RURAL ROUTES/Margot F. McMillen

Resolution Number 1:
Bring Home the Bacon
from Local Farmers

"What you going to do with all that money?" asks the reporter of the farmer who won $1 million in the lottery.

"Guess I'll just keep farming 'til it's all gone," is the reply.

It's an old joke, but, if that guy's in hogs, 1998 put his plan into warp speed.

Hog prices dipped as low as 13 to 16 cents a pound, the lowest prices since April 1964. That means that selling a 250-pound hog, you'd get about $35. With the cost of raising a hog at 40 to 45 cents a pound, it doesn't take a telephone psychic to see farmers in trouble.

"But, wait," says the careful reader, "Didn't the government just make a big pork purchase, $50 million, to save hog farmers? Money from the U.S.D.A.?"

U.S.D.A. Uncle Sam Does it Again. Thanks to the "bailout," school lunches and prison breakfasts will feature more ham, yes, but family farmers won't benefit.

U.S.D.A. bailouts don't go to farmers. Instead, the money goes to people who produce hams and pork chops. Farmers produce hogs. The tax dollar bail-out supported corporations like Murphy, Premium Standard Farm, Seaboard.

For the most part, farmers have been squeezed out of the hog industry. Here's how:

In the 1980s, hog producers started the same consolidation of production that took the chicken-and-egg business from thousands of independent farmers and put it in the hands of a few. That is, they built shiny steel buildings and crammed as many hogs as possible into them. They protected the overcrowded animals from epidemics with "medical technology." That means that throughout their lives the animals are shot, sprayed, fed and watered with various chemicals.

Ag schools using our tax money matched by big bucks from the corporations helped. They invented ever so many new ways to make animals grow, so the time is reduced from the first squeal or peep to the freezer. Arsenic is given to young chicks to distress their bodies into picking up more nutrients. Growth chemicals are implanted in beef steers. Offal from butchering is ground up, made into pellets and mixed with grain.

All this technology speeds up production of burgers, hot wings and sausage on someone's plate. Hope it's not yours.

Seeing the hogs loaded into shiny new trucks from shiny new buildings, some family farmers bought the plan. They gave up their shabby hog lots--and generations of carefully-chosen genetics--to raise corporation hogs using the feeds the corporation sends.

The farmers became contractors, with government-guaranteed loans. The hog farmer across the road from me borrowed $840,000 for buildings to hold 5,600 hogs and manure-spreading equipment.

The corporation district manager, the University extension agent and the farm magazines said my neighbor was shrewd. "It takes money to make money," and "Take some risk," have replaced the almanac's weary old, "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched."

My neighbor figured he could take in as much as $150,000 in a good year with no problems. "You do the math," he once told me.

I did. He needs $9,000 per month to make payments. He needs one or two full-time employees and their housing. He pays utility bills: A 5,000-hog operation uses 150,000 kilowatthours annually according to a 1987 University of Missouri study. Interestingly, my neighbor's sponsoring corporation pays his property tax.

Here's something to remember when you're about to play with the Big Pigs: They have more lawyers than you. If they start to lose, it's adios muchacho. If you think you can pay off a building after twenty years, sell the operation and retire to Florida, think again. Corporations re-make the rules every day, change specs on buildings and invent new equipment.

Some contracts guarantee a price, even if the bottom falls out of the market. The guaranteed price lets you break even. And some contracts require the farmers to pay back the guarantee when prices improve. The bottom line? Most contractors find out too late they could have made the bottom line by working at the local Bait Shop. Or by raising hogs the old way, outside, uncrowded, in the fresh air and sunshine.

Nonetheless, having a few local yokels in the program helps the Big Pigs spread the myth that their operations are farms. Dear Consumer: These hog facilities aren't family farms. They are factories.

They want you to think they are farms because the legal system and the American public value family farms. Masquerading as farmers, these contractors and factories claim exemptions from environmental and labor regulations. In 1998, the EPA, which looked for a few months like it might put some controls on these guys, proved a disappointment when, late Thanksgiving Eve, it released a statement claiming (according to the Wall Street Journal) "agreement with the nation's pork producers allowing them to set up a voluntary program to curb water pollution."

You read it right. They're allowed to set up a voluntary program. The Journal quoted Sylvia Lowarance, EPA deputy chief for enforcement: "The scale of this is absolutely without precedent."

There was no better time for the E.P.A. to reveal its disdain for the public good than on the eve of our most powerful national holiday. The press rooms were empty, and almost nobody picked up the story.

In 1997, according to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, hog factories produced five tons of animal manure for every American. Waterways have been wiped out. There is a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Dear Taxpayer: If you listen carefully, you can hear the future: Faster than a speeding bullet: It's Soooooper Fund!

All this is unnecessary, even though pork producers will tell you that the hog industry is front-line in the battle against human hunger in an overpopulated world. Truth is, Consumer and Taxpayer, the winner isn't humanity, or even the grocery store shopper.

As usual, the winners are the corporations. According to agricultural economist Chris Hurt at Purdue, meat processors and retailers made at least $4 billion more from pork in 1998 than in 1997. Grocery store pork prices remained $2.30 per pound overall, and the farmer's share was a record-breaking low.

IBP, Smithfield, ConAgra and Bob Evans all reported doubled profits. Phillip Morris, which owns Kraft, Oscar Mayer, Healthy Choice and others, must have found the pork windfall helpful after agreeing to pay part of the fee for treating tobacco-addicted cancer patients.

You don't have to play this loser's game.

There are still a few real, independent family farmers in rural America. Far fewer than five years ago, but hanging on. If you eat pork, you can help them.

Go to the library or surf the 'net for the phone number of a small-town locker plant. Call and ask them who's still raising hogs in their area. Then, call the farmer to learn how his farm works. Chances are, for the expense of a few phone calls, you can find an independent producer to bring home your bacon for the price you'd pay at a grocery store.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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