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Know the West

Hogs and a small town co-exist


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

ALBIN, Wyo. - In this town of just 120 people some 50 miles southeast of Wheatland, hogs have been a part of the landscape for a decade.

But the owner of a mini-empire of 11,000 sows, which bear up to 250,000 pigs a year, isn't corporate; he's local farmer Jim Lerwick. Because Lerwick is from Albin, because he's rounded up 75 individual investors, some of them local farmers, and because he jumped the gun on the negative publicity pouring out of Iowa and North Carolina, resistance to his hog farms has been less intense and less organized than opposition to hog farming in Wheatland.

He still faces opposition. Theron Anderson's house sits two miles from two different hog farm sites just outside of Albin. A large man, Anderson speaks slowly and with an air of misgiving. He says that the odor from the hogs can be "unbearable." He now takes medication for a sinus problem that he did not have before the pigs moved in. Anderson says he also wonders if Lerwick is using more than his fair share of water.

"I don't think he was entirely honest with us. I know he wasn't honest with me," says Anderson. "He stood near my back door and said, 'You won't smell it more than a couple of days a year.' "

Lerwick is an enthusiastic pig promoter. On a blustery day in March, he's standing at the front of a big yellow school bus, giving 60 distracted high schoolers what amounts to a campaign speech for hogs.

As the bus rattles down the straight, dusty, county roads that run between the many buildings that house his pigs, Lerwick answers questions about pig survival rates, how to know when sows are in heat and what effect the corporate hog industry is having on small family hog farms.

"Excellent question," he responds to this last. "What happens when Wal-Mart comes to town? A major reshuffling of the retailing of product. That's exactly what's happening in the pork industry on a global scale. As technology has emerged, those that accept the technology have the advantage. We try to do it with as much grace and compassion as we can, but it's an economic question."

It's a familiar free-market argument, and Lerwick is a familiar type of businessman. In his words, he's bringing jobs to a small community that otherwise might not make it.

"A hundred jobs for a town of one hundred. That's not bad."

For the most part, locals seem to agree. As Mike Braman, bartender of Albin's sole bar puts it: "There's 125 employees and some of them drink."