Back in the 70's, USDA Secretary Earl Butz urged farmers to plant commodity crops "fence row to fence row" and told us "Adapt or die". It was bad enough when USDA Secretary Ezra Taft Benson told us (in the 50's) to "get big or get out", but adapt or die?
No matter, American farmers were listening to these two guys because getting big and planting fence row to fence row became gospel. Farms, almost all of them, have become very specialized. Most function as part of the animal production chain, either housing and feeding cattle, pigs and poultry, or growing the grain commodities (corn and soy) for all those animals to eat.
Commodity crop farms have gotten large, thousands of acres, and they generally plant corn one year and soy the next which is pretty hard on the soil. Animals are often raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which characteristically confine large numbers of animals either in specialized buildings or outdoor feedlots. Animals may not have access to pasture, outdoors, fresh air or natural light. They are confined.
Feed may be grown miles or states away from the CAFO, which makes them very fossil fuel intensive. Hauling manure long distances is not cost effective since it is mostly water, so CAFO operators may find it difficult to get rid of the manure which has become a liability. With manure unavailable locally, grain farmers buy commercial fertilizer which is petroleum based. Again, fossil fuel intensive. Hardly a sustainable system when compared to integrated small farms growing their own crops and recycling the manure.
Faming has evolved to this, it's gotten big, it's gotten very dependent on fossil fuel and if you live next to a CAFO, it has gotten very smelly. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that, if you work on or live near a CAFO it has gotten potentially hazardous to your health as well.
Specialized manure holding facilities are required, but due to the large volumes produced, heavy rain, snow, storage leaks or improper handling, CAFOs create a very real potential for big manure spills. Thousands of animals, millions of gallons of manure and you could be asking for problems. According to the CDC, manure can contain pollutants such as antibiotics, pathogens, nitrates, pesticides, hormones, trace elements and heavy metals, none of them good, especially if they enter the drinking water. In May 2000 an e-coli contamination of the municipal water system of Walkerton, Ontario Canada killed seven and sickened thousands. It was traced to manure runoff.
CAFOs are convenient for large scale production that looks to cut costs by packing maximum numbers of animals into minimal space, lowering labor costs and taking advantage of economies of scale. They are also great customers for the corporations that profit from selling fertilizer, crop chemicals, animal feed, hormones and drugs.
Contrary to what the get big or get out crowd would have us believe, CAFOs and industrial agriculture are not necessary to feed the world. Small farms are typically more efficient food producers, especially in developing countries where they farm their land more intensively and can achieve four times greater output per acre, while still farming in a sustainable manner.
CAFOs are said to be an efficient cost effective farming system; (if one ignores the cost to the environment, animals living in unnatural conditions, potential for pollution and possible human health concerns). They are necessary only as long as we demand large amounts of grain fed meat, dairy and eggs. If cheap food is the only priority, they meet the challenge. Most consumers happily hunt for bargains never questioning the production practices that made the bargains, bargains.
So really, consumers asked for CAFOs, they wanted cheap food, and they weren't all that concerned where it came from. If that idea bothers you, start learning about how food is produced, where and by whom. Farmers will operate CAFOs only as long as consumers choose to buy what the CAFO produces.
Jim Goodman is a farmer from Wonewoc WI and a Food and Society Policy Fellow