Dinner in a hog barn gives taste of debate

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A recent dinner in a pig barn underscored something I’ve long known but too often forget: There are good people on both sides of most controversial issues.

The good people hosting the dinner, the Buchanan County Pork Producers Association, did so to remind public officials that its members are job creators, producers of safe, healthful and (I might add, delicious) food, reliable neighbors, community supporters and responsible stewards of the environment.

They were irked that the Buchanan County supervisors, like at least 11 other county boards, earlier this year had approved a resolution urging the Iowa Legislature to declare a moratorium on the construction of swine confinements until the rules governing their placement are updated.

The supervisors’ resolutions typically ask the governor and Legislature to address the failings of the master matrix, which governs the construction process for hog confinements and other concentrated animal feeding operations. Changes, they say, are needed to protect the air, water, health, quality of life and economic interests of their constituents.

Most Iowans would agree that the permitting process favors the applicant over the comfort and well-being of neighbors and, in some cases, the public interest.

The supervisors’ resolution “blindsided us,” said Al Wulfekuhle of Quasqueton, proprietor with his wife, Kathy, of G & W Pork, a 1,600-sow farrow-to-finish operation with eight employees and more than a dozen sites.

The June 22 dinner was staged to showcase modern pork production and to allow state and county officials to ask questions and meet the people who raise pigs.

Speaking after the dinner in a new 2,400-head confinement building, Wullfekuhle, the recent past president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said: “The one thing I want to get across this evening is that, in an industry like ours, you have to grow and improve or the competition will eat your lunch.”

The tour started at the Trish and Aaron Cook farm, where the Cooks and several employees care for 1,200 sows, which produce 30,000 pigs per year. The approximately 70 guests were then bused to one of seven Cook finishing sites where they saw a barn full of 5-week-old pigs next to a new barn under construction.

Aaron Cook said the pigs are widely distributed to deter contagious disease and to ensure sufficient land to accommodate their manure.

“Those nutrients are valuable and handled with care. We like to have conversations about water quality because we believe the science is on our side,” he said.

The bus passed by dozens of hog barns along gravel roads in eastern Buchanan County, only one of which emitted even a suggestion of what pig farmers call “the smell of money.”

Wulfekuhle, whose three children grew up in a house 150 feet from hog buildings, said, “You will get odor living next to them, but it is a way of life and you get used to it.”

With the passage of each barn, Wulfekuhle explained its history, noting that many are operated by the descendants of families who have farmed the ground for generations, while several others are operated by his own employees or former employees who entered the industry under his tutelage.

“Raising livestock is a steppingstone for young people to get into farming,” he said, noting that six of his eight employees own hog barns that his company leases.

“This is still a neighborhood with neighbors helping each other solve problems. If we didn’t have livestock, there would be many fewer people living in this county. Caring for animals takes the human touch,” he said.

The evening concluded with dinner — featuring grilled pork chops, of course — in a newly constructed, unpopulated 2,400-head finishing barn owned by Landon and Andy Slattery, brothers who will raise pigs on contract for the Cooks.

The brothers, both engineers, will keep their day jobs while they raise hogs on a part-time basis, at least to start.

“It seemed like a good opportunity to get into agriculture and hopefully some day we won’t have that job in town,” said Landon Slattery. The brothers hope the $700,000 cost of the facility will be paid off in 15 years, he said.

Landon Slattery said their preparations included talking with neighbors to ensure no one objected to their new barn and consulting with the Coalition to Support Iowa Farmers to ensure it met state requirements.

If all pork producers followed that protocol, their industry would be less controversial, and fewer supervisor boards would be calling for a construction moratorium and revisions to the state’s siting rules.

But as state Sen. David Johnson (I-Ocheyedan) and Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp (among others) have pointed out, “bad actors” are exploiting the rules to raise hogs not only where they are unwelcome but in areas of karst topography where they threaten to foul the wells from which neighbors drink.

Those neighbors are good people, too.

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