Disputes over hog lots and the odors they generate are spawning a record number of lawsuits, officials said.
At least 14 lawsuits are pending against Iowa pork producers - believed by industry officials and lawyers to be the most ever at one time. Rural sociologists said it's a sign that the feud over hog odor is worsening, intensifying rural conflict to a level unmatched since the farm crisis of the 1980s.
"It has been the most contentious, controversial and long-term debate in terms of dividing neighbors," said Paul Lasley, a rural sociologist at Iowa State University since 1981. "It is the most divisive issue in Iowa agriculture in my professional career."
Rural residents who live near the lots say lawsuits are the only power they have against the spread of large-scale pork production.
But industry leaders warn that the suits could threaten what has become a $12 billion industry in the state. They want the Iowa Legislature to pass broader protections against air-quality lawsuits.
The confinements being targeted in current lawsuits range in size from 300 head in Madison County to 7,200 in Fayette County.
Lawsuits are a relatively new approach. Pork producers had long been protected by the state's "right-to-farm" laws, until the Iowa Supreme Court struck down some of those protections in 1998.
Between 1990 and 2001, Iowans won two nuisance lawsuits against hog confinement operators, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
Then, in 2001 and 2002, Iowa judges struck down state laws intended to discourage nuisance lawsuits. That cleared the way for litigation and gave neighbors new power to sue. In 2002, neighbors scored three victories in the courts.
The legal climate could shift back toward pork producers.
A decision is expected soon from the Iowa Supreme Court on an appeal of one of the rulings that targeted Iowa's right-to-farm laws. If the ruling is overturned, pork producers would regain leverage in fighting lawsuits.