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Dealing with urban sprawl

When Jim Heimerl laid out a plan for a 2,400-sow farrowing site in sparsely populated Brown County, OH, he thought he was finally getting away from people. Since the Eagle Creek Swine project was completed in 2000, however, a dozen new homes have been built along the rural blacktop road that leads to the sow farm.

“I guess it proves that no matter where you build, people are going to show up,” he says. “That's why it's important to do those things that help us coexist with our non-farm neighbors.”

Dealing with neighbors is something that Heimerl Farms has done for years. The home place in Licking County is a stone's throw from Columbus, in an area known for rapidly expanding urban sprawl. Just down the road from the farm is the home of billionaire Lex Wexner and headquarters for his businesses that include Bath and Body Works, the Limited and Victoria's Secret.

Real estate is pricey. Touring a contract finisher tucked behind some woods on a nearby farm, Jim points out that about 50 homes worth a million dollars or more are located within a seven-mile radius.

“When you're farming with Lex Wexner just over the hill,” says Dick Isler, executive vice president of the Ohio Pork Producers Council, “the idea of being a good environmental steward becomes a high priority.”

Family values

The Heimerl family's farming roots trace back to the 1940s, when Jim's parents began farming. Jim and Kathy married and began farming in 1975, taking over the operation in 1980 when Jim's father retired. Row crops and cattle were the primary enterprises in the early years, but Jim eventually expanded the hog enterprise. With the recent completion of another sow farm, the family now has 7,500 sows that serve as multipliers for the swine genetics company, PIC.

“Even though our farm has grown, we are very much a family operation,” Jim says. “We want to keep managing it that way.” Kathy serves as the farm's bookkeeper, and the couple's three sons are interested in joining the operation. Matt is in college and twin boys, Brad and Jeff, are seniors in high school. A daughter, Casey, is a college graduate pursuing a career in banking.

The Eagle Creek sow farm is located about 130 miles southwest of the Heimerl's home place, just a dozen miles from the Kentucky state line. The sow farm sits in rolling hills surrounded by tobacco fields and mature timber. Grass buffer strips surround the buildings and lagoon. All runoff water from the site is collected and held in a freshwater pond at the lowest point of the farm.

“This pond has a couple of purposes,” Jim says. “We use water from the pond for washing the unit and to use in our evaporative cooling cells. We hope to preserve the pond's integrity in order to supply us with fresh water, but if we were to have any kind of breach or effluent spill, the pond would catch the spill before it could leave our farm and possibly pollute an area downstream.”

It's also a popular spot for wildlife. Geese and ducks quickly found the watering hole. Other wildlife, such as the area's abundant turkey population, are also frequent visitors to the pond.

Manure management

The farm uses a lagoon for its manure handling system. The effluent is applied to the heavy clay soils in the area by injection behind a manure tanker.

“We normally prefer to apply manure using a dragline system,” explains Jim. “But these soils are so tight that they won't accept a large volume of effluent applied this way. We also have experimented with irrigation using a hose reel system, but we were concerned about possible runoff from the hills.”

The effluent from the site is diluted, but it appears to be giving a boost to cropland where it is applied. “The soils in southern Ohio definitely need the potassium in the effluent. We've only been putting on the effluent for a couple of years, but it already looks like it is building up the soil,” Jim says.

The Heimerl family regularly uses global positioning system (GPS)-based grid sampling to monitor soil fertility. Manure samples are tested before applying in spring and fall, which allows them to monitor any possible buildup of nutrients on application sites.

The Heimerls process their own feed and regularly use phytase to cut down phosphorus levels in the manure.

Adapt and adopt

With swine operations across much of the state, Jim admits to trying lots of new technology in order to be a neighbor friendly pork producer. Even though a number of units use lagoons, he says the family now favors deep pits as the manure management option of choice. “It's a case of ‘out of sight, out of smell,’” he says. “People can smell a lot with their eyes.”

Chopped straw applied to lagoons is a management technique Jim has found effective in reducing odors on some farms. “We try to get the straw in a layer from 3 in. to 6 in. thick,” he says. “It can form a crust and hold down odor.”

The Heimerls also believe that aesthetic improvements can help swine operations coexist with neighbors. “On all of our farms, we mound up soil and plant trees and shrubs,” Jim says. “We include green space in all plans for buildings. We encourage our contractors to do the same things.”

Reaching out

Taking a proactive approach with neighbors can help, Jim says. The family frequently hosts tours of their farming operations, and they encourage contract growers to hold an open house in new facilities before it is stocked with the first pigs. “It's important to let neighbors know what is going on inside these buildings,” he says.

The Heimerls also host a number of fourth and fifth grade students on farm tours. “Some people may think these kids are too young to get much from a tour,” Jim comments. “But I think they are a good age to try to reach. I would like to visit with them about what we do out here on the farm before someone else tries to convince them about what is good or bad about today's agriculture.”

Jim and Kathy also focus on the future when it comes to their course of action for the farm. “They aren't making any more land,” Jim says. “That's why it is so important to be a steward of the environment. I still have a statement in the contract I use to rent a farm that guarantees the ground will be better when I leave it than when I came. You have to protect the land.”

And if that job is done right, future generations can carry on the Heimerl farming operation. “I want our kids to have the opportunity to farm, and their kids after that,” Jim says. “That requires us to do the job right today. If we can maintain a good relationship with our community and the world, those opportunities will be available to them.”