CAFOs bring home the bacon—but is it at a cost?
By: Caroline Watkins, Cary Littlejohn, Michael Boyer, Mackenzie Elliott
Larry Hendrix’s life is mainly comprised of the following: his wife, his children, his grandchildren and his pigs. And without his pork farm, Hendrix wouldn’t be able to support his family.
“I’m just a person,” Hendrix said. “This is how I make a living. I’ve raised two girls. This is how I’ve sent them both to college. I have to work the rest of my life.”
Hendrix ran a traditional farm for many years. However, due to the increasing competition in his field, he felt he had no choice but to switch to a CAFO, or a concentrated animal feeding operation.
Since he made the switch, he has received negative feedback from the community.
Another concentrated operation in being proposed in Cooper County—and concerned residents are speaking out against the proposal.
Residents are worried about the management of waste and pollution from these farms. They are worried that the quality of their air and water will be at risk once these operations move into their neighborhoods.
Farmers such as Hendrix argue, however, that there’s not much they can do about it.
Converting to a CAFO
Around 18 years ago, Hendrix upgraded his farm to permit the buildings he currently uses to raise hogs.
“You had to move towards this confinement, towards the CAFOs, to keep your operation viable,” Hendrix said. “That’s what I did. That’s why I built the buildings.”
Ray Massey, an MU Professor of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, studies the economic incentives and effects of concentrated animal feeding operations.
“There are a lot of people looking at CAFOs from family farms,” Massey said. “As an economist, I would say the barrier to entry is lower than it would be starting a row crop farm. People are looking at it for that reason.”
Massey said one of the biggest differences between a confined operation and a row crop farm is the amount of land required.
“If you can find 40 acres, quite removed from quite a lot of other people … then you can start a business that would have sufficient income left,” Massey said. “And you can find 40 acres in most counties. But, if you were trying to make enough land to live as a row crop farmer, you’d probably need 2,000 acres—and that’s much more difficult to find.”
These farms can also spur economic activity. Grow-finish operations, such as Hendrix’s, do not breed hogs themselves, but receive them after the piglets have been weaned from their mothers.
However, another popular type of confined operation in Missouri, a farrow-to-finish operation, can bring in especially large revenue for the community. These farms raise pigs directly from birth.
For these farms, over $1.81 million in gross revenue is estimated per year for a 600-sow (female adult swine) farrow-to-finish operation, according to MU Extension’s Commercial Agriculture Program.
The overall number and production of concentrated operations has increased nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And due to this production increase, such operations are increasing in size. The waste from these growing farms, however, continues to concern nearby residents.
Concentrated operations bring concerns
Residents across mid-Missouri are concerned about the potential environmental and health effects that confined farms could bring to their counties.
Susan Williams, an active member of the Opponents of Cooper County CAFOs, discussed how these operations have divided the community in Cooper County. In Williams’s case, even her own family has become divided over this issue.
Her two brothers are helping to bring another operation into her neighborhood.
“It breaks your heart,” Williams said. “We grew up together on this farm. My dad was an ag[riculture] teacher and just worked on the land all the time to make the farm what it is ... they’re gonna come in and do something that might damage water and damage their neighbors, who were always really important.”
Fred Williams, Susan Williams’s son and president of the Opponents of Cooper County CAFOs, has been conducting extensive research on the adverse environmental effects of these farms.
His binder, which is over 2.5 inches thick, contains 24 labeled tabs of reports, articles and applications to sift through.
Williams is especially worried about the newly proposed concentrated feeding operation in Cooper County by an affiliate of Pipestone System, PVC Management II.
“Whenever you hear 7,700 hogs, you know you're a little nervous,” Williams said. “We have people that live two-tenths of a mile from where … they're going to have hogs.”
Cooper County isn’t the only county holding meetings to discuss their concerns. Jeff Jones, a fourth-generation family farmer and president of Friends of Responsible Agriculture, has been organizing meetings for concerned residents of Callaway County for several years.
“If the communities don’t align and join fast and get health ordinances in place to be able to protect from these large CAFOs coming in here, it could be disastrous down the road as more and more of those come in,” Jones said.
Air pollution is a large concern. Typical pollutants found in air surrounding confined farms include ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and particulate matter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Polluted air quality could result in a variety of negative health risks, especially with regard to respiratory illnesses.
Patrick Smith, a professor of the MU Department of Pathology and Anatomic Studies, has also been speaking out about some of health concerns of nearby residents, especially concerning respiratory illnesses.
“The chemicals that are involved exacerbates people who have chronic problems and allergies,” Smith said. “And it can exacerbate people whose immune system has been suppressed because they’re young, like under 5 years old, or because they’re older.”
People who live near these structures are also concerned about the water quality. The operations’ runoff, for example, can lead to fecal pathogens or bacteria in the surface water, according to the CDC.
Research has also shown that the toxins and manure released by concentrated farms can result in a variety of health effects. From manure alone, illnesses such as anthrax, leptospirosis, tetanus and ringworm can be contracted, according to the CDC.
But when it comes to the negative feedback from the community, Hendrix feels that he doesn’t have much choice.
“There’s only so much you can do,” Hendrix said. “You can’t get rid of odor. It’s away from everything and it dissipates.”
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MoDNR) has put regulations in place in an attempt to minimize the harm of these operations. Regulations span from nutrient management plans to land application setback distances, according to MoDNR’s website. This does not include inspections and a permit process, according to MoDNR.
Hendrix argues, however, that there shouldn’t be any more regulations affecting his farm. He already feels too restricted by the MoDNR’s rules.
“We can be so regulated that we can be out of business,” Hendrix said. “There’s only so much that we can do. You reach this point of economic no return. Is that going to happen to us one of these days?”
Hendrix isn’t opposed to talking to other concerned residents. Hendrix, however, feels that the conversation won’t go very far.
“Why do you try to hurt somebody?” Hendrix asked. “I don’t want to run my neighbor down. I just disagree with them based off the fact that they have one mindset and one mindset only.”
Until concerned residents and farmers of concentrated operations can come up with a solution, communities in mid-Missouri will continue to be divided over CAFOs and their place in their communities.