Farm tours and a city girl

image11My internship with the Alliance is coming to an end, and I’m sad to leave no matter how great South Florida temperatures are sounding right now! I’ve learned so much during my time here – not only about animal agriculture but about life in general. I think that the number one life lesson I’ll be taking back to Florida with me is this: no matter what the situation is, I need to look into things myself and form my own opinions before accepting what I read and hear as fact.

image31Throughout my internship with the Alliance, I’ve had the privilege of visiting several farms.  I was able to tour both the pork adventure and the dairy adventure at Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, Indiana. A major poultry company’s employees were kind enough to give me and some of my coworkers a tour of one of their hatcheries as well as two chicken farms.  I was also lucky enough to visit an Angus beef cattle farm and a sheep farm.  Through these experiences, I have gotten an opportunity to collect an understanding of the way modern animal agriculture really looks.  I’m more than happy to share with you the things I’ve learned along the way:

Some things may look confusing if you don’t have the context behind science-based practices.

Like I’ve mentioned before, I went into this internship without any experience in animal agriculture.  I would be considered a typical consumer.  I’ve learned that the first step in creating a better understanding of animal agriculture is for us as consumers to be aware that we do not know everything about the industry – and with such a broad and diverse industry, it would be hard for anyone to! Farmers make up only 2% of the population in America and many of us are removed from agriculture by several generations.  It’s not a bad thing, it just means that we might need some additional information for us to fully understand what and why farmers do certain things.

Ready to tour a chicken barn!

Ready to tour a chicken barn!

For example, if someone posted a picture of broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) claiming that they are raised in crowded barns, we might believe that chickens are raised without the space they need to roam and be comfortable.  A closer look into the truth reveals that experts with the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) have conducted studies and found that broiler chickens need a minimum of one-half square foot per bird.  Typical chicken barns, however, allow eight-tenths of a square foot per bird.  Chickens have a flocking mentality, which means that they like to be in close proximity to one another.  So, while some may claim broiler chickens are raised in overcrowded conditions, the truth is that the birds are given more than the necessary space they need and they group together out of preference.

This is only one example.  More than likely, there are management practices that consumers might not understand at first glance in every species-specific part of animal agriculture. Farmers rely on science-based practices to take the best care of their animals and many farmers (like the ones I met!) are more than happy to explain why they do what they do – we just need to ask.

Farmers are passionate about what they do.

Farmers are passionate about their work.  That’s something that I was able to witness first-hand.  It was easy for me to tell just by studying their

image17faces that they were proud of their workplaces and were happy to have visitors look around at the results of their hard work.  When one of us asked a particular farmer why he has chosen to continue raising chickens over the years, he smiled and happily answered, “We just like raising chickens.”  If you had met the Angus beef cattle farmer that I met, there would be no doubt in your mind that he is passionate about what he does.  The sheep farmer that showed us around his farm was equally passionate about his animals.  It stood as a common theme throughout my farm tours, and it’s something I’ll remember for a long time.

Farmers want to do their job well and provide the best care for their animals.

Farmers want to treat their animals well not only because it’s their passion, but also because it’s their business.  This requires farmers to build relationships with the animals they raise.  We had a lot of discussion while touring farms, most of which centered around animal image28care.  One thing that really struck me was that when we asked questions like “How do you know what to do to make the animals the most comfortable?” several different farmers would say something to the effect of “They’ll tell me what they need.”  In order to build this kind of intimacy with the animals they raise, farmers spend a lot of time with them studying their behaviors. Good animal management pays farmers back in more ways than one.  Well cared for animals are not only the pride of the farmer, but also create a better market and a happier consumer.

After getting a behind-the-scenes look, I feel confident that the animal products I eat are a result of responsible animal care and a farmer’s careful attention.

I know that people are becoming more and more interested in the food they eat and where it came from, and that is a wonderful thing!  After getting an inside look into the world of animal agriculture, I can say that I feel comfortable eating the burgers, pork chops, eggs, milk, chicken and turkey I love.  I hope my story and experience encourages you to ask your own questions and form your own opinions.  I will say that after finding my own answers, I’m confident that you’ll be pleased with what you learn as well!

Antibiotics and Animal Agriculture: a consumer’s perspective

I think that everyone probably thinks they have the best mom in the world, but I definitely do. My mom is a woman of many interests: art, music, cold-brewed coffee and football, just to name a few. Like most moms in America, she has always taken a particular interest in the food that her kids eat. When my mom was helping me move into my temporary place for the semester, she took me to the grocery store and made sure that I had healthy options easily available. Recently, she’s been encouraging me to really take notice of what is in the food I eat – and to always read the label.

Like I mentioned in my last blog post, I did not grow up on a farm. Before interning with the Animal Agriculture Alliance, I would consider myself a typical consumer. As a consumer, when I see labels like “Raised without Antibiotics” on a package of chicken in the grocery store, it seems natural for me to assume that the chicken without that label may contain antibiotic residues that could be harmful to me and the people with which I share my food. Throughout my time with the Alliance, though, I have learned a lot about antibiotics and their role in animal agriculture.

Precautions by the FDA and USDA

Consumers are concerned about the possibility of antibiotic residues in their meat, and it’s easy to understand why. The worry is that if humans consume antibiotic residues through the meat they eat, they may build a resistance to those antibiotics. Then next time they got sick, it would prevent the antibiotics they needed from properly treating the illness. This is a real concern, but luckily the FDA and the USDA have been working diligently to prevent antibiotic residues from ever entering the market. After an animal has been treated with antibiotics, the FDA mandates that producers must wait for the drug to completely leave the animal’s system before processing them. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service then tests meat, poultry, milk, and eggs for trace amounts of any drugs present in products before they ever reach the market. It’s also important to note that there is very little overlap between antibiotics that are used in humans and antibiotics that are used in animal agriculture.  Meat Mythcrushers has a great article about antibiotic overlap.

Antibiotics for growth promotion are being phased out.

One thing that even I can admit to thinking as a consumer is, “Sure, sick animals need treated. I get that. But I’ve heard that animal farmers will give antibiotics to their animals just to bulk them up, and that seems dangerous and irresponsible to me.” Well, rest assured! In 2013, the FDA requested meat producers to phase out antibiotics for growth promotion by 2016 – and the industry supported the FDA’s decision.

Even animals that are given the best care possible could still get sick.

Another claim that I’ve heard is that if farmers were taking proper care of their animals, they wouldn’t even need antibiotics in the first place. I wish that were true, but unfortunately animals just get sick sometimes even if they have received the best care possible, which farmers work hard to provide. The North American Meat Association has a resource that really helped me understand this better. We take care of ourselves, but we still get sick and require antibiotics from time to time. Our pets do, too – and I know that many of us treat our pets as members of the family. The use of antibiotics in animal agriculture isn’t a sign of mistreatment; it’s actually a sign that farmers are paying attention to their animals’ well-being and giving them the medicine that they need to get better.

That said, there are farmers and food companies who have committed to raising animals without the use of any antibiotics. You may have heard “no antibiotics ever” or “raised without antibiotics” as ways to describe this production method. These farmers are just as committed to ensuring animal health. They will avoid the use of antibiotics as much as possible, but as I mentioned above sometimes animals will need treatment. If an animal requires an antibiotic to get better, it will receive the treatment it needs, and then be separated from the “no antibiotics ever” herd or flock and marketed through a different channel. Having different options helps farmers choose what works best for them, their animals and their farms, and benefits the consumer by offering a choice in the grocery store.

Ask questions – and find answers.

To be totally honest, I’m not sure that if I hadn’t accepted my internship with the Animal Agriculture Alliance I would have ever researched or looked into the concerns that I had heard about the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. It was very easy to accept the things that were buzzing around without a second thought. So, some advice from a fellow consumer: do your own research and make up your own mind before accepting what you’ve heard online or through word of mouth as truth. And to all the moms out there (including mine), antibiotics in meat are one thing that you can take off of your plate!

Join me on my adventure!

If you had come up to me a few months ago and told me that I was going to drop out of school and move to Washington, D.C. with 15 credits left until graduation, I would have laughed and silently questioned your sanity.300669_2288095074251_640233774_n And yet, here I am – thrilled to be the newest intern at the Animal Agriculture Alliance for this Fall semester! My name is Valerie Downs. I am fortunate enough to be studying public relations at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida (stay tuned to see how well I survive the Northern winter. It’s only September and I am already freezing). Before I became a Floridian, though, I was a Marylander. I spent the vast majority of my life in the Hagerstown area of Western Maryland.  I wish I could tell you that I grew up on a farm and have a beautiful background in agriculture, but unfortunately I do not. All I really have to offer is a passion to learn as much as I can about the industry and an equal desire to share what I have learned with you.

What I Have Been Learning

Although I have only been working at the Alliance for a few short weeks, I have already learned so much. When I dropped all of my classes, one of the things I was most disappointed about was pulling out of my first graphic design class. During my time with the Alliance, though, I have been learning Photoshop.  I have even created graphics that were posted to the Alliance’s social media platforms.  I’ve gotten to sit in on meetings and listen to key members of the animal agriculture industry speak.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that I am definitely learning more here than I would have learned in the classroom.

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Photo From My Grandpa’s Land

Not everything that I’ve learned so far has been quite so academic. Besides discovering the joys of people watching on the metro, I have been developing an even deeper respect for all of those who work in the agriculture industry.

My childhood home was right next door to my grandpa’s little hobby “farm.” He just keeps a few horses and tends to his fields and a relatively sizable garden. During the hottest part of every summer, he’d always recruit my cousins and I to help with hay harvesting.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI remember growing a respect for those who work full-time on farms somewhere between sweating more than I ever have in my life and discovering black snakes hidden in hay bales. One thing that really sticks out to me about those summers is how my grandpa could spend all day throwing heavy hay bales around but still come in the house at night singing his silly made-up songs about lightning bugs or caterpillars with all the cheerfulness of a songbird.  Even though it was hard work, he was always so passionate about what he was doing that it made him and everyone around him glow.

There is a real passion in the animal agriculture industry, and it doesn’t stop on the farm. When I told my friends and family that I had accepted this wonderful opportunity with the Alliance, the ones who have had experience in agriculture all told me the same thing: once you get a taste of working in this industry, you will never want to leave. Several different people told me that those who work in animal agriculture foster a caring workplace environment like no other – so much so that it makes you want to stay there forever.  And I have yet to see anything other than exactly that.

What I Hope to Learn

Looking at everything that I’ve learned so far, I am so excited to continue on my journey with the Alliance. I still have so much left to learn. I’m looking forward to meeting more people and hearing their animal agriculture stories. One of the most important things I hope to take away from this internship is the ability to know how to communicate to everyday consumers about the animal agriculture industry. I look forward to sharing everything that I learn with you.  I hope that even though I do not have a background in animal agriculture, my point of view that comes from looking into the industry as an outsider can be helpful to you.

There are so many stories floating around the Internet and sometimes even the media that are not based in truth. When I was looking at the Alliance before accepting this internship one quote from our President and CEO, Kay Johnson Smith, resonated with me: “Our duty is to be honest, be truthful, and be factual in the representation of the issues we deal with.” The truth is as important to the Alliance as it is to the consumer, and that is exactly the kind of organization from which I want to learn.