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Howard County Neighborhood Develops Covenants to Protect Against CAFOs

By Arianne Pfoutz

Contributing Writer – 2017 Fall/Winter JFAN Newsletter


Be alert, consult the experts, mobilize a strong team, and faithfully execute action steps—the formula isn’t just for business executives. Retired second-grade teacher Sue George and fellow members of the Northeast Iowans for Clean Air and Water used the strategy this year to combat a noxious threat to the quality of life within their northeast Iowa neighborhood. 

Hog confinements have steadily crept into Howard County 

Photo Credit: Lee Snider Photo Images/Shutterstock

with attendant smells and liquid manure spreads. But when George and her husband, Jerry, learned in February that Reicks View Farms was planning to construct a CAFO about one mile away from their century farm, they along with fellow concerned neighbors perked up. The facility would include 2,499 hogs and be built on karst terrain—dangerous ground for CAFOs, because limestone bedrock beneath the soil can dissolve and create channels from the surface to underground springs below that provide the community’s drinking water. 


“In karst terrain the water wears away the limestone creating underground passages where water moves fast,” George said. “If a pit or lagoon would spill or leak, the liquid manure could find its way to underground water supplies quickly.”


Many new CAFOs have gone up in Howard County this year, some larger than 2,499-head. The Georges have loved living on their 11-acre property with cows, retrievers, and miniature horses, in spite of CAFOs within two to three miles. But the proximity of Reicks’ facility—and a another 2499-head CAFO owned by Reis Farms proposed at the same time—prompted a gathering of concerned neighbors that soon became a weekly event. They named themselves “Northeast Iowans for Clean Air and Water.”


A speedy education process ensued, helped along by visits from Senator David Johnson and  Ann Robinson with Iowa Environmental Council, and with JFAN Executive Director Diane Rosenberg working closely with the group in her capacity as Consultant with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, bringing years of experience to the fight.


“Our diverse group never took up politics, only tactics to fight hog confinements,” George said. “We became friends first, then got to work and never gave up.” 

The DNR’s former geologist, Bob Libra, agreed the Reicks site was not suitable for a CAFO. Attempts to dissuade the CAFO owners were not successful. The county supervisors supported their effort, but had no power to enact it. 


With a ten-page report in hand prepared by Rosenberg, the group requested DNR Director Chuck Gipp stop the CAFO on environmental grounds using the Director’s Discretionary Rule,* but Director Gipp said the rule was not usable. Citing a 76-year old widow with a life-threatening allergy to hog smells who has to carefully avoid a CAFO one half mile away didn’t change anything either. In the end, the confinement was built; the hogs were in by August 1. 


It was time to start thinking outside the box. They contacted lawyer Karl Knudson of Decorah, whose covenant concept offered the community a self-reliant protection tool to preserve land from CAFO encroachment forever.

Several members of Northeast Iowans for Clean Air and Water.          Photo Credit: Sue George

“We studied Karl’s idea and simplified it to fit our needs,” George said. “We simply didn’t want to allow CAFOs to be built on our properties, now and in the future. If a property is sold, the buyer has to abide by the covenant. We also disallowed liquid manure from our lands.”


The Iowa Environmental Council had the covenant analyzed by legal professors and found it strong. 


Residents of four townships have embraced the covenant, including members of the Amish community, who have to fight the overwhelming pig stench with no air conditioning. George and her crew made many trips, notary in tow, so the families could sign on to the covenant. 


“Now we have 43 families and over 60 properties in the covenant, representing 5,500 acres,” said George. “It may be a small number, but to us, it’s substantial.”


The race is on, with CAFO owners gobbling up land as neighborhoods try to stop the onslaught.“It’s our mission to help Iowa,” George said. “Our best assets are the land, water, air, and people. It is our hope that people will not feel the need to leave because of the potential impact of these confinements.”      

Wanting to share their experiences with the Iowa community at large, George and her daughter, Angie Chambers, put together a document, “You Could Try,” outlining effective steps to take if a CAFO threatens your neighborhood. It’s an excellent companion piece to JFAN’s How to Protect Your Family and Home from Factory Farms and can be found on the JFAN website. 


The team’s efforts have brought peace of mind to many long-term Iowa landowners. George added, “We are glad that there was something we could do to secure our neighborhood, because before this endeavor, we had absolutely no control.”

An example of a sinkhole. the Howard County community where the Reicks View Farms CAFO is sited is riddled with sinkholes, symptomatic of karst terrain.                Photo: (c) Graham Hogg (cc-by-sa/2.0)

“You Can Try” including information on setting up a covenant is found on the JFAN website here

* Editor’s Note: The Director’s Discretionary Rule theoretically allows the DNR director the ability to deny a CAFO whose siting and operation poses an undue risk to the environment or community. 


Karst terrain experts at the U.S. EPA and Illinois State Geological Survey have shared that karst terrain is not a suitable location for CAFOs, however, neither state nor federal law prohibits industrial livestock factories from being built on this fragile terrain.  


Karst is predominantly found in Northeast Iowa, but karst can also be found in smaller pockets around the state, including Jefferson County.


Director Gipp was first asked to use the rule on karst terrain in Allamakee County last year when another Reicks CAFO threatened the area. As in the case of Howard County residents, neighbors were deeply concerned that their drinking water would become contaminated.


Legal pursuit of the initial Allamakee request ended up under review in the Iowa Attorney General’s office. The office determined the law had weaknesses that might subject the DNR to a possible lawsuit by a CAFO owner if prevented from building a confinement. Director Gipp refused to take that risk then, and despite a strong argument by the Howard County community, denied use of the rule again.


It appears the current DNR administration feels the Director’s Discretionary Rule is unusable until the Iowa State Legislature amends the law to remove the weakness.

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