Since joining twitter, I’ve been brought to an ENTIRELY different level of agriculture conversation. I think I may actually be so overloaded with information that I can’t form a clear thought. There is…a lot…to think about. And of course, just like anything, you could drown your whole life on just this one topic. But that’s not really my style. So for now…I will just think. And think and think. Much like Pooh Bear, I suspect. Maybe I’ll find some beekeepers to provide me some thinking hunny…
In the meantime, I’ll share this scene from 2 weekends back in my front yard at sunrise (because yes, I still wake up at sunrise without an alarm clock)
Something about the snow and the blanket of quiet really helps me think, so mentally I’m going to revisit this scene (even as its 70 and raining out now). The weather here in VA has been pretty remarkable. I find it funny to talk about the weather as a city slicker. I mean really, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference now that I’m back to working an inside job. Besides needing an umbrella, or complaining about the fact that I straightened my hair this morning and now it’s poofing past my shoulders, or how if I forget my contact lenses it’s a royal pain to see through glasses with raindrops on them, rain is really only an inconvenience to me for about 15 total minutes a day. It’s become sorta common to use the phrase ‘to talk about the weather’ as some sort of gap-filler…when there is no other common ground. I find this funny because while working in Ag, and specifically on the feedlot, I began to realize talking about the weather really isn’t unimportant. It dictates your WHOLE day. Everything from how exhausted you will be, how you will dress (I mean, more than sporting a little raincoat or packing along an umbrella), how many cattle will be sick, how easily (or not) they will move from their huddle. And among Agriculturalists, I think talking about the weather is really quite a bonding experience. And, I’d also like to somewhat randomly add that I believe farmers to be the most accurate weather forecasters of all. Perhaps the meteorology schools could intern on a farm?
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?
Day 1 of the Feedyard: I show up to what I think is the main hospital. I’m not sure though, because my directions for where to check in were kind of vague, and when I walk in, everyone sort of nods my direction but doesn’t seem alarmed or interested in asking if I know what I’m doing there (which I don’t, of course). I finally see the head doctor who hired me and get assigned to the east side of the yard with 2 other guys. I have no clue what is going on because we’re talking about “catches” and so many pen numbers that I can’t keep up. But we finally arrive at a “catch” 3, which turns out to mean one area of the yard.
There are 7 catches: each of the 500+ pens are assigned to one of these area numbers. At each catch there is a hospital, which is a very small room with a heater, counter, minifridge, drugs & doctoring supplies. Just outside the door to each hospital is a snake and chute to run the sick cattle through, and surrounding the hospital and chute are a number of hospital pens.
Anyhow, we arrive at the catch and I’m asked to go run the one steer in a pen through the snake and into the chute. Easy enough. I walk back to the pen and place a hand on the gate latch. The Hereford inside starts running around madly. Now, I know all cattle have different sized flight zones. But I have never met any cattle that can’t handle a human within 100 ft of it. I step inside the pen but stay in the corner diagonally from the steer. He turns and charges me, which is also something new in my experience. He calls off the attack early, so I stay quietly where I am to let him calm down to my presence. He circles around crazily for a few minutes until he runs himself directly into the metal fence post. I swear, I did not even take a step towards the fellow. I watch him and he watches me (looking severely dazed) for a very long minute. He stands directly in front of the fence until, very very slowly, he tips over completely. “Oh My God, I killed it!”
I called for help, and one of the other guys ran over and tried gently shaking it up. The steer was now incredibly cross-eyed and bleeding from its nose/mouth. He took a few staggering steps while trying to attack us, but soon fell back over. His jaw hung broken from his face. I started apologizing and trying to explain that I hadn’t even pressured it. I was told, “It’s okay, I watched. You didn’t do anything wrong, really. Some cattle just aren’t comfortable with people”.
Awesome. My first day, and I nearly kill an animal completely unintentionally, and nearly get taken out myself. I wanted to cry for hurting an animal, and I wanted to yell at him for trying to hurt me. Maybe this job will be harder than I thought.
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.