This is the first in a five-part series titled “Scaling Up.” Each week, we’ll release a new graphic explaining one way the pork industry has changed in recent decades. This week, we’re focusing on changing farm sizes.

Since the 1990s, hog farms have gotten bigger, more specialized and more productive, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Research Service. 

The report illustrates drastic shifts in several aspects of the pork industry over the past three decades, tracking how the industry moved away from small operations where farmers raised hogs from birth to slaughter and toward large operations focusing on only one or two stages of the hog’s life cycle. 

“(Hog farms) are large, and because they’re large, they are able to take advantage of economies of scale,” said economist Carolyn Dimitri, associate professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and one of the authors of the report. “That seems to be what the industry looks like now.”

The larger the farm, the lower the production cost is per hog. This economic principle has resulted in the industry’s shift towards concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which have proliferated across the Midwest. 

In addition to examining farm size and specialization, the report also outlines changes in farm production contracts, input costs and regional differences. (More on those in the coming weeks.)

The report cites technological innovation as a driving cause of change. Ben Lilliston, director of climate and rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said corporate consolidation and policy decisions, such as subsidies in the Farm Bills of 1990 and 1996 that lowered the cost of feed, also contributed to the sector’s transformation. 

The pork industry’s move towards bigger, more specialized operations also have had negative consequences for air and water quality in CAFO-dense areas.

Small farms disappeared while large hog operations increased in number

While nearly half of all small and medium hog operations closed in recent decades, the number of large farms almost doubled. 

In 1997, large farms accounted for nearly 40% of the swine produced in the U.S. Twenty years later, these operations produced more than 72% of U.S. hogs, according to the report.

CAFOs are an economically efficient way of growing hogs, as bigger farms have lower production costs per animal, the report found.

CAFOs are subject to more regulations and permit requirements than smaller operations, though information about them is sparse. These extra-large farms can produce more than 1 million gallons of waste per year, often leading to air and water pollution

The USDA considers a hog farm to be a CAFO if more than 2,500 hogs weighing more than 55 pounds are confined at the facility for at least 45 days out of the year.

Next week: we’ll show how pork producers are becoming more specialized.

Type of work:

Madison McVan is from Pflugerville, Texas, where she discovered her love for journalism while working at her high school newspaper. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2020 with degrees...

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