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.