Turkey Farming: You Decide!

Here is a conventional Ohio turkey farmer speaking about his operation. I should note that he does not sell directly to consumers, rather he’s a contract grower for a meat processor:

Here is the Lindenhof Farm, an 85-acre farm in Pennsylvania. I should note that hormones are not allowed in poultry farming, but antibiotics can be used.

Questions to ask after viewing:

1. What are the important differences between the two operations?

2. What are my first reactions to the two different operations?

3. What kind of turkey operation do I want?

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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

FEELING ATTACKED

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.

MISCHARACTERIZATION

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.


A Dinner Conversation

The scene: My last day at a pediatric clinic. The nurses usually make some food for dinner because the clinic is open until 8pm today. They invited me to join them for soup.

The Conversation (paraphrased):

“I don’t understand organic milk?” A physician made this comment which sparked a mini conversation about animal welfare.

“It’s milk, isn’t it all organic? It comes from a cow.” – physician

“It’s organic because of the food they feed it, it’s organic.” – a nurse chimes in

“You know in Japan, I think, they hang baby cows in a sling their whole lives and feed them beer to make them tender.” “Kobe beef? Yeah, I think it’s Kobe beef” – nurse

“I think PETA would be all over that if it was in the U.S.” – nurse

“Well, if it’s not a pet and it’s not a human…why do they care?” “I’d like to bring some of those cows and raise Kobe beef here. It’s gotta be cheaper than sending it all the way from Japan.” – physician

My point is not to demonize anyone involved in this conversation. However, I think it’s very telling of the attitude towards animals and food among the majority of people in America.

“It’s milk, isn’t it all organic?” No, it’s not.  “Organic” foods don’t make sense to some people because they still have an early 20th century nostalgic view of what a farm used to be. Green pastures and a farmer in overalls leading his cows out to pasture and then hand milking them back in the barn. Things are not like this at all. This website describes what a “modern” dairy operation is like. The benefits of “organic” milk and other products are not clear to people because the assumption is that the status quo is a rosy picture. I’m here to tell you the status quo is an udder disaster. Terrible pun, I know. The status quo treats milk as a commodity. Make the most at the least cost is the mantra of the modern dairy conglomerate. We need happy cows raised on healthy land by caring farmers and farmhands. That’s the answer. Here’s a man, Francis Thicke, who operates a small pasture based dairy farm in Iowa. He’s being interviewed for Perennial Plate.

The Perennial Plate Extras: Interview with Francis Thicke from Daniel Klein on Vimeo.

If it’s not a pet and it’s not a human…why do they care?” It’s a tough job convincing people that farm animal welfare is something worthwhile. I truly find it odd that farm animals “don’t count” when it comes to animal welfare in some people’s minds. Sure, the welfare of humans matters. Sure, the welfare of cats and dogs matters. But, farm animals? Come on, they say. Farm animals are for eating and their suffering doesn’t really matter. And are they really suffering? The short answer is yes, they are suffering given the factory farming conditions that are the “norm” in the U.S. And factory farmed animals are more polluting. They’re also less healthy for you. Want an example? How about all the antibiotics used in animal feed? How about all the arsenic used in chicken feed? How about when you crack a pastured local egg open it looks bright orange instead of the pale yellow of a supermarket egg? There’s lot of reasons to care even if farm animals are not your pet and are not humans. My hope is that people slowly start becoming aware of these reasons and then demanding change. The resultant change that must occur becomes self evident once the fallacies of factory farming become evident.

If you’d like to read about real Kobe beef from Wagyu cattle you can do so here. They really are fed beer!


Corn For Livestock Feed

I’m not going to be able to cover every aspect or potential counter argument in this post. And I’m going to be concentrating on corn that is fed to cattle because that’s the poster child for “corn-fed”. Let’s just get that out-of-the-way. But I’m going to try really hard to cover the important things!

The 13.1 billion bushel 2009 U.S. maize crop was, according to the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates Report by the USDA, used mostly for Livestock Feed. 

5,525 million bu. were used for livestock feed which amounts to 42% of the maize crop. 

From PBS Frontline:

“Before the second World War, all American beef was “grass-finished,” meaning that cattle ate pasture grass for the duration of their lives. Today, the vast majority of cattle spend anywhere from 60-120 days in feedlots being fattened with grain before being slaughtered. Unless the consumer deliberately chooses grass-finished or “free-range” meat, the beef bought at the grocery store will be of the corn-finished variety.”

Why the change?

Several reasons, among them:

1. Cattle reach slaughter weight faster when corn finished.

2. Better fat marbling which supposedly tastes better

3. You can raise more corn-fed cattle on less land (i.e. feedlot) than letting them be pasture finished (i.e. that takes more land).

This is all to say that corn-fed cattle are cheaper for the consumer and more profitable for the producer. Who can argue with that you might say? Isn’t that the goal of modern animal agriculture? Cheaper prices at the checkout and more profits for the producer…everyone wins, right?

Not so fast.

Just some  of the problems with feeding corn to cattle:

1. Corn-fed beef just isn’t as healthy as grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef has more Omega-3 fatty acids (the good ones), more Vitamin E, more beta-carotene, less saturated fat and calories and more conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). CLAs are known for anti-cancer and cardiovascular benefits. Meat products from grass-fed animals can produce 300-500% more CLA than those of cattle fed the usual diet of 50% hay and silage, and 50% grain.

2. Corn has a little environmental problem. From an Environmental Working Group (EWG) article: “A new study released today by the US Geological Survey shows that efforts to reduce nitrate levels in the Mississippi River Basin are having little impact. Nitrates come mostly from the over-application of chemical fertilizers on crops in the Corn Belt, fouling streams and rivers and eventually helping to swell the annual Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone.” The “Dead Zone” is roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, around 3,300 square miles. The corn industry lobby tried to deflect claims that corn production is responsible for the “Dead Zone”…but EWG has pointed out how it’s nothing more than a cop-out. Read this fascinating response.

3. Currently, corn-based beef production is an unsustainable enterprise. We use oil for every aspect of production. Oil for fertilizer to grow the corn. Oil to transport the corn to the feedlots. Oil to transport the cattle from the pasture to the feedlots. Oil to transport the cattle to the slaughterhouse. Oil to transport the meat to your local grocery store. Oil, oil, oil! Guess what, an oil-based system is not sustainable! It’s going to run out and before it does the price will skyrocket given limited availability to the point that oil-based systems of production will be a laughingstock.

4. Subsidies. The government doles out billions every year in subsidies to corn growers. This means that corn-production and subsequently any industry that relies on cheap corn is built on a house of cards. Take away the subsidies and the business model fails. The house falls down. EWG has calculated that corn subsidies from 1995-2010 totaled 77.1 BILLION DOLLARS! Why are we subsidizing an unsustainable industry that produces meat that is less healthy for people? Corn is produced for less than the real cost to grow it. What other industry enjoys such a luxury? If I wanted to start a small organic vegetable farm you can bet I wouldn’t be getting any subsidies to help me out.

5. There’s nothing “natural” about the conventional corn-finished feedlot way raising cattle. You see a lot of meat packages in the grocery store that say “all-natural” but all that means is that it meets the USDA definition of “natural” which is “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” What’s “natural” about feeding cows harvested corn? What’s natural about using lots of fertilizer and chemicals to grow that corn? What’s natural about using millions of gallons of oil to support the whole system? What’s natural about making a product which is less healthy than what the real natural grass-based system would give us?

6. Confinement on the feedlots. Like Bernie Mac’s character’s domino game in Ocean’s 13, “Nuff Said.”

Here’s a picture of what a typical feedlot looks like:

Here’s how I see things…

Cattle have evolved to eat and digest grass which has grown free of man-made input thanks to the energy of the sun. So, why do we spend hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars on artificial fertilizers, chemicals and everything else it takes to grow lots and lots of corn that we feed to animals? Why do we use so much oil to make food for cattle when all the food they would ever need grows naturally without any other input than the sun and a little rain from above. Interestingly enough, cattle can graze standing corn. After all, corn is a type of grass. This can be used to take some of the stress off the pasture. But this is a far cry from growing corn and harvesting it so that it can be the exclusive feed of cattle in the feedlots.

A lot of people will counter that if we switch to grass-based systems, if we do everything you’re talking about then you have to choose which people in the world will starve to death as a result. I’d like to counter that line of reasoning with two points. First, we don’t have a global food shortage problem, we have a global food distribution problem. Second, people are already starving to death and I’m not aware of any goodwill programs from major animal agriculture companies that are trying to address that problem. We sure could make better use of grains by giving them to poor people than by feeding them to cattle so we Americans can have cheap meat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack every day.

Yes, at least initially, pastured meat products will cost more. I think that, along with any kind of change, scares people. It scares them into thinking, “What if meat costs more and I have to eat less of it?” People like meat, duh. But we Americans probably eat way too much of it. It’s no longer a special part of a meal. It is the meal.

I’m reminded of a quote from Agent Smith in The Matrix: “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

While I don’t think machines (i.e. the ones that took over in The Matrix) are the answer to our uniquely human problem. I do think it’s necessary to ponder that perhaps we’re over-consuming meat. We’ve taken the amount of meat that nature will provide for us with natural systems and twisted in to factory farming to give us more. We do whatever it takes to get more for less. Shouldn’t we be thinking that less can be more? I think so.

And it all boils down to…

Why do we spend billions of dollars countering a grass-based system that God has given us and try to replace it with an unnatural oil and corn based feedlot factory farm system? Like I’ve said before, I’m not an absolutist. So, if people just can’t part with “corn-fed” taste then I would be fine with the product as a specialty “every-once-in-a-while” treat that would cost more. And only if it wasn’t part of a factory farming feedlot system. If farmer John wants to raise a few corn-fed cows beside the majority of pastured cows that would be OK with me.

Using a pasture grass-based production system is about what’s right, not what’s status quo for a multi-billion dollar industry that sees a lot of money ending up in the hands of shareholders and CEOs and delivering us ever-increasing amounts of meat for less money. When all you consider is “How do we make this cheaper?” things start taking a back seat to that all-consuming goal of “cheapness.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a food system to be based on what’s cheapest. I’d like it to be based on what’s right.

Additional Note: I’ve been concentrating on beef cattle livestock feed. If I covered every aspect of corn used for livestock feed I’d write a novel. But, I thought you should know that a large portion of corn does go to hog production, dairy cow production and chicken production. Virtually all of these systems are also factory farm “bigger, better, cheaper” systems that are heavily oil-dependent, use animal-confinement and there is nothing “natural” about these systems. These animal products can also be part of a bigger grass-based system. Perhaps no one does grass-based better than Joel Salatin. He explains it in under 3 minutes in this must-watch video


Thoughts on “American Meat”

I was really impressed with American Meat. The documentary was more ambitious than I would have guessed. It was fair and not myopic. Graham Meriwether (the director, cinematographer and producer) anticipated his critics and really gives us a complete (as much as can be in one documentary) picture of the current problem with our food system.

Some points that really stood out:

1. “Food connects us all” — I agree 100% and that’s why I believe wholeheartedly that “food activism” or whatever you want to call it is absolutely necessary because food is such an important part of every day of our lives. I remember learning in grade school that there were some basics to life: food, shelter and clothing. Food is top 3! Now obviously there are other aspects of life that are absolutely necessary as well, but food certainly connects us all in meaningful ways. When you think back on your life it’s a good bet some of the best family times involved food.

2. “We’re so removed from our food…” — The vast majority of Americans get their food at a restaurant or a grocery store. The reality is the grocery store is several if not several dozen steps removed from the actual place where your food came from. Do you know how the chicken that ended up in your saran wrapped package from the grocery store was killed? Would you be willing to find out? I’m not saying that killing a chicken is inherently wrong or immoral. Far from it. However, it’s important to realize that chickens are thought of as “protein units” in an industrial system that values bigger, better cheaper over all else. The chicken slaughterhouse is a unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Imagine an unending conveyor belt of chicken carcasses whizzing by all day long. Imagine you’re a worker on that line and you have worry every day if today is going to be the day you slice off your finger or have to be sidelined from work because of a repetitive stress injury. Virtually no one thinks about this when they buy chicken at the supermarket or order chicken strips at the restaurant. Read more about poultry production here. We literally have no idea where our food came from in most cases. The box or package doesn’t show the whole story.

3. Cost is a major problem — I’ve seen this scenario a dozen times: You nearly run out of breath telling someone the whole truth about factory farming and they respond “but no one can afford what you’re talking about, millions would be unable to afford that kind of food system.” This is one of the biggest issues in transitioning from a factory farming system to a sustainable farming system. I’d like to make three brief points: 1) We’re unfairly subsidizing the factory farming system so that the true costs are not reflected in the end product. Also, read this piece by Marion Nestle. 2) We should really be concerned about how a lot of people don’t make what would be considered a “living wage”. We should be concerned not just about making food affordable but making people able to afford food. 3) Factory farming is an unsustainable system and we literally have no choice but to convert to sustainable farming in the near future or we’ll really be in trouble. What I’m trying to say is factory farming is essentially connected to a barrel of oil. If we’re concerned about getting America “off of foreign oil” and thinking next-generation with our vehicles (electric, fuel cell, etc.) then we should really be thinking next-generation sustainable farming.

4. “Know your farmer and just completely opt out of the system” — quote by the hilariously spot on Joel Salatin. He’s a “character” is what my Grandma might say. Joel asks “if you could get paid a nice wage for working with your hands doing something that was healing would you give up your globalist agenda Dilbert cubicle job? A lot of people would.” I think that’s a beautiful statement. Have you ever gone outside and worked with your hands and had that sense of satisfaction of a job well done. I know you know the feeling. It’s a great one. Joel is basically saying you could make a living out of that feeling and do a world of good at the same time. The need is there and now we need the warm bodies. I was inspired by the number of new farmers chronicled in the documentary. I was especially impressed with one middle-aged man who gave up his 100K a year salaried job to be a delivery man for a farm (I believe it was Polyface farms, Joel Salatin’s farm) and how much better his life has been as a result.

4. We’re going to need more farmers — I think that’s good news. American Meat basically tells us to follow the advice of Ghandi himself and “be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we transition to sustainable farming we will need more farmers. It’s as simple as that. Today’s “get big or go home” farming manifesto doesn’t need a lot (relatively speaking) of labor on the farm. When you take petroleum out of the equation you must replace that with the physical labor of people on the farm. Over the past several decades we’ve seen a decay of small town America and the small sustainable family farm is nearly extinct. The average age of a farmer today is 57. We need young people to aspire to be farmers. We need to show young people that something exciting is happening out on the farm and they should be a part of it.

Assignment: Watch the trailer for American Meat below. Then visit the website http://www.americanmeatfilm.com and look for a screening near you. If there’s no screening near you, request a screening.


Exciting News!

My wife and I have the chance to see a screening of the documentary “American Meat” this Wednesday in Iowa City, IA. I’m super excited and I promise to write about the documentary as soon as I’m able! For now, you can go watch the trailer on their website and get a glimpse of the issues that will be discussed in the documentary. Check back soon!


Capitalism, Regulation and Animal Welfare

If you believe Republicans in this country you’d think the answer to all our economic woes is “free market economics unhindered by government regulation” — I’d say you’re wrong.

Sure, this is a political statement. But I’m not trying to argue from a standpoint of my politics are better than your politics. Rather, I’m using a political issue to highlight one of the fundamental driving forces behind factory farming. Peter Singer highlights this in his book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter:

“The core issue is the commercial pressures that exist in a competitive market system in which animals are items of property, and the conditions in which they are kept are not regulated by federal or state animal welfare law.” 

It’s not hard to see that the factory farming system is the result of unfettered free market capitalism.  Free market “competition” will drive the price of meat and animal products down over time. While that might sound like a good thing…consider the following. Driving the price of meat and animal products down over time is not the only goal; the additional goal is to enrich the shareholders and executives at the company. The way the price of meat goes down while still skimming enough off the top to appease shareholders and CEOs/VPs is lower wages, less worker benefits, poor working conditions, less worker rights, intensive animal confinement practices and whatever practice will be cheaper. 

This brings me to the next point, which Singer articulates very well:

“The real ethical issue about factory farming’s treatment of animals isn’t whether the producers are good or bad guys, but that the system seems to recognize animal suffering only when it interferes with profitability.” 

The “profit motive” is a very blinding concept that drives corporations to ignore animal welfare in the pursuit of better quarterly earnings reports.  That’s the trouble with capitalism. Capitalism in its most raw form is a dangerous animal. To borrow a phrase from one of my Radiology professors, “It’s a dog eat dog world out there and I’m wearing milk bone underpants.” And it is a dog eat dog world in capitalism. Sometimes it’s not pretty, e.g. 2008’s Great Recession. If you find yourself wearing the milk bone underpants capitalism might eat you alive. Luckily we have some regular cotton underpants…I call that regulation. And until I or someone smarter than me figures out a Utopian economy that can sidestep capitalism then we’ll have to settle on regulation as a safety net for the failings of capitalism.

I’d also like to say that I agree with Singer that most producers (i.e. the farmers) aren’t the “bad guys.” However, I don’t want you to forget that there are bad guys in the tale of factory farming. I’ll let you guess who that might be…

One of my top priorities when envisioning the future of animal agriculture is government regulated animal welfare laws. And I’m talking about tough laws. Laws that any decent human being would find necessary and prudent, but corporate food companies like Tyson and Cargill would find objectionable. If companies like Tyson and Cargill aren’t complaining about the new laws, you know they aren’t tough enough. If they are complaining…you’re on the right track!

Assignment: Nada…take the night off!