Letter from Langdon: Why Are We Surprised? It Runs Downhill
We know how to fix hog farming to protect both farmers and communities. But “Big Hog” corporations aren’t keen on paying to prevent the disasters like those in North Carolina that they predictably create.
In the event of natural disaster, a little advance notice is nice.
Noah had plenty of warning before the flood arrived. He had time to build the ark and round up the animals two by two. But for most of us, warnings of imminent flood amount to a just few days at best.
That’s the way it was here in northwest Missouri in 1993 when rainy day upon rainy day filled the Missouri River to overflowing. Just when we thought we might squeak by, another 7-inch rain punched through the levee with such force even Noah would have been surprised.
My cousins, who had cattle on the river bottom, were waiting it out in hopes we’d stay dry. Besides, they didn’t really have anywhere else to take them. But when the levee broke they had just a day to move 200 cows with calves at side to higher ground. We brought the cows right up the highway, to a field of our soybeans that was soon to be mostly flooded. As the water rose the cows grazed up a gentle rise until they had about 10 acres left to stand on. That’s where they stayed until the cousins located a for-rent upland pasture for the rest of the year.
Ironically, other than a sprinkle or two, once the levees failed it barely rained again that summer. It was almost biblical.
In 1997, unusually heavy rains in western Iowa caused a Missouri River tributary, the Nishnabotna River, to go on a rampage. The Missouri was no threat compared to the rain-choked Nishanbotna, which overflowed its levee a few miles north of here. That’s when a farmer who raised hogs in confinement, though not on a scale as grand as some do today, found he was in trouble. The basin where his farm is located began filling with water. By the time he realized what was happening, the roads were flooded and a few hundred hogs were trapped. Some escaped their pens and swam to higher ground, but most were lost.
The stench from that lingered as the trapped flood waters slowly receded for almost a year.
There were those who said back then that my cousins’ cows and the farmer’s hogs shouldn’t have been raised where they were. But as common as it seems now, flooding in those places then was an uncommon event. And the difference between cows surviving or pigs drowning may be as simple as having a plan and some high ground nearby just in case.
When Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina earlier this month, massive hog and poultry barns were in the bullseye. Two hundred cows may sound like a lot, but those critters have long legs and can walk to safety on 10 acres. The only reliable way to move a couple hundred shoats is with a truck or trailer. But thousands upon thousands of animals are raised together in each confinement these days, and it would be a massive undertaking to move just a couple of barns’ full let alone tens upon tens of barns’ full. Of course, the big question is that even if the corporations who own the hogs could muster a fleet of trucks and the men needed to move them all, where would they go?
Early reports are that a number of hogs and poultry were lost in the flooding. It might have been prevented but not by mass evacuation.
In terms of body waste, one hog is about equal to one human being, and one hog barn generates about the same amount of sewage as a small town. So interspersed among all the villages and cities populated by the people of North Carolina are hundreds of hog towns. Human waste facilities are carefully controlled, regulated, and the waste treated. But hog sewage is stored and eventually used as fertilizer for growing crops or maybe just sprayed into the air and evaporated simply to get rid of it. After 30 or more inches of rain fell from Hurricane Florence’s rotating mass, hog sewage lagoons across North Carolina that were exposed to the elements overflowed and mixed with runoff.
Apparently that’s the plan, because this has been the design of concentrated agriculture since the beginning.
Some are saying the runoff was diluted enough by rain to pose little problem for public health. Others are saying the coliform-bacteria-infested waste and in some cases carcasses of the drowned animals will contaminate groundwater for the foreseeable future.
When I was younger, bankers always said it didn’t hurt to keep a few hogs around. That’s because even into the 1960s and 70s, hogs had the reputation of being mortgage lifters. But gradually, certainly by the 1980s, large corporations had strengthened their hand in the hog business so that most independent hog producers had begun to realize that the traditional price cycles of live animal markets no longer allowed opportunities for profit … Certainly not in the way they favored our fathers and grandfathers. In other words, packers owned much of their live inventory already, raised by contractors who merely housed and fed the animals, or through pricing contracts with independent farmers. And live markets reflected that fact when cash pressed farmers were forced to sell no matter what the price, sending prices even lower.
Packers didn’t care how cheap live inventory became because it made their in-house brands of pork even more profitable than before. That’s why by the 1990s, when most of the last independent hog farmers boarded up their hog houses and walked away, no matter how cheap hogs got, prices of various cuts of pork in stores barely budged.
The price of hogs was measured in pennies per pound while the price of chemically cured “honey roasted” corporate ham was posted in dollars.
There are better ways to raise hogs than the way it is now. For one thing, manure lagoons can be covered so that escaping methane is trapped and torrential rains can’t over fill them. Manure pits can be built beneath the building so that the same roof that covers the hogs also protects their manure in the basement. And zoning can restrict the establishment of concentrated populations of hogs in areas deemed unsatisfactory—like along rivers and streams or next to existing populations of human beings, or in areas potentially affected by tumultuous weather events. That’s one approach currently being fought tooth and nail by big agribusiness and producer groups who take no hesitation in placing hog towns next to clean air, clean water, small town rural America that sits in the eye of the storm.
As one thrives the other dies, along with many of the admirable attributes of living in rural America.
There is a cost to better construction and zoning that might protect humans and hogs alike. It’s a cost measured in dollars for an industry more accustomed to taking from the economy than supporting local economies of scale. Some would blame contracting farmers for construction and placement, but contractors simply build what corporations want on the premise of guaranteed profit. If farmers build better facilities on pricier land, corporations must give up more profit to repay them.
That’s not something big corporate hogs have ever been very good at. And farmers are already on the hook for million dollar single use facilities with a limited lifespan and doubtful future beyond serfdom.
Still, no one should be surprised by the fact a hurricane struck our southeast coast or that cascading rains were joined by cascades of manure. That’s because you-know-what always runs downhill.
That’s the premise big meat packing monopolies are built on.
Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation Missouri farmer from Langdon. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.