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Farm smells ignite debate but no consensus reached

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Before dinner can be prepared and served at the table, the food has to be raised on a farm.

However, Old MacDonald’s Farm with its placid scenes of pigs and cows is a shrinking segment of American farming, being replaced with large industrial agricultural operations with hundreds and thousands of animals.

Slim profit margins create the need for volume and push many farmers to build bigger barns and bring in more and more animals. When one of these larger operations is proposed, controversy is almost certain to erupt. While families need affordable and abundant food, many do not want to live next door to the New MacDonald’s Farm.

mcinerny McInerny

Large livestock farms that confine, feed and maintain the animals for at least 45 days are regulated by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The operation’s size determines its classification. For example, an animal feeding operation with 600 or more swine is called a confined feeding operation and one with 2,500 swine weighing more than 55 pounds each is a concentrated animal feeding operation.

Many of the concerns and disputes center on the amount of waste the animals produce. According to a 2010 report by the National Association of Local Boards of Health, large feeding operations can generate between 2,800 tons and 1.6 million tons of manure annually. This can outpace the amount of waste produced by humans in an urban setting.

 A recipe for discontentment on the Indiana countryside is created when more farms expand at the same time families not used to the farm smells are moving to rural areas where they want to live on five to 10 acres of land, said Todd Janzen, partner at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP.

Today, the rules and regulations governing large livestock operations focus on protecting water. Much of the government’s focus is on how the animal waste will be collected and stored, and how it will later be applied to fields as fertilizer.  

Indeed, the permitting process for farmers wanting to start or expand a CFO includes submitting blueprints for manure treatment and control facilities in addition to soil and manure testing, locations of neighboring streams, ditches and lakes as well as maps of areas where the manure will be applied.

Not addressed by the rules and regulations is air quality. Yet, the smell is a common concern among neighbors any time any livestock feeding operation is proposed.

“That’s not their job,” Janzen said of IDEM. “Their job is the protection of the environment. There is not an environmental impact when someone smells manure in the country once in a while.”

Daniel McInerny, partner at Bose McKinney & Evans LLP, agreed. He said the number one misconception is that odors from these operations pervade the surrounding area for miles. Actually, the smell stays within a few 100 feet of the barns, he said, although it could potentially travel a farther distance when the manure is applied to the fields.

To Kim Ferraro, water and agriculture policy director at the Hoosier Environmental Council, the regulations are not balanced equally between property owners and farmers. The agricultural industry is very protected, she said, while the concerns about water and air quality are largely ignored.

Finding remedy in the courts can be a difficult hurdle to clear because of the amount of money needed to bring a lawsuit, she said.

“We’re not anti-CAFO,” Ferraro said of the council. “We’re pro-environment and pro-people.”

She pointed to a recent case – Eric Stickdorn and Lisa Stickdorn v. Elam B. Zook, Sarah F. Zook, Samuel L. Lantz and Mattie Z. Lantz, 89A01-1012-CT-670 – she argued and won before the Indiana Court of Appeals as an example of what neighbors of these operations must contend with. Here, the Stickdorns suffered physical illness and eventually had to leave their home because of the overpowering odor.

In a 2008 study, the Government Accountability Office examined the impact of concentrated animal feeding operations on air quality and found no consensus. The GAO looked at 68 government-sponsored or peer-reviewed studies completed since 2002 on the air and water pollutants from feeding operations. Seven of those studies linked pollutants from the animal waste to harmful emissions while three others found no negative air quality impact.

Typical emissions coming from the CAFOs are hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane and particulate matter.  

McInerny sees the public becoming more hardened against these large feeding operations. He blamed Internet chatter and a vocal minority which, he said, are spreading misinformation.

Contrary to the outrage when a feeding operation is proposed, he said, once the barns have been built and the animals are in place, most people do not even know it is nearby.

Possible changes coming

Both McInerny and Janzen pointed to recent revisions in the state regulations which have prohibited farmers from applying the manure to frozen, snow-covered fields. IDEM changed the policy because of concerns about the waste running off into streams and ponds.

The impact of this new restriction, from what Janzen has seen, is that some farms are deciding to constrict or stop livestock production altogether. These farms do not have the storage capacity to hold all the waste through the winter months and the cost of expanding to include more capacity is too much.

Moreover, the possibility of new regulations being imposed on small farmers could lead to an increase in the size of big operations. Again, the costs of compliance could force many small farmers to consolidate with larger farms.

So far, air emissions have not been a part of any new regulation, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been looking into the matter. It started a National Air Emissions Monitor Standards study to examine feeding operations and has been getting pressured to regulate. Twenty environmental groups petitioned the EPA in 2010 to regulate air emissions from large farms using the authority it has under the U.S. Clean Air Act.

Farmers fear they might be required to capture all air emissions from the barns and then make controlled releases into the environment, Janzen said.

The strong push back against a proposed confined feeding operation for hogs that would be near the YMCA’s popular Camp Tecumseh in Carroll County has captured headlines and illustrated the common concerns neighbors have.

The farmer, John Erickson, received approval from IDEM to start a CFO on his White County farm with two wean-to-finish barns housing a maximum of 4,620 hogs each. Currently, his permit is under appeal at the Office of Environmental Adjudications and the camp has filed a lawsuit to block the farm’s expansion.

Ferraro believes the public outcry over this particular farm could bring the entire CFO issue to a head. In this instance, she said, the regulations cannot protect the children who go there every summer from potential odors and contamination.

Yet, in the Legislature, the favor has rested with the industry, Ferraro said. The 2013 session included several bills such as House Bill 1582, a measure she characterized as “disturbing.” This bill would have made bringing a nuisance suit against a farm more difficult and would have allowed the farm to avoid mitigating the nuisance if doing so adversely impacted the farm’s economic viability.

The Hoosier Environmental Council would like to push for more progressive regulations and laws, Ferraro said, but at present the organization’s focus in on fighting to keep the state from going backward.•

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  1. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

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