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Greasing the Way for
Factory Bacon

Corporate hog operations -- and their lagoons -- threaten the financial and physical health of family farms.

By Brian DeVore

Olivia, Minn. -- After a winter that was brutal even by Minnesota standards, summer has finally returned to Renville County. But Julie and Jeff Jansen aren't greeting the warm weather with the same enthusiasm as they used to. They fear it will just remind them that their family's health is an expendable commodity in rural America's rush to chase a manure-spattered smokestack called factory pork.

transplanting into cover crop mulch
Dave & Diane Serfling use pasture farrowing to produce pigs for about 28¢/lb., compared with about 40¢ for a typical factory farm.
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[Photo by Brian DeVore ]
In late 1994, two manure holding ponds servicing hog confinement buildings went into operation roughly a mile from the Jansens' rural home in southwest Minnesota. By the end of the following summer, the entire family (they have six children) was experiencing nausea, fits of vomiting and blackout periods -- all symptoms of exposure to high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a gas produced by rotting manure. The symptoms subsided whenever the family traveled out of the area.

Last summer, Jansen and some neighbors used a borrowed hydrogen sulfide tester and a retired microbiologist to prove that levels of the toxic gas were at dangerously high levels in the vicinity of several manure ponds located throughout the county. The Jansen family physician, Dr. Paul Thompson, is convinced the millions of gallons of manure in these "lagoons" -- each the size of a city block and 17 feet deep -- is creating a noxious environment for the Jansens and their neighbors. Winter brings some relief, but the lagoons are too large to freeze over completely.

"In the winter we just have nausea, we don't throw up," says Julie. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is receiving a record number of applications for the construction of manure lagoons. Agency officials concede they do not know the long-term environmental impacts of large lagoons and lack the staff to monitor such facilities, but they're reluctant to turn down permit applications, saying they "have no desire to unduly burden Minnesota's entrepreneurs."

Factory-Friendly States

Those words come to mind when taking in an aerial view of a hog park some 300 miles to the south of the Jansens in northern Missouri. Floating off to the horizon are gleaming buildings: long, low and fairly innocuous looking. In tow are ponds that from a distance look like they're brimming with water.

This crowded panorama shows a state that yes, indeed, has been successful at keeping all "undue burdens" off the back of industrial agriculture. In the closing hours of the 1993 legislative session, Missouri exempted three counties from the state's law restricting the corporate ownership of farms. The law was originally set up to keep land in the hands of independent family farmers. But Premium Standard Farms, which has used financial backing from Wall Streeters like Morgan Stanley Group Inc. to become the fifth largest hog producer in the country, had lobbied hard for the exemption. It hinted none-too-subtly that there were plenty of other states in the region more than willing to make life easy for the corporate sow.

In one fell swoop, Premium Standard got the go-ahead to build the largest porcine ghetto in the country. It now has a breeding herd of at least 85,000 sows and its own packing plant (the average Missouri hog farm has between 40 and 50 sows). And what of the family farmers the corporate farm law is supposed to protect? In 1995 Missouri lost 19 percent of its independent pork producers. That's more than any other state.

But it's doubtful the Show-Me-State will hang on to this dubious ranking for long. From the eastern seaboard to the southwestern desert, farm states are opening wide the gate to industrialized hog operations. In the process, they're creating a food production system that poses a great danger to the environment, drains communities of their financial health, and denies rural residents a say in their future.

The model for creating each state's version of hog heaven is North Carolina, where former state lawmaker and owner of the largest pork production company in the country, Wendell Murphy, has gotten so many special breaks -- such as weakened environmental standards, tax exemptions, zoning exemptions, the sealing of state records pertaining to hog operations -- pushed through the legislature that they are referred to as "Murphy's Laws."

The pork industry donated more than $92,000 to North Carolina legislators in 1994, double the amount forked over by the textile industry and organized labor. As part of their rural "economic development" initiatives, states are offering cheap utility rates to hog factories, giving them the status and legal protection that comes with being classified a "farm" instead of a "factory," and clearing the path for manure lagoon construction permits.

Increasingly, legislative sessions in farm country are races to see which state can weaken its corporate farm laws and environmental standards the fastest. Sitting back and enjoying the competition are corporations like Premium Standard, Cargill, Murphy Family Farms and Tyson Foods. They promise to do to the hog business what has already been wrought upon poultry: replace independent farmers with industrial technology and vertical integration.

They've got a good start. Nine years ago, only 7 percent of the nation's pork was coming out of corporate-owned factory operations. Today, at least 17 percent are. Since 1980, 65 percent of this country's independent hog producers have gone out of business.

Eliminating independent pork production would be a significant blow to family farm-based sustainable agriculture. Hogs, which can produce meat relatively quickly and cheaply, have historically been good money-makers in rural areas. Young farm families call them "mortgage burners" because of their ability to generate good cash flow using minimal inputs such as open-air housing and feed raised on the farm itself.

But within the past few years it has become clear that hogs can be raised in intensive, factory-like conditions by corporations that control everything from the feed source to the label on a vacuum-packed pork chop. Thanks to hogs, the bears and bulls of Wall Street are taking an interest in agriculture not seen since the land boom of the 1970s.

"Factory-like operations such as this are bringing together technology and finance to change the face of the pork industry," gushed the Wall Street Journal in a 1994 front-page article on Premium Standard Farms. "Long a messy sideline for family farmers, the hog business is attracting companies backed by money from big-city banks and Wall Street."

Environmental Threat

The environmental threat posed by hog factories centers around the lagoons, which are key in making these facilities affordable to build. A growing hog produces two to four times as much waste as a human, posing a major disposal challenge. But manure management on a factory farm consists simply of dumping the liquid waste into a earthen pit. The manure sits and festers in an anaerobic (oxygen-less) soup for several months at a time before being pumped out onto farm fields.

The larger lagoons hold tens of millions of gallons, cooking up a choking stench so powerful that even veteran hog farmers complain about it. In rural areas across the country, stories like that of the Jansens are becoming more common. Rural citizens have won nuisance lawsuits in recent years involving smelly lagoons, but many states and counties offer a shield against such legal action through "right to farm" laws -- originally set up to protect family farmers.

Even though hog lagoons emit at least 130 different gases, including ammonia, state and federal clean air rules generally fail to address them. (In Minnesota, the Land Stewardship Project in spring '97 successfully pushed through legislation that calls on the state to enforce hydrogen sulfide standards). Some factory-farm owners have responded to complaints about odor with "masking" technologies and brag about how much money they are investing into researching ways of eliminating it completely.

But suppressing the smell may only make manure odor a hidden threat, according to a study conducted by Duke University. Using "Profile of Mood States" questionnaires, researchers concluded that 44 people living near hog confinement units in North Carolina "had significantly more tension, more depression, more anger, less vigor, more fatigue, and more confusion than control subjects."

Air quality isn't the only resource threatened by hog factories. It is estimated that half of the North Carolina lagoons that are more than seven years old leak manure through their earthen liners on a regular basis, contaminating ground water. Within the past two years, there have been dozens of major hog manure spills across the country, poisoning water and killing thousands of fish. One lagoon failure at a Purina, Inc.-backed operation sent 25 million gallons -- twice the amount of oil spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster -- of feces into North Carolina's New River.

In a familiar-sounding mantra, factory farm supporters have acknowledged that factory hogs pose an environmental risk, but say the financial payback makes it worthwhile. One economist estimates that Premium Standard has added 4,000 temporary and permanent jobs to Missouri's economy since 1989.

But an analysis conducted by University of Missouri agricultural economist John Ikerd concluded that corporate hog jobs displace three times as many established independent farmers. Fewer farmers means fewer businesses on Main Street, no matter how much buying power the remaining producers have.

A University of Minnesota study found that for livestock-intensive operations, the percentage of income spent locally (defined as within a 20-mile radius of the farm) declined dramatically as the size of the operation increased. A Virginia Tech study found that an independent hog production system provides 10 percent more permanent jobs, a 20-percent larger increase in local retail sales, and a 37 percent larger increase in local per capita income.

Agribusiness argues that smaller farmers benefit from factory hog operations because the facilities attract the processing infrastructure needed to sustain meat production in a state. But North Carolina's independent producers are finding themselves all but shut out of the new packing plants that have gone up in that state within the past few years as a result of big pork. Size-based contracts or direct ownership of packing facilities gives factory operations raising 5,000 sows or more an almost exclusive market that lacks competitive bidding.

One survey done by Hogs Today magazine found that in North Carolina, corporate-owned hogs were bringing a 24-percent-higher price than hogs sold by independent producers through local buying stations. Even in states where it is not legal for one company to own production and processing, smaller independent farmers are reporting more instances of packers turning away hogs because they already have their quota for the week filled through exclusive contracts with large corporations. Such a closed marketing system is illegal under the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 75-year-old club the USDA has been hesitant to wield.

The Real Competition

Perhaps the greatest irony of the factory hog story is that much of the excitement generated on Wall Street is based on an assumption that unincorporated pork is being produced haphazardly by a bunch of backwards hicks. Swine enterprise records from across the Midwest show that 100-sow farms often produce quality pigs at a lower cost than 10,000-head factory operations. Dave and Diane Serfling's diversified crop and livestock farm just north of the Iowa border in southeast Minnesota produces pigs cheaper than just about anyone.

Using sophisticated techniques such as pasture farrowing, grazing and other low-cost, sustainable hog production methods, the Serflings' 46-sow herd produced pigs for about 28 cents per pound of pork in 1995. A typical factory farm does it for closer to 40 cents.

The Serflings have gained such a reputation for efficient pork production that an extension agent encouraged them to expand their herd. But they feel their smaller size is the key to their success. For one thing, the scale and diversity of their operation makes manure a valuable source of fertilizer for the Serflings' crops, rather than a waste product to get rid of.

"It's a fun way to raise pigs, and a healthy way to raise pigs and it's profitable," says Dave. "It's a size that I can raise my kids on, keep my bills paid and have a good life. At a [sustainable] hog production conference at Iowa State recently they were hoping for 80 or 90 farmers; they had 230 people register. Family hog farming is not dead yet."

A Sinking Ship

What is taking on the stench of death is Premium Standard, which reported losses of nearly $100 million in 1995 and finally filed bankruptcy in 1996. It's still in operation, but rumors are flying that Premium Standard will soon be on the auction block.

What's the problem with this flagship of factory hog farming? At one point it was reported that its high-tech facilities were violating a basic rule of animal husbandry by allowing newborn pigs to die at a higher than average rate.

Now that the efficiency argument is leaking gas fast, the corporations are conceding that their main competitive advantage is their ability to attract venture capital. To do that, they must assure investors of consistent returns by flattening the market roller-coaster that comes with having thousands of producers. An unnamed "dedicated mega producer" was recently quoted in the agribusiness magazine, Feedstuffs, as saying he "would like to see small, land-based hog farmers retire so fluctuations in the hog-corn cycle will smooth out and make accessing capital much easier." That means getting rid of the Dave and Diane Serflings of the world.

Prompted by the claims of factory farming boosters and their cheerleading economists that Asia will soon be buying bacon by the barge-load, Wall Street continues the transfusion of cash and waits for the downfall of all those independent farmers. Even Congress, that supposed mortal enemy of inefficient business, is getting in on the act of propping up a backwards way of producing food. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) -- part of the Freedom to Farm Act -- has the makings of a new $100-million-a-year subsidy for large livestock operations. Fortunately, groups like the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture have pressured USDA into creating a national ceiling on the size of operations that can qualify for cost-share money. However, USDA failed to close all the EQIP payment limitation loopholes and has provided a procedure for individual states to waive the national ceiling.

And while research on environmentally sustainable and family-farmer friendly hog production continue to receive little funding, $14 million in tax money has been poured into construction of a federal facility that will study such things as odor suppression and more efficient ways of raising hogs in confinement. Add to that the fact that hog factory owners are eligible for cheap credit through federal farm lending agencies, and it becomes clear that corporate pork reeks of corporate welfare.

Local Democracy Threatened

But perhaps the biggest loser in the scramble to replace people with pigs is local democracy. Scrappy communities have reacted to state governments' unwillingness to protect them by creating their own local zoning and environmental rules. One southeastern Minnesota county enacted a moratorium on large manure lagoon construction until residents could develop rules that would balance growth with quality of life.

Neighboring counties and even local townships soon followed suit. The state's factory farm supporters reacted swiftly by developing legislation that would take away the power of Minnesota's counties and townships to regulate the placement of factory farms. Minnesota's Republican Governor, Arne Carlson, has warned that local government control of hog factories is threatening the state's "global competitiveness."

The 250 residents of Missouri's rural Lincoln Township have received even more direct retribution for practicing democracy. After township officials informed Premium Standard Farms that the location of its facilities violated local zoning rules, they were slapped with a $7.9 million lawsuit by the corporation. In a public relations move, the monetary portion of the suit was dropped in 1995 after the situation was publicized by a rural advocacy group, the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment. Premium is still suing the township, calling the zoning rules a "taking" of its property's value.

The only taking going on in the rolling hills of northern Missouri is the local citizens' right to determine what kind of future they want, says Terry Spence, a whip-thin cattle farmer who lives in Lincoln Township. Under Spence's leadership, the township has slapped back, suing for its right to enforce its own laws. The suits have been dragging through the courts for more than two years now, taking Spence away from his 400-acre, 80-cow farming operation and costing the township thousands in legal fees. A decision is expected from Missouri's state supreme court this summer, but no matter what the outcome, the soft-spoken Spence hopes that someday the number-crunchers will return to his community to gauge the real impact of replacing people with pigs.

"I'm not against change," he says. "But I'm against the kind where you replace people out here on the land with corporations. The state is only as good as the people who are in it."

Brian DeVore (Brian.A.Devore-1@tc.umn.edu) is editor of the Land Stewardship Letter, a publication of the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project.

For more information:
  • Hog Manure and Its Discontents -- At the Liberty Tree Alliance website, Marty Strange, founder and former program director of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, gets to the heart of the big stink: "Nobody shovels and spreads manure in the corporate facilities. No farmer, no shovel. The vast effusions are flushed."
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