Occasionally on my drives through the countryside I’ll come upon a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (or CAFO), which is the “agriculture industry” name for what most of us call a “factory farm.” The first ones I encountered were big turkey and chicken operations in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, and of course there have long been the massive cattle feedlots in the western states. About twenty-five years ago I went to a protest for a big hog factory near Unionville, a protest that like many had no effect. The hog operation went in, one of about 500 such operations owned by Smithfield Foods, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the WH Group of China (that’s a picture of it above).
CAFO is a term that has been created in large part to sanitize the image of these operations; “factory farm” is a bit of a misnomer itself because they in no way resemble a farm. “Animal factory” might be a better phrase, but since “factory farm” is in more common use, I guess I’ll stick with that. Factory farms tend to hit the news when there’s a big failure; the disaster that happened in 2018, for example, when Hurricane Florence overwhelmed North Carolina, sending waste from the many factory farm lagoons in that state into rivers and streams. But for the neighbors to factory farming operations, the ill effects don’t need a disaster to be triggered. They happen every day, in the form of dust, contaminant leaching, and overwhelming odor.
I’ve not met Todd Parnell, the recently-retired president of Drury University, although his novel Pig Farm has been on my to-read list for a while. As it turns out, Parnell is also a clean-water activist, and recently someone directed me to his blog, River Rant. I’ll add a link to this blog on my sidebar for easy access. What prompted this direction was his most recent post, in which he describes the unsuccesssful efforts of some environmental activists to get the Springfield, Mo., City Council to pass a resolution criticizing a law passed by the Missouri legislature in its last session. That law prohibits any local government – a county commission, city council, or whatever – from enacting a health regulation on factory farms that is more stringent than state law. Given that the current Missouri legislature is, for all practical purposes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Ag, it’s easy to envision the level of regulation they intend.
Parnell’s activism has focused on protecting Ozark streams, rightly so, since that’s his location, and since the degradation of Ozark streams is highly visible and psychically devastating. So far, the only large-scale, long-term disaster I can think of on an Ozark stream has been the 2005 collapse of the Taum Sauk reservoir, which wiped out Johnson Shut-Ins State Park for several years, caused about a billion dollars’ worth of damage, and turned the East Fork of the Black River into a muddy blob for quite some time.
Photo by Jeff Spooner, U.S. Geological Survey
There’s also the continuing concern over the oil storage tank farm at the headwaters of the Eleven Point River at Willow Springs, which earned its owner a slap on the wrist from the EPA in 2017.
But sluggish and muddy waters deserve our concern, too. Like most Ozarkers, I’m subject to clear-water bias; one of the important lessons I took away from Leland and Crystal Payton’s book Damming the Osage was that activists who opposed Truman Dam faced more difficulty because the Osage at that location was not especially “scenic” in the traditional sense. Unlike the uproar over the proposed damming of the Current, Eleven Point, or Meramec rivers, those opposed to the damming of the Osage couldn’t draw on the emotionally powerful images of lonely canoers, crystalline springs, and hidden caves. And thus we have Truman Lake, gradually silting up in its western arms, while the other rivers still flow free.
But back to the most recent act of the legislature and governor to shelter Big Ag from local regulation. The degradation of rural America sometimes happens in dramatic and visible ways, a hurricane or a dam collapse; but more often it happens invisibly, incrementally, through tax policies that cause neglect of essential infrastructure, ideologically-driven decisions that lead to the closing of hospitals and clinics, and laws like this one, which give large companies free rein to override the concerns of the communities where they locate. Apologists for Big Ag often resort to the “farmers feed the world” line, a classic example of the either/or fallacy, as if productive farming can only happen in a regulation-free environment.
These people invariably refer to farming as “the agriculture industry,” which reveals their underlying mentality. Of course, industrial methods have been used in farming ever since the Industrial Revolution began, and horse-drawn machinery was replaced by tractors. And farming can be a pretty noxious enterprise, even under the best of circumstances; ask anybody who grew up near a mink farm. And I resist the impulse to call farming a “way of life” as a contrast to an “industry”; that phrase has a fragrance of nostalgia that doesn’t sit right somehow. I think of farming, or agriculture if you will, more as a significant element of the rural economy and culture – not the only element, to be sure, and not an occupation that has a magical power that would free it from all oversight – but certainly something worth cherishing and guarding. And a factory farm is not a farm, but a factory.