Monday, April 25, 2011

Some Southwest Michigan farmers choosing to forgo organic label, but not the process

This article appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette on Monday, April 25, 2011.

Finding out how your food is grown isn’t easy, unless you ask those you are buying from. Finding out how “organic” a product may be is even more difficult, especially at area farmers markets, since there are so many standards.

While it seems simple enough to either be organic or not, developing and enforcing regulations for organic foods can be problematic. There are some parts of the system, including cost, that are caus­ing small, local farmers to choose alternatives to organic certification.

“Organic is such a gray area, and there are no teeth in the law,” said Sandy McNees of Bear Foot Farm, a 20-acre farm in Paw Paw. “Until enforce­ment catches up with the NOP (United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program) standards, we’ll bow out of it and go ‘natural.’”

Natural, not organic
Being “natural” to Kim and Sandy McNees means they will continue to produce their vegetable and pork products in the same way they have for the past 16 years under the rules of NOP and its predecessor, the Organic Foods Production Act. The only difference is they won’t have to pay about $1,000 per year for certification fees, paperwork, inspectors and certified organic seeds.

“There are so many people jumping on the bandwagon for organic that we are in the hole (financially) before the season starts if we pay for certifica­tion,” said McNees. “But not all of these people are certi­fied organic nor are they pay­ing the costs involved in being organic.”

Costly penalties
The NOP regulates the en­tire organic industry, including those certified and not certified, said Sam Jones-Ellard, public affairs specialist at the USDA. Violators — those who claim organic status without meeting standards — can be subjected to civil penalties up to $11,000 per violation and organic pro­ducers can lose their certifica­tion or not be able to sell their product until the certification process is completed.

However, McNees’ experi­ence with USDA-contracted in­spectors is that they only check on organic producers and vendors to make sure they are following NOP guidelines.

She said this system also is structured more for big nation­al or international companies rather than small local farmers. That allows some vendors at a farmers market to say or imply they are organic without having to prove it with paperwork.

In 2010, the USDA received 185 complaints worldwide, said Jones-Ellard. And more than half of those complaints dealt with operations that were labeling their product as organic without certification. There was no data available on U.S. or Michigan complaints.

Organic Foods in Kalamazoo
Sandy McNees of Bear Foot Farm, Paw Paw. To accompany story on Organic Foods in Kalamazoo. NcNees with lettuce seedlings in greenhouse. 
Certified status
Blue Dog Greens in Bangor has been certified organic by nonprofit Oregon Tilth since 2002 and will continue to seek certification, said Dennis Wil­cox, a partner at the farm.

The farm sits on land that formerly belonged to Maynard Kaufman, who followed organic agriculture methods since 1973 and was one of the founders of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance.

“Customers recognize certified organic right away,” he said.

Wilcox admits it costs a lot of money to be certified organic, but said the state of Michigan offers a cost share for farmers up to 75 percent.

“You apply for it and pres­ent receipts (of your sales),” he said. “It’s real easy.”
However, he hopes the state’s budget cuts don’t scuttle this program.

Now that Bear Foot Farm is “natural,” McNees decided to use the money she used to pay to be certified organic to expand both the amount and variety of produce she grows and to enlarge her pork operation.

Another difficulty for small, local organic farmers is finding affordable organic seeds.

About 70 percent of the seed industry is controlled by large multinational corporations that produce conventionally-grown non-organic seeds, according to a report from the USDA.

Both Wilcox and McNees buy from seed companies that take the “Safe Seed Pledge.” These companies offer untreated, non-GMO seeds and hybrids. They also “support agricultural process that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems, and ultimately people and communities.”

Cutting costs

McNees switched from buying 50-pound bags of certified organic russet or red potato seeds that cost $90 each plus shipping to buying 50-pound bags of untreated, non-genetically- engineered seeds that cost $16 each and can be picked up at a local seed store.

Seed variety is an issue, too, she said. Safe seed companies may have 20 to 30 choices for tomatoes versus only six choices for organic tomatoes.

Natural labels

While the McNees have chosen to go natural and Wilcox will remain certified organic, other area farmers have turned to an alternative known as Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). This is a label especially designed for small-scale producers who sell locally and directly to their customers.

CNG standards are just as strict as the USDA’s NOP, but they differ from the government- run program in that CNG minimizes paperwork and certification fees are between $50 and $175. CNG also uses an on-site peer-review inspection process and performs unannounced pesticide residue testing. Growers may use an easily-identified label for their products just as organic growers do.

Carrie Young of Young Herbs and Produce in Portage uses the CNG label primarily because it only costs her $75 per year instead of a minimum $500 to be certified organic. She is one of several CNG farmers in the area.

Young has had her three-acre farm since 2006 but this will be the third consecutive season that she has been producing CNG produce.

CNG farmers inspect each other in a cooperative arrangement called Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) that is utilized by 10,000 farmers worldwide. In this way, they are able to develop a sense of community and support, Young said.

“We’re not in competition with each other, we are collaborating with each other. In today’s business world, that’s a unique and important model.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Farm Journal: Farm Injuries Are No Laughing Matter

I must now write the blog--and everything else--through DRAGON, a voice-activated diction computer program.

It is been an odd and paradoxical week. Last Sunday when I went to the farm I never anticipated the role that injuries would play on our work.

I was cleaning the kids’ pens when I inadvertently tripped on one of the stall’s baseboards and fell on my left hand. I have never broken any bones, but in this my 60th year, I am faced with a broken radius in my left arm. This “inconvenience” is particularly difficult since I am left-handed.  But I am adjusting and able to do most things for myself.

Fortunately, Kurt was at the ready to help me with solutions. He suggested that I get a computer program that takes dictation. This is especially important since it is only the second week of spring quarter classes.  How would I check papers with comments? In fact, I am writing this report with my new program called Dragon.

Cathy Halinski, a Godsend for the Kleins
But my injury wasn't the only bad luck of the day. Ten hours after I fell, Ron broke his hand.  It was dark and he was getting the injured buffalo heifer Suzie into the barn.  She turned, startled by something, and when Ron moved to avoid her, he broke his hand on the edge of a corral post. How can a farmer run his farm with only one hand? And, how can a dairy farmer milk 10 goats with only one hand--and have enough to feed the growing kids? This is a serious problem! 

After I hurt my hand, I asked Ron how farmers sustain their injuries. He said that just like all working people they just keep going as best they can until the work gets done.  For example, at Windshadow Farm the milk parlor needs to be completed, the animals fed—and for certain the water buffalo are not going to hold back on manure until Ron's cast is off. I didn't believe this completely until I saw Ron working yesterday with his wrapped up hand. He has a splint on now and gets his cast this week. Then it will be six to eight weeks before his cast is removed.

When you break your arm or your hand it is most difficult to try to use it, especially when you have to apply pressure on a task like shoveling compost. I found this out yesterday and hope I didn't further injure my arm or prolong its healing.  Ron was running the tractor to clean the barn but there are too many tasks to do where he needs both hands. So Suzanne, Ron's wife, fills in for him as much as she can. Milking the goats is a prime task to be done and Suzanne has taken it on magnificently.  At her side was Cathy Halinski of EverGreen Lane Farm & Dairy in Fennville, who brought her milk machine and showed Suzanne how to work it. In fact, Cathy came every day last week after she milked her own goats. She then cleaned and sanitized her machine and equipment-loaded them in her car and drove to Bangor! 

On Friday, the Kleins received their own brand-new milk machine and Cathy was again on hand to show Suzanne how to use it. 

This new milk machine is amazing! It takes about four minutes to milk each goat--including thoroughly washing and cleaning the goats. ”Inflations” are attached to the goat's teats, which provide a gentle massage much as as a suckling kid would do. The milk is all collected in one container, the contents of which are poured into two sanitary stainless steel milk containers, which are smaller and more portable. The milk is then filtered, pasteurized and fed to the cohort of rapidly growing kids.  Milk for making cheese and human consumption will not come until after the dairy is licensed as Grade A.

Yesterday, I helped Suzanne with the milking. We even tried a few of the goats who were being allowed to dry up because milking by hand took way too much time that Ron didn't have.  (It usually takes about six weeks before they dry off completely.)  Suzanne is trying to get these goats back into production.

In addition to morning milking, Suzanne also plans to milk the goats in the evening.  With the new milk machine, that is now possible. The Kleins need the milk.  They have been using milk replacer to keep up with the 6 gallons per feeding (12 gallons per day)  that it takes to satisfy the kids.

Another way farming works is that good neighbors help out in an emergency. Mike Sullins and his family have taken on this role by helping to clean the barn. This is particularly essential with baby goats who need as clean an environment as possible. Fortunately, the blueberry and building seasons have not yet started so Mike has been available.

Mike has also been managing the construction of the milk parlor over the past couple months, which is slated for completion at the end of the week. This is a major accomplishment at Windshadow Farm & Dairy as it gets ready for business as a Grade A dairy.

Ron uses tractor to remove compost with Soo's help
After Sue and I milked the goats, we cleaned the water buffaloes' pen, which is always so much more difficult to do because the buffs' droppings are so big and heavy and the floor is brick-like and not smooth. We pushed the straw and manure toward the center of the pen so Ron could shovel it out with the tractor.  Use of the tractor takes probably one quarter the time because we don't have to lift the compost by hand and put it into the tractor. A new attachment will arrive soon to replace the tractor's bucket and this will make this job even easier. The attachment acts like a giant pitchfork that picks up the compost more easily and efficiently. I can hardly wait—as I’m sure Ron can’t!

After we finished the buffalo pen, Suzanne and I cleaned the kids' stalls. This was a piece of cake comparatively! To take the manure out of the barn and onto the compost pile I drove the tractor this time and it only took two trips. We then had to clean the dry lot outside the barn to facilitate drainage.  That was mostly tractor work. 

There certainly is a moral to this story, especially for rookie farmers: Study farm accidents in order to prevent them!


Here are some videos that illustrate what can happen so that farmers can learn how to prevent such accidents.  The featured video illustrates a near miss at the Roloff farm (of TV fame). Other videos of farm accidents are listed in the margins.


Here is also some data on farm injuries and fatalities that was put together by Mark A. Purschwitz from the University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension in 1997.

       I.            Farm Injury Situation

a.       Worker death rate: Agriculture is one of the two most dangerous industries in the US. The 1996 death rate was 21 per 100,000 workers, compared with 25 per 100,000 for mining and 4 per 100,000 for all industries combined.
b.      Farm Fatalities: In 1996 -- 35 agricultural fatalities in Wisconsin and an estimated 710 in the US.
c.       Permanent, non-fatal farm injuries: Estimated three permanent injuries for every fatality.
d.      Non-fatal farm injuries: One injury for every five farms each year. These are injuries serious enough to require professional medical care or at lest one-half day of restricted activity.
e.       Victims: Age range is wide, from infants less than one year old to persons in their 90's.
f.        Time of year (for fatal and very serious injuries): Harvest months are most common, followed by planting months.
g.       Agent of injury (fatal and very serious injuries): Tractors and other machines are by far the highest; other common agents include confined spaces, falls, falling trees, animals, electrocutions, etc.
h.       Agent of injury (non-fatal injuries): In Wisconsin, the most common agent of non-fatal injury is animals, followed closely by machinery.

       I.            Farm Machines

a.       Tractors are involved in one-third to one-half of all fatal farm accidents.
b.      The tractor overturn is the single most common fatal farm accident.
c.       Being run over by a tractor or implement is fairly common, involving falls from the moving machine or unseen bystanders.
d.      Machine entanglements are a very common form of accident.
e.       PTO shafts and augers are two machine components which are often involved in entanglements.

 III.            Farm Structures

a.       Confined spaces pose life-threatening risks to workers and rescuers.
b.      Manure gas is present throughout the year in enclosed manure storages. The components are hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane. Agitation releases high concentrations of gases.
c.       Silo gas can be present in dangerous concentrations up to three weeks after filling. The primary component is nitrogen dioxide.
d.      Oxygen-limiting silos do not have enough oxygen to support life.
e.       Flowing grain in grain bins and wagons can entrap and kill.
f.        Falls from haymows and ladders are fairly common.

I also found this site on Farm Injury Prevention (, which points out that the farm as a workplace remains dangerous with high morbidity and mortality from injury to the worker and often to observing family members. While fatal injury has decreased, nonfatal injuries have increased annually, and long-term disability is significant.1,2,3,4 Multiple factors contribute to the development of and subsequent poor outcome from these injuries with most being amenable to prevention programs. Examples are:

Animals. Agricultural animals pose threat because of size and unpredictability resulting in a high incidence of injury. Animals also pose problems with swerving of cars or equipment at night.
Falls. Often working unprotected at heights.
Weather. Impaired visibility, cold distraction, and equipment malfunction.
Suffocation. Silos and pits present common risk.
Delayed discovery. Often working alone at a distance from help or traffic.
Tractors. Overturns are common cause of severe injury with TBI, SCI, and major thoracoabdominal injuries predominating.
PTO (power take off). These devices deliver energy from the tractor to run other machines. The protective housing is often removed or becomes jammed providing a site for entanglement.
ROPS (rollover protection structures). Often lacking or removed to provide access in low clearance situations.
Chemicals. Pesticides and fertilizers use is common with protective gear use as low as 8% in a recent interview study.5
ATVs. Often used on farms and common cause of injury.
 Human Factors
Age. Extremes associated with increased injury.
Fatigue. Long work hours with backup support unavailable or too costly.
Experience. Unfamiliarity with equipment or the environment increase risk.
Drug or alcohol use. Impaired worker at high risk.
Many of the machinery and environmental problems will improve with ongoing input from the industry ( and Improvements in ROPS,6 supplemental restraints and retrofit safety devices for older equipment are needed. This needs to be encouraged as a matter of public policy and should include financial incentive for development and implementation. Educational programs that emphasize the proper use of protective equipment need local support. Accurate population based data will be necessary to gauge effectiveness of intervention. The National Trauma Data Bank (NTDB) may be a resource for this on the national level but requires more universal submission of data.

The key to the development of an effective farm safety program is a community-based multidisciplinary program that deals with a problem identified locally. Essential to the process is evaluation and measurement of effectiveness, ideally over time to measure duration of effect. Multiple resources are available to develop solutions to the locally identified issues. These include:

American College of Surgeons slide series (
University of California, Davis (
North American Guidelines for Children's Agricultural Tasks (
Farm Safety & Health Clearinghouse (
Farm Safety Just for Kids (
Marshfield Clinic, Wisconsin (

Recent review of farm safety intervention programs indicate that most programs have design limitations that make interpretation of effectiveness difficult.7 The Agriculture Disability Awareness and Risk Education (AgDARE) program attempts to resolve this with a control group and delayed observation of behavior following the program.8 Initial results indicate that this program may be an appropriate tool to use in teaching farm safety in high school agriculture classes. Similar programs need to be developed and their effectiveness measured in a randomized controlled study.

1. Rivara FP. Fatal and nonfatal farm injuries to children and adolescents in the United States, 1990-3. Injury Prevention 3:190-194, 1997.
2. Rivara FP. Fatal and nonfatal farm injuries to children and adolescents in the United States. Pediatrics 76:567-573, 1985.
3. National Safety Council. Injury Facts: 2000 Edition. Itasca, IL: National Safety Council; 44-66, 2000.
4. Bull MJ, Agran P, Gardner H, et al. Prevention of agricultural injuries among children and adolescents. Pediatrics 108(4):1016-1019, 2001.
5. Perry MJ, Marbella A. Layde PM. Compliance with required pesticide-specific protective equipment use. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 41(1):70-73, 2002.
6. Powers JR, Harris JR, Etherton JR, et al. Preventing tractor rollover fatalities: performance of the NIOSH autoROPS. Injury Prevention 7(Suppl 1):154-158, 2001
7. DeRoo LA, Rautiainen RH. A systemic review of farm safety interventions. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 18(4 Suppl 1):51-62, 2000.
8. Reed DB, Kidd PS, Westneat S, Rayens MK. Agricultural Disability Awareness and Risk Education (AgDARE) for high school students. Injury Prevention 7(Suppl 1):159-163, 2001.
Online May 9, 2002

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rwanda, a Light for the World

 Last November I accompanied the Rev. Kenneth Schmidt, a certified counselor and pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Kalamazoo, and Sharon Froom, a psychologist, to Rwanda at the invitation of Bishop Jean Damascène Bimenyimana.  They were to provide trauma recovery training to 28 priests during a five-day workshop/retreat in Cyangugu, a small town in western Rwanda. They were part of a four-member team put together by Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, a priest well-known for his healing work of forgiveness and reconciliation.  He is establishing the Center for the Secret of Peace there. The team also gave a 2½ day workshop to 85 educators and service professionals.   

Seventeen years ago today began a 100-day genocide in Rwanda where a million people perished—and the world just sat and watched it happen. 

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya where there is access to oil, Rwanda had no notable resources to obtain so world governments, NATO and the United Nations offered no help.  Rwanda was on its own as the Hutu government reigned terror on 15 percent of the country’s people, the Tutsi, in an attempt to rid the land of its “cockroaches.”

Today, not surprisingly, 100 percent of the people are traumatized by the genocide—survivors and perpetrators alike, according to priests and human service professionals I talked with last November when I visited the country. 

Deep pain, guilt, embarrassment for surviving and the urge for retaliation remain in the hearts of many people, said Philippe Ngirente, a social service director. 

Children share the same classroom with those whose parents were killed and those whose parents are in prison on suspicion for genocide crimes, said Nzeyimana Alays, a high school headmaster.  Violence breaks out and schools are not always safe.  Children can’t concentrate or learn and teachers can’t teach.

Every village in Rwanda had instances of genocide, said Narcisse Ntawigenera, a psychologist.  People suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, headaches, stomachaches and other psychosomatic symptoms.  Families and neighbors of mixed ethnic backgrounds still have hard feelings.

Meanwhile, the country remains desperately poor with about 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line (  Poverty is generally defined as the lack of basic human needs, such as clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter, because of the inability to afford them.

Mass migrations have taken place since 1959 when Tutsi refugees spilled into the neighboring countries of Burundi, Congo, Uganda and Tanzania because Hutu regimes preached hate and discrimination.  President Paul Kagame, who led the rebel army against the Hutu government in 1994 and subsequently quelled the 100-day genocide, was among those Tutsi families who fled to Uganda. 

Since the Tutsi takeover of government, 3 million Hutu have left the country, some of them still lusting after Tutsi blood.  This massive dislocation of the population is unsettling for Rwandans as well as for their neighbors who are forced to host refugees they don’t want.  Meanwhile, Rwanda remains one of the poorest, most densely-populated countries in the world with scarce resources to boot. 

And yet, the priests, teachers, health care professionals and social workers I met there were inspired, energized and ready to take on the task of healing their country.  

“There is no other place for people to go,” Ngirente said.  “We must get along.” 

The Kagame government desperately wants this to happen as it continues to try to stabilize the country through policy and economic development.  Reconstruction abounds in downtown Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.  The effort to appeal to multiculturalism is also apparent in the vast array of Western and Asian restaurants available there.  A massive hotel and conference complex is being built to attract tourists and businesspeople.  English was declared the official language of Rwanda last year.  (Kinyarwanda and French are also the official languages.)
Over 5,000 people attended the Mass of Healing

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has become a major player in taking on the task of emotional and spiritual reconstruction in this predominantly Catholic country.  They do it through the reconciliation of genocide survivors and perpetrators.  This is one of the reasons why Bishop Jean Damascène Bimenyimana recently assigned Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, a parish priest who is well known for his healing work of reconciliation, to full-time leadership in establishing the Center for the Secret of Peace in Cyangugu.  (Fr. Ubald says the secret of peace is forgiveness and reconciliation.)  

Fr. Ubald is a lively, energetic, tireless, can-do and charismatic man who has been likened to Martin Luther King, Jr.  He can’t walk down the street without people stopping him to talk and he constantly receives cell phone calls from people asking for his prayers, including those he has met in Europe and America while he solicited funds to buy the land for the Center. 

Father Ubald
One reason why Fr. Ubald is so effective is that during the genocide he lost 80 members of his own family, 30,000 members of his parish and he barely escaped the terror himself.  This is why he has made healing his country’s wounds his passion and the focus of his ministry.

One of the priests, Fr. Charles Ntabyera, probably summed it up best about the way Rwanda’s leaders think of their nation in the world.

“We are like David of the Old Testament,” said Fr. Charles.  “He was the smallest and youngest among his brothers and often overlooked.  Then he was chosen by God to fight Goliath, liberate his people, and become king of his nation.  Why couldn’t Rwanda lead the way for healing itself and the world from violence?”

Americans should take note of what can happen when a country allows itself to be consumed by hatred, poverty and division.  Americans should also recognize what it takes to heal such evils that are all too easy and convenient to adopt in order to win elections or gain attention in the media.