Farming misconceptions

Agriculture seems to be a controversial topic on campus. Everyone knows we need food in order to survive and without modern agricultural practices we would never have enough food to feed the world. Perhaps there are disagreements because many people have different conceptions of what actually happens on the production side of agriculture and this is why I plan to put an end to some of the myths of agriculture.

Myth: Farming is generally controlled by large corporations, which are mainly concerned with profit rather than animal welfare.

It is a fact that 98 per cent of Canadian farms are family owned and operated. Farming is a 24/7 job, meaning farmers are working 365 days a year. Cows can’t milk themselves and can’t care for themselves, so someone needs to be there on Christmas morning while everyone else is at home with their families.
Crystal Mackay of the Ontario Farm Animal Council made an interesting comment at a presentation titled “The Real Dirt on Farming.” She said: “[ . . . ] Anyone can choose to go and get a job at the Gap and work nine to five and make good money. Farmers choose to farm because they love what they do.” Really, as students at the U of M aren’t we all looking for that one thing that we love doing and can make money at the same time?

Anyone who gets up at 2 a.m. to make sure the cow that was supposed to calve (have a baby) is all right doesn’t do it for the money — they do it because they genuinely care for the well-being of the animal. On a personal basis, I can tell you I have been in the barn more than a handful of times in the middle of the night making sure that my cows are alright. No one in my family clocks in their overtime when they’re in the barn past 5 p.m.

Myth: Farm animals are raised in ‘factory farms’ or confined in crowded, unventilated cages and sheds.

Nothing urks me more than the phrase “factory farm.” In fact, when someone says this hideous word to me I usually revolt in a slight temper tantrum followed by major questioning of the person’s judgment and knowledge of farming as a whole. There is no standard definition of factory farming! For example, my dad milks 100 dairy cattle, which might be defined as a large quantity of cattle to someone outside of the dairy industry but would be considered an average size. Factory farming is a term made up by anti-farming activists and is definitely not a term used by farmers.

Most farms today are a little bit bigger than the typical views of Old MacDonald’s farm with the big red barn, and the reality is they have to be in order to survive in today’s economy.

Myth: Farming can go back to the good old days, to more ‘traditional farming.’
With only two per cent of the Canadian population involved in agriculture, it is virtually impossible to go back to smaller farms and still feed our country. In the olden days, farms had much lower productivity, which fed a much smaller population. Environmental awareness was also much lower and food quality and quantity were highly unpredictable.

It’s true, in the olden days farms were more “organic” but lets think back to 1845 for a second. In 1845, Ireland had its infamous potato famine, which was caused by potato blight (a fungus which is currently easily controlled by fungicides). This famine killed approximately one million people and caused a million more to emigrate away from Ireland. Now think really critically, do we really want to go back to the old days to “traditional farming?”

Myth: Farm animals in confinement are prone to disease, which forces farmers to use antibiotics and hormones. This in turn sacrifices the quality of the end product and human health.

By housing animals inside it is not only easier to protect the animals from weather, predators and disease, but it is also easier to monitor individual animals from a health care and nutritional perspective. Animals are just like us, they get sick sometimes. I am not sure about you, but when I get really sick I take something to make me feel better.

It is a fact that the use of growth hormones is illegal in Canada for use in dairy, poultry and pork. Beef is the only sector which may or may not choose to use growth hormones to get the animals to market weight quicker. We need to realize that hormones are produced in different levels by different animal and plant species naturally, and the hormones levels may or may not show up in our food at significant amounts.

Food is constantly monitored through testing and regulation from the farm gate to the grocery store. Milk is sampled and tested at the farm, processor, during the processing and prior to shipment to the grocery store. This means that it is virtually impossible for trace amounts of antibiotics or bacteria to be present in the milk that you buy in the grocery store.

Myth: Farmers don’t care about the environment that they live in.
In reality farmers have to care about the land and animals that they farm. Agriculture occupies a large and important part of the environment. The farm community is a chief steward and manager of extensive natural resources, owner and architect of much of the landscape and a protector of a precious soil resource.

Farmers are adopters of advanced technologies to make sure that their environmental footprint is as little as possible. For example, they use things like precision agriculture, with GPS units in tractors to make sure that the exact amount of fertilizer or pesticides are applied that are needed for that area of land, no more than required.

Dr. Pearse Lyons, the founder and CEO of Alltech, a global leader in animal health, once said: “Sustainability does not have to mean sacrificing long-term profits and growth for environmental wellbeing. Instead it relies on two ideas working together, in synergy.” With this in mind, many Canadian farmers produce their farm products with each level of the supply chain in mind: animals, consumers and the environment.

Next time you’re in the grocery store thinking about which products are better for you and the environment, I challenge you to think critically about where the food is coming from. As the University of Alberta, faculty of agriculture would say, without farming you’d be naked, homeless and hungry, and that’s not a situation I’d want to be in.

10 Comments on "Farming misconceptions"

  1. Uwe Paschen | April 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm |

    Hum, I wonder what planet the author lives on? Being a farmer as well as environmental engineer as consultant to farmers I do have to deal with a large number of troubles caused by modern farming practices as well as those encountered in organic and bio dynamic farming.
    Long story short, I suggest you take a course in Environmental engineering and agricultural engineering in the EU or in Asia.
    Canada, according to statistics Canada, has 60% of Family farms and the rest are factory farms or mega farms, that does not mean that they are not privately owned or operated, but they are no longer a family farm either. Some own over 500 hectare of land, run 3000 head sow barns with several full time and part time farm workers of which some are trained vet technicians and other simple labourer or operators.
    Further, most operate near monocultures of corn, soy and wheat, putting major stress on the top soil and causing degeneration over tome. Additionally, holding a thousand or more animals in building can hardly be called good husbandry why it is a practice being fazed out in the EU and other areas of this planet where factory farms used to exist or still exist.
    No extreme has ever been good for the environment and if it is not good for the environment it wont be good for humans either, at least not in the long run.
    Finally, modern agriculture has never feed the globe nor will it ever do so, simply because farmers want to make money and run a business and not a charity. Much food is being wasted and destroyed in order to keep commodity prises at a level that is viable due to overproduction, see the EU “butter mountain” of the 1980 or the California mass orange destruction to keep prises up. Farmers are their own worth enemy and some care little about the environment, especially when the profit margin is low or no one is looking.
    Farming is what allowed humanity to strive and evolve, however, it will also be our down fall if we do not manage it properly and if we not not reduce our over population as well. All things need to be balanced out and remain in balance with the ecosystem or they will become extinct. Nature can do with out humanity, nevertheless, we humans can not do with out nature.

  2. This is an article filled with emotional phrases, like “feeding the world” and “family farms” that the public is starting to get tired of. Sure, a family may own and work in a 1000-penned/caged hog facility, but that still makes it a factory.
    Moreover, the reference to the potato famine of Ireland is misinformed and fails to take into account the larger imperialist legacy of England in Ireland. Read some history books on that famine and don’t use it to scare-monger and to take the issue away from animals confined inside massive buildings.

  3. What is your definition of factory? To me a farm becomes a “factory” when the people working the animals no longer interacting with the animals on a personal basis, the workers no longer care for the individual animals. I grew up on only a small 60 cow dairy, involved in the dairy industry and have never met somebody who does not care for their animals to the utmost extreme. Unfortunately, farming is not the most profitable business, definitely not the best hours, so it really doesn’t make sense for farmers to be in it “just for the money” however, it would be ignorant to say that money is not a necessity in life, so yes farmers need some sort of compensation. I suppose ideally everybody should go back to that traditional farm, making your own food and being self-sustainable, unfortunately that’s not a reality for the society that we live in today.
    To some people, “feeding the world” is important to them, whereas you’ll find the humane society using other emotional words. Agriculture is trying very hard to fill the demand of consumers and it’s not always so easy for quick changes moving from high demand for cheap food to completely changing systems. Keep in mind that change takes time, that is all I ask.

  4. I think that people working with animals should be paid well and that the entire country should be behind the movement to get animals out of cages and bring farmers the compensation & prestige they deserve.
    The problem with the phrase “feeding the world” is that it is a weird way of describing an export business. What the world needs is farming justice and not, say, Monsanto selling its seeds to indebted nations.

  5. Leslie Yeoman | April 8, 2011 at 11:42 am |

    I think the comments in the ‘Discussion’ are a more honest perspective of farming in Canada. The writer of this article appears to label things that she doesn’t like as a ‘myth’, her statements are not actually backed up by the facts…Nobody wants to demonize farmers; I truly believe people want improved conditions for the animals that are part of the food chain and one does not preclude the other. And nobody can feed the world any more so please stop using that phrase!

  6. Katelyn Graye | April 11, 2011 at 3:20 pm |

    I am going to try my best not to make this comment as long as my article itself.
    I am accused of having faulty sources. This surprises me because I made sure to go out and find the correct statistics to include in my article. Most of my ideas came from “The Real Dirt on Farming” publication ( This may seem like a really simplistic answer to all the issues brought up in this discussion but I challenge you to go out (as I did) and find the scientific information proving facts presented in this publication.
    While some may think “feeding the world” is one of those emotional statements which is one made up by farmers to defend their practices… “Factory farming” is another emotional statement made up by anti-farming activists. Some may think that nobody can feed the world anymore but I would beg to differ. Let’s talk locally first. There are lots of people within Winnipeg who go hungry each day and receive help from the Winnipeg Harvest. Last year, my parents donated (key word: donated) well over 5000 litres of milk to the Winnipeg Harvest which was processed into many different dairy products. You might automatically think that we are only one generous farm to do such a thing but many dairy farmers are doing the same thing. In 2010, 170,000 litres of milk was donated in processed form to the Winnipeg Harvest (
    Now to the people who can afford to put food on their tables. Canadians spend very little on food. In fact, we spend approximately 11.9% of our personal disposable income on food ( I agree with those of you who said farmers can be paid more but this comes at the cost to consumers… many of whom wouldn’t want to pay more for their food.
    Now to the global scale, and I would like to leave companies like Monsanto out of this discussion, but just to touch on it… its companies like Monsanto, Cargill etc. who are providing the better agricultural technologies and information to help farmers in indebted nations to improve their productivity, profitability and sustainability. Agreed, the main way we are feeding the world is through commodity export. I imagine with a bit of digging I could find the exact statistics of where our commodities are going and which commodities are being sold but unfortunately like everyone else right now I have exams to worry about.
    For those of you who have said my article is not backed by fact. I challenge you to find anything within my article which cannot be supported. I have made the mistake of doing my research and not including all of it within my article due to space. Please visit the following websites: (, (, (, (
    Thank you for all your comments. I really appreciate them. More than anything, I love having these types of conversations with consumers to understand their opinions and concerns about their food. After all you are the ones who buy our farm products.

  7. Good luck on your exams, Katelyn.
    And we do agree on this point: people should pay more for their food. And very rich people should not dedicate themselves to their own tax cuts. And on it goes: it’s about a more just & compassionate world.
    And, before I say goodbye, one more thing: we should all just eat more plants too.

  8. Curtis Brown | April 27, 2011 at 4:39 am |

    I commend your family’s work as dairy farmers, as a kid who grew up on a farm, and now studying Agriculture at U of M, and as a helping hand with our neighbour’s dairy operation I know how much work is needed 24/7/365 especially on dairies. But for your quote to 170,000 litres of dairy products being donated to Winnipeg Harvest, that is also commendable, b/c farms should be run like business (though I support a social business model, where the bottom line isn’t just financial, but social and environmental too) and not charities; but Winnipeg Harvest provides food for 40,000 people a month, and at 183 L of dairy products recommended for a healthy diet at those numbers Winnipeg Harvest would need to provide over 7 1/4 million L of milk. So your donations are commendable but not nearly adequate.

    I went to “The ^Real Dirt on Farming” and I was blown away by how much crap I heard coming out of Crystal Mackay’s mouth, and her lack of indepth knowledge on the issues she was talking about. She presented a view of intensive conventional farming trying its hardest to ‘feed the world’ and their idea of being sustainable was pushing for ethanol production. Anyone with a half an ounce of knowledge knows ethanol is not sustainable in terms of energy use and output (but it certainly helps to drive up food prices – namely corn prices). Nevermind the contradictory of pushing for feeding the world, and pushing corn ethanol at the same time, I had to hold myself back from laughing out loud when corn ethanol came up.

    I won’t focus on your Irish Potato farming quote, b/c someone else already point out how much a joke that is (another real dirt on farming misconception) but to equate ‘the olden days farms’ and present day organic farms is a real insult to those committed to real agricultural progression.

    There is no doubt more funding needs to go towards new research and development, but I don’t think a single cent should be spent on unsustainable, non-pier reviewed or no longterm studies done on, like GMOs, Pesticides (particularly Surfactants), or Fertilizer technologies. Organic has been proven to compete with and in some cases outcompete conventional farm system – the two most pressing problems with Organic is the Phosphorus cycle, and a farming population of 2% in Canada. The solutions are closing the nutrient cycle and including Humanure (Human manure) back into farming (not sewer sludge, b/c its mixed with industrial sewage=heavy metal toxins) and incentives for young and new farmers to increase the farming population, with the actual consumption of food being lowered by higher (more accurate) food prices, and more private and governmental regulating an Organic farm system would require about 4.5% farming population in Canada. Doubling the farming popl’n seems daunting considering the continuous drop since early in the 20th century, but more and more a food revolution will push people to grow their own food and many to see farming as a viable lifestyle.

    I won’t go into Monsanto or Cargill anyone that’s reading this already know those companies’ reputations and pasts, but I will say that your comment on how these corporations are providing indebted countries the technology for increase productivity, profitability and sustainability is also laughable. These companies are two of the largest Agribusinesses in the world, to say they care about impoverished countries and the people living is ridiculous, its all about profits for these corporations, Cargill is one of the largest contributors to deforestation in tropical countries due to their involvement in the Palm Oil industry, one of the single most destructive industries in the world, hurting our chances of solving our en masse loss of biodiversity, and combating climate change – with carbon sequestration in forests. These two corporations are have some of the worst international reputations ever!

    To assume that those who are concerned with our food system are anti farm activists is also very insulting. You assume that we want to bring the whole thing down, and put farmers in jail for our irrational-conspiratorial-made up environmental laws. Most people who protest our food system don’t blame farmers, they blame the corrupt multinational corporations and the governments they infiltrate, look up the Monsanto Revolving door in the American government and they proceeding policies the USDA passed during Monsanto’s tenure sitting on the board.

    If you’re going to write a article on farming, don’t just focus on what you conceive to be Myths and Facts. As an Agroecology student, essentially its going to be my jobs to point out Agricultures missteps, until we’re on the right track to real sustainability and harmony with the rest of the Earth system.

  9. I’m not even going to touch most of this because A) I’m not from Canada so some of the statistics (referring to the percentage of farmers in the country, etc) are different on my side of the border and B) everyone else has already commented on it. I’m late on commenting on this, but I found this article while writing a paper on farming misconceptions. My only words to add are on your mention of factory farming. You claim that it is a term used by anti-farming advocates and not ever by farmers at all. You don’t know me and I don’t know you but I AM A FARMER. I’m a second generation farmer, a Beef Cattle Production major at Michigan State University and yes, I use that word to refer to exactly what it is – a farm operated as a factory. It doesn’t matter how many other things you call it, it is what it is. A rose by any other name is still a rose. Thank you for writing this article, I’ve decided to write my essay as misconceptions on my side – as a grass based organic beef farmer.

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