Springtime in the countryside has a sweet, fresh aroma. But in this patch of northern Missouri, the spring air smells:
"Fermented," says Scott Hamilton.
"Stupefying," says Scott Dye.
"You go out in the morning and it will burn your eyes," warns Fred Torrey.
What they're describing are the odors emanating from a huge corporate hog operation run by Premium Standard Farms. The farm, called the Whitetail facility, has divided this small, rural community by bringing good jobs and bad air.
For years, family farm groups have warned of the dangers of this type of corporate agriculture. But their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
Now the rapid expansion of large, corporate livestock farms has given these groups a new weapon: noses.
Corporate farms are creating such a stink that regulators and activists are fighting back. Several states have stepped up air and water enforcement of these huge facilities. Some counties and even at least one state have banned construction of new super-farms until they figure out what to do. And activists are suing existing facilities for environmental degradation of the land.
There are no easy answers. Economic logic suggests corporate livestock farms - food factories, really - may well represent the future of animal agriculture. But anybody's nose would tell a different story. Hog farms are generating the most pungent debate.
Cruising along a rural highway that borders the Whitetail facility, farmer Rolf Christen stops his minivan and rolls down the window. A cool breeze wafts in that smells like hogs, only deeper and more fermented.
"It makes you so darn, cotton-pickin' mad," he says. "I live eight miles away from a facility and these guys claim that they can do this."
THE smell isn't constant. It depends on things like wind direction, temperature, and humidity. Some days, especially the warm and muggy ones, smell worse than others.
"Sometimes it's like an old outhouse on a hot summer day," says Lynn McKinley, who farms with her husband next to the Whitetail facility.
"Sometimes it's like someone getting a perm next to you - the ammonia is so strong."
And then there's the occasional knockout smell: "The only way I could describe it is hot, cooked, rotten pork," she adds.
Environmental activists, such as Mr. Dye, whose mother lives next to the facility, worry that the smells signal that a worse pollution is taking place. "It isn't just that this stuff is unpleasant," he says. "It's dangerous.... These people are the biggest agricultural polluters in Missouri history."
Premium Standard Farms is certainly big. It produces 1.6 million hogs a year. It operates on 40,000 acres in three counties here in Missouri. It employs 2,200 workers who earn some $45 million a year.
The company's arrival in 1989 sparked a mini-boom in the area.
"It's worked real well for Mercer County," says Michael Greenlee, mayor of nearby Princeton, Mo. Between 1980 and 1990, the county lost a fifth of its population. With the arrival of Premium Standard Farms, the population has risen 7 percent. "Ten years ago you could walk in this town and buy anyone's house," the mayor says. "Now, you can't find a house to buy."
Company officials deny that they're polluters. "This is a very sustainable system," says Mr. Hamilton, the company's environmental systems manager. "It does work."
In fact, the company does far more rigorous testing of its soil, water, and crops than any private farmer would. The company did pay stiff fines to the state of Missouri after clogged pipes caused its discharge system to back up, sending thousands of gallons of manure- and urine-tainted water into nearby creeks, killing fish. It also had initial problems with applying too much hog manure to its land, causing its harvested hay to be too rich in nutrients.
The company claims it has solved those problems. "I can't say there's not going to be a hidden bullet," Hamilton says. So far, though, there's no evidence the system is polluting the land or the water, he adds.
Odor remains the company's biggest environmental challenge, company officials concede.
And, unlike soil and water pollution, which has been studied for decades, scientists know little about how odors travel or even which compounds can create the worst smells.
"It's not so much a failure of the system," says Jerry Hatfield, a US Agriculture Department scientist who's studying the problem in Ames, Iowa. "It's the failure of the lack of a knowledge base. Science is going to give us solutions to this, but it may not be at the speed that people want."
In the meantime, rural America is left with this ethical riddle. Should it encourage huge operations to come in, create jobs, and produce livestock that is scientifically consistent? Or is the risk of long-lasting pollution too great to ignore?