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!