Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Agriculture’s Worst Enemies May Be Farmers

Even with all of the challenges farmers face such as weather, market prices, disease, and pests, I am convinced the agriculture industry’s worst enemies are farmers themselves. This thought occurred to me because of a conversation I had this weekend.

I recently received some chickens to produce my own eggs. I didn’t do this to save money, which so far is quite the contrary, or because I don’t feel the eggs at the grocery are bad. I did it to show my children that we can be more self-sufficient. While I have read many online posts and books on raising chickens, I still have many questions. So, I found myself another “backyard” chicken farmer to ask questions about coops and how to tell the difference between the pullets and the cockerels at a young age. Other people were around, and the conversation turned into processing the chickens for meat and the quality of eggs.

This particular farmer said she thought the eggs from backyard chickens tasted better than commercially-produced eggs. Another chicken enthusiast chimed in that she thought they tasted exactly the same, but there was an obvious difference in the color of the yolks. The farmer then said that the chickens and eggs from small operations were better because they are free of steroids and hormones.

I had a “now, wait a minute” moment. I said, “I am 100% positive that steroid and hormone use is prohibited in poultry production, and it has been since 1954.” She responded that big chicken farmers still use them anyway.

You can see how consumers can be thoroughly confused and misled. Does this woman think she is really stating a fact, or is this just a case of opportunistic marketing? Knowing first hand that small chicken and egg production takes some time and money, are some small-operation farmers trying to justify to their customers that they should pay a premium by saying the commercially-produced food is somehow tainted?

This was not my first conversation of this kind. I was witness to a similar comment with regards to the beef industry. A niche-market beef producer insisted that just because law states animals must be antibiotic free before entering the food supply, many farmers don’t follow those rules. Again, I thought that this was a marketing tactic, and unfortunately it is ruining consumer confidence.

I can go on. We all know the damage done to the industry by terrible cases of livestock abuse or chemical abuse. If just one farm is a bad actor, the entire industry gets a black eye and is sentenced with increased regulations and rules that significantly impact everyone involved.

I try to look at it this way: Do we automatically think all parents are bad parents when one abuses their children? Of course not! So why is it that farmers have to spend so much time defending themselves these days to convince consumers that this is not the way the majority of them do business?

Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of farmers from all size operations and see daily business first hand, which helps me filter a lot of the rotten information I hear about food production.

But who are consumers supposed to believe? This is one issue in which I would love to get feedback from our good farmers!


  1. I agree with you 100 percent. This was a really wonderful post! Thanks for sharing!

  2. I think that you bring up a very important point-- but I wonder more if it's not that farmers are agriculture's worst enemies, but misinformed consumers??

  3. Love this, Jennifer! I wrote a column a couple years ago about organic food being marketed on the backs of its conventional counterpart - i.e., if something is labeled as "healthier" it must be better than something else, and the clear implication is that it's better for you than the conventional counterpart. You wouldn't believe the letters I got from organic enthusiasts, claiming I was creating an us-vs-them mentality. Pot, meet kettle. I'm off to share this on our FB page! --H. Spangler

  4. Great post. I often see farmers use misinformation or fear mongering to market their products. We're all in the agriculture industry together. The diversity is one of the things that make agriculture so neat, but I think some people forget we're in it together.

  5. Good post, good job, and sadly too often true.

  6. What you are saying is 100 percent true. I have met tons of consumers who absolutely believe that all meat, eggs & dairy products sold in grocery stores are filled with hormones, antibiotics and chemicals. I think the media and entertainment industries have alot to do with this firmly held beliefs. Movies like Food, Inc. and YouTube videos like the Meatrix have done a tremendous disservice to U.S. agriculture. The mainstream media have been reporting poorly on agriculture issues for years as well. "Big Ag" and "Factory Farms" are easy targets and not easily defended. I believe that people should stop complaining when they have full mouths and bellies and pay less than 10 percent of their annual income for food.

  7. This was such a great post! I love it!

  8. This is so true, unfortunately. I'm curious how we would fix this?

  9. I feel like you've reached into my brain and put my thoughts into eloquent, beautifully written phrases. Excellent job. This is the issue that frustrates me the most - the perception that A is healthier than B, C is more ethically utopian than D, often with no evidence (or one published paper out of 1,000) and simply aimed at gaining market share by denigrating somebody else's production system. When it suits us we're an agricultural industry and all part of the same "family", yet there seems to be more back-biting and mis-marketing than in those industries where there is obvious competition (e.g. automobiles). Why can't we simply celebrate all the facets of agriculture and be happy that there's a market for every production system?

  10. From poultry to vegetables to dairy it's too often a case of justifying their own. I don't want customers buying on fear. The idea that all food "at the store" is poison is inflammatory and anyone confident in their own products wouldn't have to rely on putting other food choices down. I think food choices are awesome - and those who are willing to make the effort to exert it with direct purchase deserve a thank you!

  11. It's true and valid to point out the gross misinformation out there about larger-scale agriculture, but it doesn't help to gloss over the very real problems. I don't think big-ag is nearly as "terrible" as it is made out to be - but that doesn't make their practices "the right thing to do" - poultry is a prime example - I'm sure most farmers are by no means abusing their chickens - but far too many commercial poultry operations (organic and conventional, sm, medium, and large)employ practices that lead to quantifiable, documented decreases in animal welfare compared to an ideal....perhaps we everyone were more honest about our short comings, consumers would begin to trust food again :) Thanks for the post!

  12. I am equally put off by label claims but would echo what MycoBovine said. In addition, has anyone formally looked at the history of label claims? They are certainly not reserved for (nor likely even started by) so-called niche marketers. Selenium- and omega 3- enhanced pork ("good for your brain!"), Round-up-ready corn (higher yields!), Cheerios ("Heart Healthy!"), "Real Cheese" (which is a brand name for imitation cheese). Beef is "safe, wholesome, and nutritious [zinc, iron, etc.]" Chicken is "lower in fat than beef." Or one of my personal favorites, "Free-Range" chicken (implying that the birds are raised on the "range" and that other birds are raised in cages).

    I've also had conventional producers tell me that chickens or pigs raised outdoors (or partly outdoors) carry more disease, are raised inhumanely, ruin the environment, are a bio-hazard, and can't "feed the world."

    The larger problem is that our brains are wired to look for short cuts and the food industry at large has taken advantage of that.

    Imagine all the people who would be out of a job if we disallowed label and marketing claims?

  13. Good luck with the backyard chickens and keep trying to get folks good info to make decisions on. It seems misinformation travels 10x times faster than facts. But a bunch of us are in to try just the same!

  14. Oddly (perhaps) it is the larger food system that created many of these labeling misconceptions. Label claims are not easily created for meat & poultry products. It takes mainstream clout and money to get these labels started in the first place. Niche and mainstream alike play their marketing games and play on words. I feel it is a disservice to place the blame solely on niche meat. This is the meat bidness. Not farming. Its a whole new world and rather cut throat. You might be interested in this little darling.

  15. I am a small dairy farm. We are run by my husband and myself. I have seen all ends that you are talking about. I have raised my own. I will tell you there are hormones for growth that can not be tested to see if it is in the milk or meat. We sign a waiver stating we do not use any. We had a farmer tell us he was signing it but going to continue to use it. So what does that say to me. I am happy I can raise my own MEAT and Milk. I know what goes into it.
    I am picky and my kids are growing up on raw nonhomogenized and nonpasteurized milk. They been drinking it since they were 6 and 8 months old. There is NOTHING wrong with them. I feel as a farmer if you buy locally you are pretty safe. When you start to have things shipped they add things to make them last longer, look better and be more appealing to the eye. Not one farmer is the same as the next. We are open for anyone to come see our farm and we have nothing to hide. We LOVE our animals as kids. We LOVE our kids. I do the best to raise my own food to can and freeze it.
    There is no definite answer to any of that...than just know where your food comes from.
    Thanks for hearing me. I hope I helped out any. If you want my opinion on things just ask away!

  16. Dancing Bear Farm of WVOctober 4, 2013 at 10:32 PM

    I raise a handful of Dexter (Irish heritage) cattle - some are black, some are brown. I have been told by a local commercial beef ranch to de-horn my black calves, cut off the tiny fringe of white hairs some have and take them to the auction as Certified Angus. WHAT?!? Apparently the Angus Certification Board will accept any black hornless calf as an Angus. Talk about creating a label.

    I farm and have been disappointed during the last few years in - 1. How gullible the average consumer acts - 2. How few educated people are willing (and able) to do research for facts - 3. Half the farmers I know are using off label medications and chemicals without training or the advice of a professional and there is no, one, comprehensive source or bureau guiding them. Also, many people really do enjoy the drama of passing on the worst horror stories possible - so you hear about the hormones and steroids - true or not. The data out there that is true, but maybe not as dramatic (or too disturbing to think about) is often ignored because it is not accompanied by a waving of arms and screaming of maniacs. Pink Slime has been around for years but no one noticed until someone started waving their arms and yelling OMG!

    I have heritage breeds and raise them Sustainably - meaning that I do not put huge amounts of medication, wormer, feed and cash into them for a small return. The chickens and ducks are free range most of the year. This means they go anywhere they want on our 30 acres, eat bugs, flies, grasshoppers and wild seeds. The egg yolks are a dark yellow and the nutrient content is reported to be higher in good fats and trace minerals than commercial eggs. The are not fed commercial pellets that contain an arsenic derivative to control parasites that is supposed to pass harmlessly through the bird. Testing is now showing traces of the arsenic in grocery store chickens. And Arsenic laden chicken poo has been used so heavily on the Delmarva peninsula that many corn and soy fields are testing at dangerous levels as are rice fields. Arsenic does NOT break down for a very... VERY long time. We try not to use GMO's due to my personal decision after reading studies from New Zealand.

    Part of the problem is that there are laws written to benefit large, commercial processors - as long as a chart with 110 blocks has them all checked off, the meat goes out the door. For over a decade, small meat processors have spot tested with much cleaner product than meat off the grocery store shelves. Per the leading expert in livestock processing plants, (Temple Grandin) they need to test for simplified, measurable results instead of checkmarks on a chart. It's a mess - too many people involved want the largest possible profit, not matter what the ethical cost.

  17. The problem, as I see it, is the feed and fertilizers used in conventional farming. Unless we are being totally lied to, Monsanto and cronies are systematically poisoning our food supply with GMOs and chemicals. I choose to use organic ( much as possible anyway) to avoid GMOs and chemicals. If these farmers/ranchers can tell me their crops/animals are raised without GMOs and nasty chemicals, then I would be quite happy to purchase their products. Think about that for awhile, people...

  18. Great post!!! I posted your blog on my personal FB page. I do programs across the nation on the importance of farmers designed for kids but I have found 99% of the parents learn as much or more from the programs as their children do.
    As consumers we have been duped by the media and those trying to sell us over priced products that have the same nutrition.
    People don't realize that farming is a science based industry that is thoroughly tested and regulated before it even arrives to the consumer. Farmers are not stupid when it comes to taking care of the land, plants and animals but we as consumers are ignorant to what farming really is and instead listen to activist groups who have never farmed themselves.
    Good luck with your chickens and teaching your kids some very valuable lessons on responsibility and where their food comes from!


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