Friday, April 29, 2011

Urban Legends: Factory Farms

In several Twitter conversations, in almost every article I read about red meat production (when the author is not an agriculturalist), and on some Facebook posts, I've seen the term "factory farm." When I do, I cringe. If I cringe, I know the non farm people reading the term do too.  That is not the feeling I want my consumers to feel when thinking about my farm. 

Here is the myth of the factory farm. sites factory farming as: Raising farm animals for human consumption solely for profit, without regard to humane farm practices, human and animal health concerns, environmental sustainability, or farm worker safety. factory farm noun : a large industrialized farm; especially : a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost

Factory farm is a term someone made up giving conventional agriculture a negative connotation.  Factory farming doesn't exist like many people would have you think.  The 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture stated 97% of beef cattle farms and ranches were classified as family farms.  

Fixing a bale feeder

Just like almost all of the farms in the United States, the one I wake up on everyday, employs two people, my dearest husband, and myself.  But because of the way we raise our animals, confined in a pen and fed a ration which contains corn byproducts, we are "labeled" a factory farm.  The farm that I was raised on, which my parents, aunt and uncle, and grandparents still wake up on every morning, is also labeled a factory farm not because they raise animals, but because of it's size, its "industrialized." 

To debunk the definition I'd like to show you a bit of reality on my so-called-factory farm (SCFF). When I hear the term factory farm, I think gray, cold building with cattle lined up on a conveyor, having a tubed shoved down their throats being force fed corn.  Or in farming's case, some guy cracking his whip over an "employee" while they ready a gargantuan 300 row planter next to some as far as the eye can see field.  Our place doesn't have Snow White singing with animals, but we are far from cold and gray.  And we never force feed corn with a tube, it takes too long.  My grandpa rides shotgun over most of the operations, no whip cracking of employees is needed as they are happy to oblige. 

First of all, I don't know of a business in the U.S. that doesn't operate solely for profit, besides a non-profit.  If profit is not one of your main goals, you wouldn't even open the doors.  Second, I found, through the American Agriwomen rebuttal to Food, Inc, studies have shown the reason farms have gotten larger has more to do with maintaining income levels than increasing profits. One study provides this example: In the 1970s an operation producing 2,000 pigs a year would generate a profit of $42,000. In the 1990s the profit from such a farm would have been about $8,000. Taking inflation into account, the size of the farm would have to be roughly ten times larger in the 1990s to result in a similar income.  Not to mention how you would have to grow if you brought another generation back to the farm.  Now that we have that business 101 lesson out of the way, lets move on to the next part of the given definition, "without regard to humane farm practices, human and animal health concerns." 

Calves being force fed grain
on our SCFF

Lets tackle the human and animal health concerns.  On my SCFF, we have a veterinarian on site at least once a month to monitor herd health and our vaccination program.  We also have a nutritionist on site once a month to ensure proper diet.  How many people go to the doctor once a month to ensure they are healthy?  How many people have EVER visited a nutritionist to discuss their diet?  Money we spend on these consultations is purely discretionary.  The industry or government isn't forcing us to do this. We do it because we care about our animals and want them to maintain their health while in our care.  I looked up a certified humane raised and handled program.  They only thing keeping us from qualifying is the use of hormones and antibiotics.  We use antibiotics, under our veterinarian's direction, to treat specific symptoms.  Some things a calf can come down with are easily treatable, but if you ignore them, he will die a slow, painful death.  Supposedly that is more humane than treating him with modern medicine.  

As far as human health is concerned, cattle carry bugs in them (or in their manure) that our bodies don't like.  Matt and I have been infected with bacteria from the calves.  It wasn't pretty or sexy in either of our cases, and included an 
obscene amount of toilet paper, but once diagnosed, an antibiotic cleared the issue right up.

Now, taking the human farm practices and human health concerns and applying them to my family's farm you get a very black and white picture.  First of all, the people who work for my family are considered family.   Everyone who was working on the farm at the time, was invited to my wedding reception.  My family helped out in times of need to FORMER employees whose home was destroyed by a tornado.  These people see my family more than I do and work hand in hand with them most of the day.  There is no question on how my family treats human health concerns or farm worker safety, because if someone gets exposed to nasty things on our farm, my family's health is at stake too, because they were working right beside them.

Next generation, in training
Only in agriculture could one get criticized for being successful, for growing beyond the abilities of just your family, for needing to employ outside help.  Only in agriculture could people outside the industry give such heinous terms and influence over how someone cares for their animals.  You don't see Proctor and Gamble being called greedy, heartless, or shameful  for taking more of the market share, or using modern technology for furthering their product development, they're called successful.

Only in agriculture do you have almost every business in the industry, well over 2 million, family owned.  Only in agriculture could an industry be so diverse from every kind of meat: grass, grain, natural, or conventional, from wheat farmers to orange growers, from berry and fruit producers to nut farmers.  We are diverse, but we are not a factory.  I hope I've shown you a little of that today.   Please visit any of these farmers and rancher's blogs.  Michelle Payne-Knoper has compiled this list of blogs to help you better understand agriculture and where we ALL come from.  They all will aid in debunking the myth of factory farms.   It is so hard to debunk something so subjective.  But just because it's subjective, doesn't make it true.


Sarah said...

LOVE this post!! I too cringe when I hear about "factory farms" - people really have no idea what a farm looks like!

Sarah from The House That Ag Built

Matt Bogard said...

I often find that when people use the term 'Factory Farm', it is just like profanity- strong words used in place of better reasoning. Other cases I've seen this sort of shibboleth is in the attempt to appear to be pro family farm while stealthily advocating polices that would be detrimental to all producers.

I've tried to debunk some of the myths or the urban legends about factory farms too, with blog posts and this video about modern ag & sustainability.

Your post is one of the best I've seen debunking the myth and ties everything back to your real farm. I'll definitely be sharing it.

thefarmerslife said...

What a great post! Thanks for taking the time to explain how things work on your farm. I farm 2300 acres, so I'm probably factory too. What it really is is my dad, my grandpa, and myself making a living doing what we love. Keep up the good work!

grain girl said...

Thanks for reading, and your support. It's going to take ALL of us spreading the good word of Agriculture for this myth to be busted!

Nicole said...

This is a fabulous post! And I love Meaty Mondays! It pisses me off that they are trying to force people to do Meatless Monday's. It's all a work of PETA & HSUS which are horrible people! IMO :)

Ronnie said...

I'm sorry, but are you saying that 'factory farms' or CAFO's don't exist? Just because you have acres of land and own a 'family' farm doesn't mean that people call it a 'factory farm.' I know the term is thrown around all willy-nilly, but CAFO's are real, and your post makes it sound like they don't exist.

grain girl said...


97% of farms/CAFO's in the U.S. are family farms. A CAFO is just a term the USDA uses to separate feeding operations which are confined and have an animal population above 1,000 head in the case of cattle. In my mind, a CAFO doesn't equal a factory farm. People who are against conventional agriculture use the term, factory farm, to provide a negative connotation or negative imagrey in the eye of the consumer. The point of my post was to show the reader just because you are a successful conventional farmer doesn't make you corporate, and just because you feed animals a certian way, doesn't make you a factory. In my mind, a factory farm could be the other 3% of farms that aren't ran by a family, but more than likely they aren't a factory either.

Thanks for reading,

Ronnie said...

Thanks for your reply.

I saw your figure above regarding 97% of beef farms are family owned and operated. But what about all the other farms? Dairy, pork, etc. As it turns out, a lot of them are family owned and operated too, but their animals are not exempt from the cruelties that take place.

Just because a large-scale (CAFO) family owned farm is family owned doesn't mean the animals are treated justly.

Every time an undercover video is released showing immense cruelty toward the animals, the farm ends up being a family owned operation. The argument from the ag side is always that of 'this is an isolated incident'. But that isn't the case. Case after case after case shows that cruelty is rampant at farms across the country. That undercover investigation that was released by HSUS in 2009 from Hallmark farms in Chino, CA ... that was a family owned operation. And that place had been investigated as far back as 1995 for their alleged cruelty toward farm animals. Lancaster Stockyards is another example. They were family owned and operated. They have since closed their doors. The E6 cattle investigation done by Mercy For Animals, that was a family owned operation. The list goes on and on. These family owned operations are responsible for hundreds of thousands of animals at any one time. You're trying to tell me that because they are family owned that there is no way they are not cruel to their animals, when there are so many animals to care for and people being paid so little to do it?

Basically, your argument that family owned farms are exempt from any cruelty doesn't hold any water.

grain girl said...


No where do I argue family farms are exempt from animal cruelty. I am not on every farm, but I am on mine, and I can tell you we give our animals the utmost care.

I will not argue your HSUS or Mercy for Animals, "evidence" as they are both organizations that have stated their agenda to end animal agriculture, therefore, I don't hold them to be 100% forthcoming in their "investigations".

But I can argue these are exceptions. If you just take beef. There are 500k-650k head of cattle slaughtered every WEEK in the U.S. You sight 3 instances, from disreputable sources, over a 15 year period. Those are the exceptions and not the rule if you look at how many animals are raised for meat/food.

There are bad apples in every industry. As a whole, the beef industry, in my instance, isn't out to harm the animals that allow us to live. If that were the case, we'd be going to seminars on how to beat a calf to death with a baseball bat (yes, I watched the MFA video of E6) rather than a Beef Quality Assurance seminar. If you read any agriculture blog at the time that video came out, EVERYONE stated that was NOT okay. Not one person said that was an acceptable form of euthanasia, and everyone in agriculture questioned why it took two weeks to notify authorities.

I digress, and leave you with this: Everyone I know who is involved in animal agriculture to make a living does not and will not tolerate abuse on their operations. Maybe I hold my friends to higher standards than most in the industry. The day I meet a cattleman/cattlewoman who will allow that kind of behavior go on, I will quit right then. I absolutely refuse to be a party to that kind of behavior. I promise you, Ronnie, I'll be a cattlewoman till the day I die, I have high esteem for my fellow producers.

Best regards,

jenniferdewey said...

I stumbled across your blog from the Chipotle discussion. This is a great post! Keep up the amazing work of sharing what it is that you do. And showing people that it isn't at all how the media, etc. perceives what we do. I am on the other end of the spectrum of ag, working and growing up in a meat processing plant in CA. I am excited to be meeting with so many amazing "agvocates" in order to create a complete story of where our food comes from and how the process is done!