In Cooper County, Missouri, CAFOs are a controversial topic.
Susan Williams asked to meet at the small local library to talk about it, hoping no one would be around. Even in this quiet atmosphere, she is nervous that people are eavesdropping on the conversation.
“I just don’t want the whole city to hear me,” she said.
Concentrated animal feed plants, commonly referred to as CAFOs, are large livestock complexes that house thousands of livestock. Iowa leads the Midwest in the number of CAFOs, with about 4,000 of them. However, in recent years laws and programs have opened the way for CAFO to operate in other Midwestern states, including Missouri and Nebraska.
This worries residents like Williams, a former elementary school principal and farmland owner from Clarksburg, Missouri. Back in 2018, a large pig farm called Tipton East planned to move less than a mile from her home. The size of the enterprise, about 8,000 pigs, worried her, especially since she grew up on a small pig farm.
“Only the smell and the waste you had was terrible,” she said. “And I couldn’t imagine what would happen to so many pigs.”
Williams and some other residents shared their concerns, including that the operation would affect air and water quality, to the Cooper County Public Health Center. They were particularly concerned about the waste that CAFO was going to produce, which, according to the company’s filing, was about 3.5 million gallons per year, and how it would be disposed of.
The company that owns Tipton East, PVC Management II, LLC, did not respond to requests for comment.
Cooper County residents wondered if the region’s topography would cause waste to seep into the groundwater as the manure was spread across nearby fields. In response, the county health center issued an ordinance regulating the release and spread of manure from CAFO.
But the following year, the Missouri State Senate passed legislation preventing counties from making CAFO rules. stricter than the state. Cooper and Cedar County sued the law and subsequent house bill, which tightened the wording. The district court ruled in favor of the state, so the counties filed an appeal, taking the case straight to the Missouri Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.
Preventing local opposition
Laws to discourage local opposition to farming are common, says Loca Ashwood, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky.
“We see it all over the country,” she said.
In 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a 2004 ruling, making it more difficult for landowners to sue CAFO for damages. A small town in Wisconsin is currently being sued for passing an ordinance limiting pollution from CAFO.
Each state also has some version of a “right to farm” law that prohibits individuals from filing lawsuits for violation of agricultural operations. In studying these laws, Ashwood and her colleagues found that most farm right litigation occurs in the Midwest, and CAFOs are likely to win those litigations.
“In the Midwest, people fight hard to protect their property rights, but they also lose the most,” she said.
Some farming groups argue that CAFOs can be an economic boon for rural communities and for the state.
Missouri Farmers Care, a group that wants agriculture to grow in the state, has a program that labels counties “farm-ready.” To receive this designation, counties must agree to a set of requirements that will make them more business-friendly. These requirements often include the prevention or limitation of additional restrictions on agricultural operations.
Mike Dearing, who sits on the board of directors of Missouri Farmers Care and is vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, said CAFOs are a benefit to the state.
“This is food security,” he said. “This is a food supply chain and we have to make sure we keep it local and don’t import, import, import. And so we must encourage growth.”
Ashlen Basik, regional spokesman for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, says programs like designating Missouri “agricultural-ready” are a way to keep counties from being able to comply with health ordinances at CAFOS.
“One of the most important benefits of local control of CAFO for the community is the ability for the community to determine their own practices that they would like CAFO to follow to make sure they are protecting their community members,” she said.
In Nebraska, the state Department of Agriculture oversees a designation similar to “farm-ready” called “Livestock Friendly Counties.” The department will work with the county to develop zoning laws and permits that will make it more livestock friendly.
But according to Basik, the CAFO salute is hurting small-scale livestock keepers.
“As the county adjusts to the big farming industry, guess who keeps getting squeezed out of the market?” Basik said. “And guess who can no longer live on their farms because of the CAFO stink right over the fence?”
Attraction of operations
Recent studies from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln have shown that livestock-friendly counties do not have more livestock than other counties. However, one study found that counties continue to join the livestock readiness program.
Livestock counties are more attractive to companies looking to build new CAFOs, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
“Companies looking to expand or settle in Nebraska are looking for communities that would welcome the project,” the department said in a statement.
Dodge County, Nebraska has this designation. Costco opened a Lincoln Premium Poultry there back in 2019. Jessica Colterman, the plant’s administrative director, said Costco chose Nebraska in part because of the warm welcome, but also because of the grain, water and labor that the area provided.
“The other thing that really impressed them was the welcome they received from the state and local governments, as well as business leaders in the area,” she said.
“The Fight Will Never End”
Tipton East, owner of the CAFO farm, who feared that Susan Williams would move here, has been approved by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources but has yet to be built. While Williams waits for CAFO and the Missouri Supreme Court to decide whether local governments can regulate such operations, she has turned her attention to other methods of regulation.
She was among hundreds of residents and activists who contributed to Missouri’s new DNR General Permits for CAFO. The Missouri DNR held three public permit meetings in 2022 and over 200 comments were submitted during the comment period. The new general permits now require CAFO in Missouri to report where the waste is being exported, which will help both the DNR and interested residents address nutrient pollution.
Some environmental groups are also turning their attention to the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2022, some organizations filed a lawsuit against the EPA for failing to respond to a 2017 petition asking to review the provisions of the Clean Water Act for CAFO.
“We are trying to make some national fixes that will force states like Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, which have shown a lack of political will to regulate this industry, to start doing so,” said Tara Heinzen, legal director of Iowa Food and Water. Look, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.
With the increased focus on CAFO, Susan Williams maintains a sense of optimism, as well as the understanding that operations will not stop anytime soon.
“The fight will never end,” Williams said. “I think the public should always be vigilant to make sure the public’s interest is taken into account just like any industry.”
Eva Tesfay covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a member of the Report For America corps.
This story was produced in collaboration with Harvest Public Media, an amalgamation of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.
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