Thursday, September 16, 2010

The CAFO Reader

I'm reading a book right now called The CAFO Reader. It's a compendium of essays about CAFO agriculture and the alternatives that exist to it. For those not in the know, CAFO stands for concentrated animal feeding unit, and, at least in the US, this usually means some sort of large scale industrial agribusiness.

For the most part, reading the essays in the book is literally like listening to myself talk or reading what I write here on this blog. It's scary how often I and the essayist in question use the same phraseology to describe certain key situations. About the only part of the book I have read so far that I disagree with is that some of the authors get very hung up on size. As I have mentioned before, I don't believe that large is always a bad thing; the biggest dairy in the state of Tennessee is also among the best managed; indeed it's run by a personal friend of mine. More often than not, it is the mindset of the farmer, rather than the size of his farm that creates the problem. When the farmer is of an agrarian mindset, size doesn't necessarily preclude a high degree of expertise in farming. Things tend to be well run and everything stays in relative balance. When the farmer is of an industrial mindset, woe be to the animals, the workers, and the neighbourhood, because all of them are going to pay a price over time. It's like every part of their brains not concerned with growing some commodity bigger, faster and cheaper has atrophied itself into nothing.

I'm just getting started on reading the solutions part of the book right now. It comes as no surprise to me that some of the essayists in this part of the book are featured heavily on my bookcase. Like me, many of the authors seem to believe there will exist two or more parellel systems of production for a long while yet, barring some unseen pivotal change. Industrial ag will continue to produce "cheap" food for the masses, while well run regional and local producers will continue to direct market a series of differentiated products targeted toward higher end consumers.

One of the most glaring differences between industrial farms and what I and other direct marketers do is the level of transparency we provide our customers. Perhaps more than anything else we do, this is what consumers are happy to pay for, and for some reason, this seems to be the hardest thing for industrial ag organizations to offer up. Several essayists touch on this, but I think there is perhaps room for more exploration of this topic.

However the book winds up, at the end of the day there are only two decisions I can really control. The first is what goes on right here at home. After having experienced and participated in both commodity ag and enhanced value, direct market ag, I have made my bed firmly in the "value added" camp. The second involves where my purchased food dollars go. Alone, neither one makes a hill of beans worth of difference to the system. But when we start making real choices together on a larger scale, I believe we CAN have food production systems that feature healthy farms and prosperous rural communities instead of what we have now.


Kate said...

I think a lot of consumers really don't want to know how their food is produced. It's that deliberate ignorance that's part of the reason industrial ag continues - many people have never seen an industrial ag facility even from the outside (not that you can easily get to see one from the inside). The other reason is the tight connection between industrial ag and the money behind the interests that require it - the chemical and grain companies, and also the oil industry.

Jason said...

gshiAny large facility in farm country that's built without windows is almost certainly a CAFO of some sort. Somewhere between many and most CAFO's are contract facilities with chicken, egg or hog companies. The farmer owns the building (which is constructed to company codes), and the company pays the farmer to tend after the company owned animals (according to company protocol) inside the barns. One of the biggest complaints I hear from farmers is that they have no control over the animals they tend after. This should be obvious to them, but it often isn't until after it's too late. In signing these contracts, the farmer gives over most types of control to the entity that owns the livestock, including such things as right of access to the building, treatment protocols, etc.

In farm country, these contract buildings are touted as a way to maintain the family farm. Anybody who actually reads the contracts knows this isn't so.

In most cases, the company can cancel it's contract with virtually no notice, and in most cases, the farmer would be in even worse financial trouble than he already is if the company chose to exercise that right.

Unbelieveably, bankers mostly love to lend money for these sorts of facilities.

SmartAlex said...

Of course they don't want to know how their food was produced. They don't want to know that the burger had blood and guts, and they don't give a hoot about the BIG business behind seed copyrights and the gozillion complications and implications from the grass roots to the end of the cow's tail. That would require moral responsibility, education and accountability. It's just so much easier to grab a frozen dinner and pop it into the microwave, or stop at the drive through and pay by credit card.

That being said, I am really bummed out that I can no longer find my favorite Marie Callender Pasta Al Dent "flavor" anymore. I tried to make it myself and it just wasn't the same. And the sauce won't stick to noodles. Where can I get some high fructose corn syrup? Or MSG?

Jason said...

LOL ! Try anywhere food is sold and customers gather to eat it in the state of Tennessee ! :)

Funnily enough, both Melissa and I have had intense cravings for Chinese-American food lately. A few nights ago, I stopped at the Chinese Place in Spring Hill on the way home from Lynnville to get some to go plates. I think it's probably for the best that we don't ask too many questions about anything when the entire bill for two of us is $11.24.

Kate and Smart Alex, your respective comments have got me thinking that maybe I ought to do a post or two about "veggie libel" laws. I'd also like to explore vertical integration a little more deeply.