Ag’s red barn image needs update: experts

It might be the iconic image of farming: a few cows on a rolling and green pasture, grazing beside a perfectly painted red barn.

Photos or illustrations of the idyllic scene are wonderful to look at, but using such images to promote food or farming is a mistake for modern agriculture, says a University of California animal science professor.

“Every dairy truck in the state where I live, in California, depicts a cow on pasture and in the background a red barn. That’s the gold standard, depicted to the public,” said Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality extension specialist at University of California, Davis. “I would say that this is a bad decision. Why? Because it cements the belief in people’s heads that this is the way that we should (farm).”

Mitloehner shared his frustration with red barns at the Agricultural Bioscience International Conference, held Sept. 25-28 in Winnipeg, where he participated in a session on sustainability for animal production systems.

During his talk, Mitloehner said it’s absurd that the agri-food sector continues to sell this red barn image because farming was actually much, much worse when red barns were in use.

“Fifty or 60 years ago, in these red barns, we had animals that were tied on every day, non-stop. They were not allowed to run around. (And) people milking them were doing that by hand. Stoop labour,” he said. “The food safety was atrocious because the milk went into the next bucket, where it sat for the rest of the day until somebody picked it up. It didn’t go into some cooling (container)…. And the environmental footprint was (awful) because animals produced one-tenth of what they produce today.”

To back his assertion that the environmental and social aspects of farming are better now, Mitloehner pointed to data from the U.S. dairy sector:

In 1950, the U.S. had 24 million dairy cows. Today, there are nine million.

From 1950 to 2013 milk production increased by 60 percent.

The carbon footprint of a glass of milk is one-third of what it was in 1950, because dairy farmers are producing more with less.

Carlos Saviani, who promotes sustainable production of meat with the World Wildlife Fund, presented similar data on the U.S. hog sector at the Winnipeg conference.

From 1959 to 2009, the water use per pound of hog carcass weight declined by 41 percent and the carbon footprint dropped by 35 percent, he said.

Mitloehner is convinced the agri-food industry should abandon the red barn imagery because it provides fuel for modern agriculture critics, especially people who promote the idea that things were better 50 years ago, before technology and innovation “ruined” farming.

“Going back to the 1950s or 1960s is what many people think is the way to go,” he said. “In my opinion, and the opinion of most of my colleagues, that would be very counter-productive.”

Kelly Daynard, executive director of Farm & Food Care Ontario, agreed the red barn image is dated.

“All the urban groups I talk to still have that pastoral view of the farm that (their) grandparents’ ran, with a few chickens and a few sheep and six cows,” Daynard said from her office in Guelph, Ont.

“I think there is still a ton of nostalgia for that (red barn).”

Daynard isn’t convinced that the red barn photo is damaging to agriculture, but the sector should use images that accurately depict modern farming.

Farm & Food Care Ontario publishes an annual booklet called The Real Dirt on Farming, with answers to questions about food production in Canada.

They use more modern photos in the booklet to represent the technology and innovation within agriculture.

Mitloehner said it is possible for the ag industry to destroy the mythology around the “good old days” of farming.

In one of his classes at UC Davis, he shows students a photo of a 1960 Chevy and a 2016 Chevy. When asked what car they would like, based on the photo, the majority of students pick the 1960 vehicle.

But when Mitloehner tells them that the 1960 vehicle is a gas guzzler, spews carbon into the atmosphere, doesn’t have seat belts and is unreliable, the students change their minds and pick the newer vehicle.

He said the agri-food sector should share similar information with the public, to contrast farming in 1957 to farming in 2017.

“Let’s take the discussion away from an emotional one to one that’s based on reality…. We should do a much better job of informing the public of why we shouldn’t go back to that (red) barn.”

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