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Extension Service Loses Credibility

Data leads to water pollution; objectivity questioned

by Paul Sturtz
Columbia, Missouri

The following article is a followup to Missouri Hog Factories Allowed to Spread Too Much Waste. In this article Paul Sturtz takes an indepth look at the history of the University Extension at the Univertsity of Missouri, their involvement with agri-business corporations and the response to those connections by the Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC) and others in the community.

With the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, Congress launched the Extension Service to spread the benefits of research conducted at land-grant colleges to family farmers and other rural people. Some of its work has been positive -- great advances have been made in controlling animal disease, perfecting seed breeding, and developing health protection for consumers. Anyone who's received a low-cost soil test or good planting advice from a county agent is clear about the benefits of Extension.

But overwhelming the good work is an agribusiness legacy that's harder to defend -- a bias to helping primarily the largest producers, pushing expensive machinery on smaller farmers, and acting as unofficial salesmen for specific pesticides and herbicides. But it's in Missouri where Extension has brought its corporate agribusiness leanings to an extreme. In 1987, the University of Missouri Commercial Agriculture program was established to encourage the growth of large-scale commercial farming operations. Since then its budget has ballooned to nearly $2 million a year as it has worked closely with hog factory operators like Premium Standard Farms (PSF). A 1995 report by Extension ag economist Dennis DiPietre extolling PSF as an economic godsend and completely ignoring impacts like independent hog producers driven out of business or pollution suffered by its neighbors, typified how far Extension had gone since 1914. "We've got a university (land-grant) system that's bought and paid for by big business,'' said Roger Allison, Missouri Rural Crisis Center's (MRCC) executive director to the Des Moines Business Record. "They're more of a slap in the face than a helping hand to family farmers.''

At the same time, the director of the Commercial Ag program, Rex Ricketts, convened a cadre of corporate producers and agribusiness trade organizations under the umbrella of the Missouri Agriculture Alliance. Their expressed purpose was to oppose any restrictions on industrial hog operations. At county commission meetings and Missouri Clean Water Commission hearings, Extension personnel argued that any further regulation would put corporate producers at a competitive disadvantage. Extension engineer John Hoehne in testimony submitted to the Clean Water Commission said: "Present regulations are adequate to prevent environmental problems'' and praised Missouri for "its group of intelligent, conscientious, dedicated, and hard-working scientists and engineers in both the public and private sectors'' who were safeguarding Missouri's natural resources.

One year later, nine major hog waste spills from corporate hog factories deadened over 12 miles of waterways, killing hundreds of thousands of fish. In February, newspapers all over Missouri covered a story about degraded water quality near hog factories, Fingers were pointed at the University of Missouri Extension Service which in its state guidelines overestimated how much hog manure could be spread on cropland. Because mega-hog factories were allowed to over-apply, they were not required to use as much land as they really needed, netting them substantial cost savings. At issue was how University scientists had miscalculated how much nitrogen from waste cesspools evaporated into the air. Because of this, when applied to land, the manure contained excessive nitrogen which could run off, polluting drinking water, and endangering aquatic life.

MRCC members including Scott Dye and Merle Doughty worked with staff to review state records and elevated the previously unknown issue into front-page news. Extension engineer Charles Fulhage said the new nitrogen loss calculations were "a new finding for us,'' adding that they would be applying for grants to study the problem.''Again, Extension had shown its corporate colors -- the self-described "experts'' were now seen as either willfully ignorant or intentionally fraudulent. As University of Nebraska agricultural engineer Dennis Schulte said: "Missouri made a strategic decision to support industrial agriculture and I'm afraid they've lost their objectivity.''

Extension's aggressive promotion of corporate hog factories caused it to attack any barriers to untrammeled growth of the industry. Pettis County's landmark health ordinance, passed in June 1996, established setbacks from neighboring residences and was viewed as a contagion that must not be allowed to spread to neighboring counties. In its "Ag Connection'' publication (11/96) Extension used an early draft of a proposed Henry Co. ordinance to scare hog producers about potential added production costs. It urged livestock producers to "present a positive image of their enviromental practices.'' When Extension unveiled a $130,000 plan to work with Saline County to create guidelines for development including agricultural growth, it quickly garnered opposition.

Saline County was the home of Sandidge Farms, one of the largest hog farms in the state, and David Bentley, the president of the Missouri Pork Producers, and was seen by the industry as a county ripe for more hog facilities. Far from being an objective proposal, it described health ordinances as being "hastily written and emotionally based'' which "have become the model for other political entities when citizens and local decision makers consider regulation.'' Although the proposal professed to be "knowledge-based guidance for development'' of all kinds, all three project leaders, Dennis DiPietre, John Hoehne and John Lory were commercial ag employees. It appeared to be a transparent attempt to discredit all past and future health ordinances in the state of Missouri.

MRCC raised awareness of the subjective nature of Extension and its proposed study. Letters documenting Extension's history of being industry advocates were circulated to county commissioners, state representatives, University curators and other concerned parties. In mid-June, after many revisions, Saline County commissioners signed an agreement far different than the original proposal. Project leadership was spread out, bringing in people outside Commercial Agriculture. The new proposal also gives more weight to Saline County citizens to guide the process instead of relying primarily on the "expert advice'' of the Commercial Ag program. "We didn't stop the study, but I think we achieved some very substantial changes,'' said Mark Belwood, an MRCC member in Marshall and leader of Friends of Heaths Creek Watershed.

Published in In Motion Magazine - July 13, 1997