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September 30, 2014

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GREEN BUSINESS:

Why North Las Vegas pig farmer isn’t ready to push back from the buffet

Bob Combs tires of the odor complaints and county bureaucrats, but he still loves those grunts and squeals

Image

Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times/MCT

Pig farmer Bob Combs picks up food scraps from Las Vegas’ casino buffets, then processes them into food for his hogs.

North Las Vegas Pig Farmer

Pig farmer Bob Combs picks up food scraps from Las Vegas' casino buffets, then processes them into food for his hogs. He is shown on March 12, 2013, at his farm in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Recycling - Pig Farm

A pair of young pigs wait for lunch at R.C. Farms in North Las Vegas, April 6, 2011. Pigs at the farm are fed with food scraps recycled from Las Vegas casinos and other businesses. Launch slideshow »

With a satisfied grin, farmer Bob Combs watches the big truck slowly dump its greasy load, a Niagara Falls of yesterday's kitchen leftovers that sends off a sickening spray as it splashes into a metal bin.

The greenish-brown concoction — with hot dogs, corn, bright-orange carrots and bits of lobster bubbling to its surface — is ready to start a new culinary chapter. Just 24 hours earlier, these food scraps, albeit in decidedly more appetizing form, were served to customers at lavish all-you-can-eat buffets on and off the Strip.

Now a new, less finicky clientele awaits: 2,500 pigs on Combs' hog farm, a ramshackle spread of pens just 10 miles from the resort city's gleaming hotel restaurants. A nose-insulting stench permeates the air.

"What smell?" the farmer asks with a wry smile. "Ahhhh, that's good. It don't bother me. To me, it's like walking past a bakery."

For hours each day, Combs oversees a process in which the noxious mulch is steamed, cleaned and culled for such impurities as plastic bags, champagne bottles and, once, a loaded .38-caliber pistol.

After that, it's time to ring the hog farm's dinner bell.

• • •

For half a century, long before the nation's "green" frenzy, the 72-year-old Combs has recycled not only food but also cardboard, plastic, scrap iron, outdated milk — you name it. He's one of Southern Nevada's most visionary yet controversial entrepreneurs and, over time, has serviced nearly every casino on the Strip.

Each night, Combs' three trucks — with their image of a cartoon pig in bib overalls — arrive at the backsides of 12 client casinos to collect the day's buffet leavings. By morning, the slop has been whisked back to his 160-acre RC Farms, where it goes through a sorting and sanitizing process Combs devised himself, including heating tanks to meet health codes and a conveyor system to make his job easier.

Six months later, Combs sells the pigs to middlemen, part of a process that eventually lands many back on the casino buffets. It's a cycle of life and luxury dining — 1,000 tons of food scraps each month — that pleases the fifth-generation hog farmer. Combs calls the casinos his cornfields.

The casino buffet business in recent years has morphed from 99-cent fare to spreads such as the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace, where nine kitchens serve as many as 500 dishes, including prime rib, king crab, dim sum, roasted South Carolina shrimp, chocolate souffle, creme brulee, velvet pancakes and gelato. In the end, the leavings still go to Combs and a few recycling competitors.

RC Farms resembles the realm of some wacky artist whose passion is pigs. Porcine images prevail, with hog statues in the front yard and on the hood of a 1930s farm truck. Inside the house are pig clocks, glasses and pictures. The email of Combs' wife, Janet, is "misspiggycombs." Chickens — including a finicky rooster named Henry — rule the yard alongside rabbits, a peacock and piglets escaped from their pens.

Combs speaks with a slight slur, the vestiges of a car crash 20 years ago. He keeps his sense of humor. Dressed in a blue flannel shirt, jeans and boots left behind by a visitor revolted by their smell, he calls a shovel his "pig attitude adjuster." Riding in his golf cart, he ended a spiel about the bulk of food he handles by saying, "That's the extent of my math — I've got a headache now."

He likes feed time: "Anytime I walk by those pens and hear 'em eating — that snorting, squealy sound — that's as pretty to my ears as a babbling brook. I love to hear them hogs slop it up."

Not everyone feels that way. During the recent building boom in North Las Vegas, developers surrounded Combs' farm with rows of suburban housing so close he can see them from the pens. Residents complain about the odor, which after a spring rain can be so pungent that two nearby schools have the same nickname: "Pigsty High."

Combs' relationship with the county is tense. Inspectors say the pig farmer has banned them from his premises and protests new recycling licensing codes. "He's contentious, often irascible," said Dennis Campbell, environmental health manager for the Southern Nevada Health District. "We've been trying to work with him for years."

The farmer denies keeping officials off his land. Recently, he welcomed two animal control officers who showed up unannounced to ask about uncaged animals in the yard. Although he says he's stayed out of court, Combs acknowledges that responding to odor complaints is often a pain.

Combs has his defenders, such as casino owner Angelo Stamis, who has done business with him for five decades. "Back in the 1960s, nobody was thinking about recycling — just Bob Combs," said the co-owner of Jerry's Nugget in North Las Vegas. "And guess what — now his philosophy is wildly popular."

Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, another Combs supporter, says overzealous officials will not stop harassing the pig farmer until he agrees to sell his land.

"You've got a bunch of city slickers who think milk comes from a carton and hamburgers from McDonald's," Collins said. "They don't understand the good he's doing out there. That farm was green long before the nation was green."

Combs isn't going anywhere. He says he once turned down a $70 million buyout offer: "There's a hungry world out there, and I'm gonna feed it. I'm gonna go down with this ship."

• • •

Combs' recycling career began in 1963. On a family trip to Las Vegas, his father stumbled across a large galvanized can where workers tossed food scraps outside the Thunderbird Hotel. To the elder Combs, it was a pot of gold.

At the family's San Diego-area pig farm, the Combses paid restaurants for surplus food. But in Las Vegas, the leftovers were free to anyone who could haul them away. "This stuff had value, and he knew it," Combs says. "But here it was waste, a nuisance."

His father mortgaged their San Diego home to buy a farm, placing in charge a reluctant son he called "Goof." Combs, then 22, ran with "fast cars and faster women."

"I thought, 'Why would I want to raise pigs?' " Combs says.

But with his father's home on the line, Combs got to work. Wearing a suit, he hit up hotels, offering to collect food scraps twice a day and return the silverware tossed by hustling kitchen workers. He began with five clients: the Golden Nugget, the Fremont, El Cortez, Jerry's Nugget and the mess hall at Nellis Air Force Base.

With most clients, Combs hauls the culinary debris free, as long as restaurants throw in their used cooking grease, a vital element in his pig stew recipe. "Pigs like things deep fried," he says.

In 1991, Combs had been running his farm for decades when a crash almost killed him. He was in a truck driven by now-Commissioner Collins when the vehicle spun out of control and struck a parked semitrailer, smashing the farmer's skull. Janet, then an employee and best friend, winced as doctors said he'd probably never come out of the coma.

"One day, I held his hand and he squeezed it twice," she says. "That's when I knew Bob was back."

Today, Combs speaks with the often-muddy cadence of someone who's been drinking since noon. Even though he avoids alcohol, Janet Combs says, police have made Combs blow into more Breathalyzers than she cares to remember.

She calls Combs an old male chauvinist, joking that when the crash split his head, surgeons forgot to put all the brains back in. He lovingly rolls his eyes at her bossiness.

Out at the pig corral, Combs gazes out over the rows of pens and brags about his pigs like a proud father. What he says about pigs might be said of himself: "They're intelligent and determined. People get mad at them because they're stubborn, but they're conservationists."

He knows all his hogs must eventually go to market. "I don't dwell on the slaughter," he says. "We're all gonna die. These pigs lead short and sweet lives. And they go to a good cause: feeding people."

•• •

It's chow time at RC Farms.

Combs watches a worker atop a motorized cart move down a line of 22 pens, each holding 10 5-week-old piglets, pink-skinned in the morning light. He tosses the first load of gruel over the heads of the hungry hogs. While they run after that first diversionary shovelful, he quickly dumps three more loads into bowls just inside their enclosure.

The outfoxed pigs soon return to the bowls. Grunting and snorting, they snarl at one another, some stepping in the food they eat. Outside one trough, a sign reads "Mess Hall."

Nearby, a worker wearing a white uniform and elbow-length gloves reaches into a muck of the latest casino castoffs and retrieves such unwanted ingredients as metal silverware, plates and huge bones. He grabs chunks of ham and slices them to piglet-mouthed size.

Sludge flying, he pushes the remains onto a conveyor belt that sends them into a processing plant that skims off the top layer of grease, which Combs sells to soap and cosmetics makers. "Most everything is reusable if you put some effort into it, some common sense," he says.

Sometimes, though, Combs tires of the whole affair— the neighborhood complaints and nagging county officials. He gets tired of pulling plastic bags and bottles, which he knows could harm his pigs, out of the food scraps. He looks up at the unforgiving desert sun and asks himself, "Why am I doing this?"

Moments later, after downing a glass of well water, he's back at work, reveling in the squeals that have become music to his ears.

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  1. If people want to complain about discarded waste being recycled they don't get it. This waste would be going to a land fill to rot away. The people who should hang their heads in shame are the ones who allowed houses to be built so close to it. If he has been there since 1963 I am sure the land around him was bought and sold a few times.The complaints about being so close to the pig farm is like the people who now complain about the plane noise around the houses they bought knowing it was next to McCarron. These people must be gullible and I did not think that bridge in Brooklyn could be sold again but I guess so. Bob Combs was there first he wins!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. This man should be given an award for his work and ingenuity. Very inspirational. We often forget where our food comes from, and where it goes.

  3. While I'm not too sure I like the idea of eating porkers that consumed all this refuse (pigs eating ham?), the entrepenurial ingenuity & hard work -- as well as the recycling of waste -- are laudable. Having said that though, it may be time to consider coming up with incentives for relocating & expanding the operation (versus trying to drive him out with harassing inspections & capricious regulations).

  4. Why does this article fail to make reference to any legal action?

    The residents of NLV deserve their day in court to put a stop to this pestilence. This man and his business have been a nuisance on the community for some time. This nuisance must be put to rest by NLV residents.

    Opponents argue that it is his land and he can do as he pleases. No. You can't do as you please if you're business becomes a nuisance. It is both a public and a private nuisance - it brings down property value and creates such a disgusting atmosphere that interferes with an individual's peaceful enjoyment of his or her property

    A second argument made by supporters of this pestilence - that the pig farmer has been in this community longer than the "new" community residents and therefore, they came to the nuisance.

    This concept "coming to the nuisance" doesn't apply here. In general, that is a reasonable concept. If you decide to pack your bags and move out to an area where a nuisance exist - you can't complain about the nuisance and seek to have it stopped since it existed before you came to it and it did not come to you. (with obvious exceptions)

    However, even California recognizes the basic principle that when a community expands - that principle does NOT apply. When a community expands in its ordinary course - through population growth - the community isn't coming to the nuisance - it is merely expanding in its natural progression of growth.

    It is time that NLV residents put a stop to this pestilence. It is time NLV residents stop being hostages to this nuisance.

    Abate the nuisance with BMP or a suit will remain!

  5. Dlight, that's California. This is Nevada. Allow me to paraphrase Tom Collins, if you don't like the way we do things here, pack your crap and leave.

  6. Comment removed by moderator. Personal Attack

  7. Not to burst your bubble - but NV courts tend to rely heavily on CA law.

    NLV residents shouldn't be held hostage to this pestilence. And they definitely should NOT be held hostage by a man who discharges a gun at a tree because he is upset with the tree.

  8. Sounds like Dlight, like many others, was duped by a shady real estate agent that showed him a house in the area when the smell wasn't as fragrant. Lesson learned, bud. I guarantee you the next time you buy you'll do your due diligence.

  9. The farm was there long before all those houses were erected. I certainly sympathize on that count. I think if they want him out of there they should pay. But he turned down $70 million dollars?
    So he's doing it now for spite?

    Fact is there are just a lot of residences in the area now and it's probably time for it to go or move. The dump is out at Apex now.

  10. Similar to buying a home near a lake, where you might just get a water view......

    Buy, a home near a farm, you might just get......

    I'll let you fill in the blank.

  11. BrianLV - Coming to the nuisance is a fair concept. You move out to a location with a nuisance - you can't then complain (with exceptions).

    However, when there is community growth and the expansion is part of the ordinary growth - the community should NOT be held hostage by a single individual.

    Supporters of this pestilence tend to have this simple idea that "he was he first." That is disingenuous. If that logic was applied - the U.S. would look a lot different.

    The bottom line - Pig Farms have been successfully sued across the U.S. and this pig waste in NLV should not be exempt.

    Again, NLV residents should NOT be held hostage by this pestilence.

  12. The ones that are complaining about the pig farm are the same ones that complain about the jets departing from Nellis AFB. They complain that the Air Force needs to move the base somewhere else. They also complain when the winds are blowing from the south that the air stinks.

    And yes, I bought in NLV directly north of the pig farm and above the flight path of the jets out of Nellis. It is also only a few miles from the new VA hospital where I get my care. I looked at what was important for me. The wind isn't always blowing directly from the south (maybe only about 20 days a year do I smell it) and the jets fly primarily during the day. I don't mind those guys training when I do hear them.

  13. TomD - There may be ordinances that are being violated. However, the issue here would be a tort - specifically nuisance claim brought by NLV residents.

    Tort claims have been brought against hog farmers for nuisance and juries have awarded verdicts in favor of plaintiffs.

    The idea that "I was here first, so put up with it" will not stand scrutiny by a jury.

    The natural progression of growth in NLV defeats the "coming to the nuisance" defense. At one point, NLV was one of, if not THE fastest growing cities in the U.S.

  14. Has it occurred to some of you that maybe money doesn't matter..that maybe he isn't doing it out of spite. That he has lived there all his life and loves what he does. I find it "refreshing" that someone doesn't cave to bullying from government officials or take a buyout just because someone puts a big plate of money in front of him. He is someone who values hard work and doesn't want to see the result of this forced out from under him because of some whiners. If he was really breaking laws they would be fining him or worse. But I sure would'nt cave to a bunch of whiny residents who knew what they were getting into in the first place, and let them force me from the only place I've called home. Maybe he doesn't like the Caribbean..or golf

  15. 'Supporters of this pestilence tend to have this simple idea that "he was he first." That is disingenuous. If that logic was applied - the U.S. would look a lot different.'

    ........Yea, I guess Native American Eminent Domain cases are won year after year by Native American groups...because they were there first. Funny history...it repeats itself.

  16. Most of us appreciate what you are doing. Thank You Bob Combs!!

  17. NLV has grown around him and the stench that place makes, depending on which way the wind blows is noxious. This is what eminent domain is for. He can farm, just let it be the hell away from a residential neighborhood. It's bringing everybody's property value down.

  18. TomD - the defense you bring up is the same defense as "coming to the nuisance." The idea is that "you moved out here, and this 'nuisance' existed when you moved here so now you have to put up with it."

    That line of reasoning has failed in the eyes of juries. When the growth of a community expands in its natural course - the coming to the nuisance defense fails. It fails because the growth of the city is part of the inherent growth of any community.

    Cities don't stop growing because a pig farmer stands in the way - first that is why we have eminent domain (whether you like it or not IT DOES EXIST) and secondly, this is why torts law, specifically both private and public nuisance is a viable claim against these pig farmers.

    When you stand in the way of community growth - the community interest will prevail over your individual interest.

    This idea that "you can just buy somewhere else" becomes a slippery slope.

  19. Vegas Dlight, your primary argument is you can't "come to a nuisance" when it's normal expansion. Those homes were built by the pig farm because of greed. If you don't like it there's thousand of vacant homes across the valley that prove the expansion was not "normal".

  20. TomD - I didn't mean to say you hold a position one way or another - I'm merely pointing out the argument against a "coming to the nuisance defense."

    As far as this being an uphill battle - I do believe the law is on the side of NLV residents. There is no question that NLV is being held hostage by this pig farmer.

    In fact, like some have mentioned, there is a level of spite on the part of this pig farmer against the community - going so far as to mocking NLV residents.

    This can be turned into a community effort - so long as NLV residents join together in challenging this pestilence.

  21. Hmmmm sounds like Vegas d lite needs to move to CA since he's so fond of thier policies. Leave that man alone, that development out there was constructed just to crowd him out. Stand your ground Combs dont let the CA prune pickers have thier way.