This Little Piggy

Hog farm zoning law polarizes industry and citizens in Tidewater.

Gary Hovland

In October 1988, the tug-of-war raging in Tidewater between citizens and hog-farming industrialists twanged to fever pitch. Surry County’s board of supervisors held a hearing over new regulations for large hog farms. The county was kicking things up a notch from state requirements deemed too lenient for the industrial machine hog farming had become, almost without people realizing it. Smithfield-Carroll’s Farms had already placed five farms in the county, and another 10 were planned.

The regs required creation of a “limited agricultural district” for farms of 2,500 or more hogs, and such farms would have to be at least 200 acres in size and be set back at least 2,500 feet from any home, 1,000 feet from a primary road and 500 feet from a secondary road or property line. A setback sure enough, snorted Big Pork, but average citizens were elated, reported Wakefield’s Sussex-Surry Dispatch.

Proponents of the regs welcomed Leon Chesnin, a retired waste-management professor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as their official torchbearer. Though fundamentally against restricting any producer, Chesnin said it was necessary in Tidewater for environmental reasons. He singled out nitrate pollution leaching from hog waste into groundwater. Other issues were loud traffic, wear and tear on roads, and the pollution of streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

And the big farms are stinky! “I almost have to put a mask on to come out my front door in the morning,” said Hugh Eley, next-door neighbor to one of Smithfield-Carroll’s operations in adjacent Southampton County. “I smell the thing at least 50 percent of the time, even when the wind isn’t blowing.” Edna Golden, neighbor of another facility, said all the atmosphere made her bronchial condition worse: “I can’t breathe, especially when they are burning the dead hogs.” Definitely the wrong kind of BBQ. The porkers called in Maryland agronomist Lyle Jarrett who claimed the regs were over the top. Smithfield veep Robert “Bo” Manly played the family farm card saying they won’t “be able to expand over the imposed 2,500 hog limit.”

“Hogwash!” squealed supporters of the new zoning. Definitions used by the USDA, the IRS and the Virginia Department of Taxation, reads the article, “allow corporate agribusinesses to operate and be taxed as ‘family farms,’” giving the Bacon Boys a jeopardizing advantage over genuine family farms. Mac Berryman of the Pork Producers of Surry played the Old Virginia card, saying, “Swine production has been a part of Surry since the first settlers.” He called the regulations “the greatest threat ever faced” by “our producers,” countering with a recommendation that farm size be calculated using a conversion factor that counts 1,000 pounds as a hog equivalent, or “one animal unit” so that two smaller hogs might count as one.

Despite the regs, the company grew to be the world’s largest pork producer and processor.

This September, the U.S. government approved the sale of Smithfield Foods Inc. to the Chinese pork giant, Shuanghui Group, for $4.7 billion. (The Chinese, it seems, cannot meet their own growing demand for pork.) Though environmental vigilance is not exactly a hallmark of China, agriculturists there discern a bonus in the deal. Bloomberg.com reports that Li Quang, chairman of Shanghai JC Intelligence Co., an agricultural research outfit, says increasing pork imports into China will cut down on pollution. Sooie!

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