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The Planet

STATE NEWS: A Profusion of Swine: Fertilizing a New Alliance

by Paula Carrell, Sierra Club State Program Director, and B.J. Bergman

Warning: If the thought of Yankee Stadium-size quantities of hog dung makes you queasy, read no further. And don't even think about venturing to northern Missouri, which could soon be producing enough of the stuff to make an agribusiness executive happier than a pig in -- well, really, really happy.

Decidedly less happy at the prospect are family farmers, who think the burgeoning "technopork" industry in Missouri, North Carolina, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia and elsewhere -- let's get this out of the way -- stinks. As the Wall Street Journal has noted, high-tech, "factory-like operations" are "bringing together technology and finance" to build facilities "capable of producing hundreds of thousands of hogs a year."

For some, apparently, the smell of animal dung is the smell of money -- a reaction not shared by rural residents in eastern North Carolina who, reports Club lobbyist Bill Holman, "cannot sit on their own porches, cook out or open their windows in summer since the factory hog farms moved in."

As a result, in addition to technology and finance, the new mega-hog factories are also bringing together small farmers and Sierra Club state activists, who are working to minimize the environmental and economic damage from a potential influx of millions of pigs, not to mention an outflow of manure approaching mythical proportions.

"Pork is where poultry was in the 1970s," says a member of Arkansas' Tyson Food clan. For environmentalists, that's precisely the problem: Chicken droppings have been a major contributor to pollution of Arkansas' White River. And chickens are relative pikers in the dung department. A pig population of 850,000 -- already approved for three counties in Missouri -- excretes as much waste as 2 million humans. Even if it smelled like roses, that's still a massive ecosystem overload.

To deal with this volume of waste, huge sewage lagoons are proposed to be constructed with the sludge then spread onto area fields. Such lagoons release large amounts of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases, causing respiratory problems for hog farm employees as well as air quality problems for area residents.

Pollutants such a phosphorus and nitrogen also percolate into groundwater and can run off into surface waters from both the lagoons and the fields. The problems arise from the concentrated quantities of these pollutants from the millions of gallons of waste generated by each of these porcine Woodstocks.

Beyond the stench and the water pollution, however, family farmers have an economic interest in keeping their regions from becoming a corporate cesspool for huge agribusiness operators. The Raleigh, N.C., News and Observer recently reported that the state's growing factory-farm pork production has flooded markets and driven down prices paid to farmers nationwide.

"Should prices continue to decline, experts predict, the family farms that once raised most of the country's hogs will gradually disappear altogether, giving way to the large corporate operations," the paper concluded. This threat is causing some farmers to view the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Sierra Club in a brand new light. In Iowa this spring, a family-farm group complained to the governor that "environmental controls are lacking" for large-scale livestock operations.

In Missouri, reports state lobbyist Ken Midkiff, agribusiness firms Continental Grain, Cargill and Premium Standards Farms all have plans for high-tech hog hotels they like to call "intensive swine operations." Before heading to a Clean Water Commission meeting in Trenton, Mo., Ken toured the area, talking to local farmers and driving through neighborhoods dotted with yard signs that read "Continental, we don't want your crap."

Ken also made a fascinating discovery: The Topeka shiner, a fish that's been recommended for inclusion on the federal endangered species list, makes its home in the area's creeks. Ken, asked by area farmers to be the final speaker at the water meeting, discussed -- in addition to the poor environmental record of agribusiness, the importance of clean water and the need for the strictest possible water-quality standards -- the fact that, thanks to the Topeka shiner, area creeks could soon be designated as critical-habitat waters.

After the meeting, recounts Ken, "I got thumped on the back" by local farmers wanting to know how soon that "little Topeka fish" would be listed. "Can you believe it? Farmers wanting to get a species in their area placed on the endangered species list."

Legislative and regulatory action relating to the advent of "intensive swine operations" proceeds apace in many of the states noted.

For more information and to get involved

contact your state-level Sierra Club lobbyist.

That's the stuff victories are made of.

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