Posted on June 23, 2014
Animal advocates often report having conversations with friends, colleagues or neighbors in which someone says: “I buy meat only from a small, local, humane farm.” Animal advocates aware of the rising concentration in animal agriculture know that most meat purchased in the US comes from large factory farms. So, would they be correct to harbor some skepticism about the actual source of the meat purchased by their friend, colleague or neighbor?
For lack of available data, it is not easy to ascertain how much purchased meat can be described as “local” or “humane”, even if one were to set aside philosophical objections to describing any meat as humane. But, we can indeed estimate what percentage of meat comes from animals raised on small farms with welfare conditions likely, though not necessarily, better than on large factory farms.
First, we need a precise definition of a small farm consistent across different species of animals we eat. The USDA’s Economic Research Service uses a definition based on gross annual sales. A more appropriate definition for use by animal advocates is one based not on sales figures but on the number of animals at the farm or the number of animals sold by the farm per year.
In this post, I will use the following definition: for each category of animals, we rank all farms in the US by the number of animals of that category they sell per year; then, a farm that ranks in the bottom 50% of the list will be described as a small farm for that category of animals.
Unfortunately, the USDA does not report statistics on animal slaughter grouped by the size of the farm in which the animal was raised. But, the USDA does conduct a comprehensive census of agricultural operations, called the ag census, once every five years in which it collects data on the number of animals sold by farms grouped by the sizes of these farms. The results of the most recent ag census, for the year 2012, was released just last month in May of 2014.
Based on the USDA’s ag census data, more than 50% of farms which raise chickens for meat sell fewer than 2,000 chickens per year, usually for slaughter. Also, chicken farms which sell fewer than 2,000 chickens is the smallest category of chicken farms for which the USDA reports census data. So, guided by USDA categories of reported data and the above definition of a small farm, we can say that all small chicken farms are included in the category of farms which sell fewer than 2,000 chickens per year. If we now compute the fraction of chickens sold out of farms which sell fewer than 2,000 chickens per year, it would be larger than the fraction of chickens sold out of small farms by our definition. To be conservative, in this post I will allow an overestimate rather than an underestimate—so, for purposes of this post, we will classify all farms which sell fewer than 2,000 chickens per year as small farms.
Similarly, by the above definition and guided by the ag census data and the USDA’s categorizations, we will classify pig farms which sell fewer than 25 pigs per year as small. Also similarly, if a turkey farm sells fewer than 2,000 turkeys per year, then we will consider it a small farm. Finally, if a farm that sells bovines sells fewer than 20 bovines (excluding calves) per year, then we will call it a small farm.
The following figure plots the number of animals in each of the four categories (bovines, pigs, chickens and turkeys) sold out of small farms for every 10,000 animals of that category sold each year. The numbers reported here are for the last 40 years—from 1974 to 2012. The USDA started collecting this data for turkeys only since 2002.
sold out of small farms for every
10,000 animals of that category sold each year
From the figure above, about 3.6% of the bovines sold by farms in 2012 were sold by small farms. But, the corresponding numbers for chickens, turkeys and pigs is much smaller. In fact, only about 2 chickens out of every 10,000 chickens sold each year is sold by a small farm. Only about 1 in 1,000 turkeys sold each year is sold by a small farm. Only about 1 in 1,000 pigs sold each year is sold by a small farm.
Despite how small the above numbers are, they are actually an overestimate if the definition of a small farm is strictly applied because these categories of farms sometimes represent significantly more than 50% of the farms—for example, almost 75% of turkey farms are farms which sell fewer than 2,000 turkeys per year. Especially in the case of bovines, there is another reason why these numbers are an overestimate. Since the USDA reports sales of animals and not the slaughter of the animals categorized by the size of farms, there is the possibility of double counting—it is possible that one farm reports the sale of a cow to a different large farm which operates a feedlot for what is known in the industry as “finishing” (fattening up on special feed before slaughter) and the feedlot operator later also reports the sale of the same cow for slaughter. So, the percentage of bovines raised on small farms for their entire lives is actually even smaller than the 3.6% inferred from the figure above.
Now, the numbers in the graph above from 2002 to 2012 are so small for pigs, chickens and turkeys that they deserve another expanded graph for just that period of time and for those animals. Also, it will not surprise me if some readers feel that the definition of small farms should include farms larger than what I used earlier. So, how about we also plot data to include farms whose sizes are at least four times what I allowed earlier as the maximum size of a small farm?
sold out of certain classes of farms
for every 10,000 animals of that category sold each year
There are a number of reasons why the cows we use for beef are not as likely to be factory farmed in large operations as smaller animals like chickens and turkeys and even pigs. Not surprisingly, except for the meat of bovines, the portion of the meat purchased in the US that comes from small farms, by almost any definition of a small farm, is miniscule. But, bovines are a tiny fraction—only about one-third of one percent—of the land animals we use and abuse for food. From the point of view of an animal advocate, who cares as much for the suffering of a chicken as for the suffering of a cow, it remains true that the total number of animals sold out of small farms is a minuscule fraction of all animals sold for food.
How is it possible that small farms constitute more than 50% of all farms, and yet they sell, for example, only about 2 chickens out of every 10,000 chickens sold in the US? Because large farms raise and sell so many chickens that their numbers completely overwhelm those of all the small farms combined. In fact, more than 99.49% of the chickens sold in 2012 were sold by farms that sold 100,000 or more chickens that year. More than 98.76% of pigs sold in 2012 were sold by farms that sold 1,000 or more pigs that year.
Recent years have seen significant coverage in the media and excitement about the small farm movement and its rising impact. While this impact has been more pronounced in the market for fruits and vegetables, the movement has also made a difference in the market for some animal products. For example, the percentage of chickens sold by small farms increased by more than 60% between 2007 and 2012. But, this was an increase from a mere 1.3 chickens to a mere 2.1 chickens for every 10,000 chickens sold.
Despite the recent rise of small farms and the promise they hold, their impact—in terms of the number of animals forced to churn through our food system—still remains minuscule today.