Originally published in The Reader – Dec. 16, 2010
Nebraska used to be ahead of the curve when it came to protecting family farms. Now it is home to one of the largest concentrations of factory farms in the country.
According to a recent study released by national food safety non-profit Food and Water Watch, Nebraska had an estimated 2.59 million cattle, hogs and chickens on factory farms as of 2007, the latest set of data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm census.
That total ranks Nebraska fourth in the country in total livestock units – a definition based on weight as a way to compare animals of different sizes – trailing only Texas, Iowa and California. Iowa is the only state with more factory farmed animals per square mile than Nebraska’s density of 33.5 livestock units.
When it comes to the state’s famed beef cattle, the numbers are even more jarring. Only Texas and Kansas have more cattle on feedlots larger than 500 head than Nebraska. Cuming County – located in northeast Nebraska with a population of approximately 10,000 – ranks sixth among U.S. counties with 253,940 head of beef cattle.
The statistics show a state literally packed with livestock on corporate owned, large scale farms. What happened to the bucolic vision of the hard-working family farmer?
Simple economics says Carolyn Johnsen, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of the 2003 book Raising a Stink: The struggle over factory hog farms in Nebraska.
“People saw that they could make more money concentrating animals in feedlots and hog barns,” she says. “Nationally, the policy encouraged it.”
When a series of federal farm bills spurred surplus production of soy beans, corn and oats in the 1980s it became cheaper for farmers to put their livestock on feed rather than out to pasture. Cheaper feed meant more animals. The average size of a factory hog farming operation in Nebraska – all farms with more than 1,000 hogs on site – grew by 76 percent between 1997 and 2007 according to Food and Water Watch.
But farms weren’t just able to get bigger – they had to. In 1982 Nebraska passed Initiative 300, the most stringent bill of its kind banning almost all corporations and syndicates from owning farmland and livestock in Nebraska. District Court Judge Laurie Smith-Camp repealed I-300 23 years later in 2005, ruling that it was unconstitutional as it discriminated against out-of-state investors.
Meanwhile meatpacking companies across the country were consolidating thanks to continual concessions in the Packers and Stockyards Act, the 1921 law designed to break up the meat monopoly of the “Big Five” packing companies. By 2007 the meatpacking industry was less diverse than it was when the act was created with 80 percent of the U.S. cattle trade controlled by three companies and 1 in 12 cattle slaughtered in the U.S. packer-owned.
Controlling large portions of both the production and processing of beef, the companies were able to drive down the market price forcing family farms to either, in the words of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, “get big or get out.”
John Hansen, president for the past 21 years of the Nebraska Farmer’s Union, says the combination of consolidation and the repeal of I-300 – which had insulated the state from that consolidation for nearly a quarter of a century – left Nebraska wide open to factory farming. The result is a market for beef and pork he calls “completely and totally dysfunctional.”
“It is not a conventional market,” he says. “If it was it would be competitive, accessible, transparent and fair. Hardly any of those characteristics are in play in the meat market.
“Is it really in our national interest to get down to one meat packer or one hog packer? How has that worked in any other sector? It hasn’t worked well and it won’t work in agriculture either.”
But the growth continues. Since 2002 Nebraska has seen its animals per farm average grow for hogs, broiler chickens, and beef and dairy cattle. Densely packed feedlots and barns present a number of potential health and environmental issues for the end consumer.
The potential for one animal with a disease or illness to infect thousands of others is greater as farms grow larger Johnsen says. Giant farms also produce giant amounts of manure, posing environmental threats to air, soil and water quality. The nearly 254,000 cattle in Cuming County produce more raw sewage than New York and Miami combined.
Hansen says he continues to believe there’s hope for the family farm in the future. His organization continues to work for new legislative limits on factory farms but the real power may lie with the consumer.
“We encourage consumers to become more informed and more engaged in where their food comes from and how it was produced,” he says. “It’s not hard in this state to find a friend or family member who knows someone who produces hogs or cattle. Buy directly from them. Get a freezer.
“We think very clearly that if you give consumers the choice they’ll pick family farm raised and produced.”