Reconnecting with the public

by Dr. Temple Grandin
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A recent consumer survey conducted in Ohio showed that accessing locally grown food was more important to consumers than either organic or animal welfare considerations. The survey was conducted by Linda Lobao and Danielle Deemer from Ohio State Univ. In cities around the country, farmer’s markets have become very popular. The figure clearly shows that buying local is a top issue, although organic, humanely raised and fair trade product are also important.

Percentage of Consumers Willing to Pay More
Local ..................................... 72%
Humanely Raised................... 59%
Organic.................................. 51%
Fair Trade............................... 57%
(Source: Ohio State Univ.)

Retailers such as Whole Foods now actively promote local producers of food. Within the last few years, the stores have posted signs all over the produce section, which make it very clear that some of the produce was locally grown in consumers’ home states. Animal welfare certification is also getting increased attention. Humane Certified and American Humane have recently had more producers sign up for their programs, which certify that animals are humanely raised. Both Whole Foods and the Organic Standards Board will be putting more emphasis on animal welfare when they issue new guidelines. The Whole Foods GAP program is a five-step animal welfare rating system with Level 1 being similar to standard commercial practices and Levels 3 and 4 similar to some of the high welfare certifications. All animal welfare-friendly labeled products forbid the use of gestation stalls for sows and conventional small battery cages for laying hens.

One surprising finding in the survey was that people with low incomes were just as concerned about animal treatment as higher income people. The survey also contained some interesting results on consumer perceptions. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents associated family farms with good welfare and only 20 percent of consumers associated large farms with good welfare. The results clearly support the consumer belief that big is bad. Beef cattle were perceived as having better welfare than chickens. Twenty-seven percent perceived beef cattle as having poor welfare, and 48 percent thought chickens had poor welfare.

Most people are totally disconnected from agriculture. But there are strong indications that there is growing momentum shift to get back in touch with the land. In my suburban city of Fort Collins, Colo., a law was recently passed to make it legal to have up to six laying hens in your backyard. Books on raising chickens residentially are now stocked at major bookstores. Another indicator that the American public is hungry to get back in touch with farming and other hands-on activities is the relatively recent flood of popular TV shows such as Dirty Jobs, Deadliest Catch, gardening shows and
shows where people live off the land.

There are not enough young people working in conventional animal agriculture. As I travel around to livestock meetings, I have observed that natural, organic or pasture-raised beef are all segments where many more young people are getting interested. This summer I went to a grazing meeting in Iowa and there were a lot of young people getting involved in natural and organic agriculture. They had read about organic agriculture and they got interested. Students have to be exposed to agriculture to get interested. Lily Edwards is now an assistant professor at Kansas State Univ. She was my student, and when she first came to Colorado State, she had no background in animal agriculture. When she started working with cattle and pigs, she found out she liked them and she is now in a career working with livestock. Agriculture as a whole has to work to engage the younger generation.

One way to get more young people interested is to put videos on YouTube that show normal agricultural practices. When I typed “cattle feedlot” and “cattle feed yard” into YouTube, I was surprised to see videos of everyday activities, such as a feed truck delivering feed were in the Top 10 hits. People are hungry for information. I can think of lots of good YouTube videos, such as Turkey Herders or See Chickens Grow. People would be fascinated to watch how turkeys can be gently herded like cattle onto a conveyor. I’ve seen it and it’s cool. We need to show this to everybody.

Dr. Temple Grandin operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., and is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ.

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