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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. Where a family-run farm raising hogs might have, say, 500 hogs on site, a typical confinement might house 5,000 hogs. That’s a lot of manure to manage: the manure is captured under the facility, then flushed into an open lagoon, and then sprayed onto fields or injected into furrows with a computerized system.

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 confinements are sited was a platform for both parties’ gubernatorial campaigns. Time and the Tea Party dissipated that call to action, but it’s ascendant again.

The current system involves what’s called a “master matrix,” which gives counties input on proposed new confinements or expansions—but no authority. “Essentially it’s a joke,” says Mason. “It’s like a scored test that the operator fills out himself, he only has to get 50 percent to pass, and the questions are geared so that it’s impossible not to get 50 percent.”

“Oh, the master matrix is a sham,” says Kalbach.

Historically in Iowa, the county supervisors have tended to be Republican and to favor the hog industry, which tends to fund generously the supervisors’ and legislators’ political campaigns. But for 10 to 20 years, citizens have been attending county meetings and appeals hearings steadily, pressuring their supervisors to deny permits to new or expanded confinement. And it seems as if, finally, the county supervisors are starting to take their voters seriously.

“I go to a lot of appeal hearings,” says Kalbach. “They [supervisors] have heard it enough now that maybe they’re starting to get a little nervous.”

Ultimately the county supervisors do not have the authority to deny a permit for a new or expanded confinement. But they can back an appeal by citizens, which helps.

Kalbach tells of a recent grassroots effort to deny a permit for a confinement in Humboldt County, in northern Iowa. The confinement operator was Iowa Select Farms, one of the hog-industry goliaths in the state, and the operation was rubber-stamped by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the appropriate state regulatory agency. The community appealed the DNR’s decision, setting into motion a review by the Environmental Protection Committee (EPC), which is a governor-appointed board composed, in part, of hog-industry people.

In this Humboldt County case, the EPC asked its board for permission to approve the permit, and no one made the motion to approve. Then the chair asked for a motion to deny, and no one would do that, either. According to Kalbach, the silence is meaningful. “The fact that EPC didn’t approve it is definitely progress,” she says.

In this case, the decision will revert back to the DNR, which has already approved the permit. “But the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors is ready to go to court to stop this,” says Kalbach. “For a board of supervisors to invest county monies to pursue a suit against Iowa Select?” Huge.

Corporate Fat Cats

Last year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Iowa Select Farms handed out pork loins at community centers. But the allure of free ham is beginning to fade.

Says Barb Kalbach, “People are realizing these are corporations, not family farmers.”

She says the hog industry has painted itself for years as “farmers,” but she’s not buying it. “We’re farmers,” she says of herself and her fellow small-scale producers. “You’re industrial. And industry has to be accountable for every drop of water that comes off its site.”

The hog industry makes a lot of money off its classification as “agriculture” and not “industry.” If a company such as Iowa Select Farms were categorized as industry, it would be responsible for all the water that comes off its site, it would be subject to air regulations, there would be OSHA regulations, and so on. Even more significant: agricultural companies enjoy tax breaks and they benefit from taxpayer programs such as EQIP and guaranteed loans.

“I have not talked enough about taxes,” says Kalbach. “But I think I’m going to start. Kim Reynolds and other people don’t understand that, for instance, Rose Acre Farms [an egg industry] put on an $8 million addition that generated no new tax revenue. None. Because they’re under ag, not industry.”

Both Mason and Kalbach lament the decline of rural life that has beset Iowa as a result of the hog industry’s growth. Because of the consolidation that happens when mega-corporations take over, small businesses have had to shutter. Buying stations have closed, and local sale barns have vanished, which leaves the small-scale farmer with nowhere to buy or sell. “Vertical integration happened so quickly … creating the perfect storm where family famers were pushed out,” says Mason.

“It [being a family farmer] is not profitable anymore,” says Kalbach. “We used to have feed stores and equipment stores. People had jobs. They don’t anymore. Iowa Select gets its feed from one source now. It’s the slow decline of rural America.”

At places like Iowa CCI, plans are always afoot, from recruiting candidates to run for office, to constant engagement with the media to get the issues in front of people. “We want factory farming to be a deciding issue in voters’ minds,” says Mason.

“Will the Democrats stick to the failed playbook where they simply say we’re not Trump, because that will fail in Iowa,” says Mason. “Or will they put a line in sand, say this is what we’re about and it’s a bold policy agenda that gets people excited?”

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