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PROFILE: Downwind in Mississippi

The struggle to keep a community from going to the hogs

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

Everett Kennard is hard to read. A fifth-generation Mississippi farmer, he lives on Kennard Road with his family, just up the hill from his folks, Boswell and Margaret. He has thick, strong arms; a hefty championship football ring; and a reddish-brown crewcut, prickly as cut grass. He keeps his arms folded in front of him when he talks and has a smile nowhere in evidence.

So it comes as a shock, as I sit one sweltering morning in his lawn swing, when he chokes up describing the bouts of asthma his son Keyes has been through since a massive hog facility opened half a mile from their home in 1997. "The hardest thing I've ever had to endure as a parent," says Kennard, "is watching my son trying to get air, and he can't." Kennard adds that though his 19-year-old has always had asthma, it got much worse after Bill Cook Swine set up shop next door. The 52-year-old Kennard is now battling Cook, a childhood friend who lives 13 miles from his concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. They have taken their feud all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which ruled that Cook needed an air-quality permit from the state's Department of Environmental Quality, in addition to the water-quality permit he already had, in order to operate. The DEQ has not yet enforced the 1998 decision, and the facility continues to run full bore. "I'm sorry to say it, but I'm selfish," says Kennard. "This wasn't a 'let's clean up the environment' issue for us. It was a health issue."

The Kennards aren't alone in their fight against factory farming, which took hold in 1996 when Prestage Farms—a major North Carolina-based pork producer and broker—began contracting with Mississippi farmers to raise hogs. Residents who live near the state's 63 CAFOs (60 of which contract with Prestage Farms) have complained of the unholy stench as well as possible health and environmental risks.

Their concerns appear to be well founded. A study by the Iowa Center for Agricultural Safety and Health discovered that the air surrounding CAFOs contains concentrated amounts of more than 160 compounds, including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, organic acids, phenols, and alcohols. According to research by the Mississippi Department of Health, acute exposure to high levels of hydrogen sulfide can cause loss of consciousness and even death. The report adds that symptoms associated with high levels of ammonia exposure include "severe irritation of the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin." The Iowa study found high rates of respiratory problems among the people who live near facilities with 4,000 hogs or more. The Kennards live next to 7,000 hogs.

In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the head hog sums up the pig's lot: "Let us face it," he says, trying to raise an animal army against his inhumane warders, "our lives are miserable, laborious, and short." This revolutionary pig's 12-year life was hog heaven compared to that of his factory-farmed brethren today: From the moment a piglet is born until the 250-plus-pound hog is sent off to slaughter spans all of six months. For the entire time, the animal is confined in an 8-by-2.5-foot metal pen with slatted concrete flooring. It is fed constantly with antibiotic-laced meal that speeds growth and fights off disease. Its waste, up to ten pounds per day, drops through the slats where it collects before being periodically pumped into open-air cesspools.

The facility near the Kennards has eight fully enclosed metal buildings resembling airplane hangars, which hold around 880 hogs each. Massive fans, six to an enclosure, blow air out and directly across the six-acre cesspool. The animals here produce around 35 tons of excrement a day, which roils in its own gases in the cesspool before some of it is sprayed, untreated, onto nearby hay fields owned by Cook. The day I drive by the highly mechanized facility the gates are locked and the place is still, inanimate. There is movement, however, in the spray field, where a sprinkler is shooting liquefied hog effluent 20 feet into the air. According to several Oktibbeha County residents present, the smell of this day's issue is relatively minor, since the wind is northwesterly and hits us at our backs. Even so, the stink makes me gag.

The Kennards live northwest of Cook's hog barns, cesspool, and hay fields. A barbed-wire fence separates their land. Marking the boundary between the cesspool and the hay fields is Browning Creek, which flows past the Kennards and on through Cook's property before it feeds into the 43,000-acre Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge just across a dirt road from Bill Cook Swine. Environmentalists have expressed concern that the earthen bank of the cesspool will not withstand the 25-year flood the National Weather Service anticipates for the Noxubee area. To date, there have been no catastrophes; but then again, since the facility was built there hasn't been a quarter-century flood.

In the spring, crabapple, wild plum, and dogwood bloom in the refuge. In May, alligators rouse in Noxubee's swamps and lakes. In August, when I visit, cattle egrets nest in massive cypress tree canopies. Every evening in the fall, close to 30,000 egrets fly in from surrounding fields at sunset to bed down for the night. They come in feathery waves, their white silhouettes flickering on the water. When the egrets pass close, and they often do, you can hear their wings beat.

Browning Creek is an intermittent stream. When it's flowing, Noxubee's wildlife biologist David Richardson tests the creek for contaminants. To date, Richardson has found no detectable levels of ammonia, nitrates, or phosphates in the water-pollution one might expect from hog farms. He adds that Bill Cook's water-quality permit restricts him to fewer than ten applications of hog effluent per field per year. "Bill's a real good farmer," says Richardson. "He knows that putting much more on his field would burn his crops."

Everett Kennard was a good farmer, too. Until 1995, he had 140 dairy cows on his 690 acres in Oktibbeha County. Though he'd been struggling with the family operation since the mid-1980s, when farmers were once again hammered by hard economic times, he hung in until milk prices plummeted six years ago. To save his land, he took a full-time job as a bus driver for Mississippi State University in Starkville.

In one of his first long-distance runs for the university, Kennard took a busload of county agricultural agents to Clinton, North Carolina, to investigate whether large-scale hog farming might be a boon to Mississippi, the nation's second-poorest state. "I knew a bunch of those guys," says Kennard. "I had mingled with them in 4H growing up." The men were given the grand tour of the hog operations owned and operated by Prestage Farms. To Kennard, who was still trying to figure out a way to work on his land, Prestage's CAFOs looked pretty good. "I was real interested," he says, shaking his head at the irony. There didn't seem to be a downside: The farmer builds the facilities to Prestage's specifications; Prestage owns the hogs and contracts with the farmer to raise them for slaughter. (This "sperm to cellophane" control of the pork product protects Prestage, unlike the small independent farmer, from the vagaries of the commodities market. In 1999, for example, pork prices fell to a 60-year low while the price of a pork chop remained the same.) Prestage also provides the feed and veterinary care. "These facilities seemed like a farmer's heaven," remembers Kennard. "He goes out in the morning and looks at the hogs. If they're okay he goes about his other business and comes back in the evening and rakes in a bunch of money."

Kennard liked the idea so much he explored getting a loan for the barns. He also called the Prestage Farms representative who had given them the tour and asked for names and numbers of people who were both pro and con large-scale hog farming. To his credit, the representative complied.

"I called and talked to those folks," Kennard says. "Someone there sent us a video about the facilities; it had a kid sitting on his porch in an oxygen mask, talking about his asthma problems. That really concerned me."

Kennard decided against putting hog barns on his property, but the next year Bill Cook contracted with Prestage Farms and applied for and received a CAFO water-quality permit. "My dad and I tried to go see Bill," says Kennard. "He just dodged us," adds the elder Kennard. "We were about five minutes behind him everywhere we went." The Kennard families then tried sending Cook a registered letter that included affidavits from doctors who said that the facility could seriously affect Everett's son's asthma. They got a notice from the post office that the letter had been refused. "That's when the fight started," says Everett Kennard.

When Kennard won the air-quality lawsuit at the state supreme court level and Cook was still allowed to continue operating, he attacked on another front. In 1998, Kennard secured the pro bono services of a high-powered lawyer and slapped Cook with a nuisance lawsuit. Five hundred other Mississippi residents have signed on as plaintiffs in a separate $75 million class-action nuisance suit against the state's hog CAFOs. Kennard also joined a grassroots campaign against a state senate bill that would have allowed existing factory hog farms to operate without air-quality permits. (The bill was introduced in response to-and to override-Kennard's successful lawsuit against Cook.) State legislators passed the air-quality exemption bill but gave counties and towns three months to set their own rules and regulations. When 52 counties quickly passed ordinances restricting CAFOs, Prestage Farms' lawyers sued the six in which they had facilities, arguing that the corporation was being hurt financially by the rules. Only one county, Monroe, held fast, fought, and beat the Prestage Farms lawsuit. All the rest, fearing the potential high costs of litigation, quietly erased the still-drying protective ordinances from their books. A moratorium was then placed on the building of any new hog facilities until January 2000. The moratorium was extended after a Department of Health study found that though the negative health effects from CAFOs are as yet unproven, there was enough troubling data to err on the side of caution.

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