Hog-Farm Plan Goes To Hearing
Many Back Darr Expansion
By Ryan McGeeney
DARDANELLE - When Mike Darr, co-owner of Darr Swine Farm near Dardanelle, began planning to expand the farm he and his family have worked for about the past 20 years, the last thing he thought it would cost him was a neighbor.
“We used to wave at each other as we drove by,” said Darr, referring to members of the Pelto family, who own and operate a 200-acre cattle operation located nearby. “We don’t do that anymore.”
The Darrs, who are contracted to provide pigs for Cargill, Inc., are hoping to nearly triple their current operation, expanding from 580 sows, four boars, and 800 weaner pigs to 1,500 sows, five boars, 800 weaners and as many as 2,000 nursery pigs. The expansion requires larger housing facilities, an additional lagoon to handle the hog waste and additional acreage upon which to spread the manure.
In December, Darr applied for a statewide general permit for concentrated animal feeding operations from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, but later withdrew the application and instead submitted a request to modify the farm’s existing permit, a Regulation 5 no-discharge permit. Had Darr received the general permit for which he’d applied in December, Darr Swine Farm would’ve been only the second operation in Arkansas to receive the permit, after C&H Hog Farms in Mount Judea.
In April, members of the Pelto family requested a permit hearing from the Environmental Quality Department, citing public health concerns over the expansion of Darr Swine Farm. Trish Pelto, daughter-in-law to Daniel Pelto, who began farming in the county in the early 1970s, led the effort, gathering petition signatures and seeking advice from organizations including the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Idaho that helps individuals organize political resistance against large-scale “factory” farms.
Trish Pelto acknowledged that there had been a cooling between the families since she began her efforts to slow the Darr family’s farm expansion.
“We haven’t spoken to each other,” Pelto said. “It’s really driven a wedge between the two families. We were never that close, but we’d wave to each other, acknowledge each other. Now that’s not really the case.”
On Monday, the Environmental Quality Department held a public hearing on the proposed permit modification at the Dardanelle City Hall. Representatives from the department, including deputy director and water division chief Ryan Benefield, assistant water division manager Mo Shafii, water division engineer supervisor Katherine Yarberry and water division engineer Casey Vickerson, gave an overview of the typical permitting process and provided some specific details about the Darr Swine Farm permit modification before opening the room to questions from those in attendance.
More than 50 people attended, about a half-dozen of them wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “No CAFOs,” referring to concentrated animal feeding operations, defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as any agricultural operations where animals are confined indoors at least 45 days in a 12-month period, where no vegetation is growing within the confinement area and where the number of animals falls within agency-established criteria.
Kathy Martin, an environmental consultant whom Pelto asked to assist in the effort to halt the expansion of the Darr farm, immediately began peppering department representatives with questions regarding a series of perceived inconsistencies in the Darr’s comprehensive nutrient-management plan, a 290-page document outlining how operators will deal with the waste of several thousand animals.
Others in attendance asked department representatives about whether the property values of neighboring landowners would be a factor in the department’s decision on the permit, or whether the department regulated strong odors sometimes associated with hog farming.
The answer to both questions was “no.”
“This permit does not cover air emissions,” Benefield said. “The department can only regulate those things which we’ve been given the authority to regulate, either by the federal government or the state government.”
Many of the people in attendance supported the Darrs and their desire to expand. Several made comments in favor of the Darrs and the regulatory process, rather than pose questions to the representatives.
After the period of open discussion, Benefield announced the hearing would begin, during which residents would have five minutes each to read their official written comments aloud, before being entered into the department’s official record.
The official statements were a mixture of concerns over technical aspects of the farm’s nutrient-management plan and emotional appeals in support of the farm.
Darr emphasized his family’s commitment to farming in the area.
“I’m not here to badmouth anyone, or disrespect anyone, but I do want everyone here to know my family story,” Darr said, reading from a prepared statement.
“Some citizens that live down our dead-end road are saying that this would affect water quality,” Darr said. “These citizens don’t know our family, as we are diehard outdoorsmen that love to hunt and fish and will do nothing to jeopardize these activities for our future generations. As a farmer, I have an unwritten oath to protect the environment and to leave the land better than I received it.
“We live 10 times closer than anyone to this hog farm,” Darr said. “So who do you think would be the most at risk here? Do you think, if there were any truth to this issue, that I would jeopardize my precious family, as we breathe the same air as these citizens do?”
Martin asked those in attendance to consider the concerns voiced by the Pelto family and others without regard to their personal support of the Darr family.
“If you have nearly a million gallons of feces and urine sitting in three ponds out back yonder, and you don’t believe there are any pollutants or pathogens of concern, and you don’t believe there’s any threat to your family, then we certainly can’t rely upon you to protect the people across the street,” Martin said.
“This is not some obscure urban myth, concocted to torture you,” Martin said. “This is science coming back and saying, ‘Hey - if you have 800,000 gallons of fecal matter, it’s volatilizing. You’re inhaling it. If you can smell it, it is inside your body.”
Benefield said the period for submitting written comments on the proposed permit modification had been extended through 4:30 p.m. July 26. Comments can be sent to Casey Vickerson, Water Division, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, 5301 Northshore Drive, North Little Rock, Ark. 72118, or emailed to Water-Draft-Permit-Comment@adeq.state.ar.us.
Katherine Benenati, a department spokesman, said the department will respond to all comments before making a final decision on whether to approve the permit modification.