Commentary: Are we our own problem?

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As I was searching the internet this week, I came across a blog post by Food Mommy. The post was titled: Agriculture’s worst enemies may be farmers. I had never run across this particular blogger before and the title piqued my interest as I have this same thought quite frequently.

In this post, Food Mommy talks about an experience she had purchasing some chickens to produce her own eggs. In search of answers to her questions, the author met with a “backyard” chicken farmer. This particular “backyard” farmer told her the chickens and eggs from small operations were better because they are free of steroids and hormones. As Food Mommy rightly points out in her blog, steroids and hormone use in poultry production has been prohibited in poultry production for decades. Yet, this “backyard” farmer insisted that big chicken farmers still use them anyway. The author of the blog questions whether this “backyard” farmer really thinks she’s stating a fact or was it just a case of opportunistic marketing?

I know I come across what you might consider opportunistic marketing tactics all the time. I also consider this to be “fear-mongering” to sell a product. Every time I go to the farmers market, and see the vendors sporting handwritten cardboard signs that read “no pesticides” or “non-certified organic” I roll my eyes. Does “no pesticides” handwritten on a piece of cardboard infer that this product is any different than another product or better? Or does it infer that all other fruits and vegetables contain pesticides? Does it mean that currently right now those vegetables don’t have pesticides on them, but they might have? And what does “non-certified organic” really mean?

I think marketing ploys like these only add to the confusion.

One that drives me particularly crazy is when I see farmers use the marketing slogan, “we’re a family run company, not a big corporation or a factory farm.” I have traveled this country far and wide, been on hundreds of operations in my lifetime, all types sizes and scale, and I have yet to see a factory farm. Who are we all talking about?  Last time I checked 98 percent of U.S. farms are operated by individuals, family partnerships or family corporations.

And, of all the farms I’ve traveled to the size of the farm was not an indicator of the quality of care the animal received. Every farm I’ve ever been to (big or small) the farmers cared just as deeply about their animals as the one before. Just because farms look different, doesn’t mean that the farmers care any less about their animals.

I can’t say all of agriculture is blameless when it comes to these marketing techniques, but I do tend to see these types of tactics employed by smaller niche farming operations. I hate to break it to you folks, but we’re all in this together.

Why can’t we just market our products on their positive attributes, and not at the expense of one another? You may say its capitalism, you can market your product as you see fit. Perhaps it’s a utopian idea for everyone in agriculture to be on the same page or working together.

Let me be clear, I don’t have any issue with grass-fed, organic, or any other form of alternative agriculture. I truly believe there is a place for every form of agriculture – big, medium, small, organic, or conventional/modern. I love the diversity these niche markets have brought to the table. What I do have an issue with is when farmers, of any size and type, use fear-mongering to push their products.

Spreading misinformation and backbiting within the agriculture industry, while it may seem harmless at the time, only erodes consumer confidence in the entire food system. In the end it hurts us all.

And, if you’re a consumer how do you know who to trust?

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Bradley Niemerg    
Oshkosh, Wi  |  June, 10, 2011 at 10:11 AM

I agree, Some of us have confused consumers,However; consumers are becoming less worried about what the label says and more about how the product looks and tastes. That is what is important. One advantage of small niche farms is that the product may have been harvested that day brought home and consumed over the next three days. Now look at store purchased dairy products. It is not always kept cold enough at the store. Then it is the first thing we put in the shopping cart at the back of the store where consumers have learned to start shopping. Then it stays in the cart for 20-25 minutes while shopping. Then it is in the car for at least 15 minutes and finally put into the refrigerator. By the time this dairy product or milk is cooled down to 38F again it already has off flavors. I grew up on a dairy farm and we drank milk from the bulk tank so when the first time my wife handed me the jug of milk for Dinner that had not been put in the frig yet but was purchased an hour ago I had to spit it out. Now we only buy milk last on small shopping trips and immediately put milk into the back of the frig where it is the coldest. I think that one part of our job is teaching consumers how to maintain the quality and freshness of the products we sell to them. I have had others complain about this same issue so I teach them how to maintain the freshness of our great products.

Cathy McKinley    
Kansas City, MO  |  June, 10, 2011 at 10:23 AM

Thank you, Megan! This issue has frustrated me for many years too. We are all in this together and thanks to your article, I have some peace of mind.

Mike Watkins    
Denton, Texas  |  June, 11, 2011 at 02:45 PM

Well said. There is so much misinformation, too much coming from either uninformed producers or unscrupulous individuals, that it is difficult for the consumer to know who to trust. Modern agriculture does not support the bucolic vision too many people conjur up when they talk about the "family farm". Most family farms today are corporations or similar business formation. This is necessitated to survive and maintain viability with the laws and regulations that they must deal. If that makes a farm a "factory farm", so be it but the idealists need to update their understanding of just what a family farm is today. Regarding wholesomness of organic fruit and vegetables, they too will have pesticide residues due to the near infinite limit of detection of these compounds. Organic or not, health jeopardizing levels are unheard of. Also, higher nutrient levels have been ascribed to organic fruit and vegetables, which is correct, only because they are less jucy than conventional foods in the studies. Likewise, hormones were banned from use in poulry in the 1950's as I recall; and antibiotics are used on an as needed basis at prescribed levels and withdrawn properly. Assurance against overuse is also provided by analysis of tissues at the processing facility. How many organic farmers offer that assurance? I do think that a member of the dairy community (to go unnamed) has done the indistry and the public a disservice by not supporting lowering the SSC from 700,000 to 400,000. Nothing turns off a milk drinker than a glass of milk that is off flavor or even sour, especially when it has gone off quality well before the declared expiration date in spite of proper processing and handling. So, it isn't just the uninformed or unscrupulous that shoot the foo agriculture industry in the foot.

Joseph Itle    
Martinsburg, Pa.  |  June, 12, 2011 at 05:57 AM

Nothing bothers me more in the fluid milk industry, with the assumption that quality is better today but fluid milk consumption continues to decrease on the national basis except for organic milk! How can that be? Why back in the fifties with legal SCC at 1.5 million, no bulk tanks, no teat dips, poor sanitation etc., (no quality) that fluid milk consumption was higher? Could it be that milk was more in the organic mode? Were there no so called "factory farms" back in those days? Is this a valid explanation? How many farmers have milk with their meals when eating out at a restaurant? My take on the whole issue is that we have numbers measuring quality but have forgotten about taste, flavor and freshness! Bring back the retail milkman, the glass bottle and add some fat to the finished product and I think the trend would reverse.

charlie balakan    
iowa  |  June, 13, 2011 at 09:31 PM

first and foremost, let us all accept that milk was intended by nature, by creation, to be fed to baby cows. it doesn't take a genius to figure this out. nature could not have made it anymore obvious. just as a chicken egg was to become a chicken, not a breakfast dish for delusional humans. i mean, could it be anymore obvious? Karma, friends. let's all start paying attention.

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