This article describes the decline of family hog farming in Iowa and how farming has transitioned to an industrial model of swine production.
Hog farming in Iowa is not what it used to be. Iowa has a long history of leading the nation in hog production. According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, Iowa has a 26% of the nation’s total market share of hogs. In 2001, 26.3 million hogs were marketed in Iowa. Additionally, 27.4 million hogs were slaughtered in the state, a figure which that represents 27.9% of the nation’s processing market share.
Abundant supplies of cropland throughout the state have ensured a steady supply of corn and soybeans—the primary components of hog feed. Millions of acres of corn and soybeans are grown every year in Iowa, raised primarily to feed the millions of hogs that reside in the state. Despite the large number of hogs raised, slaughtered and sold in the state, there are fewer farms than ever before. The 1945 Census of Agriculture reported 169,776 farms in Iowa raising hogs. By 1997, that number was down to 17,243 farms.
While the number of farms raising hogs in Iowa has decreased dramatically in the last 50 years, the number of hogs raised in these facilities has risen steadily. Today, more than 80% of hogs raised for slaughter come from farms where more than 1,000 animals are housed.
While Iowa leads the nation both in raising and slaughtering hogs you can drive across the state and never see a single hog. The most likely place for hog sightings in Iowa is on Interstate 81 where you will see them crammed into transport carriers, their noses sniffing at the metal ventilation holes, for what will likely be their first and last breath of fresh air. These animals, having reached market weight in less than a year, will have spent their entire lives indoors, living on slatted concrete floors above pits containing their own filth, confined in long metal buildings. Their trip to the slaughterhouse will be the first and last time their feet feel the earth, their first experience of sunlight, and last breath of clean air.
Technological innovations in the agricultural sector have forever changed the way farmers raise hogs. During the last 30 years, Iowa has made the transition from small, sustainable family farms to intensive confinement operations. Intensive hog farming has raised numerous legal issues in Iowa, topics including zoning, nuisance, manure management and right to farm statutes. While some federal regulations affect farm animals, these laws are weak at best and apply under very limited circumstances. Hog confinement operations are primarily governed by state law in the areas of nuisance, zoning, cruelty to animals, environmental management and right to farm statutes.
The Industrial Revolution has made its mark on the heartland. Traditional family farms, characterized by sustainable agriculture, humane animal husbandry and land stewardship have been replaced by large-scale confinement facilities. These factories farms are characterized by high-density animal populations, restricted movement, with emphasis on economies of scale and maximization of profits for corporate farmers. The cost of these systems has been high for family farmers, rural communities, the environment and the hogs.