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Farm ethics and the politics of certification

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I'm starting to see the articles about how to know your turkey wasn't abused. The debate about labels has been ongoing in the coffee industry for years now...Fair Trade, organic, shade grown, rainforest friendly, bird friendly, direct trade. How do you know what you're eating is the best for the planet and the farmers?

My response as a coffee geek has always been that you should buy directly from the grower, if possible. With knowledge about how they run their farm. Or at least from someone who is transparent about the process and can be as detailed as possible about the who, what, when, where, how, why of their crop. This is, for me, the heart of the debate about so-called "ag gag" laws, GMO labeling, and farm freedom laws meant to protect the privacy and livelihood of those in agriculture. It's not that I'm a fan of undercover whistleblowing operations to call out Big Ag and horrible farm conditions where they exist. It's more like I'm against farmers who aren't proud of what they do. You as a farmer should be able to defend your practices and be open and honest with consumers and the public about what goes on at your property. The existence of people wanting access or information that is being denied shows a lack of good faith on the part of some in the agricultural community...or, put a better way, maybe a lack of understanding about marketing and public relations?

There's been a battle alongside the rise of sustainability efforts where large corporations have tried to cash in on generic wording about the ethical treatment of crops and animals..."natural" is an infamous example. Without standards to define what "natural" means, it becomes meaningless as companies slap that on product that may or may not match what consumers have in mind when they read it. So there is a segment of the population that pushes hard for certifications (often with one presented as better than others)...simply as a way to be sure that farmers and processors have been vetted for compliance.

But you have to also look at it from the POV of even the most well-meaning farmer where certification may or may not be economically helpful. May add significant paperwork and other hoops to jump through. And could be impractical for reasons having nothing to do with ethics and more to do with availability of supply chain outside an individual farmer's control.

I'll use lamb as an example on our future sheep operation.

It's not impossible--but very unlikely--that you can raise sheep on pasture year-round in the United States. Chances are better than good that you're using some other feed when the grass isn't good or when your animals are inside the barn for the winter. Which means that in order to have organic sheep you would either need to grow your own organic hay to feed them. Or you would need to find a local farmer growing organic hay and purchase it for your flock. Not always practical. Ok, almost never.

The same could be said for the "humane" label. This one would make the most sense for us. But our desire to ethically raise sheep is pretty useless if 1) the nearest slaughterhouse isn't willing or able to separate our lamb from the general population. 2) Or we are unable to get a premium for the humane label on our meat or wool. And, frankly, the spinners most likely to be interested in our fleeces, for instance, are more likely to be interested in our heritage, rare breed as a marketing issue. Yes, the fiber arts community would love to see pasture-raised, happy little ewes prancing around making gorgeous wool. But if they aren't willing to pay the extra for what we put into verifying it then the certification doesn't make sense for us.

It's a complicated issue. And the answers aren't black and matter how much I want to drink organic milk from cows not treated with hormones, I may not be willing or able to pay the $6 per gallon for that milk. If we don't want GMO corn, that also means putting in the processing chain for farmers to be able to easily sell their conventional corn to market. If we want more humanely raised Thanksgiving turkeys, we don't need certification or to demonize Big Ag for their practices...the real problem is affordability of ethical foods, creating more farmers who want to farm in a sustainable way, etc..

It's no use saying you don't like that your bird was raised in a cage if the alternative isn't practical enough to alter the economic dynamics. Until we reach a point where it's as common to run to your local turkey farm or humane-butcher shop to buy a pasture-raised turkey, Americans have little choice but to run to Wal-Mart. Blame the aging of farmers. Blame the concentration of farm land. The population shift to cities. The fact that people are far removed from the realities of how their food is grown. Your turkey probably wasn't sung a bedtime tune or gently sent to the slaughterhouse to preserve flavor but until more of us head back to rural life (or start an urban farm) then we get what we get out of a complicated food system. The answer isn't certification, regulation, or ending Big's us.