Today, we are featuring an organization that shares our vision to protect agricultural genetic diversity. The Livestock Conservancy is sponsoring the very first annual National Heritage Breeds Week! National Heritage Breeds Week will be held May 17-23, 2015. Saturday, May 23rd has been designated as National Heritage Breeds Day.
I interviewed Ryan Walker, The Livestock Conservancy’s Marketing & Communications Manager at The Livestock Conservancy offices, just a stone’s throw away from RAFI-USA. I wanted to get the backstory about The Livestock Conservancy, an organization that has been so effective in raising awareness about nearly 200 endangered breeds of livestock and poultry. And, of course I wanted to hear more about National Heritage Breeds Week!
HS: What is a brief history of the Livestock Conservancy and how has it evolved over the years?
RW: We have our roots in the 1970s. The story that we like to go back to is… Plimoth Plantation up in New England is a historical farm with rare heritage breeds. (This precedes the term heritage breed and rare breed when they used the term, “minor breeds.” We moved away from that term “minor breed” because it sounded like they weren’t as important. So, “heritage” breeds has taken off.) But, the historical farms in New England around the bicentennial celebration wanted exhibits of animals that would have been around during colonial times. In particular, they were looking for Milking Devon cattle.
Milking Devon cattle used to be the foundation of the cattle industry in New England during colonial times. Although, they were called “milking” Devon they were really a good all-purpose breed for meat, milk, oxen, pretty much anything people needed them for. But, the problem was that the historical farms could not find any. This was pre-internet and so there was a lot of driving around the countryside looking for people who had them, going to sale barns, looking in magazines and there just weren’t hardly any out there. And it got people to thinking, “well, if this particular breed is in danger, other breeds might be in danger, too.” It just so happens that around the same time, a similar organization that has the same mission as we do was starting up in the UK. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) was founded a year before us. The daughter of the person who founded The Rare Breeds Survival Trust came over here and helped us found The Livestock Conservancy. At that time we were The American Minor Breeds Conservancy. We changed it to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and now we are The Livestock Conservancy.
So, that is the quaint story about the beginnings of it. I mean really, it was the 70s. People were starting to realize that with certain models for agriculture that we may not be thinking long term in a lot of ways, and genetic diversity was emerging as an important issue. A few very forward-thinking people founded the organization and over the years we picked up more and more breeds. We pride ourselves on the fact that of the breeds that have made it onto our list, we haven’t lost any since we have been around, which is pretty crazy because worldwide we lose about one livestock breed per month. So, we are up to 11 different species, 190 different breeds. Some of the more notable breeds are Texas Longhorn cattle, Clydesdale horses, the Morgan horse. Those are some of the headliners that people like to refer to.
RW: 1985. And RAFI actually had an instrumental part in that, in helping us secure office space. We had bounced around for several years in New England, literally just living in a shoebox on someone’s kitchen table and being passed around, depending on who was on the board at the time. Once we really got our feet on the ground, RAFI helped us find our first office space on the second floor of a house.
HS: So, why is it important for farmers to raise heritage breeds of livestock?
RW: I alluded to it a little already, but basically the big picture is genetic diversity in livestock – or in farming even, not just livestock – provides security and strength to the the agricultural model. Whenever you put your eggs in one basket and you are only using one breed or maybe a couple of breeds, your genetic base gets much smaller, and then the breed or variety you are using becomes much more susceptible to disease, parasites, famine and things like that, so we are preserving the genetics. But the reason for preserving genetics is to preserve the traits in the animals that can be used for a variety of different things, whether it’s parasite resistance, mothering instincts, drought tolerance, heat tolerance, cold tolerance, things like that. Because agriculture is obviously much different than it used to be, these days we’ve selected one breed and tried to manipulate the environment that they are in, whether we are putting them indoors and raising them all in the same environment, whether you’re in Michigan or Florida, that controlled environment is much different than it is historically. The breeds that we work with are regionally adapted.
HS: That sounds similar to what RAFI is doing with its Seeds and Breeds program with preserving regionally adapted seeds.
RW: Definitely, and we daily have people who call us or email us and say, “Hey, can I get some Belted Galloways down in Florida or down in Texas?” So, the Belted Galloway is the breed where it is really a little far south for them. If you notice, in the summer, they have to shave them off because they are double coated, so they have twice as much hair as any other cattle. And it makes them get very hot in warmer climates, so they’re really better suited for up north.
HS: They keep having more and more brown ones [at Fearrington] instead of black ones, and I keep meaning to ask the farmer why. Maybe the brown ones have shorter hair?
RW: Well, when they shave them, the undercoat looks a little different, so that could be part of it. I don’t know specifically if they cross-breed, but if they cross-breed with anything, different traits could start showing up.
HS: In what ways does the Livestock Conservancy work directly with farmers?
RW: We talk on the phone a lot with people; we talk over email a lot with people; we travel around the country doing educational events, so lecturing at fairs, at festivals, university or college classes, conferences of various agricultural groups. As far as interacting with individual farmers goes, we have a breeders directory which is instrumental in keeping track of everyone and locating them. Whenever we do travel, we try to look through our directory and see which members are in the area, which people raising animals are nearby, and we go visit them on their farm, take pictures, get feedback on how they are doing and try to find out what things we can do to help them and they can do to help us.
HS: Do you see more farmers going into heritage breeding or less?
RW: There is definitely more interest in it. I would say overall, there are more breeders these days. Our web traffic has increased 900% since 2007, if that is any indication.
HS: What do you attribute that to?
Heritage breeds and rare breed conservation isn’t a mainstream topic still, outside of the sustainable ag world. I think that the “green” movement is helping a lot with people becoming aware of not just green in terms of sustainability, but the more broad movement of becoming more aware of what we are eating and how it’s produced, animal welfare. It’s got all these different parts. People have all kind of reasons for why they decide to either start consuming or producing heritage breeds.
We have people that are fed up with the corporate world and they just quit their Fortune 500 job and come to work as a farmer. We’ve got people who’ve been in it for generations. We’ve got 10th generation farmers who have just always had that breed. It’s a really interesting mix of old school kind of traditional farmers who didn’t convert to big-scale agriculture and this new interest of people that have no idea of anything to do with farming, and we try to educate them and get them started with everything. So, that’s a lot of what we do, is answer a ton of questions about which breeds will work for them. We’ve started trying to work more with chefs and the food world more. We are animal experts. Although, we don’t have a “food person” on staff per say, we know all of the top chefs in the country – James Beard nominated people, Dan Barber and Craig Deal and all these big names, so it’s a lot of fun.
HS: What are some of the notable events that are scheduled to take place on National Heritage Breeds Week?
RW: We have educational materials that we are going to put out through social media about heritage breeds, and we are going to email our email lists. Because it just started this year, we don’t have quite as many events as we will next year. I know that there is an event at a Tractor Supply Co. store in Galax, Virginia, and they will have at least 4 or 5 different species there, including donkeys, horses, cattle, and rabbits, and they will have a show-and-tell type of display. They have gotten some local press about it and have been in a local paper. And there is an event in California, a lady is doing something similar. Some people are holding animal shows, heritage breed shows where they will have 4-H or FFA kids show their animals and the public gets to hear about them, learn about them; they’ll discuss them and feature them at the shows. Heritage Foods USA is doing an educational special feature on National Heritage Breeds Week. Heritage Foods USA is an online retailer of heritage breeds products. I think next year it will really take off. We were on the phone with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, and they liked the idea so much that there is a pretty good chance that next year it’s going to be International Heritage Breeds Week.
HS: What led The Livestock Conservancy to establish the first annual Heritage Breeds Week?
RW: It had been in the back of my mind since I got here. Being a national organization, we are in a good place, and I think it’s part of our role as a national organization to do what we can to bring our mission to the national stage, and so creating an unofficial national holiday seemed like a good fit to do that. And there are a lot of things that we can do with it. We left it open to see where it goes and to see what type of events people want to get involved in. The structure of it is pretty open, but people seem to be extremely happy that it is going on, so hopefully it will continue for many years to come.