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Iowa landowners unite against animal confinements

Unusual approach borne of frustration with lawmakers and regulators

Jerry George closes the gate Friday to a pen in which he and his wife keep miniature ponies on their property in rural Lime Spring. The Georges led a group of landowners in forming a covenant to restrict the development of confined animal feeding operations. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Jerry George closes the gate Friday to a pen in which he and his wife keep miniature ponies on their property in rural Lime Spring. The Georges led a group of landowners in forming a covenant to restrict the development of confined animal feeding operations. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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A group of Howard County landowners, tired of Iowa lawmakers’ refusal to tighten rules on confined animal feeding operations, has banded together to outlaw these operations on their properties.

Further, these 43 families owning more than 5,000 acres combined won’t accept liquid manure from large feeding operations — an unusual move they hope will keep those facilities from opening nearby.

“We’re limiting where the CAFOs can go,” said Sue George, 66, of rural Lime Springs. “It gets expensive to haul liquid manure far away.”

The restrictive covenant, expected to be filed early this week in Howard County in northeastern Iowa, is unique in that it involves rural landowners voluntarily limiting their own property rights for what they believe is a greater good, said Neil Hamilton, the director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center who specializes in land use.

And because hauling hog manure more than 5 miles from a feeding operation isn’t cost effective, according to Daniel Andersen, Iowa State University assistant professor of manure management and water quality, the Howard County covenant covering 8 square miles could be a blow to future large operations.

Surge in CAFOs

Sue and Jerry George moved back to Jerry’s family farm in 1974 after graduating from ISU. Sue became a second-grade teacher in Lime Springs and Jerry spent the bulk of his career as quality control manager for Donaldson Company, a filtration maker, in Cresco.

They raised two kids on 11 mostly-wooded acres. Now three grandchildren visit to ride miniature horses, take wagon rides, swim in an aboveground pool and ride with Jerry on the tractor, Sue George said.

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As more large animal confinement facilities have been built in the area, the couple became increasingly worried about the quality of the air and groundwater.

Howard County has karst topography, which is porous and allows whatever is laid on the land to seep into the water. Just last week, manure runoff from an animal feeding operation killed thousands of fish in Hickory and Hewitt creeks in Dubuque County, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Iowa has about 8,000 large confinement facilities requiring permits and another 1,500 open feed lots. As grain prices have stagnated, some farmers have built the facilities or signed with private operators to diversify farm income.

“The way the economy is, buying a piece of ground and farming doesn’t pencil out these days,” said Justin Sovereign, 31, who owns several of the facilities in Howard County. Like the Georges, he returned to the family farm after graduating from ISU. But to buy out other family members who don’t want to farm, he said he has to make more income from hog production.

No change IN RULES at THE state level

Earlier this year, the Georges started meeting with neighbors to try to fight two proposed feeding facilities with 2,499 hogs each — just under the state’s threshold for permitting.

“We thought we could stop it initially,” Sue George said. “We went through the DNR and I talked with (DNR Director Chuck) Gipp in Decorah. We were polite, but firm. We didn’t have any luck.”

Local boards of supervisors, including Howard County, petitioned then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa Legislature to revisit 2002 rules governing the siting of confinements. The Howard County supervisors, in their Feb. 27 petition, said the facilities have proliferated at a rate and number unanticipated by the authors of the master matrix, a scoring system for evaluating the siting of the confinements.

State regulators in September, though, declined to change the master matrix.

Fueled by frustration, the Georges contacted Karl Knudson, a Decorah lawyer, who had used a restrictive covenant in the past to help landowners control the use of an adjacent property. Knudson drafted an agreement between Howard County residents that prohibited large confinements on the properties and disallowed the spreading of manure from the facilities. The deal must be renewed by at least one landowner of the covered properties every 21 years.

“With each of these, people are giving up something, but they are also gaining something,” Knudson said of covenants. “We’re hoping the idea will catch on.”

Sue George and her neighbors started gathering signatures in August. The covenant covers seven Howard County neighborhoods in which properties touch, although they aren’t necessarily contiguous with common borders.

“We had a notary who went around with us, bless her soul, all over this corner of Iowa,” George said.

Of the 43 signers, 16 are Amish, she said.

“You can’t call them and some are strung out for miles from our house,” she said. “We took a well-known Amish man with us who would explain it to them.”

Will it work?

But will the covenant deter further confinement facilities?

“In cases like this, where farm economics come into play, there is a lot of power in neighbors coming together,” said Andersen, the ISU professor of manure management.

Confinements of at least 1,250 finishing pigs must have approved manure management plans outlining how and where owners will dispose of liquid manure collected from the farm. There are two options: Drag lining, which is piping manure through hoses to nearby farms, or hauling it in tankers, Andersen said.

The facility owners can snake hoses down roadside ditches — allowed by law — but if fields aren’t contiguous, this may require more set up time to get it to different fields. Tanking can be a more efficient option for multiple application sites, he said. Either way, producers generally can afford to haul the manure only 5 to 7 miles away.

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“Limited access to land could make developing manure management plans more difficult and be a real damper to application logistics,” he said.

Confinement owners could build facilities to treat and remove nitrogen and phosphorus from manures, to reduce the property needed for land application, but that typically is too expensive, Andersen said. “We don’t have a lot of experience with that in Iowa.”

Reaction to covenant

DNR Director Gipp said last week he had no comment on the landowners’ covenant, but he knows how critical having a close site for manure distribution is to confinement operators.

“I can say that as a former legislator that we realized that you can control the concentration of animal feeding operations by regulating the application of manure,” he wrote in an email to The Gazette. “That was the genesis of requiring manure management plans. Consequently, animal feeding operations of the size requiring a plan cannot not be permitted without documenting sufficient acres for the manure that is generated.”

Brandon Reis, 35, who built one of the new 2,499-head facilities near the Georges, said he understands his neighbors’ concerns about groundwater. Once his fields are injected with liquid manure, he said he plants cover crops to absorb the nutrients. “A lot of those practices have been shown to improve watersheds,” he said.

Courtney Shimek, 30, who farms with her brother — Sovereign — said the Howard County covenant won’t affect her, even though she said she’s building a new animal feeding operation on non-karst land in Howard County.

“Most of our manure goes on our land,” she said. But she doesn’t agree with the covenant. “They’re trying to make it harder for us as farmers.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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