Archive for December, 2013

December 6, 2013

Christmas in the Chicken Coop

Molting chicken

The Ashland Food Cooperative (or “the Coop”, either as two syllables or one) is just about the most wonderful place a person could spend their working day. My co-workers are intelligent, caring human beings who take pride in their work. Our customers are kind, gracious and possess some degree of knowledge about where their food really comes from. Sure, there’s the occasional roll-your-eyes moment – like the mom who video conferences with her toddler to ask him which brand of gummy fruits he prefers, or the bearded woman who talked to me for thirty minutes, first about ghee and finally about why sex should wait until marriage, gay or straight – but I really appreciate how most people take the time to think about their options when it comes to things like pizza sauce, coconut oil, or yogurt.
Or eggs. Anytime it’s my turn to stock the egg cooler, I prepare myself for a deluge of first-world problems. Do brown and white eggs taste different? Which is better, cage-free or humanely raised? If it says they’re soy-free, does that mean they’re non-GMO? Then there’s my favorite: Where are all the local eggs?
With my farming background, I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken eggs, but I was wrong. Curious customers had me on Google every night with ovum-related quandaries. Turns out cage-free is not as idyllic as we would imagine, and organic is the only way to know with certainty that GMOs have not made their way inside those fragile shells.
But I did know this before I got the job: All eggs taste the same, no matter the color. Also, under natural circumstances, chickens take a few weeks off in the fall to molt, or grow in a new set of feathers. Like most living things – from apple trees to human beings – they don’t see it necessary to work 365 days out of the year. Responding to changes in daylight and temperature in the late fall to early winter, they take a break. Egg production drops or disappears for two to four months.
In the old days, when farmers kept chickens outdoors, people simply didn’t eat many eggs during molting season. They became a luxury item that only the rich could afford. Mixed with plenty of rum and milk, eggs became the ultimate special holiday beverage – eggnog. In spring, we ate lots of eggs to celebrate the fact that they were once again abundant.
Today, of course, we have technological “solutions” to the egg supply “problem”. Kept indoors in huge poultry barns, chickens’ natural clocks are confused by artificial lights. Farmers can force the molt to happen whenever it’s convenient for them, so they stagger molting to ensure that the entire flock doesn’t stop producing at the same time. They also keep the molting period short – a month or two at the max.
So that’s why “Where are the local eggs?” is my favorite question of the season. We do carry local eggs, from “Poe”tential Farms, located in the Poe Valley near Klamath Falls, Oregon. They keep their chickens outdoors on pasture, and they don’t force molts. Their eggs are fresh, organic and reasonably priced. They’re also a seasonal product – like pumpkins, watermelons, and eggnog-flavored ice cream. When the Christmas music starts playing softly over the Coop speakers, the local eggs take a hike.
Nobody wants to hear my long-winded explanation at the store, so I just say “Sorry, we’re out of stock right now.” Usually, that’s enough to satisfy a customer, but last week a woman huffed and asked, “What, are the chickens just not laying eggs?”
Um, yep. Your natural, happy-to-be-chickens are doing what natural, happy chickens do this time of year. Sorry, that means that you either have to buy the not-so-natural eggs we have available, or go without.

Chickens may be directly related to the dinosaur, but I’m starting to believe they’re more evolved than us. Sure, we have vacation days and sick leave, but taking a break isn’t actually built into our biological cycles. A chicken’s job is to lay an egg every day, sure. (Amazing fact: A hen is actually born with every egg she will ever lay already lined up inside her reproductive tract, ready to grow, calcify, and make its way toward an omelet or a meringue cookie.) But their bodies, somewhere along the evolutionary line, said – you know, I’m not going to commit to this incredibly physically demanding act every day out of the year. Human ladies, imagine if WE dropped an egg every twenty four hours. The world would be madness.
But at the Co-op, the evidence shows that most of the women – and men, but let’s face it, women do a lot more grocery shopping – are already teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. Maybe we should take a cue from chickens and spend a good quarter of the year changing our wardrobe and preparing for what’s ahead. Then when we encounter a situation where we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we could just scratch our nails in the dirt, shake our feathers, and strut away.

December 1, 2013

Buying the Farm

My windowsill garden

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve wanted to have my own farm since I was a little girl. I planted a peach pit in our back yard near a big Doug fir and dug it up nearly every day to see if it was turning into a tree yet. I baked my own bread and painted my face with blackberry juice.
I didn’t really know about farms then, or where my food came from, really, but eventually I would figure it out. Where I started was with an insatiable love of the outdoors, of things that grow. Although I had no idea what was actually edible out there – and neither did my city-born parents – I pretended it all was anyway. When I grew up to learn that humans were expected to spend most of their lives indoors, I followed along with the plan briefly but soon found myself joyously yanking weeds in the mud of the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm.

I’m 27 years old now. Recently, I received an email from a young woman named Erin. She’s about to graduate from engineering school and was seeking advice on entering the field of sustainable agriculture. She felt that she could make a positive contribution.
I sent a couple of links to apprenticeship programs but she pressed for more information: What path had I taken, she wanted to know. What mistakes had I made, and what experiences were invaluable?
I think what she really wanted to know was, is this really possible? Can an idealistic young person really go into the crusty world of tractors, almanacs, fruit fly breeding cycles, pressure canning, agricultural zoning rules and Carharts and make it as sexy as designing green buildings or a more fuel-efficient car?
There is a huge chasm in agriculture today, but maybe it’s always been there. It’s the difference between our romantic view of cuddling baby lambs, and hosting potlucks in our rustic farmhouses and the reality of growing enough food for the planet’s 7.5 billion people and making it as cheap as possible. Today, the romantic view of farm life has grown to include an expectation that changing the way we grow, distribute and consume food can actually save the planet. So, can it?

I have to admit that I lied a bit in my responses to Erin. I didn’t tell her that no farmer I’ve ever met has actually recommended that I follow in their footsteps, go into debt for a large piece of land, and spend the rest of my life tied down to it. I didn’t tell her that most of the early 20-somethings I met just out of college who, like me, worked a variety of low-paying but highly satisfying farm-related jobs, are now settling down to earn real money and buy their food from the grocery store like everyone else. I failed to mention how incredibly thankless it is to be a farmer, that no matter how much people in your community seem to embrace the idea of buying locally and building regional food security, you will still meet people at the farmer’s market who will fail to understand why your apples are more expensive than those at Safeway. That’s when you smile and try to be nice, and you don’t try to explain that the old expression “he bought the farm” means he died, because when you try to live off the land that’s the only way you do live.

I left these things out because I still believe that the baby goats are worth it, and that, as Alice Waters said, we really do vote for the kind of world we want every time we choose what we eat. Maybe this is why there are still farmers in the world, why there continue to be young farmers even though the average age of a farmer in America is now upwards of 60 years old. The trend of college grads going back to the land may have hit its peak at the height of the recession in 2009, when I graduated from college, but there are still Erins out there, and there are still people like me and Hannah, who just can’t seem to settle for a nine-to-five job under the protective roof of a building in town. There’s a smidgen of boldness and a bit of stupidity there, too – no matter how many farmers we’ve met who barely scrape by, we seem to think we can do better. Maybe, just maybe, we can have it all.

Now that we’ve settled in Southern Oregon, we’re taking a look around, feeling the soil and watching the weather. We have friends who want to invest here, too, noting the influx of Californians and the popularity of local vineyards. Land isn’t cheap, but it is only getting more expensive. The farmer’s market is a busy place here. Perhaps there’s room for one more pair of crazy young people with a table full of the ripened labors of their love. Once we get it going, I fantasize, we’ll let the local college know that we’re seeking interns. We won’t pay much, but they’ll never be the same once they go for a walk through the fields in the early morning, taste the first ripe tomato of summer, and see a baby goat take its first shaky steps into life.