Farmers deserve thanks for their labors this holiday
As a typical middle-aged suburban dad, I had no contact with farmers until five years ago, when, standing in line with my daughter at McDonald's, I suddenly realized I didn't know where my food comes from -- and neither did my children. I set a quixotic goal: follow one cow from ''conception to consumption,'' and examine up close the lives of the people and animals that provide our food.
By the time I was done, I had my own pair of barn boots and coveralls, could tell the difference between a cow, a heifer, an ox and a steer and had met some of the hardest-working, most admirable people I've ever known.
Until recent generations, every human culture knew intimately the source of its food. Today, it's easy to sit at our Thanksgiving tables and say grace for the abundance that is ours. But it's harder to remember to thank the men and women whose labor actually puts it there.
Fewer than 2% of Americans are engaged in farming today. Farmers are people most of us no longer know and hardly think about. Sadly, the loss of this connection affects us profoundly.
As consumers, we choose our diets largely out of ignorance, leaving us susceptible to manipulation by advertisers and interest groups. One type of food is healthful, we are told; another is tainted.
We're urged to eat still another because it's ''locally grown.'' But how many of us can name a variety of apple, cabbage or peach from our area?
In one survey, a majority of meat-eaters couldn't even identify what animal veal comes from. We cling to childhood images of animals grazing peacefully out in the pasture or go the other way and swallow whole the animal-rights movement's view of callous farmers brutalizing animals on factory farms. Which is it?
In truth, we haven't a clue. We have become so ignorant of food that even if we wanted to, we couldn't heed our mother's warning: ''Don't put anything in your mouth unless you know where it comes from.''
Farmers are aware of how agriculturally illiterate we are, by the way. ''I saw a TV show a few years ago,'' recalled western New York state cattle-hauler Joe Hopper, ''and -- I'll never forget it -- this lady says, 'What do we need farmers for? I buy my meat at the store.'
''I don't know,'' he said in frustration. ''Do people think their food falls from the sky?''
How far from the field we have moved. Perhaps that is why many feel a sense of detachment even as they say grace at their Thanksgiving tables. Yes, we are thankful to be with loved ones, thankful for our health and worldly abundance. But it has become difficult to feel genuinely thankful for the 20-pound turkey and the mashed yams. Not only don't we raise turkeys and grow yams, we don't know anyone who does. We've lost the connection with the cycle of life and death that puts animals and plants on our plates.
I'm fortunate to have had the chance to follow the life arc of a single farm animal from birth to slaughter. There are other ways, however, to connect: Shop at a local farmer's market and get to know the farmers and their fresh produce and meats. Visit a farm with your children to explore a corn maze or pick apples and pumpkins. Join a food co-op or an animal farm sanctuary. For your next vacation, be an agri-tourist and stay overnight at a farm bed and breakfast.
This Thanksgiving, I'll think of the farmers who opened their lives to me and let me observe their labor. And when I say grace with my family for the abundance on our table, I'll thank the farmers I met for their part in putting it there. Because, really, our food doesn't fall from the sky.
Peter Lovenheim, author of Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, lives in Rochester, N.Y.