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In northern Missouri, residents worry 10,500-pig farm will damage public land

In northern Missouri, residents worry 10,500-pig farm will damage public land

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CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — North of town, near the planned site of a massive hog farming operation, yard signs reading “farms not factories” are staked all over, demonstrating a strong level of opposition to a project that is on track for state approval.

A group of Livingston County residents, calling themselves Friends of Poosey, after the local conservation area, has organized against United Hog Systems’ planned 10,500-pig concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO. They contend the facility’s air emissions and pig waste would destroy the landscape. United Hog says the concerns are unfounded.

Similar conflicts are playing out elsewhere in rural Missouri, where many residents are fighting against big agriculture operations looking to expand their footprint in the state.

In the corner of meat producers is Gov. Mike Parson, who last year signed Senate Bill 391, a law nullifying about 20 county health ordinances — including Livingston County’s — that had worked to keep out large CAFOs.

The local rules required adherence to strict environmental standards that companies didn’t have to meet elsewhere, which for years steered intensive farming operations to other counties. But no more.

Proponents of Senate Bill 391 said the local rules slowed adoption of modern agriculture techniques, which require housing thousands of animals under the same roof in order to maximize productivity to feed a growing human population.

That is what worries Doug Doughty, 62, who has a small beef cow herd and grows corn, soybeans and hay on a nearby farm.

“This isn’t your typical family farm, where grandpa had 10 sows on one place and 20 sows on another,” he said of the proposed facility. “These are confined. And, you know, it’s big. It’s really big.”

“Those animals don’t have any daylight,” Bert Wire, 43, who lives an estimated 2,500 feet from United Hog’s proposed site, said of modern-day CAFOs. “The animal needs so much — I call it vitamin D.”

Chillicothe residents fight back on hog farm.

A boat rests on Indian Creek Lake in the Poosey Conservation Area near Chillicothe, Mo. on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Area residents are worried that a proposed CAFO, concentrated animal feeding operation, near the 5,863 acre conservation area will cause damage to the water and wildlife within. They are also worried about dropping property values and damage to town infrastructure due to an increase in heavy truck traffic. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

Upping the stakes here, residents say, is the 6,000-acre Poosey Conservation Area, about three miles from the site of the proposed CAFO. The land draws anglers, hikers and hunters from all over the country.

Though state law requires liquified manure to be applied at least 50 feet from a property boundary, residents still worry that the effects of the CAFO will discourage visitors and reduce property values.

Joe Jerek, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the agency hasn’t weighed in on the possible effects of the CAFO on public land nearby.

But it’s not unprecedented for agencies to comment on decisions that affect state land. In 2013, as the city of Columbia was weighing approval of a subdivision next to Rock Bridge State Park, a Department of Natural Resources official spoke out against the plan at a city planning and zoning commission meeting.

At the time, the DNR was led by Sara Parker Pauley. Pauley is now the director of the Department of Conservation.

Growing ambitions

United Hog’s growing ambitions haven’t quelled concerns.

Since winning a permit from the Department of Natural Resources in May, the company “has decided to build a larger sow farm at the same location,” according to a Sept. 9 letter a United Hog Systems attorney sent to site neighbors.

Robert Brundage, an attorney for the Marshall, Missouri-based United Hog, said only that the company’s move was a business decision.

The company’s old application said its facility would produce 3.6 million gallons of waste per year.

The company is now seeking approval for a facility that would generate 8.3 million gallons of waste per year — or 22,700 gallons per day. The facility includes three large buildings to house pigs as well as a 50-foot-by-80-foot composting barn for dead pigs.

Waste from live pigs will fall through the grated floor of a barn larger than two football fields and into an underground pit. Manure will be tanked or pumped onto local farm fields as fertilizer, according to the company’s state application.

Close to the site, last Tuesday, yard signs opposing the project outnumbered lingering signs supporting President Donald Trump; voters in Livingston County broke 78% in support of Trump in this month’s election.

Chillicothe residents fight back on hog farm.

A truck roars by a yard sign decrying concentrated animal feeding operations near Chillicothe, Mo., on Nov. 17. 

Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

Voters here, despite Parson signing the controversial law, also supported the Republican governor in similar numbers.

Susan Fair, 70, who moved back to Livingston County in 2014 and lives on land near the conservation area, said the neighbors’ group has drawn supporters of all political persuasions.

“A lot of us have, you know, differing political backgrounds,” she said. “But we’re making friends on both sides, Democrats and Republicans, and we’re working on issues.”

Shallow groundwater?

Brundage, the United Hog lawyer, said Livingston County’s health ordinance, in place since the 1990s, made it “impractical” to operate a CAFO there. The passage of Senate Bill 391 changed that, but that didn’t mean there are no environmental standards, he said.

State regulations — which are less stringent than the local rules — are “designed to be protective of the environment,” he said.

“DNR is issuing a permit in accordance with their regulations,” he said. “That should give the citizens in Livingston County comfort that this facility will not pollute the environment.”

Wire is not among those who take comfort in the company assurances. He expects his property value to drop if the facility is built.

“This is my retirement, my investment, this is my 401(k),” he said. “If I go to the nursing home, I might have to sell this. Or if my wife gets sick, might have to sell it.”

Wire, down the hill from his farm, pointed to an oxbow on the Thompson River. In the spring of 2019, he said the river swelled, eating portions of a county road that remains closed after falling into the river.

The river is about two-thirds of a mile from the planned CAFO, according to state documents.

Stephen Jeffery, an attorney for the neighbors group, said holes drilled on the United Hog property in March found shallow groundwater just feet from the ground surface, indicating trouble when the company constructs its 12-foot-deep manure pit, he said.

Brundage shared a report from a Department of Natural Resources geologist that said crews dug three pits in June and didn’t encounter any water.

“Based on the topography and characteristics of the bedrock and surficial material, any shallow groundwater encountered at the barn site is expected to be temporarily perched groundwater,” Jeremiah Jackson, a state geologist, wrote. “A breach or failure of the engineered construction of the proposed concrete pit is expected to have minimal impacts to groundwater.”

Jeffery said the DNR report didn’t explain away photos of shallow groundwater from the March drilling, and he said the state’s search for groundwater was inadequate.

“All it showed was that there was no shallow groundwater where they dug their holes,” Jeffery said.

“A picture’s worth 1,000 words,” he said of the March photos. “You see the holes, and they have water in them.“

Jack Suntrup • 573-556-6186 @JackSuntrup on Twitter jsuntrup@post-dispatch.com

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