Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Can Pigs and People Just Get Along?

An upcoming article from the Boston/Cambridge Alliance chapter's Dispatch newsletter focuses on the potential for revising home rule regulation in Massachusetts, sparked by a petition to the state legislature filed by one town seeking to impose stricter regulations on a local piggery.
by Dave Lewit

Pigs—good. Pig poop—bad. At least when concentrated in a tank beneath a megabarn housing 1000 hogs being fed for market. And later much of the foul goo is sprayed onto fields and plowed. “Unbearable” odor for people breathing the air within a mile or two.

That’s the situation in an around Tewksbury, Massachusetts, a town of 30,000 upwind of I-93 between Boston and Lowell. I haven’t smelled anything like that since I was a kid in New Jersey, motoring with windows shut tight past Secaucus where pigs were fed garbage from New York City restaurants. (Secaucus has since been cleaned up and gentrified.) Sometimes kids in Tewksbury gasp and even vomit when leaving the school bus, and have refused to go outside for recess. Adults too stay indoors much of the time, instead of mixing with neighbors.

This has been going on since 2005, when Krochmal Farms—a local piggery with some cattle and a petting zoo and hayrides—went industrial, building a “finishing facility” for handling pigs more efficiently. Nearby suburbanites rebelled and drafted a Home Rule Petition to get the state legislature’s permission to strictly regulate the conditions on the two piggeries within town limits. At a special town meeting, the petition passed easily.

On 1 September the State House’s A-2 hearing room was totally packed, with an additional 30 people standing in back, listening to testimony for three hours. Other Alliance for Democracy people and I had heard of the Tewksbury matter only a few days before. We had spoken on the phone with David Powers, a leader of the revolt and producer of www.TewskburyOdor.org, and two of us were there to observe.

Deeper than Tewksbury
Why should the Alliance care at all? Because the issue of Home Rule is fundamental to localization in Massachusetts and many other states. And because the Alliance is dedicated to going beyond regulation to the banning of corporations (organizations, enterprises) which disrespect citizen rights, town rights, and the rights of nature (environment). If we are going to change the system of corporate domination, here may be a key issue.
Tewksbury’s townsfolk, supported by state representative James Miceli and petition-writer Michelle Walsh, are farm-friendly, but pollution-averse. How to protect their children’s health? How to protect the air they breathe and maybe even the well water they drink? State regulation of farming is weak both in standards and enforcement. But town select boards and boards of health are limited in what they can do by the state government’s insistence on equal treatment (regardless of inherent inequalities) of all townships across the commonwealth, and on constitutional claims to protect “agricultural” as well as “mineral, forest, water, air and other natural resources” as “rights” (Amendment 97).

The petition, running seven pages, demands annual permits for pig-raising, with requirements about facilities and monitoring. While supporters bitterly complained about what amounts to assault from ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other pig-waste by-products, Krochmal Farms’ owners and Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation officers claimed to be defending “family farms” and ensuring our food security. They complained that nearby home-owners were intruders (not old-time residents) who knew that they were moving in next to normally-smelly farms, and that they were trying to drive pig farmers out of business.

From a systemic point of view, these are surface concerns. Everyone seems to want direct communication among residents and farmers and town officials, but Krochmal owners seem reluctant, and Farm Bureau leaders seem to resent impediments to “progress”—conversion to Iowa-style factory farming with expensive odor abatement equipment like what Krochmal recently installed after three years of stench and complaints. The odor has abated some, but is still offensive and probably unhealthy.

On the other hand, it was easy for two of us to talk with Greg Cave, a member of the farm family, who gave us an overview with all the details we asked about, and more, when we drove up to the farm six days after the hearing. Greg’s grandfather bought the farm in 1941 and eventually had 5000 pigs rooting and roaming about the countryside. Now surrounding pastures have given way to suburban homes, whose occupants experienced a sudden intensification of foul odor in 2005 when Krochmal converted from wooden pigpens to their massive finishing facility.

Of particular interest was the lack of a direct connection with any large corporation. Krochmal Farms has its own large truck which takes 100 hogs at a time to the livestock auction in New Holland, Pennsylvania, where they are sold to the highest bidder which may be a corporate meat packer, but without prior contract. At the starting end nine months earlier, Krochmal breeds and maintains ownership of its pigs.

The Big Issues
Where can a factory farm operation fit into the larger picture of agriculture in Massachusetts or New England?

Despite picturesque Vermont farms, New England produces only a small percentage of its food. Part of this is due not just to a relatively short growing season but to loss of farms because of the cost of labor and materials, compared with costs on tropical plantations dictated by supermarket chains, or mass handling of livestock in the South and Midwest—both with heavy damage to the environment. Part is due to year ‘round demand for meat like that for orange juice and lettuce. Part is due to unexpected price shifts as for milk, which has closed many Northeast farms. Part is due to (formerly) cheap fuel for shipping in food from thousands of miles away. But as food prices have climbed, and as contaminated food has become more common, so locally grown food, without insecticides or hormones or preservatives, has become more popular. Urban agriculture has begun—on lots, greenhouses, and rooftops. As world climate, soil, water conditions, and ocean fisheries deteriorate world-wide, New Englanders will have to become regionally more self-reliant, more seasonal in tastes, and simpler (or more creative) in eating habits—including much less pork and beef. Food Security is needed—all in a decade or two—and we will be the healthier for it.

But wouldn’t a mass pig operation like Krochmal’s be perfect for New England ham, bacon, and pork lovers? Not if their meat is processed and sold outside of the region. Selling Massachusetts hogs in Pennsylvania is not local production for local consumption. (The Alliance may want to help research corporate involvement in the Tewksbury matter, for example, the role of the Farm Bureau Federation. To volunteer, call Dispatch editor or Alliance coordinator at 781-894-1179.)

So what about government involvement? The US Department of Agriculture has long since sold out to giant corporations and fosters unsustainable and environmentally damaging mass production for profit, as well as destruction of peasant farming in Latin America and Africa as part of US imperial policy. (The Alliance has been working for years to replace NAFTA and WTO with a democratic world trade system—google “Common Agreement on Investment and Society”. Also, volunteer to help with our globalization impact bill to establish a Massachusetts citizen trade commission—call Dispatch editor or Alliance coordinator at 781-894-1179.)

At the state level the departments of Public Health, Agricultural Resources, and Environmental Protection appear to be hamstrung or corporate-dominated. Standards, oversight, regulation, and enforcement are weak. Coordination with regional and local agencies is problematic.

Home Rule may be a key to change. Following a recent hearing I spoke with chairman Senator Jamie Eldridge of the Joint Committee on Municipalities & Regional Government. He said that the committee plans to rethink Home Rule, with an eye toward more distributed power. Now may be a great opportunity for the Alliance and sister groups to become involved for systemic change—horizontal communication, less hierarchy and logjams, local funding for consultants, maybe even participatory budgeting! Happily, the senate vice-chair is Pat Jehlen, another liberal.

At present, a substitute bill---much shorter and more sophisticated—might be enacted as an ordinance by Tewksbury or neighboring Wilmington town meeting, modeled after water protection measures taken in Barnstead NH, Shapleigh ME, and other places, sparked by Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (www.CELDF.org) and driven by Alliance for Democracy organizers and educators (www.TheAllianceForDemocracy.org). Such an ordinance, possibly leading to a town charter change, would exclude factory farm operations within town limits (though sustainable farming, including organic, would continue) based on regional food security and rights to health and rights of nature. Without citing rights, conservative townships in central Pennsylvania have warded off external corporate threats by passing such ordinances.

Yes, there will be conflict with corporations which have designs on town resources as well as with factory-minded farmers. Legislators concerned with Home Rule will weigh in with possibly very progressive changes in state law. It may also stimulate thinking and planning between towns and states in New England about regional agriculture sufficiency, public banking for sustainable enterprise, and regional economic integration.

Readers: Please identify friendly spirits on this committee!

Committee on Municipalities & Regional Government


  • Eldridge of Middlesex and Worcester (Chair) 617-722-1120
  • Jehlen of Second Middlesex (Vice-Chair) 617-722-1578
  • Fargo of Third Middlesex 617-722-1572
  • Galluccio of Middlesex, Suffolk and Essex 617-722-1650
  • Kennedy of Second Plymouth and Bristol 617-722-1200
  • Tisei of Middlesex and Essex 781-246-3660

  • Donato of Medford (Chair) 781-395-1683
  • Spiliotis of Peabody (Vice-Chair) 978-531-3269
  • Sullivan of Fall River 508-676-1008
  • Curran of Springfield 413-746-2728
  • Richardson of Framingham 617-722-2582
  • Clark of Melrose 617-722-2220
  • Ashe of Longmeadow 617-722-2090
  • Madden of Nantucket 508-540-0035
  • Barrows of Mansfield 617-722-2488
  • Hargraves of Groton 978-448-5456

No comments: