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Factory Farms: A Bad Choice for Rural America 

12-09-2015 17:35

Rural America is usually painted as a pastoral scene of rolling cropland and family farms. But increasingly, this historic landscape is threatened by the harsh reality of factory farms. Also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, factory farms use industrial production techniques to raise thousands of animals in one location.

This type of industrial agriculture is increasingly how the agribusiness industry is meeting our country’s demand for beef, pork, and poultry. The EPA has estimated there are now more than 20,000 factory farms nationwide, a 30 percent rise since 2003 1. The American Public Health Association estimates that 54 percent of livestock in the country is now confined on just 5 percent of livestock farms.2  This relatively new model of livestock production has grown rapidly since the early 1990s. The Government Accountability Office estimates that the number of CAFOs in the U.S. more than tripled between 1982 and 2002.3 The growth in factory farms has forced thousands of independent farmers out of business by decreasing the sale price of animals. In the hog industry, for example, about one quarter of all U.S. producers went out of business between 1998 and 2000, leaving only 50 producers controlling onehalf of all hog production.4

So what does a CAFO look like? A typical factory farm consists of a number of large metal buildings where the animals are housed, and storage pits or sewage “lagoons,” either adjacent to or underneath the animal storage facility. Waste is stored in the “lagoons” until it can be spread or sprayed onto nearby cropland as a fertilizer. The “lagoons” are often as big as several football fields5.

Impact on Rural Historic Places

Whatever your ethical stand on this method of livestock production, it is important to recognize that factory farms can negatively affect rural historic areas in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most obvious impact of a factory farm is its noxious odor which is often noticeable for miles in every direction. The quantity of waste from a large factory farm can equal the amount of sewage generated by a major city.6 Factory farms also emit organic dusts, molds, bacterial endotoxins, and gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, many of which are known airway irritants or respiratory hazards.7 This is a problem both for people living near CAFOs and for the people who work in them. Many studies have documented respiratory problems, including chronic bronchitis and non-allergic asthma, in approximately 25 percent of factory farm workers,8 and some CAFO employees have actually died from asphyxiation after entering underground pits used to store manure.9

The documented effects of factory farm emissions are not only a serious health concern, they are also a quality of life issue. A North Carolina study reported that, compared to people living in areas that support dairies or have no livestock, neighbors of swine CAFOs said they were less often able to go outside or to open their windows.10 How pleasant do you think it would be to spend an evening on your historic farmhouse’s front porch if your neighbors were 4,800 hogs?

Water Contamination Problems

Factory farms also have a documented history of causing water contamination. It is estimated that CAFOs nationally generate 1.4 billion tons of animal waste each year, which is 130 times the national volume of human waste—the equivalent of 5 tons of animal waste for every U.S. citizen. 11 This waste contains pathogen bacteria, including salmonella and E.coli; heavy metals; nitrogen and phosphorous; and millions of pounds of antibiotics.12 The routine feeding of antibiotics to animals in factory farms is helping fuel the growing public health problem of antibiotic resistance; over 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy farm animals.13

CAFO lagoons often leak, and, in fact, a certain amount of leakage is allowed by law in some states.14 A number of factors can cause lagoons to leak, including liner damage from repetitive freeze-thaw cycles, weathering of outer walls, pressure from plant roots, and tunneling by rodents or worms.15 Leaks from factory farm lagoons can cause manure and contaminants to pollute the groundwater, contaminating local drinking water supplies. Nitrogen and phosphorous contamination also degrades our fragile river and estuary systems.16 In 1995, 25 million gallons of raw animal waste spilled from an 8-acre industrial lagoon in North Carolina, killing 10 million fish and closing more than 350,000 acres of coastal wetland to shell fishing. 17 The EPA has blamed current farming practices for 70 percent of the pollution in the country’s rivers and streams,18 and epidemiology studies have linked several pathogen outbreaks to contamination from livestock waste.19 In fact, the American Public Health Association has called for a moratorium on new factory farms until additional scientific data on the risks to public health have been collected.20

CAFOS and the Historic Rural Landscape

CAFOs obviously have an immediate and negative impact on the historic rural landscape. They are large in scale, housing thousands of animals, and generally consist of utilitarian metal buildings and manure retaining ponds. Traditional farm  structures and methods have no role in this type of operation. As small- and medium-sized producers are forced out, historic farms are sold and consolidated, and many historic farm structures are abandoned or demolished. Areas with factory farms also often see an increase in truck traffic, which can have visual and auditory impacts.

The rise in large-scale livestock production has caused a dramatic drop in the number of smaller family-owned operations, particularly mid-sized family farms.21 Increasingly, livestock production is moving away from traditional forms of buying and selling and toward a system of contracts. The farmer provides facilities, fuel, and labor, while the buyer—usually an agribusiness company or large cooperative—provides the animals, feed, and medicine. The animals are owned by the buyer throughout their lifespan, not by the farmer. And while contracts appear to reduce risk for the farmer, they can have negative consequences. Construction of new CAFO facilities leaves farmers with debt, and there are often no provisions barring the buyer from cancelling contracts early, leaving the farmer with the debt burden and an empty facility.22

Social Impacts

The proliferation of factory farms also undermines the social cohesion of rural areas. As large-scale CAFOs concentrate in an area, rural communities often experience related declines in local business purchases, physical infrastructure, and population. Decreases in neighborliness, social cohesion, and democratic values have also been documented. 23 The disproportionate location of factory farms in areas populated by people of color or people with low incomes is also a serious social issue.24

Factory farms are poor job-creation mechanisms for rural America. In addition to causing the displacement and consolidation of family-owned operations, CAFOs tend to employ fewer people than similarly sized conventional livestock production facilities. One economic analysis of Missouri hog operations found that a contract facility making $1.3 million in annual sales generated 9.4 jobs on and off the farm, while an independent operation making the same amount generated 28 jobs.25 Because they are owned by large national companies, factory farms typically purchase feed and supplies from outside the community and only minimally contribute to the local economy26, also making them a poor economic development choice for rural America. Factory farms also affect heritage tourism. Many historic rural communities have begun to recognize the economic benefits of heritage tourism and are working hard to attract visitors to boost their economies. Factory farms, however, can seriously harm visitation when tourists are repelled by their offensive smell.

Perhaps not surprisingly, studies have shown that factory farms also negatively affect property values.27 Many people do not want to live downwind of one of these operations. The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that, based on data from Missouri, property values near CAFOs across the country have fallen a total of about $26 billion.28 The explosive growth of factory farms in rural America is helping to accelerate depopulation of our rural areas, reducing stewardship of the historic rural landscape.

Finding Solutions

So what can be done to protect rural historic resources from this type of inappropriate development? Many factory farms use U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding, which means that Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act comes into play. To date, the National Trust is aware of only one such funding application by a CAFO that was subject to Section 106 review. Yet more undertakings by factory farms triggering Section 106 review are likely, as people become aware of the many ways that factory farms can have a negative impact on historic resources.

One of the federal programs most frequently used by factory farms is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, through the USDA ( Other USDA funding programs include grants and loans through the Farm Service Agency ( and the Natural Resources Conservation Service ( Many factory farms also require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES permit, pursuant to the Clean Water Act, but the Act allows the Environmental Protection Agency to delegate permitting authority to the states. In states that have received this delegated authority, NPDES permitting does not trigger Section 106 review under the National Historic Preservation Act. For more information on which states have delegated NPDES permitting authority, go to

Clearly, federal laws don’t provide much oversight of CAFOs. In 2005 a GAO report found that an estimated 60 percent of factory farms in the U.S. were unregulated. It also found a lack of oversight of state governments to ensure they were  adequately implementing required federal regulations.29 Another GAO report released in October 2008 notes that the EPA lacks information and a clearly defined strategy for effectively regulating factory farms, and that the EPA has recently proposed exempting factory farms from some of their emission reporting requirements.30

With little federal regulation to rely upon, many rural communities have taken action on their own, through local ordinances or litigation. Local planning and zoning legislation and state regulations can determine where factory farms are allowed to operate. Some states have passed or are working to pass legislation regulating the placement of factory farms. In Missouri, a bill was introduced to create a five-mile buffer zone  around state parks and historic sites, but it was blocked by the powerful agribusiness lobby. A similar bill in Indiana to mandate a one-mile setback between CAFOs and schools, healthcare facilities, and licensed childcare centers also failed, as did an attempt to institute a three-year statewide moratorium on factory farm construction.

Case Study – Arrow Rock, Mo.

The village of Arrow Rock, founded in 1829, is situated on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. The town has a rich history, encompassing the experiences of Native Americans and early explorers, Lewis and Clark, and travelers along the Santa Fe Trail. In fact, the entire town of Arrow Rock was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. Today the town is one of Missouri’s premiere heritage tourism destinations. Many of the town’s historic properties are owned and operated by the Friends of Arrow Rock, a nonprofit organization started in 1959, which has played an integral role in the village’s preservation.

In recognition of Arrow Rock’s unique heritage tourism activities, in 2006 the National Trust listed the town as one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations, the first Missouri location so designated. Heritage tourism opportunities, particularly outdoor activities such as tours, festivals, and recreation in the adjacent state park, are the economic lifeblood of Arrow Rock. In early 2007 a local farmer announced plans to construct a factory farm housing 4,800 hogs just two miles from Arrow Rock. The CAFO would threaten not only the village and its homes and businesses but also the state-managed Arrow Rock State Historic Site (which includes a state park), the nearby Sappington Cemetery State Historic Site, and several National Register listed and eligible historic rural properties including the William B. Sappington House.

When local residents began to investigate their options, they realized they were facing an uncommon, although not unique, situation. In Missouri the state historic preservation office—which oversees both the state’s preservation activities and its parks and historic sites—is part of the Department of Natural Resources. DNR is also responsible for issuing permits to construct factory farms and regulating NPDES permits under the Clean Water Act. Missouri is also, of course, a big agricultural state with a powerful agribusiness lobby.

Concerned citizens from Arrow Rock and around the state quickly mobilized to fight the factory farm threat. Led by the Friends of Arrow Rock, they formed a new coalition group, Citizens to Protect State Parks and Historic Sites or CPSPHS, and created a comprehensive website, Other organizations—such as the Village of Arrow Rock, the Missouri Parks Association, the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, the National Park Service, the Washington University School of Law Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, the Sierra Club, and the National Trust—also got involved.

Because factory farms are so contentious and opponents can often be perceived as NIMBYs who wish to obstruct any kind of agricultural operation, it was important to articulate exactly how the proposed CAFO would have a negative affect on Arrow Rock and its surrounding historic resources. Opponents made the case that the town’s heritage tourism trade, so dependent on outdoor activities, would be negatively affected by the odors and dust generated by a factory farm located so close to the village. The reliance of the adjacent state park on outdoor recreation also helped make the case. Factory farms are unfortunately a fact of life today, but some places are inappropriate for CAFO construction, and two miles from a National Historic Landmark is one of those places.

The coalition pursued a multi-pronged strategy, circulating petitions, holding public meetings, and keeping the CPSPHS website updated with the latest news and press coverage. Coalition members did numerous interviews and cultivated relationships with media contacts. Several coalition members hired a prominent lawyer to file a suit against the DNR for abrogating its responsibility to protect state parks and historic sites.

Although the coalition knew the state was likely to issue a construction permit for the factory farm and that NPDES permitting would not trigger Section 106 review under the National Historic Preservation Act, the coalition searched for evidence of federal permits or funding for the project that would. It discovered the farmer had applied for a loan from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. The program, known as EQIP, would help the farmer install a waste storage facility and a windbreak to help mitigate odor, although the former director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture has noted that windbreaks, or tree screens, mainly serve to keep CAFOs “out of sight, out of mind.”31 After a call from the National Trust, NRCS initiated Section 106 consultation, partially because of the controversial situation, and coalition
members joined as consulting parties.

Coalition members also began lobbying their elected officials, enlisting citizens to send letters to Governor Matt Blunt, state and federal elected officials, and the DNR. The CPSPHS worked with State Representative Jeff Harris to introduce a bill creating a five-mile buffer zone around state parks and state historic sites. The bill was unsuccessful, although other state legislation that would have rescinded county health ordinances regulating factory farms also died in the state senate. The CPSPHS website continues to track CAFO-related legislation and raise funds for ongoing legal challenges.

So what’s happening in Arrow Rock now? After just one Section 106 consulting party meeting, the factory farm applicant withdrew his request for federal funds, ending the regulatory strategy before there was any resolution of key issues, such as the Area of Potential Effect. At the time, the applicant insisted he would still build the CAFO, but throughout the spring and summer, nothing happened.

At the end of August, the applicant’s state CAFO permit expired, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Even better, on August 25 the Cole County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Friends of Arrow Rock’s petition against the DNR. In siding with the plaintiffs, Judge Joyce established a 15-mile factory farm buffer zone around all of Missouri’s state parks and state historic sites. The DNR has already filed a motion to reconsider and is likely to file an appeal, but this is a significant victory for factory farm opponents in Missouri and elsewhere.

Case Study – Minidoka National Historic Site

For several years, the National Trust has been involved in another high-profile CAFO issue: a 13,000-head cattle feedlot proposed for just over one mile from the Minidoka Internment National Historic Site in Jerome County, Idaho. Construction of the factory farm would affect both public health and the site’s integrity and could seriously harm visitation.

The site was one of 10 long-term internment facilities for Japanese Americans and resident aliens in the U.S. during World War II. Originally consisting of more than 600 buildings, (including administrative and warehouse structures, 44 residential  locks, schools, fire stations, a hospital, post office, shops, and a cemetery), the camp was disassembled after the war. The site and adjoining properties still include a broad collection of buildings and structures from the internment camp period, but limited funds and staff mean that there are no visitor services at the site and scant interpretation. Minidoka remains a highly significant site and retains a strong sense of place. The Friends of Minidoka convene an annual pilgrimage to the former camp and maintain a comprehensive website,, serving to educate the public and uphold the legacy of the internees.

The National Park Service has recently completed a comprehensive General Management Plan for the site that would increase educational programming, and Congress recently passed legislation to expand its boundaries. Additional legislation authorized the creation of a $38 million grant fund to ensure protection of all 10 camps, but unfortunately, funds have yet to be appropriated.

When the initial permit for a 13,000-head dairy cattle feedlot was submitted to the Jerome County Commissioners, a local ordinance prevented anyone who owned property further than one mile from the site from commenting on the permit application. This arbitrary rule meant that the commission did not consider comments from the National Park Service, clearly an important stakeholder. Most other members of the newly formed opposition coalition were also excluded from commenting. Coalition members included the Friends of Minidoka, Idaho Concerned Residents for the Environment, the National Parks Conservation Association, Preservation Idaho, Citizens Protecting Resources, the Japanese American Citizen’s League, the Idaho Conservation League, the Idaho Rural Council, the Western Environmental Law Center, and the
National Trust.

A critical part of the coalition’s strategy was getting the Minidoka Internment National Historic Site included on the National Trust’s America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2007. The listing generated a great deal of publicity, and the Idaho Statesman published an opinion piece by National Trust President Richard Moe. The 11 Most listing highlighted not only Minidoka but the threat to historic resources posed by factory farms across the country.

Everyone was pleasantly surprised when, in October 2007, the Jerome County Commissioners voted to deny the factory farm permit. The applicant and the Idaho Dairymen’s Association appealed to the state court, and meanwhile the land was sold.

Unfortunately, this August an Idaho district court ruled that the Board of Commissioners went beyond its statutory authority in denying the permit. The Court did not order the Board to approve the permit, but to reconsider the basis of its decision, which had rested on the County Comprehensive Plan but also should take into consideration existing county zoning and feedlot ordinances.

In September, despite continued protests and last-minute appeals from the National Park Service, concerned citizens, neighbors, and preservation groups, the commissioners approved the feedlot permit. The coalition has continued its efforts to stop the construction of the feedlot by filing for judicial review of the board’s decision. The coalition has started a campaign to raise funds to support the lawsuit.

In December 2008, while the lawsuit against the County was pending, South View Dairy started constructing the CAFO. Despite a word of warning from the coalition’s attorneys, the work did not cease. The coalition has now taken action by filing a Notice of Intent to sue under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. It remains to be seen whether this will effectively deter the ongoing construction or whether additional legal action will be necessary.


These are just a few of the many battles going on around the country to prevent insensitive placement of factory farms. It is obviously not realistic to fight all CAFOs, but when there is a clear effect on historic and cultural resources, preservationists should rally. Contact elected officials at the local, state, and federal level to advocate for better regulation of CAFOs. Get involved with a local or statewide environmental group in your community or state and ask it to address the impact of factory farms on local natural resources. Useful websites include, which provides data on the number and type of factory farms in your state. The National Trust has also created a fact sheet on Factory Farms and America’s Rural Heritage, which you can find on PreservationNation at

It is critical to articulate the nature of the threat to historic places and steer clear of NIMBY issues. Form a broad-based coalition that includes environmental groups and sustainable agriculture advocates, and formulate a multi-pronged strategy. Public awareness is key, so make sure you engage the media, raise visibility, work with your elected officials, and take the long view.

Such advocacy efforts are bringing results. Increasing numbers of citizens and policymakers are beginning to recognize the harmful effects of factory farms, and more sustainable and sensitive alternatives such as managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) and hog hoop barns are gaining popularity.32 President Obama’s rural agenda put forth during his campaign also includes some encouraging changes, including strict regulation of CAFO emissions and support for organic and local agriculture.33


1 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Civil Enforcement, CWA National Enforcement Priorities,; and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Update on CAFO NPDES Permitting Implementation, CAFO Roundtable, Tacoma, Wash., September 14, 2007,

2 American Public Health Association, “Precautionary Moratorium on New Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” November 18, 2003,

3 Stephen Power, “GAO Questions Plan to Ease Farms’ Emissions,” Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2008; and United States Goverment Accountability Office, “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: EPA Needs More Information and a Clearly Defined Strategy to Protect Air and Water Quality from Pollutants of Concern,” September 2008.  

4 Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker (Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health), “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture,” Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2002,  

5 Robbin Marks, “Cesspools of Shame: How Factory Farm Lagoons and Sprayfields Threaten Environmental and Public Health,” Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Water Network, 2001,; and “America’s Animal Factories: How States Fail to Prevent Pollution from Animal Waste,” Natural Resources Defense Council and the CleanWater Network, 1998,  

6 Power.

7 American Public Health Association.

8 American Public Health Association.

9 Horrigan et al.

10 Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: Public Health and Community Impacts,”

11 Horrigan et al.

12 American Public Health Association.

13 Sierra Club, “Clean Water & Factory Farms: Frequently Asked Questions,”

14 American Public Health Association.

15, Topics, Environmental Damage,

16 Horrigan et al.

17 Marks.

18 Horrigan et al.

19 American Public Health Association.

20 American Public Health Association.

21, Topics, Socioeconomic Impact,

22 Elanor Starmer, “Corporate Power in Livestock Production: How It’s Hurting Farmers, Consumers, and Communities—And What We Can Do About It,” The Agribusiness Accountability Initiative,

23 Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

24 Kelley J. Donham, Steven Wing, David Osterberg, Jan L. Flora, Carol Hodne, Kendall M. Thu, and Peter S. Thorne, “Community Health and Socioeconomic Issues Surrounding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2007, 

25 John Ikerd, “The Economic Impacts of Increased Contract Swine Production in Missouri,” University of Missouri, 1995.

26 Donham et al.

27 Donham et al.

28 Doug Gurian-Sherman, “The Untold Costs of CAFOs,” Catalyst: The Magazine of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Winter 2009.

29 Donahm et al.

30 Power.

31 Jason Rosenbaum, “New Ag Director talks of Gasoline, CAFOs, Morale,” Columbia (Missouri) Tribune, July 10, 2007.

32 Gurian-Sherman.

33, President Barack Obama,

Publication Date: Winter 2009



Author(s):Jennifer Sandy

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