A Modern Urban Legend: The Factory Farm.

The term “factory farm” gets thrown around a lot by mainstream media and, more often, by critics of modern agriculture. I’ve always been a little fascinated by the term. What does it mean? Who defines the term? Are factory farms bad, and if so, is our farm one of them?

A quick google search confirmed my inklings that “factory farm” is not a positive term. In fact, in most cases it’s interchangeable with “sleazy purveyor of agricultural goods.”

image via farmaid.org

Here are a few examples of how various organizations define the term:

“Factory farming is an attitude that regards animals and the natural world merely as commodities to be exploited for profit…” – via farmsanctuary.com

“In the last few decades, consolidation of food production has concentrated power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. Many of today’s farms are actually large industrial facilities, not the green pastures and red barns that most Americans imagine. These consolidated operations are able to produce food in high volume but have little to no regard for the environment, animal welfare, or food safety….” Via foodmatters.tv

And last, but not least, one of many honest comments that seems to sum up how a fair number of consumers feel about the term “factory farm”:

From Anonymous @ 4/29/2010 12:46:50 PM:

“When I think of factory farms, I picture GMO’s, hormones, and fertilizers. I would much rather pay more for food that is produced the way it was 100 years ago. I worry about what is in our food and I now shop in stores (a store) less convenient because of the quality of the food.”

So, needless to say, the definition of “factory farm” isn’t favorable. But who decides when a farm is a factory farm? For some, it’s whether or not a farm is incorporated. For others, it depends on gross annual farm sales (so, if a farm is “large” it’s a factory farm). And for still others, it appears the term is tied animal production, where “factory farm” is in correlation with the term CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation).

The graphs below summarize the results from study conducted by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board to determine the extent to which the term factory farming has infiltrated the public psyche.



So who is right? I don’t know. Like many things, I think it’s probably an individual’s decision on what farming operation seems worthy of the term “factory farm.” But here is what I do know: many of these so called “factory farms” are also family-farms. They have to be: no matter how you slice and dice the statistics, most U.S. farms—98 percent in 2007—are family operations, and even the largest farms are predominantly family run.

But the term “family farm” denotes a conflicting and entirely different sort of farming operation, when compared to “factory farms.” Family farms seem to provoke images of the numerous small, hard-working farming operations that were prevalent in decades past. I think many people, not just urban consumers, are bittersweet about the way agriculture was 50 years ago – big red barns, green pastures, and 50 acres of corn and 10 head of cattle sound peaceful and idyllic.

But for most farmers, this picture isn’t profitable anymore. And while farming is a lifestyle, it’s also an occupation. It’s a job that puts food on the table and clothes on the kids. Farmers can’t get to the end of the year and say “bummer” when the money isn’t there to pay off the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt many operations accrue during the course of the year. And farming like this country did 50 years ago is certainly not a sustainable solution to feed the worlds ever-growing population –  even if we wanted to go back to more archaic farming practices, there just aren’t enough people farming to keep up with demand.

The truth is that by the average consumer’s definition, our farm is probably a factory farm. Although we’re still family-owned and operated, we fit all of the criteria often used to describe factory farms. Living in a rural community, I also know a fair number of other “factory-farmers.” Like us, these operations have used technology to improve the water and soil quality on their farms. They’ve cut their inputs, soil loss, and carbon footprints. They’re continually learning how to be better stewards of the land, because for many of them, the ultimate goal is to pass the farm on to the next generation.

On a more personal level, the factory-farmers I know were also the first to come to my door and give me a casserole and a hug after my dad passed away. They’re on the school board, they lead our youth and mentoring programs, and they line the aisles of our local churches every Sunday. They bottle-feed sick calves and worry incessantly about the health of their livestock, and never stop thinking about food quality – because the food they grow is also the food they feed their own kids.

Like there are in any profession, I know there are” bad apples” out there who are the exception to the rule. But the factory-farmers I know aren’t looking out for just their bottom line, but for future generations of farmers and their communities in general. So, my recommendation for those still trying to decide what the term “factory farm” means is to go visit one. Ask tough questions and care about how the food you eat is produced. A lot of the food you eat is probably coming from a “factory farm,” but you might be surprised at the “factory-farmers” you meet.

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