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Don't believe everything you read about farming

September 07, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

Agriculture is under siege from all sides, if you read a recent Time magazine cover story titled "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food."

After reading the article, one would think that conventional food production in the United States is draconian at best.

The problem with articles like this one is many folks believe everything they read.

The writer points to the same old boogie men of agriculture, large hog operations and feedlots.

He trots out the crowding and odor cards and then the knockout blow -- antibiotics.

The forecasted swine flu pandemic has nothing to do with pigs. It is a virus that is in the human population.

Yet many people will try to connect the dots from using antibiotics in swine to outbreaks of swine flu. Many will do so out of lack of information and not malice, but it will happen and pork sales will plummet as they did when the misnamed swine flu first hit the news.

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He also talks about farm subsidy payments, which while there are such programs, they are a far less drain on the treasury than the recent bailouts of Wall Street or Detroit.

Just as a matter of clarification: 92 percent of the Department of Agriculture's budget goes to food programs such as school lunches and food stamps. So before you start searching for government waste, please do some investigation.

Next, there is the economic downturn that is eroding the equity of agriculture which has long been the hole card for many farm families. Devaluation of real estate coupled with low commodity prices, and in the case of milk, payment below production costs, are taking their toll.

As if that isn't enough, we agrarians fight amongst ourselves. The "conventional" farmers against the "organic" farmers or the graziers against the confinement folks or the grass fed folks against the feedlot guys and the list goes on.

We soon need to realize that there is more than one way to skin a cat and we have far more similarities than differences.

Do we need to continue to evaluate agricultural practices and refine them? You bet. Do we need to be realistic? Again, you bet.

Some of the methods that are regularly labeled sustainable are not unless a lot of people want to trade in their computers for pitch forks and their townhouses for smaller more rural confines.

Many urbanites think this farming stuff is really quaint until their tee time is interrupted by a calf being born backwards or hay that is ready to bale or cut worms in the corn.

So where are the take home points?

First, whether you are a farmer or you aren't, farmers are not the enemy. Second, we enjoy the cheapest, safest, domestically produced food supply in the world, bar none. And lastly, it is not swine flu; it is human flu, so don't go giving it to any pigs.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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