West of the Loop went on the road last week. (A special thanks to my mom who came to help out with the kids while I was gone.) The Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) held their annual conference in Madison, WI on March 13 and 14. The conference organizers invited me and two of my blogging friends, Sara from Self Made Mom and Chef Druck, to appear on a panel about “mommy bloggers” as the new face of consumer influence. The moderator of our panel was Roxi Beck, a social media expert
who specializes in food and agriculture.
Food production is a controversial topic in our society right now. Every week there is a new story in the media about childhood obesity, school lunches, food safety issues — such as the recent scare about “pink slime” — genetically modified ingredients, conventional versus organic and so on. As a cook, I always want the best tasting, highest quality ingredients for my family and friends. As a parent, I want nutritious food for my kids that is grown in an environmentally sustainable manner. As an ethical person, I am concerned about the humane treatment of animals. And as a consumer, I want food that is safe and affordable.
Balancing these concerns sometimes leads me to buy local and sustainably raised food. Sometimes (but not always) it leads me to buy organic food. But that being said, I see no point in demonizing the agriculture industry in this country. I have met too many good, hard-working people who farm or work in agriculture to do that. And I also know that American farmers feel a keen sense of responsibility to feed a growing global population. There are many people in this country and in this world who don”t have the luxury of making the choices that I make at the grocery store. Those folks deserve high-quality, nutritious food as much as I do. And, as much as I like to romanticize small family farms and farmers” markets and traditional ways, we are not going to feed the billions of people who populate this world without using technology.
It was in that spirit that I approached my panel in front of the Midwest”s dairy producers. I wanted to tell them that I respect what they do: I have visited a dairy farm and I know what a labor-intensive profession it is. I wanted to tell them that, based on my own research into the issue, I do not insist on organic milk but I do insist on milk from cows not treated with growth hormones. And I wanted to tell them that many parents out there are confused by the multitude of choices facing them in the dairy aisle.
I am happy to report that with the exception of one angry man — who actually wagged his finger at us and called us “you people” — the audiences of our two panels were cordial, receptive and full of great questions. During both sessions, there was genuine dialogue between us, the representatives of dairy consumers, and dairy producers. Some of the questions had to do with social media and blogging. The farmers are anxious to get the word out to those of us in the cities and suburbs about what it is that they do and why they make the choices they do in raising their animals. Some of the questions were aimed at trying to understand what goes on in the mind of the consumer — particularly those consumers who live far from the rural areas where the food is grown and the animals are raised. The questions touched on topics such as school lunches, food allergies and alternative “milks” — I had a lot to say about that subject given Zuzu”s allergies — organic versus conventional milk, choosing beef and how to alleviate some of the mistrust that has developed between consumers and food producers.
I truly believe that the best way to alleviate that mistrust is through dialogue such as the one we had last Wednesday during these panels. But I know that not everyone has the opportunity, as I did, to actually speak to a room full of dairy farmers and have that kind of open dialogue. So, what can you do? Well, I promise to share with you anything that I learn along the way. But you can get out there and learn more about food production for yourself. Many of the farmers we spoke to said that they welcome visitors to their farms, and having visited a dairy farm myself, I know that it is an eye-opening experience. I encourage all of you to look into visiting a farm in your area. I realize that we are all busy people, but especially with summer coming up, I bet you can find a free Saturday on your calendar.
The most important message I had for the dairy producers was to be open and honest with us, the consumer. One extremely nice farmer pointed out that it was risky for them to open their doors to the public. Even the very best farm can have a bad moment. Or someone unfamiliar with farm practices could easily misinterpret something that he or she sees. Of course it”s a risk, we acknowledged, but better to take that risk and try to educate the consumer than to shut the doors and let the consumer speculate as to what goes on behind those doors. I also told the farmers that as part of the agriculture industry, they should use their influence to make their representatives be more open and honest as well. Don”t try to convince us that every new technology is perfect. Acknowledge the benefits and the risks. Help us to make an informed choice.
In the meantime, do your own research about the issues important to you in food production — but in doing so, be aware of the sources you consult. Several of the farmers at our panels wanted to know where we got our information. We all answered that we consult multiple sources and also check to see who is behind any articles or studies that we read. There are studies funded by large companies and studies funded by animal rights activists and everything in between. Newspapers and television shows want to draw attention to themselves in this saturated media landscape so often the most sensationalist angle wins. As is usually the case, there is no one truth, but many different interpretations and many conflicting angles. At the end of the day, all we can do is decide what sources are trustworthy and meaningful and go with those. But don”t be afraid to ask tough questions along the way.
Full disclosure time: I was invited to be a speaker at the PDPW conference by the organizers, who reimbursed me for my expenses and paid me a small honorarium. The PDPW did not ask me to blog about the conference, nor did they seek to influence any of the opinions I expressed during the conference or on my blog. All opinions are, in fact, my own.