Ask Farm Aid | August 8, 2009

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. 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, andIowa 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.


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