Present agriculture in a positive light

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We have completed two of three scheduled Youth Livestock Quality Assurance training classes in Columbiana County for 2006.
These programs are required for all youth exhibitors of market livestock and milk producing animals at county fairs. It’s good training and it is having a positive effect on children’s attitudes about producing quality livestock food products. It’s also having a positive effect on parents.
Youth exhibitors have done a very good job producing quality animals and products as long as I’ve been involved with junior fairs (about 45 years). There have been some exceptions and it’s the exceptions that have resulted in stricter rules and increased scrutiny of junior fair shows.
It’s the cheating and use of illegal practices that has caused all youth exhibitors to be required to sit through livestock quality assurance training to obtain a livestock quality assurance certificate every year.
Perception is reality. One of the lessons we teach in livestock quality assurance training is that perception is reality. We tell kids and parents if fair visitors see dirty or mistreated animals, they will think all farm animals are treated this way.
I think adult livestock and dairy producers have done a pretty fair job of producing quality products all along, too, with a few exceptions. The exceptions are the reasons we have new rules and regulations, farm inspections, meat and milk processor inspections, etc.
Some dairy producers have historically felt inspection requirements were too strict or unreasonable, but they have complied because they felt it was important to maintain the quality reputation of their product or else they went out of business.
I have always told consumers the U.S. food supply is the safest, most plentiful, highest quality, most reasonably priced food supply in the world. That statement is still true today, no matter how much complaining you may hear about the cost of steaks or a gallon of milk.
It’s true despite all the press coverage about mad cow disease and avian influenza. But, people believe what they hear from their neighbors or read in the press, whether or not it is well-researched or fact based. It is a constant battle to overcome negative information about animal products in our diets that is presented in a negative, biased way.
Manure. Imagine my horror and surprise last Saturday when my barber exclaimed, “You can’t even get good cow manure these days. It’s nothing but chemicals.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He said, “I went to a dairy farm to get some manure for my garden. I watched the farmer feed his cows. He fed them some kind of soup and he put pills in front of each cow. His manure is nothing but chemicals. I told him I didn’t want to poison my garden and my family, so I didn’t want any manure. Now I don’t even drink milk any more, because it’s nothing but chemicals.”
I did a little checking and found the dairyman was feeding wet brewers grain and adding some alfalfa cubes to the ration. These feeds are perfectly wholesome and nutritious for cows and do not contain any dangerous chemicals.
But the damage is done.
This 70 year-old man who immigrated here from Italy probably thinks we should still feed cows the way they did in Italy 60 years ago. He apparently didn’t ask the farmer what was in the “soup” or what the “pills” were for.
But how many times has he told that story to people who don’t understand any better than he what cows are fed or the testing and inspection requirements for Grade A dairy farms?
After I explained a few things to him, he said, “Well, I feel a lot better now; maybe I can start drinking milk again.”
I didn’t have time to explain how his garden plants take up nutrients from the soil and how chemical fertilizers do not result in plants that are any different in composition than plants grown with cow manure. I had to get out of the way for the next customer who would rather hear something terrible than listen to how good cow manure is these days.
Frustration. I was frustrated that there is so much the average consumer doesn’t understand about how food is produced and how much misinformation is being produced by sensationalist news media, infomercials and misinformed people.
We have a big job to do – to overcome the negative, misguided, ignorance about food and agriculture. We have to work at it if we hope to keep up with the increasing distance between consumers and farms. All of us in agriculture must do our part to provide the facts to students and consumers.
You should make a point of finding out what your children or grandchildren are taught in school about agriculture, food production, healthy diet, environmental quality, animal welfare, water quality and ‘artificial foods’ such as soy milk and soy meat substitutes. Ask their teachers what they teach about milk, eggs and beef in the diet.
Offer to have school kids visit your farm to learn the real facts about agriculture. Get good information from Extension, Farm Bureau and United Dairy Industry Association, Ohio Cattlemen’s Beef Association, etc. and take it to their classrooms or present it when students and teachers come to your farm.
Spread the word. Be sure to explain how your farm must pass inspections to maintain your milk producing license. Tell children and your neighbors how each load of milk is tested for drug residues and foreign substances for which there is zero tolerance. Write letters to the editors to set the record straight when articles present one-sided or obviously biased points of view about farms or food production.
Do these things in a positive, informed way. Avoid negative statements about consumers, regulatory agencies or anti-animal agriculture groups.
Tell the good story of animal agriculture every chance you get. It’s your agriculture and your future!
(The author is an agricultural extension educator in Columbiana County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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