In all my years in this business, I've never had a question like the one I received at World Dairy Expo last month.
As I stepped out of the Coliseum that Saturday morning after visiting a few booths, a woman motioned me over. She leaned in close, as if a little embarrassed, and pointed to a 3-year-old Holstein heading to the show ring: "What is that large, tan bag between that cow's legs? Does that mean she is pregnant and about to give birth?”
I was taken aback, but stammered out: "Well, that's actually the cow's mammary system. It's where she produces milk. Unlike women, cows have four breasts all packed tightly together at the back of their bodies.”
"I always wondered about that,” she said thankfully.
At the Exhibition Hall,
I ran into Matt Joyce of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and relayed what had just happened. He nodded knowingly: "We've got a long way to go, don't we?”
Boy, do we. But you can't really blame consumers because most have never come close to a cow. It becomes a problem, however, when groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) want Ben & Jerry's to make ice cream out of human breast milk. Doing so, PETA says, would reduce the suffering of cows and their calves on factory farms. It's preposterous, but it gets air time.
My wife, who is a teacher, says she runs into this problem all the time with her seventh-graders. They don't remember not having iPods or cell phones or George W. as their president. Who was Bill Clinton? Reagan?
Most of our fellow Americans have a similar lack of reference when it comes to agriculture. If there is no prior experience with farms or cows, that knowledge vacuum creates a black hole where nonsense gets sucked in.
The National Dairy Board is filling that knowledge gap with its Dairy Farming Today Web site. It provides basic farming facts, a virtual tour of a dairy, even ePostcards.
The Web site is only one small step given our educational challenge. But it's a good one. When confronted with these kinds of questions, use it.
Matt Joyce is right: We've got our work cut out for us.
- November 2008