ARLINGTON— Cold. Uncaring. Corporate-owned giants fueled by greed and profits. Those are sometimes the stereotypes invoked when someone hears the words “factory farm.”
“There is no real definition for the term ‘factory farm,’” explained Hannah Thompson-Weeman, CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance. “It’s just kind of a pejorative term used to refer to large-scale modern commercial agriculture. It’s capitalizing on the fact that a lot of people aren’t directly connected to agriculture.”
The reality is that farming and food production are still a family endeavor, as 98% of U.S. farms are family-owned. Additionally, family farms accounted for 83% of total production in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the agricultural landscape has modernized over time, with farms getting larger to feed growing populations, 89% of U.S. farms are small family farms, according to the USDA.
Additionally, the term “factory farm” usually invokes images of crowded cattle yards, but this is an oversimplification of one part of animal agriculture: the feedlot.
Cattle farming encompasses various stages, with feedlots being the final step before processing, explained Margaret Ann Smith, owner of Southlex Cattle Company and a sixth-generation farmer. In addition to running her own livestock operation, Smith works on her family’s multigenerational farm, Smith Farms of Rockbridge County, which has been raising crops and livestock for over 150 years.
While most cattle eventually go to a feedlot to be fed grain for finishing and weight gain, they spend most of their lives grazing on pasture, Smith explained.
“Seventy-five percent of their life is on a grass-based diet. Only a small portion of their life is spent in a feedlot,” she said.
Smith noted that feedlots follow science-backed practices, are managed under strict regulations, have third-party auditing, and employ specialized staff like veterinarians and nutritionists who look after the livestock—ensuring they’re healthy and stress-free.
“When you see cattle bunched up, that’s just what they do—it’s their herd instinct,” Smith said. “Even though they may have a huge amount of room in a feedlot, they instinctively want to go stand on top of each other.”
Farms come in many sizes, and the families behind them play a vital role in feeding consumers and providing a range of high-quality products—all while employing innovations and best practices to remain good stewards of their animals and the environment.
“There are so many different options available to you because of the amount of diverse production we have in our agriculture community,” Thompson-Weeman said. “There are people at the heart of this who are making the best decisions they can for their animals, for their land and ultimately for consumers. It’s their livelihood.”
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