By Harold Henderson
Imagine summer. Imagine Wrigley Field. Imagine that you’re in the stands behind home plate, looking out at the home-run fences 400 feet away in center field. But between you and the fences there are no base paths and no boys of summer. There’s no sound either, because the entire playing area is 15 feet deep in an opaque purplish liquid with a sharp, unforgettable smell. It’s a mixture of water, billions of busy bacteria, and the accumulating excrement of 2,400 hogs.
Edith Galloway doesn’t need to imagine all this. She can see it from her bathroom window, five hours southwest of the Loop in rural Hancock County. Of course she doesn’t see Wrigley Field. She sees earthen berms surrounding a square hog-waste “lagoon” roughly the size of the friendly confines’ playing area. A group of seven farmers, incorporated as the Little Timber limited liability company, last month finished building it (along with buildings to house the hogs) on what had been unused farmland a mile northeast of her family’s farmhouse. State EPA officials report that people two and three miles from such lagoons have complained of the odor.
“One of the investors goes to our church,” Galloway says. “It’s not easy. I say the Lord’s Prayer and mean it every time I say it. But I do stumble over the forgiveness part. That is really hard right now. I don’t hate these people. I really don’t.”
Lagoons this size are the latest thing in hog farming–the “standard of the day” for storing and treating hog manure, as state agriculture officials put it. They’re popping up all over the midwestern countryside like mushrooms after a spring rain. And it’s the policy of the state of Illinois that you can put one almost anywhere. As long as your lagoon is at least a quarter mile from the nearest nonfarm home and a half mile from any populated area or state park, no place is out of bounds. A floodplain? No problem. An earthquake zone? No problem. On sand with a water table so high that groundwater bubbles up inside the lagoon before the first hog pee trickles in? No problem. Over limestone sinkholes or a shaky old coal mine? No problem. In a rural township up in arms over the smell and alleged environmental and economic hazards? No problem. “We can’t do anything,” says Galloway. “We can’t petition the government. There is nothing in the law, no zoning that we can keep our neighborhood the way we want it.”
Could you legally float one in a lake if it had an approved watertight liner? Evidently so. Confronted with this question at a hearing in Jacksonville on January 14, state Pollution Control Board chairman Claire Manning could only sputter, “There has to be some sort of presumption in terms of wisdom on the part of industry.”
Something here smells a lot worse than hog manure, according to Galloway and her friends and allies across the midwest. They smell new neighbors with less reason than ever to be good neighbors. They smell a dead river after a big lagoon break. They smell a state regulatory process in which they have no say (a process that can be expected to gain them new converts every day until it’s changed). They smell corporate farms shutting small farmers out of the pig business, as has already happened with chickens. They smell a once-vibrant rural Illinois becoming a depopulated Appalachia. And they smell the impending death of the family farm.
Illinois hog farmers–they call themselves “pork producers” nowadays–aren’t building these big lagoons for fun. They’re building them because they like raising hogs and want to keep on doing so for a living. (The ones who don’t have already left the business. There are now three times as many public schoolteachers in Chicago as there are hog farmers in the entire state.) More to the point, they build large hog-confinement buildings and lagoons because people no longer care for huge slabs of fat on their meat.
The connection is simple once you think about it. As recently as 40 years ago hogs were outdoor critters. At most they had little open-sided A-frame shelters where the sows “farrowed,” or had their piglets. So hogs had to carry a lot of fat to survive midwest winters. Consumers welcomed the resulting pork fat, whether it came attached to their bacon or was collected in the ubiquitous lard pail. Jill Appell is president of the Illinois Pork Producers Association, with a 600-sow “farrow-to-finish” operation in Knox County; her grandmother was one of those who liked the fat. “Until she died last year at the age of 96, she still believed that you couldn’t make a good piecrust unless you made it with lard.”
As lean meat came into vogue, the hogs had to get leaner. And so they began to move inside. Of course it wasn’t only for the hogs’ good. Raising hogs in the open can pollute (when they’re allowed to wallow in creeks, for instance). And it’s brutally hard work. “You have to make sure they have plenty of straw in winter, plenty of water in summer,” says Appell. “To check on the litters or to give them shots, you have to catch them. Then it’s you who has to wallow through the mud and snow.” The Appells still keep their breeding stock outside. “In the summer we spend lots of time going around making mud holes for them”–a necessity, since hogs can’t sweat to cool off. “People may think it’s cruel to keep them inside in pens, but I think you can keep a better eye on their health inside a building.” A recent North Carolina study found that 68 percent of hogs kept on dirt lots harbored salmonella bacteria, which can spread disease in the herd or contaminate carcasses at slaughter. Only 17 percent of those kept indoors on slotted floors did.
Raising hogs in confinement is nothing new, but doing it on a scale of thousands instead of dozens is. The Appells put up their first hog-confinement building (the second one in Knox County) in 1965. It held only a couple hundred animals, as she recalls, and disposing of the waste was no big deal.
But once hogs come inside, their owner faces a whole new set of problems and opportunities. With no mud to wallow in, the hogs must be cooled with fans and drippers. Their manure has to go somewhere, either dropping into a simple pit dug beneath the building or being piped into an outdoor lagoon where it can be stored and biodegraded by anaerobic bacteria. (Manure management requires an impressive amount of specialized knowledge: pregnant sows, for instance, are known to excrete only 27 pounds per day per thousand pounds body weight, compared to 63 pounds for growing pigs.) Hogs can also be kept in individual pens and dealt with according to size, sex, and gestational status. They can be bred selectively or by artificial insemination, enabling farmers to raise leaner and more uniform hogs, which meat packers prefer. The animals can even be separated by age, with sows and piglets in one building, the older “weaner” and “feeder” pigs in others. That way, when one group of feeders goes to slaughter, you can clean and disinfect the entire building before the next group of weaned piglets comes in, a procedure known as “all-in-all-out” (AIAO). Just try doing that outdoors.
While mud is free, each of these improvements–whether it’s semen from the best boars or wire mesh that allows the pigs’ droppings to fall through but not their feet–costs something. Small farmers can save themselves some money by joining buying clubs to purchase items in bulk, but that’s harder to do when you need a certified professional engineer to oversee the construction of a lagoon. On a per-hog basis, bigger operations are often cheaper. Joe Brokaw, who farms west of Galesburg, has six boars in his 60-sow operation. “With AI we could have eight to ten times as many sows with the same number of boars”–which would allow the cost of keeping the boars to be spread over the larger number of hogs sold.
As the saying goes, farmers are “price takers, not price makers.” They compete by lowering their costs, not by raising the price they sell their animals for. Efficiency is key to survival. According to Gary Benjamin, economic adviser and vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, writing in a recent issue of Economic Perspectives, hog prices have averaged $43 per hundredweight in recent years. The most efficient third of hog farmers can grow a hundredweight for $10 to $12 less than the least efficient. That’s more than enough to make the difference between staying in the hog business and knocking on factory doors.
Up to a point, larger farms seem to produce more efficiently. Last summer, for instance, the USDA reported that producers with more than 2,000 head of hogs raised an average of 8.8 piglets per litter, while producers with less than 100 head got only 7.5. But not all studies find dramatic economies of scale. Size may help most in a purely financial way: larger farms are definitely better able to weather the bad times when hogs sell for less than they cost to grow.
But bigger hog farms require bigger lagoons. A giant lagoon is to a giant indoor hog city what the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is to Chicago–a not always pleasant way to treat and dispose of everyone’s wastes without poisoning them in the process. Aged hog manure drawn from lagoons can be a valuable fertilizer when properly applied to fields, but lagoons nevertheless remain the least savory part of the pork industry’s environmental image.
Most researchers at the University of Illinois and other midwestern land-grant universities are trying to address this issue through some kind of technical fix for smelly lagoons, not through investigating alternative methods of producing pork. Right now they’re looking frantically for the right feed additive, or lagoon additive, or lagoon cover. One simple improvement has been to reduce the “loading rate,” the ratio of manure to water in the lagoon. U. of I. ag engineer Ted Funk says that in the last 15 years recommended loading rates for central Illinois have dropped from four and a half pounds a day of “volatile solids” per 1,000 cubic feet of lagoon water to close to three pounds–all in an effort to cut odors. (Of course lowering the loading rate costs money. It means either a larger lagoon or fewer hogs.)
This industrial logic–leaner pork means indoor hogs, and indoor hogs mean bigger hog farms–isn’t airtight. Henry County, just south of Rock Island, remains largely outdoor-hog country. And sustainable-farming advocates contend that farmers can make money with as few as 50 sows if they keep expenses low. But economic pressure from the seemingly more efficient big farms has persuaded most pork producers up to now. Appell says, “If you want to be a pork producer, not grow a lot of grain, and not hold an off-farm job, then yes, you can’t make a living on just a couple hundred sows.” She adds that if you were starting from scratch, borrowing money for land and buildings, “some economists say you would need 2,400 sows just to break even.” Though of course existing farms with paid-off mortgages can manage with fewer.
One way small hog farms are trying to survive is by banding together. Little Timber–whose lagoon Edith Galloway has watched being built from her window since last fall–is a corporation with five Hancock County farmer-investors and two from other Illinois counties. Veterinarian William Hollis of Carthage Veterinary Service oversees the operation, one of three that CVS runs. “This way, you can hire a farm manager and a breeding manager and a farrowing manager,” he says. Such specialists are hard to find–and hard to afford if you have only 300 sows, as opposed to the 2,400 Little Timber plans on. (The investors will raise the weaned piglets on their own farms.)
“The people we hire have several years’ experience and have chosen this path,” says Hollis. “They understand the biology, they’ve worked on farms and want to keep constantly learning. But either they don’t have the capital [to go into farming themselves] or they’re just not interested in the financial and management side of it. They may just want to be involved in production and get a regular paycheck.” (Workers’ pay at Premium Standard Farms, a corporate hog operation in northern Missouri, starts at $13,000 a year and averages $20,000.) Hollis says it’s common for such workers to save up and go into farming after a few years, either going in with another farmer or a relative, or contracting to raise livestock for a corporation. “Employees can become owners,” he says.
Once in operation, giant indoor hog cities may produce pork efficiently. But the mere threat of one being built can produce something else even faster: resistance.
Roger Phillips grows grain and cattle on 300 acres in hilly Adams County, as far west as you can go and still be in Illinois. He says, “Early fall last year I saw this well-digging outfit” go onto a piece of property half a mile from one of his two farms. “I got to asking around, and nobody knew what it was for. [The owner] had a few hogs up there, but they have city water. Why would he be digging a well? So I came out and asked the guy’s son. He said it was for Land O’Lakes [the 20th largest pork producer in the U.S., with 19,000 sows overall, according to Successful Farming magazine]. They wanted to put up a building there for 2,400 sows.
“Everybody says there’s nothing you can do. But I proposed to get a meeting together with the people in Beverly Township. I was going to have it in the town hall, which would hold maybe 50 people. I called several people myself and had each of them call several more. After I’d talked to about ten people I knew the town hall wouldn’t hold it. We ended up [with more than 200 people] at the high school in Liberty, on two weeks’ notice. We didn’t have anything on radio or TV or newspapers. It was all just word of mouth.” Following a blizzard of farmers’ calls to Governor Edgar and corporate offices, a pointed call from the Adams County state’s attorney, and the condemnation of the Adams County Farm Bureau, Land O’Lakes decided it couldn’t find enough water and pulled out of the county.
On the other side of the state, Kim Cambrin of Rankin told the Pollution Control Board on February 7, “Three weeks ago I sat in my living room doing a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle and had absolutely no idea what a large hog-confinement facility was all about….I first found out about this from a news article, not even one of my neighbors. And the only reason he found out about it was he saw a backhoe going down his road, which was very unusual for that time of year. So then we started asking questions. Well, this is how we found out about [a 3,200-sow operation owned by] Heartland Pork Enterprises coming into our neighborhood.” According to the October 1996 issue of Successful Farming, Heartland Pork ranks 13th among U.S. pork producers, with 36,400 sows, having more than doubled its size since October 1995. It’s far from the biggest–that would be Murphy Family Farms of North Carolina, which claims a whopping 260,300 sows.
How often have surprises like this been sprung on rural Illinoisans in the last three years? Nobody knows. Even Chirag Mehta, agriculture program coordinator for the sustainable-farming advocacy group Illinois Stewardship Alliance, has lost track. In ISA’s office–a tiny brick former bank in Rochester–I saw a map of the state studded with blue pins, but Mehta waved me away from it, saying it was long out of date. The 23-year-old ISA has about 400 members and an “active” list of more than 1,000–farmers, rural residents, small-town dwellers, concerned urbanites. It works with the two-year-old statewide group Illinois Citizens for Responsible Practices (ICRP) plus at least eight organized local opposition groups that lobby lawmakers, petition the state EPA and agriculture department, and monitor the latest corporate incursions. That number doesn’t include smaller ad-hoc resistance groups like the one Roger Phillips started.
Chet Boruff, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, finds this pattern of opposition disturbing. “Many livestock producers have been considered guilty until proven innocent,” he told a livestock waste-management conference in Urbana in March. “That’s not fair.” It might seem strange too. Guilty of what? And why would rural people–whose communities have been hemorrhaging money and people for decades–react so strongly against the prospect of new jobs or, in some cases, a whole new business in the area?
It’s easy to get them to answer this question. The problem is getting them to stop. The concerns they list are environmental, social, and finally economic.
The operations accused of these many sins come in three ownership styles:
(1) The corporate farm, in which a big business like Heartland Pork buys land, puts up buildings and lagoons, and hires management and labor to raise the hogs.
(2) The contractor farm, in which a corporation contracts with local farmers to raise pigs for it. Typically, but not always, the farmer owns the land and buildings, and the corporation owns the hogs. The farmer’s mortgages usually run for a longer term than his contract with the company, but the company guarantees him a price on satisfactorily raised hogs. This is how most poultry is now raised, and it’s the kind of operation Murphy Family Farms has been trying to establish in the Peoria-Galesburg area–the kind of operation vigorously opposed by FARM (Families Against Rural Messes).
(3) The co-op farm, in which several farmers incorporate themselves, buy land, put up buildings and lagoons, and hire management and labor to run them–as Little Timber is doing in Hancock County. Little Timber president William Gray told the Pollution Control Board in January that this minicorporate arrangement “allows us to surround ourselves with management and technological expertise that we could not attain or afford on an individual basis. We see ourselves coming full circle, if you will, from dependence on each other 50 years ago to total independence and back to our need to group back to attain our goals and meet the needs of our family today.”
Opponents usually rail against the megacorporations that are infiltrating Illinois, but the co-op farm is “pretty common now,” according to the Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s Chirag Mehta. “I think it’s going to become more common. If good environmental regulations are in place”–they aren’t yet, in his opinion–“I suspect corporations won’t be able to keep 100,000 hogs on one site. But there are a lot of 1,200-sow farrowing units, each with six or seven investors who then finish the hogs on their own ground.”
Would a proliferation of 1,200-sow co-ops be a reassuring improvement? Neither Mehta nor Edith Galloway thinks so. Co-op investors may live only two townships away instead of two states away, but they still farm in what Mehta calls the “corporate style”: “They build their farrowing units in someone else’s neighborhood, on a small amount of ground, with outside management and hired labor. Am I supposed to trust that?”
Trust is key. “Family farmers are supposed to be better stewards of the land,” says Mehta. Adams County farmer Roger Phillips is more blunt: “When you take the family out of the family farm, all you’ve got left is greed.” In other words, if you own land, live on it, and farm it badly, your neighbors may be annoyed, but you will probably suffer worse than they will from the pollution and erosion you cause. And it’s not easy for you to pick up and leave the neighborhood if things go wrong. Those seem like powerful incentives to do the right thing, but Jeff Gabriel of the National Pork Producers Council argues just the opposite. He claims that larger farms “will tend to be more responsible. They’re under great public scrutiny, and they have the money available to do things right.”
Reasonable theories–but which one is true? Nobody knows. Last year the NPPC released a study of environmental violations on hog farms in 15 states, most of them in the midwest. Between January 1992 and June 1994 pork producers were fined a total of about 100 times. (The study didn’t deal with the much larger number of reported problems that are resolved before reaching the enforcement stage, nor with problems the states might uncover if they were able to do more than simply respond to complaints.) The farms fined ranged in size from 15 sows to 12,000. NPPC touted the results as showing that size didn’t matter–that large and small producers were equally likely to be penalized. But the study proves no such thing, since it doesn’t give a complete list of citations. Small hog farms are much more numerous than large ones, so the large ones could well be getting fined proportionately more often.
A.G. Taylor has been Illinois EPA’s agricultural advisor since 1980, back when outdoor feedlots, not confinement operations, were the main environmental problem. He thinks it’s too early to tell whether size in and of itself is an environmental hazard. “A large spill from a small operation can be as devastating as a small spill from a large one. If you have 12 open feedlots and small lagoons in a watershed, their aggregate impact may be subtle–but it is there. The big operations we’ve dealt with so far have hired consulting engineers and put a lot of forethought and money into management–which is different from the small operations.” Bottom line? “The big ones have not been around long enough to pass judgment.”
Little Timber has been around long enough–since last September–for Edith Galloway to pass judgment, and it’s not a kind one. The contractors excavating the lagoon hit sand and groundwater in November. An EPA inspector visited November 21, prompted by neighbors’ complaints. He saw several feet of water in the southwestern corner of the lagoon: “It was apparent that groundwater had surfaced at this point.” He found that the lagoon’s south berm was being built with “an extensive accumulation of very sandy material,” and in any case it wasn’t being properly compacted. (The lagoon was to have a liner of plastic or trucked-in clay, but these liners need solid berms to support them.) The North Carolina engineering firm consulting on the project seemed surprised to learn about this later that same week, but promised no further construction until the berms were built properly. Did it require neighbors’ repeated complaints to make sure that Little Timber’s professional experts built the lagoon correctly? If the state of Illinois had required site approval for an operation of this size, would Little Timber have even chosen that land in the first place?
When a new environmental threat appears, the one thing you can be sure of is that it will cause a lot of meetings. In December 1994 western Illinois state legislators Laura Donahue and Richard Myers convened a hog-confinement task force in response to a controversy over a big hog farm proposed for McDonough County. Local fights continued to erupt around the state, and in July 1995 Governor Edgar appointed his own Livestock Industry Task Force.
But the uproar over possible environmental problems wasn’t the only occasion for all this conferring. A corporatized hog industry enjoys the same advantage that Sears has over your local hardware store–it can shop around for favorable political treatment in a way that small farmers can’t.
Geographically speaking, Illinois is a fine place to raise hogs. It has a central location, good transportation, easy access to feed grains, and farmland that can be profitably fertilized with hog manure. But those assets may no longer be enough. If big farmers and big meat packers prefer some other state’s regulations, then Illinois could lose a billion-dollar industry. Citing the work of Purdue University agricultural economist Mike Boehlje, the magazine Hogs Today bluntly warned in November that “integrated farms [i.e., corporations that own their own feed milling and packing plants] are large enough to provide their own support and locate their systems where they will be allowed to operate.”
So the new law that was passed in response to the governor’s task-force report had two objectives, not one: to prevent environmental harm and to keep corporate pork producers from leaving Illinois. After much legislative pulling and hauling, Governor Edgar signed the Illinois Livestock Management Facilities Act (LMFA) into law May 21, 1996. It strengthens state controls on livestock waste that have existed since 1978 by requiring the very largest operations to be set back a little farther from neighbors than before, specifying lagoon-design standards, requiring manure-management plans of larger operations, and establishing a certified-livestock-manager training program to encourage the use of the best practices. (Modeled on the existing certification program for pesticide applicators, this program is one few other states have, and one the Illinois Agriculture Department has great hopes for.)
The producer groups would have preferred no law at all; now that there is one they want to keep it unchanged for at least a few years. Opponents of giant hog confinements say that it’s at best “a good first step” and needs immediate improvement. Among the defects the Illinois Stewardship Alliance and the Illinois Citizens for Responsible Practices list are:
“This is not a law,” fumes Edith Galloway. “It’s a permission slip.” ISA and ICRP hope to bring an improved bill out of this spring’s legislative session and have planned a statehouse rally for May 2.
Last year’s legislative episode did eventually provide one bleak form of entertainment: it put state environmental officials in an exquisitely awkward public position. In January and February of this year the Pollution Control Board held hearings around the state on implementing the new law. The Farm Bureau, along with beef- and pork-producer groups, hired Michigan Avenue law firm Ross & Hardies to coordinate testimony and questioning. Naturally, attorney James Harrington took the chance to ask representatives of the state Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Natural Resources, and Department of Public Health if the new law adequately protected the state’s environment. If they said no, they’d be accusing their ultimate boss, Governor Edgar, of endangering the environment. If they said yes, they’d be agreeing that (among other things) no place in Illinois is environmentally inappropriate for a well-lined hog-waste lagoon. No meant political death; an unequivocal yes arguably meant professional death. But there’s an amazing number of ways to say yes equivocally.
The true beliefs of the agencies are easier to deduce from what their professional employees say outside hearing rooms. A State Water Survey official, responding to a query about the Land O’Lakes facility near Beardstown in the sandy Illinois River valley, wrote in a letter, “From a ground-water contamination standpoint, this area is not ideally suited for the operation of large, potentially contaminating activities such as a hog confinement operation might pose.” Of course, such opinions lack the force of law.
The statewide coalitions on this issue aren’t just trying to put out fires–they’re trying to prevent them from breaking out in the future. The ultimate goal of the Illinois Coalition for Responsible Practices is to make sure that large and corporate farms act like good citizens and good neighbors. If a good law were passed and well enforced, ICRP’s job might be done. But the Illinois Stewardship Alliance also wants to promote “sustainable agriculture” in general. “Even if the environmental laws we’re advocating were passed and enforced,” says Chirag Mehta, “corporations will still come in and build 3,600-hog operations. Environmental regulations never create industries that are sustainable. Landfill regulations don’t reduce waste, though they do make sure it’s put in appropriate places. The next steps [after passing an improved LMFA] are keeping agricultural markets open and fair and promoting sustainable-agriculture research. The universities in Missouri and Iowa are far ahead of Illinois in giving farmers options to raise hogs and make money without becoming huge or going corporate.”
Illinois has had no counterpart, for instance, to the intensely practical conference “Swine System Options for Iowa,” which drew 230 people (more than half of them farmers) to Ames on February 21, 1996. One producer said afterward, “After today I am not discouraged about raising hogs. This meeting showed me that options exist besides the large total-confinement systems.”
Some sustainable-farming advocates blame the large operations (the bad guys) for somehow driving “family farms” (the good guys) out of business. Ideally they would hold large corporate-style farms to a very high environmental standard on lagoons and manure management, but impose few rules on small family farmers.
A bill that would accomplish this goal is almost impossible to write–let alone to pass into law–because nobody can agree on where to draw the line between the good (small, family) and the bad (big, corporate). ISA and ICRP suggest drawing it at 1,250 hogs that weigh 55 pounds or more, but they acknowledge that any such number is more a discussion starter than a definite conclusion. The Champaign-based newsletter “Farm Aid Update” (October 3), with typical gross exaggeration, says, “A family farm typically raises a couple of hundred hogs, while a typical hog factory raises 100,000 or more hogs at a single site.”
“Everyone has a different definition,” replies Jill Appell of the Illinois Pork Producers. “I don’t think anyone has come up with a good one.” The National Pork Producers Council recently reaffirmed its support for all pork producers regardless of size.
University of Iowa anthropologist Kendall Thu thinks any numerical definition would be simplistic and unfair. He defines “large-scale” swine operations as those that separate ownership, management, and labor and have neither owners, managers, nor workers living on or near the operation and have family labor playing only a small part and have a “nonfamily” corporate organization and use “capital-intensive” production technology. But this definition would cover only the biggest of the big: if Little Timber’s farrowing manager were to live on-site, for instance, it wouldn’t qualify as “large-scale” under Thu’s definition.
Why is it so hard to separate the corporate sheep from the family-farm goats? It’s not simply that there’s a gray area. A great many family farmers have had to move into the gray area just to survive in a corporate world–because the decisive battle for the family farm was fought and lost four generations ago.
In the summer of 1896 the Democratic Party met in Chicago, repudiated its sitting president (the Clintonesque Grover Cleveland), and nominated instead William Jennings Bryan, a silver-tongued 36-year-old former congressman from Nebraska. That fall Bryan barnstormed the country on a fusion Populist-Democratic ticket, advocating free coinage of silver (the farmers’ panacea of the day) and a long list of progressive reforms. “You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard,” he told the Chicago convention. “We reply that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Bryan’s Republican opponent, William McKinley, kept his head down, conducted a “front porch campaign,” and let his canny campaign manager shake down eastern financiers frightened by Bryan. McKinley won.
That victory did more than decide which party got to appoint local postmasters from 1897 to 1901. It also signaled “the emergence of the Republicans as the party with a permanent national majority,” according to historian Ray Ginger. Corporate America breathed a century-long sigh of relief. No prominent national politician was going to seriously question the corporate organization of business or the coming corporate reorganization of agriculture. “To the question: Can farmers and wage earners and reformers unite to win control of the Federal government?, the answer was no.”
The answer is still no. Farmers were roughly 30 million out of 76 million Americans then and are about 2 million out of 250 million now. Of course family farms still exist, but they’re no longer the isolated, unspecialized, nearly self-sufficient farms that Bryan knew. They’ve been on the run for more than a century. Operating in an environment where big business sets the tone and the rules, many farmers have specialized in one or two crops, incorporated themselves, or expended in an effort to pass the farm on to future generations.
When Bryan ran for president Illinois had more than a quarter million farms; today there are 77,000, and on average they’re almost three times larger. Their share of the economy has shrunk as well. The value of farm produce has risen of course, but the rest of the economy has grown much faster. In 1950 farm sales made up 10 percent of the gross domestic product; in 1994 they were less than 3 percent. This isn’t just because government policies have neglected the small and helped the large. Farming is plain hard work. “If people had not invested in the hog industry,” says University of Missouri agricultural economist Dennis DiPietre, “you would have seen the same exact trend in number of hog farms. You can trace this back to the GI Bill, in my opinion. As soon as people had the choice between coming back to 50 sows on dirt and a high-labor operation, and seeking a career with companies not on the farm, people have been choosing” to go elsewhere. The family farm is a nice place to visit, but few Americans actually want to work there.
Neither supporters nor opponents of big hog farms can afford to pay too much attention to any of this history. Both sides need to believe that the family farm of Bryan’s day still prevails. Anything that can pass as a family farm has a built-in positive spin that any politician would give a long-term lease on the Lincoln bedroom for. “To curse a farm is like desecrating the flag,” writes Garry Wills in his new book John Wayne’s America. The family farm is one of postmodern America’s few remaining sacred icons, combining dreams of personal independence, wholesome work, and arm’s-length civility.
And so pork producers use the family-farm icon to protect corporate-owned hog-waste lagoons the size of major-league baseball fields. Factories and landfills, which arguably would pose comparable environmental hazards if sited in vulnerable places, must prove their sites acceptable to state or local regulators, but hog-waste lagoons may locate in any rural area of the state.
Opponents of big hog farms need the family-farm icon even more. It offers them statewide and national attention. If they weren’t defending the family farm, they’d get no more notice than any other local group of people complaining that a new road or a new apartment building interferes with their lifestyle. After all, agriculture is hardly alone in becoming industrialized. Small-scale, family-run car dealerships are passing from the scene too, as are ski resorts whose proprietors own just one. But just try getting Willie Nelson to do a benefit concert for Car Aid.
For those who don’t live directly in the line of fire, what are the stakes in the ongoing midwestern hog-confinement war? Are those of us who eat meat likely to suffer if corporations take over most of the hog business? Well, it’s happened before, as Roger Phillips recalls: “In the 50s and 60s they took the chickens and turkeys away from the family farmers. You used to find family farmers with 500-1,000 head of chickens. I was born in ’55. I can just remember my grandfather had two buildings with chickens. A place in Quincy called Davis Cleaver would process them. Tyson and those places have just taken over the poultry business. No farmers in this area have any. And now they’re doing the same thing with hogs.”
There isn’t much doubt that this changeover in poultry was bad for farmers. The few who stayed in the business had to become contractors, and as the industry has consolidated, their contracts have gotten worse. (Chirag Mehta has one word for their position nowadays: “serfdom.”) But will consumers suffer? So far the corporations have screwed the small minority (farmers) and served the huge majority (consumers). Corporate control hasn’t brought $10-a-pound broilers.
Maybe the deepest question here goes to how we work, not how we consume. “Premium Standard Farms wants every pig to be a carbon copy of every other pig,” William Heffernan told the Adams County Farm Bureau in March. “It’s the ultimate in industrial agriculture–specialize, mechanize, control all aspects of production. But folks, there are some questions about that as we look ahead. Most of the economic and social gains of industrialization have already been realized. The farmer gets about ten cents of every dollar spent on food–and gets to keep only one cent of that. That suggests to me that we’ve gone about as far down that road as we can.”
If increasing productivity per person just puts family farmers off the land and kills the small towns they once shopped in, what good is it? “A better measure of industry health is not the total volume of hogs produced,” anthropologist Kendall Thu told Iowa legislators in February, “but the number of farmers producing those hogs. Hogs are not as important as the people producing them.”
Is this cutting-edge social thought–or a confused, sentimental attempt to preserve antiquated production techniques? I don’t know, but it does sound good compared to the fatalistic advice the editor of Hogs Today offered his farmer readers in the magazine’s November issue. He described a virtual-reality game called Cosmic Pinball, in which “you become the pinball, bouncing off flippers and bumpers. It’s scary and exciting–not unlike today’s pork industry. As commodity producers in the 20th century, we were like the teenager hunched over a machine, tapping the flippers. In the 21st century, as players in the pork chain, we become a part of the game. Hang on for the ride!”
Like the prairie fires of old, grassroots movements come and go. Sometimes they just make everyone dive for cover needlessly. Sometimes they change the landscape. The opposition to giant hog confinements is genuine and includes a lot of farmers. Ironically, the lax Illinois regulatory process opponents complain about may be their best recruiting tool.
Just the thought of a baseball-park-size lake of manure suddenly appearing within sniffing distance of home makes people nervous. The actual arrival of one–and finding out they have no recourse–makes them furious. As long as state government leaves every rural home, every small town, and every state park open to such a surprise, the opposition can only grow–in sophistication as well as in number. People who start out being upset about bad smells begin to question the agricultural establishment’s get-big-or-get-out orthodoxy. They’re already learning to lobby, challenging the producer groups’ claims to represent the rural grass roots.
And the longer the opposition grows, the more likely it becomes that farmers will seek out ways to keep farming without industrializing themselves. Is it possible that William Jennings Bryan might have the last laugh after all?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photos of pigs.