Big or small: The great farm debate continues 

Cows in the fall fields of Southern Indianas Fischer Farms
  • Cows in the fall fields of Southern Indiana's Fischer Farms

Meet Dave Fischer. He’s a farmer who exudes a quiet demeanor. His simple attire leaves no doubt in your mind that he’ll be in the barn to take care of the cows when he gets home to his mid-sized southern Indiana farm, Fischer Farms, where his hormone-free cows roam a pasture and graze on grass. A type of farm one imagines as similar to the one on Hillshire Farm packages.

Now meet Malcolm DeKryger. He’s also a farmer. But his sleek clothes and shiny watch make him seem more at home in a board room than barn. And so does his job title as vice president of Belstra Milling, a large-scale agribusiness that produces 11,500 sows (female hogs) and 310,000 pigs annually.

DeKryger lives in a town in northern Indiana and commutes to his farms. ("I've got ten of them, which one am I going to live on?") He doesn’t live the traditional farming life, but he’s a typical farmer in today’s agriculture world. His farms look less like the Hillshire Farm and more like the factory.

These two very different farmers met on stage Thursday night at the Indiana Historical Society, along with Angela Hamm, water policy director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, to discuss Indiana agriculture for the final Indiana Town Hall Series event on rural and urban environmental issues.

While moderator Phillip Anderson, CEO of ReThink LLC, worked to point out the merits of both types of farming, Hamm made it clear large scale confined feeding operations like DeKryer's have the more negative impact on the environment.

When DeKryger claimed that large-scale operations like his are sustainable because they use the hog waste as fertilizer, Hamm pointed out that when animals are given antibiotics or growth hormones, those antibiotics and growth hormones come out in the manure — hence, onto farmland, into water, and into crops. “Most of the pollution from these large farms," she noted, "comes from the land application of manure."

DeKryger didn't provide an exact figure for the amount of antibiotics used on his ten farms each year, saying only that the young and sick receive it. But when you produce 310,000 pigs in a confined area, it’s hard to believe it’s a small amount. Just last week the FDA revealed for the first time how much antibiotics factory farms in the US use on livestock. For 2009, the total was 29 million pounds.

Dave Fischer, on the other hand, uses less than one small bottle of antibiotic on his cows each year. And instead of collecting manure, Fischer leaves it where cows drop it in the pasture while grazing. The runoff goes to a collection pond and, from there, the water is filtered naturally through wetlands rather than seeping into groundwater or running off into rivers.

Despite their many differences, both farmers believe transparent farming operations are important.

“In any animal production, there are some dirty scenes,” Fischer admitted.

DeKryger added, “we intentionally raise animals where people are not.”

But that doesn’t mean they don’t want you to visit. Surprisingly, Belstra Milling has taken a chapter from small growers who, like Fischer, encourage people to visit the farm. Granted, you have to look at the pigs through glass windows or screens. “There’s nothing we aren’t eager to show you,” DeKryger said. So much so that they’ve set up a live feed of the pigs in confinement.

While DeKryger was at times convincing that his factory farm isn’t like the rest — it won an environmental stewardship award and has never been cited by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management — it’s hard to believe that factory farming is the right way to farm. Not when it causes environmental catastrophes like the death of 100,000 fish in the Mississinewa River or shit bubbles.

“You as the public have to trust someone to make our food,” DeKryger said.

He's right. I’ll trust Dave Fischer.

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