I Am a Factory Farmer

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Like many people over the past few years I've become more interested in food. Not just eating it - though that too - but all about it: where it comes from, how we pick, catch, or kill it, and how it get's on my plate. The following is an interview excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer's, Eating Animals. I've taken two excerpts from two very different people (or are they?) and printed them here as responses to one another.

I Am a Factory Farmer

factory_chicken"When people ask me what i do, I tell them I'm a retired farmer. I started milking cows when I was six. We lived in Wisconsin. My daddy had a small herd - fifty, give or take - which back then was pretty typical. I worked everyday until I left home, worked hard. I thought I'd had enough of it at that point, thought there must be a better way.  

After high school I got a degree in animal science and went to work for a poultry company. I helped service, manage, and design turkey breeder farms. Bounced around some integrated companies after that. I managed large farms, a million birds. Did disease management, flock management. Problem solving, you could say. Farming is a lot of problem solving. Now I specialize in chicken nutrition and health. I'm in agribusiness. Factory farming, some people might say, but I don't care for the term. 

It's a different world from the one I grew up in. The price of food hasn't increased in the past thirty years. In relation to all other expenses, the price of protein stayed put. In order to survive - I don't mean get rich, I men put food on your table, send your kids to school, get a new car as needed - the farmer had to produce more and more. Simple math. Like I said my daddy had fifty cows. The model now for a viable dairy farm is twelve hundred cows. That's the smallest that can stay in business. Well, a family can't milk twelve hundred cows, so you gotta get four or five employees, and each of them will have a specialized job: milking, managing illness, tending the crops. It's efficient, yeah, and you can squeeze out a living, but a lot of people became farmers because of the diversity of farm life. And that's been lost. 

Another part of what's happened in response to the economic squeeze is that you gotta make an animal that produces more of the product at a lower cost. So you breed for faster growth and improved feed conversion. As long as food continues to get cheaper and cheaper relative to everything else, the farmer has no choice but to produce food at a lower production cost, and genetically he's going to move toward an animal that accomplishes that task, which can be counter productive to its welfare. The loss is built into the system. It's assumed if you have fifty thousand broilers in a shed, thousands are going to die in the first weeks. My daddy couldn't afford to lose an animal. Now you begin by assuming you'll lose 4 percent right off the bat. 

I've told you the drawbacks because I'm trying to be up-front with you. But in fact, we've got a tremendous system. Is it perfect? No. No system is perfect. And if you find someone who tells you he has a perfect way to feed billions and billions of people, well, you should take a careful look. You hear about free range-eggs and grass-fed cattle, and all that's good. I think it's a good direction. But it ain't gonna feed the world. Never. You simply can't feed billions of people free-range eggs. And when you hear people talking about small farming as a model, I call that the Marie Antoinette syndrome: if they can't afford bread, let them eat cake. High-yield farming has allowed everyone to eat. Think about that. If we go away from it, it may improve the welfare of the animal, it may even be better for the environment, but I don't want to go back to China in 1918. I'm talking about starving people. 

Sure, you could say people should just eat less meat, but I've got news for you: people don't want to eat less meat. You can be like PETA and pretend that the world is going to wake up tomorrow and realize that they love animals and don't want to eat them anymore, but history has shown that people are perfectly capable of loving animals and eating them. It's childish, and I would even say immoral, to fantasize about a vegetarian world when were having such a hard time making this one work. 

Look, the American farmer has fed the world. He was asked to do it after World War II, and he did it. People have never had the ability to eat like they can now. Protein has been never been more affordable. My animals are protected from the elements, get all the food they need, and grow well. Animals get sick. Animals die. But what do you think happens to animals in nature? You think they die of natural causes? You think they're stunned before they're killed? Animals in nature starve to death or are ripped apart by other animals. That's how they die. 

People have no idea where food comes from anymore. It's not synthetic, it's not created in a lab, it actually has to be grown. What I hate is when consumers act as if farmers want these things, when it's consumers who tell farmers what to grow. They've wanted cheap food. We've grown it. If they want cage-free eggs, they have to pay a lot more money for them. Period. It's cheaper to produce an egg in a massive laying barn with caged hens. It's more efficient and that means it's more sustainable. Yes, I'm saying that factory farming can be more sustainable, though I know that word is often used against the industry. From China to India to BRazil, the demand for animal products is growing - and fast. Do you think family farms are going to sustain a world of ten billion? 

A friend of mine had an experiece a few years ago where two young guys came and asked if they could take some footage for a documentary about farm life. Seemed like nice guys, so he said sure. But they edited it to make it look like the birds were being abused. They said the turkeys were being raped. I know that farm. I've visited it many times, and I can tell you those turkeys were being cared for as well as they needed to survive and be productive. Things can be taken out of context. And novices don't always know what they're looking at. This business isn't always pretty, but it's a bad mistake to confuse something unpleasant with something wrong. Every kid with a video camera thinks he's a veterinary scientist, thinks he was born knowing what takes years and years to learn. I know there's a necessity to sensationalize stuff in order to motivate people, but I prefer the truth. 

In the eighties, the industry tried to communicate with animal groups, and we got burned real bad. So the turkey community decided there would be no more of it. We put up a wall, and that was the end. We don't talk, don't let people onto the farms. Standard operating procedure. PETA doesn't want to talk about farming. They want to end farming. They have absolutely no idea how the world actually works. For all I know, I'm talking to the enemy right now. 

But I believe in what I'm telling you. And it's an important story to tell, a story that's getting drowned out by the hollering of extremists. I asked you not to use my name, but I have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. You just have to understand there's a bigger picture here. And I've got bosses. I've gotta put food on the table, too. 

Can I make a suggestion to you? Before you rush off trying to see everything you can, educate yourself. Don't trust your eyes. Trust your head. Learn about animals, learn about farming and the economics of food, learn the history. Start at the beginning."

A response from the Last Poultry Farmer.

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