Exurbanites aren't alone in `pig factory' concerns


May 23, 1999|By Mike Burns

VISITORS TO the southern Allegany County town of Luke used to turn up -- or turn off -- their noses at the sulfurous smell that often hung over the place like a wet curtain. The odor came from the paper mill operations of Westvaco Corp., a major employer in the county.

When strangers asked if the locals minded the malodor, Alleganians would typically reply: "Smells like money to me."

That's the kind of response one might expect when the economic stakes widely affect a community. If a factory were spewing thick clouds of soot into the air, or releasing toxic chemicals into the waters, citizens would react angrily. But an unpleasant odor from time to time is no cause to challenge the community benefits from the plant.

But how about the stench from a huge pig farm? There's little to compare with that powerful odor of ordure, beside which cow and horse waste are the palest of scents. Is that sufficient burden to overcome the smell of money?

In Frederick County, the commissioners recently voted a moratorium on hog farms with more than 250 animals, hoping for some (untainted) breathing room to determine the impact and regulations needed to control them.

They acted after complaints about a Rocky Ridge farmer raising 12,000 hogs a year under contract to a packing plant. A judge later ordered him to get a state water pollution control permit, which sets tough requirements, or reduce his herd sharply.

Pleasant Valley pigs

Carroll County, which shares much of Frederick's agricultural concerns, is carefully following the events to see if this county requires some sort of pre-emptive laws. Last month, the Carroll County commissioners held a public meeting to discuss this issue, prompted by fears of residents north of Westminster that a 2,200-hog farm is planned for the Pleasant Valley area. (A state-federal permit is needed if the operation is more than 2,500 swine.)

State and federal regulations may address some potential problems with large-scale feedlots. Maryland essentially halted plans for a 3,000-hog factory farm in Kent County two years ago, denying a required waste discharge permit to the farmer, who soon abandoned the idea.

It's a sensitive subject for rural counties such as Carroll. The appreciation of the agricultural tradition and economy is widespread. Right-to-farm laws have tried to reinforce the farmer's claim to use his land as he sees fit, against the demands of new residential neighbors who are disturbed by typical farming operations.

But large livestock operations present greater concerns than just smell. Water pollution from animal waste is the biggest potential problem: runoff into streams and seepage into underground water tables.

It's well-understood that farms are growing larger, even as the number of farms is declining. Economies of scale push farmers to find more efficient ways to raise traditional products.

The CAFOs trend

Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), as the government calls the mega-feedlots, are becoming more common as one way to achieve those production economies. They're particularly appealing to pork producers, who've seen prices plummet though their meat is in firm demand.

The CAFOs bear slight resemblance to the barnyards and pastures of old. Animals are kept in close control (often in barns) on scrupulously regimented diets, and maintained from all manner of disease by medications. As little as possible is left to chance, and to the natural inclinations of these animals.

Manure management is a significant challenge, one that these operations have addressed with varying success. While the waste is more confined, making for potentially easier collection, it's hard to find good solutions for the manure's disposal.

Much of the land around these livestock farms is already loaded with this natural fertilizer. Waste lagoons present their own problems of potential spills and runovers, and accompanying stench.

It's not only naive city slickers seeking a bucolic bungalow in the exurbs who complain about these feeding operations. It's also other farmers who have been overwhelmed by their neighbor's concentrated livestock factory.

The broiler chicken industry set the pattern, at least in the East, with "integrated" contract growers raising confined, assembly-line poultry under contract to the big processors. Costs and profits are meticulously figured on razor-thin margins of a half-cent per pound. But that tight structure is challenged by increasing governmental demands for environmentally sound manure disposal, involving responsibility for both grower and processor.

The hard realities of modern farming will likely dictate further consolidation and more intensive livestock feeding operations.

It's a price we all pay to keep down meat prices at the supermarket. The question is whether we can effectively control the factory farm to avoid exorbitant environmental costs.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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