The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

County clings to last CAFO regulations as policy update is considered

File photo
Johnson County supervisors listen to public comment on Oct. 9, 2017.

The Johnson County government is on guard against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, known colloquially as factory farms, as it considers updating the agricultural-exemption policy under the 2018 Comprehensive Plan.

The controversial policy, also known as the “40-acre rule,” defines only agricultural operations larger than 40-acres as farms, which conflicts with the state’s use-based definition. Smaller farms do not receive the agricultural exemption, meaning they cannot build such structures as barns or residences without obtaining permits.

In part because of the agricultural-exemption policy, many see Johnson County as unfriendly toward small farmers.

After months of heated debate, the county has promised to carefully review the rule and look into potential updates. County Supervisor Kurt Friese said the county officials want to support smaller farmers, but they have to be careful how they do it.

“There’s always potential for something to go wrong and someone to find a loophole,” he said.

Keeping large feedlot development at bay is one of his main concerns, Friese said. He fears the county’s limited influence could diminish further, depending on if and how the rule changes.

Iowa defines those concentrated operations as enterprises that raise more than 500 “animal units” in confinement. Iowa’s many hogs are considered only a fraction of an animal unit each.

Many environmentalists and public-health officials warn of potential air- and water-quality issues from mismanaged feedlots.

Counties cannot restrict the number of animals the concentrated operations have, nor the location and size or use of buildings because the state regulates those operations. The operations are often integrated into farms that also grow crops.

As it stands now, Johnson County does have some say about farms fewer than 40 acres, said Josh Busard, the county director of planning, development, and sustainability. Farmers can keep 50 adult animals on two acres with an additional five per acre more than two. At 39 acres, this maxes out at 235 animals.

“You’re not going to get 2,499 hogs,” Busard said.

There are 46 concentrated operations active in Johnson County, according to the Comprehensive Plan, a document for planning and zoning updated every 10 years. Friese said he has received many constituent complaints from unhappy neighbors about those concentrated operations.

UI Professor Emeritus Paul Greenough, a member of Iowa Citizens for Clean Air and Water, a neighborhood association that recently mobilized to oppose development of new feedlots, is one of the critics.

All association members live two miles west of an active concentrated operation on Oak Crest Hill Road, just south of Iowa City. Greenough said that on certain days, the smell of animal waste is so offensive residents cannot go outside. For them, it is an issue of quality of life and property values.

Greenough said his group is not against farming in the county, but he believes concentrated operations are industrial facilities, not farms.

Mark Ogden, the president of the Johnson County Farm Bureau, disagrees.

“I’m not a fan of the word ‘factory’ because I don’t know any factory farmers around Johnson County,” he said.

He said most farmers aim to maintain a safe and healthy environment for their families and communities. In his experience, he said, most farmers and concentrated operators manage their property responsibly, though everyone can always do a little better.

Ogden said robust engineering in the operations protects groundwater. Today, state law encourages “formed” manure storage structures with walls and sides made of hardy materials such as steel or concrete, but before the 1990s, manure was commonly stored in “unformed” earthen pits or lagoons.

In regards to the 40-acre rule, Ogden said Johnson County should adopt the state’s farm definition to provide better opportunities for small, young farmers. He said the state regulates concentrated operations well.

“We’ve got to make this all work, and the state code is well set up to help us do that,” he said.

Iowa has many legal requirements for new and existing operations, including penalties for air- and water-quality violations. Operations with more than 1,000 animal units are subject to a higher level of regulation.

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