This week has been an exciting one for those discussing food and farming. Sunday’s airing of RAM Truck’s Super Bowl ad featuring the American Farmer has had online communities buzzing about the images and characteristics that defined our farmers in 1978.
Those characteristics and values still hold true today, despite what we commonly hear in mainstream media and reports from those who have a ‘beef’ with modern farming.
I’m from a family farm with cattle, horses, and on occasion a few pigs, chickens for our own freezer. I’ve also worked in large cattle feedlots in different parts of the country. Farmers (both large and small) I’ve worked with all care about providing a quality life for their animals. There’s no other way around it. If someone doesn’t, we have a problem to work out. It’s our responsibility, and do the best we can with tools, technology, and respond to customer demands. Gestation crates were one of those tools for pig farmers.
Back in June, I made a decision that would take my advocacy efforts to a new level. It was on this post from CNN Eatocracy covering the crate-debate. Many folks were discussing the use of gestation crates in pork production and I wanted to add my 2-cents just like I have on hundreds of other online news articles. This one was in the right place at the right time.
I am so thankful for CNN Editor Kat Kinsman in 2012. For whatever reasons when she read my comment, it sparked enough interest for a follow up and eventually open doors for myself and few other farmers to share our thoughts with the CNN Eatocracy audience.
That event turned into my first CNN Eatocracy post and several others.
I really don’t know how to say thank you enough other than to say it made my year to receive that opportunity to share a bit of the farming world and links to my many fellow ag bloggers with that audience. I am so thankful for the support of the many friends who have read my posts, left encouraging comments, and guided me in how to be a better advocate for my beliefs.
An even larger bit of gratitude goes out to those have increased their efforts to reach out and share their message of food production with our customers.
I hope 2013 brings better understanding and many more great opportunities for the agriculture community to reach out to customers and answer their questions about our food supply.
I have another article on CNN’s food blog, Eatocracy, this week! This time I’m bringing up the discussion of local food from the perspective of a farmer who most do not consider as ‘local’. Be sure to read the entire article and join the discussion on CNN’s page.
The term “local” is used frequently in conversations centered on the American food system. Is it 50 miles from your home or 500? Must the food be purchased directly from the farmer? Can the food be sourced by a retailer and sold under a “local” label for stronger buying power?
I have listened to several panel discussions on food topics over the past year and the topic of local food sources normally pops up. Some of these panel discussions have included suburban or urban mothers and restaurant owners. When asked what they considered local food and farmers, a common theme arises, and it bothers me: the urban ideal of what local farmers should look like.
My family has raised beef cattle in Arkansas for several generations. Most of our cattle are shipped to the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and Western Kansas. These areas have ample feed available for cattle and farmers who specialize in feeding cattle until they reach their harvest weight. In these parts of the country, the land is flat, more arid, and conducive to higher populations of livestock than people.
We feed a few cattle for local harvest each year to feed our family and occasionally a neighbor will buy a fattened beef for their family. We have focused primarily on cattle production rather than adding in diverse local marketing. Is my family considered a “local farm” to our area? I would not have second-guessed that assumption a few years ago.
I grew up in the heart of Arkansas cattle and farmland. Our county produces far more beef and crops than could ever be consumed by the local population of 78,000. We are thankful for a national market to trade our cattle and be able to reinvest in our land and livestock and feed our families.
Now I find myself in Knoxville, Tennessee with a metro-area population over 700,000 people. We have several local farms and multiple seasonal farmers marketsaround town. There is a regional dairy brand and we are surrounded by cattle, swine, and poultry livestock farms as well as many vegetable farms. Unfortunately, there are far too many people in the area for immediate farmers to supply our food needs. We are thankful for a national market to bring in food supplies from farmers in more rural parts of the country.
Many folks, like the panelist moms and restaurant owners, look at my family and say we are not local farmers simply because we do not provide for their food preference. As a family farmer trying to make a living with the skills I know best, those statements offend me.
My family contributes to the local economy, buying our supplies in local shops and paying all of our taxes. We are every bit a part of the local community as anyone else. Why should we be looked down upon because we make a good business decision for our livelihood when marketing our livestock? Sometimes I wonder if America is just a country full of food snobs.
If there were a stronger demand for our beef in a local market, we would probably sell more beef to neighbors. If all of our neighboring farmers did the same, what would happen to the excess? Where would folks in places like Knoxville receive their beef? What about larger cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, or New York?
Local food is a great choice and opportunity for many folks, but there is a stronger need for national markets to provide food on a consistent and broader scale. Farmers like my family should not be looked down upon because we do what is best for our future, our land, livestock, or even business.
Invest money in what you believe is important for your community, health and family, but do not look down on others because they make different food choices. Remember, you can make multiple choices; local on some things, national on others, and other people will make the right choices for themselves and their family. We should all be thankful for what we have. Things are pretty great and certainly could be far worse.
What defines local for you? Should family farmers be penalized because they market a product to a national community? How can you strengthen the market for local products in your community? Let’s have a conversation, starting in the comments.
Recently in my article on CNN’s Eatocracy, I noted the need for a more balanced education for customers, but this fully applies to the agriculture community as well. It’s a work in progress for myself, and I’ve been reaching out for more candid conversations with those outside of agriculture production for their thoughts.
So here are a few of my reflections from these conversations. Some may not agree with these thoughts and they do not reflect all beef producers or all customers, but they’re my own and I feel the need to share them.
I’m pretty passionate about emphasizing the need for better conversation between customers and the agriculture community. Many times we become too dependent on facts, figures, and key phrases that become mundane and over-used. Don’t get me wrong, those are great facts that our customers need to hear, but we shouldn’t solely depend on them. You wouldn’t enjoy a conversation with someone who did nothing but react defensively with facts and figures. If I want that, I’ll go sit in on a college lecture. It’s a conversation, be a person.
I had an interesting conversation on the 4th of July. Somehow, I ended up at a BBQ with some friends and co-workers, and wound up being the only person who really supported the beef industry. The others were all well-educated in the sciences and animal production, but didn’t have a positive feeling about consuming beef. Maybe out of my comfort zone, but something that needs to be done more frequently. I did more listening and asking questions than talking. It was an interesting conversation that really made my wheels start turning.
In the beef cattle community, we rely a lot on tradition. Cattle raisers in this country have a strong heritage and ties to the land, but in some ways I believe we’ve allowed this heritage to hold us back. During the course of my conversation over the grill, I was reminded that beef production carries a negative impression with many Americans, and that’s something farmers need to become aware of.
Cattle farmers (as a whole) have made great strides in recent years in animal handling, sustainability, and food safety, but we still have a LONG LONG LONG row to hoe when it comes to listening to what consumers want to see happen in food production. What has happened in the past doesn’t matter. What does matter is how we can change for a better future.
The beef cattle community is the most fragmented when it comes to protein production. We have more small, family producers than any other livestock animal, more diversity in breed and type of production than most others. We also have many producers who raise cattle part-time and do not pay enough attention to BQA guidelines or environmental impacts (BQA is one of our weaker spots. There is no valid reason why more producers aren’t involved in this or similar programs). Too often sustainability is measured by how many years a farm has operated, rather than current and future management practices. I don’t want to cast a shadow over beef cattle producers or say that we’re doing wrong. We’re doing a fantastic job. But there is ALWAYS room for improvement.
We need to better understand alternative methods of production, so we can better understand why we choose our own management practices. We need to better understand what our customer is asking, so we can understand what questions need to be addressed through better communication of production practices or adjusting those practices.
Our future doesn’t necessarily rely on what we’ve done in the past, but rather how we can adapt to changing conditions. My generation’s job will be to address these changes, adapt to better communication with the customer, and figure out how to hold on to our heritage at the same time.
Once again, Some may not agree with these thoughts and they do not reflect all beef producers or all customers, but they’re my own reflections from a number of candid conversations with consumers from outside beef production.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.”