WHAT IS: Industrial Farming?

Industrial agriculture views nature as a factory and attempts is to minimize costs and maximize output.  Technology becomes a tool that keeps costs down and raises yields.  The move from the small family farm to large scale Industrial Agriculture has resulted in lower food prices and an increase in the yield per acre, while at the same time resulting in environmental problems, public health issues, economic displacements, low wage migrant workers and other societal issues.  The Industrial approach to agriculture can be found in farming, meat production, dairies and now fish production.   Let’s concentrate on Industrial farms.

Perhaps the best way to see the differences is to contrast 2 farms, a middle 1800’s Iowa farm and a modern corn farm.  

In the middle of the 1800’s most Iowa farms were family affairs with 25-40 acres cultivated out of 160 acre farm.  They grew corn, wheat and potatoes without a tractor and relatively crude tools, and raised pigs and chickens.  The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates about 4,520,000 people in the US worked in Agriculture, or about 55% of the US workforce, supporting a population of about 23.2 million people.  There were no pesticides and fertilizer was something that was produced by the pigs and chickens.  Perhaps the farmer owned a few oxen or horses.  It took about 75-90 hours of labor and 2.5 acres to produce 100 bushels of corn.

In 2013, the average size of the US farm was 435 acres.  According to the USDA “Ninety percent of U.S. farms are classified as small family farms, but they only account for 26 percent of production.”  The average farm size of the top 7.7% of the farms, measured in sales, is a more than 2,000 acres, 50 times the size of the 1850’s Iowa farm.  This group of farms employs an average of a little over 6 workers per farm.  On average the same 100 bushels of corn require only 0.6 acres of land.  

This is a remarkable transition but how was it achieved?  Labor reductions followed from replacing horses and oxen by tractors. As farm size grew, the machinery that is attached to the tractor grew as well, allowing one tractor to service larger and larger parcels of land.  Automation does not increase the yield per acre.  Each plant has a theoretical maximum yield per acre that requires a given amount sunlight, water, and a soil sufficiently rich in nitrogen, potassium, prosperous, and smaller amounts of other nutrients.  Disease, rot and pests can destroy part of the crop.  Weeds compete with the crop for nutrients, water and sunlight.  Industrial farming uses fertilizer to increase the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium in the soil, pesticides to kill pests, defoliants to destroy the weeds, and irrigation to keep the soil moist.   This brings the yield per acre closer to the theoretical maximum.   The total crop land used for crops has declined slightly since 1945 from 363 to 335 million acres.  Crop land used for crops occupies about 15% of the land area of the United States, agriculture as a whole occupies over 40% of US land. Producing more means increasing yields.

It is not surprising that the traditional small family farm is going extinct and is being replaced by larger Industrial farms.   In 2015 48% of all farms had farm sales of less than $10,000, and accounted for only 1% of farm production.  Meanwhile, Large family farms and farms not owned by a family, about 4.2% of farms, accounted for 68% of production.  The small rural family farm is going extinct.

- Written by David Larrabee

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