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As regulations vanish, one Missouri county is ground zero for factory farming debate (copy)

  • 11 min to read
Jeffery lays in the hay

Jeffery the hog lies in the hay Friday at his home in Chillicothe. He has what owner Andrew Geiser calls a mule foot, solid like a horse’s, making him part of a rare hog breed in the U.S. Geiser believes in what he calls “being a steward of the land.” “I was taught to leave things better than you found them,” he said.

In January 2020, a pork corporation came knocking in Livingston County.

United Hog Systems notified nearby landowners that they were filing an application for a 5,700-hog operation.

It was the first permit for a concentrated animal feeding operation, also known as a CAFO, issued for the northwest Missouri county in more than two decades.

The timing was no accident. State lawmakers had recently passed legislation that would wipe a 1997 county ordinance off the books that allowed local officials to regulate such operations and the millions of gallons of waste they produce.

When the Missouri Department of Natural Resources approved the United Hog permit in May of 2020, local residents banded together to file an appeal. They named themselves Poosey Neighbors United after their beloved nearby Poosey Conservation area. In addition to the list of common concerns raised when huge animal feeding operations move in nearby, they feared that mismanagement of the CAFO’s hog manure would compromise water quality in Poosey’s fishing lakes and perhaps even their own water supply.

Doug Doughty looks out onto his farm

Doug Doughty looks out onto his farm Friday in Livingston County. “The soil has been categorized as silty clay, which is the worst soil for building underground compartments,” he said. Doughty said the barns that will house the 10,500 hogs will have a 12-foot-deep pit to hold the manure. He and others worry about the water table below. “I have a great appreciation for nature and the environment,” he said.

A few months later, the state struck another blow. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources proposed a change to the regulatory definition of the groundwater table as it concerns CAFO designs. The change would exclude a form of groundwater called “perched water,” which may be present on the proposed CAFO site.

“These rollbacks have been systematic,” said Susan Fair, a Livingston County resident advocating for stricter CAFO regulations. “And this won’t be the last of it.”

Local health ordinances

As industrial agriculture moved into the state in the 1990s, a handful of counties saw the need to create local regulations for CAFOs.

Livingston County was one of the earliest to pass such an ordinance, in 1997. Since then, a total of 20 counties have put similar health ordinances in place, though enforcement is varied.

“There was just an awful lot of things that DNR addressed that we thought needed to be stronger,” said Eva Danner Horton, former presiding commissioner in Livingston County.

Danner Horton was among the team of elected officials who drafted and signed the original ordinance and later revised it in 2009. She said it was never the intention of the commission to keep CAFOs out completely.

“The intent was to make them good neighbors,” she said.

Compared with statewide regulations, the Livingston County ordinance provides stronger setback distances between CAFOs and residences. It also outlines the option for the commission to enforce groundwater and emissions monitoring. CAFO operators are required to furnish a surety bond between $15,000 and $100,000 to the county treasurer for manure storage systems to cover any future liability. Additionally, before the permit is approved, the county is required to hold a local public hearing.

The Thompson River sits next-door to the permitted CAFO site

The Thompson River sits next-door to the permitted CAFO site Friday in Chillicothe. Neighbors of the site fear that pollution will spread from the pond into the creek on the property, which feeds into the Thompson and Missouri rivers. When excess nutrients from agricultural runoff drains into rivers, it leads to the Gulf dead zone. Doug Doughty is worried about what pollution from the site could do. He points to Iowa's water issues as an example of where Missouri is headed without safety regulations. 

In 2019, Senate Bill 391 passed, preempting local health ordinances like the one in Livingston County that are more stringent than statewide regulations. The law is being challenged in court by a small group of counties and concerned citizens, who are hoping, at the very least, that their local ordinances will be grandfathered in. Livingston County Presiding Commissioner Ed Douglas said he is glad to see the lawsuit but didn’t feel the need to join it.

As residents await the judgment, they face the reality of having little control over who moves in next door.

A new neighbor

Bert Wire’s property is roughly 2,200 feet from the proposed CAFO site. He remembers the day he officially found out about the application through a letter in the mail, after hearing about the possibility around town for months.

“Nobody wants a CAFO in their own backyard,” Wire said. “I’ve been in the farming industry for over 40 years. I grew up on a dairy farm in Illinois. I’m used to the smell of livestock. But this is something completely different.”

Wire is referring to the odorous cocktail of particulate matter and pollutants such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide churned out of the massive hog barns by exhaust fans. After Wire and his neighbors appealed the initial United Hog permit granted by the Department of Natural Resources, the company withdrew its original application and submitted a new one for approximately 10,500 hogs, making it a Class 1B Operation. At that size, the CAFO would hold more than 8 million gallons of manure in a 12-foot-deep cemented underground storage pit roughly the area of two-and-a-half football fields.

The department requires that those pits must be at least two feet above the groundwater table. But, last spring, Wire and two neighbors had a hunch that groundwater was more accessible than United Hog Systems let on in their application.

At the time,One of his neighbors was renting a parcel of land on the proposed CAFO footprint. To investigate, they fixed a posthole digger to a skid loader and set out to dig a series of holes. Out of the six holes they dug at depths of two to three feet, four filled with water. To them, this was evidence that the groundwater table was accessible at shallow depths and that the CAFO construction would violate those regulations.

During the administrative court hearing, as part of the CAFO permit appeal process, Jeff Browning, an engineer hired by United Hog Systems, testified that based on the photo evidence, the water in the holesdug by the Poosey Neighbors group “look artificial.” But Browning also noted that the company hired to complete borings to determine groundwater depth had “hit a little perched water” during their site survey. Since then, many debates have ensued about perched water and whether it could interfere with underground manure pits.

Those debates were amplified months later when the Missouri Clean Water Commission announced a plan to exclude perched water from the definition of the groundwater table used in CAFO design regulations. DNR’S Water Protection Program Director Chris Wieberg said during a public meeting that it was attempting to fix an error discovered during the appeal process of the United Hog permit.

Perched groundwater occurs when a body of groundwater is sandwiched between two sections of unsaturated earth above the main body of groundwater. Perched water bodies can come and go depending on the season and amounts of precipitation. Sometimes, perched water happens to be the only potable water supply available, meaning that some wells pull directly from it.

“You don’t know how deep perched water goes unless you install groundwater monitoring wells around the perimeter of the entire site and you take groundwater samples over an extended period of time,” said Stephen Jeffery, the lawyer representing Neighbors United and the challenge to SB 391. “From that data, you can make scientific conclusions. But right now, DNR is jumping the gun. They are reaching these conclusions, but they have no data to back it up.”

Opponents of this definition change find it odd that DNR is only attempting to exclude perched water from CAFO regulations but they are not advocating for a perched groundwater exemption for all waste containment design regulations.

A Department of Natural Resources spokesperson stated that the agency’s intention for the definition change is to correct an “inadvertent deletion” of the exemption to the groundwater table definition, which occurred during efforts to reduce “red tape” language while Eric Greitens was governor. The agency did not provide further comment to the Missourian.

Robert Brundage, a representative of the Missouri Pork Association and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, has also spoken in favor of the definition change. During DNR’s first public meeting on the issue, he stated that a failure to correct the inadvertent deletion is “not fair to the regulated community” who rely on clear definitions to conduct their business in accordance with state laws.

Andrew Geiser stands on his family's 100-year-old farm

Andrew Geiser stands on his family's 100-year-old farm Friday in Chillicothe. Geiser owns the land across the street from and right next to the permitted CAFO. Geiser said that though he would never want to be involved in a CAFO and sees it as inhumane, he thinks they have a right to operate if their operations don't negatively harm anything outside of their land. "It seems like I have more stringent rules on me than they do," he said, referencing the barriers small-scale farmers face. Before Senate Bill 391 passed, Livingston County had more regulations on CAFOs, but under the new rule, the state says the county can't have more regulations on CAFOs than what the state calls for. 

Brundage, who has also represented United Hog Systems in the past but did not provide comment to the Missourian about their pending application, also denied assertions that CAFOs pose a threat to groundwater.

“If it’s some kind of chronic problem that exists every single day that a CAFO is out there and operating, and they’ve been operating for years in the state of Missouri, where are all the people with their polluted wells and their health being impacted?” asked Brundage during the meeting. “We haven’t seen it.”

Wieberg echoed that sentiment. Hesaid during the November meeting that DNR probably works two cases a year related to unintentional discharge of manure from transfer technologies or land application equipment.

“I can’t put my finger on or think towards a case that we worked where we had groundwater contamination as a result of a spill, and definitely not a result of a leak,” Wieberg said, in response to a question submitted by the public during the meeting.

Though there are no documented cases of groundwater contamination as a result of CAFO mismanagement or infrastructure failure, proponents for stricter regulations say that DNR is not looking closely enough.

Potential risks

DNR does not require ongoing groundwater monitoring for Class 1B or Class 1C CAFOs. This essentially means that they rely on operators to self-report when something goes awry. Danner Horton, the former Livingston County commissioner, said this is like having “the fox watch the chickens,” and it’s a big reason why she advocated for the ability for local officials to monitor CAFO sites while she was in office.

“When’s the last time you drove down the highway over the speed limit and said, ‘Well, now, I’m going to call the sheriff so he can sit and watch me?’” asked Wire. “(The operators) are not going to call DNR. They’re going to wait to respond until somebody like me raises hell.”

“When’s the last time you drove down the highway over the speed limit and said, ‘Well, now, I’m going to call the sheriff so he can sit and watch me?’” asked Wire. “(The operators) are not going to call DNR. They’re going to wait to respond until somebody like me raises hell.”y in 2014, which made its way to a tributary of Millers Creek in the Mark Twain National Forest, resulting in a $12,000 fine, according to DNR documents.

Susan Fair stands in front of the permitted CAFO land

Susan Fair stands in front of the permitted CAFO land Friday in Chillicothe. When Gov. Mike Parson signed Missouri Senate Bill 391 into law in 2019, Fair said she knew she had to do something. "I don't see anything good in it at all," she said. Fair helped organize Friends of Poosey, the informal network of opponents to the CAFO, and raised donations for a lawyer who's gone to court twice for the group already.

Another incident in Audrain County led to more than 45,000 aquatic animals dying as a result of hog effluent discharged into Sandy Creek in 2018. A year later, another incident occurred along a tributary of the West Fork Cuivre River that resulted in a 3,300 fish kill. Neither Callaway nor Audrain counties had local health ordinances for CAFOs.

In other words, opponents of the proposed United Hog CAFO aren’t just worried about perched water. They argue a mismanagement incident of equivalent size could pollute their much beloved Poosey Conservation area, an approximately 6,000-acre site with hardwood forests, tallgrass prairie and several lakes for fishing.

“Our conservation areas are funded by the one-eighth cent sales tax that was passed in 1976,” said Doug Doughty, a row crop farmer with a small cow-calf herd in Livingston County. He is also a member of the Jackson Township board. “When you think about the millions of dollars that Missourians have invested into our conservation areas and state parks system, what are people going to do when CAFOs move in here like they did in Iowa and their outdoor experiences are not what they used to be?”

Susan Fair stands in front of the permitted CAFO land

Susan Fair stands in front of the permitted CAFO land Friday in Chillicothe. When Gov. Mike Parson signed Missouri Senate Bill 391 into law in 2019, Fair said she knew she had to do something. "I don't see anything good in it at all," she said. Fair helped organize Friends of Poosey, the informal network of opponents to the CAFO, and raised donations for a lawyer who's gone to court twice for the group already.

Another incident in Audrain County led to more than 45,000 aquatic animals dying as a result of hog effluent discharged into Sandy Creek in 2018. A year later, another incident occurred along a tributary of the West Fork Cuivre River that resulted in a 3,300 fish kill. Neither Callaway nor Audrain counties had local health ordinances for CAFOs.

In other words, opponents of the proposed United Hog CAFO aren’t just worried about perched water. They argue a mismanagement incident of equivalent size could pollute their much beloved Poosey Conservation area, an approximately 6,000-acre site with hardwood forests, tallgrass prairie and several lakes for fishing.

“Our conservation areas are funded by the one-eighth cent sales tax that was passed in 1976,” said Doug Doughty, a row crop farmer with a small cow-calf herd in Livingston County. He is also a member of the Jackson Township board. “When you think about the millions of dollars that Missourians have invested into our conservation areas and state parks system, what are people going to do when CAFOs move in here like they did in Iowa and their outdoor experiences are not what they

used to be?”is is just the most recent in a pattern of loosening statewide regulations for CAFOs.

“We’re seeing agribusiness corporations getting even more concentrated, so concentrated that they own and control huge percentages of commodity markets and industries,” said Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “And when you lose competition and you have huge amounts of corporate concentration, family farmers lose, consumers lose, our environment loses and our fight for democracy loses.”

State Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, has property just a few miles from the proposed CAFO site in Livingston County. He says that while he doesn’t have an issue with CAFOs coming into his district, as a small-scale cattle farmer he recognizes the future implications of letting big agriculture operations take up space.

“I’ve been told I will live long enough to no longer be viable in the cattle business,” Black said. “I used to not think that was true, but since I’ve been here, maybe I’ll be able to raise cows for hobby, but me being able to sell is probably on its way out.”

Black said he would love for his grandchildren to experience the days he spent in his youth on his grandparent’s farm but agriculture is “ever evolving.”

Part of that evolution has been ushered in by Missouri lawmakers as they’ve opened their arms to agribusiness in the state.

But Opponents to the rule change say that this is just the most recent in a pattern of loosening statewide regulations for CAFOs.

“We’re seeing agribusiness corporations getting even more concentrated, so concentrated that they own and control huge percentages of commodity markets and industries,” said Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “And when you lose competition and you have huge amounts of corporate concentration, family farmers lose, consumers lose, our environment loses and our fight for democracy loses.”

State Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, has property just a few miles from the proposed CAFO site in Livingston County. He says that while he doesn’t have an issue with CAFOs coming into his district, as a small-scale cattle farmer he recognizes the future implications of letting big agriculture operations take up space.

“I’ve been told I will live long enough to no longer be viable in the cattle business,” Black said. “I used to not think that was true, but since I’ve been here, maybe I’ll be able to raise cows for hobby, but me being able to sell is probably on its way out.”

Black said he would love for his grandchildren to experience the days he spent in his youth on his grandparent’s farm but agriculture is “ever evolving.”

Part of that evolution has been ushered in by Missouri lawmakers as they’ve opened their arms to agribusiness in the state.

But Opponents to the rule change say that this is just the most recent in a pattern of loosening statewide regulations for CAFOs.

“We’re seeing agribusiness corporations getting even more concentrated, so concentrated that they own and control huge percentages of commodity markets and industries,” said Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “And when you lose competition and you have huge amounts of corporate concentration, family farmers lose, consumers lose, our environment loses and our fight for democracy loses.”

State Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, has property just a few miles from the proposed CAFO site in Livingston County. He says that while he doesn’t have an issue with CAFOs coming into his district, as a small-scale cattle farmer he recognizes the future implications of letting big agriculture operations take up space.

“I’ve been told I will live long enough to no longer be viable in the cattle business,” Black said. “I used to not think that was true, but since I’ve been here, maybe I’ll be able to raise cows for hobby, but me being able to sell is probably on its way out.”

Black said he would love for his grandchildren to experience the days he spent in his youth on his grandparent’s farm but agriculture is “ever evolving.”

Part of that evolution has been ushered in by Missouri lawmakers as they’ve opened their arms to agribusiness in the state.

But operations. JBS is a Brazilian corporation and the largest meat producer in the world. They received $78 million in U.S. bailout assistance in 2019, according to reporting by The Washington Post. The company has also been charged with price fixing, meat contamination and violating U.S. anti-corruption laws.

“Industrialization and corporate takeover of our livestock markets would not look the way it looks without a lot of unintentional backing by taxpayers. It’s all a setup game for them to control our food system,” Gibbons said.

Foreign ownership, diminished local control and jargon-filled regulatory debates inaccessible to most members of the public are intersecting issues that come with a globalized, industrial food system. But the future implications for Livingston County residents remain unknown.

“What’s going to happen to our town?” asked Susan Fair, a Livingston County resident organizing around these issues. “If we have no say, I mean, do they just get to do what they want? It makes me nervous, but we don’t have to just roll over.”

Andrew Geiser pets his pigs

Andrew Geiser pets his pigs Friday in Chillicothe. He owns and manages chickens, cows and hogs, and rotates them around the 226 acres they all call home. The practice is called rotational grazing, and the goal is to work with the land instead of against it. “You can’t tell me pigs don’t like grazing,’” he said. “They eat clover, they love grass – we try to stick to as natural of a diet as possible. My goal is to regenerate the land, not just have a sustainable system.”

  • Mallory is a first-year masters student studying investigative reporting at the University of Missouri.

  • Mark Horvit is the state government editor. Call me at 817-726-1621 with story ideas, tips or complaints.

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