In 2019, after seven years of public outcry, the Republican Governor of Arkansas agreed to a $6.2 million buyout of an industrial hog facility located near a major tributary of the Buffalo River, the first designated national river, which originates in the Boston Mountains of the Ozarks in northwestern Arkansas. It was a big win for clean water advocates and if it had just been an anonymous stream, the state would have never bought out the 6,500-hog JBS factory farm, said Gordon Watkins, sitting on the deck of the vacation rental he owns and manages in the watershed.
“Because it was the Buffalo National River, it garnered nationwide attention,” said Watkins, who is a retired organic farmer and the president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, one of four organizations comprising a coalition that formed almost a decade ago when the public first caught wind of the hog facility.
More than 1.5 million people are estimated to visit the clear, bluff-lined river every year to hike, fish, camp, and paddle. They spent more than $66 million in 2020 and supported more than 960 jobs, according to data from the National Park Service. Watkins is one of many who operate vacation rentals near the park, which spans four counties, all of which have poverty rates higher than the national average.
“Most of my business is because of the Buffalo National River,” said Watkins. “That’s what brings people here. . . . Tourism is our bread and butter. It employs a whole lot more people than one hog barn did.”
In other regions, where animals are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), it’s rare to find opponents successful in stopping the state from approving a CAFO permit, let alone altogether halting operations that have persisted for years. So the campaign to close C&H Hog Farms stands out—and it could be a sign of what’s ahead.
“Tourism is our bread and butter. It employs a whole lot more people than this one hog barn did.”
In rural communities, residents and family farmers are increasingly pitting the need to protect their waterways and natural areas for outdoor recreation against factory farms, which they say pollute the environment and threaten tourism dollars. In framing their opposition to industrial animal agriculture in this way, the groups open the door for unlikely allies to join the fight for heavier regulations. In some cases, these campaigns have resulted in bipartisan support for stricter monitoring of the environmental impacts of CAFOs—and have even led to cross-the-aisle discussions about creating CAFO moratoriums in environmentally sensitive regions.
Two years after the anti-CAFO faction near the Buffalo River emerged victorious, a community near the Bloody Run Stream in Iowa is challenging a new cattle feedlot through legal action. Other communities in the Midwest are also framing the fight against industrial animal ag as a battle to protect open spaces and the right to clean, safe outdoor recreation. And, as family farming and environmental advocates realize success with this strategy, they are creating a roadmap for others to challenge the proliferation of factory farms in their own backyards.
Risks CAFOs Pose to Recreational Water Bodies
In the fight to “Save the Buffalo . . . Again,” a slogan that refers to environmentalists’ initial attempts to prevent the damming of the river in the 1960s, supporting rural recreation became a key leverage point in challenging the power of Big Ag. Outdoor recreation, of course, relies upon the health of local natural resources.
“There was the saying that ‘Brazil gets the meat, JBS gets the money, and the Buffalo River gets the shit,’” said Watkins, referring to the lack of local benefits corporate-backed CAFOs provide. Typically, corporations own the hogs in the facility while local operators care for the animals and own the land upon which the CAFO was built, as well as the debt it takes to build it and the manure the hogs leave behind.
When C&H was in operation, it stored up to two million gallons of liquid hog waste in open pits, referred to as “lagoons,” on the property, and it periodically spread the waste on nearby farm fields as fertilizer. Some CAFO manure has been shown to have enough nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics, and pathogens such as E. coli to wreak havoc on sensitive ecosystems and pollute water used for drinking and recreating.
“There was the saying that ‘Brazil gets the meat, JBS gets the money, and the Buffalo River gets the shit.’”
The C&H farm was situated in a karst topography, a type of landscape known for its fractured limestone bedrock, caves, and sinkholes. Some scientists refer to karst as an underground terrain of “swiss cheese,” where pollutants that exist on the earth’s surface are at higher risk of reaching groundwater and spreading beyond the intended application sites. While the topography contributes to the beauty of the region and its appeal for nature-loving tourists, it also means that pollutants can spread quickly.
With the help of a professor emeritus in hydrogeology from the University of Arkansas, advocates put together a series of dye tracing tests that showed the complex system of subsurface water flow near the CAFO. The authors cited the need for further in-depth study to monitor the spread of possible pollutants far beyond the farm site and the surrounding spreading fields.
But a five-year study conducted by Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET), a state-funded project to evaluate the impact of C&H Farms on the watershed, found no proof of direct pollution from the farm. Still, advocates were not convinced. They raised the alarm about the threat of pollution and publicized their loss of faith in the state to conduct “sound” research, which was ultimately enough to mobilize statewide opposition to the continued operation of the facility.
Leaks and spills due to improper storage or transport of the manure, as well as runoff from mismanaged application to farm fields, can contribute to a host of environmental and public health complications, including toxic algal blooms, fish kills, and blue baby syndrome.
Ben Milburn, owner of Buffalo River Outfitters, a canoe rental and lodging company that serves park visitors, has perennial concerns about the river’s water quality. For Milburn, the mismanagement of human wastewater in surrounding communities and decreased funding for park maintenance compounds with the acute pollution pressures from industrial agriculture.
Milburn, who also serves as a member of the state-funded Buffalo River Conservation Committee, said the state should be responsible for creating restrictions for farmers in the watershed.
“Without [the state] protecting it and limiting what a farmer can do when it comes to fertilizer in their fields or in agricultural production” the community is in trouble, he said. “There’s got to be some type of oversight or there is the potential for problems.”