Surrounded by rolling green hills about 20 miles west of Indianapolis, Richard and Janet Himsel’s farmhouse in Danville, Indiana, was idyllic for many years.
But a few years into their retirement, new neighbors moved in across the street in the form of 8,000 pigs.
The Himsels, long-time pig farmers themselves, have changed their way of life because of fumes from the large-scale confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO. They no longer open their windows. Janet has given up gardening. The grandchildren don’t visit as much anymore, and the value of the Himsels’ property has plummeted.
A suit filed by the Himsels and another couple against the corporations that run the hog farm, one of which is owned by another branch of the family, may go to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their story is a clash of the old ways versus the new – the small family farm versus large-scale corporate agriculture.
Supporters of large-scale farming say the efficiencies of the system result in lower food costs, while using less land, energy and water than conventional farming methods. They say there’s room at the table for a variety of pork-rearing practices.
But others, including environmentalists at the state level, say so-called factory farms are bad for the land and for the local food system that keeps traditional family farms alive.
“CAFOs didn’t make farms more profitable, it really just reduced the margins,” said food systems analyst Ken Meter, president of Crossroads Resource Center and a consultant for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. “By having a lot of animals that could be raised at a lower price, it put pressure on every farmer to lower their prices, which lowered markets for all farmers in the state.”
A model of efficiency
Agriculture is a big business in Indiana, contributing $31 billion to the state. Of that, $3.55 billion comes from animal and animal product production.
Today, more than 85% of the livestock in Indiana are raised in a CFO, or confined feeding operation. These large-scale industrial barns house thousands of animals, allowing farmers the ability to control the environment in what they believe is a more efficient way of raising livestock.
More than 1,800 farms in the state have a CFO on their property. Of those, 796 are the more intensive CAFOs, or confined animal feeding operations.
The difference between a CFO and a CAFO is size. All farms with at least 300 cattle, 600 swine or sheep, 30,000 poultry or 500 horses in confinement are CFOs. Those that allow for 1,000 cattle, 10,000 swine less than 55 pounds, 82,000 laying hens or 55,000 turkeys are CAFOs, which are subject to additional state regulations.
For the past several decades, farmers nationwide have been encouraged to specialize and also to industrialize, which has led to the rise in CAFOs.
“Confined livestock has a long history. Indiana started regulating it clear back into the early ’70s, even before there was a Clean Water Act,” said Josh Trenary, executive director for Indiana Pork. “The concept of bringing pigs indoors isn’t new, it's just there used to be a lot more smaller barns dotting the landscape than there are now.”
Trenary said the fewer, larger barns allow farmers to produce more pork with fewer resources, leading to lower consumer costs and also a smaller environmental footprint.
“We’re raising hogs on roughly 76% less land, 25% less water, 7% less energy and 7.7% lower carbon emissions per pound of pork than ever before. That's good for everybody,” he said.
“Confined hogs are housed in temperature-controlled buildings and are very comfortable for the animals. Confined hogs do not need to dig a hole in a pasture and create a self-made swimming or cooling area.”
Indiana Sen. Jean Leising, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says properly managed confined feeding operations enable farmers to meet the demand of meat in the U.S.
“Outdoor production of swine causes serious erosion and environmental issues and produces few animals,” she said.
Pig farms can be organized in a few different ways. Farmers can be an independent operators, meaning they own the whole business, or they can partner with other farmers or corporations to raise the pigs.
In such corporate partnerships, the farmer owns the land, equipment and provides the labor and care for the pigs, but doesn’t own the animals. In return, the other party pays for antibiotics, veterinary care and feed. Sometimes, the farmer is given exact instructions on care and incentives for meeting or exceeding goals. However, each contract is unique.
Trenary said attention to feed types, genetics and building design means the commercial industry can continually learn to do more with less on a larger scale.
“You’ve got to have safe, affordable food that's plentiful, and you want to be able to produce that food as efficiently as possible to minimize the environmental impact for producing that protein,” Trenary said.
But he doesn’t think one kind of pig operation should supplant another. There’s a reason for the wide variety of systems for raising pork, he says, and he understands the market for niche or organic products.
“You still need the ability to raise and process those types of products,” he said. “It's also going to typically be not as efficient and a little more expensive to the consumer. So, you got to have a suite of options to be able to accommodate every consumer.”
How a CAFO saved a family farm
Nick Tharp never thought of farming as a professional option. He studied a related field at Purdue University, but he didn’t think he would be the one doing the actual farming.
Then he met his future wife, Beth, whose parents own Legan Livestock and Grain in Putnam County.
The Legans bought their farm in 1989 and raised sows on outdoor lots. In 1997, they decided to switch to a CAFO in order to be more competitive and to provide better care for their animals. They built a second CAFO just before Nick and Beth’s 2010 graduation from Purdue.
“They expanded our farm, which allowed us the opportunity to come back and farm with her parents here, and gave them the ability to continue to farm,” Tharp said.
The Tharps are now equal partners with the Legans in the farm.
Tharp says a CAFO has allowed the families to focus on the health and performance of the animals. Before his in-laws brought the sows inside, each sow was weaning eight to nine pigs per litter. Now they are up to 12 to 13 pigs per litter, increasing their profits and becoming more efficient.
On the Legan farm, corn and soybean crops, raised via a no-till system to preserve soil structure, provide feed for the pigs. In turn, pig manure fertilizes those crops, creating an ecosystem the farmers can fine tune. For example, if Tharp notices the fertilizer is lower in one element, he tweaks the crop to produce higher-nutrient manure.
“Part of it is to then being able to capture those nutrients in the manure and getting that nutrient applied to where the growing crops need it,” Tharp said. “That's allowed us to look at utilizing that as a resource that it is. We can really look at the production of that crop and be able to precisely utilize that nutrient to the best of our ability.”
Tharp not only helps run a large-scale pig production farm that sends pork all over the U.S. and the world; he also has a small local meat production business.
After neighbors asked where they could buy the pork he produced, Tharp decided to offer a frozen product platform. He works with health officials and a local state-inspected processor
to make sure he’s following regulations.
“It's really kind of blossomed from there,” he said. “We have people in neighboring counties that are coming. They want to be able to put a face with the farmer that is producing that protein, and so it allows us to fill that need, that desire of the consumer at that level.”
Tharp now also offers lamb and chicken and has partnered with a neighboring farmer who raises beef.
He understands people might have concerns about CAFOs, but says his farm operates under core values such as stewardship of the land and animals, and of the people who work at the farm. His family also believes in being as asset to the community, sponsoring math bowl and Little League teams, providing ham to neighbors for the holidays and having a community picnic on the farm in the summer.
“We’re trying new things, looking at different management practices with the pigs, just to continue to do better at what we do, each and every day,” Tharp said. “We want to be proactive and really be involved and be a good neighbor, and that's something that's important to us.”
Safety concerns – for animals and humans
While large-scale operations may be efficient and productive, they also raise concerns about animal welfare, water quality issues, antibiotic resistance and smell.
“A mature dairy cow is going to produce the equivalent of urine and feces as roughly 14 people,” said Kim Ferraro, senior staff attorney and agriculture policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “They're producing a lot more waste than humans do, and we're not regulating that waste the way we do human waste.”
CAFOs’ facility design, manure handling and storage and monitoring are all regulated through the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Anyone wanting to start or expand a CAFO must apply for a permit, have all plans reviewed and be approved by IDEM before beginning construction.
The owner is required to notify all residents within a half-mile radius of the proposed location, adjoining property owners and the county commissioners for that location. Every permit is open to a 33-day public comment period, where citizens may voice concerns or ask questions about the proposed CAFO.
IDEM visits each CAFO once every five years for a compliance check. If a complaint is filed against a farm, IDEM will follow up and, if necessary, start an investigation.
Manure from a CAFO must be tested annually, and soil testing must be done every four years, in accordance with state laws.
One of the main concerns about CAFOs is manure and manure storage.
“Livestock waste gets to be stored in massive outside waste lagoons that are unlined,” Ferraro said. “That waste then can overflow into surface waters, leach into the ground and as it decomposes, that's a lot of really noxious and dangerous air pollutants in the air like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and others.”
Hydrogen Sulfide is a colorless, flammable gas that produces an odor like rotten eggs. It is produced by the bacterial breakdown of the animal waste. It can cause sore throat, headaches, nausea and insomnia.
Ammonia is also a colorless gas that produces a strong odor. It is naturally produced by microorganisms in the manure. Ammonia can also cause burning sensations and irritation to the nose, lungs, throat.
CAFOs are exempt from the federal Clean Air Act, and in June of 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted a rule exempting farms from reporting under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.
In the IDEM CFO guidance manual, there are five approved floor/liner options for a manure storage structure, from an earthen floor to a 5-inch concrete liner with reinforced steel.
Most farmers use manure from their CAFOs as fertilizer for crops, either on their own fields or on other farms, reducing the amount of chemical fertilizers.
The state has strict regulations regarding the application of manure, such as avoiding weather conditions that could lead to runoff, amounts that can be applied and the operator who is applying it.
However, even with state restrictions, manure is getting into the water.
In 2018, IDEM released a state water and assessment report. Of the 62,547 miles of water designated for recreational use/full body contact in Indiana, only 32,848 miles were tested for possible contamination. Of those, 24,687 showed the presence of E coli. That means 75% of the waterways tested and 40% of the total, even without full testing, contained E coli.
The same report lists sources of impairment. Animal feeding operations (nonpoint source) have impacted 10,600 miles, permitted runoff from CAFOs 1,889 miles and livestock (grazing or feeding operations) 6,345 miles. That adds up to 18,834 miles of Indiana’s waterways.
Trenary says the risk of the E.coli source being from livestock is mitigated by strict regulation of manure storage and application.
“Manure isn’t allowed to leave the barn site unless it is being land applied at agronomic rates, and IDEM requires the farm to have enough land to meet these requirements,” he said. “Both rate and predominant method of application (injection) help to lessen the risk of manure making it to surface water both from surface runoff and tile drainage. This has obvious environmental benefits but also means that the nutrients from the manure are properly placed to be utilized by the crop as fertilizer.”
From fresh air to foul
The Himsels are no strangers to manure.
In 1938, Richard Himsel’s father, Arthur, bought 26 acres of land in Danville and began to raise crops and livestock, including pigs in the open air. Richard joined him and took over the operation of the farm after Arthur’s death.
“The most important thing the young pigs and hogs need is to be on the ground, in the dirt,” Himsel recalls his father saying.
But with their pigs in the field, the Himsels never encountered the kind of stench that now wafts past the farmhouse where Richard was born.
In 2013, Himsel saw a notice in the paper regarding a hearing before the Hendricks County Plan Commission to have the land across the street rezoned and approved for CAFOs use.
The Himsels went to the meeting.
“The whole community was there. They were all objecting to it,” he said. “Not only me, even though I was the closest. There are a lot of people in the neighborhood that had health issues, and everyone had a real strong inkling that this thing would be a detriment to the value of their property.”
Despite community concerns, a spokesperson for the property owners, assured the residents they were using new technology and state-of-the-art environmental protections to keep odors and possible discharge at bay.
“One of the representatives said this is a new kind of innovation and odor would never be that strong, and there’s a good chance you would you wouldn’t even smell it,” Himsel said. “Well, he was right. We did not smell anything for three whole days, and then after that it started.”
In September 2013, CAFO owners – one of whom is Richard Himsel’s first cousin, built two 33,500-square-foot buildings with ventilation fans, slatted floors and concrete pits to collect and store 4 million gallons of liquid waste from 8,000 confined hogs.
“I have a lot of throat problems, if I breathe a lot of it,” said Himsel. “I lose my voice. My wife had a lot of problems getting used to it, and for a while she stayed with our daughter in Indianapolis because she couldn’t live here.”
The large ventilation fans needed in a CAFO to help with environmental control for the pigs pull the odors out of the building. Himsel said they blow the stink and the fumes right across the neighborhood.
“We’re 79 years old years old. We'd like to move to town, get a condo or something, because to keep up this piece of property, it takes a lot of work,” said Himsel, who retired in 2000 and rents his land to a tenant. “I had to accept another job to try and survive because the value of our property has been decreased so much. It took away our retirement. Some people say it’s 60%. I can tell you it's closer to 100% value loss.”
In 2016, the Himsels and another couple, the Lannons, decided to sue the owners of the CAFO with the help of the Hoosier Environmental Council. The suit eventually made it to the Indiana Supreme Court in January of this year, but the court voted 3-to-2 in the CAFO’s favor.
“It was a really close call, so we were almost there, but we're taking it to the U.S. Supreme court now,” Ferraro said. “So, it's still an ongoing case.”
The right to farm
Citizens living near CAFOs have little to no legal protection. State and federal laws regulate nutrient pollution from CAFOs, but not air pollution or odor.
Indiana has two laws that protect factory farm owners. The Right to Farm Act prevents owners of factory farms from being sued by neighbors who feel their land or health might have been harmed by farm practice. The act is meant to encourage agriculture production and allow farmers to work without fear of being sued.
In 2014, Indiana lawmakers passed Senate Enrolled Act 186, which states, “The Indiana Code shall be construed to protect the rights of farmers to choose among all generally accepted farming and livestock production practices, including the use of ever changing technology.”
The Himsels are challenging these laws in their suit, saying they violate their equal protection and due process rights and amount to an unconstitutional taking of their property rights.
“The federal constitution and our state constitution prohibit the government from passing any law or taking any action that would take away someone's private property without just compensation,” Ferraro said. “That's called a taking, and it's unconstitutional. We’re going to take that to the U.S. Supreme Court now.”
Himsel said neither government officials nor attorneys have visited their home.
“Nobody has come to our property and looked at our situation to see what we actually face, what we put up with,” he said. “So, we keep fighting it, and keep fighting and working for things.”
Food as a commodity
Ken Meter is a one of the most experienced food system analysts in the U.S., having conducted economic analyses of local food networks in 40 states, including Indiana.
“Once you transform food from a community function into a commodity, you separate the farmer from the consumer, and you start growing for what the market will bear, rather than what your neighbors need for food,” Meter said.
The majority of crops raised in Indiana, like corn and soybeans, are grown for livestock feed, not human consumption. The state has 15 million acres of farmland, and 90% of what is grown or produced is exported to other states or countries.
Which means 90% of the food eaten in Indiana is imported to the state at a loss of $14.5 billion to the state economy.
Meter said for a long time people treasured the idea of larger, more industrial farms because they appeared to represent progress. In reality, he argues, CAFOs didn’t make farms more profitable.
“You can’t argue from the data that CAFOs are good financially for the state of Indiana,” he said. “They were good for some farmers who adopted at certain times, that had more favorable conditions. But they haven’t created a more lasting, more sustainable agriculture in the state.”
Meter estimates that if every consumer in Indiana bought $5 a week from local farmers, that would generate $1.75 billion for the state and farmers of Indiana.
Ferraro said economies of scale and unfair market competition mean global companies can create efficiencies that local farmers can’t compete with.
“So, they control the markets, they control the price that gets paid, they control all aspects of production, and so the little guy can't compete, and it's kind of the Walmart effect, just unfair competition. And that is all because of policies that we have in place that have allowed that to happen,” said Ferraro.
The Indiana State Department of Health and Board of Animal Health issued a joint statement to the Indiana Environmental Reporter about farm size.
“Indiana laws do not create an advantage or disadvantage for farms of any size,” the statement said. “Most farms in Indiana are independent. There are over 56,000 farming operations in Indiana and 96% of those farms are family owned and operated. In fact, the state offers a number of programs to assist smaller and start-up farmers who grow, raise, package or produce products in Indiana.”
But Ferraro believes a CAFO shouldn’t be called a farm.
“In fact, I don't even like the term factory farm. I don't like calling them a farm in any way. They're not,” she said. “They're an industry. They should be regulated like an industry because they have an industrial scale with an industrial pollution impact. Yet, they're regulated as if there's somehow a bucolic little farm with cows running out in the pasture. They need to be regulated responsibly and required to control their emissions and impact just like every other industry is.”
She believes regulation would result in improved technologies and reduced pollution, as well as increased public awareness that would enable consumers to make educated choices about the food they buy.
“It's been my experience that most people, when they find out that this is where our meat, poultry and dairy come from, they don't want to buy that stuff,” she said.
But she acknowledges people with lower incomes often don’t have a choice.
“Buying responsibly typically means a higher cost, and so education alone isn't going to do it,” she said. “It still has to come from a policy legislative perspective.”
Room at the table?
Pig farmers have been hit especially hard by COVID-19, but Tharp believes you have to have a little faith as the market fluctuates.
He would like to keep the business viable not only for now, but also in case one of his daughters might want to take over the farm one day.
“Having the opportunity to produce food for the world and really look at how we can utilize the resources we've been blessed with is pretty cool to me,” he said.
Trenary believes raising pork isn’t limited to just one option.
“There's a variety of ways the raise pork, and there's room for everybody,” he said. “I get frustrated with kneejerk value judgments I hear based on one production technology over another or one production philosophy over another. There's room for everybody out there and markets for everything. There's a reason things shake out proportionately like they do, and it creates a lot of opportunity in our rural communities.”
Ferraro agrees there need to be more opportunities in rural communities, but she thinks the system also needs work.
“We have to go back to a diversified food system that supports local communities and small farmers,” she said. “Otherwise, we continue on with big ag getting bigger and using local resources to benefit and grow food for other countries, in other states and at the expense of those local communities.”