Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Real Cost of Food

As a small scale farmer, I tend to obsess a lot about money. 

Ask any small farmer and they'll admit the same...

If you ever wondered what's going through the head of the farmer standing behind the table at your local farm market, here are some examples:

Will we have enough to pay our bills this month? 

Can we buy feed this week? 

Do we have enough to buy hay? 

The pigs ate HOW MUCH this month!!! 

Boy market was slow this week :(

...and even, occasionally, 'I think I'm going to have a nervous break down'. 

Surprisingly, my worries are less about running the farm, sick animals, staffing issues, the weather or any of the thousands of things affecting my farm. Its always about the money.

While any small business owner can identify with the chronic undercurrent of financial tension that is owning a small business, farming is a famously awful way to make money.

As the old joke goes, 'how do you make a small fortune in farming?'

Answer: 'start with a big one!'

So, why is that? Are small producers just clueless and terrible business people?

Well sometimes, it is just that. Some farmers are terrible at managing money, but those guys are usually gone pretty quickly. The survivors, in my experience, actually tend to be pretty good at getting by on a shoestring, very innovative, resourceful...often just down-right clever!

I cannot tell you how many times I've been impressed and a little intimidated by the resourcefulness of some of my peers. 'Why didn't I think of that before!' is another common thought that crosses my mind.

So what is it that makes farming so financially challenging? 

Growing up in Western New York, farms built in the 19th and early 20th Centuries typically featured a large, often grand, main house, a large barn, and many outbuildings, often including small cottages for a good number of farm workers. 

Clearly, these people were not just scraping by....

When I visit many modern day farms, the thoughts that most commonly crosses my mind range from 'the whole place could use a coat of paint' to something much worse.

Are these people just lazy? Blind? Clearly, given how hard these small farmers work, a strong work ethic is not the problem.

What it boils down to is the economics of farming.

At the turn of the 19th to 20th Century, the average American household spent 18 to 20% of their disposible income on food. Food was expensive, it was local, and it was essentially 'organic' by today's standards.

After WWII, the United States created a policy of lowering the cost of food, primarily through farm subsidies that encouraged efficiency, centralization, and mechanization of our food supply.

This was a time where everything modern was viewed as superior. Tang instead of orange juice, science and technology over nature, and an end to hunger in the U.S. at least, if not the world. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Well, how things have changed!

While, hunger remains a big problem in much of the developing world, in the U.S. we have the unique problem of persistent hunger in some populations alongside an explosion in our rates of obesity. 

We are overfed, and often, paradoxically, malnourished.

Much of this, in my opinion, relates to the 'cheapness' of food - not just its monetary value in the market, but also, what's in it.

We now spend about 9% of our disposible income on our food. We have some of the cheapest food in the world, and yet I would argue, we are far worse for it.

By artificially price-supporting cheap food at all costs, we are now swimming in it. The farm bill in combination with the industrialization of our food system, effectively produces food on the retail level that is priced below its cost of production.

But the costs are still there, just hidden in government subsidies, low wages, environmental pollution, and animal cruelty.

At the turn of the 19th Century, meat cutters at this country's abbatoirs made a living wage. A man could support a family on the wages he made working there and these were desirable jobs.

Now we pay poverty-level wages to the workers in our meat-processing facilities, shifting the burden of providing for those workers to other government programs like food stamps, in order to survive.

The animals have faired far worse than the people in most circumstances. Despite the pretty names and pictures on the packaging of most grocery store items, most food comes from industrialized farms where the animals are treated very poorly, often cruelly, all in the name of maintaining low costs.

The system teeters along, the whole time assuming that gasoline and corn will be cheap and plentiful forever.

Now, even these horrible facilities in the U.S. are too pricey in the eternal quest to maximize profit. The FDA has recently approved plans to begin sending whole poultry to China for butchering and packaging, then back again to the U.S. for resale.

We throw antibiotics at our sick livestock, pesticides and herbicides at our crops, all in the name of producing more for less. The environmental and health effects are catastrophic.

Depleted and contaminated aquifers (thank you fracking), depletion of our topsoil through non-sustainable farming practices, and long-term affects of the overuse of pesticides and herbicides on human health and the environment are what we have to look forward to.

So what can your average person do? 

First of all, accept the idea that good food, real food, costs more than what you see at your local Walmart or Costco. 

Secondly, STOP shopping at Walmart and Costco. Agree that you will make it a priority to buy less but a better quality of food whenever possible.

Third. Buy fresh, buy local. Seek out local producers and support them. Pay what they ask. Ask them how they're doing. Make them feel important, not just some idiot banging his head against a wall to change the world for the better.

Fourth. Buy organic. While there are problems with the NOP (National Organics Program) as run by the USDA, the organic label does require (if properly enforced) non-GMO and NOP-approved inputs. This increases the market for non-GMO crops and organic farming methods on a larger scale.

Fifth. Avoid products grown and produced outside the U.S. There are fewer controls and a greater risk of shortcuts. Did you know for example that only 5% of USDA, NOP-approved 'organic' producers overseas are inspected annually?

Sixth. Kill the Farm Bill. More specifically, kill subsidies in the farm bill. If any subsidies are to be provided, they should produce the following in your local grocery store:

a. fresh fruits and vegetables should be the cheapest items on the shelves.

b. processed foods, sodas, chips, and the like should be the MOST expensive items to buy.

Seventh. Cook real food. This means cook things from real, raw food, not boxed processed food, not bagged precut vegetables.

Eighth. Learn about seasonal eating. Rediscover the deliciousness of fruits and vegetables that used to be staples of the American diet - squash, parsnips, rutabaga, cabbage, etc.

Ninth. Rediscover pickled and fermented foods. There are many studies that suggest eating these products promote good health.

While there are many more possible suggestions, the truth is that if followed, these 9 ideas would transform the average American's diet in a very positive way, would support local sustainable agriculture, and would start the process of dismantling our dysfunctional, industrial food chain.  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I thought those of you in the D.C. /Baltimore area would appreciate a recent article in the New York Times about Frederick, M.D. and its new place 'at the table' as a food destination:

I am happy to say that we supply vegetables, eggs and meat to all of Bryan Voltaggio's restaurants. 

Bryan is a great supporter of local agriculture and goes out of his way to support local, small farmers like us.

Try one of Bryan's restaurants: VOLT, Family Meal, and Lunch Box - all in Frederick,  or Range in chevy Chase, D.C..

I recommend the burger, shrimp and grits, or fried chicken at Family Meal. The adult milkshakes are pretty awesome too!



Monday, August 12, 2013

'Shaet' does not always flow downstream.

One of the things you hear about a LOT in my neck of the woods is the Chesapeake Bay - well, more specifically, the sad state of the Chesapeake and how no one is doing anything about it.

The Chesapeake has always been an important part of Maryland's local culture, food, and economy.

The word Chesapeake is an Algonquian word, 'chesepiooc', which refers to a village 'at the big river'.

The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the United States and is home to numerous fragile ecosystems supporting very diverse flora and fauna, including osprey, blue heron, bald eagles, the Piping Plover, and falcon. There are over 300 species of fish and shellfish that call the Chesapeake home including the famous Maryland blue crab and our native oyster.

The flora of the the Chesapeake provide food and habitat to numerous land and water based species. These plants are critical in filtering and oxygenating the water and wetlands that surround the Chesapeake.
A Chesapeake skipjack, unique to the Chespeake and designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Bay.
Skipjacks are rare sites on the Bay these days because of the collapse of the fishing industry due to pollution and overfishing.

Total shoreline for the bay and its major tributaries is over 11,000 miles, holds 15 trillion gallons of water, and has a surface area is over 4,400 square miles.
This is what remains of many of the small communities that used to dot the islands and shoreline of the Bay. What the loss of the fishing industry didn't destroy, erosion finished.
The Chesapeake is a rare and unique body of water. The early settlers found a very rich ecosystem, and they quickly took advantage of this rich food supply. A vigorous fishing industry took hold and an entire culture arose around the Chesapeake that is unique to this unique body of water.

So we've established the importance of the Chespeake from a historical perspective, but how about in today's world?

According to current estimates, the Bay is responsible for over 1 trillion dollars worth of commerce per year relating to fishing, tourism, property value, and shipping. 
  • The commercial seafood industry still contributes over $2 billion dollars of sales, even with its decline in the 20th Century.
  • These economic benefits extend into all regions of the Bay watershed which encompasses 6 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Wildlife enthusiasts spend approximately 3 billion dollars per year in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania each year.
  • Recreational boating is estimated to generate over 2 billion dollars of commerce per year and create over 35,000 jobs.

The massive Chesapeake Watershed that extends all the way up into New York and south almost to the North Carolina border. Tens of millions call this region home.

So, what are the most important causes of damage to the Bay?

Well, primarily, you are talking about an over-abundance of nutrients, i.e. nitrogen and phosphorus. The excess of these two nutrients over-feeds the Bay, causing algal blooms, choking out plants and waterlife by lowering oxygen levels to critical levels. 

Sediment also contributes to the problem by decreasing the clarity of the water and choking out aquatic life.

The primary contributor to this runoff? Agriculture. 

About 40% of the nitrogen, 45% of the phosphorus and 60% of the sediment currently polluting the Chesapeake is estimated to come from agricultural land.
This is a small dairy operation near our house. In the foreground, a culvert takes the raw sewage under the road and directly into Toms Creek, our creek. This farm is about one mile upstream from our farm.

Other reasons? Primarily development, or sprawl

Of this, 90% is caused by increased land use for low-density residential development. In Maryland, this has produced a rate of growth for sprawl that is 3 times the rate of growth of the population.

Since colonial times, the Chesapeake has lost over 1/2 of its wetlands, 90 % of its underwater grasses, and 98% of its oysters. Blue crab harvests are also down approximately 98 % from their historic levels.

Looking at the Chesapeake Watershed as a whole, between colonial times up until the 1950's, approximately 1.7 million acres of Bay watershed were developed. Since then, another 3 million acres have been consumed by sprawling development.

The City of Frederick and Frederick County's recent support for the annexation of over 300 acres of farmland on the north side of the city, is a fine example of sprawling development. As you can see, this sprawl is contributing to the decline of the Bay and ironically also causing a decline in the state of agriculture in the county as well.
So how does all this relate to my little farm in Maryland?

Our farm is bordered on two sides by Toms Creek (more of a river really), a major contributor to the Monocacy River, the Potomac River and finally the Chesapeake. We are a part of the watershed, and therefore, either part of the problem or the solution!

In May of 2009, after over 25 years of failed efforts by the state governments on the Bay watershed to control run-off, President Obama declared the Chesapeake a national treasure and signed an executive order calling on the Feds to take the lead in the Bay restoration effort.

For the first time, the EPA was given the power to set a more demanding timetable for bay clean-up and power to enforce these timetables.

And Maryland, one of the most important states on the Chesapeake, decided to take the lead in Bay restoration and to set an example for other states bordering the Bay. 

Maryland passed the Chesapeake Restoration Act which:
  • Upgrades 66 waste treatment plants across the state.
  • Creates septic upgrade program which taxes new on-site sewage systems and septic users, the so-called 'rain tax'.
  • Pays for cover crops for farmers to reduce runoff.
Another component of Maryland's efforts to reduce runoff is 90% funding of manure storage facilities for farmers like us. The buildings help reduce runoff from open pit style manure holding facilities, which are the norm for most farmers in our area.

Whitmore Farm is a small operation and yet we still compost about 10 tons of manure and farm waste per year! Our current system has been sorely lacking: open compost piles exposed to the elements. 

I know ... awful!

Before you get too upset, let me show what we do to control runoff on our property:
  • All paddocks are in permanent pasture. This creates a sieve of fine grasses that strain and absorb the nutrients and act as a sponge to absorb the rain water.

  • Each paddock that drains towards the creek has a 'swale' at its bottom that catches and holds water and anything else that runs off the pasture. These areas are heavily planted with trees and grasses, like reed canary grass.

  • Hedgerows! We love hedgerows!

Whenever possible, we plant a wide swathe of dense shrubbery, trees and grasses that capture runoff between paddocks, provide shade for our animals, habitat for wildlife, and even mast (fallen fruit - nuts, fruit, etc) for our animals to eat.

It also generally looks quite pretty as well...

So, thanks to the State of Maryland, we are going from this: this:

...all in the end to protect this:

Toms Creek which borders our property on two sides. 

...and this!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

No frackin' way

Like most people, when I first heard of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it has become commonly known, I was curious and suspicious. 

In order to rescue the United States from our dependence on foreign 'dirty' oil, we were going to free the U.S. from the yoke of energy oppression using the 100 year supply of 'clean' natural gas under our feet! Woo hoo!

Now, here was something that everyone could get behind! I mean, who doesn't love a 100 year source of clean domestic energy?

However, the more I read about this technology and the more it has made its presence known in the news, the more horrified I have become about its immense negative environmental impact. 

Interestingly, I also started hearing complaints about new liquid natural gas terminals being planned (we already have 110 in use) to export all this gas overseas. These facilities have a nasty tendency to explode into massive fireballs, so understandibly, they are not popular additions to many coastal communities. I'll explain the importance of this interest in new facilities later.

So, how does fracking work? 

A well head is drilled (and it takes a LOT of well heads to extract the natural gas trapped in the rock bed) and large amounts of water (1- 8 millions gallons per well) laced with 20 to 40,000 gallons of heavy metals and chemicals, are injected under intense pressure until the shale bed 'fractures', allowing the trapped methane to be released and collected. Chemicals used during the process include lovelies like lead, uranium, mercury, radium, ethylene glycol (think radiator fluid/antifreeze), hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde.

Currently, there are over 500,000 active fracking wells in operation, which are typically fracked ten times or more. Doing some simple math, this conservatively equals about more than 50 TRILLION gallons of water and over 200 billion gallons of chemicals introduced into the ground.

Oh yes...and no more than 50% of the water introduced during fracking is actually recovered from each well. This means that up to 70% of the water and chemicals introduced in fracking are left in the ground. Hmmmm.

Water that is removed is often left in open pits where volatile organic compounds are released into the atmosphere. These are organic compounds that aerosolize and have been linked to many health problems. 

Interestingly, fracking companies are not required to release an exact list of what compounds they use as part of the fracking process. They are also exempt from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Still feeling good about our new energy policy and all this 'clean' energy?

Okay, well surely the government is watching these guys and making sure they don't mess up, right? Well...actually...the responsibility for policing the fracking companies is primarily in the hands of the states, not the feds. 

And since more recent shake-ups at the EPA as fracking has fallen into the loving arms of our current administration, federal oversight has fallen off even more.

Okay, so its a dirty polluting technology but surely there are fail-safes in to prevent accidents, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Not surprisingly, quite a bit!

One of the first problems is casing failure. Lining each well-head is a metal liner surrounded by a cement casing that is meant to prevent any of the good or bad stuff going in or out of the well from leaking into the surrounding ground. 

Sounds pretty sturdy huh? Well, with an accepted fail rate of 5% per year, the casing on these wells can be expected to fail, and boy do they ever, 50% within the first ten years. This also means that 5% will fail essentially immediately, within the first year of use.

When they fail, some of that methane and the unspecified toxic chemicals under intense pressure are released into the ground water and voila - you have an environment disaster!

'Honey, why is the hose on fire?' 

So suddenly, homes, cities, and farms that use well water for their very existence, have a contaminated water source that is unusable. The whole while, the fracking companies deny culpability and the EPA goes along, hand-in-hand, in denying the dangers, quietly telling people that they probably shouldn't drink that water, 'off the record'.

Now, anyone who lives off well-water is very much aware of how important their aquifer is and also how vulnerable it is. The city of Frederick and my whole rural community is dependent on the same water table/aquifer and we all know that when one person is irresponsible or reckless, we can all suffer.

We could not farm our land without our clean, pure ground water - it is a precious resource. We test our water every year looking for chemicals like pesticides and coliforms, enteric contamination from fecal matter.

Once polluted, there is no way to repair the damage.

Now those of you living in urban areas with access to municipal water may say, 'well this doesn't really affect me'...but does it? 

There are huge sections of the U.S. where many thousands of fracking wells are planned and many of them are in areas of the country where much of our food is grown, or where water is a scarce commodity.

Other important environmental considerations:

1. Huge amounts of energy, roads and other infrastructure needed to build and transport the water and other materials used for fracking.

2. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas some 40 times more potent than CO2. It is estimated that at least 5 - 10 % of the methane captured during fracking leaks into atmosphere. Given its affect as a powerful greenhouse gas 40 times more potent than CO2, that's a lot of global warming and the 'clean' part of the technology goes out the window.

3. Release of methane and VOC's into the atmosphere near fracking sites affecting local air quality, including disulfidesbenzenexylenes and naphthalene.

4. Earthquakes - there is good evidence that fracking has precipitated increased earthquake activity in the American Midwest and Europe. Current fracking operations are underway overlying the San Andreas Fault and many more are planned for the Central Valley of California, again overlying the fault and the so-called bread basket of America.

5. Surface water contamination from runoff and spills related to fracking operation.

Its also important to bear in mind that tens, if not hundreds of thousands more wells are planned over the next decade all across the United States, so this is a problem that will be magnified exponentially and will be affecting millions of people.

Now, two premises of this 'clean' energy bonanza that our politicians have been selling us, is that there is a 100 year supply of natural gas and that this will help control/bring down our energy costs. So let's look at this idea, shall we?

The 100 year estimate of our reserves assumes that ALL areas where suitable shale formations exist can be accessed and sucked dry.

The other consideration is how much industry interest in expanding America's liquid natural gas export capacity there is.

While increasing production of natural gas in the U.S. would definitely lower prices, this assumes that the gas produced would stay in the U.S. 

Considering that prices for natural gas in Europe and Asia are 4 or 5 times higher than they are here, why would these producers choose to sell their products here in the U.S.? Out of the goodness of their corporate hearts?

Let's consider an alternative to this ridiculous and never-ending reliance on dirty fossil fuels - renewable energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal, wave and so on. This seems like a no-brainer to me?

Being a child of the 70's, I remember the oil embargos. You could argue that its has been one ongoing crisis since that time because of our dependence on fossil fuels.

Why not aggressively switch to a new renewable and sustainable energy source, create a strong and high tech renewable energy industry in the U.S. (i.e. jobs), and end our dependence on polluting energy sources for once and for all!

We at Whitmore Farm, believe in maintaining balance and sustainability in every aspect of our lives. We switched over to 100% renewable energy about 4 years ago.

Currently, 50% of our energy usage is produced via the photovolteic system installed on our barn roof a year ago. Since that time, we have captured 35 Kwh of solar energy, saved over $5000 in energy costs, and offset 55,000 lbs of carbon emmissions. 

The rest of our energy usage is bought as wind energy through our local utility company. 

Emmitsburg is also the site of the largest solar installation in the State of Maryland, thanks to an agreement between Mount Saint Mary's University and Constellation Energy. None of this would have happened if the State of Maryland hadn't required a certain percentage of each utility company's energy production to come from renewable sources.

Currently, with the lower cost of photovolteic panels, renewable technology has become comparable and competative to fossil fuels in terms of costs.

While this issue may seem unrelated to my little farm in Maryland (the state currently has a moratorium on fracking) there appears to be a legitimite risk that things may change.

Two years ago, in response to concerns about the safety of fracking and the disasterous problems that have plagued the technology in neighboring Pennsylvania, Gov. Martin O'Malley created the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

The commission charged the state Department of the Environment and DNR (Department of Natural Resources) to conduct studies looking into the affects of fracking on the environment.

However, recently the commission begain drafting craft rules on fracking for the state and Governor O'Malley hired John Quigley, former secretary of the Pa Department of Conservation and Natural resources to help in the process. 

Et Voila:

So in the end, I now see this as a major and the latest threat to my little farm and to agriculture all across the country.

If you'd like to know if there are any fracking sites in your area, here is a search tool you can use to check:

In the meantime, I will continue to say 'no' to fracking and 'yes' to renewable energy!

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Early Sunday morning, we got up to discover that one of our female hogs farrowed (gave birth) during the night, and is now the proud mom of three adorable piglets.  So now seems the perfect time for a piglet-photo-shoot and accompanying blog post!


For pigs, the first few days of life are those most fraught with danger.  They are tiny and clumsy, constantly in danger of being stepped on. 

What's more, their immune systems are weak, and in cold weather the placental fluids on them can pose a real freezing hazard without human help.  

Sheep and goats will immediately clean the afterbirth off their babies, but hog moms generally put in very little effort by mammalian standards.  They basically grunt, roll over to expose their teats for nursing (possibly crushing an unfortunate piglet), and let the babies sort the rest out themselves.  

But cut sows some slack: with as many as twenty piglets in a litter, it's hard to keep the kids from running... wait for it... hog wild.  It is also during the first few days that piglets get their starter-kit immune system, delivered from mom via a special type of milk known as colostrum.  

If they can stay healthy, endure the cold, keep out of mom's way, and fight off siblings competing for milk, by the time piglets are 48 hours old they have generally secured themselves a solid start on life.

Rightly proud of herself

            Fortunately, the weather has been warm, and the new piglets are spry.  Only a day after being born, they were already following mom out into the pasture and poking around.  

Pigs are omnivores: for them, “Is that a food?” is life's Big Question. A sort of rough-and-tumble curiosity is one of their most endearing (and human) traits.  

These new piglets are pure-bred Tamworth hogs, whose parents were recently brought onto Whitmore farm as part of a new program to create Tamworth / Old Spot crosses. We hope this cross will combine the easygoing nature of the Old Spots with the lean meat of the Tamworths.  

A well-deserved nap

These piglets will spend the first two months or so of life alternately exploring, nursing, and sleeping. After that, we will separate them from their mom to wean them, and they'll join one of the two large groups of young pigs, who were farrowed in late March.  

These two groups of young pigs are the “gang of eight,” which we're retaining to be the next generation of Whitmore moms, and the “feeder pigs,” which, well, you can guess the rest.  

In selecting which pigs to keep for breeding, we look primarily at their size and number of teats.  The number of nipples varies from pig to pig, and with litters so large additional feeding capacity is an important trait for a mom-to-be.  

However, be they for the butcher or for us, young pigs' lives are very similar to those of newborn piglets.  Pigs aren't much fazed by being sent off to school, and once they get to know all the other kids they continue a life of play and naps, enlivened by their twice-daily feeding frenzy.  

They also thoroughly enjoy escaping the mid-day heat by taking a long dip in one of their wallows, which we occasionally top up with nice cold water from nearby spigots.
But time flies, and before you know it, they're all grown up.  The gilts start cycling (a “gilt” is a female pig who has not yet become a mother) and the boars start frothing at the mouth and following them around. (Sound familiar?) We'll add a likely boar to a group of ladies, and let nature do her thing. We do try to give them a little bit of a “birds and the bees” talk on the way, but it's not clear how much of an impact it has. 

In any case, pigs are very social animals: they know the members of their social circle and take some time to warm up to newcomers. Which is a nice way of saying that the boar generally spends a couple days getting bullied.  

But in short order, everyone settles down and romances blossom.  I'll leave out the details, because Joe describes pig sex accurately enough: “It's not particularly pleasant in any sense of the word.” But it does make more cute piglets!

This blog entry submitted by our senior intern, Danny Foster.