Wednesday, April 11, 2012

'Big Agriculture' vs. 'Big Education'

The other night I took the time to watch the film “Food Inc.”  Coming from a farming background, I had heard of the movie since its release, but all I really knew was ‘it shines modern agricultural practices in a bad light.’  Surprise, surprise-- another documentary with all the same rare, worst case scenario videos used over the last 5 years* But, what I had not heard from others was the phrase that is synonymous with other documentaries of the sort—‘it falsely depicts the agricultural industries.’  So I figured this documentary might touch on some issues that those of us in agriculture don’t necessarily agree with.  Read on and see what my reaction was.

Many people have a hard time relating to agriculture, rightly so—only 2% of the United States population is involved with the actual production aspect of the ag.   And, agriculture is very much a specific industry that cannot be easily compared to another.   As a member of a family dairy farming business, I often find it hard to relate what I do to friends and the general public.  But, after watching “Food Inc.” and spending a good bit of time thinking about the image that is created, I think I have found an area to compare the progression of agriculture in the last 100 years to—and that is the public school system.  Now as I work through this comparison, follow along, as it is a building process. 

As "Food Inc." depicts, the size of farming operations have increase significantly.  Yet, in the same amount of time, the equivalent can be said about public schools.  In both cases, we have taken animals that were in smaller barns, or on pastures, and children that went to one room school houses, and have built larger facilities for the integration of more units.  

Now to draw a larger picture, we all know that smaller farms and school districts still exist—for apparent reasons, such as where they are located and community dynamics.  They offer many idyllic qualities that are important, but also cost more to operate and lack some production and educational opportunities.  

So what are the real positives and negatives—of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) and large school districts?  Efficiencies of scale relate-able to both: transportation, labor, heating and maintenance costs (just to name a few) are spread over larger numbers of children (and likewise over larger numbers of animals).  In education—nutrition programs, health services, curriculum, testing procedures, and extra-curricular activities can be consistently regulated.  The same can be said for CAFOs—consistent feeding practices, animal handling, chore procedures (say milking on dairy farms), veterinary care, etc.  Efficiencies of scale can reduce the rise of our school taxes and food costs. 

Many will argue that there are several more negatives to CAFOs than our current public school system, and maybe there are, but let’s look at a few things first before we judge.  Many will say that we, as farmers—push our animals too much.  It is a fact that in the last 50 years, farmers have been able to selectively breed and feed their animals (and crops) to produce more output—4 times as much milk per cow,  nearly twice the rate of growth for a chicken, impressive gains in bushels per acre of corn, etc.  But have we not expected more out of our children?  For comparison, my grandmother didn’t start school until she was 7 years old, and she started in 1st grade.  Today, children are at the very least expected to be enrolled in Kindergarten by the age of 5, and many start their education by the time they are 4 in Pre-K, or even academically aggressive daycare at 3.  Correct me here if I am wrong, but haven’t we cut the amount of time our children have between birth and their start to an official education nearly in half?  Has society not also changed their views on early childhood development?   To point out, studies have shown that young children grasp language development the best out of all age groups.  Wouldn’t you call that ‘living up to your potential?’  This is exactly what animal producers have been doing with their livestock—providing them the best possible environment to live up to their genetic potential.  With solid, rounded childhood experiences, and in the case of food animal production — superior animal husbandry techniques—our children and livestock have time and time again responded positively to society's benefit.    

An additional topic that was brought up in “Food Inc.” centered on the increasing amount of private company funding in agricultural research; and a lack of public sector funding.   The movie scrutinized the intentions of the private sector.  Yet, why do you think the public sector research funding has dropped off?  Budget cuts!  The same reason our extracurricular programs are under siege in our public schools.  So who is left to help fill the budget shortfalls?  The local companies and community members that have a direct stake in the success of their school system* Agricultural companies also have a stake in the success of their customers and the health of their communities.     

With such a small percentage of the United States population working in production agriculture, it is becoming increasingly harder (and frankly, frustrating!) for farmers to relate to their consumers.  But, a huge majority of us deal with the public school system—thus why I tried to relate the two!  Feel free to respectfully comment on this blog and continue the conversation!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Did You Know...

This blog is entirely devoted to facts about agriculture in New York and the United States.  The purpose is to illustrate the impact agriculture has on our economies and food system.

  • “If the number of farms and level of productivity remained constant since1950, there would be no food for anyone in the following states – California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia” (the nine most populous U.S. states representing 151 million people). (Speer, 2011)
  • There are roughly 619,000 dairy cows in New York State, and each cow contributes $13,700 to the state’s economy annually—that works out to an $8.48 BILLION contribution. Also, each dollar spent on dairy generates another $2.50 locally.  (New York Dairy Impact Quick Statistics)
  • New York’s has 5,400 farms that produce 12.4 billion pounds of milk.  The average farm size has 113 cows, producing 20,071 pounds of milk per year. (New York Dairy Impact Quick Statistics)
  • “About 25 percent of the state’s land area, or 7.55 million acres, are used by the 35,600 farms to produce a very diverse array of food products.”  (Ag Facts, 2011) 
  • “Today dairy farmers, dairy processors, milk delivery companies and local retailers are all working together to reduce the carbon footprint of fluid milk by 25 percent by 2020 — equivalent to taking more than 1.5 million passenger cars off the road every year.”   (Capper, et al., 2009)
  • “According to a Cornell University study, dairy farmers have already reduced their carbon footprint by more than 63 percent from 1944-2007 due to production efficiencies, cow nutrition, cow comfort and other improvements.” (Capper, et al., 2009)


Ag Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2011, from Department of Agriculture and Markets:   

Capper JL, Cady RA and Bauman DE. Journal of American Science. Published online March 13, 2009.)

NY Dairy Impact Quick Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2011, from New York Animal Agriculture Coalition:

Speer, N. C. (2011, April 23). Agriculture A Victim of Its Own Success . Retrieved April 27 , 2011, from Feedstuffs FoodLink : 37664CA3C&nm=Blog&type=Blog&mod=View+Topic&mid=67D6564029914AD3B2            04AD35D8F5F780&tier=7&id=4629E115C53E431EA83A33F534B66F38

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

AgaPolluza—Speaking Up in the Dairy Industry

This Saturday, April 30, 2011, The Morrisville State College Dairy Club is hosting AgaPolluza—an interactive tour of the college’s dairy facility.  Their goal is to introduce their side of the story, representing dairy producers across the state, and the nation.  So often many organizations that have no ties to agriculture take it upon themselves to tell the general public about what happens on dairy farms.  Often, they stage and conduct undercover work on operations that are unaccepted by the dairy industry and thus paint a false picture of agriculture.  This weekend, the Dairy Club is stepping up and going on the offensive—they are opening the door for the public to see first-hand what takes place on a dairy farm.  The event is objective and illustrates transparency.   

Today there are fewer people than ever that are directly responsible for the production of our food, though many jobs are related to and supported by the agricultural economy. There are roughly 619,000 dairy cows in New York State, and each cow contributes $13,700 to the state’s economy annually—that works out to an $8,480,300,000 contribution.  Also, each dollar spent on dairy generates another $2.50 locally.     (NY Dairy Impact Quick Statistics)        

NY Dairy Impact Quick Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2011, from New York Animal Agriculture Coalition:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Changing Family [Farm]

When I first look at online definitions of what characterizes a family farm, I am a little exasperated.  Wikipedia provides theirs and the United States Legal Definition, both seen below.
A family farm is a farm owned and operated by a family, and often passed down from generation to generation. It is the basic unit of the mostly agricultural economy of much of human history and continues to be so in developing nations. Alternatives to family farms include those run by agribusiness, colloquially known as factory farms, or by collective farming.
As defined by USDA regulations related to farm loan programs (e.g. those administered by the Farm Service Agency), a family farm is a farm that
  1. Produces agricultural commodities for sale in such quantities so as to be recognized in the community as a farm and not a rural residence;
  2. Produces enough income (including off-farm employment) to pay family and farm operating expenses, pay debts, and maintain the property;
  3. Is managed by the operator;
  4. Has a substantial amount of labor provided by the operator and the operator’s family; and
  5. May use seasonal labor during peak periods and a reasonable amount of full-time hired labor.
(For exact language, see 7 U.S.C. 1941.4, 1943.4).         (Wikipedia, 2011)

Interestingly enough, Wikipedia covers the perceptions of the family farm and offers some thought-provoking and accurate insight that I have touched on before in my college courses and independently.  I think it is safe to say that, in general, we perceive a “family farm” as one based on the idyllic, often distorted 1950s America—with the “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy” fa├žade.  Well, as much as that is NOT the typical family structure today, family farms have seen a drastic image change, too.  (Technological advancement impacting both)  In many ways, Agriculture is just as mysterious as today’s American family.  The progression of time, events, social norms, deteriorating morale behavior (seen everywhere mind you) and economic influences have changed the family farm from what it was in its “hay day.”  The hay day of Guernsey cows, booming county fairs, affluent “cooperatives” and such is past us, but remnants of that can still be found (and in terms of counting up total remaining farm operations, a substantial percentage), and is still used to market products to consumers.  But that doesn’t mean there is any less ‘family’ in farming today—the structure and face has just changed—progressed with the demands of livelihood (business) survival.        

Yet, the evidence is overwhelming, even here in New York State—there are areas, even certain familiar stretches of highway that used to be littered with small farming operations and dairy cows.  Today they are lonely, desolate stretches of road with vanishing barns and fields growing up in thicket.  Like a family photo album you dust off from being in the attack, you can pass by these vacant farms and see the past, the memories, the “hay days”—a lost nostalgia.  And as sad as it is for agriculture, we can see this all across the country, any country for that matter.  The front street shops of small towns, the small white country churches, and happily, once-married couples with 2 children, can still be found, but like the idyllic family farm—become rarer with each passing year.  We cannot hold onto to the “good old days” forever, and if you think for a minute, each generation’s idea of the latter is different, right?  

Fortunately, the publicity given to the ‘demise of the family farm’ has made us cognoscente of our changing rural landscape, just as our high divorce rates and other social issues have pointed out our deteriorating moral fabric.   


Wikipedia. (2011, March 11). Family farm. Retrieved April 16 , 2011, from Wikipedia :   

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Transparency and Shared Values

Back two months ago, Oprah Winfrey had a show devoted to the "vegan challenge” she presented to her staff members, daring them to abstain from eating animal-derived foods for one week.  At the same time, for the show, reporter Lisa Ling traveled to Fort Morgan, Colorado, to tour the Cargill beef processing plant with General Manager Nicole Johnson-Hoffman.  What many in the agriculture background feared to be another strike against our livelihoods, turned out to be a beautiful, object piece of consumer education. 

So many times, farmers—which are food producers, are attacked by those that come from completely different sectors of society, and assume that we treat animals purely as money generating units. It is true, we look at them as a means of revenue (our livelihoods), but we are still ethical people that treat life with respect and humanly care for our animals as long as they are in our care.

To illustrate this point even more, Cargill’s Director of Communications, Mike Martin, and Nicole Johnson-Hoffman were present at the episodes filming to talk about the part they played in the “vegan challenge.”  When discussing beef industry issues, Johnson-Hoffman did an excellent job conveying our position as farmers and food producers to Oprah’s viewers.

“When [Michael] Pollan attempted to give credit to the vegan lobby rather than the meat industry for investing in animal well-being, Johnson-Hoffman warmly replied, "That's a great example of how all of us who care about food and animals worked together to do a better job."[…Also] When Ling asked about ground beef processing, Johnson-Hoffman concluded her explanation with a stellar line: "Then, we make it into the hamburgers my kids eat for dinner."”  (Vance, 2011)

The product of objectivity was greatly appreciated by farmers and beef producers throughout the industry--it showed transparency and our shared values to consumers.  And it showed us that media involvement CAN work to our benefit with objective reporters and news people.  The fact that such a large target for scrutiny, Cargill, welcomed the interview and plant tour with Lisa Ling, set a stronger example to farmers and food producers everywhere that our work IS worth presenting to others, and our fear of the media is futile.             


Vance, A. (2011, Feb 13). Take on PR rock star status . Retrieved April 7 , 2011, from Feedstuffs FoodLink: