Trying to get the farmer’s side of the story, shortly after the conservation coalition’s USDA lawsuit announcement, I spoke with Evan Teague, the Arkansas Farm Bureau’s environmental specialist.
When did Farm Bureau become aware of this situation?
“We became aware of this and began working with the farmer in early February. That’s when the initial controversy was raised by the park superintendant for the Buffalo River.
“The farmer – a legitimate, eighth generation farmer in the area – is a Newton County Farm Bureau member and has two cousins that are partners in a hog farm that’s already been operating in the Buffalo River watershed for probably a dozen years or more. They’ve not had any violations at that facility, which is about 5 miles from the new one. They have about 300 sows.
“When the new farm is at full capacity, it will hold 2,500 sows and 4,000 piglets. It will be a farrow-to-wean operation. So, once they get the piglets up to weaning weight (about 12 pounds), they’ll ship the piglets out of state to get them to finishing weight.
“Arkansas has no feeding, finishing or slaughtering facilities.
“I think a lot of folks have heard, ‘This is a 6,500 hog operation.’ But that isn’t a proper description. Obviously, when you compare the size of a piglet to a finished hog, the manure generated isn’t nearly as much.”
Were you asked to look at their waste-disposal plans?
“We weren’t asked to review those plans. I’m a registered professional engineer but don’t do any design work anymore.
“When we became aware of the situation, the operation had already obtained coverage under the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) permit from ADEQ. They’d hired a consulting engineering firm out of the Dakotas, I believe. They did the design work – structural engineers for the concrete paths and shallow pits under the barns and the houses.
“They also brought in a soil-testing firm and did soil bores at numerous locations around the site. That included beneath the lagoon locations.
“The geology or soil structure of the site is actually a gravelly- or silty-clay base. People keep talking about the Karst geology that underlies the area – which is true for a large portion of the region. However, for whatever reason, the particular farm site’s soil is clay-based.
“Another thing that’s interesting is they have also drilled a well to supply the hogs. So, they have their own, private well with rural water back-up.
“I was visiting with the farm owner the other day. I asked if he had any records from the company that bored the well. He wasn’t sure, but he was present when they bored the well and his recollection was they didn’t hit rock or limestone until they were about 70 feet down. Now, I haven’t verified that, but even if it’s 20 to 40 feet down, that’s a lot of depth before the limestone. And the limestone is what everyone is worried about – that the lagoons will leak down and get into the creeks and rivers.”
In terms of fears about run-off and the like, I take it you’d say questions are perfectly legitimate to ask.
“I agree with that. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. But when someone gives an answer based in facts and science and you choose not to believe it, then there’s not much that can be done to convince you or ease your fears.
“Some folks just don’t want to believe information that’s being given in good faith. Truthfully, some of the opponents aren’t willing to seek out the information because it doesn’t fit their story.”
On how the operation will deal with manure…
“With this operation, they own a number of the fields they’ll apply the manure and liquid on. Those fields are already pastures and there are a lot of local farmers that use them for hay and cattle. Those fields are already being fertilized with nutrients.
“For folks to believe that there’s no farming activity already going on in the watershed is a fallacy. Farmers are already haying and fertilizing those with nitrogen and a bit of phosphorus, probably.
“Right now, those areas aren’t required by law to follow a nutrient management plan. I’m sure the local farmers are working with Extension and following their recommendations.
“Meanwhile, in order for this hog farm to apply the manure, they have to stick to a nutrient management plan. That plan must be based on the Arkansas Phosphorus Index. So, essentially, they’re going from an unregulated application of nutrients to a regulated application of nutrients.”