Archive for the ‘real food’ Category

Buying Local? How to Shop for Nutrition

Many of us buy our food from local farmers, and for good reason!  Supporting farmers is most always a worthy cause, your cash stays in your local economy, the food is fresher, and the food’s carbon footprint is often smaller.  But, we don’t hear many claims about local food being more nutritious, and here’s why:  nutrition totally depends on soil quality, and soil quality can vary greatly from farm to farm.  

If two identical tomato plants were planted in different soils – one in nutrient rich, biologically active soil, and the other in soil lacking in any nutrient, the tomato produced from rich soil would provide far more nutrition.  Plants can’t create nutrients out of air.  Vitamins and minerals, nutrients we all expect in a good tomato, must be supplied by the soil.  For example, take manganese.  It’s a crucial mineral for activating enzymes for our bodies to use vitamins B1, C, and choline.  If manganese is not in our soil, it’s not in our food.  Soil quality is key! 

colorful, tasty peppers

What about the farms where you buy your fruits and veggies?  Do you know the quality of their soil?  When you go to farmers markets, does the produce from certain farms stand out? 

Here are simple things anyone can look for to get an initial feel for soil quality:  

At the Produce Stand: 

  • How does the produce look?  Fruits and veggies grown on healthy, balanced, productive soils are often beautiful.  They won’t look perfect, but they should be the picture of health:  plump, heavy, shiny, deep in color, and very appetizing.
  • Very little insect damage.  This one is controversial, as organic producers usually take a hit for damage to their crops.  This is definitely true for farms transitioning to organic – pests attack these crops with little mercy.  However, for a farm that’s been using organic methods for at least 3 or 4 years, if the soil is rich, the plants will have all they need to defend themselves against pests.  Poor soil leaves crops vulnerable.  If you doubt this, read Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm.  In three years he transformed his depleted soil that would barely produce anything worth eating into deep, rich soil that produced healthy, nutritious produce with virtually no insect predation.  The veggies were so satisfying he juiced them into tonics.  Amazing!  
  • Does the farmer offer samples?  Taste it!  Nutritious produce tastes like you’re getting something special.  Sweet, juicy, flavor at its height.  Nutritious produce never tastes watery, dry, tough, or bland. 

Know Your Region’s History: 

  • Do you live in a Corn Belt state?  Don’t worry, it’s a good thing!  Your region’s top soil is probably depleted, but you’re sitting on highly-mineralized, glacial subsoil.  Good farmers know how to tap into this and rebuild quality top soil.
  • Live in the Deep South or Upper South?  These regions were heavily farmed in cotton and tobacco, two of the worst crops for soil.  The soil is likely depleted.  Ask your farmer how she rebuilt the soil. 
  • Live in a state known for dairy?  Good news – productive cows on grass require highly fertile soils.  For more information, read Newman Turner’s old and wise book Fertility Pastures

gorgeous, deeply-colored beets

If noticing these things tends to leave you with more questions, ask the questions!  Ask your farmer how he returns nutrients to the soil.  If he says, “we buy fertilizer” ask what kind of fertilizer.  Write it down, and check it out.  If he says, “we apply lime and rotate crops and use grazing and deep-rooted legumes to build fertile top soil” you’ve got yourself an excellent farmer.  

While I was visiting my parents recently in Oklahoma, we stopped at a large farmer’s market.  Most of the produce looked good, but not great.  There was one stand where the produce looked perfect, gorgeous.  I kept on walking, thinking produce that perfect was probably fed an all-chemical diet.  This was before I read Malabar Farm.  Now I wish I would have stopped and asked, “How do you fertilize?”  “How do you manage insects?”  Without asking, I might have missed out on some exceptionally nutritious fruit and veggies.  

Have thoughts or questions?  Leave a comment!

Oyster Floats for the Bay

Did you know that the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population was once so plentiful that it filtered the Bay’s entire volume of water in just three days?  Early English settlers wrote that the oyster reefs were so large and high that they posed navigational hazards for their ships. 

Imagine the Chesapeake Bay back then – it was once one of the world’s most productive bodies of water in terms of marine life.  Now it’s practically gone.  Decimated by pollution, over-harvesting, and a deadly duo of diseases in the mid-20th century, today’s oyster population is only 1% of its historical population.  The Bay’s floor once hosted giant colonies of oysters that were centers of aquatic life, places where crabs, fish, and mussels came together, much like how the Caribbean coral reefs teem with life.  Sadly, today’s Bay floor is a desert of green mud.

unloading the floats from the truck

Oysters are a keystone species in the marine ecosystem because they eat by filtering and cleaning the water.  Cleaner water provides better habitat for blue crabs, fish, and other marine life.  Our farm sits on St. Clements Bay, part of the Chesapeake Bay system. Besides sea nettles (jellyfish), we’ve noticed very little life.  We’d love to see hundreds of blue crabs (yum)!

We’re using oyster floats to help clean the water around our pier and to attract more life.  We bought two floats from Circle C Oyster Ranch, and plan to buy two every year and take advantage of Maryland’s tax credit.  The baby oysters are about an inch in diameter at this point.  They are native oysters, and were selectively bred to be disease-resistant.  After about two years, they’ll be over four inches long and ready to eat (yum).  The oysters sit in mesh bags, and the mesh bags float inside a pvc pipe perimeter.  By floating just under the water’s surface, they live where the food (algae) and the oxygen lives.  This coddled environment helps them to grow a little faster.    

oyster float tied to our pier

Knowing the Bay’s water is polluted, I’m a little wary about eating these oysters, but not enough to stop me.  Oysters are very nutritious – chock full of Vitamin D, B12, Iron, Zinc, Copper, and more.  I’m hoping that the jumbo nutritional boost will help my body get rid of any bad stuff.  Besides, have you ever had a fried oyster?  Heaven on earth!

Big Breasts Sell… On Chickens Too

A controversy has been brewing in natural farming circles over a chicken, particularly a big-breasted chicken.  Read on as we describe our chicken thoughts and plans below.

The Cornish X (pronounced Cornish Cross)

Have you heard of this bird?  If you saw Food, Inc, this is the breed that was touted as industrial farming gone mad.  It’s a corn-eating machine.  It can literally go from chick to fully-grown (5 lbs +) in seven weeks.  As Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm says, this is the same growth rate as a radish.  If you eat that huge juicy breast meat at Chik-Fil-A or in your own kitchen, you’re eating Cornish X.    

It’s actually good that the Cornish X lives for only seven weeks.  If it lived longer, it would probably be in terrible pain.  This chicken grows so fast that it often gets too big for its internal organs and legs to keep up.  Broken legs are common in the confinement (chicken house) industry, and are even reported in the free-range model.  This breed was designed by humans and would not survive without them. 

Sustainable Ag’s Reactions

The natural farming community’s reactions to this bird run the gamut.  Polyface Farm has no problem with the Cornish X.  They see the fast growth rate as a huge opportunity for small farms to turn a nice profit (unheard of) with healthy pastured poultry.  Joel’s chickens are raised on fresh pasture and slaughtered in small batches on the farm, resulting in way healthier eating than your grocery store bird.  Joel has a passion for grass farming, and he’s devoted to making a profit as well.  A good combination for a farmer! 

On the other hand, Nature’s Harmony Farm rejects the Cornish X as a sustainable breed.  They believe it’s inhumane to raise this breed outside, as it is designed to live in confinement.  They use heritage chicken breeds exclusively.  Nature’s Harmony Farm breeds, incubates, and hatches out their chicks.  They’re proud to do this themselves and to not rely on hatcheries, which they see as an unsustainable practice.

What We Think… So Far

We haven’t raised chickens yet, so in theory only, we find ourselves in between Polyface and Nature’s Harmony:

  • Taste:  We dine on Polyface’s chicken every few weeks, and man it’s tasty!  Chik-Fil-A and grocery store chicken do not compare.  We’ve heard that slower-growing heritage breeds taste even better, but all reviews we’ve read put the Cornish X (raised on grass) right up there too.     
  • Humane Treatment:  We do agree a little with Nature’s Harmony Farm’s concerns about raising the Cornish X outside.  When we’ve visited Polyface, the birds that are approaching their end look a little lifeless.  Heritage breeds are very active because they have the bodies for movement, not for sitting and packing on the breast meat.   
  • What the Customer Wants in Chicken:  If you’re into cooking and recipes, ask yourself, how many more recipes call for boneless chicken breasts compared to thighs, legs, etc?  Americans have come to love white meat and lots of it!  Polyface’s chicken breasts are nearly always sold out.  Heritage breeds’ breasts are there, but much smaller, sort of like how a D-cup compares to a barely B.    
  • What the Customer Wants in Price:  Would you pay $20+ for a chicken?  Heritage breeds grow out in 12 to 14 weeks, double the time as the Cornish X.  Time means a lot on the farm.  It means double the labor and feed cost, which translates into higher prices for customers.  Nature’s Harmony Farm charges $5 per pound, so that’s at least $20 for a good-sized bird!  I don’t know many people who are willing to dish that out for a chicken.
  • Sustainability:  First off, a farm needs to make a profit to be sustainable.  We agree with Polyface that the Cornish X’s fast growth offers an opportunity for small farms to keep their cash flow going and to make a profit sooner rather than later.  With regards to relying on hatcheries for chicks, we’re not sure this is unsustainable. Barring the Collapse, hatcheries are here to stay.  We’re not planning to put all our eggs into this basket, but we think the sustainable argument can go too far.  Eating olive oil and avocados might be unsustainable because we rely on far-away places to provide them, but we love olive oil and avocados.  Living in modern times is nice.       

 Our Chicken Plan So Far

We want to go both routes and raise both Cornish X and heritage breeds. 

http://www.backyardchickens.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=325493&p=7

Slow growing 5-week old Cornish X with their adopted mother hen backyardchickens.com forum

We’ve been reading how to raise Cornish X more slowly.  The method is to take away the feed for a certain number of hours.  They eat more grass and stay very healthy and very active, and you end up with a large-breasted bird at the end of about 10 weeks.  Raising these birds will involve ordering chicks from a hatchery, keeping them warm in a brooder for a few weeks, then moving them out on grass.  We can offer these chickens at a lower price point, hopefully close to Polyface’s $3.25 per pound price.

We’re really excited about heritage breeds too.  Back in the days of yore, many small farms bred their chickens and developed strains that were ideally suited for their farm’s climate and growing method.  Wouldn’t that be cool if we still had that?  You could take a country drive and come home with different chickens to sample.  Farms could build reputations on the taste of their particular chicken, like wine producers do in Northern California.

Dark Cornish rooster

The Cornish X’s original parents were a Dark Cornish rooster and a White Rock hen.  We plan to buy these breeds from different hatcheries and start selecting the ones that do best on our farm.  We’ll breed these chickens, hatch out their chicks, and select their progeny based on how well they thrive on our farm, their growth rate, and their breast size.  After many generations of chickens, we’d like to end up with a Sweet Bay chicken that eats lots of grass, grows out in under 12 weeks, tastes really good, and has a C-cup breast. 

White Rock hen and her chicks

What’s your opinion?  If you buy farm-raised chicken, have you ever thought about this?  Do you have a preference for breast meat or do you seek out heritage breeds?

Part of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday.

Health Changes from my Real Food Experiment

Around this time last year, I thought I was going crazy.  I had wild mood swings, cried for absolutely no reason, the smallest disappointments amounted to the end of the world, and it all was happening way too often, about 3 times a month.  On top of that, when I got hungry, I got HUNGRY, along the lines of Chris Farley’s “Lay off me, I’m starving!!!”   If I didn’t eat something within an hour, I’d get very nauseated, weak, clammy, and completely out of sorts.  So I was starting to get scared – scared that my irrational crying spells would drive my honey away, and scared that I was becoming hypoglycemic with the weird blood sugar crashes.  Nothing’s as dull as reading about other peoples’ health problems, but maybe, especially if you identify with the depression and crashes, you’ll be interested in how they were all made better, simply through some tasty, real food…

Luckily, around the same time last year, we were heavily researching grass-fed beef as an option for our new farm.  When we read about it, nutrition was nearly always mentioned too.  I got turned on to a lot of nutrition websites, like the Weston A Price foundation.  After a couple of months, I was convinced that my health was on my plate, and that years of eating junk and confusing entertainment for food had caught up with me.  My body was starving for nutrients.

Eliminating the Worst

I realized I’d been eating a lot of empty calories like white bread.  Even worse than the empty calories were the detrimental calories:  pop, diet pop, loads of sweets, chips, etc.  I decided first to just get rid of all trans fats (hydrogenated anything on the ingredients label) and all high fructose corn syrup, and just see what would happen.  I was amazed!  Within only two days, I could feel a swift uptick in my moods.  My mood (now I only had one) became stable and normal!  I was happy when I was supposed to be happy, and sad when I was supposed to be sad.  No more irrational crying spells. 

A couple weeks of normal living felt soooo good, so I decided to keep going.  I started eating breakfast every day, even if I wasn’t hungry.  We started buying pastured, chemical-free meat from Polyface Farm.  I’ll never forget the first time I had Polyface eggs for breakfast.  I got to work, sat down at my desk, and felt this wave of well-being wash over me.  It was a natural high.  My brain was finally getting the nourishment it needed – it could apparently make some good serotonin again. I also learned how traditional saturated fats (beef fat, butter, coconut oil) had been framed and how the newer polyunsaturated oils (corn oil, soy oil, canola, etc) were probably responsible for declining health.  We’ve been eating animal fat for thousands of years, and soy oil just came on the market about 60 years ago (along with heart disease).  Made sense to me, so I switched and started eating loads of butter and coconut oil.  I felt great and didn’t gain any weight.     

Sugar

So by this time, I was eating nutritious proteins and lots of veggies swimming in butter.  I was still feasting on sugar though, so blood sugar crashes were still happening, just not as severely.  Having forgone trans fat and HFCS, I made a lot of brownies (butter!) at home and bought expensive ice cream.  Amazingly, my body told me to stop.  Every time I scarfed some sugar, my mood would crash.  I’d get teary and edgy, and I’d even wake up with joint pain in the morning!  I’ve had a monster sweet tooth all my life, so I didn’t have much confidence in my ability to stop.  But, I read that if you nourish yourself well, sugar cravings will stop on their own over time.  This is exactly what happened.  I started seeing every meal as a chance to load up on real food and nutrients – pastured eggs, grass-fed beef, quality veggies and fats, good cheeses, plain whole yogurt, real carbs like taters, even grass-fed liver.  It’s taken about 8 months, but now I can even TURN DOWN sugar with ease.  This was hopelessly impossible before. 

Here are other minor health issues that have disappeared since I started eating real food:

  • Bloating:  “growl-ly in my bowel-ly” – gone
  • Headaches/Migraines:  gone!  I no longer carry Excedrin with me.
  • Heart Palpitations:  gone
  • Seasonal Allergies:  much better
  • Colds/Flu: Sick only once this past year, and after traveling and eating lots of sugar.
  • Joint aches:  none
  • Scaly bumps on backs of my arms:  gone!  (and they come back when I eat crap)
  • 3 pm snack cravings:  gone too, as long as I have a big, nutritious lunch.
  • Insomnia:  gone!  I fall asleep very easily now.

 

I can’t scientifically explain how all of this improved.  I simply believe my body is now getting the nutrients it needs to work properly.  Something that helped in making the transition is realizing that processed foods like ho ho’s and cheetos aren’t food.  They’re entertainment.  Our bodies get nil from them, and in most cases, are hurt by them.  Based on my real food experiment, I’m convinced that many of our nation’s health problems would go away if we all rejected these “foods”.  If it’s advertised in slick commercials, don’t eat it.  Nourishing food isn’t advertised.  Entertainment is.  Before our health gets any worse, we need to recognize the difference.  Your health is on your plate!

This post is part of Real Food Wednesdays.

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