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Pigs or ethanol: Which is better for your county?
By Gary Truitt
Throughout history, there have been questions that have inspired great debate. These questions often provoke impassioned responses, but neither side can produce the facts to settle the question once and for all. For example: Why did the chicken cross the road? Does the refrigerator light stay on when you close the door? Or, where does undeliverable e-mail go?

There is a question being debated in rural communities across the Midwest today that is generating a great deal of emotional debate, but often facts are left out of the argument. The question is: what is best for our community a new ethanol plant or a large confined hog feeding operation?

Midwest rural communities were once the home of the manufacturing sector. In many communities you either worked on a farm or worked at “the plant” in town. Over the past few decades, farms have consolidated into fewer and larger operations and manufacturing plants have moved out of the Midwest, often out of the country. This leaves rural communities with a choice to find new sources of economic jobs or fade away. Two new sources of employment are looking to locate in our rural counties: ethanol plants and confined livestock feeding operations (CAFOs). Yet communities are finding themselves undecided on which, if either, they would accept.

Too often the debates resemble beer commercials with a group on one side yelling “less filling” and the other side shouting “tastes great.” County leaders find themselves caught in the middle, lacking the facts to make a good decision for the long-term health of their town. People should have the right to determine what kind of community they want, but they should be in possession of all the facts when making that decision.

Recently several rural Indiana counties ruled that CAFOs were not welcome in their counties. At the same time, they made it clear they would welcome an ethanol plant because they needed jobs. This is not a unique situation. Many communities across the Midwest are doing the same thing. Livestock operators are finding it increasingly difficult to locate a new or to expand an existing facility in many communities.

The facts, however, are that CAFOs generate more jobs and more economic activity in an area than an ethanol plant. An average ethanol plant will use 16 million bushels of corn and produce 40 million gallons of ethanol annually. It will also produce about 40 full-time jobs. A CAFO hog operation, on the other hand, will use 9.3 bushels of corn to raise one pig from weaning to slaughter, thus that 16 million bushels of corn will produce 175 full-time jobs in the direct care of the pigs, plus additional full-time jobs in feed preparation, manure hauling, and business services.

Mike Brumm, extension swine specialist at the University of Nebraska, presented these facts at the Midwest Pork Conference. “It still takes people to raise pigs and people means jobs and to a community jobs mean kids in school and shoppers in the stores,” he said. The facts are that livestock operations bring more jobs and economic activity to a community than many other kinds of farm and nonfarm enterprises.

It was ironic that, at the same time Brumm was conducting his session at the conference, Indiana Ag Department Director Andy Miller was in the next room explaining how Indiana was going to double pork production. Just imagine the demand for labor that doubling hog numbers will cause in Indiana or in any state. Of course, opponents will be quick to talk about the smell and the threat to the environment that livestock operations bring. Yet the facts are, when properly run, today’s CAFOs are environmentally safer that most industrial facilities. The operations are regulated and inspected by state and federal agencies.

This is not to suggest that ethanol plants are bad or not good for communities. Counties need both ethanol and livestock operations. In fact, since ethanol plants produce tons of a by-product that can be used by livestock operations, both benefit from each other.

This debate needs less emotion and more facts. We cannot make informed decisions about the future using the stereotypes of the past. The new renewable fuels industry represents a tremendous opportunity for farmers and rural communities. The livestock industry, however, also represents a major opportunity for job creation and economic development. This great question, pigs or ethanol, does have an answer. It is both.

Published in the October 26, 2005 issue of Farm World.

10/26/2005