Farms today are faced with a number of challenges ranging from labor, regulations, weather, disease, markets and more. But the issue that seems to plague animal agriculture the most and be the root of all evil is narrow-mindedness.
Currently, there is an outpouring of support for a small, pasture-based farm, West Wind Acres in Glenville, New York, owned by Joshua Rockwood, who has been accused of animal cruelty for allegedly failing to provide proper sustenance, including animals confined to an unheated barn, frozen water, lack of food, animals with frostbitten ears and more. The charges can be found on their Facebook page, along with discussions and opinions about the charges here, here and here.
While none of those conditions are ideal on any farm, they also happen to be a reality on most farms that are dealing with a harsh winter. I am not going to spend time dissecting those allegations as this is a pending legal case, but I do want to point out that while this is obviously an extremely unfortunate situation for the farmer, there is a greater concern arising that I want to try and put a stop to before it affects every farmer.
I’m not alone in this thought as my concern was recently shared on Facebook by Dr. Cindi Shelley, an animal science professor at SUNY Cobleskill and a small livestock farmer herself. She said:
“I am very happy to see so much support for the Rockwood’s and West Wind Farm. I do want to mention a concern though. I don’t see this situation as a “small pasture based farm” vs. “big factory farm”. It is bothering me that some people are bringing that argument to the table when this issue is more about a farm that was observed by non-practicing farm persons as to not provide proper sustenance to dogs, hogs, sheep, equines and cattle. What has happened is this fight is more about the injustice of expecting farmers to have perfect practices in imperfect conditions. I don’t care what kind of agricultural operation you may support, please don’t drag down all of animal agriculture by diluting this fight into others that are not part of the issue at hand.”
I agree with Dr. Shelley that the support for this young farmer is impressive. He has brought together a community of farmers and consumers, near and far, to support his livelihood. He has been transparent with his actions and his passion for his animals on his blog, up until he was advised by his attorney not to, which is common legal counsel. His genuine nature and trustworthiness is so apparent that people have even put their money where their mouth is and are contributing to a GoFundMe account to help cover his legal fees. This is all positive support, but I too worry about some of the narrow-minded comments people are making in defending this farm.
Some folks are quick to drag farm size into their arguments. This is evident by the signs seen at the courthouse that say “Take your agenda to a factory farm.” I also read on one popular blog that supports Rockwood wholeheartedly say, “The real abuse seems to be ignored. Corporate farming is the world’s largest and cruelest system for abusing animals.”
We can’t have it both ways, folks. Vocal defenders of West Wind Acres are finding fault with the authorities, claiming they don’t understand farm practices, while those same people are critical of large farms. Isn’t that being hypocritical? If we want people to understand life on small farms, then we also need to understand larger farms too. And vice versa. It takes all farms to put food on our plates.
Furthermore, it doesn’t advance our attempts to gain greater public support of animal agriculture if we criticize farmers that are different in size or management practices. Farmers make up less than one percent of the population, and one thing they all have in common is the fact that they all care about the health and well-being of their animals.
I acknowledge there are different ways to raise animals, just like there are many ways to raise a child. Some farms prefer to stay small; some grow to be larger. Regardless of size, each farmer has his or her reasons – and typically they are personal reasons that are prompted by unique situations, lifestyle choices, geographic location, age, resources available and more. Rarely are those decisions based on greed. Farms of all sizes are still primarily family owned and operated businesses. And let’s be clear: None of them are perfect 100% of the time.
Writer, author and animal lover, Jon Katz, eloquently shares on his Bedlam Farm blog,
“A farm is not a simple and easy place, life there is never perfect, not for people, not for animals.”
And how can it be when every farmer is at the mercy of Mother Nature and their own unique set of challenges? Caring for animals is not a perfect science. I’m fairly certain it was a farmer who coined the phrase, “$h!t happens,” because it does, especially when working with livestock that consume 100 pounds of feed a day. Couple that with one of the toughest winters New Yorkers have faced in many years, and life on a farm – any farm – this winter was difficult at best. Water freezes on farms with ten cows, just the same as it does with 1,000 cows.
The decision to raise animals in a pasture versus a freestall barn is much like deciding whether you are going to raise your family in a high-rise apartment in New York City, or in the country with a three-acre backyard. Or whether you chose to feed your child boxed macaroni and cheese or make it from scratch. The response to either of those questions is not a reflection of the care provided, but a reflection of circumstance, resources and sometimes preference.
The bottom line is that if we start pitting one farmer over another, or dividing our one percent into smaller fractions all because of their personal decisions, we will definitely lose this war to a group of people who don’t want to see any livestock farmer succeed. We all need to be respectful of one another and focus on what we have in common – and that is the welfare of our animals.