Friday, 24 January 2014

Organics Is About More Than Just The Food

This week we have a guest blogger, Sheila Hamilton, of Sunworks Farm. Her farm is located just outside of Armena, Alberta. She and her husband Ron are committed to raising and selling "environmentally friendly food." They supply some of the best markets in town (one of which is ours) with their delicious chickens, turkeys, beef and pork products... all are pasture raised or free range and certified organic... qualities that are extremely important to them and to their life philosophy. Here, Sheila explores what it means to be totally committed to "organics." With their commitment to biodiversity, they are tremendous stewards of the land.

Organics is about more than just the food. Often on the news you see studies that compare organic products to their non-organic equivalent. These studies most often look at nutrition and pesticide residues. But eating and buying organic has a much greater effect than just the food that you put in the body. Organics is also about the environment that we all live in. For every certified organic product grown, there are less chemicals being added to the environment. 

For us this encompasses our attitude toward the environment and the world around us. We use the ancient Haida saying “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." We believe that we have to leave the land in better condition than the land we received. We strongly believe that we have to be stewards of the land and of the environment. We feel that by being certified organic and using holistic management, we can be active stewards of the land. We also believe that we can be beyond organic. We have to look at all of our practices and be as sustainable as possible and be the best keepers of the earth as we can be. 

There are many ways that we do this. We use time controlled grazing for our cattle. This is a method of grazing that prevents the overgrazing of the land which prevents erosion, allows the grass to naturally reseed itself and provides habitat for wildlife. We also let the grass grow in the fall, this allows for longer winter grazing which in turn allows the manure to be spread out over the land rather than being accumulated in one place. 
We want to continue to improve the land. Our goal is to grow topsoil. We use our composted chicken manure as a way to do this. The manure is composted in 2 large in vessel composter units. This compost is then spread on our land and other neighbouring farmers' land. The composting breaks down the manure and makes it safe to spread onto the land. Rotational grazing also allows a lot of organic matter to be put back into the soil. We feed our cattle in the winter on the poorest part of our land. This allows the leftover hay and the manure to improve the soil. Our moveable chicken shelters have no bottom and this allows the manure to be put directly onto the land and then be exposed to the sun. The grass thrives on this mix of organic matter and manure. The grass is often waist high and extremely thick. We see improvement in the soil every year. We also do not use any herbicides or pesticides on the land. This results in a wonderful soil ecosystem full of microbes, bugs and worms. 

Water is an essential and important resource for animals and plants and we try to take care of this precious resource. We are part of the Battle River watershed. We maintain and do not alter the natural watershed areas allowing the water to naturally flow towards the Battle River. We collect surface water in ponds (dugouts) allowing natural drinking water to be pumped for our cattle and all of our livestock. The dugouts and natural wetlands are fenced off protecting them from the cattle and allowing wildlife (ducks, geese, deer, coyotes) to use and thrive in the clean water. No herbicides or pesticides are used on our land.

Because of the lay of our land, the water that fills our dugouts only comes from our property. This prevents chemical runoff from neighboring farms from collecting in the wetlands allowing frogs and reptiles to thrive. We love our frogs! 

Biodiversity is essential and we believe that all wildlife is important to the ecosystem. We only take one cut of hay so wildlife can have plenty to eat for the winter. This also allows for more snow to collect on the land in the winter providing more moisture to the land and to the wetlands in the spring. We have buffer zones around our land that allow natural untouched habitat for birds, this allows them to nest and raise their young undisturbed. Bird houses are put up to encourage birds to nest; blue birds are a common sight.  

We use electric netting around the perimeter of the outdoor chicken shelters to protect the chickens from the foxes, skunks and coyotes. This allows them to live on the land right beside the chickens.  We also have planted trees and continue to plant trees. We have seen many different types of wildlife flourish here and have seen more and more diversity every year.  Mice, shrews, moles, gophers, badgers, coyotes, porcupines, deer and moose live on our land and we have seen a cougar. Owls, hawks, bluebirds, swallows, sparrows, starlings, robins, crows, magpies, grouse, ducks, geese, shore birds, frogs, snakes and salamanders make their homes here as well. 

In the choices that we make we can affect the whole environment, not just our own land. We drive a Toyota Hybrid vehicle. All our buildings are powered through wind and solar sources using Bullfrog power. We try and reduce and reuse and we recycle through a local recycling company, TK Environmental out of Camrose.  All our buildings are newer and were built with energy efficiency in mind and our house is a R2000 house. Solar powered watering systems are used for the cattle.  We also personally purchase organic, local and environmentally friendly products wherever possible. We are constantly looking for ways that we can reduce our environmental footprint on the earth. 

We believe that being organic is about more than the food. It is about a way of life and a way of business that keeps the environment and human health in the forefront. By using these practices we strive to not only provide our customers with the best and cleanest food possible but also food that has a positive impact on the health of our environment as a whole. 

Sheila Hamilton
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Contributed by Sheila Hamilton, of Sunworks Farm
Intro by Sheri Hendsbee
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Thursday, 16 January 2014

Black Bean Soup with Yogourt & Spicy Salsa

In the winter, if your goal is to cook what is in season and fresh, (and if your goal is to cook more economically when fresh vegetables can be quite pricey) it can be challenging to stray from the root vegetable category. One way to broaden your scope is to include dried beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils in your home cooking. They are nourishing, they keep a very, very long time, and they are extremely inexpensive, if you work with them from their dried state.

Beans are loaded with fibre, a characteristic that is associated with lowering the risk of diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease. They are a source of protein, and in great part due to this & due to the astonishing amount of fibre they contain, you digest them very slowly so you feel full longer... they give you energy for longer, releasing it slowly, helping to level out spikes in blood sugar. They lower cholesterol. They're loaded with protective antioxidants, phytochemicals and vitamins. In short, they're a super food! (And right up there in the 150 Healthiest Foods On Earth). To read up on all of the fascinating health benefits, and believe me, the evidence presented is astounding!) read more in that book.

Do not be intimidated by dried beans. It is super easy to prepare them at home, and by not relying on the canned beans at the grocery store you are doing a few good things:
  1. Your beans have a far better texture and are not mushy in your prepared dishes.
  2. There is not as much environmental waste (the tins that you throw out), and their weight, transported in a tinned state, is far greater than their dry weight when it comes to the space & fuel used in trucking them to your local grocery store over long distances.
  3. You reduce your sodium intake (it's used as a preservative in the tinned beans and you can eliminate that entirely on the home front).
  4. You create more storage in your pantry shelf at home.
  5. You are saving yourself money (dried beans cost a few pennies... I know the penny doesn't exist anymore, but dried beans are one of the few food items in the pantry that can be that cheap!).
Look at the price tags... for almost 1lb bags!
One of the best places to buy dried beans, peas and lentils is at an Indian grocery store. Go along 34th Ave., east of Calgary Trail, and you'll find plenty of local shops there. You can buy beans in large kilo bags (or even larger, if you'd like). Spices are often a tremendous deal there too... stock your pantry with spices like cumin, coriander, black pepper, different coloured salts (white, black, pink), cayenne, turmeric, and peppercorns. They're a fraction of the price there that you'd pay in your local grocery store. If you cook a lot from scratch, it's an excellent bargain. (I like the grocery store attached to the Zaika restaurant on 91 Street, one block south of the Henday).

Black Bean Soup with yogurt & spicy salsa
Here is a simple recipe, full of excellent nutrition, great texture & surprisingly good taste that uses black beans. It's from one of my favourite cookbook author's... Canadian, Bonnie Stern. Don't scrimp on the jalepeños in this recipe... the long cooking time brings their spicy heat down tremendously and you need them to help flavour the beans, which otherwise are very plain.

This would look even better with the cilantro in it!
If you like more heat, substitute red chiles or the smaller Thai chillies, for the jalepeños, especially in the fresh salsa. Contrary to popular belief, jalepeños are really not spicy at all, being the least spicy of all the hot peppers available on the market.

The salsa makes this soup, so don't leave it out! There's something about the hot & the cold (the soup & the salsa/yogurt), the smooth (yogurt & soup) & the crunch (onions & peppers), the creamy (soup & yogurt) & the tart & tangy (the lime salsa) that work so well in this recipe. On their own, the two parts of this soup are average at best... but together they're wonderful.

Makes 10 servings

1 lb. (500g) dried black beans
2 t. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (I leave these out)
1 T. cumin
1 T. paprika
½ t. cayenne
8 c. vegetable stock, chicken stock or water
3 jalepeños, seeded & chopped (or spicier chilies)
salt to taste

2 T. very finely chopped red onion
2 tomatoes, diced (4-6 camparis)
1 jalepeño, seeded & chopped (or spicier chillies)
1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
juice of a lime

½ c. unflavoured low-fat yogourt

In the morning, cover the beans with 3 times the volume of water and soak for a few hours at room temperature or soak them overnight until you are ready to use them in the fridge. Rinse & drain.

An hour and a half before you plan to eat the soup, heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion & garlic (if using) and cook gently for a few minutes, or until fragrant. Add the cumin, paprika & cayenne. Cook for about 30 seconds. Add stock, jalepeños and beans & bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat & simmer for 1½ hours until the beans are very tender. Purée the soup in a blender or food processor, or with an immersion blender until smooth. Taste to adjust the seasonings, adding salt if necessary.

To prepare the salsa, combine the onion, tomato, jalepeño, cilantro & lime juice. To serve, ladle hot soup into shallow bowls. Spoon a little cold yogourt on each serving & top with a generous spoonful of fresh salsa.

To make this soup absolutely divine, coarsely chop a pound of mushrooms (Portobellos & creminis, for eg.) and thinly wedge a red onion. Sauté in a pat of butter & a splash of olive oil & a few grinds of a pepper mill. When the liquid starts to come out of the mushrooms & the volume decreases, add about 1/2 c. red wine & simmer slowly until all of the liquid is absorbed. Heap a mound of mushrooms in the bottom of each soup bowl. Ladle in soup to cover & top as usual with salsa & yogurt. It is divine!

Nutritional info from The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, by Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S.
Recipe adapted slightly from The Best of HeartSmart Cooking, by Bonnie Stern, p. 101
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Contributed by Sheri Hendsbee