One of the greatest blessings (and as a corollary, one of the largest curses) of living on a farm is exposure to the entire circle of life *insert Lion King soundtrack music here*. You see newborns, you watch them grow and mature, and yes, unfortunately, you see death. However, as only 2% of the North American population can be considered “farmers” this means that fewer and fewer people in our society have exposure to, and an understanding of, animal husbandry and the inherent joys and challenges that accompany it.
My first exposure to death came when I was far too young to remember. From stories and pictures I know that I had a great big canine best friend as a 2 year old. From my parents I also know that we arrived home one day to find him, shot to death, in our yard. Less than 2 years later, major tragedy struck; our family barn (distinctly NOT a confined feeding operation) burned down due to an electrical fire in the middle of the night, with our pigs trapped inside. Those who were able to escape, or who were rescued, were too badly injured from heat or smoke inhalation to survive, and had to be euthanized. To this day, over 30 years later, my father cannot bear to own even one hog.
The first brush with death I can actually remember first-hand is when I arrived home from kindergarten to discover my new canine best friend lying dead on the road, having been struck by a vehicle going by. Oh, how I cried. But then, shortly thereafter I can remember my first salient experience with the miracle of birth and nurturing newborns – cats having kittens, dogs having puppies, cows having calves and even a litter of baby skunks that we raised after they were orphaned. You might think all of this life & death could be too much for a young child to process, but in fact it had just the opposite effect. I understood all too well at the age of 6 what so many struggle with at the age of 26, 36 or even 66: life is finite – it has a beginning, and an end.
How could I possibly know this? It was self-evident in our behaviour as kids. Instead of naming certain calves “Betty” or “Norman”, we named them “Hamburger” and “Hot Dog”. We knew exactly where they were destined to end up – were it not on our plate, it would be someone else’s. Now many people may feel free to criticize me for this barbaric practice, or to criticize my parents for the way we were raised. But, until you’ve lived, walked or worked in my shoes, you simply haven’t earned the right.
Some of my proudest moments come from on the farm, but so do some of my absolute lowest. I take great pride to this day in the fact that I worked hard to save a bull calf that was delivered breach on the dairy farm I worked on. His odds of survival fell somewhere between slim and none: he was far too large, delivered backwards and not breathing by the time he cleared the cow’s hips. Certainly he was destined to become veal anyway, so his death at birth was simply saving him from an imminent death experience at the hand of humans, right? Besides, why did I care? I was getting paid my $8/hr anyway, whether the calf lived or died. But, I did care. I cared a lot; I cared so much in fact, that I gave the calf mouth-to-mouth to get him breathing and I tube-fed and bottle-nursed him every single day thereafter for weeks until he was strong enough and willing enough to drink and eat on his own. I moved on, content that I had allowed that calf a life. Years later, I found out through the AI tech that bred many cows on that farm, that the bull calf I had saved was sold as breeding stock – for $50,000. Suddenly I wished I had worked on commission, but moreover I had an intense sense of pride that I was able to allow that bull to have a long and prosperous life because of my caring and actions.
Over the years I have seen many animals born, too many to count, in fact. I have also, unfortunately, seen many die. I have watched a kill at a local abattoir; I have observed a kill floor at one of the largest meat processing plants in Canada; I have assisted and watched while the veterinarian euthanized an animal using injection; I have euthanized and witnessed “putting down” of animals using a bullet; I have watched animals die of natural, manmade and “Act of God” causes. Let me be frank – none of this is easy. It never is. It’s not easy to watch, it’s harder to participate in, and it’s downright tormenting to be responsible for. But like birth, or life itself, death is an equal part of the life cycle and we cannot avoid it, no matter how hard we try.
All of the above is what makes me feel so privileged to be able to raise my children on the farm. They have the opportunity to experience the entire life cycle, and to understand the concept of life, birth and death. I look forward to those teenage talks about reproduction because my single-digit kids already know how babies are made from watching the bulls breed the cows, the stallions breed the mares, or the dogs doing what dogs do. Sure, at a young age they might still think 2+2=3, but the concept is easy to explain. Birth itself is easy, since they have already witnessed it. Life and purpose is easy because they live it alongside their livestock every day. And death is something they have already been exposed to; they know what happens when an animal gets too sick to get better, or when one of the cats goes missing or we find a body lying in the field one day. But the real benefit is the understanding they have of the food system and where their food comes from. With a combined age less than 20, my kids have a more solid appreciation of where their food comes from than most 20 year olds in the city do. Most definitely my kids are aware that their food isn’t generated by the guy in the freezer at Costco or Walmart. Now if only we could easily distribute that knowledge to those adults who are not aware…
Life on the farm isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. We have the opportunity to experience every facet of life, from conception to birth to death. We, as farmers, also have the opportunity to share our experiences and our knowledge with those willing to learn, who are not fortunate enough to observe the circle of life themselves. This becomes not only our advantage, but also our burden – one we should embrace fully and take pride in representing. Because ultimately, whether we are human or animal, we all are born, we all live to fulfill a purpose, and we all die. THAT is the circle of life.
Living off the land. At one with nature. Healthy bank accounts. Doing what you love and never “working” a day in your life. Clear starry nights and quiet country mornings. Sounds awfully glamorous, doesn’t it? Those whose exposure to agriculture has been limited to following popular Twitter hashtags like #farm365 #farmlife and #ranchlife may believe that these are the tenets of a farmer’s existence. So why do younger generations continue to leave the farm? Why do so many of those raised on farms choose not to carry on the tradition?
There are several popular misconceptions when it comes to farming, so let’s examine some of the reasons that farm ownership is declining in North America. In 2014 there were 2.08 million farms covering 913 million acres in the United States, down 5% from 1999 when there was 2.19 million farms on 947 million acres (USDA “Farms and Land in Farms). In Canada the number of farms decreased 7% from 249 thousand to 229 thousand over the 5 year period from 2001 to 2006.
Myth: Farmers choose their profession solely for profit
The insinuation of this myth of course, is that farming is a significantly profitable industry. Recent statistics, however, suggest exactly the opposite; 2013 saw Canadian farms average a record (yes, you read that correctly, RECORD) net income of $78,000 per year. Consider that the vast majority of Canadian farms are still in the category of “family farms” and you quickly realize how dire the situation is – of the 229,000 Canadian farms in 2006, over 193,000 (84%) had gross farm receipts at the low end of the scale. $78,000 per year. Divide by 2 people. Divide by 365 days. That leaves $106 per day, per person. Farmers don’t get benefits, health & dental insurance, matching investment contributions or vacation pay like many in the general workforce. They work day in and day out for $106 per day, per person. Profit most certainly is not the motivation.
Fact: Farming is an inherently risky business (yes, it is very much a business)
Imagine walking into your new job on your first day of work making paper airplanes. Your boss comes in and tells you that you won’t be paid each week – you will get paid at the end of the year based on how many paper airplanes you make. “Not so bad,” you think, “I can work my tail off and make lots of paper airplanes.” Then your boss tells you that your pay also depends on the quality of what you make, what the market forces are at the time you need to sell them (demand) and how many other planes are made by other people just like you (supply). Then imagine that your boss tells you that you need to front 100% of the costs of all of your expenses, including the mortgage/rent on your office and storage space! He’ll give you a loan, of course, but ultimately the costs are yours to bear. Starting to sound a whole lot less fun, isn’t it? So you work hard all year. You pay for your supplies. You make hundreds, thousands even, each of red, yellow and blue paper airplanes. Sale day comes. You’re proud, you’re ready to get paid for your year of hard work! In a good year, perhaps you do get paid, and handsomely at that. But in most years, you’re likely to see something like this: blue paper airplanes are in oversupply so the price barely nets a profit; your red paper airplanes were on defective paper, so even though they’re in demand, they don’t make top grade for pricing; and your yellow planes fetch a tidy sum, leaving you with something less than the aforementioned $78,000 to take home after you pay all your bills. That’s a whole lot of risk, for not a whole lot of (financial) reward. Farmers cannot control the cost of their inputs, the environmental impact (weather, disease, etc.) on their production, or the market demand and pricing for their commodity. So yes, farming is an incredibly risky business.
Myth: It’s easy to take over the family farm
Sure, most farmers were raised on a farm to begin with. There’s an old anecdotal saying, “you can take the boy [girl] out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy [girl].” For many, farming is in their blood. So why has the number of farm operators under the age of 35 decreased from 11.5% in 2001 to 9% in 2006? Why is that number hovering around 10% to begin with?! The answer is a complex one, to which there is no single answer because the reasons vary by individual. Ultimately, however, the answers have already been discussed here, so let’s expand.
A primary reason can be found in our discussion of profitability; farmers simply don’t have retirement plans or benefits such as 401k’s or RRSP’s like many in the regular workforce have access to. Therefore, the older farmers simply are not retiring. This means younger farmers are left to start anew (a massive financial undertaking when one considers the capital requirements and debt servicing of land, inventory and equipment) or to work with their parents in an “understudy” role. This only further dilutes the net income of the individuals involved, and since working capital is already at a premium, large scale expansion with a 50% increase in shareholders but not a 50% increase in equity is wholly untenable.
Another reason is simply the combination of economics and risk prevalent to farming. The appetite to take on a profession where your first financial move is to incur significant debt, and then to work tirelessly day in and day out to make, in some years, a healthy wage, and in other years, a paltry one (if one at all) is simply not an appetite that many have. It requires a special combination of intestinal fortitude, stubborn pride and even a touch of craziness to take on such a challenge. These factors themselves are commendable, and honorable. Farmers do feed cities. In fact, farmers feed the world.
So you want to be a farmer? You’ve chosen a profession that few choose. You are in elite company. Your contribution not only shapes the world, it provides food for human and animal sustenance. You enjoy the beauty of a quiet morning sunrise over the fields that stretch in front of you. You breathe in fresh, clean air. You find and maximize purpose in lands and objects that otherwise may fall to neglect. You are a steward of nature, a conservationist, an advocate for our future. You delight in the small joys: the first bleat of a newborn; the first gentle lick from its mother; the way the youngsters frolic in the fields while the herd’s matriarchs look on first with concern, then with disdain. You agonize over the defeats: the ill-timed weather, the unexpected virus, the natural selection that inherently exists to cull the weakest. You laugh, you smile, you cry, sometimes in joy, sometimes in sorrow, you fret, you plan, you work and you succeed. And then next year, you do it all again.
Rejoice and be proud of your choice. You have chosen a time-honored and noble profession and the world is truly in your debt. You want to be a farmer… And if that is what you want, there is nothing better you could be.
The rallying cry from animal rights and anti-farming groups is familiar: farmers are monsters; they are faceless, nameless, profit-driven organizations who care not about animal suffering, nor animal welfare; farmers are those that care only about the bottom line.
Understandably, the inevitable parallel drawn between farmers and the “industry” has farmers standing aligned with their pitchforks raised in the air in protest, with some even going so far as to lose sleep (more sleep than lost by late night birthing checks, milking or veterinary call-outs, at least) over the denigration of the way of life they are so proud to be a part of.
So it begs the questions: What is a farm? What is a factory farm? And finally, what is the difference between the 2 and why can consumers not adequately differentiate?
A factory farm is defined as “a system of large-scale industrialized and intensive agriculture that is focused on profit with animals kept indoors and restricted in mobility.”
Opponents of farming and animals rights activists inherently focus their attacks on the pillars of “for profit“, “restricted in mobility” and surprisingly, “kept indoors“. I say surprisingly, because for anyone who fancies themselves as a stockman, farmer or even animal lover, it only seems reasonable and humane that animals would be granted shelter from nature’s elements, if it should be available. However, these same activists seem to conveniently forget the part of the definition that refers to “a system of large-scale industrialized and intensive agriculture”. So why is this???
Simply put, it is so much easier to lob grenades at a target who is financially or technically unable or unprepared to lob them back. Taking on the “factory farms” has become a crusade against all farming and against animal husbandry practices in general, no matter how humane they may be or on what scale they take place.
Now I understand that to a city dweller with a limited number of pets (if any) a farm with 50 dairy cows or 25 sheep or 20 laying hens or 100 broiler chickens or 12,000 bushels of grain or 150 cow-calf pairs may SEEM a bit like a factory farm… It may seem like an operation that exists solely for profit… It may appear as though those animals are restricted in mobility, especially if you try to think of 50 Holsteins crammed into a typical suburban backyard… But this is where the line between perception and reality exists.
At current prices of $5-10/bushel for grains, that farmer is grossing $60,000 to $120,000. That’s gross (literally) because it does not account for the expenditures to realize that income, which reduce the net (take-home / profit) by as much as 50%. That hardly sounds like a “for profit” motivation to me! The comparison between grains and livestock rearing on the family farm is stark. Family farms simply do not exist solely “for profit” or because they embrace “industrialized” methodologies.
So please continue to accuse us of being monsters who lie, distort the truth, show only the happy moments and delight in the torture, suffering and pain of animals while profiting from their exploitation… Because the truth is on our side; we are farmers. We know the truth about what we do; we live it every day.
So this is the world of blogging. You know, I never much fancied myself one to think that others would care about what I had to say. Certainly when I started my twitter account @cowboymusings I didn’t believe people would line up; it was simply an avenue to learn new things, to meet like-minded people and share my experiences of the farm life.
I probably never would have happened across the #Farm365 hashtag aside from seeing it on my timeline and wouldn’t likely have gotten involved were it not for the attack being launched by overenthusiastic (and radical) vegans who were attempting to hijack and denigrate our way of life.
I don’t mind constructive criticism. I embrace people who are brave enough to challenge the status quo. I’m always, absolutely always, up for intellectual debate. But I cannot stand idly by while those who are misinformed, closed-minded and ignorant to the truth launch their vile attacks on a way of life they have never even tried to understand, on the way of life that a dwindling number of farm kids choose to remain in because of economic hardship, the way of life that is in my blood. When you cannot tell me the difference between a dairy cow and a beef cow but you can criticize me for my animal husbandry practices, you have lost all moral authority.
As best as I can remember from my childhood, Andrew Campbell was a good kid. Based on his promotion of #Farm365 I can only assume that he has become a strong, noble man. He has proven willing to fight for, and promote, a way of life that is continually being relegated to the shadows. For this, all of us AGvocates should be proud and supportive.
My chance online meeting (and impromptu defense of agriculture alongside) of @Skatch_minivan inspired me to do this, so let’s see if it’s an epic fail or not…
I will try to give you some of my history, some of my thoughts, and most absolutely I want to have your interactions and your comments on this journey. We’re in this together, and right now we do need AG more than ever…