The cycle begins with a horny boar in Kansas. The beast mounts a steel surrogate sow that’s shaped like a barrel, draped with a piece of carpet for comfort. Leg supports sprout from its sides for easy gripping. The boar grunts and thrusts, and workers stand at the ready with sterile plastic bags, poised for the moment of porcine ecstasy. This is ground zero for “vertical integration,” a business model that’s helped Merriam-based Seaboard Corp. rise to third place among the world’s pork producers. It’s a simple concept: The company’s pork subsidiary, Seaboard Farms, owns every step of its pork producing process — from semen to tenderloin.
Once the boar is spent, Seaboard workers dilute his semen, divide it and seal it into 20 little bags, load it on a refrigerated truck with thousands of other bags, and ship it to a row of barns deep in the Oklahoma panhandle. Each barn is identical: white walls and silver roof. Inside, 27,000 sows wallow in long rows of pens roughly 10 inches wider than their bodies. Unable to turn around, the mama pigs chew at the bars that confine them. At their heads are feed troughs, each attached to a measurement meter that divvies out exact amounts of grain. Below the sows’ feet run long, thin holes for the sows to mash their feces and urine through. Water washes the sewage out through tubes into a pit as wide as a soccer field. Prairie birds float on the pit’s nearly black surface, snapping at bugs.
Seaboard calls the row of barns the Dorman sow facility — just one piece of an empire that’s exploded across the plains of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Colorado. Ten years ago, the company didn’t own a single hog. Today, Seaboard houses 167,000 sows yielding a combined litter of 3 million each year. Comprising one of the company’s biggest facilities, the Dorman barns sit in Beaver County, Oklahoma, population 6,016 — that’s less than a quarter the number of sows. At Dorman, each sow gives birth to 21 piglets each year. The farm has also given birth to controversy. Over the past year and a half, it’s been the focus of citizen ire, state fines, a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, and a criminal investigation launched by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Inside, three stages of a pig’s life unfold simultaneously. In one area, workers lead a harnessed boar down a narrow aisle between the sow pens. When a sow catches a whiff of the manly pig, she stiffens and locks into place. Another worker presses his hands into the small of her back, simulating sex. He slides a plastic catheter with a rubbery blue tip deep into her vagina until her cervix clamps down on it. The worker attaches a bag of semen to the tube and squeezes the milky goo into the swine’s uterus. A few days later, each sow will undergo ultrasound to find out whether the pregnancy took hold.
When the sow reaches the end of her term, workers move her to a birthing area — a sealed room with two dozen pens. Again the sow is constrained by bars that fan out several inches from her sides. She has just enough room to flop down and offer teats to her litter of piglets, all pink and scrambling around in a space the size of a horse tub. The room is immaculate — stainless steel and white — save for the globs of placenta and stillborn piglets swept into neat piles along the wall. By the end of the day they’ll be collected, then dried and pulverized and fed to future generations of pigs.
From here, the pigs lead a 31-week life of multistage containment: the weaning room, where they nuzzle nipples day and night; the nursery, where they’ll live in a 55-square-foot pen with 24 other hogs; the finishing barn, where they fatten to 270 pounds; and finally the slaughterhouse. The sows will keep giving birth for three years — about seven litters — until they’re sold to a sausage company that covets their cheap, tough meat.
Trucks haul the matured hogs to Seaboard’s massive pork processing plant on the outskirts of Guymon, Oklahoma. It’s the newest in the business and the only one Seaboard owns. In addition to being a source of bacon, however, it’s brought home division among the people of Guymon. Some of them say the plant has jolted the local economy, that it’s made a few resourceful locals into millionaires. Others say the opposite has happened. Businesses have boarded up, per capita income has declined, and crime is higher than it ever was.
The pigs scamper off of trucks and into holding pens, where they’re left to calm down from the long drive — if a pig dies in distress, its meat will be shot through with bitter flavor. Once they’ve relaxed, they’re herded ass to snout into a covered shoot and locked onto a conveyer. Each reacts differently when it reaches the end of the tunnel. One looks around calmly. Another screeches and scratches its feet against the stainless steel, trying to escape. Metal arms swing down and lock against its neck and forehead. In an instant, the pig’s body stiffens with electric shock and it’s dropped, unconscious but still alive, onto a conveyer. A worker, one of 2,200 in the plant, gores its neck, and out shoots a stream of blood as wide as a nickel. Another worker hooks a chain to a hind foot and hoists the twitching pig a dozen feet in the air so it can bleed to death. It’s just one of 16,000 pigs to meet its death each day in Guymon — more than 4 million every year. From a distance, each is now indistinguishable from the others — hundreds of them spread 3 feet apart, moving along a far wall like bags of dry-cleaned clothes.
Once its blood is drained, workers run the corpse through troughs of scalding water and corridors of flames until it emerges hairless and as white as a watermelon rind. From there, the procession line diverges. Moving rows of bodies, heads, and vital organs dangle from hooks above the workers. Each room in the 440,000-square-foot plant hosts an array of gruesome tableaus: a belly splits, spilling intestines and organs identical to humans’; a woman scoops hundreds of gray, bloodless hearts onto a cardboard tray; fat, severed hind legs tumble clumsily one after another down a cold metal chute. Along the way, each worker cuts a piece away from the hog until it’s reduced to butcher-size portions, vacuum-sealed, and packed in either brown or white boxes to be stacked in trailer trucks and hauled away. The brown boxes stay in America; the white ones are bound for the open seas and the long journey to the highly coveted market of Japan.The Japanese are finicky about their pork. They’re particularly conscious about color, buying only the whitest of the “other white meat.” Consistency is key to their satisfaction. “What the Japanese want is to be assured of what the quality and safety of a product is,” says John Cravens, director of foreign market development for the National Pork Producers Council. And Seaboard’s business plan breeds consistency. By controlling every stage of a pork chop’s evolution, Seaboard can monitor and tweak each minute detail — from a hog’s diet to its microscopic genes. “The Japanese love our model of vertical integration,” says Dan Normand, Seaboard’s technical systems manager.
From their corporate offices at 9000 W. 67th Street, Seaboard executives drool over the export market. Pork accounts for more than 40 percent of all meat consumed worldwide, more than double its percentage on American plates. And as overseas economies strengthen, so do foreigners’ appetites for meat. “There’s a direct correlation between income levels and consumption of meat,” says Craven.
Add to that China’s recent entry into the World Trade Organization, and our hog execs in Merriam have themselves a huge unexploited territory. China produces about 50 percent of the world’s pork, yet, Cravens says, the people there have a shortage of the pork products they like most, generally stuff that people in the U.S. don’t like, such as livers, hearts, and tongues. And Chinese pork producers can’t easily expand their operations, because the feed is not readily available — it’s actually cheaper to import pork to China than to bring in grain. The United States’ first pork export to China occurred this spring, and Cravens says that once the two countries work out a trade agreement, the Chinese market will bring billions to American pork producers: another $5 of profit for every hog slaughtered in America.
Seaboard already has a healthy dig into this gold mine. Of the $500 million pulled in annually through pork production, 20 percent comes from sales in Japan, Korea, and Mexico. “The export market is very important to us,” says Gary Reckrodt, Seaboard’s marketing and communication manager, adding, with understatement, “It’s a little more profitable.”
To strengthen its position overseas, Seaboard needs to build another plant equal in size to the one in Guymon. Though a definite site for the facility has yet to be named, Seaboard officials have declared that St. Joseph, Missouri, sits at the top of their list. The choice makes sense for a number of reasons, notably St. Joseph’s proximity to Interstate 29 and the large number of hog farms in Iowa, Nebraska, and northwest Missouri. But it also marks a decided change in Seaboard’s pork production strategy. During the late ’90s, the company tried to place its new plant in Great Bend, a thriving community of 15,000 in the middle of Kansas. The idea was to concentrate its vertical integration efforts on the yawning horizon of western Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle. It seemed the ideal location for a hog empire. Land was abundant and cheap. The rural communities there were eager for economic development. Oklahoma and Kansas environmental laws regulating concentrated animal feeding operations were comparatively lax, at least at the outset. And the region was sparsely populated, meaning fewer people would be affected by the odors of high-volume hog farming. But the plan didn’t come off the way Seaboard hoped.
Seaboard faced aggressive opposition in Great Bend. In 1998, a slate of anti-Seaboard write-in candidates, who had announced their candidacy just a couple of weeks before the election, took over Great Bend’s city council. This was a new twist in Seaboard’s ascension in the pork market. Just a few years earlier, communities had opened their arms to the company.
When Seaboard established its first processing plant in 1990 in Albert Lea, Minnesota, it was welcomed warmly with a $2.9 million taxpayer-funded loan, a handful of infrastructure perks, and a billboard declaring: “35,000 FRIENDLY PEOPLE WELCOME SEABOARD CORP.” When Seaboard skipped town five years later for Guymon, it was lured by a far greater public subsidy package — $21 million in state and local funds. But word of what was happening in Guymon spread through the region — stories of horrible-smelling hog farms with massive manure lagoons that leaked, tales of migrant workers swelling Guymon’s population and burdening social-services networks. Thereafter, nearly every step Seaboard took was met by opposing force. And now St. Joseph is following suit. At a July 17 city council meeting, 250 residents packed the chambers carrying signs reading “NO! SEABOARD!” and “NO WAY, JOSE!”
To Don Stull, a University of Kansas anthropology professor who has studied life in Guymon and other meatpacking towns, the reactions in Great Bend and St. Joseph come as no surprise. “The industry has not adapted to communities,” he says. “I’m a meat eater and proud of it. But I believe the meatpacking industry is not doing as good a job as it should. The problem is meatpackers are not good corporate citizens. The industry brings significant costs. So now word is out. You can’t just sneak into a community anymore.”
Gary Reckrodt, Seaboard’s marketing and communication manager, bristles at Stull’s conclusion: “I’ve heard Dr. Stull speak before, and I think he offers a lot more opinions than facts. I invite anybody to visit Guymon and ask for yourself. Ask the civic leaders if Seaboard is a good corporate citizen and a good neighbor.”On the north end of Guymon stands a two-story, windowless cube sheathed in white sheet metal. The structure is a monument to the benefits of having Seaboard in town, says Shawn Lepard, executive director of ProAg, an organization founded several years ago “by people in Guymon tired of hearing just negative issues about Seaboard.” One of the stories the group trumpets is that of the white cube. It holds the only multiplex of stadium-seating movie theaters in the region, and it’s owned by Brian Mitchell, a third-generation panhandle farmer.
“When Seaboard announced they were coming to town, Brian was nervous about them,” Lepard begins his story. “Then he decided the best approach was to try to figure out a way to make money off the situation.” So he sold his land to Seaboard at a premium, for the company to build hog barns. But because the feeding operations were so compact, Seaboard needed only a small portion. So company officials sold the land back to Mitchell for less money than they’d bought it for. “Brian told me he felt like he was stealing,” Lepard says.
Mitchell took his profits and bought more land. Then he bought an apartment complex in town. Then he bought a strip mall. To that, he attached the five-screen theater this past spring. “It’s been a real boon to Guymon,” Lepard says. “Before that, people had to drive to Amarillo (in Texas) or Liberal (in Kansas) for a movie.”
Others in town scoff at the story. They say that it pales in comparison to the havoc Seaboard has wreaked on the local economy. When Kent Martin and Brett Fowler drive along the brick-paved Main Street, they see nothing but economic ruin. Fifteen years ago, it was nearly impossible to find a parking space in front of the downtown stores, each adorned in different shades of pastel sheet metal. Today, many of the buildings lie vacant. And there are no more stores for society women to shop for their Sunday best. “Even the lawyers’ wives, who put stores in just for entertainment because they don’t need to make money, even they have closed up,” Martin says. “Because without customers, it’s not even entertainment.”
“There’s no demand for those kinds of stores anymore,” Fowler says. “Basically, Wal-Mart is the only thing people around here can afford.”
The pair of panhandle natives acknowledge that Seaboard has brought new businesses to town but that it’s driven even more away. Both are members of the Oklahoma Family Farm Alliance, which opposes Seaboard. To illustrate the economic decline of their hometown, they hand out a pamphlet called “Texas County, the Real Story.” At the back of the booklet are graphs tallying business openings and closings in the years since Seaboard came to town. The running score: 61 new, 129 closed.
But such disagreements are old news in Guymon. The hot topic this summer is the Texas County Fair. Folks aren’t sure whether there’ll be one this year. Dubbed the Panhandle Exhibition, it’s been a summer highlight in Guymon for each of the past 82 years, having survived the Great Depression, several recessions, and the roller-coaster rides of the oil and agriculture markets. The problem this year? There’s just not enough money in the county coffers to go around. Facing a deficit, the county commission had to make some hard decisions, so it axed appropriations to the fair board.
“It’s greed, that’s all it is,” says Lepard. “We have a situation where the budget is twice what it was six years ago. But we can’t afford a fair? What’s the deal?” Lepard answers his own question: “The commissioners want to raise the sales tax. They know if they cut a road project that’ll affect just a few people out in the county, they won’t get the desired effect. But if they cut the fair, it’ll affect the whole county. It’ll get people all riled up.”
“He don’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about,” says Texas County Commissioner Harvey Hale. The real problem, Hale says, is that sales tax revenue is on the decline and the cost of doing business is on the rise. While the county’s total tax receipts peaked in fiscal year 1997-98, two years after Seaboard opened its processing plant, expenditures have continued to climb. The crime index has nearly doubled since the plant opened, filling the new county jail — paid for with an added penny in sales tax — to capacity, leaving no room to rent cell space for inmates from other parts of the region. Seaboard’s trucks — hundreds per day — have burdened the county’s road systems, leading to massive public-works expenditures. In the meantime, for the past three years, sales tax revenues have been sinking. “People are buying somewhere else or they’re not buying at all,” Hale explains.
One reason for this, Hale says, is that taxes within the city of Guymon — the county’s biggest city and its prime commercial district — are the highest in the region: 8.5 percent, with one penny out of each dollar earmarked for a bond issued to help pay for Seaboard’s processing plant. “We’re right on the Texas line,” Hale says. “So a lot of people go to Texas to buy their groceries because they don’t want to pay the hog tax.”
Texas County residents now also have less buying power. Before Seaboard came to town, the county’s per capita income was $22,107 — the fourth-highest in Oklahoma. In 1996, a year after Seaboard opened shop, average earnings fell to 10th place at $19,204 per year. This was because most of the jobs at the plant were low-paying, starting at $7.50 per hour. And the turnover has been high, with few workers surviving more than a year at their bloody and monotonous jobs.
But while Seaboard has put a strain on the county’s infrastructure and social services, the company seeks to buffer its image by playing sugar daddy. The Oaks of Mamre, a homeless shelter that opened just a month before the packing plant did, was founded in part with a $75,000 gift from the company. But the shelter addresses a problem Seaboard created: The majority of its residents are slaughterhouse employees, folks who have come to town for a job at the plant but have neither a place to live nor money for an apartment deposit. (Seaboard also contributed $30,000 to Pioneer Days, a national-caliber rodeo held in Guymon each spring. “That helped get the rodeo on ESPN,” Lepard says.)
And Seaboard might well rise up as the savior of the county fair. When PitchWeekly caught up with Sue Oliver, manager of the fair board, she was reviewing application materials she would later send to Merriam for a Seaboard grant. Although she concedes that the company’s presence has put a financial burden on Guymon and Texas County, which, in turn, has burdened the fair board, she still plays the role of diplomat: “Seaboard has been very helpful to us. There’s very few things we’ve asked for them to do for the fair that they haven’t done.”
The debate over Seaboard’s effect on Guymon is tame, however, when compared to the wars raging across the sagebrush that surrounds the town. The most contentious battle of words — and lawsuits and fines and legislation — has centered on the massive hog barns that have popped up all across the prairie in the years since the processing plant opened.Donald Heitschmidt parks his truck on a hill on the eastern edge of his property in Beaver County, Oklahoma. Arrayed across the flats below is a cluster of cement foundations with long, narrow holes cut into them. Just to the north of the foundations is a wide pit, its sides covered in black plastic, rainwater growing stale in a pool at the bottom. The foundations were to become Seaboard’s Wakefield sow facility, a collection of barns that would house 27,000 sows, rivaling the size of the Dorman barns, which operate several miles to the south. But their progress has been stopped — at least for now — by lobbying on the part of Heitschmidt; his wife, Betty; their neighbors; and a little church down the road. The site has sat unfinished since 1997.
When Heitschmidt first heard that Seaboard planned to build hog barns a mile away from the house he’d lived in for all of his 72 years, he vowed to fight it to the end. Seaboard had filed the permit application to build the barns just before a new, tougher law regulating concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) was to take effect in Oklahoma.
Heitschmidt protested loudly at every public hearing on the barns. He lobbied legislators in the halls of the capitol building in Oklahoma City, pushing for still tougher regulations. Due largely to his efforts, those of his neighbors, and a barrage of anti-corporate-hog coverage by the Daily Oklahoman, the paper of record in the state, legislators called for a moratorium on large hog barns.
When legislators lifted the moratorium with the passage of more stringent legislation in 1998, opponents of the Wakefield sow facility seized on a technicality in the new law. It said a CAFO could not operate within three miles of property where any nonprofit organization held recreational activities. Nothing in the law indicated an exemption for applications submitted before the law went into effect. So the Bethel Church of God, a small congregation that met in a steepled church house a couple of miles south of the barns, posed an insurmountable obstacle for Seaboard. Citing the restriction, the state’s water board refused to grant Seaboard a water permit, rendering its plant inoperable.
But Seaboard wouldn’t give in easily. Having invested millions of dollars, the company filed suit against the water board, the Heitschmidts, their neighbors, and the Bethel Church of God. The water board turned around and filed suit against Seaboard on behalf of itself and the church; six other Oklahoma churches joined the cause, signing on as friends of the court.
Unwilling to await a court decision, Seaboard tried an end around.
One day last year, Heitschmidt got a visit from his neighbor, Dale Newman, who was returning home from a livestock sale. “Have you been contacted by the survey crew?” Newman asked, explaining that the “West Texas Pipeline Company” was going around asking farmers to sell easements for a pipeline it was putting in. Selling land easements is common among farmers and ranchers; it’s a way to snatch up a couple thousand easy bucks. Panhandle landowners are especially willing to do so when they hear “West Texas” because the name of the gas company that serves the region contains those words. But something in this deal didn’t ring right with Heitschmidt and his neighbors. They checked around and discovered that the West Texas Pipeline Company was registered under the name of a Seaboard employee and that it had applied for a water permit in Kansas. The company was planning to pipe water across the border to the Wakefield barns.
Heitschmidt made a flurry of calls, and by nightfall not a single landowner along the pipeline route was willing to sell an easement. And the opposition didn’t stop there. Kansas legislators also caught wind of Seaboard’s scheme, and before the end of the year the House and Senate passed, without a single dissenting vote, new legislation outlawing water exports to support operations deemed illegal in other states. A flack in Seaboard’s Merriam offices issued a formal, embarrassed apology.One of the biggest reasons rural residents oppose massive hog barns is that they stink. They stink so bad, some believe they’re a health hazard. Jay Clapp, a retired engineer who owns property in Beaver County, has studied the permits for the sow facilities intensely and, in crunching the numbers, discovered their odorous hazards. If the Wakefield facility is ever built, he says, it “will generate 470 tons of nitrate a year. Two hundred and seventy tons of that converts into ammonia and is evaporated into the air. If you dilute that ammonia so it’s mixed with air at 25 parts per million — and I choose that figure because that’s what OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) says is the maximum limit for an inside workplace, and it’s also where the eyes start to tear, which means it’s pretty bad — if you take the amount of gas generated in one day and spread it over one mile, you’d have a layer of gas 30 feet deep.”
The other fear about the facilities is that they could contaminate water sources. The problem is their waste-management system, according to Linda Martin, an environmental engineer in Norman, Oklahoma. She’s studied more than 50 feedlots and their waste disposal systems. “I haven’t found one that’s done right,” she says. “And it’s not just one or two things that’s wrong with them. It’s everything. They’re sloppily put together. It’s pitiful.”
The problem is this: Hogs produce about twice as much waste as humans. And their waste is more toxic, 10 to 30 times more so. Feedlots treat the waste by using a liquid system: The hogs defecate into troughs under their pens, and a plumbing system flushes it out. The waste, which includes such toxins as nitrate, high levels of salts, and fecal coliform, can flow easily through the ground and down into groundwater sources.
“It’s a boneheaded idea,” Martin says. “I’m sure it sounded cool on the drawing board. But they didn’t consider the environment. All they looked at is how to raise the most hogs in one place at one time. A lot of them say it’s state-of-the-art, but I beg to differ. It’s nothing more ingenious than an open-air toilet.”
To make matters worse, Seaboard takes the watery sewage and sprays it on crops. The hog sludge then seeps into playa lakes and gulches that feed streams and rivers. The lagoons also leak by their very nature, slowly seeping hog waste into the ground.
Seaboard disputes the dangers. “I will tell you, being in live production, it’s our goal not to pollute the aquifer,” says Joe Young, Seaboard’s Oklahoma production manager. “All those lagoons have 18 inches of clay at the bottom and 12 inches on the side. I mean, those things are impermeable.”
Yet permits for these facilities have specific language allowing for seepage, and that doesn’t even address the potential for massive spills. Since September 1999, five documented spills have occurred at Seaboard’s Dorman sow facility, a few miles south of the Wakefield site. The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture fined Seaboard for three of them; according to field investigation reports, those spills all occurred in the span of a month and totaled more than 160,000 gallons of liquid hog waste: October 5, 12,800 gallons; October 12, 1,680 gallons; and on October 21, 150,000 gallons. Investigators found that this last spill spread 1,350 feet, dumping into a draw that feeds the Beaver River. Seaboard was fined $20,250 plus another $10,000 for failure to install an odor abatement system.
And the site has been a magnet for lawsuits. On April 14, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation filed suit against Seaboard and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. The wildlife conservation department called for the revocation of the Dorman facility’s license, charging that state officials failed to evaluate Seaboard’s compliance with water quality standards and environmental laws. Two days later, Beaver County residents Jake and Lesa Slatten filed a petition for judicial review of Seaboard’s permit application for the Dorman facility. The couple alleges the application was “boilerplate,” identical to others submitted to meet the deadline prior to the toughening of state regulations — that it’s incomplete and rife with errors. On February 24, the Sierra Club also filed suit against Seaboard, claiming the company’s Dorman facility operates in violation of federal clean water laws, which state that no facility may discharge pollutants into U.S. waters without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination permit. The environmental group’s case alleges 13 separate cases in which the facility discharged waste into water sources in its immediate area. Some of these are continual violations, the Sierra Club contends, because the facility regularly sprays the sewage on crops.
By this time, the EPA was also paying attention. On May 9, a federal judge in Oklahoma City signed a search warrant allowing EPA investigators to enter the Dorman sow facility. They sought to determine whether Seaboard was illegally applying hog waste effluent to wetlands and U.S. waters, and to investigate the reports supplied by the Army Corps of Engineers that workers at the facility had bulldozed over a playa lake classified as a wetland. EPA officials say the investigation is ongoing, but they decline to comment.
While the legal battles over Seaboard’s operations in Beaver County have been far from pretty, it’s the ongoing war in Kansas that’s done more damage to the ambitions of suits in Kansas City. When Seaboard set up shop in Guymon, it envisioned the abundant prairie of western Kansas as a vast hog pen. But western Kansans had a different idea.
For the better part of the 20th century, corporate farming was illegal in Kansas. But in 1993, Republicans took control of the Kansas House of Representatives. Among their foremost goals was to allow corporate hog farming. They succeeded in 1994, passing a bill that let counties decide for themselves whether to welcome the massive swine lots. Almost immediately, 17 counties passed pro-hog resolutions with little fanfare or discussion.
Then Seaboard started setting up shop. When the company filed permit applications and residents of western Kansas figured out what was happening, they were alarmed because they’d heard horror stories of what Seaboard had done in their neighbor state to the south. They began forming grassroots alliances to combat the corporate hog invasion.
One of the earliest and most significant coups against Seaboard was scored in Seward County, which lies just across the border from Texas County, home of Seaboard’s plant. It seemed a perfect place for Seaboard to concentrate its hog barn operations — Liberal, the Seward County seat, had made a serious play for the company’s plant before losing out to Guymon. But now its residents wanted nothing to do with the barns. They lobbied their commissioners to overturn the resolution allowing corporate hog farms. After intense public comment, the commissioners agreed to let a nonbinding resolution appear on the 1997 ballot that would outlaw the corporate swine facilities. Despite desperate campaigning by Seaboard — its CEO, Rick Hoffman, flew in from Kansas City and went door to door asking for votes — the measure passed by a three-to-one landslide. Shortly thereafter, the commissioners agreed to rescind the corporate hog resolution.
Other counties followed suit. Several of the county commissions that had approved corporate hog farms second-guessed their decisions and raised the matter to voters; it also appeared on the ballots of counties that had not yet addressed the issue. In 1998, voters in 18 of 20 counties rejected the hog barns by overwhelming margins. One of the two dissenting counties — Meade — took the vote up again the following year and joined two more counties in opposing the corporate farms.
That same year, legislators at the Kansas capitol introduced 14 separate bills drawing out tougher regulations on large hog-feeding operations. Kansas voters even circulated a petition calling for a moratorium on swine CAFOs in the state. But none of these efforts made it very far. Wielding his power as Speaker of the House, Representative Robin Jennison of Healy, Kansas, fought mightily against the bills, and in the end, only one piece of legislation made it through: HB 2950. It was created under the auspices of protecting the environment, offering a veneer of provisions against water, soil, plant, and animal contamination. Yet, in its 70 pages of single-spaced legalese, environmentalists found more benefit to industry than to the earth and refused to offer their approval. “It has so many loopholes, you can drive a truck through it,” says Craig Volland, an engineer with Kansas City, Kansas-based Spectrum Technologists, which provides environmental analysis to the Sierra Club in its fight against corporate hog farms. Yet the bill passed during the 1998 session, and shortly thereafter Jennison was rewarded for his efforts. In October 1999, his political action committee, Kansas Values/Kansas Vision, received the first of two contributions from Seaboard totaling $13,000. In that same time period, the committee turned around and cut checks totaling a little more than $15,000 to his fellow Republicans in the House — the ones who had voted him in as speaker.
Despite the legislative greasing, Seaboard couldn’t get the foothold it needed to support another plant in Kansas. The final blow came in a double punch by Governor Bill Graves and the state’s secretary of health and environment, Clyde Graeber.
In 1999, Seaboard’s plans to place farms in Kansas counties that sit over the Equus Beds — the drinking water source for 500,000 Kansans — were met with raging protest. Opponents seized on a Kansas State University study stating that the combination of the large water source, the sandy soils that lie above it, and hog lagoons would be a dangerous mix. The researchers concluded that legislators had erred in passing HB 2950, because the bill failed to take into consideration the diverse geographic conditions around the state.
Responding to this, Representative Christine Downey of Newton wrote a bill calling on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to identify all existing and potential pollution sources in the Equus Beds area and to develop site- and species-specific regulations for all feeding operations, large or small. Jennison and his Republican brethren denied the measure, but public concern and outcry was so great that Graves and Graeber stepped in and ordered the Department of Health and Environment to do essentially what Downey had proposed.
These orders, and the fact that 23 Kansas counties had rejected corporate hog barns, effectively caused Seaboard to abandon its plans for Great Bend and cast its eyes on St. Joseph. “We have to put the plant where we have close access to existing hog farm permits,” says Seaboard’s Reckrodt. “We can’t put it in western Kansas because the hogs just are not out there.” On July 17, a throng of fired-up residents packed the city council’s chambers in St. Joseph. No formal planning initiatives appeared on the agenda, just a proposal to spend $2,500 for a study to determine whether to allow Seaboard to set up a new $130 million packing plant in town. Folks carried signs and testified for an hour, one after another. The only one who spoke in support was retiree Don Spangler. “Farmers need a place to have a market for their hogs,” he said over the protestors’ jeers. “We need places for people to work. I’d like to see our city grow.”
The majority of the comments that night came from members of Citizens Opposed to Seaboard, a grassroots organization formed in early July. The group doesn’t want the low-paying jobs coming to town. It doesn’t want the high turnover associated with plant work. It doesn’t want the immigrant labor. “We’re a nice, all-American city,” says Ann Thorne, leader of the group and an English professor at Missouri Western State College. “We want quality jobs.”
St. Joseph officials concurred. On August 21, city council members approved a nonbinding resolution opposing the construction of a pork-processing plant within a hundred-mile radius of the city.
The opposition is ironic, because for 23 years St. Joseph was a pork-processing town. But times have changed since Montfort Pork closed its operations in 1993. Now the city’s economy has shifted and grown more healthy; despite the loss of jobs at the Montfort plant, St. Joe now boasts less than 4 percent unemployment.
Regardless, it appears certain that Seaboard will locate in the area. While St. Joseph residents were grappling with the issue, Seaboard execs in Merriam received a call from an official in Elwood, Kansas, which sits directly across the river from St. Joseph. “I figured, ‘What do I have to lose if I make a phone call?'” Janice Walker, economic director for the town of 1,400 told a reporter.
She asked company officials whether they would be interested in some land just outside the city’s limits. To her surprise, they had already looked at the property — but her query prompted them to take a closer look. Seaboard officials then met with Elwood leaders, and the town’s mayor and city council members eventually flew down to Guymon to look over the company’s operations. Seaboard has purchased an option on the land and hopes to make a final decision and begin construction within six months.
Amid Seaboard’s progress in the area around St. Joseph, opponents remain concerned. “Who wants four million hogs for neighbors?” Thorne asks. “They’re not very nice neighbors.”
Yet Seaboard insists it won’t bring millions of hogs with it. “We have no intention of doing anything as far as raising hogs around St. Joseph,” says Reckrodt. This marks a decided change in the company’s strategy. Seaboard appears to be abandoning its model of vertical integration in favor of enticing area hog farmers to sell their goods to the company. Seaboard officials acknowledge that the opposition they faced in Oklahoma and Kansas contributed to this change. “I think it would be foolish to say we’ve been in these operations for 10 years and we haven’t learned anything,” Reckrodt says.
But some aren’t ready to take Seaboard at its word. “Why should we?” asks Mary Fund, communications director at the Kansas Rural Center, a farmer advocacy group. “To keep that plant going, they’re going to need a lot of product and they’ll probably want it to be within 150 miles of the plant.”
Even midlevel Seaboard officials find it hard to believe the company won’t be setting up any new hog barns. “We’re going to have to grow some more,” says Joe Young, Seaboard production manager for Oklahoma. “We’re going to have to have a piece of the production going to that plant. I don’t know the exact number, but we’re going to expand our live operations.”
If that’s the case, Kansas and Missouri might well be headed for another round in Seaboard’s multistate war for the boar.