Home / Economics / Agrarian / A Problem With Over-Centralizing Production

 

We distributists advocate the decentralization of production whenever practical. We are challenged by claims that centralization is more efficient in terms of cost. “What’s wrong with Big Business” is a question we need to answer. The founders of Distributism focused on the idea that, when the overwhelming majority of citizens work for a wage at jobs controlled by relatively few wealthy individuals, their situation is a form of slavery. It may not be as bad as the slavery of the 19th century but, in many ways, the house slaves of that era didn’t have it as bad as the slaves of the field.

Another issue with centralizing production is the wide-spread effects when a large producer has some problems. Effects which may be obvious include the economic dependence the local region has on the continued survival of that producer. Effects which are not so obvious, but which are more wide-spread, are when there is a problem in production that harms the consumer. Recent years have seen huge recalls of automobiles from several companies for various problems with the vehicles. Although Toyota was essentially exonerated over the acceleration problems reported with their cars, other recalls have shown true problems that caused injuries to large numbers of people using products from cars to baby swings. Distributists acknowledge that there is no way to guarantee the complete elimination of these problems, but we also contend that a larger number of smaller producers would at least lessen the impact of these problems when they occur.

For many decades, the laws of the USA have put the small farmer at a great disadvantage over the large farmer. The result of this has been the elimination of small local farms and the dependence of large segments of the population on the production of large centralized farms. What’s wrong with this? We are now seeing the recall of 380,000,000 (380 million) eggs produced by one farm that supplies large chain stores in 17 states under several different brand labels. (Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemps) Hundreds of people across the country have been made sick because they all get their eggs from one centralized farm. Thousands, if not millions, more now have to fear that they may also get sick and have to check their egg cartons to see if they need to turn them in.

Now eggs do not have a long shelf life. Imagine the size and conditions of an egg farm that produces enough eggs for this recall. If the people returning their eggs want to exchange them for new eggs, what options do they have? In many, if not most cases, they will simply be exchanging them for eggs from another large producer, or even a different “plant” of  the same producer. One thing is certain, relatively few of them will have the option of exchanging them for eggs produced by a small local farm.

Having small farms may not eliminate health concerns, but they will mitigate them. I believe small egg farms are more likely to use free-range production conditions. Any outbreak will likely only effect the local communities and can be compensated by other small local farms. Urban areas could be supplied by the local rural farms rather than by farms in another state.

 

About the author: David W. Cooney

 

David W. Cooney serves on the Editorial Board of The Distributist Review. His articles have appeared in Gilbert Magazine and he has also contributed to The Hound of Distributism, a book of various authors. Originally from Southern California, he now lives with his wife and two children in Western Washington state where he works as a network administrator.

 

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10 Comments

  1. UPDATE: Apparently, the FDA is recommending that you check your eggs even if you are not in one of the 17 states to which this farm sends its eggs. The reason is that many of the buyers in those states are warehouse distributors who sell to other states.

  2. Nassim Taleb, in the addition to his Black Swan book, notes how efficiency can be fatal. For instance, he says that an accountant or “efficiency expert” would probably say that groups of men should share one kidney, since we don’t need one every moment of the day. But Nature has given us two, because they’re important! Similarly, seeking the best price on a TV is not always the best tactic for being able to get that TV fixed without hassle. Life is more complicated than that!

  3. The number of eggs being recalled is now over half a billion!

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/08/20/eggs.recall.salmonella/index.html?hpt=T2

  4. After reading the article more closely, I discovered that, despite the headline, the number of eggs recalled is still 380 million.

  5. As a small hold farmer, I am always curious to read what Industrial Ag thinks about “farming.” Combing through the Jan2007 edition of “Egg Industry” I found some interesting material.

    The producer in question above, Wright County Egg Production, has approx 10M hens in production (9M in 2005, the last reported figure I could find). An average hen lays about 225 eggs per year – which means WCEP produces approx 2.25B eggs; the recall (380M), then, represents approximately 2 months production.

    What is fascinating about the reporting of the Salmonella outbreak, is that they focus on the temperature and storage of the egg; what they neglect to tell you is that Salmonella is transmitted by Rodents (usually rats) pooping in chicken feed. This is the crux of the centralization problem… a hen will eat approx 1/5 lb of grain per day (perhaps less in confinement). Which translates into 1.8M lbs (900 Tons) per day. Chicken operations of this scale are basically input/output factories. 1.8M lbs in approx 1M lbs (poop) out. Both the input and output are rat attractants. What you have here, is a massive breeding ground for Rats and bacteria – by design.

    If you read the industrial literature, there is no talk of reducing rats or reducing bacteria; the literature advocates new technology to eradicate bacteria from eggs simply assumed to be infected. The preferred method appears to be chemical cleaning (already standard practice) enhanced by heat and irradiation post-processing (early adopter stages).

    If you care about rat infestations and bacterial outbreaks, the simple solution is to decentralize the production – both to eliminate the giant concentrations of pests, and to limit the impact of an outbreak should one occur.

    Approximately 60 producers own 90% of the 300M laying hens in the US – the average is 4M birds per producer. Effectively there is one producer per State (though IA, PA, TX and CA dominate).

    Now, at last, my point: while these number appear staggering, there is no real reason to centralize this “industry.” In passing, the trade journals will note that the “standard” flock size of 300 birds (the size recognized as the number of birds that can live together without stress) the labor to manage them is (and I quote) “practically none.” I can attest to this fact.

    According to the USDA, the State of Virginia produces 741M eggs – or approximately 1/2 of what we consume. Decentralization of the egg production would require 1 person in a 1000 to manage 300 birds (2 in a thousand if VA wanted Egg independence). Or, if you prefer a better business metric, VA would need 11,000 farms to decentralize production and our (over-)reliance on PA industrial farming.

    Virginia (still) has 47,000 farms – more than enough to feed its population of 7M. But, I assure you they are not raising chickens or laying hens. The infrastructure to deliver products to local markets has been destroyed by the deliberate policies of industrialists. The question is this: for what gain?

    Cheap food is the common answer; and to a certain extent this is true (though only if you do not account for hidden costs: subsidies to inputs and unaccounted health and welfare costs). The real issue, however, is New York. Scratch _any_ agriculture issue and at its root you will find a policy to feed New York; or, more precise, how to feed the megalopolis. a half-way proposition would suggest that we advocate for a bifurcated system: let New Yorkers eat the industrial slop they require… but laws need to change to allow for smaller de-centralized markets to develop. There is no sense in fighting an industry that owns 90% of the market head-on; but insisting on Policies that allow space for local production are indeed possible; but the require the advocacy of consumers, not the arguments of the producers.

    Food production can (and likely will) be decentralized… do not let the scary big numbers of the Industry fool you. Many hands make light the work.

  6. I had just read that the number of eggs recalled is approaching half a billion.

  7. Since we buy our eggs from a small scale farmer who pasture raises his chickens I don’t need to “check” my eggs at all. It’s actually quite reassuring to go to the farm to get my eggs and milk and see the hens run across the lawn and the cows peacefully grazing in the pasture. Idyllic, no, it does mean I have to make a special trip rather than just pick up eggs at the grocery store. Worthwhile, absolutely. Until you’ve had the rich color and flavor of the yolk of a farm raised as opposed to a factory raised egg, you don’t know what you’re missing. Of course the same could be said for the small growers of potatoes, the small time beef, pork, lamb, and poultry producers. It’s amazing how good food can really taste when it isn’t mass produced.

  8. Yet another example. Tyson foods is recalling 172 tons of meat sold to Wal-Mart.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-08-24/tyson-recalls-172-tons-of-meat-sold-to-wal-mart-that-may-be-contaminated.html

  9. I found the source of my earlier confusion regarding the number of eggs being recalled. There are recalls from two farms. Write County Egg has recalled 380 million and Hillandale Farms has recalled 170 million. That makes the grand total 550 million!

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/08/25/eggs.salmonella/index.html?hpt=T2

  10. Apparently, large egg farms “may be tired of suffering from problems caused by smaller farms and food processors like Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms.” This is why some of the larger farms seem to be supporting new regulations. Once again, bigger business pushing the government against the smaller producers. In this case, the smaller producers in question are themselves huge!

    http://money.cnn.com/2010/08/24/news/economy/egg_recall_regulation_USDA_FDA.fortune/index.htm