Hog farm finds tolerance, disdain
C&H, operating in watershed since 2013, seeks new permit
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The Little Buffalo River flows through Jasper in Newton County, a town that benefits from tourism related to the Buffalo River and its surroundings.
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.