HARRISBURG, Pa. — The farmer and his college-aged son came into the livestock barn — the 84-by-42 foot centerpiece of the “Today’s Agriculture” exhibit at this year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show — and asked, “Is it really a good idea to show this?”, nodding his head toward the veal calf pens and a sow and her young pigs in a farrowing crate.
Christian Herr, executive vice president with the PennAg Industries Association, responded quickly.
“Hey, if we’re ashamed of showing what we’re doing, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it,” Herr said.
How else will people learn what farming is really like, unless we show them, he asks.
Open the barn door
The exhibit took up 10,000 square feet of the Exposition Hall at the Farm Show Complex. Inside the livestock barn, there were modern examples of livestock housing, including caged layers, pigs, veal calves, a dairy calf in its hutch, ducks, chicks, two steers, and turkeys.
Outside the barn, there was a new feed truck with its auger extended to a full-sized feed bin outside the barn. Mock fields showed real field corn plants and soybeans, a combine, tractor and no-till planter. Conservation practices illustrated buffer strips and cover crop plantings.
PennAg Industries harnessed a coalition of agribusinesses and farm or trade organizations to create the exhibit on behalf of the Pa. Department of Agriculture and the Pa. Alliance for Livestock Care and Well-Being. In all, Herr said, more than 100 sponsors and suppliers came onboard with the idea.
The goal? Tell the world about modern animal care, environmental stewardship and food safety practices.
It is, Herr said, an “authentic snapshot” of “what you’d see up and down the roads of Pennsylvania.”
“By showing the public our production practices, we hope to eliminate the biggest argument anti-agriculture groups have today — that we won’t allow the public to see how their food is produced,” Herr said.
“Instead of the HSUS messaging for us, we’re going to message for ourselves.”
Throughout the Farm Show, each pen in the livestock barn was manned by a farmer or other volunteer, explaining why the sow was kept away from her pigs or that the calf in the “igloo” wasn’t a veal calf. Students from Penn State University and Delaware Valley College served as barn managers, joining the farm volunteers answering questions, and three National Beef Ambassadors also worked two days to answer consumers’ questions.
Chad Yoder, who works in calf procurement for Marcho Farms, was part of the team from the veal company also answering questions at the exhibit.
Marcho Farms/Select Veal Feeds has more than 35,000 veal calves on feed with 200 contract growers, and processes more than 2,000 veal calves a week. The company supports group housing of veal calves, but the Today’s Agriculture exhibit featured four individual calf pens.
“We’re proud of what we do,” Yoder said. “We just want people to accept these as normal.”
The exhibit’s popularity benefited from the Farm Show’s record crowds this year, and Herr has heard responses from two “intriguing audiences” at the show.
First, farmers have responded positively to what they’ve seen, telling organizers they should’ve done this a long time ago.
“They don’t know why we’ve been apologizing [for farm practices],” Herr said. “They seem really empowered, and are leaving with a different view of how agriculture needs to sell itself.”
And he’s heard from farm groups in other states who are interested in replicating the exhibit.
But the exhibit targeted nonfarm visitors, and they flocked to the exhibit, too.
“Everybody thinks they’re so cute,” Marcho Farms’ Chad Yoder said of the young livestock in the livestock exhibit, but the lure of the cute animals opened the door to answering questions about current farm practices.
“We knew if we did this, consumer awareness is going to go up.”
“The water spigot for the pigs really flipped me out,” one visitor posted on the PennAg Facebook page. “I inquired with a gentleman there about the way the pigs drink the water. He was very thorough with the reason why the pigs drink, and how they were able to quickly acclimate to the device to obtain water.”
The Animal Agriculture Alliance was at the Pa. Farm Show conducting pre- and post interviews with visitors to see what they thought of the display.