What is a “Factory Farm”?

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Factory Farm. Industrialized Farm. Corporate Farm. What do all of these repetitive, synonymous terms mean, and are they really all that bad? Where do people who use these terms draw the line? In their eyes, when does a small, family farmer become this vilified corporate monster? What is the true definition of a “factory farm?”

Having grown up on a farm, I’d never thought of our operation as a “factory farm.” The very phrase comes with such a negative connotation that most people in agriculture shy away from it. Frankly, farmers think of the term “factory farm” as incredibly offensive as it is mostly used by activists trying to paint larger farms in a negative light. But does the definition of the word “factory” line up with the connotations that now come with it?

Turkey farmers care for their animals by using modern technology to improve animal care.

Factory and Farm Definitions

First, let’s define the terms. Merriam Webster defines “Factory” as “a building or set of buildings with facilities for manufacturing”, or ” the seat of some kind of production.”

Farm” is defined as “a tract of land devoted to agricultural purposes”,”a plot of land devoted to the raising of animals and especially domestic livestock” and/or “a tract of water reserved for the artificial cultivation of some aquatic life form.”

Agricultural practices are supported by peer reviewed research.

Now, if we put the two together and search the term “factory farm” we get, “a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost” or “a large industrialized farm.”


The section that I find most intriguing is the “examples of this word in a sentence” portion of the website. For the term factory we have “the new factory will create hundreds of much-needed jobs.” The term farm had two examples, “Running a farm is hard work” and “She grew up on a dairy farm.” But, when we go to the term factory farm and look for an example sentence the first one available is, “More than 50 billion land animals suffered and died on factory farms this year” and “The overwhelming majority of animals raised for food are still raised on factory farms, where 50 billion animals lived and died this year.”

There was not a single example sentence for the term “factory farm” that discussed the hard working farmers and how 1-2% of the United States population is feeding 100% of our nation.

Why is there such a leap in meaning when we put two seemingly benign words together? First farmers are hard working people, next they’re the cause of death and suffering for their animals? If you find this as fishy as I do, keep reading.

So what is the goal of a factory?

Lets take animals out of the equation for a minute. Instead let’s discuss a factory that manufactures ball point pens. Disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on the manufacturing of ball point pens.

Factories aim to create high quality consistent products at a low cost!

If I was a manager or owner of a ball point pen factory, I would want to hire good people who would work hard at their jobs, to minimize costs and maximize outputs so that the factory could be as efficient as possible, and overall make high quality writing utensils to sell in places like Staples, Target and Walmart.

While doing these things, I would have to abide by regulations so I would not cause environmental harm with my factory while still producing the product to meet the demand.

Simply put, factories aim to create high quality, consistent products in an environmentally and economically efficient way.

Business Structure

Now it’s time for some economics. I hear the term “corporate farm” a lot, and I want to talk about what that actually means. Just because a farm is a “corporate farm” doesn’t mean they’re not also a family farm.

As I’ve mentioned, farms are businesses. The ultimate goal is to make at least a little bit of a living doing what we love: caring for animals and providing nutritious and safe food for the rest of the population.

But, there are different ways to classify your business that determine tax and legal considerations. To put it simply, there are Sole Proprietorships, Partnerships, Corporations and Limited Liability Corporations (LLC’s).

A sole proprietor is someone who owns an unincorporated business by themselves. A partnership is exactly what it sounds like; two or more people who run a business of some sort. A corporation is slightly more complicated in that it essentially forms a separate entity to take on the liability of the business (Walmart is an example). An LLC is a combination of a corporation and a proprietorship.

Just because a business chooses to become something more than a sole proprietorship doesn’t make that business any less family run. All it does is change the way that business goes through taxes and insurance and liability.

The point is, corporate farm does not mean it cannot also be a family farm. Family farms may appear as LLCs, corporations or sole proprietorship’s.

“Factory Farm”

So, now that we’ve looked at the goals of a factory and discussed the types of business classification, lets go back to discussing “factory farms.”

In my opinion, there are two ways this conversation can go: either every farm is a factory farm, or there is no such thing as a factory farm. Spoiler alert: they both end up at the same conclusion. Farmers and and ranchers are generally good men and women.

Dairy farm
Farmers work with veterinarians to keep their animals healthy.

They do have similar goals to that of a factory. Farmers want to produce high quality, consistent products. They care for the land and the environment because they live there too.

On the other side, because every farm has the same goals of a factory, is there need for terminology with such a negative connotation?

97% of United States farms are family owned. That number includes farms of all sizes, practices and industries. I have traveled to some of the most agriculture-intensive states and visited farms ranging from 40,000 cows to 30 goats. I had the opportunity to speak with each owner, and I can tell you that the commitments to animal care and a safe and nutritious end product were the same.

So, the next time you hear some one criticizing “factory farms,” take a stand. Ask yourself to look at the farm from an unbiased standpoint! You could even reach out to the farmer and ask about their business structure and their commitment to animal care.


  1. you are doing a great job of educating people on animal agriculture showing the human side of raising animals and letting those who oppose animal farming that it is not what they are brainwashed to believe….

    keep in mind that the huge huge factory farms are trying to get legislation in place such as animal id to choke out all the little family farms, even those that are fairly large operations…

    you may be too young to remember NAIS from 2006 where people who owned even one chicken cow pig horse goat would have been require to register with the govt, tag their animals and report all animal movements, births, deaths etc. just so the huge factory farms which did not have to follow these regs would benefit- they pushed it under the guise of preventing and tracking animal disease of which there were already many rules/regs in place that work effectively……..the older folks who recognized communistic form of anything boldly said NO and it was dropped, even though the govt through the pushing of these mega factory farms are still trying to sneak it in.

    the huge conglomerate dairy in the south of my county that is solely for the production of sour cream —there are stories coming from former workers how the cows are being mistreated. so yes, the majority of farmers do take care of their animals but the huge corporate faceless mega groups see money before animal welfare.

  2. I grew up on a family farm which I now own with my siblings. It is still a family farm in terms of ownership, although our family cannot compete with the large landowners, so, like many of the family farms of my childhood, ours is rented out. Although we used to raise animals, we no longer do so–again, it’s impossible for small farmers to compete with the scale of farming operations today. I agree that farmers are generally good people, trying to make a living. But I think it’s misleading to suggest that the huge CAFOs dotting our landscape and fouling our water (not just locally, but globally–the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a case in point) are not comparable to factories. Nor should we overlook the absentee land ownership and control of production. It’s misleading to suggest that all or most farmers are concerned about being good neighbors, considering that many owners don’t even live in this country. Scale is the essence of factory production, as is the economic efficiency that comes with scaling up; raising profits and reducing costs is the name of the game. In order to reduce costs, corporate farming operations consider environmental services to be largely free of charge. Water quality in my agricultural state is terrible, but our legislators lack the political will to take real steps to address the problem caused by factory-scale farming.

  3. Agreed with Mary Trachsel on all those points. “Factory Farm” does not mean the small to medium farm that raises a few hundred animals. It’s the chicken houses that hold 30,000 birds with less than a sheet of paper of space. It’s the hog farms that produce so much manure, it must be sprayed on fields that often overflow in heavy rain events. This type of production also harms the people who live nearby, not too mention the animals themselves with overcrowding, disease and stress. Factory farms are places that practice de-beaking and tail-docking because it’s “safer for the animals,” when in reality they are too crowded and stressed, causing them to harm each other. I’ve been on plenty of farms where people are doing their best to maintain optimal animal husbandry. Those aren’t factory farms. Factory farms are owned by corporations, or contracted out to a family – risky business because that farmer gets in substantial debt and relies on the system to repay that debt. The system that is broken, crowding animals and raising breeds that grow too quickly their own bodies can’t even support the weight. Cows are raised on family ranches for most of their life, then subjected to feed lots for the last few months to “plump up.” Cows are ruminants, grass-eating animals who are not meant to eat grains. Their bodies acidify quickly because of the grains that they wouldn’t live much longer if we didn’t slaughter them. Imagine what eating highly acidic meat from a stressed animal is doing to our bodies! Please don’t pretend those giant feedlots, hen houses and hog farms are a positive system. They can be run by hardworking, well-intentioned people, but the system itself is broken. We’re letting profit overshadow the health and safety of our food supply, and it’s not a sustainable system. If we all would wake up and realize the harm the current food system is doing to our planet, people and future generations, maybe we could affect positive change. We’re creating plenty of calories. It’s time we create them in a regenerative, holistic way that our grand kids will be happy to inherit.

    1. Your assessment of farming is flawed and your statement is full of the stereotypical falsehoods of the animal right extremists. Nearly every example you gave was blatantly false, I raise poultry, they have plenty of room to move around, they are never debeaked and they growing at the rate they are genetically bred to. My birds are healthy and stress free, you would call my family farm a derogatory name, but your utopian ideals would have half the world starve to death. We produce food efficiently and humanely , grandpas farm might be a nice memory , but it could never supply the food this world consumes

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