Pictured: Joey Airoso of Air-Osa Dairy in Tulare, CA. Joey Airoso’s family has raised dairy cows in Tulare since 1912, when they milked raising 15 cows by hand. Today, three generations of his family work on the dairy of 2600 cows, which use rotary technology to milk the cows efficiently, leaving them more time to eat and relax before the next milking. Grazing and forage nutrition planning is no small feat for Joey’s operation. Read more about their dairy here.
By Christine Su, CEO and co-founder of PastureMap
I’m a San Francisco resident who works with farmers and ranchers all over the country. In urban and rural communities alike, I meet mostly warm, hardworking, thoughtful, lovable individuals. I often wonder how to bridge the cultural distance between rural and urban Americans that feels so much farther than the two to four hours’ drive between each other.
I had the privilege of catching up with dairy and almond farmers in the Central Valley over dinner at the Tulare World Ag Expo. They wanted to share these messages with their urban counterparts:
- Hey, we’re your neighbors. We hope that consumers in the biggest cities in CA, San Francisco and Los Angeles realize this — The San Joaquin Valley, the Sacramento Valley, and the Central Valley are your backyards and your local food garden. We are part of your food shed. This backyard is our shared resource, and we grow food in it to feed you.
- Sustainability is about us all being in the same boat. We get upset when we hear folks blame farmers on water usage during the drought and say that the Valley wasn’t meant to grow all that food, in the name of sustainability. Los Angeles County wasn’t meant to house 10 million people in urban developments in a desert. But we’re all living here, and we (the farmers in your backyard) are growing your food. Let’s talk about managing the resources the best we can, with what we have, instead of blaming.
- We want to pass on better land and resources to the next generation. Many of us are trying to reduce our resource footprint and take better care of the soil and water, to build something worth passing onto the next generation. We are literally thinking about this all the time. We live on the land and depend on the groundwater. We may use language like “soil health”, “reducing inputs”, “resilience”, “being ready for nature’s curve balls” instead of “climate change” — some terms are off-putting because we have heard it come from city folks to justify policies that don’t adequately respect and reflect the lived experience we have in working with Nature. “We see our kids learning things now that we didn’t know when we were their age. I wish we had known at their age.” (I hear this a lot).
- Speaking of our lived experience, we wish you knew just how hard real farming can be. 90% of American farmers, in almost every crop and livestock you can think of, are small family farms. Many farmers make tiny margins because we love what we do. Farming is a calling. “I wish more people photographed the rawness of it.” It is relentless, grueling, long hours from light to dusk. We are on call in the middle of the night to save an animal. We wish we could share that it is not like that old commercial “happy cows come from California” on green lush hills all the time. You might have noticed, our hills in California are brown most of the year. The soaking wet, cold days, caring for the animals because they depend on you. The long nights when you do everything possible and the calf still dies. “I wish we could share real photos of what a working farm looks like, some of the tough decisions we deal with, without scaring the consumers.”
- We also wish you felt the joys of farming. We’d love for more city people to grow gardens and raise backyard chickens, though we know that’s not always possible. We wish you the joy of burying your hands in rich soil, scooping it up, and breathing in the smell. Smelling the earth makes the brain release mind-altering chemicals that boost happiness. Breathe deep. Meet a cow. Something about putting your hands on a cow instantly calms a person down. Tending chickens makes you connected to caring for livestock who depend on you. If you grow a garden, then you connect with us, by being connected to how food is grown. You also learn that almost nothing turns out the way you planned it. Because Mother Nature.
- There’s a real person growing your food — and behind that comment wall. It’s easy to forget that there’s a real person on the other side, unless you’re face to face. Sometimes it’s too easy to dash off a rude and thoughtless comment and hit “send” before your full brain processes — and we do it too.
- We are connected to our animals. I’ve heard this over and over — “nobody loves my animals more than me.” “I still have a hard time not crying and living with death as part of farming, and it’s been 25 years.” “Most of us don’t raise animals unless we love animals.” “Take care of your animals, they will take care of you.” “The cows eat first when we get up at 4:30am. After the cows, the goats, the chickens, the fence is checked, we eat last.”
- We think our culture has made consumers disconnected from animals. Today, our American supermarkets make the square cut of meat so detached the actual live animal it came from. Compared to Europe or Asia or most places in the world — all the parts of the animal are on display, everyone is aware that they are eating an animal. “We are fortunate to live in a wealthy nation, of abundance, where maybe we don’t have to think closely about where food comes from. Everywhere else in the world they understand that we raise animals to eat. In order for us to eat them, there is death involved. Acceptance that there is death involved in every part of farming, including raising crops — is part of the act of eating, of being human and living.”
- We think about animal husbandry as raising animals with dignity and respect. “I want to challenge the concept of inhumane animal treatment. Applying the word ‘inhumane’ by itself is weird — it’s creating a standard of treating the cow as a human, whereas we are treating the cow as a cow.” We strive for raising the animal with dignity and respect.
- We’d like you to know us. Get to know your farmer’s personal values, and buy from us based on trust in our integrity. There’s something about knowing the person who grows your food, and trusting their values to raise your food right. For example, some of us aren’t labeled organic, or at your farmers market. We live too far, or can’t afford multiple staff to drive to each farmer markets.That doesn’t make us bad farmers. One producer raises grass-fed beef, and also makes her own kefir, yogurt, and kombucha. But she wishes that consumers could understand the actual resources on her farm, and why she has to feed her cows indoors sometimes. She wishes that people knew her and trusted that she takes the role of producing milk to feed people very seriously. (Note: Goodeggs.com is a great place start: local farmers and their produce delivered to your door. Many can’t afford the staff and time to sell at the farmers’ market. But before you dismiss grocery brands, Google the brand to see who the farms and ranches are that they buy from. Better yet, email and ask. There’s a real person on the other side.)
- A little thanks goes a long way. We aren’t used to hearing praise or thanks from you anymore. Note: One producer got real quiet when I said “farmers are my heroes, thanks for feeding us”. He said he couldn’t remember the last time he heard an American consumer thank him. That breaks my heart. Thank a farmer today! They are American heroes. Seriously, some of them are literal American heroes who served us abroad and now continue to serve us through growing food and caring for the land.
This post originally appeared in the Responsible Business publication on Medium.com. View original article. Christine recently shared how consumers can better understand California farmers and ranchers with Fred Hoffman. Upcoming broadcast Sunday 3/26 on The KSTE Farm Hour, Noon-1pm on Sundays, on Talk650 KSTE-Sacramento (650-AM); Podcast available at the KSTE Website or the IHeart radio app. http://kste.iheart.com/media/podcast-the-kste-farm-hour-with-FarmHour/