An abundance of feed and a lack of swine decimating diseases potentially make Wisconsin, particularly southwestern Wisconsin, prime quarters for hog expansion. "We are on the brink of this large explosion," says Debra Schwarze, a Richland Center attorney and activist . She notes that expansion of factory hog farms has encountered stiff opposition in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois and Wisconsin may be a political soft spot.
Schwarze was at the center of a recent tussle in Richland County where Seghers Hybrid, a Belgium-based hog company, proposed development last spring of a 7800 head pig farm on land next to Schwarzeís rural home. Concerned about manure handling, odor, and the companyís non-community roots, Schwarze and her neighbors organized against the facility. They raised enough of a stink that the Richland County board passed an ordinance requiring farms with more than 1000 animal units to obtain a conditional use permit. Seghers scuttled their plan but has kept working on a different version.
The man leading the pork farming revolution is North Carolinaís Wendell Murphy, the nationís largest hog farmer and owner of 260,000 sows. His adoption of the latest swine technology and perfection of the birth-to-slaughter-to-packaging technique landed the billionaire on the cover of Fortune Magazineís September profile of the richest 400 Americans.
During the ten years he served in North Carolinaís General Assembly, Murphyís Law came to mean a slew of legislation and regulations favorable to hog industry expansion. Since 1982, annual hog production in the Tar Heel state swelled by more than 400% as the "other white meat" grew into a $2 billion a year business. At the same time, however, North Carolinaís number of hog farmers shrunk from 25,000 to 7,000.
The impact on the environment has been equally dramatic. Nitrogen run-off from pig manure is the major contributor to the fouling of the Nuese River and portions of the North Carolina coastline. A strange skin eating bacteria, fueled by the nitrogen, has attacked fish (one outbreak in 1995 killed 14 million fish), sickened swimmers, and closed oyster beds.
Itís these types of concerns that are raising citizen resistance to the new wave of hog farming. In Kansas, 18 counties have passed referendums opposing factory hog farms. Wayne County, in Illinois, has imposed an emergency ban on more large-scale hog farms and the state legislature is considering a state-wide moratorium. Kentuckyís Attorney General has issued an opinion declaring that "industrial-scale hog operations are not reasonable, prudent and accepted farming methods." Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri are also scenes of intense citizen opposition.
Even North Carolinaís legislators, despite the stateís new found pork prosperity are, are having second thoughts. By a 95-23 vote, their General Assembly passed a bill in October that would place a moratorium on new or expanded hog farms.
Large scale hog farms arenít necessarily new to Wisconsin, theyíre just not common. The Pig Improvement Company (PIC), the major player in southwestern Wisconsin, has been raising hogs in the state since the 1970ís. PIC works with seven facilities in the Sauk County area, each housing 3500-7000 pigs. A British company active in 30 countries and 19 states, PIC sees its role as the premier provider of genetically refined pigs.
"We want to sell the best breeding stock to our customers," says Dennis Henks, the Spring Green production manager for PICís Wisconsin operations. PIC doesnít own any of the seven Wisconsin farms it works with although it does manage some of the units. The 650 sows, or mother pigs, on each farm typically produce up to 21 piglets a year, through artificial insemination, from two litters. Henks identifies large litters with fast growing pigs and lean carcasses as hallmarks of PICís approach.
"When we sell pigs to our customers," Henks says, "we put in bio-security measures to minimize diseases into the herd." Each farm has buildings segregated for breeding sows, nursing piglets, and for "finishing" or growing the hogs. Confinement to the buildings is essential. Even bird droppings are noted by Henks as a potential threat from contact with the outdoors. The four or five farm workers at each site follow a shower-in, shower-out protocol, wearing clothing that never leaves the farm. PIC also tries to keep its farms removed from each other to prevent disease outbreaks.
Size of their operation and the size and uniformity of the hogs offers a big economic advantage to PIC when it comes to marketing. PICís regular semi loads of similar hogs are appreciated by slaughter houses who desire quantity and conformity, for identified consumer tastes. Henks mentions his brother still grows pigs as an independent operator back on his familyís Missouri farmstead. "Twenty years ago people would say his hogs are huge, but by todayís standards, they are small," he observes.
The extra bacon that large scale operations wring from their herds is especially important given that pork prices for farmers have basically remained flat for the past quarter century. But with greater scale comes the problems associated with handling vast quantities of pig manure.
"Itís the downside" says Schwarze. Spreading manure and its smell has always been an acceptable part of country life, she explains, but, she asks, "where does all the shit go from factory size operations and how does it effect the rural fabric of a community?"
A hog excretes nearly 3 gallons of waste a day, or 2.5 times as much as a human. A farm with thousands of hogs on it will easily produce more waste every day than many small communities in Wisconsin that must have waste treatment facilities. The DNR requires livestock facilities with more than 1000 animal units (it takes about 2.5 hogs to make one animal unit by the DNRís formula) to meet certain state regulations, such as an approved nutrient management plan for the land spreading of animal wastes.
So much waste is generated by the large scale hog farms that itís impossible to spread it all in once place. Usually, the operator will contract with nearby landowners to spread pig manure once or twice a year on their land.
As for storage of the waste, practices vary widely. One common method is an earthen pit or lagoon - what the DNRís Mike Vollrath calls a "pond in the ground." Vollrath is a fieldworker specializing in wastewater and animal waste in the DNRís Madison District office.
"Iím not a fan of these earthen manure pits in any shape or form," he says. The shallowness of the soil and the slope of the land, especially in southwestern Wisconsin, make the practice unsound, he believes. Vollrath recalls one instance where millions of gallons of pig manure burst through its earthen dam in a Richland County valley under the pressure of an intense storm.
At PICís main farm, their storage lagoons were leaking into the surrounding soil, according to 1994 DNR monitoring data which recorded nitrate levels 5 to 7 times greater than drinking water standards permitted by state regulations. Last summer the lagoons were upgraded and a synthetic liner was added. Further monitoring tests have yet to be performed
"Our rules really arenít that restrictive," says Vollrath. But even trying to enforce the existing rules can be difficult, especially with personnel shortages in the agency. "We are understaffed, thereís no two ways about it," Vollrath observes.
Seghersí new hog plan for Richland County flies under the stateís regulatory radar. In the last six weeks they began building a 915 animal unit hog farm in a different township in the county. The fact that the scaled back size will evade both state and county ordinances has Vollrath worried. He knows that whatever teeth the stateís regulations have has sprung a leak and he says other large operators around Wisconsin are also building below the 1000 unit threshold to avoid the glare of public scrutiny that may accompany their proposals. "We are losing control of our environmental protections," warns Vollrath.
Schwarze believes townships still possess an additional weapon - they can, if they choose, regulate manure handling themselves. Odor and size of the facility are factors she recommends they consider.
Yet existing rules provided little protection for a couple of rural residents around one 7000 hog PIC farm near Muscoda. For them, their experience has been a nightmare. Between 1976 and 1986, Nancy Fischer wrote a series of blistering letters to the DNR complaining about the foul smell and spraying of manure on the Crouch hog farm upwind from her house. Writes Fischer in one letter, "This evening we are virtually locked indoors by fumes that couldnít be worse if we were dangled by a rope and dipped in and out of swine cess pool! The fumes have EVEN PENETRATED OUR WALLS in our closed-up house and nobody has a right to do this to us."
In one DNR memo, an agency air management engineer responding to Fischerís complaints describes the odor as not "overpowering" but adds, "on the other hand, I doubt any one of us would want to live there ourselves." Fischer no longer wants to publicly talk about the matter, having grown weary of the battle and lack of help from the DNR. She explains that she now prefers to talk directly with the Crouch farmís manager about problems and that the problems with the stench arenít as dramatic as they once were.
Paul Kadousek, a small dairy farmer who lives on the other side of the Crouch farm, says the hog operation has been "a living hell" for him. Kadousek developed an allergic reaction to the pig manure odors and their accompanying mist. He says samples taken from the waste lagoon confirmed the allergy that has given him a severe case of asthma and damaged his respiratory tract. "You canít breath," Kadousek says, noting he has been twice hospitalized with pneumonia and spent six days in intensive care. "There are times I canít even walk up the stairs from the basement. I expect Iíll die from it."
Kadousek, who milks 38 cows, says the hay and dairy dust from his farm donít aggravate his asthma. He acknowledges he once explored a damage lawsuit but it went no where. (A DNR lawyer who later reviewed the matter thought a better attorney could have been successful.) Now at age 62 and after having spent 40 years on the farm where he raised his family, Kadousek is reluctant to move.
While the Crouch farm operators quit spraying the manure on their farm fields a decade ago, Kadousek charges they landspread the waste on frozen ground in the valley. "The DNR doesnít keep that close of an eye on them," he says.
Two decades ago, Wisconsinís pork farmers raised 3.5 million hogs a year. Today, that number has dwindled to 1.5 million annually. Vern Leibbrandt, a UW-Madison swine specialist thinks that if the number drops much lower, the business could collapse upon itself as the necessary support structure (vetís, feed and equipment suppliers, packing plants, etc.) abandons the state.
One way, Leibbrandt suggests, that smaller farmers can survive is to band together into networks that share resources. "We have one pretty successful network is this state," he says. Seventeen farmers are collectively raising piglets then distributing them out to their individual operations.
And thatís what Lynn Harrison, the president of the Wisconsin Pork Producers and an Elk Mound hog farmer, is ready to do. His family has been raising hogs since 1914. Whatís recently kept him in business is a niche market for his black skinned hogs which command a premium price in Japan. Harrison is pondering joining a sow co-op with 18 partners in the next couple of months. "Weíre making the changes," Harrison says, "because weíre just not competitive anymore." The co-op will employ a state of the art facility aimed at maximizing litter production, something he canít do now on his farm without making big changes and investing a lot of money.
Leibbrandt also prepared a draft plan for the Wisconsin Pork Producers that detailed a 10 year path towards increasing state hog production to 5 million head a year. John Stauber, a Madison activist monitoring the public relations industry, obtained the Leibbrandt memo through an open records search of the UWís files.
Stauberís interest in the factory farm issue developed when an Iowa-based organization of family farmers contacted him last February. The group, which was working against Iowaís factory hog farms, had discovered that they were under surveillance by operatives working for a public relations firm hired by the National Pork Producers Council.
When their spying was exposed last February, the Council justified their activities by saying they had to monitor "animal rights extremists" like Stauber. Fate knocked again on Stauberís door when the proposed Richland County Seghers pig farm was targeted next to land he and his wife are building a home on.
Stauber thinks increased hog production in Wisconsin means factory scale farms. "The experience in other states has shown little or no room for family farmers, thatís why family farmers have been opposing the big polluting industrial hog farms."
Leibbrandt says his plan for growing the industry is dead, something he describes "as a mystery." But Stauber believes elements of it are at work and itís why he has sued the UW for additional records they have refused to provide him with.
Dodge County Extension Agent Dan Short is the possessor of those records. Short is on a one year leave of absence from the Extension to work for the Wisconsin Pork Producers. Short says he is helping the "pork industry look at business options." For the business to survive in Wisconsin, "growth will probably have to occur," he believes. Short has been traveling the state, meeting with hog farmers, and sharing ideas and business plans with them.
Itís this activity that is of intense concern to Stauber. He thinks Short is carrying business contracts from national concerns interested in expanding their factory farm operations into Wisconsin and he wants to know who they are and where they want to locate.
Asked about potential contracts, Short says "we have a responsibility to provide all the options. I have at my disposal some examples."
Stauber has already spent more than $5000 on his suit against the UW. "For me," explains Stauber, "this is really important. Itís worth every penny I have to pay." He expects to find further details on the cozy relationship the UW has developed with big business.
Paul Kadousek has felt the seamy side of factory farming. As a
farmer, he's troubled by opposing others seeking to make a living off the
land. But heís attending hearings when he can to share his experiences
with others. "I donít want anybody else to go through what Iíve gone
through. Iíll do," he says," what I can to stop them."