How America’s food giants swallowed the family farms
Semi-automated pig barns now dominate large parts of rural Iowa. Photograph: Scott Morgan/The Observer
Across the midwest, the rise of factory farming is destroying rural communities. And the massive corporations behind this devastation are now eyeing a post-Brexit UK market
by Chris McGreal, The Guardian (UK)
9 Mar 2019
When the vast expanse of rural Iowa was carved up for settlers in the 19th century, it was often divided into 160-acre lots. Four farms made a square mile, with a crisscross of dead-straight roads marking the boundaries like a sprawling chess board.
Within each square, generations of families tended pigs and cattle, grew oats and raised children, with the sons most likely to take over the farm. That is how Barb Kalbach saw the future when she left her family’s land to marry and begin farming with her new husband, Jim, 47 years ago.
“When we very first were married, we had cattle and calves,” she says. “We raised hogs from farrow to finish, and we had corn, beans, hay and oats. So did everyone around us.”
Half a century later, Kalbach surveys the destruction within the section of chessboard she shared with other farms near Dexter in southwestern Iowa. Barb and Jim are the last family still working the land, after their neighbours were picked off by waves of collapsing commodity prices and the rise of factory farming. With that came a vast transfer in wealth as farm profits funnelled into corporations or the diminishing number of families that own an increasing share of the land. Rural communities have been hollowed out.
And while the Kalbachs have hung on to their farm, they long ago abandoned livestock and mixed arable farming for the only thing they can make money at any more – growing corn and soya beans to sell to corporate buyers as feed for animals crammed by the thousands into the huge semi-automated sheds that now dominate farming, and the landscape, in large parts of Iowa.
Kalbach comes from five generations of farmers and suspects she may be the last. As she drives the roads around her farmhouse, she ticks off the disappearances.
“That’s the Shoesmiths’ place,” she said. “Two years ago, it had cattle, pigs and pasture.”
Now the land is rented out and is all given over to corn. A little further along, the Watts family’s farmhouse stands empty, its roof falling in. There are a few relics of the old farm at the place that used to be owned by the Williamses – an abandoned hen house and a bit of machinery – but the land is all corn and soya beans. The Denning house, on Walnut Avenue, was bulldozed after the land was sold and rolled into a bigger operation.
It’s a story replicated across America’s midwest, with the rapid expansion of farming methods at the heart of the row over US attempts to erode Britain’s food standards and lever open access to the UK market as part of a post-Brexit trade deal. Last weekend, the US ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, appealed to the UK to embrace US farming, arguing that those who warned against practices such as washing chicken in chlorine had been “deployed” to cast it “in the worst possible light”.
His message was greeted with anger by campaigners. Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now warned: “It is really an animal welfare issue here. If UK farmers want to compete against American imports, they will have to lower their standards or go out of business.” His words would come as no surprise to Rosemary Partridge, who farms in Sac County, western Iowa. She grew up on an Iowa family farm and then moved with her husband in the late 1970s to raise pigs and grow crops.
“In the past 20 years, where I am, independent hog farming just silently disappeared as the corporates came in,” says Partridge. “I live on a hilltop. I can see seven farm families, people my kids went to school with. They’re all gone now. My county has 11 small towns, and it’s almost like I could look back in slow motion and just see the businesses change and disappear. We’ve become poorer. Our communities are basically shattered and in more than just an economic way – in a social way too.”
This collapse has in good part been driven by the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations, or Cafos. In these industrial farming units, pigs, cows and chickens are crammed by the thousand into rows of barns. Many units are semi-automated, with feeding run by computer and the animals watched by video, with periodic visits by workers who drive between several operations.
“That’s how I end up with 40,000 hogs around me,” says Partridge.
Cafos account for only a small proportion of America’s 2 million farms, but they dominate animal production and have an outsize influence on crop growing, particularly in the midwest.
By one calculation, the US has around 250,000 factory farms of one kind or another. They have their roots in the 1930s, with the mechanisation of pig slaughterhouses. By the 1950s, chickens were routinely packed into huge sheds, in appalling conditions.
In the early 1970s, US agriculture secretary Earl Butz pushed the idea of large-scale farming with the mantra “get big or get out”. He wanted to see farmers embrace what he regarded as a more efficient strategy of growing commodity crops, such as corn and soya beans. Some farmers invested heavily in buying land and new machinery to increase production – taking on large amounts of debt to do so.
A decade later, the farm crisis hit as overproduction, the US grain embargo against the Soviet Union and high interest rates dramatically drove up costs and debt for family farms. Land prices collapsed and foreclosures escalated.“Every blow to independent farming made it more of an opportunity for large corporations to come in,” said Partridge.
In 1990, small and medium-sized farms accounted for nearly half of all agricultural production in the US. Now it is less than a quarter.
As the medium-sized family farms retreated, the businesses they helped support disappeared. Local seed and equipment suppliers shut up shop because corporations went straight to wholesalers or manufacturers. Demand for local vets collapsed. As those businesses packed up and left, communities shrank. Shops, restaurants and doctors’ surgeries closed. People found they had to drive for an hour or more for medical treatment. Towns and counties began to share ambulances.
Corporate agriculture evolved to take control of the entire production line from “farm to fork”, from the genetics of breeding to wholesalers in the US or far east. As factory farms spread, their demands dictated the workings of slaughterhouses. Smaller abattoirs, which offered choice and competitive prices to family farmers, disappeared, to be replaced by huge operations that were further away and imposed lower prices on small-scale breeders such as the Kalbachs.
“By the time you paid to transport them the extra distance, and they were paying you less than they paid the corporations because you weren’t bringing the big numbers, there was really no money in it,” says Kalbach.
The buying power of the Cafos also helps drive farmers’ decisions on which crops to grow. With no livestock, the Kalbachs were forced into gowing corn and soya beans to sell to factory farms as animal feed or to corporations for ethanol.
Iowa is not alone. Missouri, to the south, had 23,000 independent pig farmers in 1985. Today it has just over 2,000. The number of independent cattle farms has fallen by 40% over the same period...
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