Hog Plant Both Boon and Burden for Farmers

By: DAN MIHALOPOULOS
State Capital Bureau

May 09, 1995

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UNIONVILLE, Mo. _ Scott Dye wants his family's 110-year-old farm returned to the way it was.

"This was my sanctuary," he said. "It hurts that I can't come up here and have the tranquility I used to enjoy."

The Columbia resident grew up on his family's farm in Lincoln Township, near the Iowa state line, before moving to central Missouri to work. Dye intended to move back to work the land full time and raise his children.

Those plans changed when Premium Standard Farms _ and its 80,000 sows _ moved next door. The smell of swine makes it difficult to remain outdoors or hang clothes out to dry. PSF land now flanks the Dye farm on three sides.

Dye's property line represents a battle front in the national debate over the future of rural America. The struggle pits so-called megaproducers like PSF against small, family farmers.

The controversy is focused on tiny Lincoln Township and other northern Missouri communities where PSF raises 1.6 million hogs _ nearly 2 percent of the national total _ each year.

"What is happening in Lincoln Township is happening all across the country," said Roger Allison, executive director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "This is a question of what kind of agriculture we want in America."

The prevailing trend, from North Carolina to northern Missouri, favors huge corporate farms. The megaproducers oversee hog production from birth to the grocery story. Their continued expansion is forcing family hog raisers out of business, experts say.

"Somebody grows, somebody else is out," said James Rhodes, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at M.U. "Family farming is a strong tradition in this country. It's gradually going out because of the industrialization of the livestock industry. It's fighting a losing battle."

Corporate farming foes say the megaproducers also damage the environment and create a health hazard.

But to those who have found jobs with PSF, the odor is the smell of money. PSF has helped revive the severely depressed local economy of an impoverished area.

"This is the most unambiguously positive thing to happen to rural Missouri in 20 years," said Dennis DePietre, a swine specialist with the University of Missouri-Columbia's extension service.

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The most common complaint about corporate hog farming is that the intolerable stench can carry more than 10 miles from the barns and waste lagoons.

"You can't even go out, mow the grass, feed the cows," said Gary Perkins, a Sullivan County farmer. "You can't stand it. You're a prisoner in your own home."

The smell's severity varies depending on the weather. At worst, PSF's neighbors say they suffer nausea and vomiting. They said it's hard to predict when the stench will wash over their farms, forcing them to shutter their windows.

"You go to bed and the wind is not blowing in your direction, then you wake up at midnight gagging," said farmer Dennis Foster of Sullivan County.

Many residents are wary of the methods PSF uses to handle the tons of animal waste the hogs produce.

Corporate hog producers channel animal waste into lagoons or spray the effluent over land surrounding the barns.

Terry Spence, a farmer and spokesman for Lincoln Township's anti-PSF effort, said the lagoons could contaminate ground water.

"I'm not convinced that 2 feet of compacted clay will hold water," Spence said.

Most important, the rise of the megaproducers is putting small hog farmers out of business.

Large-scale hog raisers such as PSF are vertically integrated, which means that they have control over every aspect of production and processing, including meat packing. Small hog farmers are elbowed out of the market.

"Small farmers will have to find something else to do to make a living," said M.U. extension economist John Ikerd.

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M.U.'s DePietre disagreed with his colleague. DePietre said PSF isn't putting anyone out of business, at least not in northern Missouri.

"The little guy was already long gone when PSF got there," he said.

Five years ago, the region was reeling from the latest blow in a century-long slump _ the farm crisis of the early 1980s.

All economic indicators pointed south:

@ The area's population had dropped continuously since 1900.

@ A third of the families still living there had a total annual income of less than $10,000.

@ Mercer County, now PSF's operating base, saw its pig population plummet from 40,000 in the early 1970s to 6,000 within two decades.

@ The county lost a fifth of its inhabitants between 1980 and 1990. The number of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 fell 58 percent.

Enter PSF, founded in 1989 in the basement of a Princeton, Mo., bar. The megaproducer now oversees 1,100 workers from its gleaming headquarters on the prairie, five miles from the revitalized Mercer County seat.

The lowest-paying job at PSF _ the "power washer" position _ pays about $14,000 a year. PSF officials say many employees who began cleaning out barns quickly advanced to management-level positions paying more than $40,000 a year.

"This is not your typical, oppressive corporate agriculture operation," DePietre said. "Now young people can go back home and have a viable income.

Mercer County's population is increasing for the first time since the turn of the century. Princeton is PSF's showcase, like a vision out of a rustic "Brave New World."

PSF took over the town's abandoned power house and converted the brick shell into a classy "pork showcase restaurant" where the chefs don tall, mushroom-shaped hats.

Across the road, PSF built an apartment complex equipped with central air conditioning and an outdoor swimming pool.

The megaproducer also donated the concrete for new sidewalks in the bustling town square. Businesses occupy nearly every storefront in the town center.

In the mid-1980s there wasn't a single bank in town. Now, there are three.

"It would be hard to say PSF did not improve the quality of life for a majority of the people in the area," PSF spokesman Charlie Arnot said.

PSF officials know that industrialization is changing the rural way of life, and they are proud of it.

"People have always associated the rural way of life with family farms," Arnot said. "We've got to look at alternative models of production to provide that way of life."

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The new rural way of life, however, isn't the Norman Rockwell painting most associate with small-town America.

Scott Dye said PSF's arrival has polarized the Lincoln Township community between corporate farming's friends and foes.

"People who've lived side by side for 120, 130 years won't wave to each other on the highway or go to the same church anymore," he said.

There's no denying that PSF gave work to the jobless, Dye said. But he believes northern Missouri has entered into a Faustian agreement with the megaproducer.

"At first, with the economy so bad, that $8.50 an hour looked pretty good," Dye said. "But many people won't do it for any money because they want this way of life."



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