VIDEO: Big farms tend to cluster
View Michigan CAFOs in a larger map
Lynn Henning is convinced the location of her home has made her family sick.
But she’s not leaving.
Henning Farms, in Clayton, Mich. is where she has spent her entire life.
“My family has been here for generations,” Henning said. “We are fourth generation farmers.”
And after all, it wasn’t always like it is now, she said.
Henning said she lives within a 10-mile radius of 12 large livestock farms also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs.
These farms are defined by the number of animals confined in them for at least 45 days out of the year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
And Henning believes these large animal farms made her family sick.
“Both my mother and father-in-law have been diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning and the doctor actually diagnosed that it was from the CAFO from the emissions of the waste spread next to their house,” Henning said. “And when the emissions are really high, I completely lose my voice.”
Environmental groups criticize these operations for producing large amounts of concentrated waste and contributing to air and water pollution.
But in Michigan, the animals and waste are not the only thing that’s concentrated.
The facilities themselves collect in certain areas of the state.
Two hundred thirty CAFOs concentrate in 39 of Michigan’s 83 counties. Several counties have more than 15 operations, according to data from Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
“They tend to concentrate in certain areas; in places they can get in,” Henning said.
Allegan, a western county in the state, has the most CAFOs with 29. It is followed by Huron County with 24, Gratiot with 19 and Ottawa with 18.
Holland, Mich., also in western Michigan, had the greatest number of CAFOs when ranked by zip code, with 11 facilities.
“We don’t have anything to say about where they locate; they are going to locate where they can get the land, where there is suitable supplies for feed and where they can spread the manure of crop fields,” said Mike Bitando, environmental quality specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment. “It seems like there are in thumb area is pretty intense with agriculture in general, and on the western side of the state,” Bitando said.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environment also divides the state into eight districts.
The Grand Rapids district, encompassing nine western counties, ranks highest with 60 facilities. The southwestern Kalamazoo district with eight counties ranked second with 58 facilities.
The Saginaw Bay area, encompassing 12 eastern counties, followed with 45 CAFOs. The central Lansing district of eight counties, has 37 facilities.
“I think the concentrations are based on the market and not on environmental concerns at all,” said Nicole Zacharada, enforcement specialist with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. “Anytime you have an agricultural product or commodity, these facilities are going to locate in areas where they have the inputs and can generate the products.”
The CAFO Market
Defining a CAFO is complicated.
Michigan ranks ninth in the country for dairy production.
And dairy cows are raised most often in Michigan CAFOs. They are the primary animals for 94 of the 230 farms. Swine also ranked high and are raised at 84.
“Dairy and swine are definitely the most popular here,” Bitando said. “There are not many beef operations and there are no chicken raised for meat operations.”
Beef cattle are raised at 17 of the farms. Chickens areraised for eggs at 13 facilities and turkeys are raised at 10.
There are also guidelines that define a CAFO by the number of animals that are confined.
But to Henning, it’s not just the state’s total number of farms or the number of animals confined. It’s also about where they are located.
Henning said her experience with the CAFOs has led her to take action with the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, monitoring air and water quality of the operations.
Earlier this month, Henning received an award from the Goldman Environmental Foundation for monitoring and reporting pollution associated with Michigan CAFOs.
‘They don’t look at the location of where they are to streams, ponds, rivers or even people, Henning said. “No facilities should be cited so close together, you are putting the drinking water at risk, and the lakes at risk.”
Operating a CAFO
To operate a CAFO, an owner must obtain a permit through the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a program that regulates sources that may discharge any pollutants into waterways.
State data shows that 206 of the 230 facilities in Michigan already have obtained this permit. Permits for 24 facilities are pending approval.
“CAFOs don’t treat their waste, they spread it on the land,” said Rita Jack, Clean Water program director with the Michigan Sierra Club. “When the CAFOs do this, they are supposed to make sure that this is not done within predicted rainfall or any kind of precipitation, because its more likely to wash off and end up in a waterway.”
In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that animal feeding operations produced more that 500 million tons of manure each year.
The waste from the facilities is also often stored in underground lagoons and can seep into groundwater, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We know there are places in the state where groundwater has been contaminated with animal factory waste,” Jack said. “And an awful lot of people rely on groundwater for drinking.”
But the practices of CAFOs and many farms are often protected by Michigan’s Right to Farm Act. The state legislature passed the act in 1981, which established voluntary standards for agricultural operations.
The standards, known as Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices, create uniform, statewide standards for agricultural practices, such as manure management, odor control, irrigation, pest control and animal care.
One of the practices is also for site selection, where standards such as a facility’s setback from property lines and proximity to waterways and neighborhoods are established.
“This means that a farm has submitted a site plan that looks at the topography of the area, proximity to surface water, drainage ditches etcetera,” said Wayne Whitman, Right to Farm Manager with the Michigan Department of Agriculture.
Three-fourths of the CAFOs in Michigan have completed the site verification process, according to Whitman.
While following these standards is voluntary, compliance protects a farm from public or private complaints or suits against a facility, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture.
“There are protections a farm can earn by doing this,” he said. “It provides them with a legal shield from nuisance claims.”
CAFOs and other agricultural operations that meet these standards have the right to farm, despite complaints from members of the public, like Henning.
But to her, there will always be an unwritten rule that CAFOs don’t follow.
“We have a rural code: You don’t harm your neighbor and your neighbor don’t harm you, and CAFOs just don’t fit that code ” Henning said. “Right is right and wrong is wrong, and you don’t bring something into your community that destroys it.”