Whenever a big city newspaper publishes a front page story on agriculture, it is seldom a good thing. This is especially true in Indiana where papers in Ft. Wayne, Muncie, Richmond, and Indianapolis have a long track record of bias against agriculture. So when the Indianapolis Star ran a front page story on the pork industry, you did not have to look any further than the headline to see the bias, “Indiana faces dilemma regulating huge, industrial CAFO animal farms.” The words “huge” and “industrial” immediately position the pork industry as something bad and something to be feared and regulated. And that is just what the rest of the article did. Reporters Ryan Sabalow and Alex Campbell used, as their primary source material, one of the state’s most radical and outspoken critics of livestock agriculture: the Hoosier Environmental Council. This group has actively lobbied for increased regulation of livestock agriculture, the need for which was the whole point of the article. What this journalistic hatchet job also revealed is how badly the pork industry needs not more regulations, but more public relations.
A theme throughout the Star story is that big is bad. This is a concept not confined to agriculture alone — big corporations, big cars, big oil spills are all considered bad. About the only thing big that is not considered bad by liberal newspapers is government. The Star stated that “big animal feeding operations can generate more raw feces than many Indiana towns.” While this is theoretically possible, in reality it is not true for most operations. The reporters repeatedly used the word “can” with the implication that it does occur, something not supported by the facts. For example, “CAFOs can produce a slew of pollutants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, organic matter, sediments, pathogens, heavy metals, hormones, ammonia and methane. Mishandled manure also can pollute well water.” I can win hundreds of millions of dollars from the Hoosier lottery; but, since I have never and do not plan to buy a lottery ticket, it is not likely I ever will.
In the rich journalistic style of Gannett publishing, owner of the Star, the story used unattributed hearsay as fact. When discussing the increase in the number of large hog farms in the state, the Star said, “Some say the increase comes thanks to a Statehouse push to deregulate the industry and prevent those living nearby from fighting expansion.” It turns out there were a lot of things the Star reporters left out.
Todd Janzen, an attorney with considerable experience with environmental law and livestock operations, pointed out that there has been no “deregulation” of the livestock industry, “The IndyStar article suggests there has been a ‘statehouse push to deregulate the industry.’ I’m not sure what this is referring to, nor does the IndyStar attribute it to any source or legislator. In fact, regulations affecting livestock farms in Indiana — not just CAFOs but smaller farms as well — have increased in the past ten years.” He went on to point out that large CAFOs are subject to the most strict environmental regulations of any farms. “Contrary to the IndyStar, Indiana is not ‘struggling’ to regulate Indiana’s largest livestock farms. Regulation of these farms is not even new, but has existed for decades, and in recent years has become even more stringent,” Janzen stated in his blog.
Who is struggling are pork producers. Not only are they struggling financially, but struggling with the public image of being big, uncaring, polluters. The pork checkoff has spent millions of dollars improving the image of pork but comparatively few dollars improving the public image of pork production. The pork industry has been effective at educating legislators about modern agriculture, and that is why Indiana has some of the most effective and reasonable regulations in the nation.
But more needs to be done to change the perception most people have about pork operations. The fact that livestock farms do not routinely pollute and that they are owned and operated by families who live on their own farms are messages that the public needs to hear.