Outreach to Farmers

post by Monica · 2018-11-23T05:08:36.336Z · EA · GW · 12 comments

It strikes me that there is little discussion in the animal welfare movement about outreach towards farmers. Most economists agree that the typical contract awarded to an animal farmer is a terrible deal for the farmer; it involves the farmer taking on a great deal of debt and bearing all of the risk, while companies like Tyson's retaliate against them if they complain and make them sign extensive non-disclosure agreements. I have been trying to figure out why it is that farmers sign these contracts to begin with. While there are surely many reasons including having no other options in their hometowns, I am convinced that part of the reason is that they do not fully understand how bad of a deal these contracts are. When I google or youtube search various iterations of "things to know before becoming a chicken farmer", the content I find is almost all positive. I wonder what the effectiveness would be of a short documentary (that does not even have to mention animal welfare) about the economic nature of contract animal farming. It could include interviews with former farmers, ag economists like C. Robert Taylor, and authors like  Christopher Leonard. After spelling out how these contracts are bad deals for the farmers, it could talk about some alternative employment options that a typical would-be-farmer might pursue (it is not entirely obvious to me what these options might be, which I think is also a problem the movement needs to take seriously--for now it could focus on online employment options, plant-based ag businesses, moving to another location, and any other alternative businesses we might brainstorm). Then, this documentary could be put online and ads about the documentary that could be targeted toward would-be farmers.

In addition to new farmers, I am not aware of much effort to research how existing animal farmers could re-purpose their capital and skills for other businesses. I've seen two accounts of dairy farms doing this and found one older study about how chicken farms might do this, but I suspect the possibilities are far vaster. Once we had this research, we could send out a targeted ad campaign when prices for the target animal product are low. A key part of the anti-tobacco lobby's strategy was reaching out to tobacco farmers and helping them understand what other crops they could grow on their land and how to get started. 

These issues have been brought up to some extent in films like Food Inc and in number of books, but I don't think they have been in the context of a clear targeted message toward would-be farmers. Instead, the message is something like "call your congressperson to change the system." The value of reaching out to farmers is not only have fewer farmed animals, but also fewer voters who are supportive of anti-animal-welfare and pro-farm-subsidy policies. I don't think it is as valuable as, say, researching clean meat technologies, but it can be done for fairly low cost by people with a different set of skills. 

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comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2018-11-24T00:33:25.700Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Compassion in World Farming USA has been working on this since at least 2014. You may want to listen to this interview with Leah Garces, former Executive Director. Start listening at 18:20.

Replies from: Monica
comment by Monica · 2018-11-24T23:06:31.063Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I am glad hear that they are working on that. It does sound a bit different than what I had in mind in that(judging only from the podcast you linked to) they are much more focused on welfare issues rather than economic ones. This surely has benefits that focusing on economics doesn't, but I wonder if in a separate project/film, they could reach a wider audience by making a mostly economic case

Replies from: AviN
comment by AviNorowitz (AviN) · 2018-11-25T15:07:06.941Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In the podcast, Leah makes the case the economic case for farmers starting at 39:00. Farmers aren't going to be listen to Our Hen House, but presumably Compassion in World Farming USA is making arguments appropriate for each audience.

Also, this very popular clip with John Oliver is heavily focused on the bad economics of chicken contract farming for the farmers. This was likely influenced by Compassion in World Farming USA's work.

comment by Peter Wildeford (Peter_Hurford) · 2018-11-24T00:13:13.065Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this. I'd love to hear more if you could elaborate on some of your sections, such as the opportunities for farmers now or the analogy to how similar strategies fit into anti-tobacco lobbying.

Replies from: Monica
comment by Monica · 2018-11-24T23:35:30.297Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't have great answers to alternatives, but dairy farms can be turned I to beer breweries or plant-based milk facilities, chicken farms can be turned to mushroom growing facilities, most farms can grow crops that are not typically used for feed, but which ones depend on the region. A small number of farms in certain locations can support touristy businesses like pick-your-own-apples and go-on-a-hayride but that is not scalable. I'm looking into pig farms but I'm not sure about how they might be repurposed.

More and more jobs offer remote work, and while this won't work for most farmers, I suspect a lot of (particularly young) would-be farmers underestimate the number of options.

I'm still thinking and will post if I come up with other ideas.

As for the anti-tobbacco lobbying goes, there was a group that was prominent in the anti-tobbacco movement that would go farm to farm educating farmers about crops that could be grown on the same land (peanuts and cotton as well as some corn and soy). Those crops were more mechanized than tobacco, so they would tell the farmers about how to get started. They framed it as "the tobbacco industry is not long for this world and we want to help you out." As far as I know (I'm hearing this all second and third hand, so I can't be sure) there was no insinuating that the growers were doing anything wrong.

Replies from: aarongertler
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2018-11-29T00:39:13.116Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you remember it, what was the name of this anti-tobacco group? In a quick search, I found a few articles about tobacco farmers who decided to switch to new crops for various reasons, but nothing about a nonprofit trying to make switches happen.

Replies from: Monica
comment by Monica · 2018-12-02T22:31:15.610Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't know off the top of my head--sorry. I heard this second hand from someone involved, so I will ask next time I see the person I heard it from.

comment by haven · 2019-07-08T10:04:37.781Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

John Oliver (the comedian) did this piece on chicken farming. It's the best attempt I know of to broadcast how terrible chicken farming is to the public, and completely stays away from animal welfare issues.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2018-11-29T00:37:04.377Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

To what extent do you think the average farmer is likely to be replaced if they choose not to enter the industry?

Given the smallish number of large-scale American agribusinesses, I wouldn't be surprised if convincing someone not to farm actually does reduce the number of farmers in the long term, but I'd expect it to have a smaller effect on reducing the number of farmed chickens. Though I know nothing about agriculture as an industry, I'd naively expect a drop in farmers to lead to higher chicken prices, which would then lead existing businesses to expand their operations.

Does anyone know more about the economics at work here? Maybe land-use laws make it difficult to expand existing businesses and easier for a new farmer to get started in a new location?

Replies from: Monica
comment by Monica · 2018-12-02T19:19:25.396Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the economics are definitely worth worrying about, but I also think they work out. There are a small number of large firms that contract out to farmers(eg Tyson's), but a large number of contract farmers. Farmers tend to stop producing more chickens at a point where the marginal cost of an additional chicken are increasing. If we can get the marginal farmer to stop producing, then we would expect that the farmers that would replace them would have higher costs and therefore produce fewer chickens.

comment by KevinWatkinson · 2018-11-24T20:05:30.775Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Vegan Society has its Growing Green campaign which springs to mind. There is also an article here about how Oatly helped a farmer shift more of his oat crop from animal feed to Oatly, so that is quite interesting from a business perspective and the article also discusses some of the tensions between Oatly and animal farmers. Some of these issues were also covered in the Rotten series that netflix produced, one of the episodes looked at chicken farming in the USA and how the industry functions, so that may be interesting if you haven't seen it. But i agree this type of approach doesn't receive as much attention as it could.

Replies from: Monica
comment by Monica · 2018-11-24T23:36:55.663Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link, that sounds great