Dollars and Scents

Commentary, Agriculture, Rolf Penner

If you wanted to buy a few retirement acres in rural Manitoba, would you purchase them within a mile or two of a large hog grower? Probably not, but maybe you should think twice. A recent study of the impact of smelly hog barns on the quality of neighbouring life and the value of nearby property shows that on both counts they pass muster.

A new impact analysis, by Royal Lepage Stevenson Advisors, confirms the generally accepted rule that profitable enterprises raise rural residential property values in the same area — even when the enterprises are intensive livestock operations (ILOs). The study focused on the large and sometimes contentious hog barns that have been steadily increasing in size and number throughout Manitoba. A 1975 annual herd size of 870,000 expanded on average by 13% a year. By 2003 it had multiplied seven times, to 6.7 million pigs.

The hog boom made pork the most valuable agricultural commodity in Manitoba, with $760 million in sales, in 2002. The industry employs 16-17,000 people, with estimated economic spin-offs of $2 billion a year. Individual farmers invested in these operations are experiencing improved financial stability due to greater diversity. In a bad crop year, hogs enable them to make ends meet and vice-versa, if pork markets slump.

Accompanying the economic benefits of these barns are a few not-so-pleasant effects. Opponents of these operations frequently cite increased noise, traffic, windborne pollutants and other nuisance issues, particularly odour. They worry that their own property will decline in value and regularly press municipal councils to deny operating permits. After all, they say, who would want to live next to a noisy, smelly, hog barn with large trucks roaring past them at all hours of the day and night?

According to the analysts, just as many as before the barns were built. They looked at five geographically diverse municipalities, picked to represent an accurate cross-section of Manitoba. The barns chosen were of varying intensity and sizes and ones located in the middle of nowhere, in places with low population densities, were excluded to prevent them from skewing the data. The group looked at all the sales transactions over a five-year period, 472 altogether, in a five-mile radius around the selected barn sites.

The conclusion refutes the fear that ILOs harm neighbouring values. In fact, prices were commonly found to be relatively higher within close proximity to these sites. If the nuisance and odours were legitimate factors, homes located five miles away should be more valuable than those located closer to one. The evidence shows essentially no difference in property values between residences closer to a barn, versus ones that are farther away.

On top of this, new strategies are reducing the odour problem, 70% of which comes from effluent lagoons, even further. Essentially holes in the ground, designed by engineers and provincially certified, they make sure that the liquid pig waste stays put until it is injected into nearby fields as fertilizer. But the lagoons stink. A low-tech solution, blowing shredded barley straw onto the lagoons can reduce the smell as can high-tech synthetic lagoon covers, though they are cost prohibitive for small or medium size farms. Municipalities like Morris, Manitoba, have made these kinds of covers mandatory and have noticed a marked reduction in odour-related complaints.

The Royal Lepage study joins an ever-growing compilation of hard data which contradicts those who use the term “factory farming” as a pejorative. Others of note include a time series analysis conducted by the Hudson Institute of North Carolina on hog farming and its effects on water quality. It failed to find any noteworthy impact on the Cape Fear and Black River watersheds, despite a massive increase in local hog production during the 1980s and 90s.

The University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization studied air quality near hog barns, and found that the quality of the air 600 metres downwind from them was identical to the “fresh country air” found 2,400 metres upwind. This counterintuitive finding did not, of course, make the national news.

Sophisticated, modern, highly efficient, livestock farms have had a bad media rap. They are bringing wealth to rural communities stung by low grain prices and the cattle collapse. They not only enhance the value of their neighbour’s property, they may employ his son or daughter. They don’t even stink as badly as you may think.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the National Post September 10, 2004.