Letter from Langdon: Errors of Emissions

From 25 miles away comes the fetid stench of “Big Pig.” This is not the tangy odor of the neighbor’s farm but the putrid smell of corporate agriculture. Will lawsuits that go after the corporation – not the farmer – succeed?

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Farm country comes with great aromas—fresh smells like corn pollen, newly mowed alfalfa, rain washed air, honey locust blossoms—and manure. 

 I grew up with livestock. Some were 50 feet from the front door. We had 100 shoats penned along the road east of the house. Beef cattle grazed the pasture beyond that. We didn’t mind.  

 Dad said they smelled like money. If the wind was just right we could even smell the neighbors ‘money’—and when it shifted?  

 They smelled ours.  

 Fresh manure has been described as having a sweet, pungent aroma. Stale manure is closer to fetid, or putrid. To urban cousins, that may be a minor difference, but fresh manure won’t make your eyes water or pinch your nostrils closed the way old manure does. Our fresh manure odors seldom went more than a mile or so before they were gone, devoured by earthworms and bacteria. But these days in Missouri, hogs are raised by the thousands on relatively tiny spots of land.  Most hogs raised today in Missouri belong to corporations even before they’re born.  

 One of the biggest is based in China.   

 Times have changed. Rural people aren’t necessarily farmers anymore. And a lot of farmers no longer raise hogs because corporations like Chinese-owned Shuangwei’s Smithfield Foods have assumed control of hog production in America. Consequently what rural residents have learned time and again is that thousands of foreign owned shoats in confinement smell entirely different than 100 east of the house. The result has been lawsuits when Big Pig’s odor and pollution spreads beyond the acreage where their animals are housed to neighboring farms and residences. Efforts like those by the Missouri General Assembly to shield corporate livestock operations from liability have frustrated rural residents seeking relief in court. That has resulted in a new approach to liability by plaintiffs, of suing not the contract farmers but their corporate masters 

 This new tactic for liability takes aim at the fact that corporate headquarters set the specs for facilities their farmer contractors are required to build. No contractor really has any say, because design and location are specified in contracts they are required to sign as part of the agreement to feed and care for corporate owned hogs.  

 A couple of years ago someone built two new hog confinement buildings about 25 miles north of here where a rare wind lines up perfectly with my farm. Those confinement buildings probably hold about 2,500 head each. The manure generated by hogs housed inside falls through cracks in the floor to a concrete lined ‘basement’ underneath. To protect the animals from oxygen robbing gases, ventilator fans suck the smell outside where it goes into the general atmosphere.  

 I wasn’t surprised by the smell as I passed by those hog confinements on the nearby highway. What did surprise me was that for a couple of days last spring I could smell them all the way down that 30 minute drive to my home.  

 It was like they were just outside my front door.  

 This is the problem encountered by big agriculture as it gets bigger. A 1950’s vintage hog farmer lived with the smells of his and his neighbors’ herds and they with his. Those accumulated emissions faded away before they ever got to town. But today’s industrialized big farms are affecting more than just their next door neighbors.  

 Consider the “latest” in soybean weed control “technology” called dicamba.  

A farmer spreading pesticides and herbicides. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Dicamba is almost old enough for Medicare. It’s a very old, very volatile broadleaf weed herbicide used for decades on field corn. Because of that volatility, and newer safer products on the market, most farmers stopped using it. But dicamba is back, bigger than ever, because Monsanto developed dicamba resistant soybeans in answer to increasing resistance to the general purpose contact herbicide, glyphosate, a.k.a. Roundup.  

 Monsanto didn’t “discover” glyphosate. But they were able to patent the discovery that the chemical refined originally by Stauffer Chemical Company for removing scale from boiler pipes just happened to also be a very effective non-selective herbicide. Subsequent advances in technology allowed genetic manipulation of crops so that they tolerated the same glyphosate that obliterated weeds.  

 Glyphosate is not volatile. It has no vapors drifting on the wind, but because it has been marketed aggressively we use so much that it has been found in our food and in our water.  

 Much the same has happened with by Monsanto’s genetic fix allowing soybeans and cotton to survive dicamba. But those same crops without the dicamba gene are very susceptible to damage by the aging weed killer as are ornamentals, garden crops, and trees.  

 We’re in the second year of dicamba’s legal registration for use on soybeans and there have been numerous complaints, lawsuits, and insurance settlements when neighboring crops and other plants have been damaged or killed. As with hog emissions, downwind beneficiaries of damaging vapors have tended to sue farmers and custom applicators that applied the chemical even though they did so legally. Most pesticides have an odor, an added formulation to make their presence more easily detected by humans. But unlike manure, nothing in the odor of a pesticide is so damaging as the accompanying invisible vapors.  

 When for obvious reasons after dozens of damage complaints the state of Arkansas banned summer applications of dicamba, the contentious Monsanto sued Arkansas saying they had no authority in the matter. But due to a rare sovereign immunity clause in the Arkansas Constitution that protects the state from being a defendant, the suit was dismissed. 

 Now farmers in four states have taken a page from the book of North Carolina’s hog plaintiffs by suing not the farmer, but the corporations behind the farmer.   

 The lawsuits contend that companies manufacturing dicamba formulations overstated claims as to the safety of their products for neighboring plants. The corporate response, as evidenced by Monsanto’s unsuccessful suit against Arkansas, is similar to that of corporate hog production: This is what modern agriculture looks like, get over it, get used to it, or get out.  

 Perhaps due to their power and the money they wield, state legislatures in the states where these lawsuits are occurring have been much more careful not to anger the corporations, than the citizens of their states claiming to be wronged. But at the heart of the debate lies the fact that given a choice, big business will expropriate the individual and property rights of rural residents and farmers for their own gain. Profits from farm seeds and pesticides, and control of livestock markets, far outweigh anything individual farmers are able to gain. That’s because farmers are trapped beneath a corporate thumb of contracts, patents, and grower agreements.  

 Out here in farm country where we take clean air and water for granted, that’s one thing that really stinks.  

 Richard Oswald is a fourth generation farmer living in Langdon, Missouri. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union. 

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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