Neighbors and factory farmers feud over fence lines
March 1, 2001 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
If you put Dave Maturen and Rob Richardson in a room together, you would get a good snapshot of how thousands of neighbors in rural Michigan are becoming enemies over a new industrial revolution that’s turning barnyards into animal factories.
On the agribusiness side of the road, farmers say the odor from thousands of hogs or cows in their new high-tech barns is just part of living in the country. On the residential side, neighbors say the industrial-strength odor and manure operations should stay back from their children, their backyards, and their rivers.
A debate is raging across Michigan over one side’s right to a livelihood and the other side’s right to sit outside in the summer without getting nauseous. Dave Maturen and Rob Richardson, long-time residents of Kalamazoo County’s Brady Township, are two prominent, opposing voices in that debate.
The Great Lakes Bulletin did not put Mr. Maturen and Mr. Richardson in a room together. But we did ask them some questions about modern farmers, rural neighbors, and what state government is — or is not — doing to help the two live in peace. Here's what they had to say.
GLB: What is it about agriculture today that's pitting families who have lived on the same land for generations against each other?
Maturen: The media and the Legislature have to quit talking about this issue in terms of little red barns. We're talking 3,000 cows, 10,000 hogs. This is factory farming. ...I think most people can put up with a mild amount of nuisance for a short duration, but when it's all the time and they can't go outside on their porch, that's another matter.
Richardson: I don't find the term 'factory farm' offensive. A factory is where you produce something efficiently.
Are people at risk, if they're living in an agricultural zone, to the changing methods of agriculture? I would say yes, yes they are. Residents should not be allowed in an agricultural zone, or allowed only with a special use exemption.
GLB: The debate, then, is how to separate livestock factories and residences, and who decides. Senate Bill 205 took this out of local governments' hands and gave it to the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Will MDA's voluntary guidelines work?
Richardson: S.B. 205. That saved my farm. ...I'm happy with the state taking that (oversight) role. They have good judgement. Local government — these township boards — don't have the background. They're too emotional.
Maturen: Right to Farm implies farmers have rights and nobody else does. But the nuisance concept — that it's wrong to harm other people with things like excessive noise or odor — came over on the Mayflower. It certainly preceded the Michigan Right to Farm Act.
The MDA has had its chance to show it can use these guidelines responsibly. They just haven't done it. ...It's a sham when the state can take away my rule-making power and has no credibility itself.
GLB: The Michigan Auditor General last fall found that the agriculture department closed 71 percent of odor complaints it received as unverified even though agriculture inspectors arrived at farms as late as 23 days (11 days on average) after neighbors made complaints.
Richardson: I think there have been improvements now. You've got to have some way of definitively measuring odor. I understand that's the challenge MDA had carrying out an odor complaint.
Maturen: Is odor based on perception? Yes. They say you can't tell, so they say ''let's have no rules at all.'
We need firm, enforceable rules: 'Thou shalt not put a feedlot next to a drain that leads to a creek.' That's common sense. You don't have to be the Environmental Protection Agency to figure that out.
GLB: What do we do about the fact that there will always be some operators who will a) thumb their noses at voluntary rules or b) ignore the guidance until they end up making a big mistake? A large Ottawa County dairy, for example, contaminated a local creek last winter after it applied 50,000 gallons of manure to a frozen field, a practice other northern states prohibit.
Richardson: Unfortunately all the rules and regulations are always made for the minority. I think most responsible farmers want to do it right. But when you talk mandatory, I bristle. I bristle real good.
Maturen: Not everybody abuses the voluntary rules. But some do. There has to be a remedy. Right now there isn't. And the good guys shouldn't have a problem with it.
GLB: Both of you live downstream from Michigana Farms, a 2,000-head dairy that last year contaminated the Portage River so badly, according to a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality investigation, that Kalamazoo County officials had to close the river and nearby Dorrance Creek to public use. DEQ field staff were unable to take legal action beforehand because Michigan's policy is to rely on the farmer to handle manure safely. Why can't Michigan regulate livestock factories like it does other factories?
Richardson: It's distressing the attention given to Michigana Farms because there are a lot of good producers out there. ...Peer review doesn't work. I've tried it with [Michigana Farms].
Michigan Farm Bureau policy is 'no permits for farmers.' But I think that could change. ...I'm more supportive of the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program [proposed voluntary certification process]. Farm Bureau and state agencies should be out knocking on the doors of farms that have had problems telling them to be the first to sign up.
Maturen: Will this MAEAP voluntary certification program have any teeth? Will it have the force of law to protect neighbors? ...Guidelines are okay, but they're not enough. I belong to a professional association with a code of ethics. But I can't practice without a license.
CONTACTS: Rob Richardson, 616-649-1566; David Maturen, 616-342-4800; Steve Jann, EPA Region 5, 312-886-2446.