History Repeats Itself: Lessons We Ignore from Ireland’s Great Hunger

History Repeats Itself: Lessons We Ignore from Ireland’s Great Hunger



Oh, the 2012 holiday merry-go-round is already churning. We’ve barely finished with the shamrocks & green beer and Easter & Mother’s Day are hot on its heels.  Could I ask you to indulge me for a minute?  Could I tarry just a little longer at St. Patrick’s Day?

Not because I’m so very Irish (I am), but because Ireland offers one of the most memorable and recent cautionary tales about why we should be petrified about the extent of our current American practice of growing just a few varieties of a few crops year after year (monoculture).

It’s hard to imagine famine when you take for granted the endless array of processed foods in the typical American grocery store.  But, do a little Googling and you’ll soon learn that the huge cornucopia of shiny boxes and bags are manufactured from less than 12 crop varieties.

It is so, so dangerous to have your entire food supply invested in one single variety of one single crop, yet it’s unbelievably commonplace and even celebrated as the kind of modern progress needed to feed the world.  We’ve already discussed feeding the world, remember?

I can’t decide if our choice to play agricultural roulette is due to an over-abundance of confidence or ignorance, but it’s frightening. The really crazy thing is how many of us are Americans today because our ancestors were forced to flee starvation and workhouses in Ireland.  The Great Irish Hunger wasn’t all that long ago –  how quickly we forget.

For a while, the potato was a true savior for Ireland. It found its convoluted way from the Andes in South America to the struggling Irish peasants.  The Irish climate suited the tuber perfectly and these poor families were finally able to grow enough food to feed their families well on their tiny plots of land.

In the Andes, as many as 200 species of potato may be planted in the same field.

In the Andes, farmers cultivated diversity in the potato and enjoyed as many as 4.000 varieties. A really good source for learning about agrobiodiversity is the website SustainableTable (dot)org. Here’s a bit of Sustainable Table’s take on the potato situation in the Andes:

“This abundance of diversity is the result of farmers artificially selecting traits over generations for specific purposes, like resistance to disease, tolerance to high altitudes or poor soils, etc. This diversity is important for food security—in the event that a particular crop variety fails due to drought, flooding or a disease, another variety might survive to avoid food shortages.”

Meanwhile the Irish tale goes a little differently:

“In stark contrast to this [Andes] model of agrobiodiversity,  the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s was the result of a fungus that completely destroyed the Irish potato crop because only a few varieties of potatoes had been imported from the Andes to Europe, none of which were resistant to the disease. Because of a lack of crop diversity and over reliance on one crop to feed many of its population, Ireland experienced widespread famine and death.


The Irish you see, had a history of diversified farming but were no longer able to grow the variety of crops they relied on before the British occupied Ireland.  The British made it illegal for Irish Catholics to own or lease land and Irish farmland had been repurposed to raise grain and cattle to satisfy England’s insatiable taste for beef.  Irish farmers were forced onto tiny plots of meager land and struggled with subsistence wages. The potato was the only crop that could be counted on to keep a family fed under such restrictive conditions.

A one acre field of lumpers could be counted on to feed a family for a whole year

Irish potatoes were especially vulnerable because they planted just one kind, Lumpers.  And, because potatoes grow from other potatoes, they are like genetic clones – each exactly the same as all the others.  So, when an airborne mold blew into Ireland, the single crop expected to feed about 3 million people was devastated almost overnight, with few backup alternatives.

Of course, the suffering and starvation part of the tragedy was caused by a perfect storm of greed, prejudice and politics which amplified the already bad enough crop failure. I hope I’m wrong about this, but it feels like we may never get the greed + power = politics part right, but the lack of biodiversity?  That we are able to avoid.

Yet, amazingly enough, we don’t.  Industrial Farms plant huge monocultures of the three main government subsidized crops, year after year. They deplete the soil of beneficial microbes thereby becoming more and more reliant on synthetic (petroleum-based) fertilizers and pesticides.

Think about these statistics also from Sustainable Table:

  • Almost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties available in 1903 are now extinct.
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), humans now rely upon just 14 species of mammals and birds to supply 90% of all animal-derived foods.
  • Twelve plant crops account for more than three-quarters of the food consumed in the world, and just three—rice, wheat, and maize—are relied on for more than half of the world’s food.
  • Reliance upon modern varieties of rice has caused more than 1,500 local rice varieties in Indonesia to become extinct.

For some reason, when Americans embrace new technology, we have a way of kicking the old to the curb so fast it’s lost forever.  Few farmers preserve their old hybrid seeds just in case their new GM crop fails.  I don’t know about you, but I like the security of  knowing I’ve left a popcorn trail to guide me home if the new and improved turns out to not be so great after all.

Have we learned from the Irish potato famine?  Let’s see:

  • Dominant food source invested in extremely few crops of one variety, check.
  • A national food system serving the desires of the few not the needs of the many, check check.
  • Limited access to land discourages initiative and opportunity for people to feed themselves and rise above the limitations imposed by the system: check check check.

Well, it seems to me that what we’ve learned is how to do it again. The saddest thing is that we can’t even blame foreign occupation for our situation.  At least not unless you believe America is occupied by Monsanto, Cargill, General Mills, Dean Foods & Friends.  But blaming things on corporations implies you have no choice in the matter. Which is not entirely true.

So today, on this unusually summer-like first day of spring you can take a small step or two to do your part to restore biodiversity to our food system.

First, consider planting a small garden and growing a few heirloom varieties of your favorite fruits and vegetables. Have you heard of Kitchen Gardener’s International?  Let Roger Doiron’s entertaining TED talk convince you:


Or, if gardening is not your thing, consider signing up for a Community Shared Agriculture  (CSA) share from a local farm growing heirloom fruits & veggies. Even better if they offer eggs and meat from heritage breed livestock.  And if they have fresh, locally produced dairy products too, well lucky you.  Go for it, please. Don’t know where to find a CSA? Look here.

And, if even a weekly box of goodness is too much obligation, at least do some shopping at your local farmer’s market. Home gardeners and small, diversified farmers are doing most of the work saving plants whose claims to fame are flavor and hardiness instead of uniformity and ability to withstand processing and shipping. But the success of their work is completely dependent on your commitment to buy from them.

Come ON, you can do it! The future is riding on what you have for dinner….

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

in which we smile: an ode to joy

in which we smile: an ode to joy

How can you be grumpy in the face of this much joy?

I admit I was in a bit of a hurry this morning and not pleased about this everlasting mud. I was rushing to get the hay delivered while the ground was at least a tiny bit frozen.

Despite my hurry, I couldn’t help but stop and appreciate this little pleasure.

She’s one happy heifer with a busy schedule full of running, jumping & discovering


Our newest little one hasn’t seen the hay delivery yet.  In fact, she hasn’t seen anything before and each discovery seems to be a new delight for this playful and happy-natured girl.

Now you see her…xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxNow you don’t.  Pretty quick….


Inspector Honey at work. did You think she was going to mind her own business?


Only the hardest heart would not be lifted…

In which we give thanks for an Actual Miracle

In which we give thanks for an Actual Miracle

Dark. Really, really dark. Due to frantic scrambling and panic, no photos were taken during this event. I hope my words do it justice. In fact, it's better this way. Trust me, I was there...

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, thank goodness not really stormy. But windy. And dark. Really, really dark. See, we have no electricity at the farm so when it gets dark, I mean it is DARK.

Most of the time I really like that – all the halos from dusk to dawn lights everywhere obscure the twinkling beauty of our rural night-time sky. It’s so beautiful on a clear night and without distraction from all those lights, each individual star gets it’s chance to shine. Isn’t that the sort of thing that makes people want to live in the country? I mean – I love the excitement of city lights too – when I’m in the city. But anyway… I wander.

Sometimes though, things don’t go so right and a little electricity is a welcome friend. Like the other night. While doing my evening dinner check on the cows, I notice my friend Sprite off by herself sporting some strange posture.

She was standing hump-backed and her belly was blown up like a balloon. When she turned around to look at me, I could see she was all frothed up with foamy drool from her nose and mouth. This was not good.

I’m trying not to panic. You see, cows are in many ways like tanks. Tough. Steady. Relentless. Except when they’re really, really delicate. There are a few maladies cows can fall victim to that can send a healthy cow from normal to dead in a matter of hours. This could be one of those times.

If you’ve done much reading about the future of the environment and climate change, I’m sure you’ve read something or other about cows producing methane gas. Well I can tell you, it’s true. These kids belch a-plenty. Cows shovel their barely chewed food into the first chamber of their stomachs where it is partially digested by fermentation. If you’ve ever attempted to make wine or beer, you know fermentation can produce lots of bubbly gasses that either escape or explode.

Well, Sprite was about to explode. When cows eat too much fermentation inducing food and are unable to release enough gas, they can inflate until they reach a point where the pressure from their extended stomach presses so hard on their diaphragm it causes them to suffocate and suffer heart failure. Not a pretty prognosis for Sprite…

All is not completely hopeless yet – there is one last desperate measure a farmer can take; puncture the bloated cow with a knife. Yes, you read it right. When all is lost anyway, it’s worth a shot. With a little luck, your hole will expel the gas and the vet can then stitch up the hole. Next, you pray the cow doesn’t get any nasty infection from your non-sterile, unskilled surgical misadventure and there’s still a fair chance all will be ok.

It’s not dark yet, so I run to the barn, get a halter on her and call the vet. I’m hoping I don’t have to do any pocket-knife puncturing maneuvers by myself. The vet is on an emergency call, so I ask my neighbor if he’s ever punctured a rumen. Which he has. Once, a gazillion years ago.

Sprite is now laying down and in some real misery but still breathing. So my neighbor comes down, we tie Sprite to the tractor and attempt to walk her to the front of the pasture to be closer for the vet. The vet calls and is running earlier than expected and tells us to wait for him to get there before we puncture anything (whew!)

It’s completely dark now, Sprite’s not going for this walking behind the tractor business, breaks her halter and runs away (bad news, good news). Following is complete cow mayhem. The whole herd is really excited about all this unusual activity; I have running, bucking, squealing and mobbing cows everywhere. In the dark it’s hard to tell which cow is which, and the tractor doesn’t have lights. I have to call the vet back and tell him the cow has escaped. It was reassuring to know he was on his way; now my only hope is an Actual Miracle.

I ran back to the barn again to get the quad which is more nimble, the cows are used to it and it has good headlights. I manage to find Sprite again, but of course Rocco the bull is right by her side and he’s a little wound up.

But, amazingly, Sprite looks normal size! I keep doubting that I have the right cow, but no. It’s true! She’s pretty normal. Amazing because she was one mouth frothing, humped up blimp just an hour before. Thank goodness! It seems all the excitement and running broke up the slimy froth that was preventing the gas from escaping. As puffed up as she was, I’m surprised Sprite didn’t squeal away into the sky like a punctured balloon!

But no, there she was, four hooves firmly on the ground, standing with her Spritzer when I checked on her again later that night. She just looked at me like I was crazy – she actually had the nerve to be EATING GRASS. Same this morning. I am feeling very grateful and a little disbelieving. Without a trace of evidence, did any of this really happen? I just can’t believe the dramatic difference an hour can make. First the hour it took Sprite to inflate, then the hour it took for her to deflate and completely forget all about it.

Apparently, Sprite doesn’t appreciate her good fortune and the rarity of an Actual Miracle, because early this morning she was right back to her gluttonous apple-trawling ways….

What?? Are you looking at me?? Sprite quickly forgets all about her near death experience and continues her gluttonous apple trawling ways....

In which Sprite gets game

In which Sprite gets game

A one year old Sprite the day after her 11 hour drive to our farm. A little tired?

Sprite is a cow we brought from New Hampshire.  She came to us with her mother Hannah, sister Ruby, aunt Sally and brother Hodil.  From the first day on our farm, Ruby, Hannah and Hodil were tight and Sally and Sprite were a bit out of the loop.

Sprite is very sweet and friendly but is always a bit odd in an endearing sort of way.

Right away, Sally made friends with the cows already living here, and made great progress climbing the social ladder.  Sprite was less fortunate; she was younger and less confident and stayed right where she was – at the bottom.

Sprite started doing everything opposite the other cows to avoid conflict – she ate while they were busy doing something else. She never got the choicest bed or was the first to eat the tastiest bite and she had long since stopped trying. She was our loner.

Gradually, Sprite became friends with Femme. Femme is a kind girl and her sister & pasture mate Bling, entertaining as she is, can be a mean girl sometimes.  Bling wasn’t all that keen on this development, but in time, she came to be Sprite’s friend too. Sort of.

Her new role as a mom proved to be a little challenging for Sprite.  She had no problems having the baby, she watched the baby,  licked the baby and made all the right noises, but just didn’t want to stand still to nurse the baby. This became a vicious cycle as Sprite’s udder then became very swollen and painful which REALLY made her unwilling to let the baby touch it.

So, things weren’t going well – the baby kept going off by himself and he wasn’t getting enough to eat.  We tried milking her and nursing him but that was a bit of a circus; after all our effort, he just didn’t want to drink from a bottle. So,  I brought them into the barn and locked them in together.  I really was beginning to lose hope that this little guy was going to make it.

Oh, the difference a few weeks makes… this little guy is always up to something!

Well, they both seemed to have figured things out because he’s doing really well – he’s a very smart, chubby and sassy boy.  The only cloud casting shadows on his little world is that he had no playmates.  So, I took last year’s heifers  and turned them all out together.

These girls are still playful enough to enjoy giving Spritzer (yes, that’s his name) a run for his money. Well, you should see young Spritzer out there chatting up his ladies…. very cute.

Spritzer’s aunt Saralee – she’s just his speed

But the unexpected result of this arrangement is that Sprite is in her glory.  It’s so entertaining to watch her chase those girls around – they’re all scared of her.  She goes WAY out of her way to chase them for absolutely no reason except that she can.  She is the unchallenged Queen of the pasture for the first time in her bovine life.

Sprite’s very pleased with herself; I’ve never seen her so enthusiastic about life.  She’s actually got swagger….

And, here they are… Sprite & Spritzer

The undisputed Queen of an empire of children – patroling the premises for potential misbehaviours by her subjects

In which we tell a charcutepaloozian tale: on two pork butts in three parts

In which we tell a charcutepaloozian tale: on two pork butts in three parts

part two: brining, smoking and the almighty pellicle

On the right, pastured heritage breed pork from Lamppost Farm. On the left, conventional pork.

Yesterday we posted part one about our purchase of two Boston Butt pork roasts.

The first was from the pastured Hereford/Berkshire pigs at Lamppost Farm; the second was unknown pork of confined upbringing,  most likely Duroc or Duroc/Berkshire breeds purchased from my local butcher.

Left: Pastured Roast, Right: Conventional

These two roasts come from opposite ends of the pork roast spectrum – the commercial roast being much leaner.  My commercial roast had some gnarly fat marbled through the center; the fat on the pastured roast was like a rooftop after a heavy, heavy snow – perfectly drifted on top.  The pastured roast was also nicely marbled throughout.  Each roast was bone-in and weighed about 3 pounds.

An indulgent bit of wandering:  it’s fascinating how quickly America switched gears from being a country where lard was the primary cooking fat to an animal fat-phobic country using industrially processed vegetable oils.  Did you know it all began in WWII?  During the war,  lard was urgently needed for military applications and citizens were urged to switch to “more healthful” vegetable oils for cooking.  By the time the military no longer needed the lard, the consumer market for lard collapsed and the old-fashioned fattier breeds of pigs were no longer profitable.  Breeders began breeding and selecting animals that would build muscle rapidly for meat and pork production switched from pastured animals on small farms to centralized, industrial confinement operations.  Learn more about the powerful impact the blending of modern advertising methods, government and corporate interests had on American society in this exhibit of wartime posters from an online exhibit from the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library.  Love these posters!

OK, OK,  back to the pork. As my goal is to really let the flavor of the roasts shine, I kept the spices, brining and rubbing really, really minimal.  I brined both roasts in a simple solution of brown sugar, kosher salt & water for about 8 hours. I figured if I got the smoking part right, that would add plenty of flavor (although some of those Chinese 5 season powder rubbed roasts look phenomenal).

Our smoker of choice, budget and availability was a Weber charcoal grill, a

Ye Olde Low Tech High Quality Weber Grill

good digital thermometer, hardwood lump charcoal, apple wood and two aluminum foil pans.  Not very sophisticated some would say, but you true McGyvers probably think we’re over-equipped.

We arranged the charcoal around the outside rim of the round grill, leaving space for a round drip pan in the center.   We lit the charcoal, burning it uncovered about 25 minutes until the coals looked

Hardwood Charcoal burning around the edge - drip pan goes in the center

ashy white.  Once the coals were white, we put in the drip pan and added chunks of soaked & drained apple wood on top of the charcoal.

On the grill, we placed the two roasts in the center above the drip pan and

placed a tin filled with water beside the roasts.  To monitor the internal temperature of the meat, we inserted the probe of a digital meat thermometer in the

Soaked apple wood chunks tossed on top of the ash white charcoal, roasts centered on rack over drip pan and pan of water placed on rack. Note the thermometer probe into thickest part of meat, away from the bone.

thickest part of the meat, away from the bone.

So now, the guessery begins.  We put the roasts on about noon and smoked them until just after 3:00.  The smoking went remarkably well, except we did struggle a little with keeping the charcoal burning on one side and the temperature up.  I slipped a dial thermometer inside the grill vents to

check the temperature of the airspace inside the grill, but it only reads to 222°.  There were times the temperature dipped to 180° – apparently fire building is a skill we need to work on a bit more. I fussed over my non-burning charcoal, opened the lid too many times and clucked like the smoking newbie that I am, but it all came to a supremely satisfying end.

I wasn’t confident about my thermometer readings, so I finished the roast in a 350 oven for 15 minutes until my thermometer showed an internal temperature of 160°.  Since it only took 15 minutes to reach 160°, I probably didn’t need the oven finish, but we weren’t taking any chances.

A really important part is to let the meat rest for a minimum of 15 minutes before carving – it’s hard to resist ripping into something that looks that gorgeous and has tormented you for over three hours with smells so tantalizing, but RESIST THE URGE!

Now, let me thank Mrs. Wheelbarrow, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn for making an emphatic point about developing the pellicle before smoking the meat.  This is THE secret, I believe, to a successful smoked roast.  I heeded their advice and after removing from the brine allowed my roasts to rest uncovered in the refrigerator overnight so the meat surface would develop that dry tackiness that helps the smoky flavor adhere to the meat.  Both roasts ended up with a beautiful red exterior that made the ends the most fought over pieces on the platter.

We have not been fans of smoked foods.  Oh sure, we love an occasional smoky BBQ, but smoked cheese and other snacks are usually a pass.  I would never think of smoking when deciding how to cook a roast.  Yet, after smoking these roasts, I’m looking at everything in our kitchen thinking it should be smoked immediately.  It’s probably the special combination of hardwood charcoal, apple wood and DIY seasoning, right?  Then I realize my entire experience with smoked foods is from holiday gift baskets of stale, unheard of brands of gourmet foods.

Now that I’ve seen the light, I can’t wait to take on almonds, my beef bacon from February and some home-made cheese for starters.

Come back on the 15th for part three: what we ate, how we ate it and an undisputed winner.