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June 22, 2012

Back to the Land, Page 2: New Certification Program Focuses on Farm Animal Welfare and Consumer Education

Farmers forsake intensive confinement systems for more humane models

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • Chickens raised for meat roam freely at White Oak Pastures. This portion of the operation is certified at Step 5.   Julie Busch Branaman

by Karen E. Lange

Though GAP’s just getting started—with standards for eggs still in development and those for dairy and lamb yet to be introduced—farmers are already helping meet the demand. Sale of certified 5-step products is expanding outside of Whole Foods to an increasing number of purveyors. And in less than a year, Whole Foods helped create an alternative to huge, quickly grown broiler chickens, recruiting one or more producers from each region able to offer pasture-raised (Step 4) chickens.

One of those producers is David Pitman. He and the other three farmers profiled in these pages rejected most everything taught in ag school. They searched out alternative models. They took great financial risks, with no guarantee of success. Most of all, they followed their hearts in an environment often driven by the bottom line. People—their neighbors, sometimes their own family members—thought they were crazy. Some still do.

Others say they’re the start of a revolution that will dramatically improve animal welfare. Making the adjustments on larger farms will take time and money—realistically, producers will wait until they have to replace buildings, says Bernard Rollin, a Colorado State University professor who chairs the GAP board and served on the groundbreaking Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Certain expenses, though, may actually be lower: Rollin and another researcher found building barns without sow gestation crates costs up to 20 percent less.

Rejecting the factory farm model doesn't mean rejecting science or technology, says Maxwell. "We can be successful and not go [back] to the Dark Ages."

Rejecting the factory farm model doesn’t mean rejecting science or technology, says Maxwell. “We can be successful and not go [back] to the Dark Ages,” he says. Though crowding animals inside has been made possible by prolific use of antibiotics, for example, progressive farmers have applied a better understanding of key factors—including respiratory health, adequate ventilation, and disease-specific immunizations—to put animals back on the land and keep them healthy.

Meanwhile, the conditions that made intensive confinement possible—cheap oil, abundant water, a stable climate, a surplus of feed grain—are disappearing, say scholars like Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The scale of today’s mega-farms has actually grown beyond what’s necessary to be efficient, according to a study by Iowa State economist Michael Duffy. The future, says Kirschenmann, lies with what academics call “the agriculture of the middle”—mid-sized farms bigger than the type that sell to farmers markets and CSAs (community-supported agriculture groups), but not so big they have to rely on extreme confinement practices that ignore welfare. 

“What we need to be looking at now [are] the beginning farmers, the farmers who are in their 30s and [40s and] 50s,” he says. “They don’t want to raise hogs in CAFOs. They want to produce food for people.”

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