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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Where your bacon comes from

By Carolin Scholz

Sometimes, when the air stands still just right, it’s easy to think it’s just Iowa. However, that classic Iowa smell might actually be one of the over 50 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are factory farms, operating in Poweshiek County. 43 of these are hog confinements, mostly owned by big businesses rather than small farmers. Prestage Inc., a North Carolina-based operation, is one of these companies that has recognized Iowa’s pro-agricultural business laws and is currently operating 148 finishing sites, with about 2496-4990 hogs in Iowa.

“Iowa is a great target because the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the legislature and the farm bureau are completely filled with people with financial interest in hog confinements,” said Elena Gartner ’14, who looks closely at the effects of hog confinements in her MAP “Entrepreneurship and Social Capital: Urban and Rural Case Studies in Poweshiek County.”

While Prestage isn’t the only company operating Iowa’s factory farms, they are behind the attempt to put up four more confinements in Poweshiek county: three in Chester township, which is northeast of Grinnell, and one southwest in Montezuma. The first proposal, #301, in Chester township was accepted by the County Board of Supervisors based on information provided by a Master Matrix that was filled out by Prestage themselves. The Master Matrix is a list of requirements that a corporation has to choose from in order to meet a certain number of points to be granted approval to build a CAFO.

“[The companies] have to have a certain amount of points and the points are in all of these different categories. They might award themselves by saying, yes we smell bad but we planted three trees, so it’s okay,” Gartner said. Because the corporation fills it out, the Master Matrix system sets itself up for a lot of problems., such as potentially containing erroneous information.

“[The county supervisors] had already written a letter accepting that Master Matrix as truth and when we informed them on what should have been on there, then they tried to retract that letter and DNR told them that because the limit, the 30 days was up, they couldn’t do that,” said Joyce Otto, who has been one of the most active community organizers leading Poweshiek CARES—Community Action to Restore Environmental Stewardship.

After learning of this misinformation, the county supervisors filed for an extension, which was granted, only for the Department of Natural Resources to approve the hog confinements anyway,despite Prestage lacking the required points. The supervisors were then told by the DNR that the only way to appeal was to go to the Environmental Protection Commission, the oversight board to the DNR. Despite the appeal, the EPC went ahead and approved the hog confinements, arguing that the appeal was written after the 30-day time limit. Because of this action, the Poweshiek County board of supervisors has taken the EPC to court over confinement #301 and a final decision is expected around April of next year.

Hog confinements typically pose a variety of problems for the communities in which they operate. Property values around these confinements plummet as a consequence of the environmental issues surrounding CAFOs. Water and air around CAFOS are polluted with sometimes toxic substances—such as antibiotics or methane gas—which sometimes result in severe health risks to those living near these farms.

Because of the health issues associated with the pollution, Otto had to close the small business she was running in her home.

“My business is that I brought two people out of a nursing home and into my home and one of them did develop asthma after the hogs came,” Otto said. Her house sits at a triangle with two already existing confinements about half a mile away from her property. “I also did some childcare and found out that children half a mile away from hog confinements have a four times elevated chance of asthma. … Of course, those children could not be here any longer.”

Otto emphasized the lack of accountability of the hog confinement businesses.

“Corporations can come in and do what they want without any ramifications at all. This is an out-of-state company,” Otto said. “Prestage from North Carolina, who can come into Iowa because of our weak environmental laws and they can make all this money and … just take it back home with them. And they leave us with the air and water contamination.”

Despite the adverse effects of hog confinement operations, many still advocate for them. Various companies contract with local farmers in order to build confinements on their land. They pay property taxes and often purchase local supplies. Another argument is that without these CAFOs, farming would not be sustainable at all. Detractors argue that the negative effects outweigh the benefits, especially as an out-of-state companies like Prestage have little incentive to protect the environment, as they do not have to suffer from the consequences.

Law in Iowa, as an agricultural state, can sometimes favor agribusiness over citizens’ interest. Some claim that responsible government bodies are biased because many members profit financially from corporate farming.

“The Department of Natural Resources in Iowa is completely biased towards agriculture. Protecting the environment and people’s health is not a priority for them. Finances come before that,“ Gartner said.  “In order to make a difference we really need to see change on the state if not federal level.”

Students who would like to learn more about hog confinements or advocate against more operations in Iowa can send an email to or visit Poweshiek CARES website at:

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