I grew up south of Indianapolis on the glacier-smoothed plains of central Indiana. My grandparents owned a small farm, whittled down over the years to about 40 acres of bottomland, in some of the most productive agricultural land in America. Like many of their neighbors they mostly grew field corn (and later soybeans), raised a few cows and bred a few horses.
Even then farming for them was a hobby, an avocation, a link to a way of life that was slipping away. My grandfather, who was born on that farm in 1906, graduated from Purdue University and became a master electrician, who helped design RCA’s first color TV. My grandmother, the only child of an unwed mother, came to the US at the age of 13 from the industrial city of Sheffield, England. When she married my grandfather she’d never seen a cow, a few days after the honeymoon she was milking one. She ran the local drugstore for nearly 50 years. In their so-called spare time, they farmed.
My parent’s house was in a sterile and treeless subdivision about five miles away, but I largely grew up on that farm: feeding the cattle and horses, baling hay, bushhogging pastures, weeding the garden, gleaning corn from the harvested field, fishing for catfish in the creek that divided the fields and pastures from the small copse of woods, learning to identify the songs of birds, a lifelong obsession.
Even so, the farm, which had been in my mother’s family since 1845, was in an unalterable state of decay by the time I arrived on the scene in 1959. The great red barn, with it’s multiple levels, vast hayloft and secret rooms, was in disrepair, the grain silos were empty and rusting ruins, the great beech trees that stalked the pasture hollowed out and died off, one by one, winter by winter.
In the late-1960s, after a doomed battle, the local power company condemned a swath of land right through the heart of the cornfield for a high-voltage transmission corridor. A fifth of the field was lost to the giant towers and the songs of redwing blackbirds and meadowlarks were drowned out by the bristling electric hum of the powerlines.
After that the neighbors began selling out. The local diary went first, replaced by a retirement complex, an indoor tennis center and a sprawling Baptist temple and school. Then came a gas station, a golf course and a McDonalds. Then two large subdivisions of upscale houses and a manmade lake, where the water was dyed Sunday cartoon blue.
When my grandfather died from pancreatic cancer (most likely inflicted by the pesticides that had been forced upon him by the ag companies) in the early 1970s, he and a hog farmer by the name of Boatenwright were the last holdouts in that patch of blacksoiled land along Buck Creek.
Boatenwright’s place was about a mile down the road. You couldn’t miss it. He was a hog farmer and the noxious smell permeated the valley. On hot, humid days, the sweat stench of the hogs was nauseating, even at a distance. In August, I’d work in the fields with a bandana wrapped around my face to ease the stench.
How strange that I’ve come to miss that wretched smell.
That hog farm along Buck Creek was typical for its time. It was a small operation with about 25 pigs. Old man Boatenwright also ran some cows and made money fixing tractors, bush hogs and combines.
Not any more. There are more hogs than ever in Indiana, but fewer hog farmers and farms. The number of hog farms has dropped from 64,500 in 1980 to 10,500 in 2000, though the number of hogs has increased by about 5 million. It’s an unsettling trend on many counts.
Hog production is a factory operation these days, largely controlled by two major conglomerations: Tyson Foods and Smithfield Farms. Hogs are raised in stifling feedlots of concrete, corrugated iron and wire, housing 15,000 to 20,000 animals in a single building. They are the concentration camps of American agriculture, the filthy abattoirs of our hidden system of meat production.
Pig factories are the foulest outposts in American agriculture. A single hog excretes nearly 3 gallons of waste per day, or 2.5 times the average human’s daily total. A 6,000-sow hog factory will generate approximately 50 tons of raw manure a day. An operation the size of Premium Standard Farms in northern Missouri, with more than 2 million pigs and sows in 1995, will generate five times as much sewage as the entire city of Indianapolis. But hog farms aren’t required to treat the waste. Generally, the stream of fecal waste is simply sluiced into giant holding lagoons, where it can spill into creeks or leach into ground water. Increasingly, hog operations are disposing of their manure by spraying it on fields as fertilizer, with vile consequences for the environment and the general ambience of the neighborhood.
Over the past quarter century, Indiana hog farms were responsible for 201 animal waste spills, wiping out more than 750,000 fish. These hog-growing factories contribute more excrement spills than any other industry.
It’s not just creeks and rivers that are getting flooded with pig shit. A recent study by the EPA found that more than 13 percent of the domestic drinking-water wells in the Midwest contain unsafe levels of nitrates, attributable to manure from hog feedlots. Another study found that groundwater beneath fields which have been sprayed with hog manure contained five times as much nitrates as is considered safe for humans. Such nitrate-leaden water has been linked to spontaneous abortions and “blue baby” syndrome.
A typical hog operation these days is Pohlmann Farms in Montgomery County, Indiana. This giant facility once confined 35,000 hogs. The owner, Klaus Pohlmann, is a German, whose father, Anton, ran the biggest egg factory in Europe, until numerous convictions for animal cruelty and environmental violations led to him being banned from ever again operating an animal enterprise in Germany.
Like father, like son. Pohlmann the pig factory owner has racked up an impressive rapsheet in Indiana. In 2002, Pohlmann was cited for dumping 50,000 gallons of hog excrement into the creek, killing more than 3,000 fish. He was fined $230,000 for the fish kill. But that was far from the first incident. From 1979 to 2003, Pohlmann has been cited nine times for hog manure spills into Little Sugar Creek. The state Department of Natural Resources estimates that his operation alone has killed more than 70,000 fish.
Pohlmann was arrested for drunk driving a couple of years ago, while he was careening his way to meet with state officials who were investigating yet another spill. It was his sixth arrest for drunk driving. Faced with mounting fines and possible jail time, Pohlmann offered his farm for sale. It was bought by National Pork Producers, Inc., an Iowa-based conglomerate with its own history of environmental crimes. And the beat goes on.
My grandfather’s farm is now a shopping mall. The black soil, milled to such fine fertility by the Wisconsin glaciation, now buried under a black sea of asphalt. The old Boatenwright pig farm is now a quick lube, specializing in servicing SUVs.
America is being ground apart from the inside, by heartless bankers, insatiable conglomerates, a president who lies by remote control.
We are a hollow nation, a poisonous shell of our former selves.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering from the War on Terror. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.