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Willie Nelson climbs onto the stage, battered guitar in hand and trademark bandana around his long, braided gray hair. It is early April in northern Missouri, and a light snow covers the farmlands. Nelson is here to raise money for Lincoln Township in Putnam County. Lincoln, a rural community of 146 registered voters, has been struggling to protect its pastoral lifestyle from Premium Standard Farms (PSF), the second-largest hog producer in America and the town’s newest neighbor. Nelson shields his eyes and looks beyond the crowd of 3,000 farmers to the western horizon, where row upon row of metal-sided buildings—each housing thousands of hogs—gleam in the fading sunlight. “It appears,” Nelson says, “that the aliens have landed.”
These structures are not of alien origin; they’re homegrown. Grant Wood’s American Gothic is now hopelessly out of date. The barn in that painting—with the farmer holding a pitchfork and his daughter at his side—has been replaced by an enormous metal shed. This structure is built on grids with slat floors that allow the excrement of thousands of hogs to be flushed into a giant cesspit. Buildings like these are often part of vast complexes, including feed mills and slaughterhouses, owned by the same giant companies that also own the retail stores where the cellophane-wrapped ham, pork and bacon are sold.
These days it would be difficult to find a pitchfork on any corporate farm, or even many farmers who work their few acres with the help of dour daughters. The number of full-time farmers in this country amounts to less than 1 percent of the population, down from 50 percent a century ago.
What happened? How did we become a nation of urban consumers dependent for our food upon giant corporations that emphasize efficiency, uniformity and consistency over all else? What does it mean—and why does it matter?
Down Country Roads
Along I-70, I-35 and other Kansas highways, signs erected by the Kansas Farm Bureau proclaim: ONE KANSAS FARMER FEEDS 129 PEOPLE PLUS YOU. That means 130 people depend for their sustenance on one farmer who—chances are—raises only one crop or one type of livestock.
In Kansas, the main crop is wheat, which supplies our bread. The second and third crops, soybeans and corn, don’t feed you and me; they go right to the hogs. Raising only one crop over hundreds and often thousands of acres is what an older generation might have called “putting all of your eggs in one basket.” It is the direct result of the “get big or get out” philosophy adopted by the federal government after World War II.
To get big, farmers did what their better judgment probably warned against: They literally mortgaged the farm to add acres and then had to take out other loans to pay for the fuel, seeds, pesticides and chemical fertilizers needed to work more land with bigger machinery. If farmers couldn’t pay their loans because of crop failure or low prices, they lost their farms. Ever-larger farmers, or investors who had no intention of ever setting foot on the property, snapped up those lands, sometimes on the courthouse steps. As factory farming took over, relying on machinery rather than manpower, entire communities were destroyed—and the quality of the nation’s food supply declined.
Factory farming also concentrated ever-greater numbers of animals on ever-smaller plots of ground—or slabs of cement. Near Milford, UT, a company called Circle Four Farms (because it was developed by four agribusiness giants) raises more than a million hogs inside a few square miles. Greeley, CO, houses millions of beef steers in a feedlot connected to a single enormous slaughterhouse.
The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that over 70 percent of antibiotics manufactured in this country are fed to these farm animals. Why? The drugs that have proven so valuable in treating humans are given “supertherapeutically” to animals. This is done less to prevent disease than to stimulate their appetites. These antibiotics also help animals digest food more efficiently, so it takes less feed to fatten them up.
While that’s not necessarily good for the animal, it saves money for the factory farm. But one result of the massive, constant use of these drugs is that many disease-causing bacteria—including E. coli and salmonella—have grown resistant to those antibiotics.
The use of antibiotics in nondiseased livestock is eight times greater than among humans. Tons of medicine are given to theoretically healthy animals—or as healthy as it is possible for any animal to be in the agribusiness system.
What factory farms and their corporate owners have steadfastly refused to acknowledge is this fact of life: It is simply impossible to raise thousands of farm animals in such concentrated factories without severe health consequences to the animals, not to mention to the humans who choose to eat them.
But what about the health of the people and the communities where these factories are located?
“It used to be that you would drive down the back roads here, and when you passed someone or saw someone sitting on their porch, you would wave, and they’d wave back. No more. People aren’t friendly any longer. No one knows whose side you’re on,” says Jack Parrish.
Jack was born and still lives in Putnam County. He also had countless friends here—until 1989. That’s when PSF moved in and began building its giant metal sheds for its thousands and thousands of hogs. Critics, calling the hog farm a “public nuisance,” filed claims against it.
Counterclaims were filed. Meanwhile, some families couldn’t stand the stink and polluted waters; they sold their farms and moved away. Others bought air conditioners, sealed their houses and hung on.
PSF planned to raise 2.5 million hogs per year in the area—a goal it has never met. When residents used zoning laws to try to block the invasion, PSF sued, saying the township had no constitutional authority to pass zoning laws—an argument the courts upheld. The lawsuits against PSF continue, however, and the town’s legal bills mount.
The company also promised to bring jobs to the area. For a while it did, though the independent farmers didn’t turn out to be very good factory workers. So workers were brought in from elsewhere. Gangs formed, crime shot up, and—in a scenario repeated in many small towns where large slaughterhouses have moved in—once-friendly neighbors turned against one another.
That is because many longtime farmers oppose what Willie Nelson calls “the aliens,” although some business interests—real estate brokers, convenience store owners and equipment dealers, for example—routinely welcome agribusiness and the prosperity it promises. The money can be illusory, however. Where PSF operates in northern Missouri, the unemployment rate has actually gone up, not down. The average wage has also declined, and the standard of living has fallen, according to the Sierra Club.
Fighting the good fight Jack Parrish and his neighbors are fighting back. They show up at town meetings and state commissions and have turned themselves into experts on air and water quality. And with good cause: In the fall of 1995, eight hog waste spills in northern Missouri—six from PSF sites—killed more than 300,000 fish. The company’s waste lagoons, the Sierra Club says, “have repeatedly leaked, polluting Missouri’s waterways.”
In Lincoln, meanwhile, PSF has failed to meet its vaunted production goals, leading to layoffs, not jobs. The company’s Milan, MO, slaughterhouse, built to kill 7,000 hogs a day, averages 1,500–2,500 daily. Officials know that an outbreak of Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), a debilitating disease, has afflicted the company’s sows, but whether this caused the slowdown is a matter of speculation.
Today, 10 years since Willie Nelson climbed onto the stage at Lincoln, PSF still “processes” its hogs, stinks up the countryside and pollutes the waterways. Fortunately, Parrish and his neighbors are hanging in. In 1994, PSF put up an 8,000-hog operation just west of Rolf Christen’s Putnam County farm. Rolf and his wife, Ilsa, considered moving but rejected the idea.
“We’re sticking it out,” he says. “They can’t keep doing what they have been doing. They can’t sustain it. You hear a lot about ‘sustainable farming’; this is the opposite of that. So, we’ll keep trying to get the state and federal agencies to do something. Sooner or later, they’ll give us our lives back.”
And give America back cleaner water and healthier land.