othing gets under Brad Freking’s skin
quite so much as when people in northern Iowa call him a corporate farmer. “Like we’re these big guys from out of state,” he said to me ruefully. New Fashion’s headquarters are barely 20 miles from Estherville. In the conference room where we sat, Hormel Spirit of Excellence plaques stood lined up on the mantel above a wide fireplace, and Freking sipped from a Hormel mug. He is a wiry man in his forties, soft-spoken and careful in choosing his words. He freely admitted that he had been advised against our meeting, but he said there was nothing to hide so he wasn’t going to duck my questions. “Call us a little bit unique in that,” he said. Freking grew up on a 200-head hog farm in Jackson County, Minnesota, graduating from the local high school in 1986 at the very height of the worst agricultural downturn since the Great Depression. With no prospects for farming at the time, he went first to South Dakota State University, where he got a degree in animal science, then continued on to veterinary school at the University of Minnesota. In telltale signs At the Des Moines Water Works, a petri dish contains colonies of coliform bacteria.
1994, he came home with his wife to found New Fashion. “It started extremely small,” he told me, “producing about 16,000 pigs a year.” But Freking’s company grew more slowly and more strategically than his competitors, so the downturn in the hog industry in 1998 presented an unusual opportunity. “We were, financially, in a very good position at that time,” he said. “So we started acquiring distressed sow farms.” That’s why New Fashion’s operation is so geographically diverse. Freking bought failing breeding barns from the Rockies to the Great Lakes, building what he calls a “sow base.” In 2004, just as this period of acquisition was ending, Iowa began exempting big packers from its vertical integration laws. New Fashion Pork, with its sow base expanded from fewer than 1,000 to more than 50,000, joined in the boom, building as fast as it could and aggressively investing in every link of the supply chain. Today, New Fashion Pork not only raises 1.2 million hogs per year—about half of those in some 50 wean-to-finish facilities across northern Iowa—but also owns hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and dozens of feed mills. It produces so much manure that it now markets its own line of fertilizer injectors. The company has been recognized by Hormel Foods as one of its top suppliers of gilt hogs (young females), and New Fashion processes its 3 4 onearth
barrows (males) at its own packing plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, for export to Asia in partnership with four other producers, most notably Christensen Farms, under the name Triumph Foods. That plant processes 24,000 hogs per day, making it the second-largest hog kill in the United States. The result of all this integration, Freking told me, is that “we’re not only producing pigs. Now we’re producing pork.” The whole process is made possible by injecting cheap manure into cornfields. “It is a great model, if you think about it,” Freking said. “Here’s my farm, and I put my pig barn on my farm and then I take the organic nutrients out of that pig and put it on the farm to grow the corn to feed the pig. It’s very sustainable.” Freking allowed that not every company lives up to the standard he expects from his facilities, especially in cash-strapped times. “When I think about the acquisitions I did of failing farms,” he said, “most of them had environmental issues. That’s true from Wyoming to Indiana.” Still, given the construction standards imposed on waste pits and the piles of paperwork that must be completed to stay in compliance with the DNR, Freking and Moore both told me they saw no reason to believe that hog confinements contribute more to water contamination than small town water-treatment plants that flush their systems during flooding. Later, when I visited the laboratories at the Des Moines Water Works, I asked Dennis Hill, the DMWW’s microbiologist, about this argument. “Those little towns might as well straight-pipe their sewage to the river,” he scoffed. “Compared to what comes in from agriculture, it wouldn’t make any difference.”
scientists at the water works have been tracking steady increases in levels of nitrates and e. coli since the 1970s, when industrial agriculture hit its stride
ith its soaring, vaulted ceiling and
churchlike quiet, the filter building at the Des Moines Water Works can feel like a cathedral. Tucked into niches on either side of the tiled gallery, the filters themselves look like soaking pools at some longforgotten Turkish bath. But their green-hued waters are pumped in from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, then slowfiltered, up to 50,000 gallons at a time, through 100 tons of gravel and 130 tons of sand. Linda Kinman, the policy analyst and watershed advocate at DMWW, told me that this building has been in use since the 1940s. But the process it employs is ancient in its simplicity and has worked with time-tested efficiency—until recently. Scientists at the water works have been tracking steady increases in levels of nitrates and E. coli in the contributing watersheds since the 1970s, when industrial agriculture first hit its stride. But in the past decade those levels have started to pose greater and greater threats to public health, and last year the situation reached a crisis. The DMWW turned off its intakes from the two rivers and began drawing from alternative sources—lakes under its control, an aquifer storage system, the utility’s underground filtration and storage hold, and neighboring