Emily Meredith
Emily Meredith

Last week my grandfather celebrated his birthday—and though I wasn’t able to celebrate with him in person, I thought of him often that day, as I do most days.

I’ve been blessed with incredibly involved grandparents on both my mother’s and father’s side. They attended nearly every sporting event, school play, concert, birthday and all my graduations (high school, college and law school!).

As a young child, when my parents would travel for business, Grandma Riri and “Bumpa” aka Grandpa Richard would have me stay up at their house in Marinette, Wisconsin, just across the water from Menominee, Michigan. I’ll always remember peering over the window as a young girl, waiting for my grandpa to get home from the night shift he worked at the local factory.

See, my grandpa was a long-time employee at Scott Paper Company, working on the line to produce toilet paper, paper towel and other assorted products from the time he finished serving in the Korean War until the time he retired a few years ago.

Sometime after my Bumpa retired, “factory” became a dirty word in this country—or at least as it relates to agriculture.

Activists throw around the phrases “factory farming” and “industrial agriculture” as a means to scare consumers into thinking that their chicken breast or pork tenderloins are mass produced. These terms give the perception that animal protein is just another commodity coming off the assembly line with no thought given to safety or the health and wellbeing of workers and animals.

Detractors have managed to take the word “factory,” a word that connotes efficiency, innovation and good ol’ American ingenuity and make it a nasty, evil word. They’ve taken a profession for people like my grandpa and made a mockery of it.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying there is such a thing as “factory farming.” But, to be fair, I think we in agriculture need to start owning the fact that our industry is large.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

Agriculture is a strong, mighty industry supporting over 16 million jobs. Agriculture has been forced to become more and more efficient as there are fewer farmers to feed more mouths, with fewer resources too. 

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. As the folks that produce food to feed my family, I’m grateful for the job you do and whatever new technologies you can employ to get that job done more efficiently and effectively.

But somewhere along the line, the word “efficiency” became conflated with inhumane, unsafe and unsanitary. I think we all know where to point the finger to find the source of this misinformation and confusion, but the point becomes, what do we do about it now?

There’s been a host of bloggers among you producers who discuss the crucial issue of farm size (an issue, I should mention, that we’ll be discussing at our upcoming Stakeholders Summit). You’ve been trying to discern from consumers what “makes” a factory farmer? Is it 100 animals? 1,000? 10,000?

I often wonder if the average consumer believes that a “factory farm” is similar to the fictitious agri-business depicted in Chipotle’s animated video: cows, chickens and pigs in some skyscraper; injected with some sort of greenish-goo and squished and scrunched until the final product rolls off the conveyor in a neat, little cube of protein.

How do we help consumers understand that just because farmers and ranchers collectively raise and grow a lot of food every year that this doesn’t mean there’s some sinister plot underfoot, or that producers are slaves to the almighty dollar or that animal well-being suffers when push comes to shove.

How do we help consumers understand that technology has improved food safety and quality, as well as animal care? Industry innovators including Dr. Temple Grandin have revolutionized procedures – like off-loading cattle at the slaughter house for example—by using intuition and technology to build curving, winding ramps that reduce animal stress and discomfort.

My initial thought is that we have to embrace the rhetoric and turn it on its head.

You know that old saying that when you point the finger at others, three point back at you? Well, that’s probably true of us in agriculture. For too long we’ve tried to paint the rosiest picture, instead of really opening up about the difficulties in agriculture.

We haven’t been honest about why agriculture has embraced technology to improve efficiency—because we need to be as efficient as possible in order to feed our growing population. And because technology is awesome and our industry wants to keep improving, continuously.

We’ve tried to have it both ways by telling consumers that we’re family farmers (which I know 98.7 percent of you are) while trying to minimize the connections between family farms and corporate processing facilities and integrators.

We’ve allowed activists and detractors to convince us that “factory” is a dirty word, and that makes me sad.

A factory is what allowed my grandpa to put food on the table for his family, to pay for Catholic school and college for six kids, and whose pension allows him to enjoy retirement with my grandmother. Was it hard work? Yes.

But my grandfather never complained – he was just happy to have a job. And in fact, it’s the devastation of the factory industry that has left small towns like Marinette in the dust: once booming hubs of industry, where I would spend the Fourth of July watching a parade down Main Street. Now I drive through only to see shuttered windows and “going out of business” signs.

I don’t want the same to happen to agriculture. We have to take back the negative connotations and embrace truth and transparency.

Factory is not a dirty word; neither is farmer.

P.S. And the next time you’re at the store, buy Scott Paper, and think of my Grandpa Richard.