Can factory farms become real farms growing real food? Of course they can! But they might need a little help. Tyler Whitley is here to tell us all about Transfarmation, a program of Mercy for Animals working with contract growers of chickens and other animals to help them get out from under corporate agribusiness and shift to plant-based production.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Tyler Whitley brings more than a decade of experience in agricultural and financial systems to his role as the Director of Transfarmation. As part of earning a master’s of public health from Tulane University he interned for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on a project in Cambodia administering cash transfers and community reinvestments for more than 7,500 smallholder farmers. He then managed a food and farming intervention program in two rural Haitian provinces. After moving to North Carolina and working for a small farmer-advocacy organization, he joined Mercy For Animals as the director of the Transfarmation project.
- The Transfarmation Project Website
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Mariann Sullivan: Welcome to Our Hen House, Tyler.
Tyler Whitley: Thanks, Mariann. I appreciate you having me.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I'm really excited to talk to you because as I was saying before we started recording, this isn't something I know a lot about. And I think probably a lot of our listeners don't know a lot about. Before we get into solutions, I know we want to talk a lot about the program that you're working on and some of the solutions, but I'd like to talk a little bit about the problem, and not the problem from the animal activist's point of view, which I think most of our listeners are pretty familiar with, or from the animal's point of view, but from the farmer's point of view.
Can you tell us about why, totally regardless of the animals, you can make the case that I guess poultry production, but not just poultry production, other kinds of animal farming as well, is really a horrible thing for small farmers.
Tyler Whitley: Yeah, definitely. So, at Transfarmation, we primarily work on industrial animal farming and that's factory farming. And the reason we do that is because it's really a race to the bottom as far as price, quality, environmental impact, everything affected by factory farming. And so from a farmer's perspective, it's that the large international meat companies are looking to produce animal food products at the lowest price possible. And so that means that farmers receive the lowest price possible. And how that affects them is that it makes it very difficult to run a profitable business, to provide for your cost of living, and to ensure that you have a farm that you can pass on to the next generation.
Additionally, there's been a great deal of consolidation within the animal protein sector over the last 50 years. So, a small number of companies producing most of the beef that people consume, most of the chicken that people consume, most of the dairy products that people consume. And what that means is that there are limited options for farmers.
So if you lose a contract raising chickens for a particular company, like Tyson, for example, it may be very difficult or impossible for you to find another contract to raise chickens with a different company. These businesses tend to be hyper localized, with very little alternatives for farmers within a particular region.
And so that means... Low prices, very few alternatives, which typically results in very, very low wages and compensation for farmers, as well as all the workers involved in factory farming as well.
Mariann Sullivan: Can you tell us a little bit about the tournament system? I've heard of this in the context of poultry production. I think that's where it's primarily used, but correct me if that's wrong.
Tyler Whitley: No, that's correct. So, the tournament system is a method of incentivizing effort on behalf of farmers. And what that means is that within a particular time period, companies come and pick up chickens from a group of farmers, and those farmers are ranked according to the efficiency of inputs they receive, most prominently feed conversion. How well they convert one pound of feed to one pound of animal weight. And based on that ranking, farmers are awarded a bonus, but the bonus is paid by the other farmers. So if you have 21 farmers, you'll have a midpoint. And for the 10 farmers above whatever that average is during the flock... And the flock is a settlement. The flock settlement, that's all the other farmers who have had their chickens picked up during the same time period as you. Anyways, for everyone above that average during the settlement, they receive a bonus that's paid for from a pay deduction from the bottom. And so think of it like... if you're working at any standard hourly wage, you know, in a fast food restaurant or an office space, you know, copyright or whatever, every paycheck you're ranked against your co workers and you receive a pay deduction that pays a bonus out to your other co workers.
And it's a way of ensuring cost controls while incentivizing work. They sell it to farmers that the harder you work, the better, you know, your chickens will perform, the more weight they'll gain. And yet, because those bonuses are paid with deductions from other farmers, it ensures that the companies can control their costs rather than paying out a true bonus.
Mariann Sullivan: That's crazy. It really is. I mean, I guess I've read it about it before, but I didn't really understand it. So it's guaranteed that half the people will lose.
Tyler Whitley: Correct. Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: That's really charming.
Tyler Whitley: Yeah. It's all based on inputs that are outside of your control. The company delivers the chicks to you, the company delivers the feed to you. They deliver everything to you. The only thing that is within your control is your efforts and your labor. And so the company sells it as the harder you work, the better off you'll perform.
But as we know, because of the way that these chicks are bred, the way that they're raised, a lot of chicks are delivered sick. They're delivered with diseases that they suffer through, and that manifest themselves in how many of them die during the flock period, or how much they suffer, or how little weight they add on.
So, most of the actual results of how well a farmer performs are really outside of his or her control.
Mariann Sullivan: I've sort of heard that one of the things that influences why the meat industry, all of the animal food industry can't improve things, both for the animals, for the farmers, for everything. Can't just improve the nightmare that it's become. It's because the margins are so slim that they have to sell really a lot in order to make money because the margins are so slim.
They just can't sell for more. I, I mean, this question just occurred to me, but why can't they sell for more? I mean, people want meat. Why do they always have to keep lowering the price? Who are they in competition with? I mean, other than each other.
Tyler Whitley: Well, I think it's a false narrative that they really use. The farmers don't own the chickens. Usually within 98 percent of poultry farming, that occurs in a vertically integrated production system. And that means that the company owns everything. So the company owns the chickens. So they're really just beating down the farmers on what they're paying them.
But if you look, the meat companies are making billions of dollars every year. And so the idea that the margins are too slim, that really only applies to individual family farmers that raise animals on pasture, usually in very, very small numbers. So case in point, you know, a large pastured poultry operation that is truly pastured where the birds are raised outside, they may raise 6, 000 chickens a year, whereas a factory farm may raise 720, 000 chickens a year.
So the margins for that independent farmer are very, very slim because they're doing a lot more work. They're raising the chickens in a much different way that affords them, while they are alive, a much better quality of life compared to a factory farm chicken. So again, the idea that the margins are really small, that's margins for the farmers and other people, but that's not the case for the multinational meat companies that operate across the globe.
Mariann Sullivan: I believe you have worked with both poultry farmers and pig farmers. Can you tell us a little bit about the difference between how those industries work when it comes to farmers?
Tyler Whitley: Yeah, sure. They're very similar. The majority of industrial scale Pig farming, are raised on what's known as production contracts, and so again, that's where the company owns the pigs, they deliver you the pigs, you raise the pigs from a certain weight to a market weight, and then there's also marketing contracts.
Marketing contracts are slightly different, but the effect is the same. And that's where the farmer does own the pigs, but already has a contract in place for who to sell to. So before they even buy those small piglets, they already know where they're going to sell them to. And so while the mechanism is slightly different, the farmer owning the pigs versus the company owning the pigs, the effect is really the same.
At the end of the day, the majority of pigs raised for slaughter and consumption here in the United States are going to a large, factory farmed meat processor. There are a lot of farmers who do things differently, who do raise pigs on pasture, raise pigs outside, afford them a great deal of room to roam around to root, to look for acorns, root vegetables, things like that.
But those farmers tend to sell into niche markets and raise pigs in substantially smaller quantities. We're talking a few hundred versus thousands to tens of thousands.
Mariann Sullivan: Now I always tell people who bring up the whole humane meat issue that if you're not paying a lot, it's not humane because it costs a lot of money to take good care of animals.
Tyler Whitley: That's definitely true. That's a very good rule of thumb. Very good rule of thumb.
Mariann Sullivan: And just because you are paying a lot of money doesn't mean it's okay, but if you're not, it's definitely not okay.
Tyler Whitley: Sure, sure.
Mariann Sullivan: You don't do any work with dairy farmers, do you? And regardless of that, can you deconstruct a little bit how that industry varies? Because I think that's probably the industry that most people think is still run really concentrated with family farms.
Tyler Whitley: Sure. We don't primarily work with dairy farmers, but we have started to work with one or two small family dairy farmers like what you're talking about.
The problem with dairy is that it is very difficult for a small scale dairy farmer to compete with dairies of scale. And so when you're talking, you know, two to four hundred dairy cows versus someone who has five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand dairy cows, it's just impossible to compete with that level of scale.
And so, as with any business, the larger you become, the more that you're able to compete on economies of scale and really pull down your production costs. And when you're talking extremely large scale dairies, they're better able to spread those costs across the number of animals that they use in production.
And then the price that is supported by the Dairy Margin Program is very, very low. So, many, many small dairy farmers actually operate at a loss for their dairy farms. And we have started to work with one or two small dairy farmers, but again, they're very, very small. And those have been more in an individual case through our grant program that we make.
Mariann Sullivan: So, these farmers, and, you know, I'd love you if you could deconstruct the term family farm, too, because I think it's one of the most misused terms. Like, everybody's got a family. Families can vary a lot. But the people you're working with, and we're going to get to your program in a bit, these are mostly small independent farmers.
Can you just talk about how much food are they responsible for? Small, independent, really true family farmers, what people think of when they hear the term family farm.
Tyler Whitley: Oh, that's going to be difficult for me to do, but I'll try to answer the question about family farm, so most of the people that we work with are factory farmers, but you do hear the term family farmer being used to think of the idyllic, bucolic, pastoral way of raising animals with like a red barn in the background and chickens running around, and a family rolling up their sleeves to work in the dirt, harvesting vegetables, things like that. The majority of the food that is produced, that people consume, that is available for purchase in supermarkets is raised on industrial scales. You can see that in the fact that, you know, 70 percent of all of our specialty crops, which is our fruit and vegetables, are raised in California. That's the majority of all mushrooms that we consume across the country come from Pennsylvania.
Whereas a family farmer really conjures up the idea of a localized food system. Someone that is within a hundred miles of you. You see that term being co opted by large industrial scale operations and really by the industry because, to your point, like you said, Mariann, everyone has a family, so even though you may be a factory farmer, according to the USDA census, you're probably still a family farmer because the individual family owns this factory farm.
It's owned by the Smith family, for example, even though they only raise chickens for a Tyson, a JBS, uh, you know, Sanderson Farms, you know, someone like that, Purdue. And so, again, like, everyone has a family. Everyone has parents, whether you know them or not, like, it's a fact of life, you know, and so the idea of family farmer is as it's used You have to really look at who's using it.
And if it's being used by someone supported by one of the large Trade industry groups like the National Pork Producer Council or the National Chicken Council. They're probably using it to try to soften the image of factory farming.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. Because people are always eager to believe something benign about their food, even though it's usually not true, so I do want to get to your program, I promise you, but, but as I said, this isn't a subject that I know a lot about, so I have a really a lot of background to cover.
And I also kind of want to apologize to my listeners for talking about this in such, you know, without sympathy for the animals. The sympathy is there, but we have to get some facts sorted out here. I'm just kind of curious, are companies just, the big companies, the Tysons, et cetera, et cetera, are they just moving away from using small contract farmers and to running their own huge warehouse facilities to raise animals?
This is just kind of an impression I've gotten that when I see people talking about huge factory farms, sometimes they just seem to be owned by the companies. I'm wondering if that's the direction they're moving in.
Tyler Whitley: No, quite the opposite. When you look at the entire value chain in a vertically integrated system, the one place that often loses the most amount of money is the farm. And so those typically are owned by an individual that a company attracts with the offer of stable income. When a company goes into a new area or is trying to sign up a farmer to raise chickens for them, and I'll just talk about chickens because that's what I know the most about.
They talk about averages. You know, this is your average pay, this is your average placement. But again, there's a reason that you use averages instead of specifics. Because if you use specifics and said, this is what you will make. Then they're held accountable to that. Whereas if you say, you know, Mariann, on average you're going to receive six flocks a year.
Well, if you don't receive six flocks, that means that you have received less chickens, which means less money. If we say Mariann, you're going to receive, you know, 30, 000 chickens per house well, then you're guaranteed to receive that. If you don't, then the company can do what they need to do that's in their best interest.
And so at the end of the day, the farmers do have fixed costs. They know they have to make X amount in mortgage payment per year. And so for most factory farms, your annual mortgage payment is in excess of $120,000 a year. That's what you owe to the bank. It's one of the only contractor jobs that I'm aware of where you're an independent contractor paid a fee by a company, but your check actually goes to your lender first, and then you get whatever's left over.
So the farmer doesn't receive the check first, their lender does, and so they receive that what's called an assignment check. And this is actually very typical in agriculture where if you're growing soybeans or corn, you know, the bank may receive your check first to ensure that they get their mortgage payment and pay off their operating costs, things like that, and they don't fall behind. But it makes it very, very difficult for a farmer to plan out their life and know that they're going to have enough money to pay all their other operating expenses, as well as their cost of living, when they don't know what they're going to be paid at the end of the day. And so because the farm typically will be the area that loses money because of how the tournament system works, because of the quality of the chickens, things like that, it tends to be something that most companies try to keep off their books as much as possible and then use other systems, like the tournament system, in order to control costs for something that they don't own.
Mariann Sullivan: Wow. You know, the more you learn about this industry, the more shocking it becomes. All right, finally, let's, let's talk about your program. Tell us who you approach and what you offer them and what you require of them. Just tell us how it works.
Tyler Whitley: Sure. So, at Transfarmation, we actually don't solicit interest. We don't go out there and try to sell the program. We respond to farmers that contact us. And so every farmer enrolled in our program actually reached out to us first. And we do have a waiting list of more than 60 or 70 farmers, that have contacted us, that we just don't have the capacity to help them right now.
And so what we do is, when a farmer contacts us, we schedule an initial call to try to understand their needs, to understand where they're at, ask a few questions. If we have value that we can add to their situation, if we can help them out and they meet some of the basic requirements of our program, like they're a factory farm, for example, instead of a small, individual family farm, like what we talked about.
Then we'll schedule a follow up call with them for a needs assessment to better understand, like, what infrastructure do they have available? What needs do they immediately have that we need to be aware of? Things like that. As far as requirements for the program, outside of being a factory farm that is either poultry or industrial swine, and sorry, I say swine because that's the agricultural term, but industrial pig operation.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. No, I, I, I get it.
Tyler Whitley: Yeah, it's, there's a lot of code switching that happens where you have to, in order to have credibility.
Mariann Sullivan: You must just have a headache all the time switching codes.
Tyler Whitley: Yeah, I mean, well, you want to be taken seriously by the farmers. Farmers use the word hog. If you're talking to someone in USDA or another, they typically use swine, but we, understanding and having empathy for the animals, we tend to use pig. So, you know, I, I just want to be very clear with listeners like, there's a reason. Language is very important, and in order to have credibility in space, you have to, you know, speak the language of the space.
Mariann Sullivan: Absolutely! We can get to that after you tell us a little bit more how it works. But I'm just completely curious how suspicious they are of where you're coming from. But tell us, tell us a little bit more about how it works. And then we'll get into that.
Tyler Whitley: Definitely. So like I said, at Transfarmation, everyone who works with us in our program has contacted us, and so beyond being a factory farmer, who's primarily engaged in poultry or swine, and identifying value that we can add to their situation. The farmers have to say something that is along the lines of, you know, this system can't be reformed, it has to be replaced.
And that's because there's a lot of farmers who like the system as far as, like, the regularity. They like not having to worry about the marketing aspect of things. You know, going out there trying to find their own buyers, doing their own advertising, things like this. They just wish they got paid more. And if that's what you're really looking for, that's not really what we do. We want to work with people who recognize that this system is... It's actually not broken. It's operating exactly how it was designed to work. And it's working extremely well. It was not designed to be a compassionate system. It was not designed to be a caring system.
It was designed to be an extremely profitable system, exploiting people, land, and animals for profit. And so, the farmers that we work with, they have to say something that indicates that they know this system can't be fixed. It has to be replaced. If that happens, then we schedule a needs call to make sure that we understand everything that they have available.
We understand all their needs, what resources they have, what assets they have. And then we go into make a transition plan for them. And that's where we'll talk to them about what do you want to do? What are you interested in? We'll try to match them with educational resources. Self guided courses that they can enroll in, match them with technical experts.
So that might be someone to help them grow a new crop. That might be a business consultant to help them put together a farm business plan. That might be different types of structural engineers or other types of consultants who can help them redesign alternative uses for their infrastructure, repurposing their infrastructure.
And we pay for all that technical assistance, every bit of it. We've got a couple other program aspects. Like I mentioned, grants, we have a research and innovation grant. You can read about that on our website, the ones that we've made thus far. Those are small grants that we make to farmers to start pilot operations.
So, they're typically around $10,000 to 15,000, and that's to start a small operation so that they can eventually scale it to replacing all of the income they had from factory chickens or pig.
Mariann Sullivan: When you you say a small operation, do you mean like a new crop that they might be growing?
Tyler Whitley: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So that might be like converting a space to grow mushrooms, or maybe raising things outside in a high tunnel, or maybe they already have a garden, but they want to do something different, like create some value added products, like, jams or things like that, but it's usually a small operation.
And the reason that we encourage them to start small is that this is very, very different from what they've done previously. So not only in the terms of what they're actually raising, but also how they're marketing.
You know, previously the company came and picked up the chickens and sent them a check. And this way they have to find buyers. They need to find restaurants to buy things. They need to find food hubs to buy things. And so it's a very different type of farming. And so we encourage them to start small and then scale up so that they don't have that much invested at the very beginning. Because, you know, this is a business just like anything else. And the most successful businesses usually do start small and then scale as they have secured customers.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. That makes total sense. I've heard mushrooms mentioned a lot in this context. Is that because they have all these buildings? There's not that many crops that you can grow inside of buildings are there?
Tyler Whitley: It kind of depends. I mean, I think the reason that mushrooms are so often brought up is that they have a high profitability potential. So you can usually, you know, make a good margin off of it. But when we're working with farmers, you know, and you can read more about all the level of farmer engagement that we have on our website, but some want to take the roofs off their houses and replace it with greenhouse panels, and, you know, turn their chicken houses into large greenhouse like structures, and that allows you to raise crops year round.
So there's a lot of different things that you can do because, one nice thing, and this is why we work with contract poultry and pig operations right now is that there's an extreme amount of uniformity within the industry. So all chicken houses are very, very similar to each other. All pig houses are very, very similar to each other, but they're also similar between industries, chicken and pig, very similar. And they're designed to be climate controlled environments year round.
And that's essentially what crops need to grow as well. You just have to change over things to let more sunlight in, because as we know, unfortunately factory raised chickens and pigs don't get a lot of sunlight. But if you can change over certain parts, like your roof and things like that, and still keep it as a climate controlled environment that is receiving a great deal of sunlight, then you are able to raise a lot of specialty crops, a lot of fruits and vegetables, for year round production.
Mariann Sullivan: That's really cool. This is really kind of a different question because these people are obviously interested in, kind of in niche crops, but what if you really wanted to transform the world? What crops would, you know, I drive around and, you know, I live in upstate New York and, but anywhere I've ever driven in this country, you drive around in rural areas, it's corn and soybeans, soybeans and corn, corn and soybeans, soybeans and corn, and we know where all of that corn and soybeans are going.
They're going to feed crops. What should we be growing in those places, like lentils and beans? Is that what you would want to see growing? Well, I guess we could still grow some soybeans, couldn't we?
Tyler Whitley: Yeah, I mean, you can still grow some soybeans. You can still grow some corn. You can definitely grow beans and lentils, things like that. I think that, you know, this is just my personal opinion. A lot of those places I'd actually rather see working on combating climate change and growing cover crops that can revitalize soil and that can store carbon.
We would be able to produce the food needs for the human population of this planet on substantially smaller amounts of land and that would hopefully free up a tremendous amount of land in order to work on capturing carbon and combating climate change. I'd really like to see that as well as restoring biodiversity of a lot of different areas.
So that that's what I would rather see happen.
Mariann Sullivan: I love that vision.
Tyler Whitley: That's a tough mechanism because you have to have something out there that can, finance it.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. Who's going to pay for that?
Tyler Whitley: Yeah, who's going to pay for it? What are farmers going to make income wise? You know, if they're planting cover crops or other native species, and they're not harvesting it.
Who's going to pay for that? There's a lot of good ideas out there, and I'd love to see the worst polluters pay for that. But, I'm not especially, uh, yeah, I'm not in charge, and I'm not especially hopeful of our U. S. government right now, you know, so.
Mariann Sullivan: I have to tell you, I, you know, I have some questions written out. My next one was, how does climate enter into all these decisions about what people should be raising? So you got to my question before I even asked it. I love that vision. Getting back to your farmers and the people you're working with, do they, what about feed crops?
What if, what if they want to get out of raising animals but are, are already or want to continue raising feed crops? Is that, leave them out of the equation for you?
Tyler Whitley: No, it doesn't. And I think that's because in Transfarmation we really try to look for ways to do good work, and understand that it may not be perfect work. So by that I mean, there are some farmers who still raise animals, but do so more for their home consumption. Think like backyard chickens and they're consuming the eggs at home, that kind of thing.
For us we realize that if they get out of factory farming, and they still have 50 head of beef cattle, or, you know, maybe some backyard chickens, that's not perfect, but that's definitely a lot better than raising 700, 000 plus chickens a year. And we realize that everything's a journey.
You know, and so right now we want to ensure that we're working with farmers to make the greatest possible impact for animals and that we continue engaging those farmers to keep them on a journey, because that's what life is. You continually evolve, you continually learn, and the best thing that we can do is continue engaging those farmers because they'll become advocates for us.
They'll talk to people at their church. They'll talk to people in the grocery store. People will come around to their farm to see what they're doing, you know? And so we want to make sure that we're working with them and keeping those lines of communication open and that's good work and we can't let perfect be the enemy of good.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, that kind of brings us back to that question that I promised we would get back to about, you know, you were talking about code switching and is there resistance to working with you because you're coming from the direction you're coming from?
Tyler Whitley: I think there can be some hesitancy and wanting to ensure that our motivations are genuine. We do run into some issues where sometimes our group, Transfarmation, being a project of Mercy for Animals is conflated with a larger Animal rights movement and some other efforts and so we have to kind of, you know, just have some long conversations and build trust and move at the speed of trust.
But the nice thing is that showing up regularly, showing up with resources and helping, that does a lot of good on our, on our part. That really shows that we are genuine and we work with farmers as long as we're able to add value. So there's some farmers that we've been working with for four years.
Because we can continue to add value to their situation. And if a farmer decides that they want to unenroll from our program, they want to exit, they can always come back to us at another point if they want to. As long as we can add value to the farmer's situation, we will continue working with that farmer to make progress in their individual case.
And we take all of those learnings, everything that we do with a farmer, and we document it, we create resources that other farmers or other organizations can access, and then they're able to implement them themselves. So, if you go on our website, for example, which we just did a redesign of, I think it launched last Friday, actually,
Mariann Sullivan: Oh, okay. So I actually haven't seen your website!
Tyler Whitley: Definitely go and check it
Mariann Sullivan: I didn't know that there was a brand new one. I think I looked at it earlier than that.
Tyler Whitley: Well, that's it. I mean, like, I honestly, we've been working on this redesign for about two years. And the reason being, if you go to the site and you look at farmer resources, You'll just see tons of things that we've been working on and trying to get them in a place where we can share them, where we're comfortable enough with them.
So you'll see conversion plans. There's conversion plans where we worked with, you know, land grant universities, ag universities like Virginia Tech to put out, to guide you through how to convert your chicken farm into a different specialty crop operation, and then match that with a price quote. There's information on how to build a specialty mushroom operation, depending on different size buildings.
And all of this came from our work with individual farmers enrolled in our program. We take that work, like with you, Mariann, the farmer, and then we back it out to make it, you know, something that could be used on Like Jasmin's farm, or Tyler's farm, you know, that kind of thing. And so, we try to do as much as we can to help the individual farmer, but we realize that there's more need than we have capacity to help, and so that's where we take what we've done for the individual farmer and then back it out to make universal resources that other farmers can benefit from. So, yeah, I would definitely check it out.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, that's exactly... also, again, you have anticipated the question I wanted to ask because obviously you can't and other NGOs who might work on this can't subsidize the entire industry, to transform from animals to plants. So your theory of change is that you will build it with some people and you even mentioned you can't even address all the people on your waiting list.
So you want to build it with some people and then create resources for people who might want to do it on their own.
Tyler Whitley: Yeah, that's correct. We want to document everything that we're doing with current farmers, so that then, let's say you, Mariann, you have an animal farm, you download some of our mushroom information. You have a blueprint on how to set up a business that works with your price point. So, like, for example, there's a conversion plan on there for a small 10x10 growing operation that might cost you $10,000.
You can get a small loan for that, a very small loan, and build out, and then you can start that in one building and move over to an entire poultry or pig house, something like that. But we built this out so that you can build a business and go into farm credit, go into the Farm Service Agency, which is the lending agency of the USDA, and you can get a loan to do this.
And if you look at some of our, we have our section called Crop Guides and Enterprise Budgets. Read through some of those Enterprise Budgets. They're, you know, strawberry production, microgreen production, things like that. They give you a breakdown of what you're annual estimated operating costs are and they also give a sensitivity analysis that shows at what price is this business no longer viable, at what production level is it no longer viable?
And then it also gives you what's called a debt service coverage ratio dscr and that essentially is a it's a number that says how likely it is that this business can be profitable and service the debt necessary to operate the business. So the higher that number is, the more likely it is that this business can service the debt needs of the business.
And so that's really helpful when you're going in and trying to get a loan.
Mariann Sullivan: Speaking of getting money, I'm used to thinking of the USDA as being the problem, but you know, obviously it could also be the solution and probably is in, you know, as you just mentioned in some ways, but in an ideal world, what kind of government assistance should there be?
What would you love to see in the Farm Bill?
Tyler Whitley: Well, I'll say this. So, I think that the current USDA administration is doing a tremendous job compared to the past.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, that's, that's one way of looking at it. That's a good, a good point of comparison. Sorry.
Tyler Whitley: I think that's what you have to do. I mean, you have to look at... I tend to think that I'm a better person today than I was 12 years ago at 25, and that's what I strive to be is a better person every day compared to the previous day.
Mariann Sullivan: No, it's actually really good news to hear that you think there's been that much improvement.
Tyler Whitley: Oh, there really has been, there really has been, I understand that there's still a large subsidization of animal agriculture. And most of that is through factory farming. But again, you have to realize like, we don't have a magic wand and we can't fix everything overnight, but this current administration under Secretary Vilsack, his second time around is doing a really, really good job at helping independent producers.
And helping small farmers to be successful. And even if a lot of that money may go into animal agriculture, the more money you can shift away from factory farming to small family farming, the better that's going to be for animals because there's so so fewer, so, so many less animals being raised for animal agriculture.
So, I know we may see that and feel discouraged, but again, you're talking about 21, 000 pigs versus 200 a year. So, it's just the scale of factory farming is so mind boggling that it really, it really doesn't benefit us to conflate it with small family farming because again, we're talking tens and hundreds of thousands of less animals.
So, what I would like to see, I'd like to see some reforms to crop insurance. You'll find that crop insurance often comes into play with large commodity crops. And most notably that we think about corn and soybean production. So again, that crop insurance really incentivizes corn and soybean production because you're essentially guaranteed a profit when you're raising corn and soybeans.
So what that does is it just, you know, artificially deflates the price and makes animal feed substantially cheap, just so, so cheap. I'd rather see more incentivization of the kinds of foods that we should be eating in a healthy diet. So more fruits and vegetables, but also, new varieties, you know, if you go to your grocery store, you'll see like yellowneck squash, you'll see one variety of zucchini, maybe like, three kinds of oranges.
I'd love to see a much more robust and larger fresh produce section with a lot of different types of fruits and vegetables, things that people may go to like a niche grocery store for their farmers market for. I think that that's where you're going to see a lot more people swapping over to larger plant based diets.
Having family that is not on a plant based diet, you know, they tend to resonate more readily with whole plants, you know, if it's something they can see, oh, this is butternut squash, this is spaghetti squash, you know, things like that, but there's so many different varieties out there.
And I think that that's really what I would love to see is a lot more of that.
In addition to what we talked about earlier with combating climate change. I think that, you know, we're at a point now where that probably will be the driving factor into converting more people to a plant based diet because we have to do it. Our agriculture system is having such tremendously negative impact on our climate. We're going to have to make changes.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, I, I really hope that you're right both that we start to do a little bit to save the planet at long last, vis a vis agriculture, but also the idea that I'm going to go into the supermarket and see a huge variety of plants and vegetables and fruits that I haven't seen before. So that is a great way to end on that note of hope.
So thank you so much. This has really been fascinating, Tyler. There's so much about this that I, I don't know. I'm really looking forward to going back to your website now and really looking in detail about some of these stories because I find this very inspiring.
Tyler Whitley: Thanks, Mariann. I really appreciate it. And I would also suggest checking out some of our recently launched social media channels, because that's where you'll actually see stories of the farmers and what they're doing and what they're growing. And you'll see more regular updates there as well.
Mariann Sullivan: I love that. I love that. So those are under Transfarmation, not under Mercy for Animals, right?
Tyler Whitley: That's correct. Yeah, you can look at Transfarmation or Transfarmation Project. I think we're Transfarmation Project on Instagram. I'm an Instagram person. So that's the one I know.
Mariann Sullivan: Okay. And just a reminder to everybody, it's spelled transfarmation...
Tyler Whitley: That's correct. Transfarmation.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah.
Tyler Whitley: Yeah.
A nice little pun there.
Mariann Sullivan: Okay. Thank you so much, Tyler.
Tyler Whitley: Thank you.
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