We pride ourselves on our agricultural efficiency but I have yet to see anything here to rival a small farming cooperative on the outskirts of Sorrento, in Italy, when it comes to using every square centimetre of land.
Eleven families pooled their small, uneconomic units to form a four hectare farm. Their main crops are lemons and olives. They plant olive trees between the rows of lemons and the olives grow taller so their fruit is above the shade of the citrus trees’ leaves. Some of the trees were grafted so they produced oranges and lemons from the same trunk to diversify production without taking up any more space. They grew grape vines along the outside rows of trees too. The farm also kept four pigs and three cows – all of which were housed inside; and in a bid for both self-sufficiency and organic production, their manure provided the fertiliser for the orchard.
The farm produced its own olive oil, and made cheeses, wine and limoncello. It also welcomed tourists to walk through the orchard, inspect the olive press, watch the cheese making, taste their produce and of course buy it. Our guide didn’t talk about budgets or bottom lines, but the cooperative looked prosperous and if the slick operation of the tour and size of the farm shop, where the visit ended, were anything to go by then tourism made an important contribution to the income.
The main emphasis of the tour was horticulture and only passing reference was made to the stock, but as we passed them I wondered about the quality of life for animals which are housed inside all year round. This thought was reinforced by an article headlined “The Ethics of eating Meat” which I read in a Bangkok newspaper on the way home.
The author argued it was unethical to eat meat because of the environmental cost of growing and harvesting feed for animals raised on feedlots, although he had no problem with pasture-grazed stock. He didn’t mention welfare issues but I remember looking at cattle standing on concrete under mid summer sun in both the United States and Argentina and wondering how happy they were. Those who knew more about animals than I do, assured me that their demeanour, health and condition indicated they were quite content, and pointed out that there was shade available which the stock chose not to make use of.
I couldn’t argue with that, but I still felt something was wrong and in matters like this science takes second place to sentiment. I remembered that when we passed a herd of cows standing in the mud on a cold, wet day as we drove from Queenstown to Dipton. It was obvious they were being break-fed and were about to be shifted which I know gives animals better quality grazing, does less damage to soil structure and is a more efficient use of pasture than letting them roam the whole paddock at once. But anyone who knew nothing about our farming practices, and on this prime tourist route there would be many of them, would have seen abject misery. That is not the picture we want them to recall when next they see our meat in their supermarket chiller.
Efficiency of production and quality of produce will count for nothing if customers think our practices are unethical; and arguments to the contrary will be worthless because emotion beats facts in marketing.