What Do You Think about Me, or Asking the Hard Questions about How Food Is Produced

Last week, I attended a two-day AgChat conference in Austin, Texas. Truth be told, I probably never would have gone if it had not been in my own backyard, but since it was, I thought “Why the heck not?” and signed up and went. Boy, am I glad that I did. Not only did I meet some incredibly nice people that were interested in so many of the things that I write about on a regular basis, but these are the same people that are working to bring transparency to farming and ranching. They’re working to help people better understand just what goes into keeping grocery stores and dinner plates filled with food.

One of the sessions was a panel discussion entitled “What Chefs and Moms Really Say About the Food You Are Growing.” This was a discussion between three people: Addie Broyles, a writer and food blogger for the Austin-American Stateman; Dr. Lindsay Chichester, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator focusing in livestock, agricultural, and food systems; and Mark Buley, a co-owner of and chef for Odd Duck, an Austin restaurant renowned for local, farm-fresh cuisine. These are three people with very different views on food systems and how edible resources function in our economy. Near the very end of the discussion, a woman asked Mark Buley this question:

What do you think of me?

You could almost hear the air suck out of the room. She was asking the question for which we all wanted to know the answer, but none of us had the wherewithal to ask.

A little background. This woman is one of ten families that operate a 400-cow dairy in rural Wisconsin. While this may seem large (and to me it really does not, but then again I see ranchers with several times that number of cattle so I may not exactly be the target market for this question), this works out to 40 cows per family. To my thinking, this dairy is a family operation, and not even a particularly massive one at that. I should also mention that I’ve been to Odd Duck in Austin, and the food there is fantastic. It’s not the kind of place one can go every day, but to celebrate something good in life, it’s an amazing place to eat.

Back to her question. Mark Buley said that she was incredibly brave for asking what she did, and I agree with him. I also remember him being a bit stunned that she asked him outright for his opinion and that there was never a clear-cut answer to her question.

It’s fun to go to the farmers’ market and talk to the guy growing fourteen kinds of heirloom squash and the cheesemonger that uses only milk from cattle that graze on ethically safe and environmentally friendly clover, but let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that only a tiny fraction of people go to farmers markets in the United States. The rest of us are going to the big-box chain supermarkets closest to us and deciding what we can buy to feed our families for the week within a set food budget. Good, safe food in the United States is pretty much a given.

Food production is incredibly hard work, and almost to a man/woman, every person at that conference was proud of the work that they do. And they should be. So many of us that live in cities have no idea of the long days, sleepless nights, and foregone vacations required to put food on everyone else’s table. We have no idea what it is to practice good, ethical herd management. As a society, we’ve lost that hands-on understanding of what it takes to feed ourselves. True, we may go to the grocery store, but how many of us understand what goes into making certain the grocery store itself gets filled?

Perhaps I am naive, but as a society, we’re making a family that produces a necessary, wanted product, that is self-sufficient, that is adhering to moral and judicial laws, and that is raising and maintaining good, healthy dairy cows feel *badly* about the work that they do? Am I missing something somewhere?

So what do I think of you? I look at you and think, Well done, good and faithful servant. I also think I’m going to appreciate the milk on this morning’s cereal just a little bit more. That seems only right. You think enough of me to make certain that I have good, safe milk to drink, so the least I can do is to honor the cow and the dairy farmer that made that possible.

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