GREEN CITY — In a place where strangers wave to each other through the passing windshields of their pickups and neighbors tend to their neighbors’ crops for no more than a thank you, finding an unwelcome guest in this quiet town might seem unimaginable.
But several families in Green City, a blink-and-you-missed-it town surrounded by farms and wild sunflower fields in Sullivan County, say they’ve been fighting an obnoxious guest for 13 years.
Some residents have moved.
Others have complained.
Since 2000, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has received more than 1,700 odor complaints against concentrated animal feeding operations, according to a Missourian analysis of records held by the state agency. Missouri is home to 450 of these operations, including 21 large enough to have their odors regulated.
Residents of Sullivan County in north central Missouri have registered more than one-third of the complaints against the feeding operations, which typically house thousands of animals.
“Hope you had a good Thanksgiving,” read a 2004 complaint. “Be glad you’re not here this morning. The hog odor would about bring your turkey back to life.”
Animal farm odors present the state with one of its most complicated environmental problems, said Leanne Tippett Mosby, deputy division director of the DNR’s Division of Environmental Quality.
The state must protect the interest of animal producers, who provide jobs, economic benefits and food for hundreds of residents. Meanwhile, it must also protect the interests of their neighbors, who say farm odors cause health problems and simply make their lives miserable.
“I know it’s a political hot potato,” said Mark Fohey, vice-chairman of the Missouri Air Conservation Commission. “You can do whatever you want, and you’re basically going to piss off one or the other.”
Of the more than 1,700 odor complaints since 2000, residents filed nearly 1,400 of them —— about 80 percent — against Premium Standard Farms, according to the state database of complaints. Premium Standard, a pork-producing heavyweight, operates in five northern Missouri counties.
Small-farm owner Rolf Christen, 53, and his family have filed about 400 complaints against Premium Standard in 6 1/2 years — the rough equivalent of one every six days.
Christen’s home outside Green City sits four miles south of Premium Standard’s Green Hills farm and eight miles northwest of Premium Standard’s Valley View farm. Combined, they house some 200,000 hogs.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Resource Conservation Service, 200,000 hogs produce about 650 tons of feces a year.
Winds carry the rotten egg-like smell across town, residents say.
A couple times a week, Christen said, the stench blows across picturesque corn, hay and soybean fields to his small home under towering maple trees.
“People move from the city to the country because of clean air and clean water,” Christen said. “Right now we live in the middle of a cesspool.”
Christen is one of about 270 Missouri residents mentioned in two ongoing odor nuisance lawsuits against Premium Standard Farms.
“Ill-smelling odors, hazardous substances and/or contaminated wastewater have escaped and continue to escape from the defendant’s swine factories onto the plaintiffs’ properties and thus have substantially impaired and continue to impair the plaintiff’s use and quiet enjoyment of their properties,” the lawsuits read.
According to the lawsuits, filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, odors from the feeding operations can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, breathing difficulties and irritated eyes, noses and throats.
A January report released by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services says some studies have shown that odors exacerbate the pre-existing health problems of nearby residents while affecting their overall quality of life.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported in 1996 that the odors could affect a person’s mood and physical well-being.
“To me, that suggests it’s something we should be concerned with because as a society we want to protect all our people,” said Peter Thorne, professor with the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health.
Some say the odor complaints are the work of disgruntled neighbors who simply dislike corporate agriculture.
State records, they say, prove it.
According to the Department of Natural Resources database, two families — the Christens of Sullivan County and the Torreys of Putnam County — have reported 59 percent of the complaints.
Christen admits that even a light odor makes him feel disrespected, like being slapped in the face by a neighbor.
Leslie Holloway of the Missouri Farm Bureau said some residents have it out for certain concentrated feeding operations.
About 40 people have complained about odors from Premium Standard’s facilities, according to the database. Spokesman Jason Helton said that for each complainant, Premium Standard has scores of neighbors who get along well with the company.
“A handful of folks may not be representative of the five counties we operate in,” he said.
Only 10 times have DNR officials cited a farm for excess odor emissions. Supporters of the big feed lots say the low number suggests that most complaints are illegitimate.
Some researchers said that’s often the case.
“Odor tends to be the verbal complaint where there’s a lot of underlying issues,” said Colin Johnson, an environmental specialist with Iowa State University.
Johnson said the feeding operations are the target of complaints because their owners are often community outsiders and because the lots compete with small-farmer owners over land, workers and prices.
Tracking the smell
Sitting on his backyard patio one Sunday afternoon with his dog, Susie, at his feet and a cup of hot tea in his hand, Christen, who came to the United States from Germany in 1980, delighted in the day’s cool, odorless breeze.
“We’re very appreciative of nice mornings, beautiful afternoons,” Christen said.
He just wishes there were more of them.
Week after week, hog odors blow across his 1,800-acre farm, through his small chicken coop and over his barn to his home, Christen said.
John Mabry, director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State University, said depending on the topography and weather patterns, it’s possible for odors to regularly settle in one area.
“It could happen,” Mabry said. “If the odor rises and there is a consistent trade wind, it could potentially deposit in a particular location. I’m not sure how probable that would be.”
According to the EPA, the odors are generated from three sources: confined animal buildings, manure storage and treatment facilities and land application of animal waste.
Many Missouri farms, unlike others in top hog-producing states, store their animal waste in gigantic outdoor lagoons where winds can take hold of the smell.
Steve Boone, with the Department of Natural Resource’s Macon office, has the monumental task of helping track down the smells, which often vanish as quickly as they arrive.
Because the department does not have the manpower to look into each complaint, it has failed to conduct a post-complaint odor inspection nearly 900 times since 2000.
Instead, Boone said, it’s common for state regulators to inspect a complaint days or sometimes weeks after the state fielded the call. To increase their chances of finding an odor, inspectors go out when weather conditions mirror those at the time of a complaint.
“I think it’s very difficult to do it that way,” said Steve Hoff, professor of agriculture and biological engineering at Iowa State. “The smallest changes in the weather pattern can put a receptor in or out of an odor plume.”
Mabry said too many factors determine an odor’s strength and ultimate destination for state officials to predict when and where the smells might pop up. Factors include everything from wind speed, humidity and solar intensity to topography, the makeup of the hogs’ diet and the maintenance operations at the farm.
Johnson said some of the most effective ways of eliminating farm odors include planting trees around the animal buildings, regulating the hogs’ diets and storing their waste in indoor underground pits instead of outdoor lagoons.
“When the winds come across that lagoon, they lift the volatile compounds, the odors, continuously,” he said.
Jack Parrish moved to Putnam County in 1990, three years before Premium Standard entered the state.
By 1998, after dozens of complaints to the Department of Natural Resources, Parrish screwed his windows shut. He grew tired of shifting winds blowing the sharp, pungent smell into his home.
Unlike Christen, Parrish has largely given up on complaining. He has filed 46 complaints since 2000, including two in 2006. Not one resulted in a violation.
“It’s like beating your head against a brick wall,” said Parrish, 58. “Your head swells up and starts hurting. Why continue?”
Christen said the Department of Natural Resources would receive dozens more complaints if residents believed their calls would make a difference.
When they do inspect odors, officials use a device called a scentometer to measure a smell’s strength. If two air samples taken within an hour of each other contain a dilution of at least seven parts of clean air to one part of odorous air, inspectors bag a third sample to send to an independent lab in Minnesota.
There scientists measure the odor to ultimately determine whether Missouri officials should issue a violation. The regulations apply only to large operations.
The Department of Natural Resource’s Tippett Mosby said about half the odor samples sent to the lab result in violations.
In July, department officials recommended to the Air Conservation Commission that the state stop sending samples to the olfactory lab and rely solely on the scentometer to determine odor violations.
“Laboratory olfactory is expensive ($500/sample), creates logistical challenges (mailing samples, sample holding times) ... and may not be scientifically valid because of concerns with chemical reactions with the container,” the report read.
Neighbors of the big operations said the change, along with immediate post-complaint inspections, would result in more odor violations and thus better compliance with Missouri laws.
Conservation commissioners, however, declined to vote on the recommendation, saying they needed more scientific information before making a decision.
But Christen said he has all the information he needs. He smells it almost every week.
“To me, I think it’s an atrocity,” Christen said. “I invite PSF officials here. I will wine them and dine them. But they have to sleep with their windows open.”