Farming Without the Factory

When many suburban or urban dwellers hear the word "farm" they still think of idyllic scenes of cows munching on grass in the slanting evening light and farmers squatting between rows of strawberries or beans, lovingly tending to their plants and the rich black earth.

But for the vast majority of operations, these scenes couldn't be further from the truth.

Today, most animals, including hogs, cattle and poultry, are raised in confinement operations in which they live in small pens their entire lives. They may never taste a fresh blade of grass; grain is hauled in for them to eat and their waste is hauled out, the manure stored in liquid form in vast stinking lagoons that often leak and contaminate groundwater and rivers with potentially harmful nitrogen.

Animal rights activists tell horror stories of chickens with their beaks cut off, cattle so flaccid from inactivity they can hardly stand and pigs suspended in swirling water for their entire lives, their feet never touching the ground.

While conditions in some of the largest corporate factory farms have indeed been found horrific, even small family farmers who care about the comfort of their animals and feel a connection to their land have for the most part been forced by economics to adopt factory farm-type operations, both with agriculture and livestock. Between recent droughts and other natural challenges, the increasing conglomeration of huge farm corporations and free trade agreements facilitating the importing of crops and meat, family farmers are under pressure to make their operations as economically efficient as possible.

But the economies of scale rule doesn't always necessarily hold true, and many farmers are bucking the trend and finding ways to make organic, healthy and humane farming work.

"We want to raise every animal in a habitat that emphasizes its biological distinctiveness," said Joel Salatin, a second-generation West Virginia farmer and member of the Land Stewardship Project. "There's a reason that a cow has four stomachs, a pig has a plow, a chicken has a beak. It's not meant to be cut off."

Going Organic

In agriculture, the growing popularity of higher-priced organic foods has been a godsend for farmers. Organic berries, vegetables, beans and various other crops can command as much as twice the price of crops grown with pesticides and herbicides, so farmers can afford to turn out less total produce and still make a living if they have organic certification.

A group called the Midwest Food Alliance, a joint project of the Land Stewardship Project and Cooperative Development Services, is among those that promote organic and family-farm-grown products to consumers, and support farmers in their efforts. The alliance offers a handbook about how to get started in organic farming, and also certifies produce as organic, sustainably grown and/or free of certain pesticides. The organization deals with both crops and livestock, certifying that crops were not genetically modified or grown with pesticides, and that livestock was raised without hormones or subtherapeutic antibiotics in a humane environment. The alliance also educates farmers and consumers in sustainable methods that promote conservation of the soil, water and wildlife habitats.

Recent releases from the St. Paul-based alliance note that demand for their certified products is increasing quickly.

"The increase in farmers applying to join the program and products being MWFA-approved, in addition to new consumer research indicating strong interest in environmentally friendly food products, confirms the need for such a program," said Jim Ennis, director of the project, in a release.

Grazing Cows

In livestock some farmers have also discovered that the natural way can be just as profitable as, or even more profitable than, factory farms. Proponents of grazing, rather than confinement, note several benefits. They point out that cows were never intended to eat grain, as they do in confinement. When cows have a grass diet, fresh air and exercise they are notably healthier, and therefore, need fewer antibiotics and medications than animals raised in confinement. They also spread their own manure evenly over fields, essentially self-fertilizing the grass and cutting out the whole labor-intensive and polluting manure storage dilemma.

Just as organic produce is in vogue with consumers who can afford to pay a little more for their food, grass-fed beef, once considered less tasty than the marbled beef raised in confinement is also gaining in popularity among careful eaters. A recent story in The Chicago Tribune reported that grass-fed beef is becoming a staple on the menus of upscale restaurants, such as the Ritz Carlton in Chicago and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, opening a new market for farmers who let their cattle graze freely.

Just as with cows raised for beef, dairy cattle are now usually raised in huge confinement operations. While there were about 60,000 different dairy farmers in the U.S. about 30 years ago, there are only about 7,000 today, according to Dennis Johnson, a farmer and researcher at the University of Minnesota.

"There's a real morale problem among dairy farmers," he said. "People are afraid they're just not going to be able to do it anymore."

But he thinks there is still room for the small operation, which would typically have 60 to 80 cows as opposed to hundreds or thousands.

"We're trying to identify the elements that can make a reduced-input farm successful," said Johnson. "We can use seasonal grazing, crossbreeding, reduced use of barns. Comparing it with the conventional (confinement) operations, it can be competitive. People think small farms are a thing of the past, but that doesn't have to be true."

Crossbreeding refers to breeding different types of cows, like a Holstein and a Jersey. "This produces a more vigorous animal, more productive and better suited to grazing," Johnson said. In Sweden and Norway, there are quotas on how much milk any one cow can produce, so farmers have developed breeds that produce milk at a lower cost, meaning they are more fertile and more resistant to disease. Crossbreeding with these cows is a good way for small farmers to maximize their profits while also having healthy, seemingly content animals.

Grazing both dairy and beef cattle can also actually have significant health benefits for consumers. Studies have shown the presence of cancer-fighting enzymes in the milk produced by cows that graze.

Salatin noted that grazing "completely changes the nutritional profile so you can get the right ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids." He said that the CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) found in foraging animals is the "number one anti-carcinogenic in nature, it fights clogged arteries." Johnson said that grazing dairy cattle don't produce as much milk as grain-fed cows in confinement, but they cost less in overhead since they reduce the need to grow, harvest and store feed grain.

"They also live longer and have more babies, since they have a less stressful existence," he said. Johnson's research has shown the average cost to produce 100 pounds of milk is $1.50 less for grazing cattle.

"But fewer pounds are produced overall, so it's an offset," he said. "The reduced productivity is one of the obstacles to be overcome, it's a balance of reducing costs, but being careful not to reduce income too much."

Another benefit of grazing dairy cattle is that they eat perennial crops like clover and alfalfa, so the roots protect the soil while the plants are fertilized by the cow's manure.

Healthier, Happier Hogs

Innovative methods are also being pioneered for raising healthier and more natural hogs. At Iowa State University, researchers have documented the costs and benefits of raising hogs in hoop houses, large Quonset huts filled with straw where the hogs can move around and develop normal social interactions with each other.

"It's certainly a viable alternative," said Mark Honeyman, a professor of animal science working with the USDA-funded "Hoop Group" at Iowa State. "They are cost competitive with other systems."

In addition to the hoop houses, researchers have been looking at a similar approach popular in Sweden, called the Vastgotmodellen system, where pigs live in comfortable relatively spacious enclosures with straw bedding.

"In a harsh, northern climate and under restrictive animal welfare laws and a strict ban on the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics, Swedish pig farmers have developed a management-intensive system of pig production that relies on straw, the animals' natural behavior, group housing dynamics and keen husbandry skills," says the abstract of a report Honeyman wrote on the technique.

With this system, the pigs lactate as a group and engage in other social dynamics that are considered beneficial for their health and welfare. Once the straw becomes saturated with their waste, it is removed and composted for fertilizer. The pigs live in groups of eight to 15 rather than 25 to 35, as they would in a conventional U.S. operation, and they live in large group pens lined with straw rather than individual narrow crates sitting on hard slats. Besides the pig's comfort (and attendant health and productivity), the infrastructure of this system is cheaper -- the buildings are more easily converted to other uses and less specialized equipment is needed. With its emphasis on quality rather than quantity of animals, and on farmer-pig interaction, this Swedish system is considered specifically suited for small and moderate-sized farms.

"These producers enjoy pigs very much and have attained excellent results using the Thorstensson system," says Honeyman's report, using language that is charmingly personal to describe the Vastgotmodellen farm of Connie Thorstensson. "Clearly there is a strong pig-human bond on their farm. Where humans handle pigs in a positive manner, growth and reproduction are enhanced."

Honeyman also notes that despite what many people might think, hogs are natural grazers that can be set loose to graze and spread their manure in fields just as cows do. They can be raised on the same fields as crops, for example occupying land for corn during its off-season or mingling among alternating rows of corn and using the stalks for shade.

A 1995 study by Texas Tech showed that pigs raised in "intensive outdoor" systems cost $23.20 each to raise, as opposed to $31 in factory-style confinement. The study listed the benefits of outdoor pig-raising as "improved pig health, a better work environment, less start-up costs, fewer regulatory problems, less odor and less microbial activity."

Managing Manure

Grazing hogs and cows, or raising hogs in the above-mentioned huts where their manure is removed in small, solid increments, cuts out the need for storage of liquid manure in large "lagoons." Manure storage is no small issue. A report released by the Sierra Club in August says that manure leakage from big feedlots polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in the 1980s and 1990s, irreversibly harming wildlife and costing millions in fines to the producers. The report notes that extensive pollution from manure lagoons resulted as huge feedlots (factory farms) were being rapidly developed all across the country. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently under mandate to develop new regulations governing feedlots. Large feedlots and meatpacking corporations have lobbied against strict regulations and also won funds in the Farm Bill passed this year to aid them in meeting the standards. Tyson Foods, Inc., which incidentally has been the target of labor campaigns for its record of terrible working conditions, was identified in the report as one of the worst polluters.

The choice between the image of stinking brown lagoons leaking toxic waste into rivers versus farmers happily interacting with their pigs seems a no-brainer. With effective use of natural and innovative animal- and environment-friendly techniques, small farmers across the country hope this choice continues to be theirs to make.

"I've asked a lot of farmers why they wanted to be farmers, and most DON'T say they want to be entrepreneurs with thousands and thousands of cows," said Johnson. "They're invested in having a good place for their children to grow up in, some measure of independence. Farming has always been a family thing passed down through the generations, and they want to continue that."

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for many publications, including the Washington Post the Chicago Reader and In These Times.

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