I realize that state-fair food is a category unto itself, a passionately defended paean to Americana and summertime. And to criticize it could cause a distracting uproar. Some might even offer me their fried-fave-on-a-stick with instructions to make it disappear right up my behind.
So I’ll just say that we did not partake of the many fried delicacies during our trek to the New York State Fair. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t eat food-on-a-stick. Witness the tasty organic dumplings we ate on forks on the way. And you think I’m no fun.
But there was another side to fair food that caught me by surprise. Sure, I knew there would be buildings full of cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals. And I knew that many of those animals — despite the wholesome, gee-whiz facade — had come from or were destined for the industrial food machine that spits out the giant corn dogs being sold steps away. And yes, I went anyway. We’d never been. I write about food and agriculture. I wanted to see it for myself.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the propaganda with a capital “P.” Big old greasy shtick-on-a-stick. And most of it aimed at kids.
The most blatant was in the quaint, barn-themed “education center” sponsored by New York Agriculture in the Classroom, under the title “Dairy Fact or Myth.”
Ponder these two “facts”:
“Only happy, healthy cows give milk.”
TRUE. “In order to produce high quality milk, farmers must provide their cows with a clean, dry and comfortable place to live, and plenty of food and water.”
The whole truth: Even stressed-out, crammed-tight, poorly fed cows give milk. In fact, it’s the foundation of our country’s dairy industry. I wish it were true that only happy cows gave milk, because then we’d have a nation of pastured, sunlight-soaking bovines. But right now? Not so.
On a related note, a nearby chart cheerfully detailed cows’ ability to “serve as food recyclers by eating the leftovers of the food manufacturing process that would otherwise go to waste.” I suppose they get points for honesty. Many cows do indeed eat food waste. But that doesn’t mean they should. Or that it’s good for them. Or us.
“Even very large farms are family owned and operated.”
TRUE. “According to the USDA, 99% of all U.S. dairy farms are family owned and operated.”
The whole truth: Just because a farm is owned by a family doesn’t mean the practices are sustainable. It doesn’t mean the animals are treated well. But this is what the dairy lobby wants us to think when it promotes the idea of the “family farm.” And since the vast majority of milk in the U.S. is bought and packaged by a few big corporations, most dairy farmers have to play by corporate rules or lose business. When you look at it like that, family ownership doesn’t really matter much, does it?
(For another example of how Big Ag co-opts the “family farm,” check out the farmer image campaign announced during this year’s Illinois State Fair. Behind the campaign: Illinois Beef Association, Illinois Corn Marketing Board, Illinois Pork Producers Association and Illinois Soybean Association. One big happy family.)
So, OK, I find the whole ag-education claim behind state fairs dubious, anyway. If you want your kids to see farm animals, well, visit an actual farm. Or a farm-animal sanctuary. It makes me sad to see animals cooped up and gawked at. It’s why we don’t do circuses or animal acts, and why, though I’ve come to terms with zoos because of their conservation work, I don’t really enjoy them. And thank god the New York State Fair doesn’t have live birthing exhibits like the one in Minnesota co-sponsored by one of the largest industrial pig farms in the country. Or like the one in California where a panicked pregnant cow was shot to death this summer.
But here’s the thing: When a group like New York Agriculture in the Classroom (NYAITC) presents information, kids and parents assume it’s true. And why wouldn’t they? The program does a lot of neat things. It gives grants for school gardens, provides classroom resources and sponsors a student art contest to promote local agriculture. (I wrote about our experience with that contest here). But the fact is it’s funded not only by Cornell University and the New York State agriculture and education departments, but also by the New York Farm Bureau, which is an agribusiness lobbying group. And that makes things messy.
Here’s another example: NYAITC posted a question on its Facebook page, asking for chicken-themed books to share with second-graders for an ag-literacy week highlighting the poultry industry. I asked if picture books would work. The reply: “as long as the (books) portray a realistic and positive look at all sides of the poultry industry.”
I responded with a recommendation for “Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken,” by Kate DiCamillo and Harry Bliss (which I wrote about here). I explained the relevant plot point — how Louise rallies her fellow chickens to break free of a cage — and added something like: “I’m not sure what you mean by a realistic and positive look at all sides, since what’s ‘realistic’ isn’t always ‘positive,’ but second-graders certainly would benefit from learning that chickens should be raised outside, not in cages.”
I say “something like” because I can’t remember the exact words. And I can’t check the page, because my comment was deleted.
When I e-mailed someone from the group to find out why, she told me NYAITC censors its page “to be sure we aren’t distributing propaganda” or presenting “extremist” data as “agricultural reality.” Later, when I asked how she could deny that inhumane and unsanitary conditions are indeed agricultural reality, I got the end-run: “Quality agriculture exists on all scales and we protect them at AITC by trying to make sure all farms are represented fairly.”
Fair enough. Just because a farm is big doesn’t mean it’s bad. But, really, when is it ever good to pack chickens in so tight that they can’t act like chickens?
Never. The answer is never.
Now back to the fair. Lest you think it was one big downer, let me say there were some up notes, too, like displays on farming techniques through history, a New York produce stand and two on-site restaurants serving local food. The New York honey and maple industries were well-represented. And on the non-food front, our 6-year-old loved the exhibits on tree and water conservation, and the woodworking and fiber-arts demonstrations.
And, finally, there was “Dairyville 2010,” the 800-pound butter sculpture showing a small dairy farm on one side and, on the other, a town powered by the farm’s cow manure. At least that was a nod to sustainability. And after the fair, the butter was to be converted to biofuel for a nearby college’s buses. Good stuff.
But the best thing of all? Turns out that state-fair butter sculptures were created by the dairy industry as propaganda to combat competition from margarine makers. Which is some delicious irony now that we know butter rules and margarine drools (as my daughter said this week in her new first-grade slang).
Now it’s just a matter of time before all this sustainable-agriculture “propaganda” shows itself for the truth it is.
The NYS Fair is over for this year, but plenty of other fairs are under way or still to come. Did you go to a state fair this year? In years past? Any thoughts on kiddie propaganda and all that unfair food?
Wow, what a great post. I know that’s a pretty generic comment, but it’s really true. Now, I love town/county/state fairs; I most recently lived in NC, and their fair is huge! I love the (junk) food, and the whole atmosphere, but it’s been about 2 years since I’ve been. Since that time, I’ve been learning more about the big-business ag industry, and had never really looked at the big fairs with the critical eye I’ve gained. I certainly won’t look at the big fairs the same way again. (that being said, my little hometown fair in Sterling, MA is still the best time on earth! and all local)
Great post, as usual.
And we don’t do circuses, zoos, or animal acts of any kind for the exact reasons you mentioned. Animals should not be entertainment.
So we shouldn’t have educational exhibits? Or just anything that is disagreed with is propaganda? I’ve long enjoyed going to state and county fairs. the competitions (yes taking part) as well as the educational aspects, which often goes both ways. I’ve had people tell me that hundreds of years developing certain breeds (shetland sheep etc) was because farmers were too lazy to build fences. I’ve heard adults tell children they didn’t know if the black steer gave chocolate milk. I’ve seen people eating a BBQ sandwich chastise me for offering free lamb recipes.
Part of the food manufacturing process used by livestock are from vegetarian diets…I suppose that wasn’t put out there. Like the strained beans from soy milk production that people won’t eat – what to do with it? animals make use of it.
How about the actual amount of hormones in foods? Or the fact that our own bodies produce thousands of times more than we could consume in food. Perhaps that comparison might not go over so well. Peas contain much more than milk.
What people believe varies. Our perceptions and experiences influence our beliefs. But should we not educate at all? People criticize that farmers hide what happens but when we show from real farms what is happening that’s criticized too.
And sorry but animals are entertainment. Watching the chickens or rabbits or other animals makes up for all the criticism and nastiness that can come from people who, even if you’re honest, is suspect. Our chickens have no such notions – they simply carry on. The competitions at fairs are the only chance most have to see some of the incredible animals we get to be around daily…but instead we should hide back in the sticks so it can be said we’re hiding something? It’s frustrating – it can’t be both ways.
That’s a really good point about fairs providing opportunities for farmers to be more visible and accessible to the public. And I imagine it is frustrating to have to constantly defend against stereotypes and misinformation. But that’s where I think we’re in agreement. I’m all for educational exhibits that connect consumers and farmers. I just want them to be accurate.
It’s simply not true, for instance, that only healthy, happy cows give milk. Or that all family-owned farms are doing right by people, animals and the planet. To say otherwise is indeed propaganda. And because organizations like NYAITC are perceived as educational and therefore influential, I think they need to be held to an especially high standard regarding the information they disseminate.
BTW, the issue with cows eating food waste isn’t about whether that food waste is animal-based or vegetarian — the issue is that cows are biologically designed to eat grasses. So to feed them anything else is messing with nature and creating conditions that can lead to sick animals and inferior-quality milk. As for hormones, well, there’s a big difference between hormones that occur naturally and those created in a lab, you know?
I appreciate your stopping by and sharing a farming perspective.
Sorry but I have to disagree on anything but grass makes cattle sick. I’ve never been in agreement on the “happy cows” thing personally because what people think is a happy cow is different than what cows do. Cows take as little effort as possible to eat, drink and rest…which is why around hay and water area even with much land there is dirt bare. But growing up with beef cattle in a dry lot (can’t graze when 3′ of snow on the ground) they ate haylage, corn silage and hay put up during the summer….cattle make use of roughage and corn does not make them sick unless too much of the diet is kernels. Ours ate corn silage – the entire plant including the grain – in the winter as it was needed nutritionally – energy in cold weather. Not one single vet call for corn related illness and a handful of any type of vet call needed over 15 years.
There are several types of livestock that make use of roughage unused from human food processing.
There’s good and bad management in both large and small farms. But what should we say? Someone said or “this is what we do”?
There’s abusive teachers doing illegal things as well as most other occupations – but the rest of the people aren’t suspect and needing to apologize for the bad actors as farmers are.
That is the perennial debate: grass vs. grain. And I suspect we’re not going to change each other’s minds (though I also think we may have more common ground than it seems).
But for those who aren’t as familiar with the issues, here are two good links about pastured animals:
Sustainable Table and Eat Wild.
It’s also worth noting that even the USDA’s National Organic Program has recognized the importance of grass-fed animals and now requires a minimum percentage of in-season pasture for dairy cows. More details here: USDA final rule on access to pasture and NOP pasture rulemaking.
I agree there’s more in common. 🙂 Personally yes I prefer pasture as many dairies I know use. However, my example was also beef and was intended to show the whole plant is used, not just the grain. It’s the balance that is important. My only point was some say corn is poison – it’s not. We fed it because the animals needed it – but it’s also not straight corn only and not all of the time. The organic certification is also holding things I don’t think many consumers are aware of.
I’ve had to start feeding chickens corn a couple times per week because they were getting thin. Outdoor animals, all the pellets and scratching area they want, when worming and treatment for coccidia (I’ve not found an organic treatment for that) they were still not in the condition desired.
Grain is not the evil – overuse of it can be detrimental. I think we can agree in thankfulness we have choices! Consumers have choices in what to buy but as producers we also have choices in management decisions. I appreciate the civil discussion on the issues and speak up only on experience. Sometimes finding that bridge of what producers are doing vs what consumers want can only be crossed with discussion. We all want the same thing – safe, affordable and healthy food. .We all eat. We all care about our animals. That may not be always seen. Again – I appreciate the chance to respond. Thank you.
I’ve also appreciated the civility, so thanks to you as well. There’s so much information out there — none of it black and white — that the only way for consumers to truly know their food (besides growing it themselves!) is to get to know producers and ask questions. And that’s a whole lot easier to do when it’s a two-sided conversation. Please visit anytime.
I heard a round-up of fair food on NPR–cheeseburgers mushed between doughnuts? Makes my arteries hurt. It does seem to be the quintessential fair experience. I haven’t been to a fair yet. Just found your blog, interesting reads.
Wow. It’s clear that “any opinion that is different from the author’s” is what is meant by propaganda.
Stell, if you’d care to elaborate, we could have an actual conversation, as I did with SlowMoneyFarm. And perhaps you didn’t see all the links and research? More than mere opinion.
I’ve rewritten this several times now, and it always comes out snarky. For that I apologize, I’m not trying to be an ass. I am honestly trying to illuminate and to provide an educational moment. I think it is important that as conscientous consumers we also remember that there is much we don’t know. My writing below is also not intended to justify the inhumane treatment of animals of any kind, including the human animal. Also, the propoganda you saw at your state fair was horrible, but as an agriculture educator I believe it is more likely a failed attempt at communication – the hardest thing I do is to simplify scientific concepts so that they are more accessible without changing the meaning. Your example of the happy cow is actually based on scientific fact that shows happy cows produce MORE milk. So, indeed, a good farmer does have a monetary reason to keep his/her cows happy.
Corn is a grass. Pasture cows graze IN grass but also eat all of the broadleaf plants that are in the same field. So they eat far more than just grasses. The only difference between soybeans and those broadleaf plants are thousands of years of breeding to make them more productive and nutritious, ditto for the corn (we’ve bred the snot out of corn so that it no longer resembles its fescue cousin). Therefore – as long as a cow is eating a plant it is not doing anything that is external to its “nature.” Which, btw is as perverted from the original animal as is the soybean from its originating plant or a dog from a wolf.
Theresa, no snark detected, so no worries. You make a good point about simplification. Though I guess I’d ask why we feel the need to simplify everything for our kids. Make it accessible, sure, but most kids above toddler age can begin to understand and appreciate far more than we give them credit for. And by simplifying the “happy cow” statistic to such a degree (if, in fact, that’s what it was doing), NYAITC is actually providing misinformation. Because no matter how you determine whether or not a cow is “happy,” the fact is that most milk in this country comes from cows raised in deplorable conditions. And that’s not at all the image conveyed by the “fact” in the exhibit.
I’m glad you pointed out the problem with the term “grass-fed.” It’s why I usually try to use “pastured” instead. Or the broad “grasses” instead of just “grass.” And the links I supplied did go into greater detail on this very subject.
The problem is that most cows are not fed grasses — they’re fed straight-up or ground corn (the dry seed from field corn), and corn seed is a grain, not a grass. And they’re fed corn not as a small part of their diet, but as the main component. There’s good evidence that such diets not only wreak havoc on cow digestion and health, but also yield milk that is less nutritious than milk from pastured cows. Plus, of course, most corn and soybeans are genetically modified. So there’s a whole mess of potential problems here.
Christina with all due respect I must disagree strongly with your last paragraph. *MOST* cattle in the US are in fact pastured. Broad speaking cattle – cow-calf operations, beef, dry cattle etc pasture is the way many take care of their animals. Yes there are confinement feedlots and yes there are confinement dairies but those are not most of the cattle in the US. It’s also, as I said earlier, not *just* corn they’re given…cor is part of the diet. I don’t know where these places are you know that use it as most of the diet because the fact is the body doesn’t handle straight corn as a majority of the diet, and if it was solely for money sick or dead cattle aren’t worth anything! Y’know? Please think about it.
With social media it’s more possible than any time before to connect with farmers and ranchers. Some dairies are posting regular Youtube videos from the farm, many are SHOWING what their cattle are eating. It’s not straight corn. For those on Twitter there’s a FindAFarmer option to discuss with farmers facts and issues. The third Tuesday of each month there’s #foodchat which addresses food while other Tuesdays is #agchat which is more from the production side on the very types of topics you’re discussing.
There’s also many on Facebook and increasingly blogs from farmers and ranchers on all types of agriculture including many people don’t think of. I’d be interested in who this/these farms are you’re saying use mainly corn and what their health records look like.
SlowMoneyFarm, I’d love to see your statistics, because everything I’ve ever read and heard points to both widespread CAFO use and widespread grain feeding. For instance:
“The Food & Water Watch factory farm map illustrates that confined animal feeding operations, the dominant form of livestock production in the United States, also known as CAFOs or factory farms, are found throughout the country.”
“Two percent of livestock farms now raise 40 percent of all animals in the US.” (Sustainable Table)
“Today, just four firms slaughter more than four out of five beef cattle. This concentration gives large packers tremendous leverage over independent cattle producers. The beef-packing industry has also expanded beyond slaughter and processing and now large packers own their own cattle and operate feedlots, thus controlling supply through all stages of production.” (Food & Water Watch)
“Between 1994 and 2001, … the number of farms raising livestock in the U.S. declined by over 60 percent. The majority of livestock on the market is now produced under contract with vertically integrated, corporately owned animal factories that bear little resemblance to the independent family farm of old. The contract system compromises farmers’ independence and the transparency of the price discovery process all along the livestock supply chain. The exploitation of contract farmers by corporate animal factories is a growing problem.” (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)
“Livestock consumes 47% of the soy and 60% of the corn produced in the US.” (Sustainable Table)
“Soybean meal and shelled corn are the most common plant proteins and grains fed to dairy cows. They are also some of the most genetically engineered crops in America, with 85% of all soybeans and 40% of all corn coming from genetically engineered sources.” (Sustainable Table)
“About 26 million tons of the livestock feed comes from grains and 15 million tons from forage crops.” (Cornell University)
That’s just a sampling. But hopefully it answers your question.
Thanks for mentioning AgChat. I was already familiar with the foundation, but I just spent some time reading more about it. Seems your social-media training has been very effective, because it looks like some other recent commenters came through the same channels. Would love to know more about AgChat and its funders.
Finally, I couldn’t agree more that firsthand knowledge is essential. It’s why I’ve gotten to personally know the many farmers from whom I buy food, and why I serve on the advisory committee for a producer-only farmers market. I really do “know” my farmers. And anything that helps more consumers do the same is a good thing.
I’m going on experience – direct information from people out in pastures right now tending beef cattle – people on working dairies that are family farms *none* relying on major contracts. But that doesn’t matter because primarily 2 sources say something else. Have you looked at beef rations from a producer’s standpoint? Many depend on what is available but several show a typical of under 8 pounds of corn in addition to double that of *hay*. I told you about silage, which also is used but that’s not on a “Sustainable” website because it doesn’t fit their view.
What we’re doing out here really doesn’t matter if it’s not on some slick sounding website. And to point it out doesn’t matter either because there’s a list of links to discredit experience. So on one hand you’re saying how “big ag” dominates and on the other hand saying the majority of us out here don’t matter because it doesn’t jive with what a website says!
http://beefstockerusa.org/nutritionresearch.htm is just one that shows sugar beet pulp, cottonseed and sunflower meal and many other things besides corn.
Perhaps we’re just peons not to be believed. The Merck Veterinary manual is long established, much longer than the organizations listed.
http://www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp?cfile=htm/bc/182307.htm – under 3#/100# body weight on full feed.
Many that finish on pasture really isn’t grass – it’s legumes needed for nutrition.
““Two percent of livestock farms now raise 40 percent of all animals in the US.” (Sustainable Table)” Where is this statistic from and how was it determined? Are you interested seriously in the truth or in holding to what this website says? I know a lot of people raising cattle, sheep, hogs etc and I know they don’t do the volume to make what is said. Farmers are individuals. It seems like rather than truth or choice that like many you want to convince others to make the choice you make. Be it adults or kids – that isn’t really thinking about what you eat…not all the way through objectively.
I know what I know – you don’t believe it even when presented with information and that’s fine. As I’ve said people believe what they want to believe. Unfortunately that limits or eliminates opportunities for those of us trying to make a difference because we don’t fit in that bubble either even though producing what is claimed to be wanted.
SlowMoneyFarm, I mulled how to respond to this, and to what depth, and decided that it really comes down to this: One person’s experience does not necessarily constitute collective reality.
Just because the farmers you know don’t farm this way doesn’t mean that’s representative of the whole industry. It’s the difference between anecdotal and statistical. I realize that most farmers fall on the continuum between factory farm and small sustainable farm, but that doesn’t change the fact that most agriculture in this country is controlled by a few corporations. I can’t really argue the details any further. You asked for data. I gave it to you. It speaks for itself.
Now, you accused me of being summarily dismissive. (So much for civility.) But ask yourself: If all I’d wanted was an echo chamber, why would I have published your and others’ comments in the first place? It’s easy to cast aspersions when you don’t like what you’re hearing, but that’s neither fair nor constructive.
I appreciate the dialog that you are allowing to take place on your blog about food and farming. I also think we all can agree that life is about choices and people have the right to choose and we are very lucky to live in a country where we have many choices in regards to food. That being said our management system on our farm has both “confined” and pasture based facilities. (Before we go any further I would like to say that a “confined” facility or a free-stall building allows cows to eat, drink, socialize and rest whenever they want). In fact there are some that have both. And what I can tell you is that the cows are always in the barn. Science (now I realize most people base decisions on emotion) has shown us the ways to make these buildings comfortable for the cows. Everything from the bedding, to having fans and water sprinklers to keep cows cool in the hot months and even the size of the stall is carefully monitored. Most farms have grown in size in order to be profitable and in our case to allow for the family to all work together. The important thing to remember when talking about food and feed is that both humans and cows need nutrients and those nutrients can come from different foods. A cow has a very complex stomach with 4 compartments that allows them to utilize food a lot better than other animals. We feed a number of different things including dry hay, haylage (fermented hay), corn silage, soy bean meal and vitamins and minerals. The important thing to remember when thinking about pastures, slowmoneyfarm also talked about this is that pastures are usually very high quality (lots of nutrients) in the spring but as the season goes on and in the case of this summer where we have had hardly any rain in Indiana there quality decreases, this year drastically. To me it is farm more important to provide our cows a balanced diet then to leave them in a pasture because consumers think that is what is best for them. We also have a nutritionist that comes to our farm every other week to check the quality of the feed we are giving the cows and to monitor the cows. The world population is growing and therefore the number of mouths to feed is also growing. We are honored to be the 6th generation to farm on the land that our ancestor’s did but we don’t feel we should farm the way they did just like any other business doesn’t conduct business the way they did in 1950. We utilize technology and best management practices to make sure our cows are content and to make sure there is food available for the 98% of the population that isn’t involved in agriculture. Our cows are our family and we don’t sit down for supper until they have all been fed.
You talk about sustainable farms and how large farms aren’t sustainable. Here is food for thought. Organic farms need more land to produce the same quantity of feed. They need more cows to produce the same amount of milk. With more cows comes more poo… which means you need more farm land to spread the poo on. Hopefully you see my point.
I am glad you attended the fair and while I think we all could agree state fairs aren’t an actual depiction of agriculture they are an opportunity for consumers to connect the fact that food comes from farms. You can’t blame the people that are trying to do this educating for being creative. Who would want to see a stick of butter sitting on a table. The really scary thing about all this is how many of the people who attended the fair know the difference between butter and margarine…???
Liz, thanks for your insights. Six generations — that’s impressive! And oh my, if there’s one thing people have learned about food by now, I hope it’s the difference between butter and margarine. Yikes.
The thing about sustainable farming is that — done correctly — it gives back to the environment what it takes out. That includes animal waste, which stays within the farm’s ecosystem (rather than collecting in lagoons and creating pollution). The waste enriches the soil and regenerates plant growth so animals can graze rotationally. So it all balances out.
And no responsible sustainable farmer would keep animals on pasture simply to build up a good image for consumers. Many use backup irrigation systems to supplement rainfall as needed. And in the winter they feed dried grass accumulated during the growing season.
Whether we need large-scale conventional agriculture to feed the world is actually highly debatable. Here’s a good example of the conversation happening around that issue (both the story and the comments): Foreign Policy: Don’t Panic, Go Organic.
Hmmm…all this note about animals eating foods that are ‘clean up’ from other industries – or foods not normally in a cow’s diet (corn! grains!)
What to note about the hormones introduced by soy? I’m sorry I haven’t read the entire comments, (have two little boys!) but hormones aren’t only introduced by injection.
peh. grassfed beef tastes better. More for me.
Michele: Absolutely grass-fed is the way to go for any animal product!