RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Confined Animals Sink the Farm

Last summer, there was a bunch of racket from the Confined Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO, about a half mile from our house. Turns out the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from Cargill’s 5,600 hogs had rotted out the steel roof of the building and it needed to be replaced.

The owner, who has a contract with Cargill to raise the hogs, had the roof replaced despite all the signs. Long story short: The CAFO business is in deep doodoo.

If you’re interested in buying one, there are CAFOs for sale all over the Midwest. Some of these, like my neighbor’s, raise hogs. Others raise poultry, both the meat and egg-laying kinds. Some raise sheep or cattle or even house dairy animals. Your milk probably comes from a huge stinking confinement where animals rarely if ever see the light of day.

This CAFO business has never had a good prognosis. In fact, no bank would have touched the million-dollar loans to build them if the loans hadn’t come with a guarantee of payment by the US government. The idea was that we could raise lots and lots of meat and ship it out to balance the huge amount of manufactured goods—cars, TVs, computers and so forth—we were shipping in. That was supposed to balance our trade deficit.

Stupid idea. All that happened was that the industry became more and more concentrated as the huge number of animals in confinement made it impossible for real farmers to compete. Then, the amount of power in meat companies too big too fail (TBTF — remember that phrase from other bailouts?) meant that the government granted them more and more benefits.

Besides the feds, impoverished counties have had to pay for new roads and bridges for the behemoth 18-wheelers that haul the livestock to the butcher. Impoverished school systems have had to hire bilingual teachers for the kids of immigrants that can’t get better jobs than cutting up meat in a meat plant.

It also means pollution of the very worst kind. Each generation and type of CAFO has its own manure-handling system. Some pump the manure sludge into lagoons that sit in the sun. Others use an absorptive litter to soak up the effluent. Believe it or not, these by-products can become certified as organic inputs for organic fields and most of the organic products in the big box stores have been fertilized by effluent from CAFOs. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times: That’s how my grandpa farmed, spreading manure in the spring.

Wrong! Grandpa had two or three dozen hogs and two or three dozen cows.

CAFOs have thousands and hundreds of thousands of animals.

Now the CAFO-raised meat packers are in even worse shape as consumers have lost confidence in a system that keeps thousands of animals alive in spaces the size of crowded elevators. Research is getting out that there’s a threat from antibiotic-resistant bacteria in effluent from CAFO lagoons.

MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a kind of staph infection that’s almost impossible to treat. Forget about avian flu. MRSA is an epidemic in hospitals.

The genius of the business is that all the liability for the animals and buildings was laid on the operator of the CAFO while all the profits went to the corporation. When times got tough, the corporation has simply cancelled contracts and now the operators are stuck with empty buildings and plenty of debt. They don’t want to default, of course, because losing their buildings means losing their property and homes. It means unemployment, without unemployment benefits, and homelessness in counties that can’t provide any kind of homeless services.

For taxpayers, bankrupt CAFOs mean big cleanup headaches as the property goes to auction. Who’s going to buy a pit full of manure? No one, of course. That means the county has to deal with the mess before it overflows into public waters or aquifers.

In Arkansas, Florida and North Carolina, more than 300 operators lost their contracts when Pilgrim’s Pride declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 1, 2008. The reorganization plan of Pilgrim’s Pride enabled the company to get $450 million in financing to reorganize. It has also caused the world’s largest chicken company to bleed jobs. Besides the CAFO owners, there have been discards of plant workers, truckers and even office workers in some of the nation’s most depressed states.

The solution to the problem is not, however, to re-build this CAFO industry. The industry has always had a bad business plan. It has never made sense.

Dozens of studies have confirmed that the best way to raise food is on family farms and that the best way to re-build failing counties is to train young farmers in sustainable techniques.

This is the future we can count on, the future that will feed consumers and nurture the land.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2009

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