NEEDMORE, Pa. - Hickory Lane Farms is a small city of pigs.
About 3,400 grunting animals live in two giant barns, separated into 14-foot-square pens, 25 animals in each.
An electric timer delivers scientifically formulated grain from overhead plastic pipes at regular intervals. Automatic "nipple feeders" let pigs drink when they want. Their manure falls - or is tramped - through slits in the concrete floor into giant, concrete-lined "lagoons" beneath the barns.
"It's so automatic, there isn't much I need to do," said Hickory Lane's owner, Ricky Leese, 53, here in Pennsylvania's Belfast Township, where there are 10 pigs for every person.
Big hog farms like this are becoming more common, and they are now spawning environmental, agricultural, and legal battles across the state.
Owners of big farms - and the corporations who pay them to raise the animals - say the operations are clean, modern and efficient, meeting a growing consumer demand for pork.
Opponents call them "factory farms," and say they mean nothing short of environmental disaster.
A test case
Now, competing lawyers from the Philadelphia suburbs and Washington are preparing to descend on a small county courthouse to fight a test case over whether communities have the power to ban the big farms.
It's a debate that has raged for years in North Carolina and Iowa, where farms of 100,000 pigs exist. Now it's in Pennsylvania.
Critics of the big-farm operations include Philadelphia restaurateurs, environmental activists, neighbors of the big farms, and owners of small ones. They say the manure from large farms can harm rivers and streams - pointing to spills in North Carolina - and claim that the big barns are inhumane breeding grounds for disease.
"I don't like the way they treat the animals," said Ian Dietrich, who works on his parents' small Cumberland County, Pa., dairy farm and keeps 11 pigs of his own. "I don't like the conditions for the farmer. I don't like the ... potential to damage the water supply. I don't like the amount of antibiotics they use to keep the animals alive."
Supporters counter that the big barns are state-of-the-art - sometimes even monitoring the animal's air and water by computer - and insist that Pennsylvania's laws are rigorous enough to prevent problems.
"A human being may look at this and say, `Boy, I wouldn't want to live like that,'" said James L. Adams, president of PennAg Industries Association, a farm-industry trade group. "But if the animals were getting sick all the time, or they weren't growing right, we wouldn't pen them that way."
Adams said the system is designed to get the most meat to America's dinner tables with the highest quality, the most consistency and the least cost.
"It's driven by the consumers," Adams said. "Whether they know it or not, they vote every day by the dollars they use."
For now the attention is focused on Belfast Township in south-central Pennsylvania.
Many communities have attempted to restrict the size or activities of the big farms - officially called "concentrated animal feeding operations" - but have had little success because of the state's permissive zoning laws.
Belfast, with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, based in nearby Chambersburg, is one of nine municipalities trying a new tack: prohibiting corporate involvement in farms.
Leese and three other local farmers have challenged the Belfast restrictions in a lawsuit. PennAg views the suit as an important test case and is paying the farmers' legal bills.
One of the township's three measures says corporations, with "fewer reasons to respect the natural environment ... than do natural persons," may not "engage in farming." Existing corporate-operated, -financed or -owned farms would be permitted to continue under the ordinances.
The township says it is acting in the public interest by protecting family farms from being squeezed out of business by corporations.
The farm industry says the township has no legal right to regulate farm ownership, and that the ordinances unfairly discriminate against corporations. The corporations say that by guaranteeing farmers a steady paycheck, they are helping them stay in business.
Farming is changing
The legal debate aside, at least one thing is not in dispute: The nature of farming is changing in Pennsylvania - and fast.
Take hogs. The number of farms in the state with more than 2,000 hogs has nearly doubled to 190 in the past decade - with some housing 15,000 or more pigs - while the number of farms with fewer than 100 hogs has fallen by more than half. The animals on the big farms aren't owned by the farmers, but by agri-corporations, which pay farmers about $10 a head to raise a pig from 15-pound piglet to 250-pound hog.