Big Pork raises a political stink in Iowa GOP candidates join small farmers against spread of hog manure

January 03, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CRESTON, Iowa -- From time to time in America, a new controversy erupts, one so overwhelming it touches countless lives. This, it appears, is such a time. And the issue is hog manure. Go ahead, laugh. Even those whoe recognizes her verbal slip.

In truth, this indelicate topic is no laughing matter. It is at the center of a debate that recently found its way into the Republican presidential campaign.

A revolution is taking place in the pork business, with far-reaching social, economic and environmental consequences for those who live in hog country. But it began in the suburbs and cities, with demands by health-conscious consumers for leaner, safer meat. The industry responded, and in the process radically changed the way hogs are produced.

Today, from coastal North Carolina to the high plains of Colorado, more hogs than ever are being raised on large corporate farms, instead of on smaller family run operations.

Like chickens, these pigs spend their lives in temperature-controlled buildings, which help producers (including Tyson Foods, Cargill and Smithfield Foods) keep quality and profits high.

But putting so many hogs in one place can cause problems. Pollution -- on a scale never before seen in hog country -- is among the most serious.

Pigs are prolific manure producers, and the new mega-farms can raise hundreds of thousands of them, generating astounding amounts of waste.

How much?

Consider that the hogs on one large factory farm can produce enough waste in a week to flood the playing field at Camden Yards to the top of the dugout roof.

Similar waste problems despoil the Chesapeake Bay. Runoff from chicken manure on the Eastern Shore and cow manure in Pennsylvania has contributed directly to pollution.

Last summer, major spills from hog manure storage ponds, or lagoons, were reported in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and North Carolina, poisoning rivers and killing thousands of fish.

By far the worst incident -- the Exxon Valdez of hog manure spills -- happened in eastern North Carolina on June 21. About 22 million gallons of waste (an amount twice the size of the 1989 Alaskan oil spill) poured into the New River when a rain-swollen manure lagoon burst.

Bacteria levels rose 15,000 times above the permissible limit, and an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 fish were killed before the manure flowed into the Atlantic near the resort beaches of

Topsail Island.

Efforts to dispose of so much manure are difficult. Sprayers, known as manure guns, can shoot the waste onto cropland as fertilizer. But at least one state, Iowa, has had to control the placement of these guns after some farmers carelessly sprayed manure onto adjacent highways or farms.

But no DMZ is large enough, say foes of the big hog farms.

"There isn't anything that's more vile than shooting manure 40 feet into the air on a warm Sunday afternoon," said Jim Sullivan, a fifth-generation southern Iowa farmer, at a recent public

hearing here in Creston. "It's like a fine, foggy mist. It just hangs in the air."

Family farmers, who must modernize to meet the corporate competition, say the factory hog farms threaten their economic survival. Residents of cities and towns near the big hog operations call it a quality-of-life issue.

The reason: "It stinks," says Barb Grabner of PrairieFire Rural Action, a pro-family-farm group.

No one denies that hogs create an overpowering aroma.

"There's an old saying in Iowa: It smells like money," says John Lawrence, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University and former hog farmer. "As long as it's my hogs, it smells like money. When it's your hogs, it smells like stink."

Some farmers say the odor from a factory farm is different from the pig smell they know. It's more like industrial sewage, they insist, than ordinary manure.

Iowa politicians, desperate to preserve the state's ranking as the No. 1 hog producer, are throwing money at the problem. The Legislature is expected to provide millions of research dollars to search for a way to take the stench out of hog waste.

zTC "All stops are being pulled out to find it," reports Mr. Lawrence, who says the scientific quest is so important that "around here, we call it the Manhattan Project."

A top Iowa economist has floated another solution: an odor tax. The idea, which doesn't seem to be going anywhere, is to charge big hog producers a fee for fouling the air. Some of that money would go to their neighbors, who could use it to pay for a vacation when the smell became unbearable.

Limiting the growth of big hog farms "is a subject of a tremendous amount of coffee-shop talk," says Andy Baumert of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

To see why, it is helpful to know the importance of pigs to Iowa farmers, who typically grow corn and soybeans and, at the same time, raise a few hundred hogs in outdoor pens. For many, pigs have long been a "mortgage lifter," the difference between a farm that merely breaks even and one that profits enough to buy a new combine or send the kids to college.

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