The Hog Baron

The Hog Baron

19 April, 2021 08:14

How Iowa’s largest hog producer courted power, turned farming into a numbers game, and transformed the American heartland.

By Charlie Mitchell and Austin Frerick Updated Apr 19, 2021, 8:00am EDT

Photographs by Kathryn Gamble for Vox.

A CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation, outside of Rockwell City, Iowa. The proliferation of CAFOs has transformed the state in the past 30 years; lifeless pigs in dumpsters are now a common sight. Photos by Kathryn Gamble for Vox

Jeff Hansen, who owns Iowa’s largest hog operation, brought about 5 million pigs to market last year. Each one spent its entire life in a windowless metal shed called a confinement. Passing clusters of the massive sheds on the rural highways, you wouldn’t imagine that a standard confinement holds almost 2,500 pigs — unless the wind wafted the thick stench of manure in your direction. The manure drops through a shed’s slatted floors and collects in a deep pool below. Often, that pool will run through a pipe to a manure pond or lagoon that holds the overflow.

Hansen’s company, Iowa Select Farms, employs more than 7,400 people, including contractors, and has built hundreds of confinement sheds in more than 50 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Since they began to arrive in the 1990s, these sheds have provoked controversy. Citing damage to health, livelihoods, property values, the environment, and the farm economy, rural communities in Iowa have campaigned fiercely against them.

While their efforts have yielded small victories, they have lost the war: The state’s hog industry, led by Hansen, has cultivated close relationships with state politicians on both sides of the aisle to roll back regulations, and confinements have flooded the countryside. The Hansen family’s charitable efforts have seemingly solidified these ties; it’s not unusual for a sitting governor to attend a charity gala thrown by the Hansens.

A 24,000-square-foot Iowa Select warehouse and conference center opened in 2020 in tiny Rockwell City. The three-shed complex houses nearly 7,500 pigs.

Since Iowa Select was founded in 1992, the state’s pig population has increased more than 50 percent — while the number of farms raising hogs has declined over 80 percent. In the last 30 years, 26,000 Iowa farms quit the long-standing tradition of raising pigs. As confinements replaced them, rural communities have continued to hollow out.

While other states have placed regulations on the hog industry out of concern for the environment and economy, Iowa has peeled them back. It now raises about a third of the nation’s hogs, about as many as the second, third, and fourth-ranking states combined. As the largest pig farmer in a state that both the American hog industry and export market depend on, Hansen is an agricultural force with international influence.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization.

Pigs in Iowa outnumber human residents by a ratio of more than 7 to 1, and they produce a volume of waste equivalent to nearly 84 million people, more than the population of California, Texas, and Illinois combined. In theory, this manure, when spread on nearby crop fields, is a useful fertilizer, but residents and scientists alike point to evidence that this “Mt. Everest of waste,” as one University of Iowa water quality researcher describes it, is frequently mismanaged. It filters through soil to underground pipes that discharge directly into rivers, and when manure is over-applied, rain and snowmelt can sluice it into waterways.

As confinements have come to dominate farming, they’ve worsened Iowa’s water quality: Watersheds that are dense with livestock have a higher nutrient overload, and last summer the state closed half of its state park beaches to swimming for at least a week, citing the health risk of toxins or bacteria. Closer to the sheds, many rural residents say they’ve been plagued — and others pushed out — by the stench, the flies, and the health hazards that seem to accompany the facilities.

Hansen likely can’t see — or smell — any hog buildings from his 7,000-square-foot mansion, which is nestled inside a gated community in suburban Des Moines. His view is most likely dominated by the golf course at the Glen Oaks Country Club, which abuts his backyard.

In a year when Covid-19 sickened thousands of workers — and killed 11 — in Iowa hog slaughterhouses owned by Tyson, one of Iowa Select’s exclusive contractors, Hansen’s company jet recorded over 200 flights, including several trips to Naples, Florida, where until recently he owned multiple homes on the coast.

Meanwhile, back in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has received $300,000 in campaign contributions from Iowa Select, fought to keep plants open, prioritizing farmers like Hansen, who would lose millions as barns became overloaded with market-ready animals. And in mid-July, when Iowa Select’s administrative headquarters in West Des Moines had an outbreak scare, the company reached out directly to the governor’s office, which sent a rapid-response team to test 32 office employees. The governor’s rapid allocation of testing resources to political donors such as the Hansens has stirred controversy, prompting an investigation from the state auditor. (Reynolds has argued that the state also offered testing to dozens of other businesses.)

As the pandemic disrupted food chains, and Americans read headlines about farmers plowing vegetables into the ground and exterminating animals by the millions, they probably weren’t thinking of jet-setting millionaires like Jeff Hansen. But businesses like his are increasingly the norm in farm country: huge, regional-scale corporations owned by just one or a few families who, many believe, use their political connections to overpower both local democracy and local businesses. The story of Hansen and how he came to wield so much power reveals how decades of deregulation shaped the hog industry — and by extension, the farming methods used to produce the vast majority of the pork that America eats.

Iowa Select Farms denied multiple requests for interviews and visits over a period of five months. It declined to comment on the findings of this story and referred Vox to the company’s website for information.

Jeff Hansen and his wife, Deb, grew up in Iowa Falls as typical farm kids. They graduated from the local high school in 1976, and soon married. Both went straight to work: Jeff helped his father farm, while Deb worked in a local farm insurance office.

During the Hansens’ childhoods, Iowa’s rich soils had supported a constellation of diversified single-family operations. Farmers grew corn and soybeans, but many also raised a flock of chickens, milked a small dairy herd, or grazed beef on pasture. As with many long-term portfolios, diversity was a farm family’s lifeline.

Many considered pigs to be the keystone of these small farms’ survival. Farmers raised a variety of breeds in barns and in pens. While many kept hogs in every stage of the life cycle, others specialized in “farrowing,” breeding sows and raising the litters. Others bought “feeder” pigs, fattening them to maturity and then auctioning them at sale barns spread in a grid across the Iowa countryside. It was likely at just such a sale barn that newlywed Jeff Hansen bought his first three sows, which he kept in a converted barn on his father’s property.

As the herd grew, the couple found the work grueling — particularly Deb, who had quit her office job to manage the pigs. To lighten her load, Jeff purchased labor-saving equipment: “elevated farrowing crates with steel slats, a feed pan and automatic waterers,” according to National Hog Farmer,a trade magazine. Quickly grasping the potential of mechanized livestock equipment, Hansen sought a loan to build a business around these automated systems. By the early ’90s, he was bringing in $90 million a year assembling the confinement sheds that would take over Iowa’s hog industry: concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs.

CAFOs had already transformed the poultry industry in the mid-South during the ’50s and ’60s and were first extensively used in the late 1980s with hogs in North Carolina. CAFOs allow operators to farrow thousands of pigs in one barn, a model that depends on liberal use of antibiotics to prevent diseases that thrive in crowded conditions. After weaning, the pigs are transferred to a finishing operation. Their next transfer is their last — to the slaughterhouse. These two trips in a packed semi are the only daylight the pigs will ever see.

Iowa Select Farms owns hundreds of hog-feeding sheds across the state and brought 5 million pigs to market last year, even amid a pandemic.

An aerial view of the Iowa Select CAFOs in Rockwell City shows how sprawling the operations can be.

In the sheds, powerful exhaust fans constantly suck out the ammonia rising from the manure lagoons. Shut off the fans and hogs would die within hours, cut off from ventilation and left to overheat and ultimately suffocate, as whistleblowers say they did last year when the pandemic disrupted slaughterhouse operations and Iowa Select needed to quickly kill hundreds of thousands of animals.

While Hansen continued expanding his CAFO business, farm economists signaled that if Iowa were friendly to corporations that wanted to expand hog CAFOs, the growth potential was enormous: Trade agreements that cut tariffs and import restrictions in Asia and Mexico had swung open the world market for livestock products — particularly eggs and pork.

CAFOs were also attractive because the big meatpackers, which purchased, slaughtered, and packaged pork, were now offering contracts with locked-in prices. The prospect of a guaranteed buyer at prices immune to market fluctuations appealed to farmers made skittish by the volatility of the ’80s. For meatpackers, buying from CAFOs was vastly more profitable than buying from a patchwork of independent growers, who sold pigs of varying breeds and sizes at local auctions. CAFOs provided a steady stream of pigs in predictable sizes that were ready for slaughter on an exacting schedule.

Hardin County, where the Hansens were raised, was the perfect place to take advantage of the CAFO-powered hog boom. While nearly 90 percent of Iowa’s land area is devoted to agriculture, its north-central region, smoothed by glaciers, has the flattest, richest cropland, which meant that it could receive copious amounts of manure and produce huge quantities of cheap feed. The region also has abundant groundwater (hogs are thirsty). “At that point, there were two things I knew for sure,” Hansen told National Hog Farmerin 2013. “Iowa was best suited to build an integrated pork production system and, second, I knew I could figure out how to do it.”

After steadily expanding his CAFO-building business, Hansen decided, in 1992, that he could also make money with his own hogs. He incorporated a new company, Iowa Select Farms, signed a contract with a meatpacker, and started with a herd of 10,000 sows. In its first four years, Iowa Select more than quintupled its herd to 62,000, enough to crack the top 10 largest pork producers in the country. By 1999, Iowa Select, with 96,000 sows, was selling 1.7 million pigs in a year.

Today, two-thirds of Iowa hogs are grown on contract with big meatpackers. Iowa Select Farms is now the fourth-largest hog producer in the country, and owns about 15 percent of the pork production in Iowa. Its sow herd is 242,500, and growing.

As confinement buildings and their manure ponds spread rapidly across the Iowa countryside through the late 1990s, a passionate rural backlash emerged, sparking a prolonged battle over the future of farming in Iowa. Protesters packed gymnasiums and crowded hallways in the statehouse. Coalitions held rallies — one drew 1,000 supporters to a town of 2,700 — and lobbied legislators to enact a state moratorium on new confinement construction, or at least give counties the option to deny the necessary building permits.

Hogs raised in hoop barns outside of Iowa Falls. An alternative to CAFOs, the barns are said to keep animals healthier and the environment cleaner.

Pushback came from all directions. Right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan even made his opposition to confinements a key part of his 1996 presidential campaign in Iowa. “Farmers talk about it everywhere I go,” he told the Los Angeles Timesafter the Iowa caucuses. “Whenever I bring it up, the audience explodes.” According to the New York Times, Buchanan’s surprising close-second finish in the Republican Iowa caucuses— to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole — elevated him from protest candidate to legitimate contender.

Iowa Select and industry leaders knew these movements could defeat them. Confinements were already being regulated and prevented from expanding in North Carolina, and while Iowa’s cheap corn was attractive, its lax regulatory standards were — and remain — the hog barons’ sine qua non. While most big corporate CAFO networks operated in multiple states, Hansen staked his entire operation in Iowa, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that he was welcomed. The fierce debate over confinements made the front page of the Des Moines Register year after year in the mid-’90s. National newspapers frequently covered the story. Even Hansen’s home county proposed a moratorium on new confinements.

Scientists also began to document negative health effects among people who lived near confinements. One study of North Carolina residents who lived within a few miles of clustered confinements found that they had lower life expectancy and higher rates of infant deaths, asthma, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and blood poisoning than those who lived further away. Dangerous levels of ammonia, which causes burning in the eyes and respiratory tract as well as chronic lung disease, have been measured near massive hog sites in Iowa since the early 2000s.

Communities near hog operations also report higher rates of headaches, sore throats, runny noses, coughs, and diarrhea than comparable areas without hog confinements. A 2012 study found higher rates of neurobehavioral and pulmonary impairment in people living within 1.9 miles of a massive hog facility and manure lagoon in Ohio than in a control group in Tennessee.

In Iowa, confinements are often as close as a quarter-mile from homes, schools, and businesses. As of 2017, the EPA still hadn’t acted even to estimate air emissions from confinements in order to regulate them under the Clean Air Act — even after instances of workers falling into manure pits and dying from the fumes. Confinement applications sometimes promise to plant tree barriers to reduce air pollution, but the trees take several years to mature enough to be effective. That is, if they are planted in the right place, or planted at all.

In interviews with Vox and in years of news coverage, Iowans living in confinement-dense areas have complained about the air quality being too poor for their kids to play outside; the clouds of flies attracted to the giant manure pits and lagoons; the exploding population of rats, drawn by the vast stocks of animal feed, that infest homes; and the vultures that snatch discarded carcasses from CAFO dumpsters, then drop pig parts in backyards.

Hog farming has transformed Iowa in the past 30 years, and now pigs outnumber residents 7 to 1. Neighbors complain about flies, rats, and vultures that circle carcasses like these, discarded along a major highway.

Despite the popular resistance to CAFOs, legislators faced pressure from business leaders to invite in even more of them. In the summer of 1993, a report called “Project 21” was presented to the Des Moines business leaders who had commissioned it. The 111-page paper, authored by a Virginia-based consulting firm, chided Iowa’s politicians and business leaders for “complacency” with the state’s relative economic health and low unemployment. Iowa needed to do more to distinguish itself, the report said, and boost growth. And to do that, the family farm needed to die. “Although it is politically popular to defend and protect the concept of family farms,” read the report, “legislation limiting corporate investment is economic folly.”

The sentiment touched a nerve. “We’re really tired of this type of nonsense,” a leading organizer for a group called Prairiefire told the Des Moines Registerin response to the plan. “And if they want a fight in the Legislature, we’ll show them a fight they’d never imagined.”

Forced to address the heated controversy, confinement operations marshaled their political power to fend off regulation. In 1994, the newly formed Iowa Pork Alliance enlisted Robert Ray, a beloved Republican former governor, to remind Iowans of hogs’ economic importance in statewide TV ads. (The state’s governor at the time, Republican Terry Branstad, also appeared in an Iowa Select TV promo that year.) Iowa Select emphasized repeatedly in the press that any efforts to stifle the growth of hog confinements would send production and jobs out of state. Iowa Select staff and employees donated $41,000 to Branstad’s campaign that year and hired his former chief of staff, Doug Gross, as a lobbyist.

The relationship seemingly paid off: In 1995, Branstad signed a law that would prove to be pivotal for Hansen, restructuring local democracy to clear the way for his industry’s development.

The law, known as H.F. 519, offered token protections to neighbors of confinements: New buildings had to be sited at least a quarter-mile from residences, and owners had to write plans — approved by the state — for disposing of their manure. But it also handed CAFO operators a huge victory by stripping county Boards of Supervisors of their long-standing authority to deny construction permits to confinement operators. Jeff Hansen described the law as a “fair compromise” and judged it sufficient to keep his business in the state. “We’re going to keep growing in Iowa,” he told the Des Moines Register.

The issue became a prominent topic in the 2002 governor’s race between Republican Doug Gross and Democrat Tom Vilsack. While campaigning, Vilsack — who would later serve as agriculture secretary for Presidents Obama and then Biden — derided Gross as a “champion of corporate hog lots.” But as a state senator, in 1995, Vilsack had voted for H.F. 519. His second term, from 2002 through 2006, witnessed the largest confinement-building boom in Iowa’s history.

When Julie Duhn joined the fight against CAFOs in 2016, activists and politicians had been campaigning — unsuccessfully — for more than twenty years. She got involved after retiring from her office job and experimenting with a new sport: kayaking. Duhn lived in Eldora, home to Pine Lake State Park, a collection of campgrounds and trails ringing two small lakes that trickle into the Iowa River, a popular tubing destination.

Duhn, 70, remembers her first kayak outing mostly for its aftermath. It was a hot afternoon in mid-August, and when she got home from paddling her arms began to itch. They grew red and raw. After three weeks, she consulted a doctor who, after learning she’d had contact with the lake, blamed the rash on the water.

The state Department of Natural Resources had considered the lake unsafe for human contact since 2012: A sign on the beach discourages visitors from wading in. The problem is an overgrowth of algae, which feed on the phosphorus that continually flows into the lake from farm fields spread with fertilizer and manure. A state report concluded that the waste produced by 10,000 hogs in the lake’s watershed was a clear contributor.

One recent summer, Julie Duhn tried taking up kayaking at Pine Lake State Park in Eldora, Iowa. But soon, an itchy rash appeared on her arms.

The eponymous lake at Pine Lake State Park had been on a state “impaired waters” list, marked as unsafe for human contact because of fertilizer and manure runoff.

A stream near an Iowa Select CAFO complex in Rockwell City.

Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources rubber-stamps permits for medium and large CAFOs and levies paltry fines for manure spills, but the department is so critically underfunded that rigorous enforcement of management plans is all but impossible. Implementation of state-sanctioned “best management practices” to reduce manure runoff is voluntary, and such efforts have not stopped the problem from worsening: 61 percent of Iowa’s rivers and streams and 67 percent of its lakes and reservoirs do not meet basic water quality standards, according to the latest assessment by the Iowa DNR.

Manure spills are semiregular occurrences. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an organization opposed to confinements, estimates that there have been at least 150 manure or ammonia leaks from Iowa Select operations since its founding — each of which resulted in only a small fine.

Bob Havens, now in his 70s, learned to swim in Pine Lake and built his house there 20 years ago. Now, he says, in the summertime, “the lake turns into this slimy green sludge. You [can’t] even canoe through it, let alone fish,” and billows of foam course through local culverts. Both are signs of a dangerous nutrient imbalance.

Havens sees the pollution as a matter of equity. “A lot of folks in Hardin County can’t afford a three-week vacation in the Bahamas,” he says, but they used to have Pine Lake for excellent swimming, fishing, and boating. Now, he says ruefully, “they just can’t do it.”

That’s what frustrated Duhn. It hurt her to know she’d never take her grandkids swimming at Pine Lake. After her rash cleared up — it took a month of topical treatments — Duhn started going to meetings of the county board of supervisors and organizing people to oppose permits for proposed hog buildings. She thinks they managed to stop one: After a zealous campaign last year over a particular confinement, Iowa Select withdrew its application without saying why.

“People don’t want to recognize that factory farming affects the water,” says Duhn, who helped organize some opponents of the CAFOs but has found that many want no part of the fight.

But in a town where hog farming underpins much of the economy, many keep their opinions to themselves. “People don’t want to recognize that factory farming affects the water,” Duhn says. “Because then life gets complicated.”

It’s no secret that rural American economies have struggled for decades with high poverty rates and anemic job growth. But have CAFOs been a good deal for their host counties? Ask Iowa Select and the company will likely point to a 2017 study it commissioned from Dermot Hayes, an Iowa State University economist with a long record of supporting agribusiness. In the report, Hayes credits the company with “reversing economic decline” in rural communities where it builds giant sow barns.

Dave Swenson, an economist who studies regional development at Iowa State University, says he believes that for all the jobs Iowa Select provides, the overall economy has continued to degrade.

“There’s no evidence that [confinements] have slowed population drain in my opinion. They’re actually one of the key mechanisms for driving people out of rural areas, despite the claims to the contrary.”

According to Mark Buschkamp, director of the Iowa Falls Area Development Corporation, Iowa Select is the largest employer in the area — along with the Jeff Hansen Family Hospital (yes, that Jeff Hansen). But as Duhn puts it, “Is a job with Iowa Select what you want for your kids?”

Iowa Select is the area’s largest employer — along with the Hansen Family Hospital.

A billboard for Iowa Select Farms sits across the street from the Hansen Family Hospital in Iowa Falls.

The jobs are tough: Employees at sow farms monitor food, water, and ventilation; castrate, euthanize, artificially inseminate, and perform pregnancy checks on the animals; remove the dead; power-wash facilities; and wean litters. One former Iowa Select driver told the Guardian in 2019 that he earned $23,000 a year for 12-hour days with no overtime pay.

It’s easy to see why communities across the state revolted — and many continue to revolt — against this particular type of economic development. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of respondents favor a moratorium on new corporate hog facilities.

In January 2018, Thomas Burkhead learned that Iowa Select had applied for a permit to build its largest-ever sow complex a mile from his family’s farm near Rockwell City, in Calhoun County. He launched into action.

The proposal was for a veritable hog mothership, a three-shed breeding complex covering an area larger than four football fields and housing 7,498 pigs — 5,200 of them gestating sows. Manure pits would underlie each shed; combined, they’d hold enough waste to fill three Olympic-size swimming pools.

Despite residents’ complaints, Iowa Select and the Hansens have won friends in high places in the state, through political investments and their growing power as the state’s largest hog farmers.

Once weaned, the offspring of those sows would need to be fattened, and that meant even more confinements would soon need to be built. Calhoun County already had more than 150 facilities housing north of 300,000 pigs, and residents say the smell of their manure was already making the area unlivable. “There are a lot of days where I don’t go outside, because it stinks enough to make you vomit,” Burkhead says. “I mean, it will knock you on your knees.”

Burkhead rallied neighbors and community groups, among them Food and Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, to fend off the sow-barn proposal. But he figured they had almost no chance.

But the opponents persisted, eventually finding a mistake in Iowa Select’s application. The group rallied people to a special supervisor’s meeting and convinced the board to decline to recommend the proposal to the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR then kicked the proposal to the Environmental Protection Commission, an oversight board, which waved the company’s application through. Both the commission and the DNR leadership are appointed by the governor.

In Iowa, counties have virtually no policy avenue for blocking confinements that meet the state’s requirements. Activists have resorted to leaning on a public scandal to shame companies into withdrawal. They create Facebook pages, write op-eds and letters to local officials and newspapers, crowd hearings held by county supervisors, and testify for hours — anything to chip away at CAFO operators’ standing with local leadership.

Every year since 2018, Iowa politicians, cheered on by activists, have introduced a bill in the Iowa legislature to stop CAFO expansions, and they’ve convinced Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to introduce a bill that includes a long-term phaseout of large CAFOs nationwide. But neither has the support to reach the floor.

Coming up on its 30th anniversary, Iowa Select is still expanding, along with the rest of the hog industry in Iowa. The state is now home to at least 13,000 confinements, and applications hit the DNR office at a steady clip.

The 2016 spring gala for the Deb and Jeff Hansen Foundation was a glittering event, packed with smiling faces and powerful personalities. Iowa’s then-governor, Terry Branstad, was in attendance, as was the current president of Iowa State University. The university, following a $2 million Hansen family donation, had dedicated the Jeff and Deb Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center less than two years earlier.

This guest list was typical for the charity’s annual fundraiser. For the 2019 gala, Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds contributed to the auction an afternoon’s tour of the capitol and governor’s mansion, led by Reynolds herself. Iowa Select requested her presence at the gala the day after Reynolds won her election — likely aided by the Hansens’ six-figure campaign contribution.

The Hansen Foundation has a long and well-publicized history of charitable giving. It donates thousands of pork chops to food banks, gives vouchers for ham to dozens of schools, and organizes “Operation Christmas Meal,” a series of drive-through pork handouts. In 2018, it gave away about $600,000 per year, accompanied by streams of photos uploaded to Facebook of smiling employees, occasionally joined by a governor or US senator.

In December, Reynolds, who is up for reelection in 2022, spent a frigid day handing out Iowa Select pork packages at an Operation Christmas Meal drive-through event in Osceola, Iowa. But the Hansens weren’t there to help. Their jet had landed a few days earlier in sunny Naples, Florida.

Hog CAFOs along highway D-41 near Iowa Falls. The Hansens no longer live near the CAFOs that have made them wealthy.

Charlie Mitchell is a journalist living in Chicago. His work has appeared on The New Republic, The Baffler and elsewhere. Austin Frerick is an agriculture and antitrust expert at Yale.

Kathryn Gamble is an independent photographer in Des Moines, Iowa.

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