What’s That Smell?

Hog Confinement Operations, Rural Nebraska, and the Farm Life turned Agribusiness in the Land of the Good Life

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I had pleasure of meeting Tim Nissen in April of 2007. On one of the first warm spring days, Ande and I drove up to northeastern Nebraska to take pictures and tour the upstart vineyard he cultivates with his brother near Bow Valley, Nebraska. (The article I wrote about the vineyard is forthcoming in a book called Renewing the Countryside, set for publication in Spring 2008. It profiles people under 35 who are living and working in the rural United States.)

The Catholic School in Bow Valley. The town is unincorporated.

They’re making grape, plum, and choke cherry wines using organic and sustainable practices, and Tim prides himself in being a progressive and invested member of his local community.

Tim in one of his vineyards.

The northeastern corner of Nebraska, near both the South Dakota border and Sioux City, IA, is hilly and very fertile, and yet it still is subject to the same large-scale row cropping of corn and soybeans as the flatter regions to the west. And besides high-fructose corn syrup and the illusory gold of ethanol, those grains are grown especially to fatten up cattle and hogs.

A small part of a very large feedlot near West Point, NE taken at 65 miles per hour.

I received this email from Tim a couple of days ago:

These pics are of a confinement south west of Hartington. When it was built a couple years ago it was hailed as the “Nebraska Model” – a state of the art facility that doesn’t stink and is neighbor friendly. I think it helps explain why folk living south of town are sick and tired of hog confinements. As Mike says – what a wonderful place to live and raise a family. The dumpster was sitting there for over a week!!
Next week there is going to be a zoning board meeting to add yet another barn south of Hartington. We already have over 20,000 head of livestock with in three miles of Hartington. It is very close to town and near several families, one with serious health issues…… In industrial livestock fashion people are meaning less and are just in the way of “progress”.

The view down the road. Close-ups to follow.

Logic does hold that if you put a bunch of animals in the same place and keep them there, it will start to smell. Shit stinks. Having grown up with cattle, I can assure you that cleaning out the innermost part of the barn, at about the five foot distance from the feed bunks where a cow’s derriere is situated during feeding, is full of the resplendent odor of ammonia and a decidedly pungent “earthiness.” But my parents’ cattle eat grass — remember that one? “Cow eat grass“? — and so while the smell may be strong, it is by no means sickening. What we are talking about here is a very different animal, indeed.

To market! To market! To buy a fat pig!

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also referred to as confinement operations, though less so by their proponents than by their neighbors, are facilities designated by the EPA as areas where

  • You confine animals for at least 45 days in a 12-month period, AND
  • There’s no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season.

Cow is definitely not eating grass. Instead, the farmer-cum-business manager trucks a mix of grains, particularly corn and soybeans, along with a cocktail of antibiotics and steroids to the pens full of animals, and they are confined there to fatten until they are sent to the slaughterhouse. They are renowned in Middle America for the absolutely awful odor that emanates from them and radiates especially in whichever direction the wind may be blowing.

When my parents were first married, they lived in the small Mennonite community of Milford, NE, where my mother taught English and German at the high school while my father worked on his dissertation. They established a solid relationship with the dentist, so that even years after they’d moved from Milford to Lincoln, they still went out to Milford for the dentist. There happens to be a large beef feed lot on the highway in to town, and my brother and I would try as hard as we could to hold our noses for the mile of driving by it, generally only to find that when we’d passed by, the smell was still blowing in our direction. Trips to the dentist, for me, are thus permanently associated with the smell of CAFOs. While I was in my last semester at Brown, a 2,000 ton pile of manure on this feedlot caught fire, and had been burning for three solid months by the time it hit the front page of CNN.com and other news outlets through the AP.

No sir, those are not the Rockies. That’s a smoking stack of shit.

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The feedlot as seen with Google satellite imagery

CAFOs, with their associated sewage lagoons, have such an impact on the plat they sit on that it is generally held that their “life expectancy” is about 10 years. After that, the land, just as the other post-industrial Superfund sites with which it has so much in common, is uninhabitable and certainly not arable. Even while in operation, the runoff — laden with antibiotics required to keep so many confined animals from getting sick — pollutes nearby water, ruining drinking water supplies for neighbors and similarly increasing the human resistance to antibiotics. Thus, the pre-industrial model of animals automatically fertilizing the fields on which they are grazing has been perverted by a system in which massive quantities of manure become an environmental hazard. (Much more on the impact of hog CAFOs in this excellent report.)

This all, however, pales in comparison to the jarring visual of the hog confinement near Tim Nissen. Antibiotics may not always be enough to keep every animal in the confinement healthy. Sometimes, animals just die. But on the old model of a family farm, this animal would likely be taken out to a spot somewhere to decompose naturally. True, this may have left harmful bacteria in that spot, but at least the impact was minimal, and naturally grazing animals likely know to avoid it. That was also coupled with a far lesser likelihood that animals would die of anything but old age or slaughter. In a CAFO situation, however, there is no pasture to which an animal might be taken to decompose. Every last square foot possible is dedicated to the buildings which thereby house the maximum amount of animals, thus leaving merely a dumpster in and on which to pile dead pigs.

There are many fine books and essays on the subject of CAFOs and of agriculture, food systems, the politics of agribusiness, and the environmental impacts of industrial farms. Writings by Michael Pollan, including The Ominvore’s Dilemma and his essay for the New York Times Magazine entitled “You Are What You Grow“, and pastured livestock farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia are an excellent starting point.

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