Iowa has a poop problem.
The Hawkeye State’s pigs, cows and chickens produce about as much waste as 134 million people—nearly the population of Russia. Most of that manure is spread onto fields as fertilizer, where significant amounts of it wash into Iowa waterways. The city of Des Moines uses one of the most expensive nitrate removal systems in the world to make its water supply from the Raccoon River safe to drink.
“We have to ask if we can reconcile our water quality goals with the idea that we can continue to expand the livestock industry,” said Chris Jones, a professor and water quality researcher at the University of Iowa. “And we can't. Where there's a high density of livestock, those watersheds tend to have the highest nitrogen and phosphorous levels.”
For decades, scientists have studied the effects that livestock farms with large animal concentrations in Iowa and other states have on regional water quality, as increasing amounts of waste flow into rivers and groundwater. Now activists and some lawmakers say emergency measures are needed to stop toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, and threats to drinking water in rural communities. In some states, lawmakers worry about the future of smaller family farms.
Since last year, legislators in at least four states—Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota and Oregon—have proposed moratoriums on new or expanding farms that have more than a certain amount of livestock. None of the proposed bans is expected to become law this year, but the lawmakers say they aim to build momentum.
Meanwhile, regulators in Michigan and Wisconsin are crafting new rules that would limit manure spreading during the winter, when the ground is frozen and waste is more likely to wash away.
Those efforts face fierce opposition from the livestock industry, which notes that Americans rely on the operations for meat, dairy and eggs.
“Agriculture is the lifeblood of the state of Iowa,” said Cora Fox, director of government relations for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, an advocacy group for the beef industry. “This burdensome regulation would stifle Iowa's economy.”
At the federal level, Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, has proposed legislation that would phase out so-called factory farms within 20 years. Another bill from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, would strengthen antitrust laws, a proposal that agriculture observers think could have major consequences for corporate consolidation in the industry.
But agriculture is a significant economic engine in many states. Iowa, the nation’s top pork-producing state—where at any time some 24 million pigs are being raised, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association—exports meat around the world.
The state’s number of concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, grew from 722 in 2001 to more than 10,000 in 2017, according to a study on the industry by two retired University of Iowa professors. On those large-scale farms, hogs or poultry are raised inside large buildings.
The livestock industry also has cultivated political power. This week, some environmental activists told reporters that Iowa’s bill, at least, isn’t likely to get even a hearing in the GOP-dominated legislature.
Current regulations are enough, Eldon McAfee, attorney for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, told the Times-Republican newspaper. “We have extensive regulations in place since 1995 that properly regulate the siting and construction. Those regulations have been followed and a moratorium would be devastating to agriculture and beyond that to Iowa’s economy.”
It’s unclear how many lawmakers have the appetite to challenge the system that accounts for much of the nation’s food supply. Republicans in some states want to limit local jurisdictions’ ability to oversee factory farms through zoning laws and permitting decisions.
CAFOs have proven difficult to regulate, say environmental activists. Many companies have found loopholes in the federal Clean Water Act to avoid monitoring their contaminants or obtaining permits. Many of the air pollutants emitted by livestock are not regulated under the Clean Air Act. Meanwhile, some state agencies tasked with enforcing those laws lack the resources or interest to crack down on pollution.
The push for outright bans reflects exasperation after years of task forces, voluntary programs and regulatory fights—all while factory farms have expanded rapidly. It’s clear some lawmakers no longer see the industry’s operations as a nuisance, but an emergency.
The current movement started in Iowa, where for four years straight grassroots supporters have persuaded Democratic lawmakers to sponsor a moratorium against factory farms. The proposals have little chance of passing in the Republican-controlled legislature, but proponents say the battle has caught the attention of policymakers in other states.
“We have so much manure we can’t use it all,” said Iowa state Sen. Pam Jochum, a Democrat, who is sponsoring a moratorium bill this year. “Iowa has seen manure spills, leaks that have resulted in fish kills, nitrate and ammonia pollution, algae blooms, impaired waterways, closed beaches, public health problems including childhood asthma, odors in the air, stress and depression.”
Environmental worries have been coupled with concerns that the industry’s increasing consolidation is driving small farmers out of business and hurting rural communities.
Emma Schmit, a longtime activist in rural Calhoun County, Iowa, said the smell in her region is so bad that going outside often makes her want to vomit. Her community has been hollowed out by factory farms, she said.
“You used to buy your feed locally and use a local vet, but now corporations have vertically integrated the system and provide everything,” said Schmit, an organizer with Food and Water Watch, an environmental nonprofit that is among the most vocal opponents of factory farming. “There's nothing left for us anymore, and we don’t see profits from agriculture coming back into our communities. We claim we’re feeding the world, but both of our grocery stores have closed.”
Environmental justice advocates also have spoken out about factory farms, noting that communities of color are often the ones left to deal with the industry’s water and air pollution, foul stenches, health impacts and economic toll on rural communities.
Defenders of the industry say their farming model is the only way to supply America’s demand for meat, eggs and milk. They point out that their companies already face many environmental regulations regarding waste and runoff.
GOP House Speaker Pat Grassley, who is involved in a family farm operation, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette earlier this month that the bill would be “dead on arrival.”
“If you’re going to approach this from a standpoint of a moratorium ... you’re never going to have a sit-down conversation that can be a real ‘What are some issues that need to be addressed,’” he told the paper.
Grassley did not respond to Stateline’s requests for comment, nor did Iowa state Rep. Ross Paustian and state Sen. Dan Zumbach, the Republicans who chair the respective Agriculture committees in the legislature.
Most of the manure produced by Iowa’s 4 million head of cattle is applied to fields as fertilizer, said Fox of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, and farmers use it in a “responsible manner.” The best way to address pollution runoff concerns, she said, is to encourage farmers to adopt voluntary practices to better manage their lands.
And across the country, state laws have encouraged or required livestock companies to detail how they’ll handle animal waste. Iowa adopted a Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013, seeking to minimize the runoff that flows into the Mississippi River basin and contributes to the dead zone several states away in the Gulf of Mexico.
Farmers’ participation in the program is voluntary, and the Iowa Environmental Council found that under the current efforts it could take hundreds, or even thousands of years for the state to meet its goal of cutting nutrient runoff by 45%.
A Fast-Growing Industry
Environmental concerns about the industry aren’t new. In the 1990s, flooding from hurricanes washed away lagoons full of pig waste in North Carolina, polluting groundwater and rivers. The state’s lawmakers voted in 1997 to ban new waste lagoons, but at least 50 existing pools once again overflowed during Hurricane Florence in 2018.
Despite the limitations in North Carolina, factory farms have grown rapidly elsewhere. Iowa has seen a fivefold increase in large livestock operations since 1990, and the industry added 1,400 such farms nationwide between 2011 and 2017, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
A 2019 study by the Sentience Institute, a social science think tank, found that 99% of farmed animals in the United States live on large factory farms. As the industry consolidates into increasingly larger operations, small and medium-sized farms' share of agricultural production is declining, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Food and Water Watch estimates that there are now 25,000 factory farms in the country, accounting for 1.6 billion animals. Iowa, Jochum said, lost 40% of its farm jobs between 1982 and 2007. More than 85% of its small and medium-sized hog farms went out of business between 1997 and 2017.
Tyson Foods, one of the nation’s largest meat producers, did not respond to questions or an interview request from Stateline, but issued a statement saying it supports state policies requiring farms to submit Nutrient Management Plans for their manure application.
Another large producer, Smithfield Foods, said in a statement that its farms are more efficient and use fewer resources per pound of food produced. Traditional farming methods such as letting animals graze in pastures are outdated, the company said.
“Put simply, feeding America with safe, affordable and nutritious protein cannot happen using farming practices from the old days,” Keira Lombardo, Smithfield’s chief administrative officer, said in a statement.
The company touted its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint but did not address questions about air and water pollution or manure runoff.
Perdue Farms, another large producer in Iowa, referred comment to a chicken industry trade association in the mid-Atlantic. Iowa Select Farms, the state’s largest pork producer, did not respond to an interview request. The American Farm Bureau Federation referred comment to state-based bureaus; the Iowa Farm Bureau did not respond to inquiries. The National Pork Producers Council did not answer an email seeking comment. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources declined to comment about its regulation of factory farm pollution.
Some lawmakers in Oregon are considering a moratorium on construction or expansion of dairy operations with more than 2,500 cows. In 2017, the state allowed a large dairy farm to open before construction was complete, which resulted in manure overflows and more than 200 environmental violations.
State Rep. Rob Nosse, a Democrat who is sponsoring the moratorium bill, said he has concerns about both the environment and small farmers.
“The more that these large dairies become the way that agriculture and milk products are done, it makes it harder for small family farms to operate and get a fair price,” he said.
Agriculture groups in Oregon say the offending farm—which eventually went bankrupt—gave their industry a black eye, but that banning large farms is not the answer.
“Existing farms that are compliant with every regulation possible, they won't be able to grow or expand,” said Tami Kerr, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association. “That is troubling.”
The industry supports an additional inspection by state officials to ensure farms are environmentally compliant before they begin operation, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy with the Oregon Farm Bureau. But she said capping the number of cows is misguided.
Oregon’s largest dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms, has nearly 70,000 cows. The company says it’s a leader in sustainable farming methods and labor practices, and it’s not responsible for the decline in small farms.
“We really disagree with the basic premise of the bill that big is bad,” said Tara May, vice president of communications and external affairs at R.D. Offutt Co., the farm’s owner. "Threemile has no ability to set milk prices, tax policy or labor policy—those are some of the way more substantive issues that impact the cost of farming.”
In Maryland, state Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat, proposed a moratorium on large-scale farms, given the waste seeping into wells and waterways.
Several Minnesota lawmakers proposed a bill last year that would have put a four year hold on any new farms or expansions with more than 700 cows.
Michigan regulators say several watersheds have seen E. coli and nutrient problems due to factory farms, including Lake Erie, where repeated algae blooms have damaged the lake and threatened the water supply of cities in Ohio. Officials have banned manure application during the winter months, where it’s more likely to wash off frozen or snow-covered ground. That rule is being contested by industry groups.
Wisconsin also is currently drafting a rule of its own that could limit manure application in the fall and winter on some agricultural lands that are most susceptible to runoff.