Sunday, March 16, 2014

I milked a cow and learned about our food system (Part 2)

This post is part 2 on my experience milking cows. In part 1, I talked primarily about the milking process itself, in this post I'll focus on the topics of conversation we had with the farmer. It's time to get preachy and long winded.
Angie and one of the farm cats
Over the past few years, my relationship with food has evolved #thanksobama. This adjusting relationship is largely coming from understanding the current industrialized food system, and how that system got put in place.

I'm not really sure how to string these topics together, so I'm just going to let each section live on its own.


I am a proponent of spending more on quality food and that the lowest cost per pound of food should not be the only decision in the food we buy. Overall, as a country, we are spending the lowest amount of money on food as a percentage of our income than we ever have. We currently spend just under 10% of our income on food vs. over 20% in 1950. Focusing on the low cost so much forces the agricultural industry to start deplorable practices.

Another thing I learned more about is that if organic is really the "best" type of food nutritionally, should it be something that's only reserved for the rich? There's no real answer to this right now, organic food simply costs more because of the practices, and the farmers can charge a higher premium. It's just nice to know that it's a topic of conversation in the industry.

Ag-Gag Laws

I was surprised at how quickly the topic of ag-gag laws came up, and I didn't even bring it up. Ag-gag laws are laws that are put in place to prevent whistle-blowers from exposing animal abuse. Somehow the owner of Branched Oak Farm (BOF) started discussing the topic with another farmer. This was great because I didn't even have to be a participant to the conversation and I could just listen to these two discuss it. 

The BOF farmer was of the opinion that these laws are a bad idea. Essentially, what are companies trying to hide that they need the government to come in and prosecute the people who expose their bad practices? The other farmer felt that the laws were a good way to protect the farmer who happens to smack a cow on the butt and then a picture of that gets blown out of proportion. Unfortunately, I wish it were that simple. The general exposés show abuses far worse than a simple swat on the butt. The BOF farmer is part of the Humane Society of the United States and testified against a proposed Nebraska ag-gag law. I knew from this conversation that this guy was a good guy and treated his animals well.

Ironically, ag-gag laws have turned me away from animal products. Back in May of 2011, Iowa was debating one of these laws. This is initially what turned me into a vegetarian. Simply thinking that whatever they're hiding can't be good and I didn't want to be a part of it. Now, Idaho recently passed a law in response to a video at a dairy farm. This bill has helped me decide that unless I know where the dairy came from (such as places like BOF), I'm not willing to buy it. So, as the ag industry fights animal rights more and more, the more likely I am to not touch their products.

Regardless of whether you think eating animal products is right or wrong, I certainly hope that we can all agree that torturing those animals for the entirety of their existence is a terrible thing to do.

Animal Abuse

I am of the belief that industrialized food production inherently leads to animal abuse. The simple economics involved means that abuse must occur to get the scale needed to turn a profit. A prime example of this is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). A CAFO confines animals for 45 days during a growing season. Forcing these animals into horribly cramped spaces where they can't even turn around is unacceptable. These conditions are endemic of our food system simply because of the need to drive costs lower. I don't believe farmers are deliberately malicious, they are just trying to do what they can to make a living.

As I mentioned in the previous post, BOF's cows live out their whole lives on the farm, whereas industry norms are to turn them into ground beef after 2.5 lactations. Again, this comes down to the economics, in order to produce enough milk, the cows are pushed so hard that they aren't really worth keeping past 5 years old, so they're slaughtered. Again, I think this is an unnecessary waste of life.

Raw Milk

As someone who doesn't drink much milk, I get unnecessarily worked up about the topic of raw milk. Somehow raw milk has become demonized in this country. It's something that's illegal to varying degrees across the country. In Nebraska, it's illegal to sell in a grocery store, but you can sell it directly from your farm. Yet, in Europe they have raw milk vending machines. I have yet to hear about masses of Europeans dying from this deadly product. As a consumer, I should have the right to buy whatever milk I want. And in all likelihood, that would amount to very little milk on my part.

Branched Oak Farm started selling it simply because people kept calling them and asking if they could buy it. There were about 6 or so people that came during the time we were there to buy milk. The hilarious thing is that it seems like the farmer didn't really even buy into the raw milk idea that much. He just knows that people are willing to pay for it, so he sells it.

Organic Farming

I'm still not sold 100% on organic farming. There have simply been too many studies out there about there being no real difference in nutritional value of organic vs. conventional. However, when you hear of the sketchy things companies like Monsanto are doing, I'm a little wary of them. The BOF farmer's opinion of the matter is that the consumer wants it, so he's willing to provide it. Additionally, the agriculture market is huge, surely there's enough room for the niche of organic food.

The farmer also brought up a couple of other issues that I hadn't really thought of before.

To stay organic, he is not allowed to use antibiotics for his cow. This makes sense because using antibiotics as a growth promoter is a standard practice in the beef industry, so consumers are worried about it. However, if he wants to use antibiotics in the way they're intended, to help fight disease once you're sick, he can't do that. So, when a cow is sick he ends up giving the cow antibiotics and then shipping it off elsewhere. This may not be the best for the cow, but the USDA's "organic" certification means he can't keep it around.

My wife also pointed out that for ConAgra, they test every load of milk they get in for antibiotics. If the load has any amount in there, they reject the load. So, it's definitely a myth that dairy products are riddled with antibiotics.

He also said that the other farmers are actually worried about his organic crops contaminating their GMO crops. This struck me because I've only ever heard the other way around.

Call to Action

Get out there and milk a cow or pet a pig. Get a good understanding of where your food comes from. Experience all the things!


superhusker said...

Love reading these.

Matthew Brand said...

Glad you like them! I enjoy writing them.