Over the last several months, I have been floating out thoughts about developing sustainable, regional food systems. I do not view such systems as a replacement of larger-scale farming and food production, but, instead, as a viable, fast-growing, and profitable alternative to our conventional food system. Like it or not, we need all sizes of farms.
My intention with this post is to develop clear definitions of commonly used terms that can help advance discussions beyond disagreements over terminology, especially regarding sustainability, safety, and quality, which is where I am focusing my attention.
This a working draft. I will refine definitions and add terms based on constructive feedback from people with different perspectives and deeper knowledge. I will repost with updated language, assuming that is warranted.
“Family farm” seems to be the most misunderstood (and misused) term I have come across. In my mind, in its simplest form it refers to the ownership and operation of a farm, but other things get tagged on, e.g., generational, that confuse the term. Family farm does not connote goodness, sustainability, wholesomeness, etc., since there are family farms of all sizes, employing every type of method in the production of food.
Most family farms are small-scale operations. According to the USDA, family farms represented 98 percent of all farms in the U.S. in 2003 (91% small-scale and 7% large-scale), producing around 86 percent of the value (27% small and 59% large). Another way to look at this is that 73% of production came from large-scale family and nonfamily farms.
Alternatives to family farms are those run by agribusiness, often referred to as factory farms. Wikipedia’s definition of “factory farming” is “the practice of raising farm animals in confinement at high stocking density, where a farm operates as a factory — a practice typical in industrial farming by agribusinesses.” Assuming factory farms are exclusively associated with livestock then it stands to reason that they be classified as either animal feeding operations (AFOs) or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – see definitions below.
What isn’t clear to me is what to call an agribusiness operation growing fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. for consumption by people or animals. Is it a factory farm, as well?
Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs)
“Agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.”
Other criteria include: animals are confined for at least 45 days in a 12-month period, and there’s no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season. (Source: U.S. EPA)
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFOs)
According to the U.S. EPA, an AFO that is determined to be a “significant contributor of pollutants” is re-designated as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). From there, such operations are categorized by size, which is determined by the number of animals, as well as other criteria (see table). Approximately 15 percent of AFOs were designated as CAFOs.
Also according to the EPA, “The environmental impacts resulting from mismanagement of wastes include, among others, excess nutrients in water (such as nitrogen and phosphorus), which can contribute to low levels of dissolved oxygen (fish kills), and decomposing organic matter that can contribute to toxic algal blooms. Contamination from runoff or lagoon leakage can degrade water resources, and can contribute to illness by exposing people to wastes and pathogens in their drinking water. Dust and odors can contribute to respiratory problems in workers and nearby residents.“