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What's that smell?

The influx of so-called "factory farms" in Iowa has provided a rallying cry for rural Democrats, many of whom see them as a symbol of corporate brutality against the rural middle class.

With all the policy parsing and personal barbs flying between the presidential campaigns, there is one important political issue in Iowa that's easy to ignore.

That is, until you smell it.

Particularly in rural communities in north central Iowa, the number of livestock enterprises known as CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) has exploded in the past 15 years, bringing a host of controversy to farming communities throughout the state.

The influx of so-called "factory farms" has provided a rallying cry for rural Democrats, many of whom see CAFOs as a symbol of corporate brutality against the rural middle class. Proponents argue that these new farms provide the backbone of Iowa's livestock industry; opponents passionately decry their effects on air quality and the economic self-sufficiency of small local farmers.

No matter which side of the CAFO controversy you're on, though, there's no denying that they stink.

At a hog lot in the tiny town of Ackworth, Iowa, a single shelter building holds 800 hogs. Even on a blustery and cold December day, the odor outside the building is strong; inside, it is a thick and dizzying stench that stubbornly hangs in visitors' clothes and hair for hours.

"I'm not going to lie to you," says Chris Cornell, the plain-spoken second generation hog farmer who owns the 1600-head-a-year operation in Ackworth. "It'll smell."

Cornell, a ruddy-faced Iowan whose impeccable politeness hardly reflects the squealing clamor of his stock, says that his family has owned livestock since 1959. When he installed two 800-head CAFO structures on his property in 1997, his neighbors protested, citing concerns about air quality and environmental impact.

Cornell insists that he abides by strict state and federal regulations to minimize the farm's impact on the community, and he says that traditional free-range lots can no longer meet global demands.

"If we go back to raising hogs like we used to ten, fifteen years ago, we wouldn't be able to supply pork even for the United States, let alone to feed the world," he argues. "There's just not enough people to do it."

But many Iowans see a far more sinister side to the noisy and pungent lots, which can pose dramatic risks to public health and water and air quality. A 2002 University of Iowa evaluation found that air emissions from CAFOs – which contain harmful treatment chemicals like hydrogen sulfide and ammonia – may have adverse health effects for people and animals in nearby communities.

Manure mismanagement can also lead to the contamination of water supplies, and some studies show that the high concentration of airborne bacteria rising from CAFOs can result in the transfer of antibiotic-resistant diseases from swine to humans.

Even more than the adverse effects on the environment and on the health of community members, the economic consequences of the CAFO boom incite the passions of rural farmers who believe that their age-old industry has been undermined by corporate forces.

Chris Petersen, the president of the Iowa Farmer's Union, says that massive, vertically-integrated meat processing companies are "farming the farmers," exploiting the labor of Iowan farmers by forcing them to become links in production chains that swallow the profits they used to make when they independently controlled every step in raising and selling their pork.  

Petersen says that his own hog farm was bankrupted in the early 90s by the influx of corporately contracted CAFOs. His voice cracks when he recalls how the controversy has ripped the fabric of his community. "It has totally divided the neighborhood," he says. "It's destroying the rural cultural structure of Iowa."

And that's not to mention the smell.

With so much attention on the all-important caucuses, then, the political stink over CAFOs and vertically integrated factory farms has risen to the level of presidential politics here in Iowa.

As an issue that crystallizes anti-corporate sentiment, rural values, public health and animal cruelty concerns, it has proven to be a strident rallying cry for Democratic presidential candidates who are counting on support in small rural precincts on caucus night.

Barack Obama, for example, says that his administration would reinstate caps – eliminated in the 2002 farm bill – on the size of livestock operations eligible to receive environmental cleanup funding, thus aiding small farmers in their competition against big CAFOs.

Obama and Hillary Clinton have also both proposed that local officials be given more say in where new CAFOs can be built. Additionally, both support stricter regulation of their environmental impact. (Currently, many livestock operations are exempt from federal air quality regulations due to a stipulation that grants Clean Air Act immunity to CAFOs in return for merely reporting emissions data.)

Clinton 2008 Iowa
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., pauses for photos prior to talking with a group of retired generals and admirals, part of a group called Human Rights First, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2007, in Des Moines, Iowa.Steve Pope / AP

But no candidate has taken as stringent a position against CAFOs as John Edwards, who made waves earlier this year by calling for a national moratorium on the expansion of existing CAFOs and the construction of new facilities altogether.   During a campaign tour through the low-population counties in the western part of the state in October, Edwards unveiled the proposal, which also dovetails with his plan to ban packer ownership of hog lots and break up vertically integrated Big Pork.   Local communities could individually opt out of the CAFO moratorium, but Edwards' rural initiatives team hopes that the proposal would dramatically reduce the number of corporate mega-lots in livestock-heavy states like Iowa and North Carolina.

Analysts say that one of John Edwards' greatest strengths in the Iowa contest is his heavy presence in rural areas. Small precincts in low-population counties in Iowa only select a fraction of the total number of delegates elected on caucus night, but Edwards could rack up a substantial tally of those one-and two-delegate precincts if his rural message resonates forcefully enough there.

With an issue as passionately contested as the CAFOs controversy, Edwards could risk alienating farmers like Cornell who have taken to the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach.  

But others, like Petersen, see the proposal as a bold step that could galvanize rural support and make a real impact on voter turnout in January.

Either way, on Jan. 4, it's likely that Iowans will have a clearer picture about the future of swine in their home state.