In recent years, the image of the typical farm has changed dramatically. As more efficient technology has emerged, farms have begun to shift from small, labor-intensive operations to larger, factory-type farms. Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, have made livestock farming more efficient -- and more controversial.
A recent article
in the Madison weekly paper The Isthmus
details the rise of CAFOs in Wisconsin and the resulting health and environmental concerns. CAFOs are notorious for problems such as animal mistreatment and pollution, and there is growing criticism of these types of farms.
But the issue may not be one of scale, but of farming practices. Bruce Jones, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has worked with dairy farmers across the state, many of whom own large operations (disclosure: Jones is also my dad). He said that the distinction between the environmental qualities of small farms versus large farms may be an oversimplification.
"I don't think anything can be that absolute," Jones said. "CAFOs are more in the public eye and have to be better stewards of the environment because people keep an eye on them."
That is, since large-scale farms have the potential to cause large-scale contamination, they are closely watched by both regulatory organizations and by neighbors. Both small farms and large farms have the potential to cause environmental damage through improper farming techniques, Jones said, so the prevention of pollution boils down to the responsibility of the farmer.
For example, letting livestock out to pasture on a small-scale farm can be problematic if the farmer doesn't control his animals' range. Grazing on a slope or on frozen ground may result in waste runoff into bodies of water. Large or small, farmers have an obligation to practice sound farming techniques to keep themselves, their animals and their environment healthy.
Another criticism of CAFOs is the prevalence of disease, and therefore antibiotics, among large populations of confined animals. Jones said that in the case of dairy farmers, it's actually in the farmer's best interest not to use antibiotics, both to keep costs down and to be more appealing to the public. All the milk in Wisconsin is tested for residual antibiotics when it reaches processing centers, he said. If any antibiotics are detected, that milk is rejected.
"You don't want to introduce anything that's going to make consumers lose confidence in your product," he said, whether they are antibiotics or other questionable farming techniques.
However, Jones conceded that there are problems with the CAFO system. While dairy farmers put a premium on their animals' comfort and health -- cows produce more milk when free of stress -- other operations aren't as humane. Jones said he hadn't seen much of other types of CAFO, but said that poultry farms and beef feedlots "are not the most pleasant thing."
Ultimately, Jones said that the system relies on consumer choices.
"I think CAFOs are here to stay because most of the consuming public has no idea where their food comes from," he said. That is, if consumers are against the industrial agriculture system, they can "vote" against it with their money by buying from local, smaller farms.
Much like getting information on a political candidate before a vote, consumers can inform themselves about their food sources before making a trip to the grocery store. And, like in politics, every vote counts.