Among the many compelling hotline stories in the last month was one from the adult son of a Midwestern farm family. I’ll call him Josh. Josh’s inquiry concerned getting help for his parents in transforming the family hog farm into a more diversified, sustainable operation. I hear this kind of question more and more as the good food movement deepens across the country and family farms seek to make themselves viable for the long haul. But the context out of which Josh’s question arose is especially interesting.
Josh’s parents are contracted factory hog farmers. Ten years ago, his parents, having struggled financially for years, contracted with a corporation to build a factory hog farm on their own land. They borrowed heavily to build the facility, and signed a 10-year contract to raise hogs for the owner. However, even as contracted factory hog farmers, they steadily lost money, and both Josh’s parents had to take jobs away from the farm. Three years ago, they had to re-finance with the corporation, extending their debt even further. Most recently, Josh’s father got hurt and must now go on disability, so Josh’s mother is doing all the work at the hog farm as well as working full-time away from the farm. All this, and the farm is still losing money. They do have the option of selling the farm, land and all, to the corporation, but the farm has been in the family for generations. Like all family farmers, the last thing Josh’s parents want to do is lose their land.
They are also fully aware of the deplorable conditions in which they must raise the owner’s hogs. The hogs never see direct sunlight or grass. The barn holds a maximum of 2,700 hogs, but the owners frequently “double-load” the barn on short notice, cramming 5,400 hogs into the barn. Delivery trucks arrive at night so that the hogs do not go crazy from experiencing sunlight and die on the spot. Some arrive dead, and are pulled out and pushed into a separate “dead shed” for up to a week. Many arrive already sick, which Josh’s parents attempt to separate out into sick pens and nurse them back to health, but they are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of hogs, which sometimes attack, kill, and even eat the sick and the weak. As Josh said, “Other factory hog farmers I have spoken to have faced similar issues, and hate the conditions that they have to raise hogs in.”
Josh has witnessed these and other scenes too many times, and is now trying to help his parents move away from this industrial model of hog farming. It has proven to be a losing proposition not only for the farmers themselves, but for the animals they are contracted to raise, and, of course, for the surrounding environment. The giant waste pit directly underneath the barn is constant reminder of situation they are in.
Contracted factory farmers (and the animals they care for) are often caught in precisely this kind of corporate trap, and the escape route, short of giving up the farm entirely, seems narrow indeed. But the escape route is widening as more and more farm support organizations within the Farm Aid Resource Network are offering direct services for transitioning to sustainable practices. Farm Aid will continue trying to find help for families like Josh’s, and anyone else (farmer or consumer) seeking viable alternatives to an industrial model of food production that depletes human, animal, and environmental resources.