Living Off The Land
Two families find an alternative way to subsist.
I've had a lot a time to reflect this summer while reintroducing myself to Mother Nature. I kayaked on the lake, took long walks through lush woods, camped out beneath an awning of stars, and even planted a small garden. Taking in the fresh scenery, I notice a simple commonality between all the sights around me: Everything started from a seed.
It can be that small, wet grain of an idea cemented in one of the crevices of your brain that fosters an invention, or that first drop of concrete laying the foundation for a sturdy home, or of course, the small pod that stems up to become a canopy of leaves, perhaps bearing fresh flowers, fruit, or vegetables.
During one of my summer outings, I visited a small farm. In the middle of what seemed like nowhere, the horizon line was so defined – crisp green and yellow rows running across the pasture, and an Erie sun starting to sweep colors across the sky.
On my drive back into the city, I kept gazing at the colors in the sky. The red mixed in with white wisps of clouds like a punch-stained tablecloth.
After picking up a friend, I stopped to get some food before my night began. I ordered a classic cheeseburger – what I believe America would taste like if it was sandwiched between a sesame seed bun – from my go-to burger joint. It was nestled in a paper tray alongside a pile of fries, the oil still sizzling when it was handed to me.
We sat for a moment while I noshed down on my patriotic patty. The sun's gone down, but the colors were still radiant in the open sky.
My friend took sip of Coke and looked towards me. "Did you ever wonder what's in that?" he said, pointing to the remnants of my meat-pulp burger.
That is when the seed was planted.
When I was younger, I was told pollution made the most stunning sunsets. When I was a kid, I was also told that a burger was simply beef.
While we know that beautiful sunsets aren't merely made from pollution, there may be more to finding out that a burger is more than simply beef. And in amidst that quest to find those answers, people can be found along the way who are abandoning the mainstream way of living, of eating, and find that homesteading – living off the land – is not just an alternative but the future of food for them.
This is where that seed begins to grow.
"It's a game of roulette that we really don't want to play," local homesteader, small-business owner, and family man Andrew Pastor says about the dangers of genetically modified foods. Homesteading promotes self-sufficiency and sustainability by way of farming for sustenance and reduces the need for trade. Erie, as set in its ways as it can seem at times, is home to multiple families living this alternative lifestyle. Generally, you won't find boxed, processed, or genetically modified foods on their shelves.
"My wife and I have a policy: If you can't pronounce what is in the ingredients you don't buy it," Andrew explains.
The list of chemicals on the back of some processed foods can make a shopper want to revisit the periodic table for some reference; single ingredients seem to have more syllables than the word count of most children's books.
Let's start with a classic that almost everyone has tasted: monosodium glutamate. This adds to that tasty salt blast you get when eating Chinese food, Ramen Noodles, and a wide variety of dipping sauces. Its short-term side effects include numbness, headache, rapid heart rate, instantly being hungry again, wanting to fall asleep watching reruns of "Seinfeld," and unbuttoning the top button of a once well-fitting pair of pants.
The long-term effects of this salty additive have been linked to Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's Disease, Epilepsy, and a whole slew of other disorders.
Another classic chemical commercial farms use is glyphosate, the active chemical ingredient in Roundup – one of the most widely used herbicides that kills anything from weeds and grass to wooded plants. In almost every non-organic food using ingredients derived from corn or soy, a side of weed killer is served up with it.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers dumped 57 million pounds of glyphosate on food crops in 2009. A crop's resistance to glyphosate is one of the main reasons for genetically modified produce.
But difficult to pronounce – and understand – chemicals, including herbicides, aren't the only interesting ingredients in our food. While it seems natural to squeeze a lemon or lime to freshen up some ice water or a cocktail, have you considered squeezing the cloying juices from beaver anal-glands to add that little extra kick of flavor? Food companies have. Castoreum is the exudate from a North American Beaver's castor (anal) sac. Many processed foods and beverages use this beaver anal gland juice to add vanilla or raspberry flavoring to a variety of soft drinks and dishes.
Disgusting? Yes. Delicious? Yes. Dangerous? No.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers this additive as GRAS, or "generally recognized as safe." Before taking a bite of pudding, yogurt, or candy or taking a sip of iced tea or soda, you may want to check out the ingredient list, even for these GRAS ingredients. But here's a kicker: even if used, some additives, like castoreum, won't be featured on the label since it falls under the FDAs definition of "natural flavoring."
While some consumers may commend farmers who have decided to milk beaver ass for a living to get that extra kick to our soda pop, others may think twice before taking that next gulp of questionable carbonated refreshment.
Yet the featured list of controversial ingredients is as long as a whale is wide: carbon monoxide is used to keep meat "fresh," ammonia keeps meat clean, propylene glycol is a bonding agent in salad dressing but is also used to make condoms, and if you take a bite of wheat bread, you could also be eating L-cysteine, in other words, dissolved human hair or duck feathers.
Taste what I'm cookin'?
"We became very aware of the foods that are available commercially. We educated ourselves on commercial farming especially with the onslaught of genetically modified food," Andrew says. Whether it is due to an increase in population or genetically modified food that has led an equally positive correlation in the number of food allergies, obesity, and the vast array of diseases coming to light, he and his wife Jodie have dedicated themselves to raising their three daughters Hanna, Jordan, and Lilly May on farm-fresh food.
A Little Bit of Heaven Farm is another homestead run by the wife-and-husband team of Melanie and Luka Krneta out in Springboro, Pa. From a young age, Melanie was drawn to the farm life. She was inspired by her parents living through the trying times of the '30s, an age when a family's welfare depended on being independent. She felt admiration for the families who could weave their own safety net. "The people from the Depression era who were trying to be more self sufficient really impressed me," says Melanie.
Not only were families trying to provide for themselves, but the hard work this sustainability took to achieve kept the family stable in a vulnerable time. "My mom always talked about how it was so simple back then and how families pulled together," she says. After that time was through, and money was more plentiful, families drifted a little further apart.
Even after her parents passed away, Melanie's thought process remained the same: "Why would people go and buy something if they can make it on their own?"
With the combination of organic groceries being pricier and commercial farming being, in their opinion, reprehensible, the Pastor family felt there was no choice but to farm their own food. "I don't see an option, I really don't. I see the way that commercial farming is now," Andrew says.
Commercial farming techniques don't really include weeding out the garden or planting marigolds to steer away pests. It's more about making the fruits sweeter, the vegetables juicier, and the beef beefier by genetically modifying the organism.
Genetically modified organisms – as defined by Charu Verma in her article from The Open Nutraceuticals Journal, titled: "A Review on Impacts of Genetically Modified Food on Human Health" – are defined as organisms (except for human beings) in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.
In essence, a bigger, better, stronger gene gets inserted into another microorganism. And these Dr. Frankenstein-creations do have their advantages. Much of the commercial produce is pest resistant, herbicide tolerant, cold tolerant, drought tolerant, salinity tolerant, disease resistant, and scientists can even add extra nutrients for under nourished communities.
Modern agriculture, despite meeting astonishing yields to match our world's growing population, has received a reputation for being unsustainable, wiping out smaller farms, and being plainly unnatural. These issues are in vogue, as they're easy to argue with only vague research. The subject of sustainability was summed up by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture's (NIFA) Director and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Chief Scientist, Dr. Roger Beachy:
"We have framed or allowed others to frame sustainability as a practice itself or a set of practices. It's not. Sustainability is a goal, and therefore the focus should be on outcomes rather than specific practices. Certainly both science and field experience are leading to a better understanding about what practices there should be and under what circumstances, and should move us closer to sustainability. But as with any goal, it is important to keep the focus on the goal and be open-minded about ways to achieve the goal."
In fact, as a result of their controversial techniques, large-scale commercial agriculture – sometimes referred to as Agribusiness – which is generally intended for widespread distribution to supermarkets and wholesalers, is able to use farmland more efficiently. Because organic agriculture may have lower yields, more land would be needed to produce the same amount of food as modern techniques general grow. Thus, to produce the same amount of food by conventional standards would result in widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss, undermining the environmental benefits of organic practices. Moreover, commercial farms are more direct and efficient with their use of water, and can even reduce soil erosion by using a no-tilling process.
There may also be distortion in the romantic, Utopian view of natural living. It is convenient and trendy to think the government's investment and commitment to commercial farmers is simply about earning green instead of going green, no matter what the cost. However these new methods of farming are keeping up with the population's demand for nourishment. According to Dr. William C. Mote's article "Modern Agriculture and Its Benefits," from GlobalHarvestInitiative.org, commercial agriculture's contribution to the Gross Domestic Product and U.S. employment is into the trillions of dollars and upwards of 24 million jobs, respectively. However, only 6 percent of those jobs are from farming, the others are related fields such as food processing, textiles, transportation, food service, and other manufacturing that exist because of this booming industry.
The inherent threat of something as unnatural as GM food is precautionary. We feel that threat in our gut, with the image of big government, mad scientists, and factory farms all shaking hands. The consumers are debased to cattle.
But it's not what we know about this bulletproof produce and mechanically separated meat that's alarming – it's the unknown.
Scientists speculate that there is an increase in the number of children developing life-threatening allergies from this GM food. Other evidence is coming from animal studies and what scientists are serving up isn't an appetizing theory.
Several studies indicate GM food is causing long-term side effects including, but not limited to infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system, liver damage, and higher death rates in infant and adult lab rats.
"Organic gardening is definitely more difficult," Andrew says. Without the use of chemicals, the yield is smaller, pests are bothersome, weeds are water thieves, and the weather is always a variable.
A healthy lifestyle is challenging no matter how you cut it. Buying organic food is expensive and growing it is difficult. To become self sufficient, it takes long hours. But, Andrew says, "even if you're busy, even if you work full time, you can still produce quite a bit." In other words, you can start small.
Relating to most by thinking back on her days before she had a farm, Melanie suggests even growing a single plant can foster the process of homesteading. "Even trying to grow something on your own, even if it's just a tomato in a pot, is so satisfying," she says.
If your yard is small, you can build a raised garden bed; it's a simple wooden frame that contains the area. If you're living in an apartment, you're still not out of luck. Andrew recommends hanging a planter from your window ledge and growing herbs. It's not just about food; it's about the independence from the industry, the knowledge that comes with growing something from the dirt, and a piece of mind.
"Our kids are really benefiting not just nutritionally, but psychologically and spiritually by being hands on with their food. Our children know where an egg comes from, they know where their food comes from, there is no mystery," she adds. "[I] feel at peace knowing I'm not harming the earth," Melanie says.
Not only can you grow your own food, but you can also forage for wild edibles. "It sounds crazy, but there is just so much food that is out there," Andrew says. From berries, to greens, to nuts, and seeds, there is so much we simply overlook.
More often than not, especially after having the convenience of the supermarket, that one-stop shopization that puts customer experience and ease before all else, the general public may not be as willing to forage for unfamiliar edibles, break their back pulling weeds, clean the chicken coop, or milk a goat. But fortunately there is another way to get fresh produce without cutting branches from your money tree, or actually having to tend to a literal tree yourself.
Community Supported Agriculture is a great way to support local farmers, eat organically, and be mindful of our environment. Moreover, "It helps people get to know the place and the people that are making their food," says Zeb Bartels, of Clarion River Organics.
Each CSA works differently, but oftentimes at the start of each season a membership or a "share" can be purchased in trade for a weekly delivery of fresh produce. "We pack the bags with a good assortment of whatever is coming out of the field that week," Zeb says. Clarion River Organics has three different drop-off locations in Erie; Frankie & May Fresh Grocer [1101 Peninsula Drive], Erie Whole Foods Co-op [1341 W. 26th St.] and Cathedral of St. Paul Episcopal [134 W. Seventh St].
In this gamble between organic and non-, it seems recently the fresher food is stacking up its chips. "There is definitely a growing demand, especially for anything local and natural," Zeb says. In the four years Clarion River Organics has been organically farming, the desire for organic food has only increased. According to the Organic Trade Association's 2011 Organic Industry Survey, sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010.
While there are definitely signs of public interest, not everyone is onboard with such a progressive lifestyle so close to their home. Recently, despite the Pastors' admirable efforts to become more self-sufficient, there were neighbors that opposed this lifestyle so close to their home.
"I think they kind of view us as hillbillies, like we should have a piece of straw hanging out of our mouths, running around barefoot," Andrew laughs. When you see the Pastor family, country bumpkins are not what come to mind. They're suburbanites that happen to have a few animals and a garden to pick fresh produce from. "You have a chicken, you have a goat, you're obviously a hillbilly. It's just the culture we live in… It's based on people not understanding, not being educated."
The Pastors are not conspiracy theorists or neo-hippies; however, they do believe genetically modifying food is not a good long-term plan for the future, as this gene-splicing technology is just too new to warrant a claim of sustainability. With this belief in mind, they have created a clean, quiet, and successful family homestead on their modest three acres. Their land contains a small stable, a chicken coop, and about a half dozen raised garden beds creating little islands of sustenance, but nothing that would draw public attention – until one day it seemed Andrew and his family were part of an old, bad joke.
As Andrew put it: "We came under the spotlight because we had one chicken who decided to cross the road."
This past April, Jodie was free-ranging their chickens. Normally they stay close, especially if garden work is in progress as they love to forage for grubs. Of the dozen or so hens the Pastor family owns, one took a 10-second trip into a neighbor's yard. A week later, a local zoning officer came to the Pastor household due to a complaint that was filed. Forty-eight hours after the official had dropped by, they received a certified letter stating they would have two weeks to dispose of all the animals on their property.
"We don't view our animals as just beasts of burden, they're our pets, they're our friends, we want them to be happy, and we take very good care of them," Andrew explains.
Both homesteading families take pride in their animals, be it their chickens, goats, pigs, or donkeys. Neither family serves up their animals for dinner, but rather "everyone has a purpose," Melanie says. For example, her donkeys, Rerun and Arnie, are there to protect the other animals from wild predators, the chickens eat pesky Japanese beetles from the garden, and when she gets her cow this September, the whey left over from cheese production will be used for pig and chicken feed.
In 1976, when Andrew's father bought the land the Pastor household currently sit on, free-ranging just about anything would have been kosher, as farm land sprawled out in every direction. The house they built is zoned as A-1, meaning that the space can be used for agricultural purposes. Unfortunately, it happens to border a residentially zoned area where farm animals are prohibited.
Strangely, even on A-1 zoned property, the zoning regulations in Fairview specifically ban chickens, goats, cows, pigs, hippopotamuses, and large predator cats. "I'm not making this up," Andrew says. "It specifically mentions hippopotamus. And monkeys, oh, monkeys are banned too." Elephants and rhinoceros are also included on this list of prohibited domestic pets according to Fairview's 2005 zoning ordinance.
While my mouth constantly waters for a slab of rough skinned, robust, hoof-footed animals, I have to brace myself for the fact that this region may never raise such delicious hunks of hippo-meat.
"When you look at Fairview Township subdivisions you have little McMansions generating far more tax revenue than our three acre little homestead does," he says regarding our county's support for commercial farms opposed to family homesteads. "Our particular fine would have been $500 per day, per animal."
As soon as that zoning letter arrived, Andrew and his family began the legal battle to keep their homestead. He immediately started a Facebook group, "End Fairview Township's Ban on Sustainable Living." It was only a matter of days before the group had over 2,000 likes.
"It's kind of funny that we're considered progressive because we're trying to stay away from chemicals and mass-produced, boxed foods… [Farming] is the oldest occupation," he laughs.
After months of worry, appearing at town hall meetings, gathering support from the public, the Pastors - with help from attorney Rob Glance, fighting their case pro-bono – were able to plant the seed for new legislation. While this homestead isn't in the clear yet, the township temporarily dropped the zoning violation and Fairview is now in the process of re-zoning the property. In addition, the township hired an environmental consultant to propose new legislation for raising chickens, goats, pigs, and other rural farm animals.
It's not only the people that surround us but the industry that continues to grow. Melanie is worried as her property is becoming an island surrounded by Agribusiness. As this development continues, she is worried the run-off will leech into her soil. What's more, this commercial farm asked to run their drainage through A Little Bit of Heaven's Fields.
To this Melanie said, "I don't think so."
In genetically modified plants, glyphosate – the Roundup chemical that makes commercial fields so nice and tidy –won't diminish growth or necessarily pollute the soil for these GM organisms, but if it runs through a field of organic veggies, the story is different. Because these organic plants don't have the gene resistance to this potent chemical, it poisons the dirt.
"They are basically raping the land," Melanie says.
Homesteading is a valiant effort, traditionally tending to crops that may not always reach fruition. On the flipside, becoming self-sufficient by farming your way to a full meal is unrealistic for a global population to manage effectively. Then again, technology can be frightening, especially as our meals become longitudinal science projects; consumers are unknowingly becoming fresh statistics as results come to light about the GMO side-effects.
Conversely, to know that what you're eating is natural and the practices you use are tried-and-true is comforting. But the majority find cheap, convenient, labor free food particularly tempting when jobs are scarce, the hourglass is draining, and we can be lazy in our expedition to the supermarket. It is good or evil, day or night, organic or GMO, traditional or modern, the sky or the dirt.
Organic and industrial farming practices are so fundamentally different that at times it seems activists and lobbyists cherry-pick research in order to work against each other. But we are all walking towards the horizon together, and while the journey may be long, it will give us time to discover what is important on both sides of the coin and even discern the elements in between. When the sun finally touches down upon those rolling hills of green, we may be able to say that he blazed a better trail for future generations.
So we must harvest that ashen soil, educate ourselves on how we can take care of our land, and harness the hard working tradition of homesteading and the advanced research of food sciences, so it doesn't have to be one of the other, the good or the evil, the sky or the dirt, but instead a future in harmony. As far as this city's concern, we're well on our way – we just need to care about all the seeds being planted.
Matthew Flowers can be contacted at mFlowers@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @MFlowersER.