Monthly Archives: August 2011


This about sums up my Colorado life...

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Food, Inc…A critique


So, FINALLY, after years of being in the Ag world/business, I had the opportunity to watch the infamous “Food, Inc” documentary/movie that is out and popular amongst millions of Americans. There were a few major things that stuck out to me in particular as I watched. And after hearing so many stories of people who became vegetarians because of this documentary, I had some pretty high expectations. I tried very hard to go in to this viewing with an open mind. But honestly, after about 5 minutes, this video started losing my confidence–fast. Even still, I like to find the positive in things, and this documentary was no exception.

The Good:

  • The soybeans.

I have to agree that the whole idea of “owning” a seed is really problematic to Agriculture in America. I have heard many stories similar to those in the documentary of farmers losing battles with companies like Monsanto because the genetics have ended up on the farmer’s land. It is amazing to me that many of these cases are won by the big companies. Any person who has taken a basic Biology class should recall that “Tree Sperm” or seeds are spread and fertilized through a variety of methods…but almost all of them require the seeds to travel across long distances of land. Tumbleweeds, wind, birds, etc are all responsible for spreading new plants to different areas. It is absolutely impossible for neighboring farms to keep their particular strains entirely separate. It has nothing to do with being a theif and everything to do with the laws of nature. I hope that farmers and cooperations can come to an understanding and allow for everyone to exist and compete in the market. We do not allow monopolies in this country and I sure hope as we move forward in all areas of business that we enforce the right to a competitive market. I plan to do more research about the truths of this issue and I’ll get back to you.

  • The push for people to take interest in what they are eating.

Just in the last 50 years or so, America has become more removed from its sources of food. My great-uncle and great-grandparents (? or some family far in the past) had their own little farm. Not enough to avoid the grocery store altogether, but a few chickens, goats, and vegetables. Even as a younger child, every summer we grew our own vegetables and herbs (I can’t say we still do, but I hope to return to that soon). Nowadays, the thought of picking your own warm eggs or drinking milk fresh off the cow with the cream on the top is just so…old-fashioned. Or even…dirty. What I like about the “hippies” of this country, and documentaries such as Food, Inc. is the idea that maybe the “old-fashioned” had some great wisdom. They had such rich, tasty, homemade foods. “Preserves” were made yearly in recycled glass jars, and “preservatives” had not even a hint of similarity in meaning to today’s food additives. This idea of really taking the time to learn how and where food comes from is still at the very core of today’s agriculturalist/Farmer, and I do think it’s great that more and more everyday American’s are “circling back”, in a way, to become once again familiar with their nourishment.

 

  •  Urging people to demand more than just cheap prices.

I feel that there is a great push in this nation and across the globe for people to become more aware of not only what they eat, but how their lifestyle affects everything from business to the environment to international relations. As the Agricultural Revolution has continued, humanity has continued to strive for “more on less”. Let’s look at the invention of the cotton gin. This machine allowed us to produce more cotton on less labor, therefore allowing it to be sold cheaper. The result that was not necessarily foreseen, however, is the effect on required slaves. Instead of reducing the number of slaves needed by having a machine that worked quicker, it provided the opportunity to sell cotton to more of the globe. This, in turn, actually increased the number of slaves needed, to keep up with the new demand. (You can Google this phenomenon, but it is also explained here). Similarly, we have learned how to raise more meat on fewer resources. Instead of only being able to afford meat once a week, you can have meat in your diet once a meal. While this has a great opportunity to have a balanced diet of meat, fruits, vegetables, etc year-round, day or night, wealthy or poor, it also raises new concerns. Are cheap prices and “availability to all!” really the best choice for America? or the Earth? Are we willing to research whether organic or free range or [insert any food buzzword] really is better for not just the environment, but everything else too? It is hard to argue that producing more veggies and meat on less land is the wrong choice, simply because…aren’t we feeding the world?! Aren’t we saving other countries from starvation because we can produce enough food to not only provide for Americans, but for other nations in need? I believe the point is to continue researching, continue studying cause-effect, and continue improving our system so that it is well-rounded, and not just all about making food so incredibly affordable. As we [humankind] are coming to realize, no matter how ingenious we are, we will not be able to sustain and exponential expand in population. How that relatively new realization affects our decisions on Agriculture (and even decisions on human life) should be very interesting to see. Let’s not make it into a war between one side or the other. It is not environmentalist against humanitarian against farmer. It needs to be a collective decision that evaluates each concern. The world is not black and white evil vs good. It is a bunch of grey area compromises.

The Bad and the Ugly:

  • “The Farm Fantasy”.

The beginning of this film shows images used in packaging of fields and pastures, dotted with silhouettes of seemingly delighted livestock.  And then it uses the phrase “farm fantasy”, and goes on to explain how this is an untruth about Agriculture. I had to laugh out loud. How is this a fantasy? I understand their intention of pointing out that there are “factory farms”, but the existence of such things does not negate the existence of down-home lush green pastures. Do people really buy that? I mean, are there really people in suburbia or metropolitans who have not, on some drastically long and painful family road trip, passed such a beautiful farm as the ones I see daily? These “fantasy” farms absolutely do exist.

www.benzinga.com

This scenic picture is absolutely real.

Little pieces of paradise dotted around the nation. And let me share something else with you. If you’ve noticed them becoming few and farther between, you can probably blame your own neighborhood just as equally as a large company like Smithfield. Because your need (and mine, for that matter…I grew up in suburbia too you know) for a nice lawn and 3 car garage and 4 bedrooms for 2 people type of home has grown some fabulous neighborhoods. And at least in North Carolina/Virginia, many of these neighborhoods are called things like “Fairfield Farm”. Do you know why that is? Because your pretty little brick house was built by a contractor who bought out that little all-American farming family and put a row of mailboxes on what USED to be Fairfield Farm. It’s tough cookies for any small business, and that includes small farmers. There’s a buy-out price for everything, and unfortunately, that includes “fantasy” farms. But they haven’t all been bought out yet, and don’t forget that.

  • Very Talented Editing 

This is something that is in no way new to the world of journalism, sensationalism, book-writing, etc. Call it “persuasive writing”, call it whatever. The idea is to show bits of truths to create a specific effect and achieve a certain goal. While it is very successful at accomplishing the goal at hand, the viewer/reader/audience must be very careful before assuming that these bits of truths are the whole. entire. truth. As I watched Food, Inc, I noticed that I was feeling a rising sense of injustice. I kept looking over to my brother and friend and saying, “Feedlots don’t LOOK like that!” “It isn’t LIKE that!”. I didn’t mean to say “they staged all of this and nothing about it is true”. What I mean is, the way the documentary is filmed, you walk away feeling a certain way. Because I have experience in feedlots, I shall focus on that part because I can promise and give my word, 100%, that I know what I’m talking about. The movie  never REALLY go into great discussion about the overcrowding and inhumane conditions of a feedlot. But didn’t you walk away feeling that? Didn’t you think to yourself, “Ew. Look, they can’t even move. They’re like little sardines. How dreadful”. The editing was very clever. This is similar to what you saw:

Lots of cattle. Shoulder to shoulder. Barely enough space to turn around. This picture is small and not of great quality, but the point is still obvious: overcrowded and miserable. Who would want to live on one of those? How do we allow food to be grown that way? Poor cows. This is a picture of a small truth of feedlots, as shown by documentaries such as Food, Inc, that lead you to believe an untruth.

Now let’s look at the whole truth of this image:

courtesy of google image: feedlot

True, they are still on dirt. But they absolutely have the space to leave each other’s sides. They could certainly get to the feed by spreading down the bunks on that entire side of the pen, instead of bunching in that corner. They have friends (cattle are a herding species, and they naturally aggregate), they have a nice view of green, they have readily available food and water. And they definitely, definitely are not packed shoulder to shoulder. I’m sure you can see which part of the 2nd picture I cropped in order to make the first. Similarly, I’m sure Food, Inc cameramen used a close-up of the cattle to silently depict a crowded, awful cow hell. They neglected to show you images of their open surroundings. They left out the visual information that these cattle could clump and unclump on their own accord at any point in time. While the documentary claims to want to expose the whole truth to you, it really doesn’t do that, does it? It does a great job of showing you bits of the true story. It does a great job of opening your mind to the possibility that food production is not what you once thought. And now I aim to do the same. Perhaps food production is also not what you believed it to be after watching this film. Does this second image change your opinion of the first?

  • The poor mother who lost her child to a hamburger
There is an absolutely heart-wrenching and traumatic story throughout the film about a mother who loses her young son to E.Coli. She wages a war against the food industry and we watch her struggles. The film shows how unfair it is that the large company won a case, and has made it difficult for her to publicly discuss her own food choices. I absolutely agree with her that her son’s death is a tragedy and something should be done about it. What I don’t agree with is her proposed solution. If you were to witness a slaughtering, there are endless precautions taken to avoid foodborne disease. The animals are skinned in such a careful manner that it is highly unlikely for disease-carrying fecal matter from the hide to turn inside out and contaminate the meat. In this particular case, I do believe the meat was recalled after her son contracted the disease, which of course makes it a more complicated scenario. I do not mean to sound unsympathetic or cruel, but the reality is that this boy’s death was likely preventable…even with contaminated meat. It was, I’m sure, a terrible accident.
But every meat has an internal cooking temperature that destroys possible foodborne disease. These diseases (salmonella, E. Coli, etc) are largely passed to humans by consumer error. It is highly likely that either 1) the beef that the mother bought was not properly refrigerated or frozen when she took it home from the store or 2) she did not cook it to the safe 160° (each meat’s magical temperature varies). If both of these very simple but crucial items were done correctly, I am confident her son would be very alive and well.

“Any foods likely to be contaminated with pathogens should be heated to 160°F; at this temperature, most pathogens are killed very quickly. Check the temperature with a thermometer to be certain the food is fully cooked.”

You Can Prevent Foodborne Illness – [a very detailed and helpful resource released by Washington State University, Oregon State University, and University of Idaho that can be found here ]

Now of course, a large company pointing this out to a grieving mother would seem outrageous and unethical. Of course it would be enraging and devastating to hear advice on proper cooking temperatures or food safety precautions after such a horrific loss. Instead of campaigning against meat industries, I wish this mom was out promoting safe cooking. She could save a lot more lives and a lot more hospitalizations by pleading mothers, fathers, cooks of any kind, to please cook the meat thoroughly! Restaurants have the disclaimer at the bottom of every menu these days. It does not read “if we buy contaminated meat from the wrong factory, you may come down with food poisoning”. It reads “Uncooked meat is highly discouraged because it can cause foodborne illness”. And it reads this way for a very good reason.

Tofu Can Harm the Environment More Than Meat


This news article has been pasted from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article7023809.ece

Tofu can harm environment more than meat, finds WWF study

Ben Webster, Environment Editor

Becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat, according to a study of the impacts of meat substitutes such as tofu.

The findings undermine claims by vegetarians that giving up meat automatically results in lower emissions and that less land is needed to produce food.

The study by Cranfield University, commissioned by the environmental group WWF, found that many meat substitutes were produced from soy, chickpeas and lentils that were grown overseas and imported into Britain.

It found that switching from beef and lamb reared in Britain to meat substitutes would result in more foreign land being cultivated and raise the risk of forests being destroyed to create farmland. Meat substitutes also tended to be highly processed and involved energy-intensive production methods.

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 Lord Stern of Brentford, one of the world’s leading climate change economists, caused uproar among Britain’s livestock farmers last October when he claimed that a vegetarian diet was better for the planet. He told The Times: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”

However, the Cranfield study found that the environmental benefits of vegetarianism depended heavily on the type of food consumed as an alternative to meat. It concluded: “A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.”

A significant increase in vegetarianism in Britain could cause the collapse of the country’s livestock industry and result in production of meat shifting overseas to countries with few regulations to protect forests and other uncultivated land, it added.

Donal Murphy-Bokern, one of the study authors and the former farming and food science co-ordinator at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “For some people, tofu and other meat substitutes symbolise environmental friendliness but they are not necessarily the badge of merit people claim. Simply eating more bread, pasta and potatoes instead of meat is more environmentally friendly.”

Liz O’Neill, spokeswoman for the Vegetarian Society, said: “The figures used in the report are based on a number of questionable assumptions about how vegetarians balance their diet and how the food industry might respond to increased demand.

“If you’re aiming to reduce your environmental impact by going vegetarian then it’s obviously not a good idea to rely on highly processed products, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that the livestock industry causes enormous damage and that moving towards a plant-based diet is good for animals, human health and the environment.”

The National Farmers’ Union said the study showed that general statements about the environmental benefits of vegetarianism were too simplistic. Jonathan Scurlock, the NFU’s chief adviser for climate change, said: “The message is that no single option offers a panacea. The report rightly demonstrates the many environment benefits to be had from grazing pasture land with little or no other productive use.”

The study also found that previous estimates of the total emissions of Britain’s food consumption had been flawed because they failed to take account of the impact of changes to the use of land overseas.

Salad days

• About a quarter of the world’s population eat a predominantly vegetarian diet

• There are 3.7 million vegetarians in Britain

• Only 2 per cent of the French population don’t eat meat

• There is a longstanding myth that Adolf Hitler was vegetarian but recent research suggests that he ate at least some meat

Girl tries Grilling Grass-Finished Beef Burgers, Failure Ensues.


So this week I tried my hand at grass-finished ground beef. For Father’s Day my brother had the great idea of buying a box of grass-finished, Charolais freezer beef from Baldwin Beef, a farm that we pass on every road trip between my Mom inRaleigh,NC and the family lake house in Moneta,VA. For years we’ve admired the blonde cows grazing on their pastures, and talked of trying their beef. Now, we have!

While I openly support all sources of beef, our family always purchases conventionally raised products from the grocery store. Luckily, ourBaldwinbeef came with some helpful hints to cooking grass-finished super-lean products, including the necessity of using a much lower flame on the grill and longer cooking times.

So far, I’ve had 3 rounds of burgers from this box. The taste of corn-fed vs. grass-finished beef truly is different, just as everyone says. The first meal, prepared by my Dad on the charcoal grill, came out a little…heavy. The meat seemed very dense in each bite, which made it less tender and for me, less enjoyable. The second time my brother gave it a shot on the gas grill, and things turned out a little juicier and a lot better. I don’t know if he took even more time grilling than Dad had, or how the difference came about, but it was 10x better the second go-round. This week, I tried some myself. I was really surprised at how different the raw meat felt in comparison to my usual brand. I found it was more dense even in the package, with less of the stringy appearance you get in the grocery store, this was more a brick of solid gound beef. I had a hard time shaping my patty the way I wanted it to be, and it felt more…oily? Which I also found very surprising.

Now, everyone should also know that I am definitely no grill-master. I actually really hate grilling myself. I prefer enjoying the meal prepared by a grilling expert. But I do know the basics. I reduced the flame to its lowest setting and (very un-patiently) waited for the burger to look finished. I accidently cooked it medium (I prefer medium-rare), but that wasn’t so much an issue. It just wasn’t good.

 

 I really think the problem is how dense it is, as weird as that may seem. In the case of ice cream (another one of my delights), air makes up the majority of the volume. If you were to make less aerated ice cream, you’d get more bang for your buck in square inches, but it jus wouldn’t have that heavenly deliciousness. I’m thinking that the little bits of air in a burger provided by pushing together long squiggles of ground beef is the biggest difference.

Traditional "Squiggly" ground beef

Am I crazy? Has anyone else felt this way? Is my family still cooking it incorrectly? Is it even a grass-finished difference across the board, or maybe just how this farm processes and packages their individual meat?

Martha and Matilda-The Feedlot Pets


After I learned that bottle calves had been an option on the yard, I also learned that we currently had two. They are now around 400 lbs a piece, and eating on their own. When they get big enough, they will join another lot and become full-fledged members of the feedyard. I actually should have been able to pick them out much sooner, because I had been in a pen with them a few days ago. While there are many heartwarming aspects to bottle feeding a calf, there are a few negatives to bottle babies. One is that they are just plain goofy looking. They have very large barrel bellies. I asked why it was that they look so very odd, and was told that many bottle calves never really learn how to graze on feed like normal cows. They grew up being feed a bottle on human scheduling. When they graduate to real feed, they still are in the habit of gobbling up large quantities of feed at once, and then not eating until their next big, hurried meal. Some grow out of it eventually, once they watch other cows around them and realize that the food isn’t going to disappear with the feedtruck. Even if they don’t, it doesn’t seem to harm them. It just distends their bellies in a cartoonishly adorable sort of way.

One of the biggest negatives for us working on a feedlot is the fact that they do not follow normal cow rules. Just as I discussed with sick animals, any cow that doesn’t follow the Cow Rules is a royal pain in the butt. Bottle babies grew up being up-close-and-personal with humans. They are not afraid of us. They have no flight zone. And therefore, if you have to move animals like Martha and Matilda, it is nearly impossible. Walking towards them will not push them forwards. It makes them come gallivanting over to you and lick you like a puppy. While this can be very cute, it is absolutely useless when trying to work cattle. Also, after dealing with so many crazed animals that come after you with evil intentions, it can be alarming to have any 400+ lbs of animal barreling towards you.

Although they aren’t great for easy management, and the success stories of bottle babies are few and far between, I have found that the best therapy for a long, hard day is to visit pen 89 and wait for the red and black faces to come over for a head scratching. And nothing quite puts a smile on your face like a goofy, super-long tongue slobbering on your arm, or a curious nose snotting on your jacket.

I found this picture on Google, but these 2 actually quite closely resemble Martha and Matilda

Long Breds


Sometimes, for a number of reasons, we get heifers shipped to the yard that are bred and pregnant. As a feedyard, my company will preg-check all incoming heifers and then administer oxytocin and lutylase to the pregnant females in order to induce contractions. Essentially, we are causing an abortion in all pregnant females that enter the yard. When I first told my mom, she seemed a little disturbed at this idea. “Why?! Why can’t you keep them?”

pelvic area/birth canal

The truth is, there are many problems posed by pregnant females coming to a feedyard. First, most of the heifers that arrive pregnant were bred far too young. They have not grown big enough to carry a calf of a healthy weight, and they do not have wide enough hips/pelvic area to birth any sized calf easily. It is highly likely that if left alone, either heifer, calf, or both will die in labor. For another thing, feedyards are not really set up to act as cow-calf operations. We don’t really have a place for babies.  Our fences have large gaps and if a calf were to escape, they would likely be struck by one of the many trains or highway vehicles near the yard. Third, many of the heifers may not even give birth during the months they will spend at a feedlot (They may arrive with 6 months scheduled on the yard, be 3 weeks into term, and have another 2-2.5 months left of pregnancy by the time the end of their stay on the yard-and trip to slaughter-is scheduled). Since you cannot really slaughter a pregnant animal, we have to find out what to do.

The nature of a feedyard is to fatten animals to be fit & tasty for human consumption. If you feed a pregnant, or even nursing animal, it simply will not grow the way we hope for. As you cow-calf people know, pregnant and lactating cows require a much different diet because so much of their energy and resources go to providing for the offspring. Mothers often lose a significant amount of weight while nursing calves-something that is entirely counter-productive to the point of being on a feedlot. Therefore, there aren’t many great options. The company as a business cannot turn a profit if they keep pregnant females around for all of their gestation time (however long or short that may be from the time they arrive). They would also need the facilities and supplies and vaccinations and feed appropriate for raising little ones. Unfortunately, it just isn’t plausible for a feedyard to act as a maternity ward when someone mistakenly sends us a pregnant animal.

The tricky part to all of this is when a heifer is aborted late enough in her gestation that the calf is born alive. Sometimes, the calves are intensely premature when this happens, with underdeveloped hooves, no hair, and little pink bodies. There is no way for them to survive, no matter how miraculous it is that they’ve come out breathing. I find this to be the hardest part of my days. It’s heartbreaking to know that a tiny animal is fighting to stay alive when all the odds are against it living. It makes you wish it had been stillborn. It makes you wish you had the resources to BE a maternity ward and skip the abortion stage. Reality is really hard sometimes. And the circle of life is hard to accept even when you don’t have a hand in making an end come prematurely. Even for the calves who are born late in gestation and come out looking relatively “normal”, they are always undersized (about 2/3 to 1/2 the desired weight of a healthy calf). These calves may get up, nurse, and look lively, but they still face a very bleak outcome. Their mothers rarely have produced enough milk to support even a small calf. Their immune systems aren’t great, and most will slowly starve to death or die from a disease.

Before I started working on the feedyard, they had tried to save these babies despite the odds. They made a makeshift pen that housed about a dozen of these calves. They started with around 12, and ended up with 2. That’s with an intense bottle feeding regimen and lots of attention.  Not great odds. There is no substitute for a healthy, fully grown mother with plenty of milk and colostrum to provide to the young one. Unfortunately, bottle feeding these calves is also outrageously expensive and time-consuming. And since nearly all of these calves die no matter what human help they receive, the feedlot has decided (for now) that instead of taking the chances of prolonging a calf’s suffering until it slowly dies on it’s own, calves born on the yard will be euthanized.

This subject is one that I’m not really sure how to best write about because it is so difficult to accept. For everyone. There are very few people on the yard that will carry out this duty with calves. Even though there are several people who believe it is our best option, no one anywhere wants to be responsible for the death of  a baby. During one of my days in Colorado, we pulled a calf that was alive, but several deformed. His tongue was so swollen from the stressed delivery that he couldn’t breathe easily. We called in one of the few people trained to euthanize animals on the yard. Even though he knew the animal was suffering, it took him several minutes to compose himself enough to help the animal out of his pain. Even though he knew death was imminent and euthanization actually was the humane option, I assume it takes a lot of muster. Like I said, no one wants to kill a baby. During any calf euthanization that I have witnessed, the  person carrying it out walks away with a very tightly set jaw and a grave face of pain. No one likes to think about it, and no one likes to do it.

Maybe there are better solutions to be had in the future. Maybe we could refuse to buy any pregnant animals. This would be difficult, since many farmers keep their bull running with their females year-round, and therefore are unaware of when or if anything has been bred. It would also require new cattle to the feedyard to endure more tests and processing upon their first hours of arrival, which statistically leads to more sickness and death. I’m not defending the idea that abortion is the answer to a business problem, but it is important to keep in mind that food production, vegetable or animal or otherwise, IS a business. The key is to accept it as a business, and then to be innovative in improving it in years to come. Make it the best that it can be, and include all the passion and heart that we can offer it. I think all agriculturalists have come to accept that farming is not solely a tradition. There is room for technology and changing practices that help animal welfare, food safety, and economic outcome. And there are people every day that are coming up with new plans and new tactics for dealing with difficult issues such as this one. Animal welfare has come exponentially far in just the past 5 years. Farmers and ranchers have always wanted the best for their animals, and finally there are more programs and research to back that up and provide these people better options, better education for interacting with their livestock, and firmer laws to enforce them.  Let’s continue pushing forward.