China: A Tale of Two Worlds – June 3 to 14

We have just finished eleven days of travel in Hong Kong and mainland China, and are now headed back to Canada for the Nuffield International Triennial Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I enjoyed my time in China, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to home, even if it’s just my home country. I’m looking forward to familiar-looking food, road signs, toilets, and a time zone that is closer to the one at home. It’s either 4 pm (in China’s time zone), 8 pm (wherever the plane is right now), or 4 am (at home) right now. Either way, the sun is up outside the window, and will be for the entire 13-hour flight as we fly over northern Russia, the Arctic, and northern Canada. This flight marks the half-way point in this ten-week journey, and as far as I know I still have my sanity and things are going okay at home too.

Old ways meet new, even in the same field at the same time.

Old ways meet new, even in the same field at the same time.

For me, China has been a tale of two worlds in competition with each other: rural vs. urban, rich vs. poor, big vs. small, manual labour vs. high-tech automation. As in other parts of the world, some of the major concerns in Chinese agriculture are availability and access to land, water and people (labour).


Clusters of apartment buildings being constructed in each city we visited.

The rural and urban divide takes on many faces. In China, farming is seen by many (especially urban people, but many rural people too) as a low class, undesirable career choice. Many farm workers in rural China are working hard and saving money so that their families and especially their children can have “better” lives moving to the cities.   The government of China also has a policy of actively moving people from the countryside and rural towns into cities, with something like 200 million people to move from rural to urban homes between now and 2030. In each of the cities we visited, there was a massive level of construction going on, with multiple clusters of 15 to 20 twenty-plus-storey apartment buildings actively being built.

At the same time, China is in the process of modernizing farming, but it is quite complicated. No one in China owns land (it all belongs to “the People” or the country) but individual families have the rights to use the land. Each family has the right to use their plot of land, called a “Mu”, that is approximately 2/3 of a hectare in area. If the family is not using the land themselves, as is the case in families that move into the cities, they can lease their right to use their land to another farmer. In the case of larger farms, this means they may be dealing with lease arrangements with hundreds of people. In the case of the vegetable farm that we visited, the cost of leasing the land was associated with the cost of rice each year. At the dairy farm that we visited, the individual cows from small farms were “leased to own” by the new larger farm, and the farmers that stayed in the area work at the dairy or grow crops to be fed to the cattle.

Harvesting Bok Choy by hand.

Harvesting Bok Choy by hand.

The divide between rich and poor is quite noticeable, although there is an ever-growing middle class, especially in the cities. The growth of the middle class is expected to be the main driver for increased consumption of goods, especially protein (milk and meats) in the near future.

What really struck a chord with me was the amount of manual labour in use. Whether it was cutting machine parts and assembling by hand at a seed cleaning machine factory, hand picking and hand sorting wolfberries, packing bags of garlic, planting rows of corn, or sweeping the city roads, there was an incredible amount of tasks performed by manual labour. As long as that labour is relatively inexpensive and available, this is likely to continue to some extent. There is evidence of modernization and automation on the larger farms and factories that we visited, and I expect that modernization and automation will continue to happen as labour costs increase and as labour becomes less available. It is expected that by 2050, only 30% of China’s population will be of “working” age.


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Germany – A Space Odyssey May 15 and 16

Friedrich and Andreas

With Andreas, Friedrich (and Andreas’s dog)

For my visit to Germany, I was hosted by Friedrich Ostehoff. Friedrich is a co-founder of Ahrhoff Futtergut, an animal nutrition and supplement company in northwest Germany. I heard Friedrich speak at a meeting in Ontario in the fall of 2013, and was intrigued by the story he told about the transition to marketing non-castrated pigs. Over two days I visited several swine, dairy and beef farms and a veterinary clinic with Friedrich and with his cousin Andreas. Friedrich’s company does not make any medicated premixes or supplements, and while their client farms are allowed to use antibiotics, they do strive to help those farms find solutions without resorting to antibiotics wherever possible. To this end they use in-water vitamin and mineral mixtures on continued and/or targeted situations to improve the animal’s immunity, appetite and well-being.



Finisher floor and feeder space

Finishers with ample floor and feeder space

One of the most stressed points on our visits was the importance of space, whether it is in the case of sows or of growing pigs. What they suggested was a shift in the mindset from moving the most animals we can through the barn to optimizing the performance per square foot or square meter of barn space. It is their belief that under less crowded conditions, the improvements in sow productivity and pig growth make up for the smaller numbers of animals, with less disease pressure and death loss as well.  Pregnant sows again are kept under several different types of loose housing. One of the farms that we visited was a very old barn that had successfully converted to self-locking stalls, where the pregnant sows were kept in groups of 8 to 12 sows. I found it quite interesting that within that barn, some groups of sows would all be lying together in the open area at the back of the pen, while in others, the sows chose to rest in the stalls.

self locking stalls

Gestating sows in self-locking stalls

The visit to the veterinary clinic of Dr. Alexander Bernick was quite interesting. Recent regulatory changes have resulted in challenges for farmers and veterinarians alike. Under the new regulations, veterinarians are only allowed to prescribe up to seven days worth of antibiotics at a time. This means that in the case of larger farms, the veterinarian would likely have to visit every week, and the veterinarians are finding it logistically difficult to meet these requirements – there just aren’t enough vets or hours in the day to make this possible. For each antibiotic prescribed, the veterinarians are also required to write down animal identification, weight, dose, and indication, and then the farmers are required to do the same as they use the medication. Antibiotic use is tracked for each farm, and then a per animal amount of medication used is calculated – a slightly different way of calculating than the ADD in Denmark. The list of antibiotic use is made public, and in addition, farms in the upper half of use need to develop plans to reduce usage, and are under increased regulatory scrutiny.

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Posted by on May 31, 2014 in Posts


Denmark – May 12 to 14

I arrived in Copenhagen on a drizzly Monday. Because of Denmark’s biosecurity requirements of 48 hours (overnight two nights) downtime before visitors can enter pig barns, I had two days to soak in the sights and culture (and rain) of Copenhagen. This is my first official trip to Europe (other than a day trip in London, England on the way to Kenya), and it is quite interesting to see buildings and cities with such long histories compared to North America. The highlights for me were seeing Christianbourg castle and the 800-900 year old castle ruins that are underneath it, the Round Tower (an old observatory), and the Kastellet (a 300 year old military fortification).

The purpose of the trip was actually to see the Danish pig industry, however, so early Wednesday morning I boarded a train bound for Odense. I spent the next two days with two veterinarians (Karl Johan and Dorthe) from the Porcus veterinary group, who took me on several visits to their client farms. Even though my study topic is “Sustainability of Food Animal Production”, my main focus on my travels is going to be looking at different animal welfare standards and different regulations and methods of reducing antibiotic usage.

Vet and farmer placing pharmacy order

Veterinarian Dorthe and farmer placing pharmacy order

In Denmark, veterinarians are no longer allowed to sell medications (they are allowed to keep a small quantity on hand for emergency use), but part of the regulation restricting the sales also requires that the veterinarians visit the farm on a monthly basis. Those monthly visits involve a review of the herd health and management, observation of the animals, and possible disease investigations or diagnostics. The other part of the visit, however, is a review and placing the order through a pharmacy for the medicines needed over the next month. Those sales figures are also automatically forwarded to the authority/regulator that monitors antibiotic use. An Average Daily Dose (ADD) for the farm is calculated on a monthly basis, based on the sales information and the number and type of animals on farm. Penalties are given if the rolling nine month average crosses a certain threshold (different levels set for sows, nursery pigs and finishers). The nine month average does allow for a short period of higher levels of antibiotic use when needed for a disease outbreak, but the penalties for exceeding the ADD limit are significant – 5500 Danish krone fine (approximately $1200CAN) and an increased risk of inspections by regulators to see that plans to reduce antibiotic use are made and followed through. Because feed medications can dramatically raise a farm’s ADD, feed medications are used sparingly if needed (i.e. only a few days duration in either the nursery or finisher), and are usually added to the feeds on farm rather than through the commercial feed mills.

Gestation group pen self locking stalls straw

Gestation group pen with self-locking stalls and access to straw

In terms of animal welfare, pregnant sows are only kept in group housing – I will probably use the terms “group” or “loose” housing interchangeably – as per regulations in all of the European Union. Provisions are made to keep sows in individual stalls from weaning up until four weeks post breeding. This is quite similar to the recommendation made in the recently updated “Codes of Practice” in Canada. If there are individual sows that are thin or not doing well within their group situation, they can, under written veterinary recommendation, be kept in individual stalls for a short period of time (3 or 4 weeks) to recover body condition, but must then be returned to a group pen or moved to an individual pen where they can move freely. On some farms, there was a difficult transition period moving from individual stalls to group housing. Often in these cases, as older sows were culled, and the herd turned over to just gilts and younger sows that were only used to group housing, the problems resolved. I saw several different pen lay-outs for sows, including open pens with floor feeding and stalls with self-locking gates and an open exercise area behind. The veterinarians thought that the stalls with locking gates performed the best, but were admittedly the most expensive option. A common sentiment amongst the farmers I visited was that if you only used the minimum requirement for space allowance, there was still fighting within the sow groups. Increasing space for the sows reduced fighting and increased productivity (farrowing rate and litter size).

Breeding stall with wood block

Sow in breeding stall with access to wood block for rooting material

Nursery pen with wood

Nursery pigs in pen with access to wood for rooting material

Sows and growing pigs must all have access to some sort of rooting material – in most cases this is either straw or wood. The use of straw caused issues in slatted floor barns – if it was used there, it was only in very small amounts. One of the vets observed that sometimes the need to follow regulations can promote ingenuity rather than stifle it. This was the case with the use of wood as a rooting material. Some farms attached the wood blocks with chains, but what I really liked was where the farmers placed long pieces of wood in PCV pipes attached vertically to the sides of pens. Growing pigs also have minimum floor space requirements and a maximum number of pigs allowed per feeder space and water nipple or bowl. Castration and tail docking are still permitted, but pain medication must be given before the procedure is done (not allowed to be given at the same time).  Some farms are also carry out higher standards of animal care for certain markets, such as the British market.


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Posted by on May 31, 2014 in Nuffield Travels


A Captive Audience

Currently, we are flying over the northern tip of Australia at an altitude of 36,000 feet, on our way to Manila, Philippines – the first official stop on our Global Focus Program Tour. I have already been on the road for three weeks now, and have seen and learned so much. Unfortunately, the amount of time available to sit and write seems to be indirectly proportional to amount of things to write about. That’s why I’m taking the time on the plane now to write. Despite the fact that I am a big book and movie fan, I am already starting to run out of books to read and movies to watch on flights (I have managed to read 1.5 books in the “Game of Thrones” series and watch 5 or 6 movies and several TV episodes on the 6 flights and over 30 hours of flight time that I’ve already logged). For the next few hours – the end of the plane ride or whenever my battery runs out, whichever comes first – I am going to do some writing on what I have seen the past three weeks. So for the time being, I am the captive audience for my computer.

My first attempt at keeping up to date fizzled during the Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference in Australia in March. I admittedly have a very bad combination of tendencies of perfectionism and procrastination. I am sure that part of my need to procrastinate is that I am afraid to deliver what is in my opinion a sub-par effort. If I procrastinate long enough, then usually in the pressure of a deadline, I get things done, but in my mind have a built-in excuse for any sub-par result: it’s the best I could do with “no” time. One of my five “Big Goals” for 2014 was to abandon my fear of failure. This is going to be a small step on that path. Rather than throw up my hands and say ”Well, I guess I can’t do that!”, I’m going to give it another try and take a different approach. There certainly won’t be daily updates, as I set out to do in March (although I still intend to finish off those blog entries). And if I happen to get behind in writing, I am going to try to start fresh with the current events, and then catch up with the missed events later.

Wish me luck!

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Posted by on May 31, 2014 in Nuffield Travels


Communication is the Key – CSC Day 1

New South Wales Waratahs vs. Queensland Reds

New South Wales Waratahs vs. Queensland Reds

After an evening of getting to meet fellow scholars at a rugby match at the old Olympic Stadium, the 2014 Nuffield International Contemporary Scholars Conference started in earnest on Sunday.  Communication was the theme of the day, with Ian Plowman leading the morning session, which focused on effective face-to-face communications, “constructive” conversation, debate/disagreement and decision making skills.  The afternoon session, led by Catherine Marriott and Danica Leys, was on use of social media and the ability of the agricultural community to engage with the non-farming public.

The highlight of the day for me was an activity in mapping out the “turning points” in our lives, and then sharing this in small groups of 3-4 scholars.  The thought of doing and sharing this was a bit intimidating, especially as I can be overly critical of myself and my accomplishments from time to time.  It could have been very easy to think of myself as less than adequate in a room full of agricultural leaders from around the world.  The real eye-opening moment for me, however, was when we went to share our “life maps”.  No one had a straight line to success, and many people’s most important turning points were not necessarily their successes or accomplishments, but the adversities that they overcame.  This exercise made it quite easy to develop a meaningful relationship with someone who was a complete stranger only a few minutes earlier.  Everyone had a story to tell , and everyone has a passion for what they are doing now.


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Goal setting and a CSC preview

At the beginning of the New Year, I set five goals (instead of resolutions) to achieve this year.  Apparently, I should have made a sixth goal – to blog more!  At the Banff Pork Seminar in late January of this year, I listened to a very inspiring talk given by Jeff Schneider fro Marketing Ninjas on the use of social media as an effective tool in marketing and promotion.  Unfortunately, that day was also the same day that the first case of PED virus showed up in an Ontario pig herd.  This has kept my attention elsewhere for the past month.

The start of March marked the official start of my Nuffield studies, with the Contemporary Scholars Conference in Sydney and Canberra, Australia.  Already I’ve met many of my fellow scholars (don’t expect me to keep everyone’s names and faces straight for the first few days – there are over 60 of us here from across the world).  So the goal for the next few days is to post updates on the meetings, and then play some “catch-up” on events from the late fall and early winter (Food |Integrity Summit, Nuffield Canada AGM, Banff Pork Seminar, book reviews) over the next couple of months before I start my Nuffield Global Focus Program travels in May.



Food for Thought

food for thought

Last Saturday, September 14, I was fortunate enough to hear Michael Pollan and Sarah Elton speak at the University of Guelph, as a part of the Eden Mills Writers Festival.  This was the unofficial start to my Nuffield studies, looking at issues impacting sustainability of food-animal agriculture.  A sold out crowd of 600 attendees filled Rozanski Hall for 90 minutes of insight into the way food is produced and consumed, and the impact those food choices have on our health and environment.  Each author gave a brief talk, followed by a roundtable discussion moderated by Dr. Evan Fraser of the University of Guelph (as Michael Pollan stated, they didn’t disagree enough to really call it a debate) and a question and answer session with members of the audience.

Sarah’s talk focused on a story from her latest book, “Consumed” , in which a dairy farmer from the Aubrac Mountains in southern France (Monsieur Valadier), turned against the tide of industrialization of the dairy industry in his region.  Monsieur Valadier led his neighbours in a change back to more traditional mountain grazing, and the local breeds of cattle that were accustomed to that environment.  She talked about the concept of “terroir”.  Terroir is a term I had heard of before in reference to wine, but it applies to other food products as well.  It encompasses the differences in soil, geography, weather, and culture which result in qualities unique to the food produced in that region.  In the case of Monsieur Valadier and the dairy herds of the Aubrac, this was a type of cheese (I can’t remember what the cheese was called, but I will update this post when I reach that part in the book!).  Sarah used this example as a way of illustrating how small farms can survive in modern agriculture by creating local products.

Michael began his talk by reviewing a couple of his encounters with farming when he first got into writing about food and the food industry.  His first exposure to feedlots on a large scale was the 100,000 head Harris Ranch feedlot in California where, in his words, the cattle transformed huge piles of corn into huge piles of manure, producing a by-product of hamburgers.  Another example was a potato farm in Idaho, where potatoes had to be warehoused for six weeks before they were safe for human consumption, because of the amount and type of pesticide needed to produce “unblemished” potatoes for use in french fries.  Michael then talked about how his new book “Cooked” was meant to fill the gap between his analysis on how we raise food (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) and on how the food we eat impacts our health (“In Defense of Food”).  How we (or someone else) prepares our food and how we eat influence both our own health, and how our food is produced.

I won’t go into details of the roundtable discussion or the question and answer session, but here are a few take away points that struck home for me:

  • Food production and food security now and in the future is a complex issue.  There will not likely be a single solution.  It is important to embrace and promote diversity in food production methods rather than everyone adopting any one method for producing food.
  • How and what we eat impacts more than our physical health and nutrition.  As a father of two children, I see first-hand that preparing meals together means spending time together, eating together, talking to each other, in a way that doesn’t happen with fast food or a microwave meal.
  • The local food movement promotes buying local as a way to reduce the environmental impact of our food consumption and as a way to support farmers in the area.  I think this is an excellent idea for consumers and farmers who are interested, but in the meat industry where close to 50% of our products are exported, the local food movement is only one of many potential avenues for farmers to pursue.

Over the next few weeks, I will post summaries of the books that I picked up at the Food for Thought talk (see below).  I’m heading to Chicago in October for the Center for Food Integrity’s “Food Integrity Summit”, and then it is on to Alberta for the Nuffield Canada meeting in November.

On the bedside table (currently reading): “Locavore”, by Sarah Elton

On the Bookshelf (My “to read” list keeps growing!):  “Consumed” by Sarah Elton; “Cooked” by Michael Pollan, “Real Dirt” by Harry Stoddart

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Posted by on September 21, 2013 in Posts


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