Ultimately, a big reason why farmers are looking to make this transition is because the business is no longer financially sustainable.
American farmers are very poor — 70 percent live at or below the federal poverty levels. Just like coal workers are widely seen as victims of the collapsing fossil fuel industry, livestock farmers are victims of the factory farming system. However, with the right guidance and financial assistance, farmers can transition their livestock operation to something more profitable and sustainable, such as a mushroom, hemp, or oat farm, a solar or wind energy farm, a community farmers market, or, down the road, a cultivated meat facility.
Significant funding will be needed to ensure that these transitions are possible on a wide scale. At the federal level, Senator Cory Booker’s proposed Farm System Reform Act creates a $100 billion fund to help farmers who run Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) transition to other agricultural operations. The fund would create a voluntary buyout program for farmers who want to leave CAFOs and transition to pasture-based livestock operations, grow specialty crops, or start an organic operation. The bill has the potential to overhaul the current food system, and has gained momentum in recent months; in July, a companion measure was introduced in the House by Representative Ro Khanna.
Nonprofits Leading the Way
In the absence of federal livestock transition assistance dollars, some nonprofits and businesses have taken to directly supporting farmers’ transitions. The Rancher Advocacy Program (RAP), for example, has partnered with farmers who are looking to transition away from animal agriculture to growing crops like mushroom and hemp. RAP works with individuals who experience emotional conflict regarding raising animals for slaughter or worry about the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, but need assistance to create and execute upon a viable transition plan. Today, RAP is working with the Barett Family, an Arkansas chicken farm transitioning to mushroom and hemp, as well as the Starlove Ranch, a Texas ranch working to transition to a farm sanctuary and plant-based farming, among others.
Similarly, Mercy for Animals’ (MFA) Transfarmation Project has partnered with vegan food company Miyoko’s Creamery to help farmers transition away from livestock farming.
The Agricultural Fairness Alliance (AFA), a nonprofit advocating for fairness in US agricultural policy, has lobbied for At-Risk Farmer legislation that will provide $15 million in funding for struggling livestock farmers to transition to plant-based protein production. Funding could be allocated to nonprofits who assist with farmer transition or could go directly to farmers themselves. Money is needed to pay for the actual transition of the animal agriculture operation, the production of toolkits and guides of best management practices, an assessment of the financial implications of transition projects, legal support, and market research, among other things.
Private Sector Efforts
Plant-based food companies are also supporting this transition. Several oat milk and yogurt companies have taken the lead in this regard. Oats are a particularly promising crop for farmers who are transitioning, as they provide excellent soil erosion control. Oat-based milk alternative sales are booming in the US — they increased from $4.4 million in 2017 to $29 million in 2019. Oatly, a Swedish oat milk company, is working with animal farmers in order to better understand the challenges they face as they transition to plant-based farming, and identify solutions to overcome them. Oatly has committed to buying oats from the farmers and financing the time they contribute to this project. Halsa Foods, an oat-based yogurt alternative brand, is also taking this route, supporting farmers in their conversion. Elmhurst Dairy, which produced cow milk for eighty years, rebranded and now only produces cashew, almond, oat, and hemp milks. The company’s CEO, Henry Schwartz, said customers overwhelmingly embraced this transition.
The Time is Now
There are countless reasons why livestock farmers might want to transition toward plant-based agriculture, including concerns regarding animal welfare, environmental impacts, and public health. Ultimately, however, a big reason why farmers are looking to make this transition is because the business is no longer financially sustainable. The median net poultry farm income was $13,140 in 2018, meaning that half of poultry farmers earned less than this amount. Most farmers who raise chickens, for example, do so on a contract basis for major meat companies, like Tyson Foods, often taken on massive debt and ultimately play the role of “indentured servants” in these relationships. The top four percent of farms account for 69 percent of US farm sales, while the bottom 76 percent of farms make up just three percent of sales.
Whether or not we support livestock farmers, the plant-based food industry is exploding; it is expected to be worth $85 billion by 2030. But more funding is going to be needed in order to ensure livestock farmers reap the benefits of this boom. Though nonprofit organizations and private companies have paved the way for what mass transitions could look like, ensuring a just transition for workers is going to be a critical part of the pathway toward a plant-based food system, and should be a component of federal farming legislation moving forward.
Noa Dalzell is a graduate student at Northeastern University and FFAC Fellow.