Animal Welfare, Farmer to Farmer

Rancher Kevin Fulton might seem like your standard Nebraska farmer at first glance; he runs almost 3,000 acres, producing a variety of crops and animal products. He’s a rugged guy who drives a truck and gets stuff done. Did I mention he’s a former strongman?

He’s also a total softie, or so it would appear; that acreage is organic, and he’s deeply committed to maintaining humane conditions for his animals. He lives in the depths of a region of the United States where Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are everywhere, and where the goal of most farming is extracting the maximum yield, without care for the environment, the workers, or the animals. That means penning up livestock in confined areas where they experience severe stress and live short, miserable lives without access to pasture and healthy living conditions.

This is the reality for the majority of meat produced in the United States, because consumers expect low costs, and farmers are willing to meet those costs, but this means someone has to pay. In CAFOs, it’s the animals that pay, sometimes the ultimate price; in such grueling conditions, some loss is expected, and thus you have downer cows, or chickens trampled to death by their mates and left there for hours or even days. There is nothing humane about the conditions at many ranches, and something deeply troubling about the meat and other animal products most people are eating.

Keven Fulton believes it’s possible to produce food differently, and he’s putting his money where his mouth is. His livestock are grassfed and he attempts to maintain safe, healthy, humane conditions for them, illustrating by doing. He’s also more than happy to accept farm tours, for people who are interested in seeing his setup and want to learn more about how he manages his ranch. More than that, though, Fulton has also become an advocate for livestock; he belongs to the Humane Society of the United States, and is active with farmers’ unions and other organizations.

What Fulton is doing is critically important: He’s bridging a divide. One of the best ways to get farmers to reform their practices is to have them meet with an actual farmer. Not a former farmer, not a casual gardener, not someone who has read about farming, but someone who actually farms and runs a profitable spread. Fulton’s been there and he knows how to communicate not just with his friends and neighbours, but with farmers across Nebraska. He understands the issues they face and some of the objections they may raise in discussions about developing more humane farming practices.

He’s a self-made ambassador of humane farming, and it’s making a real difference. By facilitating town meetings and other events, Fulton has pushed for real change in the industry while keeping his own farm operational and providing farm education to people who might not otherwise be aware of the economic, social, and political issues surrounding farming. He is not a treehugging hippie who has no idea what he’s talking about, which means that farmers are willing to listen to him, seeing him as a reliable and trustworthy figure, and he’s a farmer who understands the realities of the industry but still feels passionately about animals, which makes him a great envoy to animal welfare organisations.

There’s a tendency on the part of a lot of animal welfare activists to leave farmers out of the picture. They push in Washington for bills that will impact farming communities, they lobby across the states for specific legislation, they ‘educate’ members of the public about issues in the food system, but they rarely connect face to face with farmers and the people who work in the agriculture industry. There seems to be a belief among some that caring about animals is the only requirement, and you can pick up the rest as you go. Which is why a lot of farmers are skeptical of the movement; it doesn’t address what it’s like to actually farm, and doesn’t account for issues farmers experience in the course of their work. So of course it’s hard to take animal welfare activists seriously, no matter how passionate they are.

Farmers like Fulton are the key; people who develop methods of sustainable, humane farming that work for them and get excited about reaching out to other farmers. The changes taking place in Nebraska right now under his watch are amazing, and they’re happening because he chose to get involved, because he was worried about farm conditions, and because he didn’t want to stop with his own livestock when it came to improving living conditions for farm animals. I’m hoping he wins some converts through the course of his work, to turn the tide and get farmers—the people who know what they’re doing—working on real-world solutions to animal welfare issues that both account for the needs of the animals, and the needs of the industry.

Fulton is also very interested in promoting young farmers, and working on a new generation of humane farming techniques that will keep people on family farms or attract young people to farming. Working in CAFOs and similar environments is grueling and often not very profitable for the actual farmer; producing humanely-raised animal products, on the other hand, can open up new revenue opportunities, particularly in regions where there’s a demand for them. Nebraska, it turns out, is one of those regions; there are people ready and willing to buy these products, if they are made available, but young farmers are needed to get them to market and keep up a steady supply, to establish a foothold in the industry and in turn train the next generation.