It's time for a moratorium on factory farms

Emma Schmit is an Iowa organizer for Food & Water Watch, and Adam Mason is State Policy Organizing Director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. -promoted by Laura Belin

It’s time for a moratorium on factory farms in Iowa. The stakes are high: the future of our rural communities and family farms, the quality of our drinking water, and our democracy hang in the balance.

Profits from small family farms are reinvested in local communities. Profits from factory farms end up on Wall Street.

The independent family farm was once the heart of rural Iowa. Rural communities with more small and medium-sized farms have higher incomes, lower unemployment, and lower income inequality–in short, more shared prosperity–than do communities with factory farms. Profits from a small, family-owned farm are spent in local grocery stores, feed mills, restaurants, and clothing stores. They support and strengthen civic associations–volunteer fire departments, local charities, PTA’s. These businesses and organizations, also owned or run by local people, in turn, invest their profits in the community and provide vital community services. Everyone benefits.

Profits from factory farms end up on Wall Street. Often, the farmer is paid for raising the animals, but the animals belong to a corporate meatpacker–and that corporation pockets the vast majority of the profits. Over the past three decades, the Iowa counties that sold the most hogs and had the largest hog farms had slower growth in median household income and declining numbers of local businesses and retail sales compared to the statewide average.

And Iowa’s small family farms are disappearing fast. It’s get-big-or-get-out: between 1982 and 2012, the number of hog farms in Iowa plunged by 86 percent, while the average number of hogs per farm increased more than 10-fold, from just under 500 to more than 7,000. This get-big-or-get-out scenario and the resulting loss of independent family farms has facilitated a flight from rural parts of our state.

Factory farms are no different than coal barons of Appalachia or the big bank CEOs on Wall St. They drain the wealth from our rural places for the benefit of distant shareholders, who do not reinvest their profits in local communities.

Not a drop to drink…

Our drinking water is increasingly at risk. Nitrates, which have been linked to birth defects and certain cancers, are an ever-present threat. Our largest water utility, the Des Moines Water Works, consistently struggles to treat for high levels of nitrates. At the time of its construction in 1991 for $4.1 million dollars, the utility’s nitrate removal system was the world’s largest facility of its kind. It’s fine to be proud of this technological feat, but the dirty little secret is that manure from the millions of animals confined upstream of Des Moines required the construction of a system like this.

And nearly 200 additional community water systems in Iowa struggle to treat for high levels of nitrates; nitrate levels exceeded federal standards in eleven of our public water supplies in 2015. We pay for this with our tax dollars and our health.

County leaders are powerless to protect residents.

County supervisors should serve as the last line of defense in protecting their residents from the onslaught of factory farms, but the loss of meaningful local control has left their hands tied. The master matrix is nothing more than a rubber stamp, and all but 2 percent of applications have passed it. County supervisors in many of Iowa’s counties, both rural and urban, have had enough. Nearly a quarter of Iowa’s counties have passed resolutions demanding local control or a moratorium on factory farms. State lawmakers should not ignore this growing movement.

Iowa has a factory farm problem, but we also have a democracy problem.

Many of our elected officials line their pockets with contributions from the ag industry, making them no longer accountable to us, their constituents. Agribusiness interests spent lavishly in the 2018 election. The Iowa Farm Bureau essentially bought the secretary of agriculture race. Up and down the ballot, industry endorses and funnels donations to candidates who are willing to do their bidding.

Make no mistake: if our elected officials are bought off by Big Ag, they are no longer working for us, and that’s evident in their refusal to rein in this industry even as it destroys our state.

It’s time for a moratorium.

We can’t wait any longer. A moratorium on factory farms is the only real solution to the crisis facing our rural communities, family farms, drinking water, and our democracy. This crisis worsens with every passing year. It’s time for our elected officials to take bold action to protect us. The general assembly must pass a moratorium on new and expanded factory farms during the 2019 legislative session.

  • I regularly follow Big Ag media...

    …and their ongoing Yay For Hoglots Anthem, sung loudly at every opportunity, has six basic stanzas. The first stanza is that building new hoglots is the only way that farmers’ beloved children can afford to get into agriculture. The second stanza that the hog manure is badly-needed as fertilizer and is great for soil. The third stanza is that the hog industry in Iowa is hugely important to Iowa’s economy and employs lots of Iowans.

    The fourth stanza is that hoglot life is wonderful for hogs and hogs just love it. The fifth stanza is that people who don’t like hoglots are mean uncaring people who don’t want everyone in the world to be able to enjoy cheap pork. And the sixth stanza is that hoglot owners and operators are fine upstanding people who make sure that their rural neighbors don’t suffer any adverse effects because they, the hoglot owners and operators plant trees and shrubs! Site their hoglots according to wind direction! Do everything they can to reduce odor! Etc. etc. etc.

    Those arguments, plus the biggest argument of all, major moolah, are what hoglot opponents are up against. It doesn’t help that while many rural Iowans live in fear that the next hoglot will be built right down the road, many Iowa town and city dwellers don’t really care and just keep right on enjoying those bacon festivals.

    There are counterpoints that can be made in response to every stanza, but those counterpoints won’t really matter until we have more legislators who care. One thing I never seem to read about is how the hoglot issue is being handled in other states. I can understand why Iowa Big Ag doesn’t care to talk about that, but the rest of us have reason to be interested.

  • Verify please

    Emma Schmit, please state the evidence that “manure from millions of animals confined upstream from Des Moines required the construction” of DM Waterworks nitrate removal system. The extraordinarily rich soil w/ high organic matter & decaying farm plant stubble held by the drainage basin certainly contributes to the nitrate load carried by the affected rivers. & isn’t it true that measured nitrate levels taken by the Waterworks are in fact DECREASING? Face it, Americans–the pork sheds are there cause you wanna eat it. I’m all for you reducing consumption for health & obesity reasons–& I live on a livestock farm. Until then, though, the market will try to meet the demand.

    • Re the nitrate pollution...

      …the real problem is that Iowa’s degraded topsoil doesn’t retain nutrients. Back when eighty-five percent of Iowa was tallgrass prairie, our topsoil had high levels of organic carbon and incredible carbon structure which held nitrogen and phosphorus in place. Many Iowans are aware that we’ve lost half that original topsoil, but far fewer Iowans realize that most of the topsoil we have left no longer functions like the healthy sponge it used to be. The soil is now compacted and pulverized.

      Anyone interested in this topic should watch a slake test online. A slake test shows how water moves through soil with relatively healthy structure, compared with how water moves through degraded soil. I’ve watched slake tests in person, and seeing the difference between soil under good perennial vegetation and average soil under rowcrops is jaw-dropping. The glass under the healthy soil ends up filled with clear water and the soil clump remains in place. The water in the glass under the rowcropped soil ends up silty and brown as the soil clump collapses.

      Improving soil health would not only reduce water pollution but would also result in topsoil storing and retaining carbon, which would help reduce climate change. But improving soil health requires much better farm conservation.

      But of course Iowa doesn’t require farm conservation, and so far, the begging and bribing approach isn’t working well. A small percentage of farmers are doing what is really needed for soil and water, and three cheers for them. But the vast majority of farmers are not.

      Taxpayers need to be willing to pony up to share more of the cost, because we’re all contributing to the climate change that is increasing rains and making soil erosion worse. A reasonable compromise would have taxpayers paying for a lot more farm conservation and all farmers required to do that conservation. That won’t happen as long as the Iowa Farm Bureau runs this state.

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