It’s not a bad turnout for a Tuesday night. Several dozen community members huddle around the kitchen table in Fred Williams’ home, reading through the 11-page meeting agenda. The group’s members range from traditional farming types to environmental activists. Uniting all of these seemingly dissimilar people is a single drive: keeping concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) out of the area.

The Opponents of Cooper County CAFOs (OCCC) have been working for months to protest Tipton East, an incoming 7,700 hog operation set for construction near Clarksburg. Across the region, residents concerned about CAFOs coming to the area have organized groups and developed plans to prevent these large-scale operations from affecting their lives.

Fred Williams, who owns a home about a mile away from the site of the future Tipton East facility, has spent countless hours researching CAFOs and organizing local residents to from the Cooper County Group. The Tipton East facility — which would be operated by Minnesota-based Pipestone Systems, the nation’s third largest pork producer — would create an estimated 4.9 million gallons of liquid waste each year, which would be stored in underground lagoons and later applied to land as fertilizer.

Concerned citizens are worried about the potential health and environmental risks of this waste. CAFOs have been linked to higher rates of respiratory and mental illnesses, and leaks of this waste can contaminate groundwater.

“We are farmers here,” Williams said. “And not just small-time farmers. We own hundreds of acres and have lived here our whole lives. We’re not just city folks who moved out here and bought a couple acres of land and hate the smell of manure.”

The OCCC group now includes more than 200 members who share concerns about potential environmental and economic impacts of having nearby CAFOs.

“We’re not out there to hurt anybody,” Williams said. “I don’t want to see any small farmer hurt at all. I just want everyone to be responsible stewards of the land and not think it’s okay to put hogs 3/10 of a mile from someone’s house.”

Williams has become a de facto leader of the group. For him, this issue is personal. His uncle, Dean Gibson, has fought for the right to sell 25 acres of his land to house the future Tipton East facility, citing the benefits that the resulting manure could have on his crops as a fertilizer. Gibson’s sister, Susan Williams, has also been an active member of the OCCC.

When Williams was first informed of the potential CAFO in January, he sought advice from a citizen group in Callaway County that has been fighting the same battle four years. Williams and other members of the OCCC group have joined forces with the Callaway County group and others to protest at the state’s capital and share information and political strategies.

Fight continues in Callaway County

When incoming CAFO, Callaway Farrowing, sent out the obligatory notices to citizens residing within a 1,500 foot radius of the proposed site in May 2014, Shirley Kidwell took action. Her small Fulton farm is located about 3,000 feet away from the proposed site.

Since 1996, Callaway County has been home to Pork Masters, Inc, a 5,600 hog concentrated feeding operation. Residents are concerned about the addition of a second, larger operation. Callaway Farrowing, which broke ground in early June, is set to house more than 10,000 hogs.

“We are well aware of the problems with these hog facilities,” Kidwell said. “Over a 20-year period, we’ve suffered a great deal from the odors, flies, dead hogs throw in the ditches and the problems of land application of the manure running into our lakes and ponds and properties.”

Kidwell is currently serving as secretary for the Friends of Responsible Agriculture, Callaway County’s CAFO opposition organization. The group garnered more than 1,500 signatures on an initial petition to the county commissioners, asking them to consider passing a health ordinance to enact setback distances and buffer zones between CAFO’s and other properties.

“The county commission has flatly refused to institute a health ordinance,” Kidwell said. “We’re at a standstill. We fought for for years. … We’re basically out of options. The building is under construction right now. At this time, there are a number of farms and homes going on the market. People are moving out, because they can’t stand to live by this.”

A 2017 study conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue found that property values of homes within one mile of a CAFO tended to drop eight to 13 percent.

Howard County sees hope

In Howard County, a similar advocacy group recently experienced a major victory when citizens voted during the primary election to keep a health ordinance in place regulating large agricultural operations. 

“You have to get off your butt and you’ve got to move the troops,” said Vickie Gassman, one of the group’s leaders. “When you do, it works.”

Gassman, who describes herself as a “fighter,” helped to organize the resistance in Howard County. When she got word that Minnesota-based Pipestone Systems was planning on building a CAFO less than two miles away from her home, she got moving. Pipestone Systems, the same company responsible for the Tipton East facility in Cooper county, operates 70 similar operations in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. In Iowa, where 500 new or expanded CAFO’s have been approved in the last 10 years, residents witnessed an increase in ammonia and nitrate pollution as well as 20-40 percent decreases in property values.

“We probably met within a week of when we heard about this CAFO coming in,” Gassman said. “We were getting together, probably about seven or eight of us, and plotting our plan.”

The early members of the group started a petition and gathered about 400 signatures before meeting with the Howard County commissioners several times. Howard County enacted a health ordinance May 21, 2017. Before long, the Citizens for Howard County group swelled to about 100 members. They met about once a month to begin with, but increased the number of meetings before the fate of the health ordinance was determined by the Aug. 7 election.

 “The hours we have poured into this, you just wouldn’t believe it,” said Gassman.

Gassman helped to organize phone calls, planning, fundraising and meetings with local civic groups.

“The unified message was that if these hog operations come into the county, they will pollute our water, they will pollute our air, they will bring down the value of our farm property and housing property,” she said. “People don’t like regulations, and I understand that. I’m a conservative — I don’t like regulations. But the health ordinance is much less regulatory than zoning would have been.” 

“If we don’t fight it, nobody else will”

 In Cooper County, the fight continues. In February, the Opponents of Cooper County CAFOs filed as an LLC. Two months later, the group registered another LLC: the Farming Alliance of Rural Missouri, intended to demonstrate how traditional farming practices can lead to quality products at lower costs.

The group is involved in a lawsuit against the Cooper County Commissioners over an alleged Sunshine Law violation. Prior to the Aug. 7 primary, members of the group helped campaign for candidates sympathetic to their plight. 

Going forward, Williams said the group plans to appeal the decision to grant a permit to the Tipton East facility.

“I wish I could go back to January, when my head was in the sand and I didn’t know any of this,” Williams said. “It’s so frustrating when you’re trying to fight an uphill battle all the time. You’re going to have a lot of lawsuits, just hoping for one win. But if we don’t fight it, no one else is going to. And then what do we do, just sit idly by while they ruin everything we got?”

ccolby@boonvilledailynews.com