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Factory Farms Growing, at Taxpayer and Climate Expense — Minnesota Bucking Some National Trends

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.


The Guardian reported on a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey, based on the 2022 agriculture census, that indicates that corporate factory farms are continuing to expand into rural communities — taking over family farm spaces — while intensifying climate change issues and benefitting from taxpayer-funded subsidies.

  • The number of farms fell 7 percent over the past five years to 1.9 million; the peak in the mid-1930s was almost 7 million.
  • About 20 million acres of farmland have been lost over the same period, transformed for urban sprawl, solar farms, and industrial development.
  • The largest decline was among the smallest farms, that have fewer than 10 acres, which have dropped by 17 percent.
  • The number of Black farmers fell by 8 percent in the past five years. The peak for Black farmers was about 1 million in 1910; in 2022 that number is down to to 41,807, after decades of discriminatory USDA policies that denied access to low-interest loans and other financial assistance.
  • The number of farms enrolled in USDA conservation programs that pay farmers to leave environmentally important areas such as wetlands fell by 7 percent between 2017 and 2022.
  • Almost 7 million dairy cattle — 75 percent of the total — are reared in confinement on factory farms, each with 2,000 or more cows.



The Guardian reported: “The U.S. globalized agricultural system favors large and corporate-owned operations, as smaller farms struggle with boom and bust prices, extreme weather linked to the climate crisis, and access to government subsidies and other credit.”



Anne Schechinger, of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), indicated that increasing financial support or long-term conservation projects, such as 30-year wetland preservation, could attract more farmers and maximize climate and environmental benefits.

Incentives to encourage cover crops — which helps to reduce synthetic fertilizer use, improve soil health and conserve water – shows mixed results. The number of farms enrolled in the program hovers around 153,000, although cover crops overall have risen 17 percent.


 



In the past five years, the U.S. has lost 34 percent of dairy farms, 9 percent of hog farms, and 7 percent of beef cattle farms, although the numbers of livestock animals have remained the same. The Guardian notes, “That means fewer, but much larger, concentrated lots, which are linked to an array of harms, including water and air pollution, poor animal welfare, labor abuses and climate impacts. As it stands, 1.7 billion animals — mostly pigs, cattle, chickens and sheep — were reared on U.S. factory farms in 2022, a 6 percent increase since the last census in 2017 and a 47 percent rise since 2002.”

The Guardian indicated that analysis by Food and Water Watch finds that 24,000 factory farms are producing 940 billion pounds of manure each year – double the amount of sewage produced by the entire U.S. population. This is 52 billion pounds more greenhouse gas-emitting concentrated manure than in 2017, the equivalent to creating a new city of 39 million habitants in the past five years.”

The article concluded: “America today is truly a factory farming nation.”


 


How Does Minnesota Compare?

We heard from Anne Schwagerl, vice president of the Minnesota Farmer’s Union, who indicates that Minnesota is doing better than national trends in three critical ways.

More small, direct marketing farms

The number of farms between 10 and 49 acres increased by 600 in Minnesota, which is opposite the national trend of significant declines in farms of the same scale.

She said Minnesota also has significant growth in the number of farms selling directly to retail markets, institutions, and food hubs for local or regionally branded products; in Minnesota, there are 1,026 farms engaged in these markets. “The number of farms selling direct to consumer has declined slightly, but the value of their sales have increased,” she said.

Emerging farmers

The number of BIPOC farmers in Minnesota have increased since 2017, which is also different from national numbers. “The Minnesota Department of Agriculture  has been working to serve emerging farmers in Minnesota.”

New and beginning farmers have increased in Minnesota. Despite a decrease in the number of farms, Schwagerl says, Minnesota farmers are up by 3,000 since 2017.

Women producers in Minnesota have increased by more than 1,000.

Conservation practices trending up

Schwagerl says that cover crop acres are up by 181,000 in Minnesota, for a total of 760,423 acres on over 6,000 farms. No-till practices have increased on 103,ooo acres, for a total of 1.2 million acres on 6,845 farms.

“While there is a ways to go, I think this shows the direction we’re headed,” Schwagerl told us. “Especially because the census was taken before the historic investments in climate and agriculture from the USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities and the Inflation Reduction Act. We also see a significant increase in the adoption of on-farm renewable energy systems, with most of the growth in solar arrays.”


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