This is How Many Factory Farms We Need To Satisfy America's Meat Habit | Civil Eats

This is How Many Factory Farms We Need To Satisfy America’s Meat Habit

New ag census data shows that Americans are raising more animals on larger farms than ever before.

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 10.12.07 AMYou may have hoped that the national attention paid to organic farming, antibiotics, and other issues affecting the food you eat has resulted in a downturn in the number and size of factory farms over the years.

Unfortunately, you’d be mistaken. National advocacy group Food & Water Watch has been tracking the nation’s factory farms for years now, and the news isn’t good. The group recently released a report called Factory Farm Nation, which updated their interactive farm map, showing that the size, location, and number of animals on factory farms has risen significantly over the past 15 years–as has the amount of waste that those animals are producing.Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 10.32.41 AM

Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter points to deals like Hormel’s recent acquisition of Applegate Farms as evidence that the trend for consolidation, and the bigger farms that come alongside it, is not letting up. (The bar graph on the right depicting data from Iowa hog farms illustrates one stark example of this kind of consolidation.)

“As factory farms grow in size and number, so too do the problems they create, such as increased water and air pollution; fewer markets for independent, pasture-based farmers; public health burdens like antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and large scale food safety risks for consumers,” she said in a statement.

The organization compared U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) census data from four years–1997, 2002, 2007, and 2012–to look at the macro trends affecting the national factory farm landscape. It found that the total number of livestock on the largest factory farms rose by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012, increasing the number of livestock units from 23.7 million to 28.5 million. The trend was similar for dairy, hog, broiler chicken, egg-laying hens, and cattle operations. Here are some other facts from the report:

  • The number of dairy cows doubled on farms in those 15 years, and the average size of dairy farms grew by half.
  • Hog farm size grew by nearly 70 percent, with a third more hogs on each farm.
  • The average size of U.S. broiler chicken operations rose by about 5 percent, but the number of chickens on those farms rose by about 80 percent, to more than 1 billion. The average size of egg operations rose by nearly 75 percent, with about a quarter more hens per farm.
  • Though the 2012 drought reduced total cattle heads, feedlots size increased by 13.7 percent between 2007 and 2012.

Food & Water Watch’s definition of “factory farm” included operations that had at least 500 beef cattle heads, 500 cows, 1,000 hogs, 100,000 egg laying chickens, or 500,000 broiler chickens sold annually.

Whether you parse the information on the site by state or type of cattle, or get an overview of the country, the up-and-to-the-right trend is almost unvarying.

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To complement its website launch, the organization is also running a giant ad in New York’s Times Square through July highlighting just how much waste factory farms release each day with these increases in animal populations (hint: It’s enough to fill an iconic New York building).


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Anna Roth is a contributing writer for Civil Eats. She also writes a weekly restaurant column in the San Francisco Chronicle and her work has appeared in Best Food Writing 2014, SF Weekly, Eater, Modern Farmer, Sunset, and her book, West Coast Road Eats. Anna lives in San Francisco. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Chris Dieter
    I know it may not be as fast or convenient as going to the grocery store or a restaurant, but consider finding a local source for your milk, meat and eggs. Thank you!
  2. Chris Dieter
    And if you are needing a little inspiration in that direction, read or listen to this book by Joel Salatin.
  3. Lee
    Factory farms are only in business to grab off the top dollar, and the real farmers, those who CARE, can go fish! It is the factory farmer who gets all the money, the equipment, and loans to make a go of the enterprise.
    Meantime, the small farmer--the REAL backbone of the American agriculture venture--gets nothing. It is the small farmer who should get ALL the congressional backing, the money and equipment to keep our agribusiness healthy and working---forget those who are only PRETENDING to be ranchers and farmers--(but NOT people like GW Bush who raises cattle and alfalfa) and stick with the real deal--even if it is like me--a container farm!
  4. Christine Gately
    What can I do to help fight the factory farms
    I have stopped eating meat and I have donated
    Thank you!

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