It wasn't exactly what we expected to hear at a farm tour sponsored by the Illinois Farm Families program.
What we expected when George Kalogridis, an Indiana-based organic certification manager, stepped in front of the crowd of Chicago Field Moms and downstate (cattle raising) farm moms a couple weekends ago during our tour of the Larson/Martz grain and cattle operation, was a few details on what's allowed and not allowed on certified organic farms. Maybe a little on the types of pesticides they do and don't allow. Maybe a little on what it takes to become a certified organic farmer. A chance to ask our questions.
Instead, we got indoctrination.
Kalogridis had been briefed on the IFF mantra: that there's room for all types of agriculture and farmers. But his personal views didn't support that mantra. He spoke of certified organic as the only way to eat safely. Then he switched gears, inexplicably, to livestock production.
"When you get into CAFOs, that's when the horrors begin," he said. "It's the Auschwitz of livestock."
He described CAFOs as "Confined Animal Feeding Operations," adding that animals raised in CAFOs are not allowed outside, they never breathe fresh air, they can't turn around, they're miserable and there's not a single good CAFO out there.
But, the facts. And so I raised my hand. "I understood CAFO to stand for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, and that it's a definition based on the number of animals on a farm, not of how the animals are raised. You're suggesting it stands for something else?" I asked.
He didn't back down, despite my (actual) U.S. EPA definition, which says CAFOs are those with 1,000+ beef cattle, 700+ dairy cows, 2,500+ hogs. His response, in fact, made it sound as if I could have my definition and he could have his, and so he went on to talk about how horrible every single CAFO is and that the animals are behind bars and that it's industrial.
Then Mike Martz piped up from the side of the room. "I'm a CAFO."
I wish you could have heard the murmur that erupted across that room.
Because every one of these women had just walked through Mike Martz's feedlots. We'd talked about feed rations and looked at the cattle. We talked about breeding and genetics. And more importantly, they observed cattle, in comfortably covered buildings (to protect them from the heat and other Illinois weather elements), standing and laying down, as cattle are prone to do. Looking around. Chewing their cud. Appearing pretty darn content and happy. No bawling. Not skittish. Just quiet. Content.
Women began leaning over and asking me and the other farm moms in the group, what this all meant. "I don't feel like that's what this is," one woman told me. "Those cattle had fresh air, they could turn around."
Another Chicago mom asked Kalogridis, "What you've presented is that they are not being cared for. That's confusing, based on what we saw here. If I treated my animals poorly, wouldn't they not grow and produce right?"
I wanted to stand up and cheer at that one.
Kalogridis began hedging at this point, especially as he realized he'd been caught. That CAFO is an actual government term that can't just mean whatever he wants it to mean. So he began to draw a distinction between the happy, well-cared for cattle we just saw at Martzes and what he then called "industrial CAFOs."
Before Kalogridis left, I pulled him aside and asked how these Chicago moms were supposed to designate between meat that came from a "good CAFO" like the Martzes, and a "bad industrial CAFO," and a good small livestock producer and a bad small livestock producer.
He smiled. "You have to know who you're dealing with. And the only way to do that is to buy organic certified."
"That sounds like a pretty good sales pitch for an organic certification company," I responded.
Kalogridis laughed heartily, looked at the floor and smiled back at me.
Against all odds, there is a bright side to this story: the Chicago moms saw right through him and his CAFO definition lie.
"Wait," one mom said to me, quietly. "If he's not telling the truth about that, what else is he not telling the truth about?"
Another said to Lynn Martz, "You stood up there and told us facts. He told us his opinion."
Because here's the thing: you cannot judge the worth of a farmer by the size of his operation - despite what Kalogridis asserted that day. There are good large farmers and bad large farmers. There are excellent small farmers and terrible small farmers. That's what the women learned that day. And that you can't trust someone who plays loose with the facts.
This was, without a doubt, the most grossly terrific example of fear-based marketing I've ever seen, at least in person. That man stood up there and intended to scare the crap out of a bunch of women so they would buy the product he's paid to certify.
Make no mistake: I have no problem with organic products or organic farmers. But it's the marketing. It's guys like Kalogridis. People cannot be allowed to make up whatever they want to fit the story to their brand of indoctrination. They have to stop insinuating - or outright lying - about food production. About farmers. About livestock. If you have to produce a fear to produce a sale, you probably don't need to be in business.
If we in agriculture do anything right, it will be to find an end to this kind of fear-based marketing. It just has to stop.