The supersizing of America's livestock farms: For cheaper grocery prices, are we risking our health, the environment and squeezing out small farmers? Part one of six.

December 1, 2002

By Mike Wagner and Ben Sutherly

Dayton Daily News

South Charleston, Ohio - For three years, Ohio regulators didn't know what was going on inside the long white barns of the state's largest cattle farm.

They didn't know the farm was storing uncovered piles of manure, stacked higher than a basketball hoop, on a cement slab outside.

Or that rain was washing some of that waste into the nearby Little Miami, a national scenic river.

They didn't know about Ohio Feedlot Inc. even though its 9,000 cattle generated about 131,000 tons of manure a year, almost double the amount produced by Dayton's 166,000 residents.

They didn't know because the owner didn't tell them.

Regulators didn't discover the long-closed Clark County feedlot had reopened until a prospective buyer contacted the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to see whether the 185-acre farm met state regulations.

"We couldn't keep up with the large farms," said Jim Simpson, an Ohio EPA supervisor in the agency's Dayton office. "They just kept coming and snowballed us, and that's what happened with that feedlot."

Livestock farms across America have gone the way of Wal-Mart and the retail industry, building superfarms at the pace Wal-Mart and its discount cousins build superstores. But the supersizing of livestock farming, while revolutionizing food production in America, has overrun regulators, caused untold harm to the environment and public health, created an uproar over the treatment of animals and squeezed many small farmers out of business.

Even the very definition of livestock farming has been shaken.

Chicken houses the size of two-car garages have given way to metal buildings longer than a football field with tens of thousands of chickens inside. Hogs are kept in metal-gated pens on concrete slats, a thousand animals under one roof.

Fifty years ago, the average egg farm in Ohio had fewer than 100 birds; now it has close to 10,000. A single operator, Buckeye Egg Farm, has 14 million chickens spread over four counties.

Giant companies like Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms are contracting with farmers to expand operations and eliminate overhead. For farmers, the choice has become painfully simple: Get bigger or get out.

Large livestock farms are one reason Americans can buy a dozen eggs for 99 cents, a gallon of milk for $2, a pound of bacon for $3 and a ribeye steak for under $5.

But they are also the reason school bus driver Bernadine Edwards has to close her farmhouse windows even in the dead heat of the Kentucky summer. She is surrounded by 82 chicken houses packed with 2 million birds.

They are the reason Ron Osterholm, a health official in Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, successfully pushed for a yearlong ban on livestock expansion in his county. Before another farm comes in, Osterholm wants to test the air near the largest farms to determine their risk to public health.

And they are the reason the Illinois River in Oklahoma is turning bright green.

A nine-month Dayton Daily News examination traced many problems on large farms to lax standards, uneven enforcement and rules that vary from state to state.

Even finding the farms that states are supposed to regulate is nearly impossible. Most states require permits for farms that have at least 100,000 chickens, 55,000 turkeys, 2,500 hogs, 1,000 beef cattle or 700 milk cows.

But states can't enforce regulations on farms they don't know about, and many states don't know how many megafarms they have.

Some don't even look.

In Virginia, the Department of Environmental Quality waits for farms to apply for a permit. "We don't run up and down the road looking for them," said Scott Haley, an environmental planner for the department. "Occasionally, we find operations through complaints."

Added Rich Powell, a geological scientist for the Surface Water Quality Bureau in New Mexico: "You've probably figured out that most of the people who should be permitted are not permitted."

Just 18 of the 46 states with megafarms have conducted a formal inventory or survey to find them, the Daily News examination found.

The regulatory climate has helped lure Dutch farmers who have opened dozens of dairies in the Midwest. Ohio officials are concerned: Five Ohio dairies have already been warned about environmental violations.

The Daily News traveled to 11 states and the Netherlands, and compiled a comprehensive database of megafarm regulations in every state. The examination found:

 Megafarms are rapidly replacing small and midsize livestock farms. Government statistics show megafarms grew 47 percent from 1982 to 1997, while small and midsized farms declined 25 percent. Put another way, about 2,600 megafarms replaced 339,000 smaller farms. But the number of large farms now is likely much higher. In Ohio, the number of megafarms more than tripled in the last decade, to 139 farms.

 State after state is overhauling megafarm regulations, but operators can still go years without facing inspections, must violate rules repeatedly to risk harsh penalties and are exempt from many environmental standards. Half the states don't require megafarms to meet air-quality standards and just four states enforce limits on toxic gas from large farms.

 Megafarms increasingly operate like factories yet skirt federal standards designed to protect the public and the environment from industrial pollutants. A federal lawsuit in Kentucky seeks to have 80 chicken houses regulated as industrial plants, claiming their ammonia emissions pose a public health threat. Buckeye Egg reported releasing 3.3 million pounds of ammonia in 2000, ranking it among the state's top factories, power plants and other industrial sources.

 Pollution investigations linked to Ohio's livestock farms are on the rise. Livestock farming was suspected in 311 investigations since 1993, up 29 percent from the previous decade. In 2001 and 2002, the state linked 81 incidents to livestock operations -- more than from any other source, including oil spills and sewage. An estimated 74,000 fish were killed in those incidents.

 At least 24 people in the Midwest have died from inhaling hydrogen sulfide and methane from manure since the 1970s, including fifth-generation Michigan dairy farmer Carl Theuerkauf and four members of his family, who collapsed one by one in 1989 after breathing methane gas from a manure pit. But the death toll from manure may be much higher. Cryptosporidium, a microorganism found in animal waste, killed 104 people and sickened 403,000 others in Milwaukee in 1993 in an outbreak some blamed on manure from nearby livestock farms. A local health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suspected that manure caused seven miscarriages in a small farming community in Indiana between 1991 and 1993 by contaminating wells. "I thought the water I was drinking was good water," said Melissa Dickerson, who was 22 and pregnant for the first time.

"Big Chicken" often equals less regulation. Twenty-three states exempt dry-litter poultry operations -- the bulk of their chicken farms -- from regulations that other megafarms must follow. They include Iowa, the nation's top egg-producing state; North Carolina, the top turkey-producing state; and Georgia and Arkansas, the top two producers of meat chickens. The exemption rankles officials in some neighboring states. Oklahoma and Arkansas are embroiled in a border war about pollution runoff from chicken houses in Arkansas to scenic rivers in Oklahoma.

"Yes, we are getting cheap food, but we're being sold a bill of goods," said Don Stull, professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas. "If we look at the real costs -- costs to the environment, costs of the loss of the family farm and costs to rural communities -- what price are we really paying for that?"

Those who operate and defend the farms say the problems have been blown out of proportion.

"A lot of people are trying to take the big farms down with all this factory farm crap," said David Holcomb, a poultry farmer near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. "We feed the nation. We give it the cheapest and safest food we have ever had. And yet so many people want to destroy us."

Farmers also bristle at criticism that animals are mistreated on large livestock farms.

"What's good for the health of the chicken is usually good for the farmer's pocketbook," said Marcus Rust, whose family runs Rose Acre Farms of Seymour, Ind., the nation's second largest egg producer.

Most high-rise egg houses pack up to eight chickens to a cage, with each bird allotted a space roughly equal to half a sheet of notebook paper. But Rust said cages are healthier for chickens because farmers can control the birds' diets. "The chicken is a scavenger," he said. "They eat whatever they can find."

Under pressure from animal welfare groups, the United Egg Producers in June introduced new standards for the industry, including one that increases the minimum cage space for chickens up to 40 percent by 2008.

"That brings us more in line with European regulations," said Joy Mench, an animal science professor at the University of California at Davis and a member of UEP's advisory committee.

Ohio, like many states, is rewriting rules for its megafarms. But the state also switched regulators, transferring most of the regulatory authority that was under the Ohio EPA for more than 25 years to the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

The Ohio Farm Bureau, the lobbying voice of agriculture and a generous contributor to state candidates, pushed hard for the bill, which passed in 2001.

"It was something that was extremely important to us and perhaps was one of the most important bills that we've worked on," Farm Bureau lobbyist Larry Gearhardt said. "We spent a tremendous amount of time trying to massage the bill and have it drafted the way it should be to run a good program."

The federal government on Dec. 13 is expected to announce stricter rules for governing megafarms. Under drafts of the proposed rules, the U.S. EPA would require that more farms be permitted and that they be inspected more frequently. The rules also would prohibit the spreading of manure and wastewater within 100 feet of surface water, and would require large meat-producing corporations to share environmental responsibility with the farmers they employ.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. EPA said the agency would not comment on any findings in the Dayton Daily News story, citing the pending announcement of the new rules.

Fred Dailey, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which took over most of the state's authority for regulating megafarms in August, said he's committed to cleaning up problems. The department's livestock environmental permitting program has 13 employees, including six who do inspections.

"We don't turn a blind eye," Dailey said. "There's no future for the livestock industry in this state unless it's properly regulated."

Jim Buchy, the assistant director for the Ohio Department of Agriculture and a former state legislator, said megafarms are a necessary response to market forces.

"We have this pristine view of Mom and Dad on a farm with 80 acres and a few milk cows running around, a few chickens running around, a barnyard and a couple of pigs," he said.

"That type of agriculture disappeared over 50 years ago."

Dirty water

Before the hog and chicken farms in northern Darke County got big, Jeff Schlecty would draw his bow and arrow, aim at a carp in the Wabash River and hope he didn't hit a smallmouth bass.

"There were so many nice bass, you really had to watch," Schlecty said.

If the 33-year-old Schlecty went fishing in the Wabash now, he likely wouldn't catch a single smallmouth -- because there might not be any left.

Two Ohio EPA water-quality studies on the rivers, creeks and streams that feed the Wabash tell why smallmouth bass are vanishing.

"The water in those areas is not in good shape, and the primary cause of the (pollution) is not septic tanks, treatment plants or fertilizer -- it's manure, mainly from large farms," said Robert Miltner, an aquatic biologist for the Ohio EPA. "The problems with manure and farms have been building for many years, and this confirmed what we believed all along. We didn't find a single smallmouth bass in the Wabash River."

The Wabash begins near New Weston, an hour's drive north of Dayton, and winds 475 miles through Ohio and Indiana before emptying into the Ohio River near Evansville. The Ohio portion of the river is the state's "most degraded watershed," according to the EPA report.

"It's unlikely the Wabash will ever support healthy aquatic communities," the report states.

EPA researchers tested for fish quality, bacteria and other contaminants during 18 months in 1999 and 2000. The studies found the poorest water quality in northern Darke and southern Mercer counties -- an area with hundreds of small and medium-sized livestock farms and 71 of the state's 139 megafarms.

Acre for acre, those two counties produce more eggs than anywhere else in the United States.

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the nation's rivers have been getting cleaner. But that's not true of the Ohio portion of the Wabash.

Ohio regulators say chicken, hog and dairy farms -- some of which regulators have directly linked to fish kills and other pollution problems -- are the principal reason the Wabash River is so polluted.

In many spots along the Wabash, manure from farmland can wash directly into the river. In Indiana, the Wabash also cuts through farmland but a green buffer -- visible from the air -- protects the river from the runoff.

"There is nothing there -- no buffers on either side," said Rick Wilson, a megafarm inspector for the Ohio EPA, as he looked down from a small plane above the river in Mercer County. "Trees, grass or some kind of buffer protects the water and aquatic life from (manure), from runoff, but it's just not there."

Tom Menke, a consultant for more than 100 of Ohio's megafarms, didn't dispute the poor water quality in the area, but he said it is due more to septic tanks and sewage from treatment plants.

Larger livestock farms produce millions of gallons of manure, which is often impounded in lagoons or pits beneath barns. The manure is then pumped into tanker spreaders or through a dragline pulled by a tractor and injected into the soil. Sometimes the lagoons overflow or leak. Other times, farmers apply too much manure or put it on frozen or saturated soil, and excess nutrients seep into rivers.

Ohio wildlife officials linked the deaths of 333,000 fish during the last decade to livestock.

Small and midsized farms cause a majority of the fish kills linked to livestock in Ohio, but several megafarms have repeatedly violated pollution laws. Those farms were also responsible for some of the largest fish kills.

Between 1994 and 1997, Cal-Maine Foods egg farms in Darke County were cited three times for spilling chicken manure and chicken parts into rivers and streams, including a 1994 incident that killed 49,000 fish in the Stillwater River. The Mississippi-based company is the nation's largest egg producer.

"Handling manure was not a high agenda item," said Fred Adams, Cal-Maine's chief executive officer. "But in the last few years, it has become very, very important. We do whatever is necessary to comply with laws. The biggest challenge we had some 10 years ago is recognizing it's a top priority."

Sunnyside Farms near Fort Recovery was cited six times in the last decade for discharging chicken manure and water used to wash eggs. The farm is owned by Midwest Poultry Services of Mentone, Ind., the nation's 10th largest egg producer. Robert Krouse, Midwest Poultry's president, said the company has taken steps to improve how it puts wash water on fields. He also said the company is monitoring those field applications more closely.

Daylay Egg Farm of West Mansfield was ordered to pay $60,000 in August for repeated mishandling of manure and wash water at four egg megafarms in Union County between October 1995 and July 2000. In July 2000, one of the farms discharged chicken manure into the Scioto River, killing an estimated $2,400 worth of fish. The state reduced the penalty after Daylay, the nation's 24th largest egg producer, agreed to invest in improvements to prevent future environmental problems. The company declined comment over the telephone.

Buckeye Egg has consistently run afoul of pollution laws, angered neighbors about fly and odor problems and caused harm to the environment.

In 1983, a Buckeye Egg farm in Licking County spilled chicken manure into a creek, killing nearly 150,000 fish; two spills in 1999 killed 17,500 fish. Dailey, the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, sent Buckeye Egg a letter in August detailing 87 environmental violations. The farm is still in business, but its owner, Anton Pohlmann, returned to Germany and put the company up for sale.

"It only takes one bad actor in a state, and probably every state has at least one company that's a chronic violator, that has ignored all the best management practices of livestock production," said Paul Lasley, rural sociologist at Iowa State University.

Not all violators are megafarms.

In August, 11,790 fish died after cow manure spilled into a tributary of the Wabash River and eventually reached the river itself in Fort Recovery. The discharge came just three months after a May 9 investigation at the same dairy revealed an overflowing manure storage pond. Recent rains had kept the farmer, Michael Fullenkamp, from withdrawing liquid manure from the pit and spreading it on fields. Fullenkamp declined comment on the incidents.

EPA records show the Fullenkamp dairy had 350 cows, 400 replacement heifers and housing for about 50 calves -- a big farm, but not a megafarm.

"I think the image is that if you weren't a large farm, you wouldn't be a polluter," said Neil Diller, chief financial officer for Cooper Farms, which processes more than 4 million turkeys a year in Ohio. While that perception is inaccurate, Diller said getting bigger raises the environmental stakes.

"The bigger operators have to be better operators because when something goes wrong, it's a lot bigger wrong," he said.

"It's a thin line we walk all the time between being efficient and being responsible."

Farm or factory?

The thundering buzz echoed through the Kentucky cornfields, and grew louder as Leesa Webster walked the long dusty driveway that connects her property to her mother's.

"It sounds like an airport or something over there," Webster said, pointing to the top of a steep hill.

Over the hill was a chicken farm. It's the kind of farm where the whirr of industrial-sized fans in warehouselike buildings can be heard a mile away. The kind where hundreds of thousands of chickens are herded onto a conveyer belt and boxed into crates.

The kind where forklifts load the crates onto a converted school bus that drives them to the slaughterhouse.

Chicken operations like this Tyson Chicken farm south of Owensboro, Ky., fuel the debate of farm or factory.

Larger operators often post employee information in English and Spanish and have workers punch time cards and wear hairnets. On cattle and hog farms, engineers design manure pits capable of holding tens of millions of gallons of liquid manure. And on some farms, the owners spend thousands of dollars to cool and heat their buildings.

At the Tyson farm, each broiler chicken house is typically 400 to 500 feet long and contains 20,000 to 25,000 broiler chickens. The houses are dimly lit more than 20 hours a day to help stimulate eating around the clock. Unlike egg farms, where chickens are kept in cages, broilers are scattered about the floor of the house, a huge canvas of white. Each house typically has two six-ton feed bins.

Large poultry companies like Tyson are known as integrators. They own the chickens from the time they hatch until they land in the frozen food section of a grocery store.

The people running the houses are known as growers, but they consider themselves farmers. The view isn't always shared by those who live near the chicken houses.

"There is no farming going on down there," said Webster, holding her nose to block the stench of dead chickens. Today's big farms may resemble factories, but they aren't regulated like them.

Only a fraction of today's megafarms operate under a federal permit to minimize water pollution. Those wanting to erect a megafarm don't have to have the land rezoned. And federal standards for workplace safety are enforced only on farms with more than 10 employees. Automation allows many megafarms -- even some large ones -- to stay below that number.

Kelley Donham, an occupational and environmental health professor at the University of Iowa, said many large farms view regulations as an obstacle to doing business. He said that mentality can make it difficult for public health officials to work with farms in a proactive manner.

"They don't want regulations," Donham said. "They say, 'Show me the bodies, show me some kind of disease that this causes. Otherwise, don't talk to me.' "

Yet researchers have documented that working inside large livestock operations can be hazardous. An Iowa report released this year said at least 25 percent of workers in hog megafarms report respiratory health problems. Some workers spend 70 hours a week inside confinement buildings, breathing manure fumes from hundreds and sometimes thousands of livestock.

Worker health risks could be reduced through management practices, engineering controls, use of personal protective equipment and health surveillance, the report said.

"However, such programs are exceedingly rare in today's (megafarm) industry."

A real threat

The doctor slowly moved the ultrasound wand across a pregnant Melissa Dickerson's abdomen.

There was no heartbeat.

A routine check-up three months into the 22-year-old Dickerson's pregnancy turned into tragedy.

Dickerson, pregnant for the first time, tried to do everything right. She knew she should drink lots of water, so she did. What she didn't know was that the well water was contaminated at the family's farm near LaGrange, Ind., a town with 2,300 people and four working traffic lights.

"I had no idea what was going on," said Dickerson, now a 31-year-old mother of two sons. "I just wanted to know why it happened because I didn't want another miscarriage."

Two neighbors suffered the same loss. The three women, all living within two miles of each other in LaGrange County, had a total of seven miscarriages between 1991 and 1993.

All three women got their water from wells and lived within one mile of a farm with 450 hogs. The LaGrange County Health Department and the CDC concluded the wells were contaminated by manure from the hog farm -- a conclusion the hog farmer denies.

Until now, the women have never been interviewed.

"I don't want to reopen a very painful time in my life, but I do think it's important that women are reminded to check the water they are drinking, especially during pregnancy," said one of the women, who didn't want to be identified and had two miscarriages during the two-year period. "There was a lot of pain for everyone during all that."

The miscarriages intensified the national debate about whether manure poses a real health threat to humans.

Manure provides a vital source of nutrients in soil. But manure also can be deadly if contaminants seep into drinking supplies and cause high nitrate levels. Babies one to four months old are particularly susceptible and may develop blue baby syndrome, a blood disorder associated with high nitrate intake.

Pinpointing the source of bad water is difficult. Local health officials didn't suspect the LaGrange County miscarriages were caused by contaminated well water until a local resident tested his well and found dangerous levels of nitrates.

County Health Department Director William Grant interviewed 19 families and concluded three women were drinking bad water. The Double D Hog farm appeared to be the main source of contamination, but there were other farms in the area and several septic tanks located near the aquifer.

"We were able to conclude that the nitrate levels in that area where the miscarriages were occurring were more than double compared to the households where women were having healthy births," Grant said. "We took a lot of heat from our findings."

No one took more heat than David Beiswanger, former owner of the Double D hog farm, who said Grant and the government were wrong to blame him.

"There were some people in our little town running around telling people I was a baby killer and that my farm was killing unborn children in this area," said Beiswanger, 49, who sold the farm in 1997. "Imagine what that felt like for me."

Grant and the CDC concluded that waste went into the aquifer through a crack in Beiswanger's manure pit. Beiswanger replaced the pit but denies it had a leak. He said digging up the pit was "the biggest mistake I made because it made it look like I needed to replace it when I didn't."

Fertilizer, other farms or the sheer age of the wells could have polluted the groundwater, Beiswanger said.

"It’s possible that there was some problem with my farm, but I'm supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and none of them -- Grant or the CDC -- had any proof that I was guilty of anything," he said.

An expert who assisted Grant during the investigation believes there was a direct link between the miscarriages and manure.

Dr. Solomon Isiorho, a professor of Geo Sciences at Indiana-Purdue University, was already conducting an extensive water-quality study of more than 600 wells in LaGrange County when he learned of Grant's investigation.

Isiorho tested the wells in the area of Beiswanger's hog farm.

"Based on what I had in front of me, there was no other reason as to why these women were having miscarriages," he said. "The chemistry of the water suggested that there was nothing else in the water besides nitrate."

No one was watching

Dave Long was proud that hardly anyone knew he had reopened Ohio Feedlot Inc.

He used wood chips instead of sawdust for bedding in the cattle stalls, and the system did such a good job of controlling odor and flies he won an entrepreneurial business award from Wittenberg University in 2001.

"No one even knew we were out here," he said. "We ran a clean operation."

Ohio Feedlot may have been the state's first megafarm when it took in 20,000 beef cattle in 1968. But business dropped off and the feedlot shut down for seven years in the 1990s. State officials didn't know Long had reopened the farm until a prospective buyer, Smithfield Foods Inc., contacted them to see if the farm was in compliance with the state's environmental regulations.

Long said he didn't think he needed a permit because his cattle were under roof. He also said the manure that washed into the Little Miami River was from Garick PayGro, the composting company next door. He said he allowed PayGro to store manure on the slab.

"I knew it was going in (the river)," he said, "but that was PayGro's manure -- not mine."

But officials for PayGro, which is headquarted near Cleveland, said the company never stored manure on Long's property.

"The manure was not ours. Dave Long stored manure on the concrete slabs because he had nothing to do with it," said Gary Trinetti, president of the Garrick Corp. "We would never tell somebody to put all this manure on their property if it were our manure."

Trinetti said the only time PayGro purchased manure from the feedlot was during a five-month period in 2000. Carl Kipp, Jr., technical director at PayGro and one of the co-founders of Ohio Feedlot, said the concrete slab was built in the mid-1980s. He said manure piles stored on the slab were typically about 50 feet wide and 10 to 15 feet high.

He said Long stored manure on the slab for three years.

"I would see it out there every day," Kipp said. PayGro, which was fined $4,000 in 1992 after a manure spill into the Little Miami killed 5,467 fish, recently applied for a federal pollution permit that will allow the Ohio EPA to more closely monitor the composting facility.

Cathy Alexander, a supervisor in Ohio EPA’s Division of Surface Water, said state officials don't know how much manure seeped into the Little Miami during the three years Long owned the feedlot. But a water test in August 2001 found ammonia levels downstream of the farm were four times greater than upstream.

"It really doesn't matter to us whose manure it was," Alexander said.

Smithfield finalized the Ohio Feedlot purchase in October. This time, the EPA demanded that the owners obtain a federal permit to operate as a megafarm.

The troubles at the feedlot show how difficult it is for states to track farms that expand and change constantly.

Ohio EPA Executive Director Christopher Jones admits that his agency did not make regulating megafarms a priority for two decades. "When you had to deal with issues like large farms, you would go after them when there were complaints," he said.

But Jones said during the past four years the EPA became more aggressive by inspecting farms and tracking their compliance with state environmental regulations.

Farmers like Bill Siefring, who owns an egg farm near Rossburg, say tougher regulations penalize all megafarmers for the abuses of a few.

"I think there needs to be things in place, but to make them so strict that it makes it where you don't want to be in the business -- I don't know if that is the direction to go either," Siefring said. "When we first got in this business in 1986 or 1987, you could still operate and do things without a lot of people looking over your shoulder.

"Now it's like everybody and their brother's looking over my shoulder."

Staff writers Ken McCall, Laura A. Bischoff, Dale Dempsey and Martha Hickman Hild contributed to this report.