Try this food for thought at dinner tonight
June 24, 2009
We all have days where the grind has left us feeling poked, prodded and more than a little deflated. A jab here, an accusation there and what you stand for in life seems to have more holes than an old screen door.
I say and feel this way as a person with a stake in agriculture.
As if the buckets of rain, dismal livestock prices and broken down equipment aren't enough to occasionally take the wind out of our sails, our critics are shouting allegations through the barn windows. Heaven knows they won't actually walk through the door and risk getting...you know what on their loafers. (Sorry, I think the proper term now is 'animal waste' although we know it as great fertilizer.)
The message that agriculture is destroying the environment and our bodies is becoming pervasive across all kinds of mediums. I hear and read about it almost daily. I've made notes and started defensive columns for years now but it's rather difficult to rail against a movement that's so dizzy and contradictory.
I should preface my argument with at least one disclaimer—I don't dismiss the global warming claims. Debate mean temperatures and melting ice caps all you want. I think the best way to appreciate the beauty and bounty the earth gives us is to think and act preventively to keep it flourishing. Every "reasonable" precaution should be taken to keep the air and water clean.
I know a good deal of growers bristle at the mention of 'global warming' but once you get beyond labels, just about everyone who has such an intimate knowledge of the land will tell you the last thing they want is to harm it in any way...it just defies logic. But then again, logic seems to have flown out that barn window in this great debate that 'respected,' educated people with names like Pollan, Schlosser and Kristof have perpetuated.
For instance, try and make these arguments jibe—producing corn ethanol sacrifices food for fuel vs. we should eat less corn-based processed products because they're making us fat = ????
Then there's: food should be easily accessible and affordable for people around the world vs. genetically modified/biotech foods are producing too much of a too perfect crop = ????
Here's another equation that's repeated often: big=bad.
'Factory farms' are a common target yet around the country, these large operations are also the most monitored by state health and environmental officials. They also employ some of the best technology out there that optimizes animal care and comfort. At some of this state's large dairies you'll never meet more pampered bovine beauties. When they're not in the parlor being milked, the cows are typically housed in free stall barns where they can move around, eat and drink as they please. During the summer months, shade cloth keeps the sun out of their eyes, misters shower cool water on their backs and monstrous fans blow from every angle to keep them comfortable.
What about the big meat processors? Even before their detractors started squawking, these companies were consulting animal behaviorists and other experts on how best to minimize any sort of trauma leading up to slaughter. Michael Pollan in his book 'In Defense of Food' notes—although suspiciously—that these plants have numerous safeguards to ensure cattle feel no pain in the process. These are industry standards that slaughterhouses, big or small, now use.
These large facilities are likely where some of the steers raised on our family farm end up. Those that we don't process and sell to family and friends get hauled to the stockyards in Marlette, Cass City or Croswell where a meat packer likes what they see and weeks later the steaks are for sale at Kroger or Meijer in the meat department.
Same thing goes for other commodities grown in these parts. Wheat is harvested from area fields, brought to the grain elevator and from there is destined for places like Toledo where Nabisco turns it into Wheat Thins or Augusta and Lowell where it's milled into flour.
Of course, it would be ideal if more food and fiber processing could be done locally, especially if it meant the creation of new jobs. Fortunately, there seems to be some movement in that direction and several producers have had success with value-added ventures, but the 'big' guys have their place in the marketplace too. If it wasn't for the major beef buyers we wouldn't have a market to sell our cattle in where the results are almost instantaneous, as in, we get the check in the mail two days later and use it to pay our fuel bill.
Maybe what gets under my skin is the idea that to promote one form of commerce, you must deride its inverse. Why can't a magazine article or blog entry solely praise the taste of 'homegrown' anything without haughtily comparing it to its industrialized equal? Why can't we just simply 'prefer' to buy from and support our friends and neighbors? Many, like us, depend on both wholesale and commercial markets.
From my viewpoint, agriculture's deriders may have a jumbled, haphazard strategy but in the whole scheme of things, it doesn't seem to matter. Just by throwing out accusations, they raise alarm and distrust among consumers and that accomplishes a goal.
One only needs to look at the recent swine flu outbreak to see the evidence that people are hyped up about food safety but still remain woefully uninformed. They bypassed the pork chops, thinking they could contract the disease despite all the assurances to the contrary.
Maybe it's just more evidence that shoppers think they shouldn't trust the people behind the food.
Growers are now faced with the added task of trying to regain a reputation that's been shot up and slandered by the same people they've been feeding for decades. Like that old screen door that's supposed to do double duty—keep the flies out and let the breeze in—we're feeling battered by the competing ideals of practicing sound, science-based farming and bowing to 'feel good' consumer demands.
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