White County is on its way to passing the state's first rule for protecting a waterway from big livestock farms. It's designed to shield the Tippecanoe River Basin and its residents from pollution and farm odors.
The path to creating the rule shows just how complex big agriculture issues can be in Indiana.
Paul Neumann is one of the residents whose backyard slopes down to the water on Monticello's Monon Bay, which flows into the Tippecanoe River and Lake Shafer.
"I love to spend time out here, you know, when the sun's shining and it's a little warmer," Neumann says. "It's beautiful to be out here."
But a few months ago, he felt that natural beauty was being threatened by a proposed CAFO, or confined animal feeding operation. Those are the long, skinny barns with big exhaust fans on the sides, commonly found on farmland across the state.
They house, feed and raise thousands or even tens of thousands of livestock like pigs, cows and chickens under one large roof.
CAFOs account for fewer than 40 percent of the farms regulated by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management -- but, IDEM says, they produce more than 80 percent of those farms' animals.
And Neumann felt there was no place for one in his residential area.
“The thing that concerned me the most was probably the bacteria and the flies that we’d have to deal with in the summertime," Neumann says. "And the second thing, and maybe even number one if [the proposed CAFO] was within a mile, I would’ve been very concerned about the property value.”
Business Sense, Environmental Concerns
It makes a lot of financial sense for a farmer to consolidate with CAFOs. But they have their downsides for surrounding residents -- potential side effects like the bacteria and flies Neumann was worried about, plus the smell of 4,000 hogs or 200,000 broiler chickens.
That's why Neumann and his neighbors set out to fight the CAFO off. But they didn’t have a lot of legal ground to stand on. The farmer proposing the CAFO was Greg Rice, another Monticello resident, who wanted to build on his family's own land.
“We’ve been on this property for 113 years," Rice says.
He grows mostly corn and soybeans. The family used to raise hogs, too, but stopped about 15 years ago because they weren’t making enough money off the operation. Rice saw a CAFO as a more efficient way to expand.
“It would’ve been a very good way for us to go," he says. "Not only were we gonna get some income from the pigs themselves, but we were gonna have the manure value.”
That means instead of having to buy fertilizer for his crops, Rice could have spread the manure from the pigs he wanted to raise onto his fields.
But neighbors pushed back on the plan, setting off an eight-month battle before the area planning commission.
Some basic state rules always govern these arguments. The Department of Environmental management keeps CAFOs a few hundred feet from houses, waterways, and wells, and they've started overseeing more about manure and fertilizer in the past few years, too.
But they don't go around taking water samples or doing inspections at every CAFO all the time. They don't regulate noise or smell, either. If a county wants those stricter rules, it has to create them itself.
Click the counties to explore CAFO regulations in the Tippecanoe River Basin. (Data courtesy: Purdue University Extension)
Paul Ebner is an animal scientist at Purdue University, and he said counties use zoning rules to prevent conflicts over how the land is used -- basically, to help everyone get along.
"You have two uses that are perfectly legal and they're perfectly fine, but they might not really be compatible right next to each other," he says.
Ebner helped studied county CAFO rules for the state last year. His team found a lot of variation, and they don't know much about what's working to reduce complaints or protect water quality.
"That's a big, big research question," he says. "You can look at these distances and a lot of them are seemingly arbitrary.... It's really difficult to know whether a thousand feet is enough, 1,500 feet is excessive."
So without many statewide standards or much research, counties don't receive a lot of guidance. That's partly why a lot of them end up with no rules at all, or pretty lenient ones -- which is what makes White County so unusual.
"I'm Not Going Away"
Residents argued for a big distance between CAFOs and the lakes, and county officials wound up agreeing. They're expecting to finalize a mile and a half buffer zone rule by July -- denying Greg Rice's CAFO in the process.
The resident who led that charge was Bonnie Woods.
"It's just common sense," she says. "We start taking 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 percent hits in property values, where does that tax money come from? What happens to your budgets?"
After arguments like that didn't convince local officials, she says she put her foot down.
"I said, I'm not going away," she says. "I said, you can have this little dog and pony show all you want, but at the end of the day, I'm going to be here every meeting, I'm going to take a stand every meeting, and we're getting to work on this and we're going to make things right."
Woods argued that she was representing hundreds of families and millions in tourism dollars that depended on the health of the lakes. And now, she's hoping other counties might follow their lead.
"That's something that other areas need to really start paying attention to and focusing on," Woods says. "Because the stuff that goes in that water goes downstream."
Flowing from the Ohio and then Wabash Rivers, the Tippecanoe runs through eight counties with more than 300 CAFOs and 4 million farm animals between them. But they all have really different regulations, and no one else's rules directly protect the river.
So even if White County does prevent runoff, other sources can still put it into their water.
Business reporter Annie Ropeik and environmental reporter Nick Janzen will continue following Indiana communities' arguments over CAFOs in future stories. Send your tips or questions to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.