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?
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.
While I’m sharing interesting and informational views, here is a video provided by explorebeef.org and the Beef Check Off. Katie Griffith works hard to explore the passion behind family farming, and she does a great job.
When I first began working, I thought I could surely get by without using a hot shot. The truth is, sick cattle really are much different than normal, happy cattle. Just like people, they get grumpy when they don’t feel good. They become uncooperative because their noses are runny or their heads hurt from their fever or their lame leg is painful to walk on. But also like sick people, sometimes you have to have a little bit of pain (shots or even the emotional drain of visiting a people-doctor) in order to feel better (or even survive altogether). My first day experience definitely opened my eyes to the idea that sick cattle are not to be treated the same way as healthy cattle.
Some sick cattle handle the idea and process better than others. Some are so sick, they just kind of look up feebly as if to say “whatever you want to do, fine. I feel so crappy, I don’t want to fight. Can you help me?”. But other cattle are more like myself when I’m a patient- “Hell, NO I don’t want you to check my temperature or force me to eat soup or get a shot. GO AWAY”. These cattle, the ones like me, are the ones that are dangerous. These are the ones like that Hereford I saw during my first 30 minutes on this job. They are the ones who forget about the whole being a normal cow, having a flight zone, behaving like a prey animal thing. These are the ones who will come charging at you with every intention of killing you. Or these are the ones that simply will NOT move into the chute to get their diagnosis and/or medicine.
This causes a lot of frustration. When you are trying to do a good thing, and no one seems to be listening to you saying that what you are doing is, in fact, a good thing, it makes you mad. And yes, we realize that the animal can’t rationalize and we can’t pull it aside and explain that the process will be short and the shot won’t hurt too bad and that soon enough, they’ll be back with their friends. But nonetheless, we just want them to cooperate! The faster and quieter they go through the chute, the less stress on them. This is especially crucial to the severe cases. Cattle that are bloated or just too sick can easily die in the snake while waiting their turn to be doctored and released. We try to get those cattle to enter first, so we can get them in and out as quickly and nicely as possible, but sometimes they dash into the snake in the completely wrong order.
And we have had some die in the chute. Some of these likely would have died within a few hours anyways, but it is still a sinking-stomach situation to have one die while you are trying desperately to make it better. Especially when you know that they were suffering quietly behind an animal that balked and clogged the flow for 20-30 minutes because it was being stubborn and you were struggling to find a humane way to convince it to move forward.
This is where hot shots become especially useful. The hot shot looks like a stick about 3 ft long and has a very dull prong at the tip. Sometimes, just waving the hotshot as an extension of your arm can help guide cattle in the direction you need them to go. Other times, such as when the cattle are already loaded into the snake, it becomes necessary to administer a small jolt of electricity to the backside of the animal. Just as electric collars for dogs, the jolt helps redirect the animal’s brain from one mode of thinking to another. This allows the animal to try something different. (As dogs get shocked when they move forward through the invisible fence, they usually take the jolt as a sign to stop and go back to where they were before the shock). With balking cattle (or backwards-moving cattle), the shock redirects the brain into a forward moving motion (shocking the back of the body makes them move forward away from the source). The jolt only lasts as long as you hold the prong to the animal while pushing the button. In my experience, it takes less than a second of electricity to get the desired effect. The skin may raise on the hide temporarily, but in 3-4 minutes there is absolutely no sign of damage to the animal. The pain of the shock goes away even faster than that: as soon as the prod is lifted. It is a very decent practice and when used correctly, hot shots can literally be a life saver.