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Romanticized views of farm life don't help farming business

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Cats rule when it comes to the Internet. But it looks like goats, lambs and chickens may give the felines some competitive heat.

Call it the gentrification of agriculture. The more distanced we become from our food sources, it seems, the more we want to watch cute domesticated critters frolic on our desktops — or even try our hands at a little farm life.

The hot new magazine, according to this article, is Modern Farmer, host last summer to the goat cam and now to the lamb cam. (It's Sheep Week over at MF.) Check out the magazine's informative graphic illustrating the shift in farm operation in the U.S.

The topic is timely for the midstate — the first news releases for the 2014 Pennsylvania Farm Show went out last week, and food production and processing are big business around here. We're blessed with some of the best farmland in the world, and Pennsylvania was a pioneer in setting food safety standards. (I can't tell you what a thrill it was, when I was feeling a little homesick in England many years ago, to find the Pa. ag department's seal of approval on a packet of biscuits I purchased at the local Tesco. If the product is good enough for Pennsylvania, it's good enough for the world.)

At this time of year, too, thousands of Central Pennsylvania homes feature nativity scenes or crèches as part of their holiday decorations. In addition to the familiar human figures and the glorious angels, each will also include a cow, a donkey and some sheep, and many will retell the legend of how the animals will speak at midnight on Christmas Eve.

In my hometown, the life-size nativity scene on the town square used to have live sheep, and countless parents — including mine — would shiver more than once as their town-raised kids oohed and aahed at the animals and didn't want to leave them behind when they were finally dragged home. It was as close as we ever got to animals that weren't pets.

The take-away is that 21st-century urban and suburban dwellers are substituting romanticized impressions of livestock for an understanding of the business of livestock. On a real farm, animals work, either directly by producing milk, wool, eggs or meat, or indirectly, by providing labor.

Take sheep, for example, which contribute to the warm wool sweaters we've donned during this December freeze and which also provide tasty chops. As part of Sheep Week, MF visited a Scottish golf course that uses a rare breed to keep the rough manageable. Closer to home, the Cumberland Valley School District turned to a veritable zoo of animals, including sheep, to "mow" the grass around its solar array.

We should teach our children — and ourselves — to appreciate the beauty and character of domestic animals. But farming is serious business. Let's not forget the value farmers and their animals bring to our lives and economy in more definable ways.

And turn away from the lamb cam only if you can.

The week ahead

The PA Preferred designation lets consumers know the food they are about to purchase was produced in the commonwealth. Now there's a legislative push to create a similar branding for other types of items. When it comes to nonfood manufacturing, though, it's a little more complicated, as reporter Brent Burkey will explain in this week's print issue.

Also this week, reporter Michael Sadowski writes about an enterprising group of Elizabethtown College students who are using their know-how to solve a common tech problem and also help address poverty in developing nations.

Our Inside Business focus is on business succession planning.

As always, local networking opportunities can be found here.

The rewind

It's been a busy week of looking back and catching up. 2013 has been the year of the spy — as in NSA surveillance and Big Brother partnering with Big Data to strip away our sense of personal security. We know your phone can work against you — now you'd better take a closer look at your apps. Turns out, they can spy on you, too.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about non-government-backed virtual money. Last week, a cutting-edge currency, Bitcoin, was used to purchase a cutting-edge car, Tesla, for very big bucks.

Let's finish up with animals. Last week, I referred to squirrels — shorthand for distractions. Then I came across this story about why we've come to think of actual squirrels as town dwellers, the natural and charming denizens of our parks and neighborhood. Alas, it's another case of man disrupting nature and not always to the good.

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