Growing up in Rushville as the granddaughter of Schuyler County pig and dairy farmers, Carrie Johnson learned early the importance of agriculture to the local economy. Now an adult living and working in Rushville, Johnson says she supports the growth of local business and agriculture.
But Johnson has deep concerns about what could become Schuyler County’s latest hog confined animal feeding operation (CAFO). Olive Branch Acres, a 3,600-unit confinement that could house up to 6,000 sows and 10,000 to 12,000 piglets, is proposed for a site near the village of Littleton, about eight miles from Rushville.
Johnson and other opponents question the impact of the proposed facility on 40 houses and cabins within two miles of the proposed facility, as well as roads and nearby ponds. They say CAFOs can hurt property values and contribute to pollution and other environmental problems.
Opponents also question whether the site complies with “setback” rules requiring that facilities with 7,000 or more animals be at least a half mile from an occupied residence and a mile from populated areas.
Professional Swine Management of Carthage currently operates five CAFOs in Schuyler County for farmers in Illinois and other Midwestern states. The company says Olive Branch Acres meets siting criteria and has applied to the Illinois Department of Agriculture for a permit to build and operate the hog farm.
“When is enough enough? How much is enough?” Johnson asks rhetorically about the number of swine CAFOs in her home county. She says he's also concerned about how pigs are raised in CAFO’s tightly confined crate-like pens.
A group of Schuyler County residents, Citizens Against Ruining Environments, has gone door-to-door, collected signatures, held rallies, filed Freedom of Information requests, and attended county board meetings to voice opposition to Olive Branch Acres.
Glenna Prather lives slightly less than three-quarters of a mile from the site and has medical problems that reduce her lung capacity. She says that odors, gases and particulates from the proposed CAFO will affect her health.
Sean Moon and his wife, Amy, live within a half-mile of the proposed hog confinement site, which they say does not meet criteria, such as distance between a CAFO and a residence, required for approval of livestock confinements.
Sean Moon says that, unless new rules are put in place to improve oversight of the rising numbers of livestock confinements, the potential for increased pollution, disruption of people’s quality of life, and dropping property values will continue. “We continue to research and provide as much information as we can to the state (Illinois Department of Agriculture) as to why it shouldn’t be approved,” he said.
Under provisions of the Illinois Management Livestock Facilities Act, the state agriculture department approves applications for CAFOs. Approval for Olive Branch Acres could come in late summer. Construction and the first arrival of pigs could occur this fall, according to Ted Ufkes, chief operating officer for Professional Swine Management.
Ufkes says farmers moving to update old swine facilities and rising domestic and international demand for pork are fueling the increasing construction of commercial hog farms.
Proponents of CAFOs say they offer safe, efficient and cost-effective means to raise pigs, and the pork industry creates jobs and boosts tax dollars for local communities and the state. While hog farms may be growing in size, 97 percent of them remain family owned, according to the Illinois Pork Producers Association.
“The pork industry is a vital part of our local and state economies, contributing more than $1.8 billion annually to the state’s economy in addition to generating more than $170 million in taxes,” says Jennifer Tirey, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers Association. She notes that pork production generates farming jobs as well as employment in feed and equipment operations, transportation, and processing. Hogs also consume millions of bushels of corn and soybean, the pork association says, thereby aiding the grain market.
But organizations such as Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project say the Illinois Livestock Management Facilities Act should be updated to include provisions to protect against pollution, allow residents more input when a CAFO is proposed near where they live, and keep better track of the burgeoning number of livestock confinements.
The Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water describes itself as “a statewide coalition of family farmers and community groups advocating for sound policies and practices that protect the environment, human health, and rural quality of life from the impacts of large-scale, industrialized livestock production facilities in Illinois.”
The Socially Responsible Agriculture Project says it works throughout the United States helping communities and “providing family farmers, ranchers, and other rural citizens the tools needed to develop and sustain ecologically sound, economically viable, humane farming alternatives to industrial-scale agriculture.”
A CAFO, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is “a specific type of large-scale industrial agricultural facility that raises animals, usually at high-density, for the consumption of meat, eggs, or milk.” To be considered a CAFO, the EPA says a farm must first be categorized as an animal-feeding operation -- a lot or facility where animals are kept confined and fed or maintained for 45 or more days per year -- and crops, vegetation, or forage growth are not sustained over a normal growing period.
Carrie Hribar and Mark Schultz, preparing a report for the National Association of Local Boards of Health, wrote in 2010 that “the primary environmental concerns about livestock confinements come from the large amount of manure that is produced and stored in underground pits, and then processed for fertilizer on farm lands.” Leaks can occur in the storage or processing of manure, the authors note, allowing the manure entering nearby waterways.
Conversely, the authors also write, “When properly managed, located, and monitored, CAFOs can provide a low-cost source of meat, milk, and eggs, due to efficient feeding and housing of animals, increased facility size, and animal specialization.
“When CAFOs are proposed in a local area, it is usually argued that they will enhance the local economy and increase employment. The effects of using local materials, feed, and livestock are argued to ripple throughout the economy, and increased tax expenditures will lead to increase funds for schools and infrastructure.”
The Illinois Department of Agriculture is currently reviewing 33 CAFO construction applications — 21 of which are for swine, according to a department spokeswoman. Since passage of the Illinois Livestock Facilities Management Act in 1996 through December 31, 2016, the state agriculture department received 2,167 applications for swine CAFOs. Of those, 1,724 projects were approved, the spokeswoman says.
Pork producer Phil Borgic of Raymond says he began raising pigs outdoors as an 8-year-old helping his father. “I’ve raised pigs outdoors and indoors," he said. "I prefer indoors.”
Among other things, Borgic notes, indoor confinements protect livestock against predators and inclement weather and allow for better overall livestock management because farmers are working with smaller numbers of animals when they are in confined quarters. They also allowed farmers to diversify agri-business operations and make it more financially feasible for younger generations to remain with the family farm, he says.
Borgic acknowledges CAFOs have bad reputations in some circles, but says, “I wish the public could realize the care and compassion pork producers show the pigs they are raising.”
Of environmental concerns, Borgic says, “There are a lot of regulations we are required to follow." He cites Illinois Pork Producers data that manure leakage accounts for less than 1 percent of incidents investigated by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
A swine CAFO in Illinois averages about 2,500 head, or 960 animal units, according to Jenny Jackson, communications director for the Illinois Pork Producers Association.
“On average, 50-percent of current barns in Illinois are over the 2,500-head number, and 50-percent are under," she said. "Typically, new barns applying for permits will be at, or exceed, that number. An average of 67 notices of intent to construct are submitted each year.”
In a March 2017 series of articles titled “The Price of Pork,” the Chicago Tribune reported that, while CAFOs in Illinois have storage pits for manure and use the manure for fertilizer, accidental spills have occurred in Illinois and resulted in fish and mussel kills because manure has seeped into waterways.
Asked about the kind of damage that can occur when manure accidentally leaks from confinements or too much manure is inadvertently applied to crop fields, Jackson said contamination of waterways comes from many sources and can’t be tied specifically to pig farming.
Manure, she notes, is an organic fertilizer for crops and is “highly sought after because of its nutrient content.”
“Manure is securely stored in concrete pits below the barns, commonly 8- to 10-feet deep,” Johnson adds. "These pits are emptied when necessary, and manure is strategically transferred to farming equipment that carefully injects it underneath the soil."
State Sen. David Koeher, D-Peoria, says Illinois does not know where all the animal confinement operations are located throughout the state, and greater accountability is needed.
In spring 2017. Koehler sponsored three bills concerning livestock confinements:
• Senate Bill 1271, providing county boards more authority in siting decisions, closing expansion loopholes so facilities that expand are required to undergo full environmental review and comply with setbacks from residences and populated areas, and mandating that all operations of 1,000 animal units or larger must submit waste management plans.
• SB 1272, requiring CAFO permits from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for all large animal confinements; providing the ability to deny a permit if the company has a bad environmental track record, and having the permit application be subject to public input.
• SB 1273 requiring all unpermitted medium and large CAFOs to report basic information about their existence to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and to update their registrations annually.
None of the bills made it to the full floor for debate after what Kohler described as “strong lobbying" by groups such as the Illinois Pork Producers, Illinois Beef Association and the Illinois Farm Bureau.
“People in rural Illinois deserve to know what exactly is going to be built in their backyard," Koehler said when announcing the proposed legislation. "Registering these facilities and getting wastewater management plans on file are just of few of the steps we can take to make sure the public health of rural Illinoisans will be protected.”
Following Koehler’s announcement, Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr., released a statement saying, “Since its implementation, the Livestock Management Facilities Act has provided a balanced approach in protecting the environment and allowing farmers the ability to raise livestock on their farms, The Illinois Farm Bureau continues to support the LMFA because it protects both the environment and farmers’ ability to raise livestock.
“The LMFA governs siting, construction and aspects of livestock operations and manure handling systems, requires certification of livestock farmers and sets construction standards for lagoons. IEPA has the delegated authority from U.S. EPA under the Clean Water Act to regulate livestock from an environmental perspective.”
Koehler and others say the fight to update regulations for livestock confinements in Illinois continues.
“We hope to see special committee hearings on the needed legislation this summer and leading into the next session,” says Danielle Diamond, executive director and attorney for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project. "Impacted farmers and rural community groups from across the state will continue their lobbying effort for the long overdue changes."
What Koehler proposed is “not that dramatically different,” Diamond says, than what neighboring states already have in place.
“Minnesota is No. 3 in the hog production ... and has much tighter standards,” Diamond adds.
Illinois is fourth in U.S. pig production, behind Iowa, North Carolina and Minnesota.
The demand for pork and ensuing public debates about CAFOs and how swine are raised show no sign of dissipating.
In May, the Schuyler County Board voted 6-0 to ask for a formal hearing by the Illinois Department of Agriculture after residents submitted more than the 75 petition signatures required under state public-hearing rules for construction and siting of large-scale hog farms.
The requested public hearing was held. It included opponents as well as representatives of the state agriculture department and county board, an environmental engineering firm working with Professional Swine Management, and the management company. The county board later submitted a letter to the Department of Agriculture saying board members had no recommendation as to whether the department should approve Olive Branch Acres.
Residents remain concerned and are seeking a meeting with the Department of Agriculture. Peoria lawyer Ian White, in a June 21 letter to Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Raymond Poe, said department legal counsel had denied his first request for a meeting with his clients and was asking again for a meeting. Included with the letter was what White called a list of "regulatory siting criteria problems" with the proposed facility.
Saying his clients “want to avoid litigation,” White said the concerned residents ask "that any approvals related to the Olive Branch Acres, LLC, application be suspended until we are granted this meeting with the department and until these failures are addressed.”
Ufkes says Olive Branch Acres will “meet or exceed” state agriculture and EPA requirements and employ 20 to 22 full-time workers.
Noting that agriculture has been a long-time economic staple in Schuyler County, Ufkes says, “We think Olive Branch Acres will be an asset.”
But Rushville resident Carrie Johnson says, “I am going to continue to work for reform. Our objective at this point is to show that it is not a legal site for a CAFO.”