Archives for posts with tag: agriculture

I’m having trouble wrapping my head around something.  Yesterday, Larry (my husband’s cousin who works full-time with us) was checking fence before moving the cows and calves to a new lot.  He came upon a large black plastic bag a few feet in from the fence on the side of the pasture nearest the road.  He opened the bag and found a new Havahart trap with a very dead and decomposing opossum inside.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since Larry told me about his discovery.  I understand that these creatures can be destructive.   I don’t understand why anyone would purchase a live trap to catch an opossum, and then allow the animal to starve to death.  Logic says that the purpose of buying a humane live trap is to relocate what is caught, as opposed to killing it, right?  If the intention is to kill the unwanted animal, then wouldn’t there be quicker and more humane ways to go about that?  I can certainly think of a few.  And those traps aren’t cheap, costing around $100.

Let’s not get into the aspect of respect for private property, especially when it is used by a family to make their living.

So many people complain about farmers raising livestock, and perceived “inhumane” practices.  As I’ve said many times before, the farmers I know are dedicated to providing excellent care to their animals.  There is respect shown to livestock, from birth to the time of death, by those of us who make our living raising them.  When I hear comments to the contrary by the uninformed, it makes me sad and sometimes angry.  I don’t know any farmer that would treat an animal under his or her care in the manner shown this opossum.  It sickens me.  One thing I know is that whoever tossed this trap into our pasture was not a farmer. Guaranteed.

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Last week I was fortunate to be able to travel to a warmer climate for a Farm Bureau conference. I missed out on the sub-zero temps, frigid wind chills, and snow that moved through the Midwest, and instead enjoyed lots of sunshine and warmth in San Diego.

In addition to the beautiful weather, one of the best parts of this annual meeting is the opportunity to connect with farmers and ranchers from across the country. It’s great to catch up with friends I’ve met along the way who I may see only once a year, as well as meet new folks in the ag industry.

Upon my return home, I was asked by an acquaintance if I ran into any celebrities in California. I did see Jay Leno there, as he was the comedic entertainment for the closing session, but I didn’t meet him, or even get up close and personal.

I did, however, personally meet, for the first time, several people who definitely qualify for “celebrity” status in the world of agriculture. And there were plenty in attendance who would qualify as a “star” in our industry.

First on the list of those who I was able to meet for the first time was Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, who was awarded the Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award at the conference. She’s an animal behavioral scientist and researcher who has had a major impact on the livestock industry; specifically on how animals are worked and handled. We’ve taken her ideas and utilized them on our own farm, setting up our equipment in suggested formation; we’ve noted greater efficiency and less stress among our cattle. Calmer cattle translate into happier humans who work with them!

Grandin

I also was able to meet Blake Hurst and his wife, Julie. Blake serves as the President of Missouri Farm Bureau, and is a talented writer. I’ve been a fan since 2009 when I read a piece he wrote in response to a book that was anti-agriculture. Thanks to social media I’ve been able to follow the advocacy efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, and it was a pleasure to meet them both in person.

Two more smart and impressive leaders I met during the course of the conference were Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, who works to build consumer trust in our food system, and Paul Wenger, President of California Farm Bureau. I had an interesting conversation with Paul about current challenges to agriculture.

Are any of them typical celebrities? No. They’re not actors, musicians, or whatever-the-Kardashians-are; but they’re accomplished, significant, and influential in the ag world, one that’s vastly more important to me than Hollywood.

Last night a woman who I like and respect quite a bit posted a rather lengthy Facebook status.  Tammy and I met several years ago at the farmers market where I’m a vendor and she is a regular customer.  Her status bothered me so much that it’s now 3:00 AM, about 5 hours after I read the post, and I’ve given up trying to sleep, gotten out of bed, and am at the computer in our farm office, trying to regurgitate the thoughts I’ve had since the initial read.

She’s a mom of two, and is making all of the food choices for her family.  Her post centered around her feelings of being torn between “seemingly opposing sides” of the “local, heirloom, organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, sustainable, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range” farmers and those who farm using conventional methods.

I’ve left the comfort of my warm bed to try to explain that, Tammy, you don’t have to choose a side.

The recent round of fear-based marketing, most prominently displayed by Chipotle’s new advertising campaign introduced this week, will have you believe that there is only one correct choice and that it must be the one with the most adjectives attached.  I’m troubled by the increasing prevalence of emotionally charged fear mongering in food marketing and am especially bothered by how it’s affecting people like Tammy.  It’s beyond annoying to me when one method of production is misrepresented and put down to make another look good.  This tactic is being used not only by major food retailers like the burrito purveyor, but by farmers against one another.  It is this particular practice that makes me saddest, as the rift is non-productive and dangerous.  I would suggest that there is room for all types of production methods in today’s agriculture and that they can peacefully co-exist.  The reality is that there are plenty of markets for farmers today.  Consumers have a variety of desires and demands, from budget to niche related.  We also can’t overlook the fact that we’re facing a very real global population explosion and it will take all farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, doing what they do best, to feed it.

Winter Cow

A farmer makes the decision on what kind of crop to grow and how to grow it based on a multitude of factors, which include location, facilities, resources, market opportunities, availability of labor, personal preference, etc.  I’ll give some examples beginning with my own farm.  Here we have a herd of 60 beef cows.  It’s that size because of the amount of land, and the quality of land, that we have available.  The land where my cattle graze during the spring, summer and fall has been in my husband’s family since the 1840’s.  Because of the soil type and terrain (gravel in some spots, too wet in others) it’s not really suitable for growing a crop but makes a great pasture.  That reason, coupled with the fact that both my husband and I enjoy working with cattle, is the reason that we raise beef, and are the size that we are.  If there was more of the same type of land available we might choose to increase our herd size, but would have to consider other factors such as the need to hire more help to care for the additional animals.  Sixty cows is the size that works for us.

The decision about how to market our beef, which is directly to consumers, was made based on the fact that here in McHenry County we’re physically located in a fairly populous and prosperous area between two major population centers, Chicago and Rockford.  Because of that proximity we can market our products direct, or choose to sell through traditional markets.  I have friends who raise cattle in North Dakota.  They’re in a remote rural area literally 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks and 80 miles from a McDonalds.  Marketing direct to consumers is not an option for them simply because the population is not there to draw from, the market simply doesn’t exist for them.  They also have about ten times the number of cows that I have.  They are that size because they have more land and more labor available; there are actually 3 generations of their family working together.  That’s the size that works for them.  It’s not better or worse than what we’re doing here.

I choose to not use growth promotants in my beef.  It’s because my customers tell me that they want it that way.  As a consequence of that choice, my cattle grow a little slower than cattle from herds where they are used, so mine will require more feed.  The cost of that feed is passed along to the consumer, thus my beef is more expensive than the more efficiently raised alternative.  I’m very aware that there are people who can’t afford my beef.  That’s OK and I’m happy that there is more affordable beef in large retail stores available to them since I believe that beef is a terrific source of necessary protein (not to mention iron and zinc), and it’s great tasting, too!  I would never suggest that there’s anything wrong with the less expensive beef that is raised in a different manner.  Growth promotants have been used for decades and are completely safe.  I personally would not hesitate to buy beef from the grocery store if I did not have my own home-grown supply.  Similarly, I do not have a problem feeding my own beef to my family or selling it to others even though it does not carry the “organic” certification.  The bottom line is that I have found a market for my beef, while other farmers have a market for less expensive, efficiently-raised beef, and yet another group finds buyers who are willing to pay extra for the organic label.  We find what works best for our own farms.

I also market my beef as “natural”.  This term on a label means (by USDA definition) that it’s minimally processed with no artificial additives.  There are no preservatives or food coloring in my beef.  Again, I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with either of these, just going along with the preferences of my customers.  In fact, the absence or presence of a growth promotant, a preservative, or food coloring has absolutely no effect on the nutritional value, taste, or safety of beef.  And remember that all beef, regardless of the number of adjectives used to describe it, must always be handled and cooked properly.  A person can become ill from improperly prepared food, whether it’s organic, sustainable, free-range or not.   Getting back to the customer…I’m able to fit my production methods to the demands of my clientele.  These days, they tell me that “local” and “natural” are important to them, they don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about “organic”. They do like know that the money they’re spending is staying in the county.  They want to have a relationship with their farmer and know how and where their food is raised.  I’m happy to comply.  If things change and price, or something else, should become the priority, I will have to adapt my production methods accordingly.

Summer Cows

I have neighbors who grow vegetables.  Their farm is located on a state highway, perfect for a farm stand, given the amount of traffic in our suburban county.  They can market a large amount of a wide variety of their vegetables directly to consumers right from home.  I have other friends who also grow vegetables but their farm is off the beaten path, actually on a gravel road.  A farm stand at home is not an option for them (they like their quiet location, and admit that they would not enjoy hosting the public at their home on a daily basis as others do), so they’ve chosen to load a truck several times a week during the growing season and sell at farmers markets, or sell to the wholesale market in Chicago.  Another friend from the farmers market has a very small amount of acreage and grows heirloom (and other varieties of veggies that you don’t see everywhere) using organic methods.  She chooses this because it’s what her customers want; the “organic” label is important to them and they are willing to pay for it.  She’s able to comply because her small scale is manageable for her without much extra help.  Her veggies do cost more due to the cost of organic certification and market expenses, but she’s found a niche for herself and gets a premium for her products.  The neighbors with the farm stand have a large amount of land with fertile soil types.  They choose to raise their veggies using conventional methods and fairly large equipment.  They don’t believe there’s anything wrong with organic, but their choice is based on the fact that organic production requires more labor which is not readily available to them, and more importantly, their customers are happy with the variety, quality, and quantity of what they produce.  It’s the size and method that works for them.  Each has chosen what works best, not necessarily “a side”.

So for Tammy, and other consumers who are struggling with food choices amidst overwhelming labels, adjectives, and headline-grabbing, myth-based marketing campaigns, I say pick whatever works best for YOU.  Don’t be mislead by fear-mongers and unjustified guilt.  Ask questions of those who are actually growing the food, and discount the opinions of those who must tear down someone else’s choice to make theirs look most appealing.  Buy what you want given your own budget and preferences.  And remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing; there is no rule against buying conventional one day and organic the next.  Whether you’re buying food for your family at a small farm stand, the local farmers market, Jewel, Trader Joe’s, Target, or Costco – with no adjectives or a list of adjectives as long as your arm – know that there’s a farmer at the other end who made choices too.  There’s no wrong answer.

Okay, glad I’ve gotten that off my chest.  The day is now beginning, time to start my day the same way farmers and ranchers all across the country do, regardless of the number of acres they own, animals in their care, or method of production they’ve chosen for their farm.  We’re all getting up and checking our animals; making sure they’re comfortable and secure, that they have plenty of feed, water, and a dry place to rest.  Our livestock comes first no matter the adjectives attached to the label.  No choice there.

Amish
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to a picnic at the home of good friends who are also farmers. The guests of honor were 3 generations of an Amish family from Wisconsin, with whom my neighbors had become friendly. It was an interesting experience for me to be around these folks from a different culture. I have Mennonite ancestors on my mother’s side of the family and have always been curious about this way of life. Since the Amish folks are farmers, we had plenty of common ground and it was easy to keep the conversation going.

While chatting, it dawned on me that the people I interact with at the local farmers market a couple of times each week probably look at me similar to how I was viewing the Amish. My customers at the market have very little, if any, experience with agriculture. Fewer than 2% of Americans are involved in farming, and as our county specifically is rapidly becoming urbanized (although agriculture is still the number one industry here), the vast majority of residents have no knowledge or understanding of modern-day farming. Most are two or three generations removed from agriculture, just as I am that many generations removed from my Mennonite roots.

In fact, there have been times when, after seeing a sign at my booth promoting the Facebook page for my farm, I’ve been asked in an incredulous tone if we really have internet service on the farm. Some people are frankly amazed that a farmer is actually using a computer. I’ve received similar comments at the market when people notice that I’m using a smart phone. They’re surprised that a farmer is using modern technology. I have to explain that those of us farming are leading lives that aren’t too terribly different from theirs. We’re not Amish; we’re just part of that small number of people who make our living growing food, fuel sources, and fiber. We shop at the same stores, our kids attend the same schools, and we go to the same churches. I let them know that many in farming are very involved in their communities. We’re on school boards, church councils, coach sports teams, volunteer with service organizations, and are active in local politics, etc. Our jobs in agriculture frequently require long hours, so we may have less time to spend on recreational activities, but many of us still have hobbies we enjoy, just like the non-farm folks. Some of our pastimes are traditional, such as baking, canning, quilting, wood working and gardening. Although other farmers I know enjoy spending time flying airplanes, riding motorcycles, fishing, taking spin and yoga classes, and have hobbies like genealogy and photography. It should be easy to find the common ground.

harvest
Non-farmers may be surprised at how much technology is actually used these days on the farm. Not only do we have smart phones but we constantly use apps to keep an eye on the weather and to track the market prices of the commodities that we produce. There are also apps that can monitor irrigation systems or grain bins and dryers remotely. During harvest season while the farmer may be running the combine in a field many miles away from home, he or she can be keeping track of the temperature and moisture in specific grain bins via the phone.

Those of us who raise livestock have also benefitted from new technology. For example, there are now monitors that can recognize each individual dairy cow, record her body temperature, and track her activity and milk production. The farmer is notified by text of any indicators out of the ordinary, leading to greater efficiency and improved animal care. Air flow monitors in barns are now also common, again enriching animal comfort and care. Many farmers also use video surveillance to help watch livestock, as well as machinery and fuel tanks. A motion sensor triggers a text or phone call.

monitor
It’s now common to see GPS receivers on farm equipment. GPS allows, for example, a combine to collect location data. The yield monitor in the cab then records moisture and yield data that are used to prepare specific reports and maps. This information makes it possible for farmers to use less fertilizer and chemicals, as they are now only applied where and when needed. We are able to create “management zones” and take soil and tissue samples according to a GPS grid. The samples are tested in a lab and the results are used in conjunction with soil type and yields maps to give us great insight into the fertility of our fields. Precision fertilizer application was especially important this year, following the drought of 2012. There were areas where fertilizer in the ground was not utilized last year, for example on the tops of hills. This year we only applied fertilizer to the specific areas that had higher yielding corn last year, thanks to the information provided by the maps. Sprayers now use “swath control” which can turn off the boom to avoid over-spraying.

On planters, GPS allows “auto-steer” to collect data along a path and keeps the planter straight. Information regarding seed population, how well the planter is singulating the seed, and down pressure are all immediately available to the farmer in the cab while planting. He or she can make adjustments for different soil types to plant seed more efficiently. Another new technology “row clutch”, helps avoid over-seeding by turning off individual planter boxes in odd shaped or triangular fields. The seed is only planted where needed.

There is exciting new technology being introduced in agriculture all the time. And it’s not just for the larger farmers. Our farm is considered just average size and it’s readily available to us. If you’re curious about farmers, our lives and what’s happening on our farms, it’s easy to get more information. Many of us are active on Facebook and Twitter, and there are lots of blogs to follow. You’ll find a list of farmer bloggers at http://www.causematters.com/ag-resources/farm-ranch-blogs. You don’t have to wait to be invited to a picnic!

Got milk?

Got milk?

Working at the farmers market twice a week selling beef raised on our farm, I sometimes hear negative comments pertaining to the care of livestock or the operation of larger farms. More than once someone has tossed out a casual question regarding the care of animals on our farm, or said to me, or “it’s great that you’re doing this on a small scale, you know those large farmers are abusing their animals”. I have to wonder what they think happens when a farm reaches a certain size. Do otherwise sensitive, caring individuals suddenly turn into cruel abusers when the number of animal units reaches 200, 500, 1000? Is everything automatically acceptable if it’s done small scale? I don’t believe that there is a “magic number”. I believe that those of us raising livestock for our livelihood have the best interest of the animals in our care in mind at all times. Sure, there have been a couple of well-publicized cases of abuse, we’ve all seen the videos. Of course there are a few idiots in any profession – there are bad people who are doctors, accountants, clergymen, teachers – you name it. However, you cannot paint everyone with the same brush. You wouldn’t say that all teachers are awful because of a few bad apples, and the same should not be done to farmers.  It was always my goal to have 365 cows in my herd. I’m not even 20% of the way there, and most likely won’t ever get there. My operation is the size that it is due to the limited amount of pasture and facilities on our farm. If I ever do reach my goal, would I automatically begin being abusive to my cattle?

 
Since I’ve been raising beef for a couple of decades, I happen to know many others doing the same thing, locally and in different parts of the country. Some of them just have a couple of cows or may raise a steer or two just for their own families. Others have large, modern operations or have many hundreds of cows in their herds, supporting multiple generations of farm families. The men and women farming or ranching on a larger scale are just like me, only working in a different setting.  Since I’ve been to these places and know these people, I can honestly say that there is no

"Beauty" - negligent mother or practical realist?

“Beauty” – negligent mother or practical realist?

difference in the level of dedication or quality of care provided at either end of the spectrum. Regardless of size, it’s a 24/7 job requiring attention to detail, knowledge, and devotion. I might go as far as to say that the level of professionalism is even greater when the number is animals is increased. Those farmers face greater risks and have more on the line. Often there are people on the larger farms whose sole responsibility is the health and comfort of the animals. Wouldn’t it would make sense that the animals on the larger farms are just as well cared for as those on small operations, if not more?
Here’s an example of why it bothers me when people ask me if I abuse my animals: About 2 ½ weeks ago, one of my favorite cows (#89, known as “Beauty”) gave birth to twins, one male and the other female. She cleaned both of them up nicely but soon thereafter she decided to abandon the female calf. On occasion, cows that have twins will abandon the weaker or less robust of the two. The mother cow may feel that she can’t adequately protect both from predators, that she doesn’t have enough milk to raise two, or something may be physically wrong with the one she leaves behind. I’m not exactly sure what prompted her decision, but it is noticeable that the female calf has an irregular vulva. It’s nothing that will affect the calf’s quality of life, but it is still an abnormality. Within the species, many female

Sleeping in her calf hutch

Sleeping in her calf hutch

twins born with a male twin will have reproductive issues and are often sterile.

The female twin immediately became my responsibility when the cow walked away with her bull calf. I gave her some colostrum (a commercial version of the cow’s first milk containing the antibodies that the calf needs to survive) from a bottle, then ran out to the feed store to buy a bag of milk replacer (powdered milk that we reconstitute with warm water) for the calf. After that first feeding, for the next week and a half, the little heifer refused to drink from a bottle or pail, so we had to feed her two or three times a day using a feeding tube. This is a fairly difficult and time consuming process, having to thread the proper length of small flexible plastic tubing past the sharp teeth, down her throat and into her stomach all while she’s moving around. The esophagus is very close to the trachea leading to the lungs, so it’s imperative that the plastic tube goes down the right way. If we make a mistake and put liquid into the lungs, the calf will die immediately. After a couple of days of constant attention, the heifer was still weak, not thriving, and not responding to any of our attempts to get her going (such as adding electrolytes or probiotics to her milk), so we called in our veterinarian. Dr. Morrissey examined her, administered medication, and left some for us to give her three times a day. We spent several more days hovering and following the doctor’s orders. Finally, last Sunday she regained her ability to

Mid-day meal

Mid-day meal

suck and began to drink from a bottle. For a week now she’s been doing much better, drinking milk three times a day, drinking some water from a bucket, and nibbling on a tiny bit of grain. She’s filling out and her coat is shiny. She has her own space, a “calf hutch” outside near the barn where she can go to be safe and dry, but she can also go into the barnyard and out to the pasture to be with the other calves and cows whenever she wants to. It’s great to see her doing well, she recognizes me now as her food source and comes running when she sees me with the bottle.

I tell this story to bring up an example of care and concern that farmers show their animals every day.  When something goes wrong (and there are very few days without some kind of surprise) we know that there will be extra time involved, constant worry and concern, and often added expenses. Some may say that it’s only done in the interest of making a profit. It’s definitely not – in the case I just described the cost of the vet visit alone has removed any chance of profit from this animal. Why we do it is because we care.  If we didn’t like working with animals, we certainly wouldn’t be in this line of work.  In this case, I don’t know any farmer who would have done it differently – large scale or small.

Seems like everywhere I turn I’m hearing and seeing an increasing amount of inaccurate, negative information about agriculture.  Whether it’s in newspapers, on TV or online, or even during face to face conversations, suddenly it’s fashionable to bash modern ag.

Animal agriculture is taking the majority of the hits these days.  The proliferation of these falsehoods and myths is damaging, and frankly irritates me to no end.  Because of this, and since we livestock producers are so few in number these days (especially in my part of the world), I’ve decided to join the “agvocacy” cause by starting this blog.  Agvocacy is a newly coined word for advocating for agriculture.  It’s time we farmers and ranchers started speaking up for ourselves.  Our detractors are well organized and mightily funded and are not being fair or truthful.  In the past we attempted to “take the high road” by simply ignoring negative or false comments put out there.  We thought that by avoiding controversy the erroneous message would grow old and hopefully fade away quickly.  We now see that such a routine has failed miserably.

With this new blog I’m going to try to tell the real story of farming, from my perspective and of my own operation, and that of some of my friends involved in production agriculture who might do things a little differently, too.  I hope that my non-farm friends and neighbors, and perhaps some curious consumers out there might gain a little insight into modern food production.  I also hope that this might become a place to begin a conversation or have some questions answered.  I love to talk ag, so please feel free to contact me any time.  I’m by no means an expert on every subject, but I do have lots of contacts and resources in the ag community.  Please check back with me often, I’ll be sharing my story here regularly.