Immigration – A broad look

The immigration issue is definitely a hot button topic these days with reports of 10’s of thousands of children crossing the border and the potential illness that they are bringing with them not to mention the people that are already here illegally. When you talk about immigration people often turn it into a political debate about how President Obama has created this problem or is overstepping his executive powers by trying to force change, or there are some that will blame former President Bush. Although I believe in our government system, it is run by humans and we are not perfect. I personally can’t stand the political debate that goes on over such a human issue no matter how it started it needs a solution. Over the last several months as I have been researching agriculture and all the things we need to know to run a small farm, immigration is a huge factor that affects our food supply and agricultural businesses.

Recently USA Today published a special edition newspaper all about the US Department of Agriculture and the many factors that affect our food system. As I read through this paper I was surprised and irritated by many of the statistics. Often times when you talk to people about illegal immigrants a standard argument is “they are taking away Americans jobs”. Maybe it is the cynic in me but I don’t see many Americans wanting a job that pays $10 per hour or less doing hard manual labor and only getting maybe 1,500 hours per year (2,080 at 40 hours/week standard for total year). Currently undocumented immigrants account for approximately seventy percent of the farm workers in the US. Unfortunately, the number of people working on farms is still not sufficient to keep up with demand and we are importing fruits and vegetables from other countries.

One of the larger articles in this paper was about the passage of the recent “Farm bill” which is now the Agricultural Act of 2014. It seems that this bill needed to have a new name because it includes everything from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to conservation funding as well as the expected crop insurance for farmers. The largest amount of money within this bill is for nutrition/SNAP benefits. This new bill has allocated over $97 billion a year towards SNAP for the 1 in 7 people that rely on this program for food. I don’t know the breakdown for who receives these benefits, but I do know that this is another system that has a lot of flaws. As I mentioned in my article How to Reduce Food Deserts and SNAP Benefits I mentioned that I applied for SNAP and didn’t receive much due to having a part-time job. In a country that has a problem with unemployment, is funding people to be able to eat and experiencing an issue with illegal immigrants (working a job that many American’s don’t seem to be willing to do) it seems that we are not focusing on how to make our country more efficient.

On Friday it was reported that Congress is once again stalled on the issue of immigration. There are multiple bills floating around ranging from $659 million to $3.7 billion to deal with the influx of children crossing the border, but no one wants to come to an agreement. As with many of the issues we have seen lately there is a game of chicken going on within our government. It seems that each political party tries to hold out until the breaking point before some compromise is miraculously reached. All of the issues that we are facing in this country are complex by themselves, but as I have found they are also interconnected. Since the focus on the issues is always separated we aren’t able to teach younger generations the cause and effect of things. The interconnectedness of immigration and SNAP benefits can be seen within the super market if you pay attention. Since 1 in 7 Americans are relying on SNAP benefits for their food needs they demand low prices, therefore the American farmer needs inexpensive labor so they hire illegal immigrants that are grateful for the opportunity to work and make any money.

Our political parties spend so much time focusing on the issue that is going to help them get re-elected and not focusing on what is best for the general welfare of the country. No matter what your political affiliation is it is important to remember that the beginning of our Constitution states:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

By separating each issue and not focusing on our country as a whole we are not promoting the general welfare or insuring domestic tranquility. As our younger generations grow it is important to teach them about personal responsibility, especially when it comes to our food system. If we can reduce the number of people that rely on SNAP benefits our government provides it can help free up the dollars needed to provide for the “common defence” of our nation and help with the immigration problem that we are currently experiencing.

Tomato Hornworm

Tobacco Hornworm
Tobacco Hornworm

Over the last couple of years we have been expanding our gardens, but we have had to be creative because our backyard also shares space with three medium/large dogs that like to eat fresh vegetables especially green tomatoes. Due to our limited space I decided that I would go vertical and try out the Topsy Turvy that a friend gave us. I started a couple of heirloom (mortgage lifter) seeds in the house back in February, once I had a plant that was strong enough I transferred it into the Topsy Turvy with soil that was purchased at our local hardware store. The last two months it has been growing and blooming, but I started noticing that the leaves were disappearing. On closer inspection I found several caterpillars making a feast out of my plant.

Once I noticed these nasty little boogers devouring my plant I shared a picture on my Facebook page to find out for sure what they were. Thanks to my friends they confirmed that my pest was a tomato hornworm. I have never experienced the devastation that a hornworm can have on your crops so I began to do some research on them. According to organic gardening’s website there are two varieties of hornworm, the tomato and tobacco hornworm. They are easy to identify based on the stripes and the color of the horn on their rear end. On further inspection my hornworms were the tobacco variety based on the horn being a reddish color. Based on the information on Farmer’s Almanac’s webpage these caterpillars can devastate a crop very quickly. I am grateful that I found them early and was able to remove them before they caused too much damage. My one confusion is how did they get onto this particular plant?

Yellow Pear Tomato
Yellow Pear Tomato

I am currently growing three varieties of tomato. I have a yellow pear tomato that was a volunteer from last year’s garden that I transferred into a pot, I did this because I have had some nutrient problems because of the excessive rain we have had in Florida the last couple years. This plant has been growing and producing well for the last couple of months. After doing some research into how to add nutrients back into my raised beds I decided I would give a better boy tomato a shot and see if I could combine companion planting and watering with compost tea to get a tomato to survive in the ground. As soon as I discovered the hornworms on the one plant I then walked through the gardens inspecting all the plants, but especially the tomatoes, but didn’t find any more hornworms.

Better boy tomato
Better boy tomato

The hornworm tends to come from the soil and the eggs hatch and then begin devouring the plants. The recommendation to prohibit them is tilling the soil to kill the eggs and larvae before they have had a chance to grow. Apparently they eventually develop into a moth, since my hornworms were only on a plant that is not in the ground my only conclusion is that a moth laid eggs within the Topsy Turvy at some point. I was lucky to only have a few hornworms and was able to simply pick them off. My plant is now recovering and doing well. Contrary to our natural instinct allowing wasps to hang around the garden is a good thing, because they are a natural predator of hornworms, so if you prefer organic pest prevention ensuring that wasps patrol your gardens is a great natural way to prevent hornworm infestations. Other methods including companion planting with marigolds or botanical Bt are other options.

I would love to hear if anyone has a suggestion as to how the hornworm may have invaded my Topsy Turvy? Happy gardening everyone.

How to Reduce Food Deserts and SNAP benefits

Strawberry Barrel (Container gardening)
Strawberry Barrel (Container gardening)

In recent times we have been hearing reports about federal and state governments constantly having to cut back on programs because there is no money and many Americans are still trying to dig their way out of the financial crisis that our nation has struggled through for the last 7-8 years it seems that we need to start looking at different more efficient ways for taking care of our citizens. Due to countless factors including weather, economics and demand our food costs are constantly on the rise. Recently on the news they were talking about food deserts and that local farmers had developed a mobile farmers market to help people with access to fresh food. I was glad to hear that something like this is happening in an era of fast food and convenient living.

Since I live in a large urban area I wanted to better understand what is truly considered a food desert. According to the USDA a food desert is any urban area that lacks access to fresh, healthy, affordable foods within 1 mile. In a rural area access must be within 10 miles. The USDA does not consider access to fast food or convenience stores adequate access. While I am glad to see that our government recognizes that these foods should not be considered healthy or affordable it did send me on another search about what food is eligible for food stamps (now known as SNAP) because more and more often signs are popping up at convenience stores and fast food chains stating they accept SNAP. According to the USDA website they define eligible foods as “any food or food product for home consumption and also includes seeds and plants which produce food for consumption by SNAP households.” I am sure many of us have witnessed people purchasing items that we don’t feel should be eligible for SNAP, but unfortunately with this broad definition almost anything that humans consume is eligible. The website reports that 23.5 million people receive these benefits.

As someone who enjoys gardening, and realizes the many benefits that I receive from this simple activity including fresh, healthy affordable food I was shocked to see that you can buy seeds or plants with SNAP benefits. I would much rather see someone utilize there SNAP benefit to purchase a tomato plant then the lobster or energy drink that I have seen. Several years ago I also fell victim to the financial crisis of our nation and was struggling to make ends meet for myself and my teenage son. I was working only part time and found myself sitting in the welfare office applying for any program that I thought I may qualify. Unfortunately because I was working part time I didn’t qualify for much, I was allotted approximately $16 a month in SNAP. Luckily as soon as I found out what I qualified for my situation changed and I no longer needed the benefits. That experience though has made me realize that it would be worthwhile to have a gardening channel running while people wait and educate people that seeds are an option until I looked it up to write this article I had no clue. I realize that many of the 23.5 million people may not have access to land to plant a garden, but there are several options from utilizing containers to encouraging a landlord to allow a community garden in a common area.

When it comes to providing SNAP benefits I feel that the Chinese proverb Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime is one that really needs to be taught and adapted towards gardening. The $16 that I received could have bought me about 7 packets of seeds and produced an abundance of food that would have lasted longer then what I may have purchased in the store.

Herb Gardening – Sage

Sage plant in bloom

I have had great success with sage both in the ground and in a container. When I first planted my garden I put sage in the corner of the garden with the intention of it being a companion plant to benefit the vegetables. Due to an extremely wet season the first year it was in the ground it grew very large, very quickly and took over the space that I had allotted for it. The next spring we decided to move it into a container to free up the space in my raised bed. Although I was nervous that it wouldn’t survive the transplant it seemed to do just fine. Now a year and a half later my sage bloomed with beautiful bee attracting purple flowers.

Sage is an herb that is great to have in your garden to help repel insects, cabbage seems to benefit best since it will repel cabbage moths, but it also repels other flying insects. It is a perennial that grows best from starts. Keeping my sage trimmed has been encouraging new growth and my plant has thrived since its transfer into a pot. A huge advantage of having it in a pot has been the ability to move it around to my different raised beds depending on what I am growing.

This herb is a superstar when it comes to the medicinal qualities; it has antibiotic and antiseptic properties. It has been used by herbalists as an expectorant to help expel mucus experienced with the common cold. The stimulant properties help increase circulation which can increase energy and has helped some women experience a decrease in night sweats experienced during menopause. Sage also has anti-inflammatory properties and has been used to treat sore throats and other inflammation within the mouth. Creating toothpaste with sage can also help with gingivitis. Similar to rosemary you can spray a mist of sage in your hair both herbs may help darken greys for anyone with darker hair. (The New Age Herbalist, and The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth)

A couple of years ago The Chew did an episode with a Lemon Sage Turkey that quickly became a favorite in our house. The compound butter used in that recipe has become a constant in my freezer. Sage pairs well in turkey, chicken and pork dishes. It has a slightly pepper taste that works well in sausage and stuffing.

Compound Lemon Sage Butter

2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature 1/2 of the fresh sage (minced) 1 shallot (finely minced) 1 clove garlic (finely minced) zest of 1 lemon juice of half a lemon kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine room temperature butter, shallot, garlic, minced sage, lemon zest and lemon juice.  Stir together with a rubber spatula.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Every day I am learning more about the joys of gardening and the benefits of using the things that I can grow to keep my family and I healthy and well fed. I would love to hear about your favorite herb, what do you enjoy most?

Are we our own worst enemy?

Sunset in the West

Last month I wrote about the UN study that warned of the continued risk of global warming, climate change and my surprise that this issue wasn’t being taken more seriously. Since then we have heard from the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the overuse of antibiotics and that it has created resistance globally. We have seen several celebrities promoting books or their own documentaries on healthy diets or the diabetes/obesity epidemic. Then finally on May 6th the White House released their report on climate change and how it will affect the different regions of our country. I view all of these issues interconnected and related to the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution made its way to America approximately 150 years ago. During this time we saw advancements in every area including transportation, medicine and technology. Within the medical realm Edward Jenner and his work on an immunization to eradicate the small pox virus began what became the foundation of today’s immunology. Later in the 1800’s scientists began to discover and implement the use of different antibiotics including the widely known and accepted penicillin. Around this time we saw major growth in transportation as well with the growth of the railway. The railway changed the way people and foods were able to move about the country. This new way of transporting food changed how and what people living in urban areas were able to consume. There were also the technological advances with machinery being able to complete tasks that were done by hand, many of these advancements continue to happen today. Don’t get me wrong I am grateful for the Industrial Revolution, if it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be able to sit here typing this on a computer while being able to stay at home and take care of my child in an air-conditioned home. I do think that the Industrial Revolution is what has caused a nation and world of connected yet disconnected people. Let me explain.

The railway* opened up the possibility of moving more people and food throughout the country. It also created challenges for farmers about how to get their food moved around while also keeping it safe to eat. This challenge became an opportunity for a middle man to come in and create a process to keep the foods safe. One process created was refrigeration which kept meat and vegetation fresh longer. Companies also started developing ways of processing foods with chemicals or salt that would help them last longer. This change in the food industry has created a society that is disconnected from the farmer and from the source of our food. How many people know that brussel sprouts grow on a stalk or that basil is a finicky herb that likes specific growing conditions? The majority of society wants to walk into a grocery store and get what they want for the cheapest price they can. There is little thought into the challenges that a farmer might have in growing things. The pressure for farmers to produce large amounts of food at a low cost has also created growing practices that require tilling of the land. Something that few people may realize is that when you till the land it releases carbon dioxide, one of the major contributors to climate change.

As scientists progressed through this revolution, society has enjoyed many advances in medicine which helped us live longer and more comfortably. One of the dramatic changes was the development of antibiotics which helped to keep people alive if they had a major infection, but they also became widely used for minor infections or as protection against getting infections. Also, because of the demand on livestock farmers to produce more for a lower cost they have used antibiotics to help keep animals healthy until they are slaughtered, this means that we are ingesting small amounts through our foods along with anytime we are prescribed them. In the World Health Organizations recent report this overuse of antibiotics has now created a situation where simple infections are no longer treatable. The report sites that gonorrhea is untreatable in 10 countries. Scientists have also worked on chemicals to help farmers combat weeds and bugs to help increase their crop sizes. Just as microbes have changed to avoid destruction by antibiotics, weeds and bugs are adapting to withstand the use of pesticides and herbicides. It seems that humans are the only ones not adapting to our changing world.

Humans have made huge advancements in the world developing faster better ways of transportation, and communication. We have improved our medical opportunities helping people that once would never have a full life be able to experience years of health. Unfortunately we aren’t working with our planet to help us continue to grow. No matter how fast a plane can fly, or a computer can operate they will never replace our need for fresh water and food. The medical community is never going to create a way for us to survive without natural nourishment. It is time to take back responsibility for our health and the health of our planet. We need to help the earth to heal by allowing farmers to use organic practices. We should also try to slow down and grow a garden, spend time in nature. We also need to give our bodies time when we are sick to heal naturally. By working with our environment we can evolve along with the microbes and planet around us.

* Countryside Magazine – Food and the fast track – by Jerri Cook Volume 94 number 5, 2010