The Cowboy State gets shook up by 100,000 hogs

  • Penned pigs

    National Pork Producers Council

WHEATLAND, Wyo. - Scott Taylor looks down into a pit designed to contain 31 million gallons of liquid hog waste, and he sighs. Except for three yellow bulldozers scraping away at the dirt, it's empty.

"I can't wait to get some pigs in this place," says Taylor, 35.

The production manager of Wyoming Premium Farms, Taylor has waited more than two years for the completion of a high-tech hog farm in this windswept prairie community. At full operation, it will pump out nearly 100,000 pigs a year. The pit should have been finished months ago, the conglomeration of buildings behind him filled with thousands of squealing, fattening pigs destined for markets from Japan to New York.

But though every economic and social indicator predicted building a corporate hog farm in Wheatland, pop. 3,000, would be a cinch, it has been anything but. After spending $18 million and two years on the project, the company hasn't a single hog in Platte County, despite the allure of new jobs and tax revenues.

What happened? The short answer is that the hog industry's reputation stinks, and a handful of Wheatland locals smelled it coming. Armed with tales of manure spills, contaminated groundwater, and low-paying jobs, a group of farmers- and housewives-turned-activists have done everything they can to keep their county free of hogs raised by the hundred thousand.

Though Wyoming Premium Farms, a subsidiary of Japanese-owned Itoham Foods, is proceeding with its plans to build a hog farm, the activists have forced the company to spend additional time and money to ensure that its operation will be safe and clean. Just as important, they have convinced state lawmakers to toughen the regulatory hurdles corporate hog farmers must jump before building in Wyoming.

Living room activists

Local resistance to hog farms is led by 48-year-old Mary Weber, who helps her husband run a calf-and-cow ranch operation 10 miles outside of Wheatland. She is a member of the Concerned Citizens of Platte County, a group of 40 families united against Wyoming Premium Farms. A housewife who smokes and has an acerbic sense of humor, Weber says she is mystified by the depth of her commitment to fighting the plant.

"This hog thing has really brought me to life," she says. "I was never an activist. But at some point in time, you have to get involved. You cannot stay on the fence forever."

When she found out that Wyoming Premium Farms planned to build parts of its hog farm within a few miles of her home, Weber began amassing information. Now her house is crowded with boxes containing reports and memos and letters about corporate hog-farm factories, which use assembly-line methods to raise pigs until they are seven months old.

Weber says she found three major problems: Slurry ponds cause foul odors and can spill into local waterways; farmers overuse hog-waste fertilizer, which can lead to sterilized soils; and low-paid workers cause economic strain locally because they cannot afford health care.

"It is absolutely amazing to me that most of the people in government have not done any research (on hog farms). They have not looked at Iowa, Mississippi, North Carolina," says Weber. "We are so eager to have dollars that we are not looking at the long-term problems that we are going to cause."

The experiences of states to the east helped Weber's group fight Wyoming Premium Farms (see story below). But the group also looked for closer examples on the eastern plains of Colorado, where several hog farms have recently popped up, as well as in neighboring Goshen County. A contentious debate there over a proposed hog farm ended in late 1995, when county commissioners imposed a moratorium on hog-farm buildings. It didn't hurt that two of the three Goshen County commissioners lived within smelling distance of the proposed hog sites.

Not everyone is happy with the moratorium. Kelly Schmer, who sells farm equipment and lives in Goshen County, says, "People don't know what a confinement farm consists of and looks like. Nice-looking white buildings - you'd never know they were there. I think the community would have benefited."

Weber couldn't disagree more.

"This is not economic development," says Weber. "They (hog farm companies) are not going to buy screws from the local True Value."

As Weber searched for potential allies in Wheatland, she found a community divided. Some people favored the hog farm and the 30 jobs it promised; others were repelled. Vickie Goodwin, co-director of the nonprofit Powder River Basin Resource Council, fell in the latter category. A tenacious organizer, Goodwin saw the hog issue as part of a larger Wyoming identity problem.

"Wyoming doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up," says Goodwin. "We don't know what kind of development we want." That leaves the state vulnerable to all sorts of inappropriate development schemes, she says.

Goodwin says Wyoming Premium Farms tried to slip into Platte County. The company told residents it was going to have hogs on site by December of 1995, she recalls, but had failed to apply for any permits until the month before. That galvanized the Concerned Citizens of Platte County, Goodwin says.

Doug DeRouchey, the general manager for Wyoming Premium Farms' operation in Wheatland, readily admits he failed to anticipate local resistance. He thought the community was a "natural" for a number of reasons, he says, including low taxes, a dry climate that would minimize the chance of manure spills and disease, and no-fuss state regulation.

He could also see the dismal economy, evident in Wheatland's rundown commercial district, bounded by railroads and by Interstate Highway 25. (Wheatland is in eastern Wyoming, between Cheyenne and Casper.) The new jobs and a potential for millions of dollars in associated gain would seem a windfall to the locals, DeRouchey reasoned.

His parent company was also no fly-by-night operation. Itoham's 16 food processing plants and five hog farms in the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Japan brought the company $5 billion in revenue in 1996.

Nevertheless, in November 1995, 120 people showed up at a county commissioners' meeting to protest the potential hog farm.

"At any county in Wyoming, you bring in 120 people to a county commissioners' meeting, you'd think they'd respond," says Goodwin.

But the Platte County commissioners didn't budge in their opinion that the jobs and economic development outweighed potential risks. And though DeRouchey had told the Casper Star-Tribune that his company would leave if the majority of people did not want them there, he continued with the permit application process.

It wasn't easy. Neighborhood activists dogged the company's every step. Residents who feared their groundwater would be depleted by a new well for the hog farm filed a formal complaint with the state engineer's office. DeRouchey eventually got his well permit, but he says the company spent $50 million to satisfy the state that it would not affect nearby domestic wells.

The Concerned Citizens also closely followed the company's efforts to get a wastewater permit for its manure lagoon. "We would just call and ask questions," says Weber. That caused the state Department of Environmental Quality to put conditions on the permit, including the installation of a leak-proof liner.

The excruciating process may have sensitized the company. Now the bulldozers are back in Wheatland, redigging the enormous slurry pit after the company discovered it to be three feet too shallow. To fix the pit, 6 million gallons of water had to be drained and a protective synthetic liner pulled up. While production manager Scott Taylor says he's frustrated by the delays, Goodwin says the extra work means that "the sites in Platte County may be some of the best in the United States."

The Concerned Citizens also took its battle 100 miles south to the state legislature in Cheyenne. By February 1997, the activists had successfully lobbied for passage of a state water-quality bill that applies only to confined hog farms. Under the law, new hog operations must devise waste management plans and secure bonding to cover cleanup and closing costs. Lagoons must be built at least one mile away from homes, schools and towns and a quarter mile from domestic waterwells.

"It's not what our ideal legislation would be," says Goodwin, "but it's a whole lot better than what any other state has."

Anti-hog activists have already used the law in a battle against a hog farm proposed in Carpenter, in the state's far southeastern Laramie County, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. The owner of the property adjacent to the hog farm, Jerry Burnett of Hereford, Colo., responded to the plan by filing an application for a domestic well and moving a trailer onto the property. Both sit within the one-mile buffer zone required by the new law.

Owen Nelson of Hastings Pork, which wants to build the facility, said he does not object to the requirements established by the state, "but I don't think the legislature anticipated this kind of a problem."

Nelson said he doubts the company will proceed with the project, which it has been pursuing since 1995. "If people don't want jobs and the tax base in Carpenter, so be it."

What lies ahead

DeRouchey thinks all the attention his company has gotten will deter future hog development in Wyoming. "We've been written about in every newspaper and magazine out there," he says. "I would assume there will not be any (more companies) coming to this area."

But that doesn't mean Wyoming Premium Farms is going anywhere.

"Nobody's going to walk away from an $18 million operation," says DeRouchey. He expects to have hogs on the farm early this summer.

Mary Weber isn't backing down either. "We're here and we're a force to be reckoned with," she says. "Should they go elsewhere in the state, Vickie (Goodwin) and I have talked about going there.

"I've been empowered as a result of this," she adds. "It has gotten me to the place where I feel that I do have a voice and I feel that I can be heard.

"I am very, very proud that 40 families worked to get some conditions to control what will happen to our county. It was just citizens, just farmers and ranchers, businesspeople and housewives, and we were able to effect some change."

Sarah Dry is a former HCN intern.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- The West's lax rules draw hog factories

- Hogs and a small town co-exist

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