Hog farm finds tol­er­ance, dis­dain

C&H, op­er­at­ing in wa­ter­shed since 2013, seeks new per­mit

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - EMILY WALKENHORST

NEW­TON COUNTY — Four years have passed since C&H Hog Farms be­gan op­er­at­ing along a trib­u­tary 6 miles from the Buf­falo River, but not much has changed for most folks in New­ton and Searcy coun­ties.

C&H has ap­plied for a per­mit again, and peo­ple within the area re­main di­vided about whether the farm presents a dan­ger to the coun­try’s first na­tional scenic river.

The Buf­falo Na­tional River drew Gor­don Watkins to New­ton County. He grew up on a Mis­sis­sippi cot­ton and soy­bean farm but vis­ited the river as a teenager in the 1960s. Years later, he and his wife moved into a log cabin he built in Jasper, near where Big Creek meets the Buf­falo River.

He’s har­vested veg­eta­bles and blue­ber­ries there and raised cat­tle. He’s dab­bled in the cabin rental busi­ness and worked for the Na­tional Park Ser­vice.

Now, Watkins serves as a voice for the river. As pres­i­dent of the Buf­falo River

Wa­ter­shed Al­liance, he speaks out against the pres­ence of C&H — a farm that houses 6,503 hogs that moved into the wa­ter­shed in 2013.

C&H has be­come the tar­get of groups that fear its pres­ence is an en­vi­ron­men­tal risk to the Buf­falo River, which at­tracted nearly 1.8 mil­lion vis­i­tors last year.

C&H, which sits on Big Creek, is await­ing word from the state on a new per­mit that would al­low it to con­tinue op­er­a­tion with only a small change in the num­ber of sows and piglets al­lowed on the farm.

Many fear that ma­nure from the farm — the largest hog op­er­a­tion ever to op­er­ate in New­ton County — could find its way into the Buf­falo River and pol­lute the water, like what has hap­pened in other states. Watkins at­tends ev­ery pub­lic meet­ing that has any­thing to do with the Buf­falo River. Point­ing to the al­liance’s grow­ing mem­ber­ship of more than 2,000, he says there is no de­cline in con­cern about the risk C&H poses to the river. If any­thing, he says, peo­ple are be­com­ing more in­formed.

For him, and oth­ers, there is only one so­lu­tion when it comes to C&H.

“The so­lu­tion is dis­so­lu­tion,” Watkins said.

Not ev­ery­one in the sur­round­ing area agrees with that as­sess­ment.

Many de­fend the farm’s own­ers — Jason Henson, Phillip Camp­bell and Richard Camp­bell, all of whom de­clined in­ter­view re­quests — and say they are con­trib­u­tors to the area’s small econ­omy. As long as they fol­low the rules, sup­port­ers say, they should be left alone.

The dis­pute ex­tends well be­yond Arkansas, but it’s more per­sonal for lo­cals like San­tana Smith, a 30-year-old Mount Judea res­i­dent who is re­lated to the farm’s own­ers.

“It’s a touchy sub­ject around here,” said Smith, who is re­luc­tant to talk about the farm. “It ain’t hurt­ing noth­ing.”

AN EMO­TIONAL IS­SUE

C&H Hog Farms is tucked away in the land­scape of Mount Judea, a small com­mu­nity just north of the Ozark Na­tional For­est and south of the Buf­falo River, away from much of the tourist hubs.

The Buf­falo River stretches from New­ton County through Searcy and Marion coun­ties, where it runs into the White River. Nearly the en­tire wa­ter­shed is in New­ton and Searcy coun­ties.

Un­em­ploy­ment is higher than av­er­age in the area, and the pop­u­la­tion is shrink­ing. Only one of the seven towns — Mar­shall, at 1,355 — is home to at least 500 peo­ple. Most res­i­dents ei­ther grew up in the area or moved there to be close to the river.

Evan Teague, vice pres­i­dent for com­mod­ity and reg­u­la­tory af­fairs for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, sup­ports the hog farm and helps its own­ers nav­i­gate the choppy wa­ters where they’ve found them­selves. He’s at­tended scores of meet­ings and hear­ings about the hog farm, and de­scribes the four years since C&H be­gan op­er­a­tions as “chal­leng­ing,” “frus­trat­ing” and “dis­ap­point­ing.”

Thou­sands of let­ters have been sent in op­pos­ing the the farm, and crit­ics are a fre­quent pres­ence at state en­vi­ron­men­tal meet­ings.

“It’s emo­tional, it’s phys­i­cal, it’s tir­ing,” said Carol Bit­ting, a Mar­ble Falls res­i­dent who has fought C&H’s op­er­a­tion and of­ten finds her­self at the same meet­ings as Teague.

The fight is just as per­sonal for Bit­ting as it is for the oth­ers. She moved to New­ton County in 1991. She was a “caver” at the time, ex­plor­ing and map­ping caves, and the Buf­falo River area was per­fect for that. She doesn’t want to see it fouled.

“It’s a job,” she said of the fight against the farm’s per­mit re­newal. “It’s a con­stant job.”

Many in the Mount Judea area say the hog farm’s own­ers are good men who have gone above and be­yond what is re­quired to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment.

“They’re just great com­mu­nity mem­bers and busi­ness­men,” said Sharon Pierce, 64, who taught the own­ers in school. “They pro­vide jobs for the com­mu­nity. They do­nate to the school. They vol­un­teer in the com­mu­nity.”

Donna Dod­son and Pierce don’t like the idea of a large hog farm in New­ton County, but they said they sup­port C&H and its own­ers, whom they trust. Pierce said she wouldn’t sup­port an­other farm of sim­i­lar size mov­ing into the area, but Dod­son said she would.

“I’m all for peo­ple be­ing able to use their land in a way that they see fit, as long as they aren’t do­ing things that would erode their neigh­bors’ prop­erty or any­thing,” Dod­son said.

A lit­tle far­ther away, peo­ple who are in­vested in tourism aren’t con­cerned about who owns the hog farm. It’s just in the wrong place, they say.

Sheila Roen­feldt is co-owner of Cedar Crest Lodge in Ponca. The lodge is up­stream of Big Creek’s con­flu­ence with the Buf­falo, but Roen­feldt be­lieves pol­lu­tion down­stream would be as­so­ci­ated with the en­tire river and af­fect tourism all along it.

“I don’t want the fam­ily pun­ished, be­cause it’s not about them,” Roen­feldt said. “[But] how do we call our­selves the Nat­u­ral State and then al­low this?”

The farm’s own­ers have said they fol­low the rules, and Watkins con­cedes that is prob­a­bly true, but op­po­nents say an op­er­a­tion of such size should never have been per­mit­ted within the river’s wa­ter­shed.

“The prob­lem is that the rules are in­ad­e­quate,” Watkins said.

A HIS­TORY OF FARM­ING

Hogs have been raised in the Buf­falo’s wa­ter­shed for decades.

In 1992, wor­ries that agri­cul­ture — specif­i­cally dairy and hog farms — could neg­a­tively af­fect tourism along the Buf­falo River prompted state of­fi­cials to stop grant­ing new per­mits for five years.

Dur­ing the mora­to­rium, of­fi­cials stud­ied 16 ex­ist­ing farms. The De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity, which con­ducted the study, was un­able to pro­vide a copy of the study. But the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s sum­mary of the study re­veals that most of the farms were not be­ing op­er­ated to “min­i­mize the amount of waste leav­ing the farms.”

In 1995, the Buf­falo River Swine Waste Demon­stra­tion Project be­gan work­ing with farm­ers and gov­ern­ments to ad­dress proper ma­nure man­age­ment. Even­tu­ally en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions im­proved, and the EPA touted the project as a suc­cess.

The mora­to­rium ended in 1997, and the num­ber of hog farms in­creased with the num­ber of sows nearly dou­bling.

More hogs were raised on farms in New­ton and Searcy coun­ties then than are be­ing raised there to­day. In 1997, 17 hog farms were per­mit­ted to hold more than 4,800 sows, 7,000 smaller pigs and 90 boars, ac­cord­ing to Arkansas per­mit and com­pli­ance records. In 2017, five farms have about 4,000 sows, 5,700 smaller pigs and 15 boars.

C&H Hog Farms, which has 2,503 sows and 4,000 pigs, was the first and re­mains the only fed­er­ally clas­si­fied medium or large hog farm in the area.

POL­LU­TION CON­CERNS

Op­po­nents of C&H point to hog farm con­tain­ment fail­ures in other states that have pol­luted wa­ter­ways, killing ma­rine life and leav­ing streams im­paired for years.

A large hog farm leak in Illi­nois five years ago is an ex­am­ple of the po­ten­tial aftermath of such a spill. A farm hous­ing more than 8,000 hogs spilled ma­nure into Beaver Creek, a trib­u­tary of the 55-mile Iro­quois River. The spill pol­luted 20 miles of the creek, killing 148,283 fish and 17,563 fresh­wa­ter mus­sels, ac­cord­ing to the Chicago Tri­bune.

The species were be­gin­ning to re­cover by 2016, the news­pa­per re­ported, but other hog ma­nure spills killed more fish and con­trib­uted to the im­pair­ment of 67 bod­ies of water in Illi­nois.

Be­cause of C&H’s large size, Na­tional Park Ser­vice of­fi­cials con­tend the farm poses a big­ger risk to water qual­ity than other Arkansas farms. Park Ser­vice of­fi­cials said C&H’s op­er­a­tions could slowly de­grade the river for years be­fore de­tec­tion of last­ing changes, and fix­ing any prob­lems could take even longer.

Yet the agency also noted that agri­cul­ture, along with de­vel­op­ment, have likely con­trib­uted to slow degra­da­tion of the Buf­falo for decades — much longer than C&H has been around.

On­go­ing re­search since 2013 by the University of Arkansas Sys­tem’s Agri­cul­ture Di­vi­sion, at a cost of $100,000 a year in state money, has yet to link C&H with any pol­lu­tion in Big Creek or the Buf­falo River. Mon­i­tor­ing for the study should be com­plete by mid-2019, ac­cord­ing to Mary High­tower, a spokesman for the di­vi­sion. Draw­ing a con­clu­sion that dis­cerns some­thing other than sea­sonal trends could take years, High­tower said.

Arkansas agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials say no ma­jor fail­ures have oc­curred in the state.

State in­spec­tions show that be­tween 1996 and early 2017, hog farms spilled ma­nure into wa­ter­ways at least 16 times. More than 50 fish were killed in a pond in Pope County as the re­sult of one spill in 1998, but the spills were not of the dev­as­tat­ing scale that oc­curred in other states.

Records don’t al­ways de­tail fol­low-up in­spec­tions, but in some cases the cause of the leak was ad­dressed right away.

Spills, leaks, over­flows and unau­tho­rized dis­charges were noted 339 times in the 1,332 in­spec­tion vi­o­la­tion records an­a­lyzed by the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. That fig­ure does not count mul­ti­ple spills in a sin­gle re­port, be­cause mul­ti­ple spills of­ten were not quan­ti­fied.

In the past 10 years, records in­di­cate leaks have oc­curred less fre­quently as the num­ber of hog farms has di­min­ished.

The de­crease also comes from im­proved ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing since the Demon­stra­tion Project in the mid-1990s, said Jerry Masters, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Arkansas Pork Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion. Masters said he spends at least 15 per­cent of his time work­ing on C&H is­sues, even though the farm has largely been in com­pli­ance.

A RIVER-DE­PEN­DENT ECON­OMY

Shops with ca­noes propped up out front, rus­tic cab­ins, mo­tels and restau­rants dot the hills along the Buf­falo. They serve as reminders of what many lo­cals con­sider a vi­brant tourism in­dus­try, and a re­minder of why pro­tect­ing the river is so im­por­tant.

In 2015, 29 leisure and hos­pi­tal­ity busi­nesses em­ployed an av­er­age of 258 peo­ple and paid $2.6 mil­lion in wages in New­ton and Searcy coun­ties. Harm to the Buf­falo could be a se­ri­ous risk to jobs and liveli­hoods in those coun­ties.

“I don’t think [C&H] should be here,” said Aaron Jones, 26, an em­ployee of Lost Val­ley Ca­noe in Ponca, which is up­stream from the farm. “Not on Amer­ica’s first na­tional river.”

Monte Smith, 59, owns Sil­ver Hill Float Ser­vice in St. Joe in Searcy County, which is down­stream of C&H. He said he fears a spill could close the river to ca­noeists for an en­tire sea­son.

Not ev­ery­one in the tourism busi­ness feels as threat­ened. Some be­lieve agri­cul­ture and tourism can co-ex­ist.

Teresa Mor­ris, 63, man­ages Buf­falo River Float Ser­vice in Yel­lville. She said she is more con­cerned about waste from tourists and feral hogs in the wa­ter­shed than C&H.

Agri­cul­ture is the other ma­jor pri­vate in­dus­try within the river’s wa­ter­shed, but it’s im­pact is more dif­fi­cult to mea­sure. The num­ber of an­i­mal farms large enough to re­quire fed­eral em­ploy­ment data dis­clo­sure is low, but a Bureau of La­bor sta­tis­tics data spe­cial­ist said dou­bling the num­bers of farms that re­port of­fers a fair es­ti­mate of the in­dus­try’s em­ploy­ment fig­ures.

In 2015, four New­ton County farms em­ployed 12 peo­ple and paid $346,513 in wages. If dou­bled, eight farms would em­ploy 24 peo­ple who earned about $693,026 in wages. The bureau did not have any in­for­ma­tion for the two cat­tle farms noted in Searcy County.

Mount Judea res­i­dents see C&H as an im­por­tant eco­nomic fac­tor in their un­in­cor­po­rated com­mu­nity. The hog farm is set to pay $8,823.64 in prop­erty taxes this year, and some res­i­dents say they would wel­come an ad­di­tional farm.

“I think they’re young peo­ple try­ing to make a living in this coun­try,” said Velma Nor­ton, co-owner of Nor­ton Coun­try Store. “Why don’t they leave them alone and let them make a living?”

Many lead­ers have de­clined to take a po­si­tion for fear of alien­at­ing peo­ple on ei­ther side of the is­sue. Dar­ryl Treat, pres­i­dent of the Searcy County Cham­ber of Com­merce, said his group can’t af­ford to be di­vi­sive with the county’s pop­u­la­tion and eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties in de­cline.

“We have se­ri­ous eco­nomic chal­lenges,” Treat said. “We have to be work­ing to­gether.”

STILL WAIT­ING

The En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity De­part­ment is con­sid­er­ing more than 900 pub­lic com­ments on whether to is­sue a new per­mit for C&H.

De­part­ment of­fi­cials have reviewed pub­lic com­ments since April from peo­ple who live within the wa­ter­shed as well as those who live out­side the area but visit on oc­ca­sion. Of­fi­cials would not es­ti­mate when a fi­nal de­ci­sion on the per­mit will be made.

The more op­ti­mistic say they hope to build long-term sup­port for the farm­ers and the en­vi­ron­ment with less ar­gu­ing, but that seems a long way off con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent cli­mate sur­round­ing the per­mit re­quest.

“It’s cre­ated a lot of po­lar­iza­tion,” said Beth Ar­dap­ple, who lives near Mount Judea. “Our best prospect for the en­vi­ron­ment is to sup­port these [farm] own­ers to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment and also to have good, strong reg­u­la­tions and mon­i­tor closely.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

Sharon Pierce of Mount Judea stands over Big Creek near its con­flu­ence with the Buf­falo River. Pierce, who taught the own­ers of C&H Hog Farms in school, said she sup­ports the op­er­a­tion but would be against an­other farm of that size mov­ing into the area.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

C&H Hog Farms, which houses 6,503 head of swine, sits 6 miles from the Buf­falo River along Big Creek, a trib­u­tary of the Buf­falo. The farm, a con­trib­u­tor to the area’s econ­omy but a source of alarm for those who fear its ef­fects on the wa­ter­shed, is await­ing a new state per­mit al­low­ing it to stay in op­er­a­tion with a small change in the num­ber of sows and piglets.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

Kris Jor­gensen is an owner of Lost Val­ley Ca­noe and Lodg­ing in Ponca. While many outfitters fear pol­lu­tion from C&H Hog Farms could af­fect busi­ness, some in the tourism busi­ness be­lieve agri­cul­ture and tourism can co-ex­ist.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

The Lit­tle Buf­falo River flows through Jasper in New­ton County, a town that ben­e­fits from tourism re­lated to the Buf­falo River and its sur­round­ings.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/ MITCHELL PE MASILUN

Donna Dod­son of Mount Judea is not op­posed to the large hog farm, say­ing she’s all for peo­ple us­ing their land as they wish as long as it doesn’t harm oth­ers.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette

Watkins

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