Will Society Spurn Animal Factories?


For years I have written that large, confined animal factories would fade away eventually. Every time I repeated that statement, the number and size of animal factories went up again, take that, you dumb old-timer, Gene.  So I was more than a little surprised when an Internet billionaire, very much not an old-timer, made the same prediction in the Sunday New York Times on May 4. In an editorial titled “A Vision of the Future,” the question was poised: “What is the next issue to undergo a sea change in social acceptance?” Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter, replied: “We will reject factory animal farming.”

Halleluia. From what very little I know about Mr. Williams, he and I are about as far apart socially as two people can be. By comparison, I am poverty-stricken. Nor have I ever contributed a twit or tweet to Twitter. What’s more, it says on Wikipedia that Mr. Williams is a vegetarian, something I kind of admire but could not emulate because of my lust for grilled, hickory-smoked pork chops and Carol’s Kentucky fried anything. But Mr. Williams and I do have something in common and I bet that is why we agree about factory animal farming. We both grew up on farms. 

I suppose that some will say Mr. Williams is against animal factories simply because of his vegetarianism. The same critics will say that my opinion is inordinately influenced by my environmental philosophy. I can’t speak for Mr. Williams, but I bet his conclusion stems from the same experiences that mine come from, a conclusion that has nothing to do with our ideologies. Long before I knew the word, environmentalism, I was spending a whole lot of time in barns. Pure economics, not idealism, taught me that husbandry is rarely if ever profitable if you don’t grow your own animal feed. You can always grow it cheaper than you can buy it and if you can’t you are in the wrong business. And you don’t have to make a profit directly from the feed, but from the milk and meat the feed produces.

Most large animal factories buy their feed rather than produce it themselves and so in my experience they are doomed from the start. Government subsidies, tax write offs or big business monopoly may allow them to survive for awhile but economic reality always comes in the end. If you don’t raise your own feed supplies, you are at the mercy of all the vicissitudes that human nature and wild nature can throw at you. I don’t have space here to list all the outright and hidden subsidies animal factories receive to protect them, but the most hidden one, the one that has allowed them to seem successful, comes from the subsidies that grain farmers have been receiving. These subsidies have kept grain artificially cheap enough so that animal factories could almost afford to buy it, a situation that is now coming to an end because competition from ethanol and higher costs of inputs and labor are driving corn and hay prices upward.

The giant animal factories that do raise their own animal feed are in a stronger position but their dependency on weather, hired labor, animal diseases and other factors beyond their control are so much greater than for smaller, family farms that subsidies, tax breaks and other incentives will always be necessary for them to stay in business. In a democracy, when the majority of the people think they know a better way that will not cost them so much fruitless money, they won’t vote for the subsidies. Even the most socialistic or capitalistic society will in the long run spurn anything that is basically not economical if there is another way. In this case, the other way is the local food and farming movement now quietly on the rise, like foam on a glass of good beer. Giant farms will continue producing factory products like textiles, fuels, and mass market industrial foods like corn syrup. Most of the real food that humans eat will come from smaller local farms and backyards.

There is archeological evidence that Mr. Williams and I might be right. If you travel rural areas with a knowing eye, you will see abandoned animal factories all over the farm landscape, dating back to about the 1960s. The earlier ones are smaller than the later ones. You can date them fairly accurately by their size. The ones still operating are bigger than the last abandoned ones and will no doubt be abandoned in favor of larger ones yet to come until this experiment in unprofitability runs is course.


chimel31, no matter how progressive and humane and large animal factories become, it still takes the same amount of land to produce the animal feed per head. Betty, I really admire your willingness to use a scythe. On the hottest day of July, my father would send me to the weedy fence rows between corn fields (the hottest place this side of hell) to scythe down weeds. His reasoning was that idleness was the devil’s workshop and he couldn’t think of anything else for me to do in that slack season. But it never seemed to apply to him. Gene

I think it’s happening–more and more of society IS spurning animal factories. Weekly I meet new people who have moved into this rural area on small acreages on which they’re growing gardens and a few animals just like you, freeform life, and many others on this site. They come for my raw honey and bee advice, and I get to hear all about their endeavors. I recently attended the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville NC and it was filled with people from all walks of life, all ages, and all political beliefs who are homesteading or have small, sustainable farms. Meat along with the grain is becoming too expensive and many of us are finding it’s not that necessary for a healthy diet–we need far less of it than we think we do.

By the way, I’m in the middle of my “haying” experiment. I did cut some with the tractor but it seemed to chop it up too fine and I could not get much of it raked up. Scything works better. It’s going to be one of those “little by little” projects!

I just read that the US has approved sending poultry to China for processing and then having it returned here for sale. Does anyone else think that is INSANE? No more grocery store poultry for us.

I’m spurning them–that’s for sure! My husband manages a small grade A raw milk dairy, so we get as much raw cow and goat milk as we want. We make most of our own cheese, all of our own yogurt, kefir and butter too. Our own hens supply our eggs, and we will be growing our own broilers this year as well. Our neighbor has a pastured pork operation, and we will be splitting a pig from her with some friends for our pork, bacon and lard. All the beef we eat is either from our neighbor’s pastured beef or from bull calves from the dairy. I hate the dry weather and heat out here in CA, but boy the food is good!

I forget where I heard this (some docudrama I am sure) but it went something like this…..A pasture based/sustainable farmer stated that if land is the limiting factor, then factory farms win. However if cheap energy/fossil fuel is the limiting factor, he wins. I think this simply and wonderfully summarizes the factory farm debate. As always thank you so much for all you do Gene.

One thing to consider is the buzz word: “sustainability” as Gene has described in his books on pasture farming : rotational grazing builds up soil fertility. Joel Salatin and other pasture advocate notables such as Alan Savory claim the same thing. Old USDA Yearbooks of Agriculture proclaim the same idea.

Colin Seis in Australia is leading the charge toward more sustainable grain production via a practice called : “Pasture Cropping” wherein pastures are rotationally grazed for several years, then cool season annual grains such as oats and wheat are planted in a grazed down pasture which produces mostly warm season pasture grasses. Grain yields are reasonable and input costs are held down so grain production can be environmentally non-damaging.

However world-wide grain production generally speaking, is not practiced in a truly sustainable manner. In short, shallow rooted annuals including most grain plants,simply don’t hold soil in place and build up humus like deep-rooted perennials such as for example the predominantly warm-season perennial grasses which were formerly common to the American Prairies. Although not generally as deep rooted as the warm-season perennial grasses, cool season grass legume rotationally grazed pasture is also very proficient at protecting soil fertility sustainably.

Wes Jackson and his friends at the Land Institute are doing great work toward developing perennialism into seed crops such as grains. The late Masonobu Fukuoka worked for many years developing a sustainable grain production model but few people except for permaculture folks continue his efforts today. In spite of the excellent working models of sustainable grain production, truly sustainable grain production is best described as being in it’s: ” infancy” .

Meanwhile dead aquatic zones in such areas as the Gulf of Mexico proliferate, fed by eroded soils and nutrients from grain culture. The end result is that delicious nutritious seafood is killed before it ever reaches a harvestable stage so that people can eat grain (Corn , wheat, rice, soybeans) and/or meat and milk produced by feeding such grain.

Coupled the concept of the precding paragraph with what was described in the Scientific American magazine as the:”Looming Phosphorus Crisis” which means that the mined phosphorus eventually will be unaffordable as fertilizer to most farmers, grain production will become increasingly problematic. Therefore, the animal factories will collapse because producing enough grain to feed animals by anyone, whether the animal factory producers or someone else, will simply no longer be feasible. Simply put, if feeding animals grain competes enough with human food production- the animals fed mostly grain and their producers will eventually cease to exist because what grain is available will be too high priced. The subsidies for producing such grain will also cease to exist. Unfortunately, the world’s agricultural soils will pay the price in loss of inherent fertility.

Considering how many wars have been and will be fought and how many societies have collapsed over time simply because of insufficient sustainability in food production, it seems the time is now for folks such as the readers of Gene’s blog to develop a truly sustainable agriculture, thereby making animal factories a blip in history.
Thanks Gene for making me think again.

Wendell F Perks Jr May 14, 2014 at 10:53 am

I have recently read, “The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business” by Christopher Leonard. This information has given me an alternate perspective on the real cause of factory farming animals, the animals’ treatment, and the real reason these farmers succumb to economic realities. I wholeheartedly agree that more Americans need to become more ‘dependent’ on “…smaller local farms and backyards.” Leonard’s book clearly illustrates what has happened to, at least, meat farming.

If the same can happen to fracking ASAP, I’d sure be happy. There’s a creep mining sand behind some land I have in Henry County that he claimed was for the Toledo Zoo, but is going straight to fracking. This beautiful, once sweet productive land is turning into a barren moonscape. We fought off Vreba-Hoff only to have the ODA slip this through as retribution no doubt.

I for one predict farmers have recently paid too much for land. Africa will produce more grain and cheaper(for a few years). Take a look at what the big Agribusiness companies are doing in southern Africa right now. It is just like it was in the early 80’s with South America. Land prices will drop like they did in the early 80’s.

If the factory animal fade is to die it will be when younger people can afford to buy land and get into farming or expand small operations a bit more. Small farms with less debt will compete with the big guys, not because of feed costs but because of demand for a healthier product. If I am right we will see this in the next 10 years or less.

I am privileged to be in an area with a local meat locker who only butchers local livestock from smaller farms. This business can not keep up with demand. I know of two other meat lockers with similar results within 100 miles. Nobody I know wants “Wal-Mart” beef or pork after they try locally grown meat.

I think we’ll see more humane animal factory farming, but be prepared to acknowledge you were wrong in 10 more years, as factory farming is still nowhere near the huge role it will take in the near future. We keep forgetting that farming technology is progressing a lot, especially in confined operations which are easy to control. You now have car factory-like robots in hydroponic farms, robot milkers for dairies. Currently, only large confined operations allow these robots and automation to pay for themselves and even make profit. If you look at greenhouse gas emissions, American animal farming is much more efficient than these developing countries, and will probably be the model they will follow. Countries like China also have huge soil pollution issues, so confined farming seems to be the only way for them to go and feed over a billion mouths. The demand for meat from China and other developing countries is growing fast, lots more American meat is exported there every day, that’s the way they fill the gap for now until they have appropriate local production capacity.

We have seen a displacement of the type of meat we consume for the past few decades, like less beef and more chicken, but even factory beef is pretty expensive to me, so I don’t see alternatives such as pasture-raised beef replacing it for the mass market. There are vegetal replacements to animal proteins, but it’s not really in the Western culture, changing diet on such a massive scale, even just switching only a bit of animal proteins for vegetal ones, is a huge undertaking that takes decades. In the long term though, if the population continues to grow at such a fast pace, this partial switch will need to happen, but I think we’re talking next century at least, not this one.

Like you, I regret the specialization of farming, I wouldn’t dream working on either monocultures or animal factory farms, but that’s the way some farmers have chosen to raise efficiency, at a cost. That’s how the factory industry was able to develop, I don’t see myself forcing farmers via regulations to not follow the same model and develop too, even if the model is not ideal. Let’s also not forget that such evolutions are mostly driven by the demand of the consumer and processor for cheap meat. Farmers raising chickens have it worse, purchasing the chicks and the feed from the same processor they sell the chicken to, and sometimes there are no other processor to sell to locally, so no competition or other viable commercial model.

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