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Responding to Pettus Read's July 11 column

Mr. Pettus Read’s column in the Tomahawk dated Wednesday, July 11, 2012 is another installment in a series of articles that trend towards broad generalizations of America’s agriculture and food system. Though a respected writer, Mr. Read’s position is firmly planted within the conventional agricultural mindset. For instance, his opposition to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) animal welfare standards is supported by European examples such as the banning of cage housing for laying chickens and gestation stalls for brood sows. According to Read if similar legislation is approved in congress American farmers will be forced out of business.
This type of legislation, whether you agree with the HSUS or not, stems from the practices of large scale industrial complexes that are involved in animal production. We use the term farm and farmer very broadly in this county, and though that debate is beyond the scope of my argument, the above regulations that according to Read are an attempt to “tax us over issues of emotion” (Read, A-2) are in reality a part of a counter-culture, or more accurately a counter- agriculture, that threatens the conventional establishment. This establishment, which includes Mr. Read’s employer the Farm Bureau, views alternative methods of food production as a threat to their monopoly over the food system. Much has been written on the American food system within the last few years and many powerful films have created a buzz about what we eat, how the animals we consume are treated, and who is really in control of America’s agriculture. Unfortunately, some of these arguments in attempting to emphasize their point reveal extreme cases of what can be considered nothing more than isolated cases of animal abuse. On the other hand, industrial agribusinesses tend to show their animals grazing contently on lush green pastures as the prototypical American farm family stands proudly by. I hope most people realize that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but that middle is heavily weighted towards Tyson, Cargill, and Monsanto.
In 2010 Mountain Electric Cooperative honored me by sponsoring my attendance at the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers and Ranchers meeting in Nashville, TN. I met a variety of farmers, ranchers, students, and some of the important people involved in agriculture in the state and country. I enjoyed many of the sessions and learned a considerable amount, but what I took away from this meeting was not what I had anticipated. One of the keynote speakers spoke directly on animal welfare issues and the threat of national legislation on chicken (egg and meat), hog, beef, and dairy facilities. The sentiment of that session is echoed by Read: “The sad part of the story is that it all is happening due to efforts by those who have no farms, no animals, no experience with farming and may have read “Charlotte’s Web,” getting the attention of major restaurant chains due to emotion, rather than those boards of directors listening to sound science and years of research by our top universities of agriculture to produce a safe, healthy product.” (Read, A-2) Specific practices are legitimized and defended solely because they have become common practice. As these practices come into question by organizations such as the HSUS and American consumers one of the industry’s tactics is to pit food producers against consumers. Again, I am not arguing for or against any specific practice at this point, but the intensity of the “us against them” rhetoric serves only to split the opposing factions further apart and bypass the issues of concern.
That consumers may have a right to know the conditions under which their food is produced and demand certain standards does not constitute a “challenge to our independence” (Read, A-2) as some would have you believe. The challenge to our food independence may actually be from corporations such as Monsanto, Cargill, and even our own Tennessee Department of Agriculture in some instances. For example, Tennessee does not allow on farm poultry processing and distribution. However, the USDA has a small producer exemption that allows 1,000 birds to be raised, slaughtered, and sold from the farm. Farmers in surrounding states such as North Carolina and Virginia have been able to take advantage of this exemption in order to produce a product you cannot purchase in a typical grocery chain. Why does Tennessee refuse to permit farmers and consumers the independence that would allow them the option of purchasing a conventionally raised chicken or one produced on a local farm? “Farmers won our country’s independence, but now force is being used to remove our farmers’ independence to produce.” (Read, A-2) If this statement is true we would do well to discover who is exerting this force and why. The answer is not as simple or as one sided as Mr. Read would have us believe.
The lack of a structural literacy regarding food production, processing, distribution, and consumption in the United States is perhaps one of the greatest dangers to our food supply. It is a common argument that the typical consumer is unaware of the history of the food they consume, but just as importantly is a lack of awareness about why our food costs what it does. American farmers themselves are often unaware of the long term ramifications of state and federal agricultural policies. To portray one piece of animal welfare legislation as the death knell for the American farmer and attempt to incite outrage that an organization outside official agricultural circles would be interested in food production reveals the egocentric and unethical nature of America’s agricultural elite.
Mr. Read concludes his article with a lament over Cracker Barrel’s decision to become proactive in animal agriculture. “The Cracker Barrel restaurant group is the most recent to sign on with HSUS to force farmers to make those changes as well.” (Read, A-2) A regular patron “Being one who use[d] to eat as many as three meals a week at a Cracker Barrel” (Read, A-2), Mr. Read has every right to question the company about their business decisions. Similarly, every food consumer has the right to question the practices of the food industry and expect an open, intelligent, and respectful dialog. As author Wendell Berry has stated repeatedly: “If you eat, you are involved in agriculture.”
“I told the director that I always saw Cracker Barrel as totally different from the rest because when I walked in their doors, I felt that I was at home, on the farm.” (Read, A-2) If Mr. Read desires a meal that reminds him of being back home on the farm, patronizing a local farmers market and preparing his meal at home would provide a much more authentic experience.


Billy Ward II
Mountain City, TN