by Michelle Houts
Hamburgers come from fast food restaurants. Milk comes from the grocery store.
As the number of families directly involved in production agriculture declines, so does the average child’s understanding of how food arrives on their plates. Once believed to be the thinking of “city kids,” we now know that even students from small towns and rural areas whose families aren’t actively engaged in production agriculture often don’t have adequate knowledge of food sources.
Young people who once learned about farming from their parents or grandparents now hear about meat, dairy and egg production from other sources, not all of which are accurate. Meatless Mondays? Most grade-schoolers will tell you they’ve heard about this trend, perhaps because their schools have jumped on board.
High school reading lists often include books which portray animal agriculture in a dismal light, squarely placing on it the blame for everything from environmental disasters to the deterioration of American health. Younger readers can even access picture books – yes, books aimed at children as young as four years old – which depict the sad life of “factory pig,” raised without fresh air, sunshine, or even “friends.” We can only hope that an adult reader would come to an informed conclusion about such propaganda, based upon research and science. But Kindergartners can’t access such resources, so they are left to draw false conclusions about how pigs are raised and how bacon ends up on their plates.
When Random House Children’s Books bought my first novel for young readers, titled The Beef Princess of Practical County, my editor and I had a heart-to-heart discussion about how the book would end. It was important to me that I tell the truth to my readers, that the nine-to-twelve-year-olds who would read the book understand that at the end of a county fair, 4-H or FFA showmen must part with their market animal because, well, because it’s a market animal. There wouldn’t be any skirting around the inevitable. There wouldn’t be a miracle, an act of God or man, a superhero who would swoop in and “save” the livestock from market.
But my editor, sitting in her office in New York City, was hesitant. Would children understand why the main character’s steer couldn’t just come home and live a happy life on the farm? Would the reader understand why, if the main character sobbed as she led her animal into the auction ring and eventually onto the awaiting trailer, she would choose to show again the following year? These were valid questions, and I didn’t resent my editor for asking them. My readers would be from all walks of life. My readers, like my editor, may have no experiences with county fairs, raising livestock, or food production. Eventually, my editor and I agreed. The main character would continue to show cattle. But, in coming to that conclusion, I was charged with an even greater task: I must make even the reader with no understanding of animal agriculture buy into my character’s decision.
So I set out to tell the truth. To explain the difference between a pet and a market animal. To show my character as a part of something bigger than her county fair experience. Yes, she becomes attached to her steer. As every showman does. As every farmer does. Livestock are living beings, and throughout their time on the farm they are treated with kindness and respect. That was one truth that needed to be told.
The reality of slaughter was another truth I didn’t try to hide. To me, it would have been a great disservice to my young readers if I’d written an ending in which the main character’s market animal didn’t go to market. We can’t expect children to understand where their food comes from if we hide the truth in the books they read.
For all its raw honesty, The Beef Princess of Practical County has been awarded the Nebraska Farm Bureau Children’s Ag Book of the Year and – from a non-ag entity – the International Reading Association Children’s Book Award. Illinois and Indiana Ag in the Classroom programs have placed the book in school libraries. The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture has created a middle-grade classroom study guide to accompany the book.
Photo courtsey of Michelle Houts
As an author, I feel an obligation to share the truth about animal agriculture with my readers. But as a producer, a parent, a future grandparent, and a community member, I feel that responsibility even more. Our youngsters hear anti-animal agriculture rhetoric from media, social media, and other non-ag resources, and we’ve got to be ready to answer with the truth. Market animals are raised for market. The meat, dairy, and eggs on our plates come from caring, responsible farmers. And ag researchers, animal nutritionists, veterinarians, and producers work hard to decide what’s best for our livestock.
Sometimes, though, the children themselves say it best. The youngest of three children raised on our farm wasn’t very old when she became very articulate about our hog finishing operation. “Let me tell you about our pigs,” she’d begin. “In our confinement building” (what the picture book would call a pig factory), she’d say, “our pigs get natural light, a temperature-controlled environment, constant fresh water, nutritionally-balanced feed, veterinarian care, and plenty of space to move around.”
It should come as no surprise that this young lady could so accurately describe the conditions in which feeder pigs are raised. She had learned the truth about animal agriculture.
Michelle Houts is the author of several fiction and nonfiction books for young readers. After being raised in suburbia with one cat and one dog, she now lives on a grain and livestock farm in western Ohio with her husband, children, and more animals than she can count. She speaks to audiences young and old about her experiences as both an author and farmer. Connect with Michelle at www.michellehouts.com or on Facebook and Twitter as @mhoutswrites.
Other book recommendations for young readers:
Related curriculum: Feeding Minds Cultivating Growth