Friday, March 06, 2009

Pig-odour study 'no joke'

Des Moines - In Congress, a $1.7m budget item for pig odour research in Iowa has become a big, fat joke among Republicans who say it's an example of unnecessary spending. But the people who live cheek by jowl with hog farms in the No 1 pig-producing state aren't laughing.

They're gagging.

"You hold your breath and when it's really bad you get the taste in your mouth," said Carroll Harless, a 70-year-old retired corn-and-soybean farmer from Iowa Falls.

In Iowa, where the 20 million hogs easily outnumber the 3 million people, the rotten-egg-and-ammonia smell of hog waste often wafts into homes, landing like a punch to the chest.

"Once, we couldn't go outside for a week," said Karen Forbes, who lives near a hog feedlot outside Lorimor. "It burnt your eyes. You couldn't breathe. You had to take a deep breath and run for your garage. It was horrid."

She recalls a citywide garage sale held in the town of 420 a couple of years ago that no one attended because of the stink that day.

The proposal to spend money on how to control pig-farm smells is contained in a $410bn spending bill covering until September 2009 now making its way through Congress. Among other earmarks that have been criticised: tattoo removal for gang members in Los Angeles; Polynesian canoe rides in Hawaii; termite research in New Orleans; and the study of grape genetics in New York.

Despite the ridicule from Senator John McCain and other Republicans, Iowa and the federal government have been studying how to control hog odours for years. The latest grant continues efforts under way at the Agricultural Research Service at the US Department of Agriculture labs in Ames, Iowa.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa inserted the earmark and said the subject may get laughs on late night talk shows, but it's not a joke.

"While we will likely hear about it on Jay Leno or the Letterman show, where they will be yukking it up, it's a profoundly serious challenge," he said. He said the idea is to help the pork industry go about its business "in an environmentally friendly way and be good neighbors".

The federal study is looking at what hogs eat and how the stench can be reduced. Despite years of work in Iowa and elsewhere, solutions to the problem have proved elusive, though researchers have had success using ultraviolet light to remove odors and planting trees and other vegetation to suck up the smell.

Ryan Woebbeking, who has about 2 500 hogs near Gladbrook, said he and many other farmers are working to reduce the odor. He said he plans to plant some windbreaks soon to help keep the smell from drifting.

"I have a neighbour across the road and I try to be conscious of how it smells because it can portray against you and the community, too," he said.

Hog odors have been a perennial issue at the state Legislature, where lawmakers argue over the need to protect quality of life without ruining Iowa's $12bn-a-year pork industry.

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