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Tag: farms

The Grapes of George (and other crops)

I’m not sure who’s behind it, but in the flatlands of eastern Washington — before the westbound traveler gets to the far more magnificent side of the state — someone has decided to label the crops.

“Crop names in fence lines next 14 miles,” reads a sign on Interstate 90, somewhere west of Moses Lake and east of a town named George.

I like this idea. For one thing, it turns a fairly boring drive into a learning experience. For another, possibly, it makes people a little more aware of/involved in the place they’re at — as opposed to the text they’re sending, the video game they’re playing, or the cell phone on which they’re blabbing.

It’s kind of like a picture book for kids: Here is the field corn, here is the alfalfa. You don’t even have to turn the page, just your head. On your left, potatoes; on your right, peppermint. Here is a field of … wheat. Here is a field of … grapes (wrathless variety, it appeared). Here is some Timothy. Timothy? (It’s a kind of hay.)

For 14 miles, on both sides of the highway, I got a lesson in agriculture — thanks to, I’d guess, the state or some agricultural commission. I wanted to learn more about crops, including why every state seems to package its hay differently. But the lesson came to an end; and as I progressed west, instead of crop signs, the only ones I saw in the fence lines — not counting those of politicians — said “For Sale.”

It struck me as a good idea, though, all this labeling and identifying — one that, if carried to extremes, could both create jobs and lead to a more informed public.

In addition to crop identifiers, why not farm animal identifiers: Sheep, goats, cows, llamas? Tree identifiers that would help us differentiate between our birch and our aspen? Factory identifiers that tell us what’s being made inside that big building? A much needed explanation of what silos (a) hold and (b) are for? The American public would get a better understanding of the importance of farming, and everything else we take for granted.

(Label this idea satire, but only kind of.)

Of course we don’t want drivers reading signs so much that they neglect their driving, but it’s nice to see signs that inform, instead of those that merely advertise, or give harsh orders — as if we were dogs or something: “No this … No that … Stay in lane … Right lane must exit … ”

I’m tired, too, of the signs that scare us: Dangerous Crosswinds Ahead, Watch for Ice, High Accident Area, Gas: $3.15.

We tend to readily identify dangers, we profusely post rules, we slap advertising everywhere — so why not label the run of the mill good stuff, like cows and creeks, steaming bowls of oatmeal and doers of good deeds?

My label-everything-on-earth plan could help the economy. Think of all the jobs. Think of the stimulus. We would need more signmakers, more sign putter-uppers, more sign repairers, more sign changers — for when the crops are rotated, or the landscape changes.

Maybe knowing what’s what would help us appreciate our Earth a little more, teach us to better “live in the moment.” Or maybe not. In any event, here’s the one I want to see:

A sign that the economy is improving.

Chasing spuds in the far north of Maine

Given that there’s not all that much else to do in Aroostook County, Maine, Ace and I followed the potatoes.

For it was potatoes, mainly, that brought John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley 50 years ago to the state’s largest and northernmost county — a place he’d never been. Neither had I, and though we’re not precisely following the path Steinbeck took for ”Travels With Charley,” this piece of it seemed worth duplicating.

“I wanted to go to the rooftree of Maine to start my trip before turning west. It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it,” Steinbeck wrote. “… Maine was my design, potatoes my purpose.”

Of particular interest to the author of “The Grapes of Wrath” were the migrant French Canadian workers who crossed the border in harvest season to pick up potatoes, after they were unearthed by machinery, and place them in baskets.

Poverty, farmworkers and migration were recurrent theme’s in Steinbeck’s vast body of work, so it’s not surprising that, for what would turn out to be his last book, he revisited them.

Steinbeck parked his camper, Rocinante, on the side of a lake, just down from a migrant camp. Smelling their soup from 100 yards away, he dispatched Charley to serve as his ambassador. He’d let the poodle go, then follow, retrieving him, apologizing for the nuisance. A conversation about the dog would inevitably ensue, leading to conversation about other things.

At this particular juncture, Steinbeck had the added advantage of his dog being French. Charley was born in Bercy, outside Paris. He invited the farmworkers to come see his camper after dinner, which six of them did. They drank beer, then brandy, served in pill bottles, a jelly glass, coffee cups and a shaving mug. They had more brandy, and then more brandy.

Rocinante, Steinbeck wrote, “took on a glow it never quite lost.”

I didn’t get a glow on in Madawaska. Seeking food, I stopped in Jerry T’s Chug-a-Mug, but they weren’t serving any. The only place that was, Jeff’s Pizza and Subs, about ten doors down, was closing in 10 minutes. I walked down, placed an order, then finished off my mug at Jerry’s. The bartender wasn’t familiar with John Steinbeck. Neither was the operator of my motel. Neither was the receptionist at Naturally Potatoes, a processing plant I stopped at after following a loaded potato truck down the highway to see where it was going.

Finding no Steinbeck afficianados, no glow, and no French Canadian farmworkers, I settled for some quality time back in the motel room with my burger.

And a side of mashed potatoes.

The harvesting of potatoes is all done by machinery now — human hands rarely enter the picture. Machines unearth the potatoes, machines scoop them out of the dirt, sending them up conveyor belts that drop them into trucks that hit the highway and dump them at processing plants.

Until around 1960, potatoes were dug out of the ground with a mechanical digger, then picked up by hand, put into baskets, then dumped into barrels. The barrels were lifted onto a flatbed truck and hauled to storage or to the processing. Farmworkers were paid by how many they picked up.

Today, migrant farmworkers have little place in the potato farming industry. They are used to harvest two of the state’s other top crops — broccoli and blueberries. But harvesting the hearty spud, thick skinned and mostly bruise-proof, is a job that clunky machines have taken over.

Maine once led the nation in potato production, but by 1994 it had fallen to eighth on the list of top potato states.

We left Madawaska the next morning amid a thick fog the sun was in the process of burning off, following Highway 1 to its end, then heading south on Highway 11 — destination Bangor, Maine.

We passed through rolling hills, more small towns, and more potato farms, whose harvest goes on to be powdered and chowedered, mashed and hashed, chipped and french-fried.

We may not be eating our vegetables, but we were seeing plenty of them, including this sea of broccoli. Was it crying out for cheese sauce, or was that just my imagination?

We passed by lumber mills, where the smell of sap wafted into the car, mom and pop motels, more farmland, and sheds both collapsed and collapsing.

Having seen both coastal Maine and inland Maine, both recreational Maine and working Maine, both comfy Maine and struggling Maine, we decided — behind schedule as we are — to rest up in Bangor before heading to the next state west: New Hampshire … or is it Vermont?

(Black and white photo, circa 1930, from the Maine Historical Society)

(Other photos by John Woestendiek)

Popping in on some Amish pups

I was on my way to see an Amish man about a dog.

Not because I want another dog — Ace is more than enough, especially during our current nomadic phase — but because I wanted a first-hand glimpse of what an Amish-run breeding operation is like.

I’ve always been puzzled by the disparity — that a seemingly peaceful and simple people could be breeding and raising dogs under conditions as horrendous as those that have been described in recent years.  The most recent horror came out of an Amish puppy farm in New York, where a breeder, rather than have his dogs treated for possible brucellosis, killed them all using a hose-and-tailpipe home-made gas chamber.

In Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, for more than a decade, reports have surfaced of despicable conditions at Amish puppy mills, and while Pennsylvania has begun to crack down on the larger scale operations, plenty of smaller ones remain.

Passing through Pennsylvania Dutch Country, I placed a phone call to Pine Tree Kennels, which I knew to be an Amish owned kennel and which was advertising “American Bulldogs” on the internet. I left a message that I was in the area and would like to see his pups.

Minutes later, my call was returned by kennel owner David Fisher and, even though he wasn’t home, arrangements were made for me to drop by his farm, where his children would show me the pups.

He said that if I saw one I liked, I could pay and take the pup with me, and he’d send me the paperwork later. “Do you have the money now?” he asked. The bulldogs pups were listed at $875, though there were two runts he was willing to let go for $650. “I don’t think that they are sick, it’s just that sometimes you get runts.”

Asked what the paperwork consisted of, he said it was the pups’ registration with the National Kennel Club — an outfit some critics describe as a paper mill for puppy mill dogs. Breeders not willing to abide by the more stringent rules and guidelines of the American Kennel Club, often register their dogs with the NKC instead.

A honking horn brought Fishers children out of their farmhouse — or at least half of the nine he has, and they showed me both the bulldogs and another litter of blue heeler-border collie mixes that they retrieved from a building obscured behind trees and bushes.

They seemed happy to show off the dogs (and to have their own pictures taken well), lifting the pups up two at a time and carrying them from their enclosures. Both pups and kids were adorable — and Fisher’s operation, at least that part of it that’s visible from the road, didn’t seem too horrendous at all.

Then again, it’s not, from all appearances, what it used to be.

Fisher’s operation outside of Lykens, in Dauphin County, was once larger scale, and state inspections reports reveal repeated violations — things like feces not cleaned up, rough and sharp edges and, perhaps most disturbing, worming syringes being used as chew toys. 

n 2009 Fisher pleaded guilty to 14 counts of dog law violations in 2009 (three of which were later withdrawn), including failure to keep kennel in a “sanitary and humane” condition, refusal of entry and selling underage puppies. In Feb. 2010 he was sentenced to six months probation for refusal entry to an inspector, selling underage puppies and failure to mantain a sanitary kennel.

On my weekend visit, Fisher’s scaled down operation seemed cleaner and more organized than the inspection reports of recent years portrayed it.

I checked out the bulldogs as their mama paced back and forth inside an enclosure — and I did like the solid white runt the best. When I asked Fisher’s young son which dog was the best he picked up the white puppy. ”You mean the nicest? This one.”

In an adjoining pen a blue heeler — who the children said lost one her legs in a mowing accident — barked, while another one, the mother of the hybrid pups, sat stationed atop a dog house.

Her puppies were kept in a shack all but hidden from view, and when I asked to see them, all the children ran back there, each returning with one or two in the crooks of their arms.

It was a bucolic scene, with beautiful kids and beautiful pups — and one that belied the increasing mound of evidence shedding a bad light on Amish breeders.

I got a chance during my visit to talk to Amy Worden, who writes the “Philly Dawg” blog for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is probably the best place to keep up with the latest news and developments pertaining to puppy mills in Pennsylvania.

As she explained it, the state is introducing the law in stages, and granting waivers that allow some larger scale operations to keep running. Overall though, in the past few years, the number of puppy mills has dropped from 300 to around 100.

Worden thinks that, in addition to those who have gotten out of the business or moved, other Amish breeders have scaled down to avoid the regulations. The new law has its gray areas, she said, but it goes along way to ensure that huge puppy mills will become history in Pennsylvania. “Clearly, nobody’s going to have 800 dogs or more, as was case in the past.”

Worden said the Amish were persuaded to start breeding dogs by outsiders, who pushed the concept as a way the farming families could make some supplemental income — important when one has a family as large as Fisher’s.

Critics say — and it’s probably a generalization — that the Amish view dogs as livestock, but watching Fisher’s children with the dogs, though they did sling them around pretty casually, there seemed to be genuine affection.

With fewer than 25 dogs on hand, Fisher is not subject to the regulations contained in Pennyslvania’s new dog law, which was passed in 2008, though many of its provisions have yet to kick in.

Other than that, the only solid conclusion I reached is that the Amish can be pretty persistent salesmen — at least Fisher is.

He called me before we had gotten a mile away from his farm, and has called me 15 times since.

PETA’s attempt to spoil Thanksgiving dinner

Here’s an ad by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that won’t be airing during today’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

PETA had sought to have the ad aired during the parade at NBC affilliates in Raleigh, N.C., Columbia, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and Little Rock, Ark.  But they all rejected it, according to PETA spokesman Michael Lyubinsky.

The commercial depicts a young girl saying grace at Thanksgiving, giving thanks for “the turkey farms where they pack them into dark, tiny little sheds for their whole lives.” It encourages viewers to “go vegan.”

Brad Moses, general manager of Raleigh’s WNCN, said he decided to ban the ad in Raleigh and Savannah because it’s not appropriate for the spirit of the parade, the Associated Press reported.

What’s that Wayne Pacelle really up to?

pacelleThe Humane Society of the United States does not run or regularly fund the nation’s 3,500 animal shelters.

HSUS President and CEO admitted that yesterday on his blog, “A Humane Nation.” 

Of course he would have told you that a month or year ago as well, because, despite an “investigative report” out of Atlanta, later retracted, and despite the criticism from a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom, HSUS has not become the mammoth non-profit that it is by proclaiming it provides shelter for America’s homeless pets.

It has implied that it cares about animals, and that it works to improve their lives. It has tugged at your heartstrings in its fundraising spots, and it has made the most of publicizing its work. It has done some things I wouldn’t agree with and failed to do some things I wish it would have. To disagree with its priorities, or some of its policies, is one thing. But to say its an organization built on deception — that it has tried to lead Americans to believe it’s tucking shelter dogs in at night — is off the mark, and overlooks the work the organization does.

“If anyone reads my daily blog, looks at our website, reads our magazines, or scans our email and direct mail letters, you’ll find no claims that we run America’s 3,500 animal shelters, or serve as a granting agency for them—or that any one organization serves this function,” Pacelle wrote on his blog yesterday. “Their accusation is a fiction.”

“CCF and our opponents would love it if we just gave money to shelters. That way, the corporations that fund CCF would have much clearer sailing in conducting their animal exploitation activities …  Right now, we’re their worst nightmare, and we are not going away.”

opinion-sig1Some critics say HSUS has a secret “vegan agenda” — that it wants to take our steaks away. As a meat lover, and a smoker, and a person who likes smoked meats, I say, even if that were the case, so what? The animals I eat deserve a spokesperson.

“It would be a terrible dereliction of duty if we did not address the other problems of animals in society,” Pacelle wrote. “There are 10 billion animals raised for food, principally on factory farms, in America every year — and that’s nearly 30 million a day. There are tens of millions of animals used in laboratory experiments. More than 100 million killed for sport. Tens of millions killed in the fur trade, and tens of millions killed worldwide in cockfights and dogfights.

While most animal lovers have a pet issue, Pacelle notes, HSUS is trying to look at the big picture, and the roots of what it sees as the biggest problems.

“We have to be there for as many animals as we can, and use our finite resources in a highly strategic way to achieve the biggest impacts,” he wrote.

“While we help many thousands of animals in distress … our primary strategy is to strike at the root of the problem, rather than to address the symptoms. Whether it’s in the field, in the courts, in legislatures, in influencing public opinion, conducting undercover investigations, or by some other lawful and mainstream means, there’s no group that is a greater agent of change or brings the arsenal of tools we do to the fight for animals.”

(Photo: vegdaily.com)

Nightline looks at puppy mills tonight

ABC’s Nightline tackles puppy mills tonight in a report that will focus on Amish breeders in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. The show airs locally at 11:35 p.m.

ABC Correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi and investigators from Nightline visited numerous commercial breeding facilities in the area, and the report includes an on-camera interview with a Mennonite breeder who allowed a tour of his facility, which houses about 200 dogs. The breeder, identified only as Ezekiel, says his dogs are healthy and happy, and says he doesn’t operate a “puppy factory. He also goes on about how much “safer” it is for the dogs to run in caged treadmills as opposed to outdoors.

The report also documents the work of  Main Line Animal Rescue, whose founder, Bill Smith, says female dogs at the farms live their lives producing litter after litter, then are disposed of — sometimes euthanized, sometimes shot.

There are about 300 licensed breeders in Lancaster County, and rescue workers estimate another 600 unlicensed facilities operate in barns and sheds, according to the ABC report. Those breeders go to great measures to avoid discovery. Smith says some even “de-bark” their dogs.

“The farmers, the Amish and the Mennonites, they pull the heads back and then they hammer sharp instruments down their throats to scar their vocal cords so they can’t bark,” he said. “So that way they can have 500-600 dogs in a barn and no one knows. As we said, it’s an industry of secrecy.”

Breeders can make upwards of half million dollars a year. The Amish breeders sell the dogs at auctions and the puppies often end up at pet stores.

“People are deceived,” Smith said. “They’re nice enough and they put down their money and they walk away with a dog and they don’t realize that there are 500 dogs in a barn … suffering horribly. So it’s something that people have to be aware of. They have to know that going in. When they buy these dogs, they’re keeping that going.”

(Photos: Mary Hunt Davis/Main Line Animal Rescue)

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