Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Horse Is a Horse, of Course, of Course, unless…

Update August 2017... Horses and the Slaughterhouse Issue

Two British food company executives are behind bars for the role they played in Europe’s 2012 scandal that saw horse meat passed off as beef.

* July 2016:  Nearly a decade after the last three horse slaughterhouses closed in the United States the trafficking of American horses for slaughter continues and the controversy burns as fiercely as ever. Since 2007, almost a million American horses have been sent to Mexico and Canada to be killed, butchered and exported to Europe and Asia, where local palettes find the meat a delicacy. A small amount of meat is returned to the U.S. to feed zoo animals.

**Note: In this brief video, Dr. Temple Grandin (Colorado St. Univ. professor and acclaimed author and autism activist) talks about how horses view the world and experience fear.

What Would Mister Ed Say? (an earlier blog)

The horse meat scandal in Europe just reiterates how something seemingly straightforward can become so complicated. In my childhood, horses were the trusty companions of Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. They were the countless extras used in B-grade movies before the motion picture industry worried about stating “no animals were harmed in the production of this film.” And horses were the animals that some lucky kids had on their farms to ride and pamper. One boy in my grade school class had work horses on his farm, but even then, I think we realized what a toil that would be. We grew up to be tractor jockeys.

I didn’t even think of someone eating horse meat until I lived overseas, and my only encounter with an equine snack was innocent enough. Our family was traveling in rural regions of Nagano Prefecture in Japan, and we stayed at a Ryokan---traditional guesthouses that usually provide expertly prepared local fare for the evening dinner. As the meal progressed, the kimono-clad waitress placed various dishes in front of us, and one contained a paper thin slice of red meat, cooked on the edges but basically rare, soaked with a soya-based sauce.

                                     ----Horsemeat on the menu??-----
By the time a friend at the table told us what it was, I’d finished half of the small portion. I ate the rest. I’d probably do the same again in such circumstances, but I wouldn’t order horse meat in my Iowa home region. It wouldn’t be an option, and I just don’t have any desire to eat horse. But some people do. According to this online article, several countries serve horse meat with some regularity.

I wasn’t shocked to hear that consumers are eating horsemeat in Europe, but I did a doubletake when reading about an international Swedish furniture company that was selling meatballs with traces of horse meat in them. I gotta get out more---I thought a furniture company would still sell beds, desks, and deluxe couch-potato accessories.

EU ministers are meeting about the horse meat scandal, and I imagine it involves regulations, labels, public health, and international trade. Complicated indeed---and as we watch this unfold, we’ll probably see accusations, arrests, and consumer complaints.

But horses have been in the middle of controversies before all this. In the United States, debate lingers about slaughterhouses, horse meat exports, and the general treatment of the animals. We can read many opinions online, such as this blogger’s entry explaining her struggle with understanding it all.

After trying to figure it out, I’ve decided to come to terms with horse issues by following the Mister Ed philosophy. As grade school kids, we watched the lovable Mister Ed on his weekly 1960s sitcom. The intelligent, sardonic horse would talk only to his bumbling owner, and in an early episode, this man asks Ed how to explain the whole “talking horse situation.”  Ed’s answer: “Don’t try. It’s bigger than both of us.”

Eat horse or not? Regulate all trade and inspect all meat? Allow more slaughterhouses or not?  If someone asks me to explain all this, I’ll just have to say, “neigh.”
by dan gogerty (photo from dailyhaggis.com)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Social Media--Thunder Road Style

Sometimes I envy modern farm kids. They text from tractor cabs, tweet while the cows get milked, and touch screens to connect with friends around the world.

It was tougher for us rural teens in the 60s; we couldn't even contact buddies waiting for us in town if a flat tire on a grain wagon kept us in the field late on a Saturday night. But we had cars, and like the social media of today, these heavy metal devices offered apps, instant messaging, and the risk of serious hardware malfunctions.

With our social network, we could date, hang out, and cruise with friends, but first we needed a communication device--a set of wheels. A few lucky guys drove Mustangs, Camaros, or GTOs, but most of us used whatever our folks would reluctantly provide. It might be the family's four-door sedan or---God forbid---a station wagon, but unlike today we could not go on a date in the farm pick-up truck. Back then pick-ups seemed to arrive from the dealer's lot equipped with empty feed sacks in the back and the smell of hog manure in the cab.

Our apps were hardware, not cyberware. We installed Hurst 3-speeds on the floor, used risers to jack up the suspension, and eventually hooked up 8-tracks or some type of sound system. Then we could spread viral downloads by driving slowly through town with Steppenwolf's Born to Be Wild blasting out the windows.

On warm summer nights, we'd gather to text message---verbally. With our cars parked haphazardly in lots, on streets, or along country roads, we'd share face-to-face messages about music, sports, or dating. Someone might mention an older guy who just shipped off to 'Nam or a rebel without a cause who'd been suspended from school. Like texts today, much of it was superficial but seemed highly important at the time. "D'ya hear Bob climbed the water tower again last night?" or "Got any Aqua Velva in your car? My hands still smell like the cows I just milked." 

On weekends we might pile into someone's '57 Chevy and head to the "big city" of Ames. Along the way we'd blog aloud about something funny that happened in P.E. class, or we'd swap stories about the totalitarian rules our parents set for us. In the city we'd scoop the loop American Graffiti style and yell tweets to car occupants moving slowly in the opposite lane. 140-character conversations worked fine: "Nice wheels, man" or "What time's the dance start?"

Occasionally a touch of social media harassment tainted the tweets: "You guys seen Eddie?"  "Yeah sure. He just rode by on a frosted flake." "Thanks dorkface. Meet us at the Dairy Queen, and I'll buy ya a knuckle sandwich." Spam could be a bit more tactile then.

Most of our old social media slang was less intimidating, and much of it came from popular culture---groovin' on a Sunday afternoon---or car culture—poppin’ wheelies, doin’ donuts, and layin’ rubber. But the current acronym craze was not so prevalent. Instead of saying something like "YOLO," we'd crank up a Grass Roots song and sing a line from "Live for Today."

A social media systems crash in the 60s could be a lot more serious than losing data or having passwords stolen. With our hardware, screens didn't go blank---bumpers got wrinkled. Texting and driving wasn't a problem; being a goofy teen and driving could be. Too many cars ended up in ditches. This social media could leave scars. 

But like smartphones today, if used wisely, cars defined teen social life---especially for kids on farms. In ways, the old system had some advantages: parents couldn't text a curfew reminder or track us with an Orwellian GPS device. And even the best "Thunder Road app" today can't place you in a car full of friends driving country roads on a moonlit summer night. 

Springsteen is from Jersey, but he knew what a country kid was thinking: "Roll down the windows and let the wind blow back your hair. The night's bustin' open, these two lanes will take us anywhere." 
by dan gogerty (photo from bobsegarini.wordpress)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Defining the Family Farm—You’ll Know It When…

Update: March, 2015: 
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that family-owned farms remain the backbone of the agriculture industry. The latest data come from the Census of Agriculture farm typology report and help shine light on the question, "What is a family farm?"

June 24, 2013---This Wallaces Farmer article visits a USFRA Food Dialogues gathering to consider what the definition of a farmer is. The blog below also addresses this topic.

Maybe a Real Farm Can't Be Defined

No one asked me to define the term “family farm” when I was a kid, but my answer would have been quick and assured—“That’s where everybody chores in the barn and plays in the pastures. It’s at the end of the lane where the yellow bus drops us off after school, where the front door is open and the yard light is always on.” 
One day in second grade, the teacher asked the students to raise their hands if they lived in town. Two did. The other twenty or so of us lived on farms outside the small Iowa town. If a teacher did the same today, the proportion of hands raised would be reversed.

Some organizations and agencies proudly point out that 90-some percent of farms are family owned. That’s great, but I imagine that includes everything from urban hobby farms to long-distance landlords to mega farms with thousands of pigs and fields flowing to the horizon.

Last weekend I asked several locals to define a family farm. They agree that times have changed, with tech and new practices making agriculture bigger and more efficient. “That’s the reality. It’s basically good.” But they seem reluctant to lump them all into the family farm category.  A family farm? The answers were more feeling than fact: 
  •    “It’s where the people who work the land live on it.” 
  •    “You’ll know it when you see it—or maybe I should say, you’ll know it when you work it.” 
  •    “It doesn’t matter so much about the size. It’s the spirit of the place. A family farm has a certain attitude—and it’s gotta have a dog or two.” 
  •    “A family farm is the type I’m farming.”
A young woman majoring in agriculture at Iowa State University works part time in our office, and she spent last weekend visiting her parents, six siblings, and 350 milk cows on a small farm in eastern Iowa. When I asked her to define a family farm, she immediately replied, “Just come home with me for a weekend. You’ll see.”

It’s a matter of perspective, and there is room for a wide range of farms just as there is a need to hear from the variety of voices that make up modern-day agriculture. One way to do that is to avoid screaming headlines, slanted opinions, and dubious statistics.

I’ve run across quite a few blogs and essays lately that call for reason and cooperation. One site comes from Michele Payn-Knoper. In her Gate to Plate blog, “Yes Farming is Personal, but…,” she seems to value all types of farms, and she emphasizes the need for authentic, positive voices telling the story of agriculture.

Just as I’m not certain how to define a family farm, I’m not completely sure how to define “authentic ag voices.”  I guess you just know them when you hear them.  by dan gogerty (photo from ars/usda)

Note: Michele Payn-Knoper’s new book, No More Food Fights!, was released earlier this year.