16th Apr, 2006: LAPLATA, Mo. — Pam Stokes never imagined herself as an activist. Where she comes from, here in rural Missouri, that's a dirty word.
But when a concentrated animal feeding operation for 5,800 sows was planned a mile southwest from the home where she reared two sons and a daughter, Stokes found herself on the front lines of a battle that has broken out across northern Missouri.
Feeding farm animals in large numbers in relatively small spaces raises many issues for nearby residents, be they longtime farmers or newcomers who may have retired to a country home to escape the city
They include offensive odors, animal wastes that may contaminate the water supply, falling real estate values and wear and tear on local roads.
For many, there are also emotional issues tied to how farming has changed in recent years and how, in many cases, it has become dominated by outside or corporate owners.
But concentrated animal feeding operations have sprouted as a way to provide low-cost meat to consumers. Feeding livestock in concentrated numbers and spaces produce meats at lower expense per pound than small operations. In these feeding operations, animals with restricted movement eat special feeds and gain weight rapidly.
According to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, Missouri has about 2.7 million hogs, 20.5 million turkeys and 8.8 million chickens, most being fed in large-scale operations. Illinois has 4 million hogs, 2.9 million turkeys and 4.5 million chickens.
Like other grass-roots opponents, Stokes used the Internet to review research on large hog-feeding operations in North Carolina, Iowa and other states.
She tapped into a network of rural populists who had fought a similar fight and discovered she had a lot of allies. She became part of Citizens Against a Polluted Environment, a loose organization of about 40 members from Macon and Knox counties.
Advocates for concentrated animal feeding operations, meanwhile, praise the benefits of large feeding operations, saying that manure and other wastes, which they call "nutrients," can be used to fertilize row crops and pastures. Such animal fertilizers, they say, can help offset higher prices of commercial fertilizers made more costly by higher fuel prices.
Some call the fight over these feeding operations the most divisive conflict in Missouri since the Civil War. Others simply call it the Hog Wars.
What is clear is that efforts by some farmers and large-scale animal producers and processors like Cargill Pork, in Russellville, Ark., have provoked an uprising of farmers, homeowners, real estate developers and others against a new generation of hog farms.
Often it's farmers against farmers. Some believe the only way they can save the family place they've inherited from parents or grandparents is to sign up with Cargill or another big buyer.
Opponents of the feeding operations have pushed for county health ordinances or regulations. According to the University of Missouri, 13 counties have enacted health ordinances, and nine townships and two counties have enacted zoning restrictions on feeding operations.
In Marion County, health administrator Joan Hynek has proposed regulations that would require feeding operations to set out trees around their buildings and spread a layer of soil over animal wastes put on fields.
These steps, feeding operation advocates say, will add to operating costs and make counties like Marion less competitive in attracting large livestock operations.
The hope -- expressed by state Rep. Kathy Chinn, R-Clarence; Fred Ferrell, director of the state Department of Agriculture; and others -- is that technology will help the feeding operations contain the noxious odor associated with big hog farms.
Chinn said she long has had what she calls a "livestock enterprise" of 3,000 sows one-quarter of a mile from her house in Shelby County and has neither an odor nor a health problem.
The Missouri Soybean Association and Missouri Corn Growers recently issued a joint statement that ties the feeding operations to the growth of ethanol and bio-diesel plants.
Dale Ludwig, executive director of the Soybean Association, said bio-diesel and ethanol plants need to sell their byproducts as animal feed to be viable and concentrated animal feeding operations are a good market.
Chinn and Ferrell, argue that Missouri has the opportunity to become more self-sufficient in food by encouraging large-scale animal feeding operations.
In Illinois, there have been occasional protests against concentrated animal feeding operations, particularly for hogs. But state law requires an orderly procedure to set up a feeding operation that neighbors may find offensive because of odor, the volume of animal wastes, an anticipated drop in land values and possible health issues.
As a rule, residents are not surprised when a feeding operation is proposed, said Warren Goetsch, chief of the bureau of environmental control of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Unlike Missouri, in Illinois a public hearing process is spelled out.
Stokes learned about the feeding operation a mile from her house through the grapevine, she said, so the process seemed sneaky.
Local residents have put pressure on county commissioners to enact health ordinances, which some feeding operation supporters charge are based on emotion, not science.
Craig Jones, presiding commissioner of Macon County, led the commission in passing a health ordinance in December aimed primarily at controlling the spread of feeding operations.
"The people who came to us to pass a health ordinance are people who have lived on their property for a century. These are not left-wing liberals," said Jones, adding that "this is probably the way we are going to feed the country. Let's do it right."
Cargill, which operates hog slaughtering plants in Ottumwa, Iowa, and Beardstown, Ill., is looking for 30 contract feeding operations in northern Missouri and western Illinois, said Tim Steinkamp, a business development manager for Cargill.
The two processing plants each can kill and process 18,000 hogs a day, five days a week, said Mark Klein, Cargill spokesman.
Cargill also operates a feed mill at Montgomery City in Montgomery County that will serve the farmers who will build the buildings and operate the feeding operations.
Cargill will own the hogs, and provide the feed and veterinary supplies, said Steinkamp.
Cargill is offering producers, who could be local farmers or outside investors, a 10-year contract at the rate of $20.50 a hog a year, Steinkamp said. The hogs would be brought in as 12-pound feeder pigs and shipped to slaughter at 265 pounds, he said.
Four contractors have begun operations in Audrain, Ralls, Lewis and Knox counties, he said, while another "12 to 15 producers" are in various stages of preparations.
One is David Luetkemeyer of Ballwin, who owns Ace Electric Laboratory Systems & Service in St. Louis, a scientific laboratory equipment testing and servicing firm.
Over the last 20 years, Luetkemeyer has bought 400 acres in Ralls County north of Mark Twain Lake. Early this year, he filed a plan with the state Department of Natural Resources to build a feeding operation that will handle 4,980 hogs at a time. State law required that he notify only adjacent landowners.
But many area residents and landowners are upset that Luetkemeyer plans to build a lagoon they fear will overflow and contaminate the lake, which supplies water districts and residents.
Luetkemeyer said his operation will be "no-discharge," meaning the animal wastes will be contained on his property.
He plans to do this by distributing the lagoon material on pastures for his cow-and-calf operation.
Luetkemeyer seemed surprised that anyone would doubt his good intentions -- or his management skills. He's also excited at the chance to live his dream of being a farmer.
"I've got to borrow a lot of money, plus put this farm up for collateral," he said. "I've got a lot on the line to make this work. I guarantee you I'll manage this like it has to be managed."
Such a vow doesn't impress Leota Shoemyer, who with her husband runs 50 Duroc sows in a pasture on their farm near Luetkemeyer's.
"This is a century farm," she said. "I don't want to be pushed out by a hog farm owned by somebody from St. Louis."