|REGULATING HOG FARMS?|
November 2, 1998
TOM BEARDEN: Dave Luers is high on hogs. Luers is an owner in this $48 million corporate hog farm, one of dozens of similar facilities built in recent years across rural America. Because of advances in barnyard genetics, Luers' pigs are leaner and healthier. And healthier pigs means thousands can live together on these vast, new hog farms.
DAVE LUERS, D&D Farms: It's an industry that used to have a lot of players. There used to be ½ million or 1 million producers of pigs in the United States. I think we're down to 150,000 today. The reason it's consolidating is because technology is available, that we can raise pigs in larger buildings such as these.
TOM BEARDEN: But these big facilities also produce big controversy, and many states are targeting these super farms with new and costly environmental regulations. The debate is over pollution. Accidental spills in North Carolina and other states have killed rivers and left people nauseous from the smell. The issue is manure. Never before have so many pigs been contained in such small areas. Most hog farms flush their waste into lined but open air lagoons. And lagoons stink. So David Luers built his D&D Farms in Yuma County, in remote, Northeastern Colorado.
DAVE LUERS: We have very few neighbors. We've tried to situate these facilities in positions so that odors aren't a problem for our neighbors. And we've tried to design the lagoons and facilities so that we'd minimize what odors do come off of this operation.
TOM BEARDEN: But third generation rancher and neighbor Sue Jarrett says on some days the smell is anything but minimal.
SUE JARRETT, Rancher: On the days where the wind is right it comes down this valley right through here, and I can walk out my back door to come over to feed my animals, and I will have a headache, and I will feel sick to my stomach.
DEAN JARRETT: (talking to his daughter) Look out, Sadie, so Momma can come through the gate, hon.
TOM BEARDEN: The Jarretts worry about their water supply. Pig waste, or what the farmers call effluent, has high levels of nitrogen, which can poison well water and cause serious health problems.
DEAN JARRETT, Rancher: The Ogallala Aquifer is our only source of water, and the greatest threat from the effluence initially, as far as getting down to the groundwater, is nitrogen poisoning, which we are very concerned of - you know, concerned about as ranchers, whether it's from in the water, or whether it's from the grass in the spring, we're turning our cattles out to pasture, we've got to be very - you know - careful about that, that they do not get nitrogen poisoning.
TOM BEARDEN: But the nitrogen and hog effluent can also be used to fertilize crops. Crops like corn can then be used to feed hogs. Pork producers say this cycle helps rural economies.
DAVE LUERS: We've been good for the local farmers. This is an area that does produce a tremendous amount of corn. I believe there's approximately 30 million bushels produced in this area. We consume on this farm 4 million bushels of that.
TOM BEARDEN: But the Jarretts worry that application of fertilizer isn't always done responsibly. Last year, they filed a complaint with the Colorado Health Department, who found D&D farms had, in fact, put too much manure on surrounding crops.
SUE JARRETT: That's not fertilizers. That's dumping ground. You know, you're not fertilizing the crop for what the crop needs. You're dumping it out there beyond what the crop needs, therefore, in sandy loam soil it's going to go through; it's going to hit the groundwater, and we rely on this groundwater. We don't have cities and state offices out here testing our water all the time, telling us if our water is okay, fit to drink.
TOM BEARDEN: D&D says the incident was an isolated one, and the company now applies less effluent than the crops can absorb. The Colorado Department of Health says other big hog farms have also over-applied manure and groundwater contamination is a real threat. The problem is that groundwater pollution takes years to show up. That's why the Jarretts are campaigning for stricter monitoring.
SUE JARRETT: You have to put some common sense in this. Hogs produce two to four times the waste of a human. Five thousand hogs is equivalent to a city of ten thousand. You know darned good and well any city has to have a waste management plant.
TOM BEARDEN: The Jarretts are not alone in their concern. This summer environmental groups and family farmers teamed up to collect 100,000 signatures for Amendment 14, a ballot measure that would further regulate the hog industry. Amendment 14 requires big operators to get a state permit, limit odors, perform pollution tests, and post a bond in case any pollution is found. Dave Carter of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union worked on the proposal.
DAVE CARTER, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union: If the nitrate level increases, it's very expensive and difficult to clean that up. You don't just climb down into an aquifer with a bucket and brush and clean it up. And so we want to make sure that we're protecting it on the front end, rather than having to go in and clean it up on the back end.
TOM BEARDEN: But pork producers say they've been targeted unfairly. Dave Luers says the state's existing regulations are working.
DAVE LUERS: We're all for protecting the groundwater of Colorado, and we want to do that, but we want to do it with science-based economically sustainable rules and regulations, monitored by the Department of Health or the Department of the Ag. The new proposal goes what we feel is beyond science. It goes too far.
TOM BEARDEN: Luers says the new regulations would put him out of business by requiring him to cover manure lagoons to lessen odor.
DAVE LUERS: Our estimate is it's going to cost us about $14 million to put lagoon covers on, but besides that, even if we could put 'em on, and if we had the money to do that, the annual maintenance cost and the winds that are sustained in this part of the plains of Colorado, and the hail that we have, our projections are - as the cost of maintaining these covers - could very well exceed our hope for net operating income for the year.
TOM BEARDEN: You simply couldn't afford it.
DAVE LEURS: So why do it? We just as well go broke now as to go broke later.
TOM BEARDEN: So pork producers struck back against the proposed amendment. They gathered enough signatures to get on the ballot, themselves. Their proposition, called Amendment 13, would force the state to apply any new regulations to all livestock. If passed, Amendment 13 would make enforcement of Amendment 14 illegal. Gregg Gilsdorf of National Hog Farms supports the idea.
GREGG GILSDORF, National Hog Farms: Write the regulations any way you want to. Just apply them uniformly across all species.
TOM BEARDEN: Why is that important, to apply them across all species?
GREGG GILSDORF: We're in a very competitive business, and we compete not only with other hog farmers, we compete with poultry, beef, and dairy for their employees and for their inputs, and to single us out is just unacceptable.
TOM BEARDEN: In the last two years, twelve states have decided to regulate confined animal operations and seven of them have swine-specific rules. Recently, the Clinton administration said they would like a national strategy to deal with confined animal waste in place by the year 2008. Whatever the outcome, the whole argument is splitting agricultural counties like Yuma. In the past, new environmental regulations have been anathema in rural America. Towns hard hit by low crop prices often welcome the jobs a hog farm brings in.
KELLY BRAATEN: Our housing has boomed. You know, real estate has boomed, because they have brought - been able to employ more people already existing here - they have also been able to bring other people into the community.
JUSTIN BLACH: The community is divided, and, you know, when they first moved in, there was a real big controversy, and anymore, a lot of the people have just, well, they're here, we can't do anything about it, let's just -- protect the groundwater is the big concern right now.
MELODY KUNTZ: I worry about the quality of water and our air quality. I don't want it to get polluted. We make our living out here, and we want to raise our kids here, and we'd like to keep it as simple as it is.
TOM BEARDEN: Ironically, pork producers say they agree with neighbors that a need for regulation exists, but they fear the growing patchwork of state laws. Producers say inconsistent state laws, coupled with a slump in hog prices, could force them to relocate overseas, a prospect Dave Luers doesn't want to consider.
DAVE LUERS: My living and all of my employees' living comes from this operation. If this farm goes under, not only have I failed myself and my family, but I feel that I failed this community and the employees that work for me.
TOM BEARDEN: The Jarretts have a different view. They say that if being a good neighbor puts corporate hog farms out of business, then so be it.
SUE JARRETT: My grandfather, my dad, and I was raised to take care of this and pass it on. Don't be so greedy on what you have today that you destroy it that your kids can't take it over. So we preserve this because we want our kids to take it over.
TOM BEARDEN: If both the Colorado ballot measures pass, the issue is likely to be decided in the courts.
JIM LEHRER: The Wall Street Journal reported corporate hog farming is a key issue in at least 20 congressional and governor's races around the country tomorrow.