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Consumers canít have it both ways
It is a proven fact that most consumers have an outdated perception of modern agriculture. They think pork producers have a few pigs that run loose in the barnyard and are fed with a slop bucket. They see dairy farmers as those who get up real early in the morning, don overalls, and go to the barn to milk a few cows. While the reality of farm life is quite different, these consumers react negatively when presented with the facts.

They condemn ďfactory farmsĒ as cruel yet, at the same time, insist on a high quality, low cost food supply. They fight to keep confined feeding operations out of their community, but insist that farmers be environmentally responsible. It is time for consumers to make a choice because they canít have it both ways.

This public schizophrenia is common and can be seen everywhere in our society. We call Janet Jacksonís Super Bowl Halftime peek-a-boo show ďvulgar,Ē while paying to tune in daily to Shock Jock Howard Sternís flood of verbal filth and profanity. In short, what we say we like is often far different from what we actually want.

For agriculture, this means paying more attention to what is really important to consumers rather than what they say is important.

People say they donít like large confined livestock operations. But what is really important is that the farms donít smell, the water supply is safe, and the traffic on their roads does not increase. Address these concerns and you stand a much better chance of getting approval at the next zoning board hearing.

Food safety is currently a big issue. With massive spinach recalls, as well as BSE and avian flu worries, consumers want a food supply that is safe to eat. Modern agriculture can give them that; the agriculture of 100 years ago cannot. It is a fair question for agriculture to ask: which do you want - aesthetically pleasing farms or a production system that delivers the kind, quality, and price of food that people want?

The reason most people have misconceptions about modern farming is because they do not understand it. The agricultural industry has developed a number of great resources to meet this challenge. For example, a website - - lets people who have never been on a dairy farm visit one from the comfort of their computer. A recent issue of Hoosier Farmer, the house publication of Indiana Farm Bureau that reaches more non-farmers than farmers, dedicated the majority of its pages to showcasing Hoosier beef, swine, and dairy operations that use modern technology to protect their animals, employees, and the environment. The list of resources that are available to learn about modern agriculture is a very long one. But, in the end, consumers must still answer that basic question: what do you want?

When I run into people who are critical of large livestock farms, crop protection products, biotechnology, and free trade, I ask them if I can look in their refrigerator. When I find fresh USDA inspected meat, out of season vegetables, grade ďAĒ dairy products, and processed grain products, I tell them to make up their minds. Consumers can no longer enjoy the benefits of modern agriculture while refusing to support it.

This farm news was published in the Oct. 18, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.