Lew Carter, a retired long haul truck driver, has always preferred the country. In 1990 he bought a small plot on a hill surrounded by farm fields near his home town of Williams, in Hamilton county, Iowa, where he hoped to retire.

Carter planted the homestead with a thicket of trees and replaced the dilapidated farm buildings with a storage shed and modular house. He met his second wife, Kathy, and in 2008 she moved in too.

Unwittingly, Carter had settled down in the epicenter of Iowa’s explosive growth of hog farms, known as confinements. These facilities, which house thousands of animals in sheds, have allowed the state’s hog population to more than double since 1982 – it now raises nearly a third of US hogs. Hamilton county is home to fewer than 15,000 people and more than 1 million hogs.

Over the decades, as hog farms surrounded their home, the Carters say the odor of manure became an eye-stinging, nose-burning nuisance. The smell disrupted everyday life, Kathy says. Most oppressive were days when neighboring farms emptied the manure pits under the confinements and spread the waste as fertilizer on fields across the road. “It would take a full week before we could even stand to be outside,” Lew says. “We didn’t dare open our windows.”

Last year they finally gave up the country dream and moved to a ranch house in Rockford, an hour north-east of Williams. The hog industry says “it’s great for our Iowa communities. It’s great for our little towns,” says Kathy. “But we’ve seen so many towns just turn to dust.”

The state’s pork industry promotes itself as an engine of economic growth and benefit for people in Iowa but a new report published on Thursday from Food and Water Watch, a non-governmental organization, casts doubts on these claims.

A man and woman stand in the parking lot of a post office in this black-and-white image.

  • Kathy and Lew Carter said their lives were disrupted by the smell from the hog confinements that surrounded their former home in Williams, in Hamilton county, Iowa.

Four long white buildings with circular vents on one side are used to house pigs.

Analyzing census data from 1982 to 2017, alongside data from the US Department of Agriculture and other sources, the report found that Iowa counties with the most hogs have experienced higher levels of depopulation, heavier job losses and have seen more retail businesses close, including grocery stores, than other rural counties.

“This report pushes back on the narrative that factory farms are good for rural communities and that they create jobs and economic opportunities, because we’ve seen the exact opposite,” says the report’s author, Amanda Starbuck, research director at Food and Water Watch. “Counties in Iowa that had the most growth in factory farms are doing far worse among a number of different [economic] indicators.”

While hog production has exploded in the state, smaller farms have been pushed out as the industry consolidates, according to the report. The average farm in Iowa markets 9,600 hogs a year, 20 times more than 1982. But over the same period, the number of farms raising hogs in Iowa plummeted by 90%, the report found.

The growth of factory hog farms in Iowa led to an explosion in the number of hogs sold per farm while the number of hog farms dropped 90%. A bar graph shows the increase in hogs sold per farm increasing from 486 in 1982 to 9,692 in 2017 and the number of farms dropping from 49,012 in 1982 to 6,221 in 2017.

Confinement operations have mechanized and scaled hog production to facilitate fast and predictable delivery to slaughterhouses, which have also rapidly consolidated. Instead of bidding on competitive open markets, processors write contracts for the vast majority of their livestock, draining the negotiating power of farmers.

The price farmers receive per pound for their hogs nationally has fallen more than 70%, forcing many smaller operations to either scale up or quit the business.

A farm near Kathy and Lew’s old property is nearly surrounded by hog confinement operations.
A family drives a golf cart past a silo and other farm buildings in downtown Williams.

High hog-producing counties – those ranking in the top half of the state’s annual hog sales – are seeing significant population decline, according to the report. It found that while Iowa’s total population has grown, counties with the most hogs have lost 44% of their population in the last 40 years, declining at twice the rate of rural counties on average.

While the report says that it’s not possible to make sweeping claims about why people are leaving these counties, it notes “job losses, decline of rural services, and nuisance and public health concerns from nearby factory farms could all play a role”.

Rural Iowa is highly dependent on agriculture and to an extent manufacturing, both of which have shed labor over the decades, says David Swenson, a regional economist who retired from teaching at Iowa State University this year.

Swenson says that the hog industry’s growth has not improved rural decline but rather continued the trend: “The argument that somehow or other [the confinement model] might be a stabilizing element of rural economies, or created opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be there – the evidence doesn’t say that.”

Two women with buckets work in a square of grass off a main street in a rural town. Behind them are several raised garden beds.

  • Kathy Getting, a retired social worker, has campaigned against the proliferation of factory hog farms.

A few miles from the Carters’ former farmhouse, retired social worker Kathy Getting serves broccoli soup in her Williams kitchen. She is joined by her neighbor, Nick Schutt, who works at the county’s recycling center. He and Getting have campaigned against the proliferation of factory farms, lobbying local politicians and speaking at public meetings.

“I invited you to my house because there’s no place to meet,” Getting says. Even for small-town Iowa, where defunct commercial buildings are the norm, the unmarked brick blocks in Williams, windows boarded up with plywood, speak to a hollowing out. The town has lost 25% of its population since 2000.

Iowa counties with large farms and high hog sales shrunk in the last 40 years while counties with small farms and low hog sales grew.

There used to be two bars, a grocery store, and a cafe and convenience store. They’ve all closed in the last 20 years. Getting travels 15 miles west of Williams to Webster City to shop for groceries.

The town doesn’t even have a “pop machine” any more – the soda vending machines that are often found on the sidewalks of even the quietest Iowa main streets.

Since 2015, two nearby high schools have closed down and sent students 20 miles away to Webster City. It’s “torn the fabric” of the community, Getting says.

This loss of community tracks through many of Iowa’s top hog producing counties, according to Food and Water Watch’s report, which found that they have lost 40% of their retail businesses and 75% of their grocery stores since 1982 – heavier losses than rural Iowa on average.

Large farms tend to buy fewer products locally than their smaller, pasture-based competitors, meaning fewer economic benefits trickle down into the community, according to Food and Water Watch’s report, which refers to research by David Swenson. Local procurement “supports a more robust and lively main street”, Starbuck says.

Even some intensive hog farmers are critical of the industry’s impacts.

An hour northeast of Williams, in Floyd county, Ethan Vorhes operates a 4,000-hog farm with his father and his aunt. The family collects steady rent from Southern Pork, an Arkansas-based corporation, for raising the company’s hogs. Although the income has kept his family on the land, he sees intensive hog farming as a part of an industrial model that contributes to depopulation and inequality in farm country.

A man and a woman round up hogs using plastic partitions.

  • Ethan Vorhes and Jean Westendorf, his aunt, load hogs on to trailers at the family’s 4,000-hog farm near Marble Rock.

A man talks to a woman in the kitchen of their home.

“You need one or two hired men to take care of 20,000 pigs,” says Vorhes. “The little amount of labor, with the income, doesn’t encourage people to stay in our communities.”

Total farm employment in Iowa dropped by 44% between 1982 and 2017, according to the report. Although declines were consistent across the state, counties producing the most hogs saw higher than state average farm job losses.

The hog industry has added jobs in slaughterhouses and other hog industry services, such as manure spreading and confinement construction, but Food and Water Watch says those gains haven’t changed the imbalance in overall decline between high-hog counties and rural counties.

A spokesperson for Iowa Pork Producers association declined to comment.

A vast field with a large puddle in the middle of it.

The report calls for a clamp down on hog industry consolidation, including antitrust measures to halt mergers and break up the buying power of the industry’s heavyweights, as well as a moratorium on construction and expansion of the largest category of confinements, designated by USDA as concentrated animal feeding operations or cafos.

Some politicians have been pushing for this. National legislation, introduced by Senator Cory Booker and representative Ro Khanna, would prevent new cafos or expansion of existing cafos and provide grants and debt forgiveness to owners on the way to phasing out the largest feeding operations by 2040.

Bills in both houses of the Iowa legislature would place a moratorium on new and expanded medium and large confinements and strengthen environmental rules. But there seems little broad political appetite for this legislation in the state: it’s legislators’ fifth attempt to pass the measure.

A man wearing a ball cap drives a truck.

  • ‘You need one or two hired men to take care of 20,000 pigs,’ says Ethan Vorhes, who has diversified his family’s farm with cattle as well as hogs.

Ethan Vorhes’ cattle.

Food and Water Watch proposes changes to national farm policy, negotiated every five years in an omnibus Farm Bill, that would tweak the economics of farming to favor smaller operations.

The organization also wants to bring back a program to stabilize prices on animal feed grains and regulate their supply. This would discourage the confinement model, says Starbuck, which thrives on low feed prices from overproduction. “We can focus more on good, quality meat raised in humane settings, rather than just producing as much as we can,” Starbuck says.

Many Iowans want factory farms to meet higher standards. Only the largest confinements require a construction permit that must be approved by the state environmental office. Those that need this permit must pass an environmental impact test, which focuses on its potential effects on water, air and the surrounding community. If a proposed farm scores 50% or above it will be automatically approved.

A 2019 poll by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that 75% of Iowa voters supported raising the passing score, including 70% of Republicans.

When she lived in Williams, Kathy Carter spoke out at one supervisors’ meeting. “I shook like a leaf at the microphone and said my piece.” If a confinement passes the test, “we have no control,” she says.

A man sits in an office chair next to a wood desk in his home office. Shelves are packed with papers and a deer head is mounted on the wall nearby.

  • ‘The little amount of labor, with the income, doesn’t encourage people to stay in our communities,’ said Ethan Vorhes.

David Swenson, the economist, doesn’t see a success story in the confinement boom. “It’s a story of wealth concentration among fewer and fewer operations over time, and regional economies not thriving,” he says.

The Carters don’t expect the consolidation of Iowa’s farm economy to stop any time soon. “Farms are getting bigger; corporate ag is getting bigger,” says Kathy. “It seems like a never-ending cycle. And in my mind, bigger is not necessarily better.”

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