When Healthy Eating Backfires

I visit various areas of solicitude when my mind wanders. When I reflect on our state as a society I come across several areas of concern, one of them being society’s attitude and handling of food. The need for instant gratification combined with a lack of knowledge–or caring in some instances–on where food actually comes from in today’s world creates a battleground full of controversy and ill-informed decisions made with good intent.

Ask a young child where food comes from and, for the most part, you’ll find the answer revolves around a grocery store. Further probing may reveal that the child knows meat comes from animals, eggs from chickens, milk from cows and goats, fruit and vegetables from plants, etc. And even the ones that know this, may not understand this. The two don’t always coincide, even with adults.

Ask a young adult where food comes from and they answer with a little more confidence, truly believing they understand the whole concept of a farm growing produce and raising animals. Because really, the image they have of a farm probably reflects our farm on a larger scale.

In reality, the majority of our food comes from factory farms. Clever advertisements on some of the products these companies sell depict houses sporting the stereotypical farmhouse or fresh green pastures. Happy animals are seen on logos, sometimes outside in said green pasture imagery.

Visit a chicken factory farm and you find close quarter living arrangements. Chickens end up with little room to wander and forage as nature intended, which also means chicken waste ends up on other chickens and in their living space. This results in birds that suffer from respiratory infections caused by injured mucous membranes. Injured mucous membranes (caused by the ammonia the chickens can’t escape) makes it easier for bacteria and viruses to enter the chicken’s lungs and air sacs. Chickens poo everywhere. It’s not so much of an issue if there isn’t overcrowding and they’re pasture raised. Take a factory farm setting where there’s barely room to move and you get some pretty sick poultry. Which is why we see an increased level of antibiotics being used, overused, and misused. It’s more profitable than to house chickens correctly.

Some factory farms are partaking in “movements” by opening windows to the barns the chickens are housed in, or making sure the lights are out at night. That’s a start, but the birds need to be out. It’s in their nature to scratch and forage for food. That brings me to another “improvement” where many companies boast about their feed. Again, great, but access to fresh grass and produce is vital, too, as well as bugs. I’ve seen my chickens eat small snakes even.

This is not something that can easily be done. The demand for food is partly responsible for the birth of the factory farm. So even large-scale farms don’t have the room. Be wary of your labels; if it says free range, that’s SOME outside time–in pens with several other chickens. An improvement, yes, but still unacceptable.

All of our birds are pasture raised and are socialized with people. They are not afraid of were they live and have access to forage all day, take dust baths as they see fit, and socialize. Yes, the birds socialize. They have their own group of friends they even hang out with. This is how domesticated chickens (and other birds) should live.

This background information leads up to my actual rant about food contamination. These birds are living in the very thing that is responsible for outbreaks of salmonella, Listeria, and e. coli. Poop. Your meat chickens are living in it. Your egg laying hens are sitting in it. Our chickens naturally do not lay eggs where they use the bathroom. They have the space to lay, roam, forage, and do their business.

The big foodborne illnesses we hear about on a consistent basis lives in the gut of these animals. If they’re not allowed the space to respond to nature’s call, contamination and harsh cleaning processes take place, neither of which are beneficial for anyone.

Dairy and other cattle factory farms are not much different. Antibiotics are the response to overcrowded living conditions instead of happy, healthy environments. In fact, over half of the antibiotic use is for agricultural purposes. The antibiotic use is abuse (I understand that’s technically my opinion) because it’s used as a preventative, which is not the intended idea behind the antibiotic. So even families who actively make it a point to avoid overusing antibiotics for something like the common cold, are still being exposed to the overuse of antibiotics into their systems. Cows are also given Bovine Growth Hormone to produce even more milk (even though the cows are kept pregnant, birthing, or milking with little to no break in between).

We do not have a cow (yet). Once we expand more we will be looking into getting a cow. Right now, we do have have a herd of miniature donkeys and mixed breed goats. They are pasture raised as well. We have grown to have two males for breeding and two different milking pairs. One pair will be pregnant and lactating, while the other pair will have a break so their bodies can recover. Antibiotics are only used if the animal is sick (we wait for it to be out of their system before milk is used) and no growth hormones are added. They’re social animals so they’re also allowed the right to socialize, grow, and spend time with their family (human and animal alike). This is how it should be.

With all of that information, it’s no wonder we get so sick. That’s not the surprising part though. What’s surprising is more foodborne illnesses come from fresh vegetables. I think this is a really big eye opener for how our food is handled. Our meats are exposed to the same contamination (Listeria, salmonella, e. coli), but the antibiotic “preventative” and harsh cleaning procedures hide this. You’re eating dirty meat that has been washed with chlorine.

So, why vegetables? Well, in an attempt to be healthier many people are seeking fresh produce. Makes sense as quite a few veggies are healthier when consumed raw and salads are a great way to pack in essential nutrients when you’re being health conscious and are short on time. It makes sense. I get it. Although fresh produce is also washed with water and chlorine, the leafy greens you’re hearing about on the news likely wasn’t cooked. Because who cooks their lettuce? Water that is contaminated and used to wash vegetables could be a source for foods carrying these bacteria, especially if it’s exposed to any fecal matter or fertilizers. Which also means water used to clean your chicken could also be contaminated, but heating foods to proper temperatures can sometimes help with that nasty fact.

A clean environment is the best preventative to these illnesses. Our hydroponic produce is separated from our animals and clean water is used on them.

It is near impossible–unless I’m not seeing it–to break free from this. Growing your own food and raising small family homesteads is becoming a lost art and we can’t let people starve. The best way to avoid this is to have your own garden and your own meat, but that’s not a viable option for everyone. Your next best bet is purchasing locally, a little easier to do with produce than meat. Check out local markets and talk to vendors. There are smaller establishments that make sure their animals are living healthy and happy lives.

We’re not meant to be cooped up, although many people force themselves to live like some animals on these factory farms: eat, sit on the couch all day, stay indoors, sleep. It’s not good for us. It makes sense that it’s also not good for these animals and it affects our food. Factory farms are in this for profit and to fill that high demand. People don’t realize that’s where their food comes from. And it gets worse. Any meals, canned soups, processed foods you purchase at the store get their meat and produce from these factory farms.

Grow more edible plants at home if it’s possible. Shop local. Take baby steps. We’re trying our best as well. We just got to where we have a pretty steady meat source for us. I cannot remember the last time we went to the grocery store for meat or produce. What we don’t grow, we purchase or trade from local farms. We’re taking baby steps, too, but we’re getting there.

What steps do you take to truly know the source of your food? What do you recommend for other people looking to educate themselves in food handling and appropriate animal raising?

Leave comments below and remember to follow us to get updates on our blog and/or meat processing that we do. Thanks for reading, everyone.

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The Hydroponic Garden

So, we have covered some baking, essential oils, kefir, and solar portions of our farm; we have not discussed our hydroponic garden. We do grow some produce traditionally in the dirt, but one of our biggest features on the farm is actually the hydroponic deck we have installed.

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For those of you new to hydroponics, the plants and produce are grown dirt free. The plants are grown in baskets filled with clay pebbles (the photo above is of zucchini, by the way). The roots are exposed to running water underneath the baskets. Many of our planting sites are inside a raised deck we installed. These plant sites often contain various tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and peppers. We have done broccoli, cauliflower, and different melons in the past.

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Other sites, like our green beans, are in smaller baskets. Instead of being in the actual deck, they are in vinyl fence posts.

Growing our produce hydroponically is how we got into being aware of where our food came from, around 8 years ago. My husband and I were in our first place, a duplex, and our son was only a few months old. We grew a few plants in a very small space hydroponically. We had various drip systems that started off looking very unorganized. Our set up has evolved quite nicely as we increased our space. We learned quite a bit from trial and error.

We have a reservoir that holds around 400 gallons of water, nutrients, and pump. Nutrients are checked often and adjustments are made as needed. Our reservoir is actually underground. We learned in the past that hot water can kill plants. At one place we lived, before moving out to the country, we had such a hot summer that our plants began to fail. We actually had to buy a water cooler for the reservoir. So, our reservoir is now underground to help regulate water temperature. It works and saves a lot of space.

The water that goes through the system is recycled and reused.

But now to the fun part… what we’re actually growing in our system.

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These are some of our tomatoes. The netting you see is for cucumbers. It is very gorgeous once the plants start climbing it.

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The left is spearmint and the right is lemon balm (with peppermint being squished in between). We use these very frequently in our still to make hydrosols and essential oils because they grow back quickly and smell amazing.

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This is our lavender. It’s the first we’ve grown successfully, I would like to add. It’s flourishing and smells amazing. We have a favorite buttermilk and lavender bread we use the leaves for (flowers too, if available). It also makes a calming tea.

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More tomatoes. Because tomatoes are great. We use tomatoes frequently raw, in cooking, spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, and salsa. We produced over 300 pounds of tomatoes a few years. That’s a lot of canning. The process is not my most favorite thing in the world, but I love food and the taste is worth the effort. We also try not to waste as much as possible. Canning helps in this task.

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We have been growing tomatoes for years and seeing the first fruit is just as exciting as the first time. We have this tradition/ritual, where we harvest the first ripened tomatoes of the season and feast upon tomato salads and sandwiches for dinner. I like to use mine on homemade dark rye bread.

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It’s no secret that my family and I adore salad. My seven and five-year old children love it. We all particularly like homemade Italian and ginger dressings. We have a large variety here. Our favorites are romaine, chard, spinach, kale, and arugula. We eat salad on a nearly nightly basis. I bring some into work and often use our own chicken eggs as my protein source (I have nothing against eating meat; I had a difficult time eating meat during my second pregnancy and I never fully recovered).

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Cucumbers are another favorite. Last year we did 52 quarts of pickles on top of the cucumbers we ate and shared with our animals.

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At the end of the season, when we clean our hydroponics up, we often drop seeds into the ground and we get nice little surprises like these under the deck (tomato and lettuce). One year, we fed tomatillos to our chickens. Well, we use their waste as fertilizer. We had a random tomatillo plant growing in our yard. Up front I even have some random lettuce growing from birds dropping seeds.

Does anyone else grow their produce hydroponically? We would love to hear your opinions and experiences!