Saturday, April 22, 2017

Labora Agricultura : Industrial Agriculture

Hey y'all,

My first installment of my agriculture series! As I mentioned in my post last month, in this series I'll be talking about several different farming systems that are present in the United States today. Since industrial farming is the most prevalent and the system that is most likely to stock the groceries in the stores, I'll start with that one. 

As an agriculture student at a small college, I learned heavily about industrial agriculture methods. In this post, I'll just give a general overview of the system for both crop and animal production. If you have a question about a specific practice, I'll be happy to answer it in the comments.

Modern industrial agriculture has the following attributes:
1. corporate farming
2. confinement livestock operations
3. heavy use of chemicals
4. bioengineering/genetically modified organisms - this last one I will deal with in a separate post.

Corporate farming is the practice of being under contract by a large food or agricultural corporation such as Tyson, Perdue, Cargill, Pioneer, etc. Some family farms are incorporated for financial and legal reasons, but they don't fall under the same definition. 

With corporate farming, the farmer is often at the mercy of the market and the companies that control it. Strict user agreements have to be followed. In a sense, it's the corporation that is producing the food, not the farmer. Both animals and crops may be produced in this way. 

On the crops side, industrial agriculture is fairly easy. Just know when to plant, when to spray, when to harvest, when to sell, and keep an eye out for weeds and disease. The farm is on a large scale - farming more than 500 acres - and often uses all the land available. 

Industrial crop farming is also very highly mechanized. Literally everything is done with a tractor or by a machine, with the exception of some tree crops and vegetables. Some of these machines are pretty cool, but they come at a cost (often in more than one way). A lot of people worry about compaction and pollution from these large machines. Personally, I don't feel comfortable operating a tractor (I don't do stick shift. At all.), but I won't shame anyone for using one since I know the usefullness of one. 

Commodity crops (such as corn and soybeans) honestly don't bring in that much money. As a matter of fact, the government has to pay farmers in order for them to break even if not make a small profit. That's called a subsidy.

In order to stay in business, a farmer is often forced to expand his acreage, up the amount of chemicals used, or invest in new costly technologies. All of which adds to his expense column and reduces his profit margin.  

In order to control weeds and pests in the past, farmers did a lot of tillage and cultivating. Scientists then discovered that those practices led to increased soil erosion. Hence the devolopment of herbicides (such as Round-up, which kills weeds), insecticides (which kills bugs) and fungicides (which attack fungi spores that cause disease). Big name companies such as Monsanto got their start as agricultural chemical companies. 

Oftentimes, there really is no difference taste-wise between conventional crops and organic. The issue goes much deeper into the ethics of the producer and consumer. There has been some pushback from consumers concerned about eating chemical residues and the environmental impact of using chemicals, which has resulted in the growth of organic and more 'eco-friendly' agricultural practices.

Most commodity crops and livestock are sold via contract, often what's called a futures contract. Basically, that's paying a farmer a price that the stock exchange thinks will be the market price will be that month. Its a very highly speculative way of doing business. The other way is to just sell the crops at the elevator or livestock at auction which are both highly fluctuating prices too. Other ways of marketing include contracts with processing companies, and grocery stores.

On the animals side, there is a common management practice called a Concentrated Animal Farming Operation or CAFO in order to produce large amounts of meat and eggs for consumers. This is mostly done for beef, pork and chicken. 

Ever wonder when you were a little kid, riding in the car passing farm fields, what those huge long buildings were?
Photo Credit: "hog confinement system" Friends of Family Farmers, via Flickr.

Well, I can now answer that question.
Those are barns. Barns that can hold upwards to 100,000 poultry birds, or 10,000 hogs.
Mind boggling, isn't it?

In livestock operations, feed, medications, maintenance and livestock are trucked in by the company, depending on the nature of the contract. A lot of the time, the farmer only provides the land, some labor, and the agricultural know-how to know when something​ is wrong. The barns are monitored by a large set of electrical switches - controlling the temperature and ventilation (so much so that a degree off is a cause of concern).

Industrial farming is very highly specialized, and breeds of livestock reflect that. There are breeds that are specially bred and adapted for confinement farming. This may have future consequences as gene pools narrow and there may be a time when livestock cannot live outside at all.  

Reducing labor costs is a big deal with industrial farming. With the low profit margins, and high costs, priorities must be set. Unfortunately, most will be willing to invest more money into the latest and greatest labor saving device and biosecurity measures than jobs.

Biosecurity is one of the hot button topics in AG today. As the world famous Temple Grandin said "Big is fragile". With thousands of animals in close proximity, an outbreak of disease quickly becomes a pandemic in a confinement setting. Should an outbreak happen, it can cause major supply shortages and rising food prices. Since bacteria and viruses can travel into everywhere through anything, common biosecurity measures include: heavy lysoling of vehicles (if not heating), concrete floors, and shower in-shower out policies (which I believe are the most ridiculous of them all). 

Confinement operations, therefore, act as a bubble. Unfortunately, this can really cause a public relations nightmare as the public starts demanding to know what is going on behind closed doors. 

Public perception of confinement operations overall has been really negative. Animal rights groups such as PETA have done sensational video exposes, which take advantage of a public far removed from agriculture. In reality, there is a logical reason for a lot of practices, including farrowing crates (reduces crushing of the young) and other seemingly barbaric practices. 

Oh and another thing, those antibiotic and hormone free slogans you see on meat packages? A lot of those are actually marketing schemes. 

Here's the deal: it is now required by law for producers to wait a certain amount of time (called a withdrawal time) after administering an antibiotic or hormone before sending it to market. How long depends on what drug you use, but it is usually around 2 weeks. This is so that there are no antibiotic residues in the meat. Lately, the beef and pork industries have really been cracking down on antibiotic use among their own by Quality Assurance programs, which set management procedures for animal producers. 

Also, growth hormones are illegal to use in chicken and pigs. Beef only allows a few, and the dairy industry has banned rBST. 

One bone of contention that I have with industrial animal production is the lack of employment. Confinement operations often have well over a thousand animals per operation. How many employees would you think that they would take? 100, 200, or more?

Try less than 20.

Basically the only reason that people are even hired is because agribusinesses haven't developed a robot that has replaced a set of human eyes for spotting trouble, and can hop over fences quickly. Feeding, watering, even cleaning is often done by automation. These large operations, which should provide well over 100 jobs for agricultural students and working class adults, in reality cheat a lot of people out of working in the industry.

To conclude, I'll leave you with one of the most succinct definitions of industrial agriculture that I've ever seen.  

"Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country."
~ The Communist Manifesto

Old-fashionably yours,

Farm Lassie

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