MORRIS: Hogs, Factory Farms and Rural Democracy

I confess. I thought Babe, a moral fable about the intelligence of pigs, was last year's best movie. Which may explain why I am fascinated by a real life moral story that also revolves around pigs: the struggle of family farmers against the invasion of giant corporate owned factory farms.Agriculturists call hogs the "mortgage lifter" because hog farmers have traditionally been able to start small with a minimal investment and within ten years establish a business sufficient to support a family. The family farmer with 50 sows that bear 1000 pigs a year remains the backbone of the hog industry.In the mid 1980s some observers decided the small hog farmer was inefficient. A handful of entrepreneurs decided to whip the industry into shape by doing for hogs what George Tyson and others had done for chickens: transform an industry populated by hundreds of thousands of independent family farmers into one controlled by a few giant packers and producers. "Get big or get out" was their slogan. Most agricultural policy makers agreed.Wall Street loved the idea. Money poured in from international banks, investment bankers, corporate pension funds and insurance companies.The much touted model was Premium Standard Farms(PSF), founded in 1988. Morgan Stanley funneled over $500 million into PSF to build a company to control everything from the squeal to the meal. Climate controlled confinement buildings contain up to 100,000 hogs.Megaproducers proliferated. The number of independent hog farmers plunged even while the number of hogs soared. A single company, North Carolina based Murphy Farms, now raises almost as many hogs as all the farmers in Minnesota.Four packing companies control almost 50 percent of the nation's hog market. Giant packers prefer giant producers. They may pay a premium to big producers while offering a lower price to family farmers. Hog farmers are terrified of being forced out of business or of being reduced to the same captive, dependent status as their chicken raising brethren.Megahog farms are an environmental disaster. Farms with the manure output of a city of 200,000 are pumping their excrement directly into a giant hole in the ground. The odor is overwhelming. But it is not only the smell that threatens neighbors. Earlier this year 22 million gallons of hog manure burst through a lagoon wall at Oceanview Farms in North Carolina. As Progressive Farmer describes the scene, a wall of excrement, "swept across crop fields and swamped a rural highway before spilling into the head waters of the New River." Fish were killed 20 miles downstream. Manure spills have become common in factory farm dominated states like Missouri and North Carolina.While the dangers of bigness are becoming ever more evident, the efficiencies of smallness are being reassessed. A Kansas State University study has concluded that the most efficient hog operation has only 75 sows. One Nebraska study found that the most profitable hog operation has 145 sows. Factory farmers used to argue they were more efficient. They don't say that much anymore.Last month factory farmers were shocked when their standard bearer declared bankruptcy. PSF had never shown a profit. It lost $30 million in 1994 and another $71 million in 1995. Nevertheless, Dennis Harms, PFS's founder, expects its bankers to convert their debt into stock and allow the company to make a "fresh start". Family farmers are eager to learn how they might lose $200 million, never make a profit, and be given a fresh start by their bankers.In the movie, a talking pig organizes the barnyard animals. In real life dozens of grassroots groups, like Nebraska's Center for Rural Affairs, Missouri's Rural Crisis Center, Minnesota's Land Stewardship Project, are organizing humans. A remarkable partnership of family farmers and environmentalists has emerged. Some view the fight in titanic terms. "(T)he struggle for control of U.S. pork production represents the final clash between agrarian and mercantile interests", thunders the newsletter Hog Industry Insider.Two months ago, after Missouri had experienced 10 major manure spills in the previous 9 months, its legislature imposed an unprecedented moratorium on further factory farm facilities. Activists in Missouri, Iowa and North Carolina are trying to persuade their Republican legislatures to give local communities authority to regulate these new industrial facilities.The government has decided that the only problem with factory farming is odor. Congress has a brand new $100 million a year subsidy to help factory farmers deal with the manure problem. Family farmers insist the solution is not to perfume the excrement but to enforce existing laws to preserve a way of life that has proven at least as efficient and productive and far more wholesome and democratic than that offered by the factory farmers.Babe showed us that pigs are intelligent. Now we have the opportunity to prove that humans are as well.John Bailey Institute for Local Self-Reliance 1313 Fifth Street SE, Suite 306 Minneapolis, MN 55414 Tel: 612-379-3815 Fax: 612-379-3920ILSR's Web Site: Sustainable MN:

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