Small farmers and lessons in economicsI honestly...


July 11, 1999

Small farmers and lessons in economics

I honestly appreciate Mike Burns' column in The Sun in Carroll. It should be on the front page of the section.

I want to respectfully offer some contrasting views to his column on May 23 ("Exurbanites aren't alone in pig factory"). I agree with much of what he wrote, but I think his comment about "economies of scale" is a common misperception.

Indeed, there is a half-truth to the concept of economies of scale affecting agriculture.

The inevitability might be true in a free-market economy, but in a controlled economy such as commodities, where prices are controlled by processors and integrators, the "market" can pay an independent farmer less for pork than the cost to raise it and can pay a contract grower above the "market" price. This has been documented.

On June 12, I attended a conference on Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) in Washington. Agricultural economist John Ikerd disputed the argument that the change in farming is market-driven. Mr. Ikerd asserts that the costs are probably slightly less for a large CAFO than most average independent operations, yet 20 to 40 percent of independents are more efficient.

He asks why we don't help other independents be that efficient instead of subsidizing CAFOs.

We fail to take into account government subsidies of CAFOs, petroleum resource costs for chemical fertilizers to grow grain and for transportation costs to ship grain, hogs and possibly manure as well as environmental costs and the social and economic costs to rural communities.

Mr. Ikerd likened this to "short-run, self-interest economics." Every CAFO that comes into an area displaces 1.5 to 3 local farm workers.

It is not consumer demand for lower prices that drives the meat market, but the near-monopoly of huge agricultural corporations from Perdue to Smithfield to Seaboard. While pork prices have plummeted, the amount of pork produced has remained relatively constant. What has changed is the consolidation of the industry, with about 10 independents going under for every new contract grower.

I am not a farmer, but at one time I worked on a dairy farm. The real tragedy is that independent farmers do not get a fair market price for their products.

Indeed, the farm bureau and the USDA have supported large ag corporations over independent farmers.

In Frederick County, as in more than 25 states that were represented at a conference I attended, farmers have joined with community activists to oppose CAFOs. In Carroll County, however, independent farmers have remained quiet or supportive of CAFOs. The result has been mandatory nutrient management plans.

Greg Becker, Westminster

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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