When you live in the city, everyday life doesn’t present many opportunities to see cows or farm fields. Yes, Cows on the Concourse brings cows to the Capitol. Yes, community gardens grow vegetables. But to see a herd of cows and acres of farm fields producing for the masses, you need to go to an actual farm. And this is a good thing for city folk to do. You might be shocked to see that farms are not the way you remember them from your old children’s books. I’m sorry to break it to you, but you probably won’t find a red barn or animals (of every sort with cute names) running around in flowery pastures, rosy-cheeked kids in bib overalls chasing behind.
What are farms really like these days?One way to get onto a farm is through the Dane County Breakfast on the Farm. The Dane County Dairy Promotion Committee puts on this large event each June to showcase one of the farms in the area. After a breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausage, cheese, and milk, you can take a horse and wagon ride, visit booths with marketing material and ice cream, listen to live music, and walk around the cows and fields. This year a community manure digester located next to the farm was also available for a tour. There are often long lines (it’s better to go before 9 am), but we’ve made this an annual tradition to find some connection with our food and to understand how farms are operating.
But, my fellow city-dwellers, as you go to this event, there are a few questions you might consider.
First, does the Breakfast on the Farm event really show you a typical farm? I often wonder how the farms are selected and how much work goes into preparing them for this event. After all, the Dane County Dairy Promotion Committee and Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board have an agenda to promote the state’s big business. I would take a guess that you are more likely to get your farm featured if you are a traditional family with a beautiful, clean, state-of-the-art setup. What are the other, less-idyllic farms like?
Second, how do you feel about your food coming from this farm? Operations are set up for maximum efficiency. The animals are identified with numbers, microchips, and databases, eat grains delivered from bunkers by machinery, live inside free-stall barns their whole lives, defecate on narrow cement walkways, and are milked three times a day to receive 10 gallons per cow. Our tour guide insisted that this is “the good life” for the cows, but given how most Americans treat their pets, what are we able to believe constitutes a “good life?” You might be fine with this operation or you might consider finding a pasture-grazing, organic micro dairy for your milk. Either way, it’s important to consider how you personally feel about where your food comes from.Third, what does it mean that farms are getting so large? Our horse and wagon tour trotted past huge buildings housing 1,150 cows, underground manure pipelines to the digester, 1,700 acres of field to feed those cows, as well as millions of dollars of farm equipment (a tractor costs $200,000 and lasts only five years). As farms grow larger and small farms disappear, will farms become less connected to people and more of a corporate operation? Is the milk industry using its corporate power wisely? Are consumers knowledgeable and comfortable about where our milk comes from? Or are we becoming less and less connected to our animals, land, and food?
I recommend going to your local Breakfast on the Farm event (many counties have one during Dairy month). Bring your kids along and show them what happens before the milk gets poured into their glass at the dinner table.
If you are interested in becoming more connected with your food sources, here are a few ideas. If you have others, please share and I will add to this list.
• Farmer’s Markets (the Dane County Farmer’s Market is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country)
• CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture, see the Madison listing from FairShare)
• Home Milk Delivery (I haven’t tried this yet but you might look into LW Dairy or MariGold Dairies)
• More tours! (Babcock Hall Dairy, Sassy Cow Creamery)
See you at the next Dane County Breakfast on the Farm, June 14th, 2014!