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Farm or factory?

by Hilary Mertaugh
for CropChoice

(Monday, Dec. 9, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Ed Gilday and his wife Sheila had lived in their century-old farmhouse in Malcom, Iowa less than two years when construction began a quarter mile south to build one of the largest egg production and processing facilities in Iowa.

Before Fremont Farms of Iowa moved in next door, Ed and Sheila looked out over seemingly endless fields of corn and soybeans. Now their closest neighbor is a population of 2.7 million laying hens—-nearly as many chickens as there are people in the state of Iowa.

The arrival of Fremont Farms has spurred a divisive controversy in this community of 352 people over what Gilday calls “a vociferous fly problem.”

Gilday and other neighbors have become involved in a legal struggle against the egg operation and the Iowa laws providing legal protection to this and other confinement livestock facilities.

The controversy surrounding Fremont Farms demonstrates the social and environmental impact caused by the unprecedented consolidation in livestock agriculture that has taken place over the past two decades. As profit margins wane, small-scale producers can no longer afford to maintain their family farms. In their place, dozens of large-scale confinement operations have sprung up across the Iowa landscape, contributing to its rank as the nation's top hog and egg producer and number 3 producer of beef.

While Iowa’s output in these industries has grown steadily in recent years, it's experiencing a dramatic decline in the number of independent, family livestock producers. The state lost one-third of its egg farms between 1987 and 1999. Meanwhile, egg production increased by nearly 260 percent during that time, contributing to Iowa’s steady climb to the head of the nation’s egg industry.

“Fremont Farms is a significant player” in promoting Iowa’s leading role in the egg industry, says Kevin Vanchattle, president of the Iowa Egg Council.

A spring full of flies

The early arrival of spring during the first year Fremont Farms was in operation brought with it more than warmth. The dense concentration of birds at Fremont Farms of Iowa and the volume of their waste provided new breeding ground for fly maggots living in and around its egg operation.

“I’d never seen anything like it in my life,” recalls Dean Earnhart, a nearby resident. “You don’t dare leave your window cracked in you car, literally thousands of flies will get in. I’m not joking here.”

In an effort to control the fly population, the company tried using predator wasps, aerial spraying, and other methods.

Their management practices have received glowing reviews from various inspectors. A leading entomologist from Iowa State University visited the facility on a number of occasions and “he has confirmed that we have an excellent fly control program and manure management program,” says Steve George, chief executive officer of Fremont Farms.

But some neighbors are not satisfied.

“They insist that there is no fly problem, but they don’t live here," Earnhart says. "My house, my whole property—the inside, outside, everything—is infested. I go through three, sometimes four fly strips a day, they’re just dripping with [flies]."

Earnhart, Ed Gilday and Sheila, and other neighbors sought help from local authorities, only to find that a series of Iowa laws governing livestock producers make it difficult to hold confinement operations accountable for any unpleasant effects they may create.

“Its a big farce is what it is, as long as they meet their [permit] requirements, there’s nothing you can do," Earnhart says.

As long as confinement facilities operate in accordance with state laws governing construction and manure management, it is assumed that they are not creating a nuisance, according to a 1995 Iowa law -- House File 519.

There are not, however, any standards regulating air quality or pest management that these confinement facilities must adhere to.

In order to challenge this law, neighbors of such a facility must prove in court that the nuisance created by the animal confinement unreasonably and continuously interferes with their life or property, and that it does so because of negligent management. In addition to these tough standards, plaintiffs unsuccessful in court are required by law to pay the defendants' legal fees.

The deck seems to be stacked in favor of economic interests of the livestock industry. “The general assembly has balanced all competing interests and declares its intent to protect and preserve animal agricultural production operations” says the law.

“The purpose of [nuisance suit protection] is to protect animal agricultural producers . . .from the costs of defending nuisance suits, which negatively impact upon Iowa’s competitive economic position and discourage persons from entering into animal agricultural production,” according to the text of File 519.

Other legislation has restricted control over confinement livestock facilities to the state government. An Iowa law enacted in 1998 strips county authorities of the power to regulate livestock operations in their jurisdiction, making it more difficult to hold confinement livestock operations accountable to the communities in which they are located.

“Nobody has the power to stop them,” Gilday says.

His neighbor Earnhart learned this first hand when he took the matter to several public officials, where he received only sympathy.

“I tried everything. I called the DNR [Department of Natural Resources], the board of health, the county board of supervisors. They basically all said the same thing . . . [Fremont Farms of Iowa] got their permits, you can’t do anything about it. So that’s when I called an attorney.”

Attorney Thomas Lipps has won several nuisance lawsuits against other large-scale confinement operations in Iowa, including a recent case against the state’s largest pork producer, Iowa Select Farms, which awarded his clients $33 million in punitive damages.

Lipps consolidated Earnhart’s case with complaints by Gilday and one other family.

The same year their lawsuit was filed, Fremont Farms of Iowa received a second permit from the Iowa DNR granting them permission to increase their production capacity to 5.2 million laying hens. There are currently only eight egg production factories in the United States with more than 5 million hens.

The three parties are seeking compensation for the financial and personal imposition they attribute to Fremont Farms. They claim the odor and fly population has denied them their constitutional rights to property and the pursuit of happiness. A financial award could reimburse them for the declining value of their properties and the significant investments they have made to mitigate the fly problem.

If they prevail in court in January 2003, they could offset their personal and financial losses. If they lose, they will not only have to pay their own attorney fees, but also those of Fremont Farms.

If legal precedent plays any role in the court’s ruling this January, a 1998 Iowa Supreme Court decision may aid their case. The justices ruled that a different Iowa law which provided nuisance suit protection was “flagrantly unconstitutional.”

In overturning the law the justices wrote that “when all the varnish is removed . . .the [nuisance suit protection afforded by this law] amounts to a commandeering of valuable property rights without compensating the owners, and a sacrificing of those rights for the economic advantage of a few.”

Farm or Factory?

The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to overturn this form of nuisance suit protection was a significant landmark in the growing movement against confinement livestock operations in Iowa. In the seven years since House File 519 was adopted, public outcry against large-scale confinement operations and a flurry of nuisance suits against hog confinements have made this one of the most contentious issues in Iowa. According to Lipps, at the heart of this issue lies the question: “Are these operations farms or factories?”

Iowa law treats large-scale confinement livestock operations as farms, when by all reasonable criteria they appear to be factories that produce very specific outputs as efficiently as possible using state of the art technologies. Fremont Farms houses more than 130,000 chickens under a single roof and employs an elaborate conveyer belt system to transport freshly laid eggs to an automated egg breaking and separating plant where the egg whites and yolks are cooled and prepared for shipment. Yet the president of Fremont Farms of Iowa was quick to clarify that “We are running a farm. Not a factory.”

Perhaps the distinction has become outdated. While many Americans still maintain romantic images of the traditional family farm as the model of our agricultural system, “Fremont Farms is indicative of where this industry has moved,” says Kevin Vanchattle of the Iowa Egg Council.

Moving On

Meanwhile the neighbors of large-scale confinement livestock operations must live with the true costs of our food production system. Whether or not they prevail against Fremont Farms, Ed Gilday and his wife Sheila plan to move from the house they once considered their dream home because they “cannot continue living under these circumstances.”

They stand to loose a significant amount in the process. If the fly problem is as ravenous as they claim it may be very difficult to sell their home for what it was once worth. Another nearby neighbor has watched his house lose value on the market for nearly a year. He still has not found a buyer.

Despite what is at stake, Gilday remains optimistic that something will work out for them.

“We have to move on with our lives” he says.

About the author: Hilary Mertaugh is a graduate of Grinnell College, located 10 miles east of Fremont Farms of Iowa.