Those who have visited – or, even better, floated down – northwest Arkansas’ pristine Buffalo River know why it is rightfully described as an American treasure. If you haven’t joined the 1 million that make use of the park annually, do yourself a huge favor and head to Newton County. It’s truly an incredible, almost magical place.
With family and friends, I have spent some of the best hours of my life on the Buffalo, which was designated the nation’s first “national river” in 1972. The designation was well-deserved. Outside Ponca, Arkansas’ only elk herd can be heard bugling as it moves through the morning mist blanketing riverside meadows. Rental cabins – rustic or tricked out – are plentiful, as are hiking trails, small-mouth bass, and friendly folks.
I could justifiably praise the Buffalo for pages.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a plug for the river and area tourism. It’s actually a story about a large, modern hog farm – set to provide weaned piglets to Cargill from two new barns – that’s opening about 6 miles from the Buffalo, close to a tributary of the river. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) says the farm, which plans to spread generated manure on adjacent hayfields, is fully vetted and properly permitted.
Since being alerted to the operation a few months ago, environmentalists and river enthusiasts have been protesting the hog farm, scrutinizing the permitting process and threatening lawsuits.
In early May – citing among other concerns a fear for endangered species in the Buffalo watershed, a porous geology vulnerable to the farm’s waste and inadequate notice of the operation’s approval – a coalition of conservation groups sent the USDA a notice of intent to sue because the Farm Service Agency approved a loan guarantee for the hog farm.
“This factory farm will produce massive quantities of waste just 6 miles from the Buffalo River, and that waste will be spread on land that is right next to one of the Buffalo’s major tributaries,” said Emily Jones with the National Parks Conservation Association in a coalition press release. “We are talking about one of the most beautiful areas in the country. To think that our government would allow this hog factory in the watershed without examining its impacts is unconscionable.”
A related slideshow available here .
Having already outlined my love of the Buffalo, I have followed the developing story with torn allegiances. It would be an absolute tragedy for the river to be fouled.
And, without a doubt, the hog farmer feels the same. Anyone saying the farmer is worthy of outpouring of contempt he’s faced is being foolish. The gentleman doesn’t want to pollute anything but simply wants honest employment – something hard to come by in the area, by the way – and for his family to thrive.
What about his rights? Where do individual property rights end and those of the collective citizenry begin?
Farm Bureau weighs in
Trying to get the farmer’s side of the story, shortly after the conservation coalition’s USDA lawsuit announcement, I spoke with Evan Teague, the Arkansas Farm Bureau’s environmental specialist.
When did Farm Bureau become aware of this situation?
“We became aware of this and began working with the farmer in early February. That’s when the initial controversy was raised by the park superintendant for the Buffalo River.
“The farmer – a legitimate, eighth generation farmer in the area – is a Newton County Farm Bureau member and has two cousins that are partners in a hog farm that’s already been operating in the Buffalo River watershed for probably a dozen years or more. They’ve not had any violations at that facility, which is about 5 miles from the new one. They have about 300 sows.
“When the new farm is at full capacity, it will hold 2,500 sows and 4,000 piglets. It will be a farrow-to-wean operation. So, once they get the piglets up to weaning weight (about 12 pounds), they’ll ship the piglets out of state to get them to finishing weight.
“Arkansas has no feeding, finishing or slaughtering facilities.
“I think a lot of folks have heard, ‘This is a 6,500 hog operation.’ But that isn’t a proper description. Obviously, when you compare the size of a piglet to a finished hog, the manure generated isn’t nearly as much.”
Were you asked to look at their waste-disposal plans?
“We weren’t asked to review those plans. I’m a registered professional engineer but don’t do any design work anymore.
“When we became aware of the situation, the operation had already obtained coverage under the CAFO  (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) permit from ADEQ. They’d hired a consulting engineering firm out of the Dakotas, I believe. They did the design work – structural engineers for the concrete paths and shallow pits under the barns and the houses.
“They also brought in a soil-testing firm and did soil bores at numerous locations around the site. That included beneath the lagoon locations.
“The geology or soil structure of the site is actually a gravelly- or silty-clay base. People keep talking about the Karst  geology that underlies the area – which is true for a large portion of the region. However, for whatever reason, the particular farm site’s soil is clay-based.
“Another thing that’s interesting is they have also drilled a well to supply the hogs. So, they have their own, private well with rural water back-up.
“I was visiting with the farm owner the other day. I asked if he had any records from the company that bored the well. He wasn’t sure, but he was present when they bored the well and his recollection was they didn’t hit rock or limestone until they were about 70 feet down. Now, I haven’t verified that, but even if it’s 20 to 40 feet down, that’s a lot of depth before the limestone. And the limestone is what everyone is worried about – that the lagoons will leak down and get into the creeks and rivers.”
In terms of fears about run-off and the like, I take it you’d say questions are perfectly legitimate to ask.
“I agree with that. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. But when someone gives an answer based in facts and science and you choose not to believe it, then there’s not much that can be done to convince you or ease your fears.
“Some folks just don’t want to believe information that’s being given in good faith. Truthfully, some of the opponents aren’t willing to seek out the information because it doesn’t fit their story.”
On how the operation will deal with manure…
“With this operation, they own a number of the fields they’ll apply the manure and liquid on. Those fields are already pastures and there are a lot of local farmers that use them for hay and cattle. Those fields are already being fertilized with nutrients.
“For folks to believe that there’s no farming activity already going on in the watershed is a fallacy. Farmers are already haying and fertilizing those with nitrogen and a bit of phosphorus, probably.
“Right now, those areas aren’t required by law to follow a nutrient management plan. I’m sure the local farmers are working with Extension and following their recommendations.
“Meanwhile, in order for this hog farm to apply the manure, they have to stick to a nutrient management plan. That plan must be based on the Arkansas Phosphorus Index. So, essentially, they’re going from an unregulated application of nutrients to a regulated application of nutrients.”
Laws and regulations
More on the Arkansas Phosphorus Index…
“The API  is overseen by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, a state agency that deals with non-point source issues.
“The index was developed by university researchers, USDA-ARS employees, and NRCS employees. I believe it went into effect in 2005.
“In 2006, an independent study was conducted by a researcher at North Carolina State University. In her evaluation, she compared 13 or 15 Southern state phosphorus indexes. Arkansas’ came out either first or second restrictive, depending on the scenario.
“After that study, Arkansas voluntarily went back in and revised the index beginning in 2007. That took a couple of years and was very thorough. It included the incorporation of new science and, depending on what county you live in, the index was made an additional 25 to 30 percent more restrictive than the initial draft.
“Based on conversations I’ve had with some of the university researchers that served on that panel, our index is now one of the most restrictive in the country, if not the most restrictive.”
What about how Farm Bureau approaches situations like this? Is it more as a property rights issue first?
“Initially, we approached it because the farmer applied for a federally-approved, EPA-approved permit under ADEQ. He did everything that was asked of him.
“When a farmer jumps through all the hoops the environmental community has put in front of him, including the notice requirements, what more can be asked of him? That’s why we first jumped into the fray.
“This is a farming family that has lived in the area for 200 years, at least. Most of the opposition to the operation is coming from northwest Arkansas, 100 miles away.
“No one wants to harm the Buffalo River and the water quality. But many people in northwest Arkansas view the Buffalo as their playground even though 60 percent of the land in the watershed is owned by private individuals. Those folks are just trying to find a way to make a living and stay on the ground where their families have lived for generations.
“The farmer wants to farm there, wants to live there, wants to raise his kids there. The family actually moved away a few years ago. But they moved back because they wanted to be ‘at home.’”
In terms of state laws, is there something Farm Bureau is looking to tackle as a result of this? Or are the current laws solid as long as they’re properly applied?
“When this first broke out, I think the environmental community believed they weren’t properly notified. That’s in spite of the fact that ADEQ filed all the notice requirements for a CAFO permit. But they felt like someone slipped it by them.
“They tried to get a two-year moratorium passed during (the 2013 Arkansas) legislative session on any new CAFO in any ‘extraordinary resource’ water. That designation falls within the state water quality standards and describes high-value waters in the state. The Buffalo River is one of those.
“‘Extraordinary resource’ watersheds include a large portion of the state – maybe 40 or 50 percent.
“So, for them to seek out a moratorium for an activity that hadn’t been proven to cause any problems before the farm was even built – and would have impacted 40 to 50 percent of the state – (Farm Bureau) wouldn’t agree with. The end result was we worked with legislators and agreed to a 12-month period to require additional notice requirements for any new CAFO in the state. Rather than just a notice, or two, in the statewide newspaper, notices will also be placed in local and county newspapers.
“The legislation also created a five-member panel to evaluate the public notice process for CAFO. That panel will look at notice requirements and during that 12-month period will make a recommendation back to legislative counsel as to whether ADEQ should change the notice requirements.”