Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This Little Piggy Went to a CAFO

Mmm, bacon...

A few weeks back, while in Iowa, I visited a hog confinement. Everyone in Iowa refers to the state as "the belly of the beast" and I did not want to be spared from any part of that beast. (Although my nose began having second thoughts about going to a CAFO the night before I went.)

So, how was it? Well, here's a picture of the hog confinement from the road:

There are 4000 hogs in this building. They are 2 weeks from slaughter, and they put on 2 pounds a day. That means in the next 14 days, each pig will gain 28 lbs, and the entire facility will hold an extra 112,000 lbs of pig. Things are gonna be tight in there before it's all over.

How bad's the smell? Well, as we approached, I didn't smell much. While there were about 5 months of pig shit under the facility (I assume), it was 30F outside, so the smell didn't carry so much. The entire facility was all closed up. There are curtains on the sides of the facility and they were closed to keep the pigs warm. When we got close and they opened the curtains, then I smelled it.

See the curtains on the side? Those can be raised or lowered.

The facility also had a ventilation system. If it didn't, the pigs would have died from the fumes. A farmer on our tour told a story about a friend whose power went out once. By the time they got the power back on, 1000 of his pigs had died because they couldn't survive breathing the fumes of their own shit.

The pigs still had SOME room to move around. This particular farmer raises 32,000 pigs per year, in a few batches. He first gets piglets from a farrowing operation when they are 3 weeks old. This facility would have held 8000 of those until they reached 75 lbs apiece (which means there would be 600,000 lbs of pig in there). Then the farmer sells half the pigs to another farmer who will raise them to slaughterweight. At that point, the remaining pigs have some room to run around - an amount of room that decreases daily as the pigs gain a collective 8000 lbs each day. It was like a crowded subway car, except imagine if that car was located on top of the latrines at Girl Scout camp. That's what life in a hog confinement is like.

There is still some extra space in there (although not much).

For contrast, here are George Naylor's pigs:

You see what they are doing? Rooting. It's a natural pig behavior. Pigs LOVE to play, and the love to root around in the soil. The pigs in the confinement all looked very playful, but with the wooden floor under them, they were unable to root. One farmer I asked told me that she had a 1930's era instruction manual on raising hogs that said that they don't get the proper nutrients if they can't root. I suppose that we've taken care of that problem with the confined hogs' "modern" diet of 25% soy, 75% corn, and some vitamins.

The cruelty to the animals is of course what I expected to be blown away by when I saw the hog confinement, and it really wasn't. People in a subway car don't look too miserable, really, although we'd be much less happy or healthy there if we spent our entire lives in those crowded conditions. But just looking at the pigs wasn't the overwhelming horror that I expected. Nor was it the overwhelming stench, thanks to the temperature.

So I asked a few Iowans: What, really, is SO bad about this way of raising hogs? Their answer surprised me. They cited the water quality problems and the smell and the health problems but their #1 complaint was the unfairness to the farmers. To the farmers who own the hog confinements, that is. That is not at all what I expected.

Here's the thing: Building a hog confinement is a HUGE capital investment. It's a huge risk. You are betting, when you take out that loan and spend all the money, that you will be able to sell your hogs for a high enough price or that you will be able to obtain a good enough contract for a long, long time - long enough to pay back your loan. You are betting that no diseases will wipe out your pigs before your loan is paid off. You are betting that no government policies will make your style of farming illegal or more expensive before your loan is paid off. If you have a contract with a company like Cargill, you are also betting that they won't demand that you make expensive upgrades to your hog facility in order to keep you contract, upgrades that may keep you in debt longer than you intended.

And with all of this risk, everyone except for the farmer holds all the cards. If a farmer has a contract with a company like Cargill, Cargill gets to dictate exactly how the hogs are raised and they can refuse to renew your contract if they wish. Cargill owns the hogs, and you own the manure, the building, the risk, the debt, and the dead animals. If you don't have a contract, you are trying to sell animals on the open market for a good price, and companies like Cargill are working against you to make sure the market is always oversaturated so that prices are low. Right now, I was told, prices are low, and they are STILL building more hog confinements, because they want to keep prices low in the future.

On top of this, Iowans explained to me about their tile system. Below all of the fields in Iowa, there is a system of tiles that guide all of the water into the waterways (if I understand correctly). Once a pollutant gets into the tiles, it gets into the waterways. And nitrogen fertilizer and hog manure are getting into the waterways, polluting Iowa's water and directly leading to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The "correct" way to apply hog manure is by injecting it into the soil. But not everyone does it that way. Some just spread the manure on top of the field. And if they do it while the field is frozen, it sits on top of the land and then melts off into the waterways in the springtime. (And think about it... when is the best time for applying manure? When there are no crops on the field... and that's basically winter, when the field is frozen.)

Then there's the question of antibiotics. MRSA - methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus - has been well documented on hog confinements. The pigs live in a constantly stressed state, which suppresses their immune systems. Plus, with so many pigs in one place together with their shit, conditions are ripe for sharing germs. And with all of the antibiotics given to them, the bugs that remain and breed are the antibiotic-resistant ones. These are transferred to the manure - and onto the fields, and into the waterways.

Then there's the smell. I was told that when the air stands still in Iowa, they have "shitsmog." It's kind of like the air quality problems in Los Angeles, but it's caused by hog shit instead of auto exhaust. The farmers' family breathes this air on their family farm turned hog confinement, making them more susceptible to asthma. And the smell is a nuisance to neighbors and it drops the neighbors' property values.

One more problem that the farmers pointed out was the economically depressed conditions of their rural towns. With farmers each farming huge tracts of land, fewer people make their living in rural areas. In fact, there aren't enough people to support vibrant downtown businesses. It's not even that Wal-mart came in and wiped out the Mom N Pop stores where I visited. There was no Wal-Mart. Only the county seat had a grocery store. It was just a ghost town. Large farms produce cheap food but they don't produce jobs.

So that's my trip to a hog farm. It wasn't as viscerally disgusting as I expected, but between the impacts on the environment, the economy, and the rights of farmers, I think I'll skip out on all factory farmed pig products all the same.

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