First in a series of stories on the issue of concentrated animal feeding operations in Iowa.
LIME SPRINGS — Nearly six times the amount of hogs exist in Iowa at times than people. As the No. 1 hog producer in the country, Iowans are seeing big changes in the way hogs are raised.
The uptick in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, has caused some Iowans to fight back.
After several failed attempts to thwart the steady rise of hog confinements around Lime Springs, a group of Howard County residents have banded together to fight what they call pollution of their water and air.
The Northeast Iowans for Clean Air and Water organization, led by Sue George, a retired second-grade teacher, and her husband, Jerry, organized an agreement with their neighbors to do the only thing left in their power to halt the harmful effects from concentrated animal feeding operations in their neighborhood. They formed a covenant.
With the help of Attorney Karl Knudson, the agreement states those who are in the covenant will not allow manure to be placed on their land. The covenant is comprised of about 43 families, including 16 Amish families who farm organically, with 63 separate properties between four townships, together spanning more than 5,500 acres. Through this covenant, these families are not allowing CAFOs and/or liquid manure to be on their lands now or in the future.
Russ Stevenson, who has been farming in the Howard County area all of his life, has witnessed many changes in hog farming.
Thirty years ago, he said it was mainly small farmers who were raising pigs. The manure was spread and then mixed with bedding to lower the concentration of toxic chemicals.
Now, he said, large animal farming operations have taken over and with the increase in hogs, there is more concentrated manure.
Regulations on hog confinements are calculated by the master matrix, a point system designed to regulate separation distances from businesses, residences, churches and schools.
Now Stevenson only raises crops, but is concerned about the area CAFOs injecting manure into the ground by tile lines and sinkholes near his property.
People have experienced wells going bad, and “we know that it can and probably will happen to us,” Stevenson said. LLC means they are not liable. He also noted many of the CAFOs are LLCs, which means they are a limited liability company.
In February 2017, the Georges learned two 2,499-head hog CAFOs were going to be built within their neighborhood, each one hog shy of tighter rules and regulations provided by the master matrix. At 2,500 hogs, they have to use the master matrix. At 2,500 hogs, the farmer will acquire more restrictions.
“So right over there is a city of hogs hidden in a couple of buildings and they are making more manure than the city of Cresco,” Rose Goetsch said, noting there is no sewage treatment.
The Georges, who live and farm in Lime Springs, along with some of their neighbors, including Rose and Bill Goetch and Rita Jones, are concerned the livestock facilities are being built on environmentally fragile terrain in Northeast Iowa.
The land is part of the Driftless Area, which extends to Minnesota, Wisconsin and northwest Illinois, where glaciers didn’t form, leaving deeply carved river valleys.
Slightly acidic rain dissolves the bedrock over time, creating a system of caves, sinkholes and springs, which are called karst areas. Karst allows a direct path for surface water to flow underground and mix with underground aquifers, causing a challenge in managing water quality.
Groundwater can travel at rapid rates and resurface miles away in a matter of hours, according to Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development Inc.
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Iowa is the No. 1 producer of pork and corn in the United States. Farmers typically grind the corn to feed the hogs. With a large number of hogs in confinement, the manure becomes more toxic.
Swine manure can generate toxic chemicals, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane, according to Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
With the quick contamination of pollutants, streams and groundwater are able to deliver the toxins to local rivers and streams, affecting drinking water, fish and aquatic organisms.
“That is our big concern with our water because liquid manure is stored in lagoons or pits; if there would be a crack in the cement, which there will be at some point, that liquid manure can seep down through sinkholes” and pollute the water, Jones said. “If our water is contaminated to the point it reaches the aquifer, it can go clear to Des Moines. ... There’s a water crisis in Iowa, it isn’t just our little wells we’re talking about, it goes into our rivers. This concerns our whole population.”
More than 75 percent of Iowans rely on groundwater as their primary source of drinking water, according to the DNR.
Wells in this area can reach anywhere from 60 to more than 350 feet deep. The George’s well is 110 feet deep and, if contaminated, will have to be redone at their expense to extend about 400 feet.
Neighboring waterways also are of concern to those who joined the covenant.
Bigalk Creek, located seven miles northeast of Cresco, contains several kinds of trout, including the unique natural reproducing rainbow trout.
“You’re risking killing the trout and ruining the environment,” Bill Goetsch said.
Jones noted all of this eventually contributes to the “dead zone,” an area in the Gulf of Mexico with low oxygen that kills fish and marine life and has increased to its largest reported size this year, about the size of New Jersey.
In addition to impairing water quality, the volatile chemicals also pollute the air.
Medical problems commonly associated with inhaled agents include respiratory diseases, cardiovasular events and neuropsychiatric conditions, according to the University of Iowa’s “Iowa Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Air Quality Study” by the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center.
“With the rise of large, industrial CAFOs as the preeminent form of livestock production and their associated higher production of gases, vapors, and fumes, these exposures now have the potential to affect larger numbers of individuals, including members of the neighboring community not involved in agriculture or related industrial livestock production,” the study states.
In some cases, antibiotics are given to the animals’ feed as a preventative measure, resulting in some concern for the potential spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA.
“As a daughter, these are my parents; these are supposed to be their golden years where they just enjoy retired life and be out with the ponies and the grandkids. It’s all changed now,” said the Georges’ daughter Angie Chambers.
Rose and Bill Goetsch live one mile east of the Georges. Bill Goetsch is a fifth generation farmer on that farm, owns 336 acres and rents 102 acres. The Goetsches still raise beef cattle but quit raising pasture-raised hogs 10 years ago. Prices got so low they couldn’t afford to keep doing it, he said.
Jones also noted the stench from the hog confinements is intoxicating.
“Don’t we have a right to be able to be out in our yards in the summer time? Don’t we have a right to have our windows open without that stench coming in?” she said.