Is Perception; Reality?

By Troy Bishopp

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One could say my lens on farming makes me a really lousy writer/correspondent or possibly a great communicator to the general public.  In thirty-eight years of practicing animal husbandry, I’ve had copious amounts of happiness and heartache.   My reality is how I am perceived in pasture-based food circles.  To America, the perception of food production with lush pastures and cute lambs are reality.   Perception and reality depend on the interpreter’s lens.

Philosopher, Aldous Huxley, said “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.

Joshua Rockwood’s family of West Wind Farm in Glenville, NY is going through this test in the general media as the public “judges” on the basis of perception not reality.  The court will ultimately decide the realities at great cost to a young farmer’s reputation by someone’s anonymous perception.  Anonymity protects the accuser but destroys the farmer’s integrity without a judge and jury.  It’s gotten very personal.

I have to admit that I was drawn into this animal welfare saga for the multiple layers of the story.  I was also asked to lend my experience to collaborate or refute Josh’s story.

As I rode shotgun to a farm I had no relationship with, other than the fact that we were pasturing brethren, my professional media/farm training skills kicked in.  You see, I have invested considerable time and money to work through animal welfare issues and situations that effect farmer’s livelihoods through The American Dairy Association, NY Farm Bureau, NY Animal Agriculture Coalition and Toastmaster’s International.   This training was to protect my own family; little did I know the template would be used for another farmer.013

Would I see a miserable place?  What would the environmental concerns be?  Would the animals be what the press described? Is there shelter?  Was he working with any agencies?  Is the farm in the heart of suburbia?  How would this compare to my own farm after a horrendous, cold winter?  Could I take a picture and feel good about it?  How does law enforcement just show up and start charging without probable cause?  What was Josh’s strategy to respond to an “event”?  Does he have a lawyer that knows farming issues?  Was the farmer isolated from other farmer’s help?  What kind of neighbors did he have and would they have an ax to grind?

If you’re still with me, these are some questions all farmers should ask themselves from time to time to quantify risk because like Schoharie County farmer, Shannon Hayes, said, “Mr. Rockwood was being brought up on scads of charges that just about any family farmer could have faced in any given winter.”

My goal in this farm visit was to remain neutral and look more at facts than gossip.  Josh was a quiet, determined, but naïve, scared young farmer wThe Rockwood farm's pigs sunning themselves outside in the pastureho was caught off guard by inexperience, process, charges and notoriety.  I immediately felt humbled and uplifted, as my lens saw a benign landscape much like every farm I passed for 150 miles.  Sure there was a pile of bedding pack, a beat up pasture, access to a small stream, a cold but functional barn and a nice Ford tractor but no real signs of animal “issues”.

I tend to judge a farmer by how his animals look and Rockwood’s livestock looked well-taken care of.  A recognized expert (Doctorate of Animal Science and longtime farmer) and I looked over the animals and found fat, jovial pigs with plenty of feed and shelter, inside bedded outside huts.  The cows were in their March condition with bales rolled out for their dining pleasure.  They seemed pretty content.  The Maremma guard dogs, sheep and piglets in the un-heated barn all looked normal with plenty of feed, water and bedding.  I did not see the horses that were taken off the farm to the sanctuary.

I saw opportunities to make the farm better even though this was rented land.  A designed water system with a few hydrants and a frost-free waterer could definitely help with labor and nutrient management.  A dedicated composting area with a stabilized area could sequester more enriched plant food.  A cover/tarp could help alleviate round bale hay losses and improve quality.  More trees could be planted to form a dedicated shelter break, or planned use of the farm’s woods to winter in could be arranged.  I would suggest a robust fence along the road and a padlocked gate at the farm’s entrance to stop unwanted visitors.

But then padlocks aren’t what the Rockwoods’ are all about.  They want transparency as evidenced by their frequent posted animal videos on how their stock are raised for their CSA customers.  Two accredited veterinarians gave them a clean bill of health.  Who has the gall to refute these professional’s judgement?  I saw no need to change other than incorporating the above mentioned conservation practices that would make life easier on the Rockwood family and help them during another horrid winter.

So why the 13 counts of animal abuse?  What is the driver?  Because I work with a great deal of law enforcement folks who are farmers, I can almost guarantee they are just following the laws or statues in place.  In the case of the animal control officer I am wondering aloud what this person’s perspective is too because generally they don’t act without merit.  Being that this is an ongoing legal case, I hope some truth and common sense prevails to answer the many behind-the-scene questions.

From my agrarian perspective, this case doesn’t pass the smell test.  Reality doesn’t seem to meet perception.  Oh, I’ve heard plenty of fear mongering:  “It’s big government; It’s the animal right’s people or an over-zealous District Attorney flexing her muscles to thwart animal agriculture.”

I don’t buy it and I’m not intimidated by it.  But it won’t stop some from using this case to further agendas at the expense of muckraking the Rockwood family and all who support taking thoughtful care of animals until the one bad day.  We all want our day in court to face the accuser(s) and get to the real truth.029

The hours I spent at the Glenville Court House reaffirmed my pride in being a farmer as I witnessed a relentless stream of farmers fill the room in silent solidarity for a young farmer and his family.  Court officials absolutely noticed the quiet sternness in which farmers carried themselves.  Semantics aside, the not guilty plea will get more traction as Joshua Rockwood’s trial is set for April 21st.

 

I suspect that after the epic winter of trying to produce food for New Yorkers with unrelenting below-zero temperatures and iced-over water sources, farmers are a tad bit cranky.  This case has awoken a lot of gentle giants who remember the milk strikes and tractor-cades of the past.  I actually think this is a positive thing that America comes to appreciate being fed by less than 2% of the population.  Is this a fight worth more possible alienation between agriculturalists and the public?

In case you haven’t been following the support Josh is receiving at West Wind Acres Legal Defense Fund, the family has raised over 54,000 dollars to prove their innocence.

I did a straw poll of farmers in which I asked them if they would plead guilty, pay a fine and keep the substantial monies in their bank account.  99% said they would spend all the money, and more—-to clear their name.  Pleading guilty was not an option as it was all about integrity.  It’s probably why my biased farming heart bleeds for one of my own. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” ~ James 1:12

If you feel compelled, the Rockwood family is asking that farmers write support letters.  They can be emailed to josh@westwindacres.com or mailed to West Wind Acres 2884 West Glenville Rd West Charlton NY 12010

Published by Lee Publications 4/11/2015