Agribusiness in the Heartland Goes Hog-Wild Over Pigs

'CORPORATE farming stinks!'' -- a cry of embattled family farmers nationwide -- sounds today from farms across Iowa with a double-barreled urgency.

Agribusiness is buying up cornfields and building dozens of huge, highly mechanized complexes that each year methodically turn out tens of thousands of swine apiece.

The corporate ''pig cities'' exude a nose-searing stench that, to family farmers, signifies a harsh, price-busting efficiency driving thousands of smaller farms out of business.

Iowa is center stage today for the steady growth in corporate control of many forms of agriculture in the United States.

White-collar managers of giant United States farms are shaking up the political, social, and economic order in the countryside by rechanneling the wealth yielded from the earth, say agricultural experts.

The rapidly changing hog industry in Iowa epitomizes how the rise of agribusiness threatens smaller, less-efficient family farms and often triggers discord among residents of farming towns.

''We're struggling with the challenges and trying to adjust to the changes, but there are no easy answers,'' says Stan Watne, a member of the board of supervisors in north-central Iowa's Wright County, a major target of expansion in pork production.

''Industrial hog production is a big test of whether we as a society want industrial agriculture or many diversified family farmers,'' says Barbara Grabner of PrairieFire Rural Action, a farm advocacy group in Des Moines. ''Right after this hog battle will be corporate battles over dairies, cattle, and ultimately grain.''

Giant corporate farms have long benefited consumers and challenged traditional farms by producing poultry and other goods at remarkably low prices. But the shock from agribusiness is especially jarring for the $12 billion hog industry of Iowa, the No. 1 pork-producing state.

Porkers outnumber Iowans by more than 4 to 1. The beasts have historically occupied a blue-ribbon place in the economy, politics, and folklore of Iowans.

Consequently, many Iowa farmers face financial and emotional strain as hog farming undergoes the same turbulent transformation that has roiled other agriculture businesses, especially poultry.

Because of advances in combatting viruses, agribusiness can today produce pork on an unprecedented scale.

The sprawling, antiseptic megafarms steadily churn out waves of pigs in the tens of thousands. These pork producers have ''vertically integrated'' their operations, squeezing out excess costs by controlling the production of uniform pork from farrowing to plastic grocery packaging.

The mass-production efficiency last year helped plunge US pork prices to their lowest level in two decades. From 1985 until 1994, the number of hogs nationwide rose 46 percent but the number of hog farmers shrank 14 percent, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Last year, some 4,000 Iowans quit raising hogs.

In Wright County and many rural areas the growth of corporate farms has revived a longstanding mistrust of the stereotypical rich outlander who, through shrewd investment, profits from the work of others, say experts.

Robert Engh, who raises corn, soybeans, and 1,200 hogs in Goldfield, Iowa, on 800 acres first plowed by his grandfather, is stuck in the middle of a rising tide of corporate hog farming.

In recent years, agribusinesses have either built or announced plans to construct seven complexes for more than 50,000 hogs within a 10-mile radius surrounding the Engh home. On muggy days, the smell from huge, 30-foot-deep waste lagoons is especially cutting.

The Enghs avoid going outside when the hog farms fertilize their cornfields by spewing the waste 40 feet in the air. ''The smell will knock you flat,'' says Mr. Engh who, after raising hogs all his life, had thought he had grown accustomed to the stench.

Engh is more disturbed by the shaky market for his pigs. Since the corporate hog boom started, the price of pork has slumped far below his break-even point. He has sometimes failed to sell his pigs because processors favor signing high-volume contracts for the uniform meat produced by the automated corporate farms.

Adding insult to injury, some investors have built the megafarms with little regard for traditional neighborly propriety. Residents say they often learn of a company's planned complex only when bulldozers are plowing cornfields into waste lagoons.

When several of Engh's neighbors tried to outbid livestock developer Austin ''Jack'' DeCoster for farmland, Mr. DeCoster clinched the purchase with a cash bid said to be 40 percent higher.

DeCoster has so far developed 10 sites for poultry production and 20 sites for hog farming in Wright and two adjacent counties, says Myron Lawler, the construction supervisor for DeCoster Farms of Iowa. DeCoster leases the hog sites to Iowa Select Farms, a corporate hog producer.

Farmers and social advocates charge DeCoster Farms with being a prime perpetrator of the strong-arm tactics, environmental degradation, and relentless expansion of hog barons today.

DeCoster has apparently seen his ambitions in Iowa sullied somewhat because of awareness that he employed illegal aliens and broke environmental laws at his farm of 2.7 million egg-laying hens in Turner, Maine. Last year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources fined DeCoster and his company a total of $8,500 for three violations of waste-water laws and one violation of an air-pollution regulation.

DeCoster declined to be interviewed. But Mr. Lawler said DeCoster Farms strives to abide by environmental and employment regulations. He attributes popular concern about company operations to ''fear of the unknown.''

''Any time you have rapid change ... it causes quite a social stir and changes things dramatically,'' Lawler says.

Experts differ over whether the benefits from corporate agriculture outweigh the costs. They agree that consumers see significantly lower prices and communities immediately surrounding the megafarms enjoy rising incomes. Indeed, in Wright County, recent agribusiness investment has generated 200 jobs and ''tremendous growth'' in tax revenues, Mr. Watne says.

But there are hard-to-gauge costs to family farmers and communities because of the collapse of farms that cannot compete with the huge hog complexes. In a measure of both the extreme efficiency and disruptions of agribusiness, a recent controversial study by the University of Missouri estimates that each new job in corporate hog production wipes out three jobs in traditional hog farming.

When traditional hog farms fail, the economies of many dispersed rural towns lose a prime source of spending on feed, fuel, insurance, and other businesses.

Instead, revenues and profits are increasingly concentrated among megafarm communities and distant shareholders. Nationwide, the percentage of hogs raised by producers who send 50,000 head or more to market each year has risen from 7 percent in 1988 to as much as 17 percent today. The proportion could double by 2000, says Glenn Grimes, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri.

Rather than fall before the agricultural ''manufacturers,'' many family farmers have joined corporate enterprises as contract growers of pork and other products.

Under some contracts, farmers can reduce the high risks stemming from wild swings in commodity prices. But some contract growers -- especially those in the highly consolidated poultry industry -- have become highly dependent on huge corporate buyers. Their incomes have perilously shrunk as the corporations, facing keen competition, cut costs by slashing what amount to piece-rate commissions.

Mary Clouse of the Rural Advancement Foundation International in Pittsboro, N.C., says contract hog farmers will suffer the same income squeeze as contract poultry growers. ''When the hog corporations finally get all the contract producers out there that they want, then they will start to tighten the screws.''

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