In Iowa, Traditional Farmers Suffer as Factory Farms Proliferate

Efforts to regulate industry stymied by EPA’s decision to drop proposed rule requiring CAFOs report basic operating information

The air around Gary Klicker’s hay and pasture farm in Bloomfield, IA hangs heavy with the stench of feces and rotting flesh. To get away from the smell, a few years ago Klicker had his house moved to a higher location on his land, but there was no escaping the foul smell. “If the wind blows it gets worse. And in the hot weather that we’ve been having, the animals die in large numbers and it’s really bad,” he told me over the phone.

dead hogs Photo by Lori NelsonDead hogs from factory farms are often left piled up in and by dumpsters near the road for
days on end, filling the air with the stench of rotting carcasses.

The animals Klicker is referring to are pigs – some 20,000 of them. His 120-acre family farm is surrounded by six concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms as they are commonly called, each one packing in as many as 3,000 to 5,000 hogs. Such a large concentration of pigs means massive amounts of excreta that fouls up the air (main gases released include methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia), causing respiratory ailments. Untreated and improperly managed waste also pollutes local water bodies and contaminates the soil.

What’s worse is the facilities often discard dead hogs (that may have died of disease or unknown causes) in dumpsters by the road. When the dumpsters fill up, the bloated carcasses releasing noxious gases are simply left piled up beside it. “It’s common to find a pile of dead hogs outside dumpsters,” said Klicker, who’s now made it his business to record such incidents. “The dumpsters are supposed to be in an enclosed area, but in some cases they are just 20 feet from the road,” he said.

Klicker said he doesn’t get any help from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which is supposed to monitor these operations. “If you call, you don’t get much response, you just get the runaround from one office to another.”

Homesteader Lori Nelson told me the same story as Klicker – the smell, the manure spread on slopes right by her doorstep, the frequent piles of dead hogs by the road. Nelson’s property is flanked on both sides by two factory farms, one half a mile away and the other at a quarter mile distance. “It really doesn’t matter which way I go. If I go left there’s one, if I go right there’s one. It’s enough to make you puke in your car,” she said. Nelson would like to sell out and move away, but her property’s value has dropped so much that she simply can’t afford to do so. “Besides, where do you go when they are popping up like crazy everywhere?” she asked. “Really, if you want to live in the country in Iowa you’re pretty much going to have a factory farm next to you.”

Klicker and Nelson’s plight isn’t unusual among small farmers and homesteaders in rural Iowa. Over the past decade, as factory farms have been proliferating across the state, family farms are not just being pushed out of business, they are also finding their land, water, and air polluted, their property values diminished, and their quality of life suffering.

Lori Nelson Photo courtesy Iowa CCIGiant trucks speed past Lori Nelson’s homestead all day long hauling grain, hogs, or manure. When
it’s a wet season, they leave giant ruts in the road. When it’s dry they kick up massive amounts of
dust that covers her whole property.

While news headlines about Iowa’s Big Ag operations and their egregious practices abound, we seldom hear from traditional farmers of this largely agricultural state who have for generations taken pride in their work, and who are deeply troubled with how these operations are affecting the image of Iowa farmers in the eyes of the rest of America.

In the 1980s Iowa used to have some 80,000 family farms raising livestock. Today only 8,000 are left, I am told by Adam Mason, state policy director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a nonprofit group that’s been encouraging local communities to stand up against industrial agriculture operations. A significant section of the group’s members are family farmers.

“Right now there are 20 million hogs in confinement in Iowa,” Mason said. “The impact has been pollution of our air and water and fewer jobs in the rural communities across Iowa because these facilities hire fewer workers.” Iowans have to push for stronger laws and demand that the Department of Natural Resources to do a better job, he said.

There has been some progress in this regard. Last month, in response to a 2007 petition by The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project – the US Environmental Protection Agency released a report criticizing Iowa for failing to take timely enforcement actions against livestock facilities that violate the Clean Water Act. The report said the state must have a monitoring process that protects the quality of Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams.

Unfortunately, at the same time there’s been a major setback in efforts to get federal authorities regulate CAFOs.

Just a few days after the EPA report on Iowa, the federal agency announced that it was withdrawing a proposed rule that would have required CAFOs to report basic information on operations that could result in water pollution – such as location, number of animals and manure storage and disposal. Instead, the EPA said it would try to collect that information from the states – a strategy that has proven time and again to be ineffective.

The rule had been proposed following a 2010 settlement agreement in a lawsuit against EPA by a coalition of environmental groups that demanded the EPA start collecting information on factory farms.

I was astounded to learn that the EPA doesn’t even have a definitive list of all the CAFOs in the country, much less the number of animals and manure treatment methods.

The proposed rule would have addressed the need for critical information that the agency needs to start cleaning up our waterways and protecting public health, John Devine, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that had filed the lawsuit, told me.

Devine believes the agency caved under the constant haranguing from Big Ag.

“There’s been a consistent drumbeat for the past several years that EPA is over-regulating the agricultural sector even if that’s not true. Maybe this was a battle the agency didn’t want to fight,” Devine said, referring to scare-mongering concerns the industry raised about security threats that would result from gathering such data.

NRDC and its partners are now working to figure out how to get the EPA to reverse its decision.

In the meantime though, many traditional farmers like 66-year-old Klicker are giving up the good fight. The born and bred-Iowan is in the process of selling his farm off and moving to Colorado.

“Those guys have made life miserable for us,” he told me. “I loved it here really, but I’m tired of fighting. We have struggled and struggled but nothing has changed. The DNR [Department of Natural Resources] doesn’t help us, our legislators don’t help us… It’s unjust that’s what it is.”

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