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Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services

The 22nd annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference, held February 24th–26th in LaCrosse, was a smashing success with almost 3,000 attendees. It is the largest organic farming conference in the U.S. and is organized by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). It is an extraordinary, farmer-centered event with over 70 informative workshops, 150+ exhibitors, locally-sourced organic food, live entertainment and inspirational keynote speakers, and is celebrated as the foremost educational and networking event in the organic farming community. This year, Willy Street Co-op sent six staff members. Each wrote a brief article based on things they learned at the conference. We’ll include more of these articles in the next issue or two.

Before I get to MOSES, let me show you where my mind was this winter.

An elegant circle is formed when we keep chickens in our backyard. We feed them our kitchen scraps and garden waste, then use their droppings to fertilize the garden to grow more vegetables. And the byproduct of this circle?—highly nutritious eggs.

But chickens can’t survive on scraps alone. As flock stewards, we have to meet the nutritional requirements that go beyond human leftovers. Given complete freedom to roam, some breeds can meet these needs entirely through foraging, but in a backyard context, this is difficult to accomplish, not to mention dangerous for the birds. To fill in the gaps, we supplement free-ranging and kitchen scraps with a formulated ration.

Unfortunately, most chicken feed uses soy as the main protein source. The ubiquity of soy crops takes a measurable toll on the environment, and in the end, falls short of meeting chickens’ nutritional needs.

Regardless of these drawbacks, soy holds many economic advantages for large-scale, commercial egg producers—it’s cheap and widely available, and modern breed strains are very efficient at converting it to eggs. In a backyard setting, however, this level of efficiency is unnecessary, leading to stressed hens and shortened laying life.

Great, but what does that have to do with MOSES?

These soy-related issues were on my mind when I attended the MOSES conference this February, so I paid a visit to Craig Dunham at the Nature’s Grown booth in the conference’s exhibit hall (Nature’s Grown is the brand of organic chicken feed sold here at Willy Street Co-op). I asked Craig if he’d be interested in collaborating on a soy-free, heritage breed specific chicken feed for the Co-op. He was intrigued by the idea, and asked me to call him the following week. I called on Monday (impatience is also a virtue), and he set me up with Charlie Fischer, the Nutritionist at Heartland Country Co-op. Charlie was great to work with. I explained what I had in mind and which ingredients I wanted to see in the feed, and from that, he formulated a nutritionally complete, soy-free ration for heritage breed chickens.

How does Willy Street’s soy-free layer feed meet the needs of heritage breed chickens?
After World War II, most U.S. egg production was vertically integrated to meet increased consumer demand, but common barnyard chickens, i.e., heritage breeds, were not efficient enough layers to be profitable in this type of system. Consequently, modern strains were created—either through selective breeding or genotyping—that had a higher feed-to-egg ratio, and soy was the perfect protein to support the increased production rate. Soy-based feeds, organic included, are still formulated to meet the needs of commercial egg farmers and their modern breed strains, but heritage breeds have different needs.

Heritage breeds were expected to hunt insects and worms, scratch for spent grain, and eat the day’s kitchen scraps—they’re natural foragers who until 50 or 60 years ago had never seen a soybean. In fact, soybeans are not a forageable food. Raw soy contains trypsin inhibitors (chemicals that prevent protein absorption), requiring it to be cooked before eaten. But even cooked soy is nutritionally incomplete, as chickens are omnivores who cannot thrive on an unsupplemented vegetarian diet. While soy offers all 20 amino acids required to build animal proteins, it’s low in lysine and methionine, synthetic forms of which must be added to complete the profile.

In place of soy, Willy Street Co-op’s feed uses peas, wheat, barley, flax, and fishmeal; this combination of legume, grain, seed, and animal proteins reflects what a chicken would consume while foraging. Our feed also includes kelp, a source of essential vitamins and minerals a chicken would normally take in through pecking healthy, fertile soil. Accounting for these needs ensures happy and healthy heritage breed chickens, and, in return, tastier eggs.

How will soy-free feed affect production?
Soy contains phytoestrogens (estrogen-mimicking compounds) that studies have shown to artificially inflate egg production in chickens. This means that switching to a soy-free ration maycause a slight drop in laying frequency as hens return to a more natural cycle. (Those concerned about the health effects of phytoestrogens in humans should also be aware that phytoestrogens from soy transfer to eggs.)

Health benefits for you, the egg eater.
Eggs from chickens raised on soy are high in omega-6 fatty acids. A healthy omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is about 1:3, but typical Western diets provide a ratio of up to 30:1, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cancer. Willy Street Co-op’s soy-free feed is made with whole flaxseed, increasing omega-3 levels in eggs, and helping to correct the omega imbalance in our diets.

Soy-free is better for the environment
Diversifying your chicken’s diet with soy-free feed is good for the Earth. Soy is the second largest agricultural crop on the planet. Domestically, over 80 thousand acres of farmland are devoted to soybeans, 90% of which are genetically modified. Growing soy, or any crop, on such a large scale leads to ecosystem degradation and loss of plant biodiversity. In fact, tens of thousands of acres of rain forest are lost every year to meet the global demand for soy.

Slow Money USA
Imagine a town where local food is at the center of a thriving economy; where many of the businesses (not just farms!) are community supported; and where instead of competition, local businesses look toward cooperation for success.

This is how Tom Stearns set the stage for his keynote address at theMidwest Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse. Tom is the founder of High Mowing Seeds, an organic seed company based in Hardwick, Vermont, and also one of the founding members of Slow Money USA. I’d heard of Slow Money before this conference, and I’d always tried to spend my money locally, but Tom’s address really brought home to me what an incredible impact local food and local principals can have on a community.
Hardwick was once known as the granite capital of the U.S.–even the granite used to build the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, came from this small Vermont town. The Great Depression put an end to this in the 1930s; Hardwick has been struggling ever since. Ten years ago, the population was declining and aging; unemployment was 40% higher than the rest of Vermont; and incomes were 25% lower than the state average.

Enter Tom Stearns and a few other local-thinking entrepreneurs. A few businesses (High Mowing Seeds among them) were started with the intention of not only making money for the business owners, but of cooperating among themselves to bring jobs, good food, and new life to their community through the encouragement of sustainable agriculture. That’s just what they did.

A restaurant was opened using the same model that CSAs use (sell gift certificates to community members, use the proceeds to buy equipment and pay rent, and provide food to the folks who supported them), and dedicated itself to buying 80% of its food from local farmers.

A composting company emerged to take waste from local restaurants and homes, compost it, and recycle it back onto the farms who grew the food in the first place.

Farmers, and other local food craftspeople in and around Hardwick were buoyed by this new interest in their products and were able to expand their businesses and add jobs. Young people started moving back to Hardwick, and a sense of community pride and vitality was rediscovered.

Once word got out that this struggling town was having a rebirth, tourists from around the world came to see for themselves. Tom and others from Hardwick donated their time to give tours of local businesses, and donated the proceeds to the local food bank with the stipulation that the money be used to buy food from local farmers. This almost doubled the food pantry’s yearly budget, and put money in the pockets of local farmers, who patronized businesses like the restaurant described above, which in turn purchased from local farmers and provided them with compost through the help of the newly formed compost company—suddenly the logic of keeping ones money in your community becomes very clear.

Madison is nothing like Hardwick–we have a much bigger population, a different history, a different set of challenges, and different assets. None the less, I found Tom’s speech incredibly inspirational. The fact that such a place exists—that somewhere there is an entire community that takes cooperation and buying locally so seriously that it has revived their economy and revitalized their town—is a ray of hope for me. It tells me that I am in the right line of work; that supporting local farmers and businesses and approaching the world in a cooperative way rather than a competitive way really can bring prosperity to my little part of the world.