Farmers Tell Their Stories to Reduce the Damage of “Factose Intolerance”


Only farmers can end “factose intolerance.”

That’s the term I use to describe the “convenient ignorance” of people who make unfair criticisms of modern agriculture, failing to see the good things that are happening in sustainable agriculture.

Here in New Zealand, we see lots of expressions of “factose intolerance,” especially from urban people who don’t know what farmers do. Yet it’s a global phenomenon. Everybody has an opinion about food””and so it seems that many also have opinions about food production.

People are entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts.

There’s only one solution to the scourge of “factose intolerance”: Farmers have to speak up. We have great intergenerational stories to tell. We have to share the facts of agriculture ”˜from the heart’.

I try to do this as much as possible. I’ve traveled across New Zealand, speaking to anyone who will listen. I’ve appeared on radio shows. I’ve sat for interviews. I’ve written columns.

Social media is an essential tool. Although it is used to drive many of the debates in which emotions threaten to defeat science, we can use it reveal the truth about farming. This is why I joined the Global Farmer Network. I’ve contributed to Ag Proud NZ. I’ve also promoted the good work of fellow farmers, such as the videos of Tangaroa Walker.

We can’t subcontract our stories to others, including the industry groups that represent us. We have to tell them ourselves. Nobody has more credibility on the subject of food production than farmers.

My own story is pretty straightforward. I farm with my husband and our three small children on the South Island of New Zealand. We farm sheep and beef on about 3,500 acres. I’ve also worked in the fertilizer industry and rural banking. We work hard to run a sustainable operation that meets and exceeds the demands of consumers and our fellow citizens.

I’ve discovered that most non-farmers are curious about agriculture. They may not know much about it, but they’re hungry for facts about what we do on our farms.

One of the more interesting questions I’ve received involves our sheep: Why do we shear them in the winter? Don’t they get cold? Doesn’t this violate the principles of animal welfare?

It’s an excellent inquiry””and many of us who raise sheep probably have stopped thinking about why this conventional practice puzzles outsiders.

The first thing I like to say about sheep shearing is that the sheep love it. They want to be shorn. If you’ve ever enjoyed a good haircut, you may have a sense of how sheep feel after getting shorn.

The second thing I say is the counterintuitive bit: We shear them in winter to help them keep warm!

Our shearing doesn’t leave them naked. They retain a few millimeters of wool, which serves more or less as an icebreaker singlet. Next we offer the best shelter possible, such as tree lots, as they gain weight and begin to grow back their wool. During this period, unburdened by big fleeces, they have much more freedom to move around. In addition, our winters are temperate, which means that our sheep don’t face the same deep-freeze climates that so many Americans and Europeans associate with winter.

lambThe third thing I say, however, is the most important. It involves the wee lambs. When the mothers give birth, they have post-shearing shorter woolen coats that keep them warm but also alert them to the cold””and so they know when their offspring need proper shelter. Without their wintertime haircuts, the ewes would wear the equivalent of big puffer jackets at a time when their babies have almost no clothes. Hence, they seek out shelter.

So wintertime shearing has many rationales””and one of them is survival.

That’s just a single example of how fact-based storytelling can change skepticism to support. There are others, of course. People sometimes ask why we dock tails. The quick answer is that it helps prevent disease. They also wonder what we do to protect the environment. A complete answer could fill a book, but in brief we build waterway fencing to keep livestock from grazing near rivers, plant billions of trees, and contribute to the economic health of rural communities.

We’ll never eliminate “factose intolerance,” but we can reduce its damage. What it takes is a commitment to providing facts and telling stories””and recognizing that in this day and age, sharing our genuine ”˜work stories’ is an essential part of good farming practice.

Jane Smith

Jane Smith

Breeding operation in the sheep and beef industries – export genetics to Australia and Bangladesh. Raise forage crops. Board member of the Veterinary Council of New Zealand and of The Red Meat Partnership.

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