by Troy Bishopp, the Grass Whisperer
At a Toastmasters International meeting I heard this rather simple expression, “I like oxygen, you like oxygen” by a young man describing the lowest form of agreement among people desperately trying to build consensus within a group. He also said, “Admitting there is a problem is the first sign of recovery.”
These catchphrases compelled me to attend a New York Farm Bureau farm animal welfare conference titled: Taking Care of Farm Animals and Your Business, put on by the legal department. I was thinking that if we (society as a whole) could just agree to liking air, could we then start some meaningful discussion about our animal production practices and stop bashing each other?
I am personally wrestling with an America that has questioned her most trusted friend, the farmer, about animal welfare and food production. Aren’t the farmer and animal husbandry synonymous? I’m equally puzzled by an agriculture that feels compelled to ramp up outreach about how we care for our animals in a vertically-integrated production system, while blaming consumers and animal welfare advocates for the increased scrutiny on how their food is produced and putting restrictions on reporting abuse.
Can there be any middle ground for me who, like Dr. Temple Grandin, tries to do the right thing by his stock, which may include eating them? My friend Shannon Hayes covers this topic very well in this piece, (www.shannonhayes.org/can-we-eat-meat-in-an-ecological-and-economic-crisis-yes/).
The HSUS is blaming, environmentalists are blaming, agribusiness is blaming, farm organizations are blaming and I’m trying to dodge the arrows. I see both sides; true or false, fact or fiction, perception or reality. In fact, I have experienced the guilt of being on the edge of this teetering animal agricultural system. I have also been accosted because I do farm with animals and not vegetables, which is a whole other topic.
My passion to respect nature and people is challenging me to figure out where I stand when I agree and disagree with the Animal Welfare Institute and I agree and disagree with Farm Bureau. If I choose one camp over another, I’m labeled a zealot or worse an “activist” and could be shunned by the community I serve. Is there a happy medium for me, and where is it, when you have over 300 million consumers to feed with 2 percent of us farming?
While all the factions bash the daylights out of each other, another storm is brewing that threatens us even more.
Out of all the material presented, NYFB Public Affairs Manager, Steve Ammerman put up a power-point slide that “kicked me like a bull”. It revealed in a 2013 Gallup Poll about agriculture, (www.gallup.com/poll/164093/images-banking-real-estate-making-comeback.) that only 60 percent of our population likes us. And here’s the “ah-ha” moment, 21 percent were “undecided” and 18 percent were negative. It was sad to see the computer industry with the highest score. Who eats one of those??
The thought of people negative or undecided about farming consumed me because it was across all genres of agriculture. Why didn’t this top the news? I can see the confused anchor reading the teleprompter, “Trending now, people die because they’re undecided about eating.” In my view, we are in a world of hurt if 40 percent of our friends are questioning the way we farm. How will we change this dynamic?
I can honestly say the positive change we need is NOT arriving at a farm animal welfare conference and having a police officer packing heat as you entered the room amongst the whiff of New York State apples and coffee brewing.
As a farmer who works long days under all sorts of conditions, I was actually put off by needing protection and cowering to the fear of folks willing to demonstrate against farm animal abuse. Walking through the doors I had a moment: Why are we here? Shouldn’t animal welfare and good farming be a rite of passage? And I wondered why my grandparents never needed to attend a meeting like this.
The speakers had a goal to educate us livestock farmers about the real risks posed by animal activism and provide an array of useful tools to protect our farms. I heard more legalese than I cared for. They talked about farm FOIA request (freedom of information act) lawsuits against PETA and EPA, hiring practices, minimum care standards, tactics used by animal rights extremists against farms and the importance of surveillance, communication and crisis management. It was fine information but hardly earth-shattering to me.
Animal Agriculture Alliance’s President and CEO, Kay Johnson Smith stepped up to the microphone and talked about improving communication in the realm of animal agriculture. For me, it went a little dark as she described the animal welfare so-called baddies (HSUS’s Wayne Pacelle, Josh Balk, Paul Shapiro and the Nebraska Farmer’s Union among others). I was waiting for her to drop the ball on my Nebraskan, grass-farmer bro, Kevin Fulton who has become an outspoken “activist” in his own right.
I guess what bothered me most was all the denigration, and focusing on playing defense which took time away from all the good points she made. It also didn’t seem balanced or transparent to me not having all the factions interested in animal husbandry at the table because we have 40 percent of those pesky neighbors concerned. And you gotta remember, farmers want to farm, not get involved in doing media after all the chores are done. Plus there is an under-funded, paltry media training program for agriculture as a whole to give us the tools to really reach out to the consumer. Remember Tom Vilsack’s “relevant” farmer adage?
With the conference over, I’m still torn as planes fly over and stealthy photographers catch the images of animal cruelty. How does a lens perceive my farm at any given time?
This contemplation comes atop our hill in a driving, cold, November rain as I move a herd of organic dairy heifers to a fresh break of stockpiled pasture. I wonder if people think I’m cruel for having animals out in the weather with only woods for shelter, (having friends been called into the authorities for just this situation). With me surrounded by these warm, happy bovines, I couldn’t help but look across the valley and see the lights from barns where other farmers and their animals were working together to feed a community.
Was it wrong to keep the animals outside while other cows were confined inside on deep bedding and mattresses, cared for tirelessly by another compassionate farmer? It’s just another example of different local systems on diverse family farms.
I think after 100 years of food production it’s time for some serious dialogue between all parties of this nation, from consumers and conservation professionals to farmers and elected officials, and even the small voices of the next generation. My children and grandchildren deserve meaningful discussion of all food issues without playing the blame game. Admit it. We created this system of cheap food burning up precious natural resources and human capital while treating our animals as pawns. Admit that we adopted flawed strategies based on what we knew at the time. Admit that we passed policies that led to our now strained relationships. And admit we need to change together, however painful it might be.
So here I sit as the bucolic, grass farmer with roots 5 generations deep and a NYS Century Farm Award blessed by the governor on the shelf, looking at a country that needs at least 50,000 more family farmers to meet any new long-term food production paradigms.
What will our future food supply look like? Will I be able to farm in a way that is consistent with my local resources? If I abide by listening to my consumers, will they stop at the farm and buy or will they drive by for a cheaper alternative under the guise of ambiguity? And if that is the case, how will my children be able to sustain a farm and a local community?
I believe it’s time to mend and meet over some fences to gain our customer’s confidence and respect the farm animals for the role they play. But the dialogue has to start with: I like oxygen, do you like oxygen?