How a More Humane Economy Could Help Revive Rural America
In 1938, my grandpa left school to help his father, a sharecropping alcoholic, work their family’s land in Qulin, Missouri. He was only 13 years old, but as the oldest of seven children, he was duty-bound.
After returning from World War II, my grandpa completed four years of high school in just six months. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of Missouri, which enabled him to move back home and start a family, practice law, raise cows on 80 acres of his own land, build a construction business, and eventually become a judge. He worked, fought and studied his way out of poverty—and it’s part of the reason all his daughters and granddaughters went to college.
These days, however, it’s increasingly difficult to succeed in rural America and for more than one reason. The Great Recession hit America hard, but recovery mostly benefited cities. Historically rural jobs, like coal mining and manufacturing, are dying out as more of them are automated, outsourced or deemed obsolete. But one reason for America’s struggling rural economy isn’t discussed nearly enough: factory farming. In addition to abusing and killing billions of animals each year, and wreaking havoc on the environment and public health of rural communities, factory farms destroy rural economies.
Rural Americans are often sold a fairytale of trickle-down prosperity by state officials, who say that factory farms will bring jobs, benefit retail businesses, and enhance social services. Sometimes these agricultural projects are even developed in secret, like the one that sparked the recent Tyson Foods debacle in Kansas. In reality, factory farms provide little, if any, economic stimulus to rural America. Rather, factory farms almost always drive out smaller farms and the jobs they create.
Additionally, while smaller farms purchase feed, supplies, and equipment from local businesses, factory farms often buy their supplies from outside the region, all while paying their workers low wages to perform one of the most dangerous and PTSD-inducing jobs. Some slaughterhouse workers are denied bathroom breaks and have resorted to wearing diapers. Even worse, the injury rate for these workers is six times higher than the average for any other industry. In fact, Tyson Foods reportedly averages one worker limb amputation per month.
“When family farms give way to industrial-scale farms, rural communities depending on them fade away,” one farmer explained in an op-ed for the Kansas City Star. “As in a city, it is the difference between many small businesses and a few big box stores.” Meanwhile, 71 percent of farmers whose income relies solely on raising chickens live below the poverty line—and many farmers who find themselves working for corporations like Tyson live as modern-day serfs, not unlike my sharecropping great-grandfather.
Factory farms also destroy the health of rural Americans. Anyone living nearby is forced to breathe in dangerous gases, which could be part of the reason rural Americans die from lower respiratory diseases at higher rates than urban Americans. We’re also more likely to die young and to die from the illnesses most often linked to eating animal products, like heart disease, cancer and stroke. Across the U.S., manure runoff from factory farms contaminates streams, rivers, and lakes. For rural communities reliant primarily on wells for their water, the overapplication of manure on fields contaminates wells, which jeopardizes the health of anyone who comes into contact with the water.
Exacerbating the problem are state laws that make it illegal for citizens to sue factory farms, leaving them no recourse. In many cases, this means rural Americans who spent years pouring their hearts into their land find themselves prisoners in their own homes. The overwhelming stench synonymous with factory farming is so unbearable that rural Americans can no longer enjoy some of the best things about country living, like sitting on the porch, cooking out, or even hanging laundry on the line.
Equally upsetting is that rural Americans don’t have much influence over where factory farms are built. Even when rural Americans manage not to be swayed by promises of economic salvation, factory farms still find ways to move into our communities. In his paper titled "The Economic Colonization of Rural America," John E. Ikerd, a professor of agriculture and economics at the University of Missouri, put it this way:
Rural people are losing their sovereignty, as corporations use their economic power to dominate local economies and gain control of local governments. Irreplaceable precious rural resources, including rural people and cultures, are being exploited—not to benefit rural people, but to increase the wealth of corporate investors.
There are many good approaches to improving the lives of rural Americans and reducing the harms wrought by factory farms, like raising the minimum wage, increasing funding for basic social services, and adopting stronger pollution standards for farms. But as someone who grew up in rural America and is now a vegan, I also believe transitioning to a more humane economy––one with less meat and more plant-based foods––could revive rural America.
If more Americans embraced a plant-based diet, it’s likely that many factory farms would shut down, making room for more humane businesses. A recent Nielsen report found that the market for plant-based meat and milk is growing faster than the market for animal-based meat and milk; it could be a matter of time until these plant-based businesses, which pay better and are safer than factory farms, build plants where factory farms once stood.
This rising popularity of veganism could also encourage entrepreneurial rural Americans to open vegan businesses in their towns, and the growing demand for organic produce might make small farms viable again. We could finally see rural America recover the many jobs that were lost during the recession, and property values in rural communities would increase significantly.
A more humane economy would likely boost tourism in rural areas as well. Factory farm pollution of rural America’s springs and waterways hurts the communities and individual business owners whose livelihoods rely on ecotourism. Plus, less rural land would be used to grow crops for farmed animals. By using that land to grow food for people, we could feed more of America’s hungry. A recent study led by scientists from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University found that a vegan America would require eight times less cropland.
Ending factory farming may not fix all the problems facing rural Americans, but it’s one hell of a start. The failure of factory farms would naturally lead to cleaner air and water, safer foods, richer soil, healthier communities, and better jobs for rural Americans. So the next time you sit down to eat, please consider leaving animals off your plate—because whether you’re from there or not, the future of rural America might depend on it.