Tag Archives: Big Ag

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Does the Word ‘Factory’ Belong in Front of Farms?

Wanda Patsche (twitter.com/MinnFarmer) recently published an article Let’s take the ‘factory’ out of factory farms http://www.minnpost.com/minnesota-blog-cabin/2014/06/let-s-take-factory-out-factory-farms. Lindsay and Andy share their reactions to this article.

Andy Kleinschmidt

Lindsay and I have been chatting about writing short reaction posts to current events or hot topics. When I read Wanda Patsche’s article a few days ago my immediate thought turned to getting Lindsay’s opinion on the article.

The phrase factory farm is a label and is intended to be used negatively. So I don’t use it, and like Ms. Patsche, I really don’t know what qualifies a farm to be a factory farm.  I’ve visited hundreds and hundreds of farms and what I notice most is each farm is unique.

When I look around I see farms.  I see farms that use amazing technology. I see farms where each farm is managed slightly different from the next.  I see farms with beautiful fields of corn or soybeans or wheat or canola or rice. I see the magnificent blossoms of Almond trees in the valley. I see the dairy farm that buys my hay.  I see a turkey farm, a hog farm, a cattle farm and on and on.  But what I really see is a family working together to make food that you and I will eat. 

It is easy to get caught up in the emotion from a scary piece of information that is linked to ‘factory farms’.  It happens to me. But if I dig just a bit deeper than the headline and ask questions,  I find misinformation or I realize that the facts are far less sensational than the headline. Does factory belong in front of farms? No, and I think we can advance the conversation about agriculture and food production further and faster if we checked emotionally charged labels at the door.

As always, I am thankful to Lindsay for the discussion as well as her collaboration on this project.  Also, I am thankful those who provided Lindsay quotes to use for this article. There is common ground out there, let’s keep the conversation going and let’s find our common ground.

Lindsay Hotmire

In all reality, I think most people involved in the factory farming argument share Ms. Patsche’s sentiment. Indeed, we ought to take the “factory” out of the farm.  And most certainly, we ought to cheer for a team steeped in values, care and ethic. It’s hard to argue with Ms. Patsche’s emotional pleas:

We share the same values as our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. We care for our animals daily. It matters and affects us if our animals are sick or injured. Today’s farmers work with a team to assist them in giving the best animal care. . . . The purpose of this team? Simple really–to raise healthy animals.

Unless, of course, you look at the numbers and statistics that have been outlined on posts throughout this blog.  But today, I think that the more compelling voice is the community that Ms. Patsche describes, those who live among the “neighbors, [her] friends, fellow church members, parents of [her] children’s friends and people in [her] community.”

     There’s not a lot I feel free to say because I have been sued. Apparently, defending your right to life, liberty, and happiness doesn’t really apply to everyone. You know, we were doing what we thought we were supposed to do. We were working within our constitutional rights, within the framework protected by our government, and we were seeking legislative change. This is what the Ohio Department of Agriculture told us to do. “Hey,” they said. “We follow the law. If you want something done, you have to change the legislature.” So that is what we did, but we were naïve. In today’s society, there are no rights when you live next to a farm. (Joan Knight, Choked Silent)

     My family has always had horses—good horses. We raised them for premier events, national races. And we raised winners. We took pride in that. By the time the farms came, we had scaled down tremendously, and I only had two horses in the stalls at my parents’ farm. One week, I cleaned the barn, and shortly after, I witnessed a scene straight out of a horror movie. I had gone over to feed my horse that wasn’t with the trainer. He was a beautiful brown horse with a star on his face. It had been five days since I had cleaned the barn, too short of a time for flies to hatch out of manure.  I found him, standing in his stall, black with flies. He was covered—I couldn’t even find the star on his face. The straw, the stall, everything was moving. I couldn’t see anything besides flies . . . .  I came undone at that point. (Jim C., Choked Silent)

     You see, that silent partner was. . .  the egg farmer that got banned from ever operating another farm in Iowa. Remember the salmonella outbreak? The one that sickened sixteen thousand people? That was [him].  He had been fined millions of dollars on charges ranging from farm mismanagement to rape to hiring illegals. And now, he was our new neighbor, the businessman parading as a family farmer and knowing well enough to stay hidden from public view. (Rosie B., Choked Silent)

     So many of us have lived here forever. So many of us farm the land in this community, and here came this egg farm, this big time farmer who was forbidden from ever owning another animal in Germany, and he told us what the Ohio Department of Agriculture would later echo: If you don’t like it, move. This was agricultural land. (Jim W., Choked Silent)

     I had hate mail, and I did report that. It said something like, “You should all die because I am feeding the world.” (Jane P., Choked Silent)

We can argue all day about efficiency and profit and environmental harm, but the truth, Ms. Patsche, is that these factory farms are destroying the social fabric of the rural communities where they exist. And I’ve never known neighbors or friends or small business-minded folk to do that to one another.

Excerpts taken from 2013 Master's thesis, Choked Silent: A Plea from Rural America for a New Place at the Table. Lindsay spent a year traveling throughout rural Ohio, collecting stories from the rural neighbors of CAFOs. Many stories like this exist throughout the United States. More on her thesis can be found at lindsayhotmire.com

 

 

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Q&A About Ag Transparency and Big Ag

Lindsay and Andy recently discussed agriculture transparency and big ag here: http://lindsayandytalk.com/big-ag-use-bully-pulpit/.  Their conversation continues below.

 

Andy: What is one thing that agriculture does really well with regards to transparency and  should keep doing?

Lindsay: This is a tough one for me to answer. As I told you the other night, the biggest passion I have about this entire subject is the response of the Ag industry to the community that lives beneath its shadow. I don’t think that any industry can claim corporate responsibility when it wreaks havoc on the surrounding community–environmentally, physically, and socially. When I see farmers awarded by the EPA but understand that the neighbors can no longer open their windows because the air is so heavy with manure or flies, that is a hard pill for me to swallow. Those concerns are repeatedly diminished, covered in labels of “environmental activism,” or “anti-agriculture,” but most of the time, that is not the case. Most of the time, the people raising concerns are people who have lived in the rural countryside their entire lives, who understand what farming is, who even understand the dilemmas many farmers face. But they also understand that their quality of life has diminished so that an industry can profit–they can’t breathe; they can’t play; they can’t enjoy life on their property.

Knowing this, it’s hard for me to say that the Ag industry is truly transparent, because as long as rural communities continue to drown in the muddy waters of corporate advancement, it seems that profit is the driving force that shrouds ethics or transparency.

 

Andy: What is one thing that agriculture is doing poorly with regards to transparency and should stop doing?

Lindsay: I think that I answered this above, but let me reiterate: Is it possible the the rural neighbors are the canary in the coal mine? Is it possible that those who have been speaking out for decades–asking for enforced regulations (read: enforced, not more), asking for protection against industrial encroachment, asking for clean air and clean water–have valid concerns? Since the 40s, we’ve known that industrialized agriculture can be detrimental to the health and welfare of rural communities. Walter Goldschmidt–commissioned by a U.S. Special Committee–studied the influence of industrialized ag, and the results of his study were so damning, so profound, that the USDA closed his sponsoring agency, rendering his findings mute until the 1970s.

We see the influence of industrialized ag throughout the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Mary’s. With Grand Lake St. Mary’s, a phosphorous-overloaded lake severely compromised the area’s $160 million industry. The main culprit? Undeniably agriculture. The response? Encourage agriculture to do better. It’s time we stop relying on the good faith of farmers to protect the environment and the rural communities; it’s time we abandon the ancient stereotype rooted in the days of hunting and gathering where communities worked together for self-preservation, for in upholding such false perceptions, we elevate farmer above neighbor and preserve ideologies rooted in aristocracy.

 

Andy: What is one thing that agriculture isn’t currently doing but should start doing to become more transparent?

Lindsay: I suppose I’ve made that clear in my last two answers.

 

Andy:  You mentioned ‘Big Ag’ in one of our recent posts; what does the label ‘Big Ag’ mean to you?

Lindsay:  Well, let’s first look at some of the other industries that have gained the adjective “Big” as part of their title.

Big Tobacco: According to quick research, in 2010, the tobacco industry spent $16.6 million to influence legislative policy. In marketing costs, they spent $8.8 billion.

Big Pharma: In the last 15 years, the pharmaceutical industry has spent nearly $2.7 billion in lobbying expenses. Since 1990, Big Pharma has handed out $150 million in campaign contributions.

Big Ag: In 2013, Big Ag spent nearly $152 million in lobbying efforts.  I’m not even going to go into the millions spent by biotech giants on marketing campaigns to defeat initiatives.

Maybe I should stop at the numbers. But let me clarify the definition of “Big Ag” a bit more.

The term “Big Ag” is rooted in agribusiness–corporatized agriculture that exploits the meaning of family farm. Big Ag wants to say that nearly all farms throughout the nation are “family farmed,” but it conveniently leaves out that just 2 percent of our nation’s workforce are farmers–and most of those farmers fall under the umbrella of food giants like Tyson who have painted a clear vision of what it means to raise animals in today’s society: millions of chickens packed into a barn, thousands of hogs and cattle. Most Americans have an idealized image of what a “family farm” is, and it is a far cry from the stark metal barns that raise most of our nation’s meat supply. While Big Ag has proliferated into our farm fields long ago, one of the most visual examples exists in our current way of mass-produced livestock.

 

Andy: Do you think it will possible to get away from using labels to describe people, businesses or industry?

Lindsay: There’s a clear distinction that needs to be made here between labels for societies/ people groups versus labels for business/industry. Labels within our food industry exist to inform.While history has long proven that labels can be damaging, sociologists also know that societies and cultures develop through and around language (Enter: a long theoretical discussion that we don’t have time for).  Knowing this, however, I am always intrigued with how the Big Ag industry finds the “Big Ag” label so vile. The irony for rural communities is that the agribusiness industry wants to tout that it’s farming, wants to demand the archaic “right-to-farm” laws, but at the same time, it wants to proliferate across the rural countryside; it wants to farm right over any rural neighbor that gets in its way. It wants to have the power of a corporation (and everything about Big Ag is a corporation, an industry), but it doesn’t want to be recognized as such.

So the question for Big Ag is this: What’s so EVIL about corporate power? Nothing, it seems, for the farmer–until that corporate power starts attracting rules and regulations that he doesn’t want to abide by. Big Ag is hovering between two worlds: an ancient world that disappeared with the Industrial Revolution, and a present world that sustains profit and  livelihood.

We cannot get away from  labels that serve to inform the consumer, nor should we, for once we stop letting people be informed, once we stop categorizing methods and philosophies, we become an unthinking, uncritical generation. And in that gap, a thinking, critical power will always step in. Perhaps this is why Big Ag is so eager to drop the label, for it gets the consumer to mindlessly buy and eat?

 

Andy’s comments:  I appreciate Lindsay’s candid responses. In fairness, I should take a stab at responding to those same questions as well. How would you respond?

 

 

 

 

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Does Big Ag Use a Bully Pulpit?

Lindsay Hotmire

A few months ago, Andy and I had a conversation about how our roles within our professional worlds shape others’ perspectives of us, particularly when it comes to talking about agricultural issues.

When Andy and I first met, I think our roles caused both to see one another as “misinformed.” To me, Andy was the research scientist living and breathing agriculture so much that he had forgotten to understand the perspective of the consumer and of the rural neighbor.

To Andy, I think I came across as this young mother who was caught up in all the hype, the activist who was misquoting research. If I didn’t like living out under the shadow of manure-laden air, then why didn’t I just move into town, he wondered.

Slowly, our perspectives of one another began to change, mostly because we listened long enough to validate one another’s concerns and knowledge. We stopped throwing convenient stereotypes onto each other and realized the truth of the matter: We were both concerned about our food system.

When I told Andy that throughout this blog, I would undoubtedly be battling the public perception that I was ignorant and uninformed simply because I wasn’t a farmer (or deeply entrenched in the scientific agricultural community), he disagreed. “Surely, that’s just a small percentage of people that would think that about you, Lindsay,” he said.

For nearly 8 years, however, I’ve been battling this perception every time I voice a concern to anyone in the position to affect change within the ag community. And from my travels throughout rural Ohio, I know my experiences aren’t isolated as I’ve listened to the stories of the rural neighbors living between fields and barns proliferating with corporate industrialization. The mantra to all of us resounds: If you’re not born and bred into agriculture, your opinion and your concerns aren’t legitimate.

We always got treated like we were the problem, like it was our fault for living right in the middle of Pohlmann’s chicken barns.  We were treated like we were incapable of thinking for ourselves, like we were the enemy who had to be endured (J. Wenig, independent farmer, LaRue, Ohio).

So often, people have tried to paint us as anti-farm. What they refuse to admit is that most people who stand up against these factory farms have lived in the country their whole lives. They have been surrounded by chickens and cattle and hogs, and most of them have lived or worked on farms (Jane P., Custar, Ohio).

And then recently, I read a post from Bovidiva (Jude Capper)—Activism 101: How to Write Like an Angry Internet Expert on GMOs. (Incidentally, I stumbled across this blog while reading Janice Person’s blog. Janice is the social media director at Monsanto, and she posted Jude Capper’s blog post as one of the Top 10 Ag Blog Posts of 2013.) While I know that snarky is the tone of choice for this blog post, I still couldn’t stop my heart from sinking to my stomach. This is what I was talking to Andy about, I thought to myself, as I arrived at the end of her post where she reminded me that the only way I could possibly know anything about the food I eat is by being “employed within the industry in question”:

*Note that being an “expert” does not involve education, higher degrees or being employed within the industry in question. Nowadays you can only be an expert if you are entirely impartial, third-party, and preferably know nothing whatsoever about the system in question. On that basis, I’m off to write a book about Zen Dentistry.

When I contacted Jude Capper about this post, expressing my sadness at the tone, at the obvious lack of reaching across the aisle to start a conversation, at her unfiltered disdain for anyone outside of science who would dare have an opinion on food production, she held firm to her position in a way that reminisced of the Age of Reason: Science above Experience.

In every other branch of science, whether it’s medicine, dentistry or nuclear physics we accept that scientists and PhDs have expertise and have opinions that are worth noting. . . . Yet, when it comes to food, particularly GMOs, it seems that scientists and PhDs are too often considered to be paid shills for corporate agriculture (check out some of the GMO groups on social media to see this accusation being repeated ad infinitum) and only those with no scientific background can be trusted – the old “follow the money” fallacy.

In all honesty, I understand her position (and her annoyance). I see evidence of what she’s talking about every day in my social media feed. I see the same authors quoted endlessly by ever popular bloggers as the experts on all things food, and I cringe as food documentaries get praised and quoted as irrefutable. It makes it hard for people to decipher truth from fiction, but here’s something to think about: Perhaps the tactics Jude Capper criticizes are birthed out of the secrets held by the corporations that feed the world.

In short, people choose to trust Joe Schmo’s blog because the science isn’t transparent.

I recently read an article published in the March 2013 issue of PLoS Biology entitled “Biosafety Data as Confidential Business Information.” In it, Kaare M. Nielsen reminds us that “science depends on peer review taking place before and after publication,” but because the “data necessary to assure the safe use of GMOs can be withheld from public peer review,” great consumer distrust has arisen out of the dearth of transparency. For agricultural corporations, Confidential Business Information (CBI) includes “transgene sequence data, transgenic seeds and other GMO materials, which precludes the development of independent research and monitoring strategies.”

Translation? The public at large has little to no access regarding the composition, environmental interactions, allergenicity, toxicity, and any other aspects that deal with food safety because much of it has been determined as CBI.

What this also means (and here’s the important part that Big Ag often leaves out when pointing fingers), is that the public is left to make sense of the minutiae of research that has been made available to them. Are they experts? No, not by most standards. But are they trying to be informed consumers? Are they concerned about their food systems? Do they have a right to ask questions and receive transparent answers?  Are they attempting to be knowledgeable and empowered, albeit sometimes reactionary and fearful?

Yes. Yes. Yes. And Yes.

For too long, the scientific community has treated consumers and rural neighbors like intruders, like the unwitting, idiotic nuisance that just needs to get out of the way. Instead of recognizing us as partners in a gigantic food system, the ag community simply wants us to shut up and clean our plates. And they do this by reminding us every chance  they get that we are just businessmen and women, urbanites, rural transplants, housewives, teachers, lawyers—anything but farmers and agricultural scientists, and with those reminders, we are expected to be silent because we can’t possibly have valid and informed concerns.

When a doctor treats us like this in the exam room, we demand a different practitioner.

When a teacher treats our child like this in the classroom, we schedule a conference with every administrator who will listen.

When a business treats us like this on Main Street, we take our business elsewhere.

But in science, in agriculture, in food production, we are to be still and trust the scientists–the ones who refuse to share data with us, the ones who refuse to recognize that GMO science is still young, and the ones who refuse to answer any questions that might make them rethink their strategies.

They have forgotten that our food system is not an aristocracy. They have forgotten that good science demands organized skepticism, filters out motivational bias, grants access to the scientific process, and seeks universal standards (Nielsen).

Is the consumer misinformed at times? With complete certainty, yes. But pushing us to the margins and calling us unequipped to understand our food system? Well, that’s an elitism that reeks of bad science and fear mongering masked behind a bully pulpit.

Resources:
KM Nielsen. “Biosafety Data as Confidential Business Information.” PLoS Biology 11.3 (March 2013). Web. 29 December 2013.  e1001499/doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001499.

 

Andy Kleinschmidt

Lindsay came up with the title “Does Big Ag Use a Bully Pulpit?” for this post and I admit that when I saw the title my kneejerk reaction was to offer alternative titles to Lindsay. Although I’m not comfortable with the title, it reflects Lindsay’s opinion and I respect and value her opinion.

Let me back up before I respond to Lindsay’s concerns…

This blog project came about through many conversations with Lindsay starting in 2012.  Some conversations were through email, but many (if not most) of our conversations were (and are) via phone or skype. I came to each and every conversation with the mindset of wanting to ask questions to invite more conversation and really listening to what Lindsay had to say.

I recall one of my conversations with Lindsay in 2012 regarding this project – the conversation drifted into a discussion about family. I realized that we share many common values. I believe starting from a place of common values has helped me and has helped our conversations flourish.

I am not a farmer, but I know that agriculture is what I was meant to do with my life. I have dedicated my education and my professional career to agriculture. I consider myself a student of agriculture and I am eager to listen and learn. I am proud to have a helping hand in producing safe, nutritious and affordable food.

Going forward to address Lindsay’s concerns…

There are excellent efforts in place to listen to the opinions and concerns about agriculture regardless of whether you are born and bred in agriculture. Two examples that immediately come to my mind are The Food Dialogues and Common Ground.

The Food Dialogues – http://www.fooddialogues.com/ –  conversations about food and agriculture made possible by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. Below is an example of a few timely topics available at The Food Dialogues:

Common Ground – http://findourcommonground.com/ – Common Ground is a great example where experience is incorporated into responses to concerns. From the Common Ground website, “It’s a conversation based on our personal experience as farmers, but also on science and research.” Here are some examples from Common Ground:

These two efforts, The Food Dialogues and Common Ground are a reflection that agriculture is listening to your opinions and concerns.

Lindsay mentioned concerns about allergenicity, toxicity, and other issues that relate to GMOs. I concede that many questions about GMOs have gone unaddressed in the past. It has been difficult to find information quickly and easily. Those of us in agriculture need to work more closely with the public to provide answers and transparency. GMO Answers is public forum that allows for full transparency on the subject of GMOs. A wide range of topics are covered at GMO Answers: science, processes, human health, environmental impacts, labelling, and patents. Experts from a variety of disciplines address all questions directly. We in agriculture *want* to provide responses to all your questions in an effort to explain GMOs and the GMO industry.

To do a better job answering your questions a website has been created – GMO Answers – http://gmoanswers.com/. From GMO Answers:

“Join us. Ask tough questions. Be skeptical. Be open. We look forward to sharing answers.”

Here are some examples from GMO Answers that help to address some of Lindsay’s concerns:

We need science, and we need experience.  Both are needed to address the food challenges over the next three decades.  We are doing better job being more transparent about the science and experience in our food system through efforts such as The Food Dialogues, Common Ground and GMO Answers.

In addition there are hundreds and hundreds (thousands?) of individual farmer’s blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and other social media channels which provide transparency in agriculture and food production. It’s pretty easy to take a virtual farm tour and learn more about who is producing your food and how they are producing your food. Here’s a great example:

Virtual Farm Tour

We have more work to do, and I’m eager to hear other ideas agriculture should embrace to become more transparent.

As always, I appreciate and value Lindsay’s opinion. Let’s keep the conversation going.