When I graduated in July 2010, I wasn’t one of the lucky ones that had a job offer waiting for me. I knew I wanted to work with beef cattle. They fascinate me. They’re peaceful. They smell nicer than some livestock (and yes, this is important).
I also knew that I eventually wanted to work in Public Relations for the beef industry. It frustrated me that over the course of the last 3 years, my expanding knowledge of Agriculture was not shared by my peers or parents. I showed up home to find a pantry of organics, yet my family had a lot of misinformation that led them to reconstruct our food supply. Friends were turning vegetarian like dropping flies. People asked me why I thought abusing animals in the name of feeding America was ok?….WHAT? People think that? I didn’t know anyone in Agriculture who abused animals, or thought it was OK under any false pretense.
So I decided on feedlots. As I described in “I’m goin in!”, I picked feedlots because of all the parts of the beef industry, that’s the one that seemed to attract the most raised eyebrows. It had the most mystery, even to me. Because the east coast doesn’t have feedlots, our total coverage on the topic at VT was probably about 50 minutes worth of lecture, if you were to add it all together. That didn’t leave me prepared to defend them to anyone, including myself.
So I tried to Google them. Most results included something on “reasons not to eat meat” or “cow hell”. No addresses to be found. Well how was I going to apply to any of them? My stepmom had given me Temple Grandin’s book “Thinking In Pictures” and we had watched the the amazing HBO movie about her journey to feedlots. So my stepmom suggested I call her. Temple Grandin. World famous author, speaker, facilities designer, professor. And what do you know, she actually called me back!! At least twice! Do you have any idea how nerveracking it is to play phone-tag with a mini-celebrity?!
I expressed my worries of being a woman in a man’s world. I told her why I wanted to work on a feedyard, and bashfully admitted I had no idea what positions even existed at such a place. I needed to find out. And I also needed to find out where they hide out so I could send a resume and request a specific position. She told me the book Beefspotter would be helpful. It’s like a $50 feedlot phone book. I heard Colorado was pretty cool, so I flipped to that state and found zillions of listings–big, small, and everything in between.
I called a random feedlot in California to ask the manager some questions so I could have a somewhat educated cover letter. At first he was very suspicious of my curiosity. “Who are you with?” “Well, sir, I’m not really “with” anyone, but I graduated from Virginia Tech and I’d like to ask you about how a feedlot works because I think I’d like to work at one” Then he exploded into laughter.
After looking up some stats about them (it’s easier to google info about specific ones, they don’t hide as easily when you have more info), I mailed a resume and cover letter to any feedlot that had a-come personally recommended to me by someone I knew in VA raising commercial cattle or b-met the list of top 20 employers, etc.
I sent out 18 of these personalized letters and cover letters. I patiently waited 2 weeks for them to arrive on people’s desk before calling to follow up. Most people never answered. One man called me back to say “Well little lady, I’m not hiring, but I thought you deserved a call back. Good luck to you” He was clearly amused, but nonetheless slightly encouraging.
No real call backs. I talked to a friend who had moved to Denver and expressed my frustrations. “I think if they met me, they’d see I was serious!” So, I saved money to go to Colorado. Which was quite a task, considering I was employed as a waitress only 1 day a week. But off to Colorado I went! I sent out another, slightly smaller pool of cover letters and resumes. I had narrowed down which Big Dog I wanted to work for. I wanted one of the biggest. And I wanted it bad. I told them I’d be in the area and available for interviews. And I went. And I waited. And I prayed. And nothing. I called to express some concern I had over the uploading of my cover letter when someone FINALLY actually read it, while I was on the phone, and offered to meet me for a tour. Halleluia! I had a great (4 hour long) interview/tour, and thought things were in the bag. Wrong. I played phone tag with this guy for weeks. He put in a referral. I waited. Nothing. Got a call from the specific yard and did a phone interview. Waited. I did a follow up call again. Waited. Got offered an internship. Very nonchalantly the guy on the other end says, “Oh, yeah. I did talk to my boss and uh, yeah I mean, if you want an internship, I guess you could come out here”.
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! I had ultimately told the recruiter I was interested in an internship with the possibility of promotion to MT (Management Trainee). Although I technically qualified for MT from the get-go, I thought it would be most beneficial for both parties to do internship first to get a feel for what really happened on a feedlot, and gain credibility before trying to manage people who knew (obviously) much more than I did. And in one very minor, off-hand sentence, this guy changed the direction of my life.
After 5.5 months of putting my all into this job search, I was insanely relieved the great hunt was over.
What if it is really agriculture that is setting the tone for our negative press?
I have been thinking a lot lately about how Agriculture is perceived. I have joined Twitter, something I never thought I’d do, but I must admit it has really helped me re-vamp my desire to blog about my passion. Twitter has also made me very aware of how many groups are out there throwing around those buzz words “Factory Farms” “industrial food” and now even “Real food” which seems to think that conventionally raised food does not qualify. All of these phrases immediately conjure up negativity, fear, and even a bit of mystery.
It is proven that people fear the unknown. It is far more likely for people to fear a certain race of people, blacks for example, if they have few interactions with people of that race. It is common for people to fear pitbulls until they come to know one. So, reasonably, people seem to fear what farmers are really doing out there on those large stretches of land, all alone, raising something that will end up on their plate. Blacks make up 12.6% of America, according to the US Census Bureau, and an estimated 8 million Pitbulls in America. At a meek 2% of the population, we really can’t expect Americans to venture out of the metropolis and suburbia and knock on one of our doors and ask to see how we live to see if their fears are well-founded. And when we are self-proclaiming food “producers” of the beef (pork, poultry, etc) “industry”, I’m pretty sure we are further contributing to the notion that we operate as some sort of machine instead of as compassionate human beings.
Bear with me as I take you down a somewhat tedious road. I think this is a topic worth the scrutiny.
Let’s break down how “food producer” might be interpreted by someone on the outside. Dictionary.com provides us with 5 definitions for the verb “produce”
- 1. to bring into existence. I wouldn’t really say we bring cattle into existence. Or bring meat into existence. Although if you use this definition, it would line up with some accusations that people in food production add things like “pink slime” and ammonia into meat, and THAT produce would definitely be something brought into existence by a human. Not very accurate to what we do.
- 2. to bring into existence by creative or intellectual ability. Similar to definition 1.
- 3. to make or manufacture. I don’t manufacture meat, and I certainly don’t want to be known as a meat manufacturer. Do you?
- 4. to bring forth; give birth. Well, I don’t even need to explain why this definition doesn’t make me a food producer.
- 5. to provide, furnish, or supply. Ahhh. Now this, this one fits. We definitely provide meat & other food products for Americans.
Okay, so we found a successful definition! But look how many definitions I had to look past in order to find one that maintained a positive mental image. The general public will NOT take any extra effort to prove our innocence or positive impact on the world.
Now, let’s brave the term “industry”
- 1. the aggregate of manufacturing or technically productive enterprises in a particular field, often named after its principle product such as the automobile industry or steel industry. Not a terrible definition I suppose. It utilizes the word “produce” which leaves lots of room for negativity in itself, but it’s really the examples that make me weary. Automobile and steel industry creates a feel of cold & factory-like business. Not a great parallel for the hard work, dedication, and love we put into our herds & flocks.
- 2. any general business activity; commercial enterprise. It is true that agriculture is a business like most everything these days. But everyone knows that businesses have one goal above all else: profit. And we know that more and more businesses in this country are putting aside ethics and morals to pick a more profitable decision. While we need to make a living from raising livestock, we do not have the option of picking profit as our sole goal. We also must incorporate ethical treatment & care.
- 3. systematic work or labor. Again, agriculture is a business, and we need systems in place to keep things organized. But something about the phrasing still gives room for the interpretation of a factory-like, robotic, thoughtless process.
I’m thinking it’s time for the people of Agriculture to start coining their own (accurate!) buzz words, in order to hold our own & be able to dis-spell misconceptions without even having to launch into a defensive paragraph. I don’t think it will be a single solution, but I do think it is something incredibly easy to overlook, yet so very important. Every word we use to describe agriculture is carefully weighed by concerned foodies. So let’s just give it chance. I’ll start:
I am a food provider of the beef community.
Provide has very similar definitions to produce (to supply, make available). But while I do not want many things to be “produced” for me, I do think it sounds quite nice to be provided for. It gives me the warm & fuzzy feeling of security. And this case, I am feeling very confident & secure that I will not go hungry because of you, the food provider.
Community. A VERY different word than industry. It is a very disarming term, and among the best of dictionary.com’s definitions is as follows:
“an … occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists”
Now that seems accurate to me. As agriculturalists, we all share a slew of common characteristics and interests. And we are definitely distinct, in our 2%, from the larger society (the nation as a whole) in which we exist.
Community also creates an image of “kumbaya”…of teamwork & encouragement. In the case of the beef community, there are MANY compartments (seedstock, cow/calf, feedlot, packer) that need to work together as a team to provide the end product of safe & nutritious meat.
I know, I know, I’m asking for a lot. It will take a significant amount of effort to change your habits of using terms we’ve used for a long time to describe ourselves. And it will take even longer for our new terms to reach the ears of skeptics and consumers. But hopefully I have convinced you that this is worth our consideration. “Say what you mean and mean what you say” is a very popular quote among our culture. And FINALLY, I feel that I really mean what I say, without having to give further description, when I tell you I provide food for you from within the beef community.
What do you think? Do you think something so simple and fundamental (two words!!) can really help us change our negative image? Are there other terms we use daily that may be interpreted inaccurately by someone who doesn’t have an understanding of what we actually mean?
I haven’t been able to keep up my initial momentum in posts. The 14th I got an offer to become an intern at one of the largest feedyards in the world!! A week later, and I have driven across the country, found and moved into an apartment, and life is still moving at a lightning fast pace.
My internship will be a 3 month adventure into the workings of a cattle feedyard. For those who don’t know what this translates to, a feedyard (or feedlot, or CAFO) is the last stop for most mainstream cattle before the slaughterhouse. For 3-6 months, the cattle are kept in large pens and fed a high energy diet. This allows them to gain additional weight and fat (marbling) to add that lovely juicy flavor into your steaks.
One of the biggest reasons I’ve been pursuing a job on a feedyard is because they don’t have a great reputation with the public. In a square mile or so, there can be over 100,000 animals. That doesn’t play into the happy-go-lucky image of Bessie on a big open field, side-ways munching on luscious greens. I’m curious to see how they really work. I can’t believe they are as bad as extremists make them out to be. As I’ve said before, and I know I’ll say it again, the people in the cattle business are fabulous. There is no way they would send the animals they’ve cared for during so many months to a horrible place to spend their remaining time on earth.
The concerns range from environmental to animal welfare to human nutrition and beyond. These feedyards are predominately out west where there is a large area of land, so I’m not sure of all the inner workings yet. My specific job will be working with Herd Health and the hospital area to care for any cattle who arrive or become sick while at the feedyard. I’m really excited to get my hands dirty and start doctoring some (OK, thousands! of) animals!
I’m curious to hear the opinion of anyone reading, concerns, questions, or whatever. My hope through this work experience is not only to further my own education and knowledge of this significant stage of beef production, but to help provide a window for anyone else who is curious about them. I’d be interested to find out what many of you already know about feedlots, and what you think of them so far. I want to be able to answer your questions, discuss your opinions, and hear your feedback. Feel free to email me, comment on the post, or contact me in any other way. I’ll be sure to find an answer for both of us. Also, if you know a lot about them, share that, too! I’m a little nervous about this move and the new job, and I really don’t know what to expect. Clue me in :). And in the meantime, keep checking in because you’ll probably see me exploring my own concerns or delights that maybe you hadn’t considered.