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of at least 7.5 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuels by 2012, creating an overnight demand for ethanol—and therefore for corn. The market price quadrupled, encouraging farmers to plant more and more rows into already overplanted fields. The steep jump in feed prices tipped many struggling hog operations toward bankruptcy. To stabilize the market, several meatpackers were granted exemptions to state laws prohibiting them from owning livestock or feed crops—which brought in out-of-state dollars but also touched off a boom in CAFO-building financed by some of the nation’s largest hog producers. In 2000, 38 permits had been issued statewide to construct or expand animal confinements large enough to require permitting by the DNR; by 2006, the number had vaulted to 318. Iowa now has more than 8,500 factory farms, and is by far the country’s biggest hog producer. More than 18 million of its 20 million hogs are raised in CAFOs—most owned by or under exclusive contract to industry giants such as Smithfield, Cargill, Tyson, or Hormel. To support this boom, however, the industry needed buyers. The fiercest competition has been for expanding Asian markets, which is why Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, and other Midwest governors have made repeated overtures to Japan, China, and South Korea—which collectively import more than $3 billion worth of American pork each year. In April 2013, Branstad met with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing; two months later, representatives from Hebei Province attended the World Pork Expo in Des Moines and struck a deal not only to buy more Iowa hogs but also to learn breeding and herd management techniques. Industry leaders and politicians alike have trumpeted the jobs created by these growing partnerships with China, but the rapid expansion of the hog industry to meet export demand has had a devastating effect on Iowa’s waterways. With farmers now plowing under vegetation and planting every available acre to corn, soil is eroding at an accelerating rate. And when precious topsoil is lost during spring melt and heavy rains, farmers apply more fertilizer to jump-start the crop. According to David Goodner, a spokesman for the watchdog group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Iowa’s factory farms now produce well over five billion gallons of liquid manure a year. The laws governing application of manure may mask the problem by reducing the level of harmful gases in the air, he said, but vast quantities of waste are being injected directly into the drought-stricken and highly erodible soil. The ground simply can’t hold all the nitrates and bacteria being produced by so many hogs.


ay Lausen is soft-spoken, with wispy blond

hair and a shy smile. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who goes looking for trouble, but when New Fashion Pork applied to build a hog confinement less than a mile from his home in 2011, he decided to put up a fight. Lausen’s roots run deep around Estherville, Iowa, a small farming community a few miles from the Minnesota border. His family’s century farm is just six miles from where he and his wife are homeschooling their four children, in the same house where Lausen grew up with his four older siblings. Before New Fashion purchased the 160 acres where it intended to build, Lausen had farmed the land himself, renting it from a neighbor. He knew the spine-like ridge dividing the acreage was critical to the 3 2 onearth

spring 2014

close quarters Hog barns like this one owned by New Fashion Pork typically house 1,000 or more animals.

just as jay lausen suspected,the plan called for injecting the contents of fields as fertilizer, including the 50 acres watershed. While he had farmed the east side, he had enrolled the west side, some 50 acres, in the Conservation Reserve Program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take environmentally sensitive land out of crop production by paying farmers to instead plant native grasses, windbreaks along property lines, and evergreens to hold soil along waterways. Even with the improved ground cover, a serpentine gully cut across the acreage toward the southwest fence corner, where runoff pooled and swelled into a culvert that drained into the West Fork of the Des Moines River, about half a mile away. Large sections of the river in Emmet County had been on the DNR’s list of impaired waterways for years, so when the landlord said she intended to put the property up for auction in November 2011, Lausen hoped the department would snap it up. After all, it had bought adjacent land on two sides and even paid to undercut the dirt road to reestablish natural drainage as part of a wetland restoration program. But when the auction came around after Thanksgiving of that year, the DNR was nowhere to be found. The high bid came from New Fashion Pork. When Lausen called the department to discuss the building plans, he found that the company intended to erect a 2,400-head wean-tofinish operation. However, the state doesn’t count livestock by heads

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways

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