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Let’s take the 'factory' out of factory farms

Minnesota Farm Living
Courtesy of Minnesota Farm Living
Even though our farms look different, our values have not changed.

Factory Farms.

If there is one term I am most frustrated with hearing people say, it is Factory Farms. Why? You may find this a little crazy coming from a hog farmer, but I really don’t know what they are.

What was that? Did you just read what you thought you read?

Yes, I struggle with what a factory farm is.

And the ironic part of this statement is I actually live in the Minnesota county that markets the largest numbers of hogs in the state. In fact, we are also ranked nationally in regards to hogs marketed. So how utterly ridiculous does it sound when I say I don’t know what a factory farm is?

It’s because my vision of a “factory farm” is not what I see. I envision a factory farm as a place with numerous long, cold, colorless steel buildings whose only goal is to produce as many animals as possible, as fast as possible with the least amount of money and care needed. I think of an uncaring, industrialized operation owned and run by “big money” corporations. An operation that has little to no contact between the animals and people. And this is the same image companies like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and Trader Joes and animal rights activist groups like HSUS want you to envision also when you hear the word “factory farm.”

But…

Instead of seeing factory farms, I see…

FARMS. Just farms.

Yes, we have lots of hog farms in rural Minnesota, especially in my county. And who manages and owns these farms? Is it Big Ag? Is it money hungry corporations?

No. These farms are owned by my neighbors, my friends, fellow church members, parents of my children’s friends and people in my community. People and their families run the farms, NOT Big Ag. Yes, farms have changed over the years. But for the most part, we no longer have “big red barn farms.” Even though our farms look different, our values have not changed.

We share the same values as our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. We care for our animals daily. It matters and affects us if our animals are sick or injured. Today’s farmers work with a team to assist them in giving the best animal care. Who’s on this team? Usually a veterinarian, an animal nutritionist and other consultants. The purpose of this team? Simple really–to raise healthy animals.

Yes, our animals are housed inside barns, which may look to some as a factory farm. Our hogs are raised in barns because we can take better care of them. The animals no longer have to deal with the extreme effects of weather such as the brutal cold, hot and humid temperatures, snow, rain, blizzards, sun burns, etc. Nor do we have to fear predators hurting our hogs. And with today’s hog genetics, our animals have a much lower fat content and cannot tolerate all the weather conditions. And, yes, we use technology in our barns to improve efficiencies, such as automatic temperature and air controls and automatic feeders. A strict vaccination program developed by veterinarians is also followed. These efficiencies result in better care and a healthier animal.

Why do people insist on using the word factory farm? Factory farm is a term used to evoke emotion, or rather, lack of emotion. It’s a term used by those who oppose modern farming and want farmers to go back “to the good old days” of farming. The problem with “the good old days” is they really weren’t that “good” in regards to animal care. People tend to only think about animals enjoying warm, beautiful summer days of 70 degrees under a shade tree. They don’t think about the days immediately following a blizzard that left 20 inches of snow with -40 degree temperatures and a 30-40 mph wind, which caused the hog waterer to freeze and buried the hog feeder in snow. Or the other extreme of 100 degree days with 70% dew points where hogs are sunburned and miserable from the heat because they can’t sweat to help them cool off. In both cases, pigs die and it’s all about survival for the rest. Efficiencies and sustainability are the last thing on any farmer’s mind during these times. Today’s so-called “factory farms” eliminate many of these deaths and problems.

So let’s just take the “factory” out of factory farms and call them what they really are…

Farms, just farms.

This post was written by Wanda Patsche and originally published on Minnesota Farm Living. Follow Wanda on Twitter: @MinnFarmer.

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Comments (16)

This is ridiculous.

Gosh, I didn't realize that chickens crammed into battery cages or pigs forced to lie in gestation crates had it so good. I suppose we should also envy prisoners, since they have a roof over their heads and have a constitutional right to health care. How did animals ever survive without humans to confine them in big barns?!

Christopher Leonard's recent book "The Meat Racket" makes it very clear that the vast majority of chicken and pig production is controlled by a few large corporations who own the animals and pay farmers to raise them for a few months. That's HOW pigs ended up with such low fat content: it wasn't small farmers who figured out the genetics.

Do these farmers have families? Sure. Do they go to church? Sure. But they're essentially caretakers who have to use the companies' production model, in which animals are commodities to be controlled. "Factory" is an apt-enough analogy for a system that profits handsomely from treating sentient creatures like widgets, even if individual farmers are part of that system and don't always share in those profits. And the existence of some small farms that don't interact with Tyson or Smithfield is not a valid argument that factory farms don't exist.

Agreed

While I appreciate that there are more humane animal farms, let’s be honest. The great majority are sites of routinized mistreatment, cruelty and even moral horror. Add to this practices like clear-cutting rainforest and driving other species into extinction to raise cattle, or standardized and irresponsible overuse of antibiotics—the list of objective problems with factory farming is immense and serious—and you have assume that we as a society have made a series of wrong turns. Indeed, factory farming is unsustainable as currently practiced. Books, websites, and various media that examine the problems with factory farming are readily available.

Ms. Patsche must assume that her audience was largely born yesterday.

Ridiculous

It's apparent that no matter what I say, I will not change your mind. So we will have to agree to disagree. But I find it hard to understand how you can write such things without ever stepping a foot on my farm. I will just leave it at that.

Not Ridiculous At All

Ms. Patsche, you may not change the mind of the original poster, but this is a public forum and there are other people (such as me) who are reading your posts. This is your opportunity to explain your position, educate the public, and prove to them that your good stewards. You won't accomplish that goal by crossing your arms and getting all grumpy with a person or two who disagrees with you. Be positive, listen to what they have to say, and take their concerns into account and you'll reach a lot more people than you will by being cantankerous.

Besides, I've already staked out the crabby old fart position.

To be sure, if you want to change people's minds you have to do more than wave your arms and say "hurray for our team." You need to bring facts, figures, and process to the debate as that's the standard that people have come to expect on MinnPost. If you're going to go with the "just trust us--we're doing fine" method of education, then you're not going to reach a lot of people. And I get the impression that outreach and education is your primary goal, otherwise you wouldn't have written the piece in the first place and made the effort to get it published.

Pick up your game a bit and I'm betting you'll get much better results than simply grousing at people.

Maybe I can offer a different perspective

I am glad to see people willing to have a conversation about agriculture. It is an extremely complex business and not well understood by people looking in so I'm always glad when people try to learn what is involved with the food system. I am going to weigh in here as I may have a different experience than most people.

Also, I want to be very clear, and this part is extremely important. There are as many ways to raise food as there is to eat it and no 2 operations are exactly alike just as even with the same recipe different cooks can prepare a different meal. The systems people use evolve over time for a reason and sometimes those reasons aren't clear even to others in the same industry. And, sometimes those systems can be tweaked to be even better when someone from the outside offers their perspective.

I have a diversified farming operation in southwest Minnesota. We do not have hogs now or plan on raising pigs again, but I was extremely thankful for the pigs when we did raise them. It is one reason we survived the late 1980s and 90s. I am really a sheep person at heart, but the hogs filled a very important niche for our family.

We had a very small farrow to finish hog operation where we were able to use all of our older buildings to the maximum. We used bedding, pitchforks and 5 gallon pails. We used the latest genetics for the sows and AI bred them. We had good weaning and marketing percentages by industry standards and had a steady cash flow. But, after a few years we found by having multiple age pigs on the same farmstead we had trouble keeping diseases under control so we quit farrowing and bought feeder pigs from another local producer that only wanted to farrow and not finish his own pigs.

So, for the non farmers out there, the pluses for farrow to finish is you have all the risks and all the rewards and all the work 365 days a year. Not a bad thing to be in control of the whole thing, but one of the drawbacks is that the disease cycles never get broken so it takes more and more veterinary work, and eventually the production goes down. Feeding a new group at a time as all in and all out, breaks the cycles and allows for disinfecting. Thereby reducing veterinary expenses and eliminating a lot of antibiotic use. Bottom line, healthier pigs = better product

Then, we were approached by another local farmer with older facilities. He like us were using bedding, a pitchfork and 5 gallon pails for carrying feed. He was planning on raising pigs for the Nyman Ranch system and wondered if we would feed the pigs at our place after he weaned them.

You may have heard of Nyman Ranch. Basically, the premise of the business is raise animals in a comfortable and environmentally friendly way with a strict protocol for every facet of the production. And in return, they would guarantee a higher market price for the added work. To be chosen for raising pigs for this market, the first thing you had to do was provide a sample of pork to be evaluated for eating experience. They first anf foremost wanted good tasting pork. One of the main customers for the pork was Chipoltle. So we did this for perhaps 10 years. I am thankful for the opportunity and the income, but I have to tell you, there are MAJOR flaws in raising pigs this way.

The basic problems probably came from people coming up with the protocols that have never raised pigs. The basis was to present to the public a product where they could make claims about the way in which it was raised. It sounds great, but it's the details that were faulty. They were basically green washing to get a higher market price. And, they had to get a higher price to makeup for the inefficiencies. So, if you are still with me, I will list several of the biggest issues with this system and offer an alternative.

The single biggest problem that in the end killed the program was you were not allowed to dock the tails. On the surface, this doesn't sound so bad, but pigs are pigs no matter how you raise them and eventually someone would start biting tails. It is a learned habit and when a pig squeals others go to see why and eventually if the perpetrator was not removed more and more would join in.

Because this is designed for smaller operations, there aren't enough numbers to justify different pens for males and females and several different sizes of each. So, counter to what people would expect, it was almost always a smaller than average female that would start the nibbling. The problem isn't just a matter of discomfort for a tail, but it opens a wound that leads to an infection that can easily travel to the spine and the back leg joints and quite quickly you have a pigs that doesn't move as easily, and then is more irritable and then gets picked on even more. Because the Nyman system would not allow the use of antibiotics, any wound or illness or infection would have to be left un treated or marketed through different channels. They would slaughter pigs with swollen joints etc, The Nyman protocol required a certain amount of square feet per pig, bedding, open lot to roam. They suggested giving the pigs toys to play with, more bedding, and more space, but pigs are a lot like people and every now and then , they would just pick out someone they don't like and pick on them.

Another downfall of the Nyman system is the seasonality of the supply. They had a number of producers in southern Iowa and Missouri that would pasture raise pigs, but that didn't give them a year around supply so they really needed people up here willing to raise pigs year around. People eat year around so it requires a supply of pigs year around.

In the end, the whole ting fell apart. Supply dwindled in part because oreating a pitchfork and 5 gallon pail and using a lot of unpaid family labor is not a sustainable model. The fact of the matter is, everyone in the whole supply chain needs to make some money and there were too many inefficiencies in the system to keep it going.

From a pigs perspective, I would have to say compared to pigs in a modern finishing building, maybe 25% of the time my pigs were probably happier, 25% of the time they were equally as happy as those in modern buildings, and 50% of the time, the pigs in modern well managed buildings are better off. The hardest part of older buildings is hot weather. Cold weather is easier because they can choose to keep dry in the bedding, but in hot weather, they are very uncomfortable especially when you add the heat of the required deep bedding.

Modern finishing systems take care of the heating, cooling, wet, and dry conditions. They are designed to be all in and all out with same size pigs and only one sex . This allows for more content pigs, not nearly the need for antibiotics, and a steady supply for the market. That way when you go to the store or the restaurant there is something to buy. The other thing, environmentally, the Nyman Ranch type system is not as good as a typical modern system. The carbon footprint of poorer feed efficiency, poorer reproductive efficiency just isn't acceptable. And, the manure in conventional finishing barns can be easier analyzed and incorporated back into the soil in a much more accurate and environmentally responsible way.

I would have to say to be fair, some times when the public expresses opinions about how food is raised, farmers take notice and realize they can change and do things better. But, We have the food system we have for many reasons and if we have the public demanding changes that are not well thought out, there will be trade offs.

Keep up the high quality of discussion and thank you to all the producers and consumers that want to work together to bring out the best.

Farms

While it's true that modern farming techniques help keep animals alive and healthy in adverse weather, let's not pretend it's all rainbows and unicorns. There's a middle option between keeping them inside all the time and keeping them outside all the time: let them roam in or out as they please.

Ms. Patsche is being more than a little obtuse if, gosh, she just can't seem to understand what issues people could possibly have with the current farm system. As Matt and Eric pointed out above, there are the crowded conditions, overuse of antibiotics, massive cesspools, and on and on. To that I would add the product they're producing, to be uncharitable, sucks.

These animals are bread for certain characteristics, such as low fat, large breasts, and so on, but they forgot the most important item of all food: flavor. I would much rather pay a couple of bucks more for grass feed beef or a heritage tomato than this mass produced cardboard they're passing off as food these days.

My motto is if you're going to ingest the calories, at least make sure they're delicious.

Usually I buy the pepper rubbed bacon from Whole Foods, but last year I was low on bacon for a recipe for a dinner party and ran over to Cub real quick to pick some up. When i tried to fry up the bacon I found it wouldn't fry on the griddle but simply boiled instead. It was injected with so much water that even laying flat out on the griddle it wouldn't fry like normal bacon. I never did get it crispy and just ended up throwing the crap out.

I don't know if that's the kind of product Ms. Patsche and friends are raising, but if it is they can send the rubbish off to the McDonalds crowd to wallow in. I'll stick with something that's actually good to eat, thank you very much.

Comment

Thanks Todd for your comments. Yes our hogs are bred for certain characteristics that Hormel (the meat packer we sell to) wants for their customers. I can tell you that we eat the same pork that we sell. And we have compliments about our pork all the time. In fact, I can't keep bacon in my freezer because of my family wants as much as they can get.

wrong picture. let's go into this romantic factory farm

this is a nostalgia piece that is an attempt to romanticize the production of pork on a factory scale. no, you are not farmers of old, that was over in the '80s. ask around.

modern factory farming is abusive and does not produce "better care and a healthier animal". this phrase is used by pork producers in reference to their ability to raise large numbers of pigs without the extended costs of custom feed and pig loss due to illness.

pigs are smart and raising them confined in factory farms makes them crazy so they try to bite themselves (cutting if you will). producers are confining them to smaller and smaller spaces to minimize this problem, which also saves on the heating and cooling. also, many of these "farms" have irresponsible practices regarding their sewage, which often causes runoff that pollutes local water sources and can cause fish kill and other health hazards.

lets looks inside the "barn" and show a few more pictures. then let us all have a discussion of what "better care and a healthier animal" really are.

Farms are romantic, I think I'm in love...

Thanks to Wanda and thanks to MinnPost for publishing this article. Always pleasant to read the comments on these articles. might I suggest a title for all these comments "Allow me to pass my ethical judgement against you."

Nothing gets you lefties more riled up than the production of Hormel Black Label Bacon. Might a make a suggestion to also try some Compart family Duroc pork? One taste might change your mind!

I'm not a farmer myself but have lots of pride in Nicollet county's many great pork producers. Some of the nation's tastiest meats are made right here.

Romantic Farms

You are so right Karl! I know some of the Comparts and they do a really great job in their pork! We sell our hogs to Hormel and I couldn't be prouder! Thanks again!

Bring on the Bacon

Thank you for your article. Farming is not easy, even now in this day and age. The animals are being raised for a reason and that is for harvest and the farmer wants to do it as well as possible so he has a good product. I shop at all sorts of stores-Super Value, Walmart, Target and try to get my meat on sale and also for taste and I also watch my brands. If I do not like it the store will hear from me and I get a coupon or money back. These stores would not keep buying products if the products they were selling kept getting returned and not tasting good. Keep up the good work Minnesota hog farmers!!!
Also I want to add that we are very fortunate to buy affordable meat thanks to these efficient farmers.

Couldn't have said it better!

Great post Ms. Patsche!! I couldn't have said it better myself. The myth of factory farms is one that gets under my skin too!

I graduated from college with a degree in Dairy Farm Management. We toured a lot of farms while in school and I can honestly say that not one was a factory farm. I've never even SEEN a factory farm!!

My family's farm has been in our family for four generations. As our family grew, our farm grew to support the family. My great grandfather started the farm back in the 50's with approximately 50 milking cows. We currently milk about 700 cows with a total herd count of 1400. The fools that have commented above (except for Karl), seem to be making opinions about things they know nothing about, while they are behind the comfort of their computer with a full belly I'm sure. I bet they weren't complaing about our nation's farmers as they were eating their supper.

I think a little less screen time and a little more farm time would do them some good. If they were to actually visit a modern farm to see how we do things and learn why we do them their eyes would be opened to a world they never knew existed. I'm sure they would be astonished at everything that goes into being a farmer in today's world.

I'm afraid however that the internet is raising a bunch of mindless creatures who are unable to form their own opinions and can only believe something that comes from the internet. A primary resource, such as a farmer who lives and works with their animals day in and day out surely cannot possibly know as much about farming as the folks on the internet!

Instead of "researching" something on the web, you folks would benefit greatly from a real, live farm tour! Go meet a farmer, walk with him/her around the place they spend the vast majority of their time. Be objective and actually listen to what the farmer has to say. Ask questions, and listen to the answers. Have a discussion. But for Pete's sake don't take the internet's word for something! Go find out for yourself!!!

This is what I see, too

Wanda, I'm with you. If people visited a farm, they might have a different view of farms. One of our neighbors has a son who is a first-grade teacher in the Cities, and every year, he offers his students and their families the opportunity to visit his family's farm for a weekend. They also tour other farms in the area, and the farm trip is one of the highlights of the school year for the kids AND parents! Several parents have been repeat attendees with their kids.

Before making assumptions about Wanda and her farming operation, I hope that you read some of her other blog posts and get a better sense of her love for farming and passion to share her perspective on agriculture. I know Wanda personally, and while I am not a hog farmer, I know how much effort and care Wanda puts into her farm. While some people may say Wanda is "romanticizing pork production", Wanda has accurately portrayed the farmers and the farm country that we live in. We love our farms, and we rely on our farms for our livelihood. If we mistreat our animals or the environment, we end up hurting ourselves.

A different perspective

As a consumer and a neighbor to these types of farms, there's a social aspect that Ms. Patsche doesn't discuss. And I think that's one of the largest issues at stake. A agricultural research scientist and I discuss those issues here. http://lindsayandytalk.com/familyfarmsorfactoryfarms/

To Matt, Eric, and Todd

Your perspectives are way off base. First off all the hogs that go through todays modern farming systems are happier, healthier and are fed less antibiotics and chemicals than any raised in any other system. I think some of the previous posters in this thread have already shown than and proven that the current system is more humane to the livestock. Second, what cesspool? That's called a manure pit and used to fertilize crops and create healthier soil. If you didn't apply it to the crops the soil would not be nearly as healthy. Manure has been proven by science to be a benefit to soil health. Third, yes a lot of the fat has been removed from pork due to genetics but you are way off on the reason why. The public (aka you) has demanded a leaner product and the industry responded. The pork today is leaner and better tasting than it used to be. If you don't think it is then you probably don't really remember what it used to be like. If you want someone to bash leave the family farmer out of it when they are just trying to make a living off the land. The market isn't up to them and they largly have no choice but to market with large corporations. Bash the cargills of the world that control the market and have created this system not the family farmers. These are not factories but are small farms owned by the families that live there. If they were factories the families would live in town and go to the farm to work every day. Eric the great majority of farms are not about mistreatment, cruelty and horror. Only the HSUS agenda is about that. Farming the current way has been proven to be more sustainable than what you are proposing they change to. The majority of farmers changed to this way when they figured that out for themselves. It simply wasn't sustainable to raise pigs in pasture or older barns and they changed to a sustainable system. Donna, raising hogs in confinement is not what makes them crazy. You have never even seen a hog if you really think that. Pigs are a curious animal and will do things like biting whether they are in confinement or not. None of the naysayers here obviously have any experience of being on a farm evidenced by their posts. Wanda has a right to cross her arms and be grumpy when narrow minded people who think they know it all and really have no experience or expertice chime in.

What I don't understand

I don't understand why anyone would be against a factory farm anyway. Are they against all factories or just farmers that want to grow their businesses? Let's face it, we all need goods and services and those come from businesses and factories of all sizes. Why should we be against farms of a certain size? If a farmer wants to get bigger he should be able to just as easily as any other business without having such a negative reaction to it. Leave the negative connotations for something that is actually negative.