An early morning look at part of the 2015 Midwest Poultry Federation Convention show floor last week, just before the event opened.
March, for me, was consumed with putting the final planning touches on the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention. This is an event that my office spends a good chunk of the year getting ready for. It's also the largest regional poultry show in the U.S. - with a heavy emphasis on education for poultry farmers and two exhibit halls full of companies showcasing their latest equipment, services and technology.
While we definitely had a successful event, something did get in the way of the attendance we were expecting: Highly-Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI for short. (You can read about this more fully in my previous blog post here.)
About three weeks prior to the convention, HPAI broke in one turkey flock in Minnesota, putting the turkey industry on high alert and nerves on edge for many farmers. A week or so later, the same strain was found in Missouri and Arkansas.
While this news can sound like a death knell for poultry farmers - this strain of HPAI quickly devastated the entire flock of turkeys in Minnesota within days - it does NOT pose a human health threat or food safety risk. This is a virus that can spread from wild birds to commercial poultry, but it does not enter the food supply and no humans with close contact to infected birds have gotten sick.
Nevertheless, poultry farmers are concerned and the entire industry is watching things closely this spring. That concern led some people to bypass attending the MPF Convention, choosing instead to stay close to home.
As the show organizers of MPF, our office immediately contacted avian health experts to get their take on whether or not it makes sense to limit traveling to a show such as ours because of the HPAI threat. Their take? It doesn't make sense. By following a few common sense biosecurity rules (that farmers should be following already), people could rest assured that attending the MPF Convention would not elevate the threat of HPAI.
But despite that message, some people did stay away. It's unfortunate because they missed hearing all the latest information about HPAI from a whole passel of experts, whom we brought in last minute to calm fears and provide education on what farmers can do to ensure the safety and health of their flocks. That's really what meetings like the MPF Convention are all about - bringing together farmers, poultry companies, industry folks, and experts to learn from and network with each other.
Nevertheless, I am fully aware that HPAI is a serious threat and I do understand why farmers may have chosen to stay close to home and close to their birds. This is scary stuff that has the potential to impact livelihoods.
Still, I have to admit on a personal level for me, it's a little frustrating that the very industry that prides itself on believing in what good science tells us would run nervously away from a meeting when standard biosecurity measures (such as showering before arriving and upon getting back home, and not wearing barn clothes or shoes to the event) would go a long way in keeping everyone (and their birds) safe.
I am happy to say, though, that we were able to make the best of the situation by bringing in a local Twin Cities television news station to broadcast live from our show floor, talking to a farmer and an HPAI expert. They spoke about how so many people, organizations, companeis, and government agencies are working together to alleviate the threat of HPAI; they reassured consumers that there is nothing to worry about from a food safety standpoint (keep eating your turkey, people!); and they showed that the poultry industry values events like MPF because of the education and networking offered to farmers. It was encouraging to see these positive, proactive messages of substance on our local news.
Minnesota Turkey Growers Association President John Gorton spoke to KARE-11 TV, live from the MPF Convention show floor last week.
As usual, the week brought with it a couple of, shall we say, "interesting" claims about poultry circulating in mainstream and social media outlets. This is no surprise, of course. It seems like those of us in agriculture could find some piece of misinformation nearly every day to refute.
On Friday evening, I was enjoying some downtime at home after a very busy week the office. While my husband was watching something on the History Channel, I was glancing through the latest issue of Redbook magazine, a popular women's magazine. All was going along just fine - typical fashion, recipes and exercise tips - until a headline caught my eye: "Food Labels, Demystified." Right below it was a paragraph about cage-free and free-range eggs, along with a drawing a chicken.
While I'm all for clarifying what cage-free and free-range actually mean, it was the later part of the paragraph that practically made steam come out of my ears: " ... neither guarantees that the birds actually went outside or were fed a diet free of pesticides and antibiotics."
Pesticides fed to chickens? Think about that for a moment. What does that even mean?
If I had to guess, I'd say the writer is referencing - albeit in a completely misleading way - the use of pesticides by farmers who raise corn and soybeans, which are the mainstays of a laying hen's diet. However, this simplistic statement makes the dangerous assumption that consumers should be worried about this.
They should not. Decades of scientific research of conventionally-raised corn and soybeans - including GMO varieties - backs me up on this. Plus, I can tell from my own personal experience that tons of research on poultry diets - and finding the optimal nutrition for birds - is happening every, single day. The farmers I work with spend a lot of time learning about bird nutrition and fine-tuning feed rations for their flocks because that, in turn, leads to a healthy, safe product for consumers.
And as a farmer friend of mine ( who has both conventional and organic production on her farm) so eloquently stated to me about this Redbook blurb when I posted it on Facebook: Labeling regarding health claims is regulated by the federal governments for both organic or conventional foods so everyone is playing by the same rules.
Hands down no question, I see every day that the health of the birds and making sure consumers are getting a safe product are the top priorities for farmers.
The problem is, of course, that most readers of Redbook have no knowledge of farming and only see the scary word "PESTICIDE" glaring out at them. It all comes down to a poorly written blurb that doesn't demystify a label, but rather further muddies the water and creates a sense of mistrust in farmers.
Also this past week, a friend of mine shared a link to a Change.org petition to "Stop Boiling Animals Alive!" Basically, the person who posted the petition wrote, "The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is enforced by the USDA, but they decided it's acceptable to exclude chickens and turkeys—as if they're inanimate objects!"
Over 239,000 people have signed the petition - again, scary-sounding title so perfectly incites fear and mistrust - to date, but I think it's a safe assumption that most don't know the true details behind this. While it is true that Humane Methods of Slaughter Act does not apply to poultry, it is absolutely NOT true that poultry processing goes unregulated by USDA. That's just a completely erroneous claim and a dangerous statement to make.
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has a set of guidelines for humane poultry slaughter under the "Poultry Products Inspection Act" (PPIA). I won't get into all the lengthy details, but the PPIA includes specific directives so that birds are handled humanely throughout the steps of processing. Is every processing plant perfect? Of course not - but I've never toured a poultry processing plant that didn't aim for 100% compliance with the guidelines. It would be foolish on many levels not to comply and USDA inspectors are in place at all times at the plants to make sure all is handled according to the PPIA. If not, companies may receive a non-compliance report relating to animal welfare and USDA will take action.
You can read more about poultry inspections and also the new rules for the modernization of the poultry inspection system at this website from the National Chicken Council.
I'm not going to lie - sometimes being an agriculture advocate can be exhausting. One small blurb in a mainstream magazine like Redbook can feel very much like a David vs. Goliath situation.
But it always helps to have supportive friends and colleagues, helping out, sharing information, and sometimes simply giving a word of encouragement. I - like so many of us - know that our communications efforts are worth it so I encourage you to keep at it and advocate for agriculture in ways that make sense for you.
A view of the 2014 Midwest Poultry Federation Convention - the largest regional poultry show in the U.S.
I'm writing this on the way home from the International Poultry and Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta, a huge international poultry show with exhibits, education and networking. I haven't attended this particular event in years (probably at least 15!) so it was really beneficial for me to check it out.
Part of my job at the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association is to coordinate a large, regional trade show and conference for the poultry industry every year - the Midwest Poultry Federation (MPF) Convention - so often I was looking at IPPE through the eyes of a meeting planner. Details are king to me when creating and managing an event this size - from signage to rooms sets to how registration flows and how the accompanying mobile app works; it's all important to make sure the attendee experience is positive.
I also enjoyed running into many people in the poultry industry that I know - some I see more often than others but no matter what, we always catch up on the latest news and happenings.
For many in agriculture, attending events like these serve multiple purposes:
2014 Midwest Poultry Federation Convention
Winter is THE busy meetings season for agriculture organizations, whether it's your local Farm Bureau, a national event like IPPE or one of the other commodity organizations, or specialized groups like Common Ground, which brings together farm blogger women. And, of course, there are so many other conferences, trade show and events!
I have spent 20 years organizing our regional convention and have seen our event grow by leaps and bounds. I have also seen what a positive impact an event like ours has on farmers, as they get together, learn, explore, and talk about the challenges and rewards of raising poultry. I highly recommend you take advantage of one or more of these types of in-person opportunities - whether it is local, regional or national.
Are you attending a conference this winter? If so, what do you like best about these agriculture-focused events?
I've come across some interesting web links over the course of the last week or so. None are specifically related to each other (except they all have to do with agriculture and food), but I thought I'd share them all here and give you a few of my thoughts.
1) The Washington Post ran a story over the weekend about a recent survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics. The gist of the results: over 80 percent of Americans support "mandatory labels on foods containing DNA".
As in " deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is contained in almost all food.
My initially reaction, of course, was to shake my head in disbelief. As the article writer, states, "The Oklahoma State survey result is probably an example of the intersection between scientific ignorance and political ignorance, both of which are widespread. The most obvious explanation for the data is that most of these people don’t really understand what DNA is, and don’t realize that it is contained in almost all food. When they read that a strange substance called “DNA” might be included in their food, they might suspect that this is some dangerous chemical inserted by greedy corporations for their own nefarious purposes.
The article also mentions this little nugget as proof that the public's scientific knowledge, well, sucks: " A 2012 National Science Foundation survey even found that 25% of Americans don't know that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa.
But where does this leave us? I don't think we can just laugh and look away. And it certainly will not do agriculture any favors to declare general stupidity of a part of the population. But how do we encourage more scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills - when we know, at the same time, that science doesn't reach people (at least at first), it's the emotional connections that reach people?
If one thing is clear, it's that those of us who work in agriculture have more communications work to do.
2) The Atlantic Monthly ran an article this past week that declared, "Essential Oils Might be the New Antibiotics." I'm not an expert in this area so I'm not going to debate the details of the studies mentioned in the article. I will say there seems to be some promise behind this science, however I don't know that I would jump on this yet as the "be-all, end-all" solution quite yet. More study is in order, but the potential of new information like this is always exciting.
What's frustrating to me, of course, is that the article itself throws out the usual biases we often hear about antibiotic use in animals. For instance: antibiotic are overused "to speed up growth and to compensate for the cramped, unsanitary living conditions the animals endure." And this: "some farmers need more powerful weapons because they’re trying to compensate for ongoing problems caused by improper cleaning practices and unsanitary living conditions."
There's no doubt that bad management can lead to problems in the barn. But to claim that most antibiotics are used under these pretenses is absurd. The farmers I know make clean barns, safe living environments and good animal husbandry the key tenants of their profession - because they know these things will go a long way toward ensuring the health and well-being of their birds.
3) Finally, I've been watching this story take shape since late December: the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has recommended that lean meat be removed from foods recommended for a healthy diet.
“The omission is stunning,” NAMI Vice President for Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren told Meatingplace.com. “By not including it, they are completely ignoring any nutritional value that lean meat has to the population.”
Stunning is right. And apparently this was all done behind closed doors, which sounds a little suspect to me.
As I've written before, I eat meat. I love lean protein like chicken, turkey as well as lean cuts of beef and pork and I believe these options are part of a well-balanced diet. If you don't want to eat meat, that's fine and I respect that it's your choice. But to completely eliminate a nutritious source of protein from a set of national guidelines is worrisome and speaks to a larger, behind-the-scenes, political agenda that could have far-reaching future effects on farmers, ranchers, food companies and the rest of us.
My husband took our 10-year-old (okay, almost 11) son, Joe, to the dentist before Christmas for his regular check-up. Afterwards, the dentist made a point of coming out to the reception room to tell him that Joe was such a nice boy - well behaved and polite and he actually responded to her questions and asked her how she was doing. She admitted that, in her experience, not many kids his age are like that.
As parents, of course, this kind of feedback makes us proud. We have always made a point to stress the importance to Joe of being kind, polite and actually talking to people.
We want Joe to be a decent human being.
It's a pity there are people - adults, mind you - that don't come even close to the level of decency our 10-year-old can show towards others.
This week, a group of vegan activists essentially tried to take over a hashtag (#farm365) that was created by a farmer in Canada who decided to share at least one picture of his farm every day in 2015. Other farm bloggers and agriculture advocates also started to use the hashtag in support of this terrific project.
Unfortunately, the vegan activists caught wind of this and began leaving a plethora of vile, hate-filled messages on the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts of various agriculture advocates. I even had a couple on my personal blog's Facebook page.
On one hand, I'm doing a quick fist pump because this means these agriculture advocates are getting noticed and people are paying attention to what's being said. On the other hand, there is no way any human being deserves to be treated the way these activists - who, let's be honest here, really aren't paying attention to anything but their own agenda - have been treating these folks.
Listen, I understand we all have agendas, as my farm blogger friend, Wanda, so eloquently wrote earlier this week in her Minnesota Farm Living blog. I certainly advocate for animal agriculture - and specifically for eating turkey, chicken and eggs - because I believe in a well-balanced diet that includes animal proteins along with other food groups. And I believe in the integrity of livestock and poultry farmers and their important roles in our food system. But I'm pro-food choice and would never tell anyone what they should or shouldn't eat or guilt someone into feeling bad about their food choices.
I've also known a few vegans and vegetarians in my life and they aren't horrible people. The activists I witnessed this week, on the other hand, aren't interested in a conversation or even civil disagreement; they just bully their way around. In many ways, I'm saddened - though perhaps not surprised - that there are members of our society who are so cruel and intolerant and indecent. And I'm also grateful that I am surrounded by family and friends who are open-minded and understand that while we may not agree on everything, we respect the right to our own opinions.
In my career, I've had my fair share of run-ins with PETA and the Humane Society of the U.S. - and even Animal Liberation Front, which threw a rock through our office window over Thanksgiving many years ago. That's been the worst of the violence and intolerance I've experienced, until this week.
This is the "autographed" rock that was thrown through the window of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association many years ago right after Thanksgiving by the Animal Liberation Front.
Thankfully, though, I have met many, many people in agriculture who are smart, talented, energetic and full of ideas and enthusiasm. I also saw many people this week come to the defense of the agriculture advocates using the hashtag #farm365. These are the kind of people who give me hope that the world remains a decent place.
This is also why I remain committed to showing the strength, diversity, importance, and human side of agriculture to our world. A few radical activists on Facebook or Twitter won't change my mind about that - I'll just hit "delete" and move on.
I'm quite sure I say this every year, but I can't believe it will soon be 2015. In many ways, it's exciting - a new year, a chance to work toward some new goals, and slew of new memories sure to be made. In other ways, it's always just a little sad. Why does time march on so quickly?
As I look ahead to the coming months, I have a few personal goals related to "agvocating" to keep in mind.
For New Year's Eve, my husband, son and I are headed back to the farm to enjoy a meal and time with my parents, siblings and their families. We find this to be much more our style than a fancy night out - although that can certainly be fun, too! (And apparently, our tendency to stay home on New Year's Even isn't unusual - I just saw a study by Barefoot Wine & Bubbly that 61% of Americans intend to ring in 2015 in the comfort of their own homes.)
I've got the meal all planned out so that I can cook for everyone - deep fried turkey (using my amazing indoor electric turkey fryer), cheesy potato gratin (a recipe from Williams-Sonoma that is so delicious) and broccoli and cauliflower casserole (a new recipe I've never tried before via The Pioneer Woman). Right now, it looks like dessert will be ice cream with my mom's homemade hot fudge sauce. And plenty of champagne to ring in the New Year, of course!
Whatever your New Year's Eve brings - whether it's a quiet evening at home or a festive and sparkly party out on the town - I hope you enjoy the evening and I wish you much happiness, peace and prosperity in 2015.
Thank you so much for reading my blog posts here over the past year, and I look forward to seeing you in the New Year!
As Christmas week kicks off, I spent the day baking pans and pans of cinnamon rolls (The Pioneer Woman's fabulous recipe!), playing Christmas carols on the piano, and checking my gift list twice to make sure we're ready for the week ahead.
I'm ready to slow down a little, take a few days off from work, and spend time with family, celebrating the season.
Tuesday night I'll have my own little Christmas with my husband and son. We're planning to cook up some steaks after I get home from work and then we'll open our gifts around the Christmas tree. (Yes, we do eat more than turkey at my house. But no worries for any of my poultry peeps, I'm already planning to deep fry a turkey for New Year's Eve!)
On Christmas Eve, we'll travel to my father-in-law's home, where my husband's family will gather, kids will run around until it's time to open gifts, and there will be Christmas cookies galore to snack on. Then on Christmas Day, we'll drive to my parent's home on the farm and have another delicious meal, more sweets and even more presents.
We are blessed. And for me, there is nothing that beats spending Christmas on the farm.
On behalf of my family, I want to wish you a very Merry Christmas and hope you are able to take some time to relax, amidst the never-ending farm work and other commitments, and savor the special moments of the week.
It's the little things that count and the blessings of family, friends and farm that mean the most to so many of us.
The job of an agriculture advocate - or "agvocate" - is never done. In fact, sometimes it can seem downright daunting to share the truths behind farming, growing crops, and raising livestock and poultry. Think about it - there are so many people to reach. Where do we even start? And once we do start, it's easy to wonder if people are actually listening.
I had one of those moments last week when I saw this headline come across my smartphone, while I was sitting in a meeting with several poultry farmers: "Largest School Districts Going with Antibiotic-Free Chicken."
According to the article, the Urban School Food Alliance announced its new antibiotic-free standard for companies to follow when supplying chicken products to its schools. The Alliance is a coalition of the largest school districts in the U.S., includes New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando, and serves nearly 2.9 million students every day.
But don't they realize that all chicken consumers buy is free from antibiotics?
The answer is clear (or is it, clear as mud?): no, they don't.
Truth: All poultry flocks are tested for antiobiotic residue before being sent to the processing plant. If there is one tiny little trace of antibiotics found, the entire flock is held back until testing shows zero antibiotics. That's why chicken sold in supermarkets or purchased for school foodservice or restaurant use is antibiotic-free.
But according to an article, the organization believes sourcing antibiotic-free chicken will show the school districts "truly care about the health and well-being of the students." The organization infers that farmers who give antibiotics to their chickens are doing so improperly and without regard to humans or the environment.
I wonder if anyone in the Urban School Food Alliance has ever talked to a farmer or a veterinarian who oversees antibiotic usage on poultry farms?
As I've written in this blog before, antibiotics are one tool in the toolbox for farmers. In particular, the poultry farmers I know and work with every day have many other management methods in place that are aimed at keeping their birds healthy - and not needing antibiotics. But, it's also true that the poultry farmers I know believe it's the humane thing to care for sick birds, and if that means antibiotics, they work with a local veterinarian to ensure the proper dosage and use for the flock. This includes making sure they adhere to the appropriate withdrawal period before any birds go to the processing plant.
I'm not at all suggesting that farmers should get a pass on antibiotic usage and its impact on antibiotic resistance in humans. To be sure, both areas of antibiotic use - human and animal - need to be considered carefully. However, I find it concerning that our nation's largest school districts can enact policies not based on fact, yet tout that students will somehow be healthier for it while inaccurately portraying most farmers as bad apples.
The only thing clear to me amidst all this mud is that agvocates like myself have a lot more work to do.