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Hog farmers struggle to make ends 'meat'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 14, 2009 - Harold Beach's family has been raising hogs in Shelby County, Mo., for four generations. From 1972, when he bought his first 25 sows from his father, to 2008 when his son Matt bought him out, he has seen large agribusiness companies like Cargill and Smithfield take control over many areas of the pork industry.

"When I first started, I could call eight to 12 places that would buy pigs," Beach said. "I could pick and choose which bid was the best and I could sell pigs on any given day. Now, you call one place: Cargill. And you might wait three weeks to get your pigs in," he said.

This consolidation of the industry is one factor in driving smaller producers out of the business and in forcing larger producers into contracts with companies like Cargill. Agribusinesses favor contracts with industrial farms that raise thousands of animals in large buildings, often referred to as CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations). As a result, diversified farms that raise hogs alongside corn, soybeans and other livestock have been squeezed out of the market.

In many cases, a company, such as Cargill, owns the pigs throughout the supply chain, from birth to the time the pork arrives at the meat counter. And the farm contractor, not the company that owns the pigs, is responsible for disposing of waste and dead pigs that don't make it to the slaughterhouse. With fewer places to sell their pigs, the number of hog farmers in Missouri decreased by 90 percent between 1985 and 2004, but the number of hogs produced has remained steady, according to statistics from the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

The larger producers tout the technology and efficiency of their facilities. The pigs' environment is heated in the winter, cooled in the summer and protected from the elements. Parasites and mites are a thing of the past, says Don Nikodim, executive vice president of the Missouri Pork Association. The association includes large companies such as Cargill and Tyson, but Nikodim said members are pork producers of all sizes. He added that the association is active in youth programs such as 4H and Future Farmers of America.

"We're so fortunate here in the United States. We have the most abundant, least expensive, safest, healthiest food supply in the world," Nikodim said. In the pig business, he explained, corn and soybean meal is mixed with nutrients, fed to the pigs, and the pigs in turn produce an organic fertilizer that is used to grow more corn and soybeans.


Critics say that the picture the pork association presents is incomplete. Recent publications from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and the Union of Concerned Scientists say that industrial pig raising damages the environment, health, and economy of rural communities.

Plus, right now at least, there's too much pork.

"You can produce a lot of pork with minimal labor," said Beach of the large producers. "But we've gotten so good at producing pork, we can't eat it all." The U.S. Department of Agriculture buys surplus pork to help stabilize the price. Even so, prices remain low. "Right now you can buy a whole pork loin in a local grocery store for $1.49 a pound," said Beach. "You can't raise a pig for that."

But it's not just efficiency that allows big business to produce pork at such low prices. Because of government support of commodity crops, companies can buy feed for less than it costs to produce it. Small farmers who grow feed for their livestock absorb the full price of raising the crops.

Beyond the artificially low cost of feed and the purchase of surplus pork, taxpayers support large animal facilities through subsidies for environmental cleanup. While money for environmental cleanup is available to small producers, it is more difficult for them to wade through the paperwork, according to Rhonda Perry, an independent hog farmer and program director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

Perry argues that this industrial model for raising hogs is bad for farmers and consumers. The retail price of pork has gone up over the past 20 years, she said, but the percent that the family farmers get for each consumer dollar has fallen. "Some folks in the middle are really making out in this industrialized system," said Perry.

Then there are the environmental and health concerns.

Darvin Bentlage is not a hog farmer. He raises row crops and 100 head of Angus cattle on 1,160 acres in southwest Missouri. But his land is surrounded by hog and dairy "factory farms" and he and his family are often confronted with the smell. It's more than just a nuisance.

"It's not a manure smell," said Bentlage, a third-generation farmer. "It's got a very strong wang to it." This "wang," unlike the smell of manure that decomposes in the open air, comes from chemicals produced by the anaerobic decomposition of hog waste stored in million-gallon lagoons for as long as a year. These gases include ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, dangerous chemicals to breathe. "You don't walk out and sniff the air to see if you can smell it," said Bentlage. "It hits you."

Unlike those who own the industrial operations, Bentlage lives and works in the smell. "After about an hour or two I develop a headache. After three hours, I'll get a sore throat. And there have been times when I have to spend eight to 12 hours smelling that stuff. And I'll get nauseated and physically sick for a day or two."

Hydrogen sulfide at low concentrations can cause headache, dizziness, nausea, and respiratory irritation, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. In an April 2008 report, the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production cited studies that found increased rates of asthma, depression and fatigue among those living near "factory farms."

When the lagoons fill, the liquid manure is sprayed onto adjacent farmland as fertilizer. Manure can add important nutrients to soil, but CAFOs produce much more than nearby farmland can absorb. The excess ends up in creeks and streams, including those on Bentlage's property. He described recent water tests revealing E. coli counts 10 to 20 times higher than is considered safe for full body contact.

Another issue are the antibiotics given to the animals. The Pew Commission report expressed concern about the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the lax regulations on antibiotic use in livestock. Antibiotics can be added to feed without consulting a veterinarian. Antibiotics commonly used to fight disease in humans, including penicillins and tetracyclines, are added to feed to increase growth. No one knows exactly how much antibiotics are given to livestock in the United States, but different studies estimate that 30 to 70 percent of all antibiotics in the country are used in animal food production.


Against such industrial competition, how does the small independent hog farmer make a living?

"It's tough," said Perry, especially in terms of getting a fair and competitive marketplace. Anti-trust laws banning meat packers from owning the livestock would help prevent large corporations from controlling an entire sector of agriculture, she explained. "We're hopeful that (the Obama administration) is serious about real enforcement of anti-trust laws," Perry said. "Right now, the majority of pork that people buy is coming from a factory farm, unless they are specifically seeking out family farmers."

And there are consumers who do seek family farmers. "One trend we're seeing in the state is a move of family farmers away from the commodities marketplace and into producing local food for local markets," Perry said. "Farmers can get the biggest bang for their buck because they're able to get a retail price instead of a wholesale price."

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center supports a coop of hog farmers called Patchwork Family Farms that receives what Perry calls a fair price, often much higher than the market price, for pigs raised under certain conditions. That includes access to fresh air and sunshine and no antibiotics or confinement. "We do a direct mail business throughout the holidays," said Perry. "And we market to consumers and a large number of restaurants and grocery stores in mid-Missouri."

According to Perry, how the livestock is raised and who raises it matter, not just in health and environmental quality, but in the taste of the meat. People can taste the difference, she claims, between pork from a hog raised outside on the farm and a hog raised standing over its own waste for its entire life. "If there is a fair and open marketplace in which we can compete and consumers can have a choice, we think family farmers will win every time," she said.

The National Pork Producers Council argues, however, that implementing the Pew Commission's recommendations -- including a ban on certain antibiotics -- would raise the cost of producing hogs and meat prices for the consumer. In a May 2008 "Capital Pork Report," the council said banning sub-therapeutic antibiotics would increase the number of pigs that die from disease and increase the use of post-therapeutic drugs. The group also argues that the commission overlooked progress made in addressing many issues of health and environmental protection, pointing out its work with the Environmental Protection Administration on new federal water regulations.

"Pork producers have taken extensive steps over the last decade to address industry challenges," said 2008 council President Bryan Black in the "Capital Pork Report." A pork producer from Canal Winchester, Ohio, Black said, "We are constantly looking for better ways to raise our pigs, including protecting them from diseases, and we always have been good stewards of the land, air and water that we use."

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance writer and a 2009 Missouri Health Journalism Fellow.