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Sasha Stashwick’s Blog

More "eyes to acres"--and grocery aisles, dinner plates, and lunchboxes

Sasha Stashwick

Posted October 3, 2012

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I had the pleasure of spending last weekend in Kansas at the Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival—an event that founder Wes Jackson called “an intellectual hootenanny” (my favorite phrase of the week). 

Prairie Fest.JPG

There, in between getting to know the cows, exploring the fields to understand the Land Institute’s work on developing perennial wheat varieties, and gathering around the bonfire, we were treated to a talk by the great Wendell Berry, poet, author, and genuine luminary on sustainable agriculture. 

Prairie Fest licker.JPG


Berry issued a simple but powerful call. “The ratio of eyes to acres”, he said, “has to change.”

Lamenting the decline of farm culture in the United States, Berry explained how fewer farmers on the land today translates into fewer people to carefully watch over the land, assure its health, the health of the food being raised from it, and the health of the communities living on it. 

Prairie Fest lecture.JPG

But just as we need more eyes to acres, we also need more eyes to grocery aisles, dinner plates, and lunch boxes—and a lot more eye contact between consumers and the farmers that produce our food. When we as consumers pay attention to what we’re eating, where it’s coming from, and how it was produced, our power is real. Just look at pink slime.

Here at NRDC, we’re working hard to get antibiotics out of the livestock industry, where their massive use is contributing to rise of “superbugs”—antibiotic-resistance strains of bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella that put consumers at risk of acquiring serious, and even life-threating infections. Today, a whopping 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on farm animals that we eat. The vast majority are fed routinely in low doses to animals that are not even sick. The purpose: to make them grow fatter faster and to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions.

What does this have to do with Wendell Berry’s talk?

The American livestock industry has undergone a radical transformation in the last few decades, from one in which farm animals were dispersed across the country grazing primarily on pasture to a much less pastoral model. What we’ve seen is rapid and powerful consolidation of the livestock industry so that now just a handful of companies control the vast majority of meat coming to our restaurants and our stores, as well as the giant factory farms where the chickens, pigs, and cows that end up on our plates are produced.

One reason this has happened is because these factory farms are largely out of site to the majority of Americans. There are simply too few eyes watching.

The intrepid food folks at Grist recently published this excellent “primer” on factory farms—also known as CAFOs, or “confined animal feeding operations”—breaking down what the dominant livestock production system means for our meat today, including the role played by antibiotics. As the name suggests and the primer details, the way we’re raising the majority of our meat is unappetizing at best and destructive at worst. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We need more eyes. More eyes holding the government accountable for regulating the livestock industry. More eyes telling our grocery retailers that they have a role to play in getting safer, more sustainably produced meat into their aisles and that we expect them to play it. More eyes discovering ways to eat well with less meat. And more eyes focused on buying better meat whenever possible to support the farmers who are raising animals with good stewardship over their land, workers, flocks and herds. 

I keep hearing people ask, are antibiotics in meat the next pink slime?  I say, let’s make sure they are. And then let’s keep going. Yes we need more farmers on the land. But farmers can’t do it alone. We all need to put more of our eyes on our food.

“It seems to me that it’s a bad move to get into a contest between optimism and pessimism…The steadying requirement is for hope.”  - Wendell Berry (on the current political tug-of-war over agriculture and the environment).

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Lorraine LewandrowskiOct 3 2012 12:30 PM

In a way, I wish the story line was "more talking with farmers" and less "eyes on the acres". There are certain phrases in this piece that will turn the ordinary farmer and rancher away (These are precisely the people you want to better communicate with). For example, when you say "the way we are raising the majority of meat is unappetizing", the country's 750,000 cow/calf farmers scattered across the land will think you mean them and how they treat their cattle. The last time I looked at statistics, the average cow/calf operation in the US producing beef animals was around 44 cows.
In NY, a dairy farmer with over 200 cows becomes a CAFO. This is not a huge farm. One guy in my coop has 200 cows and grazes everybody daily. We all know farmers that we do not consider to be huge farmers, but who are designated as CAFO's at this point. And, we trust our veterinarians' recommendations more than we do Grist.
It is also unlawful to feed dairy cows antibiotics. Yet, we see this "80% of antibiotics is fed to livestock" figure tthrown around very freely across all types of production when talking about milk. As a regular dairy farmer who grazes daily, I sometimes have NYC people just about shout at me that they would only buy "organic" milk because milk from my farm is probably full of antibiotics. I can only shake my head at the ignorance. Too many facts and figures from Grist are being thrown around and blanket-applied to agricultural production which varies tremendously around the country.
Most of the regular farmers will find it hard to believe that NRDC really cares much about the family farms. Where have environmental and food movement groups been during the past 10 years as we lost thousands of dairy farms? At World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin yesterday, Secretary Vilsack told the crowds that half of Ameriac's dairy farms have been lost int he past 10 years. Why were groups like NRDC, Just Food, Slow Food and other food movement groups stone cold silent in 2009 when we had the Great Milk Price Crash and dairy farmers were committing suicide? If NRDC is worried about rapid consolidation in ag, why were farmers the only people who spoke at the dairy antitrust hearings in 2010? We in NY reached out to numerous groups, including NRDC, to ask if they would at least say something during milk price crash or the antitrust hearings and all that I spoke to told me that milk pricing was not their "thing". We have pleaded with NRDC reps to consider the grasslands, and while expressing a bit of sympathy for farms being lost, we never saw NRDC back us, the regular farmers up.
Drought 2012 cut a path of hell across rural America. Across the country, livestock farmers are liquidating herds, culling out cows, sending animals to slaughter because they can't feed them and they need money to pay the bills. 3 of my neighbors sold out last month and a 4th committed suicide after burning his farm down. In reality, as we look anxiously at the payprice that we get for cows that we are selling to raise money to stay in business, cow prices are dropping as good cows are being sent out to be slaughtered. At the same time, you tell people they should eat less meat. How come you don't talk about the reality occurring on our farms now as we struggle to survive, let alone pay for health insurance or ways to heat our homes this winter. Yes, its nice to tell people to eat "better" more expensive meat from locally sourced farms, but have you ever tried to book an appointment to slaughter an animal at the very limited facilities we have and then try to sell the meat for a lot more than what people can pay in the store?
Things have become so bad out in rural america, that for the first time in decades, we are seeing farmer demonstrations. California dairy farmers marched on the state's Ag Commissioner offices last week. Dairy farmers will be marching on Governor Jerry Brown's office on October 18 to protest the lowest point milk pricing in the nation squeezing multi-generational farmers there into bankruptcy. While you may say that the California dairy farmers are not politically correct because their average herd size is 1000, again the reality is that what happens in California impacts the rest of the country. If processors can keep prices to California farmers down to keep making cheap dairy products, so goes the rest of the country.
When NRDC and some of the food movement groups actually show at at actual farmer meetings to talk with us, then I will have some faith that this group is truly interested in rural America. Set up a booth at World Dairy Expo, go out to the annual Farmers Union or Farm Bureau meetings, drop in to speak with dairy cooperative members or go and meet the pig know...the average people who sell into commodity markets.
Thanks for listening to my rant. I can only hope that urban groups will take the time to talk with all the farmers. At present, its very unforunately, the conversations appear to be limited to "farmers markets" farmers closer to urban areas, or those farmers who are able to do CSA, while the rest of rural livestock farms burn.

Sasha LyutseOct 9 2012 11:09 AM

Thank you so much, Lorraine, for these thoughts. We agree there needs to be better dialogue between the environmental and agricultural communities and are actively exploring new opportunities to bridge the divide. Our work on the Growing Green Awards, Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, and the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment, all of which NRDC helped to found, are examples of our direct collaboration with growers.

The challenges currently facing our farmers and our environment depend on us working together and we are always happy to sit down and discuss your concerns.

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