By Carolyn MacLaren, General Manager, BC Farm Animal Care Council (BCFACC).
When I became involved in speaking about and explaining farm animal care a few years ago I had some ideas of what the issues were, where good things were happening and improvements were demonstrated, and where there were still gaps. I also had some familiarity of the “urban” issues from my university days in large Canadian centres where both schools I attended during my academic career had their share of “greenies” or “vegan” types as they were known. All of this I could deal with and I could reconcile, it was pretty easy for the most part so either I was good at it or I had the luck to not encounter too many disagreeable or militant types. Probably a combination of both, really.
I regularly meet very nice people who know absolutely nothing about farming and food production but have clearly been influenced by people and groups who aren’t telling our story as it really is, such as the PETAs (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) of the world. I have learned to take time to listen to those questions and understand what they are asking and what the issue or concern really is and then try to answer in the most direct and simplest way possible, citing examples and drawing on analogies, as I have been taught. For the most part this does the trick and people are appreciative that I took the time to discuss the issues and did not laugh at their lack of knowledge.
Now that I have children of my own, I make sure their perspective is imbued with a healthy dose of realism – “ … yes, calves do have their horns removed, it’s safer for them and the other calves, yes trimming a chicken’s beak is safer for them and the other chickens …”. We speak openly about what is on our dinner table and where it came from. It’s not unusual to hear my 8-year-old ask “So, Mommy, is this chicken or pig we are eating tonight?” before she happily and heartily digs in. When we drive out to the family dairy farm on a particularly aromatic day (usually when the spreading of manure is allowed again in the spring) our girls will tell their friends, who are loudly protesting the smell, that “that smell is actually very good because without it, there would be no cheese, no milk, no ice cream, no yogurt.” I have brought them to my side and it really wasn’t that hard. Or so I thought.
Santa brought both of the girls their own “tablets” for Christmas and we struck a deal – no unfettered Internet access but they could both pick three online games we’d download for them or purchase. The big hit appeared to be a game called “Hay Day” which is about farming they explained. Great, a farm game where they raise and care for livestock. How cool is that? A farm game, in the era of Monster High and Beauty Salon, I thought. It was actually fun to listen to them “feed” their animals and take care of them; cute to see them spring up from the table when they got a reminder that the chickens’ eggs needed to be collected or that the horse needed water.
Things were going along swimmingly with my townie girls turning into farmers right before my eyes and on the tv room sofa. Things were going along swimmingly until they invited me to visit their farms.
As we sat side by side on the sofa, I had an informative and animated guided tour of “Cassie Acres”. I saw the produce stand at the end of the drive where they sold their produce, check. I saw the land they had cleared to grow more wheat, check. I saw the picture perfect chicken coop with the … wait, are those chickens really wearing scarves? Hmmm … a bit harder to check that one but I was prepared to give the sartorial chickens a pass.
Unfortunately, it was at the pig pen where we ran into real problems. Cassie proudly showed me how to make bacon … well “Hay Day” bacon anyway. In this alternate world, pigs are not loaded on a truck and taken for processing. Nope, they are “squeezed” daily for their bacon and other than being rather thin after a “squeezing” and promptly returning to their slop to eat for the next batch of bacon I presume; these pigs go on living happily. Yikes. That I could not reconcile! I can live with some varnish on things but this was simply too much.
While we’ve discussed how bacon really gets to the table and my little meat eaters are perfectly fine with it, I am still troubled that many “Hay Day” farmers will never be aware of the reality of food production and that “squeezed” pigs, while perhaps aesthetically more palatable for the urban child, do nothing to help people reconcile our need to eat with production realities required to sustain us. I realized that, while my children were benefitting from my on-going and impromptu livestock lessons, I needed to cast my net wider and need to continue educating people on production practices. In fact, we all need to continue to do this as it’s more important than ever since the varnished truth is never far away.