When following the 400-mile stretch of Interstate 5 that connects the San Francisco Bay Area with Los Angeles there are few places of real interest among the Central Valley farmland passing by your car window, with maybe the exception of the signs, posted by angry farmers, decrying water restrictions imposed by the state government. Like elsewhere in the world with similar problems, the area is occupied by too many humans with too little water to sustain them and their activities – agriculture, cities, swimming pools, golf courses, etc.
When you get about halfway between the metropolises on the I-5 and reach the California 198 turnoff at Coalinga in the western San Joaquin Valley, you can see with your own eyes on the east side of the highway one of the big water drains of the state: the cattle industry feedlot of Harris Ranch.
According to California’s Environmental Protection Agency’s State Water Resources Control Board, “California has approximately 2200 dairies with an average size of about 700 milk cows. There are also several hundred feedlots, poultry operations, and other animal feeding operations (AFOs) in the State. California regulations refer to these operations, including concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as “confined animal facilities” (CAFs). The exact number of facilities that are CAFOs based on animal populations is unknown but is estimated at between 1000 and 1200.”
To produce one kilogram of beef 15,000 litre of water is needed (Hoekstra and Chapagain, 2008, Globalization of Water: Sharing the Planet’s Freshwater Resources).
The Harris Ranch CAFO consists of a barren dessert floor dotted with tens of thousands of cattle, stretching out as far as the eye can see, who are sloshing through piss-soaked mud or kicking up shit-infused dust, weather depending. Always there is the overwhelming smell in the prevailing northeasterly wind – like a punch in the face, lingering long after you passed – of this unnatural concentration of exploited, mass-bred individuals.
The horrific sight of these sentient beings in bondage can only be compared to one of the most evil inventions of humanity: concentration camps. The Harris operation is regularly referred to as ‘Cowschwitz’.
With the industrial revolution, the invention of the railways and refrigeration, large-scale factory farming and industrial meat processing became the standard in producing huge amounts of cheap meat to shove down the throats of the growing population of the planet. Living beings reduced to commodities: exploitable, expendable, ignorable.
John Harris is a cattle baron, whose $150-million beef business controls almost a quarter of all cattle slaughtered in the state of California. Calves arrive at Harris Ranch feedlot after spending their first eight to ten months of life on the pastures of off-site partner ranches. At any given time, his feedlot off the I-5 in Fresno County holds around 100,000 Herefords and Black Angus, to be grain-fattened – mostly on cheap, subsidized, pesticide-laced GMO corn – surviving the deplorable living conditions of standing in their own excrements with limited access to shade or shelter and no exercise.
The feedlot ‘finishes’ the cattle in roughly four to six months on unnatural food. Ruminant stomachs have not evolved to digest grain; their food are grasses and none are growing in the feedlots. To counteract the resulting health problems in cows, antibiotics are routinely added to the feed, in turn resulting in resistant pathogen strains that endanger animal and human health.
It is all done in the name of profit. The grain-feed speeds up the fattening and thus the turnaround time between birth and slaughter. Longer lives mean higher costs in food, water, meds and the space the animals occupy.
Harris’ cattle-prisoners are then slaughtered – only roughly a year old, one-twentieth of their ‘natural’ life expectancy – at a rate of more than 700 ‘heads’ a day at the processing plant in Selma, 45 minutes east of the ranch. The carcasses are chopped up into roasts and signature steaks supplying California Safeways. Since 1999, Harris’ beef is marinated and precooked to produce instant meat meals such as stroganoff, stews and pot roast for sale in supermarkets across the USA. Lesser cuts of meat are ground into hamburger patties by fast-food operators such as In-N-Out Burger.
The Harris Ranch feedlot is the largest on the west coast and produces nearly 200 million pounds of beef a year. This is the kind of meat found in most supermarkets, restaurants and fast-food chains and bought by a large majority of Americans.
Ironically, John Harris’ father, Jack, originally developed the place in the 1930s as a cotton, grain, fruit and vegetable farm. In the ensuing decades, it grew to include the feedlot and a thoroughbred horse farm.
The cattle empire is diverse, split into several corporate entities, encompassing everything from cattle (Harris Ranch Beef Co.) to racehorses (Harris Farms Horse Division) to crops of fruit, vegetables and nuts (Harris Farms Inc.), to livestock feed (Harris Feeding Co. that also runs the feedlot) to a mission-style, three-star hotel and restaurant (Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant) on the 18,000-acre spread.
Suffering from water shortage, high energy costs and poor prices for most crops, the meat division is still the one making the profit.
Harris’ wealth has generated political influence from organizing fund-raisers for Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Gray Davis at his inn, to bullying a University: Harris’ chairman, David Wood, wrote a letter to the president of California Polytechnic State University threatening to reconsider financial support, reportedly worth $500,000, for the college unless it cancelled a lecture by Michael Pollan, writer of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who is critical of feedlots in part because of driving past Harris’ facility. The University, predictably for an institution accepting blood money, caved-in under the pressure: Instead of a solo lecture, Pollan was asked to appear in a panel discussion.
When you criticize exploitive, big money industries, the apologists always mention their positive influence on the economies of the neighboring towns, providing jobs. Aside from a state prison, Harris Ranch is the largest single employer, with 1500 people on the payrolls. The argument is presented as if economics justify just about everything; in Harris’ case, from an animal rights point of view, enslavement and murder.
The Harris Ranch website states: “The land is not just where we raise our cattle, it’s also where we raise our families. Sustainability means ensuring the land will provide for the next generation by not only focusing on the well-being of our livestock, but also by maintaining the ranching environment.” Does that include the stench? John Harris himself no longer lives near the feedlot. Many years ago he moved about 50 miles from the ranch to a 6000-acre expanse with a French chateau-style house along the Kings River east of Fresno.
Huge, vertically integrated companies such as IBP, ConAgra Foods Inc. and Excel, a Cargill subsidiary, control the meat industry in the USA. They run mega plants around the country that can produce massive amounts of beef and sell it cheap with a razor-thin profit margin of about 1%. Together they process about 75% of the nation’s beef. Harris Ranch is small fry compared to these giants, but it represents the same all-in-the-name-of-profit approach to the other lives that we share the planet with.
The Harris Ranch website claims: “All Harris Ranch cattle are sourced, fed, and humanely processed exclusively by Harris Ranch for beef that’s as pure and great tasting as nature intended.“ Of course nature has no intentions towards the taste of meat and there is nothing natural or humane about feedlot operations. It is an industrial activity that comes with industrial problems that pose significant human, animal and environmental health threats like surface and groundwater contamination and air pollution that includes the emission of greenhouse gases.
Through digestive rumination, cows generate methane gas as a by-product. Globally livestock produce about eighty million metric tons of methane annually, accounting for about 28% of global methane emissions from human-related activities. The USA alone is responsible for 5.5 million metric tons of this.
Nature also did not ‘intend’ to water hundreds of thousands of large mammals in a semi-desert.
Today both processed and red meats in themselves are viewed as enemies of health.
Consumer education and awareness together with animal rights legislation are the keys to affect lasting change. Change that is better for our health and that of the environment, but in the first place for the animals victimized by our species.