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Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015

Farm fields turn into battleground

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

Development or factory farming? The issue heats up in heartland.

A battle is taking place in the nation's rural communities between farmers and their neighbors.

Barns that once dotted the landscape in Iowa, North Carolina, Utah and other farm states are being replaced with metal buildings or lots that hold thousands of cattle, hogs and chickens, which produce pound upon pound of manure.

To some farmers, the confinements and feedlots symbolize progress and opportunity that helps them support their families while satisfying demand from meatpackers, grocers and consumers.

Their neighbors believe that the manure produced by factory

-style farming is polluting their land, air and rivers, making them sick and turning their home into a wasteland.

Neighbors have turned to local officials, who, in turn, have sought help from state and federal officials to control the stench and waste, but results have fallen short in some communities.

And some aren't waiting for action any longer.

From townships and counties in Pennsylvania to communities in Washington state, local governments are creating their own siting or environmental rules that farmers must abide to reduce pollution.

County officials say that 47 new livestock confinement facilities have been built in Buena Vista County alone in the past two years.

While Buena Vista County has not acted on suggestions for a moratorium against new large confinements, the issue is coming to a head in nearby Clay and Pocahontas counties in the next few weeks. Cerro Gordo and Franklin counties, near Clear Lake, passed such bans in February.

States have failed to enforce laws already on the books, leading local officials to take matters into their own hands, said Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

A few "bad actors" among the livestock confinement corporations are forcing counties to take action on their own. Shepherdson said, defining bad actors as farmers who fail to manage clean facilities.

As information about the impact of factory farming has become more readily available, residents have become more aware of the issues, Shepherdson said.

"People are starting to realize that 'This isn't just happening in my town. Other people are experiencing this, too,'" she said.

Officials in Cerro Gordo County took an extreme step in February, declaring a moratorium on the construction of new confinement operations for one year. Days later, neighboring Franklin County followed suit.

The moratorium was an unprecedented move in Iowa, which leads the nation in pork and egg production.

The countywide ban also had immediate results. Sparboe Farms, a Minnesota company, quickly withdrew its proposal to build an egg-laying plant with 2.4 million chickens near Clear Lake.

The Board of Health members plan to use the period to develop comprehensive rules for siting and pollution, said Bob Amosson, a county supervisor.

"As I tell people, I say, 'I hate that we had to do it,'" Amosson said. "It was long overdue."

Confinements are not a recent fad. Some factory-like farms have been around since the 1970s, but they've become increasingly common in the last 15 years. As more appear, concern is escalating that animal manure, concentrated in large amounts, is harming human health and environment, with its effects rippling as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to a dead zone in the sea.

"I was kind of hoping the state Legislature would try do something, or at least give the county some control over these things," Amosson said.

State lawmakers have yet to take action, said Ron Osterholm, a member of the Cerro Gordo health board.

"We were really looking at the health effects, but I think legislators either ignored it or just let it go," Osterholm said. "We saw it was an issue some time ago, and it just kept growing."

Although many local hog producers are upset with the ban, Osterholm said county leaders are trying to do what's best for the people.

"We need to protect the health of the public at the same time create an environment that's conducive to agricultural growth," Osterholm said.

Lawsuits could arise, Amosson and Osterholm admit, especially when considering that the region north of Cerro Gordo, Worth County, has been sued for making strict air and water pollution rules.

But Osterholm said he isn't afraid, arguing that Cerro Gordo is doing its job in protecting people's health.

Farmers and farm organizations often threaten to sue when new local rules are made, but they rarely take action, said Michelle Nowlin, an attorney who often handles such cases at Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"Every single time (rules are made), you have somebody from the livestock industry threatening to sue on some grounds," said Nowlin who has dealt with 20 counties in the southeastern United States that passed zoning or health rules. Three have been taken to court.

"It happens less frequently than one might think," Nowlin said.

Farmers may not like it, but local rules are critical because communities and counties vary in their economies and topography, she said. Federal and state standards do not consider those unique characteristics.

"Only the people in that county are able to take a position in order to safeguard those natural features," Nowlin said.

Several North Carolina counties restrict how close livestock farms can be to water wells and homes, as do many Pennsylvania townships.

The trend in local regulation is disturbing, said Don Parrish, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Farm Bureau Federation.

"The livestock industry in the country has always been an important core of American agriculture," Parrish said, noting that the majority of the nation's crops are grown for livestock feed.

"If we in this nation cannot feed that to animals and do that in a way that meets environmental and safety standards_ if we can't do that, we're going to see the livestock industry go overseas," he said.

Rules can be barriers for farmers, forcing their expenses to increase, which could lead to higher prices, Parrish said. That would compel U.S. consumers to buy cheaper food products made by foreign competitors, he said.

"I would hate knowing that this country is as dependent on Brazil and Argentina for food as we are on Saudi Arabia for oil."

Although environmentalists blame farm corporations for the confinements, Parrish said the finger of blame should point at someone else.

"If you're looking for a bad guy, the consumer's the bad guy because the consumer goes down to Sam's Club or Wal-Mart because the consumer wants a good price," he said.

Grocery shoppers want their meat cheap and lean, Parrish said, adding that the giant farms help producers satisfy that appetite.

"Clearly whatever we're producing_ pork in the Netherlands, or dairy in New Zealand or sheep in Australia _ clearly we're in a world market," he said. "In order to make a living, some of our operations have to be very large."

The Cerro Gordo County moratorium means Randy Nuehring's family in Rockwell can't expand their operations to increase income.

"It's not a good deal," Nuehring said when tending his family's confinements that house 3,000 pigs. "We would have to leave if we want to expand."

Producers are upset with the ban, but Amosson and Osterholt said they want to collaborate with farmers to develop fair restrictions.

Farmers may be skeptical that it can be done, but Whatcom County, Wash., may have found its ideal solution for farm pollution.

Six years ago, dairy farmers were spreading manure on fields during wet months, overloading the soil with nitrogen and other nutrients that can leech into water.

The Environmental Protection Agency intervened, warning farmers to clean up or face federal penalties for violating the Clean Water Act and harming shellfish in a nearby harbor.

"We realized we had to reduce pollutant loading," said Whatcom County Supervisor Ward Nelson.

He and other county leaders persuaded the dairy farmers to work with them in developing an ordinance that prohibits manure spreading during Washington's wettest months, from October until the spring.

"After they understood the issue, they were by and large eager to comply and help," Nelson said of farmers. "I mean, they live here, too."

Washington regulators say water samples from the Nooksack River and Portage Bay in Whatcom County show that levels of toxic fecal coliform bacteria are dropping because of the manure control.

A moratorium is an extreme measure that the county didn't consider, Nelson said.

"By and large, it's much better to work with the community and the farmers to come up with a plan that will work."


On the Net:

Natural Resources Defense Council: http://www.nrdc.org

Southern Environmental Law Center: http://www.southernenvironment.org

American Farm Bureau Federation: http://www.afbf.org

Cerro Gordo County, Iowa: http://www.iowa-counties.com/cerrogordo/

Whatcom County, Washington: http://www.co.whatcom.wa.us/

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