Few scenes seem more at peace with nature than a family farm nestled in the bucolic countryside.
Supersized factory farms are not designed to exude much charm. They do, however, produce massive amounts of waste that can pollute the air and water and produce odors that make life miserable for nearby residents.
Indiana farms with at least 300 cattle, 600 swine or sheep, or 30,000 poultry in confinement are called controlled feeding operations. Farms with even larger animal populations – 700 or more dairy cows, for instance, or more than 2,500 swine of 55 pounds, or more than 30,000 laying hens – are known as concentrated animal feeding operations. There are more than 1,800 CFOs and CAFOs in the state. There are 12 CFOs in Allen County, six of which areCAFOs.
In the past two decades, the number and size of these farms has grown, and today they're largely responsible for Indiana's high national rankings in production of layers, broilers, pullets, hogs, pigs and turkeys. But runoff from waste pits and lagoons at these facilities is a huge source of E. coli bacteria that has sullied many Indiana streams and nutrients that endanger many lakes. Decomposing livestock waste also produces air pollutants that can be both noxious and dangerous, such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and particulate matter, the Hoosier Environmental Council says.
The job of protecting Hoosiers from such contaminants falls to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. But IDEM's powers are limited, and the legislature has shown little appetite for tightening pollution regulations on these giant farms. Common sense prevailed in 2015, when a bill to limit individual counties' powers to regulate CAFOs was sidelined, and again this spring, when an effort to make it easier for CAFOs to expand was diverted to an interim committee study.
This year environmentalists, expecting another attempt to weaken regulations next session, plan to counter with proposals to give IDEM more teeth.
On a recent Saturday, more than 40 people gathered in a conference room at the South Whitley Community Public Library to hear the environmental council's senior staff attorney, Kim Ferraro, talk about ways neighbors can fight back when new factory farms or expansions of existing operations are planned near them.
Ferraro noted that Whitley and Allen counties have relatively few CFOs and CAFOs and still have the opportunity to see that farms are sited and designed to minimize their effect on their neighborhoods and the environment.
Three new CFOs have been proposed in Whitley County, which now has 30, including 10 CAFOs. Though no new developments are being sought in Allen County, Commissioner Nelson Peters said last week it may be time for another look at the county's CAFO regulations.
But counties shouldn't have to act alone to take on operations that can nauseate neighbors or endanger the environment. The environmental council proposes giving the state agency more authority to deny or revoke permits, require long setbacks from waterways and residences and, for the first time, set and enforce air pollution limits on animal facilities.
Agriculture is revered in this state, and it should be. But CFOs and CAFOs are big business, and under-regulation risks big problems. As Ferraro puts it, “We have allowed, at the federal, state and local levels, for this industry to really hide behind an image of farming that no longer exists.”