Raising a Stink: Pig Manure, or Poison?

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Where I live in Vermont, the occasional whiff of manure is considered a minor inconvenience, one worth putting up with to live in this bucolic state—like mud in April, black flies in May, mosquitoes in June, frost in September, leaf-peeping tourists in October, and snow for much of the rest of the year.

And I like manure. I have an arrangement with my neighbor, who tends a small, 50-cow dairy herd, that he can cut the hay in our field so long as he returns it to me after his animals have digested it so I can spread it on my garden.

But what is a valuable fertilizer on a small-scale becomes a noxious poison on an industrial scale. There's a large factory farm not far from our place, and when it cleans out its manure lagoons and spreads the contents on its fields every few months, the smell is beyond loathsome—so rank we can't stand to sit outdoors on the back deck. The stench has spoiled many a summertime gin-and-tonic hour. And it goes beyond unpleasant. Hydrogen sulfide and ammonia are two of the gasses in that malodorous mix. Both are poisonous to humans; hydrogen sulfide has been linked to neurological disorders.

I hope my smelly neighbor took notice earlier this month when a Missouri jury returned an $11-million verdict against Premium Standard Farms, an industrial pork producer recently acquired by Smithfield Foods. The 15 plaintiffs were neighboring farmers, some with family roots in the area going back 100 years. They claimed odors from Premium's 4,300-acre farm were relentless and extreme, and created a nuisance that forced them to stay inside with the windows closed. The farm is located about 80 miles north of Kansas City. It fattens 200,000 hogs confined in pens for slaughter each year.

It seems that Premium has difficulty learning from past mistakes. The plaintiffs were among 52 litigants in a similar suit in the 1990s that the company also lost, to the tune of $5.2 million.

"Maybe we can get these people to change," Charles Speer, a lawyer for the families, said to Karen Dillon of the Kansas City Star.

Premium representatives referred interview requests to the company's lawyer, but in a prepared statement the corporate farm said it planned to appeal the ruling. Citing "substantial grounds," Premium said: "The court gave the jury the impossible task of sorting through claims by 15 individuals from seven different families in different locations with each claim raising a set of distinctive issues. While the jury tried its best, it was inevitable that this 'gang trial' would result in a 'gang verdict.'"

Instead of saying it would clean up its act, the hog producer issued a warning: "In light of the decision and in view of the continuing hostile environment toward live hog production, we have serious concerns whether we will ever make any future investments in the state of Missouri."

Which, by the sounds of things, would be just fine by anyone living downwind from one of the company's operations.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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