A couple of headlines about fires at livestock facilities have caught my attention recently. It occurs to me that farming out on pasture adds yet another level of security to our food supply. Unlike the prevailing wisdom of the industry, where biosecurity is all about confining the animals and controlling the environment to a greater degree, we practice a looser, less risky form of farming.
At the end of January a barn housing 100,000 laying hens burned in Connecticut. This past Sunday a fire destroyed a barn with 10,000 hogs in Sturgis, Saskatchewan. Hillandale Eggs, the company that owns the Connecticut facility, seems to be extraordinarily fire-prone. They lost a barn with approximately 100,000 chickens in Pennsylvania in 2017. And a different location of theirs in Connecticut burned down twice, once in 1989 (216,000 chickens) and again in 2016 (80,000 chickens).
Livestock facilities are inherently at more risk of fire than residential housing or commercial spaces. A small barn burns down in our local agricultural community about once every year, almost always from hay catching on fire. Abundant flammable materials, open frame construction, old wiring, heavy machinery, and overworked farmers rushing to get each job done all contribute to the problems. But these fires in Connecticut and Saskatchewan aren’t the same sort of fires as I see around here when a hay loft goes up.
Commercial chicken house fires can be especially dangerous, since hens are always shedding feathers, and the air is full of particles of dander and dry manure. These buildings are so big and so densely-populated that whole walls of ventilation fans must run constantly to prevent animals from asphyxiating. Once a fire catches, these same fans pull fresh oxygen into the combustion and make the blaze unstoppable. I don’t know if any of these barns had fire suppression installed, but the ventilation systems can encourage the early spread of flames so quickly that the fires can outrun sprinkler systems. Even if the fans are shut off and the sprinklers engaged early enough to save the structure, the smoke filled air smothers all the animals within minutes. Large fires in confinement-style livestock facilities are almost always a guarantee of death for the animals inside.
In terms of scale, neither of these farms were especially big operations within the context of global industrial agriculture, even though they feel big compared to a farm like ours. Modern egg-producing farms are normally built to house millions of laying hens. The pig farm in the story was right about at the average size for a North American operation. If you want to be truly shocked at just how outsized farms can become, agribusiness developers in China have been building high-rise barns that can cycle 1.2 million pigs per year! (For reflections from a pasture raised pig farmer on these mega-sized pig farms, see this article by my friend Garth at Cairncrest Farm.) It boggles the mind to consider a fire in a 26-story skyscraper full of pigs.
I don’t write off the possibility of a fire wiping us out here at Wrong Direction Farm. We live in a Civil War-era timber-framed farmhouse that was built back before people even considered simple fire prevention steps like fire-blocking boards in the walls. Our house would go up in a hurry. And our chicken brooders, the heated rooms where the newly hatched chickens live for the first few days while they grow out their feathers, are an obvious spot where we’d be vulnerable if a fire were to start. But other than that, a pasture based farm really is a much safer place. Even if we could imagine a situation where one of our large pasture shelters were to burn (I’ve made them from steel, so their plastic tarps are the only flammable part), we would only lose four hundred chickens. That would be a horrible loss, but nothing like the unconscionable loss of hundreds of thousands of chickens. There is a similar scenario when we think about Cairncrest Farm’s pasture raised pigs — if their field shelter caught fire, the pigs could just walk outside with no risk to any of them. With small farms, the risks to the food system are significantly smaller, and in the event of a localized disaster, far less likely to create waves of problems to ripple through the entire market.
As a society, we keep pushing for cheap, abundant food. Just watch recent news stories and notice the way people who appear to be well-fed and reasonably well-off complain bitterly about price increases for eggs. Meanwhile, the food industry is hard at work giving us what we demand. They’ll keep crowding more and more animals into tight spaces. If fire burns down the occasional barn — well, that’s what insurance is for. It is still cheaper to mass-produce food and to accept occasional losses of hundreds of thousands of animals as the cost of doing business.
We have to do better than this.