Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Living the Rural Life

When you live in the country, a mile from the nearest neighbor, it’s a different lifestyle than in the city. My husband, a big city native, and I moved from the heart of a one of the ten largest cities in the nation to our current home seven miles from any town and a mile from the nearest paved road. We now live in the house that my granddad built 60 years ago, in the center of one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. People often ask me if I miss living in San Diego, and the truth is, yes and no. There were a lot of things to love about the city - that city in particular. But living in the country? That’s home.

Seven Things I Love About Living in the Country,
  1. Quiet! Other than the odd crop duster or military transport chopper, there are no noises at night. No police helicopters flying overhead, no sirens, no freeway sounds, and no crazy neighbors drag racing down the alleyway.

  2. Wildlife, of a different kind. Yes, there was wildlife in the city. But it usually involved college students and large quantities of alcohol. Here there are rabbits galore, a multitude of birds of every shape and size, and any number of other critters to be seen in every direction at any time of the day. Oh, and snakes too, just not the drunk college kind.

  3. Wherever you go, you know someone. It is not possible to go to a restaurant without knowing someone there. No matter where we go, there is always going to be someone there who will greet you by name, ask how your parents are doing, and comment on your new haircut.

  4. Privacy. In the city, a few dozen people had a full view of our backyard, and probably 30 people lived within 20 yards of our bedroom window. Here, you’d have to travel 3 miles to find 30 neighbors, and the only people who see our backyard are irrigators and crop duster pilots.

  5. You can go target shooting any time you want. From your porch. In your underwear.* And if you walk into your front yard carrying a rifle, passers-by smile and wave. They don’t call the SWAT team.

  6. Everyone goes to church on Sundays. When we were considering whether to move back here or not, this was one of the things that swayed us to make the move. In the city, Sundays are just another Saturday. In the country, Sundays are special days for going to church with your family and then enjoying a special meal together afterwards.

  7. You know, or are related to, a majority of your neighbors. In our little neighborhood (which encompasses about 20 square miles), I am related to about 1/3 of the residents, and rode the bus to school with another 1/3 when we were growing up. When my parents went out of town a few months ago, we borrowed my dad’s truck one day and some of the neighbors called us to check up and see why it was missing from their driveway.
*It is advisable, however, to be sure no one is irrigating in the field behind the house before you begin shooting that direction. In your underwear.

Seven Things I Miss About Living in the City
  1. Restaurants. Small-town mom and pop restaurants are nice. But once in a while, I’d really like to sit down at a restaurant and be handed a professionally designed menu with no typos. (I designed menus when I lived in the city, so this is important to me.) Plus a little variety in dining options never hurts.

  2. Real, honest-to-goodness high-speed internet and reliable cell service. We have “high-speed internet” via a WiMax vendor here. It’s better than dial-up, but that’s about it. If there had only been dial-up internet available when we moved, we would have stayed in the city. Seriously.

  3. Privacy. In a small town, wherever you go, someone you know saw you there and quite likely told your parents about it. Everyone knows your business, and there are certainly no secrets in a small town.

  4. Bathing in Drinking Water. Here in the country, our water comes from a canal. It has never seen a water treatment facility and is delivered to our property in an open channel, with fish swimming in it. It’s not that I mind having bottled water delivered to drink, cook and brush our teeth with. It’s my hair. Even though we put the water through some rudimentary clarification processes before it enters our home plumbing, my hair is just not the same as it was when I bathed in drinking water.

  5. Traffic lights that function properly. There are a lot of very talented and capable people who live in rural areas. But somehow, the people who program traffic lights here are not among them. We have the most dysfunctional, traffic impeding stoplights in existence right here in our county. I cannot tell you how many hours I’ve wasted waiting at a stoplight when there were no other cars within 5 miles. (And I won’t admit how frequently I run the stupid things.)

  6. When you forgot something at the grocery store, it didn’t take 50 minutes and $4.25 worth of gas to go back for it. And that’s if we take the more fuel-efficient Toyota.

  7. Access to stores, medical facilities and services. Small towns with small populations can’t sustain a Nordstrom or a level one trauma center. The internet has revolutionized rural America, but even Amazon can’t bring us everything. We have to make do with what we have, and drive 100 miles into the city for anything else.
All in all? I love living here. When I moved away after high school I never dreamed that I’d ever consider moving back. But I’m glad I did. It has its faults, some of which are extremely frustrating. But there is nothing like looking out your kitchen window and seeing nothing but green fields of hay, sugar cane, and lettuce (and that stoplight at the highway, 3 miles away, that - yep - is still red).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Humane Eating

Have you ever watched an animal hunt and eat its prey? I’m not talking about The Nature Channel here. I’m talking about watching live and in person as an animal tears into another animal’s flesh and eats it while the animal is still struggling; seen the terror in the prey’s eyes while the skin was pulled off its legs; or watched the animal, with its torso splayed open, struggle to gasp a few last breaths.

It is extremely difficult and wrenching to watch. The very thought of it still puts a lump in my throat. Yet it is part of the natural order of life, and it is only through that prey’s death that the predator is given life.

I have heard many vegan and animal rights activists say that because humans have the capacity for reason and morality, we have an obligation to be compassionate to our fellow beings on the planet, where animals do not have that capacity therefore they are not wrong to eat other animals in the manner that they do.

I agree adamantly and wholeheartedly.

And yet I eat meat, eggs and dairy. I wear leather. I use non-vegan adhesives, waxes and medications. Why? Because I believe that by using modern farming methods, we are absolutely living up to that moral obligation to be compassionate to our fellow beings.

By buying from practitioners of modern farming methods, I know that the animals that gave me my meat, eggs, leather and other products were properly fed with scientifically formulated meals designed to be absolutely optimal for their health and development. I know they were kept healthy with regular veterinary care and very close attention to their health. I know that a great deal of time and attention was paid to their overall well-being, from the time they were conceived to the moment they died. And I know that when it came time for their lives to end, it was quick, painless, and the entire process was as stress-free as possible.

Yes, really.

Cows raised using modern farming methods give four times as much milk as cows raised in the ‘40s (more details). That increased production is a direct result of the improved nutrition and animal care that marks modern animal husbandry methods. Animals that are stressed and unhealthy do not give larger quantities of milk.

In the end, I absolutely and firmly believe that as sentient beings, we have an obligation to be responsible in our interactions with animals. Animals have no sense of right and wrong, only instinct and need. While it is normal and natural for an animal to kill and eat another creature while it is still writhing in pain and terror, that is absolutely not acceptable for humans. Nor is it acceptable to treat other creatures (human or animal) cruelly or inhumanely.

I also absolutely and firmly believe that modern livestock production methods are the epitome of good animal care. Yes, there are exceptions, as in any industry. But the vast majority of ranchers are unequivocally dedicated to responsible and humane animal care. If you doubt this, I encourage you to do research and visit a farm so you can see for yourself.

And if you are in the livestock industry, I wholeheartedly encourage you to tell your story. If you don’t, someone else will.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Fourth Branch

In school we all learned the basics of the U.S. government: three branches of government, Executive, Legislative and Judicial, checks & balances, etcetera etcetera. It’s a beautiful system that was designed to work for centuries by keeping any one branch from becoming too powerful, and allowing challenges to any branch that is abusing its authority.

But it seems that we have found a loophole that, in effect, has created a fourth branch of government, one with few, if any, checks or balances, and an ever-growing mountain of power.

I’m talking about the Regulatory Branch. This monstrosity includes the EPA, OSHA, the FCC, TSA, NLRB, and sixty-some-odd more agencies with far-reaching authority and little accountability.

Its agencies account for the vast majority of non-military government employment and budgets. Federal regulatory agencies employ well over a quarter-million people. That’s more than four times the number of people employed by the entire legislative and judicial branches combined. The total 2009 budget for federal regulatory agencies was $51.1 billion, dwarfing the budgets of the legislative and judicial branches, which were $4.7 billion and $6.6 billion, respectively. The EPA alone outpaced each of these, with a 2009 outlay of $8 billion.

In addition to being a monumental behemoth, the Regulatory Branch has an astonishing level of power. Not only does each individual regulatory agency have wide-sweeping authority, but a single rank-and-file employee can, with a simple pen-stroke, cripple or even shut down a business, and the business owner will have little recourse other than appealing to the very regulatory agency that is making the accusations against it.

If a regulatory inspector is having a bad day, is offended by something you’ve said, or just doesn’t like the color of your shirt, they can fine you thousands of dollars. They have to find a violation in order to fine you, of course, but with the mountains of complex, unclear and sometimes conflicting regulations churned out by these agencies, that’s not difficult. I doubt that there are any businesses--of any size--in existence today that couldn’t be found to have multiple regulatory violations.

The Code of Federal Regulations, which contains all the rules spewed out by the Regulatory Branch, was just shy of 80,000 pages in 2009. If you spent 12 hours a day every day reading this 50-volume tome, it would take you about 6 months to read it. It is the equivalent of about 60 copies of War and Peace.

In the eyes of Big Government, the Fourth Branch is beautiful. It has wide-sweeping abilities to create new and all-encompassing laws that have the crafty ability to get around the checks and balances that were established by our founding fathers. It generates significant revenue in the form of fines and fees, which go directly back into Big Government to help create even more layers of bureaucracy and gain more control.

But in my eyes, it is a giant loophole through which has marched an unwieldy, unaccountable and unconstitutional new branch of government, which is not elected and answers to no one.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Give 'em What They Want

When I worked in the restaurant industry, I came to learn the difference between a good server and a great one. A good server is attentive and quick to give the guest anything they ask for. A great server is intuitive and delves a little bit deeper to give the guest what they want.

That’s a key distinction. When I mention I’m on a diet and order a salad, a good server brings me the salad, with dressing on the side. But a great server suggests the chef’s specialty stir-fry instead, which has fewer calories than the salad but a lot more flavor. The great server figured out that I didn’t order the salad because that’s what I actually wanted, but because I didn’t know there were better options available.

I’m reminded of this often as I read news articles about public attitudes toward food and farming. A recent survey ('Ethical Eating' Goes Mainstream) showed that 69% of respondents were willing to pay more for “food that promises to be produced to higher ethical standards.” In fact, 12% were willing to pay a premium of more than 10% to choose these “ethical” foods.

According to the survey (more details here), 57% believe that a food product with a claim of “No trans fats” on the label is likely to be ethically produced. Around half the respondents believe that claims of “No supplemental hormones,” “No Antibiotics,” “Minimally processed,” and “GMO-free” are signs that a food product is ethically produced.

So as food producers, does that mean that we should switch to minimal processing, and forego GM products, trans-fats, antibiotics and hormones? After all, that’s what consumers are asking for, and we are in the business of producing a product for consumers. It’s perfectly reasonable for any forward-thinking businessman to ask himself, if we don’t give consumers what they are asking for, will we still be in business in a decade?

Or should we look a little deeper and try to figure out what the consumer truly wants?

In the survey that I mentioned earlier, well over half the respondents believed that “ethically produced food” is healthier, safer to eat, and better for the environment. And more than 9 in 10 said that, in order to qualify as an “ethical food,” that product had to avoid harming the environment, meet high safety and quality standards, and avoid the inhumane treatment of animals. Fair enough.

So when you boil it down to its core, what is it that consumers really want? Do they want GMO- and hormone-free foods? Or do they want food that is safe and healthy, and is produced in a way that is respectful of the humans, animals and earth that it touches?

It might be easier to forget this whole discussion and just get rid of hormones, slap a label on your product announcing the change, and voila! You’re ethical in the consumer’s mind. But is it the best option? Are GMO- and hormone-free foods really safer, healthier and better for the environment? How about antibiotic-free and minimally processed foods? Or cage-free animal products (also mentioned in the survey)?

More pointedly, if you are a producer, is the food that you personally produce safe, healthy, and produced in a way that is respectful of the humans, animals and earth that it touches? If it’s not, then maybe you have some work to do. But if it is, and I believe that most of the food produced in this country is, you also have work to do, but of a different sort.

See, giving consumers what they really want takes a lot more effort than just giving them what they’re asking for. It means that once you’ve figured out what it is that they actually want, you have to be able to provide it, and then you have to educate the consumer. It means that you have to explain to anyone who will listen how your practices ensure the health of the environment, and how you ensure the quality and safety of your products. It also means that if you find things to improve on (and there are always ways to improve), you work on improving.

But in the end, everyone benefits: the producers who are truly producing food ethically can continue to do so and keep improving; consumers can be content in the knowledge that they are not indirectly causing harm to their world; and the environment and livestock benefit when producers are implementing practices that are actually beneficial, rather than simply hopping on the latest consumer bandwagon that has minimal real impact (or worse, negative impact) on the health of the environment and livestock.