by Dan Imhoff

Packed cozily inside a pickup, six of us are heading down a two-lane country highway through a Western Kentucky landscape blanketed in snow. We’re on what our tour organizer, Aloma Dew, calls a “Tour de Stench,” exploring one of the United States’ increasing number of animal factory hotspots.

At one point, our driver, Gene Nettles, centers the truck in the road, tires evenly straddling the broken yellow line. “I’m in Tennessee and you’re in Kentucky,” he says to me, with a chuckle.

Industrial poultry houses have long occupied this lightly populated rural area, supplying the region’s two massive processing plants with a steady stream of factory farmed meat birds. This rise of poultry CAFOs here has been intentional — It’s not called Kentucky Fried Chicken for nothing. Among the rolling hills are vast fields of federally subsidized corn and soybeans. These are the primary feed ingredients for fattening broiler chickens, now crammed as many as 80,000 inside the newest windowless, temperature-controlled warehouses. The stubble from last fall’s corn and soybean harvests is still visible under the recent snowfall, pricking up in geometric patterns. On the bare branches of the few remaining woodlots that edge the fields, bird nests are everywhere. Hawks stare down from perches, scanning the ground for prey.

Spurred on by a nearby Tennessee hog corporation, Fulton County, western Kentucky is also becoming a magnet for industrial pork production. The Tennessee-based Tosh Farms corporation is what is known in industry terms as an “integrator.” They contract with Kentucky growers to raise hogs to their exact specifications. In essence, it’s more like a boarding arrangement. Growers construct houses at no small cost — $200,000 each I am told — then cram them full of animals that the integrator actually owns. The contractors are paid a fee for successfully raising pigs to slaughter weight. The downer animals — dead, dying, diseased, and disabled — and the vast amounts of waste the animals generate over their short lifetimes become the grower’s responsibility.

My companions tell me that integrator Jimmy Tosh was attracted to this area because of Kentucky’s comparatively lax enforcement of water quality regulations and favorable tax laws. Somehow, despite the massive amounts of waste emitted from such intensive concentrations of animals, new CAFOs are being issued zero discharge permits. The only possible explanation for how such daily volumes of urine and feces could possibly disappear without environmental or community impact is “magic.”

But to my co-travelers, these CAFOs and their associated problems are anything but magical. It is more typical that whenever and wherever a high concentration of CAFOs appears among rural populations, conflict and community strife also enter the picture — pitting neighbor against neighbor, at times family member against family member. This is also the case at hand. Scrunched in the front seat with me is Max Wilson, a conventional grain farmer whose 900-acre conventional corn and soybean farm is surrounded by three hog CAFOs, all within less than two miles of his home. His neatly cropped hair starting to gray, Wilson is tall and slender and looks more like a school board president than what one might regard as an environmental crusader. In fact Wilson is a local school board member. But he is also one of a dozen neighbors involved in a lawsuit against Tosh Farms. The impacts have accumulated over time —oppressive odors, declining property values, CAFOs sited closer and closer to residences. He and his neighbors felt they had no choice but to take legal action.

Soon we are face to face, and nostril to stench as it were, with one of the hog CAFOs at issue. Two long white windowless buildings, huge circular fans on their side walls, are sunk down in the snowy landscape. These are finishing barns, where young hogs are sent to eat until they reach slaughter weight — approximately 260 pounds. I am told that hog barn operators in these parts often file applications for pollution discharge permits by declaring just a few animals shy of the official EPA designation of a CAFO, which would be 2,500 for hogs over 55 pounds. (This strategy of cramming animals just under the minimum for EPA designation as a CAFO is being adopted in other areas as well.)

These barns also represent a return to an old style of hog CAFO known as a “deep pit,” referring to the 8 foot deep by 100 foot by 200 foot manure catchment directly beneath the building. It’s designed to hold a million gallons of urine and feces. Rather than first pumping it into an adjacent lagoon, the hogs live on top of their own waste. Gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are vaporized or blown into the air with fans. The remaining waste is pumped out of the deep pit and plowed into the ground, sprayed onto fields, or distributed by the truckload in shiny stainless 6,000-gallon tankers — often at night. Other fans are used to suck the air out of the CAFO and replace it with outside air. Toxic fumes from beneath the barns could otherwise overwhelm the animals. (There are reports of animals dying just this way due to extended power outages.)

I am about 75 yards downwind from the nearest building and the odor is sour, ammoniated, and nauseating. It fills the truck cab in the few seconds it takes for me to open and close the door to take pictures. Max says he can smell it more than two miles away when the wind blows in the direction of his farm.

In addition to the two hog barns there’s a dead box, a concrete rectangle about the size of a 40-foot ocean shipping container. That’s where the mortalities go to be composted or picked apart by the scavengers. Dead boxes are standard on most of the hog CAFOs I have seen.

This area of rolling hills and wintry farm fields and remnant woodlots seems like it would be quite stunning in the spring time. One can imagine a thoroughly different kind of agriculture. Pastures could be restored to complement the feed grains, with livestock moving about these farms, rather than a complete separation of animals from the outside world and their farmers. Tree plantings could protect the soil and yield food on the hills and on highly erodible lands. One could envision more farmers too, a new generation of people participating in a more diversified agriculture and food system.

Given the recent economic realities of agriculture, where more and more power has been transferred to integrated processors and distributors, it is somewhat understandable that landowners have taken the gamble on these expensive operations. For many, owning a CAFO may mean the difference between survival and foreclosure. Often the payback on such investments can take a decade, however, and the return per animal can be marginal. Then there’s the issue of quality of life. If neighbors are complaining, one has to wonder what it’s like to actually live on one of these operations.

Faster than we know it, our tour de stench is over. I am left thinking, as I so often am, that it really matters whose side you are on in these seemingly intractable battles. I am on the side of the farmers and the animals and healthy farm communities, even if our food ultimately costs a bit more. No amount of cheap protein is worth tearing away the fabric of rural culture by stinking up the countryside and raising animals as if they were assembly line objects. Somehow we must find a way forward. We don’t need this kind of agriculture to feed the world as is so often claimed to justify the concentration of filth and misery these systems embody.

I believe the collective wisdom and desire for change is out there among us.