As massive livestock operations move in, fighting them gets harder for rural neighbors
‘I’m farmer to the bone. My nose is tough. This is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,’ said a Callaway County resident
Jeff Jones has lived on his family’s land east of Columbia his entire life. Some of the family’s farms are more than 150 years old.
And Jones, who raises cattle and grows row crops, has no intentions of going anywhere.
But after years of fighting, his community is home to a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, that can raise as many as 10,000 hogs at any given time. The facility, which opened in 2019, houses the animals in barns built over concrete pits to store manure for months at a time.
Jones and CAFO critics consider them a health hazard — or at least a nuisance. One of the most common complaints is the stench from hog manure and dead animals.
“I’m farmer to the bone. My nose is tough. This is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Jones said of the Callaway Farrowing CAFO. “This is like breathing straight ammonia. It’ll make your eyes water.”
Jones is part of Friends of Responsible Agriculture and said he fought the Callaway CAFO “tooth and nail.” But the CAFO permit went all the way up to the Western District Court of Appeals, where it was upheld.
Some rural communities in northwest Missouri have successfully fought off CAFOs. One facility proposed for Livingston County withdrew its permit request earlier this year after opposition and a lawsuit from neighbors. In 2019, the Valley Oaks Steak Company southeast of Kansas City, announced it would close its doors after an earlier attempt to expand.
But in Jones’ view, it’s getting harder for local communities to stop industrial hog farms.
“They’re passing laws out of the benefit of money instead of out of the benefit of people, so the people’s voice is becoming less instead of more,” Jones said.
In 2019, Missouri had more than 500 CAFOs, according to the Missouri Coalition for the Environment — far less than the thousands in Iowa, the largest pork producing state in the United States.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources did not provide data on the number of permitted CAFOs each year, but according to its website, it has issued permits for about 20 more since 2019.
An attorney representing several communities fighting CAFOs in their backyards said the number seemed to be on the uptick. But an attorney for the industry said the number of the largest CAFOs — permitted to house 17,500 swine or more than 7,000 cattle — was stagnant.
Neighboring Kansas has about 435 CAFOs and more than 2,400 smaller livestock operations.
Craig Volland, of the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the number had grown steadily.
One CAFO in Greeley County in far Western Kansas has 180 hog barns and was looking in 2014 to expand to become the second largest in the country.
Volland said right-to-farm rules in Kansas have made the state more friendly to CAFOs. But until recent years, regulators stuck close to federal CAFO rules in issuing permits.
Over the past several years, Missouri has passed several pieces of legislation to make way for CAFOs. About 10 years ago, the Missouri General Assembly eliminated citizens’ ability to make nuisance complaints for non-economic damages against CAFOs. As of 2019, local and county health departments can’t issue ordinances governing CAFOs that are any stricter than state rules. That rule is currently tied up in court.
Opponents say the 2019 law undermines local communities’ ability to protect residents and their natural resources.
Robert Brundage, an attorney who represents several agricultural organizations, said the legislation, known as Senate Bill 391, put local communities and the state on “equal footing.”
“Senate Bill 391 has prevented counties from imposing arbitrary siting restrictions on CAFOs that were never based in sound science,” Brundage said. “They were only enacted to prevent the siting of virtually any new livestock operation in the county, so the legislature has returned some more common sense approach to siting CAFOs in the state that’s based on science.”
This year, the Legislature limited who can inspect agricultural facilities to state and federal agriculture and environmental officials and law enforcement in an apparent effort to bar local health departments from viewing the facilities.
Gov. Mike Parson signed the legislation into law Thursday, saying it “protects producers and supports Missouri’s agriculture industry.”
Kansas, too, has been criticized for tipping the scales in favor of CAFOs.
Officials with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have been negotiating with large hog farmers to amend state regulations and allow producers to divide their herds into distinct business operations on one piece of property, essentially allowing them to double the size of their CAFO without moving it any farther from the closest body of water, homes, churches or schools.
“They seem to be trying to accommodate the livestock industry at the expense, in our opinion, of the environment,” Volland said.
KDHE said the regulations weren’t in conflict with state law and didn’t represent a shift in policy.
A CAFO, Jones said, is “not something anybody wants to live next to.”
When the wind blows right, he can smell the hog waste from inside his farmhouse. He said it gets in his clothes.
But in recent years, neighbors have steadily lost their opportunities for recourse.
In 2016, lawmakers changed the makeup of the Clean Water Commission, which signs off on CAFO permits. Critics argued that the change made the commission more friendly to agricultural interests. The chairwoman, Ashley McCarty, is executive director of Missouri Farmers Care, which advocates for farming and agricultural interests and certifies counties with favorable rules as “agri-ready.”
McCarty didn’t return multiple requests for comment.
Stephen Jeffery, an attorney who helped Jones and neighbors try to fight off the CAFO in Callaway County, said neighbors often voice concerns about CAFO permits but are rarely heard.
By 2016, more than two dozen counties had adopted CAFO regulations, according to the University of Missouri Extension. Then the General Assembly prohibited such rules.
Jeffery represented plaintiffs who are fighting to get the rule reversed. In a lawsuit filed in 2020, they said the legislation “hinders (counties’) ability to effectively protect the public health of their county residents,” noting one county had prohibited construction of manure pits in areas where the soil is prone to shrinking and swelling and could cause leaks in the manure.
“Under the current Missouri law and regulations, the local community doesn’t really get that much input,” Jeffery said. “They’re able to provide comments on a proposed permit, but 99.9% of the time, the requests that they make for changes or revisions, unfortunately, are not implemented.”
Supporters contend the county health ordinances allow local communities to set rules that are appropriate for them. Such a rule existed in Livingston County, where opponents successfully fought off a 10,500-hog CAFO near the Poosey Conservation Area.
But while the neighbors in Livingston County celebrated the CAFO operator’s decision to withdraw its permit application, the Clean Water Commission eased groundwater restrictions that would have applied to the CAFO, making it easier for future operators to build in areas where environmentalists say they might threaten the groundwater.
While Jeffery has represented several communities attempting to battle back CAFOs, he noted the bulk of permit applications don’t garner the kind of attention the one in Livingston County did.
“What that tells me,” he said, “is that most CAFO operators are responsible enough that they site these facilities … far enough away that they’re not going to adversely affect their neighbors.”