Last week in this space, I wrote about the
struggle of family farmers in Indiana as we celebrate the State Fair. I raised
the point that despite the many differences between farmers and ourselves, we
are united by our mutual repression at the hands of big business interests.
The great Hoosier artist Rob Day contacted me
and suggested I take another look at the issue of the State Fair, which
concludes this weekend. The fair's theme is "Year of the Pig," and the porcine
theme is represented throughout the exposition.
Day's argument was that we should be celebrating
family-owned hog farms and the role they play in bringing delicious,
nutritious pork products to our dinner table. And we do owe these men and women
But the nature of the farm industry,
particularly the pork production process, has radically changed the past few
decades. According to the Indiana Pork Producers Association, the number of hog
farms in Indiana has decreased from 24,000 in 1980 to roughly 3,000 today.
As alarming as that is, that doesn't even tell
the whole story. Because, although the number of hog farms has decreased, total
statewide production has actually grown 8 percent since 2005. Most of the 3.1
million hogs raised for slaughter in Indiana annually come from gigantic
operations. The largest farms deliver as many as 120,000 pigs to market, while
smaller operations struggle to raise 300 or 400 animals per year.
The large-scale pork producers use Confined
Animal Feeding Operations, CAFO, where as many pigs as possible are crammed
into the smallest possible space, without room to move about. Some of these
operations are owned by families, technically making them family farmers, but
they're usually under contract to a major agribusiness corporation that has
strict guidelines regarding every aspect of the farm's operations.
In effect, these family farmers are working
harder than ever, but it's big business that's calling the shots. Farmers
either play by the rules of big business or they lose their livelihood –
something many city-dwellers can identify with.
Moreover, these farmers are mired in a cycle of
debt to the very same large agribusiness corporations that act as their
So there is more than a small amount of irony in
the State Fair's celebration of family-owned hog farms when many of them are so
deeply in debt to gigantic businesses that they may as well be sharecroppers or
Moreover, the conditions in the CAFO farms are
shocking to the average person. Even if one concedes the biblical decree that
man has dominion over animals, did God truly intend for us to impose so much
suffering onto them?
Farms have been exempt historically from animal
cruelty laws, a loophole which allows big businesses to avoid accountability
for the way they treat their livestock. Most farmers I've met or talked to have
a deep reverence for the lives of the animals they tend – but market
pressures have forced CAFO farms to abdicate any sense of responsibility for
But there may be changes on the way. Increasing
consumer demand for humanely raised animals has led to a heightened awareness
among agribusinesses about the way our pigs and poultry are raised and
Even better, the truly independent family
farmers are working together to bring customers a superior product. The website
IndianaFarmDirect.com serves as a directory to bring together family farmers
with customers interested in their products.
The days of the massive, horrific killing fields
of CAFO operations may be limited as more and more consumers elect to make a
more informed and enlightened choice about the way they purchase and consume
Even corporations such as Wal-Mart have found
that it's in their best interest to offer locally-grown produce and meat.
Wal-Mart, the definition of the uncaring, cutthroat bottom-line retailer, is
bowing to consumer demand. The company's not acting solely out of the goodness
of its soulless heart.
Meanwhile, the fun and frivolity of the State
Fair comes to an end this weekend. But the struggle of the truly independent
family farmer is a never-ending process. Every season brings these farmers new
challenges and new obstacles to overcome. They are truly heroes.
But it's more than a little disingenuous to
celebrate the family pork farmer when there are so few of them left. The fair's
theme is a propaganda boon to the large agribusinesses that raise their animals
into a life of suffering and despair, followed by a quick death.
They don't need a boost of good P.R. They can
feed on the massive profits that come from factory farming. We shouldn't have
to have a festival that celebrates them.