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Litigations Reach The Farm

More and more, activist groups, state agencies and pork producers are getting mixed up in lawsuits regarding production facilities and their impact on the environment.

Ron Prestage is fed up. The Sierra Club mounted a $75 million lawsuit challenging the environmental record of Prestage Farms in Mississippi.

The integrator runs 24,000 sows and coordinates 52 contract growers in Mississippi dating back to 1992. During that time, there hasn't been a single, documented, environmental violation by Prestage Farms or any of its contract growers, he says.

Yet the lawsuit contends Prestage Farms fouled the air and water, hurt property values and endangered human health in Mississippi.

Farms were inspected annually, but now they are inspected quarterly.

Prestage observes, "I don't think anyone could have a better environmental record than what Prestage Farms has." In Mississippi, Prestage operates single-stage lagoons with either center pivots or traveling spray guns to spread effluent.

Not one of the more than 1,000 lagoons in company-owned and contract operations in Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina recorded a single breech during last year's flurry of hurricanes.

Since there have been virtually no complaints, Prestage charges that the Sierra Club resorted to illegally recruiting plantiffs by asking them if they thought hog farms should be regulated. Most didn't know they signed on to a lawsuit, he says. Several who found out dropped out of the suit.

Prestage, who is president of South Carolina operations and also coordinates Mississippi operations, contends the lawsuit is absurd. "We are going to defend it to the extreme. We have absolutely no intentions whatsoever of settling with this lawsuit. The claims are totally unfounded and frivolous."

Back in 1992, the state of Mississippi practically begged Prestage Farms to set up shop there, he explains.

The integrator faces its biggest legal challenge alone. The state of Mississippi won't support Prestage Farms because officials fear they, too, might be sued by the Sierra Club, he adds.

Colorado National Farms, with an operation in Kersey, CO, sued the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for selective enforcement of Proposition 14. In part, the rule requires hog lagoons to be covered in some fashion to reduce manure odors.

National Farms President Bill Haw charges the health department is not enforcing that rule. Instead, the state agency is singling out his company for enforcement. Haw says National Farms doesn't own any hog lagoons. Effluent is pumped out of buildings into a surge pump and almost immediately irrigated onto fields 365 days a year. Haw says the state alleges National Farms has odor problems.

"The state is trying to force us to build lagoons when we have a 10-year history of no odor complaints," he says.

Amendment 14 was enacted January 1999, says Elena Metro, Colorado Pork Producers Council executive director. Producers have until July 1, 2000 to comply with the rules.

Iowa The state attorney general's office is continuing its litigation against Smithfield Foods. In January, Attorney General Tom Miller blocked Smithfield's acquisition of Murphy Family Farms' Iowa operations, charging that it would violate the state's corporate farming law. That law prohibits any pork or beef processor from owning, controlling or operating a feedlot.

The attorney general's office also argues that Smithfield's alleged divestiture of Murphy's to Stoecker Farms is a sham designed to give the appearance of compliance.

In a related manner, a Senate bill was enacted to close two loopholes in Iowa's ban on packer feeding of hogs.

First, under current law, packers are not banned from contract feeding hogs if they don't directly or indirectly control the processing of pork products from the hogs they contract feed.

Second, current law doesn't stop packers from indirectly contracting for care and feeding of hogs.

The bill also gives independent pork producers a better chance of capturing more value from the hogs they raise by forming closed cooperatives.

Indiana Preliminary approval of state feedlot rules are expected this summer with possible adoption by fall, according to Terry Fleck, executive vice president/treasurer of Indiana Pork Producers Association.

Fleck expects the confined feeding rules to be broad and include some operational rules and management issues that were never included in the past couple years of debate.

For example, manure management and transport will be monitored closely and require meticulous recordkeeping.

The rules will not be size-specific.

Producers will have the chance to voice concerns over the rules at public meetings around the state in late May and early June.

Kentucky Farming groups in Kentucky - including the Kentucky Pork Producers Association (KPPA) - are forming a coalition to fight and possibly sue the state regarding an emergency regulation that went into effect in March. It provides for shared liability between company and contractor for any environmental mishap, says Mike Ovesen, KPPA executive director.

Producers with 282-plus sows would share liability for any environmental problems caused by their contract growers.

"This kind of rule could put a lot of producers out of business," remarks Ovesen. The emergency rule expires in 170 days; a permanent rule will have to be promulgated.

Michigan A state law has been passed that says local zoning rules cannot be more stringent than the state's right-to-farm guidelines.

The law removes the patchwork of local zoning rules that were implemented to preclude siting or expansion of a livestock facility, says Sam Hines, executive vice president of Michigan Pork Producers Association.

As part of that legislation, an industry task force is developing generally accepted management practices for site selection and odor control for new and expanding livestock operations.

Missouri Missouri Pork Producers Association (MPPA) is part of a coalition that filed suit to stop the state attorney general's office from imposing the first air quality standards on the livestock industry, says Don Nikodim, MPPA executive director.

The two sides have been battling over the specifics for a couple of years. Now agriculture has filed suit to get the whole thing thrown out, he says.

Additionally, the state attorney general's office reported early this year that it successfully required Smithfield Foods to divest all state property acquired through its buyout of Murphy Family Farms.

Nebraska A bill was passed providing monetary support to value-added enterprises, says Nebraska Pork Producers Association State Executive Steve Cady.

Groups looking to develop cooperative packing or marketing programs would be eligible for grants up to $75,000. The legislation provides $1 million annually until 2004.

Wisconsin The framework for new, non-point source pollution abatement program legislation passed, addressing both agricultural and non-agricultural sources.

The document will be reviewed, and final recommendations will be made to the state legislature for budgeting, explains Keri Retallick, executive vice president of Wisconsin Pork Producers Association.

The extensive revisions: * Restrict livestock manure spillage, especially near state waterways;

* Limit to 75 lb. the amount of unincorporated manure that can be applied to farmland/acre/year;

* Meet environmental standards for building and maintaining manure storage structures;

* Establish an annual nutrient management plan; and

* Follow specific management practices in high priority watersheds.

"This has been a huge issue for us for some time and will not be completed until the next legislative session," remarks Retallick.