Organic Broadcaster

Neighboring confinement hog operation threatens Illinois organic farm

By Bailey Webster

Randy and Crystal Clair use water from this lake to irrigate their greenhouse and to make compost­—the windrowed compost is visible on the opposite shore. They’re fighting to block a proposed confinement hog operation because the manure could pollute this water source.

Randy and Crystal Clair of Sunset Lake Organics in Loraine, Ill., are in what they see as the fight of their lives. They believe that a confinement hog operation proposed for the property next door threatens their health, the value of their property, and their very livelihood.

Sunset Lake Organics is an organic row crop and vegetable farm in Adams County. The farm has been partially certified organic since 2014. The Clairs make their living growing corn and soybeans. It’s easy to miss the corn and beans in their elevator speech, though. What they’re really passionate about—what they see as their higher calling—is growing soil.

“We have a lot of faith in God,” said Crystal Clair. “We’re taking care of his soil and trying to be good stewards of the land. We’re not rich, but we’re successful.”

The Clairs make compost—“platinum” compost. It’s plant-based, with no animal products. The process of making the compost to organic standards is highly regulated. They use a specific recipe to get the balance of nutrients just right, and take core temperature and CO2 measurements daily. The windrows (long lines of heaped compost) are turned regularly with a compost turner, a specialized tractor implement designed just for that purpose. The Clairs also have a bale slicer (hay is a primary ingredient), as well as a vertical mixer. They have invested heavily in equipment to make the composting operation efficient and productive.

The site of the Sunset Lake Organics composting operation is neat as a pin. Because the process is so meticulously managed, there is very little odor even standing right next to the compost.

The Clairs have 540 acres of organic crops in production, and 250 acres in transition that will be certified in 2020. They average 130 bu/acre corn and 45 bu/acre soybeans. The secret to their good yields is that platinum compost.

Water for the compost operation is drawn from a 4 1/2-acre lake on their property. According to the Clairs, they can’t use the well water on their property because it is high in sulfur, which is detrimental to the microorganisms that do the work of turning plant material into compost. Similarly, the city water that they could access is too high in chlorine, which they say would kill beneficial microbes as well.

The Clairs also use water from the lake to irrigate the vegetables they grow in their greenhouse. One of the reasons they can use the lake water is that it’s clean and free of pollutants that could damage their plants and compost. But they’re concerned that the confinement hog operation that has been proposed adjacent to their property will impact the quality of their lake water.

The confinement hog operation is being proposed by Ragan Peter, who grew up in Adams County. He has a wife and two daughters, and has been raising pigs for most of his life. Peter’s business is called County Line Swine, Inc. He is knowledgeable about all of the regulations he must comply with, and believes his hog operation will be an economic boon to the community.

During his brief testimony at the public informational meeting regarding his proposed operation, Peter made this statement: “The facility will meet or exceed all the requirements from the Livestock Management Facilities Act, which governs the siting of livestock farms and protects the rights of citizens. The new hog farm will bring economic activity to our local economy. Our farm has four full-time employees. The farm will provide a market for local corn and soybeans. We will also be adding approximately $16,000 of tax revenue to the county, [of] which ten thousand will go to the Mendon School District.”

County Line Swine plans to house 5,000 hogs at a time, with two cycles per year (10,000 hogs/year). After two years, Peter would be able to double the size of the operation by adding a second building, and two years after that would be able to expand again with a third building. Each building would produce 1.2 million gallons of manure a year. The manure falls through slats in the floor where the pigs are housed, into storage pits lined with eight inches of concrete. The storage capacity for each building will be enough for nearly 12 months. The state’s Livestock Management Facilities Act requires only five months of storage.

Peter has secured access to 620 acres near the proposed confinement hog operation on which to spread his manure. County Line Swine would keep records on manure production and nutrient value to calculate loading/application rates for spreading manure. In Illinois, manure management is regulated by the state Environmental Protection Agency. Peter plans to inject the manure eight inches below the soil surface, which significantly reduces the risk of runoff.

According to the Clairs, some of the fields where Peter would be spreading manure have drain tile that drains to their lake. They worry that manure will end up in their lake. And if the lake becomes contaminated, they say, their business will no longer be viable.

Confinement hog operations are notorious for odor issues. Large fans blow gases from the manure out of the building, and the smell can travel for miles. In addition to being unpleasant, the blown-out air includes ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and hog dandruff. Numerous studies show increased rates of asthma and other respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, and eye irritation in people living near confinement hog operations. Vulnerable populations, including children and older adults, are of special concern.

Crystal Clair is currently fighting breast cancer, and she’s very worried about her health if the confinement hog operation is approved. At the public hearing, she stated, “I’m seriously ill. And I had been doing well until this was thrown at us. I’ve been advised by my medical staff that if I can hear vents or smell the smell [of the proposed hog operation] that I have to stay inside. I am a partner in this business… I run the combine. I do tillage. And you are trying to take that away from me. You don’t have the right. If you allow this hog confinement to be put here, then you are making me abandon what I love.”

In 2016 the Chicago Tribune did an exhaustive investigation into the confinement hog industry in Illinois. The article, “The price of pork: Cheap meat comes at a high cost in Illinois,” reads eerily like the Clairs’ personal experience. Apparently, it’s a story that has been repeated over and over in Illinois: a confinement hog operation is proposed in a rural farming community. Neighboring residents raise a myriad of legitimate concerns, from environmental risks and health hazards to odor and property value depletion.

These are well-documented problems in confinement operations, and many states and counties have aggressively bolstered regulations to address them. But Illinois’ Livestock Management Facilities Act, adopted in 1996 and amended in ’98 and ’99, has remained unchanged despite public demands for stricter regulations.

In Illinois alone, pig waste from leaks and spills from confinement hog operations has killed more than 490,000 fish in a 10-year period. By industry standards, that’s an enormous amount of damage, and operators are only charged a small penalty—if they receive any repercussions at all.

Nutrient pollution (mainly nitrogen and phosphorous) from industry sources is a top water-quality issue in Illinois. And confinement hog operations are a primary culprit. Nutrient pollution leads to eutrophication and algae overgrowth, which harm aquatic life, hinder recreational activities, decrease property values, and impact human health.

The only official opportunity for community members to raise objections about a proposed confinement hog operation is at a county-level hearing overseen by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The meetings follow the same format: the owner of the potential confinement operation gives testimony, often followed by an industry professional hired to facilitate the establishment of the operation. The presentations are polished and designed to show that the letter of the law is being followed. The floor is then opened to community members to ask questions. Finally, community members are each allowed to give 3-minute testimonies.

The frustration of the Loraine community comes through in the transcript of the public hearing held for County Line Swine’s proposed operation. Questions are a bit disorganized, and there is a sense of grasping at straws for any strategy that might slow or halt the process. At one point, an exasperated community member says, “These regulations are awful lax, ain’t they?”

As so many communities have experienced, it’s almost impossible for neighboring residents to block these confinement hog operations, or to get regulations strengthened. The public hearings, according to the Chicago Tribune, feel like a formality most of the time.

Unfortunately for the owners of confinement hog operations, following the letter of the law does not preclude these operations from having devastating impacts on the surrounding community. Regulations in Illinois are not strong enough to protect the surrounding environment or the health and well-being of neighboring residents. And villainizing the person proposing the confinement operation can feel like the only recourse in a desperate situation.

The smell alone causes neighbors of confinement hog operations to stop spending time outdoors. And when people live and farm in a rural area, spending time outdoors is what they do. To add insult to injury, property values are often cut in half by the establishment of a confinement hog operation in close proximity. The result is nothing short of catastrophic for rural community members.

November 2nd was the last day that the Illinois Department of Agriculture would accept information about County Line Swine’s proposed confinement hog operation. After 15 days of review, they will have either denied the permit, approved it, or asked for more information. The vast majority of confinement hog operation permits are approved. Occasionally the Department of Agriculture will ask for more information and the project will stall out because the request isn’t met.

Illinois residents who are concerned about the state’s outdated Livestock Management Facilities Act are encouraged to share this story with their county and state representatives.

Bailey Webster writes about farming issues from her farm in Prescott, Wis. She also directs the food hub for the Hmong American Farmers Association.



From the November | December 2018 Issue

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