Tag Archives: Big-Ag

Organic: what it is.

26 Nov


I stumbled across this article some months ago about organic chicken production in Delaware.  This article is the perfect illustration of the organic livestock industry.  The reporting is inaccurate, the customers are confused and the big-ag companies are finding ways to exploit the organic market.

Lets get the problems with the reporting out of the way first.

Here’s the first photo from the story, complete with original caption.


Mark and Kathy Maloney raise organic chickens for Perdue at their Harrington farm. The chicken houses have windows and doors on the outside and perches and boxes on the inside//Photos by Maria DeForrest.

These are broiler chickens, chickens raised for meat.  They have no roost bars (they’re too big to roost properly) and no boxes (they don’t lay eggs, so no need for boxes).  While these inaccuracies may seem nitpicky, they do contribute to a false sense of “environmental enrichment” that belies the photo.

Indeed, the chicken shown in the above photo is probably not what anyone thinks of when they hear the word “organic”.  Later in the story the reporter briefly touches on the organic chicken’s outdoor access, noting that:

“On nice days the doors are open and the birds are allowed to go outside to peck around in the organically planted grass. Outside there are water troughs for drinks and overhangs to provide shade and shelter.”

Now if that first sentence has got you thinking of happy birds rollicking around on pasture, at least the photographer was kind enough to include a photo that will disabuse you of that notion.


Look right over this nice fella’s hand.  See those red blobs?  Those are the outdoor water “troughs” they just talked about, situated cozily in the shade and shelter of an overhang.  See the few little white blobs by his fingertips?  Those are the chickens.  All half-dozen of them.

Suddenly the pastoral fantasy of chickens who get to “peck around in the organically planted grass.” seems a bit absurd in this context.  Worse yet, I fear (though this is blurry-photo-based-speculation) that these chickens may have no actual access to grass at all.  The platforms below each overhang suggest to me that we’re looking at an organic barn with “porch” style outdoor access, which allows chickens outdoors only onto a small “porch” area which is either floored completely in wood/metal/concrete or bare dirt.  Sad to say, but this kind of spirit-of-the-law flouting is entirely common in most organic production.

So with reporting like this, is it any wonder that consumers are confused, even the well-informed ones who care about their food?


Minnesota’s bird flu outbreak

7 May


You may have read about it in the news, but we’re living right in the middle of it (well, almost) here in Southeastern Minnesota.  Several counties about 2 hours NW of us were the early epicenters of this particular H5N2 outbreak in our state’s numerous commercial turkey flocks.  We’ve also seen outbreaks to the East in Wisconsin’s commercial broiler flocks and to the South in Iowa’s commercial laying flocks.


What we’ve yet to see is a single outbreak in “backyard” or alternative (read: pasture-based) poultry flocks.  This is in spite of the fact that these free-ranging flocks should be MUCH more likely to come into contact with the virus through contact with the outdoors generally, and wild birds more specifically.

Wild birds, especially waterfowl, are the alleged carriers of this particular strain of bird flu.  We’re in the midst of the spring migration here in the Mississippi flyway, which means we’re up to our eyeballs in wild birds and waterfowl right now.  With all these wild birds acting as disease vectors, the USDA’s guidance is pretty simple: keep your poultry locked up indoors and keep all the germs outdoors.

Try as they might, the commercial poultry farmers seem unable to stop the virus from infiltrating their barns.  We’ve already lost 8% of Minnesota’s turkey flock to the outbreak and 17% of Iowa’s laying flock.

So if the virus is getting into highly bio-secure poultry barns, we can safely assume that it’s probably getting into wide-open backyard and pastured poultry flocks like ours.
The big question is, why is the virus killing off confinement poultry and not ours?

I was mulling over all these questions on Saturday morning, when I walked out of my house to find this lying on my patio.


That looks an awful lot like a recently deceased cooper’s hawk.  Of the ~2500 wild birds that the MDC has tested for avian influenza so far, the only positive they’ve turned up was a recently deceased cooper’s hawk.  They’re asking people to report any dead raptors they find, so that they can be tested for the virus.

Cue panicking about the Minnesota Department of Ag showing up to liquidate our laying flock….

After calling in to report said cooper’s hawk to the MDC, we breathed a big sigh of relief.  They didn’t want to take the bird in for testing, it had likely been dead too long.  Apparently they have to be pretty fresh to still carry the virus.

Here it is several days later, and our chickens are still healthy.

So far, so good.


FDA Outlaws our Eggs

27 Jul

Well, I’ve heard rumors of some silly new FDA regulations coming down the pipeline, and a few days ago, the new rules arrived.

Draft Guidance for Industry: Questions and Answers Regarding the Final Rule, Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation (Layers with Outdoor Access)

Sounds innocuous enough.  Wordy, yes, but this is the Federal government we’re talking about…

Anyway, this is part of an ongoing process by which the FDA “clarifies” the rules that it’s already made for us farmers to follow.  These particular rules were put in place almost 5 years ago, but they’re still deciding exactly what the rules mean.

Sounds like fun already.


These rules are supposed to prevent Salmonella Enteritis from infecting eggs that we farmers sell.  Nevermind that a SE-infected hen only “sheds” SE into 1 of every 20,000 eggs she lays.  Nevermind that you’re far more likely to contract a Salmonella infection from a head of lettuce than from an egg.

Of the Salmonella outbreaks investigated last year by the CDC, there were exactly zero caused by eggs.  In 2012 outbreaks were traced to: peanut butter, hedgehogs, mangoes, cantaloupe, ground beef, live baby chicks, dog food, “raw scraped tuna product”, turtles and lettuce.


So, logically, it’s time to lower the boom on egg producers.


So what do these new proposed rules do?

They require us farmers to keep our “clean” chickens away from any “dirty” wild animals that may carry Salmonella.

You must prevent stray poultry, wild birds, cats, and other animals from entering poultry houses (21 CFR 118.4(b)(4)).  This requirement applies to the entire poultry house, including any outdoor access areas that are part of the poultry house.

So if you’re a big industrial egg producer this is no big deal.  You already have your chickens locked up in a windowless building, you’re chickens will go to their graves without ever having seen the sky, breathed fresh air, or come into contact with a stray sparrow that might sneeze on them.

It’s only those weird organic producers, or those crazy “free-range” pastured-egg producers that have anything to worry about.  Our chickens get to roam around outdoors, pecking in the grass, scratching in the dirt.  According to the FDA our chickens live dangerously because they roam around in the “unsanitary” outdoors instead of a “clean” battery cage inside of a giant prison poultry barn.

These rules, if they become law, will mean the end of free-range eggs.  Our chickens will have to be locked up in a completely fenced (and roofed) enclosure to comply, and we’re not interested in raising confined chickens.

Confined chickens are unhappy chickens.

Confined chickens are bad for the environment, they lay less-healthy and less-tasty eggs.

These rules are bad for farmers, bad for chickens and bad for consumers.

If you like our free-range eggs, and want to be able to continue buying them, please let the FDA know as much by September 23rd so that these proposed rules don’t become the law of the land.

Big pig farms sticking it to the little guys

17 Jun

Well, the days are getting longer, the to-do list is getting longer, and the blog posts are getting shorter.  There’s plenty going on to write about, but precious little time to do the actual writing.

Anyhow, I wanted to pass along two stories for anyone (myself included) who wonders how a small pork producer can make it in the hyper-globalized industrial pork world we live in.


The first, from Business Week, tells of the financial impacts that ractopamine is having on the US pork industry. If you’ve never heard of ractopamine, your not alone.  It’s a chemical that some producers (don’t worry, not us!) put in their pig’s feed to promote growth and leanness.

Ractopamine has been deemed safe by US authorities, but is banned by the EU, Russia and China.  That’s right, China, the people who have the big “Pigfestation” problem at least have the good sense to say “No Thanks” to chemical additives in their pig feed.

Now in addition to being kind of gross, the use of this chemical is also quite unfair to small producers.  The smaller pork producers have a choice.  Either they use Ractopamine (sold as Paylean) to become cost-competitive with the big guys but lose the ability to sell overseas, or don’t use Paylean, but be at a $5 pricing disadvantage.  (If you’re unfamiliar with industrial-scale farming, $5 is a HUGE deal, as big and little guys alike operate on margins measured in pennies.)

To make matters worse, the small pork producers all end up selling to the very meatpackers that are owned by the big pork producers. This “vertical integration” (read: monopoly) has existed for decades in the chicken industry, and has spread to the pork industry as well.

Which brings me to the second story, wherein the 800lb Gorilla of the US pork industry, Smithfield foods, has taken their vertically-integrated business model overseas, with predictable results.

Robert Wallace, a visiting professor of geography at the University of Minnesota says Smithfield’s global rise is part of a broader “livestock revolution that has created cities of pigs and chickens” in poorer nations with weaker regulations. “The price tag goes up for small farmers.”

In a similar chain of consequences, separate subsidies mined by Smithfield helped support the export of cheap pork scraps from Poland to Africa, where some hog farmers also are giving up because they cannot compete.

Environmental degradation? Check.

Political Corruption? Check.

Squeezing out small farmers? Check.

So what’s the takeaway from all this bad news?  Well, two things.

First, for farmers: Get out of the commodity game.  Raise animals as more than just a generic commodity to be bought, sold and traded.  Sell directly to your customer.  It’s the only way to bypass our unfair, corrupt food system and get the price you deserve for your animals.

Second, for consumers (and since we all eat food, that’s pretty much everyone): Buy food from a person, not a faceless brand in the grocery store, it’s the best way to get what you want.  A farmer who sells to a meatpacker is going to raise pigs the way the meatpacker wants, your concerns are secondary (if that).  A farmer who sells directly to their customers is directly accountable to those customers.

Corporations, Universities, and the Future of Conventional Agriculture

18 Jun

I happened across this article the other day which details a report by the group Food & Water Watch on the connection between corporate money and Land-Grant University research.  I have at least some familiarity with this relationship, as I currently live less than 2 miles from both “Monsanto Place” and “Monsanto Auditorium” at the University of Missouri.  That’s about $3 million in corporate donations within walking distance.

As I’ve discussed before, some of the research coming out of land-grant universities these days is appalling, and they know it.  While I think it’s helpful to point these shenanigans out to the public, I don’t spend too much of my time or energy on them.

Sure conventional ag as we know it may be causing problems, but conventional ag is necessary to feed our growing population; and fortunately for us (sort of) the damage is largely self-limiting.

Don’t believe me?  Lets take a look at the current trends in fossil fuels, water use, antibiotics, animal welfare, and herbicides.

Fossil Fuels: We all realize that fossil fuel prices are going nowhere but up.  And anyone who’s heard of Hubbert’s Peak can tell you that the trend is unlikely to letup.  There is a reason that the big equipment manufacturers are all competing to make more fuel-efficient tractors.

Water Use: Some of the biggest produce growing regions of the US are in quite arid climate zones. The sames goes for a lot of the grain-producing plains states which draw from the Ogallala Aquifer which is being rapidly depleted. Farmers in these regions are rapidly switching to new water-saving technologies just to stay in business.

“Only the highly efficient water users will survive and those are the growers getting on the train and going to drip systems or center pivots.”

Antibiotics: So the big problem with routine sub-theraputic antibiotic use in farm animals is that we’re seeing increased antibiotic resistance both in the animals and in people. The UDSA admits that using antibiotics in animal agriculture is causing problems.

“I believe it is more helpful to acknowledge that antibiotic use in animals contributes to the problem and that prudent antibiotic use should be encouraged in all sectors. The agricultural community must accept part of the responsibility.”

Combine the increasing consumer pressure for antibiotic-free meat with the increasing cost of antibiotics as more bacteria evolve resistance to the cheap ones, and we’re all going to see fewer antibiotics on the farm in the future.

Animal Welfare: A 2003 Gallup Poll found that 96% of Americans say that animals deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation.  A solid 62% majority support passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals. Consumers are capable of living with a background-level of cognitive dissonance in their lives (eating factory-farmed meat, while thinking it’s unethical to do so) but as soon as something pops up in the news, and brings the issue to the forefront we see action like California’s Prop 2, or Missouri’s Prop B. We also get distribution-side changes, where big buyers like McDonald’s demand changes in their suppliers practices.  I think that 20 years down the road animal ag is going to look a lot “kinder and gentler” than it does today.

Herbicides:  Discriminate herbicides, and the genetic-engineering that allows them have, for all their faults, both reduced total herbicide usage, and increased productivity. Unfortunately, this effect will not be long-lived.  There are more and more multiple-herbicide-resistant “superweeds” sprouting in fields all over the world. Much like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, herbicide-resistant weeds will continue to to out-evolve our chemical defenses until the herbicides are either too expensive, or cause too much consumer concern; like Dow Chemicals’ new “Agent Orange Corn.”

“Most important, weed biotypes already exist that are resistant to these herbicides; Thus, it would be naive to expect any of these new weed-control tools to solve all of our current weed-resistance problems.”

Considering all of these factors, I think that the conventional farms of the future will look a heck of a lot more like what’s going on at the Rodale Institute, and the land-grant universities would be wise to get ahead of the curve by investing in similar research.


Pigs: How much suffering is neccessary?

11 Mar

So I’ve started doing a bit of pig research.

Please note that I have absolutely no experience raising pigs, in fact, I’ve only been around real live pigs a few times in my life.

I’m not about to let a little thing like that stand between me and some good home-grown bacon. Mmmmmm….Bacon!

But I digress.

It seems that of all the domesticated livestock, pigs have it the worst. In “conventional” CAFO-style pig raising, the sows (the mamas) are locked up in tiny crates for their entire lives. Clearly this is tantamount to torture for any animal, much less an animal as intelligent as a pig.

Before a sow gives birth, she is moved to a gestation crate, and these are common even in small-scale “sustainable” and “humane” farms.  Gestation crates are a small crate that allows the sow to lay down, but not enough room for her to move around too much and crush her newborn piglets. While I laud the noble goals of gestation crates (keeping piglets from being killed) I can’t help but think they are the result of we humans not letting pigs act-out their innate behaviors.

It is in the sows best interest (genetically speaking) to have all of her piglets survive.  She doesn’t want to lay down on any of them, as that eliminates her own genetic material from the gene pool.  So as with many of these questions, I ask myself: “What would the pig do without us?”

It would appear that without us, pigs prefer a bit more space to give birth, and they apparently like to nest. Enter the farrowing hut.  Farrowing huts are small structures that are out in the field, in which the pigs give birth.  Farrowing huts are commonly filled with hay, so that the sow can get in there and make a comfortable nest for her piglets.
Farrowing huts are definately the method I will be trying for my first sow.  If I consistently have problems losing piglets, then we’ll think about taking more extreme measures.

Once the piglets are a few days old they are typically vaccinated, castrated and have their needle teeth clipped.

Vaccination is no big deal, a little needle-prick is nothing to sweat.  If I can to do it, the pigs can do it.

Castration, well, there might be no way around that one. Boars allegedly don’t taste good, and you only need so many to do the breeding. Perhaps if they can be turned into bacon before they hit sexual maturity, then the whole concern over “boar taint” would be rendered moot.  Time, and more research, will tell.

Needle teeth. Now here’s where I have no idea what I’m talking about. But it’s time for some good-ol’ wild speculation.  Needle teeth are clipped to prevent the piglets from causing injury to the sow’s teats.  So, “What would the pig do without us?”

Well, it’s not in the piglets best interest to injure their mother, to “bite the (teat) that feeds.” So I wonder if teat injuries are prevalent enough in a more natural, low-stress environment to worry about going through that extra step, and subjecting the piglets to one more intervention and it’s attendant chances for complications.


Well, it looks like I’m in for a wild ride here in a year or two when I can finally start raising pigs.  I’m going to shoot for using the fewest interventions possible.  If things start going horribly wrong, we’ll start incorporating interventions as neccessary.

Let them eat poop.

7 Mar

What part of this sounds like a good idea?  Answer: none.

But here it is, from my Alma-mater the University of Missouri-Columbia: How to feed your cows chicken poop for fun and profit.  

Some would say that I shouldn’t expect much from the same university that is home to “Monsanto Auditorium.”  Or the university that renamed Reactor field “Monsanto Place.”

They tried to sneak in my favorite part there at the end: “Keep in mind that feeding poultry litter to beef cattle, while a sound nutritional management option, carries with it certain stigmas that may cause beef consumers to become alarmed.”

Gosh, so you think that we might be alarmed that people are feeding one herbivores excrement to another herbivore? That’s probably because we are just not smart enough to understand the complexities of modern beef production.  Why, to our untrained ears, it sounds almost unnatural.

It’s almost as if animal husbandry has become a game to these people.  “What can we get them to eat next?” They’ll ask.  Play-doh?  Obsolete computer circuit boards? The homeless?

I’ve got an idea for you:  Grass.

It’s cheap, readily available, and cattle love to eat it.  Sure it takes a bit more management, and it doesn’t grow during the winter, but it sure beats the heck out of eating poop.

After all, we are what we eat.
And if the same holds true for cows, we’re all in deep….well, you know.

Antibiotics in animal feed: Part of the problem.

23 Feb

It’s nice to be right every once in a while.  Unfortunately, I’d rather not be right about this:  “MRSA appears to have originated in humans, but acquired antibiotic resistance in animals”

Yep, turns out that if 60% or so of the antibiotics in this country are used for animals (mostly in feed) that’s where you’re going to find the antibiotic-resitant bacteria.

So with the BBC, 60 Minutes, Time magazine, and a plethora of scientific and medical journals claiming that we’re in an “Antibiotic Crisis” Why are we still giving so many antibiotics of it to farm animals?

The big agri-businesses would tell you that they need the antibiotics to keep their animals healthy.  The real truth is that they need them to keep their businesses profitable.  Regular antibiotic use allows producers to get away with keeping their animals in unnatural and unsanitary conditions, which are more profitable.