MOUNT JUDEA, Ark. — Philip Campbell, co-owner of C&H Hog Farms in Mount Judea, couldn’t help but grin as he hosed down the boots on the last of the reporters to exit his hog barn Monday, before sending the visitors off to the showers.
“Sorry to make you all go through this,” Campbell said. “But this is what we go through about five times a day.”
Campbell, who owns the newly constructed concentrated animal-feeding operation with his brother, Richard Campbell, and their cousin, Jason Henson, led a two-hour tour through the facility for about a half-dozen reporters and public officials Monday afternoon. Because the operators hope to keep their farm an antibiotic-free facility, anyone entering the climate-controlled barn must shower and don a clean jumpsuit and galoshes, provided by the farm.
“Showering in” is a requirement. “Showering out” is an option, although, Henson cautioned, “people will know you’ve been around hogs.”
“I’m probably about the cleanest hog farmer you’ve ever met,” Henson said.
The farm, which is permitted to house as many as 2,503 full-grown sows and as many as 4,000 piglets, has attracted the ire and scrutiny of environmentalists, Buffalo River-based tourism businesses, government agencies and elected officials — all well before the farm has gone into full operation.
Organizations including the Ozark Society and the Buffalo River Chamber of Commerce have voiced concerns that the waste from 6,500 pigs could contaminate the area’s groundwater by leaking through the underlying karst — or porous limestone — geological structure of the land, or contaminate Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo National River, through rainfall runoff.
Steve Eddington, spokesman for the Arkansas Farm Bureau who also participated in Monday’s tour, said he urged Henson to invite members of the press to tour the farm to hopefully counterbalance a strong negative image that has become associated with it.
“We’re an agricultural advocacy organization, and we didn’t feel like C&H Farms’ side of the story was being told,” Eddington said. “There’s always at least two sides to a story, and it shouldn’t just be the loudest side that gets told.”
The farm, which now houses about 800 hogs, received the state’s first concentrated animal-feeding operation general permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems program in August 2012.
The permitting process can take up to two years, and both the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the farm’s owners have maintained that they met or exceeded every legal requirement set forth by state and federal agencies to obtain the permit.
Henson and Campbell said they hoped that allowing outsiders to see the farm for themselves would help alleviate some doubts about the integrity of the farm.
During several recent public meetings regarding the farm, some participants raised concern about odors drifting across Big Creek and into the central area of Mount Judea. Outside the barns Monday, no noticeable odor could be detected, even when standing near the waste pits, which have a capacity of about 3.6 million gallons. Inside the barn, the smell of animals was noticeable but not overpowering — the barn uses a series of air-exchange fans that the owners say completely replenishes the air within the barns every 30 seconds.
Farm owners also went to great lengths to explain how the hog waste is handled. Hogs inside the facility move atop a series of grates, under which is a series of 1-foot-deep pits. The pits are regularly charged with water, which sweeps the hogs’ waste to the first of the two large outdoor waste-storage pits.
Most of the waste solids remain in the first pit, while most of the liquid moves to the second pit. The solids are then collected and used as organic fertilizer, either spread over about 630 acres around the confinement facility or sold to other operations, and the liquid either evaporates or is used for irrigation or other purposes.
Henson tried to address concerns regarding groundwater contamination by highlighting the design of the waste pits. The Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook, developed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, allows for leakage of as much as 5,000 gallons per day in newly constructed waste pits, an amount judged not to affect groundwater. As solids congeal in the pits, leakage decreases by as much as 90 percent, said Katherine Benenati, an Arkansas Environmental Quality Department spokesman.
According to Benenati, the pits at C&H Farms are lined with a clay liner 1 ½ times the required thickness. Henson said the liner will substantially reduce the amount of initial leakage.
Environmental stewardship organizations have also raised concerns that the hog waste solids spread over the fields will eventually make their way into Big Creek, and from there into the Buffalo National River. Although several of the operation’s 17 fields are adjacent to Big Creek, state regulations forbid spreading the fertilizer within 150 feet of any stream.
Bob Cross, president of the Ozark Society, said his concerns with the farm had less to do with the construction of the farm itself than with the topography of the area.
“Our concerns are primarily based on the geology, that it sits on a karst limestone substrate,” Cross said. “Even if there are no accidents at all, any liquid applied to the fields that doesn’t evaporate is going to percolate to the groundwater. Even if most of the nutrients are removed, what’s left will still get into Big Creek.
“We applaud them for having an environmentally sound structure and equipment, but the location is just unsatisfactory,” Cross said.
Henson and his cousins say they have received public support from residents of both Mount Judea and Newton County, with several supporters focusing on the tax revenue the farm is expected to pay to the county.
Henson and his cousins said they put their family farms up as collateral to help secure a loan of about $4 million, with which they purchased the equipment to run their feeding operation and the 23.4 acres of land on which it now sits.
Sheila McCutcheon, tax assessor for Newton County, said the property had not been assessed since the owners built the farm’s feeding facilities. Based on an estimated appraisal value of $3 million, which would then be assessed at 20 percent, the owners would pay about $23,400 in annual property taxes, based on the Deer-Mount Judea School District’s 39-mill levy, McCutcheon said.
Daniel Ford, owner of the Eagle Rock Cafe in Mount Judea, said he was counting on both property taxes to help the school district and new jobs at the farm to add wage-earners in his community.
“We need business,” Ford said. “Not only here, but our schools are in desperate need. And this will help the community out, because they’re going to hire people instead of them having to drive to Harrison for a job.”
Henson said he planned to hire from 8 to 12 employees at the farm as the sows begin producing litters in two or three months. Henson said the jobs would pay between $10 and $20 an hour, depending on the particular job and the experience level of the employee.
C&H Hog Farms is what is referred to as a commercial sow farm. Cargill Inc., supplies nearly all the material associated with hog breeding at the facility: the feed, the sows, and the boar semen to inseminate them.
Mike Martin, a Cargill spokesman, said that once the piglets reach a weaning weight of 12 to 14 pounds, about three weeks after birth, Cargill transfers them to a nursery farm for about eight weeks before being placed in a “finishing farm,” which brings the pigs to their ideal slaughter weight of about 275 pounds. Some piglets will go to a “wean-to-finish facility,” which combines the two stages. In either case, the pigs are then taken to a processing plant, where “live hogs go in and bacon comes out,” as Martin puts it.
Martin said Cargill has contracts with about 750 farms throughout the country, most of which are finishing farms. Martin said none of the finishing farms or processing plants with which Cargill contracts are located in Arkansas. Martin said the company has two pork-processing plants, one in Ottumwa, Iowa, and another in Beardstown, Ill.
In Arkansas, Cargill owns one sow farm of its own near Morrilton, which houses 4,000 sows and 2,000 gilts, which are immature sows that have not reached breeding age. The corporation also contracts with four nursery farms, eight finishing farms and 85 sow farms similar to C&H Farms.
Martin said C&H Hog Farms is paid per piglet produced but declined to discuss a dollar amount.
Henson said Cargill began delivering sows about two weeks ago, beginning with one shipment of 125 hogs. He said he expects the corporation to keep delivering sows until the facility begins to approach its permit capacity.
Inside the barn, most of the sows are kept in open pens measuring about 400 square feet, limited to 14 pigs each. The facility also has five boars, although they’ve all been vasectomized, Henson said, and are there simply to increase the rate of fertility in the sows.
“As technologically advanced as man is today, we still cannot do what God does, in terms of stimulating the sow,” Henson said. “So we have boars.”
Once a sow is determined to be pregnant, it is moved to an individual confinement pen to reduce the chance of losing the pregnancy through rough interaction with otherhogs. The gestation period for a typical sow is about 118 days, Henson said.
When a sow is about two days from giving birth, she is moved to another part of the farm and kept confined after the birth so the piglets can nurse without danger of being crushed, Henson said. A few days after giving birth, sows are given about four to five days to eat heavily before being returned to the farm’s general population.
Henson said a typical sow will produce about 2.4 litters a year for three to five years, after which point the sow is usually sold for slaughter.
OPPOSITION NOT WANING
Henson said that while he understood that people were deeply concerned about the waterways of Newton County, he was frustrated at what he saw as the assumption that neither he nor his co-owner cousins shared those concerns.
“We are environmentalists at heart,” Henson said. “We did everything the law requires, and went above and beyond that. As far as polluting anything, we have more at stake than any of these environmentalists, in my opinion. This is where we live. If we contaminate something, this is where we live. We have to look our neighbors in the eye every day.”
Although C&H Farms continues to move toward full production, opposition to the facility isn’t waning. Both the Arkansas Environmental Quality Department and the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, an umbrella organization representing several environmental stewardship interests, have scheduled public meetings today in Jasper.
Additionally, Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental litigation organization formerly known as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, submitted a notice of intent to sue to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the department’s Farm Service Agency offices in both Washington, D.C., and Little Rock.
The notice, which gives federal and state agencies a 60-day warning, was filed on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Ozark Society, and the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance.
Hannah Chang, a lawyer with Earthjustice and the primary signatory on the notice of intent, said her organization was initially approached by the National Parks Conservation Association.
Jack Stewart, a member of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said his group hoped to halt operations at C&H Hog Farms and give environmental regulators adequate time to determine if the farm will affect endangered species in the area.
Chang said Earthjustice would wait to hear from the agencies named in the suit before determining whether to proceed with legal action, based on their willingness to address the notice’s complaints.
At 4 p.m., the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance will hold a public meeting at the Buffalo Theater on the Jasper Square to address concerns about water quality and other possible impacts of the farm.
At 6 p.m., the Environmental Quality Department will hold a public meeting at the Carroll Electric Cooperative Corp. building in Jasper. John Bailey, the department’s Permits Branch manager, will give a presentation on the concentrated animal-feeding operation permitting process, and department Director Teresa Marks, Deputy Director Ryan Benefield and other staff members will be on hand to answer questions.
Originally published May 8, 2013 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette