Externalizing Costs 101

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One of the nation’s largest producers of factory hogs has been getting some nice publicity recently. It seems Christensen Farms provided funding for a new animal and plant science curriculum being used by Minnesota’s high school agriculture teachers. I wonder if the curriculum contains a unit on how to externalize the environmental costs of factory farming? It should, since Christensen Farms has a doctorate in that field.

The curriculum, called MyCAERT, is meant to help teachers meet state mandated science standards. The Minnesota Association of Agricultural Educators and the Minnesota Agricultural Leadership Council secured the funding for this curriculum, and they’re quite pleased Christensen stepped up to the plate. “This was an expensive venture for Minnesota’s agriculture teachers and we were fortunate to find substantial sponsors for this effort,” wrote one agricultural instructor in an e-mail explaining why he couldn’t provide a copy of the curriculum for free. He explained that the CAERT (it stands for “Center for Agricultural and Environmental Research and Training”) is available only to “the selected group of agriculture teachers with login names and passwords.”

I understand. An extensive curriculum is pricey. You can’t just give stuff like this out. I also understand why educators, at a time when government funding of public education is being cut to the core, would accept money from a large agribusiness firm. The local family farmer raising hogs in deep straw for an antibiotic-free market probably isn’t in a position to fund an entire curriculum.

But I’ll admit, I’d like to get a peek at the CAERT curriculum just to see whether its sugar daddy influenced the content. How big of a role do sustainable livestock production systems play in the worksheets and lesson plans?

You see, Christensen Farms isn’t your typical philanthropic funder of education. The Sleepy Eye-based firm is part of Triumph Foods, the second largest pork producer in the country, according to Successful Farming‘s latest Pork Powerhouses list. Christensen had 188,000 sows in 2007, according to Successful Farming. When you get to be that size, your idea of “animal science” is to raise tens of thousands of pigs in tight confinement, and churn out millions of gallons of manure, some of which can be a major threat to the environment. And your idea of farm management is to make growers into “barn janitors” via contracts that control every aspect of the production process.

For example, in 1997 a contract grower for Christensen Farms allowed 100,000 gallons of liquid manure to make its way into Renville County’s Beaver Creek, causing a catastrophe that to this day still stands as the state’s largest (documented) manure-caused fish kill. The producer was duly vilified in the community — he was even sentenced to some jail time for failing to report the spill, which eventually sent 690,000 fish belly-up. But even though Christensen Farms owned the pigs, and even though they were being raised under the company’s specifications, the hog giant pretty much escaped having its name associated with the incident.

That’s one of the beauties of having your livestock raised on contract: you rake in all the profits, but avoid little annoyances like having your fingerprints all over a major pollution event. It’s the ultimate in externalizing costs. Why deal with the hassle of owning the farm when you can use paper to own the farmer…and the profits he or she produces? There are a lot of risks associated with raising livestock on a large-scale in confinement, but clever contracts can help push those risks onto the local farmer—as well as the community that farmer lives in.

It’s time factory farms were prevented from using contracts as a shield against responsibility. This is one reason the Land Stewardship Project’s 2008 Legislative Platform is proposing that the state adopt a “livestock contractor fairness and corporate responsibility act.” When a corporation owns the livestock and has management control over the farming operation, it should be named as a party on a feedlot permit. This will prevent the farmer from being solely liable, especially when environmental harm may be caused by management decisions made by the corporation and imposed on the farmer. Being listed on a feedlot permit has a way of making a firm a little more conscious of how its management decisions are playing in the community.

Unfortunately, I doubt the CAERT curriculum covers how to determine if a livestock production contract is a detriment to farmers and the communities they live in. Those kinds of lessons are usually learned the hard way.

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