agriculture

Maine Will Be the Nation’s First and Only Food Sovereign State

 

via localfoodrules.org

via localfoodrules.org

 

Maine legislators voted last week to moved forward with a proposed constitutional amendment declaring Mainers have a natural, inherent, and inalienable right to food freedom.
All that’s left is for the voters to ratify it and Maine’s residents will have the right to produce, process, and consume food without government interference in the form of federal health codes, regulations, inspections, and other restrictions. Foraged foods, garden-grown produce, home-cured meats, and goods produced in unlicensed kitchens will be freely bought and sold.

Even if you’re not familiar with the food sovereignty movement, you’ve probably heard some of the complaints about regulatory interference. 
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The best known (and most controversial) example is the decades-old squabble over raw milk that pits public safety concerns against individual freedom of choice. The result is a patchwork of conflicting state and federal laws, a booming black market in unpasteurized milk with farmers and dairy coöps selling bottles out of pickup trucks like prohibition-era bootleggers, and the occasional federal sting operation that ends with an armed raid on an Amish dairy barn. And every once in a while you’ll come across a news story of heavy-handed health inspectors shutting down a bake sale and confiscating baked goods from elderly, pie-baking church ladies. In Maine, governmental inspections and regulations make for much more than a quaint human interest story. They can deny a livelihood to the state’s food producers and can threaten the food supply of its residents.

Maine is not like other states.
It’s the nation’s most rural state with the greatest majority of its residents living outside of urbanized areas. Its business landscape is dominated by cottage industries, with small proprietors making up 97% of the state’s employers. Its farms are some of the nation’s smallest, they’re run by women at more than twice the national rate, and its farmers are growing younger in a seriously aging sector. Maine’s farmers are also more likely to engage in direct sales to the surrounding community, with some of the highest participation rates in farm stands, farmers markets, and CSAs.

The heart of Maine’s food sovereignty movement is its objection to the government’s one-size-fits-all approach to regulation.
A small farm typically thrives on diversity, with a range of crops and small flocks and herds of livestock, while the kinds of specialized facilities required to meet state and federal food processing standards are geared toward industrial-sized, single crop producers. The facilities often aren’t accessible to a small and scattered rural population, and a special license or expensive equipment can be burdensome for small producers to maintain on site. These requirements can be a barrier to entry for small businesses, but they also ban the kind of casual commerce and bartering that is a traditional part of rural economies—my side of beef for your load of firewood. Even Maine’s traditional community events like bean suppers and Friday fish fries can fall on the wrong side of the law.

Maine residents have been challenging the nation’s food regulations for years.
16 Maine towns had previously declared a local form of food sovereignty under Maine’s governance system of home rule, which gives municipalities autonomy over local matters. The town ordinances can exempt local producers from state licensing and inspections, but only the state amendment can offer legal protection from federal authorities.

Advocates claim that Maine’s food sovereignty creates fewer health risks than what else is out there.
There are growing concerns about the integrity of our national food system, and criticism of the sometimes arbitrary and wrong-headed nature of health code enforcement. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one out of six Americans gets sick from food-borne illness, with 3,000 of them dying each year. Mainers have decided to takes their chances with local producers, taking reassurance from the personal nature of the interactions between producer and consumer.

 

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An ISIS Attack on our Food Supply: It’s not an IF but a WHEN

 

food-security

 

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.
—Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at his farewell news conference, December 3, 2004

Poison is available, so poison the water and food of at least one of the enemies of Allah. 
—militant identified as ‘Abu Salman the Frenchman’ speaking in an ISIS recruiting video released November 15, 2015

 

The US made big plans to draw a protective shield around our food supply in the the wake of 9-11. 
Food security joined priority sectors like communications, energy, transportation, and emergency health services as a focus of the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Early 2002 saw the quick passage of the Bioterrorism Act, intended to create pathways for cooperation and oversight between the government, private industry, and public agencies like water departments and the FDA. But after more than a decade of Presidential directives, Senate hearings, and Congressional reports, we remain as vulnerable as ever to the nightmare scenario of food terrorism.

The problem is that food counterterrorism happens at the intersection of geography and bureaucracy.
Geographic hurdles exist because domestic food production takes place over vast, sprawling areas which are impossible to protect effectively. Oversight becomes even more complicated in a globalized world economy in which food and food ingredients are imported from countries where health and safety standards are low or non-existent. Then there are the bureaucratic tangles and inefficiencies. Food monitoring activities are far-flung and fragmented: there’s the oversight of federal agencies like the USDA, FDA, Department of Defense, and Homeland Security; and in many segments of agriculture and manufacturing, there are parallel systems of self-regulation and voluntary compliance on the part of the private sector. Lines of responsibility are blurred, communications between unrelated entities are scattershot, and there is no one with the authority or accountability to take charge.

The public has also dropped the ball.
One of our deepest fears following the 9-11 attacks was that terrorists would poison our food. But we’ve been lulled into complacency by the relative domestic quiet of the intervening years, and lost our post-9-11 sense of urgency to effect change. Also, direct attacks on the food supply are rare. The vast majority of deliberate contaminations take place at the end of the food supply chain—the rat poison in a husband’s dinner or tranquilizers in the city council’s coffee pot. Occasionally we see tampering at the retail grocery or restaurant level, but these tend to be mostly thrill crimes, or crimes of retribution. Rarer still are politically motivated acts, like the 1984 salmonella attack directed at voters that sickened nearly a thousand Oregon residents, or the poisoning death in London of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210 in his tea.

All that tells us is that it hasn’t happened yet.
Food is easily the least protected element of our nation’s critical infrastructure. Some might argue that despite its vulnerability, we have little to fear because the world has never seen a large-scale act of warfare on a food supply. But then again, the world had never seen anything like 9-11 or the ISIS attacks on Paris.

 

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In Meat We Trust. But We Shouldn’t.

 

photo via Meat America

photo via Meat America

 

Which is more dangerous—the processed meats that cause cancer or the industry that spins the evidence to get you to eat more of them?

This week the World Health Organization, the public health arm of the United Nations, finally came out and said something that we’ve pretty much known all along: processed meat is really, really bad for you. A daily portion of just 50 grams- that’s a single hot dog or two slices of bacon- increases the risk of colon or rectal cancer by 18 percent.

Processed meats cause cancer. Period.
It’s unequivocal. Salted, preserved, smoked, cured, and  fermented meats can kill you. The WHO isn’t pussyfooting around with talk of possible carcinogens or a link with cancer; they’re saying it outright—processed meats give you cancer. These foods are now officially Class 1 Carcinogens, a classification that includes plutonium, arsenic, asbestos, and tobacco.

The meat industry responded with a shrug. Cancer? That old thing again?
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), an industry lobby representing members who pack and process 95% of U.S. beef, pork, veal, and lamb products (and most of the turkey too) downplayed the risks in its official response, characterizing the WHO report as “alarmist overreach.” After all, carcinogens are merely “theoretical hazards.” They go on to say that if we want to avoid all carcinogens we’d never drink coffee, sit in the sun, or even breathe the air around us. It’s not like everyone who eats hot dogs will get cancer.

Carcinogens do not cause cancer at all times, under all circumstances. Some may only be carcinogenic if a person is exposed in a certain way (for example, swallowing it as opposed to touching it). Some may only cause cancer in people who have a certain genetic makeup. Some of these agents may lead to cancer after only a very small exposure, while others might require intense exposure over many years….Even if a substance or exposure is known or suspected to cause cancer, this does not necessarily mean that it can or should be avoided….

—NAMI press release, October 26, 2015

Richard Lyng former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture former president of the American Meat Institute charter member of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame

Richard Lyng
former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
and former president of the American Meat Institute lobby
Honored in 2009 as a charter member of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame

 

The meat industry has a long history of weakening or preventing dietary health initiatives.
Its lobby is a powerful political force, both in the legislative and the regulatory arena. The USDA has an unusually cozy relationship with meat lobbyists because the agency is tasked with both regulating and promoting the industry, and these conflicting interests play out every time the government develops dietary guidelines. This is a sector that, by NAMI estimates, contributes approximately $894 billion to the U.S. economyearning it enormous access and influence on Capitol Hill. When tensions play out with the Department of Agriculture, the results generally wind up favoring the industry.

Over the years, the meat lobby has successfully influenced lawmakers and regulators to contradict scientific evidence, government data, and even their own committee recommendations, impelling them to rewrite major initiatives and amend legislation shaping everything from the food pyramid to the implementation of salmonella testing in our food safety system. A familiar pattern emerges whenever a drop in consumption is recommended: attack the scientific methodology backing the recommendations. NAMI employs that time-tested tactic in its latest defense of processed meat. After chiding us for our silly fear of cancer-causing agents, this latest press release trots out old cancer studies that failed to establish causality, proof that, in the words of researchers at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, “Cancer is a complex disease that even the best and brightest minds don’t fully understand.” NAMI also reminds us that “Numerous published studies show that those who choose a vegan diet are at increased risk of mental decline due to lack of B12, iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis and age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia).”

strike-out-billboard-1images billboards pulled out each spring for placement at hot dog hotbeds like MLB ballparks by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Carcinogenicity of processed meat
has been ringing alarm bells for decades with evidence rolling in from studies performed at Harvard’s School of Public Health, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the National Institutes of Health, and dozens more domestic and global research facilities. Researchers have linked processed meats to colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and childhood leukemia, with risks increased by as much as 67 percent. Public health organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund have proclaimed hot dogs “unfit for human consumption” and would like to see an outright ban, and others have called for graphic warning labels like those for cigarettes.

The problem with processing.
There’s plenty of salt and saturated fat in hot dogs, salami, pastrami, and other processed meat products but it’s the nitrites that’ll kill you. Sodium nitrite is a salty preservative that’s added to develop flavor, keep the meat’s pink color, and inhibit bacterial growth. And the premium and organic meats that are labelled ‘no-added-nitrates’ or ‘naturally cured’? Brands like Applegate and Niman Ranch get around nitrite labeling with a little additive sleight-of-hand plus some arcane labeling loopholes courtesy of the FDA. They pour on the celery juice, which happens to be loaded with naturally occurring nitrate, then they add a naturally-derived bacterial culture that converts the harmless nitrate into harmful nitrite.

Alas, nitrite is nitrite. It makes no difference if it’s added directly or formed later, synthetic or naturally-derived. Take any kind of nitrite, add any kind of meat and heat, and it’s going to form cancer-causing compounds. When the Journal of Food Protection looked at popular hot dog brands, it found that the natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite that conventional hot dogs contained.

The USDA has been trying to rid the meat industry of nitrites since the 1970’s.
Naturally NAMI (then known as just AMI, the American Meat Institute) has always lobbied strenuously against restrictions or even additional labeling requirements, and trotted out its favorite tactic with the publication of the evidence-denying sodium nitrite Fact Sheet. In it, NAMI dismisses much of the research as “old myths” and the work of vegans and animal rights activists. It refers to sodium nitrite as “an essential public health tool,” and points to a 2005 animal study suggesting therapeutic uses for nitrites in the treatment of heart attacks, sickle cell disease, and leg vascular problems.

Most experts say that the occasional hot dog or BLT isn’t going to kill you. The choice is yours. And if there is honest and accurate labeling, you can make an informed choice. But if the meat lobby has its way, you’ll never get the chance.

 

 

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Egg Yolk Color is the Spray-On Tan of the Chicken World

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You know the good eggs. They’re all-natural and cage-free, freshly plucked from the nest of a chicken with a protein rich diet free of GMOs, pesticides, and antibiotics. You schlep to the farmers market and pay a pretty penny for them, and when you get them home and crack them open you ooh and ahh over the gorgeous, richly colored yolks.

What puts the sunny in sunny side up?
Yolk color depends on a hen’s diet. The pigments in feed are deposited in the egg yolks so a hen that eats yellow corn will lay eggs with deeper yellow yolks than a hen that eats white corn. Most eaters believe that a darker yolk correlates with a more protein-packed egg, but in fact all it really tells you is what the chicken was eating.

It doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits to cage-free eggs.
A pasture-raised hen’s diet is denser in nutrients from fresh vegetation and insects, and it lays eggs with higher levels of healthy fatty acids and antioxidants. Since there are more naturally occurring pigments in these foraged foods, free-ranging hens lay eggs that yield deep orange yolks, and while the color isn’t caused by the nutrients, it is indicative of their presence.

Like a dissolute party girl with the healthy glow of a faux suntan, conventional egg producers manipulate yolk colors to dress up the eggs of battery cage chickens.
Artificial colors aren’t permitted, but conventional chicken feed routinely contains the extracts of pigment-imparting additives derived from orange peels, red peppers, annatto seeds, carrots, marigold leaves, and algae. The leading line of poultry pigment comes from DSM– aka the European Monsanto- which touts the precision delivery and unique beadlet technology of its CAROPHYLL® range of carotenoid additives. Egg producers choose their desired shade of egg yolk using an industry standard egg yolk color identifier similar to the paint chip fan decks you find at the hardware store. While the eggs of pastured hens will show seasonal variations as the foraged diet changes throughout the year, conventional egg producers tinker with additive levels to maintain year round consistency. Kind of like wearing bronzer in the dead of winter.

another DSM product

the industry standard egg yolk color fan, another DSM product

 

 

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In the inimitable words of Oliver Wendall Douglas: Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.

There really is an Agritopia® . It's outside of Phoenix and it really is trademarked.

There really is an Agritopia® . It’s outside of Phoenix and it really is trademarked.

 

Golf course condos are passé. The new status symbol is a farm view.
A new kind of residential development is bringing 24/7 farm-to-table living to the suburbs. Called agrihoods, they’re suburban subdivisions built with a working farm as the central feature, in the same way that other developments are clustered around a golf course, or pool, or clubhouse. A few dozen of these planned suburban communities are up and running, and the Urban Land Institute is currently tracking the progress of hundreds more in various stages of development.

The agrihood concept isn’t new but we’re seeing a new breed.
They’re not the hippie-dippy back-to-the-land communes of earlier eras, and they’re more than just a handful of lots being sold off so that a family can keeps its farm. What’s different this time around is the arrival of large corporate developers who are creating massive projects with thousands of housing units on a single tract. They’re anchored by professionally managed, for-profit farms that engage in large scale food production. They’re rich in amenities that give residents the benefits of farm living with none of the chores. And they are a mixed bag. Some are committed to responsible development practices and the preservation of open land; others are sprinkling a little fairy dust of sustainability to push just so much suburban sprawl through local zoning authorities.

The logo'ed plastic cups and bottled water of a Willowsford gathering

The logo’ed plastic cups and bottled water of a Willowsford gathering

More style than substance: Willowsford
300 acres are farmed inside the walls of this gated community in Loudon County, Virginia. Residents of the 2,130 homes can join a CSA or visit their own farm stand, and according to the developer’s brochure, they can also enjoy home grown produce in “The Grange… a gracious gathering space designed in the fashion of an elegant countryside manor… with periodic visits by local and celebrity chefs who use ingredients picked fresh from Willowsford Farm to create pop-up restaurant menus.”

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SaveOrangeCounty.org responds to the proposed construction of 5,000 new homes.


Green-washing’ the billion dollar agrihood: Lake Pickett South
The Florida developer’s website describes the development as “an idyllic setting that is steeped in nostalgia and mindful of nature…inspired by the rural lifestyle of yesteryear, enabling people to forge a relationship with the land and each other…” That’s some high-fallutin’ language for a plan to create the region’s largest cluster of car-dependent residents on environmentally sensitive land.

 

The Cannery connects to one of the nation's most well-developed biking infrastructures

The Cannery connects to one of the nation’s most well-developed biking infrastructures

 

Big isn’t necessarily bad: The Cannery.
You can’t plunk down just any project in Davis, California, a college town that’s known for leading environmental stewardship. The Cannery began with low-impact land use by reclaiming an abandoned tomato packing plant. Each of its almost 600 residences will be electric car-ready, generate its own solar energy, and be planted with fruit and nut trees. All will be within 300 feet of the city’s network of bicycle paths, and the campus and downtown can both be reached within five minutes. The developer deeded the farmland to the city, which will run it with an educational focus.

 

Open space, bucolic views, and farm fresh food. You might not save the planet, but it’s a beautiful day in the agrihood.

 

 

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Has the High Price of Eggs Got You Down? Rent a Chicken.

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Egg prices have more than doubled in most of the country and there are more increases to come.
An avian flu outbreak that struck farms in egg-producing mid-western states has led to the deaths of more than 48 million chickens causing wholesale prices to skyrocket—a record-breaking 85% jump in May alone. Because most of the affected birds were egg-laying or breeding chickens as opposed to those raised for meat, it’s wreaked havoc on chicken economics. For the first time ever, eggs are a more expensive form of protein than chicken breasts.

Measures for these desperate times.
The egg shortage forced the Whataburger chain to abbreviate its breakfast service, Rita’s franchises substituted eggless soft-serve for its signature frozen custard, and Chinese-American Panda Express tried putting the yellow in its fried rice with corn kernels. But for everyone with a backyard there’s another option: chicken rentals.

People lease cars because it’s less hassle and commitment than ownership; same with chickens.
There’s a slew of poultry leasers out there with regional and even national presence like Rent the Chicken, Rent-a-Chicken, The Easy Chicken, Urban Chicken Rentals, Coop and Caboodle, and Rent a Coop. They all follow pretty much the same formula: For around $150 a month, they deliver two or more hens that are of egg-laying age, a portable chicken coop, food, bedding, and supplies to last the rental period, and an instruction manual. The rental season usually runs from late spring to early fall, the prime laying season with long daylight hours and warmer temperatures when a chicken produces about an egg a day. At the end of the rental period, the leasing company comes to retrieve the whole setup,

Poultry leasers report that about half of their renters have grown so attached to the chickens that they opt to purchase them outright rather than return them for the winter. These are backyard farmers who got hooked on the fresh eggs, the feathered pet-like creatures, and some serious locavore bragging rights. Others are relieved to hand back filthy, shrieking fowl that barely edge out snakes in cuddliness, and are prone to ailments like poultry mites and pasty butt.

For those inclined toward the latter version of avian husbandry, you can always lease your own little piece of the farm while keeping your fingernails clean with Rent Mother Nature. There are no laying hens but you can lay claim to a beehive in the Catskills, an oyster bed on the Puget Sound, a lobster trap off the coast of Maine, or a pistachio tree in the Arizona desert, and for one season the harvest is yours. You can lease a dairy cow and the farmer will ship back wheels of cheese, the sap from your stand of sugar maples comes to you as syrup, and the wheat from your leased acre of farmland is milled into flour. Rent Mother Nature sends out periodic progress reports during the growing season, and many of the farmers welcome personal visits from lease-holders. There’s a minimum guaranteed bounty with a roll-over to the next season if it’s not met, and your larder will overflow if there’s a bumper crop.

 

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California’s Inmate Population is Housed Less Humanely than its Chickens.

via Getty Images

via Getty Images

 

Since January 1 of this year, California’s Proposition 2 has required all eggs sold in the state to come from chickens that live in more spacious quarters.
Any producer, whether in-state or out-, that wants to sell eggs in California has to raise its laying hens in enclosures large enough to allow the birds to freely stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs and wings.

California consumes more eggs than any other state.
It’s a large producer but still imports more out-of-state eggs than any other state, so the Prop 2 regulations effectively created a new national standard. Six of the big midwestern egg-producing states tried to invalidate the new rules and charged California with restraint of interstate trade. At this point most of the lawsuits and appeals have been dismissed, and producers are either conforming to the standards or selling their eggs elsewhere. In the meantime, the attention drawn to the issue has prompted some major egg buyers like Burger King and Starbucks to go beyond the requirements by vowing to switch to eggs from completely uncaged hens.

It’s more than a little hypocritical.
Chickens and inmates are both key to the California’s egg production, with prisoners processing around 35 million eggs a year from inmate-raised hens. Like its chickens, the state’s inmates live in confinement that can be inconsistent with acceptable standards of health and welfare. While we applaud the passage of Proposition 2 for improving housing standards for chickens, it also serves to highlight the inadequate and even inhumane housing of prisoners.

It was no small task for California to reimagine henhouses.
It involved input from architects and engineers, environmental scientists, climatologists, agronomists, and poultry specialists. They ran simulations and field trials evaluating chicken behavior, psychology, and physiology, ultimately increasing the minimum amount of space per chicken by 73%.

Clearly, laying hens have the full attention of regulators. Less so for the prisoners who tend to the chickens.
Their right to humane treatment is constitutionally protected, but relying on the old chestnut of cruel and unusual leaves a lot of wiggle room for pretty deplorable conditions. Currently, a prison cell can truly be smaller, relative to an inmate’s size, than a laying hen’s cage, relative to a chicken’s size.

You might be wondering why inmates are raising chickens in the first place.
Forget about license plates; prison labor has been used to make everything from IKEA furniture to Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and is especially welcomed in agriculture and food processing, including upscale and artisan food production. Inmates have packed bags of Starbucks coffee beans, and grown chardonnay grapes for award-winning wine bottlers. They’ve produced raw milk goat cheeses for high-end cheese shops, and raised the tilapia sold at Whole Foods Markets.

Correctional institutions and their corporate partners are fond of these arrangements. Depending on the circuit in which an inmate is incarcerated, the worker may or may not be subject to protection under the Civil Rights Act, and businesses can pay pennies on the dollar of prevailing wages. Whether you believe, as the courts do, that this is part of the penalty that criminals pay for their offenses against society, or you see this as codified exploitation and discrimination by an unjust prison system, the irony of inmates liberating their post-Prop 2 chickens is undeniable.

Litigation, advocacy, and public education worked wonders for California’s chickens.
Let’s see what they can do for another group of the state’s confined residents.

 

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Holy Cow! Faith-Based Farming

 Joseph Ritter von Führich - The dream of the St. Isidor

Joseph Ritter von Führich – The dream of the St. Isidor, patron saint of farmers

And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise, and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.
                              –Paul Harvey

The modern food movement has found an ally in God.
Organic farmers and faith-based farmers have discovered their shared mission in matters of growing, managing, and even consuming food.

Divine and earthly imperatives intersect at the farm.
That’s where creation, mission, community, land stewardship, and social justice all converge, and and for some, theology and spirituality are thrown into the mix. There are shared concerns for animal welfare, the environment, hunger, and poverty. Religious texts like the Bible and the Koran have as many food references as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and faith-based farmers recognize that Jesus wouldn’t want us factory farming any more than Michael Pollan.

Farming has always been imbued with meaning, both sacred and secular.
Plants grow and bloom on their own, and the human hand of agricultural reinforces the knowledge that we’re not just in the world but also of it. We’re part of something larger that will continue without us, and while we can tame it with knowledge of genetics and soil microbes, we don’t fully own it. You can call it philosophy, karma, or the hand of God; that’s just perspective.

Many faith-based farms welcome visitors.
There are classes, retreats, camps, farm stands, and celebrations where you can nourish body and soul.

Koinonia Farm has been growing Georgia pecans and peanuts as a ‘demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God‘ since 1942. It’s the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity and other ministries for social justice.

You’ll be up even earlier than the chickens during an overnight visit with the monks at South Carolina’s Mepken Abbey. There are 3am prayers and meditation before the workday begins on the mushroom farm.

There’s a goat named Bagel and the organic pickles are kosher at Adamah Farm, housed at a Jewish retreat center in Connecticut. Or you can study Yiddish while helping with the kosher wheat harvest (for Passover matzoh) at the language-immersion farm camp started by a graduate of Adamah’s fellowship program.

The big daddy of faith-based farms has to be Castel Gandolfo. Every Pope since Pius XI has gathered eggs and bottled olive oil as the overseer of its 50 acres. Later this year, Pope Francis will be the first to open its vegetable gardens, chicken coops, and eight-hundred-year-old olive groves to the public.

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