Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agriculture and Applied Economics at the University of Missouri, grew up on a small dairy farm in the southwestern part of Missouri. John is the author of 6 books and the 2014 regional report called “Family Farms of North America” which was published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. He retired in early 2000, but his idea of ‘retirement’ includes prolific writing and speaking on issues related to sustainability, with an emphasis on economics and agriculture.
At the beginning of his career, John worked—and fully believed—in industrial agriculture until eventually, things failed to add up: “I said ‘there’s something fundamentally wrong with this [industrial agriculture] way of thinking. You know, I didn’t get all this education to go out here and drive farmers out of business.'” With this conviction came the realization that there were viable alternatives to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and other destructive trademarks of industrial agriculture. Alternatives that supported values like “taking care of the land, and caring about people and making a good living in the process,” he says. “It’s about balancing all of those things rather than just focusing on the economic bottom line.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘money talks.’ John knows the truth of this for agriculture better than most. “I’m one of the few economists that will stand up and say any economic benefits from industrial agriculture are far outweighed today by the negative social, environmental, and even the ethical or cultural impacts of this industrial agriculture.”
John also knows a thing or two about bravery. He has great respect for farmers who make the switch from industrial agriculture to more sustainable approaches. He says, “It really takes a person of pretty great courage to follow through with their convictions.”
By his own definition, then, Dr. John Ikerd isn’t just a leading voice at the intersection of agriculture and economics, but also person of pretty great courage himself.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: I’m Theresa Marquez, and I almost always start my shows by saying, “We are really going to be interviewing someone special today.” But today I want to say not only is Dr. John Ikerd very, very special, but a unique person in the sustainable ag world. Imagine a 40-year pioneer working and devoting himself to sustainable ag, the Good Food movement, ag economics—which is his specialty as well—and today continuing as a vibrant activist in Iowa. So please join me in welcoming Dr. John Ikerd.
JOHN IKERD: Thank you, thank you for inviting me. I’m always glad to share my ideas with whoever might be interested.
TM: And you have so many of them, so it’s going to be a lot of fun to talk about them. I also want to add that Dr. Ikerd is a professor emeritus of agriculture and economics at the University of Missouri. And he’s authored six books and many, many articles. And in fact he also did a report for the United Nations, the FAO—they’ve done terrific things—and he did a wonderful report called The Family Farms of North America; did I get that one right, John?
TM: Yes—so those of you, as we have this interview and you want to know more about John, you can Google him and you’ll be so surprised of all the things that come up. And he has a blog. So, John, 40 years—can you tell us how you started and interested and caring about sustainable ag as a topic and economics in ag?
JI: Well, I’ll kind of tell you what I call my story and I’ll make it short, ’cause it could be extended out over a long period of time. But I was born and raised on a small dairy farm down in southwest Missouri. And at the time I was growing up, it was still possible for kids of very reasonable means, or even humble means, to go to the state university, so I had an opportunity to go the University of Missouri. And after I got my bachelor’s degree in agriculture economics, I worked for three years with Wilson Packing Company, which was the fourth largest meat packer in the country at that time.
I decided I’d go back to graduate school, and I ended up getting my masters and PhD in agriculture economics. And then, I worked for 30 years then in four different land grant universities, or agriculture colleges. And that was at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia, and back at the University of Missouri. And the first half of that academic career I was a very traditional agricultural economist. And I would go out and tell farmers that farming had to be a business, not a way of life—that that was old-fashioned—and that if farmers expected to survive they were going to have to get bigger in order to achieve economies scale or get out of agriculture.
TM: The old Earl Butz line.
JI: Yes, the old Earl Butz line. And we economists, you know, we believed in that. And the reason we did is because what we believed is, we were going to bring down the cost of production for farmers and we were going to bring down cost of food, and we were going to make good food affordable to everybody, and it was going to be profitable to farmers in the process, and we were going to build viable, rural communities.
Well, we got to the financial crisis—the farm financial crisis of the 1980s—and I began to see that none of those things were actually happening. I could see farmers being driven out of business that were caught with very large loans at record high interest rates and basically doing what we so-called “experts” had been telling them to do: borrow money and get bigger so you can take advantage of expanding exports. And then the export market dried up and they were caught with loans that they couldn’t repay. And we had foreclosures and bankruptcies of farmers on the evening news almost every night.
So I said there’s something fundamentally wrong with this way of thinking. I didn’t get all this education to go out here and drive farmers out of business. So that was about the time sustainable agriculture was coming on the scene. And if I understood sustainable agriculture then, and I still do, it’s about taking care of the land and caring about people and making a good living in the process. It’s about balancing all of those things rather than simply focusing on the economic bottom line. So ever since then, that’s what I’ve been doing, is trying to understand myself and then help other people understand as to how we create a truly sustainable agriculture.
TM: Well, and you’ve done such a tremendous job of giving us tools, books, and papers, and you’ve articulated just so well what the issues are around soil and sustainable ag and why it’s so important. Why aren’t more of the farmers who have gone through this see[ing] just how broken this system is of “get big and get out”? Are they just trapped in an economic model that they can’t escape from?
JI: Well, I think a lot of them are. I think they certainly feel trapped in that model. And I think one of the main factors in trying to get across the concept of sustainable agriculture and trying to help farmers make the transition that really feel uncomfortable with the industrial system now, one of the biggest factors is the fact that what I call the agriculture establishment is continuing to promote industrial agriculture as kind of the only agriculture for the future—the only thing that can keep food prices down or feed the world and things of this nature.
And so when you’re out here as a farmer and you say, well, I don’t feel comfortable with this kind of farming, particularly like these large-scale confinement animal feeding operations, but when you go to your university, your state university, and you talk to the specialists and they’re saying, well, that this organic and sustainable, they’re beginning to be more acceptable now of organic, that it’s growing, but sustainable agriculture or any alternative to industrial just isn’t economically viable. You’re not going to be able to make a living doing that. And when you go to not only the experts at the university but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and people at the state colleges of agriculture—and of course all of those people are being influenced and supported by the large agribusiness corporations and the large farm organizations, such as the Farm Bureau Federation and the commodity organizations that corn growers, the pork producers, the livestock producers, they all have bought into this.
So it really takes a lot of courage on the part of an individual farmer out here to sort of break with this agricultural establishment—this culture of industrial agriculture that really permeates agriculture throughout. And when farmers do that, they often feel the repercussions. They’re not treated the same anymore by their neighbors, or they’re not considered to be part of conventional mainstream agriculture anymore. So it really takes a person of pretty great courage to follow through their convictions and move off to something that they really know that they have to do in order to be consistent with their values and their conscience.
TM: Just to go back a little bit, that there was this hope that industrial ag would bring food prices down and also feed the world. Let’s just start with food prices down. In fact, I think from the 1960s, I just read something recently that health used to be 9 percent and food cost us 17 to 18 cents. And now health costs us 18 cents and food has gone 9 cents, so we did drive prices down. But is there something that we’re not seeing about that, that might be a falseness?
JI: Yeah, and in relative terms, that we certainly did as a percentage of the overall income. But I think another thing a lot of people don’t recognize is that really since the early 2000s certainly, there’s been no further reduction from that between 9 and 10n percent. In other words the whole in gains, even in terms of percentage of consumers’ incomes, basically leveled out for food. And in fact, over the past 20 years—now this would be a year or so ago, so we’ve had some declining food prices over the last couple of years. But over the past 20 years up until this recent downturn in farm prices—I don’t know how much retail prices might have fallen—them food prices were rising faster than the overall inflation rate. So during the major part of this industrialization of agriculture, like this 20-, 25-year period, food prices have actually risen faster than overall inflation rates. And even as a percentage of income, they’re not going down anymore.
And then I think the thing that you pointed out here, the food that we’re getting now is very questionable in terms of what it’s doing in terms of human health. We’ve got an epidemic of obesity in this country and a whole range of related diseases of high blood pressure and heart disease and diabetes and various forms of cancer. They’re associated with the so-called American or Western or industrial agriculture diet, is what I would call it. So whatever we gained in terms of reduction of expenditure of income on food, we’ve more than offset with increase in health care costs. I’m not saying all that’s associated with agriculture, but I don’t think it’s an incidental correlation that is going in that direction.
And another thing that a lot of people don’t recognize is that we have higher rates of food insecurity, or hunger, in this country today than we had back in 1960. [In] 1967, when CBS did the documentary Hunger in America, the estimate was that about 5 percent of the American population was hungry at that time. Latest reports that I saw indicate that today about 13 percent of the people are classified as being hungry, and that’s down from about 15 percent in the report before that. And almost 20 percent of our children in this country live in food-insecure homes. That simply means that they don’t know whether they’re going to have enough money to get food to get them through the rest of the month. And if you want to look at severe food insecurity—I don’t know what they were looking at back in the 1960s, but even if you look at that, about 5 percent of the population is classified as being severe or major food insecurity, which certainly would be on the verge of hunger and malnutrition.
And this…you know, it was a grand experiment and a lot of us bought into it, but I think it’s time to wake up and look at the statistics and say, “It didn’t work.” It didn’t work in terms of reducing hunger. We’ve created a whole new diet problem or food insecurity problem. There was a meeting of global scientists—I can’t remember, something like 50 global scientists come together and reviewing the global food crisis—and they said obesity has now become at least as big a problem as lack of calories, or lack of nutrition.
And they pointed out in that study that everywhere the industrial model of food production—these large-scale, specialized, standardized, centrally controlled—everywhere these farming operations go and the food system accompanying that goes, you end up with emergence of the same kind of problems we’re seeing here in the U.S. with growing obesity and heart disease and high blood pressure and a whole range of diet-related diseases.
TM: When we think of that 20 percent food insecurity, that’s one-fifth of our population! I find that shocking. And so this mythology that we actually drove food prices down and then the other part of that mythology that we actually are going to feed the world this way—what’s stopping us from moving in that direction of getting out of this industrial ag and getting more into that ag in the middle family farmer model?
JI: I really don’t know. I can’t tell you for certainty what’s causing all this. I think it’s a number of different things. But I think some of the bigger obstacles is the refusal of those people that are in positions of responsibility, and should be people that farmers and consumers could trust, to even report the kind of facts that we’re talking about here. When you talk about feeding the world, they talk about, “We’re going to have to double food production to feed the world. So we’ve got to have genetically modified organisms and big farms and CAFOs and all of this, so we don’t have hungry people.” And the facts are the UN statistics and several different estimates estimate between 70 and 80 percent of the people in the world today are fed not by industrial agriculture but by small family farms. We would call most of those subsistence farms.
And there’s also studies that have been done in Africa and South America and various other places by reputable scientists that indicate that we could double or triple the yields on those farms without adopting the industrial model, using things such as agroecology and what we would call sustainable farming, organic farming, biodynamic farming, nature farming. There’s a whole range of what I would call kind of sustainable agriculture approaches to sustainable agriculture that could double or triple yields. So the key to feeding a hungry world is to help those people in other parts of the world on the small farms to increase their production so that they can feed themselves.
Now, in this country, in terms of the agriculture of the middle, addressing the mid-sized farmers, I think they’re reluctant. They feel like they’re being told, “Well, you’re going to have to scale up, you’re going to have to be one of those that moves into the large farm category in order to survive.” And if you adopt this other approach, then basically it says you’re not really a farmer anymore—you’re kind of a hobby farmer, or you’re a niche farmer, or you’re a direct marketer. So if these farmers in the middle really want to continue to be farmers, then they’re told they have to continue doing what they’re doing, just trying to do it harder and trying to find ways to do it on a larger scale. And I think what Fred [Kirschenmann] and the others were trying to say is, there’s opportunities for larger farmers than we have right now in most cases in the alternative markets in grass-based beef and selling through the local markets through CSAs and through food hubs and things of this nature.
And I think the key challenge is changing what’s in the mind of the farmer, getting the farmer to see that this alternative approach to looking at farming as a living system, and how do you nurture that living system so it’s self-regenerating, renewing, and captures solar energy and stores some in the soil, and it grows crops, and integrating crop and livestock system into a kind of holistically managed system. How do you move to that from this kind of industrial approach, which thinks agriculture as sort of a mechanistic process? It’s kind of like a factory: you build the factory, you create biological assembly lines, and you bring in inputs in the form of fertilizer and feed in one side, and then you turn out animals or you turn out crops and waste on the other side.
So it’s a whole change in mindset that I think is the largest obstacle. Because if you simply go in—and I’ve written some about this—and you say, “Okay, I’m going to become and organic farmer,” but you haven’t changed the mindset from that industrial farmer, then you begin to try to make this organic farm, by certified organic standards, you begin to try to make that fit that industrial model, because that’s what’s in your head. So I think that’s the biggest obstacle I see. It’s in the head of the farmer. But it certainly isn’t being helped by those people that the farmer looks to for advice and support and kind of a vision of the future.
TM: For our listeners, if you’re just joining us, you’re listening to John Ikerd, who is a 40-year veteran in sustainable ag, and I’m Theresa Marquez with Rootstock Radio.
You know, John, what you just said was just so spot-on. You mentioned CAFOs, and they’re dotted all over here in the Midwest. And I wanted to be sure, John, that you got an opportunity to talk about this because it’s a problem for all of us in the Midwest—it’s everyone’s problem. I’d love for you to talk about that.
JI: Yes, it is, and most people refer to them kind of as factory farms. They’re large-scale confinement animal feeding operations. And I mean by large-scale, the USDA definition of a CAFO is a thousand animal units, which is basically a thousand beef cows but more hogs and a lot more chickens or whatever. They have an equivalent amount of generating waste up that thousand animal unit. So it’s large-scale.
And it’s confinement. They’re either confined inside buildings or confined inside feedlots where you don’t have grass cover on it. Most of them are under contract to large agribusiness corporations that basically go into this, and they started back with chickens. Originally it was feed producers that were contracting the chicken growers because they wanted a guaranteed market for the feed. Now it’s mostly the packers and processors that want a guaranteed supply of the livestock. So a lot of these are under-contract operations.
But they’re the epitome, I’d say, of what I call industrialized agriculture. Specialization—rather than going back to the old diversified family farms where you had crop rotations and a number of different livestock species and all the integrated operation first, they went to crops and livestock, and then to a single species of livestock, and now these CAFOs are a single phase of the process. You have a laying-in CAFO or a broiler feed-out CAFO; you have a breeding-stock CAFO for hogs, or a feed-out operation. So it’s just one phase of the operation, highly specialized.
Standardized—whenever you have a contract with the corporation, they spell out everything: the genetics, the feed, the buildings, the health care, the medication, market dates. Everything is just standardized. So they’re trying to make every one of them come out exactly alike—trying to turn animals out like you were running a copy machine. So it’s standardized.
And once you’ve done that, you’ve simplified and routinized and mechanized the production process to where you can consolidate control then into these giant corporations that operate these. Like Cargill that’s now owned by JBS, the big meat packer, and the used-to-be Smithfield that’s now owned by the Chinese company—they own millions of hogs, or control.
So that’s what they are. And as consequence of that, the fundamental problem is you’re concentrating too many animals in too small a space. The spaces that you have to put them in to make them perform like these machines in a factory or running the animals through a factory, you’re creating a factory process. As a consequence of that, you concentrate so many animals in such small places it’s inherently inhumane to the animals, which are basically evolved over for forever as being animals that were either outside on grass or at least they had space where they roamed around together. And most of them are very social animals that need to interact with each other, and things of that nature. So they’re confined in these very small spaces, and then they exhibit all sorts of abnormal behaviors, so they have to clip their teeth and clip their tails and clip their beaks and all sorts of things to keep them from killing each other off in the environment you put them in. But—
TM: I’m going to interrupt you for just one second, John, because I want to make sure our listeners know that even though a CAFO can be defined as just 1,000 animals, that’s a pretty tiny CAFO. Mostly they’re much huger, aren’t they? They’re like sometimes 15,000 and 20,000 animals.
JI: Right, and the hog CAFO would be 2,500 to fall into that category, but hogs of 5,000, 8,000, 10,000 are common. Dairy cows, about 700-and-some dairy cows would be a CAFO because they consume more feed, but we have dairy operations now with 10,000, 15,000 cows in a single operation. And chickens go into the millions when you look at the pods of them on different houses on the same operation.
So you concentrate all the animals but you also concentrate all the waste. And you put so much manure, so many nutrients in one place that there’s no way that you’re going to be able to responsibly use those for fertilizers on the field as the way they’re doing now. If you’ve got a CAFO—a minimum-sized CAFO, let’s say a hog would be 2,500—you wouldn’t even have to have a permit to have one at that level. They usually do them 2,400 and something so that they don’t even have to have [a permit]. But one of that size is generating as much biological waste as, say, the city of Fairfield which is 10,000 people. Somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000 people, it’d be equivalent to.
So you’ve got a very modest-sized CAFO out here that doesn’t even have to have a permit or doesn’t have to go through any basic process to function, at least, in the state of Iowa, and you’re turning out as much waste as a city of 8,000 to 10,000 people. And you’re just taking that raw sewage—you may store it in a pit under the barn or you may store it in a lagoon—you’re taking that raw sewage and spreading it on the land all out around people’s houses out here. It’s no wonder, and we’ve got like 50 years now of scientific information that they consistently pollute the air with biological and chemical elements that can be harmful to human health. They pollute the water with things that can pollute people’s well water, run into pollution for drinking water supplies for cities—like the city of De Moines recently had a lawsuit because high nitrogen levels, in that case, but it came from an area where they were putting on large quantities of hog and chicken manure has been put out on the corn and soybean fields. So very high nitrate levels—that’s not the only cause of it, but it’s contributing to that.
So we have air pollution, water pollution. Antibiotic resistance is rampant because you have to feed these animals antibiotics on a routine basis so that they’ll perform. They found that they get greater feed efficiency, but also the animals are so crowded that they run into all sorts of health problems. In fact, when I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, I guess it was 1969 to 1970, I went to a conference at Purdue University. And we didn’t have hog CAFOs then. And they said, “Well, we don’t think we can have hog CAFOs like they have chicken CAFOs because we can’t solve the health problem.” Well, soon after that they started feeding antibiotics, and then that’s when most CAFOs began to grow. Now we’ve got an epidemic, global epidemic of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA. And Global World Health Organization reports and even the United Nations recently had a meeting of the global leaders—only the fourth in history that would have been associated with a public health issue—and it was about antibiotic resistance. And they clearly pointed out in the report from that global report on that, that misuse of antibiotics in agriculture, particularly in animal agriculture, is one of the major causes, and agriculture had to accept the responsibility for dealing with it.
So the thing is [there’s] public health problems, there’s environmental problems; beside that there’s economic problems. You displace the independent family farmers. You got a 10,000-cow dairy, how many hundred cow dairy farmer have you displaced with that? What, a hundred? I guess that would be about right. So you’ve got these 99 dairy farmers now that have to find something to else to do. And that’s the reason we see the decline and decay of rural communities.
And another thing that a lot people overlook is when you bring in a CAFO and you get involved with the pollution and the odor and the water quality issues. You know, this place up in Wisconsin, Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, is just covered up with dairy farms, and 30 percent of the wells have been contaminated with dairy waste up there. And that rips the social fabric of these communities apart, because you have some few people in the community that are making money at the expense of others, not just their neighbors, but of the community as a whole. Because once you get labeled as being a CAFO community, a CAFO area, the only kind of economic activity you’re going to attract is other polluting, degrading sort of economic activity. And pretty soon you’ve lost the potential to really develop a positive economic future as well as a social future for your community.
So everything that I can think of that’s wrong with industrial agriculture, I see it in these large-scale confinement animal feeding operations. And that’s the reason, you know, one reason I’m still out here, after I’ve been retired 17 years now, that I continue to say these things. Because I’m one of the few economists that will stand up and say, look, any economic benefits that we have from industrial agriculture are far outweighed today by the negative social, environmental, and even the ethical or cultural impacts of this industrial agriculture.
TM: Well, John, I can’t say how happy I am that you’re out there talking to people about this and doing it so articulately. And thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. And just for our listeners, you can read a lot of the writings by John. He has a website, JohnIkerd.com, and also a blog, JohnIkerd.com/blog. It’s a great way to learn more about the whole field of sustainable ag. And it has been a great honor to talk with you, John, and I’ve learned a lot and I’m sure all of our listeners have as well.
JI: Thank you for letting me share my ideas. People need to make up their minds for themselves where they stand, but I’m just trying to share my ideas to give them a little bit different perspective than they’re likely to get in other places.
TM: And so needed. Thank you so much.