Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wordless Wednesday - Maybe I Won't Spray the Squash

This is what I found this morning in my little garden. In fact, most of the blossoms were sporting 2-4 bees. I was given a reminder of why it may not be best to spray insecticides in every situation. The cucumbers beetles are not in great numbers at the moment, so I'm just squishing the ones I find. 

I'm still not sure how my harvest will turn out, but for now I will enjoy all of  the buzzing.
The bees seem very happy!

Related Posts: Outsmarting Nature

Monday, July 9, 2012

Outsmarting Nature

Many people would like to see food production go “back to nature,” and I think that sounds like a fabulous idea. But where I live, Nature could care less if my family eats. I have tried raising backyard chickens for eggs, and vegetables in a small garden, and I have been met with challenge after challenge. My latest challenges have more than two legs.

Rest in peace, girls. :(
I’m posting this because my chicken coop has officially become a playhouse for the kids. The last of my beautiful, jumbo-egg laying hens are gone, becoming another meal for the local wildlife. I commented on an article in my local paper about urban chicken farming, saying that maybe an urban backyard may be the ideal place for raising chickens, since my woodland home has become a banquet hall for hungry predators. Someone was quick to “educate” me, telling me I needed to provide them a coop so they would roost. Thanks for the tip, but my chicken mansion had Fort Knox-like security at night. It provided not an ounce of safety, however, for my free-rangers during the day from coyotes and hawks. If I try it again, the days of go-where-you-want will not be an option for my girls. And some wonder why commercial chicken producers keep their birds in houses. Hmmm – cruelty or protecting your investment and the food supply?

Cucumber beetles. Thank you, Ric Bessin, entomologist
friend at the University of Kentucky, for the photo.
In addition to my latest chicken chapter, we also attempted a small garden. It is close enough to the house that the deer and rabbits have not been visiting, but the Cucumber beetles absolutely love the squash and cucumbers that I have provided for them. Since I do not have to rely on this garden to feed my family, I have not used any chemical pesticides. I would go out occasionally and knock them away, but didn’t discover their damage early enough. They were clipping off all the blossoms. No blossoms, no fruit. Did I mention that I also have a mysterious, volunteer gourd growing near the garden? The Cucumber beetles really like that one, too.

I obtained the vegetable seeds from Seminis, which is currently marketing a much-talked-about genetically modified hybrid sweet corn called Obsession II. I asked their marketing team recently if any of my seeds were genetically modified, and they said, “no.” I put in a request for beetle resistant squash. If that does not happen soon, and I expect to have any decent harvest, I believe I’ll have to go to chemical warfare. Maybe organic methods work in other places and growing systems, but I have yet to be successful with them. I even had a conversation with an organic farmer in Nebraska explaining that I have had no luck growing cabbage. And to my surprise she said, “That’s why we don’t grow cabbage.”

My chewed up cabbage from last year. Something enjoyed it!
Our final challenge this spring and summer has been the insects that feed on me and my animals: ticks, mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies and chiggers, as well as the diseases they are known to carry. I've tried just about every product and method available, and the only real relief comes from dousing my kids head to toe with Deep Woods Off every trip outdoors. I can only imagine what that stuff is doing to our bodies as we breathe and soak it in. Nothing works for the horses (but our bond grows stronger every summer because they know I am pleased to provide them a good scratch or squash a juicy horse fly). I am waiting for some smart person to develop a pill or injectable medicine to keep the little bloodsuckers off our skin. 

My challenges are not unique. Our farmers face similar adversity every day, and they are using technology and better management methods to help keep nature from destroying the food supply:
  • Crop rotation and natural predators
  • Crop protection products
  • Structures for plants and animals
  • Conventionally-bred hybrids
  • Irrigation
  • Genetically modified varieties that withstand drought and pests, and allow more efficient pesticide use
  • Vaccines and antibiotics that keep animals healthy
  • Maintaining wildlife refuge areas

And I even know of a vaccine that controls horn flies on cattle ( that could significantly reduce their stress. 

Are there any of these methods that you approve of? Any you don't? Are some okay to use when maintaining a lawn or golf course, but not on food? If you do not want antibiotics used for meat animals, does that mean you would forego the same medicine for your child or pet to manage antibiotic resistance? If you don't want any trace of pesticide residues on your produce, does that mean you don't use manufactured pharmaceuticals in your own body. Are their methods you feel do more damage than good?

On one hand I appreciate technology—where would be without it? Hungry, diseased, dead?—but on the my semi-misanthropic hand, I sometimes blame technology for growing the population in the first place, thus providing us the challenge of finding, using and growing the resources to sustain weaker selves. And I understand why some blame technology for creating more challenges or environmental problems, like antibiotic resistance or reductions in beneficial insect populations.

Did I happen to mention one of these
ran 25 ft. behind me and kids on Saturday
night? I've had just about all of "nature"
that I can stand.
Some believe going back to basics (no pesticides, no manufactured fertilizers, no genetic modification, no animal confinement) will put the Earth back into a more natural balance, as "God intended." This philosophy may actually work for some farmers and gardeners. And these food producers have a pretty good base of customers and supporters in our current day. 

But is going back to the beginning really the answer? Do we sit back and pray for the best, or do we use the minds that God gave us to continually outsmart the nature He created in order to flourish?

The biggest issue I have is that some are encouraging our lawmakers and regulators to restrict the use of technology and dictate how food should be produced. Based on my experience, I don’t think there is any way we could produce enough food for our increasing population using 19th century farming methods. I also know that some technologies may need to change — or get better — to protect the Earth and future generations.

What I find as the silver lining here is that I think we can have it all – enough food for everyone, today and in the future, with less strain on our environment. I believe environmental responsibility is a value shared by all farmers, whether they are USDA certified organic, heritage seed savers, or the 3000-acre corn farmer using the latest genetically-modified variety so she does not have to spray as much pesticide or use as much fuel. I see a future of farmers working together for that common goal, and it may be as simple as a crop farmer having a conversation with his bee-keeping neighbor to manage when is the best time to spray any insecticides. But farmers must be able to choose what works best for their climate and the nature-created challenges on our changing planet. At my house, that may be GMO squash and a shotgun.

In the end, I believe that nature will continue to change, and organisms will continue to adapt. The winner will be the one that adapts the quickest. And if a manufactured technology is what it takes to prevail, I will not pass judgment. Nature is a beast, and I want to survive! 

Feel free to follow me on Facebook at or on Twitter: @foodmommy.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Friday Forward: “No Antibiotics Ever” Does Not Equate to Safer Meat

Last night I was watching my local NBC affiliate news. “You’ll want to hear what could be in your meat when we return,” caught my attention. It was a good 15 minutes before the story appeared (a tactic no doubt to get me to stay tuned – reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit many years ago). The segment was the health reporter repackaging a story released by Consumer Reports about antibiotic use in meat and food labels. I was very unhappy with what I saw and heard, so I just had to respond. This is what I sent to the reporter:

Hi, XXXX. I appreciate all of the health info you cover, but I was a little disappointed about tonight’s “Antibiotics in meat/superbugs” story that aired tonight. I think it was very misleading (wish I could refer back, but the video is not offered online - UPDATE it is not featured on the homepage, but I'm not sharing a bad story!).

While I don’t believe anyone can discredit that routine feeding of antibiotics to animals, as well as overuse and misuse of antibiotics in humans contributes to resistance, my “take-a-way” from the story was that superbugs occurred in meat only from animals that were fed antibiotics any time in their lives. You led the viewers to believe that if they purchased meat that says “No antibiotics ever” or “Organic,” this would be a safer option.

I have talked to a local meat processor, and I learned that superbugs can be in any meat from anywhere, whether they were given antibiotics or not. But, I did not hear the Consumer Reports lady say they tested any meat and found superbugs. In fact, she didn’t say she tested meat at all. While contamination can occur, meat is routinely tested. This would have been an excellent opportunity to stress that all meat should be cooked to the recommended internal temperature. Food safety is critical. It would have also been helpful to relay that all animals must be antibiotic free when they arrive at the processor. USDA routinely checks this and removes any contaminated product they may find. In fact, they have stepped up their monitoring process.

I also noted the comment that routine antibiotics are given because of “unsanitary conditions”, another assumption. Have you ever visited a commercial poultry house? I have, and could not get over how much cleaner and less stinky it was than some more “natural” operations I have visited. (I have also now learned that routine antibiotic use is no longer industry practice - 40 years of industry experience offersopinion about antibiotic use in livestock.)

Lastly, I would like to encourage you to utilize the knowledge of our many Kentucky farmers for stories about food. Get a farmer’s perspective on why he or she may need to give antibiotics (I would be more inclined to eat a healthy animal than one that has been sick). Ask how antibiotic use has changed and how the livestock industry is addressing this issue. If you ever need help finding the farmers to talk to, I would be glad to put you in touch with them.

Here is a great post from John’s Custom Meats  – farm and meat processor in Bowling Green – that explains the issue at hand:

I hate thinking this story was a way to get people to stay tuned to the end of the broadcast. It got my attention, but I wish the story was covered from all sides. I’m afraid people will be led to believe certain meat products are safer, when in fact they are not.

Jennifer Elwell
Blog:  “Food, Mommy!”
Twitter @foodmommy

I was also able to call on Kentucky farmer and meat processor Amy of John’s Custom Meats to tell me more. She offered this:

FSIS (USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) is revamping the residue testing program. There is a new (and more accurate...better) test available that they will be using. In addition, they are increasing the amount of testing being done.

Here's the link to the FSIS press release

Translation: This is a good thing! 
Description: new test method can test for a whole multitude of residues all from one sample. This will provide a more accurate baseline to zero in on the main problem residues. What will result from that is focusing in on the main problem areas and increasing sampling in those areas. Eventually, leading to the source of the issue or just finding there is no real issue to begin with.

NOTE: On Friday’s, I will select a topic that I feel was “forward worthy.” Find many more posts and articles I have forwarded on my Facebook Page - - or Twitter account (@foodmommy).

Speaking of encouraging news reporters to talk with farmers, I have to forward this post as well. Another farmer/blogger acquaintance Ryan Goodman has been a recent and popular fixture on CNN’s Eatocracy – No Bull: Start a Conversation with a Farmer 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Reinventing Our Plate

All of the information about portion size and what we should be eating must be sinking in, because I’ve got a new way of loading up my family’s’ plates. Vegetables and fruits take center stage while the meat, dairy, and grains play side dishes.

The sweet potato and fresh-from the garden squash and beans play the main role on this plate.
We got a few more veggies in by adding a small salad.
As I became more concerned about the nutrition in our household, I realized that we may not be getting enough of the recommended vegetable servings in our diet. I try very hard to always provide something plant-based and colorful at lunch and dinner, but I’m thinking it’s time to step it up and at least follow the USDA MyPlate suggestion: Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables. I’ve been consciously doing this for a little over a year now.

Here are a few ways that we have increased on fruit and veggie intake:

  • You can’t leave the breakfast table without having at least one fruit, but two is better. I always try to keep bananas and berries on hand. I like grapefruit and usually eat it 3 times a week. I’m not a juice person, but will drink it if I’m running behind on time.
  • Have a serving of fruit at lunch and one at dinner or for a snack. I always have 4-5 different kinds of fruit on hand depending on what is in season or on sale. Bananas and apples are always around (my husband gets very unhappy if they are not), and I will pick others depending on what is in season or on sale. Frozen fruit is great for smoothies, and canned fruit is a last resort, but I keep it in the cupboard just in case.  When buying apples, I like getting the bags of small apples. Occasionally, I can only find the large apples that are worth eating. In those cases, we share. I also keep dried cranberries or raisins around; they are a great substitute for candy.
  • Think "Veggies" at lunchtime. Load sandwiches with spinach and other vegetables like cucumbers, pickles, peppers and more. Then add a baked sweet potato or a few baby carrots instead of chips. If chips are easy, opt for corn chips and chunky salsa (limit the chips – don’t let your kids eat out of bag). I also make sure my kids finish the salsa (1/2 cup serving). You can also serve a salad as the meal with different types dark green lettuces and 2-3 other veggies or fruit.
  • At dinner, serve at least two colorful vegetables. White potatoes and sweet corn are counted as starches in my kitchen, but a better option than white bread. Sweet potatoes have become a family favorite and very easy to cook. I actually prefer to cook them in the microwave.  In fact, the microwave or steamer is my preferred way to cook most my vegetables.
  • Figure out how to add more veggies to your standard recipes. I have started adding squash, peppers and onions to my spaghetti sauce. I add a can of black beans and onion to my taco meat. Fajitas are a favorite because you can cook the meat with onions, peppers, squash and more, and then add salsa and avocado to finish. Stir-fry dishes are also easy to add lots of veggies to. Think about trying veggie-full soups. On pizza night, I limit my kids to one slice, and we add a salad or baby carrots and a fruit.

For additional tips, I found these resources at
  • Add More Vegetables to Your Day
  • Focus on Fruits
  • Smart Shopping for Veggies and Fruits
  • Liven Up Your Meals with Vegetables and Fruits
  • Kid-Friendly Veggies and Fruits

Size Matters

One thing that we all need to be careful to do as we are adding vegetables and fruits is to decrease the portions of the other foods. Taking a cue from the 250 to 400 calorie frozen meals like Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice, I serve most of our meals on a 7-inch plate or a soup bowl (daddy is excused from this). I get the bigger plates out when I want to add more veggies, but know that I don’t have to cover it entirely – keep food out of the outer rim.

For anyone who needs a visual guide to help them fill a healthier plate, there are several “portion” plates on the market:

Find your Zen when eating:
Functional and beautiful:
For the educational approach:

Last year I rated USDA’s new My Plate, and did not give it a very good review - I Give the New USDA Dietary Guidelines a C Minus - but now realize that the My Plate is a good place to start for better eating, and is best used with the store of healthy eating tips on its website:
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