"If anyone is going to raise hogs around here it's us," says a manager for the world's largest hog producer.
For the past year, I've been discussing American agricultural trends with a diverse group of people from around the country. Very large-scale, concentrated feeding and ownership of livestock is the dominant trend these days. As part of our research, we visited Duplin County, in eastern North Carolina's beautiful coastal plains, the home of over two million hogs, tens of millions of chickens and turkeys and Wendell Murphy Family Farms - the world's largest pork producer. One of his feed mills, as well as a turkey processing plant there and a nearby hog slaughter house are, for now, also the largest in the world.
Pigs are raised in groups of several thousand in long, tin-roofed sheds. These are surrounded by lagoons and grassy fields which are the current technology for dealing with the tremendous volumes of hog wastes flushed from the sheds with water. Although there are several large producers active in the area, Mr. Murphy runs the biggest operation. He owns some of the pig houses, and contracts with small farmers to raise other hogs for him. As what's called an "integrator," he provides the pigs, feed, medications, and advice. The farmer provides labor and waste disposal and, in theory, makes enough money to pay for the fancy buildings and his services.
The pigs are raised in three different places. Sows give birth and nurse for just 17 days. The prematurely-weaned piglets are raised on another so-called "farm" for several months before being shipped off to finishing houses, some of which are in Illinois. In five to six months, the pigs are slaughtered, and their meat, with or without further processing, is shipped all over the globe.
Although some of the corn and soybeans the pigs eat is grown in North Carolina, there is no way the state can produce all the needed feed, so long trains of hopper cars bring corn and soybean meal from Indiana, Illinois and other Midwestern states. There, increasingly-expensive, high-tech seeds, large tractors, energy-intensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides produce crops that are bought, shipped and sold by large global corporations.
After the pigs have eaten, much of the feed's nitrogen and phosphorus, which farmers applied as fertilizer in the Midwest, is left in North Carolina in the hogs' feces and urine. After sitting in a lagoon, these wastes are sprayed on the land. In theory, plants absorb these nutrients. In practice, some lagoons leak into the region's sandy soils. The sprayed-on effluent sometimes runs off into ditches and streams, and eventually finds its way to rivers and estuaries along the Carolina coast. These wastes have been connected with outbreaks of the severely-toxic microscopic organism, Pfiesteria. Open, bleeding sores on fish, and cognitive dysfunction, memory loss, nervous and immune systems damage in humans are associated with the presence of Pfiesteria.
So many hogs, and the enormous problems with their wastes and odors have caused deep divisions in these communities. Wendell Murphy himself, known as "Boss Hog" in the Carolina press, paved the way for rapid expansion of hog production in his state with self-serving laws he voted for during his five terms as a state legislator.
The astounding number of hogs raised by this large-scale factory system, coupled with Asia's financial problems, have caused hog prices to fall to well below the cost of production. The current wholesale price of 33 cents a pound for live hogs, when adjusted for inflation, is the lowest ever!
Recently, the government tried to help by buying over $30 million worth of pork for free distribution. It also uses our tax dollars to provide generous export subsidies. Cheap pork is a boon to the fast-food, convenience-store and supermarket chains which increasingly sell us pork in small, ready-to-eat portions. However, after all this expensive and damaging overproduction, more than 25% of the food produced is wasted.
This hog production trend causes severe community and ecosystem disruption, requires lots of energy as well as generous taxpayer subsidies. It encourages excessive pork consumption. Yet the political and financial power of large agribusinesses is so great that our only effective response may be to eat less meat and to buy directly from local independent, small farmers.
This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.