With 47 new livestock confinement sites built in Buena Vista County in the past two years, veteran Buena Vista County Supervisor Jim Gustafson shakes his head and wonders where it will all end.
For the better part of a decade, Gustafson has been preaching the need for local control of the big livestock confinement industry, and has found his efforts ignored or frustrated at every turn.
"You can only run into a brick wall so many times," he told the Pilot-Tribune. "Maybe it will finally reach the point where the people decide to take control over what is happening in their own backyard. With the lake and our tremendous watersheds in this county, I'm very much afraid we are headed for problems if we don't act."
The county isn't alone in its concerns. Clay County Super-visors on Tuesday discussed the possibility of a moratorium to stop the building of new livestock confinement facilities. The issue has been sent to the county's board of health for a recommendation.
Nearby Pocahontas County had scheduled a public hearing this week on a possible Rural Family and Farm Protection ordinance spurred on by complaints of residents living near confinement operations.
The Cerro Gordo County Supervisors broke the ice in February by declaring a one-year moratorium on new confined animal feeding operations, and Franklin County has passed a similar effort - all are similar in scope to what Gustafson had unsuccessfully urged for Buena Vista County several years ago.
This week, BV County Supervisors received a letter from a farmer in Humboldt County urging them to follow the trend and establish a confinement operation moratorium here, but took no action, Gustafson said.
"Quite frankly, I don't think that if I proposed it today, it would pass our board. When Rembrandt Enterprises came in with a massive chicken-and-egg operation, the support wasn't there among the supervisors to stop it. Doug Bruns and I were opposed to it, but the board wasn't ready to act."
Gustafson notes that the Cerro Gordo County moratorium has resulted in a major impact. "Sparboe Farms out of Minnesota has pulled out of its plans to build a very large egg operation there - but I do think they will try to get it in again, possibly in the Mason City area," Gustafson said.
Sparboe officials planned a 2.5 million-hen operation, but said that it was too difficult to overcome the opposition to livestock confinements on its chosen site near Ventura.
Gustafson, long the voice of opposition to "factory farming" in northwest Iowa and a farmer himself, says he would prefer an alternative to an absolute moratorium that could hurt modest family operations as well.
"I would like to see us put a moratorium only on the larger confinements. We should be able to come up with a common sense number on how many units is appropriate on one piece of ground, and stop those who would come in with something much larger that will just overwhelm a site," he said.
Gustafson said a group of powerful state legislators have been meeting in Des Moines recently on the issue, a group that has become known as "The 12 Apostles." Their conclusion could be critical to whether the state will ever take a strong role in regulating against large corporate confinement facilities, Gustafson feels.
The Buena Vista County Supervisor was one of four who went to the statehouse last week to testify to that group of lawmakers.
Gustafson spoke of the damage that the big feed trucks and manure wagons from large confinement operations are doing to the rural roads of Iowa counties.
He also told the lawmakers that the big hog confinements are being granted "pollution exemptions" allowing them to escape paying taxes on the manure lagoon pits under their buildings. Gustafson said that a large company like Murphy's Farms or Iowa Select might have three pits with a value of $33,000 each - or nearly $100,000 in property value not assessed to taxes. "For our county's levy and the schools levy, that's about $2,300 a year each site would not have to pay in taxes, while they are squishing down our road systems. That isn't fair, because all the rest of the people in the county are county to have to help pay for that. The independent farmer is sure going to have to pay."
Gustafson said he is not yet certain how the pollution exemption situation could effect county tax revenues from Rembrandt Enterprises' multi-million-dollar operation.
"The factory farm situation here in general is going to be highway robbery to the schools and to the county. If we think we are going to get some big tax windfall here, we're not going to," he said.
Gustafson testified that a facility like Rembrandt Enterprises can create some 50,000 tons of waste a year.
"That's as much as the USS Iowa battleship weighs. Now you may say I have sour grapes, but that's an awful lot of manure," he said.
Gustafson said that the former leader of the Storm Lake Area Development Corporation created "a lot of terrible hard feelings" in encouraging such a development in rural Buena Vista County, and he said he plans to urge current SLADC leaders to be "right up front" if it is to be involved with confinement livestock-related companies again.
"At this time I won't propose a moratorium again, but if someone like Sparboe is coming in to BV County that is just going to be overwhelming to us, then I will propose a moratorium."
Gustafson added that he does not oppose other plans, including talk of several new turkey sites associated with the Bil-Mar Foods operation. "That's a local company, and I guess we've got to be able to tolerate a few things," he said.
Still, Gustafson said he is worried about the sheer volume of confinement buildings coming into the county lately, and what they could mean to the rural lifestyle and the environment.
Assessor's figures showed 15 nw hog confinements and 15 other (poultry) confinements in the past year starting in Buena Vista County, and 17 more the previous year.
"They are coming in hand over fist, with an average of 3,000-4,000 head per site. If the feeder turns that over two-and-a-half-times per year, that's a total of 10,000 hogs on a single site on a yearly basis," Gustafson said. "Since a hog turns out two to three times as much waste as a human, that would be the equal of what would happen if 25,000-30,000 people were crammed into that same space of a few acres.
If a moratorium in Buena Vista County is going to happen, it probably won't originate in the county supervisors' chambers, Gustafson admitted.
"People will have to understand that they are the ones who can make the difference. The people in Cerro Gordo County made the difference because they didn't want that operation. By the time they were done, three city councils in their county had passed resolutions opposing it," Gustafson said. "You can't get the numbers of people living in the country to stop it. But when the people in a city like Storm Lake start to talk against it, and groups like the Lake Preservation Association start to see the harm, then something can get done."
In the meantime, the board room warrior will remain frustrated.
"I've been down that road, and everything we were told is that we couldn't even do it if we tried. The attorney general told us there was nothing we could do to control these guys from the factory farms. Momentum seems to be changing a little now, but it will still probably be decided in the courts whether any of these county moratoriums can stand at all. I've been preaching it for six or seven years now, it's time to let some of these other counties try something now."
Still, he isn't saying he won't try again.
"I'm awful close. If things get too close to getting out of hand here, I will be willing to be the one to propose the moratorium if necessary," Gustafson said.
"I do hope people are paying attention to what's going on around them in this county, and gives some thought to what it would be like if a factory farm confinement were moving into their neighborhood," he said.
"There was a time when we could have limited it, located it wisely, spread the number of animals out a bit, and it would have worked out just fine. Too much greed has come in, and too many farmers have been sucked into contacts because the economy has them in a bind," he said.
"I don't blame anybody for what has happened, but I do wonder where it's all going to wind up."