I was a little dismayed just now when, while skimming a post on Facebook, I saw someone post this:
Someone convince me all [our] discussion about food and farms is making a difference!
Now, as someone who has spent a lot of time having discussions about food production and farming, I got really disappointed that a comment like this could be coming from one of our own. Do we really think sharing our stories and talking to people about where their food comes from is a waste of time? Are we really so jaded by bad experiences that we think it isn’t worth it?
I sure hope not.
No matter what I hope for, though, I want to hear from others. Are you a non-farmer who thinks differently about agriculture because of something you learned from talking to a farmer? Are you a farmer who is more optimistic about our future because of an experience you had with someone who doesn’t farm, but wanted to learn more about where their food came from? Please help me feel a little better about all the hard work we do to “agvocate” – because I refuse to believe that it isn’t making a difference.
My friend Janice has been using her blog to keep us up-to-date on the flooding of the Mississippi River over the past couple of weeks as its been affecting Memphis, where she lives. Thankfully, all of her family is alright and none of her possessions have been damaged. She’s been one of the lucky ones, though, and I’m keeping in my thoughts all of those people who have no home to go to now and are trying to figure out where to go next. I can’t even fathom what it’s like to be in that situation and hope everything turns out alright in the end.
There’s something about being involved with purebred livestock that just makes my heart swell with pride. Now, that’s not to say anything is wrong with raising commercial livestock – I’m grateful for every farmer that produces the vast majority of what I eat every day – but there’s something to be said for getting around people that have such a deep history in raising outstanding animals.
Like many others, the start of my livestock career focused mainly the county fair. Having only a market show, our goal has always been to develop the best market hog out there – usually the result of crossbreeding. Now, while I will say that I love the market hog aspect (my most favorite set of hogs – Grand Champion Pen! – were a set of crossbred “blue butts”), I developed a whole new appreciation and pride for breeding hogs when I got involved with the National Junior Swine Association, the junior leg of the National Swine Registry.
Breeding purebred animals, for me, is an entirely different mindset. Instead of breeding solely for type, you breed for characteristics that will improve the breed – and in turn, all hogs – in the long run. You want to breed Yorkshires and Landraces in a way that will add muscle and leanness to their great mothering ability. You want to add mothering ability and sound structure to the great carcass traits that tend to be associated with Durocs and Hampshires. If anyone can remember how far the pendulum swung towards market hogs that were too lean, too shallow bodied and horribly structured in the late 90s, you know how important the purebred industry can be in making our animals better – whether you’re in commercial production or seedstock production. Having that ability to make an impact is the thing that makes all the difference to me.
Yesterday I got to interview the faculty coordinator and farm manager from the purebred beef farm at MSU and they reminded me how it’s great to be a part of raising seedstock, not only for the pride in your animals, but also for the pride in your people. Throughout the history of the purebred livestock industry, there have been outstanding people that have made a difference – both for animals and for others. There are few things greater than getting to listen to older people – and it doesn’t matter if it’s in cattle, swine, sheep, horses, etc. – talk about those that made a difference in their lives when they were a livestock showman or make a difference in the lives of youth now. That’s huge for me.
As you or your children get involved with livestock – and I sincerely hope you do – I would encourage you to consider involvement in the purebred side of the industry. While both seedstock and commercial production are important for the entire industry, it’s definitely a unique experience to be a part of shaping a breed or multiple breeds. I, for one, am extremely honored to be a part of the great pride and tradition associated with being pure.
Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to listen to a speaker on campus that I found rather interesting. His name is Robert Paarlberg and he’s a political scientist at Wellesley College (he’s also done some guest lectures at Harvard). His research focuses on international agriculture and environmental policy. Out of his studies, he’s written several popular press books. Paarlberg was invited to MSU as a part of a lecture series sponsored by CANR that focused on feeding the world with science-based agriculture. I got to cover his lecture as a freelance gig, so I won’t go too in-depth about the presentation itself. However, there were a few things that struck me as…well, like I said earlier: interesting.
Dr. Paarlberg is a big believer in precision agriculture being the main way that we will feed a growing population by 2050 (9.3 billion around the world that will have to be fed, clothed and housed). He explained how precision agriculture is producing more on less land with less water, fertilizer, chemicals, tillage, etc. (the usual), while organic production, in his opinion, is too slow, labor intensive and expensive to reach that goal (although he was supportive of some organic methods).
Now, I’m not saying that I disagree with anything he said. However, I didn’t expect for the audience to be eating right out of his hands.
On first impressions, I would have figured this audience was more likely to be found at a Michael Pollan lecture than a lecture on precision ‘Big Ag’ agriculture. So, you can understand a little of my wonderment when here they were nodding and smiling at every point Paarlberg made. This struck me as extremely odd.
Does it matter what charismatic, well-spoken people say as long as what they say sounds good? Do non-farm citizens want the answer when it comes to their food, or do they really just want an answer (and preferably one from a smooth talker)? I’d be really interested in hearing what other people think. It seems to me that agriculture could lose the power of its advocates – like Paarlberg – if those advocates are just the mirror image of anti-farm advocates.
When my boyfriend and I watch our beloved Spartans play, we tend to have different attitudes when they’re losing. Yesterday, we got to experience this difference full force when the guys went down (rather painfully) to Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl.
See, when our team is losing by a lot, Mitch tends to want to turn the TV off and find something else to do. His point is ‘Why do you want to put yourself through this? It’s not going to get any better!’. I, however, tend to leave the television on and watch until the end. Yes, it’s probably just masochism where football is involved, but that dedication is kind of part of my personality.
When I start something, I can’t help but follow through until it’s completed. That was instilled in me by my dad when I was little. Even if we started a sport or project that we ended up not liking or wasn’t going well, we didn’t get to stop in the middle of a season or leave our teammates hanging. Today, even when I take on too much, I feel a sense of responsibility to keep pushing until I’ve finished what I committed to doing.
I think that’s a trait that’s heavy in agriculture (even if Mitch doesn’t like it where it’s related to the Spartans!). Farmers and other agriculturalists stick through weather, tough markets, family challenges and more – no matter what it takes, because they’ve made a commitment to providing Americans with a safe and consistent food supply. I hope that a new generation of agriculturalists, including young farmers, gardeners and those joining the local food movement, carry this characteristic with them as they face struggles to reach success.
Now, I shouldn’t beat Mitch up too bad. There is also something to be said for people who recognize something is not working, ditch it and move on to the next thing that could be a success. I actually think there’s a little of both personalities in most of us. What about you? Are you one to cheer on your team even though they’re dying a slow, painful death? Or do you realize that your time could be better spent by moving on?