Bringing back well-stewarded farms should be a top priority for conservatives. Millions of family farms that once dotted America’s countryside have been replaced by large-scale industrial operations in recent decades. This transformation has led to widespread animal cruelty, rural depopulation, lost jobs, and significant environmental harm.
Factory farms are horrible, for both people and animals. According to Christopher Leonard’s book The Meat Racket, “Just a handful of companies produce nearly all the meat consumed in the United States,” and the system they have created “keeps farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.”
Crammed by the thousands into buildings with no access to the outdoors, hogs, cows, and chickens live a miserable existence. Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, vividly documents these conditions in his book Dominion. Scully has been prophetic in condemning the cruelty of factory farms and calling on us to exercise proper dominion over the animals (e.g., “Pro-Life, Pro-Animal,” National Review Online).
Keeping animals in close confinement and poor sanitary conditions requires industrial operators to use massive amounts of antibiotics. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, about 30 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to about 8 million pounds sold that year to treat sick people. Intensively using antibiotics in agriculture creates an excellent breeding ground for superbugs that pose a threat to public health.
There is a better way. Polyface Farms in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is an excellent example. Polyface describes itself as “family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, [and] beyond organic.” Animals at Polyface are able to engage in their natural behaviors—they have lives. Polyface pigs can wallow in the mud, while factory farm breeding pigs spend almost their entire lives in gestation crates that essentially immobilize them—they cannot even turn around. Polyface hens peck around in roomy hen houses and on the pasture. It’s a starkly different story for factory farm chickens. They are packed in cages where each must survive within the equivalent of a single sheet of typing paper, unable to even spread their wings.
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The documentary American Meat describes the potential to dramatically scale up the number of farms like Polyface. The film shows several models that offer a sustainable and economically viable alternative to industrial agriculture. The benefits include less animal cruelty, good jobs in rural America, and reduced environmental impacts. Paul Weyrich, a prominent conservative Christian leader, said towards the end of his life that “bringing back the family farm as a viable way of life should be an important part of the next conservatism” (“Country Life,” World).
We need to help farmers practicing good stewardship break down inappropriate policy barriers and create more market demand for their products. Agribusiness and farm bureaus, however, zealously protect these regulatory roadblocks, primarily because they are concerned about losing market share. Polyface’s Joel Salatin describes many of the barriers—such as federal regulations that preclude processing beef and pork on the farm—in his book Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. The regulations are designed for large-scale operations and require expensive investments in processing infrastructure. These investments are an unreasonable barrier to small farmers who could otherwise process their meat even more safely and sanitarily on-site.
Additionally, we should help foster market demand for food produced using good stewardship. As consumers, we can purchase food directly from farmers at markets or by signing up for deliveries. But many people do not have sufficient time and interest to buy direct. Building a larger market for good farmers in our grocery stores will be difficult, but well worth the effort. Developing and widely using labels that provide consumers information is crucial. The key facts are how well the animals were treated, whether the farmer was paid a fair price, where the animals were raised, and if certain environmental criteria were met.
We also need robust consumer campaigns that urge purchasing only meat that is cruelty-free. The English abolitionists of the 1700s offer an inspiring example. Led by William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian and Member of Parliament, their campaign to abolish the British Empire’s slave trade included a consumer boycott of the sugar produced by slave labor.
The suffering of factory farm animals today is not the moral equivalent of human slavery, but it is still an ethical blight on our land. Wilberforce himself was a champion for both slaves and the animals, going so far as to found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – the oldest animal welfare organization in the world. Evangelicals and conservatives should again follow his lead and play a key role in developing the markets and moral imperative that will help bring back well-stewarded family farms.