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How to lose the argument on animal welfare (commentary)

How to lose the argument on animal welfare (commentary)

*Dr. D.A. Daley is a professor in the College of Agriculture at California State University in Chico.

Here are a list of ways for agriculture to lose the argument on animal welfare:

1. Assuming science will give us all the answers; it only gives us some of the answers.

I believe strongly in science, but science doesn't solve ethical questions.

Also, the public does not trust scientists and assumes they can be bought! Watch the news, and it is easy to find "scientists" on both sides of almost every issue. It has become a contest of "my science is better than your science."

2. Using economics as the justification for all of our practices.

Although it makes sense to those of us who raise animals for a living, saying, "Of course we treat them well, or we won't make money," really hurts our efforts to show the public that we are compassionate.

In other words, if this is all about making money rather than working with animals, we would probably be in another line of work! We need to convince the public that we truly care about animals -- not just about dollars.

Besides that, it is not always true. You can have extreme conditions that are not good for animals that can be profitable.

3. Assuming that you have to defend all agricultural practices, regardless of what they are.

Why do that? I believe you defend those that are defensible. Defending all practices makes no sense and causes you to lose credibility with the public.

4. Assuming that we can't do any better at animal welfare.

Agriculture is about evolving practices. Why can't we continue to improve a system that is already good but will continue to change?

5. Attacking everyone who disagrees with you in a negative, critical manner.

We get angry very easily, and that generally means we aren't comfortable with what we are doing, so we feel like we have to defend at the top of our lungs.

6. Being unwilling to listen because we are so busy responding.

7. Assuming that the lunatic fringe is the general public.

We spend way too much time focusing on lunatics instead of working with the public.

8. Being reactive rather than proactive.

9. Assuming that because someone disagrees with you, he or she is stupid, evil or both.

Good people can look at the same issue differently.

10. Not working hard enough to build coalitions that include the public (consumers).

Most of our coalition efforts are focused on bringing agricultural groups together, but there aren't enough of us, and we don't represent enough votes.

11. Criticizing/mocking any animal production system that is not "conventional."

There is room in agriculture for lots of different methods of production. We should let the market determine their success rather than hoping for them to fail.

12. Trying to lead a parade without seeing if anyone is following.

Have you asked producers about the issue? I have surveyed more than 200 cattle producers in three locations, and 90%-plus of them say that "animals have the RIGHT to be treated humanely and ethically!"

Volume:82 Issue:09

How clear is your crystal ball? (commentary)

How clear is your crystal ball? (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

EARLIER this year, I spoke with CGB Enterprises chief executive officer Kevin Adams about commodity markets and U.S. agriculture's long-term potential for selling grain abroad, and we shared a good chuckle debating whose crystal ball is better.

Sometimes, it feels like grain and livestock marketing is either fortunetelling or shooting craps, but it is ultimately one of the chief responsibilities of successful farmers or ranchers.

Farm markets have displayed seemingly unprecedented strength in recent years, so I decided to ask a few experts: Just how sustainable are these markets?

Adams said no matter if prices can be sustained at current levels, "I would caution farmers out there not to bank on these price levels as they make investment decisions on land or equipment."

On the so-called "new normal" some foresee with $5/bu. corn, Adams is skeptical, at best, saying, "I'm a believer in black swan events. Something will occur that no one expects; it happens, and when it does, the markets take a tumble."

That's reason enough to be "cautiously optimistic" about current pricing in the corn and soybean markets.

"We all need to be prepared and very cautious about these high prices," Adams told me.

On the other side of the proverbial coin, Ohio State University agricultural economist Matt Roberts has a slightly different take on the action.

"When we look around the world, we still see strong feed demand, especially in China, both for soybean meal and corn," Roberts said. "As we all know, we've seen large droughts last year adversely affecting former Soviet production. We've seen wetness in Argentina. We've seen a lot of flooding in Australia that's going to marginally affect both of those crops.

"So, we've seen both a reduction of supply and an increase in demand driven by oil, and the question about what's sustainable -- or, 'Is this a bubble?' -- really boils down to those two drivers," Roberts said.

In a webinar on cropland values last week, Purdue University farm economist Chris Hurt summed up the situation: "What is driving the demand for more of our crops? First, the demand of China for U.S. soybeans, and second, the demand increases for corn to go to ethanol."

Hurt explained that in 2005, China's demand for U.S. soybeans required just more than 8 million acres of production, and Purdue projects that amount to be 20 million acres for 2010. "That's a 12 million-acre increase in the amount of beans required just to go to China," he said.

Also, it took just more than 7 million acres of corn to satisfy domestic demand for ethanol in 2005, and now, the need is up to 21 million acres, Hurt said.

"Surprisingly, on an (acreage) basis, these are almost exactly parallel increases in the demand for acres to produce these crops," Hurt said. "In fact, when you put those two together -- beans for Chinese export and more acres needed for ethanol production -- those are 25 million more acres."

An additional 25 million acres of demand definitely moved the needle.

While the academics seemed confident that higher prices are here to stay, the economists definitely agreed with Adams on one key issue concerning U.S. agriculture: "Volatility is going to stay with us -- I'm convinced of that," Adams said. "There's a direct connection now between energy demands and corn and soybeans because of the use for biofuels and ethanol, and we're not going to lose that connection because those industries are viable and are necessary in our total energy picture."

Black swan events aside, Roberts said the market will eventually find its equilibrium.

Bottom line: The markets of 2010 were fascinating, exciting, frustrating or hair-raising, depending on your position and commodity. Truthfully, I could make that claim most years. At the level of investment we're discussing in modern agriculture, however, we can't afford to treat marketing the same way we did 50 years ago any more than we can use the same hybrids we did 50 years ago.

Polish off your crystal ball for another year, but more importantly, pay close attention to experts like Adams, Roberts and Hurt.

 

Volume:83 Issue:03

Go vote, but don't screw it up (commentary)

Go vote, but don't screw it up (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

IT is officially an election year, and with the passing of the "Hawkeye Cauci," a.k.a., the Iowa caucuses, presidential politics are likely to dominate the political news for the remainder of the year.

The occasion of Iowans casting their ballot for a Republican presidential candidate reminded me of two very important and seemingly contradictory truths.

One, the average person really hates politics (if not politicians as a social class); two, the average person really needs to pay a lot more attention to politics to be an informed, intelligent voter.

What specifically occasioned this intuition was a discussion on Facebook about GOP hopeful Rick Santorum, the former congressman and senator from Pennsylvania. After trailing a good number of the other Republican hopefuls in the major polls of 2011, Santorum somehow caught a tailwind in the weeks leading up to the Iowa sweepstakes and finished just eight votes behind winner Mitt Romney.

Generally considered a fiscal and social conservative, Santorum garnered the attention of many of my social media colleagues for his alleged support of, or at least apparent support from, the animal rights lobby. Folks in my social circle were concerned with reports that the 53-year-old politico was somehow tied to animal rights groups and that Iowa voters should embrace the "buyer beware" maxim.

Most posts referenced a June 2005 report in USA Today discussing Santorum's sponsorship of legislation dealing with, among other things, regulation of so-called "puppy mills" and further mentioning praise and contributions from groups like the political action committee Humane USA.

So, the question was posed: If Santorum is in bed with the radical animal rights lobby (and, by the way, we don't know whether he is), why aren't the major agricultural organizations doing more to inform voters?

There are two very simple answers to this question.

First, the key agriculture policy organizations are, by and large, doing a good deal to inform their members of the major candidates' policy positions. The American Farm Bureau Federation, for example, publishes scorecards rating legislators based on their votes on issues deemed significant to its membership.

Leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the Iowa Farm Bureau likewise published candidates' responses to questions on agricultural issues. Also, the National Corn Growers Assn. rolled out its Corn Caucus Project "to encourage grower involvement and promote grower interests in the 2012 presidential primary process."

Even so, as one of my colleagues who works on Capitol Hill put it, many groups (not just those in our industry) stay out of the political fray until the field is narrowed a bit.

Furthermore, it is difficult to nail down a candidate on every issue during an election year, so unless the candidate has a voting "track record," voters may be left with inferences and guesses as to how a candidate might lead on a given issue.

The second answer to the question is that most voters need to do their own homework rather than relying on said groups to tell them how to vote.

In the online discussion I mentioned, it was apparent that many folks wanted someone to "get to the bottom" of the Santorum question. Is he aligned with animal rights extremists or not? My colleague reversed the question: Rather than relying on the agricultural policy groups to do the digging, why aren't the agricultural journalists asking the tough questions?

So, I did a little digging of my own. Actually, I typed six or seven words into Google and learned more in skimming a handful of articles from the past few years than I had in reading a hundred postings on Facebook.

My gut reaction? The agricultural media needs to ask more questions of the candidates, and I suspect that as the political season marches on, they will. Remember that many of us were still covering the 2011 harvest until very, very recently and presumably were focused on production agriculture rather than presidential politics.

That does not, however, absolve us from our responsibility to be informed and intelligent voters. Voting, especially when electing the leader of the free world, is one of the most important God-given and constitutionally guaranteed rights in the history of man, and far too many of us take it for granted.

There is a great deal at stake every time we step into the voting booth. Don't ignore the fact that every right comes with an accompanying responsibility. You have the right to vote and the responsibility not to screw it up when you do.

Volume:84 Issue:02

Feedstuffs unveils new children's books, web site

Feedstuffs unveils new children's books, web site

FEEDSTUFFS is pleased to announce the release of The ABCs of Farming line of children's books written especially for students, parents and educators.

Authored by Feedstuffs Editor Sarah Muirhead and sixth-generation farmer/rancher Trent Loos and illustrated by Feedstuffs production artist Jessi Brummer, the books are designed to help readers better understand and appreciate the modern food production system.

"I grew up hearing the tales about how farming used to be, and I've seen firsthand the benefits of technology adoption on the farm. To me, modern agriculture is a miracle in and of itself. It gives me great pride to dedicate this effort to all of the U.S. farmers and ranchers who provide for our great nation and the world each and every day," said Muirhead, who is a farm girl from northern Illinois.

"I've always understood the value of farm products in feeding our nation, but it wasn't until I became a father that I realized the benefit of teaching kids about the cycle of life. That is something one can only learn by playing in the dirt," said Loos, who grew up on a diversified farm near Quincy, Ill., and now ranches with his wife and three daughters in central Nebraska, where they raise beef cattle, pigs, goats, horses and chickens.

In addition to ranching, Loos produces and hosts several radio shows, including "Loos Tales," and is a nationally known public speaker to agricultural and non-agricultural groups alike. Over the past five years, he has worked extensively with the team at Feedstuffs to tell the story of modern food production.

The ABCs of Farming takes readers on an A to Z journey through agriculture and farming. In the fall, Feedstuffs released a coloring book version by the same name, and already, it has been well received in several classrooms in Wisconsin and Illinois, according to Muirhead. Since mid-2010, some 21,000 coloring books have been handed out to school children in the Midwest.

The books are now available to the general public at retail prices, but for groups with a shared educational mission, wholesale pricing is available for orders of more than 50 copies. Customized versions with corporate or association logos are available for orders of 1,000 or more.

Feedstuffs also has created a new web site, ConnectingFarmToFork.com, that is focused around The ABCs of Farming books. Kids and their parents can visit the site for fun farm-related activities, including an online coloring module, an interactive version of The ABCs of Farming book and a number of puzzles and word challenge-type games.

The site also highlights a number of top resources for educators and parents who are looking for ideas of how best to teach kids about and explore the concepts of food, farming and more.

Coming soon to ConnectingFarmToFork.com will be a collective blog where interested parties can submit posts about what it was like when they grew up on the farm in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

A virtual farm tour section will be added over the coming months as well, along with other fun new activities and educational tools.

Additional books also are in the works.

 

Volume:83 Issue:03

Ethanol production and food prices are related (Editorial)

Ethanol production and food prices are related (Editorial)

IT is time to acknowledge that the draw on corn for ethanol production is driving corn costs for animal feeding and, in turn, food prices significantly higher.

The evidence is clear.

Cash corn has increased from about $3.50/bu. last October to about $4.75 now, with new-crop futures above $5.00. Cash soybeans have increased similarly from about $9.50/bu. then to about $11.50 now, with September futures well above $12.00.

The impact on livestock and poultry production is clear.

In October, chicken production profitability for this year was projected at 11 cents/lb., but updated data plugging in new corn cost forecasts have revised that down to 2 cents.

In October, cow/calf production profitability for this year was projected at $45 per head, but updated data plugging in new corn cost forecasts have revised that to a loss of $7.20. In October, cattle feeding was projected to lose about $10 per head but is now projected to lose $20.

Breakevens for hog producers have increased more than $2 in the last two months.

One chicken company said last week its cost projections for grain price increases this year have risen from $300 million more than the year before in November to more than $500 million now.

Analysts who maintain profitability series for Feedstuffs have said without hesitation that these substantial changes are due to increasing costs of feeding, and those costs are the consequence of biofuel's demand for grains and oilseeds.

Furthermore, other analysts have pointed out that this cost event is permanent -- not a one-year spike as in 1996. "There is no relief in sight," one agricultural economist said last week.

The impact on food prices is clear.

Food companies are currently negotiating new contracts with customers in the foodservice and supermarket trades, and not only are they forwarding on higher feed costs in the form of higher food prices, but they are negotiating unusually short contracts so they can negotiate new ones later this year to pass on more of these costs.

An analyst following several food companies believes one will need to increase its food prices 12% to cover increased feed costs.

A recent scenario showed that the U.S. could need 4.1 billion bushels of corn -- or 26 million to 28 million acres of corn -- for ethanol plants in the 2008-09 marketing season starting this September. Factoring in corn for domestic feeding, exports and industrial purposes, this scenario projected corn stocks at the end of August 2009 at levels under 400 million bushels, which is not sustainable and would require corn prices higher than $7 to ration demand.

This is not to be anti-ethanol or other biofuels, as America needs to develop alternate fuels. However, Congress and the renewable fuel industry need to "space program" the development of alternative fuel stocks to take the pressure off corn, feed and food prices.

Congress should also repeal the tariff on imported ethanol and possibly repeal the blending credit for domestic production to let the marketplace set the lead.

Moreover, Congress should encourage innovative means to decrease fuel use, such as tax incentives for businesses that create work-at-home opportunities for employees and incentives for individuals who reduce their fuel use.

The feed/food versus fuel issue is real and has a bottom line. It's time to quit denying it and open a dialogue on what's happening and what needs to happen.

Volume:80 Issue:05

Don't let fox roam hen house

Don't let fox roam hen house

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

THIS week, Feedstuffs staff editor Rod Smith reported on eight agricultural membership and policy organizations that signed a letter to the chair and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee urging Congress to reject the agreement reached by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP) on hen housing.

The letter -- signed by Egg Farmers of America, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, American Sheep Industry Assn., National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council and National Turkey Federation -- is noteworthy given the political clout of the signatories.

Smith's report indicates that the groups claim that the agreement would impose "costly and unnecessary animal rights mandates" on the U.S. egg industry and said its prescriptive nature would ensure that "Congress will be in the egg business for years to come" by requiring all egg producers to adopt specific hen housing standards.

This particular issue -- not my questions over HSUS's motives or the specific housing system discussed in the agreement -- is my biggest concern with the agreement in the first place. Without having read the entire letter, I'd say the signatories are well aware of the consequences inherent in getting Congress involved in regulating animal husbandry practices by statute.

The HSUS-UEP agreement calls for egg producers to transition from conventional cage housing to "enriched colony cages" by 2029, with the transition enforced by federal legislation in the form of an amendment to the U.S. Egg Products Inspection Act.

In their letter, the eight groups said implementation of this regulation would come at a cost to the egg industry of nearly $10 billion and the elimination of jobs.

Before setting that concern aside for a moment, I will stipulate that it is not an insignificant issue. However, if I were Wayne Pacelle, HSUS chief lobbyist and spokesmodel, my counterargument would be to question the average useful lifespan of a poultry housing facility. I don't know that answer off the top of my head, but I'm guessing it's somewhere around 20-30 years.

If that is indeed the case, one can assume that many of the facilities in production today will be ready for replacement sometime between now and 2029, meaning producers are likely including facility upgrades, repairs or replacements in their capital budgets already, and if not, 17 years is plenty of time to do so.

This was at the heart of the argument for phasing out certain livestock housing systems -- swine gestation stalls and "barren battery cages," for example -- in the "Ohio Compromise" HSUS and the state's agriculture industry reached in 2010.

Getting back to my concern, however: One cannot dismiss the overarching issue of a slippery slope or legislative overreach. In a political climate already charged by public sentiment against regulatory creep, I can't see how agriculture's leaders could support getting Congress involved in dictating animal husbandry practices.

This, in essence, has been my biggest talking point about HSUS all along. Since HSUS began targeting individual states at the ballot box more than a decade ago, policy observers, myself included, have often pointed out that Pacelle's long-term strategy is to gain enough "credibility" to push for overarching federal legislation and regulation to put animal industries like protein production out of business.

As Smith reported, the groups opposing the UEP-HSUS deal are well aware that letting the camel's nose under the tent is a huge mistake because, their letter said, legislatively mandated standards would be "an unconscionable federal overreach," and "our gravest concern" is that the legislation would be a precedent that "could leach into all corners of animal farming."

Bingo.

The American public has a pretty low opinion of Congress. I am convinced that our version of the parliamentary system may not be the ideal form of government, but it is the best form of government attempted in the history of civilization.

Even so, involving a body of officials necessarily concerned with re-election every two or six years in issues that are likely to be decided on the basis of emotion rather than science is not a political move any agricultural group should support.

UEP may have gained a short-term reprieve by keeping its enemies closer than the rest of us might like, but as any chicken farmer will tell you, it's never a good idea to let the fox roam the hen house.

After all, Will Rogers said it best: If pro is the opposite of con, what's the opposite of progress?

Volume:84 Issue:01

Backing away from science a risky move (commentary)

Backing away from science a risky move (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

AGRICULTURE is a science. Agriculture is also a profession, a community, a way of life, a hobby, a necessity, a passion, an industry and, as the word itself implies, a culture.

Agriculture is many things to many people, but it is one thing to all people: our basic source of sustenance and resources on this planet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, by and large, bears the burden of regulating and promoting this vital backbone of our society and economy.

Last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to the House Agriculture Committee about the challenges of regulating biotechnology in food and crop production.

The key challenge facing USDA in general and its Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in particular is the convergence of a rapidly growing population and a rabidly vocal opposition to any and all forms of biotechnology.

"The rapid adoption of (genetically modified [GM]) crops has coincided with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GM products, resulting in real, practical difficulties for some non-GM producers to meet the need of their markets," Vilsack told the committee, citing claims and allegations by organic activists that GM crops contaminate nearby or adjacent non-biotech fields.

"These conflicts have produced ongoing litigation and resulted in uncertainty for producers and technology innovators," Vilsack said. "We are at a crucial juncture in American agriculture where the issues causing the litigation and uncertainty must be addressed so that the potential contributions of all sectors of agriculture can be fully realized."

Vilsack is correct about the necessity of dealing with both the issue of biotech controversy and, more importantly, the issue of improving the efficiency of USDA's biotech approval process.

Vilsack pointed out that GM sugar beets were granted non-regulated status in March 2005, and the case is still in litigation in federal court.

"The procedural legal challenges related to GM sugar beets and GM alfalfa have taken years," Vilsack noted. "APHIS made its initial decision to deregulate GM alfalfa in June 2005, yet here we are nearly six years later with the process not yet concluded.

"As these cases continue, the market uncertainty increases, and those involved in agriculture lack sufficient guidance for planning and determining how to react or which products to use," he added.

While my criticism of Vilsack has always been frank, I credit the secretary for accurately explaining and understanding the problem at hand.

"The combination of an increased number and complexity of the (deregulation) petitions combined with the time-consuming litigation has really slowed us down," Vilsack said. "I fear that if we don't address these issues comprehensively, innovation will be discouraged, not encouraged."

A key constituent of this Administration, and of key USDA leaders in particular, is the vocal minority vehemently advocating organic production at the exclusion of any modern production technology or trait.

Vilsack's challenge, however, is that he knows too well that he cannot abandon modern production agriculture and have any hope of feeding an additional 100 million Americans in 30 years. What does a politician do when wedged between an immoveable object and an unstoppable force?

Straddle the fence.

A case in point: Roundup Ready alfalfa.

"In addition to the draft environmental impact statement's (EIS) two alternatives of either granting or denying non-regulated status, the final EIS examined a third alternative that was included in the response to ideas presented during the comment period," Vilsack told Congress about the biotech alfalfa case. "This third alternative analyzes the impacts of establishing geographic restrictions and isolation distances for GM alfalfa's production, and it mirrors a healthy and productive conversation (among) GM, non-GM and organic interests that is already underway in the industry and that continues to evolve."

In other words, they'll consider approving Roundup Ready alfalfa, but only if we can do so in a way that completely mollifies our environmental and organic activist friends.

By backing away from a strict, solid, science-based approach to deregulating biotechnology, USDA risks introducing a highly subjective, highly political element into what should be a completely objective, fact-centered process -- and it does so to our peril.

 

Volume:83 Issue:04

Are we staying ahead of curve? (commentary)

Are we staying ahead of curve? (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

AS a writer, I am continually reminded of two things: first, that words have tremendous meaning, and second, that most of us take that simple fact for granted, especially in terms of agricultural production practices and the non-farming public.

What has me specifically concerned on the subject is the debate over gestation stalls on hog farms. Now, I fear that we will also lose the battle over farrowing stalls before it even starts.

I have long pondered how much of a stretch it is for animal rights groups like The Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals to move from simply condemning gestation stalls to advocating for a ban on any non-group housing system. Last week, I think I saw the first glimpses of that transition happening.

Compassion Over Killing (COK), one of the more radical groups in the animal rights movement, released a video last week documenting what it called "the day-to-day miseries forced upon thousands of female pigs" at an Iowa "pig breeding factory farm."

In the video, which depicts a variety of real and perceived ills, the narrator bemoans the problems inherent with gestation stalls before moving to the concept of farrowing stalls, roughly equating the evils of the two while glossing over the differences between their uses in sound animal husbandry.

Feedstuffs shared this note of clarification on its Facebook page:

"Remember, there is a difference between farrowing stalls and gestation stalls. Sows are in gestation stalls for their 15 weeks of pregnancy and then moved to farrowing stalls. Sows are pregnant for 114 days -- three months, three weeks and three days (one of the least variable pregnancy lengths in domestic livestock). Sows are moved to the specialized farrowing room during their last week of pregnancy to give birth and nurse their piglets. The time they are in the farrowing stall is typically 21-28 days."

That comment also spurred my thinking. How many of us in agriculture use these terms interchangeably?

Obviously, this question is somewhat rhetorical, but I know it happens, and I'm guessing the average consumer doesn't know the difference between a gestation enclosure and a farrowing stall. The concepts are similar enough that if one is "inherently evil" (as suggested by the animal rights lobby), the other must be bad by sheer extension of the argument.

The second thing I was given to considering while viewing the COK video is my ongoing challenge to food animal producers: YouTube-proof your farm! I can't say this emphatically enough.

The COK video was not the most damning such video I've ever seen; I just haven't seen much coverage, which is great in one sense.

The reality, however, is that we each need to start with two basic shifts in our paradigm.

First, we have to start thinking with a food-centered mindset rather than a production-oriented focus. Second, we have to think of all of our production and handling practices through the lens of YouTube. How would it look if your farm were on YouTube at any given moment in time?

As I posed it to a group of Wisconsin beef producers last week: Would you want to invite five non-farm friends over to watch you process calves this spring? How would you feel if those non-farm friends were standing alongside you while you banded and tagged calves? Would you be comfortable, or would it make you a little nervous?

If the latter is true, you need to rethink what you're doing and how you are doing it on your farm.

I'll agree that the very talented undercover workers hired by animal activist groups can make almost anything look bad on YouTube, and the (relative) mildness of this latest video is evidence that not every undercover video is going to put someone out of business.

Still, the fact that another animal rights activist got a job on a farm and walked away with anti-meat footage is proof positive that we are not yet doing a good enough job of changing the way we think in this business.

As many of us discussed last week, McDonald's is the latest of the major food chains to force changes in how its suppliers produce food. The power of the purse may be more powerful than mere philosophy, but I think we all know change is, and has been, afoot in our profession.

The question is whether we are ahead of the curve or 20 years behind the times.

Volume:84 Issue:08

Adopt a food-centered paradigm (commentary)

Adopt a food-centered paradigm (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

I HAVE spent the past year pondering the gap that exists, at least in perception, between food producers and non-producing consumers.

I offer the distinction because many of us involved in the broader agricultural community typically refer to "consumers" as though we are not consumers ourselves.

Continually considering how to bridge this gap, I experienced something of an epiphany while speaking to an audience of vegetable growers last month in Syracuse, N.Y. This latest revelation is one of what I've come to think of as two or three significant paradigm-shifting epiphanies just since I joined the editorial team at Feedstuffs.

One of my first such experiences came after watching the "where meat comes from" episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" about a year ago. Like many in our professional community, I assumed that Winfrey and guests like author Michael Pollan would unfairly pillory meat production and processing while promoting a vegan lifestyle in a one-sided excuse for journalism.

It didn't happen that way at all. Winfrey's episode was both fair and balanced, and reporter Lisa Ling (and Pollan himself) did a far better job of explaining meat production to an audience of "consumers" than many producers could have done themselves -- so much so that my friend the "closet vegetarian" taped the episode for me because she was so impressed with how well the animals were handled in the Cargill plant featured on the show.

The most recent of my epiphanies helped solidify in my mind the single most important change agriculturalists must make in our way of thinking: We need to adopt a food-centered paradigm in the agricultural community.

I'm not trying to be cute or coy. Most of us involved in agriculture think like producers rather than consumers. We tend to think in terms of commodities rather than end products, e.g., cattle rather than beef, beef rather than a steak, a steak rather than a tasty, enjoyable eating experience.

Consumers don't think about cattle; they think about going out to a great steak house and enjoying a savory, tender rib-eye. See the difference from a producer focus and a consumer focus?

Keynoting the "pre-lunch provocation" at Cornell University Extension's annual Becker Forum, I enjoyed listening to several exceptional speakers prior to my address.

Neil Conklin of the Farm Foundation and Hugh Whaley of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, two stand-out speakers, addressed consumer perceptions of farmers and farming and how our traditional messages often fail to strike a chord with the average American.

Whaley and Conklin presented some great information that was backed up by fascinating data and research. As impressed as I was with them, the biggest personal benefit I enjoyed was meeting Schoharie County, N.Y., farmer Richard Ball, who gave my favorite presentation of the day.

Ball, proprietor of Schoharie Valley Farms, raises fresh produce for retail and wholesale customers on land once described as part of the "breadbasket of the American Revolution." His family's "Carrot Barn," the retail hub of the operation, is a thing of beauty. Listening to Ball talk about his passion for the land, the food he produces and the consumers (actually, the friends) his family serves inspired me, quite honestly.

This excerpt from Ball's website might give you an idea of what I'm talking about with this notion of a food-centered paradigm: "It's picked fresh daily starting with spring asparagus. Celebrate your summer with ripe tomatoes, tender sweet corn, peppers and all the summer farm bounty. Savor autumn and its color with the harvest of pumpkins, squash, carrots, potatoes, parsnips and other fall vegetables."

Ball told the growers in attendance about a partnership between his farm and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group started last year in South Bronx, N.Y. With 30,000 mouths to feed per square mile, the area of New York City known as the South Bronx is both a prime example of what is called a food desert and a tragic case demonstrating what happens when consumers are out of touch with food: The neighborhood has the highest incidence of obesity- and diabetes-related disease in the country, according to Ball.

He and other farmers are working to change that through their CSA, offering relatively low-income families the chance to spend their hard-earned food dollars on wholesome, nutritious, farm-fresh products rather than just on boxed, bagged, canned and otherwise highly processed alternatives.

Make no mistake: I have no qualms, concerns or reservations about processed foods, and I don't use the term "highly processed" with the same vitriol as many food "elitists" do. What I am suggesting, however, is that if your only source of calories comes from highly processed foods, you are not, by definition, enjoying a healthy, balanced diet.

Ball and the other growers in the room that morning in Syracuse were very clear about who their customers are, what consumers want and expect from the farmer and how to bridge any gap between producers and consumers. Their focus on food -- not products or commodities -- puts them on even footing with the consumer, giving the farmer common ground with the consumer so often presumed to be "out of touch" with food production.

Perhaps we can all learn a little something from a carrot farmer from upstate New York.

Volume:84 Issue:06

Pet market more than dogs, cats

Pet market more than dogs, cats

THERE is a lot more to the pet industry than dogs and cats. While research into the human/animal bond tends to focus on the special relationship between people and dogs that has evolved over thousands of years, today's pet owners do not limit their connection with animals to dogs or cats.

A wide range of other animals have found their way into the households and affections of pet lovers.

According to "Pet Population & Pet Owner Trends in the U.S.," a new report from market research firm Packaged Facts, American pet owners live in the company of 116 million fish, birds, small animals and reptiles. Fish tanks can be found in 7.2 million households and bird cages in 4.6 million households. Reptiles are pets in 1.8 million households. Rabbits live with 2.5 million adults.

These pet owners represent big business for the pet industry. They groom and board their birds, buy toys for their iguanas, purchase medications for their turtles, take their gerbils to the veterinarian, light and decorate their fish tanks and, of course, buy food for these pets.

The spending power of owners of pets other than cats and dogs has a significant impact on the bottom line of marketers and retailers of pet products and services, the announcement said.

After a noticeable recessionary slump, ownership of fish, birds and small animals is on the rebound, according to David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts. Marketers can take advantage of an improving market by leveraging the connection consumers have with their pets.

A recurring theme of the report is the critical role parents and children play in this segment of the pet market.

Compared to pet owners who have cats and dogs exclusively, owners of fish, reptiles and small animals are much more likely to have children under the age of 18 in their households (57% versus 34%). Nearly 90% of households with hamsters have children, and 87% of these have children under the age of 12. Around 60% of households with fish, rabbits and reptiles have children under the age of 18.

Thus, children and their parents are at the heart of the market for fish, reptiles and small animals and represent a key factor in the post-recession recovery and long-term growth prospects of the pet industry.

Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, publishes market intelligence on a wide range of consumer market topics, including consumer demographics and shopper insights, consumer financial products and services, consumer goods and retailing, consumer packaged goods (including foods and beverages, health and beauty care and household products) and pet products and services.

 

Volume:85 Issue:02