Friday, June 19, 2009

Twitter Chat on Food Inc

Following a lengthy discussion with many individuals, from all aspects and opinions, while changing water on the ranch, I was struck by the following epiphany.

Individuals that believe Food Inc is an accurate portrayal of “all” modern agriculture in the United States are perhaps the individuals that brought us to this point of discontent.

It seems that the biggest concern that these individuals have is with “big agriculture,” “industrial farms”, and “factory farming.” These terms were heavily used as the description of today’s production agriculture. So I pose the following question: How did we end up with these non-family owned corporations in the first place?

Certainly, there are some issues that need to be addressed regarding “non-family owned corporate agriculture.” We in the beef industry have been struggling for years, with the consolidation of feeders and packers and the impact felt in the market place due to their actions. Understandably, similar challenges exist in the poultry, pork and dairy industries as well. However, I propose that it is because of the actions of the suburban and urban population that we have arrived at our current destination. Whether or not is our final destination is yet to be seen.

Urban sprawl is continuing to encroach, surround and swallow productive land and is forcing the small farmer and rancher to sell their land. Complaints about noise at night, noise during the day, tractors and cows on the highway, odor, dust and other aspects of farming and ranching have resulted in ordinances and legislation that place restrictions on agriculture that financially force the small farmer and rancher to sell. The “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) attitude has forced family owned feedlots, dairies, hog and poultry farms, slaughter houses, and rendering facilities to close up, never to reopen.

This has resulted in larger dairy, swine and poultry farms, and fewer, but larger, feedlots, slaughter houses and rendering facilities, located predominately in the mid west. Small farmers and ranchers and related businesses that once were rural did not have the resources to survive the fight against urban sprawl, and those that were located farther from the major population areas were able to grow, due to a reduction in competition, but continuing increase in supply .

Today, those non-family owned corporations rely on the family farms and ranches for their product and the family farms and ranches rely on them for a market. Is it a system that we like, not always, but it was not a system created by family farmers and ranchers. It was created by the consumer. However, the struggle continues. Family farms and ranches continue to be threatened by new legislative regulations, and new agency permitting programs pertaining to the environment and animal welfare, brought about by activists focused on a few “bad apples”, the minority, and economically devastating the majority. Without major change, we are headed to even larger agri-business and more consolidation, exactly what the Food Inc supporters do not want.

Additionally, these corporations are often criticized for “monopolizing” technology that they create. What is not admitted, or realized, is that the typical family farm and ranch does not have the time, money or resources to devote to innovation and technology development, and that without these corporations, much of the progress we have seen in efficiency and yield would not exist, and likely, we would be a net food importer instead of an exporter. Further, it is these corporations that so generously support FFA and 4-H programs and agriculture programs at universities and community colleges. Without their financial support, most of these programs would not have the success that they currently have, let alone exist.

It is time to face the facts. While local grown is a wonderful idea, it is far from practical to feed a country, let alone the world. Common sense tells us that New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, etc., will never be able to sustain their food needs by buying local. Can it be done in rural areas? Certainly, however, unless the plethora of permits, regulations and legislation are curbed, that too will soon be a memory. Society needs to allow the affordable construction of new slaughter houses, rendering facilities and packing houses. Society needs to place the value of the human being above species and allow family farmers and ranchers to stay in business, enhance the environment and continue to serve as the carbon basin for the general population.

Movies such as Food Inc., directed at the urban consumers, that paint agriculture with generalizations, misinformation, and emotionally driven propaganda, will only exacerbate the “problem” that they are trying to solve.

Ironic, in my humble opinion, that the “enemy” which they are fighting, was ultimately created by themselves.

"Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother's eye."

Mathew 7, verses 1-5

6 comments:

  1. Jeff,

    Thanks for bringing this to the forefront. When I continue to hear people want their food from "sustainable" operations, the first thing I think is economically stable. If an operation cannot afford to take the highs and lows of a market, it won't be in busy long to feed anyone! People should take the movie with the whole shaker of salt.

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  2. Jeff, you make some good points but I think you are missing a giant opportunity here. Movies like Food, Inc. may not get everything right but they awaken millions of people to problems that have existed for decades in our agricultural system. Farmers are always complaining about their lack of public support, and lack of public knowledge, but when you are met with millions of newly curious people hungry for more information you bat them away condescendingly. Your tweets yesterday were angry and unhelpful - why don't farmers take the opportunity to educate the newly curious instead of driving them away with us v. them rhetoric? By insisting that only farmers have the right to weigh in on food issues you miss a great opportunity to convert people to your cause, while also diluting your public relations effectiveness long term.

    From your post above it seems you recognize that corporate agriculture has aspects that hurt farmers' profits. They also hurt consumer health, and unless you grow everything you eat those consumers include you, your friends and your family. There are serious problems with our nations' food and agricultural system, and pretending they are not there only hurts your credibility and your cause. You have an opportunity here, if you can stop taking everything so personally and focus on what is really important. Because as long as farmers and foodies fight each other and focus on the "blame game" everyone will lose.

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  3. Good post Jeff. It's always amazing to me that when family farmers like us stand up and try to tell the truth that we are accused of being combative and condescending to consumers. On the contrary, I always have an open invitation for people to tour, not just our place, but I can organize tours on several types of farms. We encourage consumers to learn about agriculture from those that live it everyday, not Hollywood directors.

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  4. Dear Anonymous,

    It's too bad that you don't use your real name, I prefer to know who I am speaking to. You are certainly entitled to your opinion, however, I was far from angry in the chat yesterday, rather invigorated by healthy discussion. It saddens me that you gained nothing from my input.

    I believe Troy is correct. Too many people interpret real family farmers and ranchers input as being combative. We only share what we know,and what we have learned through years of schooling and practicing what we have learned.

    Do we take incorrect statements and spreading of misinformation personally? Some of us do. I have been hearing it for over 30 years. What activists are trying to accomplish threatens my ability to feed my family and my ability to leave my ranch to my son. It threatens to weaken our ability to provide our country with the cheapest, healthiest and safest food supply in the world. It threatens to weaken our national security.

    Is agriculture perfect? By no means. But you need to realize that those in agriculture are by nature, independent and self sufficient. We do not take kindly to agencies dicatating to us how to manage our private land. We do not take kindly to state and federal government passing legislation, written by individuals with little to no practical industry experience that dictates how and what to do on private land and or threatens our ability to leave land that has been in the family for generations to the next.

    I am not angry by any means. I am frustrated, saddened and have a true desire to try and reach the general population and share our story. At less than 2% of the population, we are truly a minority that is often forgotten and overlooked. And, when we do come to light, it is usually a single incident that gets played over prime time television, across the country, without a balanced discussion, resulting in public opinion assuming that is how all agriculture is.

    I appreciate your comments and encourage you to contact me directly to further discuss the issues.

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  5. My apologies Jeff, I did not realize I had posted anonymously until you pointed it out ... and since I am still getting errors when I try to post under my name, I will just contact you directly as you encouraged.

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About Me

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Jeff Fowle is a fourth generation family farmer and rancher from Etna, California. He and his wife Erin and son Kyle raise registered Angus cattle, Percheron draft horses, warmbloods, alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay. They also start and train horses for riding, jumping, and driving. Their family run ranch has incorporated many environmentally beneficial and water efficient technologies and management strategies. Jeff attended college at Colorado State University for two years and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for four and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science. Following college, he worked in Washington State for a year as a herdsman for BB Cattle Company and then returned to Etna, California in 1995 to own and operate KK Bar Ranch and Siskiyou Percherons. The latter was started by his grandfather, Clarence Dudley, who devoted much of his time to the Percheron Horse Association of America, specifically to developing their youth education program.