Wednesday, March 28, 2012

GMO vs Hybrid: What's the Difference?

We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded thinkers. Our worlds become insular and we begin to think "Doesn't everyone feel/think this same way?" Or we don't think about what others might believe. Political views, religious affiliations, parenting styles, hobbies, jobs, even the way we feed our families. We surround ourselves with people that think like us. Sometimes it's a real shocker to find out that not only are there people who don't take the same stance or have the same perspective as you...but heck, they don't even know what you're talking about.

The other day one of my local acquaintances posted a link on her Facebook about folks picketing Monsanto. Down with GMOs and all that. I read through the article, cheering the "Occupy Monsanto" peeps on. I scrolled down to the comments — and was blown away. 90% of the comments were, while not necessarily supporting Monsanto, definitely railing against the occupiers. As I continued to scroll down, several commenters —to their credit — made note that they really didn't know much about GMO foods. What's the big deal anyway? All kinds of plants are hybrids! It dawned on me then, that I live in an insular world where all my friends are local, home-growin' food advocates. They're the type that watched "Food, Inc." and "Supersize Me." They breastfeed and make their own baby food. They buy local raw honey, organic produce, and eggs from my backyard.

But, not everyone is like that. 10 years ago, I wasn't so much like this either. We ate a lot of veggies, I grew some (hybrid) tomatoes in my little townhouse plot, I made sure to wash all my fruit and veg to get rid of pesticide residues. But I wasn't paying organic prices. Not worth it. Then I started doing more reading and research, thinking "Will this really effect my kids?" Pregnancy can do that to you sometimes. I decided some changes were in order. And I decided I wanted to be more in control of what my family eats, of what I eat. If I choose to eat a McDonald's burger, I want to make an educated choice. And I learned about organic foods, hybrids, and GMOs.

What is a GMO? Genetically Modified Organism.
Ok, but what is a GMO? From Wikipedia: "A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. GMOs are the constituents of genetically modified foods."  It can be any plant, animal or microorganism which has been genetically altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering.

Simply put, a GMO is when genes from one or more organisms are altered (combined, etc.), in a lab setting, then added added into a new organism.
Some examples:
  • An herbicide resistant gene is taken from bacteria and inserted into the soybean plant, making the soybean itself resistant to farmer sprayed herbicides. 
  • Sweet corn is modified to produce its own insecticide (a toxin to insects). The insect-killing gene comes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. 
  • rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone given to dairy cows. The hormone, which is synthesized from genetically modified bacteria, produces higher milk yields by keeping milk-producing cells alive in cows for longer than normal. 
Then, what is a hybrid? Hybridization is a naturally occurring genetic process where individuals from two genetically distinct populations mate. The DNA of the offspring contains genetic characteristics from both "parents." Many of the varieties of garden seeds (flower and veg) are hybrids. They've been cross pollinated to get a plant that has the good characteristics of both parent plants. 

Aren't they the same thing, sorta kinda? Yes, in that there's some genetic tinkering going on. No, in that GMOs are a) done in a lab,  b) take genes from unrelated organisms and insert them in others and c) hybridization occurs naturally, typically among like species.Think of it this way, hybridization is like human reproduction: unrelated adults of the same species mate and they get a wonderful little brown eyed baby. Genetically modified: Scientists go in and "adjust" the DNA of the baby to get it to have blue eyes.

But what's the big deal? Well, that depends on your stance. For some, it's not. GMO can purportedly be used to increase nutrition in some foods, like rice. It can be used to eliminate viruses in others, such as papaya. I say "purportedly" because reports are showing that that hasn't panned out too well.

For opponents, the list is great: environmental issues, inability to save seeds for next year's crop, health issues, very poor regulation, and strong arm tactics.

I could tell you what I think, but really you should take some time, read about the issue, and make up your own mind.

Here are some links that might be helpful in your research:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fifth Grade: Ancient Civilizations

Buddha chalkboard drawing
O Best Beloved, we have now come to the end of our block on India and Persia. What a fascinating block! I didn't expect it to be quite so enjoyable, but the Boy is truly loving every aspect of our Ancient Civilizations studies. So much so that he was feeling blue about leaving India behind.

The timing was perfect; the stories of India portray a sleepy, warm, imaginative culture. Our springtime temps here have been ridiculously balmy, adding the perfect atmosphere, making our days feel lazy and dreamy. Perfect for stories of mysterious gods and magical jungle creatures.

While reading the stories from Charles Kovac's "Ancient Mythologies" the Boy would beg, "One more story, pleeeassse!" I could've cruised through India in two days, but we paced ourselves. We started with the Mhabhrata (the epic of the Pandu family) and even borrowed a dvd from the library depicting a version of the story, then moved on to a few stories of the Ramayana. Then we delved into the life of Siddartha Gautama, the prince who became Buddha. During this time, he independently read "The Iron Ring," a story about another prince who leaves his throne, for the sake of honor. 

I had a difficult time finding much about Persia in our library system, so it ended up being more of a minor stop, although he did enjoy the Zarathustra story.

Here are some of the resources I used:
For his "reader" I chose The Iron Ring, Alexander Lloyd
For my reader, I chose Buddha : a story of enlightenment, Deepak Chopra, to gain some insight.

Because the Boy likes facts so much, I gathered a few books chock full of data and pictures: 
India, Julie Nelson
The Kingfisher book of the ancient world : from the Ice Age to the fall of Rome, Hazel Mary Martell 
It's disgusting–and we ate it : true food facts from around the world and throughout history!, James Solheim ; illustrated by Eric Brace
Ancient India, Virginia Schomp
Ancient Persia, Neil Bramwell

A nice picture/story book about the Buddha, The Prince who ran away : the story of Guatama Buddha, Anne Rockwell ; illustrated by Fahimeh Amiri

For my own information: Look what we've brought you from India : crafts, games, recipes, stories, and other cultural activities from Indian Americans, Phyllis Shalant

And, O Best Beloved, our favorite, a book on cd for car travel: Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling

We finished the block by taking a field trip on a gorgeous, sunny Sunday afternoon to Passage to India, an Indian restaurant on the river front in Harrisburg. The Boy was excited to go, but then wasn't too thrilled. I think he decided he's not much for Indian food...although he devoured the caramel custard!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fifth Grade Woodwork: Carving a Spatula

Our little homeschool group has just finished a woodworking class, offered by the woodwork teacher at Susquehanna Waldorf School.

At SWS, fifth graders are introduced to woodworking through the hand rasping of a darning egg. Perfect for those socks that they will make in the fifth year! As a group, we approached our woodwork guru about teaching our children from his home studio, the Red Barn Gallery. And we opted to skip the egg for the second project he usually brings to grade 5, a spatula.

Classes began with tree identification skills and a tour of the garden. The children learned to identify wood through their senses. How does it look? What does the bark feel like? Are there "noses" on the bark, does it peel, is it scaly? Does the wood have a bumpy or smooth grain? Is it heavy or light?  How does it smell? What is the color?

This was followed by some table work, charting various types of wood by their characteristics. It was funny to see the looks of confusion on their faces when the instructor asked them to "Please put your names on your papers." Things you never think about — I rarely ask my son to put his name on his paper; I know whose work it is! I had to giggle. Anyway, they learned about the parts of the tree, from a woodworkers perspective: pith, heartwood, sapwood, and the like.

Sumac, sycamore, white pine, pin oak
And finally, at the end of that first class, Mr. Kelly showed them what they would be making and some of the tools they would be using. How exciting! Using a hatchet, he made rough blanks from dry sycamore.  Each child chose their blank and penciled their name on it. (No looks of confusion this time!)

The next class began with a quick review of tool rules, then into the shop to start gouging away. They gouged, and gouged...tap tap gouge, tap tap gouge...until their little hands were aching. 45 minutes in it became evident that it was time to give the body a rest and put the mind to work. They assembled at the tables to finish their wood identity worksheets.

Blanks and tools prepared for gouging.
Tap tap gouge....
After gouging came rasping. They used two types of rasps, a regular American style, and these beautiful Japanese rasps.

Japanese rasps

The Boy's spatula after much gouging, pre rasping.

After rasping came filing then sanding

The boys sanding...sawdust flying everywhere

And after sanding came oiling.

The Boy's is on the right, his friend's is on the left.

A very happy and accomplished class.
Due to differences in wood, each piece is unique. The 3 paler ones still needed some sanding and oiling.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chicken FAQs: Top Questions I Get Asked About Keeping Chickens

Hen, Rooster, Hen, Rooster, Hen, Rooster, Rooster.
Besides "Is it difficult?", the number one question I get is:
Do you need to keep a rooster?
Of course, they're half the fun! Ok, maybe that's a want. You don't NEED to keep a rooster unless you want fertilized eggs (such as if you want to hatch your own). A hen will lay eggs with or without a rooster around. Roosters are nice to have though, as they offer protection to their ladies in exchange for a little lovin'.

2. How often does a hen lay an egg?
Well, that depends on the age, breed, and general health of the bird. Some breeds are raised specifically for high egg production, such as the Leghorns. Others are raised for meat and eggs, and will lay fewer eggs. With a young Leghorn (1-2 years) you can expect about 250-300 eggs per year. With an Amerecauna you can expect 200-275 eggs per year. Here's a great chart if you want to look up a particular breed.

Chicken shed #2 made from scavenged materials
and stuff left over from other projects.
This houses 5 chickens at the moment.
3. How much space does a chicken need? Do I need a big hen house?
As much as you can give them! You need to provide housing with a 2-5 square feet per bird, maybe more if they're confined all day. I'd recommend giving them some yard, a run, or a pasture to move about on during the day. There's all types of housing, be resourceful and use what you have lying around. We converted an old shed into one house. For another we used salvaged metal siding, bead board, and cement blocks, having only to buy 2x4s. For our pasture shelters we're using 1x3s and salvaged chicken fencing. I've seen converted rabbit hutches, dog kennels, and green houses!

4. Are brown eggs healthier than white eggs?
No, nor do they taste any different. But brown, blue, green, and speckled eggs make for a beautiful breakfast! The shell color is determined by the breed. While colored eggs are no different nutritionally than white eggs, home-raised eggs taste and look much different (better in the opinion of most flocksters and their customers) from supermarket eggs.

5. How do you tell a rooster from a hen?
"Eagle" here is a hen.
By it's crow, silly. Seriously, as chicks, it can be difficult. Some breeds are sex-linked, meaning males will be one color or pattern and the females another. But for most breeds, it's tough to tell those babies apart. You can vent sex them, but it's a skill that requires quite a bit of practice to perfect. As the chicks grow, typically the roosters will get larger combs faster than the hens, their feathers are often more brightly colored and showy, they may be larger than the hens with thicker legs and bigger feet, they often have spurs, and yes, they will eventually start crowing. But, hens can crow, too! According to JD Belanger  (Idiots Guide to Raising Chickens) "This isn't as unusual as it might seem, and is easily explained. Hens have voice boxes, of course. And they're capable of crowing. The only reason they don't is because they don't feel like it. Really.
     "It's a hormonal thing. Older hens, or those that undergo hormone changes because of diseased ovaries or other conditions, can have a decrease in female hormones and an increase in male hormones, and they will often crow."
And that was new to me, too.

6. When do they start laying eggs? And what time of day will they lay?
Not soon enough, especially when you're waiting for those very first ones from your very first hens! Depending on the breed, they'll start laying somewhere around 22 weeks of age. I've had them start as early as 5 months and as late as 7. The first eggs may not look all that appetizing. They may be misshapen, too large or small, or even shell-less. It takes a few weeks for some of them to get in the groove. I've had a few that laid double yolked eggs until they caught their rhythm. It takes chickens 26 hours to make an egg. The hens will typically lay in the morning, each day getting a little later, until they eventually are laying in the late afternoon. Then their internal clocks adjust: they skip a day, then start up again, laying in the morning.

Jack Sparrow is, or was, a rooster
7. Do they lay all year long?
Some breeds do, although the rate will typically drop (to possibly no eggs) over the shortest days of the year. You can manipulate the birds by artificially lighting the hen house for a few hours each winter morning. They need about 14 hours of light to lay at the normal rate. I've never done that myself as I prefer my girls to take a much deserved break, but it can be done.

8. Do they need heat in the winter?
Not really. More than heat, they need shelter to get out of the wet and wind. As long as they are kept dry and sheltered, they will do ok in most of the US. Some breeds are better able to tolerate cold, some heat. If you live in a very cold area, you may want to look for a breed that has smaller combs and wattles...less surface area to get frostbitten. Chickens will tend to huddle together and keep warm. If you live in an area that is bitterly cold (Siberia?) you might want to check and see what the experienced flocksters in your area do.
Chicken house #1 and the garden

9. Can I let the chickens roam in my garden?
If you don't want any plants, sure. Chickens are notorious "tillers." They scratch at the ground to get to the goodies. They are great for tilling up a space. It's pretty safe once your plants are grown. But you don't want to let them into a new plot that you've just seeded or planted with seedlings.

10. What about cats/dogs?

Cats don't often bother fully grown chickens, the birds are just too big. And chickens get used to the cats wandering around. Peeps look like dinner though, so make sure to keep them safe until they're older! Dogs, especially other people's dogs, are a different story. You may be able to train your dog to guard the birds, or at least leave them alone, depending on breed and temperament. Dogs running loose will attack chickens just for the fun of it—it's their natural prey instinct. If there's a possibility that a neighbor's dog will come over for a visit, make sure the chickens are well protected.

Bonus question!
Aren't they smelly?
Yes, and no. Chickens poop everywhere, without any regard to anything. But keeping the odor down is manageable. Using a deep litter method in my housing, I partially clean the house out when I need compost or mulch. Other than that I keep adding fresh littler: dry straw, leaves, etc. before it starts to smell. (Don't use fresh weeds or grasses, they have too much nitrogen. You want to use dry, carbonaceous materials) The chickens constantly till it up and break it down making lovely compost. Once a week or so, I take the hay fork and mix the litter up if it doesn't seem to be getting enough action. (Sometimes my birds seem to miss the corners). Good ventilation and dry, deep litter should keep an odor-free home for your girls.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Homeschool Gym aka Horseback Riding Lessons

This month finds us spending our Fridays at River Valley Ranch taking a homeschool riding class. The Boy has been stretching himself, choosing new things to try, and riding lessons are one of those things he's been wanting to experience. Through one of the e-lists we belong to (Social Home Educators of York) we found a homeschool riding class that fit into our crazy schedule.

Yesterday we drove over to the Ranch ( a 50 minute drive through Southwestern PA's beautiful farmland) and so began lessons. 

The Boy was a bit anxious for the class to start; he's a high strung little boy. "What if this isn't our class?" "What time does it start?" "Why are we so early?" But a few hugs and reassurances later, he started to relax. 

We traipsed around to the barn entrance, stopping to admire each horse. We watched the horses in their paddock for a moment, then entered the large horse barn/arena. Whoooey it was cold! The wind whipped right through the "lobby," but we found a cozy corner next to the tack room to get out of the chill. 

Looking around, I noticed that it was going to be a class full of girls, with just a sprinkling of boys. Not a big deal, just an observation. It seems to me that girls tend to go through a "horse phase" sometime between 8 and 10 years old. That's about the average age for these girls, too. For our son, it's not so much about the horse, but about the riding!

The instructor, Morgan, had them up on the horses immediately. The Boy seemed so happy and confident. It was great to see him smile and handle his horse as well as he did.