Friday, July 31, 2009

Excellent, Excellent Essay By Missouri Farmer

I highly encourage everyone to read this superb essay written by a Missouri farmer in response to critics of modern agriculture.

I really do like this essay. The arguments are clever, simple, honest, and precise. The author is also a very talented writer.

I would like to add a few comments to the essay.

But now we have to listen to self-appointed experts on airplanes frightening their seatmates about the profession I have practiced for more than 30 years. I’d had enough. I turned around and politely told the lecturer that he ought not believe everything he reads. He quieted and asked me what kind of farming I do. I told him, and when he asked if I used organic farming, I said no, and left it at that. I didn’t answer with the first thought that came to mind, which is simply this: I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand.

The farmer is absolutely correct that people are superstitious, and this superstition does drive niche markets like the organic market. However, I am afraid there is little you can do about this. Despite our rational, scientific world most people still believes in an imaginary people who love you but will also send you to hell if you profess certain beliefs, most people still believe in angels, and most people still believe in ghosts. Agriculture needs to know that in a world of imperfect information and superstition, everything farmers do sends a signal about its character. Using hormones in beef is perfectly safe and has many advantages, but to uninformed, superstitious people it conjures the image of a greedy corporation who will poison the masses for a few dollars.

Agriculture must also deal with the fact that some individuals will exploit this superstition to sell books. People will believe anything, and using certain technologies that are harmless but "sound bad" gives people like Michael Pollan ammunition to mislead gullible readers for book sales (and now movie tickets).

Lynn Niemann was a neighbor of my family’s, a farmer with a vision. He began raising turkeys on a field near his house around 1956. They were, I suppose, what we would now call “free range” turkeys. Turkeys raised in a natural manner, with no roof over their heads, just gamboling around in the pasture, as God surely intended. Free to eat grasshoppers, and grass, and scratch for grubs and worms. And also free to serve as prey for weasels, who kill turkeys by slitting their necks and practicing exsanguination. Weasels were a problem, but not as much a threat as one of our typically violent early summer thunderstorms. It seems that turkeys, at least young ones, are not smart enough to come in out of the rain, and will stand outside in a downpour, with beaks open and eyes skyward, until they drown. One night Niemann lost 4,000 turkeys to drowning, along with his dream, and his farm.

Now, turkeys are raised in large open sheds. Chickens and turkeys raised for meat are not grown in cages. As the critics of "industrial farming" like to point out, the sheds get quite crowded by the time Thanksgiving rolls around and the turkeys are fully grown. And yes, the birds are bedded in sawdust, so the turkeys do walk around in their own waste. Although the turkeys don't seem to mind, this quite clearly disgusts the various authors I've read whom have actually visited a turkey farm. But none of those authors, whose descriptions of the horrors of modern poultry production have a certain sameness, were there when Neimann picked up those 4,000 dead turkeys. Sheds are expensive, and it was easier to raise turkeys in open, inexpensive pastures. But that type of production really was hard on the turkeys. Protected from the weather and predators, today's turkeys may not be aware that they are a part of a morally reprehensible system.

This is interesting information, and relevant, but no one is saying that high animal welfare standards should be achieved by leaving animals outside in pasture with no shelter and with no management. Animal advocacy groups are pressuring farmers to provide shelter with opportunities to behave naturally and shelter with reasonable space requirements. We do not have to choose between a factory farm and throwing animals out into the wild. There are thousands of reasonable balances between allowing animals to act naturally and acting on behalf of the animals' best interest.

Like most young people in my part of the world, I was a 4-H member. Raising cattle and hogs, showing them at the county fair, and then sending to slaughter those animals that we had spent the summer feeding, washing, and training. We would then tour the packing house, where our friend was hung on a rail, with his loin eye measured and his carcass evaluated. We farm kids got an early start on dulling our moral sensibilities. I'm still proud of my win in the Atchison County Carcass competition of 1969, as it is the only trophy I have ever received. We raised the hogs in a shed, or farrowing (birthing) house. On one side were eight crates of the kind that the good citizens of California have outlawed. On the other were the kind of wooden pens that our critics would have us use, where the sow could turn around, lie down, and presumably act in a natural way. Which included lying down on my 4-H project, killing several piglets, and forcing me to clean up the mess when I did my chores before school. The crates protect the piglets from their mothers. Farmers do not cage their hogs because of sadism, but because dead pigs are a drag on the profit margin, and because being crushed by your mother really is an awful way to go. As is being eaten by your mother, which I've seen sows do to newborn pigs as well.

The author is correct that farrowing crates do prevent a number of deaths compared to a system where the sow makes her own nest wherever she wishes. But again, there are compromises. Beeler Farms in Iowa use a farrowing room with crushing bars to prevent crushing. These types of rooms with special attention to selecting good mothers can prevent a large number of deaths. Moreover, even if one does elect to use farrowing crates to prevent crushing does not imply they must use gestation crates as well. Sows will spend two-thirds of her life in gestation crates, and it is these crates that elicit the most criticism.

Finally, the author does a superb job with the fertilizer issue. Quixotic agricultural crusaders are obsessed with the fertilizer issue, but though agriculture does have some environmental and animal welfare issues to tend to, there is no fertilizer issue. Commercial fertilizer is good. If you drive a car, you should support commercial fertilizer, and the fact that organic producers cannot utilize commercial fertilizer is absurd, and testifies to the organic movement's detachment from reality.