Ideas from our friends in the north!

For the past two days, I have been at the North American Leaders Session, which is a meeting hosted by the Center for Food Integrity designed to bring together leaders of livestock coalitions from across North America to meet and share ideas. Now, you’ll notice that I said North America and not just…well, America. We were really lucky to be joined by a group of great folks from Canada that shared some of their projects and challenges. You may or may not be surprised, but their challenges aren’t much different than ours here in the States and they brought some awesome ideas to the table.

Now, I tweeted about the fact that the Canadian contingent is doing some amazing things related to consumer-outreach and some people on Twitter expressed interest in what those ideas were. In an effort to both share some of those things with you and as a way for me to remember them 🙂 here’s some of the ones I found extremely interesting:

Farmers Feed Cities
This is a program mainly funded by the grain organization in Canada, but has implications for all farmers. Somewhat like the “Farmers Care” program in Michigan, Farmers Feed Cities is designed to raise awareness and education about how farming affects all of us, not just those in rural areas. What I liked most about the program was the material promotions that they’ve put together. They’ve done what I think is a great job with getting the notion of “Farmer Feed Cities” in front of a lot of people. They even gave us a window decal that I fully intend on putting in my car and a pin that’s going on my backpack! You can learn more about what they’re doing on their website, Facebook page and Twitter account.

Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC)
Throughout Canada, there are Farm Animal Councils. The Ontario branch has done a couple of projects that I thought were really neat. They have put together a 40+ page booklet about Canadian agriculture (which is not all that different from the US) called “The Real Dirt on Farming” that they’ve distributed all through the province. It goes to media members, legislators and–something a little different–doctors and other offices. The booklet covers a ton of common topics and is very good at promoting and explaining all types of agricultural production.

They also have created a website where people can take a virtual tour of farms, which range from egg producers to pig farms and orchards. Heather Hargrave, who works for OFAC, said they’d like to get to the point where they produce a modern/conventional, organic and grassfed video for each species that helps show the differences and similarities between different production systems.

Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan (FACS)
Saskatchewan’s branch of the Farm Animal Council has done some great projects promoting the message that farmers care about their animals (and subsequently the environment and their families). They partook in a very large billboard campaign throughout the province (the largest agricultural media campaign in North America) with the simple message “On our farm…we care.” Billboards featured young farmers and farm families in a variety of animal industries. They partnered with a photojournalist who took the photos, which helped the promotion of the message through journalism circles and built great partnerships with the different commodity organizations to get them done.

They also chose to put together a puppet show–Tales from the FACS Farm–that is used in elementary schools throughout the province to teach kids about animal agriculture. Adele Buettner, who works with FACS, said they hesitated at doing this because they’re not big fans of talking animals (humanizing them) in any way, but also said it ended up being a great choice because of the educational value. They work with a professional puppeteer company and put on the shows at as many schools and libraries as they possibly can during Education Week.

Sometimes we forget about how important it is to get fresh ideas to promote our industries and build trust between food producer and food purchaser. This chance to hear from other people in the US and Canada was a great opportunity for me to think about what we can do in Michigan and throughout the ag industry across the country.

Do you have any neat projects in your state or country that promote agriculture to non-farmers? What do you do? How do you secure funding? Have you done any projects that crashed and burned?!

The pride and tradition of being pure

There’s something about being involved with purebred livestock that just makes my heart swell with pride. Now, that’s not to say anything is wrong with raising commercial livestock – I’m grateful for every farmer that produces the vast majority of what I eat every day – but there’s something to be said for getting around people that have such a deep history in raising outstanding animals.

Like many others, the start of my livestock career focused mainly the county fair. Having only a market show, our goal has always been to develop the best market hog out there – usually the result of crossbreeding. Now, while I will say that I love the market hog aspect (my most favorite set of hogs – Grand Champion Pen! – were a set of crossbred “blue butts”), I developed a whole new appreciation and pride for breeding hogs when I got involved with the National Junior Swine Association, the junior leg of the National Swine Registry.

A Duroc boar from Shipley Genetics in Ohio. Animals like this can have a huge impact on the breed. (And don't you just love how you could drive a truck between his front legs!? Awesome!)

Breeding purebred animals, for me, is an entirely different mindset. Instead of breeding solely for type, you breed for characteristics that will improve the breed – and in turn, all hogs – in the long run. You want to breed Yorkshires and Landraces in a way that will add muscle and leanness to their great mothering ability. You want to add mothering ability and sound structure to the great carcass traits that tend to be associated with Durocs and Hampshires. If anyone can remember how far the pendulum swung towards market hogs that were too lean, too shallow bodied and horribly structured in the late 90s, you know how important the purebred industry can be in making our animals better – whether you’re in commercial production or seedstock production. Having that ability to make an impact is the thing that makes all the difference to me.

Yesterday I got to interview the faculty coordinator and farm manager from the purebred beef farm at MSU and they reminded me how it’s great to be a part of raising seedstock, not only for the pride in your animals, but also for the pride in your people. Throughout the history of the purebred livestock industry, there have been outstanding people that have made a difference – both for animals and for others. There are few things greater than getting to listen to older people – and it doesn’t matter if it’s in cattle, swine, sheep, horses, etc. – talk about those that made a difference in their lives when they were a livestock showman or make a difference in the lives of youth now. That’s huge for me.

As you or your children get involved with livestock – and I sincerely hope you do – I would encourage you to consider involvement in the purebred side of the industry. While both seedstock and commercial production are important for the entire industry, it’s definitely a unique experience to be a part of shaping a breed or multiple breeds. I, for one, am extremely honored to be a part of the great pride and tradition associated with being pure.

Farm Fresh Food? Yes, please!

You probably read the title and thought “Farmers markets? Locavore? Gardening?”. Well those are all great things, but I’m actually talking about the newest blog sharing farmers’ stories in Michigan! The ‘Farm Fresh Food’ blog launched March 1 and is a great way for agriculturalists in the state to share their stories.

Hosted on MLive.com, the blog will feature posts from farmers in all segments of Michigan agriculture. Topics will range from on-farm activities to how a busy mom can clean out the pantry. It’s really a great way to show the diversity of both Michigan agriculture and Michigan farmers (surprise – they’re just like most people in a lot of aspects!).

I would encourage you to check out the blog at http://blog.mlive.com/freshfood/index.html and leave your thoughts in the comments section. I can’t wait to see what people think and I look forward to all the agvocating that these farmer-bloggers will be doing!

**Note: If you’re a Michigan farmer (large or small!) who would be interested in blogging, let me know!

Is any pretty-sounding answer a good one?

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to listen to a speaker on campus that I found rather interesting. His name is Robert Paarlberg and he’s a political scientist at Wellesley College (he’s also done some guest lectures at Harvard). His research focuses on international agriculture and environmental policy. Out of his studies, he’s written several popular press books. Paarlberg was invited to MSU as a part of a lecture series sponsored by CANR that focused on feeding the world with science-based agriculture. I got to cover his lecture as a freelance gig, so I won’t go too in-depth about the presentation itself. However, there were a few things that struck me as…well, like I said earlier: interesting.

Dr. Paarlberg is a big believer in precision agriculture being the main way that we will feed a growing population by 2050 (9.3 billion around the world that will have to be fed, clothed and housed). He explained how precision agriculture is producing more on less land with less water, fertilizer, chemicals, tillage, etc. (the usual), while organic production, in his opinion, is too slow, labor intensive and expensive to reach that goal (although he was supportive of some organic methods).

Now, I’m not saying that I disagree with anything he said. However, I didn’t expect for the audience to be eating right out of his hands.

On first impressions, I would have figured this audience was more likely to be found at a Michael Pollan lecture than a lecture on precision ‘Big Ag’ agriculture. So, you can understand a little of my wonderment when here they were nodding and smiling at every point Paarlberg made. This struck me as extremely odd.

Does it matter what charismatic, well-spoken people say as long as what they say sounds good? Do non-farm citizens want the answer when it comes to their food, or do they really just want an answer (and preferably one from a smooth talker)? I’d be really interested in hearing what other people think. It seems to me that agriculture could lose the power of its advocates – like Paarlberg – if those advocates are just the mirror image of anti-farm advocates.

Cheering a losing team…now that’s dedication!

When my boyfriend and I watch our beloved Spartans play, we tend to have different attitudes when they’re losing. Yesterday, we got to experience this difference full force when the guys went down (rather painfully) to Alabama 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl.

See, when our team is losing by a lot, Mitch tends to want to turn the TV off and find something else to do. His point is ‘Why do you want to put yourself through this? It’s not going to get any better!’. I, however, tend to leave the television on and watch until the end. Yes, it’s probably just masochism where football is involved, but that dedication is kind of part of my personality.

When I start something, I can’t help but follow through until it’s completed. That was instilled in me by my dad when I was little. Even if we started a sport or project that we ended up not liking or wasn’t going well, we didn’t get to stop in the middle of a season or leave our teammates hanging. Today, even when I take on too much, I feel a sense of responsibility to keep pushing until I’ve finished what I committed to doing.

I think that’s a trait that’s heavy in agriculture (even if Mitch doesn’t like it where it’s related to the Spartans!). Farmers and other agriculturalists stick through weather, tough markets, family challenges and more – no matter what it takes, because they’ve made a commitment to providing Americans with a safe and consistent food supply. I hope that a new generation of agriculturalists, including young farmers, gardeners and those joining the local food movement, carry this characteristic with them as they face struggles to reach success.

Now, I shouldn’t beat Mitch up too bad. There is also something to be said for people who recognize something is not working, ditch it and move on to the next thing that could be a success. I actually think there’s a little of both personalities in most of us. What about you? Are you one to cheer on your team even though they’re dying a slow, painful death? Or do you realize that your time could be better spent by moving on?