Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Out of control

I suppose there are many rural residents of northwest Iowa who can relate with Tim Humes, and probably a number of livestock people who are equally frustrated with people like him.

Humes is the Sioux Rapids man who lives on a non-farm acreage, and took his protest about a nearby hog confinement development to the board of supervisors last week.

"I certainly hope sitting here brings a voice for the vast majority of communities who feel they don't have a voice," Humes told the county leaders.

They don't just feel that way; they have no voice when it comes to large livestock developments. The state has complete control, or lack of control, depending on how you want to look at it.

Counties and communities that have tried to gain local control of the burgeoning confinement industry have been threatened back in their place in a hurry.

There are two sides to every debate, of course.

Confinements and larger operations are the means to profitability in the livestock business today, and whether we like it or not, they are here to stay. The operations in BV County have come in under state laws and met all of the requirements they impose. And they aren't just "factory farms," as more and more family operations or small cooperatives of farmers are finding the need to build such operations as well.

If they come with life-style challenges, they also represent one of the few realistic opportunities for added jobs and economic development for the more isolated rural areas. "The smell of money," as former governor Terry Branstad once put it.

One cannot question that they are changing the nature and landscape of rural Iowa.

It goes deeper than a power struggle for who will regulate the development.

There are two schools of thought about the Iowa countryside, so philosophically split that it is hard for either to see the other's argument.

One group of people views the rural environment in an idealistic way. It is to be a place of serenity, purity and peace, an escape from the traffic and noise of the cities. It is a place for fixing up an old farmhouse into a family acreage, while holding down a career in town or via Internet. This view doesn't hold much room for a hulking pre-fab metal building, truck traffic, and the reality of animal smells, noises, flies or whatever.

The other school of thought is that Iowa land is for agribusiness, and has been so since the state was settled. It is a commodity to be used to grow and produce as much as can be had under prevailing government programs and regulations and the benevolence of nature. And in today's farm economy, there are few choices. People working livestock operations know the jobs are important; they want to make a living too. And they have little sentiment for the people who seem surprised to sniff cattle, hogs, turkeys or chickens when they venture out into gravel road country.

County supervisors are stuck firmly in the middle. Some would like to regulate the industry or at least have a local say in zoning areas for it. They fear that future impact on subsoil water quality, rural quality of life, roads and so on, may make us pay for this era of development later on. Others view them as important sources of jobs, farm income and tax base. Still others of them want nothing to do with political hot-potato responsibility for the hog confinement operations. Even in the board room, there are two sides to every story, it seems.

I can't help but think that at some point, there will have to be some opportunity for a genuine local say in the matter. The state hardly has the means to perpetually enforce and patrol such a exploding industry. And even a complex set of codes can't totally replace the common sense that tells us a confinement building will work fine in one place and set of circumstances, while it just doesn't belong in another.

We all like to eat, so it would be hypocritical to suggest that livestock developments don't have a place in the Iowa economy. But rural people do have rights too, and their honest concerns should be heard with more than lip service in the process.

Mr. Humes had the guts to speak up about his concerns.

But no one around that board table can do a thing about it, and that should make us all just a bit nervous.