Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Does Size Matter?

I got you with that title didn't I?

Ever since my trip to New York City with CommonGround, something has been bugging me. Does the size of my farming operation (or anyone else's farm) really matter? When asked by magazine editors we met with what type of farm my family operates,  I usually replied, "we are a 2,000 acre diversified family farm growing grains, hay, fruits, and vegetables." To which I generally got the response "Wow, that's BIG!" I guess I really had never given it much thought. It doesn't seem big to me. Its a family farm. Period. Does it matter what size it is?

Apparently, to some, it does. Big denotes bad in some circles. To us, its a business our family runs. The second generation, my husband's father and uncle, were wise investors in land in our area back in the 50's and 60's. Thus much of the land we farm is owned by members of the family. According to USDA, 98% of all farms in the US are family owned. USDA also defines "small" versus "large" farms based on sales of crops as opposed to land mass. Your a "farm" according to USDA if you earn $1000 or more from your land. That's not hard to do for a active gardener with a small roadside stand, or for goodness sake even a 4H'er who sells their 4H livestock at the end of the season. It has nothing to do with the number of acres farmed or number of animals raised.

Here we are...the board of directors for a "large" family farm. (note sarcasm)

Big also denotes "corporate" in the minds of others. Our family farm is "incorporated" which is simply a means of separating the business from personal assets for tax purposes. I guess that makes us one of those "corporate" farms. Most farms are structured as businesses these days, because that's what they are, businesses. While you may have some romantic notion about farming, let me reassure you, its a heck of a lot of hard work and sacrifice. I think the romance stems from what is perceived as a nice lifestyle. But in reality, the farm will not stay in the family unless it stays in business. A farm will only stay in business if it is profitable.

Farms come in all shapes and sizes. Size does not matter. Size does not define "good" or "bad". We value our land and the food we grow on that land. Whether we had 10 acres or 10,000 acres, we're doing all we can to ensure that the food we eat is safe and nutritious... because the food on our plates at home, is also your food, the food you buy at the store.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Yesterday kicked of the start of the 4H Livestock shows for our family this year. Both my kids have been involved with 4H since the age of 5, when they were eligible to become "4H Clovers". They started exhibiting bunnies and as they got older, switched to other animals. My son shows pigs and my daughter shows pigs and sheep. They both belong to the "Farm to Market Livestock Club" which is the name of one of the many 4H clubs in our county.

My daughter showing her "spot" breed hog at yesterday's 4H livestock show.

What the kids learn from their 4H animal project is invaluable. They learn all aspects of animal science from nutrition to husbandry to health to genetics. They also learn financial management because they have to keep track of all their expenses and all their income from fair prizes and auction sales in order to complete their 4H recordbook at the end of the year. Most importantly, it teaches them responsibility. The animals are THEIRS. They must take care of them on a daily basis. I may be a mean mom, but my kids lose their iPods and internet access if they do not get their chores done in the morning before school. Their animals are their primary responsbility and therefore come second only to school work.

4H'ers must be knowledgeable about their animals. Here the judge is asking about the various parts of the pig like "Which part does the bacon come from?" or "How much feed does your pig eat per day?" or "How much protein is in your pig's feed?"

In order to do well, their animals must have the proper rate of weight gain, maintain good health, and be trained and worked with. In the pictures above you see the judge in a blue striped shirt. My daughter who is showing must be able to handle the pig in the ring, keep the pig moving so that the judge can evaluate all aspects of the pig, follow proper showmanship techniques, and answer the judges questions about her animal in order to place well.

The lambs must be trained to walk the show ring and hold a show position that best exhibits their features such as length of body or musculature.

So by now, you may be wonder why I've not posted any pictures of my son from yesterdays' livestock show. That's because he wasn't there. In addition to being in a 4H livestock club, he is also in our county's 4H Marksmanship club. He had to choose between a livestock show and a rifle match yesterday.

He chose the rifle match!

If you are not familiar with 4H, then you need to check it out. 4H is not just cows and cooking. 4H is a youth development program, administered through USDA. Kids have "projects" that they choose and learn skills needed to complete that project along with leadership, public speaking and community service. There are all kinds of projects including cows and cooking but also rocketry, marksmanship, environmental science and a plethora of other projects youth can choose from. It is not just a rural youth program for farm kids but is also on military bases, after school programs, and urban areas as well. Call your local county extension office to find out about your local 4H programs. It is one of the best youth programs available for kids ages 5-18. 4H was a formative part of both mine and my husband's lives and we are thrilled that it is a legacy that we are passing onto our children.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

My BFF’s: Water & a Thermometer

Odd title I know but I think you will get the gist of what I’m talking about… food safety! I have to say, I have never walked into a grocery store, farm stand or farmer’s market and felt concerned about whether or not the food I’m looking to buy is safe. The one thing that does cross my mind is whether or not the person(s) before me had washed their hands before choosing produce. That’s why water is my best friend in the kitchen. All raw produce that hits my kitchen counter gets well washed. Is it because am I concerned about pesticide residue? Emphatically – NO! I am concerned about the person who used the bathroom without washing their hands before grocery shopping, going to the farm stand or visiting the farmer’s market. Uugghh! Yucky topic I know but reality check here… how many of you have left the bathroom without washing your hands?

Stay with me here, I’m not trying to discourage you from buying fresh produce. I’m trying to illustrate one of the many ways that bacteria can be present on your food and why it is so important to wash all raw produce before eating it. That includes melons which can have bacteria on the rind and which you spread inside to the fruit by cutting the melon without having washed it first. Bacteria can be present from not only people who don’t wash their hands, but from the soil where it was grown, or if it wasn’t kept and stored at a temperature below what bacteria can grow at. Wash, wash, wash is my motto. Here is a video clip from the USDA about safe handling of produce. His opening line hits the nail on the head... Wash Your Hands!!

So a little about pesticides and food safety,

I’m a producer grower. We grow tomatoes, green beans, and winegrapes. These crops make up nearly a third of the acres we farm. This may explain why I am not concerned with pesticide residue. I am the chemical applicator on farm. I hold a commercial license to do so for which I studied long and hard and sat for a lengthy exam to qualify. I’m required to take continuing education credits every single year to maintain that license. I drive the sprayer, mainly for the grapes. I apply only what is needed, when it is needed, and no more than what is needed. I scout and used Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to determine the threshold at which a spray might be needed. We strictly follow the Pre-Harvest Intervals (PHI) for every thing we apply. Every chemical we use, whether organic or conventional, have “pre-harvest intervals” on the label. The pre-harvest interval is the time that must elapse between when the chemical is applied and when the crop can be harvested. This ensures that any residue will be below what the EPA has determined is safe. The label is the legal requirement by which I have to comply. As I have said before, my kids eat what we grow. I am going to put their health first above all other things. To that end, I am entirely comfortable with the fact that our food is safe, which may explain why I’m personally more concerned about people who don’t wash their hands than I am about pesticide residue.

Remember early on when I blogged about “the dose makes the poison”?  Much of what I use for sprays are nutrients – sulfur, copper, manganese, zinc, etc… You probably have these in your multi-vitamin and at that dose, those nutrients are beneficial. Applied in larger doses, those same nutrients are able to control for mildews and fruit rots in various fruits and vegetables. Some times they are organic. Some times they are synthetic. Either way, I am practicing good agricultural procedures, ensuring that our crop is safe to eat.

So onto my other best friend – the thermometer. I use 2 – one in the fridge and one to test the temperature of the food I’ve prepared. I keep our fridge at around 36º F. The FDA recommends below 40º F to ensure food is kept at a temperature below which bacteria can grow and thrive.

I also regularly use a food thermometer to check the temperature of food I’m preparing. I’m actually pretty much a stickler for checking temperatures.  I think it stems from being a dietitian working in both the hospital and nursing home setting. Both places have patients or residents who are already ill or have weakened immune systems and therefore must avoid food borne illness at all costs. Therefore checking food temperatures is almost second nature to me after having practiced in the clinical setting for so long.

My two favorite ways of cooking are using a slow cooker in the winter, and the grill spring, summer, and fall. When grilling, I want to be sure that the meat I’m cooking has reached the minimum internal temperature. USDA recommends all meat – beef, pork, lamb, and veal be cooked to an internal temperature of 145º F,  ground beef, pork, lamb or veal to 160º F, and all poultry to 165º F.  My favorite grilling recipe I will share with you at Thanksgiving time. It is a grilled turkey that has been brined first for 24 hours. If you want the recipe sooner than November, message me J

The USDA defines the “danger zone” as the temperature between 40º F and 140º F which is the ideal range for bacteria to flourish. Food should spend as little time as possible within this temperature range. So when reheating foods, heat it up to 165º F and when cooling food, cool it as quickly as possible to 40º F or below.  Below is a link to a Food Safety Fact Sheet from USDA.

I know that how we grow our produce on our farm is both healthy and safe and am entirely comfortable with my children eating it. I hope you know that by me as a mom keeping my kids health as THE first priority, I am therefore as a woman farmer also keeping your health as first priority. Now, all that I’ve said is not going to necessarily keep you from getting a food borne illness but it will reduce your risk. Your strategic plan – Step 1 wash it, particularly if it is raw produce you’ll be eating; Step 2 – check the temperature of cooked foods. I hope we share the same BFF’s!

Enjoy the fresh produce and grilling season!