While working at a farmers market in New Jersey, a person once asked me about the special enzyme that cows have in order to produce chocolate milk. I laughed, thinking that it was a pretty funny joke. Then I realized that she was being completely serious.
After growing up into agriculture in the (great state of) Wisconsin, I moved to the East Coast for college and five years later I am still out here- currently in Washington, D.C., with dreams of making a positive difference in agriculture to support our country’s farmers. In Wisconsin, I never seemed to have to worry about consumers not understanding where their food came from or hearing them attack conventional agriculture. Maybe that was because I grew up in a rural area, as a part of a farming family, and a lot of my 4-H friends (hey guys, shout-out time!) were farmers. Or maybe it was because Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland, with the dairy industry being a $59 billion industry for the state and most people seem to be obsessed with beer (Spotted Cow, anyone?!) and cheese, which both rely on farmers to create the primary ingredients for. Or maybe it’s because times are changing, the media is becoming more influential in society and confusing buzzwords like “organic,” “free-range” and “all-natural” are dominating the supermarket shelves. It wasn’t until I moved to college and focused on the study of agriculture in a (very liberal, I might add) community, that I realized how unaware the public actually is about where their food comes from. Now, I’m not saying that Wisconsinites are more aware than residents of other states about where their food comes from, but from my experiences living in or near large cities such as Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., and also from attending universities with extremely diverse populations, I can attest that a large proportion of those individuals have not experienced the farming lifestyle that may be more accessible to people living in rural communities. That’s why I think it’s so important for people to visit their local farms and meet the families that produce their food, even if it’s a bit of a drive. Many farmers would love to share what their family does every day to support our country’s food supply.
Besides the chocolate milk story, I can share countless examples of crazy things that people have said to me involving agriculture. And it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how legitimate of a problem it is that consumers are generations-removed from farming, and as a result many have never even stepped foot on a farm. As I mentioned previously, the public is often misled by the media, health trends and large organizations/companies with anti-agriculture hidden (or very visibly prominent) agendas. People, who often don’t know the truth, believe that conventional farming is destructive. They believe that conventional farming is inhumane. And they believe that conventionally-produced food is unhealthy. I want to change this perception. I STRIVE to change this perception. Why? Because when I step foot in a grocery store, I know that my food doesn’t come from the grocery store; it comes from farmers. And 97% of the farms those farmers work on are family-owned and operated. I think that is a shocker to a lot of people because they think that the only way to support family farmers is by purchasing locally-produced or organic foods. I can see how it may be confusing to be able to buy our food from so many different types of farms, with so many different types of buzz words describing our foods. And there are advantages to each type of farming method- whether it is conventional, organic, etc. But I just don’t think that enough people truly understand what is involved with each type of farming and as a result, many people choose to buy certain foods for the wrong reasons. So let me share with you the facts, based on my education and experiences within agriculture, about the various types of farming that exist today.
My goal with this blog post is to help clear up some of the predominant misconceptions about farming, not to persuade you to choose one style over another. But do you know what is really awesome? This is the United States of America. We are fortunate enough to live in a free country that gives our people the right to choose to buy whatever foods we desire. And at the end of the day, farmers are all farmers, and they all wake up early every morning to put food on your family’s table.
This is where the title of my blog post fits in. I feel that many consumers struggle to understand where the food that they are purchasing from at the grocery store actually comes from, because they are often not able to put a face to the farmer who produces it. The media does not help this disconnect by amplifying destructive words like “factory farms,” etc. I would like to share some information with you about the type of farming that feeds our country and world, conventional farming. This type of farming seems the most confusing to consumers because many have not grown up in agriculture or even visited a farm. They often picture a few animals running around outside in the grass, with no worry or care in the world! In that same picture, those farms are tiny, have little red barns on top of a hill, and are owned by families. Farms are still family-owned, but they don’t look quite like this anymore for a number of legitimate reasons. I’m going to talk a bit about the dairy industry, and help you to understand what a conventional dairy farm today looks like.
Dairy farmers often house their calves in free-style barns. These barns are large open spaces that allow individual cows to roam around and lay down wherever they want, and eat/drink whenever they want. There are individual stalls in the barns to ensure that no cow is left out of a place to lay down or is denied access to feed. Because, just like humans, there can be some “bully” or “alpha” cows who sometimes would like to fight their way to the feed trough when the farmer brings fresh feed for the group. Cows are not raised outside solely on pasture. This is for valid reasons. Winters can be extremely harsh and summers can be scorchingly (I think I just made that word up because my computer put a little red line under it…oh well) hot. Additionally, there are bugs and predators outside! Cows purely on pasture often acquire parasites, and that is just not pleasant or healthy for the cows. Barns provide cows with the ability to stay warm/cool and comfortable during all times of the year, with equal access to feed and water. Many farms use high-tech sprinkler systems and fans to keep their cows cool in the summertime. Some farms also have really cool cow “toys” like large spinning brushes that scratch their backs. Man, sometimes I wish that I was a cow.
These dairy farms also use antibiotics. But not for the reasons you may think. Farmers do NOT use antibiotics for no reason at all! They use them when their animals become sick, just like we treat our children (okay, not me…I don’t have children and I am as single as a slice of Kraft’s American cheese) when they are sick. I personally would never be able to just let a sick cow suffer when I have the ability to help her become happy and healthy again. Farmers love their cows. ALL MILK, let me repeat that, ALL MILK from cows that have been administered antibiotics is dumped down the drain!!!! After a cow is given antibiotics, there is a withdrawal period, as recommended by the USDA, FDA and veterinarians, that the farmer must follow. They are not allowed to have that milk enter the supply for human consumption UNTIL that withdrawal period has been reached. Additionally, ALL MILK is tested numerous times for any traces of anything unsafe. After testing, if the milk is by any means considered unsafe, the ENTIRE milk supply must be dumped down the drain. That milk supply often consists of milk from many different farms, but the one farm responsible for contaminating the milk would be responsible for the cost of that total supply. What farmer wants to lose money? I can’t think if any. It is in a farmer’s best interest to ensure that the practices on his or her farm are top-notch. The industry’s regulations and standards help to ensure that as well.
Genetically modified organisms. GMOs. Biotechnology. Whatever you want to refer to it as. Conventional farmers use them. But did you know that farmers of all kinds have been genetically-modifying their foods for centuries? Gregor Mendel used the Punnett Square to create hybrid crosses of his pea plants. We use GMOs because they are a safe, sustainable way to feed our country. In fact, no significant scientific evidence has been found to prove that GMOs are unsafe. Basically everything that we eat has been genetically-modified in some manner. After hundreds of years of using them in various forms, we are still alive and here on this earth. GMOs also allow farmers to use fewer pesticides/herbicides on their crops because a GMO corn crop, for instance, may be genetically-modified to resist insects or weeds. Another great quality of GMOs is that they have led to extra-healthy foods like golden rice, which has higher vitamin A and helps combat the deficiency that is common in children. Let’s also think long-term. By the year 2050, the world is going to expand from 7.2 to 9.6 billion. We are going to have a heck of a lot more people to feed, and GMOs will help our farmers to do that in a safe and sustainable manner as the climate changes and the land becomes more difficult to farm on.
Animal abuse happens sometimes. It also happens on organic farms. On big farms. On small farms. It occasionally does happen, and I am not going to try to hide that. Do you know where else abuse happens? It happens in all areas of this country when a man leaves his dog in the hot car with the windows closed for an extended period of time during the summer. Or when a woman neglects or drops her baby. It happens when people refuse to feed their children. It happens when a person beats his significant other/spouse. Rape. Would you look at the human race and say “we are such abusive creatures?” I would hope not. Just like with people, we can’t generalize and use one instance of animal abuse to represent the entire industry. Plus, there are many standards in place on farms to make sure that animal abuse does not happen. Workers are trained, some farms have internal video cameras and the government does not take abuse lightly. If animal abuse happens, there is extreme punishment for the employees engaging in it. And those farms are usually dropped from selling their products to their providing companies. So, please, before you use animal abuse as a reason to not support farmers, realize that it’s NOT representative of the entire industry.
I could talk about dairy farming all day long, but I think that I provided you with enough knowledge for one blog post. If you have any additional questions about conventional farming please let me know. I would be happy to provide more information for you. My point here is that farming may look different today than it did many years ago. However, the farmers producing our food are the same types of families that produced our food years ago. Farmers simply have more scientific research today, helping them to practice the most humane, sustainable and efficient methods possible. If you visit a farm and see these practices firsthand, you will begin to understand. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people told me that they refused to eat food from “factory farms.” Truth is, those farms aren’t factories at all. They are FAMILY FARMERS who strive to help our country by applying the best methods possible to humanely raise their animals and sustainably feed our country. And they are constantly looking for new ways to improve their farming techniques and how to help their animals be the happiest that they can be. Take, for example, Rob-in-Cin Farms in West Bend, Wisconsin. Owned by Bob and Cindy Roden and family, the farm milks 400 Holstein dairy cows. Here is a picture of Rick Roden being followed by a silly calf!
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition, organic food is “food grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.” A HUGE misconception in organic farming is that many consumers believe that organic farming does not use pesticides. That is a myth. Organic farmers, legally, DO use pesticides. These organically-produced pesticides are used to reduce unwanted pests from the fields in which crops are grown. And, contrary to public belief, many of these pesticides have been scientifically shown to be more harmful to human health than pesticides that farmers use.
In organic farming practices, farmers are NOT permitted to treat their animals with antibiotics. On farms with animals, this means that farmers and veterinarians are not able to treat sick cows, pigs, chickens, etc. If they do treat them with antibiotics, the animals must be sold to a conventional farm, slaughtered or no longer considered organic. I’ve seen organic farms in which farmers do not treat their sick cows and have them no longer be organic, so the cows remain sick. I’m not saying that this is representative of organic farming, but it is something to consider when choosing to buy organic solely because you may think that it is better to refrain from antibiotic-use.
Another reason many consumers choose to purchase organic foods is because they think that those foods are healthier than their conventional counterparts. However, no significant scientific evidence has suggested that that is true. There is no nutritional difference between organic and conventionally-produced foods.
Additionally, I’ve heard friends suggest that they only eat organic foods because they are more humane and are produced by family farmers. I’m going to assume that those same people view family farms are tiny little farms on the top of a hill, with a little red barn, and a few cows frolicking through the grass in the sunshine. Let’s sit back and think about that for a minute. Do you honestly think that because a food in the grocery store has the word “organic” on its label, it has been produced by your next-door farming neighbor? Because that organic food has most likely been produced by a farmer half-way across the country, with just as many cows (or whatever the animal may be…I’m in the dairy field, so I tend to be a bit biased towards relating things to the dairy industry) as the products made from its conventional counterparts. In fact, if you were to visit an organic farm, you’ll see that it doesn’t look very different from a conventional farm.
Just a few years ago, organic farming wasn’t really even much of a thing in the United States. But now you can find organic products in most supermarkets. It is a brilliant business tactic for farms to go the organic route, and I commend those farmers for making the switch because it isn’t easy to do. But a lot of people buy organic foods because they think those foods are better for the environment, more humane, safer and healthier. You can choose to believe whatever you want and purchase organic if that makes you happy, but I think it is important to really just think about the misconceptions before making that financial commitment. Because let’s be honest, organic foods are freaking expensive. And as a poor graduate student who basically eats noodles and milk for every meal, I cannot afford organic prices. If you can afford organic foods, good for you.
Supporting Local Farms:
There are a few key points that I want to cover here. First, as I’ve mentioned before, I think that it is extremely important for consumers to get to know farmers. A great way to do this is to visit your local farms and learn how they work hard every day to produce your food. Many farmers invite people out to their farms for activities like pumpkin picking or dairy breakfasts. I am also a big fan of farmers markets, farm-stores and CSAs because they allow consumers to buy their food firsthand from the very people who produce their food. Farmers markets are also very beneficial in building local economies. I worked for a farm and managed the sales of our products at about 12-15 various farmers markets on a weekly basis. They are fun to attend, both for the farmer and also for the customers. However, farmers markets are NOT going to feed our country, and definitely not our world. Producing and selling food only on the local level is NOT the most sustainable or efficient method of farming. For example, an organic farmer only produces about 80% of the food that the same size conventional farm produces. Here is a great blog that breaks down the organic myths. Additionally, a family may travel three hours weekly to buy their vegetables, dairy and meat from a local farmer. Let’s say you have 200 families in a certain area traveling that distance. That’s 200 cars traveling a great distance for its weekly food. Conversely, if you have one semi-truck transporting 200,000 cartons of eggs across the country, well in the long-term that’s just more sustainable (side note: I made those numbers up for example purposes, but it should paint the picture for you). Plus, did you know that agriculture only contributes to 2% of our nation’s carbon emissions? Ladies and gentlemen, that is what sustainability looks like.
This was hopefully a helpful, comprehensive background about today’s most common agricultural practices. Again, like I said before, you can develop your own opinions about various types of farms and base your purchasing decisions upon them. But before you make those decisions, be sure that you know all sides of the story and understand the misconceptions about agriculture and WHY they are misconceptions. When looking for sources, make sure those sources are not biased and present you with factual information. And before you judge a farmer or style of farming, please just put whatever your bias may be ASIDE, visit a farm and experience firsthand why farmers do things the way that they do. I truly believe that farmers are some of the most hard-working, environmentally-conscious, innovative, entrepreneurial and technologically-advanced people in society- no matter what type of farming they have decided to pursue. Who else wakes up at 4 A.M. to milk cows, feed/water animals, plant crops, bale hay, fix a broken tractor, check in with the veterinarian, help an animal give birth and then make it to their child’s after-school activities, all before going to bed by 10pm and then doing it all over again the next day? So next time you are at the grocery store and picking up your meat, eggs, dairy, pasta or whatever it may be: Just take a few seconds to remind yourself that your food was made with care, by a farmer, who probably has a family to take care of just like yours. And without those farmers, we wouldn’t be here today. God Bless America.
I know that I’ve shared this picture before, but I think that it perfectly captures my message. This is my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin…