Farming & Health

This is the text, with citations, of an article that Julie wrote for the Spring 2020 edition of the Marshall Scholarship Alumni Newsletter. It focuses on the health connections of the farm work we do, so we wanted to share it with our customers.

“Down on the Farm, Up on Health” 

By Julie Sikkink Lee, Marshall class of 1988

         On July 22nd, 2019, Marshall alumna Anne Applebaum (class of 1986) was finishing a Washington Post column on Boris Johnson and Brexit.  1996 Marshall alumnus Derek Kilmer was introducing a bi-partisan economic mobility bill in Congress.  Marshall alumnus Neil Gorsuch (class of 1992) was teaching a two-week course at the Scalia Institute in Padua, Italy during the Supreme Court’s summer recess.  And I was chasing an escaped dairy cow down the Banks-Vernonia Trail through our family’s farm in Western Oregon.  Each of us was using our Marshall-supported education to good effect that day – although the relevance of my work likely requires more explanation.

         When not milking, collecting eggs, or running a farmer’s market, I employ my British education (BA in Medieval and Modern History, University College London, 1990) and my extensive time in UK libraries, historical and natural sites, and theaters in a more direct manner, as a high school English and history teacher at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland.  But my work with Wingham Farms, our family’s 140-acre pastured-animal farm, is also well served by the critical thinking, research, and communication skills I gained through my British degree. Likewise my contact with British life, particularly culinary and natural history, has been invaluable to my leadership role in guiding our farm’s choices and aiding customers’ awareness of the health and environmental impacts of their food choices, including learning new (usually good old) ways to prepare the kind of foods we raise.  

         I returned from the UK in 1990 newly married to a British man, Daniel Lee, who had worked on farms in summers since his teen years and had a dream to someday run his own. We started Wingham Farms in 2013 when we couldn’t find local sources for the healthy foods we wanted for managing his rising blood pressure and my family history of high cholesterol.  Why was our local natural food store not selling grass-finished meat?  Why was the only grass-fed lamb being imported all the way from New Zealand, although farmers raise sheep on wonderful pastures in Oregon’s Willamette Valley?  Why were all the commercial egg producers desperate to keep anyone from seeing inside their operations?  Why was raw milk such a “dirty secret” that farmers providing it in Oregon weren’t even allowed to advertise?  Both my husband and I have some farming background and trusted that experience to support us as we took the leap and built up a pasture-based dairy, meat, and egg production from scratch on a former arable farm 27 miles west of Portland.  While the stories of our greenhorn mistakes and the adventures of our James Herriot-worthy (and oft-escaping) animals are probably the most fun to tell, this issue is dedicated to the theme of health, so I will focus on introducing Marshall alums to some of the health concerns Daniel and I seek to address with our farming endeavors, in hopes of raising awareness and recruiting some research and policy partners in the bargain.

         Farming has acquired an unfair label as a job that takes brawn rather than brains, but I would dare my Marshall colleagues to find their way through the maze of its challenges: humane animal husbandry of smart critters who can escape the most secure-seeming fencing, the repair of second-hand tractors and balers, the calculation of seed-broadcasting ratios, and effective response to the floods, heat waves, and rising fire risk of a changing climate.  But because of our contemporary economy and popular culture, and despite the efforts of scholars, artisanal farmers are challenged perhaps most of all in helping potential customers understand why a premium price is worth paying for our produce and what they can reasonably hope to gain for their well-being from purchasing it.

         We particularly fight the misleading vocabulary and allure of food advertising, from trying to explain that “cage-free organic” doesn’t mean that laying hens go outdoors or even have space to move, to questioning internet fads such as $20/gallon A2 Jersey milk (promoted by the company that sells the test for the gene).  We explain that our cows actually are out on pasture every day, whereas Tillamook dairy cows are mostly fed commercial feed indoors, despite what cute pictures suggest. We challenge our customers to eat less meat but consume more parts of the animal, which means dissuading media-fed steak habits and offering detailed recipes for traditional dishes (read: chewy cuts) using methods such as braising. The most reached-for cookbooks on my current kitchen shelf are the ones I’ve collected in the British Isles, from Elizabeth’s Ayrton’s The Cookery of England (with its medieval through Victorian recipes, including a rich section on offal), through Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking (sharing traditional Irish foodways), to my wedding-present British Good Housekeeping Cookery book with its classic dishes like steak and kidney pudding. I have even leaned on the wisdom of King Richard II’s cook (as translated by Lorna Sass in To The King’s Taste) to learn how to roast our grass-fed goose, which is too lean to be prepared with modern recipes. We are discovering that we have much to learn from the ways my husband’s British forebears farmed, cooked, ate, and lived on the land.

         The paradox we face, as direct sellers of natural food, is that people are more interested than ever in the relationship between diet and health, yet much less connected to their food’s origins. More food is highly processed and shipped from around the world, fewer people know how to cook, and the Internet propagates myths and fads around diets, food safety, and environmental consequences.  In high school I was a proud Home Economics geek, serving as a State and National officer of the Future Homemakers of America (now FCCLA), an important source of leadership education that likely contributed to my selection as a Marshall Scholar.  Because of budget cuts and soaring curriculum demands, far fewer US schools teach Home Economics today.  And yet its need is great, for helping young people understand subjects like food’s nutritional components and how to prepare healthy dishes.  We are fighting a battle against obesity in the west, and the number-one enemy is highly processed food.  The soldier in that battle is the cook, and the artisanal farmer is a key logistics and strategy ally.  At our farm markets we regularly work to persuade busy, sub/urban people to tackle cooking their own food, with ingredients whose origins they know, rather than relying on packaged “solutions” that are dubious and expensive. Unexpectedly I have returned to leadership in Home Economics.

         But before some people will dig out the crock pot and Dutch oven, they first need to be persuaded to abandon beguiling food myths. Perhaps because our farm is working toward raising food in more natural ways, people seek us out in hopes of natural food “cures”, putting us on the front line of explaining that there’s really no such thing: clarifying that celery-cured “natural” bacon isn’t free of nitrates and nitrites (and probably has much more than traditional bacon), while “grass-fed USA beef” has a high chance of being raised in China on silage or grass-seed chaff.  We point out that organic milk is not very nutritious if it has been ultra-pasteurized (which most of it has – read your labels!) and explain that, like the British, we don’t wash eggs because they keep unwashed at room temperature and last longer.  We pop easy-street dreams daily by pointing out how little evidence exists that probiotic pills or powders can even survive into the gut.  The best people can do is to focus on prebiotics, the predominantly plant foods that feed the gut bacteria we already have.

         Instead of questing for the grail of magic health pills, we all simply need to eat food that is closer to its origins, which for many people means (re)learning to shop and cook. Instead of putting powdered collagen in one’s coffee or breakfast cereal, an expensive and culinarily questionable strategy (and no, I did not make that up), why not learn to make broth with real (much cheaper) bones and eat tasty homemade soup for lunch?  Feel free to buy an instant pot if it makes the task feel easier, but a crock pot or an oven on low will work.  In order to encourage our customers and the next generation to understand and manage healthier food, I have started offering cooking classes on preserving foods that are natural sources of probiotics, like kefir, raw-milk cheeses, kombucha, sourdough, and kimchi.  These foods aren’t magic pills either, but there is some hope that a small amount of their natural probiotics will, if consumed over time, make it through the stomach juices to our intestinal tract, where they may be useful for healing some gut disorders.  And for individuals, learning how to nurture a live food is an appealing entry-point to caring more about our food sources and wanting to learn more about food and health.

         The lack of quick fixes doesn’t mean that there is no connection between natural food and health.  There is just no easy solution, and we don’t often (yet) have the data to underpin our customers’ hunches that consuming our pastured-animal products makes them feel healthier.  (And yes, I know that a well-managed vegetarian diet is even more healthy.  Please know, vegetarians and vegans, that I’m not arguing against your choices; I’m speaking to my customer base:  those who want to eat animal products raised in a healthy and ethical manner). There is promising evidence on the healthfulness of pastured beef and eggs, but much more research is needed, especially on broad foragers like our Lamancha goats or British-heritage Tamworth pigs.  Unfortunately the FDA and the land-grant universities (historically connected with large-scale commercial agriculture and invested in the status quo) haven’t shown great interest in researching artisanal foods, especially in comparison/contrast studies.  Would anyone want to send research students our way?

         Raw milk (which we make available by boarding the Jerseys owned by our herd-share customers) also has been stigmatized for so long that there are almost no studies to say if it has health benefits or is more digestible.  Ironically, when cannabis was fully legalized in Oregon in 2015, the drug dealers left the parking lots to move into store-fronts, while I continue to meet our Portland-area herd-share customers in a parking lot to hand off their bottles.  Even if we could afford a store-front space, likely no one would rent to us, because people inaccurately see raw milk as a grave health threat, although leafy greens and eggs consistently top the lists of products most likely to cause food poisoning. We persist in the face of stigma because so many customers tell us that they can drink raw milk when they haven’t been able to consume pasteurized milk for years, or say that they know their gut health or disease-resistance has improved since starting to consume it.  We can’t make any claims about these anecdotes, but they are crying out for research.  The same research gap exists for so many food-health subjects, like the suggestive links between diet and mental health, probiotics and disease resistance, and heart-health links with dairy fat, grass-fed dairy especially.  My PhD-scientist husband would love to have some allies work with him to explore the health benefits of artisanal foods – or bust a few more myths, if that’s the case.  Our produce tastes good enough that we aren’t in danger of losing our customer base if they learn that it doesn’t show special health benefits.

         The purity of our farm products seems to be the specific solution for some of our customers.  We do not use pesticides, antibiotics, broadcast insecticides or herbicides, hormones, pasteurization, soy or corn. Certainly our rule against routine antibiotics is valuable in protecting our customers from superbugs, which a recent study found to be present in as much as 75% of grocery-store meat.  We aim to give our animals a diet closest to what each species would eat in nature, largely by letting them eat in nature, on pasture 365 days/year and choosing their own food as much as possible.  We’ve had customers say that they can eat our eggs or our beef when they couldn’t eat equivalents from the grocery store; the reason perhaps is the absence of irritants. For certain that’s another great topic deserving of further study.

         Artisanal and organic farmers find themselves on the front lines of a larger public-health debate as well, seeking to protect the health of humans by protecting farm animals in the larger ecosystem.  For example, why is it legal, why even acceptable, to raise pigs in concentrated feed lots (CAFOs) where the ammonia levels rise so high that the pigs are routinely treated with a clotting agent to prevent recurring nosebleeds?  Do we really want that happening to pigs? To the meat we eat? Why not treat pig nose-bleed risk with space and ventilation?  Why not raise pigs only on diversified and pasture-based farms?  Why not?  Because until consumers are willing to change their expectations and accept more expensive meat as the price for better animal and human health, little will change. And until we broaden our ideas about what is delicious to include the redder, more chewy (and much more flavorful!) meat that comes from animals allowed to roam, confinement farming methods will dominate.

         Similarly, even though the evidence is already well established, scientists struggle to convince legislators and the voting public that superbug antibiotic resistance is caused by farm use of prophylactic antibiotics to counter ill health arising from the inhumane, cost-cutting conditions of commercial farms.  We are in real danger as a whole community if we cannot break the lock that the mere financial considerations of big Pharma and big Ag have on the regulatory, legislative, and political world, and put a stop to the abuse of antibiotics in farming. Solving the super-bug problem requires a collective commitment, not just better individual diets or a wider range of food options.  As long as domestic and international farmers may use routine antibiotics, they will undercut the price of organic and humanely raised meat and eggs, and all of us will soon be paying a steep health price for that cheap, “tender” (I’d call it mushy) animal protein.

         The challenge for artisanal farmers is sometimes lack of protective regulations; sometimes it is the opposite: too many!  More small farmers would sign up for ethical and humane designations if they weren’t regulation-heavy in ways that are geared to large commercial operations. The main question we get from customers who are already sold on healthy food is “are you organic?”  And we are not, mostly because the process is so complicated and the regulations so restrictive, expensive, and even illogical.  For example, we would have to ship organic bedding straw from the other end of the state because there aren’t enough local sources, increasing our costs and our carbon footprint.  Our organic farm-neighbor’s solution: use inert, infertile sawdust as bedding, which he then has to find places to dump.  In another oddity: organic farmers can’t use chemical nitrogen or potassium on their fields, but they can use chicken feather meal that is a bi-product of non-organic poultry processing with all of its antibiotics, insecticides, and arsenic!  We would like to have the organic label to reassure customers that we don’t use GMO feed or pesticides – but until the US government stops letting poorly verified “organic” foods be imported from other countries, we’ll consistently be under-cut in prices anyway, so there’s little point in fighting to meet organic standards.  The big losers in this fight are the consumers, who have to choose food from poorly labeled options.

         Sometimes the competition doesn’t come from another farm, but from a laboratory.  The lab-beef and lab ice-cream debate is a fascinating example of the confusion consumers are facing around food, health, and the environment.  Lab-based (usually vegan) “milks” and “meats” can sound like an environmental and health solution, but we need to consider all elements in our evaluation: environmental footprint, food chemistry, nutrition, ethics, and taste.  Burping dairy and beef cows are routinely cast as the environmental villains, and yet we often do not explore the full costs and consequences of laboratory-made foods.  These labs don’t run in a vacuum: what are the fuel, water, pollution, labor, and welfare inputs for all the elements in a lab burger, non-dairy milk, or bowl of lab ice cream?  A Beyond Meat burger contains imported coconut oil, and vegan ice cream may as well; what’s the environmental price-tag of even that ingredientMoreover, are these really equivalent foods for our bodies?  Beyond Meat’s CEO Ethan Brown blithely claims, “meat is knowable and material…. It’s essentially.… amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, trace vitamins, and water.” But these lab-made “meats” are actually highly processed and contain much more salt and saturated fat than actual meat.  And then what are we missing?  Our bodies also are powerfully shaped by elements like probiotics and prebiotics that come only from certain natural sources, while synthetic versions of essential trace minerals and vitamins aren’t automatically safe or bio-available.  Does anyone remember when margarine was better than butter? Or when Vitamin C was going to increase lifespan? To find out what is safe, economical, and environmentally sound, we need independent research analysis of lab foods, not just the sales pitches of the companies developing the product. Furthermore, it would be fairer if news sources would acknowledge that not all meat and dairy are the same.  Pasture-based, small farms with humane and environmentally friendly practices mitigate a number of the problems highlighted by most anti-cow articles and can be healthier for the environment than commercial arable farming. Not everyone raising dairy or beef cows confines animals, feeds them concentrates that abuse their bodies (and elevate methane production), keeps waste in lagoons, or destroys trees to provide pasture.  Do we need lab dairy and meat, or just much less dairy and meat?  We don’t yet have enough data for a reasoned answer.

         Such issues remind us that we cannot separate our own bodily health from the topic of environmental health; buying from organic and natural farms can also be a way to support the health of the planet, thus keeping our whole home safer.  At Wingham Farms, we look to Britain’s ancient pastures and deep history of animal husbandry for an encouraging model as we work to develop land-healthy practices.  For example, we are collaborating with the Natural Resource Defense Council on a 15-year project to divide our fields with British-style hedgerows and to create other silvo-pastoral areas. In total we have leased out 30 acres for tree planting, working to reduce both soil erosion and lower the water temperature of the streams passing through our property, in part to increase fish habitat. We are implementing research suggesting that shade and shelter provide a healthier and more humane environment for grazing animals than open range, while also offering wildlife habitat and forage for threatened birds and insects, crucial in the ecosystem. A question we are curious to answer is whether we are just being kinder to the animals and the landscape, or whether we can also strengthen the quality and food value of farm milk and meat through this kind of pasture.  We would love to partner with some of the scientists among my fellow Marshall alums to find answers!

         If you are not a farmer, researcher, policy maker, or journalist, you may feel that there’s little you can do to support food health, especially in the face of information that suggests more questions than answers. And yet each of us can make a number of important choices in the food and farming world that support our own health and that of the larger community.  Learn how to read food labels more clearly, so you can uphold your values with your purchases.  Most directly, you can shop at farmers’ markets, offering your dollars to the farmers who are engaged in the most healthy practices.  Please ask us hard questions, but then pay for the answers by buying something!  Seek out the best food you can get for the money you have to spend. Choose what’s valuable for your own and the animals’ and the planet’s long-term health over what is a fad or an impulse; consider, for example, that $9 for a dozen Wingham Farms’ pastured eggs is only about two drinks at CosmicCash coffee shop (and you don’t need what’s in that coffee).  If you don’t know how to cook, start learning, perhaps beginning with easy, healthy soups and stews or with the fun of simple kefir or kombucha fermentation. As a voter you can promote animal welfare and human health by calling your representatives and insisting on a law banning the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals.  Lobby for better funding and support for the agricultural research arm of the USDA, which has been weakened recently by administrative changes.  Support the children in your life by bringing them to see farms, which can help them build their immune systems, better understand where food comes from, and learn to value natural foods over processed ones.  Grow an herb or vegetable garden, if you have space.  Keep reading about food health in reliable sources and take the time to share your findings with friends on social media platforms.  And appreciate those who raise your food for you!  Gratitude is good for your health as well, so you can support your own physiology and psychology, while encouraging the healthy-food movement, every time you thank a sustainable-farm owner or employee.  Let us know that you value the challenging, smart, critically important work that we do:  keeping everyone alive and well! 

         And by the way – I caught that cow before she could reach the main road, helped fix her electric fence, and then went home and made “beestings” (a medieval colostrum-milk pudding), before writing and testing a recipe for short-rib ragù (three ways, including instant pot) to offer at the farmer’s market, composing a farm-inspired poem, revising my high-school “Winterim” class on food preservation, and starting to think about what I would write for this article.  Not bad for a summer day’s work on the farm!  Many thanks to the Marshall Program for all it helped me learn.


4-10-20 Update: During the Covid-19 pandemic Wingham Farms remains open to dispense food to customers, so we have added to our health protocols (even as disinfectants and PPE are scarce, requiring more home economics creativity: I’m now sewing cloth masks!)  We’ve seen meat and egg demand rise greatly in our normal “off” season, as people can’t find items in stores or are afraid to shop.  Yet our friends who sell organic veggies to restaurants are watching their greens rot for lack of a supply chain.  Scientists think that global agriculture likely helped spark this pandemic (and will surely spark others), as destruction of wildlife habitat for large-scale agriculture is promoting zoonotic transmission of diseases in developing countries (where lower labor costs and minimal regulation make farming cheaper even with international shipping), while the global trade routes encourage rapid transmission among humans.  Coronavirus: one more reason to buy food local and direct!

And just for fun:  Farm Garden Calendar  (a double sestina) 




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