Are factory farms still a threat to America’s family farmers?

August 2009

Dear Hilde,

I know Farm Aid has a history of helping family farmers stay on the land in the face of factory farms. Are factory farms still a threat and is Farm Aid still involved in the fight?

Max Williams.
Boise, ID

Dear Max,

The answer to your question is an emphatic YES! Yes, the increasing corporate concentration and industrialization of agriculture in the United States continues to replace family farms with factory farms; and yes, Farm Aid is as committed as ever to putting the voice of family farmers front and center in the fight to stop factory farming.

While it is (thankfully) true that the majority of livestock operations in the United States are independent family farms, the bulk of our nation's meat comes from large industrial facilities, often referred to as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or, more simply, factory farms. These mega-operations churn out obscene amounts of livestock with little regard for the animals, the environment and the rural communities in which they are located. The bottom line is profit, the end product cheap meat — but with numerous devastating consequences in between for rural culture, farming economies, animal and public health, and our natural resource base.

USDA statistics paint a troubling portrait: In 1985 there were 388,570 U.S. hog farmers selling an average 117 hogs per year. In 2007, less than 20% (73,150) of those farmers remained, while average sales skyrocketed to 835 hogs per farm. This data shows a clear trajectory toward fewer and bigger farms controlling larger shares of production, a trend that has pushed tens of thousands independent family farmers off the land each year.

Unfortunately, federal policy is contributing to the problem by providing direct incentives for increased consolidation and industrialization. Factory farms saved $8.5 billion from 1997-2005 on low-cost animal feed due to government subsidies on corn and soy.[1] USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is also a culprit, despite its intention to assist farmers in making environmental improvements to their farms. Industrial dairies, for example, make up only 3.9% of dairy operations nationally yet receive an estimated 54% of all EQIP dairy payments.[2] The irony of government funding designed to reward the best in environmental stewardship going instead to the worst offenders is hard to stomach.

Earlier this week you may have seen Farm Aid and our partner organization's petition asking USDA to halt government-backed loans to new and expanding hog and poultry operations. (If you missed it, click here to sign on). This destructive lending is leading to the gross overproduction of hogs and poultry and long-term depression of producer prices, forcing family farmers out of business and giving consumers fewer options at the grocery store. Seeing as though the USDA spent a whopping $25 million in taxpayer dollars last spring to buy excess pork off the market and stabilize prices, providing government loans to create new and expand existing factory farms is an irresponsible use of taxpayer money and entirely counterproductive. Each new factory farm forces 10 family farmers out of business.[3] If we lose even one family farmer or make it harder for new farmers to get on the land, we put our environment, our food security and our local economies at risk.

Fighting the growth of factory farms has always been central to Farm Aid's mission of building a vibrant family farm centered system of agriculture in America. The fight began in the early 1990s, when we started hearing from farmers and farm groups about the damage “factory farms” were doing to rural areas. During this time, a number of grassroots groups were working to combat the issue, but their efforts were unconnected and they wanted to be a part of something bigger.

In laying the groundwork for a national effort to stop factory farms, Farm Aid supported the convening of planning sessions with farmers in Kansas City, Missouri, resulting in the formation of the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment. Farm Aid president Willie Nelson traveled to Princeton, Missouri, in April of 1991 to launch the fledgling campaign with a crowd of family farmers who had gathered from adjoining states. Since then, Farm Aid has supported this dynamic collaboration of farm groups through grants to its member organizations (Land Stewardship Project, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement) and to the central organizing team (Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment).

For the average consumer it may be difficult to conceptualize where our meat is coming from, and many would rather keep that mystery under wraps. Willed ignorance or not, this dangerous distancing between producer and consumer has enabled the ongoing industrialization and corporate concentration of our meat supply without much notice or protest. For years, food writers, investigative journalists and filmmakers have worked to illuminate the destructive pathway of industrial meat — most recently with Robert Kenner's exposé of the ill effects of factory farming in the food documentary Food, Inc. Yet, I'm guessing the majority of American's still recall some bucolic image of Old MacDonald when they think of a modern hog farm, a far cry from the factory farm reality of most meat in the average grocery store.

Fortunately, there's a solution, and its gaining momentum each and every day.

The emergence of a strong, rapidly growing market for organic, locally-grown, humanely-raised and family farm-identified food is providing a significant opportunity for family farmers to transition to more sustainable and viable modes of production. By seeking out family farm meat and demanding federal policies that protect the health and well-being of family farmers, rural communities, consumers and the environment, we can all do our part in strengthening sustainable, family farm agriculture in this country.

Together we can send a message loud and clear: family farmers, not factory farms, are the future of farming in America.

For more details on the true costs of industrial livestock production, check out Farm Aid's fact sheet on factory farms.


1. Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. April 2008.

2. Starmer, Elanor. Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough: How Large Hog and Dairy Operations are Subsidized by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program: A report to the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment. December 2008.

3. Sierra Club. "Clean Water and Factory Farms: Frequently Asked Questions." 8/6/04.

Your thoughtful comments are encouraged, but all comments are held for moderation to protect against spam. Farm Aid does not censor or refuse comments for content unless they are spam or a personal attack.

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Anonymous @ 8/27/2009 12:42:51 PM 
All Farmers must take responsibility for their actions...Large and small. This is what happened in my home state:

Croswell, Mich. - Manure runoff from a local dairy farm likely is the main cause of a massive August fish die-off along 12 miles of the Black River in Sanilac and St. Clair counties, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials say.

Heavy rains that started Aug. 8 and lasted through Aug. 10 allegedly helped wash manure from Noll Dairy Farm Inc. into the adjacent Seymour Creek, a tributary of the Black River, DEQ spokesman Bob McCann said.

As many as 200,000 large and small fish lined the banks of the Black River when DEQ and DNR investigators arrived Aug. 10, leading officials to believe the run-off likely cut oxygen levels in the water and suffocated the fish.

“We observed � manure running off an agricultural field adjacent to a creek running into the Black River,” McCann said.

Anonymous @ 8/28/2009 7:23:51 AM 
Even with the information regarding the problems caused by industrial agribusiness you accept sponsordhip of Horizon Dairy for your concert series.
Anonymous @ 8/31/2009 7:51:13 AM 
Recently I learned from a public radio program that the United States is not training enough veterinarians for agricultural animals because these professionals often work very long hours without really good compensation. It can also be much more physically demanding than the work of ordinary veterinarians. I think the USDA should also deal with this growing problem.
Anonymous @ 8/31/2009 7:13:48 PM 
Hilde, Er du norske?
Anonymous @ 9/22/2009 8:21:14 AM 
Horizon is a collection of 500+ organic family farms.
Anonymous @ 10/10/2009 3:57:31 PM 
You have many good points to the answers you give here in, but many more stretches of the truth. You forget to mention two facts: #1 the reason that so many fewer family farmers are in business now than in 1985, is because so many of those farmers got old and their kids had no desire to continue on in an agricultural livlihood. & #2 the farmers that did remain producing crops or livestock, have to produce 10 times as much as they did in 1985 to be able to make the same amount of money to provide for their family. I also don't understand how there are never any mentions of the "family farmers" that own factory farms! Not all factory farms are owned by suits in a board room.
Darrick Plummer, 4th generation farmer, NE Indiana
Anonymous @ 8/19/2013 7:54:35 AM 
Dear, Farm Aid

I cannot understand why farm aid is separating the terms "family farms with "factory farms". What is the difference...there is no difference. farm food is still being raised by the two. My husband is a factory farm helper, manager of a family owned farm a nd it is owned and run by a family who raise corn and hogs and yes they may be confined animals but the food is still be raised to feed america! My husband and his farm are very dedicated to work that they do and the family owners there care very much about their food being raised and care about the importance of raising good healthy food. Just because they are a small family owned business with a supply of swine and corn and soy doesn't mena they are not farmers. They are generation hog and corn farmers and do a great job of feeding the world! That's all I have to say. Thank you for your time.

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