Our recent experience in the Shenandoah Valley was certainly an eye opener for me. I grew up a “farmer’s daughter” in Loudoun County. I drove tractors, rode in the combine with my Dad, made hay, brought in straw, bush hogged fields and helped to fix fence, but I never had the opportunity to go inside a poultry house, walk through a dairy barn, or see the infrastructure that enables trainloads of grain to be shipped to farmers to make sure their birds are well fed. I had an idea of what it might be like, and a respect for the technology, care and health safety that farmers routinely implement for the health of their animals and the sustainability and profitability of their farm (Remember farming is a supposed to be an income producing career) but I really had no on the ground experience of what it would be like.
David Hughes of Rivermont farms invited us to tour his poultry houses. He has recently transitioned to antibiotic free. He concedes that while his mortality rates are slightly higher than they were when he was using antibiotics, he is able to keep the rates lower than the national average & raise healthy birds that meet consumer demands at a profit for his farm.
But on to the real thing that impacted me. At the poultry farm, the attention to health safety for the birds was top notch…..
After suiting up and disinfecting our shoes to ensure no germs would be brought into the house, we entered what I expected to be a noisy, crowded environment with strong aromas that would linger on your clothing. Much to my surprise, the end of the house with the young turkeys was wide open, clean fresh shavings for bedding and water and feeders at just the right height for the young birds. And while there was plenty of room to spare, those in the house decided to clump up together happily. Frankly they seemed comfortable, happy, doing their bird thing. Some were showing off – sort of comical to see a 4 inch high turkey puffing up for his friends, others were simply resting. And it was really interesting to see how the entire flock slowly moved toward our group out of interest.
We also met with Gerald Garber, owner of Cave View Dairy where we toured the loafing barn, the milk parlor and had a chance to see the conservation practices at work reducing mud and run off from the farm to improve the environment. At the dairy, the cows were clean, munching silage and curious as to what our group was doing – almost friendly, but that is probably not a proper “agricultural advocate’s” statement- just a personal observation.
All this to say, I know that many people are concerned about how turkeys and/or chickens are raised and if dairy cows are improperly confined, and while I have always thought farmers are providing the best environment possible to be economical and “feed the world”, until I saw it first hand, I guess I couldn’t really confirm it. But as I have always believed – The farmers do really care about the animals they are raising and about the food they are putting on your table!
This experience is not too far from what I experienced as a young person growing up in rural Loudoun County. Most of my child hood memories of my father are driving down country roads after church on Sunday visiting fields of corn, soybeans and wheat. We would stop at specific fields, walk out and look at the growth- consider what else he might be able to do to make it better and then drive on to the next field. Or we would visit the test plots that he was raising to help the Land Grant University determine which varieties of corn provided the best yields in our climate.
On vacation, I would hear my mother saying, “Lynn, stay on the road”, as he drove by inspecting a corn field on the way to a fishing trip, or passing a sugar cane field on our trip to Hawaii. He was forever interested and concerned about how to grow a better product, with less inputs and higher yields. And while he was helping with these steps forward in Agriculture he was concerned about his children, his community and how he could better help to feed the world.
So, my trip to the Shenandoah Valley was good for a row crop farmer’s daughter who now simply has horses in her back yard. I had a chance to consider how others may view agriculture and not really understand that the farmer is doing their best to use good farming practices to minimize disease within their herd/flock/crop, raise them in the healthiest environment possible, raise more with less, and still make a profit so they can continue year after year – not only to put a pay check in their pocket, but to do their part to feed the world. Through this experience I look forward to being able to share the diversity of agriculture and the many options that people have to stay sustained, healthy and well.