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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 10:01 pm

Raising a stink

A plan to save a family farm has neighbors squealing.


Above: Sandy and Bob Young.

Until last week Bob Young had never been inside a courtroom, so he didn’t know exactly where to sit. He chose a spot in a middle pew on the right-hand side of the room, next to his wife, Sandy, and just behind their new best friend, a loquacious agribusiness consultant named Nic Anderson. All three had ample room to rest their arms along the bench backs and lean this way or that to get comfortable; aside from a reporter, no one else sat on the Youngs’ side of the aisle.

As they waited for the judge to enter, Bob and Sandy cast curious glances across the courtroom, where dozens of their neighbors were crammed shoulder to shoulder into the pews, squeezed in like sticks of chewing gum in a freshly opened pack of Wrigley’s. As others arrived, people scooted closer together, making room for more neighbors to wedge into the pack. Meanwhile, the four people on the opposite side could have each stretched out on separate pews and enjoyed a brief nap.

If this audience had been assembled for a wedding, it would have been painfully obvious that nobody liked the groom. Because it was a court hearing, the seating arrangement signaled something else: The Youngs have alienated many of their neighbors.

Having spent his entire life in the tiny community of Buckhart — about 10 miles southeast of downtown Springfield — Bob Young was somewhat surprised by this blatant display of animosity.

“One particular individual came up to us and said, ‘We have nothing against you and Sandy; you’re wonderful neighbors. We just don’t want the pigs,’ ” Bob recalls. “Well, that’s being against me and Sandy. When you’re against the pigs, you’re against Sandy and me.”

The neighbors, on the other hand, insist that they have no problem with pigs. It’s the concept of 3,750 hogs being fattened for Cargill in a building constructed over a pit holding 224,000 cubic feet of pig poop that has area homeowners incensed.

“This is not a nice little family-farm operation. This is a factory,” says Laura Davis, who lives just more than a mile downwind from Young’s proposed swine operation.

This controversy could be taking place almost anywhere across North America. Over the past several decades, as family farms like the Youngs’ have struggled to compete with corporate conglomerates, communities have begun actively resisting concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where thousands of animals are raised for market by the most financially efficient means possible.

Both sides in the Buckhart battle have tapped into larger organizations already adept at fighting for their preferred versions of farming. The Youngs have the backing of the global Cargill corporation, as well as Anderson’s employer, the Illinois Livestock Development Group, a coalition of various agribusiness interests striving to “boost farm incomes for all livestock and grain producers in Illinois,” according to its Web site. The neighbors, who formed a not-for-profit corporation called Rochester Buckhart Action Group, or RBAG, have sought advice from a Peoria-based anti-CAFO organization called Families Against Rural Messes, or FARM.

But in meetings held in a Buckhart union hall, and in the Sangamon County Courthouse last week, the conflict took on an intensely personal tone. The Youngs say they’re trying to save the farm that has been in Bob’s family since 1943; the neighbors say they’re trying to protect their homes from the environmental, financial, and aromatic wallop that could come with the almost 4,000 head of swine. Lines have been drawn, sides have been chosen, and a lawsuit has been filed. Instead of being neighborly — helping each other when the cows get out, plowing one another’s driveways when it snows — everybody’s raising a stink.

T he Youngs once served as the poster family for the toilsome lifestyle of small-time farmers. They were the focus of a profile written by Springfield journalist James E. Myers for the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine. Under the headline “Hard times for the family farmer,” Myers’ feature story outlined in eloquent but unblinking detail the Youngs’ arduous existence raising dairy cows, pigs, corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, alfalfa, silage, and hay. They were “general farmers caught up in a time of specialization, a time when most farmers are big operators,” Myers wrote.

The story was published in 1972.

It’s the first thing the Youngs hand to a reporter — proof that family farms have been headed for obsolescence since Richard Nixon was president and that Bob, now 63, has spent his entire life pushing uphill against that trend. In the yellowed magazine article, Bob is shown helping his father, Gene, and mother, Eva, who concentrate on approximately 30 dairy cows while Bob is in charge of an unspecified number of swine.

“Dirt hogs,” he says, pointing to the magazine picture showing a hired hand flinging corncobs to sows under a shade tree.

 Sitting at their kitchen table, in a brick ranch-style house situated less than a mile from the manure pit being dug for Cargill swine, the Youngs sound eager to embark on their new venture.

At a board meeting held on a patio, members of the Rochester Buckhart Action Group use an aerial photo to measure how far their homes are from the proposed hog farm.

“They started way back with the dirt hogs, and they have just graduated up to this large technology,” Sandy says of her husband’s farm. “This is basically what he’s been doing all along.”

The concept of confinement isn’t novel; Bob says he switched to this method — acquiring weaned 40-pound “feeder” pigs and raising them to 240-pound market weight in a “Murphy hog house” with an open pit in front for excrement — in 1974. He claims that he had as many as 2,200 hogs at one time but tapered to approximately 1,400 by 1998, when, he says, he quit raising hogs because the market price dropped to $8 per hundred-weight.    

In 2004, another farmer asked him to raise 2,000 gilts (young female swine through first litter), and Young razed his old confinement barns and filed a notice with the Illinois Department of Agriculture of his intent to construct a new facility. Financing failed to materialize fast enough, though, so the other farmer took his gilt business elsewhere. The Youngs’ new construction plan was shelved until 2006, when they landed the Cargill contract. Under the terms of the deal, Cargill will supply 10-pound pigs plus all feed and medications. The Youngs will raise the pigs into 260-pound hogs, then send them off to Cargill’s Beardstown meatpacking plant. The hogs’ entire tenure with the Youngs will be spent inside a “state of the art” confinement building designed by Cargill, with slatted metal floors (to allow excrement to fall into the pit), curtain walls that can be opened or closed, and giant fans providing ventilation, keeping the temperature at 72 degrees year-round. Bob points out that the new barn will also have automatic “misters” to cool the hogs, because swine can’t sweat.

To some, the facility sounds like a pork factory; to Bob and Sandy, it sounds like hog heaven.

“Cargill wants their hogs to be comfortable at all times, because this is their money and they don’t want to lose any,” Sandy says. “These buildings are designed for the hogs’ comfort. They’ll have continuous feed, because the object is for them to eat and grow as fast as they can so they can be ready for market.”

C argill does not pay for this spiffy stainless-steel hog barn; the Youngs have taken out a loan to finance construction. But even though the structure itself will be new, the business itself won’t be, under Illinois’ Livestock Management Facilities Act of 1996. The Youngs’ commercial contract venture with Cargill qualifies as an expansion of their existing dairy operation, which consists of about 40 cows that produce milk for Prairie Farms.

That’s right — the Illinois Department of Agriculture has rubber-stamped a hog farm as the expansion of a business that, by definition, is based on cows.

Under the LMFA, the difference between an expansion and a new facility relies on a complicated mathematical formula: If the newly added portion of a farm facility costs less than half of the total amount a farmer would have to spend to re-create his existing facility combined with the new portion, then it’s an expansion rather than a new operation.

Using this formula, the Youngs listed all of the assets of their existing dairy farm, assigned the dollar amount needed to replace each item, and arrived at a sum of $1,044,000. The swine finishing building will cost $718,000, for a combined value of $1,762,000. The swine shed amounts to just 41 percent of that total. Because that’s less than half, it counts as an expansion.

The fact that the Youngs’ list of existing items includes items purely for the dairy — the milking parlor, loafing shed, and feedlot accounted for $400,000 — doesn’t matter. But Warren Goetsch, the department’s bureau chief of environmental programs, admits that it’s unusual.

“Over the 11 years the LMFA has been in place, we’ve only had a handful of proposals where the issue of whether it should be deemed an expansion or new has really come up and even a lesser number where we’ve had multiple species, so I guess you could say it’s out of the norm. It’s not something that we’ve seen happen many times before,” Goetsch says. “Any time you draw a line, you’re going to have a situation that pops up where it’s close to that line, and this is probably one of those cases where it’s getting close to the line, with multiple livestock species.”

The difference becomes significant because a new hog farm would have to clear two additional hurdles: a public hearing and more stringent setback requirements.

In other words, if the Youngs’ hog farm were “new,” their neighbors would have had some way to officially voice their opposition without having to form a corporation, hire an attorney, and take the Youngs to court.

“That’s what’s so frustrating,” says George Jamison, who lives about a mile-and-a-half away. “There’s nothing that requires them to give us public notice. The Department of Agriculture has very plainly told us that no, there is no process to challenge or question this facility. There’s no process whatsoever. There’s nothing you can do except file a lawsuit.”

T he setback requirement for a new facility could have also been a factor. Bob Young would have been required to obtain a waiver from anyone living within 1,320 feet of the hog barn — and though he could count on cooperation from relatives who live on the farm (his brother, mother, daughter, three grandkids, and one great-grandchild all live within 800 feet of the proposed barn), an unrelated neighbor 1,200 feet away doesn’t sound so sure that he would give permission.

Roland “Giz” Marshall moved into Buckhart Estates in 1973. His wife, Cindy, has added artistic touches all around the property, even turning their propane tank into a grasshopper.

Matt Heissinger and his family have a 40-acre spread just east — downwind — from the Youngs’ proposed hog barn. He remembers that the Youngs had a smaller hog operation in 1986, when he bought his property and built his home.

“There were days when you could smell them. It basically depended on which way the wind was blowing,” he says. He has enjoyed not having hogs nearby for “the past 10 or 12 years,” and he’s not looking forward to having 3,750 stinky new neighbors. His 16-year-old daughter is already upset, afraid that her friends will never come visit.

“We’ve got a beautiful place out here, and we like to have people over for barbecue. If this goes in, who’s going to want to go to the Heissingers?” he asks.

Yet he hasn’t joined RBAG or even returned phone calls from neighbors seeking his opinion. Heissinger, who farms about 18 acres around his home, plus another 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans around Rochester with his brother, says that he wouldn’t want to disrupt the Youngs’ plans because they have legal permission.

“The first I heard about them building a barn, they already had a permit. When you’re faced with that, what can you do? There’s no use for me to jump on a bandwagon and try to deny them the right to make a living,” he says. “Do I want a hog farm there? No, I don’t — but if they’ve got a permit there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s pretty much a done deal. There’s nothing I can say or do about it to change anything.”

Because there’s no process that allows him to object, Heissinger has just one option: to join the group filing the lawsuit. That’s a giant step he’s simply unwilling to take against fellow farmers who, he says, have always been good neighbors.

“They’re very good hardworking farmers that work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and they’ll do anything for you,” he says. “I’m just being a good neighbor to them. I’m not gonna be the S.O.B.”

T he Youngs seem stunned that their neighbors have taken a stand against them — a fact they stumbled across one evening in March when they were driving to the Buckhart Sand & Gravel pit to see the boat Sandy’s brother had just put on the lake. As they passed the Operating Engineers training hall (one of the few large buildings in Buckhart), they noticed 30 or 40 cars in the parking lot and wondered what was going on. Later that night, a friend told them that the event was an organizational meeting for a group that wanted to stop their hog farm.

 “They never gave us a hint of nothing. They sneak around and don’t let Bob and Sandy know it!” Sandy fumes. “Not one time did they come and say, ‘Hey, I want to sit down and talk to you and find out what’s going on here.’ We’re not doing this to aggravate the neighbors; we’re doing this to make a living. We’re just trying to save the family farm.”

The neighbors, however, say that the Youngs were the ones sneaking around.

Roland Marshall, known as Giz, has lived in Buckhart Estates since 1973 and thought Bob would have told him about such a plan.

“I know him pretty well. He is a nice person. He’d do anything for you,” Marshall says, “but he professes all the time that he’s such a good neighbor. You’d think he would’ve gone around the neighborhood and let us know. Consequently, that upsets me quite a bit, that he’s not even approaching people and asking if it’s OK with them. He just went ahead under the table and did it.”

The first whiff neighbors got of the Youngs’ plan came through some offhand remark Bob made at a meeting of the fire-department board. Only after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Agriculture did they discover the scope of the Youngs’ plans — and, even more surprising, the previous application to establish a gilt operation.

“Other than talking with some people he knew, he didn’t come to any of these neighbors,” says George Jamison, the homeowner who filed the FOIA request. “We spent about a month trying to get information, and part of what we finally found out was . . . that he also had an approved notice in 2004. Did he tell us that back in 2004? No. So it’s pretty disingenuous to suggest that we should have contacted him.”

Though there was no legal requirement for the Youngs to notify their neighbors — thanks to the determination that the hog operation is not new — the neighbors are suspicious of Bob’s secrecy. Laura Davis justifies her suspicions using the law of reciprocity. “If he didn’t think people would be upset,” she asks, “why didn’t he tell everybody?”

Fred Logue shows off his kitchen floor, made of bricks salvaged from a Lincoln-era tavern.
What bothers these neighbors even more is that the Youngs’ hog farm could continue to grow. The same law that allows a dairy to expand into hogs also permits a farm facility to basically double its “animal units” every two years — again, without input from area property owners.

B y all accounts, tensions came to a head on March 21. A flier had gone out, announcing an “urgent meeting” to take place at the Operating Engineers Training Center in Buckhart. “IF YOU ARE CONCERNED AND WANT TO HELP MOUNT SOME OPPOSITION, PLEASE ATTEND!” the flier read.

A standing-room-only crowd assembled, including a few unexpected guests — Bob and Sandy Young and Nic Anderson, the Illinois Livestock Development Group consultant. The RBAG organizers offered Bob and Anderson the opportunity to speak and answer questions, setting the stage for some boorish behavior.

“Bob was very calm,” Sandy says. “A lot of them got real nasty about it.”

Giz Marshall has a different version: “Bob had that attitude. It didn’t help. It upset people more,” he says.

After about an hour and a half, the Youngs and their supporters left but opponents stayed — though how that cut was made depends on who’s telling the story.

“They told everybody that was [in favor of] this to get out — ‘We’re having our meeting now’ — so we left,” Sandy says.

“Actually,” says Candy Cummins, now chairwoman of RBAG, “they were only giving him so much time on the floor because he was not invited. The wordage I understood was: ‘Those that want to can stay and get more information and talk about where we go from here.’ ”

These petty points of contention form the tip of a massive iceberg of dissent between the two camps. They disagree on the size, duration, and demise of Bob’s previous hog operation: He says he had as many 2,200 hogs, but the opponents say it was more like 600; he says he raised hogs through 1998, but the opponents say the hogs were gone by 1996; he says he quit farming hogs because the market went soft, but opponents say a combination of sloppy maintenance, frozen water pipes, and disease killed off his hogs.

Naturally, the two parties disagree on the health hazards associated with hog CAFOs. The Youngs insist that this new facility will be safe, pointing out that they’ll have a great-grandchild living within 800 feet of the barn. “If there was an environmental issue, we would not even consider this,” Sandy says.

But Mary Lou Goodpaster — a biologist married to Jamison — just shakes her had at Sandy’s statement.

“Their ignorance has no bearing on this matter,” Goodpaster says. “There’s loads and loads of scientific peer-reviewed articles that really spell this out — air pollution, water pollution, health effects. This is not a matter of opinion.”

One thing everybody agrees on: Hogs stink. But how bad? Again, the two sides clash. The Youngs believe that the smell will be tolerable. “Our house is sitting right in the line of fire,” Bob says. “It’s gonna get to us before it gets to those folks.” He admits that the smell will intensify when it comes time to suck all the excrement from the pit and distribute it to various area farmers who have agreed to accept it as fertilizer. This process — artfully termed “nutrient management” — will be carried out at least once a year. The details, such as where the poop will be planted, aren’t available even under the Freedom of Information Act.

There’s one other factual question with no satisfactory answer: Many opponents swear that at the March 21 meeting Bob mentioned that he plans to retire at age 65. Bob swears that he never made any such statement and insists that he will work until he’s 70 — at least. The significance goes back to the state law permitting a farm to expand every two years. Bob promises that he won’t double his hog stock, but the neighbors fear that Bob will retire in 2009 and hand over the farm to some other entity that could bring in 3,750 more pigs.

The truth, though, is there’s no way to know for sure whether the hog farm will smell or leak or double in size unless or until it’s built and operational. By that point, the RBAG folks say, it could be too late.

T he term “property values” is like kindling to the flame of public opinion. Nothing incites a homeowner like the idea that his principal investment might not sell for the price he paid plus change. But this equation takes on an exponential significance with Fred and Merleda Logue, who designed and constructed their home by themselves.

Fred and Merleda Logue, who live a mile from the proposed hog farm, designed their home themselves. “Everything in this house, from the bottom up, we built,” Fred says.

“Everything in this house, from the bottom up, we built — me, my wife, and my kids,” Fred says. They’ve lived here almost 20 years.

An operations engineer employed by the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Fred does electrical, plumbing, carpentry, heating, and cooling work, all at a journeyman level, and uses woodworking as an artistic outlet. His house is large and sturdy, with exterior walls almost 14 inches thick. The original floor plan, which Fred drew using colored markers, shows four bedrooms, a den, living room, and kitchen. The plan grew to include another space (dubbed the “sanitarium” or “nuthouse”) along the way. All the rooms are expansive.

He and Merleda designed this home together, and it has the kind of creative touches that happen only when brainpower overcomes budget constraints. For example, the interior walls and floors give the feel of a log home, but the wide wooden planks are actually “car” siding, installed upside down. Instead of wallpaper, the Logues covered interior walls with calico — actual cotton fabric coated with shellac. The kitchen floor is solid brick — stones salvaged from a Lincoln-era tavern that was demolished downtown. Fred hand-routed the door frames, finishing the corners with wooden rosettes.

On the tax rolls, it’s valued at $152,133. To the Logues, however, it’s priceless.

“I built this house with the sweat and blood of my brow. How do you tax that different from somebody else? I don’t know how you would do it,” Fred says. “The thing is, I feel different. This house is my last hurrah. I don’t think I’ll build another.”

“No, you won’t,” Merleda says.

But they’re afraid of what might happen to their handmade home if the Youngs get to go ahead with their plan. The Logues live about a mile downwind from the site, on a hilltop that puts their residence level with the proposed hog farm.

“Any type of smell will travel with dust particles. Bob’s way around that is he says he’s going to plant trees to knock down the dust particles. Well, those trees will not have the maturity to do any good for 15 or 20 years,” Fred says.

Until this controversy, the Logues considered the Youngs good neighbors. Merleda has hired Sandy to quilt her quilt tops, the Logues have bought animals from the Youngs for their kids to raise as 4-H projects — and Fred, of all people, understands that Bob might want to have one final farm project.

“If he wants to have a last hurrah,” Fred says, “he has enough farmland; he should subdivide it and build houses out there.”

T o Bob Young, Fred Logue’s idea sounds blasphemous. “I’m not gonna subdivide any of my land,” he says.

After all, when it comes to sweat and blood of the brow, Bob and all his relatives have a major investment in this farm.

Now the Youngs have taken on an $800,000 note and begun construction of the hog barn. The mammoth pit has been dug; cement has been poured. They expect to have the facility finished and stocked with pigs by summer’s end.

Last week, the Youngs sounded confident. “We’re 100 percent sure we’re going to beat this,” Sandy said. “We’ve done research for two years to make sure that every T was crossed.”

The neighbors’ lawsuit asks the court for an injunction to halt construction of the hog farm. The case will be heard at 10:30 Monday morning in courtroom 5-D of the Sangamon County Courthouse.

This time, Bob will know exactly where to sit.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at