Monday, April 30, 2012

Young Birder's Guide

This is one of the Peterson Field Guides, a new entry in the Young Birder's Guides, this one covering Birds of North America. A book for all mainland locations!

This book is so easy to use, consider it for adults as well. Range maps are included on the page with the bird description, a real convenience. Flipping back and forth to find the range is annoying in the field.

In addition to color photos, each bird gets a drawing, in typical poses or behavior. Very helpful in pointing out identifying characteristics to look for. The WOW facts add to the color of the various species and broaden the appeal. Bill Thompson and his kids have scoured denser descriptions for kernels such as Acorn Woodpeckers saving as many as 20,000 acorns in a single sycamore tree, which survived! Who Knew Great Horned Owls are the only predators that eat skunks?

It has less detail than other guides, which also makes it smaller and easier to carry. This one is a definite keeper. Other guides are great for filling in details, but this will go in my pocket for quick reference and identification.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lanner Falcon

Chris Cameron, director of Camp Ocean Pines, has become an apprentice falconer. Today the camp welcomed visitors to the annual Sculpture Symposium, but we got a close-up view of his new falcon. This female is about three weeks old and hatched from an egg about the size of a bantam egg.

She's a Lanner Falcon, a native of Africa but hatched locally by a master falconer. The birds are popular with Arab falconers. Private individuals are permitted to own them. 

She will grow up to serve for about three years as a working bird, chasing wild birds away from local vineyards. After she arrives at full maturity, she'll go into a captive breeding program.

He's confident she's a female -- the egg she hatched from was sent for DNA testing to determine her sex. The pink dye on her head was applied when she hatched to prevent confusing her with other hatchlings.

Thanks, Chris, for sharing this unusual bird with us.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Joel Salatin on Sustainable Meat

Joel Salatin writes on Sustainable Meat: The photo is from my visit to Polyface Farms in 2008.

The recent editorial by James McWilliams, titled “The Myth of Sustainable Meat,” contains enough factual errors and skewed assumptions to fill a book, and normally I would dismiss this out of hand as too much nonsense to merit a response. But since it specifically mentioned Polyface, a rebuttal is appropriate. For a more comprehensive rebuttal, read the book Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

Let’s go point by point. First, that grass-grazing cows emit more methane than grain-fed ones.

This is factually false. Actually, the amount of methane emitted by fermentation is the same whether it occurs in the cow or outside. Whether the feed is eaten by an herbivore or left to rot on its own, the methane generated is identical. Wetlands emit some 95 percent of all methane in the world; herbivores are insignificant enough to not even merit consideration. Anyone who really wants to stop methane needs to start draining wetlands. Quick, or we’ll all perish. I assume he’s figuring that since it takes longer to grow a beef on grass than on grain, the difference in time adds days to the emissions. But grain production carries a host of maladies far worse than methane. This is simply cherry-picking one negative out of many positives to smear the foundation of how soil builds: herbivore pruning, perennial disturbance-rest cycles, solar-grown biomass, and decomposition. This is like demonizing marriage because a good one will include some arguments.

As for his notion that it takes too much land to grass-finish, his figures of 10 acres per animal are assuming the current normal mismanagement of pastures. At Polyface, we call it neanderthal management, because most livestock farmers have not yet joined the 20th century with electric fencing, ponds, piped water, and modern scientific aerobic composting (only as old as chemical fertilization). Hence, while his figures comparing the relative production of grain to grass may sound compelling, they are like comparing the learning opportunities under a terrible teacher versus a magnificent teacher. Many farmers, in many different climates, are now using space-age technology, biomimicry, and close management to get exponential increases in forage production. The rainforest, by the way, is not being cut to graze cattle. It’s being cut to grow transgenic corn and soybeans. North America had twice as many herbivores 500 years ago than it does today due to the pulsing of the predator-prey-pruning cycle on perennial prairie polycultures. And that was without any corn or soybeans at all.

Apparently if you lie often and big enough, some people will believe it: Pastured chicken has a 20 percent greater impact on global warming? Says who? The truth is that those industrial chicken houses are not stand-alone structures. They require square miles of grain to be carted into them, and square miles of land to handle the manure. Of course, many times that land is not enough. To industrial farmers’ relief, more often than not a hurricane comes along just in time to flush the toilet, kill the fish, and send pathogens into the ocean. That’s a nice way to reduce the alleged footprint, but it’s devilish sleight of hand with the data to assume that ecological toxicity compensates for the true land base needed to sustain a factory farm.

While it’s true that at Polyface our omnivores (poultry and pigs) do eat local GMO (genetically modified organism)-free grain in addition to the forage, the land base required to feed and metabolize the manure is no different than that needed to sustain the same animals in a confinement setting. Even if they ate zero pasturage, the land is the same. The only difference is our animals get sunshine, exercise, fresh pasture salad bars, fresh air, and a respectful life. Chickens walking on pasture certainly do not have any more leg sprains than those walking in a confinement facility. To suggest otherwise, as McWilliams does, is sheer nonsense. Walking is walking — and it’s generally considered to be a healthy practice, unless you’re a tyrant.

Interestingly, in a lone concession to compassion, McWilliams decries ranging hogs with rings in their noses to keep them from rooting, lamenting that this is “one of their most basic instincts.” Notice that he does not reconcile this moral imperative with his love affair with confinement hog factories. Nothing much to use their noses for in there. For the record, Polyface never rings hog noses, and in the few cases where we’ve purchased hogs with rings, we take them out. We want them to fully express their pigness. By moving them frequently using modern electric fencing, polyethylene water piping, high-tech float valves, and scientifically designed feed dispensers, we do not create nor suffer the problems encountered by earlier large-scale outdoor hog operations 100 years ago. McWilliams has apparently never had the privilege of visiting a first-rate, modern, highly managed, pastured hog operation. He thinks we’re all stuck in the early 1900s, and that’s a shame because he’d discover the answers to his concerns are already here. I wonder where his paycheck comes from?

Then McWilliams moves on to the argument that economic realities would kick in if pastured livestock became normal, driving farmers to scale up and end up right where we are today. What a clever ploy: justify the horrible by eliminating the alternatives. At Polyface, we certainly do not discourage scaling up — we actually encourage it. We think more pasture-based farms should scale up. Between the current abysmal state of mismanagement, however, and efficient operations, is an astronomical opportunity to enjoy economic and ecological advantages. McWilliams is basing his data and assumptions on the poorest, the average or below. If you want to demonize something, always pick the lowest performers. But if you compare the best the industry has to offer with the best the pasture-based systems have to offer, the factory farms don’t have a prayer. Using portable infrastructure, tight management, and techno-glitzy tools, farmers running pastured hog operations practically eliminate capitalization costs and vet bills.

Finally, McWilliams moves to the knock-out punch in his discussion of nutrient cycling, charging specifically that Polyface is a charade because it depends on grain from industrial farms to maintain soil fertility. First of all, at Polyface we do not assume that all nutrient movement is anti-environmental. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for animals in nature is to move nutrients uphill, against the natural gravitational flow from high ground to low ground. This is why low lands and valleys are fertile and the uplands are less so. Animals are the only mechanism nature has to defy this natural downward flow. Fortunately, predators make the prey animals want to lounge on high ground (where they can see their enemies), which insures that manure will concentrate on high lookout spots rather than in the valleys. Perhaps this is why no ecosystem exists that is devoid of animals. The fact is that nutrient movement is inherently nature-healing.

But, it doesn’t move very far. And herein lies the difference between grain used at Polyface and that used by the industry: We care where ours comes from. It’s not just a commodity. It has an origin and an ending, start to finish, farmer to eater. The closer we can connect the carbon cycles, the more environmentally normal we will become.

Second, herbivores are the exception to the entire negative nutrient flow argument because by pruning back the forage to restart the rapid biomass accumulation photosynthetic engine, the net carbon flow compensates for anything lost through harvest. Herbivores do not require tillage or annuals, and that is why all historically deep soils have been created by them, not by omnivores. It’s fascinating that McWilliams wants to demonize pasture-based livestock for not closing all the nutrient loops, but has no problem, apparently, with the horrendous nutrient toxicity like dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey created by chemical fertilizer runoff to grow grain so that the life of a beef could be shortened. Unbelievable. In addition, this is one reason Polyface continues to fight for relaxing food safety regulations to allow on-farm slaughtering, precisely so we can indeed keep all these nutrients on the farm and not send them the rendering plants. If the greenies who don’t want historically normal farm activities like slaughter to occur on rural acreage could understand how devastating these government regulations actually are to the environmental economy, perhaps McWilliams wouldn’t have this bullet in his arsenal. And yes, human waste should be put back on the land as well, to help close the loop.

Third, at Polyface, we struggle upstream. Historically, omnivores were salvage operations. Hogs ate spoiled milk, whey, acorns, chestnuts, spoiled fruit, and a host of other farmstead products. Ditto for chickens, who dined on kitchen scraps and garden refuse. That today 50 percent of all the human edible food produced in the world goes into landfills or greenie-endorsed composting operations rather than through omnivores is both ecologically and morally reprehensible. At Polyface, we’ve tried for many, many years to get kitchen scraps back from restaurants to feed our poultry, but the logistics are a nightmare. The fact is that in America we have created a segregated food and farming system. In the perfect world, Polyface would not sell eggs. Instead, every kitchen, both domestic and commercial, would have enough chickens proximate to handle all the scraps. This would eliminate the entire egg industry and current heavy grain feeding paradigm. At Polyface, we only purport to be doing the best we can do as we struggle through a deviant, historically abnormal food and farming system. We didn’t create what is and we may not solve it perfectly. But we’re sure a lot farther toward real solutions than McWilliams can imagine. And if society would move where we want to go, and the government regulators would let us move where we need to go, and the industry would not try to criminalize us as we try to go there, we’ll all be a whole lot better off and the earthworms will dance.

Joel Salatin is the owner of Polyface Farm — which was featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary film Food, Inc. He is a third generation family farmer working his land in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his wife, Teresa, son Daniel, daughter Rachel, and their families. Polyface Farm, an organic grass-fed farm, services more than 3,000 families, 10 retail outlets and 50 restaurants through on-farm sales and metropolitan buying clubs. Salatin writes extensively in magazines such as Stockman Grass Farmer, Acres USA, and American Agriculture.

Following up GMOs

This morning on the Chicken Whisperer we moved from discussing the Lamonas, which were developed by selective breeding, to the industrial methods of creating new plant varieties by introducing genetic matter from other species, Genetically Modified Organisms. Some of the most successful are Monsanto's Roundup-Ready Corn and Roundup-Ready Soybeans

Scientists under Attack shows fields choked with Roundup-resistant weeds.Somehow, Monsanto claims it didn't see the possibility, although scientists predicted that weeds would adapt and there's really no reason to think that somehow, plants wouldn't evolve to resist herbicides, just as pathogens become resistant to antibiotics.

From the film's web site: Árpád Pusztai and Ignacio Chapela have two things in common. They are distinguished scientists and their careers are in ruins. Both scientists choose to look at the phenomenon of genetic engineering. Both made important discoveries. Both of them are suffering the fate of those who criticise the powerful vested interests that now dominate big business and scientific research. Statements made by scientists themselves prove that 95% of the research in the area of genetic engineering is paid by the industry. Only 5% of the research is independent. The big danger for freedom of science and our democracy is evident. Can the public – we all – still trust our scientists?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently deciding whether or not to approve an application by Dow Chemical for its controversial genetically engineered (GE) corn crop that is resistant to the highly toxic herbicide 2,4-D, one of the main ingredients in Agent Orange.

 This tempts me to ask, What are they thinking? But their thinking is clear: they want to make money and have no concern about public health or the environment. It's profits over everything else.

Michael Pollan shakes them up

The local paper covered Michael Pollan's appearance and the furor it caused back in 2010. My summary of the events follows:

Sustainable Food and Sustainable Universities
Diversity in producers strengthens one, diversity in ideas the other

By Christine Heinrichs

Michael Pollan is a tall, slender man, bald, with a mischievous twinkle behind his professorial eyeglasses. As the panel of three – a businesswoman and a portly older man – are seated in chairs on the stage, he fusses with a paper bag as the announcer introduces them. He reaches into the bag and lines up a series of water glasses on the table next to him. He begins his presentation by unwrapping a McDonald’s Double Quarterpounder with Cheese. Filling the glasses, he demonstrates the amount of oil required to produce it, 26 ounces: From oil-based fertilizer for the corn that feeds the steer, to the trucking required to transport corn to steer and steer to slaughter, ground beef to burger factory.

That kind of object lesson illustrates a message so inflammatory that a major university donor threatened to withdraw financial support if Pollan were permitted on stage without opposing viewpoints. Thus the tripartite panel was hastily assembled, replacing the original lecture format that had been scheduled.

Pollan, a journalism professor who has made a name for himself by exploring the realities of American food systems, delivered his message about food and modern food production methods at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, in October. His presentation, originally scheduled as a lecture, had morphed into a panel, under pressure from Harris Beef Company, adding two other speakers. What did Harris CEO David Wood think the company could gain by turning on the heat?

Pollan has written about gardening and food for more than 20 years, but his Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) crossed over to a wider, general readership and prominence. In it, he followed the pathways of four meals, including the route a steer takes from birth to burger. As Oprah found out when she raised questions about Mad Cow Disease and got dragged into court by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, beef ranchers do not tolerate scrutiny light-heartedly.

Note here that no one disputes any of Pollan’s facts. And he makes no claims of expertise. As he told the Cal Poly audience, “I’m a storyteller. I get my information from producers and academics.” It’s led him to the position that Harris Ranch finds so controversial that it took the unusual step of threatening to withdraw its pledge, variously reported at $150,000 and $500,000, for a new slaughterhouse if Cal Poly administration didn’t add opposing speakers to the bill, presumably to dilute Pollan’s message of criticism of industrial agriculture. University president Warren Baker decided to comply.

Before addressing agricultural issues, Pollan faced the issue of Harris Ranch’s influence on the event’s format. He drew a parallel between diversity in agriculture and diversity of ideas at the university. When donors threaten the university, their bullying undercuts the diversity of ideas. A monoculture university isn’t able to respond to change any better than a monoculture farm.

“When the world changes, you would be in trouble,” he said. “You won’t be able to withstand the shocks that are coming.” Later, he gave the university’s role another nod, as the “antennae of other models,” referring to managing changes such as the specter of $350/barrel oil.

So Myra Goodman, co-founder with her husband Drew of Earthbound Farm Organic, which oversees 33,000 acres of crops and is the nation’s largest organic produce grower, and Gary Smith, Colorado State University professor of meat science, were invited to join. J. Scott Vernon, professor in Cal Poly’s Ag Education & Communication Department, acted as moderator, valiantly and successfully guiding the discussion to meet the stated goals of spirited discussion in service of education.

So, what’s sustainable?

Pollan engaged the definition of ‘sustainability’ as agriculture that neither destroys the conditions required for it nor depends on unreliable conditions.

 “It’s an ideal that isn’t fully met by any systems,” he said. “The relationships are more complex than that.”

Ms. Goodman agreed that farmers, as producers even of organic food, inevitably use a lot of oil. However, her goals include minimizing not only dependence on oil, but also use of toxic chemicals and relying as much as possible on packaging made of post-consumer materials. Sustainability, to her, is a commitment to “protecting and preserving resources for our children.”

Smith’s perspective ignored production entirely, focusing on delivery to the consumer. He praised the food technology that has created so many processed convenience foods from corn. Those products have freed women from the kitchen drudgery his mother went through to feed six kids on the farm. He aligned sustainability with food security.

“I’m proud the government helped us achieve food security,” he said. “They gave us the cheapest food possible, made it safe and convenient to eat.”

The claim that industrial methods are required to feed the world, with population projections pointing to 9.1 billion people in 2050, has surface appeal – no one is in favor of starving people – but the fact is, people are starving now. Production is only part of feeding the world. Distributing the available food and helping people produce their own food are crucial parts of solving the problem of hunger (or, as it is now called, Food Insecurity). Even Smith agreed, later in the program, that money spent on war would generate better results if it were spent helping people grow food.

Pollan noted that before WWII, every calorie of energy invested in growing food returned two in food energy. Currently, it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food. Hmm. How sustainable is that, regardless of how convenient it is?

Let’s hear it for Cheap Food!

Food produced in our industrial system is cheap, cheaper than in other countries. Government subsidies help keep commodity crop prices low, but ripple through the economy in other ways. Subsidies encourage monoculture crops, as farmers plant more of the crop that pays the highest subsidy. Those subsidized foods, mostly grains, undercut the agricultural economies of other countries. Local farmers are driven out of business in their home countries because they can’t grow food as cheaply as America can sell it. Mexicans migrating north across the border are often farmers who were driven off the land by NAFTA policies allowing the sale of subsidized grain.

Low prices also don’t include paying for expensive effects of externalities such as the emergence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens resulting from feeding subclinical antibiotics to animals (it makes them grow faster, and allows them to tolerate the crowded, filthy conditions in which they are kept), air and water pollution.

“The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are not enforced against agricultural operations,” Pollan said. “Take the government’s hand off the scale.”

Subsidies create other problems. Many farmers continue to lose money on their crops, undermining their financial security.

“You’re putting yourself at the mercy of grain speculators on Wall Street and ethanol policy in Washington,” Pollan said.

Pollan connected the dots on the dawning knowledge that diet causes chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Eating those convenient processed foods ultimately takes its toll in health. With health insurance and health care reform, the insurance industry and the medical community will see the advantages in managing health and controlling costs with diet.

“They stand to make a lot of money by reducing the amount of chronic disease,” he said.

Foundation elements of industrial agriculture, such as fossil fuel, water, and the vagaries of changing climate, are upon us, whether we face them or resist them. Pollan held the auto companies up as an example of industry fighting change. They successfully resisted building fuel-efficient cars for years. Eventually, reality, in the form of higher gas prices, caught up with them.

“Is agriculture willing to be experimental, or is it going to fight change?” he said. “We need to make sure agriculture doesn’t end up in that boat…It’s an opportunity, not a threat.”

Big Ag monopolies and the Government

Goodman noted her struggles with monopoly in the retail marketplace. With five companies controlling over 80 percent of retail space, the producers’ price margins are squeezed. On the 25th anniversary of her company, products that originally sold for $7 a pound now sell for around $1.50. In meat processing, four percent of packers process 84 percent of beef. That concentration results in uneven costs. Conventional beef costs $50 a steer to slaughter and process – a grass-fed steer costs $150.

Not mentioned at the panel is the USDA’s new initiative to explore monopoly in agriculture markets. They have partnered with the Department of Justice, which means they have an eye to prosecution, to hold workshops in 2010 on the subject. Comments are also welcomed on other subjects that could be explored. Go to for more information.

Teach the Children Young

Moderator Vernon prompted the discussion with questions submitted by the audience. How can the university help? What can teachers do to educate their students? What role can the government play?

As with the opening charge to define sustainability, Smith didn’t confine himself to the limits of the question. Disregarding some questions entirely, he riffed onto consumer lack of understanding of marketing terms such as organic, green and sustainable.

Smith said he accepted government regulation for practices such as manure management and erosion control. He presented the recent proposed increase in critical habitat in Colorado for Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse as an outrageous example of government folly. The audience applauded and cheered. “Is that for the mouse?” Pollan asked. YES!

The three found agreement on the need to teach kids about food. Pollan suggested that schools use gardens to teach them where food comes from. Support that with cooking classes and classes in eating. Earthbound Farms offers classes at its farmstand. Smith suggested reinstilling “real drive into vocational and homemaking classes.”

“Bring the whole food chain into the classroom,” he said.

“Everyone should learn how to cook and how to sew,” Goodman added.

So what did Harris Ranch gain?

Smith proudly noted that 98 percent of all beef sold in the U.S. in 2008 was conventionally raised. What is Harris Ranch so worried about? Is it because the handwriting is on the wall about its methods?

Conventional and sustainable farmers can learn from each other’s methods. Goodman related how conventional producers have benefitted from applying organic methods to improve soil with compost and cover crops. They have seen that protecting riparian and other wildlife habitat on their farms can reduce the need to apply expensive toxic pesticides. Goodman encouraged government and university investment in developing disease-resistant plant varieties, such as mildew-resistant spinach, to compensate for not using chemicals. Industry research focuses on products that can be patented, rather than seeds and processes.

 “I’m personally really committed to organic, but we can take the best of both worlds,” she said.

Is that so bad that it can’t even be discussed without setting off tantrums among wealthy donors?

Smith’s dedication to industrial agriculture has disappointed him in some ways – none of his six children has gone into agriculture, and none even want the farm. He’s working on the persuading the grandchildren, but isn’t having much success. Not to worry, there were interested young farmers in the audience willing to be adopted.

Perhaps the young farmer who inherits Smith’s ranch, whoever he or she is, will be using different practices to raise beef. Perhaps the ranch will work with wildlife managers to create a different kind of operation entirely, maybe even welcoming the jumping mouse. Is that so bad it can’t be discussed?

Pollan rejected the charge that his work has criticized farmers. “Criticism of agriculture is not a criticism of farmers,” he said. “We need to celebrate, encourage and educate farmers.”

Farmers can sequester carbon in their soil, reducing the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change. The food they raise can be part of improved health.

“Solutions are in the hands of farmers,” Pollan said.

“We have to help people who want to farm,” Smith echoed.

Finding better ways to produce food doesn’t have to put us at war with each other. As Dean David Wehner of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences said in his introduction, “We all ate before we came here, and we all ate different things.” Michael Pollan is the messenger of facts and ideas we all need to hear as we head into a future that will certainly challenge us, with drought and floods, crop disease and failure and ever more people to be fed.

Harris Ranch probably doesn’t care how absurd it looks. Its ability to exercise influence over campus events needs serious investigation, though. What are other companies buying and paying for? Cal Poly belongs to the public, for the benefit of its students and the contribution they make to our society. It’s not Harris Ranch’s corporate publicity organization.

Selling Cal Poly’s commitment to academic freedom for a new meat processing facility is way too cheap.

Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, in Voyageur Press’ FFA Livestock Series. Both books focus on raising traditional breeds in small flocks. She’s sorry the panel didn’t get to talk about poultry.  She lives in Cambria.

Monday, April 23, 2012


One of the few poultry breeders who raised Lamonas years ago has set his breeding pens to re-create the breed. Seven years into his project, he’s cautiously optimistic.

“They are a valued piece of history to me,” said Stephen Gerdes of Illinois. “They recall so much of my youth and the breeders of the time.”

That was the 1960s and ‘70s, when he and breeder Marion Nash established their friendship over breeding pens and the show circuit. Gerdes is included in Nash’s book, The Stringman’s Scrapbook, published in 1974. The second edition is the one that includes details of Lamona breeding.

The first time Gerdes saw Lamonas was those of Pennsylvania breeder Henry Miller in the 1960s. Gerdes bred and showed Lamonas through 1978, when his Lamona hen was Champion American Hen at the Illinois State Fair.

The breed’s name was conferred by Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in honor of Harry M. Lamon, senior poultryman of the Bureau of Animal Husbandry who originated the project. Three books by Harry Lamon, who developed the Lamona, are included in the SPPA's collection of antique poultry books:  The Mating and Breeding of Poultry (1920), Practical Poultry Production (1920) and How to Select the Laying Hen (1931).

After being admitted to the APA Standard of Perfection in 1933, the Lamona’s popularity as a general purpose breed was eclipsed by intensive industrial poultry practices. The breed disappeared by the 1980s, when Nash turned his last birds over to a Missouri breeder.  It remains in the Standard although none have been shown in years. Rumors have swirled around the poultry world for several years of breeders re-creating Lamonas. Gerdes is not the only breeder working on re-creating them. He decided to come forward after his sons reported that breeders at the Crossroads of America Poultry Show in Indiana showed interest.

Being true to the history

Back in 1912, Lamon initiated a project to develop a dual purpose breed for the American market. Working at the U.S. Government Experiment Station in Beltsville, Maryland, he began with Silver Gray Dorkings, White Plymouth Rocks and Single Comb White Leghorns. Gerdes is staying with that formula to develop the breed again.

“I want to stay with the project as it was originated,” he said. “I’m trying to copy it as close as I can to the historical breeding.”

Lamonas have red ear lobes but lay white eggs. Most breeds that have red ear lobes lay brown eggs, but the traits are not connected genetically. Dorkings, Redcaps and Hollands also have red ear lobes and lay white eggs. Consumers wanted white eggs, and the Lamona was developed to meet that market goal.

They have yellow skin, important to the American consumer for meat. English breeds such as the Dorking have white skin, preferred by English consumers. White plumage makes pinfeathers less noticeable. The Lamona is well-feathered to stay warm against the cold. Their small combs and wattles are not as subject to frost as the larger combs of Mediterranean egg breeds such as the Leghorn.

Leghorns were part of the breeding for their egg laying ability, but Lamon wanted a larger bird for the table, one that produced a dressed weight of four to six pounds. Lamonas eventually were recognized at eight pounds for cocks and six and a half for hens.

“One of Marion’s goals was to produce a bird not only valued for white eggs, but also its yellow skin for the table,” he said.

The pluses and the minuses of breeding

That Dorking shape, with a long back and deep breast, supports a meaty carcass. There’s plenty of room for egg-laying organs. The Dorking’s fifth toe is a dominant characteristic, difficult to breed out while retaining the desirable characteristics.

When Gerdes decided to take the project on, he started by looking for Plymouth Rock roosters with backs too long and legs too short to meet the Rock standard. He found some through contacts with other breeders.

Finding Silver Gray Dorkings was more difficult. He contacted colleague and lifelong friend Duane Urch of Urch/Turnland Poultry in Owatonna, Minnesota. Gerdes, Urch and Nash were active in founding the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities in the 1960s to focus attention on preserving the traditional breeds. Urch sent Gerdes 25 chicks. Three of the pullets from that group had the red ear lobes and long back Gerdes wanted for his first breeding pen.

“You can produce a hundred chicks and get four or five for the next year’s breeding,” he said.

After mating the Dorkings to the Rocks and the Dorkings to the Leghorns, he selected the white birds that had the most Lamona traits for the next year’s breeding pens. The males from the Rock mating and females from the Leghorn mating tended to be whiter.

He’s not ready to share stock with anyone yet, or ever. His experience with encouraging new flocks hasn’t succeeded. He refers to the black & white edition of the Standard and his own memory as he makes culling decisions.

“I have to keep working with them,” he said. “This project is in its infancy as far as I’m concerned.”

He keeps his flocks in several locations, after devastating experiences with predators and disease in the past. His flocks include about 500 breeding birds and a large collection of waterfowl. He keeps Single Comb Black Leghorns, Anconas and White Faced Black Spanish breeding flocks. With his network of friends among poultry judges and breeders, he also keeps a few of the rare breeds that turn up at shows. He supplies stock to experienced exhibitors.

“I undertook this project for personal satisfaction and in remembrance of Marion,” he said. “I see so much that was given to me back in the 1960s and ‘70s.” 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Earth Day 2012

I'll be the first speaker at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden's Earth Day celebration Sunday April 22. The presentation is Raising Urban Chickens: A Guide to Backyard Poultry, so I'll have pictures of as many traditional breeds as I can put into my PowerPoint. I'll also talk about incorporating chickens into sustainable gardening.

On Saturday, Cal Poly's Center for Sustainability offers a tour of its compost operation. I'll be on that, eager to see what they've got. Last year when I worked on making a local event Zero Waste, I found that San Luis Obispo County does not have a commercial composting operation. I hope this is a move in that direction.

Vermont Composting Compan
y is the only commercial one I know of that puts chickens to work to turn food waste into topsoil. Owner Karl Hammer keeps mostly Australorps to eat food waste he gets from 49 restaurants and institutions, 750 tons a year. That's all diverted from landfills and turned into valuable topsoil and soil enrichment. The Australorps are good foragers, even in winter. The compost generates its own heat, too. They also raise their own chicks for him. He uses dogs to protect the chickens. They all eat from the food waste together.

"It's inedible to people but good food for the chickens and dogs," Hammer says.

Come out to the botanical garden on Sunday and join us! I've got Pat Foreman's books on putting chickens to work on compost, City Chicks and Chicken Tractor, as well as my own on traditional breeds. I plan to bring Oprah and Blondie along, to show people what beautiful chickens look like.