An open letter to Miss Paula Deen

I watch the Food Network, I do. I like the basic shows best, the ones where people are just cooking, and I think Alton Brown is hilarious. I get a kick out of Paula Deen; she’s so outrageous, yet real. You get the idea that she could come over to your house and not bat an eye at the dog under the table or the dust on the mantle (if you have a mantle). She came from a blue-collar Georgia family, got married straight out of high school, had a messy marriage to an alcoholic and messier divorce, and raised her two sons as a single mom. I’ve read her biography, the gal has a stiff spine.

Which is why I have been disconcerted to see her as the spokesperson for Smithfield ham. Why, Miss Paula, why?

The Smithfield ham website touts its products as being “the flavor of Southern hospitality” and “the essence of Southern elegance.” The real story of Smithfield is a little less Gone with the Wind and little more The Jungle.

Smithfield has roots as a small packing plant founded in Smithfield, Virginia in 1936, but it doesn’t resemble that Rockwellian vignette anymore. The company slaughters 27 million hogs per year, making it the biggest hog producer and processor in the world. Rather than buying farmers’ hogs on the open market, Smithfield raises many of their own, and contracts most of the rest. Case in point, in the 1950s over 2 million farmers raised hogs; now that number has dropped to just over 78,000. While the number of hog farmers has dropped precipitously, the number of hogs has jumped. In 1988, the North Carolina hog population was 2.6 million; by 1997 it had risen to over 8 million. Also in North Carolina, Smithfield owns 274 hog farms and has contracts with another 1,200 farms to raise hogs exclusively for the company.

Raising all those hogs in concentrated areas introduces a host of problems since factory farms produce huge amounts of manure in addition to animals. This manure is held in sewage lagoons like cities use, but with much less regulation and oversight. Hogs produce more waste than humans; for example, a 2,500-head confinement in North Carolina produces 26 million gallons of liquid waste per year. Another confinement in Utah, holding an astounding half-million hogs, produces eight times more waste than Salt Lake City. Sometimes these lagoons leak or spill, such as a 2003 spill into North Carolina’s Neuse River, killing 4 million fish. Several other North Carolina rives have been the recipients of Smithfield’s waste, killing fish and contaminating the water for any other use.

In addition to how the hogs are raised, problems persist throughout the processing end of the business. Smithfield has perfected vertical integration, controlling every aspect of the hog business from farrowing to that cellophane-wrapped pork chop at the meat counter. The slaughterhouses are large, process thousands of hogs per day and aren’t known for taking care of their workers. Plant injuries abound, many going unreported and are thus denied worker’s compensation benefits.

Smithfield may have once represented Southern charm and hospitality, but now it reeks of manure and money. The company rakes in about $11 billion per year in sales, but those dollars are made at the expense of family farmers, independent processors, and the environment. It’s not an American success story; it’s an American travesty. I hope Miss Paula looks beyond Smithfield’s genteel front and into its dark underside; maybe she should take a drive downwind of one of those confinements. I’m pretty sure the smell wouldn’t be very charming.

Sources:; Food, Inc., editor Karl Weber, Participant Media, 2009; The Trouble with Smithfield: A Corporate Profile, Food & Water Watch, January 2008.


The cheese stands alone

Last year I posted about Dimock Cheese, which is made by a 79-year-old dairy co-op in Hutchinson County. I found their outstanding line of cheeses at the Lynn’s Dakotamart deli section here in Custer. Happily, their cheese is widely distributed throughout the area. Here’s a list of locations where you can buy it:

Lynn’s Dakotamarts in Lead, Sturgis, Belle Fourche, Custer and Hot Springs; Pamida stores in Custer, Belle Fourche and Douglas, WY; Don’s Valley Market and Don’s Express in Rapid City; Family Foods in Murdo; Coyle’s in Philip; Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City; Sturgis Meat Market, Wheeler Farms Candy Company, Sturgis Coffee, Sturgis Wine Company, and Grandma’s General Store (Lonetree Ranch) in Sturgis; and Shade Vineyards in Deadwood.

All their cheeses are outstanding, but one of my personal favorites is the smoked cheddar.

Locations for Pukwana tomatoes

The Happy Hydros tomatoes grown in Pukwana by the Scholl family are available in most Lynn’s Dakotamart stores. Remember, these locally grown tomatoes are pesticide free and vine-ripened, no gassing to keep them fresh and no long-distance hauling.

Lynn’s Dakotamart stores selling the tomatoes are located in Custer, Lead, Sturgis, Belle Fourche, and Pierre. The Hot Springs store is not selling them at this time; when I called to double-check, I was told that the only hydroponic tomatoes they have are all from Canada.  The Scholl family also plans to attend the Black Hills Farmers Market in Rapid City, so watch for them there as well. The farmers’ market opens at 9:00 a.m. at Founders’ Park on West Omaha.

Sturgis Farmers’ Market

Another new farmers’ market has sprung up in the Black Hills, offering folks more local food choices. Located right on Sturgis’s Main Street, next to Weimer’s Diner & Donuts, the market is open Fridays from noon until 7:00 p.m. Not surprisingly, the market will be closed during the Sturgis Rally. If you’re interested in becoming a vendor at the market, contact Michelle Grosek at the Sturgis Center for the Arts, 605-720-1557.

What’s that smell?

When I was building my latest raised bed, I noticed an aroma in the air that smelled like something from the south end of a north-bound kangaroo (as my daughter is fond of saying). Didn’t take too long to realize my compost was stinky; time to turn it!

Turning, or aerating, compost serves several purposes, not least of which is preventing it from stinking to high heaven. It mixes around the different materials, gets moisture into the dry spots, opens up the wet spots, prevents mold, and breaks the compost into smaller pieces. Since it’s been a rainy spring, I haven’t had to wet my compost at all; however, I am turning it with a pitchfork about every two weeks to prevent odor and mold. There is no hard-and-fast rule on how often to turn compost, but remembering it once in awhile is beneficial.

If your grass is growing like mine, you probably have an abundance of grass clippings. While I usually leave my grass clippings in the yard to fertilize the grass (grass clippings are high in nitrogen, why pay for nitrogen fertilizer?), I do rake them up when they’re thick so they don’t smother the grass underneath. Add the clippings to your compost; they provide a good source of nitrogen, especially at this time of year when your compost may be light on nitrogen. I also use clippings as mulch around my plants to keep moisture in and weeds out.

Milk jug hot-caps

Milk jugs work well as hot-caps

This is a very low-cost, low-tech way to protect tender vegetable plants early in the season. Just cut off the bottoms and push the jugs into the soil around the plant. Leave the caps off for air circulation, unless a frost is threatening, then screw the caps on for more protection. As the plants grow, cut the jugs back until they’re superfluous, then just slice them down the side and pull away from the plant. Not only do the jugs protect plants from frost, but also help retain heat, making the plants warmer at night, which helps them grow. This is especially beneficial at higher elevations where evenings are cool; we routinely drop into the 40s at night.

I was short a couple jugs short for my tomatoes. Turns out puppies like chewing on milk jugs, and since they’re cheaper than a couch, for example, I decided to sacrifice a couple. A few more bowls of cereal and those plants will have jugs too.

All the way from…Pukwana?

These hydroponically grown tomatoes hail from Pukwana, SD

Usually the tomatoes we find sitting docilely in our grocery store’s produce section hail from Southern California, Mexico and occasionally Canada (no, I don’t know why we import tomatoes from latitudes higher than our own). But these red orbs were grown just a couple hours east of here, in Pukwana, South Dakota. I stumbled across them yesterday in Lynn’s Dakotamart in Custer.

These pesticide-free, hydroponically grown tomatoes are the product of Happy Hydros LLC, owners Mark and Teal Scholl. Unlike tomaotes grown 1500+ miles away, which are usually picked green to help them withstand shipping, these are vine-ripened and picked three times per week. You can tell the difference in the flavor; they actually taste like tomatoes and lack that mealy grocery-store texture.

So the next time you’re shopping, check your produce section for Happy Hydros; these are tomatoes you can feel good about buying.

Squash trial

Anyone living in the upper elevations of the Black Hills probably has written off winter squash as a viable crop. I’ll admit, I had as well until I decided to try to grow it in a container this year. Maybe it’s a harebrained idea, but I felt it’s worth a shot.

So I bought a couple butternut squash bedding plants down at Dakota Greens, stuck ’em in a pot, and placed it on my south-facing deck. The deck is high, frosts later than the raised beds and gets several hours of sun each day. I figured the conditions would be more conducive to fruit production. If it doesn’t work, I’m not out much and have learned something in the process. I’ll keep you posted.

By the way, Mother Earth News has an article on growing winter squash in their latest issue, read it at Growing Winter Squash.

Local food impacts NH economy

Check out this article on the economic impact of New Hampshire’s local food movement in Bloomberg’s Businessweek.

The report states that 12 percent of the state’s farm food sales are from direct marketing, far outstripping the neighboring states of Vermont and Maine. However, in terms of feeding their population, New Hampshire could feed only about six percent of its people, whereas Maine could take care of an astounding 40 percent of its population! It’s interesting to see that in states we really don’t regard as “ag” states, agriculture is making a comeback.

Grapes alive!

My small Beta grape has started to leaf out after surviving its first winter

Last summer I wrote about planting my first grape vine, an experiment to see if it would survive the winter here. After much kneeling and peering this spring, the verdict is in — it lived!

To refresh your memory, I planted a Valiant grape from Jolly Lane Greenhouse in Rapid City. Betas are blue grapes hardy to Zone 3, best used for jelly and juice.

Even though the grape lived, I won’t be making homegrown jelly this year; it takes at least three years before harvest. Grapes require an investment of time as well as labor.

I have pruned the vine severely to encourage more growth; steeling myself to prune it back to a single stem was difficult, but it’s necessary for bigger yields down the road. This summer I will allow no more than four side side branches to grow and will pinch off all flower buds. The vine’s roots and those four branches need to be firmly established, and fruit development will hinder that process. Grapes are the definition of “slow food.”

My jelly jars are waiting.

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