Old MacDonald Doesn’t Have a Farm Anymore - Waterkeeper

Old MacDonald Doesn’t Have a Farm Anymore

By: Ellen Simon

Photo by C. Lotongkum/Shutterstock.com

Your bacon most likely comes from a pig who lived in more crowded conditions than a broke 22-year-old in New York City.

The reasons why tell a story that’s true across agriculture, but have especially dire consequences in North Carolina’s hog country.

The state’s hog industry used to be dominated by small family farms. But corporate consolidation led to a small number of industrial-size operations producing millions of hogs. While the number of hog producers in North Carolina dropped from 23,000 to 8,000 in the ten-year span starting in 1985, hog production for the same period tripled.

The shift from family farms to industrial agriculture is the same across the country, for food and feed, from row crops to meat. But intense hog farming is taking a dramatically high toll on our land, our water, and nearby communities, especially in North Carolina. Wet-waste industrial animal operations in the state, most of which raise hogs, produce 10 billion gallons of fecal and other waste each year. (The state’s booming industrial poultry industry primarily produces dry waste, a separate, but dire pollution threat.)

The hog waste is a problem because it’s stored in cesspools, most of which are unlined, so there’s nothing stopping the raw feces and urine from polluting the soil, groundwater, and air. And most of those unlined cesspools sit in the state’s sandy and porous coastal plain, which has a high water table and lies in the path of hurricanes.

There’s a human cost to all this waste, and the archaic way it’s stored: A 2018 study by Duke University researchers found that people living in the same zip code as an industrial hog operation live shorter lives than other North Carolinians, and have higher rates of death, infant mortality, death from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, and higher rates of emergency room visits and hospital admissions for low birthweight infants.

How did this happen?

In 1971, Earl Butz became the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ushering in an era that emphasized the production of commodity crops, advising farmers to plant “fence row to fence row” and “get big or get out.” 

The principal tenants under Butz, as reported at the time, were 1) produce more and 2) sell abroad. A grain crisis in the Soviet Union opened up that market, leading to a trade deal with the U.S.  Planting fence row to fence row, while it risked depleting the land, paid off in the short term for farmers: Farm income increased from $14 billion in 1970 to $26 billion in 1976.

This was a change from the days of the small family farm. Butz was fond of a joke that told the old story. “I saw this farmer, and I asked him, ‘What’s your hobby?’ He said, ‘Farming.’ I said, ‘What would you do if you inherited a million dollars?’ He said, ‘I’d keep on farming as long as the money lasted.’’’

In 1973 and 1974, per capita farm income, for the first time, exceeded urban Americans’ per capita income. 

Then grain prices fell and the story changed. 

Cheap grain fueled a new model of animal production, leading to industrial-scale feedlots with thousands of animals. The “increasingly consolidated meat industry learned to transform cheap grain into cheap — but highly profitable — burgers, chops, and chicken nuggets.” 

In North Carolina, where tobacco was the long-time cash crop, the shift to industrial meat took longer than it did elsewhere. But as smoking rates declined in the late 1980s, North Carolina tobacco farmers, who had generated half the state’s farm income, saw their tobacco production quotas shrink and needed something new to produce.

North Carolina’s small farmers had long kept hogs, but just a few, which were fed on table scraps, leftover crops, and acorns and nuts foraged from the woods. Manure from these free-ranging hogs fell in the woods and on fallow pastures and their relatively small number meant the soil could absorb the nutrients

The farmers who moved from tobacco to industrial hog production took Earl Butz’s words to heart. They got big, rather than risk getting out. As they scaled up their farms, the amount of waste on those farms increased, too — to the point where it was more than the land could absorb.

But the hog industry’s backers called the stench rising from the new operations the smell of money.

And no one smelled more like money than Wendell H. Murphy, who, as the News & Observer wrote in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in 1995, “became the nation’s biggest hog producer during the 10 years he served in the General Assembly, [and] helped pass laws worth millions of dollars to his company and his industry.”

“The Duplin County executive voted for, and sometimes co-sponsored, bills giving hog and poultry producers tax breaks, protection from local zoning and exemptions from tougher environmental regulations,” the paper reported.

For instance, while thousands of hog and poultry houses were built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and one lender, Cape Fear Farm Credit Service in Fayetteville, said its hog loans totaled $100 million, sales of building material for the operations were exempt from sales tax, thanks to Murphy

Small farmers struggled to compete with these large-scale operations, especially because, by 1998, scaled-up processing meant slaughterhouses had more hogs than they could handle — the slaughterhouses and processing plants certainly couldn’t be bothered with a small farmer’s hogs. The lack of independent processors today is one reason that small scale farmers struggle to compete.

The number of hogs produced in the state lept from 2.4 million in 1986 to more than 10 million in 1998. The boom was stalled when a moratorium was imposed on the construction of new hog farms and expansion of existing farms that used waste management systems that polluted the environment.

It was a system fueled by debt for the individual hog producer. Big businesses, especially Smithfield Foods, profited, but the people doing the work of raising hogs were constantly scrambling to make debt payments. As one farm economist told the News & Observer in 1995, the system amounted to “post-industrial feudalism.”

“The founding of our country was basically an escape from the feudal system in Europe in which the lords owned all the land and the serfs worked it for them,” Harold Breimyer, then an extension economist emeritus at the University of Missouri, told the N&O. “Now we’re moving toward an industrial situation where the farmers become wage employees, and their masters are a few large corporations.”

“Each mega farm,” Breimyer explained, “replaces many smaller ones, knocking out the profit for individual producers and shifting it to the corporation.” 

One of the family farmers who slashed his hog production by one-third was Earl Rountree, who told the N&O in 1995, “Over the past six years, the Agriculture Department [was] praising the growth of the hog industry as if it was a boon to the family farm. Well, what I know, and what my neighbors know, is that the gold in the bank is in someone else’s name.”

Feature image by C. Lotongkum/Shutterstock.com.