Posted on Dec. 20, 2008
The Kansas City Star

Evasive but Legal, Factory Farms Crop Up in Missouri

It should not be that hard to find out if there is a factory farm near you.

But for some Missourians, it has turned into a cat-and-mouse game.

That is because some livestock corporations may have found a way to slip their farms past state pollution regulations, using a practice that is legal but has the potential to create serious pollution hazards.

Instead of building megafarms, they work with several smaller farms, each of which has fewer animals than would trigger the state pollution rules.

So while Missouri closely regulates about 450 indoor farms, there are hundreds — possibly more than a thousand — with confined animals and waste lagoons that don’t fall under state law. No one knows exactly how many there are, said a Missouri Department of Natural Resources official.

The practice has created more than a stir in Barton County, south of Kansas City, where one corporation has contracted with at least a dozen farmers in the last couple of years.

Zach McGuire noticed several of the smaller factory farms cropping up near his home in Barton County, and he has joined a number of residents complaining about pollution and odors.

“In southwest Missouri they are going in like gangbusters to get in under the state’s limits,” said McGuire, a traditional farmer near Lamar. “It’s like living in a porta-potty.”

To find out how many indoor farms are in Barton County, McGuire and a friend began flying over the countryside to document them. So far, they say, they have found about 50.

But Martin Bunton, co-owner of a feed store in the county who lives less than two miles from a corporate contract farmer, said industrial farming is getting a bad rap.

“I get really upset when everybody acts like big corporate agriculture is odor and all that, and isn’t doing any good anywhere,” Bunton said. “In 10 years of living there, I have never smelled anything bad.”

Factory farms are controversial in Missouri because of the massive pollution they generate. Since the mid-1990s, the state has regulated the largest ones, known as Class 1 farms, which require permits and extensive waste-management plans. Class 1 farms are divided into subcategories by size.

The smaller ones, known as Class 2 farms, can have thousands of animals too, but have few pollution regulations.

For example, state law categorizes a factory farm that has more than 3,000 sows as Class 1. It must have a permit to operate, annual inspections, setbacks from streams, and buffers to protect residents from the odors and pollution.

But a Class 2 that has 2,499 sows or fewer can begin operating no matter how close it is to a residence, and it doesn’t have inspections or many of the other requirements.

Derek Steen, the Department of Natural Resources’ agriculture chief with the water protection program, said Class 2 factory farms are not supposed to discharge into streams. But he acknowledged that state regulators normally would not know if laws were violated unless someone complained.

“It’s an honor system to an extent,” he said. “And there are some who don’t do a good job, and some who do.”

Steen acknowledged that Class 2 operations could pose a risk.

“The concern is when you take them all into account, it does add up to a substantial amount of manure that has to be managed,” Steen said.

Leslie Holloway of the Missouri Farm Bureau agreed that corporations are no longer building megafarms in Missouri. The number of those types of farms has remained at about 450 for five years or more, she said.

But she said there is nothing untoward about corporations contracting with local farmers.

Nowhere in the state is the battle over Class 2 factory farms being fought harder than in Barton County and Lamar, the birthplace of Harry S. Truman.

That fight is being watched closely in the state and around the country by the industry and opponents of factory farms.

Since 2005, when Synergy, an Iowa hog corporation, began doing business in Barton County with hog operations below the state’s Class 1 threshold, the issue has simmered and boiled.

First voters in a township passed a zoning law in 2007, but Synergy challenged the law in court and it was tossed out. The township appealed.

At a local meeting, some men almost came to blows.

A lawsuit complaining of odors was filed in November against Synergy and its contract producers. Some residents are approaching legislators for stricter state laws.

A lot is at stake, said Gregory Harris, a fifth-generation farmer.

“If we win, every little township will be taking this up for protection,” said Harris, who opposes factory farms. “If we lose, I think Missouri will be overrun by hog operations.”

Synergy said it has about a dozen contract farmers in Barton County.

Synergy and the farmers declined to comment for this story because of the recent lawsuit, said their attorney, Eldon McAfee.

Although residents have filed complaints about waste running into streams, they say the Department of Natural Resources has been slow to respond.

The agency confirmed that a shortage in manpower could cause a wait of days and even weeks before an inspector could respond to a complaint. By then, residents say, the problem may have washed away.

In one complaint, the department found there were odors, but wrote in a response that there was nothing it could do. Farms are exempt from Missouri air-pollution laws unless they are the largest hog farms, labeled Class 1A.

Those farms house at least 17,500 swine of more than 55 pounds, said the department.

More than 30 residents last month filed the lawsuit, claiming that unpredictable odors prohibited the families from using their properties the way they used to for activities such as picnics and family outings, holiday gatherings, hunting and gardening. Family and friends refuse to visit because of the odors, according to the lawsuit.

Darvin Bentlage, a farmer who joined the lawsuit, became concerned when a hog waste lagoon was built 100 feet from his property line. He said in an interview that it spilled into a creek across his property, spoiling what he considered to be a family treasure.

Since then, he said, odors are so bad it is difficult to go outside.

“I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed” that a remedy can be found, he said.

Bruce Gardner, chairman of the township that passed the zoning law, said producers often used overhead irrigation systems to spray manure on cropland.

The irrigation system can flip the manure several dozen feet into the air, and the wind can carry it even further.

Rep. Ed Emery, a Lamar Republican who has a small farm, said the issue is complicated because it involves the use of private property. But he said some people are too sensitive about odors.

He had no plans to restrict Class 2 farms.

“Life is a whole lot easier if you accept some of those things as temporary and don’t treat them as the end of the world,” Emery said.

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