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My Relationship with Food: It’s emotional, and it’s complicated

I grew up on a farm. It wasn’t a big farm, but we produced food for our family and for a little extra income. So me and food – we go way back.

One of my earliest memories is of setting strawberry plants for our u-pick business. My parents dropped the starter plants at the correct spacing, and my brother and I followed behind, nesting each plant carefully into freshly prepared ground, patting the soil around the base. When those plants started to bear fruit, I liked to begin my summer mornings by grabbing a bowl from the kitchen and running out to pick the freshest berries. I ate them with cold milk, and there was nothing like it. Picking strawberries was my first paying job (nickel per pint, I think).

Close to the earth

We always had a huge vegetable garden. I watched my mom pore over seed catalogs while there was still snow on the ground. In spring, she taught me how to make long, straight garden rows using twine and chalk, and I helped her count seeds to drop into holes – just a few inches, then covered gently with dirt. We lugged 5-gallon buckets of water down the rows to get them off to a good start. By late summer, there was endless harvesting and canning in a sticky-hot kitchen.

We had a herd of 20-30 beef cows, and we slaughtered one per year to fill our chest freezer. My mom tells me that when I was a little girl – probably just 3 or 4 – I watched a cow be slaughtered. She tried to bring me in the house, but I was fascinated and wanted to see. A few years later, I insisted on being vegetarian for a while. I ate lots of peanut butter sandwiches but eventually came to terms with animals as a source of food. I helped my dad care for these animals and also spent long hours perched on a fence post, watching them graze and nurse their babies.

For my last two years of high school, I left Kentucky for a scholarship to Putney School, a Vermont boarding school. Putney had a small herd of dairy cows, a mix of Holsteins and Jerseys. I fell in love with dairy farming in this idealistic setting. I loved the warmth of the cows, the sweetness of last summer’s hay, and the rhythm of a day spent caring for animals. I loved the science of it – that providing the best nutrition and care to the cows had a measurable outcome – a tank full of high quality milk at the end of the day. I loved the thought that we were producing milk that perhaps a little girl somewhere was enjoying on a bowl of strawberries.

I fell so much in love with dairy farming at Putney that I chose Cornell for undergrad, because on top of being an all-around excellent university, it has a great Animal Science program. At Cornell, I learned much more about the science and the business of dairy farming. I learned how to tweak a cow’s diet to improve efficiency, how to manage disease and optimize reproduction, how to keep cows comfortable through hot summers and cold winters, and how to breed cows to increase the longevity and milk production in the herd.

I also learned that dairy farming is a tough and risky business. It’s not just about taking good care of cows. The profit margins are slim. If you want to stay in this business and succeed, you’ve got to be business-savvy and open to new areas of innovation. I loved the lifestyle side of farming, and I loved the science of it, but I didn’t love the business side. I didn’t love the idea that for many, staying in the business meant getting bigger and bigger or turning to more technologies like rbST. I headed to grad school instead of farming, but I have great respect for those who chose to stay in agriculture.

Many of my classmates from Cornell returned to farming after earning their degrees. They went back to their family farms, bringing new knowledge and enthusiasm to the family business. Many factors probably went into this decision, but I’d be willing to bet that a deep emotional connection to the land and the family business was a part of it. And this wasn’t their only option. Others took their Animal Science degrees to Wall Street, where the payoff was bigger and the pace of life faster (but, as we learned, probably as risky as farming!).

I’m not directly involved in food production now, but I like to stay close to it. We’ve purchased our veggies from a CSA for the last 3 years. I love going to farmers’ markets, and otherwise, I shop at a grocery store where I can buy local produce and meat. I do this because I want to limit my family’s (and especially BabyC’s) exposure to pesticide and herbicide residues and because it makes more environmental sense to purchase food that is produced close to home. Plus, it strengthens our local economy. I also do it because it feels good. It isn’t my family business anymore, but I like having that emotional connection to my food. BabyC may not be picking strawberries for pocket change at age 5, but I hope that she’ll have an appreciation for the work and joy that go into food production.When it comes to buying milk, my decision is a little more complex. I guess in an ideal world, I would buy from a farmer I knew. I also love to think of the cows producing milk for my family happily grazing year-round on lush pastures, but I know that not every climate can support that. Above all, I would want to know that the animals producing milk for my family were treated with respect throughout their lives. The thing is, when I think back to my classmates at Cornell who returned to work their family farms, I feel pretty confident that they treat their animals with respect. I know that they are in this business at least in part because they enjoy working with the animals. Plus, a dairy cow that is treated poorly doesn’t produce as much milk as one that is treated well. That’s the business bottom line.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems with the dairy industry. There are problems with the way most foods are produced. These shouldn’t be ignored. It’s a good thing to be aware of how food is produced and what impact that may have on food safety, animal welfare, and the environment. I believe that consumers have a right to know what management practices are used in their food production, so labeling foods as such is important. But to a consumer who has never stepped foot on a dairy farm, how much of that buying decision is informed by science and how much by emotion? Organic or conventional? Milk from cows treated with rbST or not? Glass jar or plastic jug? $4 or $8? If you just read the labels without knowing what is behind them, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that traditional animal agriculture is a “bad” way to produce food, and I think that’s not always the case.

How about rbST? To be honest, on an emotional level, I still don’t feel great about it. I recognize that this feeling is mostly irrational. I trust the science that says that milk from cows treated with rbST is safe for my family. I also know that the FDA can never be 100% sure that anything is safe. They make the best call they can with the data they have, and they feel confident enough in the safety of rbST to approve it. But we all know that the FDA has been wrong before – not often, but it does happen. I’m also not sure that rbST has really been a net gain for the dairy industry, even though it increases milk production. It has resulted in distrust from consumers, who just aren’t comfortable with it, regardless of the science. Still, if you offer me a bowl of ice cream made from milk produced by rbST-treated cows, I won’t hesitate to enjoy it.

Despite my emotional hesitation about a technology like rbST, I want to have an open mind about how my food is produced. We live in a world with an increasing population and demand for food. Not every climate is conducive to dairy farming, and our natural resources are diminishing. We all want our food to be produced in a humane manner and to arrive at our table being safe for our families. We may need to be open to the idea that a new technology – maybe not rbST, but perhaps something like it – could be part of the answer to feeding more people using less resources. It’s not warm and fuzzy, but it could be a solution for the future.

3 Comments
  1. Yes! Emotional AND scientific: that’s it. I have gone to buying most everything I can organic, which is a financial commitment I am lucky to be able to make. But the nuances of sustainable food: cage-free, rBST, grass-fed, pasture-fed… they are confusing, and I’m lucky to live in Oregon where you can ask a lot of questions without people looking at you funny. Even still, it’s intimidating to ask producers and stores about the details of food/family nutritional welfare.

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    March 22, 2012
    • I agree! I guess what I was getting at in this rambling post is that I have yet to find a label that tells me what I want to know about my food. I want to know that it was produced responsibly with respect for the animals and the earth. I think a lot of conventional producers fit that category, and I want to give them a big heart label to stick on their food, too! The best solution is always to know your farmer, and that is a bit easier here in Oregon. I’m sure you’ve seen the chicken skit in Portlandia? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2LBICPEK6w

      Like

      March 22, 2012

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