Farming misconceptions

Agriculture seems to be a controversial topic on campus. Everyone knows we need food in order to survive and without modern agricultural practices we would never have enough food to feed the world. Perhaps there are disagreements because many people have different conceptions of what actually happens on the production side of agriculture and this is why I plan to put an end to some of the myths of agriculture.

Myth: Farming is generally controlled by large corporations, which are mainly concerned with profit rather than animal welfare.

It is a fact that 98 per cent of Canadian farms are family owned and operated. Farming is a 24/7 job, meaning farmers are working 365 days a year. Cows can’t milk themselves and can’t care for themselves, so someone needs to be there on Christmas morning while everyone else is at home with their families.
Crystal Mackay of the Ontario Farm Animal Council made an interesting comment at a presentation titled “The Real Dirt on Farming.” She said: “[ . . . ] Anyone can choose to go and get a job at the Gap and work nine to five and make good money. Farmers choose to farm because they love what they do.” Really, as students at the U of M aren’t we all looking for that one thing that we love doing and can make money at the same time?

Anyone who gets up at 2 a.m. to make sure the cow that was supposed to calve (have a baby) is all right doesn’t do it for the money — they do it because they genuinely care for the well-being of the animal. On a personal basis, I can tell you I have been in the barn more than a handful of times in the middle of the night making sure that my cows are alright. No one in my family clocks in their overtime when they’re in the barn past 5 p.m.

Myth: Farm animals are raised in ‘factory farms’ or confined in crowded, unventilated cages and sheds.

Nothing urks me more than the phrase “factory farm.” In fact, when someone says this hideous word to me I usually revolt in a slight temper tantrum followed by major questioning of the person’s judgment and knowledge of farming as a whole. There is no standard definition of factory farming! For example, my dad milks 100 dairy cattle, which might be defined as a large quantity of cattle to someone outside of the dairy industry but would be considered an average size. Factory farming is a term made up by anti-farming activists and is definitely not a term used by farmers.

Most farms today are a little bit bigger than the typical views of Old MacDonald’s farm with the big red barn, and the reality is they have to be in order to survive in today’s economy.

Myth: Farming can go back to the good old days, to more ‘traditional farming.’
With only two per cent of the Canadian population involved in agriculture, it is virtually impossible to go back to smaller farms and still feed our country. In the olden days, farms had much lower productivity, which fed a much smaller population. Environmental awareness was also much lower and food quality and quantity were highly unpredictable.

It’s true, in the olden days farms were more “organic” but lets think back to 1845 for a second. In 1845, Ireland had its infamous potato famine, which was caused by potato blight (a fungus which is currently easily controlled by fungicides). This famine killed approximately one million people and caused a million more to emigrate away from Ireland. Now think really critically, do we really want to go back to the old days to “traditional farming?”

Myth: Farm animals in confinement are prone to disease, which forces farmers to use antibiotics and hormones. This in turn sacrifices the quality of the end product and human health.

By housing animals inside it is not only easier to protect the animals from weather, predators and disease, but it is also easier to monitor individual animals from a health care and nutritional perspective. Animals are just like us, they get sick sometimes. I am not sure about you, but when I get really sick I take something to make me feel better.

It is a fact that the use of growth hormones is illegal in Canada for use in dairy, poultry and pork. Beef is the only sector which may or may not choose to use growth hormones to get the animals to market weight quicker. We need to realize that hormones are produced in different levels by different animal and plant species naturally, and the hormones levels may or may not show up in our food at significant amounts.

Food is constantly monitored through testing and regulation from the farm gate to the grocery store. Milk is sampled and tested at the farm, processor, during the processing and prior to shipment to the grocery store. This means that it is virtually impossible for trace amounts of antibiotics or bacteria to be present in the milk that you buy in the grocery store.

Myth: Farmers don’t care about the environment that they live in.
In reality farmers have to care about the land and animals that they farm. Agriculture occupies a large and important part of the environment. The farm community is a chief steward and manager of extensive natural resources, owner and architect of much of the landscape and a protector of a precious soil resource.

Farmers are adopters of advanced technologies to make sure that their environmental footprint is as little as possible. For example, they use things like precision agriculture, with GPS units in tractors to make sure that the exact amount of fertilizer or pesticides are applied that are needed for that area of land, no more than required.

Dr. Pearse Lyons, the founder and CEO of Alltech, a global leader in animal health, once said: “Sustainability does not have to mean sacrificing long-term profits and growth for environmental wellbeing. Instead it relies on two ideas working together, in synergy.” With this in mind, many Canadian farmers produce their farm products with each level of the supply chain in mind: animals, consumers and the environment.

Next time you’re in the grocery store thinking about which products are better for you and the environment, I challenge you to think critically about where the food is coming from. As the University of Alberta, faculty of agriculture would say, without farming you’d be naked, homeless and hungry, and that’s not a situation I’d want to be in.

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