Mainstream agriculture beginning to get messages from outside

flock-of-sheep-57689_640What goes around comes around. An expression that usually is used by those who would seeek revenge, but, in this case, perhaps, can be hopeful and positive. In this case, it seems as if certain players in mainstream agriculture are beginning to get messages that those outside have been advocating since I first became aware of them, as an agricultural student.

The Rev. John W. Wright introduced me to the writing of Kentucky native Wendell Berry during those years, and Berry’s philosophy of simple stewardship and usefulness. Berry believed that farm animals should be raised, along with crops and pasture, in a system that preserved the health of the soil, and protected farmers from loss due to low crop prices. It didn’t hurt that he saw generations of farmer live, and nearly die, with tobacco. His father organized farmers against low prices offered by tobacco magnates like James Buchanan Duke, who had efectively established a monopoly over those farmers. Later, tobacco failed with falling demand. However, Berry was simply advocating a type of farming that his grandfather’s generation could have easily recognized.

Recently, news coming from Washington State University detailed research being conducted in the Palouse region of eastern Washington, where the Zakarison family has been raising sheep alongside their wheat, and peas and alfalfa as well. “This year the dockworker slowdown brought the (alfalfa) hay export industry to its knees, and hay prices plummeted,” Eric Zakarison told Sylvia Kantor, writing for WSU. “It turned out to be a better year for lambs than alfalfa.” Grain prices can be volatile as well, and direct payments were eliminated with the most recent Farm Bill, so the added income security is welcome.

Jonathan Wachter, a doctoral student at WSU, is working with Zakarison to demonstrate how intergrated livestock farming can contribute to sustainablilty goals, like preserving and adding soil nutrients, adding biodiversity, and reducing greenhouse gases. Research dollars usually go to industrial agriculture, so this is news in a man-bites-dog sort of way.

The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, another mainstream agriculture group, recently held a panel discussion where participants were told by Bruce Feinberg, global animal health and welfare officer with McDonald’s, “that social media has allowed consumers to reach out and self-educate around agricultural issues, and companies must understand the relevance to consumers,” according to the Agwired agricultural news service. Once again, this message comes from what might be considered an unexpected source.

Others who spoke included Dr. Marcia Endres, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor of dairy science at the University of Minnesota, who said “When humans domesticated animals, they entered into a contract to provide food, water, shelter and protection – to provide them a good life.”

Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D., president and CEO of the American Humane Association expanded on what a “good life” means and explained that humans’ contract with animals provides five essential freedoms: freedom from pain and suffering; freedom from fear; freedom from discomfort; freedom from hunger and thirst; and the ability for animals to express their natural behaviors.

“Now consumers simply demand that our contracts with animals must include humanely-raised,” said Dr. Ganzert. “It’s a core value so many of us share and now what I love to see is consumers moving together and actually becoming that voice for the animal. And what they are also looking for in humanely-raised is to make sure the humanely-raised definition of better treatment of animals is transparent.”

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