July 14, 2024

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Rural Missouri residents fight planned CAFO for 10,000 hogs

Andrew Geiser raises cattle, chickens and heritage hogs at Tabletop Farms, a century farm, near Chillicothe in Livingston County, Missouri. Geiser, who also grows organic produce for his farm-to-table business, is concerned about United Hogs application to build a confined animal feeding operation, known as CAFO, near his land. The application calls for a three-barn operation, with one barn stretching out 868 feet long. The CAFO expects to produce more than 8 million gallons of manure per year.

Andrew Geiser raises cattle, chickens and heritage hogs at Tabletop Farms, a century farm, near Chillicothe in Livingston County, Missouri. Geiser, who also grows organic produce for his farm-to-table business, is concerned about United Hogs application to build a confined animal feeding operation, known as CAFO, near his land. The application calls for a three-barn operation, with one barn stretching out 868 feet long. The CAFO expects to produce more than 8 million gallons of manure per year.

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When Andrew Geiser crossed onto the property in March, several months had already passed since he and his neighbors first received letters alerting them that an out-of-town company wanted to bring thousands of hogs to the land near their country homes.

The Livingston County farmer and others in the area had grave concerns about what the concentrated animal feeding operation, commonly called a CAFO, would mean. Trucks going to and from the site could damage the narrow rural roads. Would property values fall?

Of course there would be the smell, an eye-watering stench “like straight ammonia,” as one former hog farmer described it.

Then there was the water. Marshall, Mo-based United Hog Systems planned a vast underground concrete pit to store the liquid manure produced by the hogs. Regulations said the tank needed to be at least two feet above the groundwater table to reduce the risk of contamination.

But Geiser, 37, had his doubts. Between them, he and his neighbors had lifetimes of knowledge about the low-lying land near the Thompson River and what was underneath.

On March 15, Geiser and two other men ventured onto the property where the CAFO had been proposed and began to drill. At the time, he was leasing the land for his cattle to graze on, a fact he and others would later cite to rebut suggestions of trespassing.

They drilled six holes in all. Four had water, at depths of only two or three feet. If what they had found was groundwater, and they believe it was, it was far shallower than what was required for the tank.

“It wasn’t wet or muddy that day,” said Geiser. “So, we were surprised to see groundwater.”

The water Geiser found is at the center of a struggle over United Hog’s push for a sprawling CAFO near Chillicothe, about an hour’s drive northeast of Kansas City.

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The Kansas City Star

If approved, dozens of residents fear their properties and water could be forever harmed by the CAFO. Also nearby is the 5,800-acre Poosey Conservation Area, a state-managed preserve popular with visitors and locals alike. It includes thick woods, hiking and biking trails, a shooting range and the Indian Creek Community Lake.

Missouri has become friendlier toward industrial agriculture under Gov. Mike Parson. In 2019, he signed into law Senate Bill 391, which made it more difficult for local governments to block CAFOS. In response to questions this week, Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones sent a link to a news release from the day he signed the legislation.

Parson said in the release that lawmakers had sent a “strong signal that we support the next generation of Missouri agriculture.”

“We’ve now opened the doors that will allow Missouri to lead the way in meeting a growing world food demand and ensure we keep more agriculture production in our state, strengthening Missouri’s number one industry,” Parson said then.

As industrial agriculture advances across Missouri, the battle in Livingston County has become the latest flashpoint in a struggle to hold the line against big ag. Many of the opponents here are farmers themselves. But they fear the kind of explosive growth in mega farms that has visited other states.

Just to the North, the number of CAFOs in Iowa has increased fivefold in the last three decades, according to the Environmental Working Group.

To many smaller growers like Geiser, CAFOs represent a perversion of traditional farming, a mutation from family farmers into automated behemoths that put profit above animal welfare, human health and the environment.

The Star interviewed local residents and agricultural experts, reviewed hundreds of pages of state records and examined correspondence from engineers who have looked at the CAFO proposal. Altogether, they reveal the difficulty of fighting CAFOs in a state where legislators have cleared legal obstacles and regulators are prepared to change rules in ways favorable to the industry.

More than a year after Parson and legislators boosted CAFOs with Senate Bill 391, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is close to providing additional help. Months after Geiser’s discovery, DNR is seeking to change the definition of groundwater in the state’s CAFO regulations to explicitly exclude the shallow water he says he found.

The revision, which regulators are seeking on an emergency basis, may all but assure United Hog receives a permit to raise pigs for the world’s largest meat producer.

Agency officials insist they are only trying to correct an inadvertent change to the regulations made during an earlier rush to cut red tape. CAFO opponents are suspicious, saying the official effort to redefine groundwater began only after it became clear the future of the proposed Livingston County operation could hinge on the issue.

United Hog didn’t return emails and phone calls seeking comment. An attorney for the company also declined to comment, saying he wasn’t authorized to speak.

Even as some opponents acknowledge they may ultimately be fighting a losing battle, they hope to shape attitudes toward CAFOs and eventually spark wider change. If nothing else, the confrontation has exposed the wide gap between the experiences of small, family farmers like Geiser and the reality of a massive industrial livestock operation.

“Where would we be if we didn’t fight?” said Bert Wire, who lives on land near the proposed site that’s been in his family for decades. He accompanied Geiser onto the property in March. “If you give up on something, or you never try before you give up on it, where would you be?”

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A hole filled with water at the site of a proposed concentrated animal feeding operation in Livingston County, Mo. Steven Jeffery

8 million gallons of manure

The proposed CAFO site resembles the many other farms that dot the rolling hills of Livingston County. There’s an old wooden barn, a little pond and a small farmhouse.

United Hog proposes building three barns, one nearly the length of three football fields. Collectively, the structures would span more than 253,000 square feet, nearly twice the size of the average Costco warehouse.

They would house more than 10,000 breeding sows, boars and piglets and will include a 4,000-square-foot building to compost dead animals.

“It’s really not agriculture,” Geiser said. “It’s more of an industrial factory.”

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An aerial view of land where United Hogs proposed confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) would be built in Livingston County, Missouri. The CAFO would house more than 10,000 breeding sows, boars and piglets and include a 4,000-square-foot barn to compost dead animals. Collectively, the structures would span more than 253,000-square feet. Tammy Ljungblad [email protected]

United Hog is owned by Robert Zeysing, who has farmed for decades in nearby Marshall, Mo. Zeysing did not respond to The Star’s email or phone messages. His attorney, Robert Brundage, said he didn’t have permission to comment.

Despite the controversy surrounding CAFOs and Senate Bill 391, Zeysing and United Hog don’t appear to have an extensive history of recent political donations. Missouri campaign finance records show only two donations from Zeysing in the past five years and none from United Hog. Zeysing’s biggest contribution was $5,000 in September to a committee backing House Republicans.

While United Hog runs the operation, its hogs are actually owned by Brazil’s JBS, the world’s largest producer of fresh pork and beef.

All three barns will all have slatted floors, allowing a projected 8 million gallons of manure annually to drop below and collect in a central 12-foot deep pit before being pumped onto nearby fields for fertilizer.

Those plans couldn’t be more different from the way Geiser runs his Tabletop Farms just across the gravel road. The 113 acre-property, in his family for more than a century, specializes in organic produce, pork and poultry.

Instead of thousands of animals, he’s currently raising about 20 heritage breed pigs with plans to double the herd’s size in the coming weeks.

“We do it like your great grandmother used to do it—how farms used to work,” he said.

The poultry here is free-range. And the pigs live their days outdoors. Geiser periodically moves their pens around various pastures for grazing. In the summer, they forage in the forest.

“This is what they were meant to do,” he said.

His products are more expensive than the bacon or pork chops available at the local Walmart. But Geiser thinks people are increasingly willing to pay up for a higher quality product, especially when they know where it comes from. His pigs sell out months ahead of maturity. He’s already booking slots at the butcher for 2022.

On a visit to his farm earlier this year, Geiser showed the small herd of black-and-pink spotted pigs rooting around in the mud. Some of the hogs were skittish, cowering as Geiser’s muck-covered boots moved around the pen.

But not Lola, who he called out by name.

She snorted with glee as he scratched her back. Lola won Geiser’s favor and that of his two children who help run the farm. A bit shorter and stockier than the others, Lola was held back from the butcher for her breeding potential.

“They call her my girlfriend,” he said. “She’ll sit there and whine for me to pet her.”

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Farmer Andrew Geiser raises cattle, chickens and heritage hogs at Tabletop Farms, a century farm, near Chillicothe in Livingston County, Missouri. Geiser, who also grows organic produce for his farm-to-table business, is concerned about United Hogs application to build a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) near his land. The application calls for a three-barn operation, with one barn stretching out 868 feet long. The CAFO expects to produce more than 8 million gallons of manure per year, which concerns Geiser, whose land abuts the CAFO. Tammy Ljungblad [email protected]

Why CAFOs?

Livingston County is facing powerful market forces that have been reshaping American agriculture for decades. Huge consumer demand for the cheapest-priced meats has led producers to consolidate with bigger and bigger farms and meatpacking plants. The number of American farms has shrunk dramatically as their average size has exploded.

Niche meat producers like Geiser might be rising in popularity, but most consumers still don’t want to pay the higher prices, said Timothy Safranski, an animal sciences professor at the University of Missouri and the state swine extension specialist.

“The best, most efficient, economical model is the one that wins,” he said.

CAFOs are integral to realizing those efficiencies.

By mass producing animals in highly automated facilities, companies can keep lbor costs down. Enclosing animals indoors protects them from the elements and predators. And Safranski said the sophisticated manure management systems can do a better job of capturing nutrients that are beneficial to crop farmers.

The modern meat supply chain generally produces abundant, cheap and safe products. But it was severely tested in the early months of the pandemic as meatpackers saw massive coronavirus outbreaks among employees.

The temporary closure of even one or two plants can cause widespread shortages for grocery stores and restaurants. And ultra-tight supply chains meant some pigs had to be slaughtered at farms because there were no packing houses to process them.

In 2019, the Legislature, backed by Parson, passed Senate Bill 319. The measure is one in a series of actions by lawmakers in recent years that have limited local control to advance Republican interests. The bill imposes boundaries on how aggressive local health rules can be, stopping cities and counties from holding CAFOs to higher standards than the state.

The law is being challenged in state court by Cedar County officials, who want to regulate CAFOs locally. Livingston County has a health ordinance that, if upheld, could create challenges to United Hog’s plans because of setback requirements that are stricter than state law.

While the state has changed regulations in recent years, Safranski said Missouri’s oversight of animal confinements is generally similar or even more strict than neighboring states.

Even as more pig farms open up in Missouri, most are coming in the form of sow farms, raising piglets for finishing and processing in other states, oftentimes Iowa. Missouri is currently home to two large-scale pork plants, one in St. Joseph, the other in Milan.

Safranski said most CAFO operators in Missouri operate responsibly, but that there’s no way to cram thousands of hogs together without creating some noticeable odor. He sees potential to grow Missouri’s swine industry, especially since few crop farmers currently utilize hog manure for fertilizer in the Show Me State.

Jefferson Jones, who farms near a CAFO in Calloway County, said the odor is constant, but ever changing. Depending on wind and humidity, it might stretch for miles. At other times it hangs around the metal buildings in a tight radius. But it never goes away.

“It will make your eyes water,” Jones said. “It smells like straight ammonia.”

The growing market share from giant corporations has only exacerbated the hollowing out of rural America, said Tim Gibbons, spokesman for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. Big ag continues to extract wealth from already struggling rural communities, while simultaneously pushing out smaller operators, he said.

He noted that Missouri’s 500 or so CAFOs only account for about one half of one percent of the state’s total 100,000 farms.

Advocates of family farms fear a wave of new CAFO operations that could make Missouri look more like Minnesota and Iowa, the nation’s leading pork producer that brings some 48 million hogs to market each year.

“We don’t have the dirty water problems and animal disease problems that come from the concentration of CAFOs in Southern Minnesota and Iowa,” Gibbons said. “It’s something that people should be scared of and something people should be standing up and fighting against.”

Altering key rule

When does water in the ground constitute groundwater? That’s the high-stakes question for Geiser and United Hog.

Poosey Neighbors United formed last spring to appeal United Hog’s CAFO proposal, which at that time called for 5,000 hogs. The apparent presence of groundwater, discovered at the site by Geiser in March, was the core of their case.

Missouri’s current CAFO regulations don’t distinguish between groundwater and what’s often called “perched groundwater”—water that’s near the surface. Where the groundwater table begins is crucial because state rules require that CAFO’s manure storage tanks be at least two feet above the groundwater table.

A definition of groundwater that includes perched groundwater might preclude United Hog from building the CAFO if water is found near the surface, as Geisner says he did.

Jeff Browning, an agriculture engineer for Allied Engineering Associates, testified under oath at a July hearing that he and Jammie Stephens, CEO of United Hog, had dug their own pits in the spring and had not encountered water, though Browning later brought in a company to drill more holes. The company found groundwater in one hole east of the site, he said.

After the hearing—but with the appeal still pending —United Hog withdrew its application. The company provided little explanation, but filed a fresh application in September, this time requesting permission for an even bigger CAFO.

This fall, DNR launched an effort to change the definition of groundwater in the CAFO regulations —a move that could ease the company’s path.

The agency proposes to roll back the groundwater definition that’s been in place since Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration. Greitens, out to eliminate so-called red tape, ordered agencies to find superfluous or overly burdensome regulations that could be cut.

DNR’s previous exclusion of perched groundwater was removed during the red tape purge. Officials now want to bring it back, saying they erased it in error.

“We are reinstating the rules exactly how they were written during previous rulemakings so that such structures may be designed and operated in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment,” Heather Peters, who works in DNR’s water protection program, said in an email.

Peters said the proposed rule amendment “protects the status quo” by reinstating the prior definitions and eliminating “unintentional regulatory uncertainty and ambiguity” that currently exists. Officials have pointed out that, in any case, United Hog’s CAFO must be designed to prevent any discharges of manure into the groundwater.

“I try to be optimistic but with the government wanting to change the rules for individual companies, it’s very disheartening,” Geiser said. “I don’t know how you fight the state with that happening.”

At a virtual stakeholder meeting in November to discuss the proposed change, DNR water protection program director Chris Wieberg said the issue came to the attention of the agency during a “recent appeal of a CAFO operating permit.” He said there had been no reported incidents of groundwater contamination under the old rule.

“We feel that it is in the best interest of government to correct this issue,” Wieberg said.

Brundage, the attorney who has represented United Hog and other agricultural interests, urged DNR during the meeting to advance the definition change as quickly as possible. He argued the old definition had been in place for a long time without complaints.

“So it’s not fair to the regulated community who has to go out and hire engineers to go out and design these facilities when definitions have been taken out of the rule and then it’s unclear what definition you’re supposed to apply to certain words in the regulation,” Brundage said.

Stephen Jeffery, an environmental attorney for Poosey Neighbors United, noted the timing of the agency’s rulemaking.

“There was absolutely no prior testimony about any error having been made, any mistake having occurred, anything along that line,” he said.

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The top of the emergency rule submitted by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

A ‘long fight’ ahead

As 2020 draws to a close, United Hog is closing in on a key victory.

The Secretary of State’s Office has published the emergency groundwater rule, with a notice that it will go into effect on Dec. 22. Under the regular rulemaking process, it would have taken months for the change to move through the system.

The emergency rule would expire in June 2021 and DNR would eventually have to seek a permanent rule change. Still, the six month window may be enough time for DNR to permit the Livingston County CAFO.

In a November letter to DNR, Jeffery raised the possibility of legal challenges to delay the rule change or permit. The proposed change, he wrote, “could be interpreted as an unconstitutional special law intended to apply” to United Hog’s application.

But residents have begun bracing for the possibility of the operation’s eventual approval.

“What kind of message is this sending across the entire state that CAFOs are moving into Missouri and they’re going to set up shop right beside our conservation areas and state parks that Missourians have invested millions and millions of dollars for their enjoyment?” said Doug Doughty, a Livingston County organic farmer.

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Indian Creek Lake, a 192-acre lake, is located in Livingston County on the Poosey Conservation Area. The area attracts tourists and local for the natural habitat, walking trails, as well as hunting and fishing. Locals fear a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) planned for nearby might have negative implications for the conservation area. Tammy Ljungblad [email protected]

Susan Fair, another local who along with Doughty has been leading the opposition to United Hog, questions whether residents will win the immediate battle against the company.

But she thinks there’s a wider war worth fighting.

She hopes more Missourians will pay more attention to the issue, examine where their food comes from and how it’s produced. Otherwise, she fears more and more of these giant farms will proliferate across the state and be tough to regulate.

“It’s going to be a long fight,” Fair said. “It’s not just this CAFO.”

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Jonathan Shorman is The Kansas City Star’s lead political reporter, covering Kansas and Missouri politics and government. He previously covered the Kansas Statehouse for The Star and Wichita Eagle. He holds a journalism degree from The University of Kansas.

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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas