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Effects of USDA Organic-Certification Fee-Reimbursement Program

Okay, this paper is a little dry—but it explores the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the federal organic-certification program.

In order to reduce the impact of organic certification fees on small farming operations in the United States, Congress has authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to offer the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs, which comprises the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) and the Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Organic Certification Cost Share Program (USDA, 2014a). The former program’s funds are distributed to all U.S. states and territories, and the latter’s funds target sixteen states. The increased budget for organic certification fees will support sustainability in some ways, hinder it in others, and have a marginal effect on food security and social justice.

This incentive program covers up to 75 percent of a farmer’s organic certification fees (to a maximum of $750). In 2014, the USDA announced that the amount of money available to offset organic-certification fees for beginning organic farmers had doubled the amount assigned in the 2008 Farm Bill, to approximately $13 million (USDA, 2014b). Of that amount, $11.5 million will be allocated via the NOCCSP and the remainder will be allocated via the AMA program. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has endorsed this increase, finding the program “essential in helping farmers, especially small and mid-scale farms, become organic operations and maintain their organic status” (NSAC, 2014b).


Defining “Sustainable”

In order to interpret the ability of this program to promote or hinder sustainability, the term should be defined (as is possible). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a sustainable entity as one that “creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations” (n.d.). Some of the ways an organic farm may be environmentally sustainable include using few or no herbicides and pesticides, transporting produce a short distance to market, and integrating agriculture with livestock. However, “organic” doesn’t guarantee “sustainable.” The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture notes that “organic practices may conflict with sustainability goals in certain situations” (2009). The institute doesn’t indicate any of those situations.

Promoting Sustainable Business

By encouraging more people who are interested in organic farming to pursue it, the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs promotes sustainable business—insofar as a small organic farm can be considered sustainable as per the preceding section. The USDA finds its program to have “helped increase the number of farmers markets nationwide to over 8,100, a 74 percent increase since 2008” (Vilsack, 2014). Eighty-three percent of small-acreage farms (10 or fewer acres) gross $10,000 or less, so this program will make a difference to those farmers (Newton, 2014).

To some degree, this program might encourage existing farmers to switch to organic farming; however, because of the $750 dollar limit, this would only be useful to farms with gross incomes of approximately $100,000 or less (Oregon Tilth, 2014).

Hindering Sustainable Business

Considering the above income figure of $100,000, it can be said that the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs hinder sustainable business, as the USDA estimates that a farm needs to generate $100,000 of annual sales to be solvent (Newton, 2014), and therefore this cost-share is ineffectual to an economically sustainable business.

Organic certification can be cost-prohibitive for beginning farmers; approximately $700 the first year, with more for inspections (Oregon Tilth, 2014). While the NOCCSP can help farmers, the funds only cover 75 percent of the total fee. This can create a hardship for small farmers.

After the first year, the certification base fee rises in accordance with a farm’s gross income, but not in an equitable manner. If comparing the base fee to income, one sees that the more money a farm makes, the lower a percentage of their income the fee represents—ranging from 6 percent at the low end of the income scale to 0.5 percent at the high end (See Table 1).

Table 1

Oregon Tilth Base Fees, Ratio of Fee-to-Income

Gross Income Base Fee Percentage of Income
(calculated using maximum income in range)
$0 – $4,999 $299 6%
$15,000 – $24,999 $431 2%
$150,000 – $174,999 $1,339 0.7%
$400,000 – $499,999 $2,500 0.5%

Source: Oregon Tilth. (2014, May 1). Oregon Tilth Certified Organic Fee Schedule. Retrieved from http://tilth.org/files/certification/OTCOFeeSchedule.pdf

The NOCCSP, which is responsible for allocating the bulk of the 2014 fee-reimbursement budget, distributes funds to different states and territories in vastly different amounts—for example, Mississippi will receive $5,000, Wisconsin will receive $1,032,200, and California will receive more than $2 million (USDA, 2014c). The AMA funds target sixteen specific states, so most states will receive none of this program’s funding. These disparities may result in encouraging organic farming in some states while discouraging it in others.

Program Impact on Food Security and Social Justice

The NOCCSP does little to specifically affect food security or social justice, other than to promote a few small organic farms. Those farms are most likely to sell their produce at a farmers’ market or a CSA, both of which might be set up to accept SNAP—but SNAP is underutilized at such outlets (Athens et al., 2013).

The USDA as a whole understands, at least on paper, the demographic situation facing agriculture in this country, noting that new agricultural producers may come from farming backgrounds or be new to agriculture; they may be college graduates coming home to farm with their families, veterans, second career seekers, immigrants and people from all ethnic backgrounds. Tomorrow’s producers will be representative of America’s diverse heritage and population (Vilsack, 2014).

However, the USDA’s true commitment to women, minority, and other disadvantaged potential farmers is better revealed by its funding of the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers. NSAC notes that this program, “funded at $20 million per year in the last farm bill, has provided only half that amount in this year’s bill—despite the new farm bill’s expansion of the program to also provide outreach to military veteran farmers” (NSAC, 2014a). So, unless a socially disadvantaged farmer is also a veteran, they have much less chance of being reached by this program. Additionally, funding for this program was suspended in 2013 while the terms of the 2012 Farm Bill were being negotiated. So, including backlog, there will be more demand for a program with a wider scope and less money (NSAC, 2014c).

Organic farms require more hand labor, with weeding and picking of specialty crops. The Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program has no mission to improve the working conditions of farm workers, nor does the Farm Bill as a whole (Furgurson, 2012; Lilliston, 2014). The NOCCSP supports small farmers but doesn’t have much affect on larger problems, such as the environmental sustainability of large farms, social justice for farm workers, or food security for low-income eaters.

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Hiking in Hunting Season

As readers of Get Your Pitchfork On! know, my opinion of hunting has changed since I was twelve years old. If an animal is being killed for sustenance (not a trophy), I think it’s a reasonable activity. Still, as someone who likes to walk in the same natural areas as the hunters, it’s a source of anxiety.

I spent my first year of college in the north woods of Minnesota, at a German-immersion extension of Concordia College (this is a story unto itself). The orientation instructions I received in August advised me to pack an orange or red hat for hikes in the woods. My suburban mall-girl, lake-path-walking mind reeled. I could get shot? On a hike?

Since then I have, of course, been on lots of hikes wearing blaze orange. When Mike and I had our re-grouping period in Portland and I had to buy a rain jacket for bicycle commuting, I chose a bright orange one in hopes that I would soon need it for autumn hikes in the country.

And, here we are.

Even the dogs have gotten in on the act!

Even the dogs have gotten in on the act!

One afternoon in late September, an SUV pulled into our driveway. I went out to see who it was. A 30-ish man got out of his truck, gave me a nod and said, “Ma’am, I would like to request permission to hunt on your land on the deer opener, which is Saturday, October Fourth.” Must have been ex-military.

I explained that we didn’t own the land, and our parcel doesn’t go up into the trees, anyway.

“There are an awful lot of houses around here, to be shooting a rifle,” I said. He nodded again and politely took his leave.

After a while, I felt like maybe I was overstating my case. I mean, yes, the woods backs up to the farmed acreage that surrounds our house. But, was it really possible to be hit by a stray bullet?

A few days ago, I had my answer. Mike returned from a walk with the dogs, carrying an arrow. It had been stuck in the ground at an angle. Sailed downhill from the woods above us. A bad shot? Can one accidentally discharge a compound bow? We’ll never know how it got there, but it got there.

That looks sharp

That looks sharp

The chance that Mike or I or one of the dogs would have been standing in that very spot at that very moment is remote. This incident won’t keep me from walking our field, nor does it change my view about hunting. But—be careful out there, friends.

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Guest Post: Canning’s Great Comeback

During my 2012 book tour for Get Your Pitchfork On!, Process Media then-publicity maven Carrie Schaff set me up with a contact in Wisconsin. I was super-excited to go to Milwaukee because 1.) I attended first grade at General Mitchell Elementary, south of town, and 2.) Supper clubs. Have I written about supper clubs? I really need to. This blog post is the closest I’ve come. Anyway, I didn’t know my hostess from Eve, but I figured someone 1.) from Milwaukee 2.) who’s a friend of my publisher has got to be cool.

“Cool” does not begin to describe Christina Ward. This braided-hair badass babe set me up for my reading in a cozy bar that was at once retro and modern, and then brought me to her favorite supper club, The Packing House.

The best we could do ... me in front of The Packing House

The best we could do … me in front of The Packing House

Christina is an artist and all-around domestic goddess. She is a bona fide Master Canner (ahem, Food Preserver) in the State of Wisconsin. So we should all thank our lucky stars that she agreed to wrote a guest post! About canning, of course!

Canning’s Great Comeback

By Christina Ward

Part I: History of Food Preservation in America

Before the advent of pumpkin-spice everything, fall was about harvesting and storing the results of hard-won gardening. There are many types of food preservation, but canning is on the comeback and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

See, I’m the Master Food Preserver for my county. (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin).  Aside from the ridiculous title, I actually serve as the resident expert on all things food preservation. Your jelly won’t set? Yup, I get that call. Your pickles are soggy? I can help. Your friend’s aunt who told you about her cousin’s sister-in-law who lost an eye using a pressure canner? I can dispel your fears and tell you the exactly correct way to operate one. (Hint: Think of it as a tool; just like with a hammer, if you do it wrong you’ll do damage.)

The Master Food Preserver is part of the larger university-extension programs, which are vestiges from our Land-Grant Universities. (Thank you, Congressman Morrill of Vermont.) Passed in 1862, the Morrill Act designated newly stolen Native American lands to be sold for the purpose of funding educational institutions focused on Engineering and Agriculture. One of the goals of these new universities was to serve as an incubator for ideas and training for the westward expansion, and to teach migrating farmers the latest and greatest Ag science practices. As well as use those actual farmers as living laboratories.

Wisconsin led the nation in both Ag research and working with farmers and their families. The Wisconsin-Extension program was formally introduced in 1907 and became a model for the rest of the country.  The Extension trained people in their communities on the best practices for growing, seed selection, animal husbandry, stock selection and nutrition, slaughter, as well as home services, like safe food-preservation techniques.  These folks would be chosen for their knowledge, standing in the community, and commitment to volunteerism. And that holds true to this day.

As counties grew more urban and away from rural traditions, so did the Master Food Preserver program. In 2009, I realized that Milwaukee County was on the bleeding edge of the Urban Agriculture and would be well served by bringing the program back. After all, if you’re going to install 500 Victory Gardens in a single May weekend, someone better teach people what to do with all those damn tomatoes.

I begged, pleaded, and cajoled the State of Wisconsin until they agreed with me.

Since January of 2011, more than 2,000 people have taken one of my classes on safe food preservation. Ten of them have gone on to start their own food micro-businesses. And, knock wood, not a single person has given themselves or their families botulism.

So, not sure if you’re canning it the right way? Contact your local University Extension office and ask them to hook you up with the local Master Food Preserver. The MFP may tell you that “You’re doing it all wrong.” If so, listen; they’re trying to keep you alive.

Part II: Reinventing the Wheel

As the “foodie” movement grows, there are now scammy practices I never would have thought of that have become detrimental issues for folks interested in food.

Who would have guessed that ten years ago farmer’s markets would become so chic that local farmers are being pushed out by Big Ag disguising itself. It’s gotten so bad that California passed a law verifying origin of produce at farmer’s markets. Here in Wisconsin, there’s a locally famous “genius” farmer who has his volunteers unpack the Sysco truck then relabel it as from his farm.

I’m seeing it in my little corner of the food world too. Food preservation in and of itself is relatively simple, once you understand the basic concepts and science of why it works. Canning is more putzy than anything else; lots of chopping. It’s often why many people have negative images associated with canning. ‘Cuz gramma was no dummy and made the kids help with all the grunt work. And that’s what folks remember. Hours of cleaning strawberries. Hours of blanching tomatoes. Hours of washing cucumbers.

The honchos at Jarden Brands (the makers of Ball and Kerr canning supplies*) have seen your Pinterest pages. They know that canning is on the upswing. They are also smart marketers. They know that at our core essence of being, we are lazy.

In the past few years, they have gone R&D cuckoo coming up with products no one needs to make canning “easier.” The Automatic Jam Maker, the Freshtech Home Canning System … have you seen this one? It’s the equivalent of a bread-maker for jam … you throw everything in the pot, push the button that says “strawberry,” and whammo, jam. And it’s only $299.95. (By the way, you still have to wash, hull, and cut those damned strawberries.)

What else? Oh there’s the Sure-Tight Band Tool to help you get your bands screwed on. Really? You need help with screwing on a band? Okay, pay them $9.99.  I could go on about the frivolity and excesses of Jarden, but they’re not alone. Kraft (maker of Sure Jell) is getting in on the act.

This past summer Kraft caused a huge kerfuffle in the canning community. For the sake of making it “easier,” they changed and “simplified” the directions included in all their packages. That simplification in combination with a colossal snafu (they mixed up the preparation directions for cooked versus freezer jam), caused jelly-makers across the country to have conniptions. Heck, I’m the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, MFP and I was fielding distress calls from Arkansas and Oklahoma.

And now Jarden is at it again. They’ve decided that you no longer have to “boil lids.” Sigh. Um, yeah, you do. But even saying that is a misnomer. You never did boil them; you’re supposed to soak them in very hot water (preferably taken from your canner) for a few minutes to soften the rubber.

Why? They’re claiming it’s not needed. Truth is, they’re using less rubber on the lids. They’re afraid if you take “boil lids” to heart that you’ll boil the rubber right off. I can tell you that the quality of the 2014 lids has been far below that of previous years. And that’s not just me saying that. We MFPs around the country, we talk to each other. We recognize trends and are the first to hear when something goes hinky.

These are specific examples of issues in the New Food movement I never thought I would see. Staid and boring food preservation is enjoying its moment in the spotlight. From every farm to table restaurant serving “haus-pickled vegetables” to bars concocting drinks with home-preserved syrups; every Tom, Dick, and Mary is putting it in a freaking mason jar. What’s the pH? Do they even know why a food needs to be acidified? And if I even see another jar of Bacon Jam on a shelf I’m going to poke someone with a sharp stick.

Really, I’m all for more people canning—in fact, it’s my mission. BUT, and my but is very large here, BUT trends should never trump safety. And safe food comes only from using safe food-preservation techniques. No short cuts. No gadgets. No making it up as you go along.

Have your read Wisconsin Death Trips? It holds a special place in my heart as it was primarily culled from my gramma’s homestead area of Jackson & Clark counties. People starved to death if they didn’t preserve enough food to get them through the winter. They resorted to boiling shoes and killing pets to survive. And even if they put up enough food, germ theory was still not fully understood and the techniques so primitive, they were often taking a chance on poisoning themselves.

Christina Ward "in the act of mixing some macerating fruit while talking to my buddy"

Christina Ward “in the act of mixing some macerating fruit while talking to my buddy”

Here’s the rule I begin every single class with: If you’re going to poison someone; do it on purpose and not accidentally. In case you think botulism is a rare bird; oh no. It, too, is making a comeback. Bad beets in Georgia. Bad pickles in Oregon. Bad elk in Washington. And saddest of all, three people died in 2012 in Vancouver from botulism-tainted watermelon jelly.

These shortcuts, these “time-saving devices,” these on-trend makers, only divorce you from the origins of the food you eat. Food is not easy. It takes time, skill, and labor to grow, to prepare, and to preserve. We do ourselves a great disservice by relying on a Thing versus relying on ourselves. And if you don’t want to grow, make, or preserve it yourself, find someone who does and support them.

If you’re in the mood to scare yourself food-safe, here’s my favorite food safety blog: http://www.barfblog.

*NOTE: Jarden Brands owns both the Ball and Kerr brands. They’re made in the same factory in Muncie, Indiana … so don’t pay more for the Kerr-branded stuff.

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GMOs: To Label or Not to Label

During the “Food Policy and Law” course that I took this summer, students were asked to write about the recent GMO-labeling ballot measures in California and Washington, which failed, as well as the laws that were passed by state legislators in Connecticut and Vermont. We were asked to compare and contrast the measures and indicate which is the better law and why. I’m posting my response in case it’s helpful to anyone in Oregon who is considering their vote in the upcoming election for a similar law. Please note I am not advocating for a particular vote!

One consideration I would add to what I wrote this summer is that a good share of the GMO products grown in the United States are not for human consumption–most corn is for fuel or animal feed; cotton is, obviously, for textiles. On the other hand, if you’re eating something non-organic with added sugar (i.e. nearly any processed food), soy, or canola oil, you can assume it’s GMO.

It’s difficult to compare VT/CT and WA/CA for two reasons: 1) Their agriculture economies are tiny vs. ginormous, respectively. 2) The former were legislative acts, and the latter were popular referenda. They have similar motives but very different implications.

In any case, the measures were all written similarly, with exemptions for alcohol, animals (via meat and milk) that are fed GMOs but not directly modified themselves, restaurant food, and certified organic food. All of the proposed measures use as their basis a “right to know” tack; that is, consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, similar to the nutrition labeling that was promoted in the 1995 USDA video. There are all kinds of irony in this, as consumers also generally don’t understand how genetic engineering works nor how it compares to traditional cross-breeding (they are not the “sophisticated crowd” which Nina Federoff was addressing [2006]). The label would simply identify specific processed foods that contain some amount of ingredient that was a GMO.

Instead of seeking more information about GMOs, people operate under fear and perception of potential harm. At the same time, the companies that own GMO patents operate under secrecy and contempt for consumer concerns, and have prevailed (many claim) in these ballot measures due to outspending the pro-labeling efforts by remarkable margins—five times more in California (Voter’s Edge, 2012) and 2.6 times more in Washington State (BallotPedia, 2014).

An interesting difference in the laws is the market each state reaches: California sells primarily within the United States, providing nearly half the country’s produce (California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, 2014); Washington exports most of its ag products to Asia (Washington State Dept. of Agriculture, 2014); Vermont has little agriculture outside of forestry and dairy products (Jeffords, 2010, p.5). So each has different motivations and nuances within their laws. The American Council on Science and Health notes the reason for Connecticut’s condition on its law (that it won’t go into effect until a critical mass of neighbors have also passed such a law) is to ensure at least a regional market for labeled goods (2013). I’m guessing they are also trying to avoid the lawsuits that Vermont seems to be welcoming.

Unfortunately, all of these laws miss the actual problems of genetic engineering: corporate proprietary control of the world’s food supply, and overuse of herbicides, which the corporations also own and sell to farmers. Many commodity farmers are basically lessors of their own operations, as they work under contract with seed/herbicide companies that dictate when and how much chemical to apply to their fields (CitizenWorks, n.d.). I find the crime in livestock-raising to be confined animal feed operations (CAFOs), not whether the animals are eating GMO feed. Because of this, I don’t feel that any of the laws is the better one. I feel they all, while well intentioned, miss the mark.

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Guest Post: Animal Arbitrators

I met Linda Jo Hunter at the home of friends Jurgen and Susan Hess. She wowed me with her tales of tracking bear, cougars, and other critters in the woods that surrounded us in the Columbia River Gorge. We got to know each other as Linda participated in, and later coordinated, the Plein Air Writing Exhibition. She is the author of Lonesome for Bears and has started a volunteer group to help landowners coexist with wild animals on their country property. She can be reached by email or on the Animal Arbitrators Facebook page.

Animal Arbitrators: Co-Existence Counseling

By Linda Jo Hunter

“Not under my porch!”

The lady was adamant that a skunk may not raise her young under the front porch of her house. She wanted the skunks killed, or maybe moved, but someone had to do something!

I watched the woman’s body language as she talked about her garden and house. She felt murderous and protective of all she felt was her own. While I listened, I noticed a small dish of leftover cat food by her left foot that had attracted several yellow jackets. As we talked the number of yellow jackets increased, each carrying away a little morsel of the leftovers and heading towards the woman’s garden.

I was trying to get to the bottom of why she hated skunks so much. There wasn’t a reason she could put her finger on, except that she objected to the smell of skunk and felt that if there were skunks under her porch that her whole house would be permeated with the smell of skunk spray. No, she didn’t have a dog. She had no cats either. But, she was feeding some in the neighborhood.

This is where my job starts. I pointed out that she was undoubtedly also feeding the mother skunk right there on her porch as well as several raccoons, whose tracks around the bowl were outlined in mud. My first suggestion was that she move the food, or at least take it indoors at night. Then we talked about skunks and I told her how they don’t want or intend to spray things but only do so when threatened. I described the body language that skunks use to warn that they are upset. They stomp their front paws and eventually, if you don’t get that message, they continue looking at you while their body makes a U-shape and the back end comes around to aim the spray.

Linda snapped this skunk using a trail camera near her home

Linda snapped this skunk using a trail camera near her home

When I mentioned that they eat yellow jacket nests she finally got interested. We found some chicken fencing in her shed and tacked it up to the edge of the porch to keep the animals out and she voluntarily moved her stray cat food bowl over in front of the shed. By the time I left, she hoped the mother skunk would move her family over to the shed and stay around.

When I visited her the next season, she was happily tolerating a family of skunks which she proudly pointed out had eliminated several pests in her yard, including yellow jackets. “Her” skunk had also sprayed a neighborhood dog, which left piles of unwanted poop in her garden. She was pleased as punch that the dog never came in her yard again.

Co-existing with wild animals is usually a matter of figuring out what exactly is going on in your personal habitat, rather than relying on what people have told you all your life. Any wild animal, no matter how cute or ugly has a place in the habitat or they wouldn’t exist or be there. Each time you make a change to your garden or grounds, you make changes in the habitat that affect these animals. Being aware of what eats what is one of the best ways not to make a mistake that will make you and all the animals uncomfortable.

For instance, if everyone in your neighborhood is insistent on killing coyotes because of something they “might” do, you could very likely have a problem with rabbits, mice, rats and ticks and other species too numerous to name. Ticks have an interesting reproduction cycle and must find a furry animal to hibernate on in order to multiply. The perfect candidates are in the squirrel family as well as other small mammals that coyotes control.

Oh, I can already hear the groans; “but they eat dogs and cats!” Yes, they do sometimes. However, so do owls, bobcats and other animals. Even domestic dogs kill pet kitties and cause mayhem that their wild buddies get blamed for. Some cats live for years around every kind of wild animal and have the wisdom to survive. Domestic dogs either have wild wisdom or they don’t. You know best about your pet; if it lacks the wisdom to survive in the face of wild animals it needs to be protected and supervised when outdoors.

Coyotes get a bad reputation for eating the occasional kitty, but mostly they catch mice and other pests

Coyote that caught a mouse

Coexisting with wildlife can enrich your life. The bottom line is, that is why you moved to the country to begin with. The deer who grace your neighborhood in the evening come with their predators, which are just as necessary as the deer. Seeing a cougar, for instance, is not a life-threatening event, but rather a gift and a wonderfully wild experience. Cougars have a job to do and if they can freely move with their food they will do that job.

One of the best ways to enjoy your habitat is to be more aware of the animals that visit, pass through, or make it their territory and how you can assist that animal to fulfill its function. To that end, I teach people how to see animal passages and set up trail cameras so they can see what uses different parts of their land. Changing unwanted wild animal behavior can be as easy as moving an access site or moving a food source as long as you understand what it is. If a bear, for instance, has always visited a wild apple tree in your pasture, year after year, and suddenly that tree is fenced in, the bear will become a pest when it breaks down the fence. Instead, when the apples fall on the ground and the smell of apples gets strong, you can take a bushel basket and move the unwanted fruit over the fence, set up a trail camera and enjoy the results.

Fear of wild animals is something we all grew up with or, if we didn’t, various news media will make sure you pick up some fear, even if it isn’t rational or real. If you are afraid of a particular animal, say rattlesnakes, that is the animal you need to study. If you learn about their lives, and how they use and benefit your habitat you won’t have a reason to fear them because you won’t go stepping on one.

Bears seem to generate the most fear, although statistically they are the very least of our worries when it comes to being hurt by wildlife. Understanding the habits of your neighborhood bears is fascinating. First, they eat different things in each part of the season and if you find out what those things are in your area, it is a huge step in understanding the local natural history. Cubs learn what and when to eat by following their mothers closely for a year and a half. They lick their mother’s mouth when she eats something new to make sure they get the right things, and they remember even individual plants from one year to the next. Slowly, the news media is allowing us to know that bears are not meat-hungry predators that will eat a person if they find them out alone. Bears are mostly vegetarian and prefer their meat to be killed by some other animal—they like it aged. It seems like when they kill an animal to eat it, it is almost because of an unusual opportunity.

If you still don’t like the idea of a bear eating on your property, just remember that bears avoid skunks!

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Friends with Animals

Living in the country not only gives you access to open spaces, quiet roads, and friendly folks. It also gives you access to the friendly folks’ livestock!

This spring, my friends Carolyn and Eric invited Mike and me over to see their new babies. They raise Lusitano horses, a Portuguese breed. Beautiful animals. We got the full tour—the nursery, the geriatric pasture, the young females’ and males’ separate quarters.

Baby's first hay

Baby’s first hay

This suave dude reminds me of Robert Plant

This suave dude reminds me of Robert Plant

Around the same time, we were invited over to our friend Nancy’s house to see her baby goats. We didn’t make it there until a week ago, but they were still fun to hang around with! Nancy also gave us a tour of her incredible outbuildings—an old granary that will someday soon be the most spectacular guesthouse in Wallowa County, and a heritage barn. We climbed the stairs to the second level and startled a gorgeous, snowy-white barn owl from her roost. She glided silently overhead, and was gone.

Sweet goat that tried to eat the zipper-pull on my jacket

Sweet goat that tried to eat the zipper-pull on my jacket

Nancy and Mike contemplate the hay loft

Nancy and Mike contemplate the hay loft


Early September boasts Mule Days in Enterprise, which includes a completely non-motorized parade. Mules of every shape and description pull wagons and haul packs down the streets of the town. But the star of the show has to be the oxen pair brought by “Bushwacker Sue.” Their trailer rivals that of any successful touring band’s.

Look at this big guy!

Look at this big guy!

Okay, okay, so Bushwacker Sue is not technically my friend. However, she did chat us up about her gentle giants. I know I shouldn’t view my agriculture-centric county as one big petting zoo, but it sure is fun to live in close proximity to so many animals.

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Apple Ball

How do you relieve stress: Massage? Herbal tea? Video games? How about smashing rotten apples?

My friends Ed and Devon live in the Oak Grove area of Portland—Milwaukie, actually—in a neighborhood near the Willamette River that boasts extra-large house lots and mature trees. Many of those trees are oaks, giving the neighborhood its name, most are pines, and many are neglected apple trees. Because these trees were left to run amok for decades, and haven’t been pruned or culled, their fruits are scrawny and wormy. While these apples do not lend themselves to fresh-eating, they still serve a very important purpose.

In 2009, Mike and I were invited to a Labor Day party at the house in Oak Grove. “Apple Ball” they were calling the party. Intrigued, we showed up with some beer and snacks.

Those of you who are up on your Get Your Pitchfork On! chronology know that 2009 is the year we sold our land in the Gorge. The sale closed at the end of July. It’s safe to say that on Labor Day we were pretty stressed out.

We walked around our friends’ house to the backyard, where we could hear everyone congregated. In addition to the usual murmur of voices and music, I kept hearing a high, metallic tink! sound. As we rounded the corner, a smile lit up my face. Our friend Ed was pitching rotten apples to one of his neighbors, who obliterated each one with an aluminum baseball bat. I couldn’t wait to get in on this!

Once it was my turn, I picked up the bat and faced Ed. He pitched an apple, and tink! it exploded, and then rained apple-shrapnel on us and anyone who had ventured too close. This was great! This was cathartic! This was exactly what I needed!

2009: Action shot!

2009: Action shot! Please note flying debris in upper-right corner of photo

The following Labor Day was the same story. More rotten apples. More silly giggles.

2010: Apparently, I was still using “tutu therapy” (https://getyourpitchforkon.wordpress.com/?s=tutu)

2010: Apparently, I was still using “tutu therapy” (https://getyourpitchforkon.wordpress.com/?s=tutu)

Last year, Ed and Devon understandably decided to take a break from throwing this huge party. I was sad to lose my opportunity to take out some aggression on unsuspecting apples, but we were preparing to move to Wallowa County, and I was in the middle of a yard sale.

Throughout the month of August this year, at our house in Enterprise, I have been dealing with windfall apples from two trees in our backyard. I’ve gotten a few crisps and a batch of applesauce out of the deal, and also buckets of windfalls too damaged to salvage for food.

And then, Ed came for a visit. We have a wooden bat, which makes a duller sound, but it did the trick.

Look at that form!

Look at that form!

I know that a lot of people enjoy Apple Ball, but I’m pretty sure no one enjoys it as much as Ed or I. I submit this video as evidence.

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Converting a Conventional Farm to Organic

Here is another of my research papers from my Food Policy and Law course that I took this summer. The assignment was to consider a hypothetical conventional farm and calculate the costs and considerations for converting to a certified organic farm. My scenario is not particularly realistic, but it gets the job done …

Carol and Ron Hinckel, the owners of a conventional 50-acre wheat farm in Damascus, Oregon, want to convert their acreage to USDA-certified 100-percent organic asparagus. They plan to sell this crop at the Portland Farmers Market, which takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays in downtown Portland, 19 miles away. The Hinckels are looking for a seasonal, low-maintenance, high-premium crop that will allow them to spend much of the year traveling to visit grandchildren. Because Carol worked for city government for 25 years, she has a pension, and they have saved enough money to cover the three-year transition period that is required of farmers converting a conventional field into an organic one. They have considered the changes they need to make that will affect the land and their business.

Changes to Their Land

The Hinckels’ soil is volcanic and heavy, and has been planted in wheat since 1973. The wheat was sprayed with a number of chemical herbicides and synthetic fertilizers over the years. In order to rest the soil and prepare it for an asparagus crop, they will first put in a triticale/vetch cover crop, plow that in at the end of the season, add compost, lime and phosphorus, and finally amend the soil with sand to lighten it.

They will need to expand their existing buffer zones, adding native plants, trees, and grasses. They also plan to restore a streambed that was re-routed in the 1960s to create more arable land; they received a grant from their water conservation district for this project. They estimate that their restoration efforts will leave them with 25 acres to plant in asparagus.

They will buy one-year-old organic male crowns to plant in the spring, rather than start from seed (§ 205.204(a)(4), Baier, 2012). The asparagus must not be picked for two additional years after planting in order to establish the root system; this will coordinate with the three-year waiting period associated with becoming certified organic growers.

Asparagus is a perennial plant that can produce for ten to twenty years, and therefore cannot be rotated with other crops; the Hinckels will keep their soil healthy by side-dressing with compost (Hutton, n.d.). Weeding is essential; the first two years, especially, they will hire extra help to hand-pull weeds to ensure that none get established. After the asparagus plants have grown, the Hinckels will switch to an approved fabric row cover. They will keep wide aisles (72 inches) between the rows to accommodate a compact tractor for these tasks and for use during harvest.

They plan to use an integrated pest management system to keep their asparagus plants healthy. Asparagus is generally a low-maintenance crop; the most common pest is the asparagus beetle. Since the Hinckels will have only male plants, they should have less problem with the beetles, as the eggs are laid in the berries of the female plants (Pleasant, 2013). They plan to hand-remove any beetles that appear, or use a USDA-approved insecticidal soap if they have a larger infestation.

Changes to Their Business

The Hinckels will need to invest in refrigeration equipment to keep the asparagus cool once it is picked (U.S. Dept. Agriculture, n.d.a.; Baier, 2012); a van to transport the produce to the market; a tent, tables, displays, signage, and POS equipment (cash register, credit-card reader); and possibly temporary housing for their interns. They will be able to use their existing irrigation equipment. Once they have tilled in the cover crop, added the amendments, and dug the asparagus trenches, they will sell their full-sized tractor and buy a compact tractor. They haven’t decided what to do with their grain bin. They have hired out the spraying and threshing in the past, so they have no equipment to liquidate in that regard.

The Hinckels have “hired work done” in the past, but never had regular employees. They are looking into WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and other avenues for bringing low- or unpaid interns onto the farm to help with hand-weeding, and to send to the market to sell the asparagus. Most farmers they know use migrant workers, but they are hesitant to explore that option.

They will continue to use their existing record-keeping procedures “concerning the production, harvesting, and handling of agricultural products” (Baier, 2011). They will also add personnel records to track their interns, and use the Field History/Previous Land Use form to document past farming practices, and note improvements to the soil and buffer zone (ibid.). They will create an Organic System Plan to which they can refer if they have an outbreak of disease or infestation; this plan will help them fill out the application at Oregon Tilth (Oregon Tilth, n.d.).

Because the farm will exceed $5,000 in revenue (Hutton, n.d.), they are not exempt from certification (U.S. Dept. Agriculture, n.d.b.; Baier, 2012). They will contact Oregon Tilth to apply for “transitional certification” and, once the waiting period is over, apply for full status (Oregon Tilth, 2014b, p. 19). They will welcome an inspector to their farm and follow up on any requests promptly.

The Hinckels’ fees during the first year will be less than $700 (see Appendix, Table 1). After the first year, the base fee is determined in conjunction with gross income (Oregon Tilth, 2014a). For the following two years, there will be no income, as the asparagus will be too immature to harvest. Things change significantly after that. With asparagus currently selling for $6 per pound at the Portland Farmers Market, the Hinckels have estimated their annual gross income to be approximately $21,780,000* (Hutton, n.d.; Johnny Seeds, n.d.). Their base fee will be $4,000 plus 0.05% of sales that exceed $2 million, or $13,890 total. However, the fee is capped at $10,000 (Oregon Tilth, 2014a). They will continue to pay for inspections every year, as well.

* This is not a realistic scenario; they would have to sell 3,490 pounds of asparagus at each market day in order to liquidate their produce and earn this income.


Table 1

Oregon Tilth Fees, Year 1

Cost Reason
$75 First-time applicant fee
$399 First-year base fee
$200 Inspection deposit
$674 Total
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Remember last week, when I was waxing poetic about the night sky? And I mentioned hearing crickets, and sprinklers, and Pendleton eating windfall apples? Well.

That night Pendleton, who has been housetrained for months, snuck down to the basement and laid an enormous, foul pile of heinous fecal gore on the floor. Mike gagged when he cleaned it up in the morning (lucky for me, I was asleep and oblivious). What could have caused this horrific display?

We have some gnarled old apple trees in our backyard. They could use a good pruning, but we don’t have a ladder and anyway, they aren’t mine and not everyone appreciates a “good pruning.” I didn’t bother to cull the fruits this spring, and now we have dozens of small apples falling out of the trees every time the wind blows. Pendleton’s been foreman of the clean-up crew.

At your service, ma'am

At your service, ma’am

But the dogs are not the only ones who like free apples. The owner of the house we’re renting, last fall, told us that he kept the gate open so the deer could come in and browse. Otherwise, they all go to the wasps.

So, the morning in question, once I woke up and said, “Geez, it kind of smells like poop in here,” and Mike said, “You think?” before he went to take a shower, I walked out into the yard to collect the windfalls into a bucket, so Pendleton couldn’t reach them.

While I was out there, a doe walked up to the fence, as if to claim her autumn meal. The dogs went crazy. I calmed them, but the deer stayed put. Opening the gate is something of a formality, as any deer can jump a four-foot fence without even thinking about it. But she was, rightfully, afraid of the dogs and stayed outside the fence.

I wanted to scare the doe off, so I threw what I had in my hand at her. As soon as I did, I realized it was a bad idea. The apple fell short, and then rolled a foot or two toward the doe. She didn’t jump or even move, just considered it, and then took a step toward the apple and gently picked it up, staring at us while she ate it. That was not the message I was hoping to send.

I left the dogs in the yard and scared the doe off. She’ll be back; this is where those nice people throw apples for you to eat!

Mike’s and my yard-maintenance routine has included picking up poo-piles and refilling holes that have been dug. For the next few weeks it will also include regularly collecting windfalls, depriving deer, dog, and wasp.

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I was a bit disappointed to learn, my first summer back in a place without light pollution, that August’s Perseid meteor shower was going to be washed out by a full moon. The other night, I received a consolation prize.

I had finished my homework and was about to go to bed, when I realized it was pitch black outside. And relatively warm. I poured myself a nightcap, put on a sweatshirt, turned off the lights in the house, and carefully made my way down the steps to the backyard with Pendleton the dog.

It took a while for my vision to adjust. I closed my eyes for a minute to coax my pupils to dilate wide enough to take in the pinpoints. At first I saw only a few, then a few more, then ten times more, then twenty times more. After fifteen minutes or so, the Milky Way was fully visible, stretching across the sky toward Ruby Peak.

It’s all about waiting for the stars to come to you. I even caught a few shooting stars, perhaps remnants of the Perseids. I had to stand in a place that my vision wasn’t blocked overhead by the apple trees in our yard. What I should have done was walk out into the field, but I didn’t want Pendleton to rustle up any deer that were undoubtedly bedded down out there.

Mike and I were recently in Portland, visiting friends. Our friends’ kid was showing Mike her new bedroom furniture, and he pointed out that, from her bed, she could look out the window at the stars. She gave him a blank look. He remembered that you can only see a few stars in the city; not anything to impress a nine-year-old.

Standing in my yard, I was reminded of getting up at 4 in the morning every night last winter to let the puppies outside. In January, I regularly heard the Great horned owls conversing. Now, I could hear cows yelling, sprinklers whooshing, grasshoppers singing, and Pendleton munching on windfall apples.

I wished I could bring my friends’ kid out to our yard, so she would understand what Mike was talking about.

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