Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why Organic Dairy Products Could Disappear

I have an organic farm. I have dairy goats on the farm whose milk I turn into cheese. It is getting harder and harder to purchase organic food for my goats. I grow my own grass hay but I purchase organic grains and alfalfa from other sources.  It is assumed all corn/soy feed that is conventional is now genetically engineered (GE). Even the organic corn and soy on the market is suspect of contamination since it is not tested for GE contamination. So I do not purchase the normal organic feeds that have corn and soy in them. However, most of the dairies are still buying it. Why is no one making sure only non-genetically modified food is fed to the organic dairies. Seems it is not being monitored. When I talk to the people who sell these foods they always tell me they can not guarantee the feed they sell is free of genetically modified corn or soy as they do not test. There are tests easily available to them but I am guessing they are not testing as they prefer to not know what they are selling people. I have had to purchase organic oats and barley for my animals rather that the preferred corn mixes that I use to buy. Additionally, now that there is unrestricted growth of genetically modified alfalfa, I have to be concerned about contamination of my organic alfalfa. If people like myself who have organic dairy animals can no longer purchase organic food for our animals, this would be an end to organic dairy farms and the organic dairy industry. No more organic milk, cheese, butter, yogurt or kefir.

How Can We Be Sure the Organic Animal Food We Purchase is GMO Free (What About Human Food Too?)

It turns out we can't. Being certified organic does not mean it is free of GM ingredients. This is because it is not tested for genetically modified DNA. I discussed this issue with TILTH as I thought they should be monitoring any organic crops in Oregon that could be potentially contaminated with genetically engineered dna by testing the farmers fields from time to time. It is not all that expensive for them to do if they use the "strip tests". PCR testing is more expensive, although also more sensitive. An example is testing for "Round Up Ready" corn, alfalfa and soy. They can purchase 100 test strips to test for "Round Up Ready" DNA for $340 dollars. This means they can test a field of corn, soy or alfalfa for contamination by the "Round Up Ready" genes at the cost of $3.40 per test. These tests will show "Round Up Ready" DNA if it is 5% or more. (By the way, you can purchase these tests also from Romer Labs.) When I asked TILTH why they are not testing, they told me the public has not asked them to test. They said if the public decides it is important, they will begin testing. So email and call TILTH and tell them you want them to start testing all organic crops with a GE counterpart for possible GMO contamination. Tell them you want them to do as good a job as the Non-GMO Project. This would include all organic corn, soy, sugar beets, canola and cotton seed oil. These should all be tested now.  

Tilth Offices: 

main officemidwestportland office
260 SW Madison Ave, Ste 106
Corvallis, OR  97333

Phone: 503-378-0690
Toll-free: 1-877-378-0690
Fax: 541-753-4924
Phone: 1-877-378-06901725 SE Tenino
Portland, OR 97202

Phone: 503-378-0690
Toll-free: 1-877-378-0690
Fax: 541-753-4924

Because Tilth has let us down by not testing for GMOs, there is a private certifying body called The Non-GMO Project. It does test and they use PCR testing which can detect very low levels of genetically modified material. Their seal on a food product ensures you that testing of the suspect ingredients has been undertaken. You can get more information on them and see what their symbol looks like by visiting their website. Look for their symbol on all processed food products. You want to see this symbol on even the organic foods that contain one of the foods that may be contaminated by GMO drift. These include any product with corn, soy, sugar beets, canola and cotton seed oil.

Organic farmers whose field is known to have been contaminated by GE seed or pollen can still sell their product as organic that year.
Organic farmers are not allowed to purchase or plant genetically engineered seed. However, if their crops are contaminated by a neighbor who is growing genetically engineered food or they are sold GE (genetically engineered) seed they thought was organic, the farmer can still sell their crop as organic (even if they find out it has been contaminated before going to market) as long as they can prove they did not knowingly plant genetically engineered seed. 

Organic and Conventional Farmers have no recourse if their organic food is contaminated by GE fields.
Not only do they have no recourse when their field is contaminated by their neighbors pollen, some of them have been sued by Monsanto for illegally planting GMO seed (They thought it was organic since it came from their organic plants that they did not know was contaminated.) and Monsanto has won! So far farmers who have had their conventional or organic crops contaminated by GE plants have not been able to even win court cases in the United States. Therefore, they are being protected by certifying bodies such as TILTh by at least allowing them to sell their contaminated food as organic. Otherwise they would go out of business and we could loose our organic growers. However, this does not protect the consumer. Something needs to be changed here. The farmer needs to be able to have laws that support organic farming and protect organic farmers from trespass of GE pollen on their crops. What do we do about the poor organic farmer or conventional farmer who's field gets contaminated by GMO pollen? The farm that contaminates their field should pay for trespass on their land. However, this is hard to prove. So, my solution is that the companies who grow and sell GMOs should create a fund that will compensate these farmers. The solution that the GMO farmers have put fourth is that the tax payer should pay for their trespass. We are already paying for them to grow GMO vegetables. Why not have tax payers also pay for the damage done by these growers when they grow GMOs? At least this is how they view it. (If this is the first you realized your taxes pay for GMOs to be grown, yes get mad about it. This is part of the farm bill. If you don't like it, tell your representative to make sure next years farm bill does not include payment for any GMO crops!)

Why is Alfalfa Important? Why should we be concerned about GMO? Alfalfa (harvested as hay) is used as high-protein feed for all of our dairy animals  and it is also used to build up nutrients in the soil, making it particularly important for organic farming. Additionally alfalfa in the form of pellets is sold for food to horses, rabbits and even gets included in cat and dog food. GE alfalfa could ruin export markets for both organic and conventional alfalfa products and threaten the future organic food and farming in the North America.

25% of the alfalfa seed grown in the United States , is being grown in Oregon near Milton Freewater by a company called Forage Genetics. Both the genetically modified alfalfa and the organic alfalfa are being grown in this same area. This concerns me. So, I checked around and found that the only way to assure yourself that your organic alfalfa seed is not being grown next to someone who is growing genetically modified seed is to get seed grown from Canada. So far they are not growing it there although this may change very soon. This is one Canadian Alfalfa seed company I have spoken with that supplies organic alfalfa seed and they are fighting GMO alfalfa in Canada. Their name is Interlake Forage Seeds. There is also an interesting company that has created corn (through natural selection) that is resistant to DNA contamination. Read more about it here.

I will be posting a blog about two GMO alfalfa bills that will make it illegal to grow GMO alfalfa in Oregon. When this blog comes out in the first of February make sure you read it and tell your representative you want them to support both of these bills. One will ban it forever and they other will ban it for 6 years. We want the one banning it forever to pass but have offered the  6 year ban as a compromise if necessary.

I just saw another article about issues in providing organic milk in the United States you should read called Running Out of Milk. Here is the link.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Drying & Storing Herbs

Drying & Storing Herbs

To maintain the potency of an herb it should be harvested, dried and stored appropriately. Here we will discuss drying and storing herbs. For information on harvesting, see the Harvesting/Wildcrafting blog. For specific information on harvesting roots go to the Harvesting of Medicinal Roots blog.

Choosing A Place to Dry Herbs
Herbs are best dried in a dark, dry area, free from insects and rodents, with heat and good airflow. The plants should be hung loosely to promote airflow around them or placed on screens or netting. The heat must not scorch the plants but must dry them quickly enough to maintain their vibrancy. The higher the humidity in the air, the more important it is to have a fan or another source of air flow.

Attics make a nice summer drying location. I have also used SW facing bedrooms with screened and open windows for airflow.  If you don’t have a space such as these to dry herbs, your car could become a drying area. You can hang a string across the back of the car from the clothing hooks above the doors. Leave the windows down for circulation if it is not humid outside. Either park in partial shade or  put up some sort of sun barrier to keep the direct sunlight from damaging your herbs or overheating them. If you have to drive somewhere, be sure to remove the herbs or leave space for you to see out the windows. Additionally, be careful about driving around with strong smelling plants. some plants high in volatile oils can effect your driving. I once drove home from the mountains with box loads of valerian in my car and could not stay awake. I had to pull over at a rest stop to snooze. Both my passenger and I were overcome by a sudden feeling of sleepiness and it was not until we both awoke from a nap that we realized how odd it was and that it had to be the valerian in the back of the car. We drove the rest of the way home with all the windows down and we were able to stay awake.

In the winter I dry roots by my wood stove or use a food dryer.

Drying Outside
Be careful to protect them from light, insects and night moisture if drying the plants outside. I have a breezeway area that I hang some herbs in to dry. They are protected here from moisture by having a roof over them and it is in a breezy area so they dry quicker with the air movement.  Putting them in an area with a roof over them is helpful to keep the dew off off in the morning as well as protecting them from rain. Even the canopy of a tree can help with this.  If you just lay them out on a sheet under the sky and you have dew in the AM, they will be wet and you may end up with moldy herbs in the end. If you have heavy fog in the area, even a roofed area may not be protective enough.

Aerial Herb Parts
When you collect the aerial parts still on the stem of the plant, you can dry the plant in small bunches. Simply make small bunches that allow good air circulation to all the plants. I usually tie them up with string but you can use rubber bands, twist ties, wire or whatever you have as long as it is clean. Hang them out of direct sunlight in a warm room with good air circulation as mentioned above.

When you collect roots, you first need to clean them up. Wash off the soil with cool water and remove rocks and other debris on them. Generally, they will need to be cut into smaller pieces to dry well. How small you need to cut them depends on a few factors. If the root is easy to crush or cut up after drying I only need to cut it small enough to dry quickly. However, if a root is stone hard once it dries, I have to cut it to the size I need while it is still fresh. The ultimate use of the root is another factor in how small I cut the roots. Lastly, how difficult it is to dry is another factor. A nutritious root like Comfrey tends to grow mold on it if it is not cut thinly or small and dried quickly.  With Valerian root, I just chunk up the upper part and don't worry about the small roots. They are thin and dry quickly in my food dryer or by my wood stove.

Roots can be dried on screens, in baskets, or any method that allows airflow around them.  Since you are harvesting roots in the winter, if you have a wood stove going, they provide great heat for drying the herbs. A small fan can also be used that will not only help dry the roots but will send the woodstove heat and the great smell of the herbs throughout the room.

Seeds are usually dried on the plant and do not need much drying after harvest. They are simply harvested at maturity on a day when they are not moist. If you live in a humid environment like mine you will have to let them sit out in a dry, warm area for a week minimum to dry a bit extra. If in doubt, simply let them dry a week or so to be sure they will not grow mold on them.

When drying flowers they are usually dried on a screen or basket. Make sure there is only one layer of them and that the air can get around most of the flowers so they will dry quickly.

When drying fruits such as hawthorne, I have an extra step I take. I harvest them after the first frost to kill any bug eggs as the bugs love hawthorne.  Next, I dry the small fruit on a screen.  I will additionally put them in the freezer for a week. Make sure the dry fruit is in an air tight container. This will kill off any bug eggs that might still be viable in the fruit. This is a method used by organic growers often. When you purchase such items from a conventional grower they may have used an insecticide to do the same thing. So be aware to always buy organic or carefully wildcrafted if you do not grow or wildcraft your own.

Once the herbs are dried, store them in a cool, dry, dark location in airtight containers. If the storage area has light, the containers must be opaque. Ultra-violet light, air and heat are the agents that degrade the herbs. I tend to use a lot of canning jars in sizes of 16 oz, 32 oz, 64 oz and 1 gallon. Any air tight, preferably glass container will work. Vacuum sealers will give you added shelf life. Most of the vacuum sealers on the market will not only draw air out of plastic bags but also out of canning jars. Any jar that takes a “large mouthed” canning lid can be used with these vacuum sealers. Check your vacuum sealer’s directions to see if yours will do this.

Label the containers with the name and the date harvested. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you will recognize all your herbs later as you may not. This is especially true if you are new to collecting herbs.

How To Store Different Parts of Herbs

Aerial Parts

These can be stored on their stalks or if the stalk is not necessary, the leafy parts can be removed from the stalks and this will save on storage space. Try not to break the leaves up much as they will last in storage longer if they are not broken up.

Roots will last longer if stored in their whole form.You may have had to cut them up small if they are a root that is terriibly hard when dried. That is okay. These really hard, dense roots will keep okay even after cutting them up small. Their densisty will protect them from degradation. However, I suggest checking on them in a year to make sure they are still useful.

Seeds are easy. They are usually stored whole. It is usually best to take them out of the pods if you dried them in the pods. Taking them out of the pods makes sure there are no bugs hiding inside the pod. Additionally, some pods will draw moisture into the pod and cause the seed to mold. It also takes more storage space to store the seed inside a pod.

Flowers are usually best kept in their whole form and broken up when you go to use them. They are easily damaged, so handle them carefully.

Depending on the size of the fruit, you will have dried it whole or cut it up into smaller pieces. What ever size it has been dried in will be find for storage. Do not cut them smaller until you plan to use the fruits. Some fruits will be so hard when you go to make a tea or tincture out of them that you will need to let them soack in the menstruum or tea water before breaking them up.

How Long Do The Herbs Last?
When stored carefully flowers and leaves maintain their medicinal properties for about one year. Many roots will last 2 years. Bark may last from 2-3 years. Seeds are best used within one year. This is just a general rule of thumb. How well you dried and stored your herb will change the length of time it will still be vibrant and useful. You will need to use your own senses to decide when an herb is no longer potent. If you dry the herb perfectly and store it in an air tight container with no moisture,  no light and at 40-50 degrees all year long you will exceed these storage times by leaps and bounds.

How Do you Know if the Herb is Still Potent?
The best method for most folk herbalists to use in deciding the potency of an herb is the organoleptic method. This is the art of using natural senses to discern the quality of a particular herb. Quality can be ascertained through aroma, sight and tactile sensations. Each herb should have a strong odor and vibrant coloration unique to itself. This is something you learn over time. It helps to spend some time with a seasoned herbalist to learn this technique quicker.

For More Information On How to Dry and Store Herbs
Join Dr. Tilgner’s class "Becoming An Herbalist" for in-depth information and experience. 

To Find Them Any Fresher You Would Have To Grow

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Balance Point

I was recently given a book called Balance Point by Joseph Jenkins. It was sent as a gift along with a composting toilet system I had purchased.  I thought I would start the new year off by sharing this book with you. It is a fun to read book with a great message. It is the story of one mans path that leads him to an understanding of the imminent ecological collapse in front of us if our society continues to act as parasites upon the planet rather than learning to live in sustainable coexistence. 

Many of the events which were mind altering, new ideas for the writer at the time it was written in 2000, may be ideas you and I already understand today in 2013. Still, I immensely enjoyed reading the book and would advise you to get it if not for yourself, then family and friends.  It is a fun, quick read and I realized I had a little gold mine in my hands as I finished it. I thought of all the family members, and neighbors I know who don't understand what is taking place on the planet and I realized this book would be a perfect way to introduce them to concepts that are foreign to some of them. Concepts that we all need to understand before any real change will take place.

My favorite way to give people insightful, mind altering books who are neighbors or acquaintances is to mail it to them or leave it in their mail box with no notes attached. Some of these folks have mentioned books given to them in conversations. I always let it remain a mystery as to where the book came from. Somehow the magic of the book appearing in their life seems significant to them and I delight in being a secret part of their experience. Please feel free to copy my method of dispersing books. It is a very enjoyable method of giving gifts out.

You can purchase this book  directly from the author at his site where he also provides directions on how to make a humanure composting toilet as well as sells them. That site is here.