When Allen Houck retired last year, he moved back to his grandparents farm, in the hills of Todd Township, Huntingdon County.
“When I was a kid we had cattle here, and chickens and pigs,” Houck recalled, sitting on his porch. “We had a big garden, and we raised our food for wintertime here. It’s always been beautiful.”
Most farms around here are still small, 100, maybe 150 cows. But Houck’s neighbor has built a factory-sized turkey barn that houses thousands of birds. The manure gets piled up outside.
“Sometimes the smell will get so strong, it just grabs my throat. Makes it hard to breathe,” Houck said.
The turkey barn looks like a large supermarket in the fields. In this small valley of rolling fields, hiking trails and campgrounds, it is by far the biggest structure. But not for long. Construction is starting on another large new barn. This one will house 4,800 hogs at a time. It’s being built by Aaron Warner, the brother of the turkey farm owner. The hog manure will be spread on farm fields around the area.
Since Allen Houck moved back last year, he’s already had to replace his water well because of high bacteria counts and E. coli. Now, he has his tap water tested every few months.
But Houck worries that the new hog farm will create more problems for his water. There are less than a thousand people in this township, and many are concerned the manure will run off the fields, or soak into the soil, and contaminate their well water. The concern is not unfounded.
Concerns About Water Contamination from Hog Manure
Ryan Mathur is a geologist at Juniata College in Huntingdon County. His research team found a that a different large farm to the north was contaminating surface water in nearby Spruce Creek. Mathur said the permeable sandstone soils in Todd Township puts groundwater here at greater risk.
“It depends on where your well sits, and where the nutrient is going, because everything flows downhill,” Mathur said. “If you have something that’s down gradient, and they’re putting stuff upgradient, it’s going to get into your water.”
In Pennsylvania, there are currently 340 swine concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Russell Redding, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture, said their waste is well regulated by a “very, very rigorous process.”
“That’s a requirement whether you’re in Ohio or Pennsylvania or Oklahoma,” he said.
State agriculture officials have been looking for ways to make sure Pennsylvania’s farmers can be competitive, including growing the pork industry. State programs have already provided $450 million in low interest loans to expand hog CAFOs in the past few years.
Redding said animal farms are getting bigger and more concentrated in part because of demand from consumers and retailers for quality, consistency and access.
“It’s one of those trends that I think everybody, even those who are in it, are challenged to accept,” Redding said. “That’s the direction we’re going because of the capital requirements, because of the intensity of the operations. But I don’t believe that that makes them incompatible in a community.”
Aaron Warner, the farmer building the hog barn in Todd Township, is on board with this strategy. He’ll be raising the hogs for Country View Family Farms, a Pennsylvania-based corporation that sells things like Italian sausages, barbecue ribs, and bacon across the Eastern United States. He said he has a right to farm his land, and has been surprised by the all the controversy.
Keith Stahler, spokesperson for Country View, said in an email that Warner’s hog farm will follow the government-required waste management plan to prevent water contamination. He also said the company will go beyond government requirements to minimize odors.
Residents Opposed to the Hog Farm Join Together
Many in Todd Township are worried because their livelihoods depend on Raystown Lake and the natural beauty in the area that attracts tourists.
Norma Alenovitz owns a campground and walk-up restaurant called the Chuckwagon. People order cheesesteaks, homemade pizza, and stromboli from the window, and eat outside. Alenovitz said business has been booming this summer.
“The hotter it gets, the more they eat because they don’t want to cook in their kitchens,” she laughed.
But Alenovitz is worried her customers will start to notice odors from the nearby hog farm.
“[Customers] congregate out here, and they eat out here, so I’m concerned that if there’s a lot of smell, they’re not going to want to be here and buy my food,” she said.
Steve Berzansky is worried, too. He owns another campground in the area, and it will have a view of the new hog barn.
“We’re down wind from it. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not going to be good.”
He’s read about lawsuits against CAFOs in North Carolina, where neighbors complain about years of odors, insects, and pollution. Despite the assurances of government regulation, he still worries manure from the hog farm will make his campsites unpleasant.
Township Supervisors Make a Choice
Berzansky and Alenovitz were among about forty residents who crammed into a community hall on July 9th. That night, the three Township supervisors were scheduled to vote on an ordinance to ban the hog farm.
Todd resident Stephanie Perez said the state doesn’t understand the impact a farm like this would have on their small community. She cited the environmental rights amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that reads, “The people have right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”
“We are the people,” Perez said. “And we want to maintain what is rightfully ours.”
But the state also has a Right to Farm law, known as Act 38, or ACRES. It limits local ordinances that attempt to regulate agriculture.
Todd Township supervisor Matthew Barnett owns a small cattle farm and isn’t worried about pollution from the hog farm. But he is concerned that the state could sue the Township for passing an ordinance to ban it.
“I am very concerned about that, because we don’t have funds to be in lawsuits,” he said.
Barnett said Todd needs its local money for road work and other projects. But when the three supervisors voted on the ordinance, he was the only one opposed. Many residents cheered its passage.
Community organizer Chad Nicholson from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fundhelped Todd residents draft the ordinance. He said fights over local control are happening all over the country.
“This is really about democracy, this is about government. This isn’t just about a factory farm,” he said. “We don’t have a factory farm problem, we have a democracy problem in some ways.”
Now comes the question: Can Todd Township enforce its ban on the hog farm? The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office said it is considering whether to take action.