Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

A 'matrix' fantasy

This time around, the term they are using is "matrix," but the debate's not much different than it has been for a decade.

I feel for poor Buena Vista Supervisor Jim Gustafson, trying to sit through the meetings and make sense of this complicated proposed ratings system for new livestock confinements developments (or factory farms, depending which side of the fence you stand on).

It's a stretch to imagine bringing the likes of ag revenue-minded Farm Bureau and the livestock producers groups to the same table with staunch environmentalists, then mixing in academians and politicians - and expecting them to all skip away holding philosophical hands.

This "Matrix" isn't related to the movie of the same name, but it might be about as much of a fantasy.

It is Iowa's last best attempt to make everybody happy, but I'm not sure that's really the job of leadership.

The intentions are good, really they are.

Producers get to prove their worth by earning points on the matrix, which they can get by picking and choosing from a dizzying array of good deeds in construction, operation, increasing setback from waterways and neighbors, choices in manure application, pay scale for employees, groundwater monitoring and so on. Once you hit your point total, blackjack! You win a permit.

There's not too much attention to who will monitor all of these factors or how. And the matrix will not apply to facilities of less than 1,000 animal units - about 2,500 hogs - in an attempt to appease family farmers.

It's nice that so many groups are at the table, but before we can have a plan that works, Iowa has to finally make some basic, tough decisions.

1. Does Iowa want to be a leading livestock state? If so, it will have to accept that the industry is going to large confinements, and that they will change the countryside forever. If Iowa instead wants to be an environment-first state, it will have to find a replacement for the millions in lost potential rural development.

2. How much is enough? We've pussyfooted around that issue for years and years. With all of our ag science resources in Iowa, there is still no one who can tell us what ratio of animals-per-acre is too many for the land to handle.

3. What do we do with the manure? At some point does harmless fertilizer become the toxic waste of the midwest? We best look down the road a bit...

4. What rights should people have to install huge confinement buildings wherever they can buy up the land for it - free enterprise in other words - and what rights do rural residents have to view, smell, quiet?

5. Do Iowans want their state government or their county government to have the upper hand in making the case-by-case decisions? Who do they trust? Do local officials have the expertise to make those calls?

The matrix idea doesn't answer any of these tough questions, and until they are answered, it's all just a game.

The goal here can't be to make everyone, everywhere happy. On this issue, that's a fantasy even Hollywood couldn't swallow.