Walk through the doors of Eldon McAfee’s office and it quickly becomes apparent he’s not your average attorney. Peppered around the room are livestock statues and photos, model tractors and family farm memorabilia — there’s even a draft-horse fly net hanging on the wall above his desk.
“When clients come in, the setting makes them comfortable,” he notes. “They can relate to the things in the room.” But it’s not just for show; it’s a sincere reflection of his farming life.
“I learned to drive tractor on a B-International,” McAfee says as he points to the model sitting on a table. “I still have the real tractor in a shed on the family farm”… along with a dozen other pieces of old farm machinery that he someday plans to get running.
Atop an antique radio is a 1963 law book, Contract Farming, complete with a chapter on contract hog feeding. Flip open the cover and the introduction summarizes that contract farming is becoming more prevalent and is somewhat controversial.
“Think about how controversial it’s been in the past 25 years — but contract feeding is not all that new,” McAfee says. “It’s just another business model.”
That juxtaposition between nostalgia and technology is further evident with a laptop, two computer screens, an iPad and an iPhone all within reach on his desk.
Finding His Path
As committed to agriculture as McAfee is today, that wasn’t always the case. The youngest of three growing up on his parents’ 160-acre Cass County farm near Atlantic, IA, he did his required chores, but often wished he lived in town.
A high school Vo-Ag teacher introduced him to FFA, which turned him on to agriculture. “I thought, wow, you get to go to school and talk about farming and livestock in class,” McAfee says. “I credit FFA for getting me where I am today.”
The real hook was livestock. He gravitated toward any and all farm animals — dairy, hogs, beef, sheep — it didn’t matter. Throughout high school he showed livestock and got more involved on the farm. Still, as a youth in the 1970s McAfee admits that he was not the most motivated kid — a fact that folks who know him today would find surprising. With little thought to his post-high-school goals, he followed in his older brother’s footsteps and headed for Iowa State University’s two-year Farm Operations program. When school wasn’t in session, he milked cows for a neighbor, helped his dad and planned to return to the farm.
McAfee eventually decided to continue at Iowa State to complete a four-year degree, which allowed him to sample more agricultural areas: ag economics, ag mechanization and ag law, which proved to be a hint of what was to come. Neil Harl taught the ag law class; rather than be overwhelmed by the fast-talking professor, McAfee hit the topic twice as hard, attending class and reviewing the taped lectures. “I really enjoyed the class, but becoming a lawyer never crossed my mind,” he says.
Upon graduating from Iowa State in 1977, McAfee focused on the only thing he wanted to do — farm, with livestock as the priority.
In 1979, a job listing in an Iowa State newsletter caught his eye. A farmer in eastern Iowa, near Solon, was looking for help. But the true appeal was that the farm included dairy and beef cattle, hogs, sheep, even draft horses. McAfee went for an interview, took the job, packed up his 1969 Chevy and began the four-hour drive east. “To me, it was on the other side of the world,” he recalls. “I didn’t know a soul.”
Independence is a recurring theme in McAfee’s life. It’s a trait inherited from his parents and one he has passed on to his three daughters. In the late 1940s, his parents, Conrad and Bertha Mae McAfee, moved 15 miles from Anita to Atlantic, IA — a long way in those days — to farm on their own. The stories and lessons his dad shared rooted deep within McAfee. “There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think, what would my dad say?” he adds.
While he settled in milking the farmer’s 80 cows, McAfee hunted for an acreage of his own. He found a spot back in a wooded area with a couple of rustic buildings that could accommodate 20 sows, farrow to finish. Having learned artificial insemination techniques at Iowa State and applying them to the dairy herd, McAfee started to shop the International Boar Semen catalog for his sow herd. “Using frozen boar semen was a new technology at the time,” he says. “I saw it as a way for a small farmer to get good genetics versus buying an expensive boar.”
While McAfee wanted to farm progressively, he wanted to live simply. With long, bushy hair, a subscription to Mother Earth News and a copy of the book “99 Ways to a Simpler Lifestyle,” he admits with a chuckle, “I could have become one of the anti-ag folks we deal with today.” But with his employer as an example, McAfee recognized that adopting new farming technology and livestock production methods was key to sustainable farming.
By 1980, he had met and married Denise Jilovec, and that set a new venture in motion. His employer was selling the dairy herd, which meant it was time for the McAfees to initiate their own farming plans. With strong family support but no financing, dairy and the bi-weekly milk check offered a logical way to get started. The banker agreed, and a loan from the Farmers Loan Administration got things rolling.
A neighbor with dairy facilities and cattle wanted to retire, so McAfee bought half of the 60-cow herd. “I ran the numbers and saw that I needed more than a 50-50 split, so I negotiated a 54-46 split,” he says.
By the mid-1980s, it was further apparent that McAfee was giving too much away by milking on shares. He found a farm near North English, Iowa, with good dairy facilities and land that he could cash-rent. So, in 1986 he bought the other half of the now 70-cow Holstein herd and moved south. “Moving that dairy herd and getting the facilities ready, I never worked so hard in my life,” McAfee says, “but I loved it.”
Time for a Change
Like most farmers of his day, Conrad McAfee was not one for heart-to-heart talks, but one day standing in his son’s milk house, he looked Eldon in the eyes and said, “You’re going to get tired of working this hard someday, and your family is going to get tired of it. Your kids are growing up, and you’re missing it.” This proved to be some of the best advice McAfee ever received.
The McAfees began evaluating growth options and searched for a farm manager. But keeping his own options open, McAfee contacted Iowa State’s director of career services, Roger Bruene, who encouraged him to visit the university’s fall career day. McAfee thought a farm manager position could lighten his burden, yet keep him in the career that he loved. In visiting with the farm management companies, the general response was, “That’s nice. Send us a resume. Your starting salary would be that of a college grad.”
“I had experience and a family; I turned to my wife and said ‘Let’s go,’â” McAfee recalls about his decision to head for the fall career day.
Sitting at the Drake University Law School table was Neil Hamilton, an attorney and professor who developed the college’s agricultural law program. Denise pointed and said, “Let’s go talk to him.”
McAfee looked over and said, “I don’t want to be a damn lawyer.” Still, there’s no harm in talking, so the two went over to visit with Hamilton. “She wasn’t literally dragging me, but I was not a willing participant,” McAfee points out.
Ten minutes later McAfee was ready to be a lawyer. “I give all the credit to my wife,” he says. “What appealed to me was being an ag professional. Sort of like being a farmer, I could have my own practice.”
The two went home and thought about how to proceed. The goal was to get into law school in fall 1988. That meant getting on a fast track and taking the Law School Admissions Test. “I was so naïve, I thought it was like taking the ACT,” McAfee relates. The morning of the four-hour test, he got up at 2:30 a.m. to milk the cows and get to the lecture hall on time. “To this day, I remember looking at the young college kids and thinking, What am I doing here? I milked cows this morning,” he says.
He passed the exam and was accepted to Drake, his only choice because of its ag law program. McAfee planted crops and continued to farm through the summer; he sold his cows, which helped pay for law school.
Law school is not for the faint of heart, and there was more than one day when McAfee questioned his decision. But he was raised to “work hard and earn it,” so he buckled down and moved forward.
A Proud Manure Lawyer
All along, McAfee’s goals were to specialize in ag law and work on business-related issues, contracts, taxes and estate planning. When representatives from Beving, Swanson & Forest came to interview prospects during fall 1990, both parties were looking for a unique fit. McAfee’s real-life farming experience offered something few attorneys could provide.
He joined the firm in spring 1991. By 1993, environmental issues in pork production were starting to boil. Producers were expanding, new buildings were popping up and the public questioned whether the state’s environmental regulations were sufficient.
That added a new dimension to the firm’s workload, and more specifically, to McAfee’s. “I wasn’t intending to be an environmental lawyer, but you go where your clients take you,” he adds.
In the winter of 1994 through spring 1995, proposed legislation to regulate “large” confinement livestock operations put him to work with the Iowa Pork Producers Association (IPPA). The legislation became law on May 31, 1995, and specifically addressed separation distances from residences, manure management plans and other environmental regulations. McAfee traveled around the state giving presentations for IPPA explaining what the law required. This set in motion his eventual role as “manure lawyer.”
The next year brought him Kuehl v. Cass County. The case involved Dale Kuehl, who McAfee knew from growing up in the area. Kuehl was trying to build a new a hog facility, but the county had denied his permit based on the 1971 Farmegg Iowa Supreme Court case. In essence, the case said if a farm-animal production site is set off on a tract of land removed from crop production and other “traditional” farming practices, then it was not eligible for the ag exemption to county zoning and could be zoned as a commercial site. They lost in the District Court, but the case went on to the Iowa Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in Kuehl’s favor. The high court essentially stated you have to look at what is occurring on the piece of land, and livestock is agriculture, so county zoning rules did not apply.
“It was a very major decision for agriculture, because it nullified a long line of cases involving county ordinances,” McAfee says. “It is the case I am most proud of, although it’s not the one most people think of because it was very low-profile.” As environmental attention grew through the 1990s, a high-profile case surfaced in Goodell v. Humboldt County in 1998. County boards continued to look for ways to regulate livestock production without calling it “zoning.” As a result, Humboldt County had adopted ordinances that would regulate livestock through environmental requirements. McAfee worked on the case for a group called the Humboldt County Livestock Producers, along with Lloyd, Dennis and Scott Goodell’s attorneys. The county won in District Court, but the case moved on to the Iowa Supreme Court. “The Legislature was watching us to see what action they might have to take,” McAfee recalls. “The day of oral arguments, the court room was packed; the press was there, protesters were there. Normally very few people are in the courtroom.”
In March 1998, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in the producers’ favor, stating that only the state or federal government — not the county — can regulate environmental issues associated with livestock production.
That was considered to be Iowa’s most significant livestock/environmental decision. It was certainly controversial. The Iowa Legislature passed legislation reaffirming the court’s ruling. In 2004, a Worth County case attempted to test the 1998 Goodell decision. The county passed a health ordinance as a path to control livestock production, but another Iowa Supreme Court ruling only confirmed the state’s authority to regulate the environmental issues of livestock production.
In what proved to be a very busy year, 1998 also brought forth Borman v. Kossuth County. The case challenged the state’s ag area law, passed in the 1980s, which allowed a producer to designate land with the county as agricultural. McAfee again found himself in front of the Iowa Supreme Court, on the same side as the county, representing the livestock producer with the ag-area designation. This time the justices struck down the law, saying that the law was unconstitutional in that it took away people’s property rights to bring a nuisance suit. “That was a big surprise,” McAfee says. “It was a very low point in my legal career, because as a result of that decision and a subsequent 2004 decision, Iowa producers no longer had legal protection from nuisance suits. Some folks thought it was the end of livestock production.”
He points to 2003 as the peak in nuisance cases in Iowa, with 15 on file. That has since dropped to one or two in any given year, with none going to trial since 2008. Unfortunately, outside interests in odor and nuisance issues have not gone away. “We are seeing a renewed interest in certain areas of the state,” he adds. “They are targeting hog confinement operations, and the size doesn’t matter.”
You Just Never Know
McAfee never wanted to be an attorney, and once he became one, he never wanted to see the courtroom. “It just goes to show you, you never know where your career might lead and what training you might need” advice he shares each year when he speaks to Drake law students.
In his 23 years in practice, McAfee sees today’s pork producers as being more proactive and responsible. “There will always be accidents, but most producers address issues long before there’s a problem,” he notes. At 59, he has no intention of retiring anytime soon, but his goal is to transition his practice to the next generation of attorneys with farm experience. “The industry needs for this work to continue,” McAfee says. He points to Julia Vyskocil and Erin Herbold-Swalwell as the future of the firm’s agricultural work. “They are mentors to me because they make me look at things differently, and I learn so much from them,” he adds.
The same can be said for his and Denise’s daughters, whose independent spirits “make for some lively conversations,” McAfee notes proudly. Lindsay, 31, is an attorney in Washington, D.C., for the accounting firm KPMG. Megan, 27, received a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Missouri and has spent time in South Korea teaching English. Elisa, 21, is a junior majoring in psychology at Iowa State. McAfee believes that young people have a tremendous future in agriculture, and he is seeing more young faces at pork producer meetings today. To ensure U.S. agriculture’s long-term health, McAfee would most like to see the turmoil over livestock production subside. “I want to see pork production, agriculture and farm organizations continue to prosper,” he says. “I know I’m dreaming here, but people need to put their political and ideological agendas aside and realize that today’s practices are the most efficient, humane and environmentally safe way to produce pork.”