Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Tale of Two Counties

In the farm belt, a look at the extremes of agricultural production

By Tom Philpott, Grist, Oct. 10.

At first glance, Hardin County, located in the central part of the state an hour north of Des Moines, is just another rural county. It's blanketed in corn and soy, and houses what's become the sine qua non of rural Iowa: an ethanol plant. But Hardin isn't just another rural county: it's arguably the state's Confined-Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) capital. The county's farmers have kept hogs for as long as anyone can remember, but CAFOs didn't start popping up until the early 1990s.

I drove through the area with three farmers who have been fighting the CAFO explosion. As we moved along country roads, every few miles a set of low-slung buildings would break through the monotony of corn and soy fields. Sometimes there would be two together; sometimes as many as six or eight lined up in two rows. You can't just walk up to a hog confinement and look inside. CAFO operators are justly terrified that a trespasser could infect the hogs; animals raised this way have little in the way of immune systems. So the lawns in front of most CAFOs display "no trespassing" signs.

Each building, I learned, houses around 2,500 pigs. Often, a kind of big black pond separates the rows. The CAFO industry favors the word "lagoon" to describe these open repositories of feces and urine; I prefer "cesspool." Newer CAFOs, I learned, can no longer utilize open cesspools. So they plunk the confinement building on top of the cesspool: 2,500 hogs standing over their own several-months' accumulation of waste.

Read more... (Grist)