Monthly Archives: January 2012

Opening the doors!

I have to admit that as the holiday season approached, there was something I was more excited about than Christmas: an ag display.

Not just any ag display, but one that will likely be viewed by a good percentage of the people who attend the 2012 Pennsylvania Farm Show. The audience for the Farm Show is mostly urban and suburban people – the same people who are asking questions about how food animals are raised.

‘Today’s Agriculture’ is a 10,000 square foot exhibit coordinated by PennAg Industries Association on behalf of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Livestock Care and Well-Being and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The display, subtitled ‘Opening the Doors: Farming – Knowledge – Trust – was introduced to the media this week, and my expectation that the exhibit would accomplish its mission was confirmed when I overheard this conversation:

Young reporter, looking at a sow and her piglets as she asks the first question in an interview: “What’s her name?”

Veterinarian: (silence) … then, “She has an eartag number.”

A sow in a farrowing crate draws plenty of attention and questions, but most people are satisfied that it represents good animal care.

Reporter, referring to farrowing crate: “If she wasn’t in there, I guess she’d be stepping on the babies?”

Veterinarian: “The sow doesn’t always realize exactly where they are. It allows the pigs to get away from her, and also provides heat” (points out heat lamps).

As the veterinarian continued to offer information about the age of the piglets (21 days) and litter size (11), she explained the reasons for castration and tail docking, and how the young pigs would soon be moved from the nursery to another pen to continue growing.

Growing pigs on a slatted floor with ample space to move around accurately represents modern pork production.

The veterinarian also explained that it was her responsibility to make sure that everyone on the farm was trained to do all of the procedures correctly. She also provided information on weight gain and how the pigs are watched carefully and monitored for health through all stages of growth.

Reporter: “And you don’t name them?” followed by “Do they bite?”

This is when I realized that this exhibit was probably going to be one of the most life-altering experiences some visitors will have. And although she didn’t specifically say so, I think the young reporter’s concern was how each pig in a large group could  receive the best possible care.

The veterinarian finished up by explaining that the point of the exhibit was to ‘open the doors’ and allow consumers to see for themselves how farmers take care of their animals.

Reporter: “What will people be most surprised to learn?

Veterinarian (pause): “What are you most surprised to learn?

Reporter: “I guess I pictured that the pigs would be really packed in.”

Bingo.

This is the concept of animal ag that  many people have, and it’s a concept we farmers need to change. Too many consumers have read something, heard something or seen a video clip that gives the impression that farmers are hiding what they’re doing, that they’re only out to make money and don’t really care about their animals. We farmers know that’s not the case, but how do we convince the public? Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of Animal Ag Alliance, expressed it well during the door-opening ceremony for the display:

“People who choose this profession do so because they love the work, they love the lifestyle, they love the interaction with their animals and the ability to work with their own families. It’s important to recognize that these families have dreams and desires beyond the farm for their children and for the products they produce. Like all other families, they desire to have a safe and healthy work environment, and they desire safe and healthy food. They want their children to go to college and to be able to support themselves in the future. They want and need to succeed financially so that one day, their children can pass on the farm to their own children. To do that, they must know how to be good stewards of their animals and good stewards of the land.

It’s also important for consumers to know that farmers and ranchers are very good at what they do, but they have not been very good at telling their story and sharing that information with the public. The public now wants to know more about where their food comes from. The majority of America’s population is three generations removed from the farm – this has allowed some extremist groups with agendas that are out of touch with consumer values to hijack the story of food production, making today’s agriculture look secretive or less than transparent.

Consumers and retailers alike must understand that for the sake of maintaining the health and well-being of our animals, farmers and ranchers cannot allow people to walk onto their farms wander into barns and interact with their animals. These are not museums or zoos – they are businesses that are raising animals that produce food. For the health and well-being of our animals, farmers must protect them at all times.  In today’s climate of social media and breaking news every ten seconds, agriculture is now recognizing the importance of sharing its story.”

Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture George Greig and Representative Mark Keller watch as FFA members prepare to 'open the doors' to agriculture, an exhibit that will allow the non-farm public to see what goes on in those steel buildings.

The ‘Today’s Agriculture’ display shares the story of agriculture through authentic representations of the species found on Pennsylvania farms including beef, (feeder and veal calves), dairy, poultry (layers, turkeys and ducks) and pork.

Those who enjoy eating turkey can learn about how young turkeys are cared for by farmers. Turkeys raised in airy, spacious barns receive a diet formulated by a feed specialist, and are safe from predators and disease.

Visitors can see how ducks, an important agricultural commodity, are raised on a farm.

This display of layers helps illustrate egg production, and allows consumers to ask questions about chickens and eggs. Many people are surprised to learn that there's no nutritional difference between brown and white eggs.

The veal calf area might be the most controversial, but experts will be on hand to debunk misconceptions and answer consumers' questions about modern veal production.

This Holstein cow is comfortable in a sand-bedded stall in a well-ventilated barn. She has access to food, water and a brush, and has plenty of room to walk around.

Consumers will be able to see and ask questions about this Holstein calf tethered to a calf hutch.

Most people know that cattle eat grass and other crops grown for them, but aren't familiar with alternative feeds such as chips, candy meal, pasta and corn gluten. These feed ingredients, which are by-products of local food manufacturers, are sometimes included as part of a balanced ration for cattle.

The display also includes farm equipment, corn and soybeans (which were planted in greenhouses then transplanted into ‘fields’ near the barn), cover crops and a forested stream buffer. Plenty of industry representatives will be on hand to answer the inevitable questions, some of which might be tough, but all of which must be answered.

Modern farm equipment and crops (soybeans, corn and cover crops) are outside the barn.

Soybeans - some ready for harvest and others just starting to grow - and a working ventilation fan on the barn add to the authenticity of the exhibit.

A realistic forested buffer should help answer consumers' questions about 'those tubes planted in a line'

As I moved on to another area of the display, I heard the veterinarian explain to the young reporter how much space was allowed for each pig.

“They have to be able to move around freely to get food and water without having to step on another pig,” she said. “They aren’t going to do well if they’re packed into a pen.”

The veterinarian also pointed out the pigs are highly social animals that like to be with other pigs, and for that reason, there wouldn’t be a display of just one pig because it would be too stressful for that animal.

Because pigs are highly social animals, farmers raise them in groups.

The experience of this young reporter will be repeated countless times until the 2012 Farm Show closes on January 14th. But the work won’t be finished. We must continue to tell the story of ag, and be willing to do whatever it takes to not just talk about, but show consumers just exactly how their food is raised – even if it means constructing a barn, growing crops in greenhouses, collecting animal representatives and housing them in true-to-life settings, and recruiting knowledgeable and patient individuals who are willing to answer questions with truth and transparency.

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