July 8, 2004

Husbanding Hogs and Democracy in Minnesota

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Paul Sobocinski, showing me the straw manure-catching system he uses at his hog farm in Wabasso, MN, reminds me of farmers I’ve met in Japan.

I was living in Tokyo and researching environmental problems around  Japan. Every week I’d interview Japanese farmers, environmentalists, and ordinary citizens about a different issue such as the fertilizer pollution of a scenic Japanese lake, or acid rain in Tokyo caused by coal-fired power plants, or coral reef loss caused by construction waste runoffs.

When I asked the Japanese farmers and citizens what they believed was the best solution to each particular local problem, they almost never gave me a technical, scientific, or environmental answer.

Instead they nearly always answered: “We need more democracy.” Time after time they traced the root of their local problems to the Japanese political system that centralized power in government ministries that doled out patronage to powerful corporate and political interests.  

Which is exactly what Paul Sobocinski says. An outspoken activist and organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota-based group that promotes sustainable agriculture, Sobocinski spends almost as much time husbanding state legislation to promote democracy in Minnesota’s rural communities, as he does tending his 240-acre farm.

A Global Industry

“A few packers now control the whole pork industry,” he said, sounding his main theme. “That’s bad for producers and for communities, because they find themselves bargaining with a major entity that holds all the cards.”

The recent Minnesota legislative session produced a bumper crop of issues that kept Sobocinski and his LSP colleagues busy writing e-mails and staging rallies. A major victory was defeating six pieces of “big ag” legislation that would have restricted local townships’ ability to block agribusiness companies from building farms and processing plants locally.

That victory capped a hard-fought battle in which state agriculture officials had blamed local governments around the state for recent declines in Minnesota’s livestock industry. Harold Stanislawski, a livestock business advisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, told a meeting of farmers last November that local residents shouldn’t be have the final say on whether new livestock facilities go into their communities, because agriculture is now a global industry.

At the meeting, Stanislawski also praised a Ripley Town Board member from Dodge County for saying, “We can’t just look at what the residents want. We have to look at the big picture. If this upsets you, I’m sorry.”

A Few Corporations

Not that Sobocinski and others at the Land Stewardship Project disagree that agriculture is a global industry. They agree wholeheartedly. Their objection is that the consolidation of nearly every U.S. agricultural sector into a small handful of mega-companies is driving a ferocious bottom-line approach that harms the environment and the social cohesion of local communities.

And the health of the world community, too. Factory farming methods that depress costs, and government subsidies that artificially drive costs down even further, means that many U.S. agricultural products are now sold so cheaply in foreign markets that they undercut goods produced locally, even by farmers in the developing world like China, Mexico, and South America.

“We’re in a race to the bottom around the world, playing one country’s people off against another’s, just for the benefit of a few large corporations,” Sobocinski says.

At his farm, Sobocinski has resisted the temptation to sign multi-year contracts to produce pork for the biggest pork packaging companies, Smithfield Foods Inc. and IBP, Inc. Instead he uses environmentally sound methods to raise his hogs, using no antibiotics in their feed, and collecting manure in straw beds that are later used for fertilizer, rather than in giant manure lagoons that can seep toxins and smell something dreadful.  

Jefferson's Time

His buyer, Niman Ranch of California, pays a premium for the pork and passes the premium along to consumers at restaurants and grocery stores who seek health-safe and environmentally-friendly and pork products.

Thomas Jefferson saw a mystical bond between farmers and democracy.

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” Jefferson wrote. “They are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bands.” I ran the idea past Sobocinski, who agreed to a point.

“The difference between now and Jefferson’s time,” he said, “was that our government was fresh and new then. They had thrown out the huge money people from England who had stifled them. They didn’t have the PAC money and the big farms from St. Paul and Washington that we have today.

“They did have them in England. That’s why they left.”

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report