Life seems bucolic in rural Illinois, where farmsteads dot country roads, fields of corn and soybeans stretch for miles and families carry on agricultural traditions that span generations.
Robert Young was born into this life 68 years ago on the same central Illinois farm where he tends a small herd of cattle, where a weathered house and outbuildings serve as reminders of his long struggle to make ends meet.
There's also something new -- a 29,000-square-foot barn where Young fattens 3,600 hogs for one of the nation's largest pork processors, a venture he embraced several years ago hoping to stay afloat and someday retire.
"The economy tightened up and we were struggling," said Young, who also had a small dairy herd until this spring. So when other hog farmers told him he could make more money with less risk, he took the leap.
But he learned a hard lesson. Few things divide rural communities like the supersized livestock farms that quickly are dominating the industry and challenging the traditional notion of farming.
Across the country, neighbors are clashing with neighbors over concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where animals are confined to barns or outdoor pens.
Some of the largest can hold thousands of cattle or tens of thousands of hogs and generate more waste than many cities, prompting complaints that gases are causing health problems and that manure runoff pollutes waterways and wells. In Illinois, there are thousands of CAFOs, with applications pending for dozens more.
"I'm hesitant to call it a farm," said Curt Davis, among several of Young's neighbors around Buckhart, about 13 miles east of Springfield, who unsuccessfully sued to stop his CAFO. "I refer to it as a factory because I believe that's really what it is."
He said neighbors worry about odors, property values and the potential for health and pollution problems from the manure stored in an almost 1 million-gallon pit under Young's barn and periodically injected into nearby cropland, but would not talk about specific complaints in detail because of the lawsuit.
But Davis, who lives about 1 1/2 miles from the barn, said residents also fret because there is virtually no way to stop Young -- or other livestock farmers -- from expanding.
Although Young's farm is modest by CAFO standards, he is considering doubling its size, which he technically could do every two years under Illinois law.
The same thing worries residents in western Illinois, where several proposed hog confinements have sparked heated debates over how big is too big.
"All of us love where we live and, without being tree huggers, are environmentalists," said Ramona Cook, who lives with her elderly parents on their McDonough County farm and fought a proposed hog confinement that would have handled up to 18,000 animals.
"The old way of farming is a beloved occupation and such a tradition, but 18,000 hogs is beyond all comprehension." The Illinois Department of Agriculture last month closed that application after the farmer failed to meet approval conditions, though it's considering applications for many other projects across Illinois.
But livestock farmers say there is another side to the story that often gets missed amid the emotion.
The industry has been consolidating quickly, with fewer but larger farms producing more of the milk and meat that makes its way to groceries...
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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