Farmed and Dangerous.
Huh? Since when is raising food on farms dangerous? Apparently Chipotle restaurants think it is. This February, Chipotle is releasing an online comedy show on Hulu called just that, “Farmed and Dangerous.”
As a farmer myself, certainly my radar went up when I heard about this campaign.
Part of me feels defensive, but I also try not to take things too seriously. I’m sure some of you may eventually see this show, enjoy it, and laugh. It’s comedy after all. If you do, I hope you’ll read my post too. I’m not thrilled that a food company, while trying to seem ethically minded and concerned about farming practices, is actually making fun of farmers as they pass judgement on modern agriculture.
But it got me thinking. I thought about our food system of today, the outcry against it, and began to wonder…
What is it we want to go back to?
Here is my perspective.
I asked myself this question again, “What is it we want to go back to?” as pondered the increasingly conflicted food chain I am part of.
I live in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota, with the nearest town having a population of about 100 people. It’s too small for its own post office or zip code.
We are farmers. We care for and milk cows. We grow feed for these cows and their offspring. We sell the milk our cows produce to a nearby cooperative, which processes the milk into butter, cheese, and dairy ingredients. It’s something this family farm has done for over 100 years.
But even in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota, I hear growing clamor about the evils of large farms and corporate agriculture. I hear people casually mention how they only want to buy ethically-raised food, and I see the selection of things like almond milk, soy milk, and hemp milk growing in our local grocery stores.
Somehow, the day to day activities of a farm like ours have become alien to a whole generation-plus. When people visit our farm they love seeing the cows and milking equipment, but so many people don’t have the chance to visit a farm.
They just hear about farms with “hundreds of cows” and assume they are industrial and uncaring. That couldn’t be farther from the truth on our dairy.
I also often hear people remark they want to get back to natural foods — like things used to be. In the good old days, food was nutritious, wholesome, local, less processed, and better. Right?
It’s convenient to ignore the fact that food was produced with back-breaking labor, many farmers were subsistence farmers, and food borne illness was much more common because of contamination, lack of refrigeration, or poor preserving methods.
I try to take the whole food debate in stride because I know most people are well meaning and just want to do what’s right for the world. They want to eat healthy and support responsible agricultural practices.
And so do I. I believe in ethically raised food to my very core.
I want to see agriculture be a sustainable system that produces good food people can afford and that they feel good about eating.
So, let’s switch gears for a minute.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit large, modern meat and poultry processing plants. They process a large quantity of meat that comes from a large number of animals. They’re efficient, clean, and regulated.
On the flip side, we raised a few chickens and turkeys in our backyard this summer.
It was a lot of work.
We found a processor for the remaining turkeys and chickens because I didn’t want to spend any more Saturdays in autumn freezing my fingers trying to pluck chickens.
Which is better?
For my part, I say neither. I think both produce good, nutritious food. Raising chickens in my backyard may be less sustainable economically because it was quite costly. After buying feed, equipment, and paying processing fees, we ended up with some expensive birds.
It was a fun project for us and we sold some eggs and meat, but on this scale there is exactly 0% chance we’ll break even on the endeavor.
Larger farms aren’t perfect either. Because they have lots of animals in one place they need to be extra careful with monitoring animal health and how they handle waste like manure. When farms are larger though, the government requires an environmental plan to make sure the manure is applied to land responsibly for fertilizer. Larger farms = larger regulations, which means the consumer can be assured there’s much more oversight.
I’m also grateful things aren’t the way they used to be where everyone had to butcher all their own meat!
I know not everyone even eats meat. So what about vegetables?
Well, they are a lot of work too. We garden as a hobby, and we spent many hours to grow and freeze enough tomatoes and peppers for our own use, plus make sauerkraut. We had various fresh veggies for eating, and we canned about 10 jars of salsa. Beyond that? Well, we’d have a serious lack of food for the winter if we had to raise everything ourselves.
In today’s world, most people simply don’t have the time or land resources to raise their own food. This they understand with certainty. All while demand grows for food that is speciality, organic, local, small-scale, pastured, natural, or some combination there of — that is still as affordable, safe, and abundant as its more conventionally produced counterparts.
As far as natural goes, ALL food is full of chemicals. It always has been. At its most basic level, food and everything else is made up of elements from the periodic table. (Remember high school Chemistry?)
Conventionally grown foods may use approved pesticides to control bugs and weeds. Organic foods may use organic-approved pesticides for the same reason. I don’t know which is better, but I do know no farmer wants weeds taking over their fields or bugs in their apples or lettuce.
And I think you know how I feel about antibiotics. On our farm, if I have a baby calf sick with pneumonia I will not hesitate to give her the antibiotic she needs. I believe in the benefits of modern medicine, much like I’m sure you do for yourself or your own children. I don’t want to see antibiotics used recklessly or without proper prescriptions and veterinary oversight.
If a food animal is treated with antibiotics, a specified withdrawal time must be past before that animal is slaughtered. It ensures that all antibiotics are out of the animal’s body. This isn’t only good practice, it’s law.
Even though I have my own beliefs, I still recognize that every farm is different. Farms need to find a niche and system that works for their geography, interests, and goals. There are small conventional farms, large organic farms, vice versa, and everything in between.
This post is not a referendum on farm type.
This post is about the right to access and choice in food.
Good conditions for animals, workers, and food safety all contribute to ethical food. I happen to think using modern knowledge and practices is a critical part of attaining that.
It doesn’t mean you can’t butcher your own chickens in the backyard if you want to. It does mean we need a diverse food system that provides food options at reasonable prices for every budget.
Your food choices do not have to be your neighbors choices. And that’s okay. We are fortunate to have a food system that is so much safer than that of one-hundred years ago that you can feel good about a broad range of choices.
It’s really more of a complex web — this thing called the food chain. The one thing I do know is we continue to need farms of all kinds. You and I both need to eat, and I’m thankful for the abundance that we can chose from each day. I will also continue steadfast in my belief that farmed does not equal dangerous.