116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The number of Iowa farms with hogs fell 86 percent from 1982 to 2017. But the number of hogs in Iowa more than tripled over that time, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.
An agricultural system with fewer owners who specialize in one or two commodities improves efficiency, which lowers costs for consumers, said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University economics professor and crop market specialist.
But such a system isn’t very resilient during international crises, such as the war in Ukraine.
And large-scale agriculture hasn’t found a good way to measure environmental attributes — such as clean water and wildlife habitat — so that they can be factored into the cost of doing business, Hart said.
“The environmental aspect is something we need to figure out how to appropriately value,” he said. “That is what has been missing in a lot of the discussion as we move forward here.”
Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group that supports a moratorium on new large animal feeding operations, released a 13-page report Thursday saying the “overproduction” of hogs in Iowa has reduced farmers’ profits and caused people to leave rural Iowa counties because there are fewer on-farm jobs.
“Farmers were desperate for economic means, especially following the 1980s farm crisis, but turning to hogs just made things worse,” Amanda Starbuck, research director for Food and Water Watch, said in an interview.
Iowa is the No. 1 pork producing state in the nation, with about 25 million hogs at any one time. The most recent Census of Agriculture, taken in 2017, showed 60.3 million hogs for the year.
The group used the Census of Agriculture and other U.S. Department of Agriculture data to show that, as livestock operations grew from 1982 to 2007, farmers earned $2 less per pound for hogs they produced. Food and Water Watch updated the analysis with 2012 and 2017 data.
Iowa’s total farm employment dropped 44 percent between 1982 and 2017, the report states.
“Job losses among the top hog-producing counties exceeded the state average — and were even slightly higher than among rural counties overall,” Food and Water Watch said.
“Simply put, the factory farm model is both anti-farm (pushing family-scale farms to foreclosure) and anti-job (reducing employment both on and off the farm).”
ISU’s Hart did not dispute the data used by Food and Water Watch, but questioned some of the conclusions the group reached.
Over the past 40-plus years, the agriculture industry has found efficiencies of scale by using larger equipment and technology advances to grow more crops and raise more animals, Hart said.
“The bigger the agricultural operation, the lower the per-unit cost and the more economically efficient it is,” he said.
“Yeah, they are making less on a per-hog or a per-pound basis, but each farmer is making more on volume. The consumer has seen low prices be well maintained there.”
Iowa’s population grew 8 percent from 1982 to 2017, the report states.
“However, counties with high hog sales and large farms saw their populations decrease by 44 percent and 36 percent, respectively,” Food and Water Watch reported.
“In contrast, the populations of counties with low hog sales and small hog farms boomed 73 percent and 47 percent.”
When The Gazette suggested population declines in rural areas would have happened anyway despite booming livestock production, Starbuck of Food and Water Watch said, “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question. The more you have CAFO” -- concentrated animal feeding operation -- “operations, the quality of life declines.”
Hart said he would have liked to see Food and Water Watch compare on-farm job numbers in Iowa counties with and without animal-processing facilities.
“It would make sense to see declining job opportunities in direct hog production in the county,” he said. “We would expect job growth in counties with processing.”
One of the solutions Food and Water Watch raises to support the growth of small farming operations is price supports for fruit, vegetables and nuts. Growing a bigger variety of products in Iowa reduces the state’s economic dependence on foreign markets, Starbuck said.
When Russia attacked Ukraine in February, economists warned grocery prices might go up even more because of reduced wheat production in those countries.
While some U.S. states that already grow wheat — Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska — may increase production this year, Hart does not see Iowa following suit.
“Over time, people figured out that some farms produce corn better than others,” he said. “Some produce wheat better, some cows. That specializing helps lower the cost for everybody.
“That’s where a war in Ukraine can highlight the negative aspects of that. The system is not as flexible as you would like, but it is more efficient.“
Comments: (319) 339-3157; email@example.com