Standing up to a Factory Farm & Asking Tough Questions

CROW LAKE TOWNSHIP, Minn. — It’s early November, and Grass Lake in Stearns County's Crow Lake Township is peaceful, lined with cattails bending in the breeze and a few ducks and geese watching for winter’s arrival. But if things had gone differently a few months ago, neighbors could have been seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling the effects of a newly built 2,174-sow factory farm with an almost four-million-gallon liquid manure pit and a dead-animal compost site, just up the slope from the lake.

If Land Stewardship Project members Renee and Mike Bjork, along with neighbors like Frank Karels who live across the highway from the lake (and some LSP organizers), hadn’t acted fast, the proposed permit to build the large hog factory may have been rubber-stamped into existence by the Stearns County Board of Commissioners in July.

Coming together to organize and stand up for their community, Karels and the Bjorks gathered 160 petition signatures from rural residents within a six-mile radius of the proposed building site. The petition was addressed to Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) and it called for environmental review of the proposed factory farm. With only a few days available over the Independence Day holiday to collect the needed signatures, they delivered their petition to the EQB on Monday, July 8. The EQB agreed that review of the matter by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) was in order, and called Stearns County officials immediately, halting the county board’s approval of the CAFO permit, which was set to take place the next day, July 9.

The petition highlighted the fact that the proposers' permit application was for 959.6 animal units (2,174 hogs). However, the blueprints, when compared to other Minnesota sow facilities, appeared to be designed to hold more than 1,000 animal units. Factory farms that have the capacity to house over 1,000 animal units must undergo environmental review, according to state law.

Grass Lake is a protected wetland that is part of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's Bonanza Valley long-term water research study. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s 2014 summary of Stearns County private well testing showed that 99 percent of Crow Lake Township's land is considered “vulnerable geology” when it comes to nitrate contamination. If there is any “good” place to build a huge hog factory, this isn’t it.

Karels, the Bjorks, and LSP staff went to meet with MPCA staffers responsible for environmental review of feedlots to give them firsthand accounts of the potential impacts neighbors would face and show them photos of the area, current manure storage violations on the land in question, and the soil composition of the area they call home. Neighbors and LSP members from the surrounding community met to gather research, work on communication with the community and their township and county representatives, and to write letters-to-the-editor.

The MPCA reviewed the application documents and determined that the proposal was in fact designed to house over 1,000 animal units and declared that an environmental review must be conducted, starting with the completion of an Environmental Assessment Worksheet by the proposer and the MPCA's feedlot division.

Since then, the proposers have not pursued the EAW process. They contacted the Bjorks and Karels to say that they are not planning to build at the Grass Lake site at this point.

The stakes are too high not to organize and say "no" when faced with the possibility of an industrial-scale animal confinement moving in nearby. The national and international hog confinement industry makes a lot of big promises to rural communities. But their promises are empty and their effects on land, water, air, health, and quality-of-life are dire.

This is a prime example of how critical it is to stand up, ask questions, and push for answers. After all, those answers could determine your community's future.

LSP organizer Barbara Sogn-Frank works on factory farms issues and local democracy. She can be contacted at 612-722-6377 or via e-mail.