The Compost Pile: Notes from my farmer

August 8th, 2011  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  10 Comments

I get my meat from a small organic family farm. Every year I buy a meat “share”, and then get a monthly delivery, along with 4 dozen pastured (ponded?) duck and chicken eggs.

Not only is it delicious, I also develop a relationship with my farmers. I follow their adventures, what the kids are up to, etc. I know where my meat and eggs come from, and whose hands harvested them (or which teenager chased the wayward calves back into pasture this week). Plus, I know that my money goes directly back to them. Everyone wins. (And their roasts… oy. Transcendent.)

From time to time, Mr. Farmer sends round a newsletter (“The Compost Pile”) with some tidbits and insider knowledge. It’s often provocative and shocking in the sense that he pulls the curtain back from the nefarious goings-on within industrial agriculture.

Here’s a recent newsletter. After reading:

Hit “reply” and let me know what you think.

  • How do YOU learn about your food?
  • What’s important to YOU in choosing “healthy” and safe foods?

The Compost Pile

I spent most of the weekend at my 20th University Class reunion. It was a great time catching up with good friends that I don’t see very often. Invariably the conversation turns to organic versus conventional as I am the only member of my class that is involved in organic agriculture.

I had an interesting discussion with a classmate who I respect a great deal. He grows primarily sweet corn, strawberries, raspberries and pumpkins. We got into a discussion of BT (GMO) corn versus all the insecticides that he needs to use to control the corn borer. He said that he didn’t believe that consumers actually cared about the environment or whether they were eating insecticides or genetically modified corn. The market signals he was getting indicated that there was no tolerance for a borer.

His data indicates that averaged over the entire growing season, they would have an “infection rate” of about 4% of cobs with the borer present if they used no spray or GMO varieties. That’s 1 in 25 cobs or a 50-50 chance that if you bought a random dozen you would have 1 cob with a borer present. (That’s a simplification of the math because early in the season the rates are lower and they build over the season).

The borer generally eats a few kernels at the silk end of the cob and is immediately obvious when you husk the corn. The borers cause no economic damage (there is no impact on yield); it is purely aesthetic.

This is another case where most people debate the wrong question. The question to be asking is not whether spraying insecticides is better than GMO corn but rather is either preferred to 1 cob in 25 having cosmetic damage that is easily removed with a sharp knife (or eaten around).

I know where my answer lies. But I also know that any sweet corn producer that routinely has borers present will go out of business very quickly.

One other quick tidbit – I’m sure you all recognize “Red Delicious” apples by the taper and four prominent bumps on the flower end of the apple. I always wondered why our tree didn’t produce similarly shaped fruit. I had assumed that ours was a different sub-cultivar.

It turns out that the apples are sprayed with a growth regulator to change their shape into the distinctive tapered end with the bumps. Another unecessary trip through the orchard with the sprayer for completely cosmetic reasons… the majority of the marketplace doesn’t care about production methods as long as their food looks and tastes how they expect it to.

The one place we could agree is that we wished there were Ontario produce labelling regulations that were enforced. I’ll give you two examples: Both he and I know of situations where conventional produce is being sold as organic.

Currently, we only have a national regulation in Canada that covers inter-provincial trade. Any produce that is produced and consumed in the same province isn’t subject to the regulation. There is no enforcement action that can be taken against these individuals currently, especially if they aren’t using a certified organic logo in their display.

The second example is produce which is having its provenance changed. Primarily, imported produce is being relabelled with Foodland Ontario stickers and sold as “Product of Ontario”. It’s almost impossible to catch because so much produce is traded in cash deals with no paperwork. What percentage of the produce you find in stores is not represented truthfully is anyone’s guess. He can’t report what he sees because he would be shut out of the wholesale market instantly and would lose his livelihood.

Several more reasons to get to know your farmer.


  1. Doreen Dixon says:

    August 8th, 2011at 9:56 am(#)

    This is quite the indictment of Ontario produce practices! I’ve asked Marni where I can find out more about Nova Scotia’s produce.

    Meanwhile, I buy all my stuff from the Lunenburg Farmer’s Market, which really encourages truthful organic practices. What this means is that the dogs are eating pasture-fed pork, lamb, and beef, and we get some special treats from the same farm; unfortunately, Grant does most of the grocery shopping and, for him, the only important criterion is how cheap it is. I’m hoping that his LE experience will shake him from this practice, but he’s been a Scotsman for a long time. I do what I can by bringing home good stuff from the Market (which often doesn’t get used unless I prepare it) and by growing my own salad ingredients in the summer, but the winters are long and the good produce is available only seasonally. With “economy” driving three-quarters of the year’s purchases, I’m swimming upstream. What I end up doing is eating mostly what I purchase myself, which is certainly not an economical way to do it! So far, the Scots radar hasn’t figured this out.

    People down here fall into two groups: the crunchy granolas and come-from-aways who are very much into recycling/composting, and organic, local foods; and the locals who smoke, drink, eat hot dogs and junk, and burden the healthcare system with their obesity, diabetes, and general poor health. I’m hoping there are exceptions to this, but I haven’t seen much to sustain that hope. The grocery stores cater to the latter group, but thankfully the Market serves the rest of us. There is a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel, however, as the grocery stores are beginning to carry a few promising lines. There’s hope yet.

    I think at the moment the biggest problem for mass acceptance of healthier eating is cost, or at least perceived cost. Products labelled “organic” (whether they really are or not) are always more expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. For the people with marginal incomes (and the numbers of these people increase daily thanks to the current political/corporate climate), organic food just isn’t affordable. With agribusiness in control of government, organic growers are really at a disadvantage; for certain, the government subsidies don’t apply to the small growers or to healthy food. Of course, when smokes and beer and considered vital to grocery purchases, there isn’t much money left to make good choices in food for the kids; and when kids are raised on hot dogs, bologna, pop, and chips, they don’t know what vegetables are and will continue the cycle of horrible eating with their own kids.

    It’s a very complicated problem and needs to be dealt with on many levels. We can determine what we eat but will find it very difficult or impossible to convince others.

  2. Alicia says:

    August 8th, 2011at 10:11 am(#)

    Hmm, I bought a dozen ears of corn last month and I guess borers had gotten to one or two of them. So … that means they weren’t sprayed? If so, I might purposely look for that in the future. :)

  3. Rebecca says:

    August 8th, 2011at 10:12 am(#)

    That was amazing. I am not so surprised about the corn borer, but production of the “traditional” Red Delicious shape via spraying was really… distressing.

    I’ve been bad about it lately, but usually in the summer I get my produce and eggs from a local farmer’s market. I do like developing a relationship with the growers – and as a bonus they often have ideas about what to do with the produce, cooking-wise, that I’ve never tried. Otherwise I do most of my shopping at a co-op which highlights locally-grown foods when they are available.

    As for safe and healthy, I figure doing my own cooking from scratch is half the battle. From time to time something will cross my path that changes my habits significantly (I will only buy non-organic bananas if there are literally no organic ones to be had, for instance, and always buy fair-trade coffee), but it occurs to me that the motivation is typically not my own health, but fair wages and ecological best practice.

  4. Kelly says:

    August 8th, 2011at 10:26 am(#)

    Red Delicious apples are SPRAYED to make them that shape?! This is news to me and seriously distressing. I couldn’t give a crap what shape they are, why would anyone else? I guess I’m just not picky enough. ha.

  5. Sarah says:

    August 8th, 2011at 8:44 pm(#)

    I too buy all my meat from a local farm and all my fruit and veggies from local farmstands and markets (except when heavily lobbied by the 5-year-old dictator-in-training for out-of-season stuff or things like mangoes). Partly it’s out of concern for the environment; I know our region has a good climate for growing most of the stuff and requires little energy inputs to produce things, aside from the transport issues. But mostly it’s because I feel much safer eating food when I can talk to the person who produced it. We also participate in a cowshare, and get fresh milk each week, and we go fishing and harvest shellfish and crabs when we can. The child and I also pick a lot of berries and other edibles during the summer.

    I also think it’s really important that my child really understands where food comes from and that she forms a realistic view of human/farm animal interactions. She loves our cow and has actually milked our friend’s goat, but she’s not sentimental about animals being food – tonight she asked “Mummy, which cow is this?” when I put the steak on the table, and I was able to tell her exactly which cow it was (being the one that Pat, our beef lady, had to hunt down because it didn’t get rounded up with the rest of them. Free range til the end! Very tasty.)

    Anyway, I’m 100% for knowing exactly where all your food comes from and what went into producing it. Barely 100 years ago, everyone knew this. We like to think that modernity means everyone knows more about all kinds of things, but the process and means of food production is one area in which huge swaths of the population have become shockingly ignorant in three generations or less.

  6. Alissa says:

    August 9th, 2011at 4:32 am(#)

    In our case it is obvious how our food choices impact our health. My husband is on a gluten-free diet; even a little bit gives him schizoid symptoms for 1-2 weeks. He also gets migraines from conventionally raised beef(but not organic!). I’m sensitive to a number of foods as well.

    Over the last 2 years we have transitioned to buying more local and organic foods. Our meat and eggs come from a traditional farming family that comes to our town’s farmers market once a week in summer and once a month in winter. I could get more variety from the growers in the hippie town 15 miles away, but the prices there are double because it’s trendy. I go there to pick up the milkshare once a week.

    We don’t have a lot of money, so I prioritize. I barely buy packaged or processed food at all. The meat, eggs and milk are organic, but the produce is whatever I grow or find on special, with the occasional organic item thrown in as a treat. I always peel the nonorganic produce. I never liked Red Delicious, it is mealy and mostly flavorless. I look forward to trying the local apples in a few weeks, and the seeded watermelons too. Seedless just don’t taste the same.

  7. Julie says:

    August 10th, 2011at 2:36 pm(#)

    I’ve been part of a CSA for veggies for the last 2 summers. In the winter it’s a lot harder, we don’t exactly have local produce in winter (or spring) in Alberta. We get eggs from the CSA too.

    I’ve been trying to figure out the meat thing. Usually we stick with the co-op which in theory has a few local producers, but I doubt that applies to all the meat, and it’s all conventionally raised, fattened and slaughtered, I would assume… The meat at the farmer’s markets is quite expensive, so I’ll buy a steak or a sausage here and there, but not nearly all the meat we eat at home.

    I’ve been thinking of getting in on a meat share, sounds like a great idea. Maybe time to get off my duff and do some decent research on the options in my area.

  8. Linds says:

    August 12th, 2011at 12:46 pm(#)

    We are very much into being locovores and try to buy as much of our food from local sources. To me it is important to get to know your food and where it came from. Growing in Canada we had a large veggie garden in our backyard where we would plant all the veggies one could want. Tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, beets, pea, beans. You name it! My grandparents were the ones that taught us how to grow a garden and we never used any sorts of insecticides, sprays or anything of that nature. Pest control was a little fence around the garden. I never really cared what my food looked like because it all ends up the same in the end :p

    Living in the south now it is hard to grow the same veggies that I used to (waaay too hot and dry) but we utilize our local farmer for a lot of our foods. We are pesceterians but we do feed our dogs a raw meat diet. We get the meat from a local grass fed farm. We drink raw goats milk that I get once a week from aother local farm where I know the farmers by name, know when their baby is due and are excited to see a little rugrat running around once he/she is born. The inlaws neighbors have chickens as pets so we often get fresh eggs from them as well which is amazing. We do eat fish and sadly, there isn’t great fishing in Texas (at least the kind of fish I like to eat) but there is nothing more satisfying then fishing for your own food. When we are living our dream in Alaska on a lake, I will be out there in my canoe every day of the summer (and in my ice fishing chack in the winter) catching my dinner.

    I like getting to know those who are creating something as intimate as my food. When I used to eat meat, I wanted to know that the animals were at least treated in a humane way and weren’t crammed into tiny little feedlots. I am happy to know that the goats that produce my milk are treated like queens and that their farmers get up every 4 hours to milk them when they have babies in the spring. Working for my food is always the most satisfying as well. Nothing tastes better then a fresh carrot or tomatoe that you grew yourself.

  9. Sheyna says:

    August 12th, 2011at 1:29 pm(#)

    This is shocking! And I think his friend is wrong, people do care about the environment and what they’re eating. The problem is that people are lied to about pesticides and GMOs. Blatantly lied to…it boggles the mind.

    I for one would much rather see evidence of bugs and life on veggies than what passes for produce in the conventional section in the grocery. Gimme the corn borers, keep the GMOs pesticides.

    I try to buy everything organic, luckily for me I don’t live in Canada? What a mess the food industry is…

  10. Trishy says:

    August 19th, 2011at 8:11 am(#)

    We get our meat, eggs, and produce from local farmer’s markets. It is super easy in New Jersey, the state is mostly farmland … I pass cows on my drive to work every morning. The local stuff is more expensive than the slaughterhouse meat in the grocery stores, and I know that is what mainly deters my friends from buying local … which is a little strange to me, because we all make plenty of money. I understand that low income families often cannot afford very much of the higher priced organic and pasture-raised meat, but to me, the solution to that is simple: eat less meat. The local meat is not selling for an inflated price, it is selling for the real price, a price that reflects the tremendous amount of food, water, land, and energy that goes into raising animals to eat. Slaughterhouse meat in the grocery store is usually cheaper than the fruits and veggies, which is appalling to me. My family was poor growing up and we almost never ate red meat, it was too expensive. Maybe it sounds unfair to say that if you can’t afford to eat meat every day, then don’t, but artificially lowering the price of something just creates unsustainable demand.

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