BELLWOOD, Neb. — Nebraska's quiet civil war between Big Livestock and its rural roots is shooting sparks.
The skirmish by property owners at a sand pit housing development in the eastern Nebraska countryside against one of the nation's largest hog producers is the latest episode of a struggle that some say threatens to poach a prime cut from the state's economy. Cash receipts from all Nebraska livestock and products is $10 billion.
The dispute is a classic conflict between proponents of expanding livestock production and opponents who see large livestock facilities as threats to smaller producers, communities and the environment, said David Aiken, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural law specialist.
On one side is Pillen Family Farms, a Columbus-based company seeking state permits to build two concentrated animal feeding operations for thousands of hogs and pigs near Bellwood, in northwest Butler County. Jim Pillen, the company president, said he is convinced rural Nebraska's economic survival and prosperity depend on livestock production, such as his hog-feeding facilities.
Owners of houses or lots on two nearby developments — Brandenburgh Lakes and Bellwood Lake — fear that odor and water contamination from the hog confinements would ruin property values.
Vernon Meyer, 76, a semi-retired crop adjuster and agronomist who lives at Brandenburgh Lakes, said the pig plan is a poke in the eye to local residents.
“I'm not against confinements for hogs,” he said, “but, gawd, there's a place to put everything. Don't put it here. Everybody is just sick.”
Brandenburgh Lakes is on the south bank of the Platte River near Columbus and about one mile north of one of the proposed hog facilities. There are about 90 houses on 110 lots at Brandenburgh Lakes. Bellwood Lake has more than 60 houses.
Pillen, 57, who grew up on a farm near Platte Center, Neb., is a recently elected University of Nebraska regent, a veterinarian and an experienced, sophisticated and well-funded hog producer. With 50,000 sows in 2012, Pillen Family Farms ranked 14th in Successful Farming magazine's latest Pork Powerhouses listing. The company markets about 1.3 million hogs a year.
(Jim Pillen, however, is probably best known as the Husker who recovered Sooner Billy Sims' fourth-quarter fumble to preserve the Huskers' 17-14 win in the 1978 Oklahoma-Nebraska football game.)
Pillen Family Farms has 26 sites in Nebraska and three in South Dakota, most of them within a 60-mile-wide band north and south of Columbus. Among them are three confinement facilities already in Butler County.
Pillen plans two new facilities. The Danbred Performance Research Center, about three miles northwest of Bellwood, would house 1,600 nursery pigs weighing less than 55 pounds each and 3,200 finishing swine fattened for slaughter. The Hough Nursery, four miles east of Bellwood, would house 12,000 nursery pigs or 6,000 finishing swine.
Pillen said Nebraska's productive land, rich underground water resources and innovative people poise the state to both feed and compete with the world.
“The only way to do that is if there are opportunities for our best and brightest to stay home,” he said. “That means the more we can turn every kernel of corn and every soybean seed into protein for our kitchen tables or for export, the more economic value we add to our local communities.”
Livestock development is crucial to Nebraska's economy. The state ranks sixth nationally in the number of hogs and pigs on farms. It ranks seventh in commercial hog slaughter.
But when rural opposition to projects such as swine feeding facilities turns poisonous, it doesn't encourage entrepreneurs to step forward, Pillen said.
Impassioned arguments from a crowd of more than 100 opponents failed in late April to persuade the Butler County Board to oppose the projects. Opponents wanted the board to write a letter to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality expressing concerns about possible air and water pollution and declining property values to homes if the projects were built. The state agency is handling the permit process.
Pillen said counties with no zoning regulations, such as Butler County, create challenges for livestock producers to set up new operations. He said uniform zoning codes should be in place in all Nebraska counties so developers don't face different regulations — and contentious public meetings — from place to place.
“If everybody has to go through these experiences to grow or build, we'll not have much,” he said.
Pillen said he has no problem answering questions about his swine confinements, “but most people don't take time to learn the facts.”
He said Cuming County, one of Nebraska's major cattle-feeding centers, is an example of a rural community that embraced livestock agriculture, built it into its zoning regulations and is thriving.
In Cuming, David Steffensmeier, president of First Community Bank in Beemer, said the best economic development solution for similar rural counties is expanding existing businesses.
“We know we're not going to bring in a large manufacturer that employs a lot of people. We're not on a rail line. We're not on a major four-lane highway. So we have to grow our own economic development,” he said. “Agriculture with animals is a way to add employees.”
Steffensmeier said converting feedstuffs into meat in Nebraska adds more value to the local economy than shipping it elsewhere.
Cuming County's cattle-feeding tradition goes back a generation or two.
“Over time it's become accepted — maybe not always enjoyed — that we have more jobs and more money in the communities,” Steffensmeier said.
The downside of livestock production is the smell and waste, which has to be handled appropriately.
“I live in a small town and like to open my windows,” he said, “but there are a certain number of times after a rain that if you open your windows, you'll get a scent with the flow of wind.”
Pillen said the proposed new facilities in Butler County would feature state-of-the-art buildings and waste control and removal systems. Animal waste would be stored on site and injected into nearby cropland as fertilizer at appropriate times during the year. Liquid manure would not be distributed by center-pivot irrigation systems. The sites would not have manure lagoons.
Pillen said scientific studies indicate that the odor plumes from the sites would reach most residences in the area only one or two days out of 100. Aiken said odor footprinting techniques developed at UNL and the University of Minnesota provide a science-based foundation for determining the best sites to place animal feeding facilities.
Yet Meyer and other opponents in Butler County have an arsenal of objections. Although they're not happy about the possibility of foul air, they don't plan to raise a stink about that issue.
“We can't protest the smell, because odor concerns usually don't stop confinement projects,” Meyer said.
But Columbus residents should be concerned, he said. The research center site is about three miles from southeast Columbus, including Quail Run golf course.
“With a slight wind and a soggy day, foursomes at Quail Run will have a fifth, with a bunch of pigs,” Meyer said. “That's the way the smell goes.”
Meyer said he tires of hearing that rural residents should expect foul smells from cattle feedlots or hog confinements.
“Just because people live in the country doesn't mean someone can do anything to anybody who's already there,” he said. “I've been here 29 years, and they're going to put a hog confinement on top of me. I think I have a right to object to that.”
Until the industry becomes more candid about the dust, flies and smells of large-scale livestock production — despite the best management practices and facilities — public opposition to new feeding operations will continue, Aiken said.
“We're going to have less livestock in Nebraska than we could until livestock groups are willing to confront the odor issue and are willing to talk about what they can do to minimize them,” Aiken said.
However, state permits for hog confinements place more restrictions on protecting water quality than minimizing odor, he said. So opponents in Butler County plan to focus on potential threats to soil and water.
“Water quality is something you can get people riled up about, but odor has a lot of political traction,” Aiken said. “Nobody wants to live next door to one of those facilities.”
The site is part of the Platte's old riverbed. Thick layers of sand and gravel lie under the thin topsoil. Meyer said leaking or spilled hog waste could easily foul the aquifer that dozens of private wells tap for drinking water. And, he said, hog waste injected into nearby cropland as fertilizer could overdose an already alkaline landscape, spoiling its corn productivity.
Pillen said he chose the site for the proposed Danbred facility because of its proximity to the company headquarters in Columbus. The Hough site was selected for its isolation and the availability of plentiful cropland on which to spread manure.
The State Department of Environmental Quality is expected to make a final decision on the permits by the end of May. Pillen said construction could begin in June.
Meyer said opponents continue to plan strategies. They hired an attorney.
“If there's enough protest and it gets loud enough, maybe they'll back down,” he said of Pillen and his partners. “If it has to be to make him the biggest turd in the county, we might have to do it. We're not going to stop.”
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Nebraska livestock milestones
» Public controversy over proposed large swine confinements emerges.
» Nebraska Supreme Court rules that farrowing cooperatives violate Initiative 300 corporate farming requirements.
» Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality strengthens livestock waste control permitting regulations to protect groundwater and reduce phosphorous pollution.
» Interim county zoning legislation is withdrawn.
» Historically low hog prices force many small producers out of business.
» Interim county zoning legislation adopted.
» Nebraska Supreme Court rules in Perkins County case that counties cannot regulate animal feeding operations without first adopting county zoning.
» Nebraska Supreme Court rules in Holt County case that counties may zone animal feeding operations.
» Nebraska Court of Appeals rules in Jefferson County case that livestock odors can reduce residential property values.
» Nebraska Court of Appeals rules that Antelope County officials violated open meeting requirements in granting zoning permit for dairy near trout stream.
» Livestock industry supporters create coalition in response to concerns about the effect of county zoning regulations on livestock expansion. Gov. Mike Johanns and Rep. Tom Osborne endorse the initiative.
» Legislative Bill 1285 is introduced by livestock development supporters to study how to improve the livestock development climate in the state. Agriculture Committee indefinitely postpones the bill — a political defeat for livestock development supporters.
» Nebraska Supreme Court rules in Furnas County case that City of Alma can regulate animal feeding operations in order to protect community water supply.
» Livestock-friendly counties legislation is adopted. (The 20 counties currently so designated are Adams, Banner, Box Butte, Cuming, Dawes, Deuel, Gage, Garden, Grant, Hitchcock, Jefferson, Keith, Kimball, Lincoln, Morrill, Saline, Scotts Bluff, Sheridan, Wayne and Webster.)
» Initiative 300 invalidated by federal courts. (Appeals ran out in 2007.) Made it easier for corporate livestock development projects to proceed, although some stymied by restrictive county livestock zoning ordinances.
» Nebraska Supreme Court confirms in Butler County case a township's right to regulate liquid manure pipelines on its right of way.
Sources: David Aiken, department of agricultural economics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Nebraska Supreme Court