Best days lie ahead of us

Commentary.

A couple of relevant things happened in my professional life last week. I celebrated 29 years in the radio business on Tuesday, April 1, and a work colleague and very dear friend retired from our company after more than 3 decades in the business. At a celebration/roast in Joyce’s honor, there was a lot of talk about the good old days.

It seems like everyone has a special memory of the way it used to be back when there were only a few people working for Brownfield Ag News.

Only a couple of times each year do I have the opportunity to bring all of my staff together. It just so happened that in addition to my anniversary and Joyce’s retirement, I held my annual spring meeting last week.

As I prepared for the meeting, I thought a lot about those good old days everyone was talking about. Back when being the farm director at the local radio station meant answering the telephone, spinning records on Sunday afternoons, working on holidays and week-ends, and making sales calls to local businesses. We had to make advertising sales calls because the commission on those sales was more than 50% of our income. If we had a bad week in sales, we might not have enough money to buy food the next week. The salary of a farm broadcaster was only slightly above poverty level. If that.

Who we are and who we are not has been influenced greatly by those good old days and every other step in our career’s journey. Looking back and celebrating history is great. However, as I told my staff last week, if any of us was today the same employee we were back then – we wouldn’t be on this team.

A farm broadcaster has a unique role. Traditionally, the role of a farm broadcaster was more relational than that of a news director or other reporter. The farm broadcaster is present and more visible at events than a typical news reporter might be. Farmers feel a sort of kinship with them. That’s not a bad thing, but it should not be an excuse for falling short as a responsible journalist if that is who you claim to be.

What is your unique role and how did your experiences in the good old days help mold you into the person you are today?

As a child of the 1960’s from a rural community, I saw my share of farm families flee the land for better opportunities after too many seasons of flooding or drought. The Farm Crisis hit the Midwest hard between 1981 and 1985. As a college student at that time, so many of my friends that had planned to get their degrees and put their education to use on their family farms, found themselves seeking employment elsewhere. Others who had seen the yearly struggles of life on the farm were determined they would never be dependent upon on the price of corn and soybeans for buying groceries or paying for braces on their children’s teeth.

It is my hope that you all have good memories of the past, but the good old days weren’t necessarily the best days of your life.

Soda, fast food and freedom

Commentary.

Is our American society consumed with consumption? Most would agree that it is and today’s hot ticket is food and drink. In a word, we are fat, and by golly we can’t get laws cranked out fast enough to save us from ourselves!

I don’t know about you, but if I had a hankering for a large chocolate milk shake, a greasy fish sandwich and salty fries, I’m quite certain I would not check to see how many calories are in each serving before placing my order in the drive-through lane. I believe most adult Americans know about moderation in diet and exercise for their own optimal health and the health of their families.

When I was a kid, we ate almost all of our meals at home, school, or at a relative’s house. Going out to eat at McDonald’s was a family treat. Of course we wanted burgers and fries! That was part of the “experience.” The fast-food menu in 1972 offered little variety, but we didn’t eat there more than once a month. Many more families eat meals away from home than they did when I was a kid, and the variety of offerings on most restaurant menu reflect that change.

We didn’t drink soda with every meal when I was a kid, either. Soda was a treat. As you’ve probably heard by now, soda is being blamed in great part for today’s childhood obesity.

Research done at Harvard University a few years ago speculates about a causal relationship between the consumption of soda and childhood health problems. There was no conclusive evidence presented by this research. The Centers for Disease Control said then, “There is no clear evidence that the consumption of sugar per se. . .causes obesity.” Yet it took no time for lawmakers to scramble to introduce legislation to control soda consumption in our children’s diet. Apparently, activist groups and lawmakers eager to please those groups think parents are not capable of making these decisions for themselves.

Should we have soda machines in grade schools? I personally do not believe we should. Most 6-year olds, given the opportunity, will drink as many sodas in a day as they can get away with, if they like soda. Grade school children are not always prepared to make those choices. In my opinion, they need their parents to make those choices for them. Let the kids have a soda as a snack after they’ve had the opportunity to run around the yard, climb a tree, or shoot some baskets.

American adults who can afford to treat their children to a fast food meal should be free to do so without interference.

I think Congress should concern themselves with “big picture” issues, and leave us to take care of our own eating, drinking and exercising habits. And maybe we need to turn off the television and find some chores for the kids will burn some of those calories, clear their minds, and energize their imagination.

Agriculture is economic driver

Although it’s finally officially Spring I have friends in many parts of the country that tell me it still feels much more like February than March. It has indeed been a long, cold and windy winter.

This is National Agriculture Week, a great time to highlight the success of the agriculture industry. But this message needs to be shared throughout the year. Agriculture is a huge economic driver in the Midwest. The sizeable income tax and property tax revenue generated by agriculture helps build and maintain roads and schools across the heartland. Billions more dollars churn into the Midwestern economy from farm machinery manufacturing, agricultural real estate, and the processing and sale of value-added food products.

The productivity of American farmers is second to none in the world, and as the population of this world we live continues to grow, the role of America’s farmers and their contribution to feeding the world becomes more significant. I’ve heard many experts say that the global population will reach 9 billion in the next 30 years. Other experts say that as large segments of the population rise from poverty to the middle class, they have fewer children and thus, we won’t reach that 9 billion figure.

Either way, the demand for that which farmers in this country raise will continue to rise. People with more money will spend more money on food. They will add more meat to their diets.

Listening to and reading agricultural reports, I hear plenty about the importance of sustainability. Although everyone has their own definition for it, the bottom line is that we are going to have to do more and do better with less land, less water and fewer inputs. We are going to have to invest more money for use of the land, water and inputs that are available.

Most farmers I know have been practicing sustainability for years. If you are going to be economically sound, you must find ways to be more efficient. And, most farmers live where they grow the food that feeds the rest of the world. They raise their families on those farms.

Unlike so many other countries, American consumers spend only 7 cents out of every dollar on food. That’s half what is spent in Japan. Did you know that? Does your neighbor know that? Would your dentist, your pastor, your insurance agent, and the teachers at your school be surprised to hear this?

Fewer kids grow up on farms today. Without the daily exposure to life on a farm, it is easier to believe the misinformation and blatant lies being told about the way American farmers treat their land, air, water, animals, and the people employed on those farms. During National Agriculture Week, there is a lot of talk about recognizing and celebrating the abundance provided by agriculture in the United States. We need to go out and tell our story every day, not just one week each year.

There is no time like the present to get started!

Family farmer

Commentary:

My dad’s dad, Grandpa Ralph Young, turned 99 years old on St. Patrick’s Day.

Grandpa’s ancestors settled in Scott County, Illinois in the early 1800’s. Their first love, according not only to Grandpa, but to historic passages I’ve read, was hunting and fishing. Originally having settled in the flatter, blacker soil of an area that was once Scott and is now Morgan County, they felt the pull of the river and the better hunting grounds, so they packed up and moved their families to an area west of Glasgow, along Sandy Creek that flows into the Illinois River.

My great-great-great-great grandfather Jonathon who had first settled in Kentucky before moving west, became a farmer and a cattleman. Perhaps those skills were inherited from his forefathers – I have not done the research, so I can only imagine.

Grandpa Ralph and an older brother who left the farm as a young man and went on to have a very successful military career, were fifth generation on the family farm. Grandpa and Grandma Evelyn raised 3 boys on that farm. I grew up just a mile down the road from their home in the home made by Grandpa’s oldest son Eddie Mac, my Dad, and his wife, my mom Judy. Mom and Dad raised 4 children.

When Grandpa was 5 years old, the total population in this country was less than 106 million, farmers made up 27% of the labor force, and the average farm size was 148 acres. Today, farmers make up less than 2% of the population, average farm size is 441 acres and we are a country of 317 million people.

When Grandpa was 15 years old and very much involved in the family farm, one farmer supplied food to 9.8 people in the United States and abroad. Today, one farmer supplies food to 144 people. Back then, farmers relied on real horse power. Today’s four-wheel drive tractors have the power of 40 – 300 of those horses.

It is hard to wrap my head around all of the changes that Grandpa has seen in his lifetime and experienced as a farmer.

Across the road from Grandpa’s house is the old family cemetery. When we were kids, my sister Debbie and I would walk among the tombstones and wonder about our ancestors, whose names are etched upon the stone markers. We’d imagine we were with Jonathon and Elizabeth, true pioneers, as they encountered wolves, bears and who knows what other threats to the safety of their family as they settled the land. They must have been hardy stock, because many of them lived to be a ripe old age for the times in which they were here. The weak and frail could not survive in the elements presented to those who settled this country.

Many of you have similar stories. As time passes and our own life’s stories are written, we should do our best to keep the stories of our ancestors alive. Never forget what those who came before sacrificed to make a good life for us.

Help non-farm neighbors understand farming

Commentary:

For years, I’ve been asking you to reach out to your non-farm friends and neighbors to help them have a better understanding of not only what you do, but why you do what you do on your farm. Although many have embraced this concept, others are uncomfortable with it.

 One of the reasons many people fail to reach out to communicate with or educate the non-farm community is fear of confrontation or conflict. I say “Bring it on!” Until there is dialogue and tough questions are asked, how can there be resolution to any disagreement or understanding of any situation? I believe that most farmers are better stewards of the land and of their livestock than their detractors would have you believe. I believe that most farmers look at their practices to see that they benefit not only their own bank accounts, but their community and natural environment as well. How can we expect those who are “against us” to be “for us” or at least understand us, if we fail to show them how we raise livestock and grow crops?

The old saying goes, “You don’t understand my situation until you have walked a mile in my shoes.” Until you bring someone who questions your actions to the place where those actions are taken, how do they know? Getting from point A (your field) to point B (their table) should be easy enough to describe. Unfortunately, there are those who will throw out terms like “factory farms” and “antibiotic use” and “genetically modified” without accurate definition and understanding.

Think for a minute about how children learn. We can show them and explain to them, and sometimes, still, there are pieces of the puzzle we need to fill in for them.

I have friends whose young children spend a lot of time with their mom and dad, working with cattle. They artificially inseminate (AI) their cows and my friends have explained this concept to their children and the children have witnessed the process.

The 11-year old has a better understanding than her little brother. Apparently, mom caught the 7-year old just in time. He had a drinking straw in one hand and the family cat (a tom) in the other. After his dad finished relating the story to me, with a big toothless grin, the second grader explained, “We need some kittens.” (By the way, he now fully understands the concept.)

With so many misconceptions and accusations flying around about our industry, we must be certain that we are not omitting a critical part of the story we are telling. Unlike my young friend, our audience is many generations removed from the farm.

Endangered species lessons

In December, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, turned 40 years old.

Most of what I have learned about species on our planet that this law is credited with rescuing, has been on PBS documentaries. I’m glad to see the peregrine falcon and the small key deer that live in south Florida have not vanished from the face of the earth.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists 1267 endangered or threatened animals in the world, with 645 of them in the United States. That number seems rather large, until you consider that the USFWS list of animals includes crustaceans, insects, fish and arachnids as well as reptiles, birds, worms and mammals.

For the most part, I believe we all, at some level, appreciate the birds and the wildlife that share this planet with us. But like many of you, I cringe when I hear the horror stories of farmers in California fighting to keep their land because of the presence of an endangered mouse or salamander. And with the drought in that state, it’s farmers vs. fish, as the Delta smelt is getting water that would go to farms.

Mention black prairie dog to cattlemen in Nebraska and you will learn what a nuisance these animals have become to those involved in livestock production. Mention spotted owl to those involved in the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest, and they will tell you those owls have plenty of habitat. Wolves in Yellowstone? Ask the shepherds and ranchers running livestock nearby how many lambs and calves they’ve lost to this endangered species.

Many years ago, I interviewed then Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter, and questioned him about what seemed at the time to be a very important agricultural issue. 20 years have since passed, and the “critical issue” has long since been forgotten, but a comment he made stays with me to this day. The former secretary said “Cyndi, this issue is of great importance to all of us involved in agriculture, but it is a cup of tea compared to the plight of the spotted owl. Our issue will long be forgotten and the spotted owl will long be remembered in America’s history.”

Most farmers are good stewards. They leave the land in good condition when they go, do not set out to destroy the wildlife. Many have incorporated some sort of wildlife conservation plan on the farm with or without a government payment to justify the investment.

I like having plentiful game on my land so that we might enjoy turkey, quail, deer and rabbit hunting, and we have worked to provide food and cover for those birds that are currently few in number. We must remember though, in nature, when there is plentiful game, it will be hunted. We are not the only hunters here. It might be coyotes or bobcat, wolves or mountain lions. Many predators follow the game we so desire. Those predators will also take down a calf, lamb or foal.

Let us learn from our fellow farmers and ranchers in other areas of the United States of America. Maintain a dialogue with the conservation community and lawmakers at the local, state and national level. Show them what you are doing on your farm to be animal friendly.

Living the dream

Commentary.

We are vigilant in checking water flow from all the faucets and the bathroom stool throughout the day and night as the temperature hovers in the 5 to 10 below zero region on the thermometer. If the wind blows and the wind chill drops below negative 20, you’re going to wish you’d taken a bath or shower the night before! The lines that carry water in our big old farm house weren’t made for a steady diet of bone-chilling arctic air we’ve experienced time and again this winter.

Despite the fact that my face hurts when I am walking to the barns, and that my feet have been cold more than they’ve been warm these past few weeks, I am able to put it all into a perspective that isn’t so bad.

Let me explain: I came back to my office this afternoon slightly agitated. I had planned to run down the street to purchase a couple of small electric heaters for our house. Our furnace is electric start, but propane powered, and we all know how expensive that fuel is today! Add to that, the bitter cold that seeps in through door and window frames and up through an under-insulated floor, entering my home forcefully, as an enemy with hostile intent. (Perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic, but simply saying “it is danged cold” didn’t seem to suffice.)

When I asked where I would find the heaters, I was told “at another store in another town.”

On the way back to my car at Lowe’s, I was nearly run over, first by a speeding car and next by a speeding car that slid on ice in the parking lot. Driving on icy, snow packed streets requires a bit of patience and caution, neither of which were evidenced by the behavior of the majority of the drivers I encountered in town today.

I was not in a very positive state of mind when I walked (with cold feet) back into my corner office. Then I re-read a column I had written for this paper several years ago and chuckled to myself at how truly fortunate I am. Here’s an excerpt:

The American Dream is a state of mind. My yardstick for measuring success differs greatly from that of my friends who live and work in Kansas City or Columbia or St. Louis. 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.

I am living the American dream! So much opportunity is mine! To work hard. To pay my bills. To own our own home and farm. To volunteer. To donate to causes in which I believe. I am free to worship and dance and speak my mind. If the cold feet and drafty old farm house really bother me that much, I will plan and work to make the necessary changes.

Do not be fooled

Commentary.

The animal rights activist group Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is not just another radical group of nearly-naked kids wearing body paint to resemble wild animals. It is not a group whose members would dress like pigs and throw whipped-cream pies in the face of the state pork queen or empty a dump truck load of cow manure at the doors of the convention center where a livestock organization is holding a national annual meeting.

HSUS is a money-raising lobbying machine that has full and deep pockets. You as farmers alone cannot compete with the kind of financial power this group and others like it have. Money gives them the ability to access and influence hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

The farm population is somewhere around 1% of the total population in this country. Unfortunately, the farm population is fragmented. Al Tank, former CEO of the National Pork Producers said these activist groups are like Lions hunting zebras on the Serengeti planes. They work together as a pride, to single out one animal and work together as a pack to take it down.

If we are going to be successful in our efforts to thwart the hunting strategies of those activist groups, we must stick together so that we cannot be singled out and taken down.

If you don’t believe it can’t happen, ask someone in the horse business. One entire species. Which species is next?

I am deeply saddened that a handful of farmers who raise livestock in the Show-Me State have teamed up with HSUS to fight the Right to Farm Constitutional Amendment which Missourians will vote on later this year. The release announcing the formation of this HSUS Missouri Agriculture Council said, “The HSUS advocates compassionate eating – or the Three Rs: “reducing” or “replacing” consumption of animal products, and “refining” our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards, including the members of this new ag council who raise pigs, cattle and poultry.”

When asked by a reporter how, as farmers who raise meat animals, they could support such a statement, one of them responded that we would all do well to eat less meat.

HSUS has an anti-meat, vegan agenda. Speaking to an animal rights conference in 2006, HSUS’s then vice president for farm animal issues stated that HSUS’s goal is to “get rid of the entire [animal agriculture] industry” and that “we don’t want any of these animals to be raised and killed.”

HSUS is working against you! It is working against small farmers and corporate agriculture. It is working against 4-H and FFA, Farmers Union and Farm Bureau. It is working against Brownfield Network and Agri-News and American Corn Growers and National Corn Growers and meat-eating Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Libertarians and Green Party candidates.

Most farm families – no matter how many acres are farmed or livestock raised – are certainly not going to intentionally pollute the environment or do harm to their animals.

Do not be fooled!

Use your voice to tell the truth

For the past several years, the topic of many of these columns as well as speeches and radio commentary I write has been “standing up for agriculture.” Several of my colleagues in agricultural communications have been at it for many years as well. My hope and theirs too, I presume, has been to motivate those of you in the agriculture industry – farmers, agribusiness, educators, ranchers and bankers – to use your voice to tell the truth about what you do.

The detachment between those who produce the food, fiber and fuel and the consumer of such we’ve been hearing about in recent years didn’t happen overnight. The current fragmentation of the agriculture industry didn’t happen overnight. The economic mess we find ourselves in as a country didn’t happen overnight. The obesity problem we have in this country didn’t happen overnight.

The “fix” for any of these problems isn’t going to happen overnight. Standing up for what we believe in takes diligence, patience and most importantly, it takes action.

It infuriates me to listen to a self-proclaimed expert speaker or blogger talk about the evils of animal rights groups like Humane Society of the United States without offering some solutions or action steps that the recipient of this information might take. I was trained as an educator, so I call it a homework assignment.

What good does it do to get everyone at the cattlemen’s meeting worked up and worried about the anti-animal agriculture machine running the livestock industry out of this country if this self-proclaimed expert doesn’t offers some advice about what we, as individuals, communities or organizations can do?

Leave it to the news media (agricultural and mainstream) to gather and present the facts.

Opinion/commentary and news/facts have vastly different definitions. For your sake, I hope the blogger you are reading or the speaker you are hearing is a consumer of news/facts and his or her opinion/commentary is based upon his or her interpretation of said news/facts.

It is exciting to see the grassroots swell of support for American agriculture today. I’ve heard from many of you that have challenged the curriculum in your child’s classroom because it was rife with untruths about animal agriculture. Others took the time to investigate where money from the church collection plate is spent once it leaves the community, and after discovering HSUS received a piece of it, went to work to keep that money in the local community. So many of you are reaching out to neighbors so they have a better understanding of the mysteries surrounding your hog barns, corn fields and those anhydrous ammonia nurse tanks. And, some of you have taken a good hard look at your on-farm practices and opted for changes that are more environmentally responsible.

You are keeping an eye on proposed legislation at the state and federal level and calling lawmakers to voice support or opposition. You are monitoring your local newspapers, radio and TV stations for misinformation. When the news reporter covers only one side of the “livestock odor” story, you see to it he hears from agriculture’s side.

There will be challenging days ahead in 2014 and beyond. There are financially –motivated false prophets on both sides of the agricultural animal rights movement; but you are no longer sitting on the sidelines chatting with one another about the “great disconnect.” You are stepping up to the plate.

Anti groups score big in January

Anti-animal agriculture and anti-GMO groups have had several wins thus far in 2014. Sadly, we’re not even through the first of the 12 months of the year.

In early January, General Mills released non-GMO original Cheerios. Late last week, GMO Inside, a national consumer campaign of Green America that educates consumers about GMOs, reported that Post Foods has released a non-GMO verified Grape Nuts that is on store shelves.

Both food companies said the release of non-GMO products is a direct result of listening to their customers. Their customers are the ones who consume the products. If their customers want it and are willing to pay for it, good for General Mills and Post. I think it is wonderful to live in a world where we have choices when we go to the grocery store. I am of the personal opinion (after educating myself on GMOs) that the only way a cereal made from a GMO grain is going to hurt me is if I choke on it.

Anti-animal agriculture behemoth group Humane Society of the United States has claimed several victories this month. After more than a decade of campaigning (or harassing, depending upon your interpretation) HSUS is rapidly gaining ground in its effort to tell farmers how their livestock should be housed and cared for.

Smithfield Foods, the now wholly-owned subsidiary of China-based Shuanghui International, announced January 7 that its hog production subsidiary Murphy-Brown has requested the 2,040 contract sow growers in its system convert their facilities from gestation stalls to group housing systems for pregnant sows. Murphy Brown owns the hogs but these independent hog farmers own their own buildings. The company says it will offer incentives to its growers to complete the conversions by 2022 and that growers who commit to convert to group housing will receive contract extensions upon completion of the conversion. If an independent grower decides against retrofitting his or her facilities to meet the standards set by the company, it is unlikely their contract will be renewed.

Earlier this month, Tyson Foods sent a letter to its farmer suppliers about new steps to be taken in their “ongoing animal well-being program” including open housing for sows, third party sow farm audits, the use of video monitoring for farmers to use pain medicine for tail docking and castration of piglets.

Both of these food companies have said time and again that they are not “caving” to the likes of HSUS, but responding to requests from customers. It is important for you to understand that their customers aren’t the actual consumers of these products. Their customers include more than 60 of the world’s largest food retailers, including Burger King, Safeway, Costco, Oscar Mayer and McDonald’s. HSUS has long pressured food retailers to demand gestation stall-free pork from their suppliers.

HSUS doesn’t seem to care that most livestock farmers strive for sustainability and stewardship of the land, air, water, livestock, and people involved in their farm. They don’t care that the meat from livestock you raise is a safe and affordable protein source for consumers, whether those consumers are in a local, regional, national or international location.

They don’t care because they don’t want you to eat meat.