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Is Iowa Gaining Traction against the Hog Industry?

By: Christine Grillo

Call it what you will: a crossroads, a turning point, a tipping point. Iowans might simply call it progress, or rather, the prospect of progress. After more than 20 years of pushing back against the industrial-scale hog-raising operations in their communities, grassroots organizations might be making the behemoth budge.

Until recently, the corporate hog industry in Iowa has been impenetrable. Twenty-three years ago, in 1995, the state passed legislation that allows confined animal feeding operations, also called CAFOs or “confinements,” to exist. There was very little public outcry, and hundreds of confinements popped up, mostly in northern Iowa.

The land in the north is flat, and Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation Iowa family farmer who grew up carrying water from her well in 5-gallon buckets and describes herself as “very water-oriented,” was concerned about the new law. “I thought, the legislature won’t let this go on,” she says about the 1995 legislation. “With all the ag drainage wells, that’s a direct shot to the aquifer.”

Thinking back to what seemed like an open-and-shut case at the time, Kalbach says, “Obviously, I was wrong.”

Neighbors living close to new confinements became immediately unhappy about the operations popping up next to them, says Kalbach. They live downwind of not only terrible odors, but also dust and other allergens. Their property values have plummeted, as well. A friend of Kalbach developed a retreat on one of her rolling, scenic farms to rent out for vacations, fishing retreats and weddings. That business has crashed as a result of confinements moving in next door. Communities have been fighting confinements since the early 2000s, but Iowa legislators have continued to support the hog industry wholeheartedly.

But now citizens all over the state are getting some traction. People working to push back on Iowa’s hog confinement industry—the underdogs in this fight—have finally found a few notes that resonate on a large scale.

Water Crisis

The city of Des Moines has been fighting nitrate pollution of the Des Moines River, the city’s main drinking water supply, since about 2000. Last year the Des Moines Water Works sued three counties in northern Iowa for polluting drinking water sources with nitrates from manure. A federal judge dismissed the suit, and then-Governor Branstad, the longest-serving Iowa governor until being named US ambassador to China, applauded that move.

Currently there are 750 impaired waterways in Iowa—that’s half of the state’s lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands that are failing water quality tests administered by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Adam Mason, a policy director with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), thinks the water crisis is really hitting home. “Air quality and economic justice were messages that didn’t touch enough of the general public,” he says. “But water quality does. That becomes real to people.”

People go camping and discover beaches are closed because of algal growth. They plan a fishing trip, then learn of a fish kill. They encounter “swim at your own risk” signs in what used to be clean water.

In 2016, grassroots organization Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture delivered a letter to Governor Branstad to put a moratorium on the expanding hog industry until the number of impaired waterways is reduced to 100 (from 750). A year and a half later, at the beginning of 2018, State Senator David Johnson (formerly a Republican from District 1, now an Independent) introduced 15 bills into the state legislature to tighten oversight, halt construction and give more local control over confinements.

Mason says there was a procedural hurdle with the bills, and indeed, the bills have not made it out of committee. But they elevated the crisis, and Governor Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s former Lt. Governor who took over for Branstad, is facing a challenge in this June’s primary from a Republican who seems to be more open to Iowans’ concerns. Of course, Iowans who want to curb the hog industry face a big battle. “The power of the corporate ag industry in Iowa is immense,” says Mason. “If we were in Kentucky, we’d be talking about coal.”

Local Control

“The countryside continues to boil,” says Mason, regarding the issue of local control. In 2006, having local, county-level control over where new hog confine

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