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As number of large hog farms grow, Iowans cope with smell, officials worry about business
Farm Scene Smelly I 5521069
Jack Salzsieder, manager of The Odor Control Company of Iowa Tech, checks an odor meter in a hog confinement barn on the Tom Uthe farm, Friday, Feb. 16, 2001, near Slater, Iowa. Farm odors are nothing new in a state that has long been a national leader in hog, corn and soybean production. But a steady proliferation of huge hog confinements _ many with upward of 5,000 hogs _ has drawn complaints from longtime Iowans and concerns that the odor could hinder efforts to attract businesses. - photo by Associated Press
    LORIMOR, Iowa — Mayor Kent Forbes has learned a hard truth about small-town life in Iowa: Sometimes it stinks.
    That’s not a figure of speech. His tiny southern Iowa town is surrounded by hog farms, where tons of manure fill the air with a biting ammonia smell.
    Farm odors are nothing new in a state that has long been a national leader in hog, corn and soybean production. But a steady proliferation of huge hog confinements — many with upward of 5,000 hogs — has drawn complaints from longtime Iowans and concerns that the odor could hinder efforts to attract businesses.
    And all residents can do is stay indoors.
    State legislators have placed minimal restrictions on the hog industry, and a federal court has ruled that confinements can’t be sued under the Clean Air Act if they agree to pay a small fee and allow the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor their emissions.
    ‘‘I don’t think the (state) has been aggressive on this at all,’’ said Barb Kalbach, board president of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a grass-roots group that helps rural residents fight the confinements. ‘‘And I don’t think the state would tolerate this stuff from any other industry.’’
    The hog confinements are fairly new in Iowa, first popping up in the early 1990s after the practice was popularized in North Carolina. By housing thousands of hogs in one area, managers can keep costs low and meet consumer demand for a consistent product.
    The factory farms have mostly replaced smaller family operations, which were scattered enough to limit their unavoidable stench.
    ‘‘Hogs have been in Iowa forever, but they were always far less concentrated ... ‘‘ said Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. ‘‘Now, there are so many hogs on one site and it can really smell.’’
    The operations typically set up shop near small, rural towns, where land is cheap and officials are eager for any new business that offers jobs and increased tax revenue.
    ‘‘The livestock industry is crucial to a number of our rural communities,’’ said state Sen. David Johnson, the ranking Republican on the agriculture committee. ‘‘Without that livestock they run the risk of withering on the vine.’’
    Johnson said the state is committed to regulating confinements, pointing to the first meeting later this month of a livestock odor study committee.
    For many, though, the state’s efforts have been mere platitudes, and word of a proposed hog farm causes panic.
    ‘‘When you hear about one of these coming in you, you think you’re going to have to move, that you’ve got to get away from it,’’ Kalbach said. ‘‘But then you think, ‘My goodness! Who will buy it?’’’
    Three years ago, developers proposed a 5,600-head hog farm about a mile from Kalbach’s corn and soybean farm near Dexter, a town of 800 about 30 miles west of Des Moines.
    The confinement won an initial permit, but activists appealed to the state’s environmental commission, which ruled the operation would be too close to residents.
    The ruling amounted to a rare reprieve. In many cases, residents fail to organize an effective opposition, and proposed sites are often so remote that officials refuse to stop them.
    State Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, himself a corn and soybean farmer, is sympathetic to residents’ complaints but defends Iowa’s efforts to combat odors.
    He said state and local officials have rejected some operations, and he noted the difficulty of quantifying something as ephemeral as smell.
    ‘‘Odor is inherently a complicated kind of thing,’’ Northey said. ‘‘It’s just like odor from a city or a factory plant. It’s hard to measure and people are sensitive to it in different ways.’’
    In May, he wrote several officials with the Iowa Farm Bureau to tell them he planned to undertake an odor study, according to e-mails obtained by The Associated Press using Iowa’s open records law.
    ‘‘I think we ought to consider conducting this out of the public eye to avoid a political sideshow,’’ Northey wrote. ‘‘We also need to conduct this with a firm eye to the political impact on the next legislative session. ... There are some risks in an effort like this, but then again there are risks in doing nothing.’’
    In towns like Lorimor — which has no grocery, one bar/restaurant and a single gas station — the smell is just one more factor contributing to a decades-long slide.
    Its annual community garage sale this summer was ruined after hog farmers spread manure on their fields.
    ‘‘No one came out,’’ said Forbes, the mayor. ‘‘People had to shut their windows. The smell was so thick!’’
    Farther north, Shirley Phillips, a tourism and economic development official, said she’s seen some improvement, but air quality can be a problem in Sac City and other towns in Sac County.
    ‘‘In the past, I’ve called all the operations around our city limits before and asked them not to spread manure if we are having a business in town,’’ Phillips said.

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