Do you know someone who buys meat only from a small local farm?

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.

Sources cited
  1. USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Census of Agriculture, 1974-2012. (link, accessed June 23, 2014)
  2. USDA, Economic Research Service. Updating the ERS Farm Typology, April 2013. (link, accessed June 23, 2014)

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.

Number of animals of each category
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.

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.

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?

Number of animals of each category
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.

Comments

spike

In a previous post you indicated that chickens are slaughtered at approximately 70 days of age. Would it be correct to say that on the farms with 2,000 chickens sold per year, at any given time there would be 400 chickens on the farm? I was originally thinking that 2,000 sounded like too many for a designation of "small", but 400(or less) seems more like what people have in mind when they are talking about small.

Harish

Spike: The chickens raised for meat are slaughtered at an average of about 47 days of age, but in small farms it is very likely they live a little longer—maybe 70 days as you indicated. Yes, in that case, at any given time, one can expect about 2000*70/365 = 384 chickens on a farm that sells about 2000 chickens per year.

In the case of cows which live longer than one year before slaughter, the opposite holds. For example, a cow used for beef is likely slaughtered when she is about 16 months old. So, on a farm which sells 20 cows per year, you can expect to see about 20*16/12 = 27 cows at any given time.

Carrie

I would argue that the impact of small-scale animal farms goes well beyond their numbers. It is absolutely true that they raise a paucity of animals compared to feedlots and factory farms. But because they interface with consumers so well, they are inspiring people to ask questions about animal foods that come from larger-scale farms and food companies. Many of those larger-scale places - ever concerned about their image and market share - in response are making changes in their animal production methods. To be sure, they are not switching to the best practices of small farms, but at least they are making the lives of millions of farm animals a little better.

In short, I wonder if the new animal welfare practices being adopted by some of the major food corporations (e.g., the switch from gestation crates to group sow housing ) are coming about not just because of effective policy advocacy and the increased presence of vegetarians in U.S. culture but also because of the increased presence of small farms, which introduce consumers to farm animal life and good husbandry practices.

Jack

Another great post, Harish! Thanks for taking the time to figure this stuff out.

Victoria Foote-Blackman

Many thanks for the splendid work you do.

My takeaway from this includes the depressing fact that though chickens and turkey are sold in staggering, heartbreaking numbers, there seems to have been some "improvement " for chickens and turkeys--if by that we mean that slightly more are being sold from smaller supposedly more 'humane 'farms--but that the conditions for pigs have steadily dwindled over the last 40 years, as they are increasingly confined to factory-style farms. So no one can argue that more pigs are being more humanely raised than in the past. The all of it of course is a blight on humanity.

Your page is invaluable, and I always watch for it with interest. Bravo.

Harish

Carrie: You make an excellent point. Not only do small farms interface with consumers better like you said, they also manage to get significantly more positive attention from the media. This helps shift public opinion, which in turn helps nudge the large factory farms into abandoning some of their most cruel practices and reducing the pollution they cause.

Small farms which avoid most of the cruelty in large factory farms have also been helpful to many campaigns by animal advocates in pushing for changes in how large farms are run. So, yes, I agree that the impact of small farms is larger than what is apparent from the very small number of animals in their operations.

Harish

Victoria: Yes, the concentration in pig farming has been sharply on the increase, especially since the mid-1990s and, unfortunately, it continues today with no signs of abatement. And, thank you for your kind words!

exo

Carrie (and Harish in reply): here is another possibility. The existence of "small" farms with "good husbandry practices" (including "good" cutting of throats? "good" shots to the head? "good" confinement? And so on. But let us put that aside for sake of argument.) slow down change in larger-scale farms because all the media talk of "humane" animal exploitation make consumers underestimate how much harm the animal industry does to animals. The "small" farms also help consumers nurture the "it is getting better" mentality that make them not switch to plant based eating (why go through the hassle of changing a habit if "small" farms soon fix the problem anyway?).

These effects are also possible. Do you have any empirical evidence that make your positive scenarios more credible than the negative one I sketched above?

Harish

exo: Thank you for bringing up the other side of the coin as regards the impact of small farms. Yes, indeed, small farms can also have a negative impact because the public more often sees romanticized pictures of these small farms in bucolic settings and is more likely to have actually seen one (as opposed to a factory farm), and may gain the incorrect impression that most meat comes from these "nice" places. This may stop some number of people from going vegetarian. But, I do not have a well-reasoned estimate of the size of this number or even whether it is large or small.

Also, I do not know of empirical/scientific evidence that clearly establishes whether the positive impact of these small farms dominates the negative, or vice versa. In these matters, most of us form an opinion based on what seems most likely/rational to us. Also, there may be other positive as well as negative impacts of small farms I did not consider.

In any case, whether the positives dominate or the negatives dominate, it is indeed true that the impact of small farms is larger than what is apparent from the small number of animals in their operations.

exo

Thank you for the reply.

"In any case ... it is indeed true that the impact of small farms is larger than what is apparent from the small number of animals in their operations."
Agreed.

"I do not know of empirical/scientific evidence that clearly establishes whether the positive impact of these small farms dominates the negative, or vice versa."
Me neither. So I wanted to put Carrie, to me, overconfident claim in negative perspective. Empirical research on that topic would be very useful. Likewise I hope for empirical studies more generally on outreach effects, comparing incrementalist messaging (e.g. "meatless monday") and abolitionist messaging ("veganism is the moral baseline"). A whole lot of disagreements and debates within the animal rights movements seem to boil down to differences in opinion on that empirical topic.

K

exo and others:
There are some groups out there doing empirical research on activism efforts and effectiveness. These include the Humane Research Council and Humane League Labs. I encourage you to check out their enlightening reports.

exo

K, I'm familiar with those groups. They do relevant work but I'm not convinced that the research done (though I may have missed important results!) provide sufficient evidence to answer the larger questions I posed above. For that I think we'd need longer comparative studies on larger regions (states, countries) that in differ in degree on the incrementalist versus abolitionist activism spectrum. But that is of course very hard to organize, methodologically and statistically challenging and time and money consument work.

Will Anderson

Harish, First, my disclaimer: My use of "happy meat" here is not a support of that impossible concept.

These statistics are a valuable part of a larger whole. My concern is that there are many confounding data sets that can change the conclusions drawn from the seeming small percentage of “livestock” exiting and slaughtered on smaller animal agriculture enterprises, and that should drive our strategy, e.g. we should diminish efforts in that sector. Getting to the big picture by sifting through endless data sets is a challenge for anyone looking to find answers. As you noted, the fact that USDA doesn't correlate farm size to number and types of species killed is one of them.

So I need to ask, would any of the following considerations alter your results where x number of animals from small farms (US) are x percent of the total?

a) Some large animal ag operations have a mixed production that consists of both "happy" (often associated inaccurately with organic) and their standard flocks treated as usual. I do not accept the mistaken effort to call the “improved” animal agriculture practices as a worthy strategic goal—it’s a parallel to green-washing. Wilcox Farms in Washington state is one of many examples of mixed practices (http://www.wilcoxfarms.com/retail-products/). Though a fluid factor and difficult to measure, it seems likely the number of "happy" meat/egg/dairy products would far higher if these split-treatment businesses were included.

b) When the USDA used acreage as the determinate of what a small farm is (10 acres or less) they found "Small acreage farms with sales of $100,000 or more tend to specialize in raising livestock or produce specialty or high-value crops. They produced very few or no field crops for sale. Three of the top five specializations (hog/pigs, broilers/chicken meat, and poultry hatchers) for these higher sales SA farms are in livestock production. SA livestock operations typically produce products under contract with larger companies." (http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2014-may/small-acreage-farms-in-the-united-states.aspx).

Defining a small-holding by number of individuals slaughtered and then acreage, creates further confusion since most small-holders by this definition do not specialize in animal agriculture. Yet their impacts are worth consideration. Some 294,000 farms operated on ten acres or less yet accounted for nine billion dollars or thirteen percent of all U.S. farms. This gives us an enhanced view on how important it is to include small farms in our literature and messaging.

It does not take resources to add a sentence in our literature, on our web pages, and in our blogs to include them in our campaign to end animal agriculture. It seems like an easy agreement the movement can have here instead of a point of divisiveness.

c) Still another confounding way the USDA defines a family farm is by ownership structure. When owned primarily by a family and close relatives an astounding 97% farms in the U.S. are family farms (though many are contracted to the mega-corps) (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/farming-and-farm-income.aspx) AND (chart http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/detail.aspx?chartId=40046).

d) Your point is still made: the fewer mega-operations appear to outstrip the smallest. Yet, I think no one should infer that we stop including the smaller, family farms in our vegan advocacy. In addition to describing the percentages of the whole (e.g. "But, this was an increase from a mere 1.3 chickens to a mere 2.1 chickens for every 10,000 chickens sold.") I think it vitally important to include how many individual chickens this example represents (in the neighborhood of two million but that’s without my doing more homework). Then add how many chicks were killed to get the desired flock, how many died prior to being counted at slaughter, and how many environmental impacts they continued to create. I ask that the term "mere" be dropped. I'm not comfortable with saying mere humans in this context so I ask the same sensitivity be used here.

I do thank you for your continued insight and the valuable, data driven input we need as part of the whole picture.

Will Anderson
http://www.thisishopethebook.com (blog and book page)
Seattle

Harish

Will: Thanks for your comment.

This post is not specifically making a point about "humane" practices on farms—it is only saying something about how many animals come from what can be categorized as small farms. Indeed, the existence of some farms with mixed practices would suggest that fewer animals are factory farmed than one may infer merely from the number of animals that come from medium/large farms. Since the USDA ag census does not collect data on farming practices, we have no way of knowing how commonly or rarely farms use mixed practices. But, I suspect it is rare—almost all large farms would have to use cost-cutting and cruel factory farming methods in the vast majority of their operations to stay viable in the current race-to-the-bottom meat supplier market.

On the other hand, while a small farm is less likely to use some of the most cruel practices, it is also true that there is no such guarantee—for example, there exist small egg farms which use battery cages; I have seen a single sow kept in a gestation crate on a small farm raising only a few pigs.

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