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Defining Agriculture – an Issue for Farmers & Consumers

August 6, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat is ethical farming? There are many terms tossed about when it comes to farming and other issues but definitions are much more difficult.

Some criticize large farms saying “I don’t get the resistance to letting the critters enjoy sunshine, fresh air & grass before we eat them?” while wondering why major corporations are worried about their 20 head. The same thing can be turned around – 20 head cannot feed Chicago – so why do many small farmers then talk poorly of large scale farmers who can and do? Both can have a market!

For example what is a “factory farm”? According to it is “a farm in which animals are given foods that increase the amount of milk or eggs they yield.” By this definition most are factory farms – even those who graze give grain to milking animals to increase production even if that is just at milking time. It is true of both cattle and goats – they eat contentedly while being milked. The same source defines “factory farming” as “a large scale farming enterprise.” So for someone with an opinion 10 is “a lot” the person with 15 pigs is a factory farm as well as those with 3000 pigs.

msn.encartas dictionary says a factory farm is “a farm where animals are raised on a large scale using intensive methods and modern equipment.” So again – perception can be 15 or 3000 pigs but specifically with modern equipment – so if you machine milk it’s a factory farm? Intensive methods could be rotational grazing which is confined and uses modern methods. What is “modern equipment”? says it is “a large-scale farming enterprise” while Merriam-Webster doesn’t even have the word in their dictionary. According to a fact sheet on a factory farm is “by federal and state statute as a facility that contains 1,000 animal units.” This varies by species, with a note “for dairy cattle, a facility that contains 700 milking and dry cows is considered a CAFO.” So if you have a grass based dairy with 500 milk cows and 200 calves/heifers you’re a “factory farm” by that definition. Presumably this also applies to beef herds – so 200 cows with their calves plus 200 head from last year’s crop being fed in confinement is not a factory farm (only 600 head).

“Confinement” is another term that seems to raise definition issues. Merriam-Webster says that is “an act of confining: the state of being confined.” Clear as mud yet? “Confining” or “confined” is also “to hold within a location; imprison; to keep within limits.” So when pointing out on a youtube video the hog farmer that says “we don’t allow confinement of any kind” but has his hogs confined behind a fence, the same as the large scale farms was by definition accurate. Unfortunately that brought negative responses and resentment from “small farmers” as well as larger ones such as “iowafarmtours” who suggested moving “to India or other third world country and experience true free range animal ‘care’ as I have seen.”

The next thing that invariably comes up is “ethics” of farming. Merriam-Webster defines ethics as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” In other words, opinion. So the opinion of one might be a pasture hog is more exposed to disease and extremes of heat would be right and the opinion of another that no matter climate control for comfort it’s wrong to have them confined in pens inside and both can be right depending on perspective. Ethical (“involving or expressing moral approval or disproval”) then can’t be a means for prosecution unless outright illegal, because it rests on opinion and individual views. Choice!

Then there are also “cruelty” allegations on many fronts. According to the legal dictionary at this is “the intentional and malicious infliction of physical or psychological pain on another.” This often then hinges on humane treatment. says ‘humane’ is “characterized by tenderness, compassion and sympathy for people and animals, esp. for the suffering and distressed.”

This also can come to perception. If one feels compassion is inside where they are protected from overheating and have plenty to eat and drink and another accepts compassion as no less than pasture freedom both can be humane – or not!

The difficulty in definitions makes it a difficult thing to wrap around when it comes to laws. After all, if we have a law that makes it illegal to have an animal in confinement it doesn’t matter if it’s a 20 acre field or a dairy barn – both are confined. Without being confined the animals will not stay within a farmer’s boundaries (leave a gate open and test that theory at your own risk!).

As consumers have food choices there are enough mouths to feed for all sized farmers. All need to work together or at least not work against each other or all stand to lose much. In order to insure, truly, food choices, there must be farm choices. With 308million people to feed, and less than 3% farmers, that insures every farm has someone to feed. Will it be you? Your choice matters.

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