Dismantling “factory farms” won’t guarantee healthy anything

Inside D.C.

Dismantling “factory farms” won’t guarantee healthy anything

This space could be chock full once again with the what’s-coming of COVID 19, as in how much more federal money farmers and ranchers may get in the next round of trillion-dollar federal largesse.  It could be rife with statistics about how bad things are, the debate over “reopening” the economy, and at whose feet do we lay the blame for the worst pandemic in over 100 years.  Not going to happen; there’s been too much talking about COVID 19 for now.  Too many are suffering serious quarantine fatigue.

However, despite the policy punching bag status of agriculture writ large, slapped around by tariff wars, global overproduction, changing weather patterns, COVID 19, “kinks” in the delivery/supply chain, closed processing facilities, jacked markets and on and on, there are two members of the U.S. Senate and at least one member of the House who honestly believe big farms are bad and should be dismantled.

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D, MA), once a front-runner for the Democrat nomination to be president, became the only other Senator to support Sen. Cory Booker’s (D, NJ) “Farm System Reform Act (S. 3221).”  This bill, says Booker who never reached anywhere near “front-runner” status in his own bid for the White House, but who still carries the “PETA Sexiest Vegetarian Celebrity” mantle, would “place a moratorium on large factory farms…and create a level playing field for family farmers, ranchers.”  His legislative effort is mimicked by Rep. Ro Khanna (D, CA), a House sophomore who represents Silicon Valley.  

All three congresspeople are urban to the core and just as naïve about agriculture.  Save for primary vote chasing, none have spent any quality time on farms or ranches.  It would be difficult to find three federal lawmakers with less real world understanding of food production or empathy for 24/7/365 production agriculture. 

Booker et al contend they’re trying to overcome/reverse the negative impact of corporate consolidations among meat processors and seed/crop chemical companies which reduce producer options when it comes to whom they can sell production or from whom they can buy inputs. 

The recent run-in-circles, hair-on-fire “meat shortage” panic demonstrate not that big is necessarily bad, but that pandemics are very democratic, i.e. all kinds of people get sick whether U.S. meat processing facilities are owned by four or 14 companies.

Similarly, the size of a farm or ranch has less to do with consolidation, though it can be argued some producers have expanded to accommodate successful contracts.  However, if there were 14 meat processors out there and the same number of processing facilities, it’s likely big operations would be selling to all 14, contracting with some, not with others.

There’s much merit and need for the debate over ag consolidation, price competition, federal enforcement of anti-trust laws and how the game of contract growing is played fairly and legally.  If the federal government has been asleep at the switch or intentionally ignoring serious problems over the last 40 years through various administrations and Congresses, then solutions should address those shortcomings and come up with pragmatic solutions.  The dismantling of farms and ranches, interference with competition, and the limiting of future expansion, i.e., penalizing success, is not the way to do it.

Activists of various stripes thrill to bills like Booker’s.  Enviros, animal rightists, food safety fearmongers, et al, ache for farms no larger than a couple hundred acres, worked by happy and fulfilled multi-generational families and urban escapees, all organic/natural production, but with fewer animals – though all are mellow – and all wildly economically successful all the time no matter weather, the general economy, demand, food craze, plant or animal blights or pandemics.  Ain’t gonna happen.  

Keep in mind, less than 1% of the employable U.S. population is engaged full-time in agriculture; the last Census of Agriculture reports almost 96% of the 2,204,792 U.S. farms are owned by one or more members of the same family.  Of that total, gross annual sales break out this this way: Very large family farms (101,265) gross over $500,000; large family farms (86,551) gross between $250,000 and $500,000, and small family farms (1,925,799) gross under $250,000.

The U.S. is the world’s top food exporter, shipping in 2018 – admittedly pre-China trade war/COVID 19 days – over $139.5 billion in agricultural products.  Couple that with a UN-estimated 60% increase in global food demand by 2050, and you get it. About 1% of 331 million people is feeding the entire U.S. and a big chunk of nearly 8 billion hungry world citizens.

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