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2/14/2014

What does Certified Organic mean on food labels?

The “Certified Organic” label is, at its core, a consumer protection law. It’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) assurance that you’re buying food that has been produced and processed according to its National Organic Program (NOP) standards: Certified Organic LabelVegetables and fruits have not been produced using irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs); livestock have been fed 100 percent organic feed without antibiotics or growth hormones, and were raised with at least some access to the outdoors; and multi-ingredient processed foods must contain at least 95 percent Certified Organic ingredients.

The Certified Organic label is backed by regulations developed by the USDA and the National Organic Standards Board, an advisory committee of consumers, environmentalists, farmers and scientists. Part of the board’s job is to advise the USDA regarding the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.” But it aims to be more than an organic referee that rules a farming substance or practice either “fair” or “foul play.” The board also makes recommendations about sustainable agricultural practices, and if its recommendations are approved by the USDA, the law requires farmers who seek organic certification to demonstrate that they follow such methods.

To obtain organic certification, applicants must have their operations reviewed by a third-party certifying agent. The review process includes annual inspections, and inspectors can request samples of soil, water, and plant and animal tissue to test for chemical residues. Producers must also pay certification fees that range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. For some growers, the financial cost and the rigorous path to gain a Certified Organic label are daunting. The law thus makes allowances for small operations. Producers who market less than $5,000 of organic products annually may call their products organic (but not Certified Organic) without going through the certification process, provided they comply with other regulations. (For more information on certification requirements, go to the USDA’s National Organic Program FAQ). Labeling a product Certified Organic without receiving USDA authorization is illegal and can result in prosecution and a fine.

Although some of the USDA’s decisions have been criticized by organic watchdog groups (such as The Cornucopia Institute), we’ve come a long way in organic food labeling. Before the national organic standards went into effect in April 2001, consumers had no way of knowing whether food labeled as organic was in fact produced using sustainable, environmentally sound practices. Today, we can know that farmers have produced food without using toxic pesticides, harsh fertilizers, and unsustainable — and sometimes inhumane — systems. Year-over-year increases in sales show that more and more consumers prefer to eat Certified Organic products.

Photo by SuperStock/Universal Images Group: Organic standards guide consumers who want to choose sustainably produced food.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .



12/11/2013

Can you tell me the best way to store late-harvested crops?

Most crops can be canned, frozen, dried or pickled, but the best way to store many root crops and winter squash is to make use of cold storage areas in your home, such as in an unheated closet or bedroom, or in your basement or garage. You can even keep potatoes and carrots in an outdoor pit. If you don’t have a big garden, stock up on root crops at your local farmers market, and keep them edible well into winter with the tips in the following articles, which detail a number of simple cold-storage techniques.

Food Storage: 20 Crops That Keep and How to Store Them is complete with detailed charts that outline instructions for storing easy-to-keep crops, including apples, beans, cabbage, garlic, onions, potatoes and squash. Most storage crops should be cured before storage to heal small wounds and allow for the release of excess moisture that could otherwise cause them to rot. For five low-tech ways to store root crops outdoors, see Outdoor Root Cellars.

For a guide to grow, stow and cook crops that are productive, nutrient-dense, and easy to store or preserve, go to our Food Self-Sufficiency page.

To find more articles and tips on preserving food, peruse our Collection of Food Preservation Techniques.

Photo By Simon McBride: Cure fall crops and keep them cool to eat well, even out of season.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.



12/4/2013

Can you suggest an effective indoor mouse deterrent that won’t endanger children or pets? What about “ultrasonic” devices?

Of all the rodents that can invade your home in winter, the house mouse is by far the most destructive: It can contaminate food, damage structures and spread disease. Don’t waste your money on “ultrasonic” rodent repellents for house mouse control, however. “There are a lot of electronic gizmos you can buy, but no sound or electronic field will reliably repel rodents from a structure,” says Robert Timm, center director and extension wildlife specialist at the University of California’s Research & Extension Center in Hopland.

Luckily, the old-fashioned mousetrap (also known as the “snap trap”) is a very effective way to control mice indoors, Timm says. While the prospect of removing a dead rodent from the House Mouse Controltrap may be unappealing, trapping works, and it lets you monitor your house mouse control efforts. It also avoids the use of potentially hazardous chemical rodenticides and the decomposing-animal odor associated with using such products. Recent and pending legislation is aiming to make rodenticides less dangerous — but even when prepackaged in bait stations, these mouse poisons could be toxic to children and pets who ingest them, as well as to pets or wildlife that might eat the poisoned mice. Other kinds of rodent traps (such as glue, electrocution and live-capture traps) are available, but they have drawbacks. So, snap traps are your best bet for house mouse control.

Position snap traps no farther than 10 feet apart along walls where you have seen evidence of mouse activity, such as droppings, tracks or gnawed areas. “Mice travel along walls,” Timm says. “Point the trigger at the wall. That way, the mouse will cross the trigger when it comes from either direction.” Peanut butter is a good mouse bait, but according to Timm, some pest control operators don’t use bait, because positioning the traps properly will work on its own.

Wear gloves whenever you remove a mouse or any droppings, and then clean the area with a disinfectant. Seal the dead mouse in a plastic bag and dispose of it with your trash.

Be sure to take steps to prevent new infestations: Secure all possible points of entry by closing any openings larger than a quarter-inch with metal or cement (mice can chew through foam insulation, plastic and wood). Filling openings with a stainless-steel scouring pad can be effective, too. Keep counters, cabinets and floors clean and free of food crumbs. A patrolling house cat can provide additional insurance against future mouse invasions.

Photo By Fotolia/Zerbor: For effective house mouse control. place snap traps along walls, where mice like to travel.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.



11/20/2013

Some of my laying hens seem to be slowing down. How do I know when to butcher them?

If you choose to keep your hens beyond their first two years of laying, their production will gradually fall to the point that you’re paying more to feed and maintain them than what they’re returning in egg value — usually, that’s well before the end of their natural lives (5 to 10 years old).

Butchering the least-productive laying hens just before the onset of winter often makes the most sense, because egg production declines even further as the days grow shorter. After you butcher hens, be prepared to cook them differently than you would young meat birds. The older the bird, the tougher its meat is likely to be. According to Harvey Ussery, author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, the trick to preparing an old hen (or a culled mature cock) is long, slow, moist-heat cooking. “The best choice of all is to use the bird to make fabulous broth, which will be far better than broth from a younger bird,” Ussery says. After making broth, you can still use the meat that has been stripped off the bones in casseroles, stir-fries and other dishes.

Unless you want to keep your hens as pets, start by culling the least-productive ones first — but how do you know which are still going strong and which aren’t?

Ussery looks for these signs of a productive bird: 1) The vent is large, oval, soft and moist; 2) the abdomen, between the tip of the breastbone and the tips of the pubic bones, is large and soft; and 3) the pubic bones are wider apart than those on a non-laying chicken. Often the comb of a high-producing bird is larger, brighter and more flexible, too. Some people get a few new hens annually, choosing a different breed each year. That way, they can keep track of the age of each breed and retire them after about two to four years of production.

“Many people who produce eggs for market practice ‘two seasons and out,’” Ussery says. This strategy keeps egg production at its peak, but it also requires the effort and expense of starting new stock more frequently, so be sure to factor in those costs when you’re considering at what point to butcher hens.

To learn about raising chickens to eat rather than for egg production, see How to Raise Chickens for Meat.

Photo By Dreamstime/Christian Draghici: Take your hens from farm-fresh eggs to chicken legs.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.



11/13/2013

I’m looking to put in new flooring and want an eco-friendly option. What do you suggest?

Cork HarvestingBamboo, sustainably harvested wood, and linoleum made from recycled content are all eco-friendly flooring options. Also available at most major home improvement stores, cork flooring is competitively priced with other kinds of sustainable flooring, and cork is a beautiful, eco-friendly material.

Cork products are made from the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber). Much of the world’s cork comes from forests in Portugal, where the trees’ drought resistance allows them to flourish. Harvesters cut and strip the bark during early summer, a process that removes only the dead outer bark layers while leaving the living cambium intact. The cork trees continue to grow unharmed for about nine years before the bark gets harvested again.

Most of the Portuguese cork oak forests are owned by individual families who — when they’re not harvesting the oak trees’ bark — grow medicinal herbs, produce honey, gather pine nuts, graze cattle, and raise prized Black Spanish pigs on cork oak acorns in the forests.

Sustainable cork flooring is made by mixing an adhesiveCork Paneling with “waste” cork granules from bottle-stopper production. It’s available in a range of finishes, from wood tones to tile look-alikes, and its natural propensity to repel water and provide acoustic insulation are bonus qualities. Keep your eyes peeled for other sustainable cork products as well, including wall insulation that’s growing in popularity in Europe because of its natural fire resistance and sound-proofing ability. If you’d like to learn about and support sustainable cork harvesting, go to Amorim Cork, and choose wine with stoppers made of real cork. Cheers!

(Top) Photo By Patrick Spencer: Cork is hand-harvested about every nine years in a way that allows the cork trees to continue to grow unharmed.

(Bottom) Photo By iStockphoto/katylh: Cork is hand-harvested to be made into a variety of products, including sustainable cork flooring and wine stoppers.


Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or .



10/17/2013
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What do I need to do to my garden tools before I store them away for the upcoming winter?Garden Tools

Clean garden tools by first hosing off any dirt clinging to the tines or blades, and then dry the tools completely. Remove any rust with steel wool. Use a sharpening file to hone the tool’s working edges. If wood handles are rough, sand them, then rub them with paste wax. 

To prevent rust, coat metal parts with lubricating oil, or store the working ends of hand tools in a large bucket of sand mixed with a little canola oil. When the weather gets warmer, your garden tools will be ready to go.

Photo By Superstock/Biosphoto: Clean your tools before storing them for winter, and you’ll be able to grab and go come spring.

Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .



10/2/2013

Is it possible to propagate pine trees from seed?

Yes — trees can be propagated from seed and cuttings, or by grafting, budding or layering. Fruit and nut trees are usually grafted or budded, which assures high-quality fruit, helps trees mature faster, and allows the rootstock to control tree size and add disease resistance. According to horticulturist Alan Toogood in the American Horticultural Society’s book Plant Propagation, many named ornamental varieties are grown from cuttings because they rarely come in true to type if grown from seed. But for certain tree species, starting from seed allows you to produce lots of trees very economically. Pine Cones

To start growing pine trees from seed, gather large brown (or slightly green) cones in fall. The cones should be closed; if open, they probably have already released their seeds. Toogood says trees that have a lot of cones are more likely to have viable seeds. Lay the cones in an open box at room temperature. When dry, the cones will open and release their seeds. If they don’t open, place the box in a hot spot (104 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit) until they do. Use tweezers to remove any remaining seeds inside the cones.

To improve odds of germination, stratify the seeds: Mix them with moist peat or sand, place them in a clear plastic bag, and refrigerate them for three to seven weeks. (If the seeds germinate in the refrigerator, sow them immediately.) Sow the seeds in 3-inch pots, and provide bottom heat of about 60 degrees. Seedlings can be transplanted outdoors into larger pots in spring, when they’re about 2 inches tall (six to eight weeks after they germinate).

Photo By Fotolia/Gabriele Maltinti: Gather closed, large brown (or slightly green) cones in fall to gather viable seeds.


Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on .









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