At least they would have gone hungry if they were depending on me and my small “farm” to feed them. A raccoon killed seven of my chickens last week.
You can guess that I was extremely mad. I have put a lot of time, money and emotion into those chickens, and I was looking forward to collecting their eggs to feed to my family. I was also having the debate with my oldest child whether we should be eating the extra roosters. She had finally decided that eating them would be okay, but the raccoons beat us to it. And it wasn’t pretty. The most frustrating part was that out of the seven killed, very little of those chickens were actually eaten.
We still have nine chickens left: two roosters and seven hens. This will be enough to provide us eggs, and we will be able to share with our family and neighbors. You can imagine that we have upped our chicken security. They now are put into a large dog crate covered with chicken wire each night (tree limbs are provided for them to roost on), and we have set a trap outside their home for the past several nights. And yes, we have captured several culprits, but nothing in the last two nights. We will continue to do this until their new critter-proof coop is ready, which should be by this weekend.
But why is this story important? I recently attended a conference of farm women, and a featured speaker asked us if large-scale/commercial/factory farming is “right.” That seems to be the million dollar question these days regarding food production. Many people want to see farming like it was in the good-old days where more than half the population had a small farm in which they raised most of their food and enough to feed a few non-farming neighbors. But things have definitely changed.
Fewer and fewer people have dedicated themselves to producing our food. Most of us just don’t want to do it… it requires land, capital, long hours, and a lot of faith. It’s not as easy as the internet games Farmville and Farmtown on Facebook make it out to be. I think someone needs to program in unpredictable natural disasters, disease, pests, low prices and high inputs. Then let’s see how many people want to dedicate hours to producing their virtual crops.
Having worked for farmers in the modern age – and unbeknownst to most of the world, 95% of these farmers are not food company owned – I have a real appreciation for their growing success. It was comical to see the article in Time magazine about how farmers are becoming rich these days. But the difference between a wealthy banker or stock broker and a farmer is that any profit made by the farmer is immediately invested back into his or her operation – they buy more land, they buy better equipment, they hire more people, and they invest in methods to improve the sustainability of their practices. They are not off buying yachts and summer homes in France. They are creating jobs and investing in their communities and the future of our food.
Now, I will admit 100% that I am not immune to the “factory farm” expose videos showing our food animals being mistreated or in poor living conditions. I made myself watch the Mercy for Animals video of the corporate hog facility in Iowa. I immediately left the house, turned my chickens out to run around the farm and proclaimed to my husband that I would no longer be purchasing pork from my grocery store (which was named in the video). I also suggested that we buy a pig or two to raise ourselves, just like my grandparents did, but that didn’t fly.
And since I have undertaken the task of advocating for our US farmers and their practices, I had to ask myself, “How do I defend this if I don’t like it?”
That has been a tough question, but something I felt I needed to address. After several weeks of contemplation, my answer about the morality of farming comes down to this:
In most cases, I believe the individual farmer feels a strong sense of duty to feed his or her fellow man. That sense of duty may be tied to faith and/or a real desire to contribute a basic necessity for life. Most farmers do not intentionally set out to abuse animals or pollute the environment, but try to produce food the best way they know how at the time with the resources they have available to them.
Improvements are constantly being made – not for making loads of money, but to maximize future productivity. Making a profit is still important, however, and we cannot lose sight that farmers must provide for the basic needs of their families as well. I believe a lot of farmers are complacent at just getting by, but operating at a loss for several years is difficult to endure for anyone, which has led to many farmers leaving the business.
I also believe most farmers are willing to listen to the needs of consumers and will “fix” certain aspects if it makes logical sense. Some farmers are turning to niche markets to meet those needs and help themselves stay afloat financially. What I don’t want to see happen though is our food supply drastically reduced because going back to the “good-old days” makes people feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Our farmers will need to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050, and there are still cases of famine across the globe. We still need efficient, larger-scale operations to feed the majority of the under-privileged people across the world and even in our nation.
Now back to my chickens… I love the fact that I am producing some food for my family in the best way that I know how. The chickens I have left are happy and get to eat as much horse poop, bugs and green stuff as they want. Raising chickens is expensive (I could have already purchased 1700 dozen eggs with what I have spent in food and housing) but it makes me feel good. But I would be hungry if I had to depend on these chickens to feed me and my family. Okay, seven families may not be hungry, but I have lost several years’ worth of eggs and a few meals worth of meat in one night. The notion circulating that we could all sustain ourselves on 4.5 acres of land is laughable to me. God doesn’t make things so easy. That perfect world only exists on Facebook.
It is my true opinion that we have the ability to feed our people on the land available to us, without deforesting millions of acres and without causing further destruction to our natural resources. I am seeing some amazing technology coming down the pike to help us achieve that. Some may think that it is more “right” to not use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically-modified crops, or confine animals, but I can guarantee that if we all turned back the clock on food production, many more people would be starving. Where is the morality in that?
Update: After having a great conversation with a reader I wanted to clarify that I will never try to defend bad behavior of farmers or food companies. But I feel I need to defend agriculture in general - big or small - for putting food on our tables. I have said it before; farmers have a really hard time recuperating from the misdeeds of a few. It is our right as consumers to demand better, but we must also realize what it will take to feed more people with less resources.