Got a question about agriculture? Ask Washington’s own Farmer Girl.
Nourishing my children has been my most important role since before they were born. Even now that they are 14 and 10 years old, figuring out what to feed them is hard work. The problem is, I’m bombarded by confusing information about food.
For example, I didn’t know until recently that the label “organic” does not mean “pesticide free” — it just means a different type of pesticides.
I also didn’t see anything odd about purchasing “vegetarian fed” cage-free eggs, until a friend from Montana pointed out that chickens were omnivores. How many consumers are out there spending extra money so that chickens can be vegetarians when it turns out that chickens aren’t meant to be vegetarians?
Like most Americans, I don’t know much about farming. Food marketers advertising “non-GMO salt” see me as easy prey.
In order to rectify my ignorance, my first instinct, like many of us, is to turn to Google, but there is a better way.
Erica, a third-generation dairy farmer, is the brains behind the popular Facebook page Farmer Girl, which has more than 6,000 followers and almost 19,000 fans on Instagram. (She keeps her last name private because she says she has received death threats from animal rights activists.)
An advocate for agriculture, Erica, 27, is a veterinary technician who specializes in raising calves. She started working on her family’s dairy farm when she was 11. She has worked for a number of dairy farms in Whatcom County, including for Appel Family Dairy in Ferndale for seven years.
One of Erica’s favorite sayings is “Ask farmers, not Google.” I decided to take her up on it.
Jennifer: Food labeling is confusing — cage-free, antibiotic free, natural, non-GMO etc. — what are some ways that my ignorance might cost me money at the grocery store?
Erica: Food labeling is very confusing. Things are marketed in a way to ease people’s fear or shame about what they buy. However, we in America have one of the safest food supplies in the world, and the simple answer is to just trust us (farmers). The better quality of care we give our animals, the better they will do. Whether raising crops or animals, we do what we do for a reason. Remember, we may grow and raise the food you buy in a grocery store, but we also eat the same food you do and feed it to our families.
Jennifer: You raise dairy cows for a living. Do you drink organic or conventional milk?
Erica: I drink conventional milk. I know it is a safe, nutritious product and trust it completely. Darigold, which processes most of the conventional milk from the hundreds of family-owned dairy farms across the Pacific Northwest, does not allow the use of bovine growth hormones and like all dairy products is guaranteed antibiotic free, both common concerns for consumers. They also hold their farmers to a high standard, especially in the areas of cleanliness and animal welfare. But there is no right or wrong choice. Either way, you are supporting dairy farmers!
Jennifer: What are some of the challenges facing farmers in Western Washington today?
Erica: Increasing regulations, a high cost of production and low market value, negative public perception and the toll the hardships take on our mental health. All the challenges can be hard to cope with — one result of that is the suicide rate among farmers is now at an all-time high. It’s a hard life, but it is in everyone’s best interest for farms to keep going. We all do need to eat, after all.
Jennifer: You’ve received death threats for being a farmer and, at one point, made the choice to temporarily hide your Facebook page. What propels you to keep going with your social media pages and the educational posts you share?
Erica: I want people to have the opportunity to learn about farming from a farmer. If I am not willing to share my story, who will?
Who indeed? Not me, Jennifer Bardsley, living in my suburban bubble. I shouldn’t think that I know more about the food I eat than the farmers who produced it because I watched a Netflix documentary or read something on the internet. Nope. I’m the poultry-ignorant, clueless mom, overspending on eggs.
At least the next time I’m at the grocery store, I’ll be better informed.
Jennifer Bardsley publishes books under her own name and the pseudonym Louise Cypress. Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.