I’m a retired public school teacher living in Des Moines.
I grew up here close to the city limits, with an easy escape to the countryside that was once dotted with miles and miles of small family farms. The sight and even the smells of those small farms were a welcome respite from the congested and busy neighborhood life I was growing up around.
There were cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and usually lots of cats. Barns were exciting and full of life. It’s an idyllic memory many Iowans still relish today.
In contrast, pig production now happens inside gigantic industrial buildings warehousing thousands of animals subjected to a rectangular cubicle for life. They’re left to eat and drink in these confined spaces, and in about five months they’re slaughtered.
The stench from millions of gallons of manure percolating under their feet and spread on fields travels across our countryside and is toxic and nauseating to breathe.
For 40 years, my biggest worries focused on my middle school students: Were there enough new grammar books? Could they get to school in the snow? Did they have enough to eat at home? But eventually, I started worrying if they, or any of us, should be drinking or cooking with the water coming out of our facets, or swimming or fishing in the water in our countryside.
Those small family farms in the countryside have given way to an explosion of more than 7,000 factory hog sites. Iowa is now close to being decimated for the sake of massive profits for a few giant corporations like Smithfield, Iowa Select, Prestage Farms, Hormel, and Tyson Foods.
These concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are practically unregulated and unmonitored. Our state’s factory farm inspectors can’t even begin to keep track of what happens at thousands of sites.
Tons and tons of manure laden with nitrate, phosphorus, antibiotics, and other chemicals soak into the ground or run off fields and flow into the Des Moines water system. Both of our rivers, the Des Moines River and Raccoon River, are polluted regularly with high levels of nitrate. Iowa taxpayers and water customers have shelled out millions of dollars to clean the poisoned water.
Less discussed are the people who work in these factories and the slaughterhouses where the animals are butchered. Thousands of immigrants fill these brutal and dangerous jobs.
For decades, politicians spread nasty lies about these workers that have wormed their way into the public mythology in Iowa: that immigrants are taking our jobs, driving up our medical costs, or overcrowding our schools.
We know these families. They go to church with us, we pass them in the grocery aisles and at the post office, and sit next to them at the grandkids’ soccer games. No one should believe these lies, but they’ve seeped into our community like the factory farm manure that poisons our rivers.
It’s in the best interest of the factory farm, slaughterhouse, and feedlot owners — and the politicians they support — to keep us at each other’s throats. They pit us against each other and make us fear each other. Imagine what would happen if all all of Iowa’s struggling rural families and workers cooperated and worked together?
We’d fight wage theft, and demand higher wages and better conditions in the slaughterhouses. We’d crack down on hog factories and clean up our waterways. We’d give more money to our schools so everyone has a great education. We’d fight to get profits out of health care and have Medicare For All.
Iowans, and people in other rural states, were fooled once. I hope we won’t be fooled again — and certainly not pitted against each other. Take it from this retired schoolteacher: we’ve learned our lesson.
Cherie Mortice is a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, part of the People’s Action network. She lives in Des Moines.