Murphy's Laws: 1. Hogs Rule 2. You Pay

By Schildgen, Bob | Sierra, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Murphy's Laws: 1. Hogs Rule 2. You Pay


Schildgen, Bob, Sierra


Imagine that several thousand people abruptly moved in a half-mile from your home and, instead of hooking up to the sewer system, simply flushed their excrement into an open pool. You probably wouldn't want to put up with it - and neither do the increasing numbers of rural Americans who now find themselves living next to huge colonies of hogs excreting at twice the human rate. Tides of manure and reeking waves of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide mark the replacement of the old-fashioned hog farm by high-tech "confinement facilities" where pigs are jammed onto floors that allow only six or seven square feet per animal and automatically fed, watered, and medicated until they reach a market weight of 250 pounds.

"You always hear them use the term `state of the art,' Tar Heel, North Carolina, resident Mary Beth Edge told the Raleigh News & Observer. "Well, let me tell you, state of the art stinks."

To save labor in these bacon factories, the pigs' manure is flushed with sprays of water through slatted floors and then into multimillion-gallon "lagoons," whence it leaches into the groundwater or, if sprayed on fields in too great a volume, runs off and pollutes local streams. Sometimes these rudimentary plumbing systems break down, with disastrous consequences. Last summer in northern Missouri, a burst pipe in a high-tech hog-production facility created a gusher that poured a 20,000-gallon stinking flood into Mussel Fork Creek, destroying aquatic life for ten miles downstream. This was a modest trickle compared with other spills last year, including a 25-million-gallon tide that rolled across fields and into North Carolina's New River, killing fish for almost 20 miles downstream. Hog waste has also been implicated in the massive pollution of the state's Neuse River, which became so dangerous it was quarantined for a 35-mile stretch last summer.

Like its liquefied manure, the hog industry flows downhill, to wherever it finds the fewest regulations and the lowest wages. "One reason for the explosive growth in North Carolina is that there's been no control," says Bill Holman, Sierra Club lobbyist there. His state's hog production has almost tripled in this decade, from 5 million in 1990 to 14 million by 1995. The biggest player in North Carolina is Murphy Family Farms, whose downhome name belies its $200 million in hog sales last year and over $150,000 in campaign donations to North Carolina legislators in the past five years. The company's founder, Wendell Murphy, was a state legislator for ten years. By the time he left office in 1992, he had voted for seven laws that release the hog industry from various taxes and regulations. North Carolinians sardonically refer to the two he sponsored as "Murphy's Laws." One of these actually prevents counties from subjecting hog facilities to local zoning rules on the dubious grounds that these factories are "bona fide farms," and thus exempt.

Bona fide farmers are taking as much of a beating as the environment. Smaller, cleaner hog farms throughout the hog-producing states are being rapidly pushed out of business by the big operations. From 1988 through 1992 alone, 80,000 U.S. farmers stopped raising hogs. "We lost 25 percent of our hog producers in Iowa in the last two years alone, even though the total number of hogs produced hasn't dropped,' says Barbara Grabner of PrairieFire Rural Action. "State leaders care more about the number of hogs than people." In February, angry Iowans, fearing a weakening of their laws and creation of loopholes for big producers, protested by presenting Governor Terry Branstad with a mock check for $42,000, a symbol of the campaign contributions he received from owners of big hog operations. But in March money spoke to the state senate, which voted down a bill to give counties authority to set building standards for hog facilities. A less stringent zoning bill did pass the state senate, but faces a more pro-industry state house.

This situation has resulted in new coalitions of farmers and environmentalists. …

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