I swear I’ve seen it all now. Within hours of discussing the "factory farm" epithet in the context of a discussion that involved, in part, "puppy mills" over at my personal blog, a friend (both real, and digital) posted on Facebook this little gem: "Did you know that most of the factory-farmed alfalfa your horse consumes is genetically modified?"
My response to the friend in question, in all sense of love and fairness, was that I honestly did not know where to begin with the numerous problems with this statement and the accompanying article calling for legislatively mandated labeling of any product derived from genetically modified organisms.
Setting aside the disaster that I think would accompany any such statutory mandate, the thing that caught my attention most of all was the term "factory-farmed alfalfa."
I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a single similarity between the businesses generally smeared with the "factory farm" slur and that of alfalfa production. To me, the connection can only exist in the arena where one presumes that "all big is bad."
As my better half put it: Alfalfa is not an animal. It cannot be crammed in too tightly for itself... if there are too many plants on a piece of ground, they just won't grow. Even in the most extreme cases, I don't think you'll get many PETA-types staging a protest for the "poor alfalfas."
She’s right - as always - which brings us back to the question of applying the "factory farm" smear to alfalfa farmers. Since it can’t be about cramming too many alfalfas into a confined space, it must be because "all big is bad." Which begs the question, how big, exactly, is too big?
That question, actually, is one I posed to readers in the discussion on so-called "puppy mills." Which, absent specific cases of animal abuse and hoarding, seems to be a similar smear tactic as the concept of "factory farming" by the animal rights lobby. In other words, puppy mills are bad, but the animal rights types use this term indiscriminately to conjure up horrible pictures in the minds’ eye about almost anyone who ever had a litter of pups.
What strikes me most about the broad-brush paradigm of "big = bad" is that there is no way to nail down exactly what, or why, makes big bad.
If you ask the question as I did in my post, "how many is too many," the animal rights advocate or environmental extremist, or anti Wal-Mart consumer will generally ignore the question and continue bemoaning the many societal ills caused by "giant corporate factory mega farms." Generally everything from the fattening of America to global warming to locusts and famine is blamed on "big ag."
And now, not even alfalfa farmers are immune from these attacks. The reason I fail to follow the logic of the smear in this case is the same reason I think we don’t hear it used much in terms of the beef industry: we don’t have much (relatively speaking) concentration or vertical integration in these sectors.
It is easy to smear large-scale pork, poultry or dairy operations as "factory farms" because in these cases large numbers of animal units are kept in modern housing facilities at a much higher density than the public assumes is needed for a "traditional" or "sustainable" agribusiness enterprise.
My friend Leah put it this way. The best way to define "too big," both in terms of food animal production and dog breeding is "one more animal than you think I should own."
That pretty much sums up the logic at work in these smear tactics.
I heard a variation of this theme last week during a graduate class I’m taking at Ohio State on public policy. In discussing Ohio’s Livestock Environmental Permitting Program, one student asserted that some operators choose to build livestock facilities with just enough animal units to fall below the threshold at which they don’t require a permit from the Ohio Department of Agriculture. In other words, if a 700-cow dairy requires a permit, an operator might build a 675-cow facility.
The student’s point was that the Department and/or the legislature should do something to close this "loophole" in the statute and accompanying regulations.
My point, to the contrary, was that it’s a matter of why the thresholds were chosen in the first place. If one assumes that the biggest concern with larger animal units is proper handling of the animals’ waste and excess nutrients, then the permit thresholds are theoretically chosen based on what number of animal units is likely to cause a significant issue in a worst-case scenario.
In other words, the thresholds were chosen based on an assessment of potential risk.
If an operator chooses to build under the threshold requiring a permit, then one could assume that facility is by extension a lower-risk facility than one over the threshold. In other words, there is no loophole in need of closing.
The fact of the matter is, a certain percentage of consumers will always think big is bad, even if they can’t define what big is. We are somewhat fortunate as beef producers that customers in the most populous parts of the country still see beef production as a matter of idyllic pastures and wide-open spaces. This means we often skip the "giant factory corporate mega farm" smears.
But if alfalfa farms are now considered "factory farms," too, it’s only a matter of time before we cowhands are painted with the same broad brush.