CORPORATE SWINE

A BIG-TIME HOG FARM LANDS IN THE MIDDLE OF SMALL-TOWN POLITICS IN KIT CARSON COUNTY.

part 1 of 2
It took less than 24 hours for Galen Travis to go from feeling like a very lucky man to someone whose luck had run out.

Last fall, Travis, a beefy-faced man who grows alfalfa and wheat outside of Burlington, thirty miles from the Kansas border in eastern Colorado, was driving home from Indiana with his brother. Along the way, he passed a huge hog farm.

"It lasted for about seven or eight miles," Travis says of the smell, which he describes as something that could give open car windows a bad name. "I remember commenting to my brother how we were lucky not to have to live next to that. And, ironically, the next night I got the phone call."

It was from neighbor Jim Dobler, who told Travis that an up-and-coming Wisconsin company was planning to build the largest hog farm in the state next door. If the plan went through, Midwest Farms Inc.'s new $80 million facility in Kit Carson County could double the number of hogs produced in Colorado.

Midwest still isn't sure it will raise its pigs in Kit Carson County. Two weeks ago the state water engineer denied the company's application to drill additional wells on the more than 8,000 acres it purchased options for late last year.

The company considers that a temporary setback. Vice president Greg Bowker says he will try to convince the state to allow Midwest to use irrigation wells already drilled on the property. "We will persist," he says.

That will do little for the spirit of cohesiveness in Burlington and Kit Carson County. Midwest's proposal to locate the huge hog farm there has split the community like nothing else in recent memory. "I don't think anybody expected this wouldn't be controversial," says Rol Hudler, Burlington's long-time mayor. "But I don't think anybody expected people to be so radical, for people to be so ballistic."

The emotional toll on the county of 7,500, about half of whom live in Burlington, has been considerable. Farmers threatened to withdraw their money from local savings-and-loans if the bankers did not publicly oppose the hogs. Other merchants were warned that a boycott was the alternative to being pro-pig. A city councilman has received hate mail and late-night harassing phone calls. Longtime friendships have been strained.

Though it is not over, the story of Midwest and Kit Carson offers a window into the turmoil that can result when a large company woos a small town. With no zoning regulations, Kit Carson County--and much of eastern Colorado--easily finds itself subject to blueprints drawn up hundreds of miles away.

The result is that storeowners who want more customers or foundering public schools that want more students clash with ranchers and farmers who are afraid of losing their rural lifestyle. And there are the inevitable conflicts of interest that result when well-meaning elected officials see the potential for profits.

In fact, by the time the state denied Midwest's applications to drill wells, the company's battle to do business in Kit Carson County had very little to do with water--and a lot to do with local politics.

Pigs are nothing new in eastern Colorado, although giant facilities that resemble assembly lines are. In recent years, four large hog farms have sprung up in Phillips, Yuma and Sedgwick counties. Another is being built in Baca County, in the southeastern corner of the state. And Weld County has National Hog Farms, the state's largest facility.

The result has been a surge in the hogs that call Colorado home. In the past decade the number of hogs produced here has more than doubled. At the same time, though, the number of hog farmers has shrunk. In 1984 the state had 3,000 farms that produced pigs; last year the total was 1,600.

Such statistics have mobilized increasingly sophisticated opposition to large corporate hog farms wherever they've gone. Particularly vocal are individuals and groups organized around a sentimental attachment to a rural America filled with small farms and single-tractor families.

"We're very opposed to corporate agriculture in general, and corporate hog farming in particular," says Melissa Elliott, a spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. "I personally would rather drive through eastern Colorado and see 1,000 small hog farms than one giant operation."

Such sentiment can at times seem to spring more from the heart than from reason. Says Denise Hase, director of the Northeast Colorado Health Department, which covers six counties in eastern Colorado: "It has become such an emotional issue that many people lose sight of the technological facts and are more concerned with what their father and grandfather thought of hogs."

Other complaints about the sprawling hog farms are specific. The voluminous pig waste contaminates local water. And, simply, pigs stink.

Yet, as is the case with all agriculture, large-scale operations seem to be the future. Nearly 80 percent of Colorado's pigs are now raised on farms with more than 1,000 head. Ten years ago it was closer to a third.

That trend is likely to continue, particularly in Colorado, which is one of only a handful of states in the region without specific laws banning corporate farms. Nine other states, including neighbors Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, have statutes that favor small farmers over agribusiness.

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