David Hoppe

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:: Factories ainít farms

HEC takes on CAFOs

by David Hoppe

Hendricks County is located just to the west of Indianapolis. It is the setting for a lawsuit aimed at trying to rescue Indiana from a legal monstrosity that threatens to destroy the agricultural heritage it was supposed to protect.

The Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) has filed suit on behalf of two Hendricks County families who say their homes are unlivable and their health at risk because of an 8,000-hog factory that opened adjacent to their property in Danville two years ago.

4/9 Livestock LLC is the name of the hog factory. But in the eyes of Indiana law, this factory — or CAFO, a concentrated animal feeding operation — is considered a farm. Never mind that it has about as much to do with farming as an assembly line does with handmade goods.

A CAFO is an industrial operation that uses animals as raw material. But since food is its byproduct, a CAFO still counts as a farm and, in Indiana, is covered by so-called “Right to Farm” laws.

These laws originated in Massachusetts in 1979. They were a response to suburban development in rural communities. People who had owned farms for generations were finding themselves facing nuisance lawsuits from homeowners who wanted a country lifestyle without the hassles of country living.

But laws that were intended to protect family farmers were then used as cover by CAFO operators to shield them from legitimate concerns about the damaging effects of their practices on the rural environment and nearby communities. CAFOs produce enormous amounts of animal waste, which contribute to air and water pollution, threaten public health and substantially lower neighboring property values.

Now imagine yourself living in the country for the past 40 years or so, like Robert and Susan Lannon. Then a CAFO sets up next door, with 8,000 hogs and the accompanying four million gallons of manure those hogs produce.

“The odors and air contaminants are so foul and revolting that plaintiffs [the Lannons and their neighbors, Richard and Janet Himsel] are often unable to go outdoors without gagging…The stench burns their noses, throats and eyes and makes it difficult to breathe. Even with the windows and doors shut, the putrid smells and contaminants permeate the inside of plaintiffs’ homes, making it difficult for them to live, eat and sleep.”

Want to move? Try selling your house under these conditions.

The Hoosier Environmental Council has been trying to get Indiana’s Right to Farm laws changed through the state legislature. But Indiana’s Republican majorities have been as susceptible to the lobbying clout of outdated and unhealthy agribusiness practices as they are to the blandishments of another creaky special interest, the coal industry.

That’s why the HEC is resorting to this lawsuit, claiming Indiana’s version of Right to Farm amounts to an unconstitutional taking of surrounding residents’ property rights. According to the HEC’s attorney, Kim Ferraro, the suit, if successful, “will restore the balance in Indiana policy…so that the rights and interests of rural Hoosier families…no longer take a back seat to the special interests of the corporate livestock industry.”

A lot of good things have been happening in Indiana agriculture. A judge’s ruling that treats CAFOs for what they are — not farms, but factories — would be the best development yet.