Lessons from Right to Farm campaign

Commentary.

I’m not going to lie.  I puddled up like a school girl when we got the news early last Wednesday morning that the Missouri Right to Farm Amendment had passed.  So many people had worked for so many months to educate friends, family, neighbors, other consumers and fellow farmers about Amendment 1.  The momentum for a victory had begun to pick up; then in the final days before the vote, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) dumped a few hundred thousand into the opposition’s war chest to spread misinformation and fear about the amendment’s meaning.  Almost all of the dollars invested in fighting Amendment 1 in Missouri came from HSUS and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) neither of which are based in the state I’ve called home for more than a decade.

As primary day drew near, emotions were running high.  Farmers were pitted against farmers.  There was resentment and frustration on both sides of the issue.  Voters were told time and again by a man standing in a barn with a pitchfork in hand that Amendment 1 isn’t about Missouri’s right to farm, but instead about China’s right to farm in Missouri.

HSUS was reeling in unknowing consumers – rural and urban – telling them that this amendment would give corporate agriculture a free pass to do anything it wants and there would be nothing they or anyone else could do to stop it.  Animals would be treated inhumanely and our waters would be contaminated.

One of the anti-amendment promotional pieces claimed corporations would have blanket immunity.  It said “This would be like having granted tobacco companies and smokers the constitutional rights to forever continue their practices of the 1970’s.”

Holy smokes, folks!  People bought into these lies!  Good people I know and trust succumbed to the power of fear that these anti-agriculture radicals paid some serious money to disperse.  Like Kool-Aid, they drank it down.

Because Right to Farm passed by a close margin (about 2,500 votes) there will be a recount.  How could this happen?  Science and truth should prevail, but the truth of the matter is that agriculture overall is fragmented and has failed miserably over the years of communicating with the ever-growing population that is not directly involved with farming or ranching.

A new survey by Purdue University shows that many consumers are using animal rights group, such as HSUS and PETA, as their primary source of information about livestock and poultry welfare.  Over half of the nearly 800 consumers surveyed said they did not have a primary source for animal welfare information.  But those who identified a primary information source most commonly named an “animal protection organization”.

Talk to your neighbors.  Talk to your friends.  Let them know why you do what you do on your farm.  If you don’t take the time out of your busy day to educate them and answer their questions, the anti-agricultural radical groups will!

Ditch many rules

Commentary.

In 1949, the number of pages in the United States Code of Federal Regulations totaled 19,335. By 2011, the book had grown to 169,301 pages. The rate at which the tome expands has sped up in recent years.  As a matter of fact, between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2011, Americans were inflicted with a 7.4 percent increase in regulations. By 2012, the actual number of individual regulations was bumping up against 1,050,000.

At any given moment, I could be breaking a rule I don’t even know exists.  You could, too.  As a matter of fact we are probably all breaking some sort of federal rule right now!

The increased restrictions I have witnessed in my lifetime are monumental. I cannot imagine what it must be like for my parents in their 70′s or my grandpa at 99, to recall the many freedoms that have been taken away from them by out-of-touch and out-of-control lawmakers, elected by an easily influenced and increasingly lazy and selfish society.

There are countless examples every day of the growing pressure to increase regulations in every aspect of an American citizen’s life. They want to take away my right to keep and bear arms, my right to free speech, and my right to pursue the American Dream. Unlike some of our former and current lawmakers, I do not see the American Dream as a “right” but instead, it is my right (according to a little thing called the Constitution) to pursue my own American dream. How the heck do they know what each of us envisions as our American dream and how dare they make that decision for me?

Many people may think that regulatory costs are a business problem, but according to the Heritage Foundation, the costs of regulation are inevitably passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices and limited product choices.

“Basic items, such as toilets, showerheads, light bulbs, mattresses, washing machines, dryers, cars, ovens, refrigerators, television sets, and bicycles, all cost significantly more because of government decrees on energy use, product labeling, and performance standards that go well beyond safety—as well as hundreds of millions of hours of testing and paperwork to document compliance.”

Although it is nearly impossible to get a firm handle on the total cost of regulation in this country, the estimate widely used is $1.75 trillion with every sign of going higher.

Many government agencies in this country are out of control. Instead of listing those that are, I would challenge you to give me an example of one that is not, at some level, in pursuit of regulating, restricting or defining your American dream.

I am not suggesting a country free of man’s laws. We need laws to maintain order. But when I receive hundreds of news releases a year describing restrictions being proposed and/or demanded by lawmakers, organizations and individuals, it is, at the very least, disheartening.

If I were in charge, I’d ditch many of the rules.

 

Right to Farm is not Us vs. Them

Commentary.

The world is changing, are you listening?

Twenty years ago when I was farm director at the news-talk radio station in Springfield, Ill. we used that phrase to promote our programming, encouraging the faithful listenership and other potential listeners to tune in.  I thought about that earlier today as I scanned my Facebook page to find so many of my friends posting negative comments about the proposed Right to Farm amendment to the Missouri Constitution.
According to attorney Brent Haden of Haden & Bynre Law Firm, the Right to Farm amendment, if passed, will make farming and ranching a right in Missouri, similar in scope and protection to the speech, religion and gun rights already in Missouri’s Constitution.  I personally do not take making a change to a state’s constitution lightly, but the entire economic history of Missouri is tied to agriculture, and Missouri has become a target for anti-ag and anti-hunting activist groups.

My hope is that people will do their research before jumping to any conclusion based on what the paid mouthpieces for HSUS are saying.  One of my friends wrote that this amendment will open up Missouri to more foreign ownership of land.  This is not true.  The cap on the amount of land owned by foreign entities will not change.  Another friend commented that large, multi-national corporations are pouring millions of dollars into this campaign.  Not true.  Family farmers in the state are scraping together dollars to invest in educating people to ensure this amendment’s passage.  The big dollars are coming from opponents of the amendment – those well-funded anti-agriculture groups that push misinformation on the public to pass burdensome and expensive regulations and prohibitions, making it even more difficult for the smaller family farms to stay afloat.

I expect to encounter resistance from those people who are generations removed from the farm.  I am disheartened to hear from friends and neighbors in my rural community who are siding with the anti-ag activists.  One friend wrote about how local control will be a thing of the past and large CAFOs will take over and destroy our environment. First of all, EPA isn’t going anywhere and CAFOs fall under a great amount of environmental scrutiny.  Secondly, the language of the Right to Farm amendment specifically leaves the powers of local governments in place under Article 6 of the Missouri Constitution. If the Right the Farm amendment passes, local governments will have all the same powers.

As the daughter of 6th generation family farmers who have land that has been in my family for more than 175 years and a farmer myself in Missouri, I believe that a rising tide carries all boats.  I’m sick and tired of the US vs. THEM mentality.  It shouldn’t matter if your farm is big or small, with organic or conventional farming practices.  What should matter is that you are doing it right on your farm every day.  Attorney Brent Hayden explains, “The Right to Farm amendment is very broad in its protections. Nevertheless, like our other constitutional protections, its meaning will be more specifically defined by court rulings and state law. The amendment’s language guarantees ‘the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices,’ and protects any activity undertaken by farmers and ranchers to raise crops or animals. However, those who violate laws or regulations would still be subject to enforcement action. Bad actors would not be protected.”

In 2012, more than 26% of the children in rural America lived in poverty.  Stop and think how many babies will go to bed hungry if we all go back to farming like we did in 1960.  Like it or not, we cannot feed our current population without conventional agriculture.

Food cost drivers

Commentary.

Every time I go to the grocery store or to a restaurant, I overhear people complaining about the rising cost of food.  Prices for many items have increased in recent months.  When the gentleman standing beside you at the meat counter begins to hyperventilate over the price per pound for beef, pork, poultry or seafood, it is not only good to know first aid, but it helps to be ready to answer some of his concerns.   

It is a fact that in this country, we spend a smaller share of our income on food than Canadians, Australians or Germans.  We spend less than anyone else, anywhere in the world.

The average American spends 11 percent of his/her disposable income on food.  That includes food eaten out and at home.  In China, consumers spend nearly 30% of their disposable income on food.  In Pakistan, they spend nearly 48%.

The rising cost of energy is a major factor in the price we pay not only for groceries, but for almost everything.  Increased oil prices have driven up not only transportation costs, but the prices of fertilizer, packaging and even inks used to print those labels that we hear so much about in the news these days.

Overwhelming regulations restricting the use of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers result in poorer crop yields.  Many consumer, when polled, will say they want farmers to use less of these inputs, but when those same consumers select produce at the market, you can bet your bottom line that they will not pick up the tomato with a dark spot from disease or pepper with a worm hole.     

With a shrinking land base, farmers need technology to increase crop yields to meet growing demand.  Because of regulation and the cost of research and development, it takes years to bring a new input to market.  Companies and eventually farmers have to invest a sizeable sum in those new and improved and more environmentally friendly products. 

With their mouths full, some consumers complain about “industrial agriculture” and large livestock confinements.  They will sign petitions and put signs in their yards to block expansion, while complaining about the cost of pork chops, eggs, and chicken breasts.

Drier, hotter weather in key agricultural areas in this country coupled with the government’s decision to cease water diversions to farmland to protect bait fish, has forced thousands of acres of once productive land to lay idle. 

How much time and money are these complainers willing to invest in raising their own food?  These people who think local produce, meat and eggs is too expensive?  It’s fun for a while to have a garden until you have to hoe weeds or rescue your green beans from Japanese Beetles.  (That’s awfully difficult without a little help from a pesticide.)  Have you priced a canner and jars recently?  Food preservation is not an inexpensive endeavor. 

Printing more money to inject into the economy is not helping, either.  It is not sustainable.

Is technology dumbing down our society?

Commentary.

Have you ever experienced déjà vu?  Most of us are familiar with that “I’ve been here before” sensation that is the phenomenon called déjà vu.  Unfortunately, the overwhelming sense of familiarity that came with the situation I experienced while at my favorite grocery store last week was one I would prefer hadn’t happened the first or the second time. 

I was in the check-out lane watching the young lady scanning and weighing and entering product codes into the computer that took care of all calculations.  Courtney (according to her name tag) slid the final item over the scanner, then smiled and pointed to the total amount due displayed on the monitor.

As I handed over a one hundred dollar bill to pay my $40-something grocery bill, immediately I felt the air go out of the room – or at least out of the area around this young woman, myself and the cash register. This is the moment I experienced déjà vu and the moment poor Courtney wished she would have opted for a summer job as a lifeguard or babysitter.

I watched in silence a she opened the money drawer and stared into it for a moment. And then, holding the c-note in her 17-year old hand and staring at Ben Franklin as though he was a stranger she recognized but could not quite place, she stood still for several long seconds. Slowly, the young woman lifted her head and when her eyes met mine, I recognized panic.  The panic I had seen in the eyes of other cashiers before. 

“Oh, is that bill too big? I have something smaller if you would prefer,” I offered. 

I had rescued her. The panicked expression disappeared and I witnessed total, complete relief take its place. The air came back into the space between us as I handed her a fifty and she passed my bill back across the counter.

And then, it happened. That defining moment when she realized that by opening the money drawer to retrieve change for my hundred dollar bill, she had zeroed out the total due on the monitor.

What happened next is sort of a blur to me. I remember the girl asking me, “How much was it?” I told her it was $40-something. And then she stood, holding my $50, staring into the cash drawer.

We were brought back to reality when the woman in line behind me spoke. “Look at the receipt,” she said softly to the girl whose grip on the fifty had turned her fingertips white.

The girl said aloud, “It’s $45.46.”

Relieved, I reached for my billfold, prepared to receive my change. The girl reached into the cash drawer and picked up a 5-dollar bill and then, again, she froze. Panicked again, she looked up at me and said, “I’m not good at math. The machine is supposed to tell me what to do.”

I patiently told her to put the 5-dollar bill back in the drawer and directed her to start with the change. Together we counted. Ok, I counted and pointed while she reached into the drawer to retrieve coins and bills.

After handing over my change, she smiled and chirped, “Have a nice day” as though nothing had happened.

I am afraid that something is happening. Technology is important, but when people who are being paid to make change are incapable of subtracting $45.46 from $50.00 without a machine, we have a serious problem.  Especially when it happens again, and again, and again.

Climate change and animal rights

Commentary.

A California congressman is trying to persuade his cohorts on the Animal Protection Caucus to participate in “Meatless Mondays” in an effort to bring attention to animal welfare issues and the role livestock production plays in climate change. “The production of meat employs a tremendously wasteful amount of resources,” Rep. Tony Cardenas wrote in a letter to caucus colleagues. “By going meat-free even one day a week, we can help conservation efforts and take one more action to help mitigate the threat of global climate change.”

If an adult in America decides to give up meat, the choice is his (or hers) to make.  When a lawmaker elected to make laws for the citizens of this country decides to use his position as a bully pulpit to further his personal mission as an animal rights advocate, it is troubling.  Perhaps it is because of the unsavory tactics used by many animal rights advocates. 

The California Democrat defines caucuses as groups formed by Representatives who share something in common, be it geography, policy interests, ethnicity, ideology or even a shared love for a particular food or drink.  Seriously? Love for a particular food or drink?  Form a club, not a caucus.  Or is that what most caucuses truly are?  Seems like a big waste of time for those who can’t seem to move the needle when it comes to little things like the economy and a disappearing middle class.

If Representative Cardenas is serious about reducing his carbon footprint and that of his fellow congressmen, perhaps he should encourage implementation of “Turn off the lights when you leave the room Tuesday” and make sure the monitors on all those energy sucking computers are turned off if no one is going to be using them for 20 minutes.

Perhaps the congressman could convince the Animal Protection Caucus to participate in “Use less air conditioning and heating Wednesday.”  They could install weather stripping and caulking around doors and windows in their office buildings.  They could turn down the thermostat and wear long underwear to work. 

Representative Cardenas could persuade his buddies to participate in “Clean your plate Thursday” to cut down on the emissions of transporting the wasted food to the garbage dump and the emissions of food decomposition, mostly in the form of greenhouse gases.   He could lead the charge to get rid of all paper napkins, plastic utensils, paper plates and Styrofoam cups on Capitol Hill.   

How many members of the Animal Protection Caucus limit travel to that in which public transportation can take them to their destination?  How many walk or bike, thus burning less fuel and releasing fewer emissions into the atmosphere?  Perhaps the congressman could lead his colleagues in that direction. 

There are many things that we all could and probably should do to limit our individual carbon footprint.  I applaud those who set good examples for the rest of us.  But don’t confuse Representative Cardenas efforts to “help conservation efforts and take one more action to help mitigate the threat of global climate change.” 

This isn’t about climate change.  It’s about animal rights.

Smell that money!

Commentary.

“Smell that money!”

 When I was growing up, the kids on my school bus used to repeat that statement every time we rode by Wendy Freeman’s cattle feedlot.  With windows open, we’d drink in the smell of manure and grin from ear to ear.  None of us at that point in our youth had heard the phrase, “A rising tide carries all boats” but we were all cheering for Wendy.

 This memory crossed my mind the other day as I listened to a news report about a farmer’s plan to sell his land to another farmer from out of state who plans to put in a large sow operation – a CAFO – on that property. The people in the community, including livestock and row crop farmers whose homes are within 2,000 feet of the proposed operation, are not grinning.  As a matter of fact, they are not a bit happy about it. The consensus is that they don’t want the odor of 10,000 sows that close to their homes. 

 I’m not writing about this today to take a stand on either side.  I’m disappointed that there are “sides.”  I wish the farmer from out of state would have made an effort to reach out to his new neighbors (especially those within 2,000 feet) instead of having the adjacent landowners finding out about it when they received notice of where the new facility is proposed to be placed and where the waste will be applied. 

 It is disappointing to learn how some of the local farmers began to raise a stink about the proposed farm before they knew anything at all about it. There is nothing more troubling to me than seeing farmers pitted against farmers.

 Another memory came to mind as I thought about this situation: a week spent in Lancaster County, Penn., known for its Amish population.  

Lancaster County is that state’s number one tourist destination as well as its number one livestock producer. Jim and I honeymooned in Lancaster County in 2003. We visited museums, went sightseeing, did some furniture shopping and enjoyed the local cuisine. Stepping out of a tourist-packed local shop where Jim had discovered a great dislike for the Pennsylvania Dutch treat shoofly pie, the odor of dairy, swine, equine and beef cattle manure wafted through the air along with the smell of wood smoke and tourist-car exhaust.

 Cars with New York, North and South Carolina and Massachusetts license plates filled the parking areas outside the Amish general store and across the street from the bed & breakfasts. Families carrying large painted hex signs and hand-made quilts strolled along the cobblestone street, smiling at one another, happy with their purchases.

 Although there are more than 63 CAFOs in the county, the odor of livestock production did not faze the tourists with whom we crossed paths those days we spent in the tourist hotspot that attracts more than 10 million tourists a year.  How can Lancaster County, Pennsylvania make this happen?  The farmers, business people, city and county governments, and residents decided to work together and believed the marriage of farming and tourism was a good union economically, for the community.

 Back in the Midwest, I have yet to hear one person talk about the positive impact the 25 jobs created by the proposed sow operation will have on the community.  No one seems to care if the farm will smell like money.  They just know that it will smell. 

 

Campaign promises come with a cost

Commentary.

My strawberries have been delectable this season!  Several years ago, Jim built a small raised bed for me to grow just enough strawberries for us to enjoy fresh during the season.  If I need enough to make jam, I purchase from another farmer.  With strawberry shortcake on the menu this week-end, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some ice cream and cream to whip.  Standing in the freezer aisle at Hy-Vee, looking at all those brightly colored cartons of dairy delightfulness reminded me of a story I’ve shared in the past.

 This story, told by a 7th grade teacher, is about an election for class president.  Candidates were nominated by class members.  The first candidate had specific ideas about how to make the class a better place and promised to do his very best.  The second candidate had a more concise speech.  She said, “If you vote for me, I will give you ice cream.” A discussion followed.  How did she plan to pay for the ice cream?  She wasn’t sure.  Would her parents buy it or would the class pay for it?  She didn’t know.  The class really didn’t care.  They wanted ice cream.  She won.

As primary elections continue across the country and the nation prepares for general elections on Tuesday, November 4, it is my hope that we all consider not only the benefit, but the cost of “free ice cream.”

 Sadly, many Americans are like those students, choosing elected officials at the county, state and national level based upon campaign promises of ice cream for everyone. 

 The American Dream is a state of mind, not ownership of property.  My yardstick for measuring success differs greatly from that of my friends who live and work in Chicago or Indianapolis or Springfield.  You cannot mass produce or divide equally among the people something as awesome as an individual’s hope and dreams.  Our forefathers laid out a plan to give us opportunity.  It is through our own hard work and planning and hours of commitment that we are able to achieve the American dream. 

 In November, citizens of this country will have the opportunity to let their voices be heard.  All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested.  Nearly 40 state and territorial governorships, 46 state legislatures, and many state and local offices are also up for election in 2014. 

 It is my hope that Americans forget the “free” government ice cream because the cost is much more than you and me and generations to come can afford to pay.  Give us the freedom to be prosperous in agriculture and we will grow the ingredients and make the ice cream ourselves.

 We’ll enjoy some ice cream for ourselves and sell some and pay taxes on it and make a profit on it and invest that money in our rural communities and in our state and we’ll build schools and infrastructure and put more money in the collection plate at church on Sunday.

 Unfortunately, some people simply want the free ice cream.

Tell the truth about food

Commentary.

While delivering branded beef to a health food store last week, a shopper asked me if we feed GMOs to our cattle. I think my answer came as a surprise to several people standing within eavesdropping distance.

“Yes. As a matter of fact we do.”

I looked her straight in the eyes and told her that in addition to high-quality forage and pasture, prior to harvest, our cattle are fed a half-corn, half-oat mix purchased from a local grain elevator. We supplement the steers’ diet with an all- natural source of protein.

The store owner, with an expression of sadness, shook her head and added disappointedly, “It is very hard to find any grain that is not genetically modified.”

The customer is always right, and in this case, my customer was the store owner. I have learned to tread lightly in these situations. I respect the store owner but I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to educate those listening.

Fortunately, the store owner’s statement is indeed a fact, so I responded, “You know, (store owner’s name) is right, it is difficult to find non-GMO grain. To provide an abundant and affordable food supply, farmers in this country had to become more efficient. They needed seeds for crops that could survive droughts, disease and insects while at the same time reducing their reliance on herbicides and pesticides.”

It was not my intention to lecture. I wanted the shopper to ask questions – to become engaged in the conversation, and she did not disappoint me. I was able to share a couple more key messages with her:

  • With so many economists and experts talking about a growing world population that will need to eat, efficiency in farming is more important than ever.
  • The genetic makeup of all crops and livestock has been altered by human hands since domestic agriculture began 10,000 years ago. All fruits, vegetables and grain commercially available today has been altered, including organic and heirloom seeds.

It is important when responding to consumers face-to-face that you do not give them the impression that you are overly guarded or concerned against criticism. Be transparent and conversational. Answer their questions but do not throw out so much information at them that you only confuse them. Have ready 2 or 3 key messages that you would like for your customer to remember when he or she walks away from your conversation.

Few farmers have the opportunity to come face to face with the end-user of the bounty they grow, but every farmer has the opportunity to have a conversation about what they grow and how they grow it with a friend, a neighbor, or the woman in line ahead of them at the grocery store check-out counter.

It would have been easier and potentially more profitable for me had I chosen to keep my thoughts to myself and just walk away. I’ve seen others do it many times. Sadly, I’ve also seen farmers mislead consumers. All plant and animal source foods contain hormones, yet I’ve seen farmers promoting their beef, eggs and other products as “hormone free.”

Marketing is good. Lying is not good. If you can’t tell the truth, just keep your mouth shut.

Poverty in rural communities

Commentary.

I often use this space to write about the great divide between those who grow the food and those who consume the food. Many consumers are concerned, or at least interested, in the origin of that which they eat and what they feed their families.

They ask many questions: “Where was it grown? What does locally grown mean? Were pesticides used? Is it organic? Does it contain GMO’s? Were antibiotics used? What was it fed? Was it kept in a cage? Is it hormone free? How much does it cost?”

Ultimately, the answer to that final question determines whether or not the majority of the people will buy it. Preference and behavior are not the same.

For years, many farmers have assumed their rural brethren had a better understanding of how crops and livestock are raised and that it is people living in cities who are disconnected from agriculture. The truth is, farmers make up only about 10 percent of the rural population of 60 million people in this country. Someone living in a townhouse in Chicago might have a better understanding of stacked trait seeds than someone living in a farm house on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere.

There is one great and growing divide between the urban and rural population in this country, especially as it pertains to children. Poverty rates in rural America are on the rise, while urban poverty rates continue a slow decline. Recent USDA findings show that child poverty in rural areas is at its highest level in 30 years, and many predict it will worsen in coming years.

In 2012, 26.7 percent of children in rural America lived in poverty.

USDA’s Economic Research Services (ERS) tells us what most of us already know: An important indicator of the nation’s long-term well-being is poverty among children, since child poverty often has an impact that carries throughout a lifetime, particularly if the child lived in poverty at an early age. As with the early 1980s recession, rural children have been disproportionately affected by the recent economic downturn.

The middle class is disappearing. The economy is frail. There aren’t enough jobs. Many hard-working and capable men and women whose families have lived in your rural community for generations, are sliding deeper into the well of poverty. Some choose that life. Most, however, do not.

Children in your community will go to bed tonight without supper, not because they didn’t come home on time or failed to do their chores. There are babies and toddlers, first and third graders, pre-teens and teen-agers that live in your community, and go to your churches and schools that do not know if and when they will have their next meal.

There has been poverty since the beginning of time and there probably always will be some level of poverty. It is my hope that when you have the opportunity to give someone a leg up, instead of automatically writing a check to be sent overseas, you’ll think about investing in those children in your own rural community.