Panhandle residents are squealing about a proliferation of pig farms.
For years Barbara and Bernhard Philipp traveled around the High Plains, but no more. “This pig thing has just killed that desire in me,” Barbara says, referring to the stench of swine excrement that invades her nostrils and those of her neighbors. There are several huge hog-processing factories within a short distance of the Philipps’ farm in Ochiltree County, including one less than a mile away. “You get that odor in your house, and you can’t get rid of it,” Barbara complains. “And you cannot stay outside where it is.”
Yet another odor—the smell of money—also pervades the Panhandle these days. Since 1992, five of the largest pork producers in the world (including one Japanese-owned company) have descended on the area, promising a boom of sorts for small towns hard-pressed to keep schools open and rural traditions alive. In Higgins, a tiny Lipscomb County community that just lost its last grocery store, residents are waiting to see whether Murphy Family Farms will follow through on plans to build a $12 million feed mill. In Perryton, civic leaders expect four hundred new hog-related jobs next year. With more than two million hogs expected by the turn of the century, Ochiltree County soon will be the fourth-largest pork-producing county in the United States.
Still, all the economic development isn’t enough to quiet the hog factory foes, who have organized themselves into a group called ACCORD, or Active Citizens Concerned Over Resource Development. They complain that Lipscomb, Hansford, and Ochiltree counties have given the corporate hog farmers unreasonable tax abatements. They’ve filed suit against the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, alleging that the state agency’s permitting system has no mechanism for opposition to be heard. They contend that the hogs never live a day outside the gleaming sheet metal where they’re weaned, fattened, and finished in cages too small to turn around in. And they’re beginning to air environmental and health concerns. They note that hogs produce up to five times the excrement of humans and that it takes massive amounts of water to flush out the barns. The excrement is washed into open lagoons twenty-feet deep, leaving farmers to worry that the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide—laden matter will leach down into the Ogallala Aquifer and contaminate the water supply.
Hog factory owners deny that the smell is a problem and insist environmental concerns are unfounded—“There has never been a documented case of animal agriculture contaminating the Ogallala Aquifer; the same cannot be said for many other industries,” says industry spokesman Thomas Graham —but that’s not enough to satisfy cattle rancher Doug Ricketts, who is but one Panhandle lifer unwilling to give up the fight. “It’s not realistic to say no hogs at all,” he says. “All of us have to scramble with other endeavors to make a living out here. We always thought the trade-offs were worth it: the clean air, the peace and quiet. But we feel like this push of factory farms will erode the very base that’s kept things going.”