Where my Yogurt Comes From

True story: I am shopping with my kids when they spot the Olympic organic yogurt and ask for some. I suggest we try another kind of yogurt that is on sale, because I am cheap like that. They will not hear it. I buy the yogurt. They eat it. All goes well.

olympic dairyOlympic Dairy got its start here in the Vancouver area in 1979, and today it has a 66% market share for organic yogurt sold in British Columbia. I buy it because my kids like it, and because I like going organic when I can. However, I didn’t know anything about it – including those fun facts at the beginning of this paragraph – until last week. One of the good parts of being a blogger is that you occasionally get invited to do cool stuff. Last Thursday I got to do one of those cool things when I toured a local organic dairy farm that sells its milk to the Olympic Dairy, and then tour Olympic Dairy itself.

We arrived on the Brandsema farm in Abbotsford at about 10:00am, which is apparently a full eight hours after milking starts in the morning. That is, if 2:00am can actually be considered the morning, which I contend that it can’t. If one of my kids wakes up at that time I very firmly say, “It is still nighttime, go back to sleep.” I guess cows are not so reasonable, though. The farm manager Ian showed us around. He has been there since the beginning, when the farm got its start in the late 90s with 30 cows. Today it has 200 milking cows, and other, younger cows that are not yet ready for milking.

olympic dairy organic farm baby cow calf

We met the baby calves, we saw the cows grazing in the field, we saw the barn, and we even saw the maternity area where there was a tiny newborn calf with its mother and another pregnant cow clearly ready to pop at any time. We watched some milking, saw what the cows eat, and even bottle-fed some calves. They get raw milk from the herd. I found one very hungry little one who was willing to take an extra meal from me. Needless to say, it was adorable.

brandsema organic dairy farm farmer cows olympic yogurt

Because this is an organic farm, the cows get ready access to outdoor pasture year-round and eat organic feed. Grass grows here about eight months of the year and they graze, but they also eat hay grown on the farm and grain that they buy from Washington State. Like all Canadian cows they are not given any hormones. They can receive antibiotics in the case of illness, but if they do their milk is discarded for 30 days to make sure no medication ends up in your dairy products. The milk is also tested for quality, including antibiotic residue, at the farm and again at the plant.

dairy farm milking

Ian emphasized that as a farmer his goal is to keep the cows healthy. This ranges from breeding practices (apparently he’s really into genetics) to how they decrease milk supply when drying cows off to giving the cows regular foot care that he describes as “pedicures”. He believes that access to the outdoors is helpful, and that the cows like it, although some do opt to stay inside the barn where it’s cooler. Non-organic farms where I live aren’t required to offer access to the outdoors, and many don’t.

dairy farm barn cows

Our tour then moved on to the Olympic Dairy plant in Delta. It’s a small company, with about 80 employees. They make mostly yogurt, but they also produce sour cream, kefir and regular organic liquid milk. Not all of their products are organic – they say they do about 50/50 between organic and conventional. We had to answer health questions before touring, and we wore overalls and head coverings. Once we were suited up we saw where the raw milk comes in and is pasteurized, where it goes for storage and preparation, and where the finished products are made. One thing that was interesting to me is that most of their yogurt is fermented right in the tubs, so it’s still basically milk when it goes in and then it spends about five hours in a room heated to 110 Fahrenheit where it becomes yogurt. It’s that fast.

olympic dairy

All of Olympic’s products – including the non-organic ones – carry the “natural” label. I was under the impression that this was basically meaningless, but their R&D person said that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency actually regulates the “natural” claim, and I did a little digging and found out this was true. This means that they are limited in what they can and cannot use. For instance, they are not free to use stevia as a sweetener at this point, because it’s not yet approved as “natural”.

olympic dairy yogurtThe best part, though, was the tasting. I tried their natural yogurt, which has recently been re-formulated to contain less sugar. I tried their organic yogurt. I also tried their Krema, which is a Greek-style yogurt that was already my personal favourite. I recommend “Honeylicious”. We also got to sample a new Krema flavour, which is slated for release this fall – pumpkin spice. It was yummy, which is no surprise. I also sampled kefir for the first time. It was the strawberry flavour, and I will admit it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I’m not really into smoothies or drinking yogurt so if you enjoy either of those your mileage may vary. Finally, I tried their chia yogurt, which is just regular yogurt that contains chia seeds. They are soft and not gritty – someone else said they were reminded a little of bubble tea, which is apt.

We had a bit of a Q&A and one of the things I wondered about was the packaging. Yogurt comes in a whole lot of plastic. They said that they opt for easily-recycled, non-leaching plastic. They also switched from foil to plastic film to seal their containers, because it’s a lot thinner. However, they do not have the types of recycling programs some other yogurt makers like Stonyfield offer. They do recycle in-house, and they have taken lots of steps to be energy-efficient. For instance, the heat from the curing room is pumped into the rest of the plant to warm it during the cold months. I feel that they’re trying, but as a smaller manufacturer their abilities may be limited when it comes to large-scale programs aimed at consumers.

So, what did I learn? I learned that organic dairy farms do function differently than conventional dairy farms. I learned what it’s like to bottle feed a baby calf. I learned that milking happens long before anyone should be awake. I learned that Olympic Dairy sources its milk and makes its products locally (to me). I learned that the word “natural” on a label actually means something in Canada. And I learned that I will be running out to buy the pumpkin spice Krema this fall as soon as it’s available.

Making Your Own Cleaning Products

homemade cleaners green living enviro-mama booksHave you ever had something nagging at the back of your mind? Something that you really want to do, and have been meaning to do, but just can’t seem to get around to actually doing? I’ve been feeling that way about a fabulous book that has been sitting in my tray for months. It’s called Homemade Cleaners: Quick-and-Easy, Toxic-Free Recipes, and it’s written by Mandy O’Brien and Dionna Ford. Unfortunately, being back at school, living through a major renovation fiasco, working and parenting all conspired to keep me away from this book.

I knew I wanted a copy as soon as I heard about it. I’ve always been intrigued by making my own cleaning products. I did attend a local event last year where I tried making my own all-purpose cleaner, glass cleaner and tub and tile cleaner. It was good, and it whet my appetite enough to learn more. I’ve looked online, but I found it overwhelming. There’s so much out there, and people seem to experience such mixed results, that I’m not really sure where to start. This is why I appreciate this book, which provides a friendlier introduction to non-toxic cleaning.

For such a small book, Homemade Cleaners is packed full of information. It starts out by encouraging simple steps, and explaining why we should care about the chemicals in our cleaning products. Then it’s divided into sections by cleaning task. There are tons of tips, and recipes for everything from all-purpose cleaners to glass cleaners to furniture polish to laundry soap and more. There’s also information on dealing with bugs, keeping your yard healthy, purifying indoor air and choosing and cleaning a grill (which, being from Vancouver, I will insist on calling a barbeque).

I haven’t tried as many of the recipes as I would have liked, but even on first glance I’ve appreciated that green cleaning doesn’t require you to go out and buy a whole lot of stuff. If you’ve got baking soda, vinegar, borax, castile soap, lemon juice and some essential oils you’re most of the way there. There are multiple recipes you can try for most cleaning tasks, so if one doesn’t work for you there are lots more to try. With the renovations happening in my house and new wiring, tile, cabinetry and paint in my bedroom and ensuite, I especially appreciated the tips on how to use plants to remove chemicals from indoor air.

homemade cleaners non-toxic cleaning book review

I would say that Homemade Cleaners is mostly about how to adopt a simpler, less toxic cleaning philosophy for yourself and your family. It’s much more than a recipe book. If you’re wondering how to reduce the number of chemicals your family is exposed to at home, it’s a great place to start.

What about you – what are your favourite green cleaning resources?

Me and My Mason Bees

I am very suggestible when it comes to gardening. When my West Coast Seeds catalogue arrives each spring I have a very hard time narrowing my order down. I want to buy all the seeds, and all the supplies. I am very much a bandwagon jumper. Sometimes this pays off, like when I discovered my fabulous potato planter bags that make potato harvesting a breeze and free up garden space. Sometimes this doesn’t pay off, when I bite off more than I can chew and my crops fail.

This year I’ve undertaken an experiment, prompted by my catalogue, that may or may not pay off. I’m keeping Mason bees. They are native pollinators, and reputed to be very gentle. In fact, apparently the males don’t even have a stinger. I ordered a mason bee starter kit that included a mason bee house, nesting tubes and a little cardboard box filled with Mason bee cocoons. When the cocoons arrived I put them in my fridge, as instructed.

Keeping Mason bees sounds very easy. You put the house up, take the little box of cocoons out of your fridge, open one end and place the box inside the house. Within about half an hour the males emerge. The females slowly make their way out a few days or weeks later. The females then return to the house to lay their eggs, and by the fall those eggs have hatched, pupated and built cocoons, which go into your fridge for next year.

This past weekend I put up my Mason bee house and placed my little box of cocoons inside. When I opened the box I was surprised to see a bee staring back at me. I’m thinking that maybe it somehow got a little warmer than it was supposed to, and I was scared, but the bee emerged in a few minutes looking none the worse for wear. It flew off pretty quickly thereafter. Only a few minutes later my daughter and I could hear another bee working its way free. He slowly climbed out, then made his way to the top of the house to warm up in the sun before flying away. My daughter took his empty cocoon and put it in her box of treasures.

So far, I haven’t seen any females making their way out, but it’s been a little bit rainy. I’m just trying to leave the bees to their own devices, and trust that they know what they’re doing. It’s not like I can control them in any way in any case, so this seems like the best course of action. I’ll keep you updated on any more bee-related action that I see. In the meantime, here are a few photos of my Mason bee adventures.

mason bee house
Mason bee house

mason bees
Another angle of the house

first mason bee out
The first mason bee to emerge

looking for the sun
The second mason bee to emerge, crawling into the sun

mason bee cocoon
An empty mason bee cocoon

Oh (Real) Christmas Tree

christmas tree enviro-mama real tree fake tree debateWhen Hannah was really little – I think it was Christmas 2005 – we bought an artificial Christmas tree. (In fact, I know it was Christmas 2005 because I am a blogger and I have photographic evidence.) I was less-than-thrilled about the purchase at the time. I’d always had real trees when I was growing up, and I loved the ritual of going to buy the tree, and the way it made my house smell fabulous. However, my husband preferred artificial trees, and it seemed a sensible way to go when I already had a baby making a big mess in my house. I certainly didn’t need a whole bunch of pine needles on the carpet on top of the toys that were already scattered everywhere.

At the time I insisted on buying a nice artificial tree, and reasoned that it would end up being much cheaper in the long run. I also thought that it would be a more environmentally-friendly choice to buy a reusable tree rather than to buy a cut tree each and every year. However, two things happened last year that made me re-examine my choice.

The first thing that caused me to re-think my tree choice was this article from David Suzuki’s Queen of Green. The summary is that an artificial tree’s environmental footprint is about three times higher than a real tree’s environmental footprint, if your artificial tree lasts six years (which is apparently about average). The pendulum starts to swing in the direction of the fake tree at around the 20 year mark, or in situations where your real tree comes from very far away. This isn’t the case where I live, as Christmas tree farms are everywhere in British Columbia.

There are other concerns about fake trees. too. They’re typically made of PVC. It’s not the friendliest chemical, and it can contain lead. In fact, there are many stories involving lead contamination from artificial trees. While lead is becoming less and less common in recent years, back in 2005 when we bought our tree there was less awareness, and one presumes, more lead was used. Since my tree doesn’t say anything about being lead-free, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s not.

Ultimately, though, it’s not just the environment that swayed me. The second big thing that caused me to re-think my tree choice was taking the tree out of storage last year. I pulled the box out of the crawlspace under our house, and put it up. It smelled dusty and musty, and after I put it up my house smelled dusty and musty, too. Instead of leaving me feeling festive, decorating the tree left me feeling kind of sad. I could follow everyone’s favourite piece of advice and hang up a pine-scented air freshener, but in the first place those air fresheners smell nothing like a real tree, and in the second place adding a whole lot of artificial fragrance to my home would only increase the number of chemicals already floating around. Ew.

The desire for a real tree led my family to the local tree lot in mid-December this year, where we chose a Douglas Fir. Yes, it shed needles. Yes, getting it home and into the stand was kind of a pain. Yes, I had to water it. Yes, there was inconvenience involved. However, it really did smell fantastic, and my kids enjoyed the process of picking it out. Once it was up, it really felt like Christmas, and I was happy about my tree instead of depressed by it.

I am returning to my real tree roots – and I feel good about that. The fact that I still felt good when I took the tree down today and vacuumed up the needles that littered the floor is confirmation that I’m making the right choice for myself. A little mess is a small price to pay for a merrier, greener, holiday season.

What about you, do you have a real tree or an artificial tree? And does it surprise you to learn how much greener real trees are?

Organic Grocery Delivery Follow-Up

organic grocery delivery one green thing enviro-mama

With less than a week left in the month, I’ve clearly missed the boat on planning my One Green Thing for November. Ah, well, some months are like that. However, it occurs to me that this means I also haven’t updated you on my One Green Thing for October, which was trying out organic grocery delivery. I wanted to fill you in on how that’s been going.

As you may recall, I reactivated my account with SPUD.ca, a local business that delivers organic and locally-grown and produced food once each week. (Just a note – I am not being compensated in any way for this blog post, I’m just sharing my experience because I think you might be interested.) I had used the service a number of years ago, but stopped it because I found that I was spending too much on groceries. With a weekly commitment on Sundays making it difficult for me to visit my local farmers’ market, I decided to try them out again.

I am a month and a half in now, and it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. The pluses:

  • A weekly standing order means that I never forget the basics like milk, bread, eggs, lettuce and so on.
  • I really don’t have to visit the grocery store nearly as often – I’m averaging about once every three weeks now. Coupled with the fact I’m not frequenting the farmers’ market this means I’m spending very little time grocery shopping.
  • My delivery driver remembered me, even all these years later, and was glad to see me.
  • I know exactly where my food is coming from, because they tell me.
  • They have an iPhone app, so when I finish something in my kitchen (like, say, mayo) I can order it right then and there.
  • Like pretty much any grocery store, they carry some items I can’t find anywhere else, which I’m enjoying.

The minuses:

  • While they carry almost everything I need, there are some things I just can’t get from them, like my husband’s gluten-free bread or certain spices.
  • They definitely are more expensive than shopping at the grocery store, although I’m getting a higher percentage of organic food.
  • Sometimes they mess up my order, or don’t have something in stock. While they work hard to make it right, it still means that I don’t have something I expected to have.
  • They deliver to my house on Thursdays. It would be more convenient for me if I got groceries at the beginning of the week, so that I had more fresh food on hand for my kids’ school lunches.

One the whole, for me, the pluses are currently outweighing the minuses, so I’m keeping it. I’ll let you know if I change my mind again.

Have you tried home grocery delivery? What did you think?

Trying Soap Nuts + A Giveaway!

soap nuts green eco-friendly laundryIn my efforts to make doing laundry greener, I’ve tried a lot of things. I gave up dryer sheets. I’ve used eco-friendly detergents than I can count. I’ve hung my laundry to dry. However, until recently, I haven’t tried soap nuts.

I’d heard about soap nuts from a lot of different sources. Some people swear by them, and others are more lukewarm. I’ve considered trying them myself, but since my husband does the laundry and he prefers detergents that more closely resemble conventional options I hadn’t taken the plunge. When Ken McGowan of Sinfully Wholesome got in touch with me about a review and giveaway, I decided it was time to make the leap. I let him know I’d love to try some out, and not long after they arrived in the mail.

Soap nuts are actually not nuts, they’re berries that grow in Nepal and India. They contain a natural surfactant, which means they can be used as a cleaner. Using them is simple – you put 5-6 soap nuts in a small cloth bag and throw it in the laundry. It works for 5-6 loads, which is about how much laundry my family does in a week. You don’t need to remove it for the rinse cycle, which is good, because trying to remember to take the soap nuts out would be challenging. When you’re done with the soap nuts, you can steep them in boiling water overnight to make a household cleaner. After that, they’re compostable.

soap nuts sinfully wholesomeThe soap nuts I received were organic, and they came packaged in a bag made from handmade Nepalese Lokta paper, which is harvested from the self-regenerating Lokta bush. Nothing else is added – no colours, fragrances or chemicals of any kind. The berries themselves are non-toxic – in fact, Ken says you could eat them, although they don’t taste that good. They’re also good for people with allergies, and can be used in any kind of washing machine. From an environmental standpoint, the upsides seem pretty clear. I gave my husband the run-down on how to use them, and we gave them a go.

soap nuts review giveawayThe soap nuts do seem to work, in that our laundry was definitely cleaner after washing than before. The clothes smelled good, as well. The soap nuts do leave a slight residue on the clothes. This is touted as a natural fabric softening effect, but my husband found it off-putting. Also, he found it a little difficult to locate the bag of soap nuts amongst the wet laundry when removing it from the washing machine. In the end, I was more impressed than he was, which was not even a little bit surprising to me. My husband is a skeptic, especially when it comes to cleaning clothes. I would use the soap nuts all the time, but he prefers something that comes with a dispenser.

In the end, the most accurate opinion of soap nuts is probably going to be formed by trying them. To help you out, Ken is giving away two 500 gram bags of Sinfully Wholesome Soap Nuts. There are enough soap nuts to wash 150-200 loads of laundry in each bag (which is another upside to cleaning clothes this way – it’s actually very affordable). The giveaway is open to Canadian and US addresses. Just fill out this form before 9:00pm Pacific on Friday, November 22, 2013 for a chance to win. For an extra entry, subscribe to Sinfully Wholesome’s mail list. Good luck!

The contest is now closed.

What about you – have you tried soap nuts? What did you think? I’d love to hear!

One Green Thing: Organic Grocery Delivery

One Green Thing Strocel.comToday I’m tackling my One Green Thing for September. This month it’s all about shopping online. But first, I’ll talk about turning down my thermostat last month.

The temperature noticeably cooled in the later half of September in Vancouver. While it’s a gorgeous and sunny day today, we’ve had a number of mornings when I’ve felt compelled to dig out my winter coat in the past few weeks. There’s a dusting of snow atop the local mountains, and it’s getting dark earlier. This means that when I turned the thermostat down from 22 Celsius / 72 Fahrenheit to 20 Celsius / 68 Fahrenheit, I definitely felt it. I did a few things to help me adapt. I put a basket filled with blankets by the TV, and I’ve been keeping a blanket on my computer chair. I also bought myself some slippers, and dug out my sweaters. At this point, I’m pretty much acclimatised, and I’m feeling confident I can make this change permanent.

organic food grocery delivery enviro-mama carrots

This month I’m changing the way I grocery shop. I’ve recently taken on a new obligation on Sunday mornings, which is making it difficult for me to get to the farmers’ market regularly. However, I don’t like the idea of buying all my food at the regular grocery store. Instead, I’ve decided to try SPUD.ca, my local organic grocery delivery again. I used their service when Hannah was little, but I was still visiting the grocery store and farmers’ market weekly. Shopping at so many places became too expensive. In the years since I’ve used them their selection has expanded, and my hope is that I’ll be able to skip weekly grocery shopping by using them.

The primary reason I’m making this change is convenience. I am not a fan of grocery shopping. However, it is an eco-friendly change as well. The delivery service ships the groceries in reusable bins. They source local, organic and sustainably-produced products. They purchase carbon offsets for their delivery truck, and recycle a lot of difficult-to-recycle packaging like the plastic bag my daughter’s dried cranberries come in. When you buy something from them, you know exactly where it’s coming from, which is more than I can say for most produce at the grocery store. While I will miss being able to visit the farmers’ market each week, this is the next best thing.

My big questions are how much switching to grocery delivery is going to cost, and whether or not I’ll really be able to skip the grocery store. I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I’m enjoying being able to shop at home, in my pajamas, whenever I want.

If you’d like to get in on the act and take on One Green Thing of your own, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to grab the button from this post if you’re blogging about it, and spread the enviro-love.

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