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Factory farms can lead to industrial-sized problems

A ‘livestock-friendly’ industry has massive problems, from groundwater contamination to greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a Nebraska newspaper editor and freelance writer.


It’s probably not a shock to Americans that Nebraska is a “livestock-friendly” state. Real-life cowboys in the mold of Robert Duvall’s Lonesome Dove character “Gus” McCrae and Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates in Rawhide drove cattle by the tens of thousands to and through Nebraska in the last third of the 19th century.

None of that, however, has anything to do with being “livestock friendly” in the 21st century.

Nebraska’s Livestock Friendly County program, which the state’s Department of Agriculture says is unique nationwide, now has 46 members. That’s nearly half of the state’s 93 counties. Two or three more counties jump on board each year. 

But we’re not talking about contented cattle on green pastures. Think, instead, of factory farms: Livestock confined, concentrated, caged and cooped up in close quarters, fed and fattened as quickly as possible to reach dinner tables and processed meat counters in grocery stores. Once a county signs on voluntarily as being “Livestock Friendly,” it enhances its chances of becoming a target for corporate livestock farms.

Holstein dairy cows eat a prescribed feed.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, better known as the ASPCA, more than 99 percent of U.S. farm animals are raised in factory farms, or concentrated livestock feeding operations (CAFOs). For poultry, which may or may not fall under the definition of “livestock,” depending on your source, the number is more like 99.9 percent. 

So, in reality, 46 Nebraska counties have opted to be “factory-farm friendly” in this program, which the Nebraska Department of Agriculture began 15 years ago. As counties soon discover, however, “livestock friendly” isn’t really about agriculture at all. It is industry under the guise of agriculture, and it often leads to industrial-sized problems down the road.

These problems include groundwater contamination and toxic discharges into waterways; defilement of quality of life, particularly through air pollution and foul odors; greenhouse gas emissions created largely through a concentrated accumulation of livestock waste; and human health problems resulting from being close to a factory farm.

Fortunately, not everybody is on board with welcoming factory farms. A recent outcry from Kansans, for example, forced an industrial chicken farm to vacate plans for its preferred location. Ironically, there are news reports that Nebraska may now seek to recruit that very operation.

Concerned citizens in other states — Iowa, Idaho, North Carolina, California, Wisconsin and Colorado among them — are mobilizing and, quite possibly, they may be the precursor of a national movement. They say they simply want their fair share of the “commons,” and that includes clean air, clean water and a healthy, rural quality of life. 

Meanwhile in Nebraska, Randy Ruppert, a resident of Dodge County, has organized a group called Nebraska Communities United in order to fight a chicken factory. “We’re on the threshold of destroying our state,” he said. His group is focused on denying a large Costco poultry plant that will house 17 million chickens for slaughter on 100 acres. That comes to about four chickens per square foot.

Like Ruppert, many Nebraska citizens think they’re being held hostage by large industrial agriculture operations, county boards that often don’t listen to their concerns, a state Department of Agriculture that rubberstamps any new factory farm as “positive economic growth” or “diversified agriculture,” and the state Department of Environmental Quality, which often looks the other way.

More than 75 years ago, California and U.S. Department of Agriculture anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt postulated and then pretty much proved that the state’s increasingly industrialized Central Valley farms (agribusinesses) were wreaking social, health and environmental havoc on nearby communities.

The study was published in the Congressional Record in the early 1940s. Naturally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture fired Goldschmidt. 

But Goldschmidt was light-years ahead of his time. These days, in Nebraska and many other states, the threat isn’t so much from the physical size of farms as it is from the industrialized nature and scope of their operations.

Goldschmidt’s warning still resonates. Today, Nebraska has four times as many cattle and twice as many hogs as it does humans. There will be 10 times as many chickens in that 100-acre Costco plant as there are people in the entire state.

Which begs the question: Given that most rural Nebraskans have spent their entire lives planting and cultivating roots in the state, isn’t it time we became a little more “people friendly?” 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].