Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Plans that Stink to Hog Heaven

When it comes to Confined Animal Farming Operations (aka. Factory Farming) there are not too many land uses that can rival the ecological, social and resource impacts that these facilities bear upon a community. In spite of that, these facilities have become ever more prevalent as a handful of powerful food conglomerates have brought the promise of improved local economies to poor rural counties across the US. In recent years, many planning departments (including my old one) have had to grapple with this subject.

this in North Dakota:

EDMORE, N.D. - North Dakota is prime ground for growing hogs. "It has lots of agricultural land, lots of grain and lots of open space ," said Kevin Tyndall, a consultant from Canadian hog producer Hytek.

Paul Ivesdal, an Edmore farmer, agrees. "I'd like to see 1 million hogs in our school district," he said. "We could site a hog operation in each township."

That's a lofty goal, considering that Ivesdal has unsuccessfully attempted to get one 21,000-hog operation approved. Viking Feeders LLC, a group of local investors that has Ivesdal as its general manager, is still negotiating with Ramsey County, which wants to impose stricter regulations than the state. Frustrated by a year's delay, Ivesdal said he might move his proposed hog operation a mile north, into Cavalier County. He said Viking Feeders also is considering a switch to a 5,000-sow farrowing operation rather than the 21,000-hog business that finishes the animals and sends them to market.

One million hogs as developmental goal? On a limited aquifer?

At least it makes more sense than this:

FRESNO – California cows parachute into Nevada, after leaving their former pastures and barns “knee deep in crud.”Say, what?That scene is depicted in a tongue-in-cheek marketing film circulated by the state of Nevada to try to attract dairies to move there.“It’s a great environment; not just for cows but all sorts of businesses,” notes Nevada Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt.The short film has been circulating amid farm groups in the nation’s leading dairy state, where milk sales top $5 billion.
As if operating a water intensive land use in a semi-arid region with limited seasonal rainfall makes little environmental sense, operating it in a true desert makes no sense whatsoever.

The real problem with use of factory farming as a developmental tool is the discounting of environmental and social costs of such operations and the lack of consideration given to the resource impacts that such facilities place on their surroundings.

Animals defecate just as we do. One hog alone will produce an average of 17.5 pounds of waste per day. Yet CAFOs are not required to treat their waste to the same level as human sewage. They just have to ensure it stays sequestered on the property until it can be dried and sprayed onto the fields. (Sometimes they fail even at this task). Nor are there any standards when applying the dried wastes back onto the fields. It is one thing to carefully apply treated or composted manure onto a field as needed, it is another thing altogether to apply it wholesale as a disposal option and hope that whatever is growing there will take it up and use it without running off or leaching into the groundwater. As it stands now, run off from the over-application of chemical fertilizers is a known cause of water pollution. Why would it be any different from over-application of dried pig crap? Close concentration of animals likewise creates air pollution as well, particularly from the particulates and volatile organic compounds that originate when so many animals and their wastes are kept in tight quarters.

If someone proposed a land use that resulted in close concentration of one million people in a similarly confined space (and aside from Nazi style concentration camps few such examples even exist) you can be assured that serious provisions would have to be made to handle the inevitable air and water impacts.

Also very much neglected in industrial agriculture as a whole is consideration of social impacts. Factory farming is too often touted as a major investment (in positive terms) for a rural economy. That may be true during construction as well as over the long term for the owner of the operation and affiliated businesses (e.g. dairy equipment vendor). It certainly is not the case for the rest of the region, particularly if meat processing is part of the equation. Like many other menial tasks in this country, meat processing has joined the “race to the bottom” when it comes to pay and working conditions. While butchery has never been a glamorous profession, the jobs in the past were at least were unionized and paid a family wage. Not so any more. Now offering wages barely above minimum wage, meat packers struggle to attract American workers. So these firms have been forced by their own miserable pay scales to turn to immigrants used to even worse conditions to fill these jobs. The arrangement is quite suitable for the packers and CAFO’s; their labor expenditures are relatively low. But people, unlike the pigs or cows, are not warehoused. They drive cars and live in houses and send their kids to schools. In essence, they consume many of the same (limited) resources that we do and in greater amounts than had they remained in their country of origin. They also place additional demands on the community such as the need for free medical care, extra linguistic assistance and increased criminal justice expenditures due to their low level of socio-economic achievement caused by their sub-par employment. Does corporate farming pay for any of this? Nope. That is some “investment” program.

But most importantly, CAFOs perpetuate the energy and resource intensive nature of industrialized agriculture. These facilities consume huge quantities of fossil fuel energy directly or indirectly by their operation. Envision the entire process from feed growing to waste disposal and you can better understand this. A New York study found that 77% of all energy consumed the average NY dairy originated from fossil fuels (and that neglected to consider the fossil fuels embodied in the supplied feed). A cow will use on average 200-400 KW of electricity over the course of a year while your standard large dairy may consume more than one megawatt in the course of one day. In recent years some have begun to recapture some of the methane to power generators, but in most cases they fail to break even on their own electrical demands, let alone generate additional electricity. Other livestock operations may demand less electricity or fuels to run, owing to the absence of milking facilities but are nevertheless, large energy consumers. Factory farms also consume large quantities of water as well, which calls into question the wisdom of their location in dry areas such as Central California, the upper Great Plains or Nevada. Dairy farming in particular is pretty insidious in its water usage where by the water is pulled off out of depleting aquifers and exported out of the area in the form of milk and meat. Furthermore, by reducing the price of meat to the consumer, they encourage increased consumption which consumes ever more resources in turn. This is a no-brainer really.

Once these resources are depleted, then what? Run the whole system on bio-fuels, bio-gas, solar power and thermal depolymerization? That’s pretty doubtful.

Thanks to cheap and abundant fossil fuels, asinine agricultural subsidies and price supports, suspect environmental standards, governmental acquiescence to unfettered immigration to keep labor costs low, extreme concentration by a small number of agri-businesses and the overall inability to consider the costs beyond the next fiscal year we wound up with the factory farm as the model of “modern agriculture.” For the reasons, discussed above, it is a faulty model and one with a questionable future. Quite simply, the pursuit of CAFO’s by strapped jurisdiction makes little sense now and almost none in a world of declining resources.

Yet here we are, approaching crunch time while still moving full speed ahead in pursuit of cheap meat. My former jurisdiction (the nation’s number one dairy county) was hesitant to even consider some form of cow cap, lest that interfere with the ag interests. Review of dairy projects failed to even consider the issue of resource consumption by the proposed operation or cumulatively. No doubt, the same attitude is replicated elsewhere in the US. Too bad the idea stinks as much as one of these:


Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

Ahem.  You mean "200-400 kWh/year" (kilowatt-hours per year), and ditto MWh (megawatt-hours).  Outside of real esoterica, "kilowatts per year" is both meaningless and wrong.

2/23/2006 7:23 PM  
Blogger UNplanner said...

Thanks! Thats why I am not the engineer. I understand the concepts but fail to express them correctly

2/23/2006 9:55 PM  
Blogger Tim of Suburbia said...


If you would like a Newsvine invite, I have some available, just send me an email at and I will send you one.

2/24/2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

A kilowatt is about 1.3 horsepower; if you can't substitute "horsepower" for "kilowatts" in a sentence without making it meaningless, you've used the wrong unit.

Re Newsvine:  I received an invite from Tim there.  Newsvine doesn't even let you look at their policies until you make an account (and maybe not then; I refused).  I prefer to deal with companies which are transparent, not opaque.

2/25/2006 10:28 AM  

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