Take a train in just about any European country and you'll see a curious thing. As you travel through small and medium-sized towns in the hills of Belgium, on the Spanish plains or in the forests of Germany, you'll notice houses right next to farms. Often, the farmhouse actually is in town while the “farm” stretches out the back.

And that's exactly what makes European farming different than American farming.

Legislation that sounds ridiculous to Americans — like requiring veal farmers to provide straw for their calves to play with, or requiring pork producers to have a ball or rope in the pigpens to keep animals mentally stimulated — may seem like an outrageous expense thought up by the ultra-Green left. In a way, that's true, but because farming is in people's backyards, consumers are the ones dictating farming policies here.

In the U.S., where a farmer may have 10,000 acres and be 20 miles from town, consumers don't see the day-to-day happenings of the farm. Not that American farmers hide what they're doing, but consumers don't wake up every morning to the bellowing of dairy cows like they do in Europe.

Beyond that, food safety is an ever-growing factor for European consumers. They want to know exactly where their food comes from. Buy a piece of beef in the grocery store in just about any European country and you'll find a code.

That code tells which steer the beef comes from, who its parents were, who raised it and their location. That producer is required to keep records of every feeding, every vaccination, and practically every time that steer sneezed.

Why? Because that steer was raised in my neighbor's backyard.

Take a look in American grocery stores and you'll be lucky to see a butcher any more. Here in Brussels, the bustling capital city of the European Union (EU) — something like Europe's answer to Washington, D.C. — you'll find a butcher in every neighborhood, and probably a number of them, from Hallal to Kosher to your friendly Belgian butcher.

Fridays through Sundays, near one of the metro stops, a huge market is open that sounds something like the Tower of Babel. Inside a warehouse is a huge butcher shop with stands lined up in rows: beef, pork, chicken, pigeon, turkey, rabbit, the works.

The key here is fresh.

It's hard to find a shop in central Europe where meals are pre-made or pre-packaged, other than pizzas and potato chips. People cook here. Every meal is fresh, made from freshly-butchered meat (ask the butcher and he'll look up exactly where that piece came from), fresh vegetables from the corner market or the weekly bazaars, and fresh bread every day from the local bakery, whether you live in a city or a tiny village. If you're in a village, you're more likely to get fresh milk from your neighbor three doors down, or eggs from the widow at the corner.

There's an often-told story in the U.S. about a little girl who, when asked where milk comes from, replies, “the grocery store.” Her answer insinuates she doesn't know it came from a cow.

You won't find kids like that in Europe because they grew up seeing animals close to town. You won't see producers raising beef or pork using growth hormones because the mothers in town just won't have it. Call it idyllic or inefficient, but agriculture here is still part of daily life.

That is exactly why the “second pillar” of the new Common Agriculture Policy is such a favorite among bureaucrats. The second pillar funnels money from commodity subsidy programs to subsidizing the countryside through rural development. Keep the people on the farms and consumers will keep their connection to food. EU farmers may not like the idea of “subsidizing nature,” as it's been called, but European consumers eat it up.

I've heard it said that another reason Europeans are so finicky about their food is because food culture is still so entwined to national identity. A colleague explained this phenomenon like this: “It's just like with wine in France. You go to the winery and it's expensive, but they tell you about the local cheese that goes with it, about the history of the area. You can go to California, buy the same wine with the same taste, but there is no culture.”

Meghan Sapp is a freelance agricultural journalist from California who writes from her base in Brussels, Belgium.