Fencing Out Factory Farms


Special to The Progressive Populist

Ochiltree County, Texas

From Kansas to Kentucky, rural residents are fencing out the pork industry.

On September 16, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, voters in Seward County, Kansas, approved a non-binding referendum which instructs the county's commissioners to prohibit corporate hog farms from locating in their county.

The Seward County vote is the latest salvo in the ongoing skirmish between rural counties and the pork industry. Concerned about the putrid smell and potential water contamination that often accompanies large pig farms -- which can contain up to 250,000 hogs -- farmers and environmentalists in half a dozen states are working to slow or prevent the expansion of the pork industry into their areas.

Resistance to the industry has been particularly strong in the High Plains region of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, a region that has seen explosive growth in pork production. Over the past three years, Osaka, Japan-based Nippon Meat Packers, which had revenues last year of $4.9 billion, Murphy Family Farms, (America's largest pork producer), Premium Standard Farms (America's fourth largest pork producer), Vall, Inc. (a Spanish company) and Seaboard Farms, (the eighth largest pork producer), have all moved into the region and are now producing more than two million porkers per year.

One of the biggest players in the region is Nippon, which is investing $200 million here in Ochiltree County, a county on the north edge of the Texas Panhandle long known for its wheat, cattle and sorghum production. But with the entry of Nippon, this county of 9,000 residents has suddenly become one of the biggest players in the hog business. Within 30 months, the company plans to be producing one million pigs per year in the county, with almost all of the pork headed for Japan.

If Nippon succeeds -- and there's no reason to believe it won't -- Ochiltree County will be the fourth largest pork-producing county in the United States.

But not all Ochiltree County residents are celebrating. Sixteen months ago, Barbara and Bernhard Philipp, whose family has owned land in southern Ochiltree County since 1907, watched as Nippon's local subsidiary, Texas Farm, opened a hog breeding facility -- permitted to contain up to 11,000 pigs -- a half mile east of their front door. The smell is not an everyday problem. Some days they don't get any odor. Other days, they say, the smell is overwhelming.

"You either have to stay in the house with all the windows closed, or leave the house altogether," says Barbara Philipp, who, along with Bernhard, has been raising wheat and milo on their land for more than two decades.

And it appears that the Philipps are stuck with the stench. Under current Texas law, they cannot sue Texas Farm for being a public nuisance, because confined animal feeding operations like the one run by Texas Farm are exempt from nuisance laws. And state regulations did not allow them to get a public hearing in which they could have opposed the permit granted to Texas Farm by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).

To fight the pork industry the Philipps and more than 100 other farmers and landowners in Ochiltree and Lipscomb counties, organized as Active Citizens Concerned Over Resource Development (ACCORD), have filed a lawsuit against the TNRCC, challenging the legality of the state agency's permitting system. But the underlying issue is one of property rights: Do the Philipps have the right to enjoy their property today in the same way they enjoyed it before Texas Farm became their neighbor?

Put another way, is Texas Farm, because of the odors that it emits, denying the Philipps their property rights?

The ACCORD case presents what would seem to be a good case for Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, a conservative Democrat who has been beating the drum on property rights for several years. In Ochiltree County, a decision made by a governmental agency -- the TNRCC -- is preventing landowners from enjoying their property. But in March, Morales' staff attorneys sided with TNRCC and the hog producers, writing that "Freedom from the possible migration of pollution -- from land owned or occupied by plaintiff -- is not a life, liberty or property interest of plaintiff recognized under the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution." In other words, Morales is saying, Texas landowners don't have a right to keep their land free of pollution.

NIPPON AND THE OTHER pork producers are expanding in order to feed the sizzling export market and gain market share. Thanks to GATT and the North American Free Trade Agreement, American has become a net exporter of pork.

In 1995, the U.S. exported more pork than it imported for the first time in 44 years. And the top 10 producers, all of them major corporations, increased production from 20 million pigs in 1994 to 23 million pigs in 1995 to meet the demand for pork in Japan, Mexico, Canada and the Pacific Rim.

Since NAFTA went into effect, Canadian consumption of American pork has doubled, according to figures from the US Department of Agriculture. Exports to Mexico during the first six months of 1997 are up 36 percent.

Last year, the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted Al Tank, a lobbyist for the National Pork Producers Council as saying, "The U.S. pork industry may have been the single largest beneficiary of the trade agreements."

While feeding the export market, the big pork producers are also rushing to increase their share of the market, which has resulted in thousands of small pork producers being pushed out of the business.

The small producers are being replaced by a few companies focused on vertical integration, meaning the companies own the pigs from birth to bacon. The slaughterhouse, finishing barns, nursery barns and parent sows are all owned by one company, which, by virtue of its size, is able to lower costs and have greater leverage.

The U.S. pork industry is now a $30-billion-a-year business, and the 12 largest hog producers own 1.2 million sows, or about 20 percent of all the sows in the country. And their share of the market is growing. A report issued earlier this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said the trend presents a "foreboding picture for the typical family farm concept of Midwest hog production. The standards set by the largest hog producers now suggest that some 50 producers could account for all the hogs needed in the United States." The report, written by Gary Benjamin, a vice president at the Fed in Chicago, says, "As incredible as it may seem, the number of U.S. farms with hogs shrinks by one-third every five years."

Perception or Reality?

Pork industry supporters insist that their opponents are either misinformed or have a cultural bias against hogs. John Sweeten, an agricultural engineer at Texas A&M University, asks "Have you ever watched a western movie? How many favorable images have people seen about the pork industry? There's just not any. There's lots of cattle barons but how many hog barons are there?"

Sweeten, who has worked around the swine industry for years, has a point. The pig farmer has often been viewed unfavorably in Western movies and in American culture generally. But cultural perceptions alone cannot explain the groundswell of opposition the American pork industry is currently facing. Authorities at the county, state and federal level have taken action to limit the influx and impact of the giant pig farms. For instance:

(ogonek) With their vote last month, Seward County became the 18th Kansas county to prohibit the entry of large hog farms. According to figures from the Kansas Rural Center, a Whiting, Kansas-based non-profit that promotes family farming, 20 counties in the state have now held referenda on the hog industry and only two have voted to allow more hog farms. Of all the votes cast in the 20 referenda, 72 percent have been against the pork industry.

(ogonek) On September 10, officials in Holt County, Nebraska, approved a moratorium on construction or expansion of confined animal feeding facilities for two years or until zoning regulations can be enacted.

(ogonek) On September 8, officials in Hopkins County, Kentucky, asked Vall, Inc., not to build a $7 million hog farm in their county. "I'm opposed to the large hog factories," explains Danny Woodward, the county judge-executive, in Hopkins County. "And that's what they are, factories. The industry hasn't been honest and upfront with any location they've located in. And they have created havoc with the environment, the water and the air. I just don't want an operation like that in our county."

(ogonek) On August 8, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Smithfield Foods, a giant pork producer and processor, $12.8 million for several thousand violations of the Clean Water Act. The fines -- the highest ever levied for a water pollution case -- were made because the company's Virginia slaughterhouse operation repeatedly dumped untreated waste into rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

(ogonek) On July 25, Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton issued a 90-day moratorium on new permits for hog farms while the state strengthens its regulations on manure disposal. A few days before that, the state's attorney general ruled that counties in the state could regulate large-scale hog farms.

(ogonek) In April, the Richland County, Wisconsin Board of Supervisors voted by a margin of 18 to 2 to require large animal feedlot facilities to obtain special permits before they can locate in their county. The vote occurred after citizens learned that a Belgian company was planning to put 7,800 pigs in the county. Several other Wisconsin counties are planning to follow Richland's lead.

Nancy Thompson of the Center for Rural Affairs, says the votes reflect a widely held sentiment. "Any time you go to the people and ask them what they want, in every instance they say they don't want corporate farming," says Thompson. "It says people understand better than a lot of policy makers what kind of impacts corporate farming has on the community, independent producers and the quality of life in the area."

Jim Shantz, a spokesman for North Carolina-based Murphy Family Farms, which is currently expanding its operations into Texas and Oklahoma, downplays the significance of the Seward County vote. Shantz says the pork industry is working to reduce odor and the potential for water contamination and he said the Seward County referendum will not have a long-term impact. "It's an isolated case," said Shantz. "There are other communities where corporate farming is being welcomed."

But the Seward County vote was a sharp blow to Seaboard Farms, which had been planning to produce up to 400,000 hogs per year in the county. Mark Campbell, a vice president of development for the Shawnee Mission, Kansas-based company, refused to comment directly on the referendum. "Seaboard is concerned about the environment and how it interacts with communities," said Campbell. "We are cognizant of our responsibilities, and we want to be sure that clean water and clean air can be balanced in the equation of animal production and economic development."

For Seward County resident Kathy Bloom, the vote against Seaboard was a "huge victory." Bloom, the vice president of Citizens for a Healthy Environment, the Seward County citizens group that led the fight against the hog farms, said her county already has about 80,000 hogs and voters didn't want to add 400,000 more. "A pig excretes two to five times the waste of a human," said Bloom, who along with her husband Fred, grows wheat, corn and milo. "That translates into a city of two million with no sewage treatment. That was appalling to us. Who would want that in their backyard?"

Robert Bryce is a writer in Austin, Texas.

Iowa runs scared
from pork regulation

The top hog-producing state in the nation -- Iowa -- made sure that neighbors can't complain. A couple years ago the Iowa Legislature passed a law banning nuisance suits against livestock operations, as long as they are meeting all other laws.

The Iowa Supreme Court, meanwhile, has held that livestock operations are considered agricultural in nature and not industrial. Therefore, they are not subject to local county zoning.

In other words, neighbors can't do a thing about stench factories except gag.

The Iowa Legislature is understandably protective of its backbone industry -- pork. North Carolina and Missouri are chasing The Tall Corn State for its top position in pork by offering lax environmental regulations. Producers, and thus meatpackers, are leaving Iowa. IBP, starved for hogs as independents are driven from the business, plans to start raising its own or contracting with other corporate producers.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in response, offered legislation setting minimum federal environmental standards for livestock waste. His hope is to create a national discussion of this increasingly threatening environmental problem, and to create a level playing field among states.

-- Art Cullen

Pork-related sites on the Internet

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center operates an extensive web site with an entire section devoted to rural affairs and the influx of large hog farms. Go to: www.inmotionmagazine.com/rural.html

Successful Farming magazine publishes an annual survey of the biggest pork producers in America. The magazine's survey is considered the best gauge of the growth of the mega-pork producers. Go to:


The National Pork Producers Council offers their views on issues ranging from odor control to manure management. Contains a wealth of production statistics. Go to: www.nppc.org

The Raleigh News & Observer won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the pork industry in North Carolina. This site contains the paper's five-part series on the pork industry as well as numerous follow-up stories that have run since the Pulitzer winning stories ran in February 1995. Go to: www4.nando.net/sproject/hogs/hoghome.html

The Iowa Hog Confinement Home Page is run by a group of Iowans fighting the pork industry. Contains numerous links to other sites and news of the various fights in Iowa at the county level including news of the financial responsibility ordinance passed in Humboldt County, Iowa. Go to: www.salamander.com/~manyhogs/homepage.html

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