Coming Clean on Responsible Ingredients

January 17, 2017 in Home

rosehipOver the 6 years that I’ve been making Tipsy Toad goat milk soap and body products the things that I make have evolved, and my ingredients have changed with that evolution. Selling at Farmers Markets I have the pleasure of one-on-one interaction with my customers. I get to hear first hand what they really love about the things I make, and I’m also forced to field the negative feedback in real time. One concern that comes up over and over is about ingredients, and believe me, I get it. People want to use something that’s not going to be damaging to their body, but they are also becoming increasingly concerned about the ethical and sustainable nature of the ingredients their products contain. Recently a customer expressed grave concern because I use canola oil in my soaps, and canola is a GMO. This discussion led me to think that it’s high time I disclose how I choose the ingredients I use.

First off, I think it’s important to out myself. In an ideal world, I would only consume things that are spray-free (note I didn’t say Organic), Fair Trade, Ethically Produced, local and environmentally sustainable. I grow produce using spray-free methods. I raise my meat and eggs on pasture. I grow a good portion of the hay that my animals eat. I read labels carefully in the supermarket to determine where things come from and what they contain. That said, like most people, I have a budget, and sometimes that budget makes the 99 cent can of beans pretty attractive, even if it isn’t organic. My budget also tells me that if I’m like other people, $6 is not unreasonable for a bar of natural, handmade soap, but $12 is completely out of line.

$12 for a bar of soap. That’s about what I’d have to charge if every ingredient I used met all the criteria I listed above. I would be out of business because if that’s what a bar of natural soap cost, most people would say “to heck with it”, and go right back to the drugstore soap.

So I weigh the pros and cons of different ingredients, trying to balance cost with a sense of wanting to do the right thing. In the end, some of my ingredients are local (in my mind buying local is one of the most important decisions in sourcing ingredients), some are organic, some are non-GMO, some are Fair-Trade, and some are none of the above. Different things seem to be important to different people. Nobody who’s questioned my use of GMOs has ever questioned my use of palm oil (a far more contentious product, in my mind). I do source my palm from companies who are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but it’s still not environmentally ideal. If the best alternates for palm weren’t animal fats like lard, I would consider substituting. I have no issue personally with using lard in soap, but I have many customers who are vegetarians and I don’t think that would fly with them. In the case where Organic products are economically feasible I choose those over the cheaper alternatives. Most of the essential oils I use are organic. My coconut oil is not organic because organic coconut oil is almost triple the price of non-organic. I use hand-harvested clay in my products. I use my own goat milk, so I know how the goats providing it are fed and treated.

As for GMOs, they are my last concern. Why? Because there isn’t scientific evidence that GMOs are the monster they’re made out to be. There are many problems with GMOs. I disagree with altering seed stock so that it’s no longer capable of open pollination. I disagree with changing organisms so that they can’t survive grown in a natural environment or without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. But do I think GMOs across the board are bad for us? Maybe some of them are, but it’s absurd to just say “all GMOs are bad”. I suspect the canola oil I use is a GMO. It’s also Canadian. I suspect that the feed my goats eat also contains GMOs. And try finding hay that isn’t GMO. I don’t know what was originally planted in my hay fields, but I suspect the farmer who was here before us didn’t care too much about where his hay seed came from. I have a much larger axe to grind with industrial monoculture growing than I do with Genetically Modified Organisms, and so yes, there are some in my soaps.

We can only do the best we can do. Is it better to offer a product that’s partly sustainable and responsible in the hopes that more people will choose it, or to go all out and make the fully responsible product that only a very small fraction of the population can afford to use? That’s a choice I have to make every time I buy ingredients. In the end I feel pretty good about the choices I make and I can only hope that my customers recognize this and feel pretty good about supporting me.

What’s “Too Expensive”?

July 9, 2015 in Food, Uncategorized

imageOver the past month it seems I’ve been overhearing more comments than usual about the price of food – in particular the price of local and organic foods. Those comments bounce off my radar somewhere between  irksome and downright aggravating, but then I have to stop and remember that before I was in a position to call myself a “producer” I thought the same way.

So here’s why chemical, antibiotic, hormone, steroid, and abuse-free food costs more, and why you should dig deep and buy it, despite the price tag.

The easy answer is that it costs more to produce food without syntheimagetic chemical assistance. If bugs decide to make lunch out of a crop, the easy way out is to spray the heck out of them with poison. Often you can apply the pesticide once and the problem disappears for the rest of the season, but even if the infestation requires multiple sprayings, it’s a heck of a lot less time-consuming than the alternative. What’s the alternative?

Hand picking.

Non-spray growers have a limited tool kit for dealing with bad creepy crawlies, and hand picking is near the top of the list. While organic pesticides do exist, so do studies that show these may actually be more harmful in the long term than conventional pesticides. The only way to get rid of bad bugs and have absolutely no impact on the good ones is to pick them off the plants, with your fingers, one by one. Last year I picked hundreds (if not thousands) of squash bugs and cucumber beetles. It takes a lot of work. Covering plants with agricultural fabric before the bugs become a problem can save a lot of trouble, but then there’s the problem of monitoring for maturation so the plants can be uncovered at just the right times to let good bugs come and pollinate. Then everything gets covered up again, hopefully before anything bad gets in.

Diatomaceous Earth is another popular way to combat bugs. It consists of fossilized algae shells ground into a fine powder, and it’s abrasive to some bugs, cutting them as they crawl over it when dusted onto their favourite plants.That dusting is also labour-intensive; in order to be effective, leaves must be dusted top and bottom, and the DE has to be reapplied every time it rains.

imageSuccessfully growing produce without harmful pesticides require good soil- in other words, soil with an appropriate pH level for the particular crop in question, soil that retains moisture but also drains well, and soil with lots of nutrients. This miracle soil is easily attained by pouring on chemical fertilizers. Unfortunately, such fertilizers are often highly acidic and therefore kill the bacteria in the soil that help make nitrogen available to the plants. Organic fertilizers take longer to feed the plants, and are required in higher quantities to achieve the same results. Organic fertilizers are usually things like manure and kelp – things that take time to compost before they can even work as fertilizer. Unlike synthetic chemical fertilizers, however, organic fertilizers actually help to build good soil rather than simply providing an instant growth hit. Building good soil, like everything else about organic and no-spray growing, takes time.

imageAs if the intense labour required to grow no-spray food weren’t enough to raise prices, there is also a much higher rate of discarded product when growing without chemicals. When pesticides are implemented all the potential bad bugs (and most of the good ones) are killed, so there is no opportunity for an insect to cause blemishes or damage to the produce. Ugly produce doesn’t sell, so if bugs have the slightest opportunity to cause blemishes, that food will likely end up in the garbage instead of shopping carts. For this reason, a lot of organic and no-spray produce never makes it to the table, even though it’s perfectly good and nutritious food. I was told of a local broccoli producer who discards up to 60% of their crop each year because it doesn’t look perfect and the chains won’t buy it.

The typical supermarket peach is like a person who’s had a little too much plastic surgery. Sure it may look good, but those looks come at a cost (not a financial cost so much as a cost to the environment and personal health). Looks aren’t everything, especially when it comes to food. Unfortunately we’ve been conditioned to believe otherwise. The local no-spray peach that you get at a farmer’s market may not be as pretty, but it will likely taste fresher, every insect in a 5-mile radius won’t have died to put it in your basket, and you’ll be able to eat it without wondering what other things you’re ingesting at the same time.

Why is it that a plastic clamshell of “Spring Mix” lettuce which traveled from California or beyond, can easily fetch $6 at the grocery store, yet if someone at a farmer’s market asks $3 for a head of no-spray lettuce, pulled from the ground that very morning, they are accused of trying to rip the consumer off? With a shelf life of about 2 days before slime starts setting in, California should be paying us to take their lettuce. I have bags of greenery in my fridge that I harvested over a week ago and they still look as good as the day I picked them.

Yes, buying locally produced products costs money. Buying anything costs money. The difference is that the money spent on local products goes right back into the community instead of getting transferred to California or Mexico. If people supported the small businesses in their communities they might not have to fly to Alberta to get a job. They might not have to ask why rural economies suck. They might not have to wonder why businesses are closing and forcing them to drive further and further to get what they need.

Next time you think a spray-free cucumber is a rip off, think of me on my knees between rows of plants surrounded by hundreds of beetles which I’m squishing between my fingers, one at a time. Think about how many hours you’d be willing to do that to avoid blasting your plants with poison. How much would you be willing to pay NOT to spend time doing that?

Probably more than the price of an organic cucumber.

 

 

Say What You Mean & Mean What You Say

March 30, 2014 in Food, Uncategorized

Catch phrases are so awesome at making you think you’re doing the right thing, and nowhere does that apply more than in the  food world. Just as “reduced sodium” and ” low fat” can trick us into thinking food is healthy, labels applied to agriculturally produced products may conjure up images of ethically treated animals and environmentally sensitive products. If you’re trying to do the right thing, knowing the labelling truth can go a long way. Here are some of the more common traps.

Free Run

This term is commonly applied to poultry and eggs. It sounds a lot like Free Range, and we all chino-valley-aviaryknow free is good, right? “Free as a bird” is exactly HOW free? Don’t be fooled. Free Run simply means that the animals are not kept in those little 1 square foot battery cages… they are allowed to move around. Free Run does not mean they have very much room to move, or that they ever see daylight. They could be packed vent to beak, but if there are no cages, they’re Free Run. I don’t see much running going on in here, though. Maybe it’s because they can’t afford sneakers?
Free Range

Again, there’s that “free” thing. Free Range sounds pretty hopeful… after all, what could be bad about ranging freely? Well, If you’re a chicken that’s doing it for real, probably nothing except foxes and eagles. Unfortunately, lots of commercial Free Rangers aren’t exactly spending their days eating bugs and basking in the sun.

Take that coop pictured above and put a little dog door right at the end leading into a tiny outside pen. Technically the birds now have access to the outside, the sun, the rain, and the bugs, and therefore qualify as Free Range. Never mind that it’s highly unlikely that the birds at THIS end of the coop will ever make it down to the other end unless they choose to walk on the backs of their buddies. Not all Free Range poultry is raised like this, but without visiting the farm, how do you know? This is why we choose to call our turkeys “Free Roam”. They truly do have the freedom to be inside or out, or across the road eating choke cherries. (OK, that might be a little too much freedom, but that’s another story.)

Organic

Organic is a term with the best of intentions… and it comes at a price of $600 a year in Nova Scotia. To be labeled as “organic” a product has to meet stringent standards and the farmer has to jump through plenty of hoops and paperwork to achieve certification. On the other end, there are consumers with a notion that organic is healthier and so they’re willing to pay a premium. farmers who use organic methods of growing are awesome, don’t get me wrong. The problem is that unless EVERY farmer uses organic methods it might all be for naught. If the farmer doesn’t apply pesticides and chemical fertilizers to his crops he’s doing his part to grow healthy and environmentally sustainable food, but anything can blow in on the wind from a neighbouring farm. Many farmers have decided that Organic certification isn’t worth the hassle.  Instead,  they represent their products as “spray-free”, hoping consumers will understand that the same principles apply, but not the same prices. An organic product will likely cost more than a spray-free product because it’s a word that consumers trust. There is plenty of organically produced food, however, that will never bear that word on the label.

Grain  Fed

When applied to poultry, this term is extremely misleading. It’s printed on the package as if it makes that chicken so much better than all the other stuff on the shelves. Well, guess what? ALL chicken is grain fed…chickens need the nutrition in grains to grow and function. What you really want to see on the label is “pastured”. Pastured chickens are chickens who supplement that grain diet with bugs and  grass and weeds, and all the good stuff they can scratch from the dirt. While “Grain fed” may be accurate, it really doesn’t mean anything at all.

Local

I always thought that “local” referred to the vicinity where you are. Dictionary.com backs me up by defining local as “pertaining to a city,  town, or small district, rather than an entire state or country.” Well, it said state, but it didn’t mention province. I guess that’s why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency defines local as coming from within the same province, or food that’s sold no more than 50 km from the border of the originating  province. If someone buys a bag of  McCains frozen fries in Amherst, they are eating local fries, even though they were produced 375 km away in Florenceville-Bristol. If you’re in Cape  Breton you can eat local berries from Yarmouth.

Most of the people I know who want to eat local choose to do so as a way to support the economy in their own communities and to avoid contributing to the environmental damage done by shipping food halfway around the planet.  Truly eating local  also means you’re getting the freshest and most nutritious food possible. Guess the Federal  Government sees local differently.

The best way to pick out the food that meets with your own value set is not to read labels, but rather to talk to the person who grew it.  If you’re doing that then there’s a REALLY good chance you’re buying local.

Whatever that means.