The Rural Resistance Against Cheap Meat Production
Communities trying to stop the expansion of industrial animal agriculture gain traction in Iowa and across the country.
When Anthony Castle moved to rural Rockwell City, Iowa, he pictured working on cars outside while his 6-year-old daughter, Hannah, played in the yard nearby.
Castle’s house is on a secluded stretch of one of Calhoun County’s many narrow, unpaved roads that crisscross the cropland grid and, in winter, accumulate snow that no one bothers to clear. He and his wife Tiffany bought the fixer-upper in 2017, and he moved in a month ahead of the family to rewire it.
Then, about six months later, Castle, 32, received a notice that Iowa Select Farms, the largest pork producer in Iowa, was building a confined hog farm about a mile away from the house.
Now, when he looks out his front window, he sees a cluster of massive buildings surrounded by a barbed wire fence. According to public records, the facility can house nearly 7,500 hogs in its three barns. The largest barn, for sows and their newborn piglets, is 100,000 square feet, about twice the square footage of the White House. Manure from a shallow pit beneath it will drain into deeper pits beneath two adjoining buildings, home to pregnant sows. Each of those 12-foot-deep pits is longer than a football field and about the same width. After accumulating in the pits, the waste will be spread on the surrounding farmland.
Having lived in the state for most of his life, Castle has witnessed the thick odor and swarms of biting flies that can accompany confinements of this size. Come summer, he’s worried that Hannah will also be confined inside.
At the moment, she’s nibbling happily on chunks of pineapple (despite a request for marshmallows) in glittery purple cat ears and interrupts her father to show off a book about unicorns. Her bike, with tassels hanging from purple handlebars, is parked in the family’s living room.
“I don't care how much money anybody makes. The thing is, if they're making it at the cost of somebody else's well-being or livelihood, that is a problem. There's an obvious line there,” Castle says.
And although he loves bacon, Castle has stopped eating pork. “I’m not gonna give a penny to an industry that doesn’t give a shit about people,” he says.
Castle and his family are far from alone in facing a future threatened by the pervasive, growing presence of large, confinement-based animal farms. Between 2002 and 2017, nearly half of Iowa’s hog farms disappeared, while the average number of hogs per farm increased from 1,500 to over 4,000.
While some Iowa counties, such as Sioux, are home to nearly 600 animal feeding operations (AFOs), Calhoun County is still adjusting to the new reality—with 175 and counting. Nonetheless, in winter, when fields are bare and one can see far into the distance, the buildings are beginning to dominate the landscape. Hogs outnumber people 30 to one.
Although resistance to this new landscape has been growing gradually over the years, 2020 may mark an important turning point. Not only are a growing number of people in Iowa, Maryland, Arkansas, and other states speaking out about how these farms affect their quality of life and the environment. Increasingly, they are also calling for moratoriums that would halt the building of new facilities.
While North Carolina has had a moratorium on new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) since 1999, more recent efforts in other states are on the rise. A multi-year fight for air quality monitoring related to poultry CAFOs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has now been converted into a statewide moratorium campaign. Twenty legislators signed on to introduce a bill in February, with a House hearing scheduled for early March. In Oregon, activists are also calling for a moratorium on dairy CAFOs, and Arkansas banned medium and large hog confinements in the National Buffalo River watershed in 2015.
Many of these efforts are in response to the slow, quiet erosion of jobs, drinkable water, and quality of life in many rural areas. It’s a story that’s less dramatic than the way North Carolina residents living near CAFOS have seen their homes, cars, and even their own bodies being sprayed with hog waste. But it leaves residents no less resentful.
A Showdown in Des Moines
In late January, around 100 Iowans drove long distances through steady snowfall to rally behind a state law that would ban new CAFO construction. The effort was led by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) and Food and Water Action, with support from other groups such as Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors and Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture. Young people held signs that read “For our Air” and “For our Future.” Older women identified as the “raging grannies” sang rewritten versions of traditional songs, belting out “Home, home on the earth, where there’s food and clean water for all…”
State Representative Sharon Steckman took the podium to emphasize growing momentum around regulating confined animal agriculture. “We are making progress. Your voices are being heard,” she said, pointing to the fact that the bill had 16 sponsors and there is growing national interest in the issue. In February, however, representatives failed to get the bill through a process that would have kept it viable this session.
In December 2019, Senator Cory Booker introduced federal legislation that included a ban on new CAFOs. And for the first time, industrial animal agriculture is being discussed on the campaign trail, with two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, supporting a ban on new CAFOs. At the close of the rally, activists unveiled a petition supporting a national ban—signed by 7,500 people from across the country.
The American Public Health Association called for a moratorium on CAFOs because of public health implications related to contaminants in air, water, and soil and the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. And the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found 43 percent of those it surveyed supported a national moratorium, compared to 38 percent who opposed it.
The industrial pork industry, meanwhile, is pushing back. At the 2020 Iowa Pork Congress, taking place just blocks away from the moratorium rally on the same day, North Carolina Pork Council CEO Andy Curliss’s keynote speech was titled “When Reptiles Invade.” It was one of several speeches Curliss has made around the country recently that characterize efforts to curb the growth of CAFOs as driven by an “anti-meat” agenda funded by wealthy donors.
Not a Drop to Drink
Linda and Jim Luhring live about 15 minutes away from Anthony Castle in Calhoun County. Although they lived and raised two sons in Colorado for 35 years, the Iowa natives moved back in 2009 to retire. “He wanted to hunt and fish out his back door, and I wanted to have a couple of horses,” Linda said.
Gradually, she learned about the poor water quality throughout Iowa and how it was connected to the metal barns she saw everywhere. “All of the lakes and rivers that we used to go to as kids, you can't even put your big toe in anymore,” she said. “I said to Jim, ‘If you want to fish, that's fine. But don't bring any fish home.’”
A single hog produces about three times as much solid waste as a human. In confinement, that waste—which turns into a liquid slurry—accumulates in pits or outdoor “lagoons.” It is then either injected into or sprayed onto the surrounding cropland as fertilizer. While manure is an incredibly effective, natural fertilizer when applied properly (or spread and integrated into soil by the animals themselves as they graze), CAFOs often produce far more waste than the landscape can absorb. When it runs off fields into groundwater, it can make its way into drinking water and surrounding waterways, where it runs downstream and eventually contributes to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.
The local effects are also increasingly dire. In November 2019, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources found that more than half of the state’s rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands did not meet water quality standards due to pollutants including nitrogen, E. coli, cyanobacteria, and turbidity (soil runoff). The agency has also documented hundreds of manure spills from confinement operations. In Calhoun County, one 2006 hog waste spill killed more than 6,000 fish.
Many of the state’s wells have also been found to be contaminated with coliform bacteria (like E. coli). In Calhoun County, for instance 115 of 779 wells tested had elevated nitrate levels and 411 tested positive for bacteria.
In an interview, Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA) CEO Pat McGonegle told Civil Eats that the pork industry is investing funds in improving its practices related to water quality. “We’ve invested not tax dollars, but pork producers’ own money into developing new technology, new processes to protect the environment,” he said, citing newer technologies that can help hold nutrients in place to reduce runoff.
Emma Schmit, a 25-year-old organizer for Food & Water Action who has lived in Calhoun County her entire life, said most residents avoid tap water because they don’t have up-to-date information on their own wells.
“I don’t even let the kids brush their teeth with it,” Anthony Castle said.
Air quality, due to the effects of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and particulate matter emissions, is another concern, especially in Maryland where the population is much more concentrated near CAFOs.
Research on whether or not those emissions harm residents is complicated. While the substances are associated with negative health impacts, there is little data on the levels residents are exposed to, so it’s difficult to point to causation. A 2017 study found residential proximity to CAFOs was associated with asthma medication orders and hospitalizations, and a 2015 review of the scientific literature found consistent correlations between living near CAFOs and respiratory problems, MRSA, and hypertension, among other health problems.
That review also found that living near CAFOs was associated with stress and lower reported quality of life. Several additional studies have linked dealing with CAFO odors to stress, high blood pressure, and negative effects on mood.
Corporate Power vs. Local Impact
Kim Nelson, 61, is another one of Castle’s neighbors. Her husband’s family farmed the surrounding fields from the 1940s until the 1990s. Like Castle, she got the notice about the Iowa Select operation going in and was alarmed.
“We learned that all the farmland situated around our home was slated for the dumping ground of their hog manure. Not only will we have to breathe the toxic air, but our private well, where we draw all of our water, could easily become contaminated,” Nelson wrote in an email because an illness prevented her from meeting for an in-person interview. Public records confirm that some of the fields slated for the spread of the waste are adjacent to her home. Compost made from the remains of dead hogs will also be spread.
Nelson is retired and spends much of her time sewing for local charities. Her commitment to her community runs deep, and she hasn’t seen residents’ concerns be taken seriously by the company. “We have been good neighbors for many years,” she wrote. “Yet now we are literally getting shit on.”
Nelson and the other residents I spoke to talked often about what they see as the flaws of the Master Matrix—an environmental scoring system implemented long before CAFO growth skyrocketed that allows producers to “pass” with a score of 50 percent. The Iowa Select operation, which is officially called Upland Sow Farm, scored 450 out of a possible 880 points, just 10 points over the minimum.
There is also evidence that Iowa Select and other pork companies deliberately avoid the highest level of regulation, which only kicks in when a confinement operation is considered “large,” at 2,500 hogs weighing 55 pounds or more. A 2018 Des Moines Register story noted that Iowa Select was “considering building three 2,450-head facilities in Calhoun County,” while representatives from two other companies stated at a conference that their standard barns now typically house 2,480 and 2,485 hogs each.
In response to detailed questions on many of these points, Iowa Select Farms declined to comment for this story.
Companies like Iowa Select are often able to claim a property tax credit that allows them to list their manure pits as “pollution control devices.” Local groups estimate that credit has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in local tax revenue.
One tactic Emma Schmit and other organizers have taken is to fight for more county-level control of CAFO permitting rather than allowing state agencies to dictate policy.
So far, they’ve gotten 26 of 99 county supervisors to sign on to support moratoriums. Many locals, however, are reluctant to oppose the industry because of the jobs and other perceived economic benefits it provides. According to the Iowa Pork Producers Association, nearly 142,000 jobs were associated with the industry in 2015, when it contributed $13.1 billion to the state economy.
However, a 2018 Iowa State analysis of economic data on rural Iowa found that as animal confinements were getting bigger, net farm incomes were dropping. And in places that are thriving economically, like Ames, the booming job market is attributed to the university, tech companies (some of them ag-tech), and health care. A 2015 analysis of the workforce in and around Rockwell City, the seat of Calhoun County, found that “agriculture, forestry, and mining” only employed 9.5 percent of those surveyed.
In Rockwell City, people work at the prison; in Lake City, they work at the hospital, Schmit says, while leading me on a tour of the former, a town dubbed the “Golden Buckle of the Corn Belt.” Despite the moniker, there were few obvious signs of prosperity (other than a new library) to point to. The school systems in Rockwell City and Lake City had been consolidated and grocery stores in both had closed. Schmit said there were few food options other than “gas station pizza.” The town square was dotted with run-down storefronts that on a Friday afternoon were mostly closed.
Linda Luhring says her motivation to fight for a CAFO moratorium was amplified when she visited nearby Hardin County, which was farther ahead of Calhoun in terms of pork industry expansion. Hardin is home to 255 AFOs, about 100 more than Calhoun. “All it was was pig confinements,” she said. “No houses anymore. No people. Just a vast wasteland.”
Pork Association’s McGonegle acknowledged that there are fewer “pig owners” today than in the past and that “the integration of technology has allowed us to reduce some labor.” But he pointed to the growth in Iowa of companies like Niman Ranch, which sources pork from smaller producers who raise their hogs outdoors or in bedded pens, as evidence that the larger companies are not hurting small farms. He also suggested that a moratorium would hurt young farmers by curtailing industry growth. “If you have a moratorium in place, you will limit that opportunity for young producers,” he said. (The moratorium bill only applies to the largest confined feeding operations, however.)
Farmers Join the Fight
Chris Petersen, 65, left his home in Clear Lake, Iowa at 5:30 a.m. to make it to the “Stop Factory Farming” rally in Des Moines. “I started raising pigs when I was a junior in high school. My objective then was to have a nice muscle car to impress the girls,” he said, chuckling to himself. As he got older, Peterson said he watched the Iowa landscape he loved, full of thriving small towns filled with families living on diversified farms and raising livestock outside, essentially disappear.
Now, he’s “semi-retired” but still raises a few dozen Berkshire pigs at a time, many of which he sells direct to consumers and restaurants. “You treat ‘em right and take care of ‘em. I vaccinate for a lot of stuff, but then you basically use no antibiotics,” he said. “It’s better for the pig, better for consumers, better for the environment, better for the neighborhood.”
Petersen is the former president of the Iowa Farmers Union and has been active in multiple efforts to stop construction related to confined animal agriculture in his area. “We have led the charge to keep the industry out. We have saved our community again and again,” he said, sharing his motto: “Be relentless. Be a real son of a bitch.”
Efforts to regulate CAFOS are often portrayed as anti-farmer by organizations like the Iowa Farm Bureau, which is closely aligned with the hog industry. But Peterson is one of many who see the industry as a system designed to exploit farmers and rural communities to serve powerful corporations.
Patti and George Naylor, who grow organic crops just south of Calhoun County, are similarly vocal on the issue. At a forum on sustainable agriculture in Des Moines, Patti relayed a story of a woman she encountered at a town hall meeting who had decided to operate a hog CAFO with her family because she “felt she had no other choice.”
Indeed, farmers often take on the debt to build barns while companies like Tyson and Smithfield own the animals and feed. They raise the animals according to the company’s specifications, and the company sets the prices. In poultry, many farmers have spoken out about abuses within the system, like pricing that pits growers against one another and often results in incomes far below what they are promised. During a presentation on fair prices for farmers, George Naylor was blunt. “Should we even consider CAFOs part of agriculture?” he said. “No, we shouldn’t.”
A Foul Future?
CAFOs have been on the radar of the public health community for decades due to concerns about the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, especially in hog farming where antibiotic use is still widespread. Animal welfare is another common source of concern. The day after the rally in Des Moines, activist group Direct Action Everywhere released a disturbing video (filmed by activist Matt Johnson, who was born and raised in Iowa) from inside a hog facility owned by Iowa state Senator Ken Rozenbloom, prompting prominent coverage in the Des Moines Register.
On that same day, I stood about 100 feet from two hulking new confinements 30 minutes north of Des Moines and was struck by the volume of agitated squealing coming from inside. The most immediate problem for anyone standing anywhere near a CAFO, however is the smell. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the CAFO moratorium campaign is just getting started, large operations are closer together and closer to residents’ homes. Standing in the yard of Eastern Shore resident Sam Berley, something no one ever does anymore, means choking on the fumes from the waste of 250,000 chickens next door.
I’m from a small farm town, and the scent of fresh cow manure doesn’t faze me, but these smells are of an entirely different ilk. Standing in front of a confined hog barn less than a mile from Linda Luhring’s house triggered my gag reflex, and the smell lingered on my hair and clothing long after. Here, residents are generally far enough away that they don’t encounter that on a daily basis, but Castle said as the Iowa Select Farms CAFO got up and running this fall, the smells began to arrive sporadically.
How bad it will be in the future is unclear, and that uncertainty has led him to put off finishing home improvement projects as he contemplates how the value of his home will likely drop.
“I don't know how this particular situation became either a conservative or liberal issue,” says Castle, who is a Trump supporter and considers himself a staunch conservative. Lately, he’s found himself aligned in the fight against factory farms with neighbors like Schmit, a lifelong progressive and Bernie Sanders supporter.
“If this is the future of farming … what's going to happen in Calhoun County?” Schmit asked. “It's scary—especially for rural communities that are already struggling.”
This article was produced in partnership with Civil Eats.