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Farmer Recalls Hog Confinement Before Public Debate

JOHNSON COUNTY, IA (CBS2/FOX28) - A Johnson County farmer who wanted to add more than 2,000 hogs to his confinement operation withdrew his application to the county just before a public hearing on Thursday morning, but the prospect still fired up dozens of people present at the hearing.

The confinement Ray Slach had proposed  was big enough and close enough to his current 2,400 hog confinement to fall under county regulations; all Slach has to do is slide the proposed building 900 feet away from the current confinement, and the county can't regulate him at all.

But the idea of another hog confinement in Johnson County spurred a conversation about the battle between a dwindling number of small family farms, and the growth of the corporate factory farm.

"Iowa has lost 91 percent of its independent hog farmers in the last 25 years. Ninety-one percent," said Suzan Erem, a beginning farmer.

Daniel Whitehall said Slach has been a great neighbor to him -- he lives just around the bend from Slach's farm -- but Whitehall also lost his family farm in the 1980s.

"Back in my day before all the farms went under, in the 70s and 80s, our 1,000 head of hogs was spread over 20-some acres," Whitehall said.

That meant profits were more spread out, and so were the impact on Iowa's water and air. That is no longer the case, said Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement member Jim Walters.

"We're talking about spray drift, we're talking about manure spills, we're talking about air pollution, we're talking about GMOs, we're talking about water pollution. Everything industrial agriculture does is crossing the fence," said Walters.

The issue also involves local governmental control. If this one confinement moves, the county can't regulate it. The county has only a limited ability to stop other concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs, from moving in, too.

"If we clearly want change, and we don't want CAFOs in our county, we have to change state law. The only way to do that is to get a new governor and a new legislature, because all that's going to happen here is they're going to move it 900 feet and build it anyway," said county supervisor Janelle Rettig. Rettig is running for re-election this fall.

The issue surrounds a regulating measure and scoring policy called the master matrix. A master matrix scores operations like CAFOs on 44 criteria that can impact neighborhoods, businesses, and the environment. If Slach changes the location for his proposed confinement, he will not fall under regulation of the master matrix, Rettig said.

While Slach has been investigated for environmental infractions before, county Supervisor John Etheredge said he knows many farmers who are concerned about their impact and try to minimize it.

CBS2/FOX28 News reached out to Slach several times on Thursday, but he was not available to comment.

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