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See that pretty little Dark-eyed Junco on the left? That’s the papa bird. And the hungry hunk with the open maw on the right is what he thinks is his baby. But it’s not. It’s a baby cowbird, and Mama cowbird deposited her offspring’s egg in the junco’s nest, trusting the junco to raise a baby two to three times its own size. That baby cowbird hatched first and biggest, shoving the other nestlings out and presenting tiny parents with the full time job of feeding it. Ah, those cowbirds. They sure know how to make other species do the heavy lifting.

The term for this avian practice is brood parasitism, and a human equivalent of the practice is the way big ag is fooling rural people into helping “raise” its processing plants and CAFOs. What I mean is, it’s so much easier to make a go of opening a new plant if you put it in a nest where the tiny local economy will feed your giant baby.

For example, the CAFOs that supply those chicken and hog processing plants should have to buy up land for several square miles around each one, because land values plummet. State assessors automatically lower the value of acreage within a half mile of a CAFO by 30-40 percent. That’s a conservative estimate of the loss. Sometimes, people can’t sell the land at all. It just sits there, even if the owner dies and the price is fire sale cheap. No prospective buyer wants that stink. So the landowners are helping feed the cowbird.

Local governments, which were promised new jobs and a revived economy when Smithfield or Cargill proposed a plant in their neighborhood, find themselves instead saddled with unexpected costs. Farmers, it turns out, don’t adjust well to the monotony of factory work. Other workers are brought in to labor for slave wages of five or six bucks an hour. And folks who will work for wages like that generally bring with them a host of social ills that have to be paid for.

They’re less likely to use contraceptives and more likely to use drugs. Local governments find themselves dealing with–and paying for–higher teen pregnancy rates, higher rates of child abuse, exploding meth production and the drive-by shootings that go hand in hand with drug culture.

The plant owners don’t want to pay the kind of wages that would attract more stable workers. They’d rather pay five bucks an hour and let the community feed the cowbird.

And suppose the feces from the CAFOs work their way down through the soil and contaminate groundwater, as sometimes happens? Then the state gets to come up with its share of worms and sunflower seeds–that’s if cleanup is even possible. In fact, the federal government is now spending more than a billion dollars a year on a farm program called EQUIP, and some of that money goes to pay for the manure lagoons where the feces are temporarily stored. So our federal taxes, as well, are feeding the cowbird.

But there’s a major difference between cowbirds and big ag, and that is that cowbirds don’t harm the local ecology. A cardinal or a chickadee will lose the occasional brood to a baby cowbird, but cardinals and chickadees as a whole are doing fine. CAFOs and the processing plants they supply, on the other hand, are parasites killing their host: independent farmers and the communities that depend on their spending.

When Premium Standard Farms plans to build a plant in a community, it puts out lots of hoopla about what a shot in the economic arm its business will provide. Here’s a well heeled concern, they say, that will need to be supplied by the local businesses.

If only. But it just ain’t so.

Ken Midkiff of the Sierra Club says:

CAFOs are huge – with hogs in the thousands, broiler chickens in the millions and laying hens in the hundreds of thousands (Moark/Land O’ Lakes down in Newton and McDonald counties has a permit for 3.2 million laying hens – one of the largest chicken CAFOs in the country).   Before coming in, the corporations that own the animals expound at length on how there will be a new market for locally-grown corn and soybeans.  BUT, not many farmers can drive up to PSF’s or Moark’s feed mills with a semi-truck load of corn EVERY HOUR.  As it turns out, the grains are not bought locally, but come from Cargill-owned grain bins in Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, and other cornbelt states.

So local corn and soybean growers are no better off. Banks are actually worse off. As big ag drives local hog and chicken farmers out of business, savings and loans suffer. Ken again:

Independent farmers relied upon local banks and savings and loan entities to secure money for the next crop – and the local banks and savings and loan businesses then lived off the interest.  No more.   Big CAFOs go to banking chains in Chicago, New York, Dallas-Ft. Worth, etc., but not to the Moberly Savings and Loan.  At one point, the Missouri S&L Association opposed any more CAFOs – mostly because they (S&Ls) were being financially harmed by CAFOs’ practices. Somebody told them to shut up and they did.

As the local farmers and bankers do worse, so do the local groceries, cafes, and hardware stores. The money generated by CAFOs and big ag goes not to Mercer, Goshen, and Pineville but to Omaha and Chicago. About the only thing that thrives in this environment is bars.

And cowbirds.