With all the policy parsing and personal barbs flying between the presidential campaigns, there is one important political issue in Iowa that’s easy to ignore.
That is, until you smell it.
Particularly in rural communities in north central Iowa, the number of livestock enterprises known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) has exploded in the past 15 years, bringing a host of controversy to farming communities throughout the state.
The influx of so-called “factory farms” has provided a rallying cry for rural Democrats, many of whom see CAFOs as a symbol of corporate brutality against the rural middle class. Proponents argue that these new farms provide the backbone of Iowa’s livestock industry; opponents passionately decry their effects on air quality and the economic self-sufficiency of small local farmers.
No matter which side of the CAFO controversy you’re on, though, there’s no denying that they stink.
At a hog lot in the tiny town of Ackworth, Iowa, a single shelter building holds 800 hogs. Even on a blustery and cold December day, the odor outside the building is strong; inside, it is a thick and dizzying stench that stubbornly hangs in visitors’ clothes and hair for hours.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” says Chris Cornell, the plain-spoken second generation hog farmer who owns the 1600-head-a-year operation in Ackworth. “It’ll smell.”
Cornell, a ruddy-faced Iowan whose impeccable politeness hardly reflects the squealing clamor of his stock, says that his family has owned livestock since 1959. When he installed two 800-head CAFO structures on his property in 1997, his neighbors protested, citing concerns about air quality and environmental impact.
Cornell insists that he abides by strict state and federal regulations to minimize the farm’s impact on the community, and he says that traditional free-range lots can no longer meet global demands.
“If we go back to raising hogs like we used to ten, fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t be able to supply pork even for the United States, let alone to feed the world,” he argues. “There’s just not enough people to do it.”
But many Iowans see a far more sinister side to the noisy and pungent lots, which can pose dramatic risks to public health and water and air quality. A 2002 University of Iowa evaluation found that air emissions from CAFOs – which contain harmful treatment chemicals like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia – may have adverse health effects for people and animals in nearby communities.
Manure mismanagement can also lead to the contamination of water supplies, and some studies show that the high concentration of airborne bacteria rising from CAFOs can result in the transfer of antibiotic-resistant diseases from swine to humans.
Even more than the adverse effects on the environment and on the health of community members, the economic consequences of the CAFO boom incite the passions of rural farmers who believe that their age-old industry has been undermined by corporate forces.
Chris Petersen, the president of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, says that massive, vertically-integrated meat processing companies are “farming the farmers,” exploiting the labor of Iowan farmers by forcing them to become links in production chains that swallow the profits they used to make when they independently controlled every step in raising and selling their pork.
Petersen says that his own hog farm was bankrupted in the early 90s by the influx of corporately contracted CAFOs. His voice cracks when he recalls how the controversy has ripped the fabric of his community. “It has totally divided the neighborhood,” he says. “It’s destroying the rural cultural structure of Iowa.”
And that’s not to mention the smell.
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