Supervisor: study doesn't tell whole story
After three years of research, a high-profile state study has come to the conclusion that odor from a growing number of livestock confinements is seldom a serious problem.
In Buena Vista County, in the meaty heart of pork country, County Supervisor Jim Gustafson just shakes his head. It isn't going to be studies or statistics that determine the future of the local countryside, he says, it's going to be the rural residents themselves.
"When someone comes along and says, 'Gee, maybe we need to look at this,' I just say, 'Where have you been?' I've been fighting this thing for 10 years," he said of the issues associated with large-scale confinement production.
"People will have to get up in arms if they want to change anything at all. If the people don't demand something, I've learned, elected officials on any level are not going to move."
The Iowa DNR study made headlines late last week when results of measurements taken near over 1,700 livestock confinements, homes, businesses, schools, churches and other rural places found that only in 7 percent of cases did odor exceed the study's standard.
Legislators mandated the study back in 2002, after two state universities urged that Iowa set limits on odors. It has now been discontinued due to a lack of funding, and it is uncertain whether current legislators will choose to take any action.
It is likely the data may be leveraged by some of the state lawmakers battling on both sides of the factory farming issue. At stake is air quality standards on toxic gases and odor - which could put a crimp in livestock development which runs on an already-tight profit margin.
Local Supervisor Gustafson, steeped in the farm and hog industry himself, suggests that there is a cost also if Iowa does not enact some control.
"To me, studies haven't proven so much that the odors are dangerous, but they are irritating - more or less, it becomes a matter of what they can do to property levels," he said. "If you have three big hog confinements all around your house, guess what your property is going to be worth."
While studies attempt to attack odor issues with scientific measurements, ultimately, the nose knows, Gustafson said.
"I can tell you that simply based on the prevailing wind in this part of the state, if you put a hog unit southwest of a neighbor's house, it's going to smell more often than if it is northeast or east of it," he said.
What science can do, he feels, is predict whether a rural resident is going to face a stink one day a month or ten days. "It's only fair that they know that, when a confinement is going in," Gustafson said.
As the odor issue ripens, common sense will be needed, the supervisor feels.
"If we are going to choose to live out in the country, we will have to realize that there will be some smell from the operations at times. That's just how it is. But it isn't right for a huge operation to come in and create a constant problem for neighbors, any more than it is right for someone to move out to the country and build their house too close to a livestock operation and then come to us complaining about it."
Gustafson has warned locally for years that size may be the issue.
"If somebody is putting up a 2,000-3,000-head unit, that's reasonable, but with a 10,000-head operation, you naturally will expect more problems," he said. "A couple of springs ago we had chicken manure spread just a couple hundred yards from our house, and all I can say is thank God it was only one day."
Without tougher state laws, and little local control, Buena Vista County's best option for controlling livestock odor issues may rest in a "good neighbor policy," Gustafson suggests.
"I think we are going to look at that. I'd like to see it be part of the discussion on our new comprehensive plan," he said. "If the state law says a producer has to be 2,000 or 2,500 feet from a neighbor's house, we might have a good neighbor policy that asks them to voluntarily stay back 3,000 feet instead."
A couple of sites in Barnes Township illustrate the problem - which is not with any one confinement unit, but with a series of them.
"Let me tell you, if they come in and build four different livestock confinement operations, on all four sides of your house, you are not going to be a very happy neighbor. One side, some smell - that's the way it is. But when you're surrounded, that isn't right, and it needs to be addressed."
Gustafson blames absentee developers for changes to the rural Buena Vista County way of life, which may be profitable, but may not be so good for environment or lifestyle in the long run, he feels.
"What is happening is absentee millionaires investing in this stuff, people who have no connection to this county."
Gustafson cited Minnesota businessman Glen Taylor. "He buys the land, a millionaire from Des Moines puts the buildings up, Iowa Select puts the pigs in. They go by different names, but it's never with Taylor's name on it.
"When the developer from Des Moines was here, I asked him if he realized that he had some neighbors who had problems with what he was doing, and he had no idea. That's what happens when outside people are driving this."
Gustafson has been an outspoken proponent of local control. The state has been reluctant to provide it, fearing that 99 different counties could interpret rules in 99 different ways, resulting in confusion and harm to an industry that is vital to Iowa.
"In the case where confinements are surrounding people, we need to have some local control. If a situation is going to drive people out of their homes, or compromise the possibility of residential property being built in the future on our rural land, those are local issues," the supervisor said.
There is one site in Grant Township where that may already be happening, he said.
And just this week, four new plans are in from one individual to house a total of nearly 10,000 head of hogs at four different sites in the county.
Gustafson suggests that a modeling concept reflecting today's concerns be mandatory within the Master Matrix system imposed by the DNR on confinement developments.
"It ought to be scientific and it ought to be right," he said.
Looking at the changes that have taken place over the last decade on the local countryside, Gustafson said he fears what could happen over the next 10-20 years.
"The more absentee people, the more this is going to get carried away. We have already lost most of our independent livestock people. We went to custom operators, where Mr. Jones gets so much per head to feed hogs for someone else. Now it's a matter of a manager coming in to go around and run four or five big units, and a couple guys hired to do the grunt labor, and the manure goes on the millionaire's land. They don't even have to pay a farmer anymore, and I'm afraid the custom guys are going to go the way of the independents."
Corporate agriculture is taking over the county and the nation's farming belts. "We've finally come to the realization that this is what has been happening, but that doesn't make it right," Gustafson said. "And when we try to do something about it, and look to local control, it ain't there."
The new study, which indicates livestock odor isn't a problem, is already under attack before the ink is dry.
The advocacy group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement has issued a statement opposing the findings. Members said that there is often a time lag between the time a neighbor complains about an odor and the time a DNR staffer gets there to measure.
"The DNR's weak attempt to conduct a field study does not discount what thousands of rural Iowans have been saying for over 12 years - that not only do factory farms make people sick, they stink and ruin people's quality of life," according to the statement.
The study used a device called a scentometer, used by specially trained state employees who have become known as "Nasal Rangers."
The study claims that the size of a livestock operation does not directly relate to odor produced. Also, manure in lagoons and tanks stinks worse that that in enclosed deep pits, and manure applied to farmland smells worse than that injected into the ground.
"There are some end results that show some folks could start applying technology that, frankly, is available to help control some of the emissions," said Wayne Gieselman, chief of the DNR Environmental Services Division.
While he defends the study as "unbiased," Gieselman admits that to those who live surrounded by livestock operation odor, the problems are "very real."
Wendy Powers, Iowa State University Extension environmental specialist, hopes the study can be used to spur better management of livestock facilities and manure.
"I'm encouraged to see, but perhaps not surprised, that management plays a bigger role than we thought and that size may not be as important... as management," she said.
* Amy Lorentzen of the Iowa Associated Press bureau contributed to this article.