Is The Customer Always Right?

There is a growing number of consumers that are uncomfortable with current agricultural practices. Use of genetic modification, concerns over animal welfare, and the perceived disappearance of family farms is causing a growing distrust between the public and the food industry. Recent marketing campaigns by some food giants have attempted to remedy this; but they really struck a nerve with farmers.

A&W’s “Better Beef”

First of all, A&W’s “Better Beef” advertising focuses on their goal to purchase beef that has no added hormones or steroids. Why? If you check out their website on this…. you don’t really get a reason why. They just say that their beef is natural and tastes good. They don’t provide any evidence that hormones and antibiotics are a bad thing to use. While I will freely admit that I’m not a cattle grower, this campaign is frustrating to me. No facts are presented as to the dangers of hormones – which are minimal, considering that the amount of hormones in a single birth control pill are thousands of times greater than you would find in any hamburger.

GMO-Free Cheerios

Similar marketing is being done by General Mills’ Cheerios, which are now “GMO-free”. This is somewhat of a misrepresentation of the product, since Cheerios are made from oats, which is not a GMO crop. But, there are some other ingredients that possibly contain GMO ingredients, such as corn starch, so apparently those are no longer in the cereal.

Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow”

The worst marketing of all is by Chipotle. While they do not have a presence in my area, they are a popular American restaurant chain. Their advertisements depict farms as evil, factory operations that care only about profits, with the “little guy” being far more caring and sustainable. The video, called “The Scarecrow” is a harrowing tale of terrifying corporate farms. In truth, it is an exceptionally well-done, emotional video.

The ironic part of the video is that it suggests that you should buy your food from small businesses, when Chipotle is a massive restaurant chain with $3.2 billion in annual sales. Interestingly, they have increased revenues from $2.7 billion in 2012 to $3.2 billion in 2013, when this ad was released. Chipotle is hardly “the little guy”, and it is rather disingenuous for them to accuse farms like mine of being “factory farms”.

I understand the goals of all these marketing campaigns. These are businesses that are trying to capture a new market of consumers that want their food grown safely and sustainably. They are trying to increase their profits by doing this, which is of course the goal of any business. So far, it may be working, with Chipotle displaying greater profits since they enacted this marketing plan.

Nothing More Than Marketing Ploys?

While the goal of increasing profits is certainly sensible, there is more at stake than that. Possibly the most interesting example of the three of them is General Mills. In their own words, the decision to release GMO-free Cheerios “was never about pressure” from critics. As their blog said, “It’s not about safety. Biotech seeds, also known as genetically modified seeds, have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in global food crops for almost 20 years.” They simply did it because they thought their “consumers might embrace it,” (read more on this here).

They are essentially stating that although they believe genetic modification is safe, they are going to advertise against it to make more money. Does this not seem disingenuous? Growing up in the country, I was always taught to stand up for what I believe in, whatever the cost. It seems that General Mills did not understand that message. Sure, they, along with A&W and Chipotle are potentially increasing profits, but they are sending the consumer the wrong message. They are telling the consumer that genetic modification is dangerous, conventional beef production is wrong, and most farms (and by extension, my own farm) are evil factory operations that care nothing for the welfare of people and animals.

Time To Take A Stand

I don’t believe in that mentality. I believe that science should tell us what is safe and what isn’t. I believe that rather than succumbing to public pressure, as a food industry we all need to do our part to educate the consumer, and let them know that the food they eat is safe, and has been rigorously tested. Sure, there are always improvements that can be made, and yes, I am all for safe food and humane treatment of animals. But Chipotle and A&W’s campaigns send a message to the consumer that simply isn’t true, and General Mills is marketing a product against their beliefs as a company.

I believe GMO’s are safe. Otherwise I wouldn’t grow them. I believe that my neighbors and friends treat their livestock with respect and care, and don’t overuse hormones and antibiotics. I am part of a corporate, large-scale grain farm, but that doesn’t make it any less of a family operation that cares for the land it manages and the food it produces. If the customer doesn’t agree with this, then I believe that the customer is wrong, and I will not change my business to cater to that.

Nikon J1 139I will continue to grow GMO crops, and I will continue to use pesticides and fertilizers when and where needed. Through this blog and through my day to day life, I will continue to try and educate people about why we do what we do on this farm. Maybe this isn’t the best marketing plan. Maybe I could make more money by growing organic food and going after niche market consumers. Nevertheless, I believe that we need these tools to feed a growing world sustainably, and I will therefore not sell out to public pressure the way that General Mills, A&W and Chipotle have. After all, if you don’t stand up for what you believe in, do you really believe in anything?

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Harvest – What is it?

Harvest time on the farm is nothing if not busy. We are going full out, trying to get this massive crop in with as little quality damage as possible. And it is a big crop. Bigger than Dad has ever seen. This, while wonderful, does create challenges logistically. Running our large combines to capacity requires good operators and a good support crew. The grain cart, semi trucks and augers must not have problems, and keeping everybody alert all day is a challenge all in itself.

I know some people that run their equipment through most of the night. Personally, I don’t know how to do that. Keeping our two combines running at capacity throughout the day is a challenge all in itself, and shorting yourself on sleep can be a dangerous practice, both for equipment and for people.

I thought I would give you a rundown of what exactly a typical harvest day is on a Saskatchewan farm. If you’ve never been on a farm, you may not even know what a “combine” is!

1) We get up early in the morning, around sunrise, and go to the combines to get them ready for the day. There are a lot of moving parts on these machines that require regular lubrication (greasing). While this is not required every day, it can take a significant amount of time in the morning to do. While we are greasing, we fuel the machines up and check them over. Some preventative maintenance can save you big delays during the prime part of the day.

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Early mornings can be very pretty!

2) We fire up the machines and start harvesting. The time for this can vary. Most mornings, we cannot start until at least 9:00 am. Heavy dews and cloudy mornings can make for a later start than that. This is referred to as “tough”. The plants are too wet to run through the combine, so we must wait for them to dry down. The later in the year harvest gets, the later in the day we can start. For example, in August we can start at 8:00 am most mornings, but by October we usually don’t get started until 11:00 am. This can really prolong harvest.

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Lots of work to do to get ready to go.

3) Once the combines are rolling, it is the grain cart’s job to keep them rolling by emptying them on the go. the cart runs from combine to combine to truck all day long. Meanwhile, the semis are hauling grain to our binyards or to the elevators nearby. If neither is available, we store the grain in bags, short-term. We try and run steady until supper time, when we usually take a break. My wife and/or my mom usually prepare supper for everyone, which provides a much-needed rest.

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The grain cart with our Case IH Quadtrack tractor. With this unit, speed is not a problem in even the roughest fields.

4) Re-energized from supper, and often switching operators, we start again, running until we are too tired or it gets too tough to go. In some crops, like peas, which are viny and tough to pick up off the ground, we can be finished at 8:00 pm. In crops like canola or cereals, we can sometimes go as late as we want. In any case, we are usually done by 10-11:00 pm.

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Good lights are oh-so-important!

A combine is a complicated machine. Suffice to say, it threshes and separates grain from straw. The combines we run, John Deere 9870’s, are 2008 models. In the above picture, we are combining durum, which was yielding 72 bushels/acre, a record for this farm (a bushel is unit of measurement for the yield of a crop; there are 60 pounds to a single bushel of wheat). These machines, when set right and operated properly, were processing 900 bushels/hour. This is more than combines used to do in a day!

This is hardly a thorough explanation, but it should give you an idea of what we do. It is a very stressful operation, often dirty and exhausting; but it is also exciting. Breakdowns are the worst part of harvest, which are inevitable. Sometimes they are minor and are fixed within minutes. However, sometimes you can be shut down for an entire day, which can be infuriating, especially if rain is on the way.

You may hear of “Big Ag” and “factory farms” that care nothing for their land or the consumer. The reality could not be more different. On this farm, we are a family operation with some outside employees. We all care about this land and the crops we grow. It is what we do; it is our life. Yes, our farm is a larger one, and yes we have millions of dollars of equipment out in the fields. But that does not change who we are as farmers and just how exciting this time of the year is. We grow quality food for a hungry planet, and it is a lot of fun to harvest it. And above all else, safety is our main concern. This is a dangerous time of the year, and no amount of success in farming is worth severe injuries. Sleep is vital!

I encourage anyone who wonders what real farming is like to visit one. Learn where your food comes from, from the people who grow it. I’d be happy to show you around!