CAFOs Kill Communities: How Industrial-sized Hog Lots are Destroying Rural Iowa

Peggy Birchmier lives in a lovely, pastoral home near Milton—surrounded by five industrial-sized factory farms. Ask her to describe the stench when farmers spread six months’ worth of hog slurry on the 156-acre field right outside her yard, and she’ll just about retch.

“It’s like rotten eggs . . . you can’t describe it. It’s really intense,” she says, holding her stomach. Peggy lived eight contented years in her countryside home in Davis County before the factory farms settled in around her. Now the fumes have forced Peggy, her husband, and their asthmatic son to live in the basement.

Last month, The Iowa Source published an article on the human health risks posed by toxic air emissions from CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations. This month we’re taking a closer look at how hog CAFOs are tearing apart Iowa’s rural communities.

The Sulfur, My Friend, is Blowin’ in the Wind…

Obviously, the most common complaint about industrial-sized hog lots is their horrific stench. Operations that manage tightly packed hogs by the thousands store animal waste in massive underground pits and outdoor lagoons. After fermenting for six months to a year in these holding centers, the putrefied manure is spread en masse upon pastures—either on-site or on the crops of interested farmers.

The ready-made manure, which is known to give off toxic ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions, is a commodity rife with controversy. “It’s coming out that this manure really isn’t a natural manure anymore, it’s a toxic compound,” says 2000 Master Farmer Ron Kielkopf, citing recent Iowa State research. “With it, crops don’t handle stress very well. All manure and fertilizer have to be broken down by other bacteria that’s in the soil before the plants can use them. And these bacteria really sometimes don’t know what to do with that manure—especially when they put on as much as they do.”

CAFO owners can’t technically sell the manure to neighboring farmers, since it would be extremely difficult to measure and regulate the nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorous, etc.—that it contains. So instead, many opt to “give” farmers the toxic manure “for free,” but charge an application fee and make a little extra cash. At times, the phosphorous content of the slurry is so high, crops are better off without it. And then there’s the smell.

“It’s like someone sets up a million dollar home in your neighborhood and then vents his sewage slime in your living room,” says Kielkopf, who is an at-large member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI). “It’s so rude, having someone else smell something you’re making money off of.”

Says Birchmier, “The cure-all there was supposed to be that the manure would be knifed into the soil, and they’d plant trees, which would cover up the smell. Well . . . .” Unfortunately, CAFO farmers don’t always make good on promises to reduce odor emissions.

Eighty-two-year-old Olive Jones has lived with her husband in their Davis County home for most of her life. Since a 16,000-head hog confinement was erected a few miles from their home approximately six years ago, the putrid fumes have kept them up at night.

“When they run that irrigation system up there,” says Olive, “we really get it bad because they spray it out in the air. It bothers my husband because he has a lung problem. He’ll start coughing before I can even smell it. To live out in the country and have to live with that smell! I have sinus trouble all the time.”

But the smell doesn’t really trouble her lungs, Olive says. It just makes her mad.

Employment and Economy: Promises, Promises

CAFO owners looking to establish facilities in rural areas often promise local residents an employment boom and a more prosperous economy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always pan out that way.

“Nobody works in there very long,” says Birchmier, of people employed by the factory farms near her. “No matter where they’re from, they’re almost always transient.” CAFO workers typically endure low salaries, long hours, and extremely high health risks. A whopping 58 percent of all swine confinement workers manifest chronic bronchitis, according to the American Lung Association, and nearly 70 percent experience some form of respiratory irritation. Each year, several workers—and occasionally children—actually die from falling in manure pits.

Birchmier finds the working conditions appalling. “I think the worst thing is that the people that are running the business aren’t the ones that are playing with the manure. They get the Mennonites and the Amish, a lot of immigrant workers. Anybody who can’t work anywhere else.”

Not surprisingly, more often that not, CAFO owners—who reap the lion’s share of the income generated by their facilities—don’t live anywhere near their host communities.

“If the owner of a Davis County confinement lives in Mount Pleasant, and his father, who owns the land, lives in Illinois—if they makea million dollars, how much good is that going to do the local economy?” says family farmer Garry Klicker, of Davis County, vice chairman of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI).

Two studies from 1983 and 2001 found that when farm size and absenteeownership increase, social conditions in the local community tend to deteriorate.Said 1983 study author Dean MacCannel, “We have found depressedmedian family incomes, high levels of poverty, low education levels, socialand economic inequality between ethnic groups, etc., associated with landand capital concentration in agriculture. Communities that are surroundedby farms that are larger than can be operated by a family unit have .. . a few wealthy elites, a majority of poor laborers, and virtually nomiddle class.”

So if CAFOs create low-paying, high-turnover jobs that create high gain for absentee owners, thereby funneling money directly out of the region, where’s the community payoff? Certainly not in tax breaks.

Taxing on Communities

CAFOs can be incredibly taxing for rural communities—quite literally. Industrial farms generate a fair amount of extra truck traffic, and as a result, bridges and roads require more upkeep to handle the weight of semis brimming with oversized swine and their feed.

The annual estimated cost of local road maintenance around a 20,000-headhog confinement is said to be $6,447 a mile due to heavy-duty truck traffic. One Iowa community recently estimated its costs for gravel road upkeep increased by approximately 40 percent due to excess truck traffic from hog CAFOs.

Ironically, while citizen taxpayers are shouldering the costs of CAFO-causedroad damage, the CAFO owners themselves are being granted tax abatements for implementing “pollution control” measures at their facilities—such as the reeking manure pits and lagoons, which are scientifically proven  environmental hazards that cause air, land, and water toxicity.

“In reality, that’s government money coming into their pockets that shouldn’t be there,” says an angered Klicker, recalling that some CAFOs receive as much as $80,000 per site worth of federal tax dollars to establish manure containments for their factory farms. “They can get all kinds of money. If you’re putting up, say, four or six buildings for $1 million, $2 million, $3 million, why do you need government assistance? Is that where taxpayer money should go? Subsidies were originally designed to help the small farmer. In reality now, they are just using taxpayer money to pay big corporations to sell out small farms.”

Valuable, Valueless Land: Clearing Out Communities

There is some dispute as to whether CAFOs depreciate or appreciate the value of land nearby them. One obvious side of the argument is that noxious fumes from factory farms create an ambiance that few homeowners want to settle down in, and few businesses want to set up shop in.

“Who would ever build a home in this part of the country?” asks Kielkopf. “That’s what’s happening everywhere in rural Iowa now. All of a sudden, everyone’s waking up and saying, ‘We better not build a home outside of urban areas.’ ”

“When you get in neighborhoods like this, people can’t rent their homes anymore,” says Klicker. “My farm’s for sale. If I could leave, I’d leave. But it hasn’t sold.”

In a 1999 University of Missouri study of 99 rural land real estate transactions of more than one acre, researchers found that CAFOs lowered land values within a three-mile radius of approximately $2.68 million, or $112 peracre (Hamed, 1999).

On the other side of the coin, land near CAFOs becomes more valuable to some—namely, factory farmers who are looking to expand. Says Birchmier, “My property values actually went up because they [CAFO owners] were paying so much to build.”

Either way, the end result is a clearing out of a community of residents. “People have to move out,” says Klicker. “No one buys the home, so they knock it down; CAFO owners buy it and expand. It absolutely clears out the middle class.”

Widening Social Gaps

Naturally, a diminishing middle class in rural Iowa causes existing social gaps to widen further. Families whose financial constraints prevent them from quitting CAFO janitorial positions (i.e., hosing out slurry) tend to face a certain amount of inadvertent social ostricization.

“You don’t want to sit in a restaurant near somebody who’s been working in a confinement,” says Klicker, “Trust me, you don’t. They have special soaps that they use, but if they work there day after day after day, it gets in their skin. You cannot wash it away.”

Indeed, the indoor manure pit fumes are so strong that the sensitive snouts of baby pigs cannot tolerate them. Piglets must be housed in separate facilities that are washed out daily—with their liquefied sewage stored in outdoor lagoons—otherwise, the odor would kill them.

Says Birchmier, who owns and operates a local truck stop, “The CAFO workers come into the store and they can clear it out in a heartbeat. But they have no idea how odorous they are. It’s the same with the dead-pig drivers,” she says, referring to those who make their living disposing of the thousands of baby and full-grown CAFO hogs that die of various causes before slaughter.

In addition, it’s not unheard of for some CAFO laborers to toil such long days that they have little time for socializing and community involvement.

A Question of Ethics

“At what point does the will of the people enter into the equation?” Garry Klicker wants to know. “Because the majority of people, nobody actually, wants CAFOs. Nobody who lives near ’em now, and nobody who thinks they’re going to live near ’em in the future want the things built. So why should a very small minority of people be able to make money off the misery of the majority?”

“Today’s consumer really wants to purchase meat that’s been raised in a responsible way,” according to Kielkopf. “But the retailers are all in bed with the factory farmers. The small guy, he can’t get shelf space in Hy-Vee.”

To make matters worse, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for small farmers to form contracts with meat packers, who can make larger profits when they do business with CAFO operators. Finding themselves with little say in the matter, independent farmers are careful not to “make a stink,” as Kielkopf says, because “they could get blacklisted and then nobody would buy their hogs.”

If They Build it, More CAFOs Will Come

Unfortunately, at present, Iowa law does little to protect independent farmers and their neighbors from the perils of CAFOs. But if Iowa’s rural citizens join together, they can follow the lead of communities in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina—and even right here in Iowa—who are banning together to “say no” to factory farms. (For more information, see

In the words of Pennsylvania’s Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund spokesman, Thomas Linzey, Esq., “Communities that say no to corporate farming are bravely rejecting an agricultural model that grinds up rural communities, quality of life, and family farmers. In the process, they’re rejecting the notion that agribusiness corporations—and their trade associations like the Farm Bureau—run their community, and not them.”

According to recent reports from the DNR, permit applications for building hog CAFOs in Iowa are up this year (2005). “We’ve received 160 application sin the first half of 2005, more than the 122 we received in the entire 2004 calendar year,” said Wayne Farrand, supervisor of the DNR wastewater permits section.

Thousands of rural Iowans are concerned. They should be. To them, Birchmier offers these words to the wise. “Try to stop them before they’re built. Because once one’s there, the rest will come.”

Sidebar: CAFO Water Pollution

Aside from the obvious air pollution, CAFOs pose a threat to our state’s water supply. Underground concrete manure pits don’t always offer stalwart groundwater protection. Joints can leak and cracks can form in concrete. If a pit building’s concrete is laid in sand or gravel, leaking manure can easily migrate to water tables. Outdoor lagoons pose similar leakage problems. Shockingly, in Iowa, a 7-acre lagoon may legally leak as much as 16 million gallons of liquefied manure annually.

At present, 70 percent of Iowa’s streams are polluted, largely due to agricultural runoff. CAFOs certainly do little to remedy the problem. A recent survey of Iowa’s 5,600 manure pits found that 18 percent were built over alluvial aquifers, which are widely used drinking water sources that are highly vulnerable to contamination.

Research has shown that hog excrement contains many more pathogens than human waste, in addition to antibiotics, nutrients (nitrate and phosphorous), sediments, organic matter, heavy metals, hormones, antibiotics, and ammonia—all of which can pollute the water that Iowans swim and fish in. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that hog, chicken, and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. (25 million pounds) are fed to chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cattle in CAFOs. According to the EPA, as much as 80 percent of antibiotics administered orally to livestock pass through the animals unchanged into manure pits and lagoons, after which they are spread on croplands where they may run-off into waterways.

For excellent resources, visit the Jefferson County Farmers and Neighbors website.