ANNAPOLIS – Neighbors call the hog farm a health hazard. Environmentalists and local residents call it a pollution risk. Some farmers call it a threat to business. But Rodney Harbaugh says his hog farm is the only way to turn a profit and keep his land.
Harbaugh is not alone. Although Maryland has never been known as a pig producing state, financial guarantees from large corporations are luring some struggling Maryland farmers to try their hand in hogs. This trend toward so- called “factory” farming is giving neighbors a headache.
Harbaugh’s decision to link up with Purina Mills, an animal food manufacturer, and raise about 4,000 hogs on his farm in Rocky Ridge caused an uproar in Frederick County. After complaints from neighbors and environmentalists about odors and pollution, the county commission voted to seek an ordinance that would limit all future hog operations to 250 pigs.
Despite the recent controversies over large-scale hog farming in Maryland, many pork producers say the state will never be known for Big Swine. In fact, Maryland’s hog industry has decreased dramatically throughout the past decade.
From 1993 to 1998, the number of hogs in the state fell from 170,000 to 65,000. The number of hog farms decreased from 1,000 to 620, although they have rallied from 580 in 1996, according to the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service.
In a foundering pork industry, agreements between producers and corporations provide a guaranteed market and revenue for what is usually an uncertain business.
Harbaugh said his dairy-cow business was not profitable, and so he opted for the Purina Mills hog collaboration.
Last year, he contracted with Purina Mills to raise hogs for market sale, said Michael Mullady, the company’s swine business manager for the North Atlantic area.
Another farmer owns the hogs and sends them to Harbaugh, the producer, when they weigh about 40 lbs. Harbaugh provides the labor and land to raise the pigs to market size–about 230 lbs.–and ships the animals off to market, where he is paid for each animal he brings in, Mullady said.
Purina Mills has a similar arrangement with five other hog farmers in Washington, Frederick and Carroll counties, according to Mullady.
“It’s the only way you can keep a farm economical,” Harbaugh said. “You have to do something to make money.”
Some independent farmers share Harbaugh’s view, but fear that companies like Purina Mills will put them out of business by setting prices so low they can’t compete.
Harbaugh “did what he had to do to survive,” said Eddie Boyer, a dairy farmer in Frederick. “In the agriculture industry, everyone is monopolizing from the top, driving prices down and hurting family farmers.”
Most farmers agree that to compete these days, you have to be a big producer.
“With the economics of agriculture now, unless you’re big and continue to get bigger, there’s not much future” for farmers, said Daniel C. Poole, a 79-year-old hog farmer in Frederick County.
Although contracting with a larger operation lowers financial risk, it also lowers economic profit, said Ken Kephart, associate professor of animal science at Pennsylvania State University.
And pork profits are hard to come by these days.
Pork producing historically has been profitable, but now the sale of a hog rarely covers the cost of raising it, said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Pork Producers Association. In this poor market, financial certainty is becoming more appealing to farmers.
Large corporations are “the wave of the future” for hog farmers, Hoot said. “It’s easier to compete with corporate backing.”
But Mullady said smaller producers can be very competitive with large producers if they have a good business sense and are efficient.
“There’s a place for all size producers if they are good producers,” Mullady said.
Mullady also dispelled another notion: farmers who contract with Purina Mills are independent businessmen and not tenant farmers.
“They have choices and options and they exercise them,” he said. “They consider themselves a business person working in a business relationship.”
Howard Tucker, who said he folded his hog operation in Somerset County last year when he couldn’t conform to state phosphorus regulations, agreed.
“Those agricultural entrepreneurs who learn to capitalize on (new) technology ahead of the competition can grab a larger portion of the market share.”
He said the technology to compete is available to farmers, but some choose not to make the investment and instead are faced with selling their hog operation or a portion or all of their farms.
The climate for intensive hog production doesn’t exist in Maryland for a variety of reasons, Hoot said.
Harbaugh said he doesn’t believe hog farming can grow here because the state is too densely populated. Others said strict environmental regulations thwart big hog operations.
Regulation of animal waste disposal has “exacerbated the demise of animal agriculture, with the swine component setting the pace,” Tucker said.