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Large-scale swine operations
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[OCT. 16, 2003]  URBANA -- That proponents and opponents of large-scale swine operations disagree is not surprising, but a University of Illinois research project for the first time details the foundations of the opposing arguments and the array of opinion among farmers, people who live near such operations, journalists and public officials.

"Pro- and anti- large-scale swine operations groups are, to some degree, talking at cross-purposes," said Ann E. Reisner, associate professor of agricultural communications and author of "Pigs and Publics," a study of Illinois public opinion on the topic. Reisner's research was funded by the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research through its five-year swine odor and waste management project.

The final reports of Reisner and other researchers associated with the multi-university, interdisciplinary project will be part of the U of I's Dec. 11-12 Pork Industry Conference in Champaign. Those interested in learning more about or attending the conference should contact Gilbert Hollis at (217) 333-0013 or hollisg@mail.aces.uiuc.edu.

Reisner's project examined articles from 22 Illinois newspapers in 52 counties as well as surveying farmers, residents of areas near large-scale swine operations and stakeholders on their reactions to hog farm expansion after a period of media attention had lapsed. The surveys had a 72 percent response rate.

Across Illinois, efforts to block or promote the expansion of hog farms have been in the news over the past several years. Beginning in the 1990s, the large-scale swine operations began to dominate the industry, and by 1998, 50 companies controlled 60 percent of the hog inventory in the traditional swine-growing states, according to information Reisner gleaned from another study. The conflicts were often played out before county or local zoning boards.

"Much of the active resistance to large-scale swine farms has been neighbor against neighbor or at least farmer versus community members," said Reisner. "Farmers who favor expansion say it is the only way to save the state's hog industry. Conversely, opponents will contend that the large-scale operations will drive out 'family farm' operations that cannot compete."

Reviewing the comments made newspapers by both proponents and opponents during siting debates, Reisner found some clear trends.

"Proponents of the large-scale operations tend to focus on economics first, then the environment and finally, legal or regulatory questions," she said. "The proponents believe the large-scale operations make sense economically.


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"Opponents focus first on the environment, raising questions about air and water quality. The second issue is the inverse of the proponents' economic argument. Opponents contend the large-scale operations threaten the small-farm economic structure they advocate. And, they too, focus on legal/regulatory issues."

Advocates of the large-scale operations tended to argue that these units were actually safer environmentally because advanced technologies, more specialized management and newer facilities would be less likely to smell or leak manure into the ground or surface water than older facilities. Opponents taking the environmental grounds indicated fears that large-scale swine operations would threaten the environment with air, water and soil pollution.

Interestingly, once the siting controversies were settled, relatively few newspaper stories about the large-scale operations appeared.

"The concern that newspaper articles were emphasizing only the first stage of hog farm expansion led directly to the next phase of our project: the survey of farmers, residents and stakeholders and their reactions to the expansion several years after the initial news coverage," said Reisner.

Residents were those living near the large-scale swine operations. The stakeholder group included journalists and local public officials, such as zoning board members.

Among the respondents, farmers with large-scale swine facilities were more likely to consider the swine industry an important part of the state's economy, while opponents saw it as not important. However, she noted, a healthy number of activists -- somewhere between 20 and 30 percent -- believed that large-scale facilities could contribute to the economy.

"Zoning board officials, journalists and residents fell in between the extremes of farmers and activists," said Reisner. "However, all three groups tended slightly toward the opponent's position with respect to the importance of large-scale swine operations for Illinois."

When it comes to environmental issues, farmers, zoning board officials and journalists tended to see the large-scale facilities as not creating environmental problems.

"Residents were notably closer to the opponents' position in the view of problems stemming from the large-scale operations," said Reisner.

[University of Illinois news release]

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