Iowa expert shares lessons about hog production and water pollution

Chris Jones learned a lot about industrial agriculture in his career — and then got in trouble for talking about it.




7 minute read

Hogs in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (Iowa State Extension)

Iowa is hog country, producing more pork than any other state in the nation. A third of all hogs in the United States live in Iowa. Chris Jones has another name for it: “The Swine Republic.” After years working in Iowa’s water and agriculture system, Jones has seen how the powerful industry has evaded regulation — and how lakes, rivers, and groundwater have suffered.

Now, “Big Pig” is running out of room in Iowa and is looking to expand. Northern Wisconsin is one of the industry’s primary targets, with one proposal currently under consideration and more expected in areas that drain toward the St. Croix River. An Iowa-based company has been connected to the proposal in the past.

Jones has learned a lot about the impact of such operations in Iowa during his time working for the Des Moines public water agency, the Iowa Soybean Association and, most recently, the University of Iowa. He has seen how massive amounts of manure translates to polluted water, and how a powerful industry rewrites the rules and pushes for lax enforcement of the laws that do exist. The most recent example of the industry’s influence concerned his own career, as powerful interests pushed to censor his work.

Now, almost every mile of every stream in Iowa is polluted. This is because of corn, soybeans, fertilizer, and manure. Mostly manure. In a recent conversation, Jones explained.

Political science

Chris Jones (Courtesy University of Iowa)

For the last several years, Jones led the installation and monitoring of a system of about 70 water sensors around the state, with real-time results available on a University of Iowa website. It showed a pretty clear picture of the problem.

“Our most degraded streams are in areas with the highest intensity livestock production,” Jones says.

That sort of blunt assessment did not make him many friends in Iowa’s agricultural and political circles (which are basically the same thing). In April, after years of providing information and writing about it in plain language on his University of Iowa blog, pressure from politicians led to Jones’ abrupt resignation. He says well-connected lawmakers threatened university funding unless he was silenced.

Advocates for free speech and academic freedom were appalled. Kristen Shahverdian of PEN America, which defends writers and journalists, said it’s part of a trend of attacks on academic autonomy around the country.

“It is nothing short of a tragedy that Jones’ blog has been shut down for political reasons,” said Shahverdian. “The contents of Jones’ blog fall well within the bounds of academic freedom, and it is profoundly alarming that the university would allow legislators to pressure them to shut it down in this manner.”

Silence was not an option for Jones. He chose to leave rather to remain quiet. Now, although he may not have a university position or platform, he does have a new book, and a lot of knowledge to share. “The Swine Republic” from Ice Cube Press collects Jones’ best blog posts and some new material to lay out a thorough explanation of how Iowa sacrificed its water at the altar of unregulated agriculture. Released in May, it’s already in its third printing.

Since his departure, the lawmakers who pushed him out have worked to defund the stream sensor network, seeking to take the real-time website offline and leave Iowans less informed about the condition of their lakes and rivers. Meanwhile, Jones has been speaking at bookstores, conservation groups, and elsewhere, telling anyone who will listen about the damage being done by industrial agriculture.

Water woes

There are about 8,000 concentrated animal feeding operations in Iowa, home to 80 million laying chickens, five million turkeys, four million broiler chickens, four million beef cattle, 220,000 dairy cows — and 24 million hogs, three times as many as in Minnesota, the next state on the list.

The numbers of hogs have nearly doubled in the past 20 years, while the number of hog farmers has decreased by about 90 percent. As the industry has grown, it has put more hogs in smaller areas, and profits have gone to fewer people.

Those trends explain the state’s water pollution problems better than anything. All those animals have to eat, so 85 percent of the state’s land is planted with crops, mostly corn and soybeans. Those plants present problems with runoff and nutrient pollution, as they are hungry for nutrients during their relatively short annual growing season.

The feed ultimately turns into feces, which farmers dispose of by spreading on nearby crop fields, supposedly as fertilizer, providing the needed nutrients. But extra nutrients end up running off into nearby lakes and streams, where they feed algae and contaminate water with harmful bacteria.

One of Jones’ most popular blog posts was about how the amount of manure produced by Iowa’s hogs equal the amount produced by people in the country’s most populated states. He calculated that Iowa’s 24 million hogs produce as much waste as nearly 84 million people — the human population of California, Texas, and Georgia, combined.

Jones says so much manure means CAFOs have been over-fertilizing fields for a long time, thanks to loose legal limits and overstretched law enforcement. The formula for how much manure a field can safely absorb is outdated, unscientific, and incorrect. The state workers in charge of overseeing CAFOs are relatively few, meaning most farms don’t often get inspected.

“As a consequence, what we have is enforcement by fish kill,” he says. “If there’s some sort of spill or release or whatever and the fish in the stream die and somebody happens to record it, then DNR goes out and they open the drawer and they get the plans out. But many of our streams, fish can’t even live in them anymore. It’s pretty tough to have a fish kill when there’s no fish.”

Rubber stamps

Spreading liquid manure (Chesapeake Bay Program/Wikimedia)

Jones goes on to say that the big problem is that the farms are over-spreading manure legally. All CAFOs must fill out what’s called the “master matrix” when opening a new operation. This worksheet scores proposals on a variety of factors to determine their impact. A proposal can be permitted if it reaches just half the possible points, and local counties and municipalities can’t do much about it.

Even one of the lawmakers who helped write the state’s 2002 laws for CAFOs, and has since served as a county supervisor, says it must be rewritten.

“It was supposed to protect neighbors from health risks and the environment from pollution by requiring livestock producers to adopt practices greater than the minimum required by state law,” Mark Kuhn wrote in 2018. “In reality, the Master Matrix is easy to pass and amounts to little more than a rubber stamp.”

Proving that point, Kuhn reported that the DNR has only rejected two percent of all applications over the years. He also offered 10 recommendations for new policies to protect the public and its water, from raising the minimum passing score to increasing the distance between manure spreading and homes, schools, and churches.

By allowing CAFO operators to spread too much manure on too little land, Iowa is saving them money, Jones says.

“If we enlarge the area required for manure application by reducing the allowed application rate, not only do we increase hauling costs for the manure, we also in effect constrict the expansion of the hog production industry,” Jones writes in his essay “MMPs are Crap.”

Systemic solutions

Sign in Trade Lake, Wis. near proposed Cumberland LLC hog CAFO. (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

Wisconsin and Minnesota are not Iowa, at least not yet. The two states have more undeveloped land and somewhat stronger rules for agriculture and manure. But there are similarities, and the industry that has taken hold of Iowa is seeking to expand into its neighboring states.

Jones points out that no one farmer or agribusiness is to blame. He sees Iowa’s water problems as the inevitable outcome of a broad and complex system of crops, corporations, and markets.

“Virtually all farmers lay claim to the title of Conservation Farmer,” he writes. “The problem we have is that it is not necessarily the individual actions that are driving degraded water quality; rather it’s the fundamentals of the corn/soy/CAFO system that impel the practitioners to make decisions that are in their best self-interest, and not society’s at large.”

One recent change in hog production has been a new law in California which requires lower animal densities for any pork that is sold in the state. The first hog CAFO proposal in the St. Croix watershed, Cumberland LLC, recently submitted a new application that it says will comply with California’s standards, reducing animal numbers by about 10 percent from its previous proposal.

“Does this have the potential to produce improved environmental outcomes? I would say yes, but it would be very modest.,” Jones says.

Complex challenges call for big changes. Individual actions aren’t enough to address systemic problems. Jones offers recommendations for policy changes that could improve Iowa’s water, while continuing to produce food in its world-class fields. Some of the solutions are specific to the Hawkeye State, but offer lessons for everyone concerned about CAFOs:

  1. Ban fall tillage – decrease erosion and nutrient runoff
  2. Ban spreading manure on frozen ground – reduce risk of liquid manure flowing toward streams
  3. Stop farming in floodplains and mandate streams buffers – keeps manure farther from rivers
  4. Require nitrogen application in accordance with scientific standards – stop putting more fertilizer on land than it can absorb.
  5. Fix the Master Matrix – connect nutrient application to crop needs.

For those who want to make these changes and protect lakes and rivers, Jones has broader advice too. Gleaned from decades working on these issues, he says advocates must be persistent.

“You have to be committed. It takes years to resolve these things and stop them. So if the neighbors or the community want to stop this, you can’t just go to one meeting and expect to stop it,” he says. “I just emphasize that, to beat these guys, you have to be tenacious, because they certainly are.”

Buy The Swine Republic here.