My guest Blogger for today is my mom! She isn’t an experienced blogger but she is an experienced agricultural educator. In her blog she talks about how the current Pizza Perfect program I talked about in my last post got started.
Yesterday, in Ottawa the Governor General of Canada presented the throne speech for 2010. The speech came after the long prorogation instituted by the governing conservative party and included only a short section about agriculture.
“It will take steps to support a competitive livestock industry and pursue market access for agricultural products. Our Government will also ensure the freedom of choice for which Western barley farmers overwhelmingly voted, and it will continue to defend supply management of dairy and poultry products.”
The speech has been dismissed almost entirely by the three opposition leaders as being old news and not touching on major issues and when it comes to it’s agricultural content I would have to agree.
Do you see any vision towards the future of agriculture in this speech, or just more of the same old government policy?
I start by looking at different news sources and websites that I generally already look at on a regular basis. Once I have found a topic that I am interested in, generally its the first story that I read until the end without getting distracted and moving on. I take some time to think about the topic. I try to look up any background information or other websites that may be attached to the story. If the story is quoting another story, I try to track down the original. If its talking about a scientific paper I try my best to find it. I also look at any websites of any organizations involved in order to see if they have comented on the topic. Finally while writting my blog I do my best to finish with a questions, a debate topic, a controversy or at least an opposing position in order to try to get my readers to think more about the topic.
And last but not least I reread and edit my post!
And then I do a google search for a picture to make it interesting!
So yesterday, I did it, I bit the Bullet, I watched Food Inc. This well known documentary on the North American food system has caused quite a stir and a lot of people in the agriculture community are not happy about it. I’m not sure what or if that is going to change anything. The movie is in my opinion very well written, but also clearly biased against industrial agriculture, but in no means 1 sided. The movie looks at many different sectors of the industry from GMO’s to livestock processing, food safety and fast food restaurants and draws some strong conclusions about fundamental flaws of the system in general. Joel Salatin a pasture based livestock farmer and a leader of the alternative food movement sums it up well when he says, ” I’m always struck by how successful we have been at hitting the bullseye of the wrong target.” The movie as a whole presents some very strong arguments and shows examples in surprisingly neutral means.
There are examples in the film of footage from Joel Salatin’s farm Polyface, where he is bailing hay in a rolling meadow which may be deemed by some as glorifying un-realistic images of alternative agriculture. I feel that the pairing of these images with the images of the Salatin’s butchering chickens by hand and their pigs digging through a manure bedding pack to find fermented corn means that the filmmakers have shown an unbiased representation of this clearly unique farm. They have also shown as un-biased images as they were legally allowed too of the conventional agricultural system, discussing the positive impact of the chicken industry on local economies and the negatives as well.
Unfortunately it was also filled with legal roadblocks, companies such as Tyson and Monsanto declined interviews for the film and pressured farmers into not accepting camera’s on their farms or in their barns. They do not mention the possibility of biological contamination but the unwillingness of companies to open their doors to the media does not cast a positive light on the companies themselves. The filmmakers take great care to make their statements about these companies neutral and factual, and yet the companies end up having a negative casting over them in the film. Monsanto has posted a website of responses to the film, but asides from saying that many of the comments made by people in the film that Monsanto has sued are ungrounded, the rest of the website disputes ideas not directly stated in the movie.
The film also takes a closer look at some of the issues of alternative food systems and some of the different ideas about how these alternatives should take shape. They took on the issues of price differences between healthy alternatives and cheap fast food, and the health and social impacts of those in-equalities. They also examine the differences between farmers like Joel Salatin who has no want to expand his farm or try to get his products into Walmart. As compared to the mainstream organic yogurt company Stoneyfeild Farm, which is the number 3 yogurt brand in the United States and caters to major distributers like Walmart. Coincidentally Walmart is shockingly, at least to me, one of the only major corporations that comes away with a positive image in this movie as they were open to the film and discussed their goals and flaws on camera.
All in all I felt the film was incredibly well written and took a surprisingly balanced look at the food system, with many solid cases being built to point out the short comings of industrial agriculture. I think all farmers and agriculture industry members should watch the film. In the end, I hope that the industry takes this movie seriously, as its not a perfect in depth analysis of the food system it is very persuasive especially to those without a background in agriculture.
It’s officially Christmas lights season and their is nothing I look forward to more to get me in the Christmas spirit then the annual Rockwood Parade of Lights. This event has been running for 16 years and has been well attended and a lot of fun from the very beginning. It was started by a group of fun loving farmers from just north of Rockwood. They casually put together a parade of farm equipment decorated with Christmas lights and other festive decorations. Santa Clause himself soon heard of the event and had the elves decorate up his combine and drove it down for the night. Ever since, each December local farmers spend days washing and decorating tractors and implements, skid steers and teragators with thousands of Christmas lights, music and robotic snowmen.
Four years ago one of the limited spots in the parade opened up my uncle was asked if he wanted to participate and although he was hesitant to say yes, my family and his children didn’t give him the chance to say no, so for the past four years every December we have chosen a shiny new implement to decorate and cleaned up the big cab tractor, then spent hours neatly stringing lights along the tractor and machines.
The first year, we had just purchased a new haybine and as this isn’t one of the standard implements that are regularly in the perrade we decided it was our best implement. We hooked up an extra hydraulic motor to turn the rollers and pick up while on the parade and found as many battery operated lights as we had to wrap around the moving drum. We also wrapped the tractors hubs in tinsel and shown spotlights on them.
The second and third years we had two big new gravity wagons that we filled with bales and invited friends and family to ride in as living decorations. We also utilized an old trick of the parade taking curling irons apart to supply power to lights on th wheels so that the cables don’t get tangled. This year we also hooked up a large speaker system to play Christmas carols to the passengers and those along the parade route.
This year, my uncle has a shiny new round baler that still has its factory shine so we are planning on finding lots of nice lights to wrap around its large frame. This even is an annual tradition in the town and hundreds of people line the downtown streets to watch the colorful tractors role by with their cheery farmer drivers. Their are a few traditional fan favorites including the skid steer complete with fully decorated Christmas tree on top that spins and bounces its way down the street. For many years their was also a snow blower that was lit and spinning., the driver spent the entire parade driving backwards and looking over his shoulder. The most famous of the floats is always last, Santa and Mrs Clause riding along out on the head of the combine, waving to the crowds and Ho Ho Ho’ing complete with tons of lights and loudspeakers. This parade is a fantastic event and a great way to show off the pride and joy that are farmers have for their occupation and their communities.
This years parade is on December 10th, see you there!
It’s that time of year again, almost Christmas, time for exams and the end of another semester. This time its a little more important then other years for four year students like myself it means 1 more semester of school and then off into the real world. This brings up so many questions and so many uncertainties it can strike fear into even the most organized and future oriented students. I have determined that their are four main options for what to do next year. Option 1: Find a farm and go to work, growing food and make a living off the land. Option 2: Find a job working for an agribusiness company. Option 3: Continue your education in agriculture and work in research. Option 4: Get a government job and work on legislation and enforcement. These four options have varying degrees of stability, opportunity to have an impact on the industry and varying amounts of stress and time spent indoors in front of a computer.
Going to the Farm
The vast majority of my class mates are not returning home to farm, or trying to start a farm soon after graduating, at least not full-time. This has many factors involved with it, not least of which is the fact that the bachelors degree that we are receiving is more theoretically based and their is the option of a practical college diploma that is better suited for preparing people for farming. Asides from that fact their is also the reasoning that most of our parents and the farming community in general have been telling us for most of our lives not to come back to the farm as it is not economically sustainable and we should trust that being a farmer will make enough money to put food on the table. Thats right, farming is so risky financially that the people that put food on everyones table might not be able to put food on their table without an off farm job.
Off Farm Job
So thats where most of my classmates are headed, off the farm for a job in the agribusiness sector where they can make their reliable wages and then perhaps farm on the side so that they don’t go crazy at their desks everyday. This trend to off farm jobs and farming at night and on weekends is pretty common in agriculture today, and the many of the graduates in my class are already in line ready to take on their positions at their company of choice and ready to start working their way up through the ranks. But what is their for those who don’t want to work in agribusiness.
Some of our class are looking for nice government jobs where they can get lots of benefits and job security. Unfortunately with cuts to government agriculture funding their are fewer jobs in this sector and lots of people with lots of experience trying to get those jobs. On the other hand their is a real chance at making an impact on the agriculture industry and the ability to represent the people of Canada and what they want from agriculture. So what if you can’t get a government job, or don’t want a government job, or business job, well their is really one major option left, more school!
The final option that lots of my classmates are looking at is graduate school, postponing that difficult choice of what to do with your life for a few more years. Or even if your really in to the idea of science and focused research for the rest of your life. Unfortunately it has a few major down falls too, generally it means paying out a bunch more money or at least not starting to pay of undergrad quite yet. It also means that you need to have some area of interest that you want to specialize in, spending the next year to four years working on one narrow area of focus can be really annoying for someone with broad interests like myself.
So if your parents and banker don’t want you to farm fulltime, and you don’t want to stand in line and pay your time working for agribusiness, you can’t find one of those nice government jobs and your not interested in studying one question for the next four years… well then Where to Now?
Today I read another article in the Ontario Farmer, that I really didn’t agree with, entitled “Buying Local Foods not the best option for being green.” It even mentioned that the research it was reporting was “bound to curl the noses of organic and local food purists”. I wouldn’t say that I’m a purist by any means but I have been known to attend the local farmers market and talk to urban, local and organic producers; they are right the research did curl my nose. It curled my nose because it made a few rather impressively large assumptions and seemed to directly equate fuel efficiency with environmental sustainability. These things are very different, hence the existence of two unique words in the English language to describe them; although, the author used them interchangeably. I decided that I would find the original research article and make sure that the portrayal of the research in the Ontario farmer article was accurate, which it was. The research article was very well written, well researched, and had tried it’s best to take into account some variables commonly left out of such comparisons. All in all it was a scientifically accurate and well reasoned with-in its assumptions; so why am I still upset? Well the problem is that although the paper “uses a life-cycle assessment model which evaluates all inputs and outputs within the food system” it does exactly that and nothing more. I’m upset because I don’t agree with some of the assumptions.
The first assumption that they made is that all choices are and should be made on the efficiency of the production of a food product. This assumption that the only factor that should be taken into account is how little inputs we can use to make the greatest output is the definition of efficiency not sustainability. In fact this push to produce more and more with less and less is what has gotten agriculture into the mess we are in, with the price of food so low that farmers require subsidies, consumers taking food for granted and diet linked health issues soring! That is not a picture of sustainability which takes into account so many other issues, including externalities for which the food system is not held responsible, including health problems, environmental impacts such as contaminated ground water and oceans, and the list goes on and on. This simple assumption the authors made put a major bias on the paper pushing it towards industrial agriculture.
The second assumption that the authors made was that a shift of purchasing from grocery stores and industrial agriculture to local and non-conventional agriculture was the only food related shift that consumers were making. This assumption is not always valid, consumers who purchase local food on a regular basis also learn more about the food they are purchasing and its impacts. They learn about cooking and nutrition and begin to make new decisions about how much and what types of food they are eating. They chose to eat less meat and dairy products as they have higher overall cost to the environment, and begin to purchase more vegetables and traditional crops that have much smaller environmental footprints. Some even take the step towards producing their own food in their own back yards, perhaps even raising a few chickens. These changes result in much different environmental impact then the paper concluded.
This made me wonder who funded the study as the article stated there were no government funds, NGO’s or private companies involved in funding, then where did it come from, who else funds studies like this? Well one of the authors is listed as being from Elanco Animal Health of Greenfield, IN, a private animal health company in operation in over 75 countries. Or in other words a multinational corporation, which happened to have pirchased the Bovine Growth Hormone from Monsanto in 2008, the other to authors are professors in animal science at Washington State and Cornell University. Even if Elanco didn’t provide funding for the study, having someone from the corporation as one of the 3 authors is a clear conflict of interest on the part of the university researchers.
Therefore I feel that the overall conclusions made by this paper are inaccurate. Although the authors facts and comparisons are accurate and follow logically within the parameters and assumptions they developed for the study, I take issue with those parameters and assumptions as I feel they do not reflect the true actions of local food advocates and are heavily biased towards conventional agri-business.