Sunday, October 14, 2012

What the Indianapolis Star forgot to tell you about "Big Farms"

Today's Sunday Indianapolis Star's ("IndyStar") lead front page story was titled:  "Big farms pose challenge for state."  The focal point of the story was Chalfant Farms, a 4000 sow Indiana swine farm (or "CAFO" as it is legally defined) that was accused of spilling manure and causing a kill of 107,650 fish in the Mississinewa River.  As someone who routinely defends  farmers against accusations of fish kills, manure spills, and environmental non-compliance, I took a particular interest in this story.  There are some big facts the IndyStar article left out.

There has been no "deregulation" of the livestock industry.  The IndyStar article suggest there has been a "statehouse push to deregulate the industry."  I'm not sure what this is referring to, nor does the IndyStar attribute it to any source or legislator.  In fact, regulations affecting livestock farms in Indiana--not just CAFOs but smaller farms as well--have increased in the past ten years.  Yes, even during the Mitch Daniel's pro-business push for more livestock farms in rural Indiana, environmental regulations have become more stringent.  Just last year the Water Pollution Control Board passed new confined feeding regulations that regulate the application of phosphorus, essentially abolish winter manure spreading, and allow the state to impose groundwater monitoring wells on farms.  These are new, increased regulations.

Large CAFOs are subject to the most strict environmental regulations of any farms.  Many state environmental officials who work with livestock farms on a day-to-day basis will tell you that its not the large farms that are ag's contributors to water pollution in the state.  More issues stem from smaller farms.  This seems counter-intuitive, which is why so many reporters miss it, but let me give you an example.  A 1000 cow dairy must contain every ounce of manure and wastewater that it generates and must land apply such waste at agronomic rates, using defined methods (such as injection), and only during certain times of year.  A small 50 cow dairy, on the other hand, can let its cows stand in a stream, or cool off in a farm pond, all summer long, where nature takes its course.  In that case, the 50 cow dairy is contributing more nutrients to the local water way than the 1000 cow dairy.  But to the general public and reporters, the large CAFO looks like the environmental time bomb, just waiting to dump gallons of manure into a creek or stream.  Perception is not always reality.  (This is not an indictment of small livestock farms, most of which are also good environmental stewards by choice).

IDEM often reduces fines in exchange for environmental improvement projects.  The IndyStar article makes the $1000 fine read like Chalfant Farms got a slap on the wrist.  But the farm is also committed to planting 550 trees, which is a lot.  IDEM will often agree to reduce a fine in exchange for for a farmer's agreement to undertake a supplemental environmental project (or "SEP").  This is good public policy.  It ends litigation over whether the farmer was truly liable for the fish kill--which costs taxpayer dollars to defend--and, at the end of the process, it results in environmental improvement.  A farmer will often agree to make environmental improvements to a waterway or stream to resolve an IDEM complaint.  But the same farmer will never agree to pay a $26,000 fine out of principle.  Any policy that helps resolve claims and  reduce taxpayer dollars spent defending IDEM's action is a good thing, and not an example of IDEM looking the other way.

Contrary to the IndyStar, Indiana is not "struggling" to regulate Indiana's largest livestock farms.  Regulation of these farms is not even new, but has existed for decades, and in recent years has become even more stringent.

By Todd Janzen


  1. Who even has a 50 cow dairy anymore?

  2. Anonymous: I think your comment is rhetorical, but let me respond anyway. Dairy farming is one of the few areas of agriculture where the little farms have survived--for now. There are still quite a few dairies in Indiana that are in the 100 cow range. But certainly the trend is to grow the farm, as it has been since early 1900s.


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