• U.S.

HOGGING THE TABLE

5 minute read
John Greenwald

COLORADO FARMERS Galen Travis and Jim Dobler have seen the future, and it stinks. Just upwind of their grain fields, a company called Midwest Farms, owned by hog entrepreneur Ronald Houser, plans to build an $80 million facility that will raise 450,000 hogs a year. From Colorado to the Carolinas, enterprising growers like Houser and agribusiness giants such as Cargill and Continental Grain are building such livestock factories to mass-produce hogs for packers like Hormel Foods and John Morrell.

But even job-short rural communities are squealing, fearful of environmental problems and resentful of yet another mechanized assault on their way of life. In Colorado, Travis and Dobler are leading a fight to keep Midwest out. It’s not just the olfactory affront posed by tons of reeking hog manure that worries them. The megafarm will lap up millions of gallons of water, threatening part of the Oglalla Aquifer, the underground lake that provides drinking and irrigation water to much of the western Great Plains. The farmers are also concerned that the deep lagoons where hog waste is stored could seep through the dry soil and pollute the aquifer. “We don’t see any good coming of this,” Travis says. “The hogs are only going to bring trouble.”

The vast livestock factories are a long way from the here-a-pig, there-a-pig operations of traditional hog farms. The plants turn out pigs as if they were piggy banks from football field–length buildings, where the animals are confined to small pens and fed, medicated and monitored with an exacting precision that fattens them to 265 lbs. in six months. Then it’s off to slaughterhouses, where porkers become pork chops, spareribs and bacon.

These porkopolises are multiplying like rabbits across the U.S. The newcomers increased their share of the $30 billion U.S. pork industry from 7% to 17% between 1988 and 1994; experts say the factories will live higher on the hog by the end of next year, capturing nearly 30% of the market.

Don’t expect the factory pigs to be entered in the county fair. “There’s a serious question as to whether these facilities can still be called agriculture,” argues Nancy Thompson, staff attorney for the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska, which opposes the megafarms. “They are more like a commercial industry than a farm.”

The march of commerce is being challenged by environmentalists and advocates of rural values. In North Carolina, where a population of 8.5 million hogs exceeds the state’s 7.2 million people, opposition surged last summer after a rain-swollen lagoon spilled 22 million gal. of hog feces and urine over the countryside. At a “Hog Summit” two weeks ago, environmental activists made 12 recommendations to the state, including measures to reduce odors and limit the construction of farms near watersheds.

In Kansas, voters in 12 of the 14 counties that have put factory farms on the ballot in recent years have elected to keep them out. In Nebraska, a state ban on corporate farms has sharply slowed their growth. Elsewhere, opponents have used zoning and environmental laws to block plans for new farms. Residents are also seeking to shut plants now in operation. “The smells are horrendous,” complains Carla Smalts, an Oklahoma farm wife who has sued to prevent a pig palace from opening near her home. She’s also helping to coordinate anti-hog farm movements in five states. In Colorado, where water rights are often a heated issue, Travis, Dobler and an organization called Alliance Conserving Tomorrow used state groundwater laws that restrict new wells to stop Midwest Farms from drilling on the 8,000 acres that it is acquiring for its site.

Nationally, the battle may be decided at the dinner table. Health-conscious Americans are eating more of “the other white meat.” Thanks in part to marketing campaigns that stress the low fat content of pork, consumption in the U.S. has edged up, from 49 lbs. per capita to 53 lbs. during the past nine years, even as beef consumption has fallen, from 79 lbs. per capita to 68 lbs. (Americans eat poultry, the current king of the table, at the per-capita rate of 73 lbs. a year.) The lofty goal of the National Pork Producers Council is to overtake beef by the year 2000. Growing even faster are U.S. exports of pork, which have quadrupled, to 720 million lbs. a year over the past eight years.

There are a few towns–hamlets, if you will–where the factories are being welcomed. Rol Hudler, mayor of Burlington, Colorado (pop. 3,000), smells prosperity in the 200 jobs Midwest Farms has promised to bring to town. “The benefits for us will be mind boggling,” Hudler says. For his part, Midwest president Houser must meet state regulations limiting the amount of nitrates and other manure products that leach into the soil. Among other things, the company plans to line the 30 lagoons that will contain hog wastes with heavy plastic sheeting designed to prevent the fetid brew from oozing into the aquifer. But Travis is still holding his nose. Says he: “We’re not giving up until we can be convinced that there will be minimal impact.” As minimal an impact as 450,000 pigs can make.

–Reported by Lisa H. Towle/Raleigh and Richard Woodbury/Kersey

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