A Farmer Speaks

A few months ago I had Tamar Haspel as a guest on EconTalk. I really enjoy her work — she understands trade-offs and costs very well which is rare especially among non-economists. I learned a lot from our conversation — you can listen here:

One listener took exception to her remarks on animal welfare and fertilizer use. There is no way of knowing if his personal experience is representative of most or all farmers or if his perceptions are accurate. But I do think his views are worth considering and that the attitudes he is reacting to are widespread and probably could benefit from a little more nuance. He declined the opportunity to appear as a guest on EconTalk but did agree to let me give his response here. I also invited Tamar Haspel to respond. Her response follows at the bottom.

A farmer speaks:

I am a fan of Econtalk and listen often. I am a beef producer in southwest Missouri. I know that you aren’t a farmer and I appreciate that you occasionally do some episodes about agriculture and food production.
It seems like most of your guests on this issue tend to be on the organic side and have problems with conventional agriculture, especially in regards to animal welfare. This is fine as it is your show and I know the guests may have whatever opinion they prefer.
What prompted this email was Ms. Haspel’s remarks on keeping your livestock happy and how we need to do a better job of it. This is not an isolated opinion and, frankly, it is a very offensive assault on the character of those who produce the meat animals in this country.
I am not immune to the good feeling you get when seeing animals living out on the range running around. To assume, as an outsider, that you know what is better for the animal than the person who cares for it every day is quite arrogant. I, as with all producers, spend most of my time seeing that the animals are not stressed or in pain.
As far as chicken production goes, sure there are lot of chickens in the house. I have neighbors and friends that raise both egg hens and broilers. My neighbor that raises the eggs is in the ‘cage free’ market, which means the birds can be in the barn with the laying boxes or they can venture outside, wherever they prefer. What people away from the farms don’t know is that the chickens choose to spend essentially all of their time inside the house where there is an advanced cooling system and ample feed and clean water right in front of their beaks. After all, a stress free bird lays the most eggs.
Another thing that was mentioned in this podcast was the fertilizer runoff problem. Ms. Haspel makes it sound as if farmers are pouring fertilizer onto the field willy nilly. I can assure you this is not the case, as fertilizer is very expensive. There are incredible emerging technologies to optimize nutrient application and fertilizer spreaders that spread more or less product based on soil samples. As far as solutions go, I think the litigation method of limiting fertilizer runoff is a very slippery slope, especially with the trend of absurdly high punitive damages that seem to be the the norm as of late. One of these suits would put many a producer out of business, which would lead to more “corporate farms” that may be more able to deal with the risk of litigation. ‘Corporate farming’ seems to be despised by the same people who think they know what is best for our stock.
My goal is not to express anger with what has been discussed, for I listen to the podcast to hear views of many different types of people on many different subjects. I would just like to encourage you, when discussing agriculture, to find a guest who has spent ample time around those whose livelihood depends on the welfare and “happiness” of the cattle, chickens, and hogs. Someone who has knowledge of how we spend our days keeping them in the best condition possible while making a living ourselves.

Tamar Haspel responds:

Thanks for your letter, and for bringing up some excellent points that are very much worth discussing.
I get your frustration; I know a lot of farmers who share it. And in an atmosphere where criticism of farmers seems to come from many quarters — including quarters very far removed from the farmgate — I think it’s justified. I’ve heard plenty of criticism that I think is unreasonable and ill-informed, and I try very hard to not be that critic.
Had we had more time on the podcast to dig a bit deeper into the topics you mention, I think you’d see that I agree with you much more than I disagree. You take issue with two things I mentioned — animal welfare and nutrient run-off — and I’d like to take this opportunity to do a little of that deeper digging.
There’s huge variation in the way livestock are raised in this country, and I think beef cattle often have good lives. The issue is generally finishing and, while there are certainly feedlots where conditions are bad, there are also feedlots where conditions are excellent. I had a long conversation with Temple Grandin about it, and wrote a a piece that includes the upshot of that talk.
I am much more concerned about pigs and laying hens, two animals that often live in conditions that trouble me. The cage-free operation you describe is exactly the direction I’d like to see the egg industry go in. Although we don’t have great tools to evaluate animal well-being, I cannot sign on to the idea that keeping a hen, for her entire life, in a cage where she can’t extend her wings is OK.
I certainly understand that animals often choose to stay where it’s warm and dry, and food and water are available. But they also sometimes choose to go out in the sunshine and do what animals do. My husband and I raise a variety of livestock. Although I in no way equate keeping a few animals in the backyard to the job of raising them for a living, I can’t imagine writing about animal welfare without at least some experience of the animals in question. My chickens make a run for it as soon as I open the door to their run — or did, until a family of foxes moved in and put an end to their free-ranging ways, a lesson in the trade-off between freedom and security. (If I haven’t exhausted your interest, I also wrote about how we go about assessing chicken well-being, and how much I think it matters.)
I have a similar concern about pigs. I have, as we speak, three of them rooting around in a pen in the woods on our property, and I try to spend time getting to know them (this is our second group). Like all pigs, they root, they nest, and they wallow — all things they can’t do in barns with slatted floors and limited bedding material. Can we say for sure that a pig denied those things is unhappy? No, we can’t. But there are signs — like their propensity to gnaw on each others’ tails — that maybe there’s something missing for them. I think there are confinement operations that give pigs an environment where they can express those behaviors, and I don’t think it’s a big leap, or an unreasonable bit of anthropomorphic reasoning, to believe a pig, given the choice, would pick one of them.
And now, about nutrient run-off. Of course farmers don’t fertilize willy-nilly, but farmers I talk to (and read) on the subject have said that nitrogen, particularly, is cheap crop insurance. When a lack of N can reduce yields, but the only cost of an excess is the cost of the fertilizer itself, it often makes much more economic sense to err on the side of more. You mention precision tools, and I’m astonished by the capabilities of some of them. The data I’ve seen on adoption, though, indicate that they’re not yet widespread, and they’re sometimes a tough sell because, if the only dollar savings is reduced inputs, they may not ever pay for themselves.
The state of the water in Lake Erie, outside Des Moines, in the Neuse Basin in North Carolina, and in the Gulf of Mexico is compelling evidence that over-fertilization is a problem; I don’t know anyone who disputes it. The question, for me at least, is how we curtail it. When it’s expensive to implement precision ag, and the benefit accrues to society, but not the farmer specifically, I think there has to be a way for society to contribute to the purchase.
Sorry for the long-winded response here — it’s because I think this stuff is important. I will add only that, although I farm (my husband have a commercial oyster operation), I can only understand other kinds of farms by listening to farmers. I try mightily to make sure I understand, to the extent an outsider can, the pressures and exigencies (also, the benefits and satisfactions) of farming before I write about it. If I screw up, I want to know. The best thing that you, as a farmer, can do to change what I think is an unproductive and polarized public conversation about agriculture, is exactly what you did — speak up.
So thank you.
Best,
Tamar

I want to thank my farmer listener and Tamar Haspel for their thoughts. Interested readers might also enjoy John Papola’s excellent documentary that grapples with these issues.

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