In “Dispatches From the Fields,” Ariane Lotti and Stephanie Ogburn, who are working on small farms in Iowa and Colorado this season, share their thoughts on producing real food in the midst of America’s agro-industrial landscape.

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One Step at a Time Gardens is a model of agricultural sustainability. Over 50 varieties of vegetables grow in rotation on six acres of fine Iowa topsoil that receive no synthetic chemicals. Compost, cover crops, and chicken manure feed the soil. Pests and weeds are kept at bay through the use of physical barriers, biological products, and cultivation. The crew is made up of members from the community and a couple of non-local folks, such as myself. The farm provides produce to supply a local food system.

CAFO
More the merrier? A typical confinement holds 2,500 hogs.

Yet when the wind blows from the northwest over One Step at a Time Gardens just east of the town of Kanawha, Iowa, visions of agricultural sustainability quickly fade as the sweet stench of pig manure from the local Confined Animal Feeding Operation or hog confinement, as they say around here, envelops the farm. The Kanawha CAFO consists of five buildings that can each house up to 2,500 hogs. Behind the buildings lies the lagoon, the source of the stench, where all of the manure and waste (dead hogs) are dumped.

Factory hog farming now dominates certain counties in Iowa, the nation’s number-one hog-producing state. But it wasn’t always so. The practice didn’t really take off until the mid-1990s, when state law governing CAFOs changed. The Kanawha CAFO played a significant role in that change — and Jan Libbey and Tim Landgraf, who now run One Step at a Time Gardens but then worked as a county naturalist and a metallurgical engineer, respectively, battled the Kanawha CAFO from the start. The fight against the CAFO is what inspired them to start their farm in the first place.

The negative effects of CAFOs on the environment, human and animal health, and rural communities have been well-documented and often drive people away from rural areas. Air and water quality plummet as manure seeps into the surrounding air and watershed. Residents on the farm and in the nearby area can develop respiratory problems as well as neurobehavorial issues. Animals are prone to disease, can develop antibiotic resistance, and are often treated inhumanely. People leave rural areas as the environment becomes polluted, real estate values drop, and community relationships erode as outside investors gain more control over the local economy. And it stinks, especially on summer evenings when the humid air does not move, trapping the pig manure stench in and around homes.

Playing chicken: 18 poultry confinement buildings along Route 69 in Iowa.

Back in 1993, Jan and Tim first got wind that one of their neighbors, let’s call him Bob, who raised hogs was going to build a hog confinement through a contract with Land O’Lakes. Soon after learning about the Kanawha CAFO plan, Jan and Tim began to meet with other neighbors and organize to oppose the construction of the CAFO. In the early 1990s, counties in Iowa had zoning ordinances and each had its own zoning committee. This system had been set up to preserve farmland and stop it from being turned into land for housing developments, nuclear storage facilities, big factories, and the likes. At that time, the counties issued permits for the construction of a CAFO, keeping the control over these structures local and involving a public process.

Jan, Tim, and another handful of neighbors (one neighbor in a rural area must be equivalent to at least a dozen urban ones) participated in the public process. They went to multiple zoning committee meetings and voiced their opposition. When the county supervisor gave the go-ahead to the construct the CAFO, the group of concerned citizens decided to pool their money, hire a lawyer, and sue the county because it had violated county law.

The case was heard in a district court, and the group of neighbors won. Bob appealed with the guidance and legal resources of Farm Bureau and the Iowa Pork Producers, two powerful industry groups.

The case went to the district court of appeals, where Bob won. The citizens appealed and the case went to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Producers, citizens, and industry groups had been waiting and watching for a case to go to the Iowa Supreme Court. Citizens in other counties had opposed permits and had won. To the industry, however, a patchwork of permits and differing county zoning laws across the state created a significant hassle; it wanted a state-wide rule.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of the CAFOs and the pork industry. Agriculture in Iowa is regulated at the state level, and the county zoning ordinances were found to be in violation of state law. The group of citizens may have won a battle but it lost the war.

In the years immediately following the ruling, there were no zoning ordinances and no laws in place at the state level regulating CAFOs. During the mid-1990s, the state experienced the greatest growth in the number of hog confinements as large confinement operations moved in and were even courted by certain county economic development directors in the absence of regulation. The result was that in 2002 farms in Iowa produced an average of 1,500 hogs per farm — a dramatic jump from 250-hogs per farm in 1980. In that same time, the total number of farms keeping pigs plunged from 80,000 farms in 1980 to only 10,000 farms in 2002. Fewer producers were raising more hogs; most farmers I talk to around here today had hogs up until the mid-1990s. Very few still have them today.

Jan, Tim, and their neighbors continued their work, however, by meeting with law-makers and advocating for better regulations governing CAFO construction and permitting. They proved to be no match for the industry lobbyists, who had been pressuring supervisors, lawmakers, and anyone with power to act in their interest.

In the 15 years since the CAFO came to Kanawha, producers in contract with the pork industry have brought many more CAFOs to rural towns across Iowa. State law has regulations governing set-back distances from neighboring residences and public water use areas, and requires bigger CAFOs to have waste management plans. But the law has essentially supported the proliferation of these buildings, their negative social and environmental impacts, and the concentration of the hog industry as many hog producers have chosen to sell off their hogs instead of building confinements.

What happens when you fight the good fight and you lose? The group of concerned neighbors used the democratic processes available to them — and us — to fight a situation they believed would hurt their community, pollute their environment, and significantly lower their quality of life. They organized, put up the money, and took time outside of their professional and personal lives to fight. In a time when activists and organizers are trying to convince citizens to engage and use the powers available to them to fight whatever good fight, this group of citizens did that without having to be coached or convinced. And they lost.

But the war is ours to win. In the years immediately following the CAFO fiasco, Jan and Tim could have taken the loss as final and disengaged. Instead, Jan and Tim both quit their jobs and decided to live what they were fighting for. Without having any farming experience, they started growing vegetables and raising chickens in an environmentally-sound way to supply a community-supported agriculture operation that is currently in its 13th year. While they no longer go to the state capitol and lobby, Jan and Tim work everyday to grow a local and sustainable food system and engage more people in issues of food and agriculture. And they do this even with the hog confinement down the road.