July 8, 2004
Husbanding Hogs and Democracy in Minnesota
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
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
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
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
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
staging rallies. A major victory was defeating six pieces
ag” legislation that would have restricted local townships’ ability
to block agribusiness companies from building farms and processing plants
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.
wholeheartedly. Their objection is that the consolidation
of nearly every U.S.
sector into a small handful of mega-companies is
driving a ferocious bottom-line approach that harms the environment
cohesion of local communities.
And the health of the world community, too. Factory
farming methods that depress costs, and government
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
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
At his farm, Sobocinski has resisted the temptation
to sign multi-year contracts to produce pork
for the biggest
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
used for fertilizer,
than in giant manure lagoons that can seep
toxins and smell something dreadful.
His buyer, Niman Ranch of California, pays
a premium for the pork and passes the
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