Factory Farms Don’t Build Healthy Rural Economies - New Food & Water Watch Report

Updated: Jun 9


by Diane Rosenberg | JFAN Executive Director


Contrary to livestock industry claims, factory farms aren’t creating healthy rural economies. Instead they are reducing community wealth according to a new Food & Water Watch Report, “The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies: The Hog Bosses.”

Photo credit: Bill Whitaker

You can read the report here.


Analyzing US Census of Agriculture figures from 1982–2017, FWW found that counties with the most large hog farms declined economically but those with more small hog farms grew. The US Census of Agriculture provides comprehensive data every five years that cover a broad range of economic factors.


The FWW analysis also differentiates between the amount of hog sales in each county as well as the number of hog farms and reports the effect of both of those indicators on rural economic health.


Some key takeaways from the FWW report:


  • In 1980, the top four pork producers captured 34% of pork production. In 2018 it was 70%.


  • Iowa lost 90% of its hog farms from 1982–2017 although 2.5 times more hogs were sold in the state. Iowa accounts for 25% of all hogs raised in the US.


  • In 1982 there were 49,012 Iowa hog farms that primarily raised a few hundred hogs each. In 2017 there were only 6221 hog operations raising an average of 9600 hogs per farm – a nearly 20-fold increase.


  • Compared to 1982 earnings, farmers made 2/3 less per pound on the sale of each hog in 2017, adjusting for inflation. That 2/3 wound up in the pockets of pork producers, processors, and retailers.


  • Counties that produced the most hogs saw real total personal income fall 8% from 1982-2017. But counties that sold fewer hogs saw real personal income increase 181%. Those with smaller hog farms saw a 142% increase. Even the more rural counties among this latter group experiencing a 41% growth.


  • While Iowa’s total population increased 8% from 1982–2017, population in counties with high hog sales decreased 44% and those with large hog farms by 36%. Yet population in counties with low hog sales increased 73% and those with small hog farms 47%.


  • There was a correlation between communities with significant population losses and a decrease in real total personal income.


  • Throughout Iowa, farm employment decreased by 44% between 1982-2017, and every county experienced double-digit losses. However, job losses in the top hog producing counties exceeded the state average and were a little higher than the average loss in other rural counties.


  • But pasture-based farms more than tripled the number of jobs per 100,000 hogs marketed as compared to factory farms and contributed to more indirect and induced jobs.


  • Further, counties with the highest hog production lost jobs in other industries too, accounting for 30% of lost employment. But jobs in counties with low hog production increased by 131% and in those with small hog farms by 102%.


  • Statewide Iowa saw a 2% loss of retail businesses in 1982-2017. However counties with high hog sales saw a 40% decline in retail business and those with large farms saw a 33% reduction. Counties with small hog farms and low hog production saw double digit increases in retail sales.


It’s clear that industrialization and overproduction of hogs is weakening Iowa’s rural economies, impacting businesses and families. Yet there is evidence that traditional, pastured-based hog production provides economic opportunities.


“…[A]s corporations tightened their hold on Iowa’s hog production, the value shared by rural communities declined…The problem is too big for any single farmer or eater to solve; we need our elected leaders to stand up against corporate power,” the FWW report concludes.


FWW’s recommendations begin with a moratorium on new and expanding factory farms on both the state and federal levels. In addition, passage of the federal Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2022 introduced in May would cease agribusiness mergers and break up large conglomerates, loosening corporate agriculture’s grip on rural Iowa.


Reforming the next Farm Bill in 2023 to restrain overproduction, protect cropland, and provide guaranteed living wages for farmers would go a long way in beginning to restore rural economic health as well.


Rural economies will not improve unless and until significant agricultural policy changes are made. The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies: The Hog Bosses makes it clear that rural Iowa is suffering but policy remedies can reverse its downward trajectory.


Learn more about these and other findings in The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies: The Hog Bosses.