Iowa's top environmental official is calling for legislation that would require smaller hog confinements to get state permits to build new facilities or to expand existing operations. Jeff Vonk, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, is calling for the change in the permit threshold because, he says, more control over confinements is needed.
If the Iowa Legislature approves Vonk's idea, it would mean more swine operations would have to first pass a state checklist before they would be allowed to build. This "Master Matrix" is already required for larger hog operations in Iowa and is designed to make the confinements more environmentally friendly.
Vonk has also been pushing the idea that county zoning should be used to decide where livestock buildings can be located. He says giving counties zoning power over livestock sites wouldn't mean as much-unless more of Iowa's confinement operations are included in state permit requirements.
Why regulate the smaller facilities?
Under current law, a state permit and the checklist are required for facilities that have the equivalent of 2,500 full-sized hogs. Vonk would like to see all facilities of 1,000 or more hogs have to get permits.
A number of recently built confinement buildings holding 2,450 large hogs—puts them just under the size that would require a permit. "Under the current law producers can build two smaller confinement buildings instead of one larger unit of 2,500 or more hogs," notes Vonk. "By building the two smaller units they can avoid having to get the permit to build and operate the confinements."
Vonk says modern confinement buildings generally do pollute waterways less, compared to the way farmers traditionally raised hogs outside where rain washed everything into the creek. However, nitrates in the water and odor problems still remain with confinement facilities today. Thus, he believes more control over confinements is needed.
"We need to lower the threshold regarding the size of facility that is required to get a permit to build," he says. "The Legislature also needs to remove the ban on local government zoning of livestock confinements." He says statewide environmental standards would still stay in place under his plan, to keep state control over the livestock industry.
Industry opposes lower threshold
Eldon McAfee, a livestock industry lawyer who represents the Iowa Pork Producers Association and others, says hog farmers have endured several major changes to the permit threshold in recent years and he opposes another one. Most confinements already have to file manure management plans with DNR, and must meet state standards for concrete pits and other manure storage structures.
McAfee acknowledges those measures are aimed at protecting water quality, but may do little to control odor problems. He says if the state requires stricter regulation of smaller hog confinements that would persuade more farmers to scrap plans to raise hogs. Smaller farmers are continuing to exit pork production.
Vonk says current state regulations have not prevented a record number of hog confinement buildings to be constructed the past few years. McAfee responds to that statement by pointing out that hog producers are building new facilities and expanding existing operations because hogs have been profitable.
"Prices have been good, corn supplies ample and producers have made money the past few years," notes McAfee. "Also, commercial fertilizer prices have been at record levels recently, making livestock manure more valuable as a fertilizer. Basically, hog producers are responding to what the market is telling them. That's the reason we're seeing more confinement buildings being built."
Legislature may revisit local control
Where will Vonk's proposals go? Lawyer Eldon McAfee's clients, including Iowa livestock industry groups as well as individual farmers, continue to oppose local control of livestock operations. Too much of the local versus state control debate is based on emotion, not facts, he says.
State DNR chief Jeff Vonk's proposals calling for local control of livestock operations faces an uncertain future in the 2007 Legislature. That body has voted to oppose local control in past years. Lawmakers who oppose local control of livestock say farmers should have uniform, statewide regulations—the approach that is currently being used.
In the past few years there has been talk among legislators about changing the permit requirements to build livestock facilities in Iowa. However, Vonk may not keep his job long enough to see what lawmakers end up doing on this matter. He says the new Iowa governor elected in November will probably hire a new director of the DNR.