Sharon Deweerth looks out the west windows of her rural Marshall County home to see the sun set on corn fields stretching to the horizon. Those fields hold generations of her family’s history of work, values and memories of rural farm life.
That view will change despite her objections. Unless plans are altered, Deweerth will look out on an industrial hog operation with minimal government oversight.
“That beautiful, black soil will be gone,” said Deweerth, 75.
Vicki Waldschmidt, 74, and Deweerth have been friends for nearly 50 years. They are both farm wives, widows, former members of the Marshall County Board and members of the Illinois Farm Bureau. Both adamantly oppose a massive confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) slated for a field near their farms.
The proposed operation, Buffalo Run, is expected to start with 7,000 sows and number a total of 22,000 animals including piglets. But that number can increase exponentially over coming years. The CAFO will be owned and operated by VMC Management in Williamsburg, Iowa.
“With 22,000 under roof, it will be one of the largest in the area,” said Deweerth, a registered nurse.
“These operations breed disease. The hogs are filled with antibiotics, and we are seeing more antibiotic resistance that can be fatal. Emissions into the air will create problems with asthma, COPD, heart problems and gastro-intestinal problems. Quality of life is destroyed around CAFOs.”
VMC Management did not return a phone call seeking comment.
This form of raising animals is given preferential treatment by the state. CAFOs can be approved over local objections. Local county boards have control over wind turbines, solar farms, landfills and zoning decisions, but there is no local control over placement or size of a CAFO.
Danielle Diamond, director of field operations with the not-for-profit Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, said all of the surrounding states around Illinois have more regulatory authority over CAFOs. Illinois is the most lax and permissive in the region, she said.
The Marshall County Board voted against approval of Buffalo Run but that does not tie the hands of the Illinois Department of Agriculture that’s expected to approve Buffalo Run.
Allen Mayer, an attorney and former member of the Peoria County Board, said the system in Springfield takes control of CAFOs away from local jurisdictions and places it with the Illinois Department of Agriculture that rarely, if ever, rejects an application.
“I don’t want to be seen as anti-agriculture, but these same groups (that object to local control over CAFOs) insist on local control of roads and schools – but they want siting large animal operations done by the Illinois Department of Agriculture,” Mayer said. “I eat pork. I eat beef. I’m not a vegetarian and recognize meat needs to be produced,” however, if production is scaled up and creates waste like an industrial facility, there is a need to protect the public.
He doubts total control will ever revert to local governing bodies, but he thinks some changes are possible. He’d like to see county boards notified in advance regardless of the size of the CAFO and be able to hold informational hearings.
“The department of agriculture’s job is to promote agriculture and expand Illinois agriculture,” Mayer said, citing the number of CAFO applications rejected by the state. Zero.
By mid-July, the Illinois Department of Agriculture had 51 public hearings listed for CAFO applications to date this year, with 27 approved, 24 pending and none rejected.
“We need better protection and more local input,” Mayer said noting, however, that currently the Illinois EPA does not have enough staff to inspect CAFOs to be sure they are in compliance with their operating plans. Enforcement comes after an environmental disaster, he said.
A CAFO in Princeville was just under the legal threshold to mandate notification of the country board, however, once a CAFO is operating, it can expand without public hearings.
Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, introduced legislation calling for an increased setback from the current half mile from a populated area to a 1½ mile-setback. That bill did not move forward but he plans to reintroduce it. He will also call for legislation mandating public hearings for all proposed CAFOs regardless of size..
He said, “CAFOs should be considered special use” and require regulatory approval.
He plans to pursue tightened legislation that will stipulate the Illinois EPA must regulate and oversee water and pollution runoff.
Peoria County board member and farmer Brian Elsasser said, “I can’t support complete county control (over CAFO siting) or we’d never end up with a hog farm.”
However, Elsasser supports extending setbacks to 1½ miles.
“The goal is we want placement of these facilities so there are no objections,” he said.
Karen Hudson, with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, is helping Deweerth, Waldschmidt and other Marshall County residents fight Buffalo Run.
Concurring with Mayer that oversight is inadequate, she said, “Illinois EPA does not even have an inventory of existing CAFOs in the state, and if you don’t know where they exist, how are you going to monitor them?”
She said the Illinois Department of Agriculture fails to publish the minutes of public hearings according to a mandated deadline.
Liz Moran Stelk, executive director of Illinois Stewardship Alliance that supports sustainable farming, said, “We have pasture livestock producer members who tell us Illinois’ lack of enforcement of CAFOs gives them an unfair competitive advantage. Our members go the extra mile to raise animals on pasture in ways that improve soil health and protect water quality and wildlife habitat, but they have to compete on price at the supermarket. It’s like government tipping the scales in favor of some producers over others.”
Eliot Clay worked with the Illinois State Senate Republican Staff and is now program director with the Illinois Environmental Council. He said “One of the tenets of conservatism is less big government and more local control. But county and local governments have no say over proposed (CAFO) facilities.”
When foreign and out-of-state corporations own and operate agriculture in Illinois, there is less economic benefit for local economies, he said. The money going to out-of-state corporations leaves behind deteriorating roads and environmental damage that local communities have to fix, Clay said.
He disputes the notion that CAFO waste is valuable fertilizer for surrounding farm fields.
“The DNR reports the biggest fish kills are from manure from CAFOs. Every time there is a major rain event, there is a massive fish kill in Lake Springfield,” Clay said. “Algae blooms due to nutrient runoff have shut down beaches.”
He said CAFO waste management plans need to be filed with the EPA, mandatory water studies are needed for each site and increases in size should not be allowed without oversight.
Deweerth and Waldschmidt said their families have been members of the Farm Bureau for three generations.
“I thought the Farm Bureau cared about farmers,” said Deweerth. “Now I have no idea what the Farm Bureau stands for. It won’t help us. It helps corporations.”
Lauren Lurkin, director of Natural and Environmental Resources with the Illinois Farm Bureau, said her organization has 80,000 farmer members and works to educate them about issues surrounding CAFOs. She said the Farm Bureau lobbyists have been in contact with Koehler about his legislation. Lurkin said regulations in Illinois have been updated and strengthened and are consistent with federal rules.
“Yes, we are satisfied with (existing) regulations. Illinois has a robust set of regulations,” she said.
Diamond said research proves that better regulation will not result in a negative economic impact –– just look at surrounding states that still have thriving livestock production but stronger regulatory oversight than Illinois.
Besides not having the authority to reject a CAFO, Illinois residents who are harmed by CAFOs don’t have judicial pathways to redress their grievances.
Illinois courts have determined that anyone adversely impacted by a CAFOs can’t challenge the Department of Agriculture that approved the CAFO, Diamond said.
“There is nothing like that in any other surrounding state. Illinois is one of the worst if not the worst in the nation,” she said. “The democratic rights of citizens and municipalities have been stripped away. The Illinois Legislature is under the thumb of the ag industry.”