Monday, February 4, 2008

They Have The Corn

Today, the agricultural system in central Nebraska is considered one of the most productive in the world. But it produces mostly the same cropcorn. Nebraska is the third largest producer of corn, after Illinois and Idaho, much of it grown for cattle feed. The next most frequently grown crop is soybeans. The fertile soil of the Platte Valley can also grow other crops, such as sugar beets, dry edible beans, sorghum, wheat, and alfalfa. But because corn is the most responsive to applications of water and fertilizer, some fields have produced only corn for the past thirty years.

There are problems associated with growing this single crop over long periods. For one thing the lack of crop rotation means the potential for loss of soil as a result of wind erosion. For another, it encourages large populations of corn rootworms, corn borers, red spider mites, and others, and these gradually build up resistance to pesticides—requiring ever more chemicals to be used in attempts to eradicate them. These chemicals run off into the surface water, and seep into the groundwater. The aquifer has become increasingly poisoned. Also, with no alternative harvests, farmers suffer terrible losses when the price of corn drops. And this can be manipulated by the big corporations flooding the market, seeking to buy up and control ever more land as small farmers give up the struggle to survive.

Diet Start


A facility with 40,000 hogs creates as much sewage as 160,000 people—nearly half the population of Omaha. But the distribution of feces produces more than just smell pollution; it also introduces bacteria and toxins into the air and groundwater and—because water sources are invariably linked—also to rivers and streams, where there can be devastating consequences to the local ecology. But all too often, by the time the effects of waste from these facilities are detected, it is too late for local plants, animals, and sometimes humans.

I met a man in Nebraska this spring who had lived and farmed in a small town since 1937. He remembered well the Nebraska hog farms that served an important role in their communities. Legislation for the dumping of hog waste was irrelevant then, because no hog farmer had more hogs than his property could carry. No one would have considered testing the groundwater for contaminants because no one was getting sick—adults weren't developing respiratory problems and babies weren't developing "blue baby syndrome"—and millions of fish weren't turning up dead in their streams.

But things began to change in the 1980s, he said, when big business came onto the scene and the first factory farms, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations, for pigs were established. As these began to raise large numbers of pigs that grew fast, due to hormones and antibiotics administered in the feed, the price per hog quickly plummeted from about $36 to $8. Local pig farmers found it difficult to make ends meet, and many went out of business.

Quite apart from the shocking cruelty of these factory farms, there is the problem of the disposal of pigs' waste. This is dumped in open "lagoons." Sometimes it is diluted and sprayed on adjacent (and often genetically modified) crops—fertilizer laced with residual antibiotics and often antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The stench of this waste is revolting. My friend Tom Mangelsen has his permanent residence in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but he still maintains a cabin in Nebraska, the state in which he was raised. On one of my visits to Tom's cabin the nearby field had just been treated with the diluted pig waste, and the smell made us both feel quite sick. No wonder the value of properties drops when a hog operation is built within smelling distance. The dung of the pigs on the farms of my childhood did not smell like that, not in the least. No wonder the American pork industry targets poor rural towns where it is cheapest to win political favor and easiest to silence critics.

"You could never dump this stuff in New York City," said Laura Krebsbach, one of the nation's experts on state and federal regulations pertaining to Confined Animal Feeding Operations, "but it's hard to get a big outcry in Cherry County, Nebraska, where the population is one person per square mile."


Farmers here face many other problems. In his insightful book Eat Here, Brian Halweil explains how, as recently as the 1950s, virtually all of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Nebraska cities were grown locally. Then long- distance transport of food became possible with refrigerated long-haul trucks, cheap gasoline, advances in food processing that made long-term storage possible, and a federally subsidized interstate highway system. This heralded the arrival of huge supermarkets appearing in more and more cities and towns selling food from all over the country and from overseas. And so, as local farmland declined in profitability, thousands of family farms in Nebraska (and the surrounding states) went under and farming communities were increasingly replaced by subdivisions and concrete. And the remaining farmers mostly depend on good harvests of corn and soybeans for their survival.

... andjoyohoxing