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The dying breed of family farms

Thanksgiving is upon us, and for many that means a feast of plenty shared with family and friends. When gathered around that amazing spread, you probably don’t stop to consider where that Thanksgiving ham and turkey came from. Perhaps a vision of happy hogs running around in the sun — each tenderly cared for by the kind couple running the farm that’s been in their family for generations. And maybe Dorothy is out chasing rainbows with Toto in the backyard.

Don’t kid yourself.

In the 1930s, there were close to seven million farms in the United States. Today, just 2 million farms remain. Of the remaining farms, roughly 565,000 are family operations, farming just 44 percent of total farmland. Farmers remaining on their land often face the prospect of working off the farm just to stay on the land, raising the food we put on our tables. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that in 71 percent of farm households today, the farmer, spouse or both work off the farm.

This crisis in farm country is threatening the very existence of the family farm in America. As family farms are forced out by large factory farms, the quality of our food and our environment is in danger.

Factory farms, megafarms or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are becoming the future of American farming. Higher production levels, lower retail costs and greater efficiency are all boasts of industrial agriculture, but at what cost?

Every new factory farm forces 10 family farmers out of business. With every small family farmer that has to leave the farm, communities lose access to fresh, healthy food and a thriving local economy.

Factory farms deny animals many of their most basic behavioral and physical needs, which can lead to stress and a variety of potential illnesses. Many animals raised in factory farms do not see sunlight and some do not even have room in their stalls to turn around. Many poultry factory farms de-beak its birds to reduce injury during the fights that occur because of the sardine-packed “living” quarters.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that manure runoff from factory farm lagoons is a significant factor in the growing problem of ground and surface water pollution and the financial burden of cleanup for this environmental hazard is carried by taxpayers. In 1995, North Carolina saw 25 million gallons of raw animal waste spilled from an eight-acre industrial lagoon, killing 10 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands for shell fishing.

Recent studies have shown that people living near hog factories suffer from headaches, runny noses, sore throats, excessive coughing, diarrhea and burning eyes — symptoms brought on by noxious gasses and water pollution from manure lagoons. In more extreme cases, people living near factory farms have developed neurological diseases, suffered from miscarriages as a result of water and air contamination. Employees working inside factory farms have died from exposure to manure lagoons.

Inside factory farms, the overcrowded living conditions in feedlots and factory barns make the spread of diseases, such as salmonella, exceptionally easy. To fight disease outbreak factory-farmed animals are routinely fed antibiotics. Over 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are fed to healthy farm animals. This indiscriminate use of drugs has directly contributed to the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which the American Medical Association considers an impending public health crisis. The American public counts on antibiotics to cure countless diseases and infections, but if resistance continues to grow, they may no longer work.

But not all hope is lost. With a little bit of effort, you can buy healthy food grown humanely and help support the family farmers who struggle to compete against the factory farms.

Make sure your poultry and eggs come from “free-range” chickens. Also look for milk that is rBGH-free. Many are now labeling their products as such that a quick scan of your choices in the grocery aisle can make all the difference. If possible, buy your food from local farmers markets or buy organic when you can.

Shannon Baldwin, Rocky Mountain Collegian.