Agribusiness' large-scale and factory farms not only produce foods that can be harmful to our healthand local environments, they also negatively affect a community’s economy. With claims that its presence will create new jobs, invest in local business, and increase property value, many communities open their arms to these farms. Recent experience, however, has shown that when large-scale farms enter communities, replacing small farms, they can actually create an economic downturn.
As recently as 2008, the US agricultural industry consistently experienced record profits, 1 but this agricultural boom did not create more opportunities for the average farmer or rural worker. The percentage of the rural workforce employed on farms dropped by about half throughout the 1980s and 1990s 2 and continues to fall in 2008 to under 2% of the US labor force. 3 Some of these job losses might be offset by increased opportunities in processingplants or related industries, but those new jobs are often located far away, so workerslocated near farms do not have access to them.
Many factory farms claim that by entering a community there will be an influx of jobs. In fact, most factory farm jobs pay such low wages that the work is a severe pay cut for local residents. Because of this, most must hire, or bring in, immigrant labor from Mexico and South America. 4 Labor conditions are often so horrible that on-the-job amputations are prevalent and health care is slim to non-existent. This atmosphere persists because immigrants unfamiliar with language, law and labor in the United States, are afraid to speak up or unionize. 5
While many workers have lost jobs as a result of industrial farming, farmers are losing control over the way they farm and the prices they can ask for their products because of contract growing. Today, few poultry growers actually own the chickens they raise, and hog-growers are increasingly raising their herds for outside owners as well. 6 These farmers have no say over what breeds of animals they raise, and are often required to buy feed and other products from the same companies that own their animals. As corporate farms grow bigger and more centrally-controlled, small farms are unable to compete and eventually disappear.
Large, industrial farms moving in, and contract growing on smaller farms, also affect non-farm local businesses. A Michigan study demonstrated that small hog farms proportionately spend almost 50% more at local businesses than large farms do, primarily because larger farms buy feedin bulk from sources outside of the community. 6 Since factory farms are vertically-integrated, farm materials are bought within the corporation, rather than at the local feed or hardware store. In addition, industrial farms are often too large to be locally supplied, so they must buy feed and other materials in bulk from distant suppliers. For example, Wisconsin dairy farmers – who traditionally grew their own feed on the same land where they kept their cows – have increased herd sizes beyond sustainability and subsequently turned to importing feed because there isn’t enough local acreage for both cows and crops. 7
Despite the fact that industrial farms invest less in local economies than small farms, there is the claim that they increase property values and tax revenue. Class action lawsuits against factory farms in a number of states debunk this claim 8 and numerous studies have shown that property values are often negatively affected by large-scale livestock production, mostly due to undesirable and highly unpleasant odors coming from their facilities. An Iowa study showed that property values dropped approximately ten percent when large confined animal feeding operations were opened upwind of those properties. 9 One study of communities in Missouri demonstrated that houses located within one tenth of a mile of an industrial farm lost as much as 88 percent of their value. 6
Evidence suggests that the effect of industrial agriculture on tax revenue is negative - many industrial farms receive large tax breaks, 10 abatements 11 and exemptions, 12 contributing little to local revenue. Though one Iowa study of hog farms suggested that local and state revenues increase when herd sizes grow toward 300 sows, they then decline as the herd size approaches 3,400. 6 Another report estimated that cattle feedlots have a large impact on local roads because of the constant transport of cattle in and out of the facility, and the funding required to maintain those roads offset any increased tax revenues that did come from the farm. 13
Factory farms directly affect community health by introducing potentially hazardous substances into the air and water. Air pollutantssuch as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and particulate matter are released in significant quantities by large confined animal feeding operations, and all have the potential to negatively affect surrounding communities. 14 People living near hog farms, for example, often have increased respiratory problems, most likely due to the large quantities of ammonia emitted by these types of facilities. 15 One recent study indicates that children attending schools located near industrial farms may be at a higher risk for asthma. 16
Large farms also often pollute local watersources, mainly through the release of nitrates and nitrites from chemical fertilizers. 17 A study of almost 2,000 wells across the country showed that 9 percent of domestic wells and 2 percent of public-supply wells had nitrate concentrations in excess of the EPA’s maximum contaminant level. 18 Nitrate poisoning can cause dangerously low blood-oxygen levels in babies (or blue-baby syndrome), spontaneous abortions, and possibly cancer. 18 This is an especially serious problem in rural communities, because rural Americans are heavily reliant on groundwater and domestic wells. 19
While many physical problems have been linked to factory farm runoff and air pollution, there is evidence that psychological and social problems can also result from living close to such facilities. 20 Studies suggest that symptoms such as fatigue, depression, and mood disturbances occur in higher proportions near confined animal feeding operations. 15 Several studies also suggest that the presence of industrial farms can cause an increase in disputes between neighbors and the loss of social status, mutual trust, social cohesiveness, and other measures of “social capital.” 15 A study of one Oklahoma county from 1990 to 1997—a period in which large-scale hog farming was being introduced—indicated dramatic increases in violent crime, theft, and civil court cases. Counties which did not experience such changes in agricultural practices had decreases in all of those problems during the same period. 15
The New York Times ran a front-page story in May 2003 about the health problems associated with industrial livestock farms. The following excerpt provides a few examples of the many health problems that industrial agriculture can cause:
“Paul Isbell of Houston, Miss., started experiencing seizures after a hog farm moved in down the road. Jeremiah Burns of Hubbardston, Mich., now carries a six-pound oxygen tank with him. Kevin Pearson of Meservey, Iowa, carried a towel in his car because he vomited five or six times a week on his way to work. Julie Jansen’s six children suffered flu-like symptoms and diarrhea when farms moved into their neighborhood in Renville, Minn. One of Ms. Jansen’s daughters was found... to have neurological damage. She has problems with balance and has lost some feeling in her fingers.” 20
Industrial farms also take a toll on the environment in ways that affect the local community even when they don’t pose an immediate threat to human health. For example, the particulate matter emitted from such farms contributes greatly to haze. 14 Foul odors—which are always a nuisance, but which may or may not be hazardous—are almost always emitted by large livestock operations. Ammonia emitted from farms can contribute to haze, loss in forest production, and a loss in biodiversity. 14 The nitric oxides produced in large quantities by farms, especially in manure application, 14 are among the leading sources of acid rain. 21
Phosphorous and nitrogen pollution from fertilizers can cause fish kills, toxic algae blooms, and other significant changes in water systems. 22 Metals such as copper, zinc, lead, chromium, arsenic and cadmium are often added to animal feed, and when they are excreted through manure they often end up on fields as part of fertilizers. 7 They are all toxic to humans. Some of these metals, like copper 23 and cadmium, 7 can be directly absorbed by crops, and most of them can pollute drinking water as they either seep into groundwater or exit the fields along with other harmful pollutants via water runoff.