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Is it still a family farm if it raises hogs for a firm?

Sunday, September 22, 2002

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

JERSEY SHORE, Pa. -- Dorothea and Michael Lehman can't imagine life without their 216-acre farm, just outside of Williamsport in the Nippenose Valley. Michael and his four brothers grew up working the land, which has been in his family since the 1940s. Now he and his wife raise 60 or so cattle and the crops needed to feed them.

Charlie and Michelle Dougherty own a 106-acre farm in Jersey Shore. They and their neighbors, the Lehmans, want to build hog barns to save their family farms, not destroy them. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)


Pennsylvania agriculture

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Their most modern piece of machinery, a round hay baler, is a decade old, and the Lehmans bought it used. Their John Deere tractors, dating from the 1940s and '50s, aren't treated like collector's items. They work as hard as their owners.

Most of the Lehmans' income comes from Michael's second job, driving a mobile MRI truck for Susquehanna Health Service four nights a week and Sundays. Sometimes, that income has to do more than feed and clothe Michael, Dorothea and Dorothea's son, Steven Smith, who just finished high school.

"If it wasn't for my paycheck," Michael said, "the cows wouldn't eat some days."

But they love the farm. They love the life. And when they discovered that Steven felt the same, they worked to figure out a way to keep the farm in the family for another generation. The best way, they decided, was to raise hogs on a contract basis for a company called Harmony Farms.

In doing so, they planted themselves in the middle of a raging controversy.

It's an emotional issue. Environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has called factory hog farms a bigger threat to democracy than Osama bin Laden. A Polish official touring confined animal feeding operations -- better known as CAFOs -- in the Carolinas once called the buildings "concentration camps for pigs."

The Lehmans and their neighbors, Michelle and Charlie Dougherty, who also have filed for a permit from local authorities to build two hog barns, each holding 2,100 animals, haven't faced quite that high-falutin' rhetoric. But hundreds of their neighbors have signed petitions to stop construction of the farms, and dozens of people have signs in their yards saying: "We support family farms, not corporate swine factories."

Officials at Farm Aid, the organization formed by country music star Willie Nelson to help preserve family farms, submitted a letter in support of the opposition group, Concerned Citizens of Nippenose Valley.

Which makes the Lehmans and the Doughertys mad. They want to build hog barns to save their family farms, not destroy them.

"The only way you can make it anymore is to be in something like this," Dorothea said. "You know, we're getting paid to do a job, and I really don't see where these peoples' problem is. If my husband and I -- and my son -- are working on this farm, does that make it a family farm?"

Her family, with its second job and movement into corporate farming, represents the gradual transformation of farming that's going on in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Though the status of American agriculture is usually represented as factory vs. family farm, what's happening is not so simple. Many farms are surviving by becoming entities that involve elements of both. The process is sometimes painful, slow and difficult to chart.

Families and contracts

Most of Pennsylvania's farmers don't make enough money to support themselves. According to the most recent state census of agriculture, taken in 1997, the annual gross income of one-third of Pennsylvania's 59,000 farms is less than $2,500.

Michael Lehman and Charlie Dougherty, background, are the only two farmers in the area trying to get a permit for hog barns. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Forty-four percent of the state's farmers work a second job to make ends meet. Said Larry Breech, president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, "The standard joke is, if my wife worked a second job, I could farm another 200 acres."

"The traditional view of a farmer is that a farmer is someone who makes his own decisions, makes his own work and gets the returns, good or bad, from their decisions and their effort; and if they want to be better, they work a little harder," said James Dunn, an agricultural economist at Penn State. "And that has been changing."

In Pennsylvania, where the topography of rivers and hills limits huge operations, change is coming slowly. The most recent state census of agriculture, taken in 1997, shows that 88 percent of the commonwealth's 60,000 farmers categorized their farms as "family." Only about 2 percent of farms were classified as "corporate."

In the past 20 years, the number of "corporate" farms in Pennsylvania has increased by only 200, said Marc Tosiano of the Pennsylvania Agricultural Statistics Service.

The characteristics of those farms classified corporate, however, vary.

Dunn said that between 10 and 15 farms statewide are actually owned by corporations.

Other farms classified "corporate" are owned and worked by families who have incorporated for tax purposes. The exact number isn't known because the census data isn't that specific.

What none of the numbers show is how many farmers own their land, work their land and also raise livestock by contract for various corporations, which is what the Lehmans and Doughertys want to do. No one in Pennsylvania has ever counted how many families are in such a situation, but the economics of farming in the state are clearly pushing people in that direction.

The groups that oppose contract farming think that families who take that step have stepped out of family farming.

"When we define a family farm," Breech said, "we're saying a farm operation that a farm family provides the bulk of the land, the labor and the capital. And that's it."

Which still leaves a lot of room for discussion. A family farm can be 40 acres or 40,000. Family farmers can sell their produce everywhere -- from a farm stand at the end of their street to a co-op with tens of thousands of members -- and still be a family farm.

Breech does draw one line. If a farmer fills a barn with animals provided by a corporation, regardless of what he does with the rest of his land and barns, he has passed from the realm of the family farmer. "He's a corporate employee," he said. "They might be called independent contractors, which seems to make them feel better."

Dorothea Lehman doesn't accept that. She grew up on a dairy farm, and her father belonged to a cooperative. That's how he sold the milk -- and for that matter, how plenty of dairy farmers still sell their milk -- and no one thought anything of it.

"Dairy farmers do not sit out on the road with glass bottles with their names on them," she said.

'It's a way of life'

The Lehmans and Doughertys were attracted to this branch of agriculture by the promise of a steady paycheck, an unusual occurrence for farmers. If the hog barns are eventually approved, they will receive hogs from Harmony Farms, and feed and technical support from Purina. They will build their own barns, and they will provide the labor.

About three times a year, they will each receive 4,200 hogs weighing between 45 and 55 pounds, and they will care for the hogs until they reach market weight, about 250 pounds. The meat will be marketed by Hatfield Quality Meats. Each month, they will receive a paycheck from Harmony Farms, and if they meet certain incentives in the contract, they can earn bonuses.

Lehman harvests sudax grass to make silage for his cows. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

That's one aspect of corporate farming on which both advocates and opponents agree: The system makes money. "That we cannot deny," Breech said. "What we say is, 'Can we really afford that kind of progress?' "

Opponents of corporate farming worry that it causes health problems. They say they have documented instances in which hog manure has contaminated public drinking water, sickened nearby residents with its smell and even caused miscarriages and birth defects.

Some are concerned because the large hog corporations own the genetics of their animals, and they believe that as the corporations own more and more hogs, the consequent narrowing of the genetic profile poses serious long-term risks.

Further, the opponents worry about the long-term effects on rural communities.

"History has shown, across the country, that when you have laws that protect and enable family agriculture, family agriculture prospers and rural communities prosper," Breech said. "When you do not have laws, that's beneficial to corporate farms, and you will have corporate farms, and rural communities will suffer."

Animal rights activists also are concerned, saying it is wrong to stuff so many animals into small quarters, although some researchers say confined operations can actually be safer for the animals.

The Lehmans and Doughertys have heard all the arguments, but believe they've made a sound choice.

Opponents aren't so sure.

"When you hold out this little bit of a carrot on a stick, when you tell a poor, desperate farmer that you can stay on the farm and provide a livelihood for his family if you contract for us ... I'll tell you what, when a man's drowning and a straw floats by, he grabs it," Breech said. "We've got a lot of farms that are really down."

Sure, some days Dorothea and Michael Lehman have considered giving up their farm, usually when they return from the sale barn after earning only 40-some cents a pound for a beef cow they spent a good 18 months raising.

But those thoughts never linger.

"You drive out through the field, and you work that ground, and you plant those seeds in the ground -- these little, tiny seeds -- and you look when you get a stalk of corn. ... It's a miracle," said Dorothea. "It's a miracle of God."

And it's no punch-the-clock job. "I spend time with the animals," she said. "If you're going to make it, you have to. It's not OK to say, 'I'm here, here's your milk, here's your pellets, I'll see you tonight.' When you start calves, you'd better be there. It's seven by 24."

That's the reason Dorothea particularly resents the term factory farm. "I was always under the impression that a factory is somewhere where you put things together and make them," she said. "If all 4,200 of those pigs come in pieces, I'm going to be in trouble."

Even if the hog barns aren't approved, the Lehmans will remain on their farm.

"If you have the love for the land, the love for animals, it's a way of life," Dorothea said. "How do you separate yourself from a way of life that you are devoted to?"

Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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