The Pigs of Iowa

Lowell Monke

At any one time there are between 14 and 15 million hogs in Iowa. That's about seven times as many pigs as people living in the state. For those who haven't visited Iowa recently, this statistic may conjure up images of Babe in the City and hog-crossing signs on the highways. Fifty years ago, when the number of hogs wasn't much lower, that might almost have been true. But during the past two years, while I've been thinking about this article, I've driven thousands of miles along Iowa highways and gravel roads and have not seen a single pig out the window of my car.

With rare exceptions, Iowa's 15 million hogs spend their lives in long rows of narrow, low-roofed, windowless buildings called "confinement units." Hog production in Iowa, and every other state, has gone the way of chicken production -- to enclosed, highly concentrated, totally managed environments. Confinement operations are so isolated from anything like a natural habitat that the pigs wouldn't know the difference if they were raised in Times Square. This contextless living is made possible, of course, by a massive application of technology.

Fear of Open Spaces

I worked for a time in the 70's on a farm that used some of the new confinement methods. Earlier, as a youngster, I helped my dad raise what are now called "free-ranging" hogs, who had considerable area to roam. It was a lot of work. Hogs are foragers, and therefore natural-born explorers. They pig-headedly believe that the grass really is always greener on the other side of the fence. It seemed we were always chasing loose pigs back into the hog lot and mending fences.

Confinement hogs, on the other hand, not only don't search for ways to get out of their pens; they won't even go through the gate when you open it. Raised all their lives in steel and concrete pens with just enough room for them to trade off at the feeding trough, the pigs are scared to death of open spaces and refuse to walk through an opening without being pushed.

Though this struck me as neurotic when I first witnessed it (along with an aversion to open spaces, confined pigs develop a strange appetite for their penmates' tails, leading to the industry-wide practice of amputating pigs' tails shortly after birth), there may be some intuitive wisdom at work here. Because the hogs get almost no exercise in these pens, they are easily overstressed. The first time I helped move sows on a confinement farm about 500 yards to a farrowing house (where they give birth) I was told to be very careful not to spook or hurry them. Just about the time my coworker got done explaining why, one of the sows dropped over dead, presumably of a heart attack.

Sows are the most susceptible to these sudden deaths, since they are the most immobile of the hogs. Throughout the farrowing period they are held in long, individual slots too narrow to turn around in, with just enough room to lie down and enough space at the bottom of one side to let the sucklings, who mill around in a slightly larger adjoining pen, get to their milk.

The farm I worked on was primitive compared to most of today's operations, in which the hogs usually never see the outdoors. This is because, with several thousand hogs being held in tight quarters, the greatest enemy is the microscopic germ. Disease can sweep through a confinement unit in a matter of hours, so the "filthy" conditions of the mud wallow must give way to operating-room sterility -- air filtered, workers scrubbed, as few external objects entering the building as possible. (My nephew works at a large facility where he is required to shower and change clothes before entering any of the buildings.) Still, the danger of catastrophic illness is so great that antibiotics are generally blended into pig feed in much the same way we add vitamins to our processed food.

The Virtues of a Factory Operation

All of this is done, of course, in the name of efficiency. Hogs that have no room to move, nowhere to go, nothing else to do, tend to belly up to the food trough more often, and because they don't burn off many of the calories they take in, they put on weight considerably faster than free- ranging hogs. Climate-controlled buildings prevent the hogs from using calories to keep warm or from going off feed when it gets too hot outside. And the constant flow of antibiotics insures that they will never lose their appetite or waste calories fighting off illness.

The results of these new methods are impressive. Hogs get to market nearly a month earlier than when my dad was in the business. There is less "attrition," and more hogs can be raised per worker on far less land. The result is that more pigs get to market in a year, meaning more income for the producer.

There is also an efficiency of scale. By offering a steady and plentiful supply of large numbers of hogs to processors, growers command a higher price than the small producer who sends animals to market only a couple of times a year. This has proven so advantageous economically that vertical integration -- the total control of hog production by corporations who own not only the hogs but the feed, transportation, and medicine -- has all but pushed the small farmer out of production.

To date, Iowa has prohibited the last step in vertical integration, the ownership of the hogs by the processors themselves. However, other states lack this restriction and there is growing pressure in Iowa to allow further vertical integration. (There is also considerable bending of the rules.) Presumably, it will only be a matter of time before all hog facilities are owned by the corporations who sell the pork to consumers, with the actual raising of hogs contracted out to "hog factory" workers. Even today, most hog farmers using confinement methods do not own the hogs they raise. They merely grow them for large agricultural corporations. The farmer still incurs the cost of raising the hogs, but because the producer corporations can make favorable deals with the processors, the farmer is guaranteed a "reasonable" price.

Saving the Hog from a Hog's Life

As anyone living in Iowa (or who has been reading NetFuture) will tell you, this is not the end of the story. Technological progress always has side effects, and certainly this has been the case with hog production. In "The Web and the Plow" (NF #19) I observed that as the machinery got bigger and the size of farms larger, the relationship between the farmer and the soil grew more distant. This seems to have happened with a vengeance in hog production.

Everything that is done with and to the pigs is determined by narrowly conceived, quantitative measures of efficiency. Transformed into biological machines in the eyes of the farmer, hogs are abstracted onto the ledger sheet as numbers pertaining to inputs and outputs, rates of attrition, pounds gained per pound of feed, cost per head versus price per pound, and so on. The sterility of the hog's living environment is merely a reflection of the sterility of agribusiness: a manufacturing process guided by the need to reduce the growth of living creatures to as little uncertainty, as much human control, as possible.

Nothing escapes this abstract, quantitative orientation. Several years ago, Dennis Avery, former senior agricultural analyst for the U.S. Department of State, wrote an opinion column for the "Des Moines Register" /1/ defending hog factories. Among his claims were the following: "[W]e're producing 50 percent more meat per hog, partly because the hogs are becoming healthier and happier as more of them move indoors." Considering my own experience watching the sow die of heart failure and the neuroses of the feeder pigs, I wondered as I read this how he was going to support these two claims. His only other allusion to hog health and happiness came midway through the article:

Confinement hogs suffer lower death losses. Apart from the obvious question of the needless suffering of the hogs, 10 percent of the crop is lost when 10 percent more of the outdoor pigs die than confinement hogs.

Leaving Avery's erroneous and misleading math aside, it is evident that he is assessing the health of the hogs, not by any observation of robustness, but solely by a statistical measure of their ability to survive until slaughter (an odd measuring tool, considering that death comes several weeks earlier for confined pigs). As for happiness, Avery seems to imply that all a hog needs in order to be happy is freedom from the stress of dealing with the vicissitudes of outdoor living. Thus, the overcrowded pigs milling around on concrete floors, doing little more than eating and sleeping, are happier than the pigs I used to see squeal with delight as they romped around in our fields, burning off precious, expensive calories while exposing themselves to all the wind, rain, mud, heat, and cold that lead to their "needless suffering" (and slower growth). That the confined pigs would almost certainly die in their cages within a few weeks if their high-tech life-support system were removed seems not to enter into Avery's definition of health and happiness.

Then, too, there's the question of human health and happiness.

Raising a Stink

About as many hogs reside in Iowa today as in the 1950s. Back then the stink of hog manure was something that constituted a minor annoyance in the countryside, depending on the direction of the wind. Most farms were set up so that the livestock were situated to the northeast of the farm house, so the prevailing southwestern breeze of summer would send the smell out into the fields. With only a couple hundred head of hogs per farm, the smell rarely became oppressive, even for someone standing in the hog lot. Not so when that same space is occupied by 10,000 head of hogs producing about as much waste as a city of 25,000 people.

The waste is generally caught in large lagoons and eventually spread on fields. The smell is intense and constant, and those who live close by (within about a two-mile radius) find it not just annoying but debilitating. At first the complaints of neighbors were pooh-poohed by the mostly absentee owners of the hog operations. ("Hey, that's just the smell of money.") Because there is as yet no accepted way to measure toxic levels of odor, there was no "scientific" way to establish levels of smell pollution. The headaches, nausea and other ailments that neighbors of the hog factories complained about were passed off as psychosomatic.

But as significant numbers of hog workers began suffering "real" physical illnesses (and even a few deaths) from over-exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, an effort has begun to address the problem. And it is the nature of this effort that I find illuminating. Rather than reconsider the high- tech, concentrated method of raising the hogs, researchers within the industry and at universities like Iowa State have focused on developing new technologies that will somehow remove or suppress the smell from the manure. The National Pork Producers Council alone has allocated $3.5 million dollars to help find technical solutions to the odor problem. One innovation, the Houle spreader, injects the effluent into the soil, effectively suppressing the stench.

But there is just too much of the stuff for the soil to hold, and it often leaches through to water tables. There it joins with other fertilizer runoff to pose a growing health hazard throughout Iowa: nitrate-laced drinking water. Many of the holding lagoons themselves, which took years of research to design so as to seal off the waste from the soil, have leaked badly. Several have recently broken down, spilling into streams and killing hundreds of thousands of fish. Now, huge, glass-lined tubs are being developed as an alternative.

Getting Used to It

In his last book, "The Technological Bluff", Jacques Ellul /2/ contended that every new technical solution creates other problems more difficult to solve than the original one. And, of course, Langdon Winner /3/ has elaborated on the way large technical systems eventually begin making their own demands on us. The hog industry in Iowa testifies to the accuracy of these claims. Every new problem caused by technical solutions has resulted in expensive efforts to find technical solutions to that problem, and with each new problem-and-fix cycle, high-tech agriculture becomes more heavily anchored, more problematic, and more expensive. As the challenges become more complex, the ability of farmers, especially small farmers, to deal with them erodes. As Avery notes with apparent satisfaction, "The Houle spreader costs $25,000, and small farmers can't afford them."

More and more, the people raising hogs are, like my nephew, not farmers at all, but simply employees. They know hogs, but did not plant or harvest the corn that the hogs eat. Indeed, they may never have planted a crop at all. Like the hogs they raise, they have very little connection to nature, and little sense of agriculture's deep dependence on nature's gifts. Like good technicians in other fields, they encounter the problems in their units and seek technical solutions within the narrow parameters of that environment. To a great extent, any problems extending out beyond their buildings are someone else's problems.

This technological orientation has pervaded agriculture for a long time. But only in the last several decades has agriculture detached itself so thoroughly from the natural environment and become so technologically complex that its demands on the human population have become widely perceived as problematic.

Some of the problems have evaded technical solution altogether and people have been required to adapt to them. Odor remains, for now, one of those problems. In response, the Iowa legislature has passed two extraordinary bills protecting hog factories from the very communities they once were touted as serving. One bill excludes the factories from nuisance laws; they cannot be sued by neighbors for the pollution and misery they cause (not to mention lowered property values). The other denies the right of counties to ban new hog factories through zoning laws. Having invested so heavily in the development and establishment of this form of hog production, and having been assured by researchers that all the current problems will be solved in time, the state has simply told its disempowered citizens, "Get used to it."

Dilapidated Towns

The consequences of technologized agriculture are not confined to the physical environment and the immediately surrounding communities. The entire fabric of rural life has been thrown into decline. In 1900 there were 229,000 farms in Iowa, nearly all operated by resident families. During the 1980's, when massive machinery and computerized management enabled massive operations, Iowa lost nearly a third of its farms. By 1998 there were only 97,000 farms left, many of them owned by individuals or corporations with no direct involvement in the farm work at all.

This consolidation of farms has had a devastating effect on rural economies. A Houle spreader may cause $25,000 to change hands, but most of the money for such equipment drains quickly from the community into distant corporate coffers. Much of the profit from the largest hog factories benefits absentee owners and never reenters the local economy at all. A study conducted by the University of Missouri found that Independent producers create three times as many jobs as corporate contract production. For each 12,000 slaughter hogs produced under corporate contract, the study estimated that 9.44 jobs would be created (4.25 on the farm and 5.19 in the community) but that 27.97 would be displaced (12.6 on the farm and 15.37 off the farm) /4/.

Another study, this one in Virginia, found that adding 5,000 hogs to a local area across a number of small farms produced 10% more permanent jobs, a 20% larger increase in local retail sales, and a 37% larger increase in local per capita income, compared to the same number of hogs added through corporate farming /5/.

Rural Iowa has lost nearly a third of its population in the last 50 years. What were once thriving small towns populated by multigenerational families, are now either bedroom communities for nearby cities or near- ghost towns, home primarily to aging retirees.

My wife's home town of Luverne is situated in the midst of some of the lushest top soil on Earth. Like many other small towns in Iowa today, it resembles much more an inner city ghetto than a Norman Rockwell painting. Most of the town is boarded up, and many of the old homes are badly in need of repair, occupied mostly by transients and the elderly. There is little work and there are no services that would make the town an attractive place to live. Most of the farm houses and magnificent barns that once bracketed every section of land nearby have been torn down, and the islands of trees that inevitably surrounded the farmsteads have given way to the ocean of corn needed to feed the constantly hungry hogs.

Unbounded Faith in the System

As for the small farmers that remain, the irony is that, despite all the economic benefits they bring to the community, this doesn't necessarily translate into a profitable business for the farmer. Although price discrimination favoring the huge producers is prohibited by law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture refuses to enforce the law. In a telling justification for allowing "volume premiums" (and a good illustration of the ideological reductionism in agricultural policymaking that ignores all but the narrowest of economic factors) one official stated bluntly, "Volume premiums are the American way" /6/.

Caught up in an almost religious faith in technology, many of those most likely to be hurt in the future seem unable to understand just what it is they are struggling against. Last summer the "Cedar Rapids Gazette" /7/ interviewed Kevin Lauver, who at forty years old has finally fulfilled his dream of becoming a farmer. He managed this only because his father retired and Kevin didn't have to mortgage his entire future earnings to buy the high-tech equipment he needed to farm five hundred acres.

"Lauver, who now farms seven hundred acres," says the article, "knows that efficiency-driven consolidation could eventually force small-to medium- sized farms like his out of business." And, yet, "he believes the markets will rebound and technology that will make it easier for farmers to do their jobs will mean a strong future for agriculture." At the end of the article, ignoring his own personal history, Lauver reportedly again expresses his faith that technology will somehow be the salvation of his family farm: "Lauver is determined to take advantage of each new advance in technology, allowing his two young sons to grow up on the same farm he did."

I think this "Gazette" article captures well the irony of agriculture's relationship with technology, one that hog factories epitomize. While I wish Mr. Lauver well, I wonder how many other children will have to be deprived of growing up on a farm as he gobbles up the land and applies the new advances in technology needed to make his personal dream come true.

A final caveat or two. First, I am not suggesting that rural America should be frozen in a time capsule, exempt from all forces of change. And, second, I'm not a card-carrying member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). I remember the high-pitched squeals of pain from the male pigs we castrated soon after birth (so they wouldn't fight when they got older) and the exhausting days I spent holding older pigs still so my dad could "ring" them (clamp a metal ring through their noses to keep them from rooting up our pasture grass).

Raising pigs commercially has long entailed a certain degree of cruelty. Perhaps this helps explain why hardly anyone in Iowa today objects loudly to the pigs' treatment. And yet, there is no absolute necessity for cruelty. We *could* have applied our technological prowess to traditional hog-farming so as to reduce the need for mistreatment rather than to increase it radically -- and, likewise, we could have used appropriate technologies to increase the vitality of rural communities rather than to destroy them.

It's a question of choice (by consumers as well as farmers), and that's the element that seems to have fallen out of the technological worldview. When, aiming for total control and mechanical efficiency, we reduce the concrete contexts of life to the abstractions of an algorithmic production process, it's no accident that we lose sight of the larger moral and social implications of our choices. And this means that we lose choice itself. Thus, a century after Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced "The One Best Way" to factory production, its application to farming, an activity in which working and living are totally intermeshed, has taken place with a fatalistic disregard for its impact on the quality of rural life -- both human and animal.

This transformation has been painful for me to watch. Yet pain is often what awakens us to choices previously ignored. One might hope that due reflection upon the suffering of millions of hogs -- creatures who feed us and even provide the tissues that patch up our own ailing hearts -- will lead to such an awakening on this issue.


1. Avery, Dennis, "Big Hog Farms Help the Environment", "Des Moines Register" (December 7, 1997).

2. Ellul, Jacques, "The Technological Bluff" (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990).

3. Winner, Langdon, "Autonomous Technology2 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977).

4. ICRP Discussion Points: Family Farms vs. Hog Factories, 1997

5. Ibid.

6. Hassebrook, Chuck, "Say Yes to Common Good in Farming," Des Moines Register (December 24, 1999), pg. 7A.

7. Associated Press, "Farming in the Millennium" (June 20, 1999),

Lowell Monke is Assistant Profesor of Education at Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio.

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Copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute.
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