PictureHappy cows grazing at Baker Ranch - Doyle, NV
Raise your hand if you use grass-finished as one of your main criteria for buying meat. Raise your hand if you truly understand what it means.

This is not a trick question. Grass-finished is what it says...animals finished solely on grass and not fed supplemental grain. But does grain have a place at all in a cow or steers diet? The easy answer is to say no. Cows are bovines...large, domesticated ungulates, with a complex, 5-stomach, digestive system that is not intended to process grain but rather a robust variety of grasses and alfalfa. But in large commercial feeding operations, grain is pretty much all cattle receive because it is cheap and grows big beef fast. As a result, the cattle have to be injected with antibiotics frequently to keep from getting sick from their inappropriate diet.

Let's first understand the terminology around "cows"...Bulls are uncast rated males, steers are castrated males, and heifers are female cows who have not had a baby. And a cow is a female who has had a baby. Not sure how we came to classify them all as cows but that's the course history has taken. And another interesting fact...it is mostly steers that we eat.

A grain diet helps to marble the meat and make it tender. Grass-finished beef will be very lean, perhaps a little tough and for some, will have a very distinct, almost gamey, flavor. So how can we get the best of both worlds? I like to call it "farm finished."

When an animal is "farm finished," the animal stays on-farm all the way up to the day of slaughter. If you are fortunate like Northern Nevada, you have Wolf Pack Meats in Reno. It is one of the most well-respected, independent, USDA slaughter houses in the country where a rancher can slaughter but also have their meat cut and packed. The last part is what makes Wolf Pack Meats really unique. All the processing is done under one roof versus slaughtering in one facility and having to take the carcass to another facility to get it cut & packed.

When an animal is "farm finished," it means they finished out their life on the same ranch they were born. They are well-cared for, may have a name, have enjoyed a busy life of rotational grazing and have not received any hormones, antibiotics or steroids. Many cows start out their lives on pasture eating grass but then spend the final three quarters of their life at a feed-lot eating grain because there are few options for ranchers to "finish" their animals on farm and still make a living.

When an animal is "farm finished," the rancher has an intimate and personal relationship with their livestock. So if the rancher decides to add sustainably-sourced grain to an already grass-based diet at the end of an animal's life, is it so bad? The portions are monitored and only in the last month, does the animal get a larger feeding of grain in order to marble and tenderize the meat. The animals are still on "their" farm, with "their" rancher and in happy and healthy conditions. If I had one month to live, I would problem break some dietary rules as well and eat a few extra sweets and things.

At Baker Ranch in Doyle, NV, Karl Baker rotates 55 cows and their offspring around his family's 1200 acre ranch. After six months, the steers are separated from their mothers and graze for another 8-12 months on a 40-acre pasture where they graze, get fresh organic hay that is grown on site and receive a supplement of "brewery mash." Brewery mash is spent barley grain and a by-product of beer making. Karl is the former beer master at Great Basin Brewery in Sparks and saw an opportunity to recycle this duffy, oatmeal-looking mixture as a way to finish his cows and tenderize the meat naturally.

Scott and Karen Stone of Yolo Land & Cattle in Winters, CA raise grass-finished beef. You’d think they would be the first to bash any grain in a cow’s diet. Quite the contrary. Karen explained, “Grain is like sugar to cows. They love it!”

Another way to look at it is…Grass-finished is a style of farm finished. The only other style of farm finished is a supplement of sustainably-sourced grain at the end of an animal’s life. Both describe animals that are raised humanely, in small herds, and who have lived on the same farm their whole life. They are cows with a story!   

The take-away is…feeding well-sourced grain to a cow in the last part of its life can be done sustainably and in a manner that is not harmful to the animal and does not require other inputs like hormones, antibiotics or steroids.

For foodies, we've got grain on the brain and think that grass-finished is the only way to judge the well-being of a cow and how it was raised. It precludes us from other good options. There is definitely more to the story. Basically, we need to know our food and ask questions. So the next time you are out for a meal; ask for farm finished and if they say grass finished then you know that is just as good!

2wk old pigs at Massa Organics in Chico, CA. Click the image to watch the video.
To change our food system, we can vote with our forks, support farmers who transition to organics and lobby government for agricultural reform. But a rogue wave is on the horizon which just may create a tsuanmi in BIG Ag...corporate responsibility.

On Monday of this week, food distribution giant, Sysco, announced, "We are committed to working with our pork suppliers to create a gestation crate-free supply system. We’re going to work with our pork suppliers to develop a timeline to achieve this goal.”

Gestation crates are metal cages just big enough to hold a pig and nothing more. Confinement systems are synonomous in factory farms or CAFO's (concentrated animal feeding operations)...Gestation crates disable pigs from moving from side-to-side let alone turn around. Their adorable noses which are intended for rooting around for food are rendered useless stripping them of their "piggyness" (in the words of Joel Salatin).

Sysco is not the first to make this type of pledge but they are the biggest player whose mandate could impact how pigs are raised in the US and hopefully other livestock. It demonstrates the power that corporate responsibility can play. It creates a "keeping up with the Jones" effect. When a industry leader makes a change of this magnitude, others will follow suit in order to be competitive. Likewise, a critical mass of smaller businesses can pressure bigger companies looking to improve their brand image. These motives to improve the lives of pigs and other livestock may not be altruistic but the result is the same...happier animals treated humanely and with respect.

Some staunch hold-outs like Domino's Pizza and Tyson Foods ridicule Sysco on their decision. But just like a politician, their marketing departments may have them singing a different tune if their sales or image starts to drop. Instead of pork, they may be eating crow.

We are already starting to see the impact that a critical mass can have on our food system. Schools and hospitals require huge volumes of food to service their students and clients. They are increasing the demand for healthier, local, sustainably grown food with Farm-to-School initiatives, scratching-cooking programs and Healthy Food in Health Care campaigns.

With Sysco's decision comes easier access for small food businesses looking to improve the food they serve. But this annoucnement does have its pitfalls...it will take 5-10 years to take full effect and "cage-free,"  like with chickens, does not mean grass-fed or free-range. But its a step in the right direction and one we need to recognize.

Read more on this topic by visiting a more detailed article written by Twilight Greenway at grist.org.

I just had a series of articles come out in the most recent issue of "Edible Reno-Tahoe" magazine. Here is the first in that series! It is a profile that I did of an organic farm just west of Reno, in Fallon, NV. The entire article can be found online or in print if you live in the Reno-Tahoe area. Otherwise, click here!

“I’m worried we don’t have a good story,” Terri Marsh says modestly as we get acquainted and walk across the drive to meet the chickens. “Every farm has a story,” I say.  It quickly became evident that Rise and Shine Farms most certainly did have a story.

Driven by a changing economy and a desire to be self-sustaining, Terri and Mike Marsh decided to supplement their professional careers with a market farm on their property just west of Fallon. The Marshes started with a small, 14-person egg community-supported agriculture program (CSA) in 2006. By the next year, they had expanded to a 78-person egg and vegetable CSA. With that, Rise and Shine Farms was born...

Read the rest of the article in the Spring 2012 issue of Edible Reno-Tahoe, click here!

Last week, I was sad to read an article on Yahoo news that said agriculture was the #1 useless college degree. Last time I checked, I still needed food to live. How can farming be useless, if that's how we get our food? Maybe the author thinks food just comes from a big factory.

The author based the claim on the fact that land grant universities are cutting their agriculture programs and mega farms are becoming so efficient that they don't need workers. Both are true! But shouldn't statistics like this give alarm for concern instead of being taken for face value to steer students away from this career. Leaving our food supply to less than 1% of the population to grow is a pretty big risk. Meanwhile, if re-branded, farming could be the green job of tomorrow...Sustainable agriculture programs could be training food producers, land stewards and soil carbon ranchers. And by decentralizing the farming industry, smaller farmers would begin to populate rebuilding agricultural ecosystems and putting people back to work.

Adding insult to injury...On Monday, January 23rd, the Supreme Court overturned California's 2009 law which required that non-ambulatory (a.k.a. "downed") livestock be euthanized before slaughter. These are animals who can't stand on their own  because they are too sick and weak. Seems reasonable and humane! How could this even be contested? It seems sometimes that our judicial system gets so caught-up in the process that they forget their common sense.

The despicable, harvesting practices of unethical slaughterhouses were magnified in undercover videos released by the Humane Society in 2008. If you have ever seen these videos, it will make you sick just thinking about it. California took swift action to set new guidelines which were by no means transformative but were at least better than before. The California law left the heart strings out of the court room and just focused on the food safety concerns of meat from sick animals; knowing social and health issues were the best way to get the bill passed. But  for animal rights activists, it was a huge win and a step in securing more, humane, husbandry practices. Pork producers sued saying, "it interfered with federal laws that require inspections of downed livestock before determining whether they can be used for meat." They just wanted more money. And they obviously had the money to get this Supreme Court decision. House of Representative Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-NY, and Rep. Peter King, R-NY have "introduced legislation this month which will hopefully close a loophole in federal laws that allow the slaughter of some types of non-ambulatory animals." Hard to believe this much time is needed to address an otherwise black and white issue.

Sorry to be a Debbie downer with this news report. i usually keep it pretty bright and hopeful. But sometimes it rains on my parade.

Carol and Gene Logsdon
In 1974, a book of poems came across Gene Logsdon’s desk  while working for the Farm Journal in Philadelphia. He read four poems and closed the book. He got up from his desk and marched straight into his editor's office and said, "I'm going on a trip." "Where?" replied his editor.“ “To interview Wendell Berry!” The two have been good friends ever since. They are kindred, agrarian spirits. In Gene's living room is a shelf of Wendell's books. Below is a shelf of Gene's books. "We have a friendly competition going." says Gene with a smile.

I can relate to Gene’s affinity for Wendell’s writing. After reading an essay by Gene Logsdon in the book, "The New Agrarianism," I knew I wanted to meet Gene. In no way, can I compare to his and Wendell's literary excellence nor years of dedication to a pastoral life but his writing struck a chord with my food system aspirations and I knew I had to meet him. And that wish came true this past weekend.

Gene is one of farming’s most prolific writers with over 25 books, countless essays and now a thriving blog, The Contrary Farmer. In 1975, he moved with his family from Philadelphia back to his home of Upper Sandusky, Ohio and purchased a small 22-acre farm. As a longtime lover of art, his farm became his canvas. And like an artist, he would use his landscape to experiment with growing techniques and farming designs that mimicked nature’s biological processes. He wrote about his practical experience sharing his wisdom and pastoral philosophy with others. His writing had a symbiotic relationship with the farm just like the interdependent relationships observed in nature between plants and soil, livestock and grass, etc. One feeds the other.

Me and Gene
We fireside chatted for over 3 hours. The rain drizzled outside and there were concerns of a first frost and the impact it may have on a small test plot of maturing, field corn. We talked about his long-ago plans to have a raspberry business. His love for paintings by Andrew Wyeth. His neighbors...most of whom are conventional growers with scheduled chemical applications and monocultures but who are also his friends. They have a mutual respect for the each other. Each has been at it a long time and are good at what they do. We talked about crop rotations, tillage, pest management and his passion for pasture farming. He bred lamb for years. In 2008, he mated his ewes for the last time. The fifteen, lucky gals who remain will live out their lives and assist Gene in his life’s work, studying the benefits of his rotational grazing techniques.

We spoke at length about “How to get BIG ag interested in being more sustainable?” For a long time, I’ve wanted to believe that conventional farmers were just hog-tied to a system - caught in a viscous cycle with government subsidies and Monsanto contracts. Otherwise, I felt they were stewards of the land and saw the destruction their farming practices had and would change if given the financial incentive. Quite the contrary Gene says, “most think they are helping to feed the world.” My idealism was set back by this fundamental difference. But as the afternoon progressed, I started to understand Gene’s approach to this question. It’s not so much about transitioning to organic certified as it is about transitioning away from industrial agriculture. But how do we get there? Storming the castle with pitchforks and torches is not an effective form of persuasion. Nor is pushing a hard line of organics on conventional growers. But if we can get larger farms to downsize into small and mid-sized farms, we could break the current commercial model. Smaller farms can adopt sustainable farming practices easier than larger ones because they can accommodate biodiversity better thus requiring fewer outside inputs to control pests and weeds. Food will not have to travel as far because the farms will be supporting a local economy as part of a more, regional, food system.

Gene offers a great suggestion in a recent blog post on September 14th entitled, “Small Farms Creates More Jobs.” Here’s the skinny…many of the big-daddy corn producers have anywhere between 4,000-6,000 acres. It takes only one farmer and one to two ranch-hands to farm these mega-farms because of the ginormous equipment available today. What if just a fraction of the 90 million acres of corn fields nationwide (and remember we are just talking corn, doesn’t include other commodity and specialty crops) were broken down into smaller 150-300 acre family farms? Each could employ 2-4 people and their families. Many farmers are getting older. They may not have next of kin to take over the farm or their children may not want to continue farming. The opportunity awaits these families. But we have to reach them before Monsanto or a developer does and prove the economic benefits for them, the immediate future of their community and future of their grandchildren.

Flash, the farm cat
We looked at the time, it was after 4:30pm. I was honored Gene had taken so much time to speak with me. Before I left, there was one last thing on my list…a farm tour. The 2-acre vegetable garden and orchard provided an edible, front yard landscape. Behind the house, a short path lead through the forest to the barns and pasture. How lovely to have this contemplative stroll each day under the canopy of a mature woodland. As we emerged on the other side, I could see the sheep sunning themselves in the field. The clouds had broken providing a temporary thaw to the otherwise, chilly, fall air. Underfoot, you could feel the structural health of the grass hummocky from years of succession. We picked at different threads of green poking out of the field discussing the variety of the mix available to the sheep. One of the farm cats, Flash, joined us for the whole tour rubbing up against my pant leg whenever we stopped. We looked out over the eight pastures he uses to rotate the sheep. Well, seven because one will be returned to a forest - forests are the subject of his new book, “Sanctuary of Trees,” due out in early 2012.

We found our way over to the small test plot of open-pollinated corn, aka field corn. He had been telling me about the 16” ears he was finding in the crop. We sifted through the stalks first finding a 12”, then a 14” and finally a 16” long ear of corn. Gene thinks it may be the longest ear of field corn he has ever heard of. For the past 35 years, he’s been selecting seeds from the biggest ears each harvest saving them and planting them the next year. That is dedication and thoughtfulness. It gave me pause to realize more than ever, I was in the presence of a great man, a great farmer. He will mill the crop for cornmeal and for supplementing the otherwise, natural diet of the sheep and chickens.

We sank bank into the woods connecting the pastures to the house. At the entrance to the backyard, two, deep rubber bins were buried in the ground up to their lids. “Outdoor root cellars right?” “Yes, exactly! We keep potatoes in them,” replied Gene. “I love simple ideas like that,” I commented. “Not enough money in simple ideas,” said Gene. It was subtle but profound. Conventional agriculture is far from simple. But it's where it is today because industrialization is considered profitable and the way to make money. Ironically, it’s those simple ideas that are going to bring equity back into our food system.

Parting Note: When I was preparing for my meeting with Gene, I came across a 2009 podcast on www.beginningfarmers.org. It’s a great interview and I highly recommend it. Plus, it describes our parallel to the Mayan culture and how agricultural mistakes can be attributed to many of the collapses throughout cultural history. The Mayan’s relied too heavily on corn. Sound familiar?

Joel Salatin on Polyface Farms
"Festivaling with my Mom" had not been on my bucket list of things to do but after this weekend, it had a speedy induction and then swiftly checked off. It wasn't a music festival but an earth festival. One we could both appreciate. Together we attended the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA. My mom was the first to teach me about healthy eating and growing food so to share this experience with her was a mother-daughter trip of a lifetime. One to remember!

The 40yr. old magazine comes to life once a year hosting one fair on the west coast in Washington and a second on the east coast in Pennsylvania. In only its second year, Pennsylvania's attendance has doubled from 10K to 20K visitors. A testament to people's hunger for planetary knowledge. Mother Earth News is the largest and oldest, environmental magazine. The festival is a 3D version of the print copy and gives readers a chance to interact with experts and leaders in sustainable living through workshops, presentations and demonstrations. It was a major download of information and a exuberant upload of inspiration.

One of the keynote speakers was farm evangelist, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (as seen and heard in Food, Inc. and Omnivore's Dilemma). Having seen Joel speak before, I was ready with pen and paper to scribe some of his "Joelisms." He has a deep command of the English language which commands a crowd's attention equally.

He began his speech with an open invitation and detailed directions to his farm in Swoope, Virginia. It immediately diffused any naysayers because it demonstrates his transparency and his integrity. Pointing to the ground, he shakes his hands like a preacher reminding us that there is more life below our feet than there is above ground and that it is largely responsible for our survival. It draws a profound and spiritual connection to the role soil plays in our lives. He should know. Joel is in the soil business. Or "land healing ministries" as he likes to call it. With the help of his "teammates and co-laborers," the cows, pigs and chickens, he runs his soil through an "exercise program." Animals and land are treated fairly and with respect for the abundance they provide. He "massages the ecosystem through a choreographed dance with his co-workers to create healthy soils and a forest of perennial grasses."

Here's a look at his rotational grazing method...The cows "dump goodies" on the ground from their backsides. As they rotate onto the next pasture, the chickens arrive in their "Goobley-Go," a chicken coop on wheels (egg mobile). They pick out the larvae spreading the manure around with their beaks - yummy! "Pigaerators" then move onto 1/2-acre paddocks disturbing the land mimicking nature's biological cycles just as wildfires do in forests and on prairies. He describes his pigs as being "four-wheel drive plows" using their snouts and hooves to root and stomp the ground to "the next succession in his accumulation of biomass," a.k.a. grass. According to Joel, and I agree, there is not ONE reason why we need a single CAFO in this country considering the natural technology that Joel and others like him have designed. We know we will arrived he says, "when soccer moms exclaim in jubilation that little Johnny wants to be a farmer," just as they would now when told he wants to be a doctor or lawyer. With new models like Joel's and new markets for local food, we will get there.

Here is a sampling of Joel's lexicon with my best-guess definitions:
  1. Constipation of Imagination = failure to use ingenuity in conjunction with nature's biological processes.
  2. Portable fermentation tanks = cows
  3. Carbonization diaper = the layered bed of manure, hay and sawdust that is collected when the cows are in the barn.
  4. Bankruptcy tubes = corn silos
  5. Pasture sanitization program = rotational grazing
  6. Wheel of Fortune = the cone used to slit a chicken's throat
  7. Rent-a-Chicken = Joel's chicken take-back program - at the end of summer, customers can bring back the egg-laying hens they purchased earlier from Joel if they have no way to winter them.
  8. Germinating = young farmer apprenticeship program
  9. Grass farmer = Joel Salatin

These aren't the best videos so treat them more like podcasts with optional viewing capacity. I was about seven rows back and wanted to be discrete with my camera. Most of the videos are under two-minutes, so not very long but definitely worth checking out. Get a glimpse of Joel's gospel with two or three of the following:
  1. Prioritize your purchases and we can all afford sustainably grown food
  2. We can feed the world with edible landscapes and pasture-raised livestock practices
  3. The Pasture Principles  - mimicking wild herd behaviors when raising happy cows and healthy grass
  4. Before we can demand a better food system, we need to start at home and reclaim "family time"
  5. Mechanical vs Biological - the land can heal itself, machines can't (this one goes a minute too long. I was hoping he was going to bring it back around but he didn't. i don't know how to edit film footage yet, so just stop at 2:25)
  6. Move and we will dance - Joel's closing remarks.

Brunty Farm Owners:Jeff Brunty and Melanie Schenk
I'm a farm tour junkie... I love visiting different farms, meeting the growers, hearing their story and learning new practices. I seriously get a natural high going from field to barn to field discovering new things. Yesterday, I toured Brunty Farms in Peninsula, OH. It is one of eleven farms in Cuyahoga Valley's Countryside Initiative.

The Initiative reestablishes old farmsteads once operated in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Farm houses are restored and land is prepared in anticipation of its new caretakers who lease the property and agree to farm it. Since the programs conception in 1999, one to two farms have come available each year. Applicants must demonstrate not only their financial commitment but their commitment to environmental stewardship. While not expected to be certified organic, every farm is expected to follow sustainable farming practices. At a time when farmland is being lost to development; people are looking to green their careers and get into farming; and communities are seeking local food sources, the Countryside Initiative is a program right for the times. Currently, it is the only lease-to-farm program operating in National Parks. The model, however, can be adapted by any land trust, municipality, land grant or landowner.

Jeff Brunty is a growing breed of "greenhorns" - passionate, young people finding a career and future in farming. He got his start with seven chickens ten years ago raising them in his great, great grandfather's barn. He managed the growing chicken business on the side till 2008 when he learned about the Countryside Initiative. He and his girlfriend, Melanie, applied and were accepted. Just four years out of high school and he was running his own farm. Melanie had a degree in international business but chose rubber boots over high heels to help make Brunty Farms a reality. She works the 2-acre vegetable garden and Jeff raises the chickens, lambs, ducks, turkeys and pigs. Together they make a dynamic team farming 17-acres servicing a 100-person CSA, one farmer's market and a robust farm stand.

They keep 350 egg-laying hens and raise 9,000 meat chickens annually (broilers). They process all their own broilers on-site making it the largest private operation in the state of Ohio with plans to expand to 20,000 over the next year. And that's just the chicken's. They raise 400 Broad-Breasted White Turkey's for the holidays as well. These poultry 'without borders' enjoy a plentiful supply of pasture foraging for bugs and eating grass. During our visit, brush piles smoldered in the fields where the turkeys roamed. They are a form of pest control for the turkeys. Watch this video to find out why, click here. The coolest fact of the day...was learning the difference between white eggs and brown eggs. White eggs actually come from white chickens. They are often used in conventional chicken operations because they are small and more can be crammed into a cage. But when allowed to forage, they will eat 40% of their diet on pasture requiring less feed. Brown eggs give the appearance of being more farmy and wholesome but actually these birds are a bit lazy and eat less than 20% of their diet on pasture thus eating more feed. Not only are the brown eggs more expense to raise but without a more natural diet aren't as nutritious as the white eggs. Go figure! Brunty has both white egg-laying hens and brown egg-laying hens, White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, respectively.

The highlight on any farm tour, for me at least, are the pigs. They are such showmen. Pigs have BIG personality!The Brunty pigs were no different rooting and trotting around their lavish 3-4 acre marshy estate with floppy ears.  Watch this video to see them at their piggyness.

Right to Left: Floyd the beekeeper, Me and my niece Allyson.
Haven't had enough video yet...watch Jeff call the lambs over for a snack break, click here. And we also had a chance encounter with the beekeeper. He was arriving just as we were leaving and invited me my niece, Allyson, who had joined me for the day if we wanted a closer look. They were getting the hives ready for winter helping the bees bulk up their stores by giving them a little sugar water. And ever wander what those oil-can looking things are that beekeepers use when opening the lid to a bee colony? They have a little fire inside and the smoke is used to confuse the bees so they don't press the panic button when the beekeeper is examining the hive. Take a peak through the zoom lens to learn more, click here.

I weaved through gorgeous farm country this past weekend to go mountain biking just north of Columbus. Unlike the Amish country of last week, the landscape here was bordered by magnificent forests and ground that undulated with slopes and valleys. It had just rained so the green was exceptionally vibrant. Big corn country! Stakes stood proudly like soldiers at the end of rows to indicate where a different variety of GMO seed had been planted.I glanced from side to side. Fields alternated between corn and soy bean. From afar it looked beautiful, but the soil could tell a different story. Cruising along, I did a double take. Amidst all the GMO signs was one, lone, little sign that squeaked, "Don't Spray - Organic!" I slowed down on the way home to get a closer look. It was an organic dairy. Most of the acreage was pasture with other fields growing hay. Holstein cows speckled the green slope. Matching red barns and a white farm house sat on the hill. An oasis in a desert.

It got me thinking more about this whole pasture-raised vs grain-fed thing. It's not just about what's better for the cow and the environment. It's also about land management. A lot of land is used to raise cattle conventionally. Land that could be sequestering carbon while raising happier cows. On a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), livestock are designated to a dirt feedlot while their feed is grown on a different field perhaps a few hundred miles away. So big is that field that over 55% of the corn produced in the US is for animal feed. Not only are the animals concentrated but so is there waste which creates air and water pollution. And the field that grew their food is GMO and uses buckets of chemicals. The soil quality erodes so more chemicals are needed. In the case of nitrogen fertilizer, soil and plants can only absorb about 30%. The other 70% leeches into ground water. Season after season, these fields are tilled further reducing the soil's potential to sequester carbon.

In pasture-raised, the cows get a diet they were designed to digest, mixed grasses plus loads of room to roam. And barrels of oil didn't need to be used to truck in their feed. Instead, they grow their own food. Talk about "farm to table." The farmer rotates them between fields not letting them overgraze. In their path, they leave manure to fertilize the grass. Soil is kept in tact and never needs to be tilled allowing the soil to reach its full carbon storing potential. Pasture-raised is way less land intensive both in scale and impact. Cattle share the same land upon which their food was grown and it requires no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Keep it simple and manage the land wisely. We might just eat better and mitigate climate change in the process.

My Dad handed me a receipt the other day with the price of two milks circled...one was organic at $4.69/half-gallon and the other was a non-organic brand at $2.39/half-gallon. It demonstrated the dilemma consumers have every day...which do you buy? It's easy to guess that organic is better for you (and better tasting) but at twice the price, is it worth it?

One price wasn't listed, organic milk produced locally. It can be a little harder to source and costs a little extra but it is worth it. It's not Gucci-milk. And it shouldn't necessarily be cheaper because it is local. It's what milk should cost. Getting the lowest price may be okay for what fuels our cars but not what fuels our bodies. Whether it is milk or cookies, we need to be okay with spending a little more on our food. There is a lot of truth in the saying, "you are what you eat." and in the case of cheap food, "you get what you paid for."

Stapled to the receipt was an article my Dad had clipped from the Cleveland Plain Dealer about how conventional, dairy farmers where being impacted by the increase in feed costs, a.k.a. grains, like corn and soy. Higher feed costs drives up the price of milk and other food. If all dairy cows were pasture-raised, farmers wouldn't be as vulnerable to the fluctuations in feed prices. But more importantly, the cows would be eating a diet they were designed for...grass. Cows' digestive systems - with their five stomachs - weren't designed to eat corn and other grains but that's what they are fed because it's typically the cheapest option. Unfortunately, when corn prices go up, it's not as simple as just switching to grass. Farmers are tied to a corn-based system. Converting to a grass-based diet would mean a major capital investment in their operation. Conventional dairy farms don't have ample pasture-land like they use too where cows would graze in one field and be rotated to another to let the grass regenerate. What is ironic about the article is they provided their own solution. They talk about the olden-times when milk was supplied locally from small-scale producers. Hhmmm? Maybe it's time to repeat the past. Not only would local production be fresher but cows could be raised accordingly and the dairy market would support a regional, resilient economy.

Diet and living conditions all play a role in producing a better cup of milk. So it makes sense that grass-fed and pasture-raised cows would produce milk with healthier fat content and more nutrients than their conventionally raised cousins. After all, they have five stomachs for a reason. Studies show that grass-fed cows produce milk that is 60% higher in beneficial fatty acids than conventional milk - fatty acids like linoleic that help to reduce heart disease. And by munching on a diverse variety of field grasses, cows get a mouth-full of nutrients. Each grass is a like a vitamin providing a different nutrient. Strip that diet down to grain and you take away all those vital nutrients. If the cow doesn't get the nutrients, then our milk doesn't get them either. One of the reasons grass-fed cows don't need antibiotics is because they get the antibodies they need from a complex diet of different grasses. Dairy farmers are actually grass farmers first. Or at least they should be.

Here is where it gets tricky, however...it's not as simple as just looking for the organic label. As demand for organic milk has increased, larger, organic dairies have emerged. They are starting to resemble conventional operations where cows get little or no access to pasture which leads to diets supplemented with grain, but organic grain. Rest easy though, the cows are treated humanely and without the use of antibiotics or bovine growth hormones. Phew! Fortunately, the USDA has begun to tighten the guidelines and require that all organic, dairy cows receive a minimum of 120 pasture-days/year.

So while organic milk is better for you, you still need to ask the question, "where did my milk come from?" Advocating for small-scale food production that supplies a regional system will make it easier for farmers to use organic methods like rotational grazing and easier for consumers to have a closer relationship to their farmers. It makes both parties more accountable. Doing a little research does require that consumers take a more active role in their food purchases. We wouldn't buy a car without researching it first or shopping around to make sure we get the best price. Why should our food be any different.

A sincerely, important protest is happening right now in Washington D.C. against the proposed Keystone-XL pipeline which will bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the United States. Climate Action Network has organized a 2-week sit-in outside the White House starting last Saturday, August 20th. This act of civil disobedience will hopefully persuade President Obama and Congress to deny this permit. I felt compelled to bring awareness to this concern so foodlust will just have to wait.

I first learned of this issue in the film, SPOIL, by Epicocity Project. At the time, the concern was "just" a pipeline across Canada to the coast of British Columbia cutting right through the Great Bear Rainforest. In the film, a team of conservation photographers and videographers documented this pristine ecosystem with iconic images to build a case for the area's protection. It is the home of the rare Spirit Bear, an albino black bear (pictured here is a Spirit Bear with her two, black cubs). If you saw the September issue of National Geographic, you would have seen the stunning cover and centerfold-like images of this breathtaking creature. Seriously, get your hands on a copy of this issue. They are jaw-dropping. 

But now, the issue is much, much graver...the United States wants a piece of the action by bringing a pipeline to the East Coast with plans for more throughout the central US. No one will deny that energy independence is a good thing but the extraction process of this fossil fuel makes it energy-irresponsible. The argument to "drill local" doesn't stand a chance to the argument in the video, click here. The Alberta project alone is the size of Florida and in the case of tar sands leaves the land dead and unrecoverable. Not only that... it's the most expensive drilling effort to date; requires insane amounts of water to release the oil from the tar sands which is then dumped into toxic waste lakes - not ponds, because they are much bigger than ponds - and it requires practically as much energy to process the oil from the tar as it will provide, meaning the greenhouse gas emissions are double. And that's just the extraction process... The section of pipeline that travels through the Great Bear Rainforest ends at an inland port where large barges have to navigate narrow, river channels with lots of tight corners before reaching the sea. Imagine if one of these tankers got a leak or ran aground splitting open. It would create another Gulf Oil Spill but in a much more concentrated area. A tanker bursting in a river like this would be the equivalent to a brain aneurism. No Bueno! Now imagine a pipeline running through your backyard. Gives a whole new meaning to NIMBY. You can make your voice heard at Tar Sands Action.