November 2003: Rural Communities Under Attack

Destructive factory farms rapidly displacing family farmers
November 1, 2003

North American agriculture is in the midst of a “great transition” that is fundamentally transforming rural areas. Agriculture as we have known it, with family farms and viable rural communities, is being rapidly transformed into an industrial agriculture, with factory farms and dying rural communities.

This industrialization of agriculture is not a new phenomenon. The trend toward specialization, standardization, and consolidation--toward industrialization--began around the turn of the 20th century, with the mechanization of agriculture. Until recently, the most obvious consequence of this process had been larger farms, fewer farms, and fewer farm families. But farmers and families--real people--were still making the decisions on what was produced, how it was produced, and for whom it was produced. Today, however, these important decisions increasingly are made in the boardrooms of giant transnational corporations. These corporations are not real people; they have no families, no friends, no communities, and increasingly no single nationality. Their decisions are driven by the never-ending need to generate profits and to grow. The needs of families, communities, the land, and society in general, are considered secondary to the needs of the corporation.

Nowhere is the industrialization more evident, in all of its dimensions and all of its ugliness, than in large-scale, confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and in the corporations that control and promote them. One of the most repulsive aspects of corporate livestock production is the process by which contract production is promoted to the farmers and residents of rural North America. Farmers are told that these corporate contract operations will give young people an opportunity to return to the farm and told that significant government regulation of these CAFOs will deny rural youth their only opportunity. We should be skeptical of this claim--for several reasons.

First, the number of independent U.S. hog farmers has dropped significantly as the large-scale operations increased, and most dramatically in those areas where CAFOs have been most prominent. The state of Missouri, for example, has lost about three-fourths of its hog farmers over the past decade, since large-scale contract operations first entered the state. The state of North Carolina preceded Missouri by doubling hog production, through CAFO operations, while cutting the number of independent hog producers in half. And the CAFO operations have been virtually unregulated, reducing rather than creating opportunities for family hog farmers. The facts on this are clear.

Second, contract hog production is not “farming;” it is a factory operation that just happens to involve animals that have traditionally been raised on farms. Real farmers make their own decisions. Until recently, although farmers were becoming fewer and larger, farmers were still making all of the important production decisions, and most of these farmers considered how their decisions might affect the land and their neighbours. In contract livestock production, the corporation makes all the decisions about the design of buildings and equipment, genetics, feeding, animal health, time of placement, time of marketing, and virtually every other aspect of the production process.

The corporation gives little consideration, if any, to the implications of these decisions for the land, the community, or even for the families of contract producers. A future in contract production is not a future in farming, no matter what corporate representatives or their lackeys in government or the state universities may say. Real farmers make their own decisions and accept the responsibilities for the impacts of their decisions on the land and on other people.

Third, it is difficult to understand why any parents would want their children to work in an unhealthy environment, to hire others to work in an unhealthy environment, or to impose an unhealthy environment on their neighbours. So, if parents want their children to become contract producers, it is difficult to understand why they would be opposed to regulations necessary to ensure their children’s health and to protect the quality of the water and the air in rural areas. The only logical conclusion is that these parents want their children to live nearby and are willing to sacrifice the health of others to realize their own ambitions for their children.

Finally, there are other, better ways to farm and to raise hogs; the “sustainable agriculture” movement addresses the need to protect the rural environment and support rural communities, while providing opportunities for farmers to earn a decent living. But sustainable farming takes more imagination and creativity than contract production. It requires taking care of each other and taking care of the land. Sustainable hog producers all across North America are finding that deep-bedding systems, including hoop-house structures and pasture-based hog production systems, often are not only more humane, ecologically sound, and socially responsible, but also are more profitable than CAFOs. But such systems require more management, more imagination, more creativity, more thinking, and thus are more difficult to “promote” or to “control” from a distant, central location.

In a few years, the agribusiness corporations will leave North America, leaving their contract growers with useless investments in facilities, without “jobs,” without farming skills, and with “big messes” for which they must be held responsible. The community will be left with nothing on which to base future economic development. But rural people do not seem to be willing to look that far ahead. They are lured by the corporate promises of more jobs, increased tax base, and the false promise of corporate livestock production as a viable future for farmers.

Every community is a bit different, but the fundamental issues are always the same. Some people in these communities expect to benefit economically by adopting an industrial model of livestock production, while others expect to suffer the inherently negative consequences of agricultural industrialization. Perhaps no public issue has so split the social fabric of rural communities, as when those who benefit economically confront those whose quality of life is diminished and the rest of the community is asked to choose sides.

The basic arguments are quite straightforward. Large-scale commercial hog producers, most operating under corporate contracts, feel compelled to adopt a factory model of production, involving concentrated confinement housing, cesspool-like lagoon storage of hog feces and urine, and the spreading or spraying of manure on open fields. These producers claim that such operations represent a natural evolution of hog production and essentially are the same as any other family farming operation. Factory farming supporters argue that irrational and fanatical opponents are trying to deny their inherent “right to farm” and their right to pursue their economic interests in a free enterprise economy. They argue that, without compelling scientific proof of extraordinary risks to the environment or to human health, there is no reason to treat these factory livestock operations any differently than any other family farm.

However, common sense leads to a quite different conclusion. For example, all hog waste “lagoons” (cesspools) leak wastes into the groundwater. The only questions relate to how much they leak and how great a risk they present to human health. Inevitably, hog manure from these operations pollutes streams. The only questions relate to how many spills will occur in how many months and how great a risk they present to human health. All large confinement hog feeding operations stink. The only questions relate to how much of what chemicals are contained in the stench and how great a risk they present to human health. All large hog CAFOs rely on human antibiotics to control disease. The only questions relate to how much this contributes to antibiotic resistance in treating human diseases and how great a risk it presents to human health.

The common-sense answer to all of these questions is that the greater the number of hogs concentrated in one place, the greater will be the risk to the natural environment and, ultimately, the greater the risk to human health. Large-scale confinement animal feeding operations are not “farms”--they are livestock factories. When hogs are raised on real farms, they are given sufficient space to move about, they spread their own waste, and, with common-sense management, do not pollute the groundwater or streams. When hogs are raised on real farms, they “smell,” but do not “stink”--the difference being that “smell” does not make people sick. When hogs are raised on real farms, they need antibiotics only when they are sick, and generally, they stay healthy. The greater the number of hogs crowded into one building, on one farm, in one county, the greater will be the risk to human health. It is a matter of common sense.

Certainly, commercial hog producers have a right to pursue their economic self-interest in a free enterprise economy. But they do not have a right to endanger the public health. “Private property rights” have never included the right to benefit at your neighbour’s expense. The “right to farm” has never included the right to operate an “animal feeding factory.”

Government agencies may feel compelled to wait for scientific proof, perhaps for a large number of people to become disabled or die from hog-related illnesses. But at the local level, people have the responsibility of ensuring that they and their neighbours do not become those public health statistics. It is a contentions issue. People have no choice but to choose sides in this matter. Common sense--not economics and not science--should be our guide in deciding which side we should choose.


(John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics. Now retired, he writes and speaks extensively on issues relating to the sustainability of agriculture. This article was adapted from a longer essay he wrote for inclusion in a new book--Beyond Factory Farming--published by the CCPA’s Saskatchewan Office. Copies can be obtained from our online bookstore.)