South-central Pennsylvania has a tradition of agriculture dating back to the early 1700s, so it’s not often you hear rural residents poor-mouthing farming. But the farming that’s in question in McConnellsburg this fall bears little resemblance to the popular ideal of the traditonal farm, with rolling hills of green pasture and golden grains.

Up for approval by the Department of Environmental Protection on a sparsely populated stretch of U.S. Route 522 is a birthing unit for hogs named Bivouac Sow Farm, where 5,000 sows would be massed together, their sole job being the production of piglets. At three weeks, the piglets would be taken from their mothers to be fattened in other high-density operations. To its supporters, it’s known as a concentrated animal farming operation or CAFO, but detractors simply call them factory farms.

These birthing units, and the high-rises where hogs are raised for slaughter, are marvelously efficient. The industry argues, probably with no small degree of accuracy, that the nation’s appetite for cheap pork couldn’t be met without them. Representatives of Bivouac Sow Farm have tried to assure local residents that the CAFO, which will generate 11 million gallons of manure a year, will be spill-safe and virtually odor-free.

Local residents aren’t buying it, and fear for what could happen to the watershed, locally and beyond. “People talk about the Chesapeake Bay, well the Chesapeake Bay starts here,” said Dennis Seville, owner of Morton’s Feed Mill.

Residents have heard environmental horror stories coming out of North Carolina, which in the space of a decade went from the nation’s 15th to second largest pork producer. Part of the fear is that producers locate their facilities in communities with limited wealth and political influence, so they will meet little effective opposition and be less likely to answer for any environmental disasters that might result.

But residents of this long, deep valley known as Big Cove, are used to thorny scraps, dating back 250 years to the days when their Scotch-Irish ancestors held a hoe in one hand and a musket in the other to guard against French-led Indian attacks. What’s frustrating them is the same thing that frustrated the old frontier Indian fighters — a failure of government to send in reinforcements.

With the best of intentions, Pennsylvania passed a right-to-farm law in 2005, which was meant to limit nuisance claims against agriculture. The standing irony in many rural communities east of the Alleghenies is that urban dwellers escaping the rat race will move to the country for the scenery and slower pace of life — and then complain about ponderous hay wagons and barnyards that, curiously enough, smell of cattle.

The right-to-farm law protected family farmers from overzealous regulations, but it also protected factory farmers from having to answer tough questions. For all its good intentions, Pennsylvania’s Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment Act (ACRE) effectively short-circuits the democratic process by prohibiting local governments from regulating farms.

The township’s three supervisors said they tried to prohibit factory farms some years ago, but ACRE rendered these efforts null and void. Since that time, CAFOs have started to move in. And last month, the supervisors approved the land use.

“We had no options,” said Supervisor Gary Hopkins, adding, “approve it or go to court. That's the only option you have,”

The problem, it seems, is not so much with the law as with our definition of what constitutes farming.

Not so very long ago, we all knew what a farm was. A farm was a farm. But CAFOs are concrete and steel, not pasture and soil. They are animals stacked upon animals. They house creatures who enjoy none of the sunshine and grass, curiosity and play, of animals that are raised on true farms. They are essentially living, breathing biohazards that deserve none of the protections of farms whose infrequent manure spreadings might offend a few yuppies.

CAFOs still must conform to state nutrient-management and pollution-control plans — as well as the federal Clean Water Act— that are stricter than for general farming. But right-to-farm means they enjoy unwarranted protection from local control, even though they represent some of the greatest environmental threats that society faces today. Residents feel their concerns about site-location, odors and potential spills are not being seriously considered.

A real, well-managed farm does not stack animals like cord wood. It does not have to juggle an endless line of tanker trucks filled with toxic slurry. It generates little odor. It is not one leaky valve away from catastrophe.

CAFOs serve a purpose, and that purpose is to supply incredible quantities of meat at prices that most can afford. One day, we might hope for a more humane, environmentally safe alternative to this process, but at the moment none exists. Until it does, we should be treating CAFOs just as we would any other manufacturing plant spitting out toxic waste — as an industrial site subject to neighborhood involvement on one end, and close government scrutiny on the other.