CAFOs & The Comp Plan

As you probably know, Johnson County is currently pursuing the long process of developing a Comprehensive Plan. In and of itself, this is simply a logical piece of governance – laying out goals and methods, rules and guidelines for decision making that will inform how county government ought to work for the next ten years.

It should be emphasized from the start that nothing is final yet, no decisions have been made and nothing is predetermined.  The Board of Supervisors is made up of five elected individuals with disparate opinions, and no one supervisor can speak for the other four.  We are all receiving input from myriad sources – within county government, from the public at large, and through our own knowledge and research.  The process is being led by our Planning, Development and Sustainability Department (PDS), who has formed a committee of some two dozen Johnson County citizens representing a wide variety of interests who have been meeting for several months.  Those meetings, in turn, are guided by two outside consulting firms and are always public.

In addition, there will be a public listening post held at the County HHS building in room 203 from 6-8pm this Monday, October 9th.

Unsurprisingly, such an expansive document can be controversial.  Of late, we have received a lot of correspondence regarding the language that is currently being discussed in this unfinished plan regarding Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.  I have received numerous comments, via email, phone, letter and in person, from those both fully supporting and adamantly opposing these facilities.  Before I state my own position, I want to dispel some all-too-common misunderstandings out there.

  • Johnson County cannot, under current state law, ban CAFOs, nor can it unilaterally impose a moratorium on further development of them.  This has been true since the Vilsack administration.
  • The permitting of CAFOs in Iowa is guided by state law, and for the larger operations (over 2500 head, in the case of hogs), is constrained by a system called the “Master Matrix.”  This grading system of a proposal is self-administered by the applicant and requires only 50% compliance to achieve a passing grade.
  • The county can and does review applications, and can make recommendations to the state, but those recommendations are very rarely, if ever, heeded.
  • Perhaps the only area where I do feel confident speaking for my fellow supervisors is that we do, in fact, listen to and consider all input we receive from citizens.  That is a vital part of our jobs.  That said, it is important to know that while I consider my right to change my mind based on persuasive evidence to be among my most important rights, listening is not the same as agreeing.

My first obligation as a County Supervisor is the health and safety of the people of Johnson County.  In my nearly four decades in foodservice, I have learned a lot about food safety, and sustainable agricultural practices.  As a lifelong and active environmentalist, I have studied the impacts of large-scale food production on both the environment and on the food itself.

I am not a farmer.  Nevertheless you will see through my writing and through my decades of advocacy that I am a great supporter of farmers.  This does not mean I am a supporter of every kind of farming any more than it means that someone else is a supporter of every form of cooking or sports or music.  I see some practices as detrimental to the environment, the livestock, and the quality of the food.  And as I said in a previous post, I will stack my local and sustainable food bona fides up against anyone’s.

The sticking point is this:  The majority of farmers are excellent stewards of the land who care deeply for their farms and their families.  They are constantly looking for new and better ways to raise their crops in a way that is both environmentally and economically sustainable.  But just as they are made to look bad because of a few bad actors, so we politicians are made to look as if we are attacking all farmers when it is the detrimental effects we are concerned with. 

CAFOs, and similar operations that are technically not CAFOs simply because they confine one fewer hog than 2,500, produce enormous quantities of effluent.  Iowa has nearly ten times as many hogs as humans, and each of those hogs produces about four times as much waste.  They are a major contributor to Iowa’s single largest problem, water quality, because even when handled well and confined in well-built cesspools called lagoons, they can still overflow, leak, or be misapplied to fields as nutrients.  These nutrients then flow off into our waterways.  For the science on this, please visit the National Institutes of Health reports on the subject.

One need only Google “CAFO” and “Animal Cruelty” to see examples of the conditions that can sometimes occur.  It is of course important to note that most of those images you will see there are extreme cases, and I in no way mean to impugn all farms nor all farmers.  Nevertheless, the cruelty that sometimes happens is well documented.

Speaking again as a professional cook, these production methods value quantity well above quality, and thus the meat is far less flavorful and less healthful than animals raised on pasture or deep beds, with the ability to live as their instincts dictate.  Good examples of how better practices can lead to both higher quality meat and profitability, please look at the work of Iowa’s own Paul Willis and Niman Ranch.

What I seek are answers – answers that address the concerns of both farmers and environmentalists, both urban and rural.  No one is going to shut down any farms.  No one is going to take away any CAFOs (even if some may wish to).  But it is reasonable to seek answers to the growing problems that are resulting from these practices.  I hope we can do it without demonizing anyone involved.

You can follow the progress of the Comprehensive Plan at the website,