RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Organic ‘Standards’ Isn’t Enough

Owning an organic vegetable farm in the midst of corn and soybean country, I’ve been pretty occupied with the health of my land versus drifting clouds of chemicals and GMO pollen. I pretty much took my eye off the issue of pork production in CAFOs — confined animal feeding operations. Not that CAFOs are ever very far from my mind. With a CAFO about a half mile away, I can see it from the bedroom window. I can hear the hogs in early morning loadings and unloadings and I can sometimes smell the sewage and, maybe worst of all, smell the crematorium when the operator burns his pile of hog carcasses.

It’s a horrible business, and I feel sorry for the guy that signed up. The neighborhood has suffered and he’s isolated himself with a few folks he buys corn from. He’s been sick, his son has been sick, he’s been cited time after time for pollution violations. They’re simply hoghouse janitors. It’s not a pleasant life.

So we were all shocked a couple of weeks ago when a letter went out to some of the neighbors that a new CAFO might be coming our way. While the CAFO that’s already here is feeding 5,600 hogs for slaughter, the new one would keep mothers (sows) and raise babies.

Moving these nurseries to new places is necessary because the industry has created a new disease that affects baby pigs. “Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea” as it’s called has no cure and it has killed more than 4 million pigs, according to the National Pork Producers Council, the group responsible for the misleading catch phrase, “the other white meat.” With no cure, the corporations are looking for uncontaminated places. Eichelburger Farms would be building here from Iowa; it’s part of a spaghetti pot of similar, entwined producers. Our neighborhood could become the next Hog Central.

As a result of the pig deaths, pork prices are climbing and the greedheads want more, even if they’re selling out their neighborhood. This finished pork, by the way, will probably go to China. If the piggery is built, we’ll have more CAFOs, a slaughter plant, warehouses, trucks. Our neighborhood is just off I-70, 90 minutes from St. Louis’s Lambert Airport. In 2011, developers tried to get millions in tax money to develop Lambert further as an international pork exporter—tax money for warehouses, trucking firms, new terminals and so forth. This was supposed to create jobs.

Fortunately, the effort died, but almost in retaliation, Missouri lawmakers passed a law that foreign corporations can now buy Missouri farmland. So our state is now open to Chinese developers.

My corn-and-bean neighbors might welcome the CAFO, even though they know what will happen to the air and water when a new pigs**t factory goes into operation. One thing that farmers realize is that the pigs**t can be applied to fields as an organic input.

That’s right. Organic standards allow an operator to feed any kind of crap, including antibiotics and hormones, to their hogs. Then, because it goes through the hog’s digestive system, it magically becomes organic certified fertilizer. This is OK with the big organic producers who, of course, do not talk about this and have led consumers to believe that their system improves the soil, air and water. Do CAFOs improve the soil? Do dead hogs improve the air and water? I’ll let you decide, but that system is how you get cheap organic corn chips and sugar, even fresh vegetables.

Corn and bean producers have more problems than getting rid of hog poo. Today’s drivers are complaining about ethanol, saying their gas mileage is going down. Subsidies have also been cut, so the corn-and-soybean-driven fuel boom is waning. Some of my neighbors have invested in ethanol plants that are already shuttered after only a few years of service.

So what’s our neighborhood doing? We are, of course, developing a plan. Our team includes a lot of retired career people — an Air Force officer, a civil engineer, historians, accountants, farmers and lifelong activists. We’ve had fights before — with each other and with developers—but we’ve managed to remain friends with a strong network of clubs, churches, school groups.

And what can you do to help? The nation is riding a new wave of awareness of food and agriculture issues, and I know you’re eating in-season, local foods, especially at this time of year. But some people haven’t managed to turn awareness into action. Help your neighbors learn by suggesting books and movies that educate consumers. Call and ask friends if they want you to pick something up at the farmers’ market. Let them know how much fun it is—a party every week at the farmers’ market.

Ordinary (and even extraordinary) consumers (like you) are fighting back by buying local and avoiding factory foods. Changing the system, one bite at a time, keeps sustainable farmers in business, saves land, air, water and resources.

And fights CAFOs.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2014

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