Monday, June 21, 2010

A Short Course on Food & Farming

It amazes me how little Americans know about where their food comes from or what role farming plays in today’s society. It’s mostly like due to the fact that less than 2% of the population is involved with producing food. Due to the rise in population and decrease in farm numbers, one farmer is feeding 155 people annually, and that number is only likely to increase as fewer people find farming a “less than glamorous” career.

Thanks to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s “Food & Farm Facts” and a little of my own conventional wisdom, I hope to shed some light on our most important industry.

The First Farms

Have you ever wondered where we would be without agriculture? Some 10,000 years ago, some of our ancestors thought cultivating their own food sounded like a pretty good idea. For the pre-history folks who were not lucky enough to live in the earth’s more tropical zones, the act of following the food supply was a tough life. So by the way of luck and some ingenuity, people found they could grow food from seeds and contain animals for year-round meals. This new ability allowed humans to become more settled in one area, thus civilizations were born. Religion aside, the world’s first disputes were most likely over land rights. Those with the land had the food. And good, bad or indifferent, our agriculture system evolved to contribute to the populations we have today.

Imagine if we continued to hunt and gather our food. No computers, no vehicles, no high-heel shoes… I have a feeling that population would also most likely be under control; there would be a constant struggle for hunting rights.

I also don’t want to imagine having an all-local food supply. Weather, pests, and disease have wreaked havoc on farming across the globe throughout the ages (List_of_famines). Millions upon millions of people have perished due to their food being wiped out.

Food and Farms Today

Here are a few facts about the world’s food and farms:
American’s spend the least of their disposable income on food, only 10%. The Chinese spend 32% and people in Pakistan spend 50%. An article in my local paper referenced a food shortage in many nations, and people in some under-developed countries spend up to 70% on food.

Contrary to what some want you to believe, 82% of U.S. agricultural products (food, feed, fiber, and fuel) are produced on farms owned by individuals, family partnerships and family corporations. 98% of the farms are owned by those groups. Only 2% are owned by non-family corporations. Many family farms get labeled as “corporate” or factory farms just because they were able to evolve and survive the changing economy.

The average farmer continues to age. In 2007, the average farmer was 57 years old. Fewer people are choosing a career in farming. But there are many jobs in the agricultural industry. Producing, processing, selling and trading the nation’s food and fiber employs more than 21 million Americans—15% of the total U.S. workforce. Think it’s not a high-tech career? Today’s farmers are using GPS units, biotechnology, infrared spectronomy to monitor chlorophyll levels, and the computer programs that help them make sense of it all.

Of total farm receipts, 56% come from crops (grains, hay & silage, oilseeds, vegetables and fruits), and livestock accounts for 44%.

Farmers are conservationists every day; they protect our air, soil, water and animal habitats. For instance, modern farming practices such as conservation tillage have reduced soil erosion by more than 40 percent since 1982. Modern advances also allow us to produce more food on less land. New land (forests and grasslands) does not have to be cleared thus preventing the escape of greenhouse gases.

The biggest argument I have heard over the food system is that the government gives the agriculture sector too much assistance, thus our easy-to-come-by food supply is making us fat. Of the USDA’s total 2008 budget, only 13% went to farm programs. The balance was for food assistance and nutrition programs (such as WIC), food safety, marketing and inspection, research and education, forest service, foreign ag service, rural development, etc. Of total federal spending, agriculture receives about 3%. Nearly 20% is spent on national defense, and more than 33% is spent on Social Security and Medicare.

As an American, I feel good about my tax dollars going to agriculture and farmers. I like having the ability to easily feed my family. Think about the alternative.

It scares me that a lot of Americans take our valuable food system for granted. It’s easy for those of us who can afford food to pop into the grocery store and fill our bellies with our hearts’ desires. Trade, farm programs and modern conveniences have helped shape that. I remember the stories I heard from my grandfather about life in the not-so-distant past. You slaughtered your own animals, you milked your own cows, you canned your own vegetables (lots of things were pickled to control bacteria) and you dug out sausages from a barrel full of lard. I am so thankful to live today in this country with our farmers feeding me. I hope you are, too!

One more thing – I found this wonderful video from BASF. It helped me understand how farmers are feeding "One Hungry Planet." Enjoy.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why I Choose to Eat Meat

Back when I was a kid (we'll say 20 to 30 years ago), vegetarians were few and far between and were often thought of as a little strange. Now, it seems, being a vegetarian or vegan is the "stylish" thing to do. More and more people of all ages are making the choice not to eat meat for reasons that make sense to them.

The majority of the population continues to eat meat because that's what they have always done, as their parents did before them. As our ancestors figured out, eating meat is an easy way to get protein, and most of it just tastes good.

I put myself in a different meat-eating category. I have a made a very conscious decision, and I "choose" to eat meat. I know it comes from animals, and I realize those animals' lives were cut short for my sustenance. This is something I think about each time I sit down to a meal, and I am grateful.

As a true lover of animals, I will admit that going meatless crossed my mind a couple times. I am the kind of person who never kills a spider, carefully removes creepy-crawlies from my home, and stops traffic to see a turtle or family of ducks safely cross the road. My taste buds and feeling of hunger satisfaction, however, quickly transformed me back into the omnivore that I am.

Now, one could ask how I can eat meat when animals are being mistreated (recent Conklin Dairy video would be a good example) or are forced to live in confined conditions. In my good opinion, acts of such mistreatment are few and far between, and I believe that anyone who abuses animals in this way should be punished as if they had assaulted a fellow human. Confinement, or as I like to think of it has a more controlled habitat, has become a necessary practice to meet demand. There are more people, less farmers and less land to produce these animals.

Do the animals like their confined conditions? Would they rather be running free? While I don't have cows or chickens at the moment, I do have horses. It has been 90 degrees or higher the last several days. They have free run of the barn and a five acre pasture with lots of shade trees. I CANNOT MAKE them leave the confinement of their stalls. Why? The barn has a large fan and is generally free of all the blood-sucking bugs. They also know that I come to feed them twice a day.

I also have to think about the many times I have watched the animal shows on TV. Prey animals are free game for the not-so-nice hunting practices of their predators. I have seen animals being eaten while they are still alive. If I were the prey, I'd say "sign me up for farm life any day!" And on the flip side, I wonder if animal activists want to tell lions, tigers, eagles, crocodiles, sharks, etc. that they should not eat other animals because it's not the "nice" thing to do.

And when I hear, "I don't want to eat anything with a face," or even most recently, "I don't like to eat things with eyelashes" (you've got to be kidding me), it saddens me. WARNING, I'M GOING INTO PHILOSOPHER MODE - Who is to say the cow with long eyelashes and a calf by her side is any more important than the clam that quietly crawls across the ocean floor, or the tomato plant. I don't think of even myself as more worthy of a life on earth than any other living creature, be it plant, animal or fungus. We all WANT to survive.

The fact is, if one organism eats, another organism is sacrificed for its survival. What we can do as humans is to provide the animals we consume with the utmost respect that we can. I truly believe that most all livestock farmers are doing this today. They have to... it is their livelihood.

While I think the ideal situation - the most natural situation for which we were born to do - would be for us to produce, raise or hunt for our own food, those days are long gone. A lot of us are more worried about getting to our air-conditioned home to view the latest episode of "Glee" while tweeting our tweeps and planning our island vacations. Therefore, I place the care of my food, be animal or vegetable, in the hands of our farmers. The farmers that produce with compassion and heart are my heroes. The animals that give their lives so that I can be a part of this world are my saviors.

My omnivore diet provides me and my family the nutrients we need without having to load up on supplements or come up with creative diet plans. As long as I recognize the fact that hamburgers don’t magically appear in the meat case, and our farmers are taking good, responsible care of their animals, I will continue to “choose” to eat meat.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

So why am I doing this?

I have been thinking about blogging for some time. I have lots of very good random thoughts (in my opinion) about life, spirituality, our purpose,and so forth, but I'm not convinced the rest of the world would want to get inside my head.

HOWEVER, I know I have a lot of good and factual things to say about where our food comes from. I have been working in the agricultural industry for more than 12 years and have a real appreciation for the farmers who provide the food on my dinner table. I am also a consumer and mother of two. I care about what goes into their little bellies. I make educated choices about the food we eat, and unlike what many attention-mongers want you to believe, I know that American farmers are providing us the safest food in the world. And those farmers are also achieving this while they are improving the environment in which we live.

If you are interested, I can share with you my thoughts on agriculture, farmers and food. Just call me "The Food Mommy."
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