Across U.S., Local Governments Fight Large-Scale Corporate Farms

Across U.S., Local Governments Fight Large-Scale Corporate Farms

In Pennsylvania, five cities have banned large corporations from owning farmland or operating farms. Leaders in a Missouri county upset by a hog waste spill ordered a company to take its hogs and get out. In Iowa, two counties passed unprecedented bans on livestock farms.

Across the nation's farm country, local governments are raising a stink about corporate agriculture — and in the process, stepping into a fight between large-scale farms and neighbors.

Some farmers and corporate interests call the trend disturbing and warn that overregulation could drive up food prices and lead some livestock production to move out of the country.

But local officials are taking matters into their own hands because states haven't adequately enforced laws already on the books, said Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "People are starting to realize that 'This isn't just happening in my town. Other people are experiencing this, too,'" she said.

In February, officials in Iowa's Cerro Gordo County declared a one-year ban on the construction of new confinements. Days later, neighboring Franklin County followed suit. The bans were unparalleled in Iowa, which leads the nation in pork and egg production.

Though Franklin County officials later backed off their ban, saying they needed to discuss it further with their health board, Cerro Gordo's had an immediate effect. Sparboe Farms, a Minnesota company, quickly withdrew its proposal to build an egg-laying plant with 2.4 million chickens near Clear Lake and now is looking elsewhere.

Factory-style farms have been around since the 1970s, but they've become more common in the last 15 years. As they proliferate, so does concern that their concentrated manure is harming human health and environment, with its effects rippling as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, where manure runoff contributes to a dead zone in the sea.

"We need to protect the health of the public and at the same time create an environment that's conducive to agricultural growth," said Ron Osterholm, a member of the Cerro Gordo health board. Osterholm and county supervisor Bob Amosson said they're prepared to be the target of possible lawsuits. Worth County, to the north, has been sued for making strict air and water pollution rules. The case is pending.

Michelle Nowlin, an attorney who often handles such cases at Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., said one argument for local rules is that communities and counties vary in their economies and topography. Federal and state standards don't consider those differences, she said. "Only the people in that county are able to take a position in order to safeguard those natural features," Nowlin said.

Several North Carolina counties restrict how close livestock farms can be to water wells and homes, as do many Pennsylvania townships.

Don Parrish, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.–based American Farm Bureau Federation, said the trend toward local regulation threatens the nation's livestock industry. Rules can drive up farmers' expenses, leading to higher prices that could compel U.S. consumers to buy cheaper foods made overseas, Parrish said. Large farms are satisfying American consumers' hunger for cheap, lean meat, he said. "I would hate knowing that this country is as dependent on Brazil and Argentina for food as we are on Saudi Arabia for oil," Parrish said.

The Cerro Gordo moratorium means Randy Nuehring's family in Rockwell can't expand its 3,000-hog operation. "It's not a good deal," Nuehring said. "We would have to leave if we want to expand."

Amosson and Osterholm say they want to collaborate with farmers to develop fair restrictions.

While farmers may be skeptical that it can be done, Whatcom County, Wash., found a way six years ago when runoff from dairy farms' manure threatened a nearby harbor. After the Environmental Protection Agency warned farmers to clean up or face penalties for violating the Clean Water Act and harming shellfish, Whatcom County officials worked with farmers on an ordinance that prohibits manure spreading during Washington's wettest months. Since the rule was adopted, water samples from Whatcom's Nooksack River and Portage Bay show that levels of toxic bacteria are dropping.

"After they understood the issue, they were, by and large, eager to comply and help," county supervisor Ward Nelson said of farmers. "I mean, they live here, too."

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