Livestock farms under scrutiny

chicks on barn floor
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

By Susan Crowell /

Several weeks ago, we shared an Associated Press story that reported a federal jury awarded more than $50 million in damages to neighbors of a large hog operation in North Carolina, a contract farm for Smithfield Foods, which was the target of the lawsuit, not the farm owner.

Jurors awarded 10 neighbors of a 15,000-head swine operation $750,000 in compensation ($75,000 per neighbor), plus $50 million in damages for odor, noise and other disturbances. A U.S. district judge subsequently cut the size of the punitive damages to $2.5 million, citing state law that limits damages for corporate wrongdoings to no more than $250,000. His order might be appealed.

But this is only the first lawsuit. The AP reports dozens more have been filed by more than 500 neighbors complaining about N.C. hog operations.

Earlier this week, the environmental activist organization Food & Water Watch released a report and launched a national campaign to ban “factory farming” in the U.S., saying they have “transformed rural and economically diverse communities into agribusiness-controlled nightmares.”

Ban on Factory Farms
(Click image to view report.)

The group is defining factory farms as medium or large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOS, that contain: more than 200 head of mature dairy cattle; 300 head of beef cattle; 750 hogs (over 55 pounds) or 3,000 hogs under 55 pounds; more than 16,500 turkeys; more than 25,000 egg-laying chickens; and more than 37,500 broiler (meat) chickens.

Their recommendations include pushing federal and state governments to enact “aggressive” policies to limit the contribution of agriculture to climate change, and to cease permitting new factory farm operations to be built or existing farms to expand.

They want local governments to control siting and practices, and there’s a host of other demands.

If you want to know if this hits close to home, consider this: About 90 percent of Ohio’s egg-producing poultry are housed in permitted CAFOs, and possibly more than a quarter of dairy animals are in permitted facilities.

Fact No. 1: Farms are getting larger. Farms with more than $1 million in gross cash farm income accounted for half of the value of U.S. farm production in 2015, up from about a third in 1991, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Fact No. 2: Family farms still play a dominant role, accounting for 99 percent of U.S. farms and 89 percent of production in 2015, also according to the USDA-ERS.

Fact No. 3: Consumers care about the environment and the welfare of livestock, but they also want low food prices.

Many people oppose modern agricultural practices, and they do so for a variety of reasons: nostalgia, ignorance (and that doesn’t mean stupidity, it means simply “you don’t know what you don’t know”), personal and social philosophies, environmental concerns, even distrust of the federal government. It is their right to do so.

But make sure you aren’t adding fuel to their fires — regardless of farm size, each farmer needs to do the right thing and exceed minimum environmental standards. Communicate with all your neighbors. Be considerate. Be responsible. Take a look at your farm (and a sniff) from a neighbor’s perspective.

Will there be more pressure on public policy regarding large livestock farms? Undoubtedly.

So here’s the thing to remember: Public perception of agriculture is the key to its future. Retired ag economist Luther Tweeten once said, “the future of the industry and farm policy will not be decided by just the facts about farm structure and problems, but also by how the public views agriculture.”

How do your neighbors view your farm?


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