Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What Do You Want Them to Know?

I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about various jobs. In fact I can't count the number of middle school or high school students that have asked me what exactly I do all week as a "youth pastor". Farming seems to be one of those occupations where misconceptions exist, or even better, people just have a plain lack of knowledge about it. On one hand I could argue that this really isn't that big of a deal because people probably have a lack of knowledge about what a lawyer, doctor, or teacher does. But, on the other hand our entire country used to have a pretty intimate connection to the agricultural world so a lack of connection is a departure for our country.

Let me give you an example of that detachment. My mom teachers 2nd grade in an Iowa "city" of about 60,000 people. This "city" (it is a city by my standards) is the home of "Cattle Congress" and multiple John Deere manufacturing plants. But, when she teaches the "farm" unit to her students and brings in all of my toys it is like she is showing them a foreign world. Not that they should be intimately acquainted with all things agricultural, but these kids in a "city" surrounded by agricultural don't have any connection with the farm.

So, since I'm in the midst of reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and am in the middle of the section where Mr. Pollan spends a week at Polyface Farm I have had one question that keeps running through my mind. If there were just a couple of things that I could let the average food consumer know about farming and where their food comes from what would it be?

Would I want them to know about the care and work that goes into producing high quality food ... would I want to share with them about the difference in production practices that various farms are using across the country ... would I want them understand some of the food/farm policy that drives much of food prices ... what exactly would I want to share with them?

So, I pose the question to you. What are a couple of your main things about our agricultural world that you would like everyone to know?


Dave_Flora said...

Good question, Ethan! Here's mine:
1. That McDonalds, Wendy's, etc. don't sell food..they sell product. There are 38 ingredients in a Chicken McNugget, by the way..
2. Oranges and strawberries don't grow year round naturally.

Yeoman said...

1. I would like the average "Consumer", e., everyone, to know that nobody gets a free pass on agriculture. We're all in the ag business, and that means we all share in ag disasters, and we all all engage in the good things that ag brings. If we support cheapness over everything else, we are complicit in farm destruction. And we all share in the necessary animal deaths that we humans cause through agriculture, and should accept that.

By all of this I mean that the millions who may feel comfortable in their own behavior by adopting a false psychological separation from agriculture I would like stripped of that illusion.

There are many, many, who believe that they're morally superior for one reason or another in this area, such as they eat beef, but oppose hunting, or they are vegetarians, and oppose the killing of any animal for meat.

Well, the most destructive human activity of them all is building cities, which themselves can only come about through agriculture, ironically (there's no cities in hunter gatherer societies). And the planting of row crops results in the death of animals, even for the vegetarians who believe they're saving something (I'll spare everyone the deer in the combine stories).

I don't mean to sound harsh in all this, but I'd like people to know what the reality of being a human being and eating means. A lot less nonsense would occur, I feel, if people were aware of that. And it would be best for all if we all realized that we're not, and never will be, really separated from the soil.

2. I'd like people to know that if they live in a country that's a food importer, they live in a country at its knees.

The US is becoming a food importer. Historically, nations that were food importers went to great lengths to free themselves from that status. If we think it's bad to be at the mercy of oil exporting nations, just wait until that situation replaces itself with being at the mercy of food exporting nations.

3. I'd like people to know that the business of human beings is living decently. That doesn't sound farm related, but it is. Americans seem to believe the business of human beings is material acquisition, an odd belief for us mortals. Get a lot of stuff and die. The government believes that its our business to be "consumers".

It isn't. That's now what we're for.

If we realized that, I think we'd get away from the idea that everything has to be based on big and cheap, to include farms. If we focused on families being able to support themselves, decently, and be decent families, we'd have a lot more family farms, and a lot more family enterprises of all types.

4. I'd like people to know that farming is a vocation.

We don't do this because we would like a bizarre hobby. And we don't do this because we're "dumb". We're not hicks. We do this, because we feel compelled to do it.

Indeed, by and large, farmers are one of the few remaining jobs in the United States which is principally occupied by those who feel compelled to do it. Most lawyers are lost souls, who don't know what to do, and so they practice law. Most doctors, I'm sorry to say, are in it solely for the money. Most people who go to college are told to pick out a career that should be a "good career", rather than to study for something they feel compelled to do irrespective of the income.

Farmers are different. Farmers and ranchers do this because we love it in a way that's hard to define.

People should know that, as people who love a vocation should be encouraged. And those who engage in any one vocation shouldn't be looked down upon.

Mike said...

The recently retired mother of a good friend of mine taught at a grade school in Los Angeles. Apparently, she once asked her students -- I think they were 5th or 6th graders -- if they knew where milk came from. The answers were something like "the grocery store" or "the milk factory". When she told them that milk came from cows, they were surprised.

Then she asked them if they knew where hamburger came from. They didn't know, and she told them that hamburgers also came from cows. This disgusted them to no end. Apparently, they thought that if milk was the liquid that came out of a cow, hamburgers must be the solid stuff that also comes out of cows -- cow turds.

She corrected them, but it amazed her that they could know so little about where food comes from.

It seems extreme, but what I really want other consumers to know is what food is, and where it comes from, and I want them to know that it's important that they teach their children these things. It's sad, but there are a lot of people out there for whom food production is as foreign a concept as the fabrication process used to manufacture the CPUs in their phones.

I'd also like them to know that the vast majority of corn that the see when driving through Iowa isn't served on the cob, and I'd like them to know where it does wind up.

For those who do know where food comes from, I'd like them to know that you don't have to pay a lot to eat well and to eat responsibly. When you buy processed foods, fast foods, etc., you're buying an industrialized product that's been through a pipeline that adds much more cost than it adds value. When you buy raw ingredients and prepare your own meals, you cut all those processing costs out of the equation. You cut out the "middleman," so to speak, and you can afford to buy good ingredients. And in the process of doing so, you can exercise greater control over what you do -- and don't -- consume.

Yeoman said...

I frankly regard it as a massive failure of our education system that people don't understand where food comes from. If people don't grasp that, they shouldn't be trusted with the vote.

Food is the most elemental topic of all. After the topic of obtaining food and shelter, all other material topics are luxuries.

Beyond that, the Disney concept of nature and animals that so many Americans have is inexcusable.

So what I guess I'd also like to see is for somebody to grab American education by the throat and choke out the fluff. That kids do not know how things really work is appalling.

Mike W. said...

I gave some fresh milk to a friend of mine. His children wouldn't try it. They said it wasn't milk since it came from a cow! Their world-view tells them that milk comes from a store.

They don't know the work that goes into producing a glass of milk. You raise a heifer to produce her first calf and she freshens (comes into milk). You train her to hand milk. You provide pasture or good hay. You milk her every day, twice a day, no matter what. You get her bred back. You dry her off (stop milk production) a couple months before she is due to calve. Next she has another calf and she freshens...

There is a natural cycle for all food. It can't be forced without consequences. I fear that Big Ag is forcing that very scenario.

Jean said...

Incorporate farming aspects into children's education starting before preschool. I'm a farm girl aka town wife. My 3 yo daughter already know some of most basic food/farm aspects. She knows she's eating chicken, what chicken look like on a farm, milk comes from mama animals (including myself!), eggs from chicken... more complex aspects will come along with time.

HAHAHA!! I just asked dd "where egg come from" point blankly, without any DVD or picture help. Her first reply? "ROOSTER" That tells me I need to work more on this, especially while cooking!

"What do I want them to know"? GO LIVE ON A FARM FOR A YEAR! Wishful thinking, huh?

Anonymous said...

I think one big misconception that should be addressed is livestock producers care for their animals.

Peta and alot of other folk's propaganda would have people believe that livestock producers derive thrills from neglecting and abusing their animals.

While there are a lot of folks who abuse animals, abusers are seldom the farmers who makes their living from those same animals. Most livestock producers I know that stick with it for any length of time, have great respect and love for their animals. In fact, some are almost borderline psychotic in that regard!!!! :)

For instance, my wife can't remember anyone's name at a church we've been attending for 6 months, but she knows the number, pedigree, and calving history of 60 cows on her dad's farm.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to double post, but Yeoman did it, so I will too.:)

I was just making some pre-compost after lunch and read this quote in the Contrary farmer. Logsdon writes: "It seems to me that the garden is the only practical way for societies to come in close contact with the basic realities of life, and if that contact is not close, it is not meaningful at all." then later "I know of only two ways to move humans to become vitally interested in the very substance of life: By fascination or by starvation. Surely fascination is the better choice. Being thus entertained in the garden, urban and rural society would join hands in the preservation of nature and turn the earth into a garden of Eden."

Though I disagree with Logsdon's belief that we can achieve a pre-fall Eden (as evidenced by the above statement and his stated proclivity towards gardening in the buff), I do think he's onto something.

You can tell people all day long about the value of farming and the farmer's labor of love...but no one will get it until they do it or at least have their bellies rumble a bit cause no one else is doing it.


Yeoman said...

"So, since I'm in the midst of reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and am in the middle of the section where Mr. Pollan spends a week at Polyface Farm I have had one question that keeps running through my mind."

Joel Salatin again.

I'm not sure what to make of Salatin. I recently read about 1/3d of his book You Can Farm. I liked it, mostly. I quit reading it as a lot of the advice wasn't purely applicable to my situation. There's no local market here, there's no other crop other than beef I can really raise, etc.

Anyhow, I like part of what Salatin writes.

On the other hand, he's sort of snobbish, or in your face, or something, about it. There's something about a shrill writer that makes me want to think twice about what they write, and discount it a bit.

And I really think that Salatin greatly discounts the fact that his parent established him on a farm. He wants to suggest, it seems to me, that this is irrelevant, or mostly so, but it isn't. His position on that is almost like what I'd be hearing from the Ford family if they told me that "hey, anyone can start a car company with hard work and sacrifice." Yeah. . .right.

And then there's. . .something. I just don't know what it is. I agree with a lot of what I read of his, but there's something about him. I love reading Wendell Berry (who is saying the same things) and I like reading Gene Logsdon. But their writing seems more informed somehow.

Does anyone else have these feelings about Salatin?

Steven said...

Oh my gosh, Yeomen, do you realize who you're questioning?
:-) I'm just kidding. I agree that it's hard to get over the fact that Salatin inherited his land, and his "farm business" but he's got alot of very valuable advice and experience. I attended two of his talks this fall at a conference here in Missouri and I was really umm... fulfilled as opposed to being let down by the depth or real world knowledge. In one talk about how to keep your kids on the farm and in farming he told about how he got his farm. He said that when he was about 18 and expressed an interest in running it his dad stopped buying the "stuff" that makes it run. If the tractor needed a repair or a gate had to be purchase, etc. etc. his dad left it up to him. Yes, he was still given alot of land, but it's interesting to hear how the transition happened. It also may be of interest to know that his operation rents 3 or 4 other farms and has poultry on one of those already so he is able to make his business model work on rented land also.

And... you may not desire to but I would imagine that you could raise hogs or poultry similar to the way that he does. I have a hard time believing that a population large enough to support a lawyer wouldn't have a customer base for a pasture based farm.

Rich said...

Isn't the fact that Salatin and his farm is featured in a number of recent books and articles a larger factor in his success than whether or not he inherited his farm?

It seems like his cattle operation exploded after "The Omnivore's Dilemma" came out. Would that have happened without the book and the "advertising" associated with it?

Of course, he has alot of good ideas, but I think many of them are simply old ideas that he has altered and adapted to his specific farming situation. A farmer should study his ideas and then adapt them to their specific conditions instead of using them without question or change regardless of the differing conditions on their own farm.

The unquestioning adoption of his techniques and ideas by his "followers" is one of the reasons he seems slightly irritating or snobbish.

Steven said...

I doubt that without all the attention he would have so many people wanting to be apprentices, and probably not as many customers, who knows about the "local" fast food customer. But, we should remember that he does stick to a local area so for every 1000 people that read about him from Pollan's book there's probably only 1 person that's close enough to buy from him.

If we're talking about his speaking and book business, that's another issue. All the attention has surely helped him out there.

I think his #1 cause is to tell people that they can grow food and sell it at a profit and then encourage them to tweak his ideas and others to work for them.

When I saw him speak there was a problem with his slide show so while they worked on his computer he had us go around the room and have everyone say where they were from and what their farm operation consisted of. It was really awesome to hear the variety of farms, market gardens, etc. that were represented. Some people had 12 chickens in the backyard and one guy had a few thousand egg layers on pasture. Some had 2 steers and a few sows and others had many cows. There were also people that sold ducks for meat, honey, veggies, persimmon pulp.
One young man had hogs, a couple steers, hens, broilers, turkeys, etc. on 20 acres and was going to return to working construction for a couple months during the winter before going back to farming full time. This was his first year at the new farm, he is 32 and him and his wife are determined. :-) Sounds familiar.

Yeoman said...

Thanks for the interesting replies on Salatin. I posted a similar comment on the Wendell Berry list, and one of the fellows there actually knew him quite well. It was quite illuminating.

I think the thing that actually probably bothers me about Salatin is simply his writing style. I think I probably agree with the gist of what he's saying (to the extent that I've read it), but his writing style bothers me. It comes across as excessively confrontational, in a way, where as Logsdon, Berry and Cochrane do not. But maybe that's part of the reason he's received so much attention saying things that Berry has been saying for a lot longer, and Cochrane longer than that.

On Steven's notation about chickens here, I don't know much about chickens. I'm afraid that with pastured chickens, a person would have to live out in the pasture with them, as there's so many coyotes here. I have thought that quail might be a nice addition, as some folks here set them out for bird hunters (I stick to the native birds myself, which quail here are not), and make a fair amount doing that on the side, and I suppose chickens in the yard would probably do okay.

Rich said...

"...I have thought that quail might be a nice addition, as some folks here set them out for bird hunters..."

In the past, I had a couple of bird dogs and had the thought of raising a few bobwhite quail to release on the farm to increase the native quail populations.

While researching that subject, I found some information about raising chukars for bird dog training, preserve hunting, and the game bird meat market.

Chukars were supposed to be hardier and easier to raise than quail or pheasants, had less wildlife department regulations and hassles, and produced a reasonably sized amount of meat.

I'm not sure if a market for chukars would exist in many areas of the country, but I remember thinking that you could raise them similar to chickens.(in some sort of movable chicken tractor type system)

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