From the tone of the NY Times article, John Bartmann doesn’t sound like a bad man. Though some readers might demonize him because he is involved in animal farming, this isn’t the CEO of a major industrial producer, and it would be inaccurate to lump him in under the same heading. I expect Mr. Bartmann knows a thing or two about sheep husbandry, and likely has his own grievances with the CAFO industry. Still, his plight is indicative of the complicated issues surrounding modern farming, and is not free from critique. The decline of the modern rancher, especially in the drought of 2012, highlights many of the problems with food in the United States, through both animal and environmental perspectives.
Let’s start with the animals. Mr. Bartmann is one of several thousand ranchers for whom sheep are business. This is a smaller operation, which means that each animal has a value that is going to determine if Mr. Bartmann breaks even, gets a small profit, or has to go further into debt. Though I don’t know how his ranch works, I would hazard a guess that his situation forces him to pay attention to the welfare of his animals, whether through necessity or humane inclinations. But, not to get caught up in the mythos of the rancher-cowboy, the American knights so steeped in mysticism and romance, let us not forget that this is a business that depends on killing the animals to be effective. Therein lies a problem.
As the article notes, ranchers like Mr. Bartmann are held at the mercy of a few select feedlots that will buy his animals for slaughter; “the top four companies control about 65 percent of the market for lamb and as much as 85 percent of the market for cows.” Ranchers are forced into situations akin to the robber baron days of the late 19th century. The buyers control the prices, and the ranchers have to take what they can get. The sheep do, too, which means no matter how kind a rancher they started with, they will be in a concentrated feedlot at the end. Though sheep aren’t quite as packed as chickens, it’s at least more concentrated than the bucolic pastures we’d like to imagine. Given the FDA regulations that favor big business, even if Mr. Bartmann wanted to slaughter his own sheep, the amount he would be forced to invest in the facilities to do so would almost certainly drive him to ruin. With feed prices rising and a buying market that is (perhaps) artificially keeping the worth of sheep low, the independent ranchers that are left are being forced out of their livelihoods. Before any lamb advocates cheer, consider that as long as there is a market for mutton and mint jelly, sheep will be raised for food, and a vacuum of independent ranchers will be filled with the large agribusinesses that remains.
While the plight of the ranchers is regrettable, we cannot avoid questioning whether they should even be there in the first place. As our hero has explained, the west, especially the southwest, is the setting of the misapplication of the Jeffersonian yeoman ideal, the belief that a family farmer can overcome the adversity of nature, and by divine providence tame the land to produce crops. In this instance we have ranchers producing sheep, but at the same whim of what was once called the Great American Desert. The closed-circuit water resources in the west cannot sustain our current farming, both of plants and animals, and they haven’t been able to for a long time. Though climate change is contributing to this recent trial, our continent is fickle, and is known to go through droughts. The more we develop the west, however, the worse each subsequent drought will be in terms of economic disaster to the GDP and individuals. This devastation makes the damage from Katrina and Sandy miniscule in comparison; there just isn’t a roller coaster in the water for you to see the danger. Much has been made about the billions of dollars New York and New Jersey have requested in federal assistance over the last month, but there is hardly any media coverage on the billions and billions needed annually as a matter of course to keep farming and ranching on life support.
Let’s not lose our perspective on the sheep, either. No matter which way you look at it, the sheep get the short end of this catastrophe, and it is a catastrophe. Under the best conditions, they are still getting sold for slaughter, even if we entertain the idea of a humane life somewhere on the road from lamb to lamb chop. Under current conditions, we have young lambs dying in the drought, others being imported from New Zealand and fairing about the same, and Mr. Bartmann having to “[trim] his flock of 2,000 by one-third.” Trim? 2,000 were heading for the feedlots anyway. Does this mean 667 sheep were killed before they were market ready for no profit and no food? Animal advocate or not, that is a senseless waste of life.
Western farming and ranching is a complex mess, much more complicated than this post even begins to explore. Suffice to say, the plight of the sheep ranchers could be a poster for the importance of reform in our food infrastructure, without even getting into the problems inherent in CAFOs. Here is a problem that is tied to the land we so desperately try to manipulate, and here is a climate that cannot support our luxuries. We often note how the raising of animals affects the environment; here is the environment affecting the way we raise animals, but it is obvious that both are inexorably linked. If we have a hope of saving the sheep, the ranchers, and, frankly, our country, we need to figure this one out quickly, and stop simply treating the symptoms.
Filed under: animal advocacy, animal law, animal welfare, climate change, environmental ethics, environmental law, factory farms Tagged: | 2012 drought, animal ethics, animal rights, animal welfare, animals, cafo, climate change, Colorado, concentrated animal feeding operations, environmental ethics, environmental law, environmentalism, factory farms, farmed animals, food, global warming, industrial farming, lamb, New Zealand sheep, sheep, US food market, western agriculture