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We are the 1%.  No, not the billionaires or the millionaires but the number of families who make their living through family farming.  Why talk about the importance of family farming?  In the world of unlimited communication opportunities, misinformation is viral.  It’s easy to understand how it happens.  The sight of people pushing around wounded animals with a skid loader is horrific.  What’s just as bad?  Believing that this is how all other folks in the livestock industry treat their animals.  

If you are reading this article and you are one of the 1%, I’ve got news for you, there’s things that you can do now besides complain about PETA.  For the other 99%, this is for you too.  I encourage you to read with an open mind and start questioning why you believe what you believe about the way your food is raised and produced.

PS: This post DOES NOT contain any affiliate links for which I am receiving compensation.  The only influencing that is going on here is my appeal to your reason.

An Outsider’s View

I had the great fortune to marry a man who was raised on the farm.  He’s a farmer!  Where was I raised?  In town, and this is why he lovingly calls me, a “townie”.  This has often created a few hiccups in our marriage.  My parents often worked long hours and had somewhat irregular schedules as a pastor and nurse.  However, my schedule typically remained the same and I brought that expectation into our relationship.  When I met Andrew and he told me about growing up in the country and raising cattle, it all sounded so quaint!  

I had the great fortune to marry a man who was raised on the farm.  He’s a farmer!  Where was I raised?  In town, and this is why he lovingly calls me, a “townie”.  This has often created a few hiccups in our marriage.  My parents often worked long hours and had somewhat irregular schedules as a pastor and nurse.  However, my schedule typically remained the same and I brought that expectation into our relationship.  When I met Andrew and he told me about growing up in the country and raising cattle, it all sounded so quaint!  

Down on the Farm, for REAL

In all fairness, how was I to know?  All the commercials on TV depicted farmers bouncing along happily on their tractor seats down the field.  By the way, no tractor in this vision ever had a cab.  When they finished, while the sun was still up, they sat around their table and said grace for the bounty on the table. Any yes, it was all picked fresh from the garden that day.  Thank you, Charlotte’s Web and Foghorn Leghorn for my highly realistic agricultural education.  What I was not prepared for was the weather calling all the shots, calving checks at 2:00am and the brutal honesty of the quote “A farmer’s work is never done.” (If you want to see a random Saturday at our house, click here)

A man in a plaid shirt stands between a red steal building and a red wood slat building.  He is looking out, away from the camera into a green pasture.  The horizon is foggy but an outline of trees and a a line of fence is seen in the distance.
A farmer’s work is never done.

Communicating the Importance of Family Farming

Why am I airing all of our dirty laundry?  Our microcosm of farm meets Millennial is a pretty good representation of what’s going on in the world today.  The media defines reality for a large portion of our country.  One image that resonates with me is a large animal welfares organization who posts a picture of a bloodied sheep after it’s wool has been “removed”.  Ummm, people, the animal had a haircut.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been accidentally burned by my mom when she was curling my bangs so there is some danger in hair adjustments. However, the image is plain and simply incorrect.  And yet, the marketing is powerful.  Even though the thing is ridiculous, I still can’t shake the image.      

In protest,  should we throw all our cell phones in the garbage and not participate?  Or, perhaps we could fight fire with fire?  What if we flood the pool with the images of positivity? The positivity that 90% of producers are making their living family farms.  *Take that, Internet.*  When we start putting a face, or more accurately, a family, to an industry, it starts to change the narrative.

To My Farm Friends

Fight Fire with Fire

John Gladigau’s “Open Letter” essay really resonated with me several months ago.  In it, he discussed the need for people in the ag field to become more vocal instead of retreating back into our communities.  It’s easy to understand why producers are a little shy.  Every time a reporter wants to come to the farm for a news story, my husband organizes a mini inquisition to see “Why are you REALLY here?”  And “Who do you work for?”  The scene is slightly reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s  Kindergarten Cop. My husband is 6ft 5in and he tends to tower over most people that work in the news industry.  I keep waiting for him to say “Who is your daddy, and what does he do?” (If you read that last line in an Austrian accent, it’s much funnier, I promise).

A man and a young boy are standing in a grass field.  The man is bent over a pickup hitch and is connecting  power cord to the bumper.  The boy is turning a crank to lower a trailer onto the hitch of the truck.  They are both dressed in t-shirts and jeans.  The background shows a foggy pasture and a field of corn.  There is a hay wagon in the back left corner.
Helping Dad hook up the trailer.

The fear of having someone show up at a the farm and portray a scene of animal disparity is real.  All it takes is a couple shots of sad cows, 15 minutes on iMovie and some Sarah Mclachlan music, and the internet is in an uproar.  For the record my townie friends, cows don’t smile, even the happy ones that come from California.  (See how powerful media and marketing can be?!). When you only have teeth on the bottom of your mouth, it would be a little awkward anyway.  Cows “skip” when they are happy. 

The reality is that many people, due to the liability created by these “undercover stings”, tend to close themself off.  Dear farm friends, when we limit our communication and contact, then all that’s left is the narrative.  Trust me, it’s not very flattering.  And, the message, the wrong one, will continue to grow unless there is a counter balance in the mix.  

Challenge: Put Yourself Out There 

If you are in the agricultural industry, I have a challenge for you.  Put yourself out there.  Teach others about the importance of family farming.  If you have a Facebook account, this is easy peasey.  Start talking and post about your day.  We both know that people will put ANYTHING on the internet these days, so why don’t you create educational content? 

Social Media as Positive Communication

Fortunately, I’m starting to see more and more of this exposure on Instagram.  One farms I follow is Hart Ag Dairy (@hart.ag) down in Georgia.  Most of it is pictures of his cows.  Sometimes it’s a picture of a pretty southern sunset.  It’s not political.  It’s just someone who is doing what they love.  I also like it because he puts the names of the cows in his posts. Consequently, it makes me feel a little more normal when we talk “Twilight” and “Jesse”, the boys heifers, at the dinner table.

A elementary-aged boy stands in a muddy cow yard with a group of Hereford cattle.  He is wearing a blue Chicago Cubs sweatshirt and red shorts.  His arm is around one of the Hereford cows.  The cow is leaning into him and looking towards the camera.  She has a white face, pink nose,  and rust colored spots on her ears and body.
Checking in on the show heifers.

Next Step: Get in People’s Faces

That’s right.  You need to be seen.  I’m not talking about finger wagging and preaching on Capitol Hill.  Let’s go grass roots a little further than your pasture.  Here are three things that you can do RIGHT NOW:

  1. Volunteer at schools
  2. Show up to county fairs
  3. Donate your time organizations

Volunteering at Schools

School budgets are tight.  Long gone are the days when there was funding to take children to the farm to see how milk is made.  (No, brown cows do not make chocolate milk.) This is an opportunity for “Reverse Field Tripping.”  While a school administrator might not go for livestock trailer full of pigs on the playground, a 4th grade science class would likely be a great place to talk about the lifecycle of a mammal.  There’s so much opportunity for a producer to be present and make a lasting impression on a young mind and heart. 

Kids are inquisitive beings. The presence of a producer in the classroom can also help clarify any misconceptions or misunderstandings about the importance of family farming. What we consider as a “normal” day can appear quite foreign to an inner city dweller. I wish I could tell you this next story was something I read on the internet but, like many things in my work experience, I just can’t make this stuff up. 

Several years ago, I worked in a very low income school district with students who had diverse learning needs. One teacher, in reading a book about a farm, began to ask a young elementary child what sounds the animals make. This is typical to talk about the story because it helps the educator understand if they have any background knowledge regarding the text. When she got to the pig, she asks “what does it say?” Without hesitation, the child said “Put up your hands, you’re under arrest.” When I heard that story, my jaw dropped. In the child’s defense, when would they ever have seen any pork products on the hoof, growing up in a housing project?

County Fairs

People still go to the fair. While this fact is a little outdated, a report from the Chicago Tribune found that just in Illinois, 170 million dollars in revenue was generated by county fairs. Yes, a good portion of it is spent on rides, food, and entertainment, it’s also free advertising for the ag industry. Additionally, it’s another chance to let people see the animals and products that family farms produce. This is going to sound a little bit preachy but if a lady with three kids and a stroller wants to come pet your bucket calf, just let her. I hear people in the barns get grumpy about this type of situation all the time. 

My advice to you?  “Suck it up.” You are an ambassador and if you didn’t want the opportunity, you could have just stayed at home and complained about the weather (isn’t it always a million degrees at the fair?!). It’s also good practice for your kids too. Ask them to explain to those city slickers how they care for their animals and all the work that you put in from sun up to sundown. We can’t get upset at people for not understanding the importance of family farming if we don’t invite them to see it.

A man and a young girl are walking through a green pasture on a sunny day.  The man holds a clipboard and the girl, in a long pink flowered dress, follows closely behind.  They are walking towards a group of people and cows in the background.
Teaching little ones about the importance of family farming.

Donate Time to Local Organizations

The opportunities for this one are endless. It doesn’t even have to be a big time commitment. Call up your local 4H leaders and see if they need any help with wrangling the kids or providing snacks Organizations like the Illinois Farm Bureau have governing boards that are always in need of volunteers.  In addition, they also have ongoing events that reach out to the community. Did you know our local IFB sponsors a frozen dinner sale? Busy parents all over town give a big ol’ “hallelujah” because they now have meals in the freezer when ball practice goes late or nothing in the fridge looks good.  Momma always said the best way to get to someone’s heart is through their stomach.  

To My Fellow Townies

If you’re still reading, bless you. *I mean the real “Bless You” and not the “Bless your heart”. Apparently, there’s a big difference especially when you get south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Thank you for reading about something that is near and dear to my heart. Perhaps, this will create a different tune to the song that is often portrayed by the media. It’s also my hope you’ll see the importance in family farming.

Exception but not the Rule

Let’s just put it out there… there are producers out there that abuse their animals. Like every other profession, there’s going to be someone who goes against good practice and common sense. Fortunately, these folks that mistreat their animals are the exception and not the rule. Why? For starters, it’s just plain mean. I’m also going to go out on my mental-health-therapist-training limb and conjecture that these animal cruelty videos don’t show the entire picture. This is not about about camera angles. I’m talking about people that find satisfaction in seeing the suffering of an animal are “not okay”. How’s that for fancy clinical terminology? There’s a reason that being “physically cruel to animals” is one of the behavioral indicators in our diagnostic manual for some mental health disorders.

A young boy, wearing a t-shirt and blue zip up sweatshirt are the focal point of the picture.  The boy holds a small black and white kitten.  His face is nuzzling the top of the kitten's head.  In the background, there is a red barn door with white trim.
Caring for animals both great and small on the farm.

Wait, Don’t You Eat Them?

Yes, we eat the animals that we raise for meat. That’s why we have them on our farm. Here’s where we may go down our separate paths and I, any many other producers, support you in your decision. Why? You have to eat sometime! If you don’t want a cheeseburger, you’re likely going to have to consume some other agricultural product. Tofurkey anyone? We grow soybeans too. As a consumer, you get to decide how to spend your money and feed your family. We appreciate that right too.

Be Kind to Animals is Good for Business

Treating animals humanely is good for the bottom line. Why? Animals that are well cared for produce better products. For example, animals that are not under stress are likely to consume less feed and reach market weight more slowly. It sounds silly to say but we want the pig to “pig-out”! How can we do this? By giving the pig a “comfortable environment”. This means that they have access to clean water, bedding, regulated temperatures, and even a pig buddy!

When it comes time to processing, the handling of animals also greatly improves the quality of meat. If an animal is treated roughly, it’s like that bruising will result. As a result, that portion of the meat will have to be discarded when it is processed. It’s actually a means of preventing waste.

A boy, wearing a cubs shirt, red shorts, and mud boots, holds a milk bottle.  A calf, with a white tag in her ear, is drinking from the bottle.  In the background, a gate, and straw covered ground can be seen.
Feeding time on the farm!

Everybody Get Together

There are many ways that folks that live on either side of the city limits can come to closer understanding.   One opportunity available in many states is extension programming.  Locally, the University of Illinois, creates partnerships and educational opportunities for state residents.  Fortunately, extension programs also reach into schools to teach children the science components and the importance of family farming.

Great news! Even if you aren’t living on a farm, you can still enjoy membership in communities that benefit both the producer and consumer.  I love the Illinois Farm Bureau’s intro on their membership page that says “If you’re a farmer, agribusiness professional or simply someone who loves to eat, you are part of agriculture!” Who doesn’t like to eat?!

Thank you 

Thank you for reading about the importance of family farming.  As your time is valuable, I’m grateful for the gift.  If I may be so bold, I would like to ask for one more.  Would you answer a question for me?  

For my farm friends:

What’s one thing that you could do to increase your visibility in your local community?

For my fellow townies: 

What’s one thing you want to know more about in regards to farming or livestock production?

Thanks again for reading about the importance of family farming!

Christy

PS. Thank you to Jana Schlukebir for her amazing photography!