Several years ago, I was writing an article (for a Canadian publication) about the “latest trend” in sustainable agriculture. The article was about farms being certified “humane” by an independent body. Farms in North America do this to assure consumers their meat, poultry and eggs are produced in a high-welfare environment – no cages, crates or tie stalls. There are a few independent bodies who can certify farms as humane. Once certified, farmers can use the logo on their websites or products.
I spoke with two very different farms for this article. The first was an organic farm in Ontario which specialises in lamb, rare-variety vegetables and maple syrup. The restaurant group (with which I was formerly a chef) dealt specifically with this farm for its highest-end restaurants. The owners were independently wealthy and started farming later in life, with ethics at the forefront of their minds. To them, there was no question that they would obtain humane certification. They really believed in the concept.
The other farm I featured was a larger beef farm in Alberta. This farm had been in existence for several generations and is in a very special part of the world which experiences a weather phenomenon known as a “chinook”. These are warm winds which come from the Pacific and make their way over the Rocky Mountains, causing snow melt as they arrive. These chinooks enable the beef farmer to graze his cattle all year.
When I asked the farmer (who supplies McDonald’s Canada with his beef) why he chose to be certified humane, he scoffed. “People don’t understand what I’m doing here. They think I’m mistreating my cows, or I’m factory farming. Most Canadians these days haven’t set foot on a farm. I figure if I have the certification they can leave me alone.”
The more we open up about our farms and our lives, the more perceptions will shift
Years later, I still think about those polar opposite responses. Canada’s urban-rural divide is huge. The most recent data I’ve found (from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity) indicates that, of every 10 Canadians, seven have never visited a farm – but those who do tend to develop a more positive view of farming.
It’s the extreme lack of understanding of how food is produced which makes some North American farmers feel obliged to absorb the cost of humane certification.
According to this week’s cover star, Dr Kirstie McAdoo, who will be presenting at our upcoming Women & Agriculture Conference on 27 October, bridging Ireland’s urban-rural divide is about bringing the consumer along with you as you tell the story of your farm.
Even as a relative newcomer to Irish agriculture, I agree with her approach. The more we open up about our farms and our lives, the more perceptions will shift. The more we challenge an accepted narrative – or pursue positive outreach opportunities – the more we grow and develop as an industry.
In our conversation, Kirstie challenged a few notions I didn’t realise I had been carrying. I, like many consumers, am often guilty of projecting myself onto a farm animal. I don’t always consider the obvious: that the animal’s needs are being met and, as a result, that animal is being productive (and by default, so is the entire farm). I never stop to think that productivity in itself can be an indication of high welfare. This is something (much like the polar-opposite responses from those Canadian farmers) that I will be thinking about for a long time.