A farmer’s view on “Factory Farms”
By Cathy Finley
As farming and its future changes, farmers are presented with new and more complex challenges almost daily. Add to this the subject that is not news to anyone—population growth. According to statistics for BC, Vancouver’s population density increased to 3,100 persons/km2 in 2011. In contrast, arable land significantly reduced (up to -52% in some areas). As the population in BC increases and farm land decreases, we have to consider how to address the growing food and meat needs of a society whose appetites and attitudes evolve as quickly as their rising numbers.
Recently I observed a discussion regarding a proposed chicken barn in Maple Ridge. The group commenting on the subject were not the uninformed public, not the kind of people who have never set foot on a farm, exclaiming that agriculture is destroying the planet—not the kind of folks who claim to know things because they’ve watched Cowspiracy. These people were homesteaders and small farmers. A group that cares about sustainability and where their food comes from, and that generally understands what it takes to produce food. A peaceful group of people, generally, but this discussion was peppered with emotions and occasional vitriol. There were mixed opinions ranging between “the land is in the ALR, they can build a barn if they want” and “I will support local farming regardless of the practices”, to “those places stink” and “CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are cruel, unsustainable and have negative environmental impact”. Generally, the message that came through was that whether people supported the factory farm or not, no one wanted to live next door to one.
So, how do we address this? As urban sprawl inches closer towards agricultural land and the population grows, can we learn to co-exist? There’s a level of hypocrisy to address, of course. The people who don’t want to look at a CAFO stuffed full of chickens also want to consume the cheap and convenient food that that same CAFO provides.
I called a couple of local farms that have big barns. Despite my reassurances, no one would talk to me. This speaks to a huge mistrust from both parties—yet another attitudinal barrier to consider. We know that there is an issue as there are huge campaigns designed to foster trust and nurture positive perceptions around farming such as Ag More Than Ever. But the truth is that whichever side of the fence you are on, many consumers would not enjoy the sight of their future dinner-plate protein rammed into barns, and the rhetoric about factory farming is gaining momentum from a number of different groups with various belief systems.
So many problems. Would it be easier for consumers and residents to swallow what is perceived as a more natural farming approach? And even if it was, could we feed a growing BC population? How would we facilitate the transition from CAFO to pasture-raised? These were the questions I put to an online community claiming to be an “Ethical Producer and Consumer Alliance”. As expected, there were enthusiastic ideologies about how we could both manage the demand and the incentives needed to drive change towards a pastured farming scene, for both farmers and consumers. The group waxed lyrical about how a regenerative agricultural approach could help us manage high numbers of animals, reduce the amount of grain grown for animal feed, and increase soil health. They talked about how to divert revenue, educate the consumer, ensure proper use of farmland, and enable farmers to transition. It made a lot of sense to me, but then they were preaching to the converted—I am already farming in a way that would align with that particular groups’ values. But let’s take these ideas back to the context of market challenges.
The flip side to “not in my backyard” is “out of sight, out of mind”. An out-of-town CAFO, buried deep in the ALR and surrounded by big hedges and security fences, does not enter the minds of a majority of the target meat-buying audience. However, while a field of pasture-raised pigs frolicking next door might seem like a romantic idea, the sometimes smelly, muddy reality of a pig-ravaged paddock is quite different. Naming the neighbours’ grass-fed cows that will end up on your plate does not sit well with some people, either.
Eventually, the consumer will vote with their dollars, and with increased awareness and access to information (both credible and otherwise); the consumers’ buying trends will continue to change and the picture of their desired farming approaches will become clearer. This is a multi-faceted issue with no clear-cut answers; there is currently no solution that protects land, jobs, animal welfare and environments. What is clear right now is that there is an even greater need for farmers to work together to ensure that consumers have the right information, and can make options that match their own personal ideals. We need a forum where everyone can join together, regardless of farming practices, and talk and debate in a way that is open, jargon-free and comprehensive to Joe Public—an arena where we can put aside our differences, drive the political agendas that impact us the most, and learn from each other in a changing landscape of food and farming. It’s time for the farmers to take back control!
[infobox title=’Cathy Finley’]Three years ago, Cathy Finley traded a career in social work for life on the farm. She and her husband Ian moved from a Surrey subdivision to a five-acre plot in Langley, where they restored the land using sustainable and permaculture practices. They began selling their salad greens and eggs to former Surrey neighbours and soon were making regular deliveries to 20 families. They now grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, raise heritage breeds of livestock, attend farmers markets, open Laurica Farm to weekend markets during the growing season, offer workshops and learning opportunities, and host events such as Farm Folk/City Folk’s Feast of Fields.[/infobox]