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Case Study #1 State Opens Gate, Waterways to Livestock Factories

December 1, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Harold Howard is a lifelong Isabella County resident and farmer. He's raised hogs, cattle, and grain, and currently dedicates his 1,500 acres near Remus to strawberries, beans, corn and -- the pride of Harold A. Howard Farms -- champion Quarter Horses.

In all his years living in the country among family and other farmers, however, Mr. Howard has never experienced anything like the outfit that moved in three years ago. A mile up the hill from his house sit five long buildings that hold 2,500 breeding sows. These hog factory barns, and nearly a million gallons of manure from the sows and 52,000 pigs per year, are the source of overpowering odors that regularly invade the Howard home.

"I've lived here, within a mile of where I was born, all my life," Mr. Howard said. "If anybody had told me I'd have to spend the rest of my life smelling their filth, I would never have believed them."

Expansion As Salvation

Mr. Howard's story sounds like it could come from North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma or another of the many states struggling to contain water pollution and sickening odors from the huge amounts of manure that livestock factories produce. Michigan, however, has a growing share of the nation's hog factories. In just a few years, the shiny feed tanks of factory buildings and the big wheels of semi-trucks rolling in and out of industrial barnyards have become a common sight throughout the southern Lower Peninsula.

Rural residents, who have started organizing to protect their environment and quality of life from the factories, have run into three imposing forces arrayed against them:

• The state of Michigan, along with industry groups, has put big money behind a program to encourage livestock producers to expand to factory size.

• A state law that protects agriculture operations from "nuisance" suits by neighbors, the Michigan Right to Farm Act, actually allows potential polluters to sidestep significant oversight by the Department of Environmental Quality.

• The Michigan Farm Bureau recently declared its intention to push for legislation to take away Michigan communities' last line of defense: Local zoning of livestock factories.

The state's "Revitalization of Animal Agriculture in Michigan Initiative" started in 1993-94, when the Legislature appropriated $71 million to pump up Michigan State University's animal science offerings. Partners in this initiative are the Michigan Farm Bureau, MSU, the state Department of Agriculture, and livestock and grain producers' associations. These interests make sure their initiative continues to receive about $4.5 million a year out of the state's base budget.

The program's targeted transformation of animal agriculture is most readily apparent today in Michigan's production of hogs. The number of operations with more than 2,000 head increased 23% between 1993 and 1997, while the number of farms with less than 2,000 head decreased 19%.

Record low hog prices will soon force more of the smaller, traditional farmers out, says Michigan Pork Producers Association president Sam Hines. But the high-tech, intensive operations, which often are under contract with companies that supply and market the hogs, will continue to multiply once prices recover, he adds. Michigan’s abundance of corn also could attract much larger corporate interests, such as Tyson or Seaboard, in the future, Mr. Hines said. “We’ve been contacted by several major players.”

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