MADISON, WI (SPECTRUM NEWS) — A new national study reports that farm consolidation is continuing across the country.
The research comes from the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. It’s a repeating study the group does every five years when a new Census of Agriculture is released.
The study’s major findings include the loss of nearly 10,000 family run dairies from 2012 to 2017, a 14 percent increase in animals on the nation’s factory farms, and 82 billion pound increase in factory farm manure waste.
Amanda Starbuck is an author of the study, and she says virtually every part of the country has seen consolidation in some way.
“You might see that in Wisconsin with dairy operations, it’s long been a dairy state, but there has been a trend towards larger operations that has been going on for about 20 years,” Starbuck said.
From 2012 to 2017 — the time span in the study — Wisconsin lost about 2,500 dairy farms according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. The losses include dairy herds of all sizes, the Food and Water Watch study designates family run dairies at those with fewer than 500 cows.
In the past decade Wisconsin lost about 40 percent of its dairy farms, but milk production during that time went up about 17.5 percent.
Family Farm Defenders advocates for small-scale farms in Wisconsin. They say consolidation is chocking out family farms.
“There’s going to be a point where we’re not going to have enough dairy farms left to sustain a dairy industry in the state we’re going to be importing all of our milk to make Wisconsin cheese from out of state,” said John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders.
Food and Water Watch’s study also points to environmental problems with massive farms. The study shows the five-year increase in manure on the country’s largest farms surpasses 82 billion pounds. Starbuck said on large-scale farms they are less equipped to dispose of waste in a safe way than small-scale ones.
“You can maintain the waste much easier, you might have land that you can spread it on that might be used as a viable fertilizer for your cropland,” Starbuck said.
The Study and Family Farm Defenders say the system moving towards fewer, larger operations and away from more, smaller operations presents more problems during the coronavirus pandemic. Starbuck points to issues in meat processing plants.
Coronavirus-related temporary plant closures take huge chunks of processing capacity offline. Leaving livestock farmers and ranchers without an alternative for their animals.
“Those farmers are left with nowhere else to take their cattle because those smaller markets have closed under because they are pushed out because of the competition of these large ones,” Starbuck said.
Peck said the emphasis on large scale farm and processing operations destabilizes the food chain in a pandemic situation. He argues a more localized and smaller scale food production chain is less impacted by coronavirus related closure.
“We’d have more localized food production, we’d be less vulnerable to shocks like that,” Peck said.
Family Farm Defenders is also advocating for a hold on farm foreclosures during the pandemic — similar to measures several municipalities have taken agains rental evictions.
“Why are we going to throw a farmer out on the street because prices are so low because their contracts were cancelled? Give them a break let’s not foreclose on their farm and give them a chance to refinance down the road,” Peck said.
Peck worries the coronavirus could hurt small-scale farms disproportionately. Wisconsin is still behind 2019’s pace when it comes to dairy closures — last year the state lost 10 percent of its dairy farms. However, he thinks there could be a coronavirus related spike in closures.
“I’m really concerned a lot of farmers were already on the edge and they’re going bankrupt, we’re going to see a whole other wave of bankruptcies,” Peck said.
Food and Water Watch is using the study to promote legislation in D.C. To mitigate farm consolidation. Among the bills out there are measures to place a moratorium on factory farm construction and expansion.
You can view the Study and learn more about the bills on Food and Water Watch’s website: https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/factory-farm-nation-2020-edition
Peck also thinks there should be governmental intervention to reverse the consolidation trend, but he says people can also vote with their dollars and focus on buying local food.
“I hope coming out of this country that more consumers will realize the value of food, how important it is to have a local food supply,” Peck said.