Archive for Animals

The “Cheerio Seeds” Scandal

PlantViewI’m sure most of you have seen that General Mills has been giving out free wild flower seeds in order to help save the bees. The long and the short of the issue is this: Handing out free seeds doesn’t make up for the refusal to stop using the chemicals that are killing bees in the first place.

Let’s back up and look at what glyphosate is. Otherwise known as RoundUp, glyphosate is an herbicide created by a Monsanto chemist John E. Franz in 1970 and was marked in 1974. Glyphosate is such a strong herbicide that it was also harming crops. This stemmed the research and funding for genetically modified plants that could tolerate the chemical in order for farmers to spread massive amounts of the toxin on their crops, killing weeds and not harming the crops at the same time. Eventually bio-engineers began designing “RoundUp Ready” crops which are now used extensively in the US and in a few other countries.

The severe drenching of fields with glyphosate and the engineering of glyphosate into crops has not been studied in full, but the amount of glyphosate “leeching” into honey is alarming, especially given that glyphosate itself has yet to be cleared of possibly be a carcinogen.  The EPA is currently researching this risk, but results won’t be available until sometimes this spring, at the earliest. Coincidentally (or not so), studies have also shown that glyphosate has drastically impacted bees’ memory abilities, hampering the ability to find food and return to the hive, and their appetite, leaving them starving while producing low amounts of honey and with no drive to collect pollen, which in turn means low pollination levels and poor crop yields.

(None of this post takes into account the other environmental impacts of glyphosate of the potential cancer risk, but we’re sticking to the topic of Cheerios and bees here.)

Cheerios has tested higher for glyphosate (RoundUp) than any recently tested food article, with levels over 1,100 parts per billion. Which means that the fields in which the wheat is grown for the cereal is drenched in the chemical. (The oats themselves do not contain glyphosate as there are currently no RoundUp Ready oats. However, General Mills does still produce other cereals with RoundUp Ready wheat.)

So what does the Cheerios branch of General Mills do? They launch a feel-good campaign, which is timed right in parallel with unsealed documents that have been discovered and which raise the question as to whether glyphosate is safe for use. Cheerios decides to give out packages of free wild flower seeds that consumers can plant to help the bee population. There are a few problems with these seeds:

1. The seeds are not marked as non-GMO/organic, which means there is a very good chance that they also contain glyphosate. Planting poison not marked as poison is still poison.

2. Seeds listed in the package are considered invasive in certain areas. The company’s response to this essentially equated to, “There’s still pollen, and that’s what the bees need.” Introducing invasive species only presents other problems. Please check the label carefully to make sure you’re not causing more harm! (For example, Forget-me-nots and California poppies – both in the mixture – are very invasive weeds in certain growing zones.

3. These seeds are not a promise from the company to end the usage of glyphosate. Anyone who has taken Advertising 101 or a comparable course can tell you that this is a “feel-good” campaign in order to raise customer satisfaction and to distract from the new information surrounding the weed killer General Mills uses on the grains that eventually become their cereal, which we in turn feed to our families.

If you would like to plant flowers for the bees, by all means, do so!

Fantastic lists of native plants to grow that will help increase pollination and bee populations can be found at The Xerces Society. Make sure that the seeds you are buying are from a reputable dealer who does not sell GMO seeds, or if they do, make sure it is from a seed company that clearly labels what seeds are GMO and are non-GMO. One great example of a company practising such transparency is FedCo Seeds here in Maine. Everything is clearly labelled in their catalogue and online.

Buy from local seed dealers who will know what will grow well in your area.

Aim for native plants if you are planting only wild flowers.

Grow non-GMO, organic crops if you are gardening.

Do good, but don’t by into the “feel-good” of a company trying to undermine you.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, meet a lovely officer.

Yesterday I was standing at the back door with Little Miss bugging the chickens and practicing different chicken calls. All of a sudden I finally got reaction with the “air raid” call. 

Or so I thought. 

Right in front of my eyes, our little chicken theif walks around the corner of the house. 

“A–! What are you doing?!” He looks at me and keeps following the chickens. I think he was in momentary shock. “Get out of here!” The paralysis dissipated and off he went like a shot – or a six year old trudging through knee deep heavy snow. 


I went to the front door, on my way calling for Little Mister to snag my phone. I snagged some shots of A– and his little brother making their departure. 

“I told you we shouldn’t have tried to steal another chicken!” says the little brother who then promptly loses his boot in the snow. 

After they made their return adventure home, Hubster came home for lunch. I finally had the chance to get outside and discovered Beardie, one of our Easter Eggers, was missing. I wasn’t 100% that they had taken her, as there were no tell tale signs and she was a struggler even with us handling her, but I didn’t know if the younger brother’s comment about “another bird” was referring to the last time they’re stole one or today. Hubster and I discussed the issue and decided a course of action. 

I called our local state police barracks and explained the situation, how he’s stolen a bird before, how I spoke to the mother myself last time and was pressed upon that it wouldn’t happen again, and the young age of the kids. The officer I later talked to was just as concerned about making sure the kids got the message now and not later. “Let’s nip this in the bud.”

The little bugger tried lying to the officer, saying they didn’t come down at all. She took a walk behind the house and saw their tracks, took a couple photos to show them, and they quickly admitted that they came down, but claimed they only wanted to pet the chickens. I don’t buy it, and I don’t think the officer did either. She did say, however, that the mom was livid and the two boys were bawling their eyes out. Here’s hoping they learned a lesson. If not, I’m going to just watch and see if Greenleaf and MacGyver do their job.  

As for Beardie, she showed up about an hour after the boys came by. They spooked her enough that she had hidden out in the brush somewhere. 

Alice’s Adventure

Today was a bit….eventful. When I went to check one the flock today I noticed little boy boot prints all over the yard and around the coop. I figure that one the neighboring hellions came by to look at the birds and left. I didn’t see any harm, went inside, and proceeded to make honey cakes for Imbolc with Little Mister. 

While working on our snack, I kept having a nagging feeling. I decide to go back out and investigate. I’m glad I did. The run door was ajar. There were feather prints in the snow indicative of a bird trying to get away. Also, Alice was missing. 

I woke Hubster up from his Norovirus-induced nap and told him someone has stolen one of our older ladies, an Arcuana/Leghorn named Alice. We went outside and tracked down the footprints. Our suspicions were correct: one of the neighboring kids took her.

Just as I was about ready to walk over, the boy’s two older sisters came down the gulley with Alice. Hubster met them down by the stream and apologized. Their six year old brother and four year old brother – only an accomplice – had stolen her and had snuck her up to their attic. 

After the girls went home, we checked Al out. She was none the worse for wear and we treated her to some left over eggs, loved on her, and put her back with the rest of the flock. Once she was settled in, I walked to the house where the kiddos lived. I thanked their mother for sending the girls over with Al. The little boy tried his damndest to plead with me. (He “only wanted a pet” and could I give him “one with a cage to keep it in?”) I’m hoping that by taking the step to go over there and show a thankful, positive front the little shitter won’t try it again. 

If he does I wouldn’t be too broken hearted if a rooster handed the kid his ass. 

Raptors

As gorgeous as raptors can be, I would appreciate it if the pair of goshawks flying overhead would bugger off. I have one hen held up under the coop who won’t come out. She left a pile of feathers where the hawk almost snagged her. Snow is a five year old Easter Egger and she’s lived through a lot, but I’d feel better if I could check her out. 

On the plus side, the two Roos worked well together to keep the ladies safe. 

DeCoster Egg Farms – An Excerpt From My Thesis on Homesteading

*** Given that DeCoster and his shoddy practices are once more in the news here in Maine, and soon abroad, I felt it pertinent to put this piece from my thesis where others could access it. If you would like to cite this written piece for any reason – article, blog post, or personal interest – please feel free to contact me! ***

An Example of CAFOs Close to Home: DeCoster Egg Farms

Since the growth of CAFOs, many family farms have had to close their doors due to lack of income as more and more people developed a taste for cheap prices and would not pay the price for local food. Other farms and homesteads were forced to close due to towns changing their regulations, as townsfolk no longer saw the need for farms to exist nearby. Richardson’s Farm was one of those affected by the latter. For years Richardson’s Farm was located on the stretch between the town of Rumford, Maine, and a cluster of houses were built further down the road, years after the farm had been established, including one of the homes I lived in during my childhood. Growing up, I thought that that those living in the mill town had forgotten the necessity of farms as people living near Richardson’s farm shared comments about hoping not to get stuck behind those “damn cows.” Complaints came forth every spring from those living out past the farm about the smell of manure spread out into the pastures, especially from the mill workers who looked down on farmers who made less than they did.

Despite the complaints from those in town, having lived near Richardson’s Farm, I can’t recall ever seeing a sick or lame cow. They were always out in the fields, grazing contently, drinking water provided from a brook on the property, and relaxing in the shade from trees strategically left in the pasture. The smell was the sweet scent of well composted manure that had been stored correctly, not that of the manure pits or bacteria infested barns that dot the landscape nationally. In my memory, Richardson’s Farm took care of their animals in a manner that many homesteaders and small-scale farmers do today. They seemed to do things right: happy animals, no over crowding, and a knowledge of how to deal naturally with waste created by the bovines.

In contrast to the fine example of Richardson’s Farm is DeCoster Egg Farms, one of Maine’s most disturbing cases of CAFO owners simply not caring about the well being of their animals or consumers. Unfortunately this is an example well known to many Mainers. The tales of DeCoster Egg Farms are a piece of Maine agricultural history recent enough to shape the methods and goals of modern homesteaders, especially chicken owners.

Jack DeCoster, a native of Turner, Maine, ran his commercial egg production in Maine for over sixty years, and also owned farms in Iowa and Maryland. In September of 2010, there was a nationwide recall of eggs contaminated with salmonella, all of which came from his Iowa based hen houses. This was not the first time that DeCoster’s egg farms had made it into the news and it is just one of the many incidents involving DeCoster violations and lawsuits. Joe Fassler, a contributor to The Atlantic covered the story of DeCoster’s egg farms and put together a time-line of offenses committed by the company. Fassler wrote:

What emerged from my interviews and research is a pattern of offenses – a stubborn, company-wide refusal to abide by regulations, no matter how many times DeCoster was caught and no matter how many times Maine’s alert litigators tried to force constraints on a chronically law-breaking mogul.

[…]

Many of the incidents here – aside from the major national stories like the historic OSHA fine – have not been reported on since they first happened. Some of the smaller infractions have never been reported in the national press, and some have not been reported at all. Tracking DeCoster’s history of past offenses is no easy task.i

DeCoster had a habit of waiting to see how far a lawsuit would go before settling out of court before a verdict could be reached.

In order to establish that DeCoster’s in Turner, Maine, was and is a CAFO, one only has to look at the first minimum wage law which was essentially created to regulate DeCoster’s business practices. In 1975, Maine’s Majority Leader in the State Legislature proposed legislation meant to force DeCoster to pay his workers the minimum wage. While most agricultural companies in Maine are exempt from paying minimum wage, this new law created an “exemption from the exemption” in which any farm that has more than 300,000 laying birds would have to pay minimum wage to its workers.ii So many birds in a limited sized facility means that these chickens were packed into such confinement as to be unsanitary, unhealthy, and emotionally scarring animals due to the lack of fresh air, sunshine, and freedom of movement.

In addition to accusations of animal abuse and unfair working conditions, the list of lawsuits brought against DeCoster’s company read as one large example of the pest issues previously mentioned regarding concentrated animal feeding operations. In 1980, the fly problem around DeCoster’s facility became so severe that people living in the vicinity could no longer use the outdoor spaces around their homes. Despite constant complaints to town and federal representatives, nothing was done. In Fassler’s opinion, it appeared as though DeCoster’s big tax dollars were a boon in the eyes of regulators and no one wanted to get in his way. Fly and odor problems continued. In 1987, a February fire killed over 100,000 birds, making the situation difficult to ignore. Normally the carcasses would be buried in a mass pit to decompose, but DeCoster decided to leave the birds in the open. By May, three months after the fire, the odors were so strong that neighbors had no choice but to sue DeCoster and force his company to properly dispose of the bodies.iii

DeCoster showed his lack of concern as he continued unsanitary practices at his poultry farms. In 2002, neighbors sued DeCoster farms for a second time for “lack of quality of life,” claiming that they were suffering due to the farm’s lack of cleanliness. Twenty-seven neighbors were annoyed with the stench and the flies from the CAFO. Finally the courts forced DeCoster to clean up storage sheds full of dead chickens and manure. He was required to install fans in the chicken houses’ manure pits to dry the sewage in order to help gain control of the fly population. When journalist Fassler spoke to the neighbors in 2010, only a few saw a marked difference in the fly population, leaving one to wonder if DeCoster kept his end of the settlement.iv

In 2009, the animal rights group Mercy for Animals arranged for an undercover reporter to document conditions at Quality Egg in Turner, Maine, DeCoster’s re-named egg farm. The undercover reporter caught numerous animal abuse cases on film. The video, which was posted online, showed workers killing birds by swinging them by their necks, kicking wounded birds into manure pits where they slowly died, and throwing live birds into the trashcans to suffocate. Cages were badly overstuffed. These are only a few of the abuses caught on the film. Maine State Veterinarian Don Hoenig filed suit against DeCoster, and insisted that the facility bring in more oversight, hire poultry experts to oversee animal husbandry, and mandate animal sensitivity training for plant workers. An out of court settlement may have modified or canceled those changes as no direct evidence about the outcome of the court case is readily available.v

The DeCoster animal abuse case is well-known as the videos are posted on the internet in a very public form.vi The cases of salmonella outbreaks remained more hidden as many occurred before the prolific use of the internet and social media. The first connection between salmonella and DeCoster came in 1988. After three outbreaks of the illness, five-hundred hospitalizations, and eleven deaths, salmonella-tainted eggs were traced back to DeCoster farms in Maryland and Maine. DeCoster had to dispose of over 200,000 contaminated hens. The most recent outbreak of tainted eggs came in August of 2010 when 550,000 eggs were linked to two DeCoster owned facilities in Iowa. Iowa barns run by DeCoster looked similar to those in Turner before Maine enforced regulations: “unsafe electrical conditions, improperly kept manure, infestations of mice and maggots and flies, sick hens.”vii

These CAFOs highlight problems existing in mass animal husbandry. There is a severe lack of pollution control, and problematic pests and pathogens run rampant. Unfortunately there are non-homesteaders who have difficulty in differentiating between CAFO based problems and the lack of similar issues with homesteads. Education is necessary in order for people to learn where and how their meat is raised. Those who have never set foot in a CAFO, watched videos of commercial agriculture online, or read any of the treaties on the modern agricultural models would have no idea about the state that the animal lives in before being slaughtered. On that same note, without visiting local homesteads and talking to the homesteaders about how they raise their animals, people assume that animals grown on the homestead are grown in similar conditions as those raised in CAFOs, but on a smaller scale. Instead, those who recall DeCoster’s and other images of CAFOs that have been shared by the media, attempt to restrict homesteads and limit them only to extreme rural areas, unintentionally limiting their community’s food security through town ordinances limiting gardens and animal husbandry. Dispelling the myth that homestead animals and CAFO animals are treated the same requires that the public learn about the differences between CAFOs and homesteads.

i Joe Fassler, “Timeline of Shame: Decades of DeCoster Egg Factory Violations,” The Atlantic, September 2010, Health, accessed September 8, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/09/timeline-of-shame-decades-of-decoster-egg-factory-violations/63059/

ii Ibid.

iii Ibid.

iv Ibid.

v Ibid.

vi The video posted to the YouTube website on March 24, 2009, by Mercy For Animals can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dOauM9LNTc. This video captured the multiple cases of animal abuse happening at DeCoster’s factory farm, Quality Egg of New England (QENE) in Turner, Maine.

vii Ibid.