Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Chicken Life Ain't Easy

Buff Orpington and baby chicks
Sometimes I'm not so sure I'm cut out for the life of a chicken owner.

My goal in all of this was to have a sustainable flock; raise a breed that would raise its own chicks and we could take some of those chicks and sell them, keep them for laying hens, or ideally raise them up to put in the freezer.

In theory this works very well, and it is what humans have done for thousands of years. In my own  backyard it seems to be a different story.

I was ecstatic to see one of my Dorking hens sitting on eggs a month ago. She stayed in the nest box all day and didn't come out, I knew this meant she was broody and would sit on those eggs until they hatched. After the hatch she would then, in theory, raise the babies with no help what so ever from me.

I was even more excited when a week later my Buff Orpington went broody. I carefully tucked the eggs I wanted to hatch under each hen and tried to leave them alone the best I could to do their mama hen thing.

Chicken eggs take exactly 21 days to hatch, on the 19th day I thought it would be best to move my mama Dorking into a safer, more ground level coop to hatch and raise her young. I carried out this operation late one night assuming she would be less likely to freak out since they cannot see well in the dark. I put a hand towel over her head, carefully handed her to my husband, and slid out her entire nest from the nest box. I quickly and carefully arranged her nest in the other coop and my husband gently set her on the nest. She freaked out. She ran around the coop and ended up perched in the corner of the coop completely away from her eggs. I rushed around and got a light ready for the coop thinking she simply couldn't see her nest and was confused. The light helped; she came down from the perch, ate some food and then sat on her eggs. The mission was a success. I checked again in the morning before I went to work and she was still on the nest keeping her eggs warm. After work I ran out to check on her one more time and of course, she was perched in the corner of the coop, her eggs were cold and she seemed to want nothing to do with them. As a last resort I moved her nest back to the original nest box she was sitting in and she went to them immediately. I was relieved, but it was short lived. She gave up on the eggs by the next morning and the entire batch of 12 eggs she sat on for 19 straight days was ruined. I felt terrible.

I kept my hope with hen #2. I did not move her, I did not touch her, I stayed as far away as possible and let her do her thing. I learned my lesson with the first hen. I was surprised when I saw a baby chick at the 17 day mark. And another arrived on day 18. By day 20 I saw 4 baby chicks. I set up a little ramp with some food and water at the bottom and closed the coop area off so the other hens or rooster would not bother them.

First 2 baby chicks to hatch, still in the coop with their mama

On day 21 I rushed to the coop after work to see if she brought her babies down the ramp and I could finally get a good peak at their fuzzy little baby buns. Peering through the dusty window into the dark coop I could see and hear that she had brought them out of the nest box. I opened the drop down side to see how many eggs actually hatched; there were only 2 eggs remaining out of the 10 she was sitting on, but there was also one dead chick left in there. I assumed it had died of natural causes or maybe was suffocated and I was not too worried. Upon opening the big door to get a look at the chicks I saw another dead one on the floor and realized something was wrong. All the baby chicks were running around the coop and the mama was frantically chasing one around. And then it happened; before I realized what she was even doing she killed a third baby chick right in front of me. Flashes of my childhood overcame me and I saw the classroom pet rat eat her own baby rat with no warning signs at all and the blood splattered on the aquarium was permanently engraved in my mind.

I ran for my husband, together we got the mama out of the coop and collected the babies. I had to set up an emergency chick cage in the garage and set them up a little home with a heat light. The poor things chirped and chirped looking for their mama and the mama wandered around the yard obviously lost and disoriented. The whole situation broke my heart. We had to bury 2 unhatched eggs and 3 dead baby chicks.

I'm grateful to have 5 great looking baby chicks safe in their new garage home and I'm trying not to worry about the future if another mama hen goes broody. I haven't decided if it takes a certain kind of person to live this life, or if you become that person after the experiences you go through.

Baby chicks huddling to keep warm

Are you my mother?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Navigating the grocery aisle: 6 easy steps to eating better

Nutrition labels, ingredients, packaging, GMO's, BPA's, high fructose corn syrup, yellow lake #5, what does it all mean?

Making the transition from ignorant bliss to a health conscious consumer can be intimidating. You may know nothing more than the simple fact that you want to eat better. So where do you start?

Follow these 6 steps over the next 6 months to gain a better understanding of food, lose weight without counting calories and regain control of your physical and mental health. 

Step 1: Decoding Ingredients

You may think you know what you are eating but you are in for a not so pleasant surprise when you begin understanding the ingredients list. If the product has a long ingredients list or anything you're not sure on how to pronounce, avoid it. Look for a safer alternative.

Wikipedia offers a full list of food additives, but here is my short dirty list of ingredients to avoid:
  • Food dyes: Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6 and Caramel coloring
  • Artificial sweeteners: Acesulfame-K, Aspartame, Saccharin and Sucralose
  • Hidden trans fats: Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and hydrogenated vegetable oil
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Propyl gallate
  • Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Mycoprotein (Quorn)
  • Potassium Bromate
  • TBHQ
Labelwatch and Fooducate are both easy and effective tools that I use on a regular bases to decode ingredients and also as a way of comparing similar products that might be a safer alternative.

Step 2: Understanding Bisphenol-A (BPA)

Something you won't see on the ingredients list is the presence of Bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA is an epoxy used to line food and drink cans. It is a weak endocrine disruptor, which can mimic estrogen and lead to negative health effects.

It is found in canned goods, soda cans and in some plastics labeled with the #7. BPA is being linked to obesity, cancer, diabetes and a number of other health problems. Several companies have promised to convert their can linings into a BPA version, but to this date only a few companies offer canned goods that do not use BPA in their lining. If you are not sure if the product you are buying is BPA free, it is best to find an alternative.

Frozen foods, foods packaged in glass jars and foods packaged in the Tetra Pak cartons (similar to a paper milk carton) are all BPA free.

Step 3: Avoid Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO, GEO, GMF's)

Another thing in your food that won't be listed (as if understanding what you're eating isn't hard enough) is Genetically Modified Organisms; also referred to as Genetically Engineered Organism's or Genetically Modified Foods.

I had heard a lot about GMO's and even sought out information that could explain in an easy to understand way (think Dummies here) what they are and why they're bad, but it wasn't until I read this Mother Earth News article that I grasped the concept and got on board to avoid GMO's.

In short, Monsanto and other devil like companies have found a way to change the DNA of a plant or animal so it will do something in its favor. For a cow this would mean producing more milk, for a plant this could mean producing its own bacteria or pesticide to kill insects, or make it tolerant to withstand being drenched with pesticide without compromising production levels. This may actually sound like a very promising practice but scientists are finding there is evidence that consuming GMO's does indeed have ill effects on health:
Professor emeritus Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that “there is evidence that [Bt] will impact directly on human health through damage to the ileum [the final portion of the small intestine, which joins it to the large intestine] … [which] can produce chronic illnesses such as fecal incontinence and/or flu-like upsets of the digestive system.”

Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/sustainable-farming/genetically-modified-foods-zm0z12amzmat.aspx?page=3#ixzz1stBa73nZ
Products using GMO's are currently not required to be labeled, so it is very difficult to know whether or not you are consuming genetically modified foods. So far, products certified as organic cannot contain GMO's and some companies who are not certified organic have added a label informing their customers that their product is GMO free. If you are not sure if your favorite product is GMO free, contact the company directly for answers.

Step 4: Understanding the word organic

The organic certified label is not meant to trick you into buying a more expensive product nor is it a gimmick for soccer moms to feel better about themselves. This label was meant to meet a basic requirement for what can be considered an ethical choice. Is it abused sometimes? Yes. Is it the best choice all the time? No.

You can count on organic labeling to provide you with the following:
  • A product free from artificial colors and artificial flavors
  • A product free of unnatural preservatives
  • A product free from high fructose corn syrup
  • A non-GMO product
  •  Produced without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers
  • If it is a meat or dairy product that the animal had some access to pasture
I try to adhere to the dirty dozen and clean fifteen list of produce to know when to buy organic and when conventional will do just fine.

When in doubt, choose organic, but the more educated you are you will be able to determine which is a better product whether or not it has been certified as organic.

Keep in mind that just because something is not certified as organic it does not mean that it isn't following organic standards or higher: It is very costly to become certified organic and maintain that certification, many small companies cannot afford or do not wish to go through this process.

Step 5: Know your farmer

Local, in season produce is the most nutritious and often the most affordable. Grass fed beef, pork and free range chicken is not only the best tasting, it is also more nutritious than grain fed livestock.

This step is by far the most ambitious step: taking the initiative to reach out and ask questions to the farmers in your area and making time to shop at the farmers market will seem exotic at first, but empowering and nostalgic in no time.

Most local farmers will not be certified organic, this does not mean they do not produce what you would consider an organic product, it simply means they have not gone through the certification process.

Here are a few questions you can ask your local farmer to learn more about what kind of produce, meat or dairy product they are offering:
  • If you want produce that is free from pesticides ask if they use 'spray' in the crops and also have them specify if anything was applied to the surface of the fruit/vegetable. Let the farmer know you are looking for something that is completely pesticide-free.  
  • If you are looking for 'free range' or 'grass fed' meat or dairy products, ask the farmer how much of the diet of the animal is grass and how much is supplemented as grain. A grass fed or free range animal will have the majority of their diet consist of pasture. Hogs and chickens do require some grain as a supplement, but should be given daily access to grassland or pasture.
  • Most farmers at a market reserve antibiotics for animals that are truly sick and not used as a tool for growth. Have the farmer explain his/her method for when antibiotics are used on their farm. 
  • Understanding the terms Heirloom & Heritage:  "Heirloom and heritage refer to traditional varieties of plants and animals that have been developed by farmers over years of cultivation and breeding.  These varieties, passed down through generations, have unique colors, textures, and flavors that may not be found in factory-farmed products.  Frequently, both heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds of animals are not considered fit for mass production because they produce smaller yields and are more delicate."
    Information provided by: The City of Ann Arbor, a2gov.org, Glossary of Market Termshttp://www.a2gov.org/GOVERNMENT/COMMUNITYSERVICES/PARKSANDRECREATION/FARMERSMARKET/Pages/glossary.aspx  

 Step 6: The Colorful Plate

If your plate is always brown, tan and white, you're not getting enough nutrients.

Try to plan your meals to include a wide variety of foods for a balanced diet; the more colorful your plate, the more nutrients you will be taking in. Shoot for the rainbow here people.

If you are having pork loin for dinner make sure you balance the portion size out with some bright orange steamed carrots, a green salad with shredded purple cabbage and creamed cauliflower with garlic on the side.

Eating healthy is not always about counting calories and scanning nutrition labels for fat content. Once you establish a healthy relationship with food and a complete understanding of what you're taking in, your body will settle into its own natural weight and you can feel comfortable in your own skin.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Removing iron stains from a toilet, the eco friendly way

When life gives you lemons... scrub your toilet
Photo credit: brad montgomery
I had an entire sunny, warm Saturday all to myself. No kids, no husband, just some lazy dogs soaking up sun in the backyard and the sound of chickens clucking somewhere off in the distance. Judging by the title of this post, you can make a pretty firm judgement about how exciting my days off are. But when your 2 year old comes in and says something to the effect of "it smells like pee in here" you know you are well past the socially acceptable span of time between bathroom cleanings.

I always promote the use of natural, chemical free cleaners; I just had never been convinced they actually worked for tough situations.

I had always used harsh chemicals in the toilet bowl. We have a lot iron in our water and it stains the toilet within a few days after cleaning it. It is nearly impossible to scrub off and to be real honest I have been doing just 'bare minimum' cleaning since the arrival of my second daughter back in August. I had tried vinegar, baking soda, non-toxic all natural cleaners and nothing touched the iron stains in the toilet. I've tried hand scrubbing, brush scrubbing and letting the cleaner soak for a few hours. Nothing. The only success I have had in the past getting the toilet clean and bright white was to use some sort of iron removing harsh chemical spray and scrubbing the living hell out of the toilet with gloves on and a little green dish srubbie. I probably don't have to explain what level I feel at socially when I'm on my knees scrubbing stuck bits of god knows what off a nasty toilet bowl with just a stupid little green scrubbie. At least the noxious fumes of the cleaner gave me a bit of a free buzz while I was down there.

In steps the miracle of lemons and salt. I had a half of a lemon drying out on the counter for no apparent reason. I glanced over at it on my way to tackle the filth that had taken over my bathroom and thought I'd give this whole eco-cleaning thing one more shot. I had heard that lemons were a main staple in eco cleaning because of the acid, and using a coarse salt was supposed to create an effective scrubbing action.

Gloves on, lemon in hand, I squeezed it a little to get the juices flowing and topped it with a heavy shaking of coarse sea salt. I had already dumped a big bowl of clean water into the toilet to make it do that magic thing where the water goes down but doesn't refill; the toilet was pretty much empty while I was cleaning it. I took the salted side of the lemon and used it to scrub the slime/iron/calcium that had built up in the bowl. "Are you kidding me." With minimal effort a small portion of my toilet was actually white. White! "Are you kidding me?!" I had not seen a white toilet bowl in about year. I had pretty much given up on it and let the iron win this battle. "You have got to be kidding me." My dog had come in at this point and was staring at me wondering who I was talking to.

It did take some elbow grease in a couple of tough spots, but I just kept re-salting my lemon half and scrubbing away. That dried out half of a lemon was the only lemon in the house. I can imagine the task would have gone even better had the lemon been fresh and if I had more than one so I could swap them out as they wore down. It was pretty ragged looking lemon in the end.

I have no 'before' pictures of the said toilet. I had no hope of a simple thing like lemon and salt actually working like it did, so I had no ambition to get out my camera before hand. When it was all done, I actually took 3 pictures of the toilet it was so damn good looking.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Meijer needs to offer BPA free canned goods

As a Michigan resident I am proud of the Michigan based company, Eden Foods, for being a pioneer and leading the industry in BPA (Bisphenol-A) free canned goods. I know I've sang their praises more than once and I'm not trying to raise them up as some sort of golden god, but what they're doing just makes sense. The FDA is undecided about the safety of BPA, pretty much everyone who has tested BPA has found it harmful or at the very least, not desirable. There is a way of making can linings that are BPA free, so why isn't everyone making cans that are BPA free?

Anyone living in Michigan, or the surrounding states, know about Meijer. Meijer is a big step up from Walmart; they treat their employees pretty well, almost every Meijer I have been in has been clean and well organized, the produce is fresh and there are a lot of options for a shopper to choose from. I am even impressed at how my local Meijer has slowly but surely expanded its organic selection and now offers a pretty great organic line of their own.

What I am disappointed about is the fact that my local Meijer used to carry Eden Foods products and has since taken them off the shelf. I am left with no BPA free canned good options. This might be understandable if we were in any other state, but here in Michigan we have an excellent company that I would presume to be more than willing to put a whole line of BPA free options on the shelves. Not only would this give shoppers a choice if they want to pay a few extra cents, it would also support another Michigan based company and Michigan jobs.

Here is the Meijer contact page:

And here is a quick message you can send so Meijer is aware that its customers are concerned about BPA in their products:
As a concerned shopper, I insist upon a BPA-free alternative for canned good linings. Let your shoppers make their own choice; provide a BPA-free brand on all Meijer shelves. Thank you.
  Even just 10 messages in one day will raise awareness about the need for BPA free products, and it will only take 1 minute of your time.