Agriculture

Trouble with hogs in northeast Iowa

One community concerned about proposed hog confinement sites

Amish farmer Lester Stutsman, an opponent of proposed swine confinement facilities near his Howard County home, cultivates a field on April 6. Stutsman said he fears manure from the confinements will contaminate his shallow well and that fumes will make it impossible for the 45 Amish families in the community to hang out their laundry. (Orlan Love/freelance)
Amish farmer Lester Stutsman, an opponent of proposed swine confinement facilities near his Howard County home, cultivates a field on April 6. Stutsman said he fears manure from the confinements will contaminate his shallow well and that fumes will make it impossible for the 45 Amish families in the community to hang out their laundry. (Orlan Love/freelance)
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LIME SPRINGS — A few miles southeast of this Howard County town, rural dwellers attracted by sparkling creeks, stately bur oaks and harmonious neighbors fear the quality of their air and water — not to mention the quality of their lives — soon will be compromised by the construction of a pair of 2,499-head swine finishing facilities in a region riddled with sinkholes.

Sue George, a leader of the hastily formed opposition group, Northeast Iowans for Clean Air and Water, worries that airborne pollutants will worsen her lung ailments and drive her from the farm that has been in her husband’s family for more than a century.

Another nearby neighbor of the proposed sites, Anna Mae Edwards, 76, a full-time employee of Featherlite Trailers in Cresco, said she’s allergic to hogs and likely will have to move if the confinement buildings are built.

The 45 Amish households clustered just downwind of the proposed sites fear they will contaminate their shallow wells and spawn foul breezes that will taint the laundry they regularly hang outside to dry.

Many of the sinkholes in the area have been patched with rock and dirt so that they are no longer visible from the surface, but they are vulnerable to reopening with the next heavy rain.

Neighbors have been meeting regularly to plan their opposition to the CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operation — and they were joined April 6 by three uninvited and unexpected representatives of Reicks View Farms, the business that plans to build and operate one of the CAFOs.

Reicks View Farms, with headquarters in Lawler and about 250 employees, markets more than 600,000 hogs per year, raised on scores of sites in northeast Iowa, including about 20 in Howard County.It is the same organization that created a furor last year in Allamakee County with a similar plan — 2,499 hogs, just under the limit for local review, and sited in karst topography draining into a trout stream.

Though the plan has been approved, ground has not yet been broken at that site.

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The Reicks View employees — Operations Manager Mark Kipp, Director of Organizational Development Gene Noem and Ross Kiehne, a veterinarian at the Swine Vet Center in St. Peter, Minn. — said they wanted neighbors to know their side of the story.

Asked about the thought process that resulted in the siting of a hog confinement in a thickly populated region of karst topography, Noem said, “You look to the regulations for guidance. They give us a set of rules to follow. We will follow the rules.”

Though the barn will be built on Delbert Ihns’s farm, Reicks View Farms will own the building and the pigs and will be responsible for their care, Noem said.

“Delbert came to us and said he wanted to build another hog barn,” Kipp said.

Reicks View Farms gets many such requests, many more than are accepted, said Kipp, who declined to say how a site in karst topography is selected over a site with less precarious access to groundwater.

Such contentious siting decisions have prompted at least nine county boards of supervisors, including Howard County, to petition the governor and Legislature to revisit the 2002 rules governing the siting of confinements. The Howard County supervisors, in their Feb. 27 petition, said CAFOs have proliferated at a rate and number unanticipated by the authors of the 2002 master matrix, a scoring system for evaluating the siting of CAFOs.

CAFO siting rules, they said, have failed to protect the air, water, health, quality of life and economic interests of their constituents and “failed to adequately differentiate between the geography, water sources and other critical considerations” of different Iowa regions.

Noem said Reicks officials had not been aware until recently that Brandon Reis planned to build a similar hog confinement directly across the gravel Saint Avenue from the initial site on the Delbert Ihns farm.

“That is not what we would plan for,” Noem said.

Once company officials learned of the proximity of the proposed Brandon Reis site, they moved the Reicks View site to another location on the same farm, Noem said. Though the impetus primarily was to create more space between the two CAFOs, the new site is partly secluded by trees and should provide more odor relief for neighbors, he said.

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Karst topography is characterized by highly soluble and easily fractured bedrock lying close to the ground surface, enabling contaminants to enter springs, streams and underground aquifers with limited filtering.

Research conducted by the Iowa Environmental Council shows that wells tested in the seven counties with substantial karst topography — Allamakee, Winneshiek, Clayton, Dubuque, Mitchell, Floyd and Howard — have contamination rates well above those of the other 92 Iowa counties.

Russ Stevenson, who farms a mile north of the proposed sites, said he broke off the back end of his combine a few years ago when a sinkhole suddenly opened beneath it. “That happens all the time around here,” said Stevenson, who has patched several sinkholes in his 40 years on the farm.

The patches — rocks covered with topsoil — “allow you to farm over the top of it, but the sinkhole is still there” — providing an easy route for surface water to enter the shallow aquifers, he said.

Members of the Amish community lying just east of the proposed sites don’t know how they will dry their clothes if they can no longer hang them outside.

“My first thought was the smell, with the wind blowing from the west 80 percent of the time, but now I am more worried about the water,” said Lester Stutsman, who farms a mile east of the proposed site.

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