Corporate farms are causing havoc for many small livestock farmers inthe Midwest. It’s hard for the smaller producers to compete with theirmuch larger neighbors. So rather than compete, some farmers are lookingfor ways to become different, like adopting more humane methods ofraising animals. For those who do, they see it as a way to save thefamily farm, and preserve a special way of life. The Great Lakes RadioConsortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
Corporate farms are causing havoc for many small livestock farmers in the Great Lakes region. It’s hard for the smaller producers to compete with their much larger neighbors. So rather than compete, some farmers are looking for ways to become different, like adopting more humane methods of raising animals. For those who do, they see it as a way to save the family farm, and preserve a special way of life. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports.
(ambient sound — at the pig farm)
About two hundred pigs are running around in a large outdoor pen on a farm in
Peoria County, Illinois. Half of the area is covered with a Quonset hut type roof and a mesh tarp. The other half is open, and the floor of the pen is covered with straw. This is the old way to raise hogs. The way farmers once did it before the development of indoor steel and concrete pens that make up factory style farms. Steve Christy owns this farm, and makes a living as an independent farmer. He is one of the last independent hog farmers in the county. Christy says he survives by not competing with the big companies.
“We play a different game. Because we are catering to a certain crowd of people and we know who our buyers are.”
Christy says he was on the verge of losing his farm to a large agriculture company until he found a new way to compete. Some of the hogs he raises are certified as organic. That means he meets strict standards for the care of those pigs. And he doesn’t use any chemicals to raise them. The rest of his animals are raised in what is called a humane and natural way. Some chemicals, such as pesticides may be used in their feed, but the pigs are not confined in tiny pens throughout their lives. Instead, they can wander the farm and lead more natural lives until they go to slaughter. Christy says all this makes his
pig’s meat more tender. And when he takes them to market, he only sells the best parts of the animals. Between using only higher quality cuts of meat and the way the animals are raised, this product is being sold for two to three times as much at health food stores and high-end restaurants. While organic and natural farming methods have long been a way for small crop farmers to stay in business, raising meat this way is just now getting more attention. Theresa Carbrey is with the Pioneer Co-op, an organic foods company based in Iowa City. She says increasing the number of organic and humane livestock producers will lead to safer food and the preservation of more family farms.
“We’re seeing the decimation of the small producers. They simply can’t compete. But this niche marketing gives them an opportunity, and it’s something a small operation can do better. In fact a large operation, I don’t know if they really could do it — giving the individual care to animals, attentiveness to all these little details, that real people on modest operations can do very, very well.”
Tom Garrett is with the Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington D-C based animal rights activist group. He says the group encourages small livestock farmers to practice humane and organic farming techniques because the animals are treated better. But he also says having small farmers focus on the market for humanely raised animals can be a financially realistic way to help preserve the way of life on family farms around the world.
“It can work economically, especially in the E-U, as the E-U Market opens up. Because right now today the overall organic market in the European Union is about ten times as large as it is in the United States.”
Garrett says an increasing number of people in the United States and Europe are
becoming more concerned about where their food comes from. Hog Farmer Steve
Christy agrees. He says he thinks consumers are also willing to pay a premium price for quality meats that come from more natural farming practices.
“I call it the evolution of the food industry. I think people are going to be more concerned about what they eat as time goes on here, and want to know where it came from. In combination with that, they are getting tired of buying poor meat at the store and having to throw a lot of it away.”
While farmers are pursuing organic and natural food markets to save their farms, the issue of quality may be more important in the long run to the businesses involved. Lori Janssen is the Quality Manager at Niman Ranch, a company that specializes in meat from humanely raised animals.
“If you don’t have good quality pork, no one is going to want it. Even if
somebody is eating it because they’re saving the family farmer, if it’s not tastier than the eraser on your pencil, they are not going to come back and buy it.”
Janssen says while producing quality meat, it’s an added benefit that this style of farming can lead to more humane treatment of animals, protect the environment, and perhaps even save some small, independent family farms. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.