Why Modern Conventional Farms Are Factories

After the “Back to the Start” commercial Chipotle aired during the Grammy Awards there has been quite the response.

My response has been very positive because it highlights what industrialization of the food supply has done to the livestock industry in the last century. However, other people have had quite negative responses.

“I can’t even begin to explain everything that is wrong with this commercial” ~ Buzzard’s Beat

“Ah yes, factory farming, that mythical entity that exists in the minds of food elitists.” ~ Beltway Beef

There’s even a video out there that purports to tell the “real story” about modern farming and its virtues.

The one criticism that keeps haunting me is that advocates of conventional farming don’t like the term “factory farming” and vehemently oppose its use because they feel like it’s a mischaracterization of how they raise their animals.

My goal is to show you otherwise. Modern CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are indeed factories.

Factory, when applied to farming, has a negative connotation. That’s why those accused of participating in a factory farm system feel attacked by the term. That’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the persistent theme of “mischaracterization.” Most proponents of factory farming don’t see it as factory farming – it just doesn’t strike them that they’re a factory or they’re doing anything in a way that might upset sustainable farmers and members of the public.

Conventional = Modern = Factory Farming


Conventional describes the vast majority of farms in the USA. A lot of good people work on these farms. That’s really not the issue here. Sure, there are some bad apples that show up in the news for overt animal abuse and other poor practices. But the majority of farmers in America are hardworking good people. So when conventional farming is attacked, even questioned, people get nervous and feel defensive. It’s their way of life. It’s how they provide for their family. It’s part of their lives and they’ve most likely grown up around conventional farming.

It’s not my goal to demonize farmers or their families.

The problem with conventional farming is the system. Farmers are forced to do things a certain way. It’s a system of mechanization and profits over people controlled by the industrial food complex. If you don’t think there is such a thing as the industrial food complex…try and save your seeds you bought from Monsanto. Hint: they will blacklist you and you will meet their lawyers.


This idea needs to be refuted. Factory farming is quite an accurate term to describe the vast majority of how livestock is raised in America. Let me show you in brief why this is true.

High Density, Low Cost: Bigger, better, faster, cheaper. That’s the mantra of conventional farming. It’s also the reasoning behind non-animal factories. If you hand-made a shoe it would take time, lots of skill and you can only make a limited number of them. If you want bigger, better, faster, cheaper…you make a shoe factory in China. The only way to make bigger, better, faster, cheaper meat, eggs and dairy is to make an animal factory. That’s why we have metal barns holding thousands (or even tens of thousands) of the same exact animal under one roof. Here’s an example of a broiler chicken house compared to a pasture based poultry farm…guess which one is the factory.

Automation: Automatic feeding and watering. Automatic lighting and temperature control. Automatic waste removal. Automatic everything. The factory farm is controlled by electronic circuits. The conventional farm has as much automation as any factory you’d see on an episode of How It’s Made.

Consolidation & Control: “During the past 30 years the number of hog farms in the United States dropped from 650,000 to 71,000, yet the number of hogs remains almost the same.” via NRDC. Four enormous corporations produce 80% of the beef in America. Consolidation is the name of the livestock game nowadays. Chipotle’s commercial showed a small family farm being transformed into a large CAFO. This is very historically accurate. Consolidation under centralized control certainly sounds like factory farming to me.

Factory Waste: A lot of non-animal factories produce hazardous waste. So, you’d expect a farm described as a factory to produce hazardous waste too, right? YEP! Hog farms keep this waste in enormous lagoons next to the hog buildings. Waste produced from hog CAFOs is quite toxic…but the factory farms will dispute this. Here’s a lovely rebuttal, “Large hog farms emit hydrogen sulfide, a gas that most often causes flu-like symptoms in humans, but at high concentrations can lead to brain damage. In 1998, the National Institute of Health reported that 19 people died as a result of hydrogen sulfide emissions from manure pits.” via NRDC. Sometimes this hazardous waste gets out of the lagoons and contaminates the environment in a dramatic way…exhibit A is Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina. You can learn all about factory farm waste here.

Lack of Individuality: Dictionary.com says a factory is “any place producing a uniform product, without concern for individuality.” This doesn’t mean that animals are not cared for medically on an individual basis as needed. Far from it. Where I see “without concern for individuality” at work is how we respect the nature of the animals we’re raising. Factory farms put chickens in battery cages about the size of a piece of paper for their entire life. Hogs are raised on concrete or plastic slatted floors inside metal barns. You get the picture. Factory farms don’t allow a chicken to express its chicken-ness as Joel Salatin would say. Factory farms don’t allow the hog to express its pig-ness. This is an insult to the individuality of the animals you are raising. At a non-factory pasture based farm like Polyface Farms in Virginia the animals can express their “ness” in every sense of the word.

Conclusion: I could continue writing ad nauseum…but I’ll spare you. I haven’t even begun to address the remaining reasons why factory farming is unsustainable and not good for animals, consumers, the environment and workers all across the food chain. With today’s farm you have to ask yourself one question: what is the principle concern? Today, it is unequivocally how can we produce the most for the cheapest price. That, ladies and gentleman, is called a factory mindset. That’s why factory farming is an apt name. A CAFO is not a factory in the sense of a Ford or Toyota auto plant. But it is very factory-esque because the priorities are density of production, low cost, consolidation and automation. So, once again, is factory farming an appropriate name? Absolutely.


2 Comments on “Why Modern Conventional Farms Are Factories”

  1. Travis Arp says:

    You make some very interesting points, some I agree with…some not so much. I think the reason ag folks rebut the term ‘factory farm’ is that it is a buzz word created to paint ag in a negative way. Much of modern farming is factory-esque no doubt, and if you hold strong and firm to the definition of ‘factory’ then you are in some ways accurate. But it’s a term that anti-ag organizations, media, food eliteists, and activists coined and you can’t expect that to become welcomed vernacular by people producing food when it was meant to be negative.

    I think the point that gets missed here is that the pork and beef and chicken supply chain is more than people realize. Cattle don’t just show up at a feedlot, get fattened and turned into meat. There are multiple stages of producers, and they often start with farmers that are not part of the 80% of beef production. Cattle go from private farms to another private farm to be fed on grass, then to commercial feedlots, then to packing houses. It’s not the conveyor belt process depicted in the commercial that DOES mischaracterize ag.

    Lastly, I don’t quite understand what entails expressing ones piggy-ness. The fact of the matter is that if hogs were being produced in Iowa right now (largest hog producing state in US) not in a metal sided, temp controlled barn, they would die. Same with in the middle of a hot Midwestern summer…domesticated pigs just do not have tolerance for temp extremes…

    I guess my point is that much of the things commercial ag does is beyond productivity and bottom line. It’s in the best interest of the welfare of the animal and not just to streamline the process…and in that sense ‘factory farm’ does become a mischaracterization.

    Interesting post though, and look forward to further convos in the future!

    • ethicalplate says:

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

      Well, I’m suspicious of the priorities of the food corporations. I have a hard time believing they don’t put profitability above all else at the end of the day. Sometimes I think this gets translated into agricultural practices because of top-down control. I think beef production certainly has the least factory-esque model, but I will be addressing some concerns about production that I still have in the future here.

      I understand factory farming is a negative term. It’s just that it’s kind of true in a lot of cases! I guess we don’t need to use inflammatory terms, but I don’t think it’s a gross mischaracterization. I think using the term conventional is fairly neutral. But is neutral always the best idea when it glosses over the negatives? And what constitutes “conventional” sure has changed over the last century. I don’t know how to deal with what to call the problems in general in agriculture nowadays in a way that doesn’t make some people upset and conveys the problems at the same time. But I do think you’re right, producers don’t like the term. I don’t feel great about using a term unliked by producers. But in my use, it’s not to attack producers, it’s too shed light on some of the practices like battery cages that are indeed factory production models.

      I sometimes buy pork products from a place called Grass Run Farms. http://www.grassrunfarm.com/pork They are based out of southern MN and northern IA and I wholeheartedly support they way they raise hogs. They certainly operate out of a very cold environment yet manage to improve upon a large factory-esque confinement operation. I was just reading a report on how hoop house construction results in dramatically lower initial overhead compared to a conventional hog barn. That’s a good thing.

      Pig-ness is usually referred to as the “physiologic distinctiveness of the animal” by one of my favorite non-nonsense farmers and “food elitist darling” Joel Salatin. He addresses this in many ways, one of which is the idea of “pigaeration” on his farm. I think this is important given the level of intelligence in pigs.

      I think my frustrations are 25% how animals are raised, 25% how our crops (more than just corn & soybeans) are grown and harvested and 50% what the food corporations are up to after they receive agricultural products at their doorsteps.

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