The People Vs. Corporate Farming

Date: 28 Mar 1995 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The People Vs. Corporate Farming

by David Morris

March 28, 1995

On April 1st family farmers and their supporters will rally in the tiny city of Unionville, Missouri. Their goal? To educate America about the connection between pork chops, democracy, economic efficiency and the future of rural communities. Their story deserves to be heard.

Here’s the background. For more than a century hogs have been raised in small numbers by hundreds of thousands of independent farmers. As late as 1993 almost two thirds of all hog farmers owned fewer than 100 sows.

But giant corporations have introduced factory farming methods to the hog industry. In some states like North Carolina corporations that raise tens of thousands of hogs in tightly confined spaces already dominate the industry.

The battle between independent farmers and corporate farmers may be lost in North Carolina, but in the Midwest, where states long ago enacted laws to protect family and small farmers, the battle is in full swing. The catalyst for this week’s rally in Unionville was a vote on the last day of the 1994 Missouri legislative session. With little warning, the legislators exempted three northern counties from its own anti corporate law.

Northern Missouri became a free fire zone for corporate farmers. The nation’s number three hog producer, Premium Standard Farms(PSF), plans to raise 80,000 sows and millions of pigs. The even larger Continental Grain will raise over 300,000 sows. Citizens are fighting this looming invasion with the only tool they possess, the power of zoning and land use regulation. They focus on the impact of the giant manure pits that accompany factory hog farms. A typical six acre, twenty feet deep lagoon holds 450,000 gallons of manure. The odor fouls the countryside. Manure may eventually seep into the ground water.

Within days of the end of the Missouri legislative session Lincoln Township’s 250 residents presented a petition to PSF, notifying the company that it would not be welcome in their community. In June 1994 by a two to one vote, the citizens approved a measure to enact a zoning ordinance regarding livestock. The ordinance seems to this outsider fairly modest. Manure lagoons must locate at least a mile away from a residence. Owners must post a bond to pay for any future cleanup costs.

“We feel fortunate now to have some control over our destiny”, cattleman Bob Lutz told the Kansas City Star after the vote. But the citizens of Lincoln Township were to discover what citizens around the country already knew. Giant corporations have little respect for democracy. In the face of clear citizen opposition, but before the actual vote on the zoning measure, PSF purchased 3000 acres, gained permits from state agencies and begun construction. After the ordinance passed PSF sued the town for $7.9 million, citing a 1993 Missouri law that requires communities to compensate property owners harmed by regulations. With a budget of $40,000, Lincoln Township must pay its lawyers from a fund intended to repair bridges.

At the rally in Unionville, the citizens of Lincoln Township will ask a simple question. What does democracy mean if not the right to make rules that keep one’s community livable? Those who favor corporate farms will respond by saying that Lincoln Township is interfering with progress, that the transformation of hog farming from small inefficient, high cost producers to highly efficient, low cost factory farmers is both inevitable and salutary. Factory farming, they insist, is the wave of the future.

It may well be, but not because it is cost-effective. It turns out that small, family farms, if properly managed, can outcompete factory farms. An average sized Iowa hog farm with 60 sows can raise pork cheaper than an automated North Carolina factory farm with 3,000 sows. A recent study by the Minnesota based Land Stewardship Project and Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture found that if farmers manage their livestock and crops carefully they can produce pork at prices factory farmers would find hard to match.

“This is not about efficiency. It is about control,” says Mark Schultz of the Land Stewardship Project. It is about whether rural areas will be populated by hundreds of thousands of small, diversified and locally rooted independent producers or by a few hundred absentee owned corporations and their contractors.

Small, family farms can compete with factory farmers on the basis of price. But they can’t compete with the giant corporations’ financial, marketing and political clout. This is a situation where the little people need help from government. Indeed, that’s what government is for, isn’t it? In northern Missouri thousands of citizens, many of them conservative Republicans, are fighting the corporate takeover of their livelihoods and their communities. But when they look to Jefferson City or Washington, D.C. for help, they watch those they voted for last November feverishly enacting legislation that would encourage factory farms, make it harder for communities to control their destiny and make it easier for the PSF’s of the world to sue communities like Lincoln Township.

The rally in Unionville frames the issue. Let’s hope it generates the kind of local and national attention that issue deserves.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.