My Nightmare Neighbors: 30,000 Hogs and their (Secretly Toxic) Manure

I love hogs. I helped raise them — as well cattle and sheep — on the small, diversified farm outside Iowa City where I grew up. We also grew corn, oats, soybeans and alfalfa hay, and fed most of our crop to our livestock. Today my husband D.G. and I have a 180-acre farm of our own in Sac County, Iowa, where we’ve lived for nearly 40 years.

When we first moved in, our neighborhood was made up mostly of small, farmer-owned farms like ours. But things have become more commercial over the past 15 years. Our land is now surrounded by hog factories. I don’t call them farms because they’re not anything like the farm I grew up on. These are confined animal feedlots that mass produce hogs and pollute the air and water with toxic chemicals from their manure. But unlike cement factories or chemical plants, these hog factories don’t have to report their their toxic releases. On paper, it’s like their pollution doesn’t exist.

In person, the pollution is real, and it is almost unbearable. A fully grown hog can produce 13 to 19 pounds of manure every day. There are about 10,000 hogs in two factories less than a mile from my house, and 20,000 more hogs within four miles. During the summer we can’t keep our doors or windows open because of the stench. If I’m outside, my clothes smell like pig feces when I come home. Sometimes it gets so bad we get headaches and feel nauseous. My husband has trouble breathing. When they spread liquid manure over the field across the street from our house, it’s the worst. One time we just had to lock up the house and leave. We couldn’t come back for 3 days.

Hog factories store manure in open cesspools. Sometimes they spread liquid manure over fields near my house. (“Hog confinement system,” Friends of Family Farmers, CC BY-ND 2.0)

My dad taught me to love the land and take care of it. We work hard to keep our soil healthy and protect the creek that runs through our property. Despite our efforts, our property value has taken a hit because of the pollution from these factories. I’ve noticed that little fish like shiners and minnows, as well as many of the frogs and turtles, have almost disappeared from the creek. We do a lot less hiking, birdwatching and even barbecuing than we used to, because the smell is so noxious.

Air pollution from hog factories isn’t just a quality of life issue, it’s a serious health issue. The ammonia in manure can burn lung tissue. People exposed to hydrogen sulfide from manure for an extended period lose memory, motor control and attention span. Here in Iowa last summer, a hog producer and his son were overcome by fumes from a manure pit and died.

I know a lot of farmers run their operations the best they can, and many work hard to reduce their impact on the environment. But it doesn’t make sense to me that pollution from these livestock factories is allowed to go unreported. Under the law, facilities that release toxic pollution are supposed to report those emissions to federal, state and local authorities. Why are livestock factories exempt and allowed to hide their pollution? Air pollution is harmful, no matter where it comes from.

I’m speaking out because people need to know what’s going on, not just in my beautiful part of Iowa but across so much of rural America. There are tens of thousands of hog, beef and poultry factories that don’t have to tell authorities about their toxic emissions. People have a right to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods. People have a right to breathe clean air. It’s not right to sweep this under the carpet. It still stinks.