Midwest Aims To Add Large Indoor Animal Farms, Despite Concerns

8:41 minutes

five small pigs squished together in a pen.
Concentrated animal feeding operations hold thousands of head of livestock, such as hogs, which produce a lot of waste. Some states are passing laws or instituting programs that encourage less local regulation. Credit: United Soybean Board

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This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Eva Tesfaye, was originally published by KCUR and Harvest Public Media.

Legislation and programs in states like Missouri and Nebraska are paving the way to welcome large livestock operations by limiting local control over the facilities. Some rural residents worry about the potential pollution and decreased quality of life that will bring.

In Cooper County, Missouri, CAFOs are a controversial topic.

Susan Williams asked to meet in a small local library to talk about it, hoping that there wouldn’t be anyone around. Even in this quiet atmosphere, she’s nervous about people overhearing the conversation.

“I just don’t want the whole town to hear me,” she said.

Concentrated animal feed operations, commonly called CAFOs, are large animal facilities that hold thousands of head of livestock. Iowa leads the Midwest in the number of CAFOs with about 4,000 of them. However, in recent years, laws and programs have paved the way for CAFOs to operate in other Midwestern states, including Missouri and Nebraska.

That’s worrying residents like Williams, a retired elementary school principal and a farmland owner from Clarksburg, Missouri. Back in 2018, a large hog operation called Tipton East planned on moving in less than a mile away from her house. The size of the operation, about 8,000 hogs, concerned her, especially since she grew up with a small hog farm.

“Just the smell and the waste that you had was tremendous with that,” she said. “And I couldn’t imagine what it would be like with that many hogs.”

A woman in a wooded area kneels at the ground, picking up small samples of water in a test tube.
Susan William tests water quality at a stream near her house. A concentrated animal feeding operation moving in close to her property raised alarm bells for her about local water quality. Credit: Jeanne Heuser, Moniteau County Neighbors Alliance

Williams and some other residents brought their concerns — including what the operation would do to air and water quality — to the Cooper County Public Health Center. They were especially concerned about the waste the CAFO was going to produce, which was estimated in the facility’s application to be about 3.5 million gallons a year, and how it would be disposed of.

The company that owns Tipton East, PVC Management II, LLC did not respond to requests for comment.

Cooper County residents questioned whether the topography of the region would lead the waste to seep into the groundwater, since the manure would be spread on nearby fields. In response, the county health center created an ordinance to regulate emissions and the spread of manure from CAFOs.

But the next year, the Missouri Senate passed legislation preventing counties from enacting rules on CAFOs stricter than the state’s. Cooper County and Cedar County sued over the law and a subsequent house bill that tightened the language. A circuit court ruled in the state’s favor, so the counties appealed bringing the case straight to the Missouri Supreme Court, which has yet to issue a ruling.

Preventing local opposition

Laws that prevent local opposition to farm operations are common, said Loka Ashwood, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky.

“We see that across the country,” she said.

In 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed a 2004 decision making it harder for landowners to sue CAFOs for damages. A small town in Wisconsin is currently being sued for passing an ordinance limiting pollution from CAFOs.

Every state also has some version of a “right-to-farm” law, which prevent individuals from filing nuisance suits against agricultural operations. Researching these laws, Ashwood and her colleagues found the most right-to-farm litigation is happening in the Midwest, and CAFOs are the most likely to win these lawsuits.

“In the Midwest, that’s where people are fighting the hardest to try to defend their property rights, but they’re also losing the most,” she said.

Welcoming agriculture

Some farm groups argue CAFOs can be an economic boon for rural communities and for the state.

Missouri Farmers Care, a group that wants to see agriculture grow in the state, has a program that designates counties with the title “agri-ready.” In order to receive that title, counties have to agree to a set of requirements that will make them more welcoming to farm businesses. Those requirements often include preventing or limiting additional restrictions on agricultural operations.

Mike Deering, who sits on the board of Missouri Farmers Care and is also the vice president of Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, said that CAFOs are a net-positive for the state.

“It’s food security,” he said. “It’s the food supply chain and to make sure that we are keeping that local and not having to import, import, import. And so we have to encourage growth.”

Ashlen Busick, a regional representative for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project says programs like Missouri’s “agri-ready” designation are a way to deter counties from being able to implement health ordinances on CAFOS.

“One of the most important benefits of local control over CAFOs for the community is the ability for a community to determine its own practices that they would like the CAFO adhere to, to make sure they’re being protective of their community members,” she said.

In Nebraska, the state Department of Agriculture oversees a designation that is similar to agri-ready called “Livestock Friendly Counties.” The department will work with a county to develop zoning laws and permitting that makes it more accommodating to livestock production.

But according to Busick, welcoming CAFOs hurts small livestock producers.

“When the county is accommodating for the big ag industry, guess who continues to get pushed out of the market?” said Busick. “And guess who can hardly stand to live on their farms anymore because of the stench of the CAFOs just across the fence?”

Attracting operations

Recent studies done at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have found livestock friendly counties don’t have more livestock than other counties. Yet, one study found counties continue to join the livestock ready program.

Livestock friendly counties are more attractive for companies looking for places to build new CAFOs, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

“Companies looking to expand, or locate within Nebraska look for communities that would be welcoming to the project,” the department said in a statement.

Dodge County, Nebraska has the designation. Costco opened Lincoln Premium Poultry, a poultry plant there back in 2019. Jessica Kolterman, the plant’s director of administration, said Costco chose Nebraska in part because of the warm reception, in addition to the grain, water and workforce that the area provided.

“The other thing that they were really impressed with was the welcome they received from the state and the local government and also from the business leaders in the area,” she said.

Huge industrial fans stretch out along a rural road as far as the eye can see.
Fans on the sides of CAFO buildings help with ventilation. Depending on the size of the operation, CAFOs can produce millions of gallons of waste a year. Credit: Eva Tesfaye, Harvest Public Media

‘The fight’s not ever going to be over’

Tipton East, the CAFO farm owner Susan Williams worried would move in, has been approved by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources but has yet to be built. While Williams waits for the CAFO and the Missouri Supreme Court to rule on whether local governments can regulate such operations, she has turned her attention to other methods of regulation.

She was among hundreds of residents and activists to give input into Missouri DNR’s new general permits for CAFOs. Missouri DNR held three public meetings in 2022 regarding the permits, and over 200 comments were sent in during the comment period. The new general permits now require CAFOs in Missouri to report where waste is exported, which will help both DNR and concerned residents address nutrient pollution.

Some environmental groups are also turning their attention toward the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2022 some organizations filed a lawsuit against the EPA for failing to respond to a 2017 petition asking it to revise the Clean Water Act’s regulations for CAFOs.

“We’re trying to get some national fixes that would compel states like Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska that have demonstrated a lack of political will to regulate this industry to start doing so,” said Tarah Heinzen, the legal director of Iowa Food and Water Watch, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.

With more attention surrounding CAFOs, Susan Williams holds onto a sense of optimism, as well as an understanding that the operations aren’t going away anytime soon.

“The fight’s not ever going to be over,” Williams said. “I think the public is always going to have to be vigilant to make sure that the public’s interests are taken into account just as much as any industry.”

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Further Reading

  • To access interactive data maps on livestock and agriculture, visit KCUR’s website.

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Segment Guests

Eva Tesfaye

Eva Tesfaye is a reporter with KCUR, Harvest Public Media, Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk in Kansas City, Missouri.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

And now it’s time to check in on The State of Science.



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IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance.

Animal agriculture is a big industry in the Midwest. To make it even bigger, some states are courting Concentrated Animal Feed Operations, known as CAFOs. These are huge facilities that hold thousands of animals inside. But some rural residents are not happy about having a whole bunch of animals in a small space nearby. Their big concern– water pollution from manure runoff.

Joining me to talk about this is Eva Tesfaye, reporter for KCUR and Harvest Public Media. She’s based in Kansas City, Missouri, and has been reporting on this story.

Welcome to Science Friday.

EVA TESFAYE: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, please define for us what CAFO is.

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah. So as you said, it stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. And so, basically, what that means is that animals are kept inside. They’re kept inside a building and fed inside. And “Concentrated” is given to animal feeding operations that just have a large amount of animals. So usually like thousands of them. So it’s really these industrial-sized operations. So you can also think of them as factory farms.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s the old words for describing them, right?

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation is the official USDA term.

IRA FLATOW: I got it. What states did you look at during your reporting, and what kind of changes are happening in support of CAFOs?

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah. So I looked at Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. And I looked at Iowa as mainly a point of comparison because that state has the most CAFOs in the Midwest. It has about 4,000 of them. And in recent years, both Missouri and Iowa made it harder for local communities to oppose CAFOs. So Iowa reversed a Supreme Court decision. And in doing that, they made it harder to file nuisance suits against CAFOs. So neighbors can’t sue CAFOs.

In Missouri, the Senate passed a bill that made it so counties can’t put any restrictions on agriculture that are more strict than the state. Another way that they’re bringing in more CAFOs is both Missouri and Nebraska have programs that counties can sign up for, where basically they just get this designation that signals that they are friendly counties to CAFOs, friendly to livestock productions.

And the things that they have to agree to in order to get these designations are usually promising to not enact regulations or more restrictions on these operations. So a lot of what’s been happening has been about preventing more local restrictions or regulations or local opposition to CAFOs.

IRA FLATOW: Like legal loopholes. Speaking of that, what are some of the big complaints people are having about CAFOs?

EVA TESFAYE: So a huge thing is the smell. If you go near any CAFO, you will immediately be hit by the smell of the manure.

IRA FLATOW: Did you find that yourself? Did you find that?

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah. I went to a few CAFOs in Missouri, outside of them. And they actually didn’t have the pigs there, but I could still smell how bad it was. And I was still starting to get a headache from the ammonia. And the people who live there describe it as literally being unlivable. They can’t be outside when the wind brings that smell their way. So it is really, really bad.

The other thing is that these operations produce huge, huge amounts of animal waste. It can be millions of gallons a year. And in order to dispose of that waste, they have to spread it on fields. So they don’t discharge directly into water or anything like that. But water pollution is still a concern because the manure that’s spread on fields runs off into our waterways.

And one of the big concerns is nitrates. The nitrates from that runoff can go into– especially here in the Midwest– can go into the rivers that go into the Mississippi River, which contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrates can also cause harmful algae blooms. Research in Nebraska is also linking high nitrate levels to pediatric cancers. So water pollution from these CAFOs is a huge concern not only for the people who live in the area who drink that water but also further downstream.

IRA FLATOW: Now, if people want to protest against this, and they really want to voice their concerns– I know you’ve talked to people there– you talked to one woman, Susan Williams, in Cooper County, Missouri– how did this CAFO situation play out there?

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah. So Susan Williams– so she’s a farmland owner in Cooper County. And basically, a few years ago a CAPO announced that it would be moving in less than a mile from her home. So basically, what she did was she got a bunch of people and she also got the health department involved. Their concern was the smell, but one of their big concerns was, yeah, the manure would be spread on fields. They use a lot of groundwater there for drinking water. So the concern was whether that would seep into the groundwater and affect people’s well water.

So that health department passed some regulations on manure and air quality. But then what happened right after, that Senate Bill that I spoke about earlier, that passed. And so now she and Cooper County are suing the Missouri government for passing that law that basically said they couldn’t enact those regulations and restrictions on CAFOs.

So that case went to the Supreme Court. So they’re waiting for the decision on that. But she told me she’s basically doing everything she can. Basically, here’s what she said about fighting CAFOs.

SUSAN WILLIAMS: The fight is not ever going to be over. I think the public is always going to have to be vigilant to make sure that the public’s interests are taken into account just as much as any industry.

EVA TESFAYE: She is optimistic because it seems like there is more people paying attention to this than before. There is more of that vigilance.

IRA FLATOW: So what do we know about how CAFOs have worked in other states, for example, in Iowa?

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah. So Iowa has a lot of CAFOs. And we also know that’s partly because of the protections for animal agriculture in that state. I also talked to a researcher who studied right-to-farm laws. Her name is Dr. Loka Ashwood. So right-to-farm laws are laws that protect agricultural operations from lawsuits from their neighbors– from those nuisance lawsuits.

And basically, every state in the United States has some form of those laws. And she said, basically, across the US, we see that CAFOs actually win these lawsuits the most. These lawsuits tend to protect CAFOs. And small farmers are the ones who are losing them the most. So a lot of these laws got passed because people wanted to protect farmers, but it’s the small farmers that are actually losing.

IRA FLATOW: That it’s interesting. So what is the agriculture industry response? What did they say in support of CAFOs?

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah. So I talked to Mike Deering, from the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, and this is what he had to say about it.

MIKE DEERING: It’s food security, it’s the food supply chain, and to make sure that we are keeping that local and not having to import, import, import. And so we have to encourage growth.

EVA TESFAYE: Basically, the argument is that it’s really necessary for economic growth, especially in states like Missouri and Nebraska and Iowa, where agriculture and the livestock industry is one of the main economic sectors. And some also argue that it provides needed employment in rural communities.

IRA FLATOW: The EPA recently said, though, didn’t it, that it plans to look into this CAFOs issue? They had an announcement, right?

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah. So nationally, the EPA doesn’t actually have very strict regulations on CAFOs. But a couple of weeks ago, EPA said it was going to study whether they should update their regulations on CAFOs. And so this was after environmental groups pressured them last year with a lawsuit.

I talked to Iowa Food and Water Watch, which was one of the groups that spearheaded this, and they basically said they were turning their attention to getting national change because states like Iowa and Nebraska and Missouri are really not regulating this industry. So they’re really looking to get some national changes to get these states to start regulating more.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you. This is really interesting, and something I know that you’ll be following you, Eva. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

EVA TESFAYE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Eva Tesfaye, reporter for KCUR and Harvest Public Media. She is based in Kansas City, Missouri.

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