CORVALLIS - A trend in the U.S. pork industry stinks, according to an Oregon State University professor with more than three decades of experience serving as an expert witness in court cases involving odor and water pollution.
"There are fewer and fewer experienced, independent producers," said Ron Miner, a bioresources engineer and water quality specialist with the OSU Extension Service. "More and more, I see big companies contracting with farmers who have relatively little knowledge of how to run a hog operation and are using concepts worked out for relatively small hog operations."
The result often is air that stinks and ground water that is polluted, said Miner. But the farmers, not the big companies, are held liable in court.
"The worst news," he added, "is that we know how to do it better. I'm wondering how we get from here, from doing things on the cheap and creating environmental problems, to utilizing better technology."
Typically, according to Miner, court cases where he is hired by the plaintiff or defendant to give testimony as an expert witness involve a farmer working on contract, raising pigs on 25 to 40 acres of his farm. The farmer puts in a pond, called an anaerobic lagoon, to store swine waste until it can be spread on nearby cropland.
"There usually are two problems haunting the neighbors," he said. "One is the odor from the lagoon. The other is a fear of ground water pollution due to over-irrigation of manure on not enough land."
The OSU professor points out a headline on the front page of a copy of the Chicago Tribune from last summer. "Huge hog farms drawing squeals from neighbors," it reads.
"In effect," Miner said, "the nature of how pigs are produced is changing. From 1968 until now the number of hog farms has dropped from about a million to about 200,000, but the number of pigs has been holding at about 60 million. That's a whole lot of manure concentrated in larger units.
"Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Illinois - a lot of states, especially in the Midwest, are trying to enact regulations to deal with the changing countryside in pork production," he said.
Big companies seem to be searching for opportunities in less populated areas, too, he added.
"Recently I was involved in a hearing in Wyoming where local landowners were trying to get a state agency to place a moratorium on this type of swine operation until suitable regulations were in place," Miner said. "The landowners lost."
Residents get upset more quickly when companies from outside are involved, he contends.
"It's not just the stench. It's an 'us-versus-them' thing, too," he said. "The stench reminds local people that change is happening and they don't have any control over it.
"All this concentration of swine production is happening at a time when most states are cutting back their environmental monitoring agencies," he pointed out. "There's less field work. Taxpayers don't want to pay for it. It's becoming very low risk to cheat - to take the easier way out and apply too much manure in fields closer to the lagoon."
What can be done to prevent such air and ground water pollution?
"There is technology coming on that allows you to cover storage lagoons with permeable mats to control the odor," said Miner. "You can aerate the lagoon to reduce the odor. You can spread the manure on a larger number of acres and use other agricultural practices that prevent ground water pollution."
But converting to more environmentally friendly practices - which can be more expensive - is a major challenge, he warned, especially when the controlling interest in a swine operation is elsewhere, as is sometimes the case.
"It's not the situation with independent farmers, where their children and their children's children may live and farm there," he said. "How do you impose a sense of responsibility on an anonymous entity?"