I EAT. YOU FARM. SO WHAT?

Originally published on the Gate to Plate Blog by Michele Payn-Knoper

A recently overheard conversation at a suburban grocery store between a person buying food with comments from a farmer who was visiting and knew how to meet people on common territory instead of talking “ag.”

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Here’s the thing; I don’t really get why farmers are on the warpath. Really! We can get our food from anywhere. I just care that our family has food that’s affordable and safe. And I’ve heard some pretty bad things about you farmers.

You are poisoning water and soil by using pesticides and insecticides. Our family plays in the creeks and ponds on our land. Our kids chase fireflies through soybean fields, while playing hide and seek in corn fields. Do you really think we’re going to pour poisons in fields that surround our family home?  By the way, our well for water is between the house and the field. We understand that it’s not cool to use bad chemicals, which is why we rely on a whole lot of science, research and technology to ensure we’re using the right products.

Big farms are bad, and you all seem to be getting bigger. What size of school does your child go to? There are many different sizes of schools that offer options and choices for families. Likewise, we have a mix of large and small businesses in America due to our free marketplace. The same is true for farm families; some choose to farm a large number of acres or work with many animals, while others have small operations.  97% of farms in the U.S. are still owned by families; they deserve a right to choose the best option for their family and business like other Americans, don’t they?

Animals are abused on today’s farms. I’ve worked with animals my whole life. If you’ve seen the sensationalized videos from animal rights groups, I want you to know they probably impact me even more than you.  Animals that live in barns are actually in a lot better conditions – they get to stay at one temperature, avoid predators and have a environment that’s customized to their every need. Barns do look different today than in 1970, but isn’t the same true of computers, doctors offices and stores? Yes, animals die to feed humans, but we respect their sacrifice and care for them in the best way possible.

I’ve heard farm subsidies are making you rich on our tax dollars. There are a lot of mixed opinions on this, even within agriculture. However, the big thing people don’t realize about the “farm” program is that 86% of it is for mothers and children in need of food assistance. And I’m not asking for a handout from anyone, but we manage millions of dollars of risk every year – sometimes the safety net has kept our family in business – and is a tiny part of our national budget.

Biotechnology is evil. Do I look like Satan? Sorry, just joking. Our family chooses biotechnology because it’s the right tool for our farm. But more importantly, there are a lot of hungry people around the world, a problem that’s getting worse with a growing population. I was on a mission trip last year to Africa and saw some this myself. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a hungry child? It haunts me – and that’s why biotechnology is a tool that we choose.

Hormones are making our kids develop way too soon! I have a daughter, so I get your concern – we don’t want to have kindergarteners in bras. Kids are growing more and faster because our diets are better.  Did you know there’s more hormones in a serving of broccoli than in a steak? People need to remember that all food has hormones – and it always has.

It’s been interesting to talk with you.  Are you on Facebook or are there ways we can stay connected? Sure, would be glad to connect with you. Our farm’s Facebook page has a lot of pictures to give you an inside look on what’s happening.  I’m also on Twitter and will put up some videos to show you what we’re doing during harvest. I’d also suggest you check out these websites…

Cool. I like that we share the same values. We may not always agree, but I appreciate what you do as a farmer a lot more after we’ve talked.  And I’ll remember you when I shop for our food.

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If you’re buying food, when have you sought out a person involved on a farm or ranch? Same for those in agriculture… when was the last time you truly made an effort to relate on human terms instead of ag terms?

GETTING TO KNOW YOUR ANIMALS: WHY DO THEY DO THAT?

Have you ever wondered why your dog walks in a circle before it lies down? Or why some cats can play too rough and bite your hands? Or why when you take a pig out of a group, they all seem to fight again once you put them back together? As an animal science major at Illinois State University, I have had the opportunity to take a Behavior of Domestic Animals class this semester. I think this information that any pet owner or livestock farmer should have in order to better understand and communicate with their animals!

To address the previous questions, dogs circle before they lie down because their wild ancestors would lie down in the grass. The circling beforehand would pack the grass so that they would have a flat spot to lie on. This behavior continues in dogs today even though they often already have a flat surface to lie on.

Has your dog ever tried to lick your face? Many people see this as a sign of affection, which still has not been ruled out. When they are young, however, puppies lick their mother’s face in order to stimulate her to regurgitate food for them. It is possible that they are just looking for you to give them a taste of your last meal!

If you have a cat that plays particularly rough, it may be because they were raised as a single kitten (without their littermates).

These single kittens never learn to play fight with their littermates and consequently never learn to inhibit their bites. The same concept applies to dairy bulls, which are notoriously more aggressive than other bulls. Most dairy bulls are raised in solitude, so they never learn the consequences of their charges. When raised with other bulls, a charge usually results in some sort of retaliation, so those bulls think twice before charging someone. Bulls raised alone, however, have no inhibitions about being aggressive towards others.

Pigs (like most other species) establish a “pecking order” within their groups. When a pig is removed from a group and placed back with that group a few days later, sometimes the pigs will fight in order to reestablish that pig’s rank. It is the job of the subordinate pigs to remember who is above them; the dominant pigs simply know they are dominant; they do not seem to recognize the ranking of the rest of the pigs. If it is a dominant pig that has been removed, there is less of a chance of fighting when it is replaced because the other pigs will remember that dominant pig. If it is a subordinate pig, however, the pigs above it will not remember that pig and establish dominance over it once again.

Another interesting study that I found discovered a correlation between the placement of the circle of hair on a cow’s face and aggression. If the circle of hair was located right in the center of the face, between the eyes, the cow was fairly docile. If the circle of hair was off-centered on the head, that cow was more aggressive.

Studies are also being conducted on humans to see if the placement of the circle of hair on the back of our heads has any correlation with behavioral issues.

These behaviors, along with countless others, are often overlooked or misunderstood by people. Pay attention to your animals, and if you are ever wondering why they are doing something, do a little research!  There have been thousands of studies on animal behavior, so look into it, and get to know your animals a little bit better!

Rosie Sanderson
Illinois State University student

RESPONSIBLE ANIMAL CARE – WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING

February is Responsible Pet Owner’s Month!  While a lot of folks probably don’t think that livestock farmers think of their cows, chickens, and pigs as pets … well, a lot of them do.  Here’s how we participate in Responsible Pet Owner’s Month – agriculture style. 

Thanks to Rosie for helping us understand responsible livestock care from a farmer’s perspective!

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We have all seen and read numerous articles from humane societies and other organizations about American farmers and our “mistreatment” of animals. Whenever I see one of these articles, I often wonder what the answer would be if I asked the authors of those articles exactly how many farms they have visited lately to see first hand how farmers handle their animals. If I had to guess, it is a very small number, if any.

When people read articles like these, they forget to take one very important thing into consideration: the credibility of the author. Even if the authors hold a position of authority for a company or site other sources for their information, I find that the topic of livestock production and treatment of the animals can only be truly understood from a first-hand experience. Sure, you could research the topic and find information about it, but how do you really know what is happening on our farms unless you have experienced it first-hand?

As someone with 20 years of experience on a livestock production farm, I would like to take this opportunity to THANK our farmers for their hard work and responsible animal care- this should be a nice change of pace!

Like any typical farm kid, I spent ten years participating in the County 4-H fairs showing cattle and pigs. In those ten years, I got to see not only how my family handles our animals, but how numerous other families handle their livestock as well. I can honestly say those farm families have a great respect for the animals that they raise, in fact, the only minor mistreatment of animals I can remember were caused by pedestrians at the fairs who were unfamiliar with how to properly handle animals.

Many practices that farmers commonly use are misconstrued by the general public and seen as mistreatment when, in fact, it is helpful to the animal. One example of this is our use of a “show stick” when showing cattle. From a spectator’s point of view, it looks like the people showing the animals are just poking the cattle with a sharp stick. The show sticks are used to communicate to the animal how we would like their feet placed on the ground. As is the case with most large animals, cattle have much deeper nerve endings than humans, so what we would see as a painful poke, they feel like a nudge and they move their feet accordingly. Another main use of these show sticks is to rub the underbellies of the cattle in the show ring to keep them calm and comfort them because they are in a new setting. This is just one of many examples of misinterpreted actions that farmers use when handling animals.

Growing up in a farm community, I also got to see how other farm operations handled their livestock at home on the farm. Once again, I have always seen animals treated with respect and often cared for like members of the family. On our farm, each of our cows is still named and that is how we keep track of them in our record books!

Responsible animal care is an important issue, and thus should not be overlooked. For any skeptics about my claims of good animal care on farms, look into the regulations that producers have to follow that were put into place by government organizations. Just like anyone else, farmers have rules to follow that ensure the well-being of every animal, and from my first-hand experience of 20 years on a farm, farmers are glad to follow those rules and would not raise their animals without the care and respect that they deserve.

Once again, thank you, farmers, for your hard work and responsible animal care! Even though the countless articles that paint a bad picture of our farms continue to come, farmers continue to believe in what they do and the manner in which they do it, and I am proud to call myself one of them.

Rosie Sanderson
Illinois State University student
Animal Industry Management

FARMER’S DAUGHTERS LOOK FORWARD TO THE FAIR

Many farm kids believe the best part of summer is their county fair. Throughout the year 4-Hers work diligently to perfect their projects in hope of a successful week at the fair. Yesterday, we went to the McLean County 4-H Fair and it brought back sweet memories from our days in 4-H.
Kelsey: The fair that I attended while growing up was the Tazewell County 4-H fair and I was a member of the Tremont Clovers 4-H club in Tremont, Illinois for twelve years. Throughout 4-H I attempted numerous projects taking away something different from each one.

Kristie: My county fair was the McLean County fair, the biggest 4-H fair in the country, and I was a member of the Blue Ribbon Kids 4-H group from Colfax. Although I grew up on a farm, I never showed any animals at the fair. All of my friends had cattle, swine, goats, or chickens, but the biggest animal that I ever showed was my cat Buttercup, who was not the most cooperative of all animals.

Kelsey: The projects I tended to return to included visual arts, photography, tractor safety, veterinary science, and crops. Due to all of my friends showing cattle I usually spent a great deal of time in the cattle barn. I loved helping them show their cow-calf pairs and participating in the beef obstacle course. However, I would have to say that my favorite project was crops. The first morning of the fair my dad and I would get up extremely early to go dig my crops out of the field. Depending on the morning dew and the status of the irrigation system we would usually arrive at the fair completely soaked, and covered in dirt from head to toe!
Kristie: Since I did not have to take the time to show animals, I spent my time doing as many projects in as many categories as possible, sometimes bringing well over twenty projects. I always had projects in multiple arts and cooking categories, I took woodworking projects a few times, I usually had a photography project, and I tried my hand at sewing. My favorite category was the “Clothing Decisions” projects in the Clothing and Textiles division, which was really just an excuse to go bargain shopping with my mom. I always did the Style Revue Show to model my sewing projects, and my biggest sewing accomplishment was making my homecoming dress for my freshman year of high school. My big state fair début was to show my microwave bran muffins, and by the time I had perfected them, my family couldn’t get rid of them quick enough.
Kelsey: In 2007 I was honored to represent Tazewell County 4-H as their queen. During my reign I was able to see the fair in an entire new perspective. I attended nearly every event at the fair, rode in eight parades throughout the county, participated in many 4-H activities, and attended the IAAF Convention as a contestant in the Miss Illinois County Fair Queen Pageant. While agriculture had always been my lifestyle as a farmer’s daughter, it was not until my year as queen that I realized the effect it had on our society and the importance of advocating such an extraordinary industry.

Kristie: My 4-H experience was much different from my friends’, but I would never say that I missed out on anything. I learned many different skills that I continue to use today, and 4-H allowed me to try out as many skills and ideas that I wanted so that I could figure out which things I was good at and what I liked the most. If it weren’t for 4-H, I wouldn’t have been able to make the decorative throw pillows and oil paintings for my new apartment, I never would have found my passion for cooking or learned how to wire a trouble light or turn a wood lathe, and my stressed out cat probably wouldn’t have lost as many years off of his life.

Kelsey: I can imagine that showing a cat is considerably harder than showing a cow. You have my sympathies.

Kristie: Thanks, but I don’t envy you walking around the fairgrounds in heels.

Kelsey: Still, 4-H is such a valuable program because it has something to offer every kid in every walk of life. Like Kristie said, these are experiences you always remember, family memories that you would never want to forget, and life skills that you take with you when you grow up.

Kristie: The fair is the culmination of all those activities. When you bring your hard work from the fields or the sewing machine and have it evaluated, you feel a sense of accomplishment, but you also learn to appreciate constructive criticism.

Kelsey: So from two farmer’s daughters that spent the afternoon at the fair yesterday and can’t wait to get back, get involved in 4-H and participate in your county fair. You’ll never be sorry that you did.

Kelsey Vance
ICGA/ICMB Summer Intern
Illinois State University student

Kristie Harms
ICMB/ICGA Summer Intern
University of Missouri student

LIVESTOCK FARMS NOT WHAT YOU THINK

It’s interesting to me the opinions that non-farm consumers have of farmers. We can see by looking at blog comments, news editorials, and the sheer number of supporters of organizations like the Humane Society of the US, that many people believe livestock farmers to be corporate employees that are unconcerned with the health and comfort of the animals in their care.

I visited two beef farms last week. This perception couldn’t be more incorrect.

At Larson Farms in Maple Park, IL, I listened as Mike Martz introduced his “staff” who consisted of his wife, his children, his brothers and sisters and their spouses and children, his in-laws, and four full time employees. Guess what? Even the four employees had long histories with the farm and their fathers and grandfathers had worked for Larson Farms for years, nearly passing down their “employment” and family connection with the farm.

This is anything but corporate.

Likewise, on Jamie Willrett’s Farm in Malta, IL, I pulled up and was greeted by Jamie’s son, Sawyer and followed his other two children and wife along on the tour of the farm. The entire family lives on the premise … and they operate a fairly substantial feedlot.
These two farms are both exactly what non-farm audiences fear and exactly what they love. They are large operations that produce beef economically and yet they are also family operations that care about their livestock.

I learned at the Willrett farm that Jamie is concerned about dwindling cow/calf numbers. The beef industry is actually divided into three segments, those that have cows and birth calves (cow/calf), those that take those calves and feed them to around 800 pounds (backgrounders), and those that take the 800 pound animals and feed them to 1350 pounds and then harvest them (finishers). The market hasn’t been great for cattle producers in recent years and the cow/calf guys have slowly decreased their numbers until in 2010, we’re at an all time low. Without calves, finishers like Jamie Willrett won’t have animals to purchase and finish. This is a problem the beef industry has to work out.

At Larson Farms, I witnessed animals being ultrasound tested, adding efficiency to the operation. With an ultrasound wand (yes, exactly like the ones used on pregnant women), a technician ultrasounds the animal between the 12th and 13th rib to determine thickness of back fat and marbling. The weight of the animal combined with the back fat and marbling prompts a computer program to tell the Larson’s exactly how much longer to feed the animal to achieve the highest grade (and thus, the highest premium) possible. Talk about efficiency.

I already knew that every single animal on both these farms has multiple vet visits, preventative health care, nutritionists determining their diet, and safety from weather events and predators, but those aspects of the farming operation need to be pointed out as well.
The take home message from my visits was that beef operations in 2010 are efficient and well run or else they are out of business. Comfortable cows are eating, growing, and making the farmer money. Healthy cows are eating, growing, and making the farmer money. Happy cows are eating, growing, and making the farmer money. And efficiencies like breaking the industry into segments or using new technologies to create meat products that the consumer wants are tools that help the farmers make money.

At the end of the day, farming is about making money. Farmers don’t exist in a vacuum; they have to feed their families and send their kids to college too.

But farming is also about ethics. Farmers treat their animals with respect and care because it helps their bottom line, but also because it’s the right thing to do.

Lindsay Mitchell
ICMB/ICGA Marketing Director

WHAT WOULD YOU DO WITHOUT PORK BURRITOS AND STEAK FAJITAS?

Our office took a stand Friday. We are boycotting Chipotle. But first, let me give you some background so you can understand why you should DEFINITELY boycott Chipotle too.

I have no idea if you’ve been following the animal welfare issues going on in Ohio, so let me start this post out with a summary.

Ohio was chugging along, producing quality grain, meats, and produce for the citizens of our world, when the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) came along and decided to wreak havoc. As they have done in other states, HSUS decided to pursue a ballot initiative that would make certain farming practices illegal. Here’s hoping that any of you reading this already know that HSUS isn’t as concerned for animal welfare as they are for ending animal agriculture and meat production in our country, but if you don’t, read this before you go any further.

Ohio agriculture raised a lot of money and started to fight back. They set up an agency within their state that would oversee animal welfare issues and enforce animal care standards, thus eliminating the need for the HSUS to come in and demand the end of the various farming practices.

But now the HSUS has decided that they will continue to fight. They are currently behind a new ballot initiative that will “require the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board to adopt certain minimum standards to prevent animal cruelty, improve health and food safety, support family farms, and safeguard the environment throughout the state of Ohio.” These are their words.

The point to my post, however, is the fact that Chipotle is a corporate sponsor for their effort. They are allowing ballots to be placed in their stores throughout Ohio to make it easier for unsuspecting patrons to vote in their favor, bringing us one step closer to ending animal agriculture in the United States.

Yes, the same Chipotle that serves the pork burritos that my co-worker Becky loves, is trying to end pork production in the U.S. And they know it.

They have statements about their purchasing choices and support of humane animal care all over the store. They were also the first restaurant to remove rBGH from their milk products, buy from family farms and make a real, financial commitment to sustainable meat. (source here)

(Whether or not they actually understand that this production system isn’t sustainable remains to be seen. I guess there could be different definitions of sustainability.)

Obviously, with this background, they are well-educated on the goals of the HSUS and want to support ending animal agriculture. Don’t be surprised if you head into Chipotle next year and the entire menu is vegetarian.

Because of all this, our office decided to make a statement yesterday. Becky, Mark and I had the wonderful pork at Moe’s Southwestern Grill instead.

We couldn’t find anything on Moe’s website indicating that they support activist groups and we wanted to reward them for it. Not to mention that their food is better and their chips are free!

Then we met some more folks from the office and expressed our displeasure for Chipotle.

Why don’t you go ahead and do the same?

Lindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Director

EPA: INMATES (INTERNS) RUNNING THE ASYLUM

Hello, my name is Becky and I’m a meat eater.

I can stand up and say that proudly, but why is it that some people try to denounce omnivorism like it’s something that should be part of a 12-step program?

The latest comes from the US EPA’s blog. The author, Nicole Reising, a sophomore intern at the Office of Children’s Health Protection, extols her ‘knowledge’ in farming and how meat production is bad for the environment. Her reasonings are:

– Ethics against killing animals.
– Disliking the taste of meat.
– Air pollution due to dust and liquid manures.
– Rainforest erosion and destruction for pasture land.
– Water contamination due to animal waste.
– Grain and corn grown for animal feed instead of addressing world hunger.

Now I have no problem with someone choosing to be a vegetarian or vegan for personal reasons. I may not agree, but I can understand their choice. What I take issue with is the attempt to restrict animal production for food for those who choose to eat meat, especially when they are basing their decision on misinformation and outright falsehoods.

As far as Ms. Reising’s motives for becoming a vegetarian because of the negative environmental effects, well a little fact she seemed to overlook (that was put out by the EPA, the very organization she is blogging for!) is that the entire U.S. ag sector contributed only 6.4% of total U.S. green house gas (GHG) emissions in 2006. That includes meat production… and that 6.4% is for the ENTIRE U.S. ag sector! Additionally, conventional beef generates 40% LESS GHG emissions and uses 2/3’s less land than beef produced using organic and grass-fed production systems.

And for the argument of “Grain and corn grown for animal feed instead of addressing world hunger,” only 1% of all the corn grown in the U.S. is sweet corn to be consumed by humans. The rest of the corn is used for livestock feed, ethanol and other uses. We cannot grow crops in all areas (those areas are great for raising dairy and beef cattle though, which means we can get valuable protein feed from land that can only be used for growing grass and weeds). And in the areas we do grow corn, the quality is not always good enough to be consumed by humans. Thus, we are helping world hunger by feeding this grain to livestock and producing other uses for corn (corn starch, corn syrup, biodegradable plastic, etc.) to allow for more food products that are affordable.

I come from a family farm where we raise beef cattle as well as corn, soybeans and alfalfa and I’m not ashamed of that. We treat the land and animals with respect and love. I would wager a year’s salary that even though we are not vegetarians, we show more respect to animals AND the earth than those who choose not to consume meat. If you feel the same way, go comment on this blog and let your thoughts be heard.

By: Becky Finfrock
ICGA/ICMB Communications Assistant