This summer we had three fluffy little kittens running around in the barn that both of our children adored — Little Stripy, Balderdash and Kitty. One morning when my wife was out doing chores in the barn with the help of our five-year-old son, little Kitty made the very unfortunate decision to hop right beside the dog food bowl while our aging lab-mix was eating. A quick growl and a snap from the grumpy 85-pound dog was all it took to send one kitten flying in multiple directions. It was a gory, but quick, finale for poor little Kitty.
Being around livestock every day, our son was upset about the loss of one of his kittens, but he quickly moved on with life, and apparently a new story to share with friends. A few days later we were driving home from a Cloverbud meeting when my wife got a phone call from a concerned mother. At the meeting, our son had shared the graphic, unedited details about the untimely demise of one of his former favorite kittens with her young (and at that point quite distraught) daughter.
While I am not sure where my son gets his proclivity for story telling, I do know that growing up on a farm provides insights into realities of life that many young people do not get these days. And, while learning lessons about life’s harsh realities can be painful and challenging, it is also necessary.
For thousands of years, mankind has worked tirelessly to insulate our lives from the harshness of reality and we really have done a remarkable job — maybe most notably with food. Within just a couple of short centuries, U.S. agriculture has driven the change from a global society that mostly grew their own food, to a world where a few can feed the masses. This is amazing no matter how you look at it, but with such success our plentiful food supply can be easily taken for granted.
Many people do not grasp the daily challenges of agriculture and seem to forget that every time you take a bite, something had to die to provide it whether you are eating lettuce in a bag from your fridge or a steak at a fancy restaurant. Food is about life and death. There is sickness, disease, predation, disaster, mud, blood, sweat, and effort with the production of food, and farms are the front lines of this perennial battle with reality.
People who farm understand this, but today most people don’t farm. And, more than ever before, consumers feel that they should have a say in how their food is produced. This can be a very positive thing, but when you have a group of people dictating how food is produced when they do not understand the realities of food production, it can also create significant frustration and confusion.
For this reason, there have been unprecedented efforts in recent years to add transparency to agriculture and reach out with information targeted at those who may not understand how their food is grown. Efforts including CommonGround and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance were formed for this purpose. At the same time, more outreach events began to pop up to help consumers connect with what they eat and get real, accurate answers to their food production questions from farmers.
I was honored to be a part of such an event last month held at the Toledo Zoo. The event, Farm to Plate: A Food Dialogue, was put on by the Lucas County Farm Bureau and more than 270 people (about half involved in agriculture and half not) were in attendance.
I moderated a panel featuring Kurt Bench, the owner/operator of Shared Legacy Farms, a small, 20 acre organic vegetable farm in Elmore, Ohio; Alan Sundermeier, the Ohio State University Extension educator in Wood County who also serves as co-coordinator on the Sustainable Agriculture Team and the Ohio State Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program; Rebecca A. Singer, vice president and director of the Agricultural Program for the Center for Innovative Food Technology; Tim Barney, a certified crop advisor who owns and operates Agronomy First Consulting and owns a small hog operation; and Jordan Beck who works in livestock feed sales, ingredient marketing and manages a 1,500 head cattle finishing program at Pettisville Grain Company.
The topics of questions covered at the event included: organic verses conventional food production, the use of hormones and antibiotics in meat production, technology in agriculture, U.S. agriculture feeding the world, ethanol, and agriculture’s role in water quality. The panelists provided attendees with plenty to digest as they finished dinner in the form of excellent insights and real answers to the questions posed.
Whether it is a childhood spent around animals in the barn or a pleasant evening discussing agricultural issues, it is important that somewhere along the way we are all reminded of realities in food production that loom large. Our decisions regarding agriculture should reflect reality, which makes the story of agriculture one worth sharing.