Mike & Jenny

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Location: Iowa, United States

Friday, April 02, 2010

Beyond the grocery store

Over the past year I have been thinking a lot about where our food comes from. It's been a topic of interest of mine for a few years now, but for a girl who grew up in the suburbs, the reality was that I knew nothing about modern agriculture. I think a lot of us grew up with the impression that all farms were run by small families who grew crops and raised farm animals. When a farm comes to my mind, I think of stories like Charlotte's Web and the countless other children's books where farmers in overalls drove tractors, tended farm animals that had free run of their expansive pens and took their products to the local farmer's market or store. Funny as it seems, I used to think that all the produce in the stores grew in the farms close to our house. Mike's mom, Helen, has stated to me a few times that she feels that all college students should take a basic course on where our food comes from since the average person is clueless and I totally agree with her. She is a student advisor in the College of Agriculture at ISU and I get the impression that there is a level of ignorance in her students too.

I didn't realize that a substantial portion of the commercially available pork, poultry and beef spent a bulk of their lives being fattened in feed lots while being injected with hormones and antibiotics. I still don't know how much of that is a reality and the pamphlets handed out by the animal rights, super-vegan activists on State Street in Madison, WI leads you to believe that it is the norm. As I think about it, I am troubled by the labels of pork, poultry and beef when addressing live animals. When did we stop thinking of them as animals such as pigs, chickens, turkeys and cattle? Does it make it easier for people to separate the living creaure from the profitable commodity and influence its quality of life? My guess is yes and I find that troubling.

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting my sister in Missouri, we tagged along with my brother in law, John, niece (Lauren) and nephew (Matt) as they went to tended to the steers they are raising for the Missouri State Fair this summer. This is something that the kids have been doing for a few years and John and his siblings did while growing up on their family farm. I have to admit my jealousy of their access to this type of opportunity to foster a great level of responsibility and knowledge that us urbanites struggle to instill in our children living in our consumer driven culture. The closest most of us get to cattle in our daily lives is either in the grocery store packaged in plastic wrap or our leather accessories. We lack understanding or appreciate the efforts that come along with producing these goods. We just want it cheap and now and I assume that has a huge effect on how these animals are raised and the fair market value that the farmers earn to sustain their own lives. I'm increasingly finding more canned goods labeled "Product of China" and I'm concerned about the future impact to our agricultural industry. If people keep demanding the cheap mushrooms from China instead of the mushrooms grown in Delaware or Pennsylvania, then what happens to the farms there? How is that going to affect their local economy and our country's economy?

During our visit to John's family farm, I asked him some questions about the fate of the calves born on the farm. Why was it that the kids only raised steers and never the heifers? On a dairy farm, I understand that generally the heifers are kept and the steers are sold off for meat, but on the beef farm all the calves go. Once they are weaned from their mothers, they are sold to feed lots where they are fattened on corn for 90-120 days, then slaughtered. They only keep proven and productive cows and a bull on the farm. It breaks my heart to think that the little calves frolicking in the open pasture will be trucked to a feed lot to be confined for the last 3-4 months of their lives, then culled. It adds to my frustration when the kids refuse to eat the ground beef in the spagetti and try to scrape it into the trash can. What a waste....of money, resources and most importantly, life.

In Wisconsin, Alec had a friend whose uncle ran a dairy farm and he spent a fair amount of time playing on the farm. I went out there on a few occassions to visit the cows and asked the farmer about how he runs his farm. It was a large farm and had been in his family over 100 years. He explained to me that dairy calves are typically separated from their mothers within days of birth so the farmer can harvest the milk from the cow and the calves are bottle fed formula (what?). Most of the calves require antibiotics due to infection since they aren't benefitting from their mothers' antibodies to fight off disease and some die. The cows spend a majority of their days tied up in their stalls where they typically give birth and are milked a few times a day until their milk dries up. Once that happens they are let back out to pasture to graze, get knocked up and are brought back in about the time they are due to deliver again. What choice does the farmer have when faced with the reality that people demand cheap milk and he has to earn a living or lose it?

I guess my point in all of this is that the more I learn about how things work, the more I appreciate about what it takes to produce the food we eat. When I hear things said such as a recent comment that for a person to get the same nutrients found in one apple in the 1950s would require us to eat 24 apples today, it makes me cringe. Apparently it takes numerous nutrients to grow a vegetable, but we typically only apply three of them back into the soil which perpetuates a larger problem. I don't want to have to eat more of a lesser product to get what my body needs because its cheaper. It doesn't make any sense and it doesn't seem very sustainable to me.

Over the past couple of years we have tended a vegetable garden and will continue to do so. Slowly, I am learning how to preserve the produce for later consumption and have found a few local farms to pick our own fruit that we aren't growing ourselves to enjoy. I have also started to seek out a local farm to buy our meat from directly and hope to get my kids out to see it. Some day, I'd like to get a few hens for fresh eggs, coop poop, and non-chemical pest control. My hope is that the kids will start to identify the beef as cattle, pork as pigs and poultry as chickens. As they handle the produce grown in our own garden or carefully selected from the tree or bush on a local farm, they might think twice about throwing it in the trash. Perhaps they will gain an appeciation of the gifts of the earth and just maybe a $6 gallon of organic, local milk won't seem like too much to pay.