In the last two weeks I have had a couple of my farming friends contact me about some issues in agriculture. The issues have been a little different but the overall theme was the same. I was reluctant to write about this issue because it’s one that really puzzles me and frustrates me to be honest.
So what is the issue? It is farmers (or ranchers) criticizing other farmers (or ranchers) due to their methods of production. I am a huge supporter of diversity in agriculture. We need all types of farming practices and all shapes and sizes when it comes to farms. Not everyone agrees with me when it comes to diversity in farming and ranching though. I firmly believe quality of care is not dependent upon farm size. There are small farms and big farms that do a great job caring for their land and livestock.
Some farmers prefer to produce farm products for a niche market (organic, all natural, etc.). This allows them to capture a premium for their product and sometimes it means they can produce less product and charge more money for this product. These niche farmers look for ways to preserve their market; they don’t want every farmer duplicating their efforts because then they would lose their market premium. Niche farming works especially well for farmers who live near urban areas.
Some farmers prefer to implement technology on their farms. Some prefer to raise their crops or livestock using conventional methods. Other farmers may try to market all of their products to local people living within a certain radius of their farm. The list goes on and on and I think each type of farming is needed to produce food.
The challenge is how to coexist with each other without attacking different methods of production when it comes time to market your products. I don’t understand why some people feel the need to bash one style of food production over another. Sure, I have my preferences based off my farm and family but that is the great thing about CHOICE. We can all choose how we want to eat. The important thing to remember is to respect everyone’s opinion regarding how they want to eat and how they want to farm.
There are a lot of great farmers who raise organic products. Several of the organic producers I know are simply trying to meet a demand for people who choose to eat organic food. Most of these organic farmers do not think their style of farming is the only way to farm or the better way to farm. The same is true for conventional (or non-organic or non-niche) farmers, they are meeting a demand and trying to remain on their family farm full time.
The challenge to coexist isn’t in how a farmer farms, the challenge usually occurs in how farmers choose to market their products. I don’t think it is always intentional, but sometimes farmers will attack products that are not raised in the same way their products are raised. One of my friends experienced someone marketing their organic veggies at a farmer’s market as being “cleaner” than veggies that weren’t organic. She was upset that this farmer was pitting one method against the other by inferring conventional products were less clean.
One example I witnessed a few months ago was someone who said their pork was ‘healthier’ to eat because it was grass fed on pastures. They also claimed their pork was hormone-free unlike pork that wasn’t pasture raised. Hogs are not like cattle; their nutritional needs cannot be met from a grass diet. There are also no added hormones in ANY pork today, it doesn’t matter how it is raised because there are no approved hormones for hogs. Claims like these are confusing and can cause fear.
I asked the farmer about their marketing strategy, they told me they knew it might be misleading but they had to find a way to make people want to pay more for their product because their cost of production was higher.
It doesn’t matter if you raise your livestock inside barns or out on pastures, if you care for your livestock you will produce a healthy product. That is why I support both pasture raised pork and pork raised inside hog barns. Both methods are successful; you just have to take care of your animals. Each method can offer protection for the animals and great care, the only difference is HOW the method works. What works well on one farm may not work well on another farm and that is perfectly fine.
Diversity is a good thing in agriculture. No two farms are exactly alike and that means they operate in different manners. This doesn’t mean one farm is better than the other, it just means they are different. As farmers I think we have a responsibility to help people understand how food is produced and that all methods are safe.
In my opinion food choice is a personal issue but fear isn’t necessary to promote your products or methods of production. More than anything I think people are just interested in hearing your farm story and how you care for your crops or livestock. And for many people, they really just want to know the farmer who raises their food.