THEM AGAINST US -- PART VII -- LOST HORIZONS

It's impossible for them to understand.

There's no way for anyone who has never built fence, been run over by the calf they're doctoring or busted ice with numb hands to grasp the emotions, generational learning and innate intricacies associated with beef cattle production. Never mind the micro and macroeconomics associated with it.

Just like there's no way anybody born and raised in the cattle business can grasp all of the ins and outs of the cobbler's trade, aeronautics, building computers or anything else they've never tried their hand at.

This reality, trite in its simplicity, explains plenty about why presumably well-meaning folks could be so oblivious to reality.

For example, the following comes from a website called Factory Farm Map: “We wanted to illustrate something that people in rural America have known for a long time: family farms are being replaced by factory farms, and these facilities are overwhelming some regions of the country. This method of raising livestock harms rural communities and puts small family farms out of business. It takes away consumers' choice at the grocery store, makes food safety problems happen on a larger scale, and creates more waste than the surrounding environment can adequately absorb. It keeps animals packed tightly together inside buildings, leading to stress and disease that are managed with treatments like the constant use of antibiotics that can ultimately harm public health.”

The statement is, of course, factually and patently inaccurate.

The site is owned and managed by Food and Water Watch (FWW), which claims its mission is to, “…ensure the food, water and fish we consume is safe, accessible and sustainable…”

Keep in mind the fiction contained in the paragraph about factory farming is merely a pale comparison to the balderdash of an entire report-Factory Farm Nation-that can be found at www.foodandwaterwatch.org.

Last summer, this same outfit released what it called the Smart Seafood Guide, including highlights of fish they found to be suspect for a variety of reasons. Needless to say, the accuracy here was also wanting.

According to the Center for Consumer Freedom: “…this is a flawed piece that guts any hope of objectivity. How unsound is it? For starters, the National Fisheries Institute (a trade group) notes that FWW can't even get the most basic facts correct: [A] minimum of research would expose Food & Water Watch's suggestion that “many” foreign shrimp farms “densely pack their ponds to produce as much as 89,000 pounds of shrimp per acre” as patently ridiculous. In the same paragraph it is suggested that “properly run shrimp farms yield up to 445 pounds per acre.” Both are fairly close to absurd.

“An acre should be capable of producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 to 22,000 lbs; 89,000 lbs is a gross exaggeration, while 445 lbs. would suggest the farm has serious production problems and mortality issues that should set off alarm bells.”

Hey…you still there?

Activist groups are an extreme example of the uncoupling between agricultural producers and those generations removed from agricultural production. But such blatant grandstanding to drive agendas is no less insidious than a consumer who believes beef carrying a “natural” label is a healthier choice than one that doesn't, or a grade school teacher espousing a grow-and-buy-local program because they wrongly but genuinely believe it's more environmentally friendly.

There just aren't that many folks involved in production agriculture anymore. You know that, but when you ponder it, the numbers are truly startling.

You probably already know that only about two percent of the U.S. population is currently involved in agricultural production. There's no telling how many generations removed from production agriculture the other 98 percent are.

Now, consider, according to the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) 91 percent of U.S. farms are classified as small, defined as generating an annual Gross Farm Cash Income (GCFI) of $250,000 or less. Approximately 60 percent of those are classified as very small with a GFCI less than $10,000. Small farms account for 23 percent of agricultural production.

Conversely, farms with annual sales of $1 million or more represent two percent of all U.S. farms, according to USDA but about 53 percent of the value of annual production.

That's not many left to understand why things are the way they are or how they need to be for agriculture to keep on churning out more production with fewer resources at affordable prices.

The dichotomy is even more glaring for beef cattle productions. There are approximately 750,000 beef cattle operations in this nation. Last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 20.6 percent (155,000) of operations with beef cows (herds of 50 cows or more) accounted for 71.7 percent of the nation's beef cowherd.

That's not many left to defend what seems so obvious to producers but so counterintuitive to some consumers.

On top of that, there's a deep—some would say a growing—division within the beef cattle industry. Part of it has to do with business philosophy. Some of it has to do with history. A lot of it has to do with the different outlook based on operation size and how much of the annual net household income depends on cattle production. There's nothing to substantiate those latter points, other than common sense.

Incidentally, you know how many non-family owned agricultural operations there are in the U.S., how many of those corporate entities the mush-brains hint at with their “factory farm” label? According to the last Agriculture Census, out of 2,204,792 farms, 0.9 percent are corporate entities that are non-family owned. There are 3.9 percent corporate entities that are family corporations; 7.9 percent partnerships. The other 86.5 percent operate as sole proprietorships, be it family or individual.

Apathy is Hopeless

For the raw emotions associated with the issues discussed in this series, there are plenty of current examples of how folks in the beef cattle business are figuring out how to help those outside of the industry better understand why they operate the way they do.

Consider Diablo Trust (www.diablotrust.org), a northern Arizona Collaborative Grassroots Management Team. It began with the vision of Bar T Bar Ranch and the Flying M Ranch headquartered in northern Arizona. Rather than figure there's no way folks on opposite sides of environmental issues could ever get along, they developed a cooperative approach. The group includes ranchers, environmentalists, federal and state land managers, scientists, recreationists and other volunteers. They share common goals aimed at such things as: sustaining open space, producing higher quality food, restoring watersheds and creating stable, living soils.

Consider the young people behind I Love Farmers…They Feed My Soul. As described at their website (www.ilovefarmers.org): “Together we are working to help our generation understand the importance of knowing where our food comes from and who produced it.”

In another section, these pioneers explain, “As young people we have an opportunity to make a difference in our world. Plus, we have an obligation to our future. If we do not make wise choices about where food in America comes from today, we will become dependent on foreign sources of food tomorrow. That scares us. Look what happens when we depend on others for our oil. We fight wars and lose our friends.”

Amen.

Consider the aforementioned Center for Consumer Freedom (www.consumerfreedom.com), its sister sites and others like it devoted to revealing the fiction and fraud behind activist groups.

For that matter, consider industry programs that help tell the industry's story, though they're rarely considered in those terms. The Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program established with checkoff dollars in 1991 comes to mind. Besides enabling the industry to collectively adopt best management practices to avoid food safety problems and product quality defects, BQA represents an ongoing line of communication with the consumer.

According to Dee Griffin, DVM, a professor at the University of Nebraska Great Plains Veterinary Education Center, “It (BQA) starts with basic animal husbandry and includes documenting everything we do.” In an age when so few people have generational knowledge of livestock production, he adds BQA is way of communicating with the consumer. “Consumer trust is built upon producer integrity and Beef Quality Assurance.”

There are countless examples of grassroots organizations carrying the torch for agriculture in general and for the cattle industry, specifically, in order to share truth with consumers rather than allow myths to fill the void that was left for too long by their absence.

There are countless examples, often unnoticed, by state and national cattlemen organizations to represent business reality to consumers and lawmakers.

Likewise, there's no way to calculate the investment private industry continues to make in their own and public efforts aimed at telling the industry story.

That's before you consider the extraordinary job land grant universities do in not only teaching, but carrying the truth about agriculture to the public through extension service.

That's before considering youth organizations like 4-H and FFA. Last fall the National FFA Convention hosted record-large attendance. Imagine that.

As for 4-H, consider the fact that more than 6 million young people were involved in 2009; 1.6 million with animal projects, according to the 4-H National Headquarters at USDA. Those young people come from every state in the union, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia and the Northern Mariana Islands. That's not counting right at 500,000 adult and youth volunteers.

There will always be plenty of work to do in educating consumers about agricultural production, accepting the responsibility to share the truth with them. But, there's lots more reasons to be hopeful than otherwise.







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