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CAFOs Confine Pollutants With The Right Info And Resources

by Trevor Wendzonka

Cows at feeding station - Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are intensely regulated to meet environmental responsibilities. But farmers inadvertently may be causing public health problems downstream because they simply do not know the rules or underestimate the impact of their expanding businesses.

And with CAFOs contributing a total of 500 million tons of animal waste nationwide each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the need for oversight is enormous.

Manure contains E. coli, a naturally occurring bacteria in the bowels of humans and animals that can cause serious illness if ingested. Poorly designed or undersized waste management systems, like containment tanks or lagoons on CAFO farms, can result in runoff to public waterways or absorption into aquifers.

Discharges of waste from farms can contaminate drinking water sources and lead to keep-out warnings from public health officials regarding fishing or swimming in streams and rivers. In recent years, E. coli has been found in spinach and other produce, though the source of that strain of bacteria has not been pinpointed and may be the result of post-harvest handling.

Groups like the Natural Resources Conversation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can advise farmers on methods to make beneficial changes for environmental reasons. Planted buffers are natural barriers to confine potential pollutants, according to an NRCS regional coordinator, and are among the solutions the agency may be able to provide.

A top priority for government and public health officials is to get farmers with growing CAFOs to know the rules and ask for solutions.

“Often, you’ll see farmers start small and build their operations just like other in other segments of business. As they grow, they may not be cognizant they’ve become a defined CAFO  those definitions aren’t something we put on a billboard, said John Hulewicz, who has supervised both environmental and public health services in northern Indiana. Farmers can achieve high standards and create minimal or no adverse impact on the environment but sometimes, a waste minimization plan doesn’t work as a farm expands.”

Political sentiments also play a role in a farmer’s willingness to comply with regulations. In Indiana during recent years, the state’s environmental regulators have attempted to place more obligations on confined feeding not necessarily palatable to a segment of the population that philosophically believes less government is better government. During one rule-writing session, for example, Indiana Farm Bureau pushed back against wide-ranging groundwater testing and mandated frequent checks resulting from complaints.

Most farmers Hulewicz has spoken with, though, take their stewardship role seriously.

“Generally, I feel they are in tune with the environment and consider farming their legacy. They want to do the best they can for their farms and the land,” Hulewicz said. “Local rule goes a long way to garnering support and compliance, without necessarily going straight to penalties. At the local level, we can build relationships over time with individuals and achieve compliance through voluntary means.”

The 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Act set aside federal assistance for farmers to make use of NRCS recommendations until it expires in 2012. The timing is right, as more and more communities are moving to eliminate or reduce contamination from stormwater runoff and other sources of pollution.

About The Author

Trevor Wendzonka

Trevor Wendzonka is a journalist based in the Midwest. He has covered political, environmental and agricultural issues since 1998.