In 2019, after seven years of public outcry, the Republican Governor of Arkansas agreed to a $6.2 million buyout of an industrial hog facility located near a major tributary of the Buffalo River, the first designated national river, which originates in the Boston Mountains of the Ozarks in northwestern Arkansas. It was a big win for clean water advocates and if it had just been an anonymous stream, the state would have never bought out the 6,500-hog JBS factory farm, said Gordon Watkins, sitting on the deck of the vacation rental he owns and manages in the watershed.
“Because it was the Buffalo National River, it garnered nationwide attention,” said Watkins, who is a retired organic farmer and the president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, one of four organizations comprising a coalition that formed almost a decade ago when the public first caught wind of the hog facility.
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More than 1.5 million people are estimated to visit the clear, bluff-lined river every year to hike, fish, camp, and paddle. They spent more than $66 million in 2020 and supported more than 960 jobs, according to data from the National Park Service. Watkins is one of many who operate vacation rentals near the park, which spans four counties, all of which have poverty rates higher than the national average.
“Most of my business is because of the Buffalo National River,” said Watkins. “That’s what brings people here. . . . Tourism is our bread and butter. It employs a whole lot more people than one hog barn did.”
In other regions, where animals are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), it’s rare to find opponents successful in stopping the state from approving a CAFO permit, let alone altogether halting operations that have persisted for years. So the campaign to close C&H Hog Farms stands out—and it could be a sign of what’s ahead.
“Tourism is our bread and butter. It employs a whole lot more people than this one hog barn did.”
In rural communities, residents and family farmers are increasingly pitting the need to protect their waterways and natural areas for outdoor recreation against factory farms, which they say pollute the environment and threaten tourism dollars. In framing their opposition to industrial animal agriculture in this way, the groups open the door for unlikely allies to join the fight for heavier regulations. In some cases, these campaigns have resulted in bipartisan support for stricter monitoring of the environmental impacts of CAFOs—and have even led to cross-the-aisle discussions about creating CAFO moratoriums in environmentally sensitive regions.
Two years after the anti-CAFO faction near the Buffalo River emerged victorious, a community near the Bloody Run Stream in Iowa is challenging a new cattle feedlot through legal action. Other communities in the Midwest are also framing the fight against industrial animal ag as a battle to protect open spaces and the right to clean, safe outdoor recreation. And, as family farming and environmental advocates realize success with this strategy, they are creating a roadmap for others to challenge the proliferation of factory farms in their own backyards.
Risks CAFOs Pose to Recreational Water Bodies
In the fight to “Save the Buffalo . . . Again,” a slogan that refers to environmentalists’ initial attempts to prevent the damming of the river in the 1960s, supporting rural recreation became a key leverage point in challenging the power of Big Ag. Outdoor recreation, of course, relies upon the health of local natural resources.
“There was the saying that ‘Brazil gets the meat, JBS gets the money, and the Buffalo River gets the s---,’” said Watkins, referring to the lack of local benefits corporate-backed CAFOs provide. Typically, corporations own the hogs in the facility while local operators care for the animals and own the land upon which the CAFO was built, as well as the debt it takes to build it and the manure the hogs leave behind.
When C&H was in operation, it stored up to two million gallons of liquid hog waste in open pits, referred to as “lagoons,” on the property, and it periodically spread the waste on nearby farm fields as fertilizer. Some CAFO manure has been shown to have enough nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics, and pathogens such as E. coli to wreak havoc on sensitive ecosystems and pollute water used for drinking and recreating.
“There was the saying that ‘Brazil gets the meat, JBS gets the money, and the Buffalo River gets the s---.'”
The C&H farm was situated in a karst topography, a type of landscape known for its fractured limestone bedrock, caves, and sinkholes. Some scientists refer to karst as an underground terrain of “swiss cheese,” where pollutants that exist on the earth’s surface are at higher risk of reaching groundwater and spreading beyond the intended application sites. While the topography contributes to the beauty of the region and its appeal for nature-loving tourists, it also means that pollutants can spread quickly.
With the help of a professor emeritus in hydrogeology from the University of Arkansas, advocates put together a series of dye tracing tests that showed the complex system of subsurface water flow near the CAFO. The authors cited the need for further in-depth study to monitor the spread of possible pollutants far beyond the farm site and the surrounding spreading fields.
But a five-year study conducted by Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET), a state-funded project to evaluate the impact of C&H Farms on the watershed, found no proof of direct pollution from the farm. Still, advocates were not convinced. They raised the alarm about the threat of pollution and publicized their loss of faith in the state to conduct “sound” research, which was ultimately enough to mobilize statewide opposition to the continued operation of the facility.
Leaks and spills due to improper storage or transport of the manure, as well as runoff from mismanaged application to farm fields, can contribute to a host of environmental and public health complications, including toxic algal blooms, fish kills, and blue baby syndrome.
Ben Milburn, owner of Buffalo River Outfitters, a canoe rental and lodging company that serves park visitors, has perennial concerns about the river’s water quality. For Milburn, the mismanagement of human wastewater in surrounding communities and decreased funding for park maintenance compounds with the acute pollution pressures from industrial agriculture.
Milburn, who also serves as a member of the state-funded Buffalo River Conservation Committee, said the state should be responsible for creating restrictions for farmers in the watershed.
“Without [the state] protecting it and limiting what a farmer can do when it comes to fertilizer in their fields or in agricultural production” the community is in trouble, he said. “There’s got to be some type of oversight or there is the potential for problems.”
The potential for pollution from CAFOs can be extreme. In 2018, flooding in North Carolina due to Hurricane Florence caused 50 manure lagoons to overflow. In Iowa, the state with the largest number of permitted CAFOs in the nation, environmental groups have estimated the plan to clean up nitrates in the capital’s drinking water will take 22,000 years to complete.
Nitrate pollution not only results from excessive applications of manure to crop fields, but also from applications of synthetic fertilizer. Both sources are used to enhance the fertility of fields growing grains that, among other uses, end up in the mouths of livestock in these factory farms.
Turning to Recreation as an Economic Driver
While CAFO opponents have long cited the risks these facilities pose to both environmental and human health in their campaigns, some communities are bringing in a third element: preserving local recreation industries.
Jenna Pollock grew up on a family farm in the northeast corner of Iowa among the rolling hills, limestone bluffs, and meandering rivers of the Driftless region. She still helps her family raise cattle, hogs, hay, corn, and soybeans while serving as the Clayton County Conservation Director. She says she’s accustomed to the tensions that arise between agriculture and outdoor recreation, and it can be a struggle to keep a foot in both worlds.
“We have to do things with a little greater care, because we are in such a volatile ecosystem,” Pollock said.
Pollock’s community is grappling with the risks posed by a large cattle feedlot owned by Supreme Beef, LLC. It is situated near Bloody Run Creek, a cold-water trout stream designated as one of Iowa’s 34 “outstanding waters” (which stand out when compared to the agency’s 773 impaired water segments).
Earlier this year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—the same agency that designates Bloody Run as protected—approved the expansion of a cattle feedlot near the headwaters of the stream from 2,700-head of cattle to 11,600, making it one of the largest livestock facilities in the County. The feedlot’s plans include spreading manure on more than 40 fields near the creek. Like the area where C&H is located in Arkansas, the Driftless region in Iowa is known for its karst topography.
Small, rural economies cannot ignore the local dollars that sites like Bloody Run bring in through hosting sites for camping, fishing, and hiking. In 2015, visitor expenditures equaled more than $33 million in Clayton County, in addition to the $50 million attributed to the nearby River Bluffs Scenic By-Way, which passes through both Clayton and Fayette counties, according to the most recent available data from the U.S. Travel Association.
Recreation economies are gaining attention on a national scale as well. In 2017, spurred by the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act passed by Congress, the Bureau of Economic Analysis included the outdoor recreation industry in its GDP calculations for the first time. The agency’s most recent report, released in 2020, shows that the outdoor recreation industry makes up 2.1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and exceeds the size of the agriculture industry.
“More places are thinking about outdoor recreation as a viable economic development strategy, especially in places that have been reliant on natural resources, at least with those more extractive industries,” said Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters Economics, a community development and land management research firm.
“Communities are seeing outdoor recreation as a way to even out the booms and busts of those extractive industries . . . as they respond to big macroeconomic fluctuations,” Lawson continued. “That’s something that I’ve really seen change.”
Still, recreation economies are no silver bullet. For one, Lawson said, counties with developed recreation economies have lower wages and higher housing costs on average. But wages are growing at a faster rate than those in counties without recreation, according to Headwaters Economics data.
A Bipartisan Issue?
While agribusiness has long touted itself as one of the only industries that continues to invest in the rural Midwest, it has become an increasingly concentrated sector that pushes out small producers and prioritizes corporate profits.
Because of the pollution risks posed to lands and waters used for hunting and fishing, Jessica Mazour of the Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter said that unlikely allies are joining the fight to close down the Supreme Beef feedlot near Bloody Run, including politically conservative residents who typically support the development of industrial agriculture in their region.
“Recreation has become a bigger piece of the puzzle than it ever has been before,” said Mazour. “[Iowans] are not going to get any benefit from the factory farm moving into their area, but they will benefit if they have an area where people are coming and spending money to make use of the natural resources.”
Organizers in Arkansas reported similar cross-the-aisle efforts. Carol Bitting, a longtime caver in the Buffalo River Watershed and advocate for the closure of the hog CAFO there, found that she often received the support of landowners who wouldn’t speak out publicly, but who allowed her and a team of researchers to use their land in order to conduct the dye-tracing tests.
“[Iowans] are not going to get any benefit from the factory farm moving into their area, but they will benefit if they have an area where people are coming and spending money to make use of the natural resources.”
“The community supported me during the testing,” said Bitting. “But they also said, ‘If you tell anybody I agree with you, I’ll never admit it in public. We can’t talk about that here.’”
Other CAFO opposition campaigns in the Midwest are also seeing gradual bipartisan support for heavier regulation of these facilities. Rural sociology scholar Loka Ashwood has tracked two bipartisan efforts that led to operators withdrawing CAFO plans in Illinois, resulting in what she calls “pragmatic politics without parties.” In Missouri, the owner of a hog CAFO withdrew their application for a 10,500 hog facility after months of bipartisan opposition from folks motivated by protecting a nearby 6,000 acre conservation area.
Despite these recent patterns, the fate of Iowa’s Bloody Run Creek remains unknown. The Sierra Club and affiliated groups have filed suit against Iowa DNR’s approval of the Supreme Beef feedlot, based on what they view to be miscalculations in the operation’s manure spreading plans.
“Being an Iowa farm boy, you understand that agriculture is a part of life,” said David Klemme, who grew up on a corn and soybean farm and is now a member of Trout Unlimited in Iowa, a national organization funded by fishers to conserve and recover waterways that host wild and native trout populations.
“I think the question is, how can we try to balance the agricultural practices with the needs of the environment? And if we know CAFOs are [going to be] in Iowa, how do we make sure that where they’re being placed makes the most sense for everyone?”