While industrial farms have been thrown into chaos, local agriculture has proved to be a more resilient model.
August 14, 2020
The yellow-brown compost has been heaped into hills taller than the nearby bulldozers. The piles don’t look like pigs, but that’s what they are. Pigs and woodchips.
It’s mid-May and thousands of hogs have been killed and tossed in a woodchipper on this farm field in Nobles County, Minnesota. They represent but a fraction of the number of animals that have met such an end here in the third-highest hog-producing state in the country. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture said on May 6 that at least 10,000 hogs were being slaughtered and discarded every day, but no one knows the real number. The state set up the Nobles County compost site, but it’s not required to track all the killings due to a technicality, says Michael Crusan, communications director for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. “There isn’t an animal disease issue,” he explains. “It’s just a depopulation due to market conditions.”
“Market conditions” does not mean everyone has enough to eat. In Minnesota and across the country, surging need has overwhelmed food banks. Some supermarkets limit meat purchases to prevent shelves from becoming bare. In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, one letter writer pleads for hunters to be allowed to butcher the wasted hogs, to save at least some of the meat from the woodchipper.
“Market conditions,” in this case, means meat processing plants, including the JBS pork plant in nearby Worthington, have shut down because of Covid-19 outbreaks among workers. The Worthington plant alone, which previously processed 20,000 hogs a day, has been tied to more than 700 Covid-19 cases.
The assembly line of industrial food, however, extends far beyond the processing plants. The closures have left many industrial pig farmers, who raise and ship out hogs on a regimented schedule, with nowhere to send their market-ready animals. With the next batch of hogs ready to fill the cages behind them and no other way to get the meat to hungry people, the farmers have little choice but to grind the animals into compost.
The surging interest in local food has been a lifeline for many. And it just might help the country make a long-term shift toward a more sustainable, more resilient and more just food system.
According to John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Missouri, this failure is not a fluke of the pandemic but a weakness fundamental to the industrial food system. By extending the factory’s fixation on economic efficiency to the farm, industrialism has cut flexibility and diversity out of agriculture. Ikerd says a factory can’t slaughter 20,000 hogs a day, every day, without an inflexible schedule of when hogs are bred, born, fattened and shipped. Just as it’s more efficient to have workers each make a single repetitive cut on an assembly line than it is to have each butcher a whole hog, it’s more efficient to have a farmer raise thousands of hogs in a concentrated animal feeding operation (known as a CAFO) or only grow acres of corn than it is to raise a variety of livestock, chickens and vegetables. Despite some obvious problems, the industrial food system is a marvel of efficiency — until something goes wrong.
Ikerd puts it this way: “We’ve got a more operationally efficient system, but it’s a very fragile system.” Covid-19, he says, is one of many different scenarios that could bring it all crashing down.
Across the country we’ve seen chickens killed en masse, milk dumped, fields of vegetables plowed under. At the same time, we’ve seen the empty shelves, the cars lining up outside food banks. MORE