With a Code Development Committee working on recommendations for changes in Whitley County's zoning ordinance, the competing interests between the county's farmers and their non-farming neighbors are coming to a head.
At issue are confined animal feeding operations, farms in which livestock or poultry are kept and raised “in some manner of confinement for more than 45 days out of the year.” Often called factory farms, CAFOs are seen by many in the ag community as the future of farming, a way for family farms to survive in the face of increasing competition and land prices. Others claim CAFOs are keeping U.S. food prices among the lowest in the world and credit American agribusiness corporations with feeding the world's hungry.
On the other hand, there are just as many reasons to object to CAFOs. Some object on humanitarian grounds. Others are concerned about their environmental impact, whether it's emissions into the air, threats to groundwater, the spread of insects and disease, soil degradation or highly concentrated applications of manure and runoff into neighboring waterways. Neighbors complain of noise, odors and reduction in property value.
Still others object on more economic grounds. John Ikerd, a University of Missouri agriculture economic professor emeritus, gave a recent talk in Fort Wayne in which he stated that industrial or factory farms are destroying rural communities. Ikerd cited a 2008 Pew Commission Report on Industrial Animal Agriculture, which states: “Economically speaking, studies over the past 50 years demonstrate that the encroachment of industrialized agriculture operations upon rural communities results in lower relative incomes for certain segments of the community and greater income inequality and poverty, a less active 'Main Street,' decreased retail trade, and fewer stores in the community.”
Regardless of whether CAFOs are the right or wrong way forward, their proliferation is inevitable and they are likely to be with us for a long time. That being the case, the role (and challenge) of government should be to strike a proper balance between the interests of the farmers and their rural neighbors.
At all levels of government – local, state and, to a lesser degree, federal – agribusiness has the upper hand. In nearly every one of Whitley County's governmental bodies, whether it's the three county commissioners, the government offices that report to those commissioners, or the various boards such as the Plan Commission or the Board of Zoning Appeals, the scales are heavily tilted toward the ag community. With Whitley County being historically an agricultural county, this is understandable, but it unquestionably leaves non-farming residents underrepresented and underserved.
Indiana is one of many states to enact right-to-farm legislation, but it is one of just a handful to adopt word for word the aggressively pro-farming language promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council. That legislation protects agricultural or industrial operations from so-called nuisance suits by affected neighbors after one year of operation, even if the farm dramatically changes the type of agriculture it does. In other words, a farmer can convert his soybean farm into a hog or chicken CAFO, and his neighbors have no legal recourse in the event his operation creates noxious odors, pollutes the drinking water or causes their property value to collapse.
It's for this very reason that the siting of CAFOs is so critical. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management uses its scant resources to regulate and oversee CAFO operations, but it explicitly takes no role in where CAFOs are allowed to be established. Those decisions are left entirely to county governments, and it thus becomes incumbent upon county governments to exercise good judgment in deciding where CAFOs can and cannot be located.
As of 2016, Whitley County had 626 farms, a third of which had more than $50,000 per year (roughly the county's median income) in total sales. The county's non-farm labor force was 22 times greater than the number of farmers and farm employees. Yet to this point, Whitley County government has bent over backward to accommodate each and every farmer seeking a CAFO permit, even going so far as to rezone a northwest Whitley County farm six-tenths of a mile from an already-contaminated residential lake to allow one farmer to start a 160,000-chicken CAFO.
Whitley County's commissioners are facing a choice: Will they serve all county residents by implementing carefully considered zoning regulations that create adequate buffers between residential neighborhoods and industrial farming operations? Or will they serve a well-organized and vocal constituency with outsized influence and permit ag interests to run roughshod over the rest of the county's residents?
Doug Driscoll is a newspaper publisher and a resident of Tri-Lakes.