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The Size of a Farm and Money Matters

Garth Brown |

The list price for the above tractor and implements is probably more than your house unless you live in a very tony neighborhood. Every year more and more food in America comes from farms of such huge scale that machines of monstrous size and power are required to cover the ground in a timely fashion. Seeds all need to be planted in a short window in the spring and crops all need to be harvested over the course of a few weeks in the fall. I don't know who owns that machine, but there are only three candidate farms in this neck of the woods. The number of miles of travel in any given direction that these giant farms have to go to find arable ground means that there are simply too few acres to go around for more than a paltry number of mega-operations. Those three farms produce the same amount (or more) food than 175-200 farms of 40 or 50 years ago when the family dairy was still very much a fixture of rural New York.

The shift from family farm scale dairying to mega CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) farming has had and continues to have profound effects on rural America. My favorite agricultural magazine, Graze, highlighted this in the closing editorial this month. Written by a long time hog farmer, he had many observations about the parallel tracks that pigs and dairy cattle seem to be on, with a time delay for the cows. What the smaller family dairy farm is up against right now, the little hog farmer went through 25 or 30 years ago. And there are not very many smaller hog farms left in this country. The shift to ever larger machines, ever more acres, and ever more animals concentrated into a single location has widespread and varied ramifications, many of which I trust you dear readers already know about, from erosion, to inhumane treatment of animals, to pollution from too many animals all living in one spot, to labor abuses.

Giant farms push the margins down on the commodities they produce. A huge CAFO can afford to pay its owners a tiny percentage of total revenue because the gross is big enough to support a family on just a fraction of 1% of total income. Smaller farms must pay their owners a greater percentage of income to meet basic living expenses. With a business like my farm the higher prices I ask for my products should in theory help to make up this difference. The thinking goes that if a small local farm's margin can be a bit fatter than pork out of a CAFO it can compensate for the smaller number of total animals raised and sold. So I was disheartened to see in that same issue of Graze another article that detailed many of the costs of grass-fed beef. While the gross revenue derived from a direct marketed grass-fed steer is certainly greater than selling through a livestock auction house, most of the "extra" money is eaten up by other "inefficiencies" of smaller scale farming - to take but one example I've wrestled with of late - trucking. I only have a very small truck/trailer that can only carry two or three steers (depending on size) at a time. A tractor trailer can move 38-45 at a time. The amount of gas and labor required to transport my cattle to slaughter is significantly greater than a big farm running semi loads at a time.

Another important aspect of the price of food concerns the workers involved in its production. Most of the big CAFO dairies in NY employ immigrants, who sometimes don't even benefit from the already lax laws that are supposed to offer a modicum of protection to agricultural workers. Big slaughterhouses are notorious for their shady labor practices and the throw-away mentality they exhibit toward the people they employ. Carpal tunnel syndrome from making the same cut with a knife for an entire shift? Too bad. Take an advil. The smaller slaughterhouses we use provide lower middle class job to local folks. The cost differences are stark. One cow I just took to slaughter cost more $900 to slaughter and butcher. IBP, Tyson, and Cargill, can do the same thing for just a little over $100 because of the scale of their facilities and the squeeze they can put on the labor that works for them.

So far this blogpost is a downer - mega farms have many advantages over smaller farms from access to capital, to help from the government when prices for their products turn down, to efficiences detailed above. And yet I'm still optimistic about the ability of small farms to survive and thrive. At Cairncrest Farm, and others farms similar to ours, we have one advantage that affords us a huge leg up. We like and respect our customers. We produce healthy food that tastes good and that they want to eat. CAFOs in general are contemptuous of consumer concerns around animal health, labor practices, and environmental problems. Rather than looking in the mirror and figuring out why people are worried about the news reports of sickening practices like pink slime, the industrial agriculturists obfuscate, spin, and hide their production practices. Aurora Dairy in Colorado sells millions of gallons of "organic" milk into the marketplace (Walmart brand milk) even though it was sanctioned for failing to meet NOP (National Organic Protocol) standards years ago and little to nothing has changed since being found wanting. Every year more people wake up to the fact that good, real food tastes better than the CAFO alternative and that to find a source of real food the best way is to purchase from a trustworthy source. All the desire for real food from family farms means there is opportunity for farms like mine to find a niche.


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