn is
selling for as much as $3.70 - meaning the price of Mustangs more
than tripled and the price of corn increased by a little more than a
third," said Woodall.

See Food and Water Watch's press release for further analysis of the lack of relationship between historical
corn prices and the prices of consumer goods, including groceries.

So who is making the money? Where's it going? What's driving the cost
of food through the roof? Well, we might consider looking at Exxon
Mobil's record year that just went into the books.

Exxon Mobil's record profits

That's right. The folks who brought you the Valdez earned a record 40
billion, 610 million dollars last year. In round figures.
$40,610,000,000. That's a net profit of $3,219.34 per second, 24
hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

To be honest, I think that pretty much ends the mystery of where our
food dollar is going. Over the years, partly because of government
planning and partly because of simple economics, the US and to a
lesser extent the world's food system has become concentrated. We
have a corn belt, which is widely known and recognized. But we also
have a dairy belt, a wheat belt, a beef belt, a sugar belt, a cotton
belt - you name, we've got a belt for it. Production of agricultural
products is concentrated in specific parts of the country where they
grow best, can be processed easily, or simply because there weren't
enough people around to object (note the concentration of beef
feedlots in the rural west).

The whole system is based on transporting commodities from where they
are grown to where they are needed - either for direct consumption or
for processing into other products.

In real terms, the farmer who grew that corn I bought in 2004 and the
one growing it today were paid about the same amount for their
efforts. After all, farm gate prices aren't what really matters: farm
profit is. The increases in cost incurred at my farm, and the
increase at the farm gate, are nearly all due to the increased cost
of energy.

Energy is expended to plow the land for the corn. Energy is expended
to fertilize the ground (commercial fertilizer is, essentially, a
petrochemical). Energy is expended to harvest, and dry the corn. Then
it's loaded into rail cars, which expend energy transporting it to
New England, where a grain company loads it into trucks and expends
energy getting it to the farm where it's loaded into my bin.

At every turn, Exxon Mobil and the other oil companies are making
record profits. No one else along the chain of custody is getting
rich, let me assure you.

So, what sitting pretty looks like to this farmer is pretty much what
it looks like to the soccer mom filling up her minivan or the road
warrior pumping gas into his SUV: shoveling dollars into the coffers
of oil companies.

What can be done? I can only really think of one thing. We have to
get used to paying what it really costs to get our food grown,
processed, and delivered to us. That might mean that suddenly the
small-scale production of grains, considered inefficient in the days
when a gallon of diesel cost less than $1, will suddenly start to
look more and more efficient. It won't make Vermont wheat any less
expensive, but perhaps it will be competitive with the $10/bu wheat
in Kansas that then has to make a 2,000 mile trip to Vermont.

It almost certainly means that there will be less and less grain-fed
meat around. Lambs, being a relatively poor converter of grain to
flesh when compared with pigs or poultry, will be one of the first
food animals to stop making a trip to the feedlot.

For the take of an industry watcher who has seldom been far off the
mark, see Stan Potratz's column. He's
predicting that more and more lambs will be marketed directly off
grass. This will take a new kind of sheep. The animals at the core of
the sheep industry have been selected as a means of adding value to
grain for so many years that they have become poor converters of
forage. Fortunately, the sheep industry has seen very little the sort
of vertical integration that has made pork and poultry production so
"efficient," so the right kinds of sheep are out there. But they are
in short supply.

Anyway, Tom Ashbook, none of us farmers are "sitting pretty" on our
high prices. If we even actually have them. We're struggling to get
by as usual, paying big money to big companies for things that we
must have in order to put food on your table.

You're welcome, by the way.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A useful beast

When I arrived to do my chores today, I discovered that my lambs had grown impatient for balage, gotten out, and mixed themselves in with the ewes, whose bales were recently refreshed.

This left me with the task of separating the two groups. Initially I figured that I would go back to the barn, get out the handling gear, drag it out to the field, set it up, shed out the lambs, put them back where they belong, pack it back up, and haul it back to the barn. This is about a two-hour process -- mostly setting up and packing up and hauling back and forth.

I decided instead to have a go at shedding the lambs out of the ewes with my good dog, Tweed. Tweed's a little hot to trot, so I spent about 10 minutes getting his mind right -- just getting him to calm down, listen to me, and work with me, rather than assuming that he knew what the job was.

Shedding using a dog is very exacting, precise work. You start with all the sheep between the handler and the dog. When you get a good sized group of sheep that should be in one group at the front of the group, you call the dog in, cut them out from the rest of the group. The handler then drives the small group away while the dog holds the remaining sheep back so they don't follow. Repeat this process over and over again until all the ewes are in one group and all the lambs are in the other.

Sheep want to stay together. The attraction is like a magnet or gravity: the smaller group is drawn to the larger one, and the effect is weakened by distance. Once that first small group has been driven off far enough that it won't want to re-join the main group, you can use it to draw other small groups so you don't have to drive them as far from the main group on subsequent cuts.

The strategy is key: You want end up with the smaller of the two final groups held by the dog. If you try to drive off the smaller group, it will constantly be trying to get back to the bigger group, requiring the handler to stop manipulating the mixed group to drive them back again. In this case, there were 21 lambs and 79 ewes, so Tweed's job was to hold the lambs and let the ewes go. My job was to shift the sheep around until there were some ewes ready to leave the main group, but no lambs.

Tweed had to listen to me. There's no way that either one of us could do this job alone. His job is to hold what I tell him to hold, and let sheep run away when I tell him to. For a Border collie, letting sheep run away is one of the hardest things imaginable. For Tweed, listening to me is hard at first, but after a while it starts to make sense.

But half an hour later, we had 21 lambs in one corner of the field and 79 ewes in the other. There was one mother-daughter pair that held together until the end, and we probably spent more time getting that last lamb out of the ewe flock than the other 20 combined. We had to regather the whole flock once, when two lambs slipped past Tweed. At that point, we had made two cuts, taking about five or six ewes each time. The two lambs squeaked in with the third cut, which had 10 ewes in it. I probably just got greedy and should have taken two cuts with fewer sheep rather than one big one.

Anyway, a job that would have been a fairly odious and time consuming chore became a way to spend a bright winter's morning with my dog, in close enough contact with the sheep to really get a good eye on each and every one of them, and get a job done in a quarter of the time it would have taken otherwise.

I really must learn to trust my dogs more often.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I don't get it.

So, the day after the New Hampshire primary election goes into the record books, all the politicians and pundits leave. But for some reason, there's still all this hot air blowing around. I mean in 48 hours, we have gone from snow depths of more than three feet to having patches of bare ground on south-facing slopes. All the snow is off the roof of my house.

Wednesday was so strange. Temps hit the upper 50s. My face and neck were warm, but I couldn't take my long-sleeved shirt off because my arms would get cold from all the evaporation that was coming off the snow pack.

Brooks and rivers are swollen with snow melt. Ice jam flooding is a problem in a few places. In many ways, it's just the typical January thaw. But we usually don't have this much snow when it hits.

Maybe all the Kleig lights provide the extra little bit of heat to push us past the tipping point.

One nice thing, though. My ewes are able to get at the leftover turnips and are very happy about it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

On the occasion of Molly's 15th birthday

Old Molly just keeps on keeping on. She turns 105 today, if you buy the notion that one calendar year is seven dog years.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought she might not make it to this milestone. She suffered a major seizure, and had a hard time coming out of it. But come out of it she did, and bless her heart, she paces up and down "harr-ing" for her dinner every night starting about two hours before feeding time.

To a great extent, I owe the fact that I am a shepherd to this dog. I had sheep before her, but a retired meat cutter could count them on his remaining fingers, and I thought that I had all I could handle. Working them required so much effort that I couldn't imagine having more than six or eight of them. Molly opened doors for me that I didn't even know were there until she pointed them out.

You can put sheep into a pen without baiting them with grain and having two kids and a couple of neighbors running around like chickens with their heads cut off? Yeah, right!

You can walk sheep five miles through the woods, over narrow bridges, and along brushy powerlines? Cut it out!

One man can lamb out 300 ewes? Get out of town!

But with a good dog -- like Molly was in her day -- all these things are possible, and downright enjoyable.

What's hardest to believe is that this dog, my first working sheepdog, was able to show me these things. I didn't know how to get out of her way for a long time, and when I finally started to, she responded graciously -- as if she had known the answer all along but was just waiting for me to figure out the question and ask it. Not very many dogs would have stood for my incompetence and still been willing to give me so much.

It's been about three and a half years since Molly has been interested in working sheep. She's very stiff in the hindquarters, and there's something wrong with her proprioception that makes it even harder for her to walk. Stairs are a real challenge. She can't see well, can hardly hear, and since cold weather set in, she spends most of her time sacked out on the couch. Which is fine with me. She earned her rest. These are her pipe-and-slippers days, and as long as she's enjoying them, she will have them.