Down on the Filthy Farm

An investigative report in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer November 27 makes it plain why large corporate animal farms are terrible neighbors—and why communities that welcomed them in often regret their decision.

© Farm Sanctuary

" Economic benefits illusory. In rural Paulding County, the 125,000 turkeys, 3,700 cows and 13,000 hogs far outnumber the 20,000 residents. And they don’t pay their way. Only 25 percent of the money from the county’s large dairies reaches the schools. A whopping 75 percent goes to road maintenance (not even covering the extensive damage done by transported cows). But Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Fred Dailey welcomes the big operators. "In Ohio, they’re all family farms," he says. And all farms "are beneficial to us
if they operate in a manner that doesn’t cause environmental problems." Oh, but they do cause environmental problems, say activists and, increasingly, public health officials.

" No local windfalls. Only about one percent of the grain used in the Paulding County dairies is bought locally, according to an Ohio State study. Few local residents work in the megafarms, because the pay at $7.50 an hour is too low. Instead, most of the jobs are filled with Mexican migrant workers.

" Mountains of manure. The biggest problem for local residents is the open lagoons of liquefied manure, which are frequently mismanaged. Three dairies in Paulding County have violated the Clean Water Act, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For longtime residents like Bob and Diane Thornell, the coming of corporate hog farms means exile from their own 40-acre farm. Both have been diagnosed with brain damage. Ron and Vicki Kadesch were forced to abandon the 80-acre farm they’d lived on for 16 years after a 680-cow dairy farm (complete with manure storage lagoon) moved in nearby.

According to Farm Sanctuary, huge hog farms are the biggest problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that large farms now dominate the hog industry, with operations housing over 5,000 animals accounting for nearly three-quarters of U.S. pig production. "In 1994," reports Farm Sanctuary from USDA figures, "73 percent of pigs raised in the U.S. were on small farms, and 27 percent were on large farms. In 2001, those numbers were switched, with 73 percent of pigs raised on large farms and 27 percent on small farms." As the farms get bigger, they turn increasingly to intensive confinement systems, which crowd animals tightly together.

And the giant farms are a disaster all around. The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) reports, "The livestock industry’s claim that a productive animal is, by nature, a healthy one is extremely deceptive. The reality is that drugs, hormones, and other chemicals are routinely administered to animals in intensive confinement systems to mask stress and disease and to speed growth. In addition, farm animals have been selectively bred for productivity at the expense of their well-being, and they quickly become worn out. Hundreds of thousands of these animals die every day. Physical disorders brought on by exhaustive production demands are common.

"What’s more," HSUS adds, "dust and toxic gases accumulate in crowded, enclosed systems, causing respiratory diseases and death. Agricultural animal disease annually costs $17 billion in the U.S. Such huge losses are considered acceptable because factory farm profits depend on overall output and the optimal use of space and equipment—not on the well-being of individual animals."

The large farms are a growing human health concern. The New York Times reports, "A growing number of scientists and public health officials around the country say they have traced a variety of health problems faced by neighbors of huge industrial farms to vast amounts of concentrated animal waste, which emit toxic gases while collecting in open-air cesspools or evaporating through sprays. The gases, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, are poisonous
Livestock trade officials and Bush administration regulators say more study is needed before any cause and effect can be proved. But Dr. Kaye H. Kilburn, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies the effects of toxic chemicals on the brain, said evidence strongly supported a link between the farms and the illnesses."

Hog farms have their defenders, of course, including the Heartland and Hudson Institutes. Dennis and Alex Avery of the latter claim that corporate hog farms have not damaged North Carolina’s waterways. "Between 1985 and 1995, they report, "the hog population in [two North Carolina counties] increased tenfold, from 500,000 to 5.5 million animals. By 1997, this area accounted for 10 percent of the total U.S. swine inventory.”

The Raleigh News & Observer ran a Pulitzer Prize-winning five-article series in 1995 titled, "Boss Hog: North Carolina’s Pork Revolution," which raised concern about the "9.5 million tons" of hog waste coming from the "megalopolis of seven million animals that live in metal confinement barns" in eastern North Carolina. But the two Averys, citing Duke University studies, say that "there is still no evidence whatsoever that water quality has gotten worse in North Carolina." By suppressing the results of these studies, they charge, "the government of North Carolina effectively stole the great economic opportunity of hog farm expansion from some of its poorest citizens."

But South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux have also realized that the revenue from corporate hog farms isn’t worth the pollution that comes with it. According to a report in Agribusiness Examiner, the Sioux were triumphant last year after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to get involved with the tribe’s rejection of what would have been the third-largest hog farm in the world, sucking up 1.7 million gallons of water from the Ogalalla Aquifer daily. What’s more, an appeals panel determined that Bell Farms was without legal standing to continue operation on the reservation, meaning that 48,000 hogs and their waste were to be moved off the reservation. Native American activist Winona LaDuke calls this "the first such industrial plant closure in history." But it probably won’t be the last.