The Meat You Eat
How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America's Food Supply
By Ken Midkiff
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Ken Midkiff
All rights reserved.
"WE ONCE RAISED HOGS," SAYS LYNN McKINLEY OF her and her husband, Jerry, "but we had to quit; there just wasn't any place to market them locally. We had to haul them up to Ottumwa in Iowa. That's about eighty miles away, and it took a lot of money to get them there.
"Then the price of hogs went way down," she adds, "to eight cents a pound. That's eight dollars per hundredweight. When you figure that a market-weight hog is about two hundred and fifty pounds, we were getting somewhere around twenty dollars for a full-grown pig. We had at least twice that much in the hog. We couldn't make any money. We couldn't eat all of our hogs, so we just hauled them all, including a couple of sows, up to Ottumwa, and we didn't get any more."
Lynn and Jerry have lived on the farm ever since they can remember. It has been in Jerry's family for several generations. Jerry is not accustomed to speaking to anyone other than Lynn, and he doesn't say much. But whenever the subject of the industrial-hog operation next to their farm comes up, he hitches up his overalls, pulls his straw hat down over his forehead to cover up the red-hot anger, and it comes out: "They've just ruined this area. Everything around here just stinks. We never had air-conditioning before. When it got hot, we'd open the windows and turn on a fan. But now if you open the windows and the air is coming from that [he points to the silvery buildings across his pasture], you wake up gagging and choking. So, we got a window unit and we keep it turned on.
"I didn't know how bad it was, I guess you kind of get used to it, until one Sunday we were going into town to church and we stopped to give a ride to this widow lady that lives down the road a ways. She started to get in our car, and she stopped. 'What's that smell?' she said, and she told us our car smelled like hog crap. We can't get it out. The smell is in the upholstery. I guess we smell bad, too."
Lynn, red hair tucked in under a scarf, and short and petite in contrast to Jerry's stocky build, is not nearly as shy and reticent as Jerry. Standing in the building on their farm where their sows and boars were once housed, she sniffs the air and listens for a moment to the sounds of hogs in their concentration building across the field. "Listen to that! That's the sound of hogs in pain. They bite one another something awful. They all end up with big gashes and scars on their backs. Of course, the company doesn't mind this because it doesn't lower the price of meat at all. But, it hurts me to have to listen to that squealing all day. That is not the sound of a hungry hog — I know that sound. That's the sound of a hurting hog, and it hurts me.
"The company just doesn't care. They don't care if their stink is forcing us to shut up our house. They don't care if they're polluting the creeks and our wells. They don't care if their hogs are getting bitten. All they care about is how much money they make.
"Well, we raised hogs for money, too. We have needs for things that we can't grow or make. But we can't raise hogs anymore and make anything. They've seen to that. They won't take our hogs, not unless we'd sign a contract with them and do things their way. We'll never do that. I've seen their way, and it is not our way. Their way of making money smells almost as bad as their hog operations."
And smell bad they do. The lawyer retained by Premium Standard Farms, Inc., the biggest hog company in Missouri, attends the regular meetings of the state's Clean Water Commission and Air Conservation Commission. He shows up in his pin-striped suit, and, though he doesn't know it, he reeks. Everyone knows when he enters the room because the stench of hog manure precedes him. He thinks people are joking when they tell him this and assumes that they are making pointed remarks about his clients.
In the mideighties, Rolf and Ilsa Christen, both originally Swiss, purchased a large farm north of Green City, Missouri, and moved into the comfortable farmhouse. They are both well educated. Rolf, a trained and certified engineer, says, "We sought out a place where we could farm and live in peace. We thought we had found it — rolling green hills, fertile soil, good neighbors. And we lived in peace for a long time. Then, in 1994, Premium Standard Farms moved in and set up a huge eighty-thousand-hog operation just west of my farm. Every reason that we had come here was ruined.
"I have fought them and failed all the way. I was in opposition to their construction. I tried to get the state and the federal government to put some restrictions on the operations to protect our air and water. We, along with about thirty other families, sued them. For a while, the EPA and the Justice Department were on our side. Then Bush came in and there was a settlement agreement that did nothing. They sold us out.
"I never heard one word about my accent or where I had come from until we got into this battle. Now, my citizenship and my patriotism are called into question. All of a sudden my wife and I are 'foreigners.' Well, I've been here for more than twice as long as Premium Standard Farms. So, who is the 'foreigner'? This big company has deprived me of clean air, clean water, peace, and solitude. My life has been turned upside down."
Rolf and Ilsa have talked of selling their farm and moving on but have rejected this notion: "We're sticking it out. They can't keep doing what they have been doing. They can't sustain it. You hear a lot about 'sustainable farming.' Well, what they're doing is the opposite of that. So, we'll wait and we'll keep trying to get the state and federal agencies to do something, and we'll probably sue the company again. Sooner or later, they'll give us our lives back."
The Texas Panhandle is flat. County and township roads don't curve; they run straight and true. In fact, it is possible to drive all the way across the Panhandle from New Mexico to Oklahoma without losing the "east" indicator on the dashboard compass. While the land is relatively featureless, there are a few canyons created by what passes for "rivers," and it has long been occupied by ranchers engaged in raising cattle and grains who are fiercely protective of this flatland. Their ownership is not measured in acres but in "sections," a square mile or 640 acres. In this part of the world, if you don't own at least two sections you don't count for much.
There's something new going on in the Texas Panhandle, an area that has changed little in the past century. Seaboard, Inc., has its eyes and money on locating a 16,500-hog-per-day slaughterhouse just south of Dumas. (Texans call it DumbAss, but non-Texans should refrain.) To slaughter this many hogs, this facility will require at least 4 million gallons of water every day. Slaughterhouses need a lot of water — about 250 gallons per animal — to wash the carcasses and to keep the equipment sanitized. Dumas has made commitments to supply water for the slaughterhouse, but it is far from certain whether water can be pumped in this quantity from the Ogallala Aquifer; it is certain, however, that this use will compete with area irrigation farmers.
If the slaughterhouse consumes 4 million gallons of water per day, it will also discharge that amount. While the company will have a wastewater treatment plant, these are notoriously vulnerable to upsets, as they are termed, occasions when the bacteriological and mechanical actions that clean the wastewater stop working because of malfunction or "operator error." When this happens, thousands, perhaps millions, of gallons of raw sewage, blood, grease, and other unsavory and harmful contaminants get released. The creek into which the slaughterhouse wastes will flow runs into Lake Meredith, the drinking-water supply lake for the city of Amarillo; the lake is also a major recreation area for water-skiers, swimmers, boaters, and anglers.
Water quantity and quality are critical issues for Panhandle area farmers and ranchers. But they are preoccupied with a more immediate problem. Seaboard is methodically purchasing hundreds of tracts of lands throughout the region between the Oklahoma state line and the Canadian River. Their plan is to construct concentrated animal feeding operations on each of these 40-to-160-acre tracts. These operations will "feed the mill," that is, provide the 16,500 hogs per day to the slaughterhouse near Dumas.
A brief word about the lands Seaboard is acquiring. Two modes of agriculture dominate the Texas Panhandle: irrigated farming and beef feedlots. Both require a great deal of water. However, the water required to furnish the feedlots' steers is not at stake. Irrigated farming is another issue. The center-pivot irrigation systems — those gigantic circles you see from a plane on a clear day — in the Panhandle are a half mile long, and the circle they cover is one mile in diameter. As I've noted, the tracts are divided into 640-acre square grids (one mile by one mile). The result is a circle in a square, and the irrigated circle does not extend into the corners of the square. Therefore, in each irrigated square mile there are four forty unirrigated corner acres. That's one forty-acre tract in each of the four corners, since the center of the center pivot is located exactly in the middle of each section. These unirrigated acres are of no value to the irrigation farmer — and they can be bought real cheap. Each of these forty-acre tracts does possess something quite valuable: water rights. Wells can be drilled. Texas water laws do establish some limits (although such laws are notoriously arcane, complicated, confusing, and even contradictory) on drilling into the Ogallala Aquifer, but no metering of pumps is required.
An individual hog requires about thirty-five gallons per day for drinking and to flush its wastes. A facility containing 20,000 hogs would therefore require about seven hundred thousand gallons per day. Removing this amount from the Ogallala Aquifer would create what hydrologists call a cone of depression, an inverted pyramid from which groundwater is temporarily depleted. The wells that furnish water for the irrigation pumps would most likely be sucking sand. That has local farmers and ranchers deeply concerned. Their livelihood is being threatened to ensure a profit for Seaboard.
Running a few numbers on the calculator quickly reveals that once the Seaboard slaughterhouse is up and running at full tilt, it will be able to handle 6 million hogs per year. These hogs will be raised throughout the Panhandle on those 40-to-160-acre tracts. The operations will inevitably be upwind of longtime farmers and ranchers. Ranchers Clarence and Marilyn Yanke recently abandoned their plans to restore and move into a large abandoned house on one of their ranches when they learned that Seaboard had obtained a permit to establish a large hog operation just to the west of them, upwind. Local farmers and ranchers have formed an organization called the Panhandle Alliance, which has opposed each of the permits Seaboard has sought for its operations, but the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ, formerly TNRCC, tagged "train wreck" by some), the state agency that awards such permits, has turned a deaf ear to assertions of detrimental impact on air, water, and quality of life. One petition circulated by "ACCORD" in opposition to a non-Seaboard 10,000-sow/farrowing operation near Pampa, about sixty miles east of Dumas, was signed by 1,500 local residents yet completely ignored by the TCEQ.
Similar stories are told by rural residents from coast to coast. From Smithfield's hog operations in the watershed of North Carolina's Neuse River to a gigantic hog facility near San Diego in Ramona, California, money talks and local residents' concerns get ignored. It is unusual to the point of being an anomaly for a permit to be denied, no matter how damaging the operation will prove to local waterways, how fouled the air becomes, or how many area residents object to it. What Big Pig wants, Big Pig gets.
Aiders and Abettors
How did things get this way? Part of the blame must go to governmental agencies, including federal- and state-funded public universities, which have aided and abetted Big Pig.
I've mentioned several times the role agriculture departments at state universities have played in supporting the "Get Big or Get Out" philosophy. Introduced by Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, the Land-Grant College Act of 1862 provided funding for institutions of higher learning. Each state in the union was to receive 30,000 acres of federal land for each congressional representative from that state; the land was to be sold and the proceeds used to provide an endowment for "at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts." These public institutions were given three missions by Congress:
1. To provide a practical, affordable college-level education in agriculture and other subjects being missed by private universities.
2. To conduct research on topics related to agriculture.
3. To disseminate research findings to the public in a form that nonscientists could understand and put to use.
These are very broad charges, but one mandate is clear: The land-grant universities were to provide a public benefit.
Colleges of agriculture at these land-grant universities established departments to assist in developing new agriculture techniques. By the end of World War II, nearly all of these departments became focused on agribusiness industries and began to view, and still view, farming as a business. Most managed to conceal this bias; others didn't bother. At institutions as diverse as North Carolina State, the University of Florida, Texas Agriculture and Mining University, and the University of Missouri the colleges formed overtly commercial agriculture departments. And faculties within these departments make no pretense about their goals. They are involved in research and development for industrial agribusiness. Faculty at the University of Missouri, for example, claim to have developed the system of commercial hog production and lagoon-and-spray field manure handling (a claim disputed by many others, including Wendell Murphy, the North Carolina state senator, who became known as "Boss Hog"). Currently, however, these dedicated scientists are helping the NRCS devise standards for determining how much hog crap can be applied to farmlands and still not exceed the "agronomic rate," which they view as the point at which manure is applied so thickly that it runs off. These scientists, or biostitutes, as I've said they're sometimes called, get grants from agribusiness corporations and the USDA for such services, of course. Since their services are for hire, these scientists act as shills for industrial hog operations at local, state, and federal hearings. They have submitted expert testimony that hog shit doesn't stink and wastes don't pollute water and touted the economic efficiency of such commercial operations. Many of these departments received grants from the very entities whose operations they have touted.
Land-grant colleges and universities don't assist small or diversified farms; there's no money in it. When the students in one large seminar class on animal science at an agricultural college were asked whether they had read works by Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, or Gene Logsdon (all advocates of small, diversified farms), they answered with blank stares. They had mastered the lexicon of agribusiness industry but had given no attention either to the needs of the land or to anyone engaged in sustainable farming. This comes as no surprise. Even a cursory glance at the course offerings and descriptions at any college of agriculture will reveal that they are almost totally focused on agribusiness and the agribusiness industry. Large agribusiness companies recruit eager agriculture graduates. Most "aggies" end up working for Monsanto, Tyson, or Novartis; very few end up tilling the soil. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Meat You Eat by Ken Midkiff. Copyright © 2004 Ken Midkiff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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