Science: A Gift of the Heart

A young Caden at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh

A young Caden at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh

Yesterday I watched an ultrasound of my son’s heart.  Recent unexplained chest pains, rapid heart rates, and low oxygen levels had brought us to the pediatric cardiologist office that afternoon. I was scared and very anxious as I watched the sound I first heard over 11 years ago suddenly visible on the ultrasound screen.  I stood guard as the technician carefully examined each chamber of his heart, taking numerous digital images from varying angles. I saw the bright red and blue colors circulate his heart, indicating the blood flow that was occurring throughout his body.  With each rhythmic pump, that powerful muscle was allowing my little boy to live – to breath – and I was truly overwhelmed by the science and technology that allowed us to capture every heartbeat on the screen.

Science in medicine is a beautiful thing. I have confidence in knowing whatever issues my precious boy is facing, medical professionals will use their knowledge and resources to help keep him safe and healthy. However, I am often perplexed why consumers do not have that same trust and confidence in the farmers and the processors who oversee their food. Debates about GMOs, antibiotics, and pesticides are frequent on social media. Strong opinions exist on both sides, and there is very little common ground in these conversations.  However, what most consumers fail to understand is the science utilized in crop selection and management is just a small part of the technology used to ensure the food in our grocery stores and farmers markets is safe for human consumption.

As a small meat processor, science plays a huge role in the safety of the food produced at my facility.  Multiple e-coli and salmonella tests are required on all carcasses (grain-fed, grass-fed, and even organic) at varying steps in production.  Random tests are also done to check for antibiotic residue in the meat.  When testing for listeria, everything from the product, to the floor drains, to door handles are sampled to ensure there is absolutely no contamination.   As a plant owner, I am responsible for conducting my own microbiological tests, but the FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) officials of the USDA are also on-site, overseeing my operations and performing their own tests throughout the process.  Regardless of the production methods utilized in the field, science is vital in bringing safe food products to our grocery store shelves.

Caden loves helping pack the boxes at the plant

Caden loves helping pack the boxes at the plant

As a mom, it is my job to ensure the health and the safety of my children.  As a farmer and as a processor, it is also my job to ensure the food that I produce is safe…not only for my family but also for the consumers that we supply.  Science plays an important role in both of these endeavors. While most people will never have a cardiologist discuss their little boy’s heart on a monitor or a meat processor examine the results of Shiga toxins in their hamburger,  I pray that one day we can all learn to appreciate the science and technology that aids both of these valued professions in doing their job.

Advertisements

My Unconventional Approach to #AgChat

images

I am relatively new to this whole blogging / agvocating / “tell your story” side of agriculture, and, I must confess, this is much harder than I originally anticipated.  Given my love for all things farm-related and my passion for writing, I assumed this would be an easy process.  However, the more blogs that I read and the more that I sit down to write, the more I find myself struggling to say what is truly on my heart.

You see, as my name “NC Meat Mom” implies, I am a proud North Carolinian.  I come from state that is rich in agriculture and is vastly diverse in both our production and in our methods.  From the amazing seafood harvested on our coast to the beautiful Christmas trees grown in our mountains, agriculture is a leading industry across our state.  Even though my heritage is tobacco, my passion is North Carolina’s meat industry.  I partner with my husband to raise and direct market grassfed cattle, and I am the sole owner of a slaughter and processing facility.  Through these roles, I am blessed to work with meat producers from across the state and partner with them to provide local, quality food for the people of North Carolina.  But, most importantly, I am a mom.  Every day I strive to provide for the current needs of my children while also preserving the sustainability of our family farm for their future.   Embracing these roles individually is not a problem…it’s when I attempt to merge them together that things get a little tricky.

In case you can’t tell, I am not the typical image of a North Carolina farmer…and, quite honestly, I don’t embrace the same mindset as many of our industry leaders.  In a world where the color of your tractor is just as divisive as the crops you raise, I really struggle to find my place in this agchat community.  For example…

  • I consider myself a farmer, but I don’t own a tractor.
  • I consider myself a cattleman, but I am not a member of the Cattleman’s Association.
  • I have insurance, but it’s not through Farm Bureau.
  • I eat meat, but I also love knowing where it comes from.
  • I own a slaughterhouse, but I also consider HSUS a friend.
  • I value local food systems, but I also feed my family fast food.
  • I watched every episode of Chipotle’s “Farmed and Dangerous”, and I even like their burritos.
  • I believe the greatest threat to the Earth’s food supply is not overpopulation but our industry’s internal fighting.

These may be simple statements but to the agricultural world many of these are blasphemy!  And, the even more shocking thing is that I understand their concerns.  I see the good that come from the Cattlemen’s Association and Farm Bureau, and I am very appreciative of all that they do for our industry…I just choose not to support them financially.   I understand the struggles of a local food system and how overwhelming that would be to implement worldwide…my family lives with that feeling daily.  I know the scary statistics about HSUS and their attacks on animal agriculture…but I choose to take the risk and build a relationship instead of brigade.  I had never heard of Chipotle until agriculture went on the defensive against their marking campaigns…proving that sometimes negative attention is just as effective as no attention at all.

I use to wonder how I ended up at this stage of my life, and I felt very unprepared for the task at hand.  However, I now understand that God has been slowly preparing me for these conversations…all of my previous roles were stepping stones for this very moment.   As a former teacher, I taught my students to “play nice” and not to judge because others may do things a little different.  As a former school counselor I learned the value of “I statements” when making an argument…focus more on your story than attacking someone else’s.  As a mom, I constantly told my children, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” when refereeing a sibling spat.   As a Christian, I sang “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight” to remind me that every person and every opinion is valuable.  And, as the child of a farmer, I learned to embrace the adage “You can catch more flies with honey”.

I now find myself tasked with living the very words I have spoken, and, I must confess, it is harder than it seems.  While I don’t claim to have answers to all the problems facing our industry, I have grown to appreciate the unique perspective that I bring to the conversation.  Telling the story of agriculture means telling “my story”, and, even though it’s a little unconventional, so am I…and that’s okay.

Growing Up Gold: My Child Labor Experiences on a NC Tobacco Farm

Today my life revolves around meat, but that was not always the case.  I grew up on a small tobacco farm in Eastern North Carolina.  Some of my earliest memories involve planting and harvesting this golden leaf; I still get nostalgic when I smell cured tobacco. 

While my mother tried to shield me from much of the farm labor, no member of our family was exempt from contributing to the operation of our tobacco farm.  Like my parents and my grandparents before me, I learned the value of hard work and the importance of family in those dirt fields.  I grew to appreciate the early morning snack breaks that always consisted of Pepsi Cola’s in a glass bottle and Sunbeam Honey Buns.  While I never liked “topping” the tobacco (manually removing the plant’s flowers), I can still remember the sense of accomplishment that came from looking back down the row and seeing how far I had progressed.  I recall trucking the tobacco to the barn and feeling empowered as I helped to slide the racks inside…working alongside the other adults, I felt that I could accomplish anything.  There was always tobacco gum under my fingernails and “tater ridges” (my momma’s Southern jargon for dirt) under my neck, but I would not trade my time in those Edgecombe County fields for anything.  Therefore, when I awoke this morning to sensationalized media reports that “children as young as 7 are working long hours in fields harvesting nicotine- and pesticide-laced tobacco leaves under sometimes hazardous and sweltering conditions” I knew I had to respond. 

The tobacco farming described by Human Rights Watch in this story (http://mm.hrw.org/content/made-usa-child-labor-tobacco) does not align with the highly regulated standards currently embraced by North Carolina’s farmers.  The United States Department of Labor and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture have clearly established guidelines detailing the role of child workers on the farm.  The Fair Labor Standards Act helps to ensure that all workers – including those under the age of 18 – are kept safe and are properly trained for the tasks they are assigned.  As a result, the US Department of Labor only reported one incident of a child labor violation during North Carolina’s 2012 crop season.  In addition, the hand harvesting used during my childhood – and described in this report – is extremely outdated.  Advancements in farm technology have resulted in more mechanized processes and a limited the number of workers – including minor children – employed by North Carolina’s farmers.  Furthermore, all United States tobacco growers are required by the purchasing companies to achieve annual Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification.  A key area of this course includes Farm Safety, Worker Training, and Green Tobacco Sickness.  Detailed records must be maintained and presented prior to selling their crop; failure to comply with any GAP requirement could mean a loss of income for the farmer…a risk that few are willing to take just to utilize child labor. 

As a mom, I care deeply for children of North Carolina.  While I can appreciate groups like Human Rights Watch’s passion for child safety, I am much more concerned with the teenage violence in our cities and the adolescent bullying in our schools than I am with the experiences of our children in a tobacco field.  This article claims our farms “are not a place for children”; however, for this North Carolina mom, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather raise my family.

Image

Defining Sustainability

There are buzz words in every industry, and agriculture is certainly no different.  In the past, terms such as “local”, “organic”, and “grass-fed” caused such a diverse response among agricultural producers and consumers the USDA was forced to intervene with an official (and regulated) definition.  However, as we progress into 2014, there is nothing generating more agricultural buzz than the word “sustainable”.

Food giant McDonald’s brought this term to the forefront earlier this year when McDonald’s announced their aim to purchase verified sustainable beef starting in 2016.  Immediately, the agricultural community began questioning what this means and examining how the process will unfold.  However, prior to this announcement, McDonald’s had already begun defining this term through a partnership with other beef industry leaders with the creation of The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB).  My husband and I currently represent Harris-Robinette Beef as producer members of this organization.

As we work within this committee to define sustainable beef, it was important that Patrick and I examine the word and its meaning…not only for the world, but also for North Carolina.

  • Merriam-Webster defines sustainable as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed” and “able to last or continue for a long time”.
  • Industry publication Beef Magazine expounds on this and refers to sustainable as “not only the preservation of the environment but also the continuation of U.S. beef production as a profitable and enduring entity. That means not only working to sustain environmental and animal resources but using concepts and practices that will allow U.S. beef production to grow in size and scope, thus offering a future for new generations in production agriculture.”
  • The GRSB’s recently released Draft Principles and Criteria defines sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes Planet (relevant principles: Natural Resources, Efficiency & Innovation, People and the Community); People (relevant principles: People and the Community and Food); Animals (relevant principle: Animal health and welfare); and Progress (relevant principles: Natural Resources, People and the Community, Animal health and welfare, Food, Efficiency and Innovation).

In all of our research and conversations, it became obvious that any definition applied to beef sustainability must encompass a lasting approach and return for the producer, the animal, and the environment.  While this may sound over-simplistic, even industry leaders like Tyson and JBS can admit that in many ways “sustainable beef” directly contrasts previously-held beef production standards and practices.  In order for McDonald’s to meet their purchasing goals by 2016, producers, processors, and distributors will have to examine and amend the way they conduct business.

As the world struggles to respond to these changes, my family has been working to achieve farm sustainability since our inception.  In 2002, my husband Patrick and my father Larry Harris were awarded a $10,000 RAFI cost-share grant to start a grass-fed beef operation.  This money served as the catalyst for our current herd and to this day remains the only grant funding my family has received, supporting our belief that any business that defines itself as sustainable must do so without the continuous use of grant or government dollars (We will talk more about this in a later blog!).  In addition to being financially sustainable, my family also realizes that beef sustainability must incorporate value to the entire carcass.  Slaughtering for steaks and ground alone is simply not cost-effective without a market for the brisket, short ribs, and other primal cuts.  Early in our business, my family established partnerships with several food service companies and restaurants who shared our commitment for whole-carcass usage.  Through honest dialogues and joint collaboration, Harris-Robinette Beef has grown to include other producer families, investment into a slaughter and processing facility (Micro Summit Processors), and distribution through US Foods.

While the verdict is still undecided as to how the beef industry will define sustainability, Harris-Robinette Beef has embraced the hashtag “#SustainbleBeef” knowing that our family is doing our part to provide consumers with an affordable, environmentally sound, high quality, nutritious beef to best serve the interest of our farmers and to preserve agriculture in a sustainable fashion for the good of our land, our families, and our society.

#SustainableBeef

“What exactly is it that you do, Amy?”

I recently ran into an old friend whom I had not seen in a while.  After a few moments of catching up on our husbands and our kids, my friend cautiously approached the topic that we both had been avoiding.  As a “friend” on Facebook, she has seen the pictures of my family and read my status updates; however, my friend could not make the connection between the Amy she knows in life and sees on social media with the “processor” title included in my profile.  I could not help but panic and sputter when this dear friend asked me the very simple question…”What exactly is it that you do, Amy?”

What exactly do I do?  How do I explain my job to this friend in a way that is simple, yet also accurate?  Do I tell her that I slaughter and process animals for meat?  Even to me, these words invoke images of old-school horror movies or those Sara McLachlan commercials with the sappy music….no, that isn’t the correct response!  Do I tell her that I partner with local farmers and ranchers (including my husband) in the final stage of meat production?  While certainly accurate, this response still does little to dispel the myths plaguing our modern meat industry.  The silence was awkward as I struggled to respond.

While I am still not sure exactly what response I finally uttered, in the past few weeks I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on this exchange.  It wasn’t some stranger asking…this was my friend!  She prayed with me during my dad’s previous battle with prostate cancer; she congratulated my daughter’s FFA accomplishments…this person knows me!  Therefore, why was it so difficult to tell her the truth of my profession?

It is time that the veil of secrecy surrounding our nation’s meat industry is removed.  Consumers are demanding more transparency from their food sources, and it is up to people like me – the farmers, the ranchers, the processors, the packers, the distributors, and, yes, even the government – to come clean about what is happening in our fields and facilities.  While we all have different roles and use various methods of production, each of us has a responsibility to tell the truth of our operations.

I have never met anyone involved in the food industry with a desire to harm consumers, animals, or the environment.  However, I have also never met anyone involved in the food industry – or any industry, for that matter – who has not made mistakes.  We teach our children to be kind to others (even if they are different from ourselves) and to always tell the truth (even when there may be negative consequences).   Therefore, it’s time that we take this same approach with conversations surrounding our food.

Sadly, there is not one blog post or single conversation that can explain the history of our food supply, the challenges of our current industry, and best way to feed our world’s growing population.  However, hopefully by telling my story about the struggles and the successes my family has encountered in our attempts to bring safe, local, and affordable meat to North Carolina, this veil of secrecy can start to be removed.

And, maybe…just maybe…I will find a way not to panic the next time someone asks me, “What exactly is it that you do, Amy?”

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

It’s true that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, and, therefore, it seems only fitting that  a successful blogger must begin with an initial blog.  As an avid reader, I have always loved the written word…yet, I have never felt led to produce my own. However, after a series of conversations with my already-blogging teenage daughter, I was forced to admit that my role as a teacher did not end simply because I left the classroom.  God continues to stretch my thinking and challenge my stereotypes on so many areas of life, and, while I certainly do not not claim to have all of the answers, I pray that someone else can glean a little wisdom of their own through my experiences.

The theme of this blog is actually very simple…this will consist of my thoughts on my life and my experiences.   While meat processing and cattle producing are my business, my family and my children are my heart.  These areas come together in my family’s support of NC FFA and 4-H.  Through this blog, we will discuss HACCP, the definition of a sustainable farm, why I don’t allow my daughter to SnapChat, the importance of agricultural education, and what it’s like to be married to someone completely opposite from you….all while honoring God in the process!

While I don’t know where this journey will take us, I thank you for partnering with me as we take these initial steps together!