I was born and raised in Iowa. Not on a farm, but surrounded by farm communities and the acres of cornfields that come with them. I took for granted the beauty and promise those crops represent, and after leaving the area, I miss farmland.
Environmental concern and earth-friendly products are all ways we can make green choices, but farmers are intensely connected with the environment every day. A healthy farm, to me, reflects choices that are good for the earth, the animals, crops and the people on the receiving end of the harvest.
Two weeks ago my son Kenny and I were invited to spend a weekend with our friends in a rural setting near Galena.
The highlight of the trip was gathering fresh eggs from a hen house set against a meadow with an open chicken run and a lush, green lawn. It's more than most chickens ever see.
Small, private farms like the one we visited have all but been eliminated by factory farming. Actually, it's not even accurate to call it that, because it's really factory food production—at least that's how I feel after watching a thought-provoking documentary about America's food.
Director Robert Kenner's Oscar-nominated film, Food, Inc., is straight to the point, engaging and insightful—without the propaganda or extreme statistics I anticipated. It's about 90 minutes, and it's a colorful, vivid, inspiring narrative about an investigative journalist who visits farms associated with some of the largest and most powerful food companies in the country.
Throughout the film, the viewer can get an idea of how farmers' incomes rely on the corporations. Those decision-makers really have control over how the farmers raise their animals or grow their crops, because they can require "upgrades" to the system.
Costly and extensive, those changes lead to debt, and the farmer then is unable to get out of the contract, regardless of desire.
One of the farmers in the documentary explained that chickens have been engineered to grow five times the size of their body weight 50 years ago. They also go to slaughter in half the time.
The extra weight is designed for manufacturers who know demand for white meat is high, and the chickens' bones and tendons can't support the extra weight. Their 3-week lives are completed in a dark, antibiotic filled shelter where layers of other birds compete for space and air, pumped in by a ventilator. Not only are the animals mistreated, the farmer is miserable and says she's not even farming. She's just producing.
The film also covers other meats, the origins and processes of pigs and cows, and the fertilizers, pesticides and medications that cover the whole factory food production system.
When I visited farms as a child, those were small farms. I often wondered how farmers could care for piglets, calves, chicks or lambs with such concern and kindness—only to know they would be driving them to the slaughter house in a few weeks.
My mom told me at the time those farmers wanted their animals to have the best life, however short it may be, while in their care. Back then, that didn't mean anything to me. But after watching the hens run free in their yard and tasting their ultra-fresh eggs on my summer getaway, it does.
Small farms are showing more respect for the animals involved in the food chain, than the food corporations are showing toward the responsibility farmers have.
If you have a chance to watch Food, Inc., it's a really good film. If you have an opportunity to taste farm fresh eggs from open range hens, it's a really good choice.