Hog Farms Did Not Bring Prosperity to Rural Iowa
Counties with the most factory farm development score lower on numerous economic indicators
Main Street in Readlyn, Iowa. Photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 / Orange Suede Sofa, Wikimedia Commons
Iowa’s farming landscape looks significantly different today than just a couple of decades ago. In 2017, Iowa sold 2.5 times as many hogs as in 1982. And the average number sold per farm each year has swelled nearly 20-fold, to 9,600 hogs per farm. Today, one out of every four U.S. hogs comes from Iowa. Yet the state lost almost 90 percent of its hog farms over this same period (Figure 3).
Moreover, our findings indicate that pork processors are capturing greater shares of profits, while farmers are feeling the pinch. In fact, the farmer’s share per pound of pork sold dropped two-thirds between 1982 and 2017 (adjusted for inflation). This suggests that the factory farm industry’s takeover of Iowa is not benefiting most farmers or rural communities. Instead, it shifts economic output from small, family-scale operations to a handful of very large operations — and ultimately to the pork processing corporations.
A 2012 Food & Water Watch economic analysis,18 reviewed by the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC) at the University of Tennessee, is a valuable case study in what happens when governments endorse and enable factory farm growth. From 1982 to 2007, as factory farms mushroomed across the Iowa landscape, the value per hog sold to the Iowa economy actually declined. Moreover, the gains from hog sales are more unevenly distributed today, with fewer (but much larger) farms across virtually every Iowa county. This concentrates wealth among the largest farms, which in turn tend to make fewer local purchases than their smaller counterparts. This has cascading effects across the entire economy.
The 2012 study also compared the economic and social well-being of counties with the most hog sales and the largest farms to counties with fewer sales and smaller farms. We updated many of these comparisons using data from the 2012 and 2017 Censuses of Agriculture, while adding a few more. (For details, see the Methodology section.) The results suggest that failure to stop factory farm expansion and eliminate subsidies to the industry is wreaking havoc on Iowa’s farm economies. The results also counter the industry narrative that pork processors are building wealth and jobs in rural communities.
More hogs, less income
The National Pork Producers Council19 boasts that the U.S. pork industry supports over $22 billion in personal income.b We found that on a per capita basis, personal income increased in each Iowa county over the study period of 1982 to 2017. There were not significant differences in growth rates between counties with high hog sales and large farms, and those with fewer sales and smaller farms. The same is true even when comparing urban to rural counties.
However, measuring total personal income (not accounting for population) tells a different story. Iowa’s top hog-producing counties saw real total personal income fall roughly 8 percent from 1982 to 2017. In contrast, it ballooned 181 and 142 percent, respectively, among counties that sold fewer hogs and have smaller farms. Even Iowa’s more rural counties saw a 41 percent growth in real total personal income.
In other words, significant population losses (detailed below) went hand-in-hand with the drop in total personal income in counties with high hog sales and large farms. Moreover, per capita income measurements can mask economic inequality, especially when a few large earners bring up the county average. Median household income can help account for this by finding the middle point among all households in a sample.20
For instance, the real median household income among counties with high hog sales and large farms was between 6 and 7 percent less in 2017 than in 1979 (Figure 4). In contrast, it increased slightly within counties with fewer sales and smaller farms. Real median household income even increased modestly among Iowa’s rural counties. These findings suggest that the income benefits of factory hog production are not evenly shared across households living in counties with the most hog production — even though these counties collectively increased their hog production three-fold.
Job losses both on and off the farm
One of the most compelling findings of this report relates to employment. The factory farm industry likes to claim that its industrial model creates jobs — and to stoke fears about job losses to oppose regulation.21 However, the data do not support this. Instead, the rise of Iowa’s factory farms coincided with significant job losses both on and off the farm.
Statewide, total farm employment dropped 44 percent between 1982 and 2017. Every single Iowa county experienced double-digit declines in farm jobs. However, job losses among the top hog-producing counties exceeded the state average — and were even slightly higher than among rural counties overall (Figure 5).
Our previous report came to a similar conclusion: Farm size matters more than total hog output when it comes to job creation. Other studies echo this conclusion, including a 2021 analysis comparing job creation between Iowa’s conventional hog farms and those practicing pasture-based farming. (The average pasture-based farm in the study sells 600 hogs per year, compared to the state average of 9,600). The economic analysis found that the pasture-based farms created more than three times as many jobs per 100,000 hogs marketed compared to conventional farms. They also contributed more indirect and induced jobs.22
Iowa counties with high hog production lost jobs in other industries as well, including manufacturing and retail, whereas counties with low hog production and small farms gained jobs. When looking at all wage jobs, top hog-producing counties saw 30 percent declines from 1982 to 2017. Those counties selling fewer hogs and with smaller farms saw 131 percent and 102 percent growth in total wage jobs, respectively (Figure 6) — outstripping population growth rates by roughly 2:1. Even rural counties saw a 12 percent growth in jobs over the study period.
Simply put, the factory farm model is both anti-farm (pushing family-scale farms to foreclosure) and anti-job (reducing employment both on and off the farm).
Business and retail
Factory farms have cascading impacts on all sectors of the local economy. This is due in part to the different purchasing patterns between small and large farms. For instance, Iowa’s average large wean-to-finish operation purchases only $1 out of every $3 of inputs locally.23 Numerous economic analyses underscore the importance of small farms to local economies; some studies have concluded that smaller farms make more local purchases than larger farms, thereby supporting local retail and contributing to the “multiplier effect” that occurs when wealth is circulated in a local economy.24 Another study found that small, family-scale hog production models shift more profits from corporations to farmers, and induce more household spending among affected workers and farm owners.25
Our study aligns with these analyses. While Iowa experienced an estimated 2 percent decline in total retail businesses between 1982 and 2017, the counties with high hog sales and large farms saw extreme declines — 40 percent and 33 percent, respectively (Figure 7). This decline was even more severe than in rural counties. Counties with low hog sales and small farms, in contrast, saw double-digit growth in retail businesses.
Similarly, while Iowa lost nearly 60 percent of its grocery stores from 1982 to 2016,c losses among counties with high hog sales and large farms were even more stark —75 and 70 percent losses, respectively. This is even greater than losses in the most rural counties. In contrast, losses among low hog sales and small hog farm counties were lower than the state average.
The only business categories considered in this report that had positive growth among high hog-producing counties were meat slaughter and processing plants. However, growth still trailed that of the state as a whole. In fact, most of the growth in meat slaughter and processing facilities occurred in counties with low hog sales and small farms, as well as in rural counties. This could be due to a number of factors, including proximity to the workforces, transportation infrastructure and sewage treatment systems necessary to run slaughter facilities. It is also worth noting that more than a quarter of all hogs raised in Iowa are slaughtered across state lines.26
Before we commend the factory hog industry for a growth in livestock slaughterhouse and processing jobs, it is clear that the quality of these jobs has declined significantly over the past few decades. As meatpacking conglomerates rose in power, working conditions at their plants deteriorated; union representation declined, wages were cut, and conditions became more dangerous.27 In fact, today’s slaughterhouse workers suffer twice the rate of reported injuries and illnesses compared to the manufacturing sector as a whole.28 The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the willingness of pork corporations to put profit ahead of worker health and wellbeing, as corporations fought to keep plants open despite outbreaks that were killing workers.29
Population losses and net migration
Iowa’s total population grew 8 percent from 1982 to 2017. However, counties with high hog sales and large farms saw their populations decrease by 44 percent and 36 percent, respectively. In contrast, the populations of counties with low hog sales and small hog farms boomed 73 percent and 47 percent, respectively. These differences cannot be chalked up to rural and urban divides alone; population loss in rural counties was 18 percent — at least half as much as in counties with high hog sales and large farms.
Additionally, counties with high hog sales and large farms experienced greater rates of net migration compared to counties with low hog sales and small farms. We cannot make sweeping claims about why populations are leaving these counties based on numbers alone. Job losses, decline of rural services, and nuisance and public health concerns from nearby factory farms could all play a role and deserve greater attention. This negative net migration can have cascading effects on communities, including reduced retail demand and declining tax bases.30
bPersonal income includes all wages, employer-provided benefits, rental property, government benefits, and interest and dividends. It excludes capital gains from stocks. See U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of Economic Analysis. “Income & Saving.” Available at https://www.bea.gov/resources/learning-center/what-to-know-income-saving. Accessed December 2021 and on file with Food & Water Watch.
cEstimate uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns data, which changed reporting in the 2017 report year to no longer include data cells with three or fewer businesses. We used 2016 data instead to have a more accurate comparison across the years.