What Do People Consider An ‘Ideal’ Dairy Farm?
Most Americans, especially those who live in cities and suburbs, know little about industrialized animal farming. In large part this is intentional on the part of the industry, evident in hard-won legislation aimed at preventing dissemination of videos and descriptions of farms and slaughterhouses. But psychological research has shown that most people would rather not know how animal food gets onto their plates. The ignorance is mutually reinforcing.
However, the animal farming industry recognizes that the general public’s values are important to understand for sustaining the social acceptance of farming practices. Since animal welfare standards and animal farming practices do sometimes rise to the level of public consciousness, the industry considers it prudent to be aware of public perceptions.
This study is the first systematic elicitation of perceptions of what an ideal dairy farm would be like from people who are not associated with the dairy industry. The data-collection method was simple: the 500 U.S. participants were asked to respond to a single open-ended question: “What do you consider to be an ideal dairy farm and why are these characteristics important to you?” After breaking the responses down into phrases and using trained evaluators to categorize the phrases into themes, the researchers found strong trends in the data.
The most commented characteristic of the ideal farm (almost 60% of the comments) had to do with humane treatment of the cows, including an absence of mistreatment, open space where cows could roam and graze, plenty of grass for them to eat, good veterinarian care, and avoidance of hormones and antibiotics unless necessary. Only a few people commented on specific practices that disturbed them, like mother-calf separation and being hooked up to pump machines for hours.
Most of the reasons given for stating the above characteristics were ethical in nature, with the words “respect,” “humane,” “fair,” “kind,” and “moral” used frequently.
The second most frequent theme (about 23% of the comments) concerned the business operations of the ideal farm. Most of these comments expressed a view that the farm should be profitable, productive, and efficient. A number of the responses stated that the ideal farm would be small and local. The last two themes that emerged (with 15% and 3% of comments, respectively) concerned high-quality dairy products (especially absence of hormones and antibiotics) and the environment (with words like “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “sustainable” used predominantly).
It is important for animal activists to note that 90% of the respondents referred to the cows, with most focused on the ethical imperative of giving them a good quality of life. Highlighting the gaps between perceptions of an ideal dairy farm and the realities of most dairy farms could be an effective strategy for mobilizing public opinion to bring about policy or legislative changes. If this study’s results are representative of the U.S. population as a whole, the vast majority of people harbor some degree of ethical concern for animals. However, they likely have little detailed knowledge of what most dairy farms are like now.