On Capitol Hill, a $1.7 million earmark for pig odor research in Iowa has become a big, fat joke among Republicans, a Grade A example of pork. But the people who live cheek by jowl with hog farms in the No. 1 pig-producing state aren't laughing.
"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 burned 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 $410 billion spending bill now making its way through Congress. Among other earmarks that have been criticized: 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 Sen. John McCain and other Republicans, Iowa and the federal government have been studying how to control hog odors for years. The latest grant continues efforts under way at the Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture labs in Ames, Iowa.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, inserted the earmark.
"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."
Study looks at eating habits
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 neighbor 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 $12-billion-a-year pork industry.
Harless, the retired farmer, blamed the smell — a mix of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia — for headaches that led him to spend two weeks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Doctors could not conclusively link his headaches to hog farming, but Harless said his symptoms have nearly disappeared since he retired and moved into town, away from an operation that housed 7,500 hogs less than a half-mile down the road.
"It's just overwhelming when you're getting the full strength of it," he said.
Several lawsuits have been filed in Iowa in recent years by neighbors of hog lots who blame the odors for health problems and declining property values. In one case a jury awarded $76,400 to four families over falling property values.
Lisa Whelan of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement said the state should phase out huge hog operations, not simply try to freshen them up a bit.
"If this money goes into research on how we can promote sustainable agricultural methods, that's a good investment. It's good for all of us," she said. "If this money is going toward promoting a system that pushes the corporate-backed style methods of hog production, we don't think that's money being used to support the common good."
Come take a whiff, Harkin says
To those who make light of the smell, Harkin extended an open invitation: Come to Iowa and take a whiff.
"We could probably quadruple the money going into research if we got some of these people to tour areas where these large hog confinements are going up," the senator said.