Today the average North American is three generations removed from a farm. Food is still being provided even though the numbers would suggest that dairy farmers themselves are going missing. Both husband Murray and I represent the fourth generation to live on the family dairy farm, which puts us among the 2 percent who still live on farms. Although each succeeding generation has spent more time working off the farm, all three of our children are in agricultural careers in A.I., nutrition and ag marketing.
In the modern marketplace milk and the dairy industry are misjudged and misunderstood. (Read more: How got milk? Became got lost?) Those of us who remain are concerned about what happens to the milk they produce between the time it leaves the farm lane and takes up shelf space in the dairy aisle. This formerly “perfect food” is marked by a hit and miss journey that has many more misses than hits. Targeted by misconceptions, misinformation, and communication is it any wonder that there are days when both sides feel that dairy pride could be presumed missing?
Every one of us who grew up with a farmer as a role model is astonished today at the metamorphosis from “Farmer in the Dell” to “The Farmer is the Devil”. However on the farmer side of the fence, we too shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the consumer is “the Big Bad Wolf.” ready to huff and puff and blow our dairy world down. None of these images fully portrays the real strengths, challenges and fears facing 21st Century farmers and their customers.
It’s extremely difficult to understand how some of the public perceives farmers as “MOST WANTED!” for abuses against our own animals. The immediate question arises, “How can anyone imagine that people who work daily with livestock don’t care about the animals?” It would seem to be a no-brainer that only the best possible care allows animal handlers to survive and thrive on the farm. Having said that, neither are financial reasons the main motivation. “You do it because you love the animals. Otherwise why would you be up before sunrise and making final rounds after sunset day in and day out?” You wouldn’t.
Over time, fewer and fewer find the rewards that are commensurate with the commitment and dedication that dairying demands. For those who do have the desire, farming methods have become more efficient. Technology has contributed to the sustainability. Automated equipment, robotic milkers and GPS tractors are just a few of the tools that keep efficiency growing. As in any other industry, investing in new technology requires that the business, in this case the farm, must get bigger. In responding to the challenges, it is frustrating to be labeled with the implied derogatory term, “Factory Farmers.” The truth is 98% of farms are family owned (what other business can claim that) and the goal is, as it has always been, to provide food …. for everyone. Not selfish. Not criminal.
It’s ironic in this day and age of mass production, mega stores and IMAX that big farms are judged to be bad. It’s hypocritical to accept the growth of computer assembled cars and think that food producers can remain at a static size. There was a time when one famer fed five. Everyone respected their hard work. Today one farmer feeds 200 and it seems like everything from motives, to ethics to animal husbandry is being questioned. Is there any other profession, where the consuming public insists on reverting to the past? If you’re reading this, you are using a computer. How many channels are available on your TV? Is your transportation provided by a “mom-and-pop” car shop? Do you drink your water from a pump in your yard or do you reach for a plastic bottle?
As an industry we need to accept responsibility for debunking myths that have taken hold in consumer understanding. Jude Capper, assistant professor of dairy science at Washington State University spoke at the Alltech Symposium. “Organic dairy farming certainly has a very favorable consumer perception. But, productivity on the typical organic dairy farm is lower than conventional farms – anywhere from 14 to 45 percent lower in terms of milk yield per cow.” she said. “What that means is that more cows are needed in the organic systems, along with more natural resources, to make the same amount of milk as the conventional systems. And, that increases the carbon footprint per pound of milk.” Since 1944 the carbon footprint per pound of milk has been reduced by 63%. Dairy farmers have made major progress and it is something they should be proud to declare and share.
For whatever reason – perhaps because of their agrarian forefathers – people feel quite comfortable assuming their expertise about modern farming. Where they might tread lightly in pronouncing how factories should be managed yet there are many “activists” who can speak against modern agricultural practices. Genetically modified organisms deepen the divide between farmers and consumers. GMOs are crops that have been scientifically altered to enhance the plant’s quality and resistance to elements and pesticides. In a national survey 64 percent of people said they were unsure if eating GMOs was safe. It is time for the dairy producer to stand proudly behind the products we produce, eat, drink and serve to ourselves and our children.
Farmers and consumers too often have an “us against you” mentality, which the media intensifies by focusing on negative instances that can colour the entire industry. More consumers are asking questions about where their food comes from and about farming in general. That’s great. Just asking questions is the best way for the public to learn about farming. Asking and getting an answer is the only way to bridge the gap between emotional finger pointing and mutual thumbs up!
The time is long past, where we can rely on our good intentions to spread the good word to the consuming public. It’s time to proactively take whatever role we are most comfortable with. Rather than witness a loss in dairy and consumer confidence – I would rather stand on my soapbox, share great stories, teach what I believe in, and raise my voice at every opportunity. It’s time to be the “change I wish to see!”
It’s not easy being on the receiving end of blame. However whether producer or consumer it’s in our best interest to make sure that there are voices, from both sides, speaking with pride, about the products we produce and eat!
Bullvine writer, Karen Hunt, is a dairy-farm wife who is an author, entrepreneur and champion of all things rural and family farm. Karen loves the wordy side of life. Husband, three children, eight grandchildren, thirty cows and Jack Russell terriers are her inspiration!