On Farms and Factory Farming

We just drove through Iowa. Where most people may have seen lovely farm landscape,  I’m a farmer and I saw nothing but a toxic nightmare with ruined soil.

The only crops were corn and soybeans–both of which I avoid in food–with the few cattle in no-pasture feedlots. We couldn’t see the pigs or chickens; no doubt locked in buildings. It’s not the way to farm. It’s not the way to raise healthy food. It’s not the way to treat animals. What’s the solution?

The government should fix it!

Bah. The government created the factory farm problem by setting the stage to destroy the family farms.When I talk here about what took place, I’m talking from first-hand experience and what happened to the farms, people, and area I knew.

The beginning of the end of family farms was in the 1970s. The most devastating thing to happen to family farms was the government’s inheritance tax. Children could no longer inherit the family farm because they could not afford to do so. Inflation, exorbitant interest rates, and rising land prices (remember the Jimmy Carter era) made it impossible for the family farm to be passed down in the family. The bulk of family farms went fallow or were sold. Either way, they went out of business.

Our area, what had been an area of beautiful dairy farms, within a very sort span of time ceased to have any dairy farms at all. A few of my generation tried to take over farms, or to buy farms. Farming was in their blood and, despite the risks and endless hard work, they wanted to farm. Farming is a matter of pride. Farmers are truly independent… or they used to be.

Farmers know they feed the nation, and the world. By the late 1970s those who still farmed faced tremendous difficulty. At its best, farming is endless hard work. There are no holidays or weekends off. There are no cute little forty hour work weeks and no vacations. No one pays benefits or gives you medical insurance or a pension plan. If you want to increase your income you have to work harder to produce more. A true family farm requires a family. One person cannot do it alone. Children are required to work, and from a very young age. Get silly notions about child labor out of your head when I say that. It’s good for children to not only work, but to feel they are an actual valued contributor to the family income and business. A farm is a good place to raise children.

So, with the changes in the world and the farm financial situation, the women of the farms–who used to be full partners in the farm business–had to go out to find jobs to support the family when the farm could not. This was also a major factor in the cataclysmic decline in 4-H programs as mothers were no longer available to take such an active role in raising their children and supporting their programs and activities. But, that’s an aside. The men also started to work at jobs outside the farm. Imagine putting in a full dawn to dusk day on the farm, then going in to work a nightshift at a job in town? Is it any wonder the appeal of running a family farm started to fade and fade rapidly?

Another huge factor in the destruction of the family farm came also from our benevolent, far-sighted government. This was the requirement to have milk come from “Grade A” dairy farms. This did-in a lot of dairy farms. Yes, we want clean food. Grade A dairy barns are so clean you could eat off the floor. Great. The piping keeps the milk untouched and sanitary. Lovely. All good, right? A Grade A conversion was very, very expensive. Almost certainly not having the money on-hand to pay outright for such a conversion, farmers had to borrow a large sum at high interest rates to pay for the conversion, or go out of business.

Those dairy farmers who were older, or unable, or unwilling, simply went out of business. Where before this a dairy farmer in our area may have milked about 30 cows, to make the Grade A barns pay-off, to pay for the conversion and still make enough profit to live on, the dairy farms around us who stayed in business now went to 70 to 100 cows being milked, or more. This increases income, but also increases the work load. If dairy prices fall, as they inevitably did, then the outside job must be maintained to make the payments on the loans. It was a vicious, stressful cycle.

Farming had now lost any of the classic sense of “idyllic”.

Independence also took a hit when the government threw in more curves with FHA loans to farmers. A farmer applying for a loan to buy a farm, or upgrade to Grade A dairy would be told how many cows he had to be milking in order to get the loan. The numbers got absurd. Starting a farm became virtually impossible. Farmers where forced into a hopeless spiral where they simply could not milk enough cows to pay for the loans to buy the cows they had to buy to get the loans to have cows in the first place.

The other insanities our brilliant government threw in included attempts to get people to raise less corn… by paying them based on how much corn they grew. Naturally, people planted as much corn as possible because of this.

The dairy buyout was another horrific thing the government did, and in a way gave full government sanction to the abuse and torture of farm animals. A dairy farmer–a good dairy farmer, as most family farmers were–cares for his livestock and treats them as kindly as possible. A happy, contented cow produces more and better milk. This isn’t a new concept (though when considering the conditions on factory farms it is a lost concept). The government dairy buyout would buy and slaughter entire herds of dairy cows to decrease milk production. As awful as the idea of the unnecessary slaughter of fine, productive dairy cows is, the way it was done caused a number of farmers I knew to back out because they wouldn’t allow the abuse of their cows. The cows bought out were to be branded–hot iron branded–on their faces. Many farmers could not stand the though of this torture being done to their beloved cows and backed out. That is what our government was doing. That is how our government said it was okay to treat animals.

I don’t know how to unwind this food/factory farm mess, or even if it’s possible, but the government sure isn’t the way. The government wants people to accept cheap fodder as the norm (then blame the human victims for the obesity and heart disease caused by the horrific food). I get grass-fed, organic, free-range, etc. for us to eat and pay the substantial price for it, but–honestly–you can’t feed 6.5 billion people that way. So what’s the answer?

As we were driving through Iowa, I commented that I wondered if people farming now even knew how to properly farm the land, or if that knowledge was being lost. A farm can exist and produce on the same land for thousands of years, all without requiring outside fertilizers or creating any pollution. Not so the current farms with their endless fields of engineered, modified corn. Corn is hard on the soil. Yet crop rotation doesn’t happen. Artificial fertilizers do. Artificial fertilizers may produce tall, green corn stalks and high yields, but do they have the basic minerals and nutrients the human body, or the intermediary livestock fed the corn, requires to be healthy? No. Then the factory chicken farms, pig farms, and cattle feedlots produce waste that creates a serious pollution problem. This “pollution” on a proper multi-crop, family-type farm is called “fertilizer”. No waste. No pollution. A proper cycle that produces high-quality, nourishing foods.

There’s more to this rant about farming, about how the food you buy in the stores is not as “healthy” as it may seem. That will come later.