Wisconsin locals rally around small town library

Over the past few months, a group called Concerned Citizens of Iron River, a mostly anonymous group on Facebook, have started calling for books to be removed from my local library, the Evelyn Goldberg Briggs Memorial Library in Iron River, Wisconsin (population 1,100). Most of these books being challenged are about LGBTQ+, and specifically trans, […]

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‘What we’re up against’: North Dakota towns fight Farm Bureau to keep water clean

Articles in this project are edited by Carey Gillam, managing editor of The New Lede.

DEVILS LAKE, North Dakota — When Clark Steinhaus first heard about a plan to build a feeding operation for 2,499 hogs near the shoreline of North Dakota’s largest natural lake, he was alarmed. As chair of Pelican Township’s board of supervisors, Steinhaus worried the manure generated by so many hogs could easily contaminate area waterways, including 160,000-acre Devils Lake and its 375 miles of shoreline.

His concerns were not surprising given the fact that each year, U.S. industrial-scale feeding facilities – the standard for American meat and dairy production – generate, store, and spread millions of gallons of untreated liquid feces and urine across farmland. Mammoth dairy, hog, poultry, and beef cattle operations are known across Corn Belt states for fouling the air with rank odors and contaminating surface and groundwater with toxic nitrates, phosphorus, and bacteria.

“We got documentation from the pig boys’ engineers that said they’re going to build a 12-foot deep pit under the facility – 4-inch concrete, no rebar, only wire mesh. No rubber lining,” said Steinhaus. “They were going to store millions of gallons of manure in that pit. Yeah. Water pollution is a concern here.”

Clark Steinhaus, the chairman of the Pelican Township board of supervisors, leads the opposition to a big hog operation near the shoreline of Devils Lake in North Dakota. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

The three-member Pelican Township board unanimously rejected the construction permit application in 2019, deciding it did not meet requirements of the applicable zoning ordinance.

This decision on behalf of a tiny township that is home to only 23 residents came back to haunt Steinhaus, miring the township in litigation and dragging it into a sweeping campaign by the American Farm Bureau Federation to upend local zoning rules that aim to curtail industrial-sized animal agriculture across the United States.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau’s lawsuit against Pelican Township was one of three such lawsuits filed in North Dakota, and among many brought across U.S. farm country as the Farm Bureau levers the courts, legislatures and elected leaders to impede regulation of large-scaled animal agriculture and the foul odors and mammoth waste stream that result.

Five years into its livestock expansion campaign, the Farm Bureau is steadily peeling away important state statutes that make this possible.

“Look at what we are up against,” said Steinhaus. “We have 23 residents in Pelican Township – 23 people live here. We were selling tickets to raffle for cash to pay our lawyers.”

The North Dakota campaign is led by the heaviest hitters in the state’s $9 billion a year farm sector: Daryl Lies, state Farm Bureau president; Doug Goehring, state Agriculture Commissioner and a former Farm Bureau vice president; and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

Neither the Farm Bureau nor the North Dakota Department of Agriculture agreed to answer questions about the effort to challenge local restrictions on industrial livestock operations. Four years ago, though, Lies explained the town-level legal strategy to a reporter from Ag Week, saying the bureau’s goal was to “get these kind of things nipped in the bud before they grow legs and move across the state.”

A top asset

Devils Lake is among North Dakota’s top recreational assets. The lake remains reasonably clean in large part because North Dakota, an important grain grower, has fewer dairy cows, beef cattle, hogs and poultry than many other farm states. The state’s streams and groundwater are cleaner than other Corn Belt states, according to state and federal data.

“Overall we have really good water quality here,” said Marty Haroldson, a water program manager at the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality. “We have good drinking water. Good fishing. We’re not experiencing fish kills. We’ve been pretty fortunate.”

Devils Lake is North Dakota’s largest natural lake and one of the state’s popular recreational assets. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

A national assessment of water quality in 2022 by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.- based research group, found North Dakota’s lakes had 859 acres impaired by pollution that harms fishing, the lowest number for impaired lakes of any state west of the Mississippi River. In contrast, neighboring Minnesota had over 63,000 acres of lakes impaired for fishing, and devastating nutrient contamination in its groundwater and streams.

Minnesota counts 455,000 dairy cows in the state herd, 20 times more than North Dakota, according to federal and state data. Minnesota also houses hog operations that feed 8.9 million hogs annually, 65 times more than North Dakota’s 138,000. Iowa, the largest hog producer, feeds nearly 24 million hogs, which produce roughly 90 billion pounds of waste a year.

And, unlike in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin, there are very few areas of North Dakota where the air is fouled by the stench of hog and dairy operations.

That could soon change.

In both 2019 and 2023, the North Dakota legislature amended the state’s anti-corporate farming law to allow corporations to own animal feeding operations. The legislature has also amended state zoning law to make it easier for feeding operations to be built closer to homes and recreational facilities. And this year, state lawmakers established a state task force, administered by the agriculture department, to develop model zoning for local governments considering proposals for big livestock feeding facilities.

North Dakota’s $9 billion-a-year agriculture sector is dominated by crop production, including the $2.3 billion soybean harvest, the nation’s eighth largest. Here, soybeans are harvested in Case County, west of Fargo. Randal Coon is the farmer pictured. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

If North Dakota expands its population of meat and milk-producing animals, it could translate to added income for farmers and the state’s tax base, according to officials. “There’s one thing missing in North Dakota compared to Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, and that’s animal agriculture,” Gov. Burgum told reporters in 2022. “We’ve got a lot of red tape and corporate farming laws that we need to overcome before animal agriculture can expand.”

For environmental and public health advocates, however, the legislative moves are dire indicators of a growing menace to water quality and public health.

“In our opinion, the anti-corporate farming law has been weakened almost to the point of being toothless,” said Sam Wagner, the field organizer for the North Dakota Resource Council, an environmental advocacy group. He added that the new zoning task force “is a bunch of wolves deciding which sheep is for dinner.”

Dismantling safeguards

The North Dakota Farm Bureau, founded in 1942 and operating with a $3.2 million annual budget, is one of the nearly 3,000 state and county groups affiliated with the nonprofit American Farm Bureau Federation, based in Washington, D.C. The parent organization, which calls itself “the voice of agriculture,” is 104 years old and counts 6 million members and $35 million in operating funds. It is regarded as one of the most influential trade organizations in Washington.

The organization earmarks nearly $1 million annually to spend on lawyers to challenge health and environmental provisions – local, state or federal – that would limit nutrient runoff from crop farms and livestock operations. Its work is part of the larger U.S. agriculture lobby that represents the interests of the largest grain, meat, milk, and other food producers that dominate the $1.3 trillion American agriculture sector.

Zippy Duvall, the national federation’s president, asserts that his group is intent on “implementing new solutions to protect the land and water.”  But the long history of activities by state affiliates and the parent organization do not reflect that goal.

In the 1970s, Farm Bureau lobbying resulted in provisions of the 1972 Clean Water Act that essentially immunized toxic nutrient-rich runoff from farms — so-called “non-point” pollution — from any regulatory controls. The regulatory waivers granted to agriculture resulted in excessive spreading of commercial fertilizers and manure on cropland, causing widespread water pollution across the Corn Belt.

The waivers also were essential to the development of large livestock operations, which are not required to process or treat the 1.4 billion tons of liquid and solid manure they discharge every year and spread on 19 million acres of U.S. farmland. In 2016, as livestock operations grew larger and more numerous, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified nutrient discharges from U.S. farmland as “the single greatest challenge to our nation’s water quality.”

The Farm Bureau appears intent on keeping it that way. The group routinely challenges government efforts to stem the tide of pollution from agriculture, especially from livestock operations. In one case, the Farm Bureau collaborated with the National Pork Producers Council and seven other national and state farm trade groups in a lawsuit challenging a 2008 rule issued by the EPA that required large livestock operations to seek permits for discharging manure in order to reduce runoff into groundwater and streams.

The Farm Bureau and the other plaintiffs asserted that the environmental agency’s rule exceeded its authority under the Clean Water Act. In 2011, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and nullified the rule. It was the last time the EPA proposed regulating discharges from animal operations.

After Food and Water Watch, the Environmental Working Group, and several more environmental organizations petitioned the agency to closely regulate livestock operations, the EPA pledged in August to form a federal advisory committee in 2024. The advisory group will be charged to study pollution generated by large animal feeding operations, and is expected to take 12 to 18 months to conclude its work.

The Farm Bureau has been equally aggressive in the states.The North Dakota campaign is similar to regulation-weakening campaigns waged in other Corn Belt states.

The Iowa Farm Bureau, the largest and wealthiest state affiliate, resisted land use rules that regulated locations for building livestock operations. In 1996, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that big hog operations cannot be zoned. More recently, in 2015, Des Moines Water Works, the utility supplying water from the Raccoon River to Iowa’s capital city, sued three upstream counties to curb the toxic nitrate contamination from crop and livestock operations that was showing up at elevated levels in its treated drinking water. The Iowa Farm Bureau financed the counties’ legal defense. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa Judge Leonard Strand dismissed all claims against the counties, ruling that Iowa’s contaminated water is a systemic problem for state lawmakers to solve.

County health departments in Missouri felt the power of the Farm Bureau after they adopted ordinances to regulate air emissions and water discharge to limit pollution from livestock operations.The Missouri Farm Bureau challenged that authority. In concert with other state farm groups, the Farm Bureau convinced the state senate in 2019 to pass a bill that prohibited counties from imposing rules on big livestock operations that were “inconsistent with or more stringent than” state law. The state house approved similar legislation in 2021. Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court said both bills were lawful under the state constitution.

Lisa Doerr, a farmer in Laketown, is a leader of the opposition to large livestock operations in northwest Wisconsin. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

And in Wisconsin, the state Farm Bureau is working now to invalidate an ordinance approved by six northwest Wisconsin towns that would regulate the development of new hog installations. One has rescinded the ordinance so far.

“It’s pretty much hand-to-hand combat with the Farm Bureau every day for years now in my town and across farm country,” said Lisa Doerr, a farmer in Laketown, Wisconsin, who chaired a local committee that developed the ordinance to regulate hog operations there. “The fight is about protecting our health and property values from water pollution by these corporate livestock factories. Everyone in our town relies on well water for their families and their animals.”

Fighting back

In 2018, when Pelican Township first began considering whether to allow the hog feeding operation in its community, state zoning law authorized North Dakota townships to decide where big livestock operations could and could not locate. The primary tool townships could use were setback limits – the distance between a big livestock operation and a home, school, or recreational facility. Setback limits establish livestock no-build zones. Townships were authorized to establish setbacks measuring up to a mile and a half.

Such protections reflected a half century of legislation and regulation in North Dakota specifically designed to safeguard communities and natural resources from big livestock operations. In the 1970s, the state established tight regulations to quell odors from industrial livestock agriculture. In 1999, the state legislature approved amendments to zoning law to give local governments the authority to “regulate the nature and scope of concentrated feeding operations,” and to “set reasonable standards, based on the size of the operation” in order to decide their locations.

In 2000, a task force established by the North Dakota Department of Health wrote the first model ordinance for regulating big livestock operations that prioritized public health and environmental safeguards. Its provisions served as a basis for Pelican Township’s review of the proposed hog operation.

Much of North Dakota’s corn and sugar beet harvest is processed for ethanol in one of the state’s six ethanol refineries like this one owned by Tharaldson Ethanol near Fargo. photo by Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue

OverMore than 70% of the 36-square-mile township is submerged under the waters of Devils Lake, the result of a generation of wet weather that has doubled the lake’s expanse since the mid-1990s. The rest is variously occupied by recreational campgrounds, three cemeteries, and scattered homes where the township’s 23 residents live, all within a mile or two of the lake’s shoreline.

Steinhaus and the other supervisors unanimously rejected the hog facility proposal because no place within its jurisdiction was within the zoning setback limit from a home, a cemetery, or a recreational facility. In other words, there was no safe or appropriate place in Pelican Township to store 9 million gallons of liquid manure that 2,499 pigs would produce each year.

The Farm Bureau sued in 2019, arguing that the township exceeded its authority but a district judge ruled in the township’s favor. Then came a wrinkle. North Dakota’s Howes Township also denied a construction permit to a big hog operation proposed for its jurisdiction and also was sued by the Farm Bureau. But the judge in that case ruled in 2022 in favor of the Farm Bureau. The differing decisions prompted the Farm Bureau to convince the North Dakota Legislature earlier this year to establish a new model zoning task force made up of 15 members dominated by farm interests. Along with the agriculture commissioner and the Farm Bureau president, six seats are now held by members of state agriculture trade groups. Central to the task force’s work is deciding how much distance townships can put between a feeding operation and neighboring homes, businesses, and public facilities.

“The North Dakota Farm Bureau doesn’t want to see folks put in a position where they don’t know what they can and can’t do because the law is unclear,” said Tyler Leverington, a lawyer representing the Farm Bureau. “We should try to write the law clearly.”

The task force recommendations are expected to be made public next year. The legislature meets every two years and will consider amendments to zoning law  in 2025. Steinhaus fears that, given the tilt of the committee to livestock development, it’s likely that setback distances will be dramatically reduced or eliminated.

“We know a farmer from Iowa,” Steinhaus said. “He raises pigs there, the old fashioned way. He was here fishing. He said North Dakota reminds him of how Iowa used to be. He said it’s clean and beautiful. After all this, it ain’t going to be beautiful.”

This report was made possible by investigative reporting fellowships awarded by the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It is part of an ongoing series looking at how toxic farm-related pollution is damaging public health and water quality across the center of the country. Along with Investigate Midwest, other co-publishers include The New Lede, Circle of Blue, The GuardianGreat Lakes NowMichigan Radio, and Minnpost. 

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Oklahoma governor says China is buying up the state’s farmland. The data he cites points to other countries. 

Saddling a horse on his family’s east Oklahoma ranch, Gov. Kevin Stitt told a Fox News reporter his state’s land was under threat from the Chinese “Communist Party.” Thousands of acres were being bought by China-based companies and individuals to build marijuana farms, if not for more nefarious purposes, the Republican governor said.

“We pulled the stats, and Oklahoma was the Number 1 (in) land purchases by the communists or foreign nationals (in 2020) than any other state, it’s like 380,000 acres,” Stitt said in the interview that aired July 29, 2022. “That’s a red flag for anybody.”

Stitt was correct that Oklahoma has seen more land purchases by foreign companies or individuals than most other states. In fact, between 2015 and 2021, the amount of foreign-owned land in Oklahoma increased more than 300%, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of federal records. Only Nebraska had a bigger jump.

Kevin Stitt screenshot from Fox

Across the country, lawmakers in statehouses and in Congress have been raising the alarm over the growth in foreign-owned land, often claiming the Chinese government is behind the purchases in an effort to control food supplies or spy on critical U.S. infrastructure.

Some of the strongest rhetoric has been in Oklahoma, where the state’s rapidly growing medical marijuana industry has provided officials a political opportunity to seize on anti-Chinese sentiments that have intensified in recent years, especially among many Republican voters.

But in Oklahoma, the growth in foreign-owned land pointed to by Stitt has little to do with marijuana farms or Chinese companies, according to records from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Instead, it’s almost entirely from companies in Canada and Europe that bought or leased land to build wind and solar farms.

The only Oklahoma land owned by a Chinese company in USDA’s records is a combined 2,571 acres held by Smithfield Foods, a large pork producer that moved into the state several years ago.

After multiple emails to Stitt’s office pointing out that Chinese companies did not account for a single acre of growth in 2020, a spokesperson for the governor told Investigate Midwest he wasn’t referring to just China in his interview with Fox News and might have corrected himself midsentence.

“He says communists but quickly corrects himself and says, ‘foreign nationals,’ ” Abegail Cave, Stitt’s communications director, wrote in an email.

While the governor and other Oklahoma lawmakers have claimed a growing Chinese threat in the form of land ownership, often conflating anecdotal reports of foreign-backed marijuana farms with USDA records, it has raised new questions about Oklahoma’s longtime ban on foreign entities purchasing agricultural land and the numerous exceptions made over the years.

Across the country, dozens of other states have also recently considered new laws to stop the growth in foreign-owned land, with some efforts explicitly targeting property owners with ties to China.

Micah Brown, staff attorney (U of A System Division of Agriculture photo by Fred Miller)

In Congress, some have raised concerns about international espionage and highlighted the growing power of international agriculture corporations. Others have warned the rush to ban foreign ownership could harm immigrant farmers and ranchers.

“This has been an issue throughout our nation’s history with different political flashpoints over time,” said Micah Brown, an Arkansas-based attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center. “But the last few years has been the most recent flashpoint where this issue has come back up in a big way.”

In 2022, a Chinese company bought land in North Dakota to build a corn milling plant, which the United States Air Force raised concerns about because of its proximity to the nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base. A similar proposal in Texas also drew criticism.

Over the past year, at least 35 states have proposed some restrictions on foreign land ownership, with 12 states enacting new laws, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.

“It really stems from those transactions in North Dakota and Texas that got media attention,” Brown said.

That increased media attention brought Fox News reporters to Stitt’s ranch last year, where he said Oklahoma was taking the lead in banning foreign land ownership by “passing laws to get control of that here in our state.”

“You know that the Communist Party is monitoring everything their citizens do,” said Stitt, referring specifically to China. “We would be fools to think they are not monitoring what is happening in the U.S. and strategically planting spies.”

USDA still uses a ‘paper-based approach’ to foreign-owned land records

The Oklahoma constitution bans foreign ownership of land, but court rulings have essentially allowed for the practice, including a 1981 Oklahoma Supreme Court decision that upheld a Canadian investment firm’s right to own land as long as it’s qualified to do business in the state.

Beginning in the 1970s, state lawmakers also carved out an exception for swine and poultry producers, hoping to attract an industry with several foreign-backed corporations.

Foreign companies that buy or lease land in the United States must report that ownership to the USDA as part of the Agriculture Foreign Investments Disclosure Act of 1978. But critics say the records, often called AFIDA, are faulty because they rely on property owners to self-report, and enforcement resources are lacking.

Red Dirt Wind Project, LLC, in Kingfisher County, is operated by a subsidiary of an Italian company. Its 34,000 acres in Oklahoma are registered with the USDA's foreign-owned land database. Taken on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. photo by Ben Felder, Investigate Midwest

“Currently, the AFIDA reporting system uses a paper-based approach to data collection that has changed little since the start of the program,” Gloria Montaño Greene, a deputy under secretary at USDA, wrote on Sept. 27 to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which held a hearing on the topic of foreign-owned land in the United States.

“Companies print out legal descriptions from their internal electronic land management systems and mail their hard copy AFIDA filings in bankers’ boxes to USDA,” she continued. “We currently have no way to electronically identify the geographic location of AFIDA filings more specifically than at the county level.”

The ownership records also do not specify the land's intended use, making it hard to determine if a company uses its land to build a factory, run a wind farm or raise cattle.

Smithfield, the Chinese-owned meat producer, owns land in three Oklahoma counties, while Kronseder Farms, Inc., a German-owned hog producer, owns more than 7,300 acres in western Oklahoma, according to AFIDA filings.

Some foreign-owned companies operating in Oklahoma are not found in the USDA’s records.

Poultry producer O.K. Foods, owned by the Mexican company Industrias Bachoco, has multiple facilities in Oklahoma, according to its company directory. But none of the locations appear in AFIDA filings. O.K. Foods did not respond to a request for comment.

The exception for swine and poultry producers, along with pro-business court rulings, appeared to spur growth in Oklahoma’s foreign-owned land, which doubled from 1980 to 2000, topping 54,000 acres, according to USDA records.

But the largest spike came from 2005 to 2010 when the number of foreign-owned acres in Oklahoma quadrupled to around 263,000.

Most of the growth was from North American and European companies — attracted to the state’s vast land and consistent wind — buying and leasing land to build wind and solar farms. Oklahomans sometimes pushed back on large wind turbines built near residential neighborhoods, but the companies' nationality was rarely a factor.

Poultry producer O.K. Foods, owned by the Mexican company Industrias Bachoco, operates in Oklahoma, including this facility in south Oklahoma City. Taken on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. photo by Ben Felder, Investigate Midwest

Foreign-owned land nationwide remained steady at around 15 million acres during the 1980s and 1990s, according to USDA records.

Since 2005, the number of foreign-owned acres across the country has nearly tripled, topping 40 million last year.

State lawmakers used foreign land data to push back against marijuana farms

In 2018, Oklahoma voters legalized a robust medical marijuana system with few regulations, creating a modern “gold rush” within the industry as thousands of new cannabis growers quickly bought land.

The state issued more than 8,000 grower licenses within a few years. By 2022, Oklahoma was producing 64 times more cannabis than licensed patients could legally consume, according to a study commissioned by the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, the agency that issues licenses.

Some rural communities became frustrated with the new marijuana farms that quickly appeared, sometimes surrounded by barbed wire fencing and threats to take legal action if pesticides used on nearby farms contaminated the marijuana fields. Lawmakers passed dozens of new laws in recent years aimed at better controlling the industry, including a new system that attempts to track every plant in the state.

In 2022, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics claimed Oklahoma was the top origin for marijuana found in many other states and that foreign-backed cartels were behind many of the operations. In April of this year, five Chinese individuals were charged in federal court with conspiring to manufacture marijuana in Oklahoma and distribute it out of state, following an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Many of the marijuana grow operations controlled by foreign individuals are actually owned by a local resident and the state grow license — the only way to track marijuana grow operations — is registered to an Oklahoma resident or company, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. While illegal and foreign-owned marijuana farms don’t appear in USDA’s land records, officials say that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

“Illegal marijuana grows are responsible for an alarming influx of organized crime into our communities, particularly from Mexican drug cartels and Chinese crime syndicates,” Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said in September when announcing a new organized crime task force focused on illegal marijuana growers.

Oklahoma lawmakers seized on the issue by passing Senate Bill 212 earlier this year, which bans a foreign individual or entity from buying land in Oklahoma to use for marijuana production.

Like the governor, State Sen. David Bullard, a Durant Republican who co-authored the bill, conflated USDA data that showed Oklahoma’s growth in foreign-owned land with the possible growth of illegal marijuana grow facilities in the state.

“I have been working to stop the foreign takeover of our state by means of illegally purchasing our land,” Bullard said in May as his bill advanced through the state legislature. “To date, they have consumed over 380,000 acres of land. Senate Bill 212 closes the loopholes they are using and adds an affidavit to the process to create a paper trail for law enforcement to shut it down.”

The bill initially required new landowners to sign an affidavit claiming they were not backed by a foreign individual or entity.

State Sen. Michael Brooks, an Oklahoma City Democrat, objected to the bill because he said it was “overly broad” and could harm those living in Oklahoma on work visas or brought to the country illegally as children.

“I realize they were trying to control against straw buyers who want to produce marijuana illegally,” Brooks said. “But if a foreign-owned criminal organization was coming to buy property in the state of Oklahoma, I don't know if the potential of a perjury charge for falsely signing an affidavit is a factor on whether they decide to do this.”

His objections helped reshape the bill to include more specific language that he believes targets only individuals seeking to grow marijuana.

Arkansas moves against seed business owned by a Chinese company

The push to ban Chinese landowners may be strongest in Arkansas, where Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently announced she was forcing a subsidiary of Syngenta Seeds, LLC, which is Chinese-owned, to sell 160 acres of land it owns in the northeast part of the state.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, recently announced she was forcing a subsidiary of Syngenta Seeds, LLC, which is Chinese-owned, to sell 160 acres of land it owns in the northeast part of the state. (Provided/Governor's office)

“This isn’t about where you’re from; we welcome Chinese Americans, Russian Americans and anyone else who’s given up foreign oppression for American freedom. This is about where your loyalties lie,” Sanders said during an Oct. 17 media conference, where she referenced a new state law that allows officials to go after Chinese-owned companies with landholdings to prevent them from sharing technology and other sensitive information with the Chinese government.

Syngenta said its U.S. landholdings have been examined by the federal government and the company complies with all laws.

“Our people in Arkansas are Americans led by Americans who care deeply about serving Arkansas farmers,” Saswato Das, a company spokesman, told Reuters.

Syngenta Seeds, LLC, owns less than 5,000 acres across the country, according to federal AFIDA records.

But as is the case in Arkansas, subsidiaries of Syngenta often aren’t listed in those self-reported records.

Brown, the attorney with the National Agricultural Law Center, said the Syngenta case in Arkansas could spark similar action in other states and at the federal level.

Over the past year, at least 31 proposals have been made in Congress to limit foreign-owned land, according to the National Agricultural Law Center. Some measures focus on improving AFIDA reporting requirements, while others specifically ban ownership of American land by companies with ties to China, North Korea, Russia and Iran.

U.S. Sen. James Lankford, a Republican, has authored a bill that could restrict land ownership and leases by some Chinese companies or citizens. (Provided/Lankford's office)

This year, Oklahoma U.S. Sen. James Lankford co-authored the Security and Oversight of International Landholdings (SOIL) Act, which would put additional scrutiny on land holdings with connections to China, especially land leases.

“Since I've introduced this bill, several of my colleagues in this room have also introduced other bills that are similar to it,” Lankford, a Republican, said from the Senate floor on March 28. “Good, that means people are paying attention to this and the conversation is starting.”

But concerns have been raised about how some of the proposed laws might discriminate against foreign-born Americans, including those who work in the agriculture sector.

“We know that there were these types of laws in the late 1800s and early 1900s ... where Chinese Americans were prevented from becoming naturalized,” said U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, has spoken out against federal and state laws that would ban land ownership because of a person's nationality. (Provided/Chu's office)

“Now we are seeing this again,” she said, “and what was most alarming was the bill signed (this year) by Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida.”

The Florida law bans people of Chinese descent from purchasing property close to military bases, airports, water treatment plants and other “critical infrastructure.”

Chu accused politicians like DeSantis of trying to court Republican voters with tough action against China, a nation former President Donald Trump often targeted during his presidency.

Chu said she supports steps to better understand the extent of foreign-owned land in the United States and can see value in “narrowly tailored” laws that seek to prevent specific adversarial governments from owning American land.

But Chu and her caucus are speaking out against proposals that would limit land ownership by individuals just because of where they are from.

“These are what I consider to be discriminatory acts,” Chu said. “It is indeed intensifying and some politicians are seeing that they can gain even greater visibility by doing such a thing, but they are harming individual civil rights.”

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Crops and solar intersect as Iowa’s first agrivoltaics project prepares to power up

AMES — On Thursday’s chilly fall morning, the Alliant Energy Solar Farm at Iowa State University looked like any other solar farm. Thousands of panels stretched toward the heavens and fanned across the landscape, welcoming any rays of sun that might escape the overcast sky above.

But it’s not your typical solar array.

Come next year, the ground underneath and around the panels will bloom with fruits, vegetables and pollinator plants. The practice is called agrivoltaics: where active farming or ranching and solar happen in the same place instead of separately.

It puts the “farm” in solar farm.

The Alliant Energy Solar Farm at ISU, unveiled Thursday morning in Ames, marks the first utility-scale agrivoltaics project in Iowa and the Midwest at large.

The 10-acre solar farm has a maximum energy output of 1.35 megawatts — enough to power around 200 homes at full capacity. As Alliant’s panels transform sunlight into electricity, ISU researchers will grow and harvest crops underneath.

It took millions of dollars and dozens of experts to make the project a reality. Collaborations span several industries, from energy production to horticulture to entomology. The site will be home to a treasure trove of research that, researchers hope, can show if agriculture and solar energy can coexist in Iowa and beyond.

“There are a lot of communities who are thinking about community solar arrays,” said Anne Kimber, director of ISU’s Electric Power Research Center. “Well, imagine if the community also gets to have gardens associated with those arrays. You’re starting to build community around that. I think that’s worth working on.”

Alliant Energy’s Nick Peterson talks about the research that will be conducted at the 1.35 megawatt Alliant Energy Solar Farm in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday, October 17, 2023. (Photo by Jim Slosiark / The Gazette)

How it came to be

The project has been in the works for years — but it was first conceptualized as just a solar project, a partnership announced in fall 2021. The plan shifted when an agrivoltaics grant opportunity from the U.S. Department of Energy opened up.

Both ISU and Alliant serve rural residents across the state, said Nick Peterson, Alliant’s strategic partnerships manager. Integrating agriculture into the project could better serve their customers and missions. It could also provide a first-of-its-kind research opportunity in Iowa. And, thanks to the diverse skill sets across both institutions, they had the capacity to dive into this emerging practice.

So, they shifted their plans and applied. The project received a $1.8 million four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy — the largest allotment awarded from the funding program.

Alliant and ISU worked together to design the research project. Solar panel heights vary between 5 feet — the industry standard — and 8 feet. Those differences change how much light will reach the plants grown underneath. That will alter the microclimates under the panels, influencing factors like humidity and temperature.

The panels themselves differ as well. Some are in fixed positions, meaning their angle doesn’t change. Others rotate to track the sun across the sky. All of them are bifacial, meaning they can harvest solar energy on both sides.

Then came the horticultural decisions: What should be planted underneath?

Researchers considered high-value and popular crops that could fit under solar panels. They chose broccoli, summer squash and peppers for vegetables. For fruits, they landed on strawberries and raspberries. The harvested crops will go to the ISU Horticulture Research Station, where they will be cleaned, packaged and sold to the university’s dining halls.

Three of the five crops require bee pollination to grow. To ensure the survival of the plants, the team is adding pollinator plant mixes to the site and raising honeybees. Entomologists also track how the bees interact with the on-site foraging habitat. They’ll also harvest honey produced in the on-site bee boxes that house the colonies.

“If we don’t keep honeybees at the site, we can’t guarantee that bees will be there to pollinate the plants,” said Matt O’Neal, an ISU professor in plant pathology, entomology and microbiology. “As we produce the vegetation and we allow it to grow, we hope to see how this site could be improved and eventually become the kind of place that beekeepers would want to keep their hives.”

The facility marks Alliant’s first customer-hosted solar project to complete construction in Iowa. It will cost the utility $4.2 million — much of which was gleaned from existing customer rates, Peterson said.

The extra money needed to transform it into an agrivoltaics project came from investors, not Alliant customers. The utility owns and operates the facility and leases the land from ISU.

All $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy will support ISU’s research on the site. The funding will support farming costs, labor costs, outreach and education, and more.

“It’s a win-win for both entities,” Peterson said. “This is a big deal for us that we’re getting this done.”

The land below solar arrays will be cultivated with high value crops at the 1.35 megawatt Alliant Energy Solar Farm in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday, October 17, 2023. Researchers will also study the effects of reflected light from the ground up to the underside of the bifacial solar panels. Iowa State University researchers will raise bees and plant vegetables, fruits and pollinator habitat within the 10-acre solar farm, a partnership between the university and the utilities company. ( Photo by Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Research in action

The site wrapped on construction this month. The first batch of plants — raspberries — will be planted within the next month and go dormant in the winter. The panels will be fully operational in early 2024. Come spring, the grounds should be teeming with budding crops.

The U.S. Department of Energy funding should support ISU’s research through three growing seasons. Over those years, researchers will be analyzing every aspect of the crops and the solar production.

One variable they’re looking at is crop yield: Will the shade from the panels reduce or increase the yields of the fruits and veggies planted underneath? Will there be more or less disease or pests? Will harvest periods change?

ISU graduate students, undergraduate students and technicians will manage the crops and track their growth. Sensors will collect data on the environmental conditions beneath the panels. This data will be compared to on-site crops grown in direct sunlight without any panels overhead — the control group.

Teams also will be keeping an eye on energy production. The vegetation underneath the panels may cool the technology, helping it produce energy more efficiently.

Researchers will track the costs and revenues associated with growing food and beekeeping within an agrivoltaics system. Those budgets can help guide decisions for farmers and solar developers who may try their hand at agrivoltaics.

Underrepresented farming groups, like refugee and Indigenous communities, also will have the opportunity to grow crops in the space around the arrays.

“Land costs and implement costs are some of the biggest barriers to entry into the ag industry,” Peterson said. “This (project) could offer opportunities to break down barriers to access for people who want to get into the ag industry.”

Bridging the divide

You likely see parts of the energy grid every day, like power lines and transmission lines. As renewable energy grows more popular, it places more energy generation — like wind turbines and solar arrays — closer to communities. Nearby residents aren’t always happy about that.

The energy world has to figure out how to make green energy projects more attractive to communities. Agrivoltaics could be the way to go, those in the industry think.

As the project commences, researchers will be surveying a variety of stakeholders about the concept of agrivoltaics, from beginning farmers to refugee farmers. They hope to uncover the factors that drive perceptions about solar — like costs and land use, for example.

“At this stage, solar can stand on its own to actually be a viable, (economically competitive) part of our energy supply,” said Hongli Feng, an ISU assistant professor of economics. “The thing is, will it actually be implemented?”

Team members contributing to the Alliant Energy Solar Farm at Iowa State University see the project as an opportunity to better educate the public about solar energy and the feasibility of agrivoltaics. Producers, policymakers, solar developers and the public at large will be invited to visit the site on field days to see the process for themselves.

“A big test area for this grant is also the demonstration and extension outreach aspects, where we want the growers to come check out the plots, evaluate the crops and ask themselves, ‘What’s the feasibility of such a system?’” said Ajay Nair, an ISU associate professor of horticulture. “This is unbiased research. We will report what we find, and people can decide whether this is a system that is feasible or not.”

The post Crops and solar intersect as Iowa’s first agrivoltaics project prepares to power up appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

In Photos: This small Midwestern town still crowns its Coal Queen

Every year in August, the small town of Marissa, Illinois, celebrates the fossil fuel that gave it prosperity: coal. The area around the town, which sits about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis, used to be known for its number of coal mines, and Marissa was considered its capital.

The celebration, known colloquially as Marissa Coal Fest, is a weekend of carnival-like festivities. This year’s, held from August 11 to 13, included a meet-the-miner event, food stands, and a parade featuring the candidates for the coal court who were vying for the titles of Coal Princess, Coal Prince, and the Queen of Coal.

A sign reads: Coal Fest. Fri Sat Sunday Parade 4pm
A sign announces Marissa’s Coal Fest, which took place August 11-13, 2023.
Virginia Harold

Despite there only being a few actual coal mines left in the area, coal is sacred here. An underground coal mine and power plant still employs a number of people in town and is a source of pride. Prairie State Energy Campus was built during the last wave of coal-fired power plants in the early 2010s, and still employs hundreds of people.

[Read more about how Midwest communities are grappling with the end of coal culture]

Though Beverly Terveer was not born in Marissa, and lives in nearby St. Libory, she finds the Marissa community welcoming and friendly. She said that folks around town are the type of people to help each other out after a disaster hits. “It’s a very warm, tight-knit community, but it also has had a big decline because of the coal industry,” said Terveer.

Despite the fact that Terveer’s house is fitted with a solar panel, a passion project of her late husband’s, she is skeptical of using farmland for renewable energy.

“I think we still need to keep the electric power grids going with coal,” she said. She attends the coal festival every year and loves to see the town come together.

A green fire truck leads a column of red fire trucks under a sign announcing the Marissa Coal Fest
Marissa coal parade
Virginia Harold

Scenes from the 2023 Marissa Coal Festival parade. Virginia Harold

A woman with red hair and a blue shirt sits in a folding chair on the sidewalk in front of a beige house
Beverly Terveer, a Marissa resident and homeowner. She has a solar panel atop her house but still supports the coal-fired power plant just outside of town.
Virginia Harold

Beverly Terveer was one of the many locals watching the Coal Festival parade. Virginia Harold

Men ride ATV bikes down a residential street as people watch from the lawn
The Rolling Nobles at the Marissa Coal Fest parade
Virginia Harold

Most people in town are fiercely protective of coal, and Marissa’s history with commercial coal mining stretches back to the 1850s. Generations of Marissa residents were employed by coal companies — often mom-and-pop operations, unlike the large corporations that dominate the fossil fuel energy sector today.

For resident Paul Weilmuenster, who was watching the parade from the front porch of his home on Main Street, becoming a coal miner was a no-brainer.

He started young, at 20, following the career path of his father, who was also a miner. He relished carrying on the tradition. Now, though, he sees how the decline of the industry has meant less investment in the town, a place he’s lived his whole life.

“Who wants to build a new home, a $300,000 to $400,000 home in Marissa?” said Weilmuenster.

Still, he’s hoping Prairie State can stay open as long as possible to keep employing local people.

“So that could be another [400 to 500] people in Marissa losing their jobs — and then what are they going to do?”

A man in a top hat waves at the camera while riding a bike with a paper mache tiger head attached to the front
A man from the Banana Bike Brigade rides a bicycle with a paper-mache lion head attached to the front during the parade.
Virginia Harold

A man from the Banana Bike Brigade rides a bicycle with an attached paper-mache lion’s head during the parade. Virginia Harold

A red pickup truck is followed by a marching band dressed in orange uniforms
At the Marissa Coal Festival parade, a truck with a group of veterans is followed by the Marissa Marching Meteors band and cheerleaders.
Virginia Harold

Paul Weilmuenster, a former coal miner, watches the parade from his porch with Roy Dean Dickey, a Marissa Village board trustee. Virginia Harold

Two men sit on the front steps of a house
Paul “Paw Paw” Weilmunster, a former coal miner, on his porch next to Roy Dean Dickey, a Marissa Village board trustee
Virginia Harold

Although the power plant has served as a huge economic driver for the town, not every Marissa resident has a positive experience with coal. Maria Cathcart is the daughter of a coal miner, but she said that climate change means coal needs to be phased out to prevent further warming from fossil fuel emissions.

“I see how we’re cutting back on coal, so it is cutting back on, kind of, a tradition, but it needs to be done,” Cathcart said. “We’re tearing apart our world. And we need to stop, because it’s going to get to a point where it’s going to be irreversible.”

The personal impact of coal on miners’ families was real for her. She remembers her father fondly, but also knows that the career he committed his life to contributed to his death from black lung.

A woman sits in a folding chair looking straight ahead. She has dark hair in a ponytail.
Maria Cathcart, 49, a lifelong Marissa resident and daughter of a coal miner. He died in her arms of black lung. Virginia Harold

“He actually died in my arms, so it really hurt me,” she said. “I was right there when he died.”

Still, she comes every year to the coal festival with her mother, Carmen. Not doing so is out of the question, even though Cathcart’s relationship to coal and the town itself remains complicated. Life in Marissa revolves around the event, and Cathcart cheered in the crowd when the parade started, alongside everyone else.

An older couple sits in folding chairs on one side of an empty street looking across at people in chairs on the other side
Residents line the streets to watch the parade.
Virginia Harold

Locals set up chairs to watch the parade. Virginia Harold

Two woman sit in folding chairs and a young girl sits on a blue blanket in front of a crumbling building
Residents set up to watch the parade.
Virginia Harold
A man in clown makeup, a red shirt, and fireman hat reading Sparky walks in the parade
Virginia Harold
A young woman in a pink dress rides in the back of a grey convertible
Coal Queen candidate MacKenzie Jetton rides in the Coal Fest parade.
Virginia Harold

Coal Queen candidates participate in the parade. Later, they will compete for the title. Virginia Harold

A young woman in a blue dress and sash sits in the back of a red pickup truck decorated with balloons

The Coal Festival includes food, rides, and games as part of the weekend-long celebration. And, as the carnival roars in the background and the sun begins to set, the festivities culminate in the annual crowning of a Coal Prince, Coal Princess, and Coal Queen.

Two people observe a carnival ride
Virginia Harold
Brightly colored carnival rides
The annual Marissa Coal Festival includes rides, games, and food as a part of the weekend-long celebration.
Virginia Harold

Scenes from the carnival grounds. Virginia Harold

A stone plaque reads: Dedicated to the coal miners of Southern Illinois
Virginia Harold
Carnival food trucks, including funnel cake
Virginia Harold

Candidates for Coal Queen, Prince, and Princess take the stage.

Virginia Harold
A young boy in flannel, young girl in dark blue, and young woman in bright pink stand together
Virginia Harold

MacKenzie Jetton, a local high school graduate, was named 2023 Coal Queen. Virginia Harold

A young woman in a bright pink gown receives a crown
Virginia Harold

Photography by Virginia Harold

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline In Photos: This small Midwestern town still crowns its Coal Queen on Oct 4, 2023.

Government Shutdown Would Strain Overburdened Rural Food Shelves

“Demand went up, prices went up and supply went down, and access to some of the COVID resources that food banks had disappeared,” he says. “So it’s like everything hit them simultaneously.” If House Republicans decide to shut down the government this week, the state’s already stressed food pantries will likely face a surge in […]

The post Government Shutdown Would Strain Overburdened Rural Food Shelves appeared first on Barn Raiser.

A new network of attorneys seeks to defend abuses of industrial agriculture. First up, Colorado.

Farmworkers often struggle to access healthcare. While working, they live in remote areas, sometimes with no personal vehicle. In Colorado, nothing in the law enshrined farmworkers’ rights to quality healthcare.

Until 2021.

That year, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill into law in June. This law guarantees farmworkers have the right to contact “essential service providers” — health professionals, attorneys, consuls, and clergy members — during their breaks.

However, an industry group is challenging the law. The Colorado Livestock Association filed a lawsuit in June that focuses on the section of the law requiring employers to not impede farmworkers’ reasonable access to service providers during their off time. The group wants it ruled unconstitutional.

In the lawsuit, the Colorado Livestock Association requested the court declare the provision allowing key service providers access to its property violates employers’ rights to exclude people from their property.

“The State of Colorado has not paid just compensation for this (violation) nor initiated eminent domain proceedings to do so,” the organization said in court documents. This is the second time an organization tied to the state’s agricultural industry has challenged the law.

The Colorado Livestock Association did not immediately return a request for comment.

In response, a farmworker – identified as Jane Doe in court documents – and Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit providing legal advice to low-income people in the state, filed a motion to intervene as defendants on Sept. 13.

Colorado Legal Services is receiving support and advice from a newly formed entity known as FarmSTAND, a nonprofit organization comprised of a national network of attorneys to represent communities affected by industrial agriculture. Towards Justice and Farmworker Justice are also involved in the lawsuit.

According to the organization’s press release, FarmSTAND seeks to concentrate resources — bringing lawyers and their expertise together — on certain cases that can set precedents, working in partnership with a broad base of local and national organizations.

“We try to support partners who are doing great work in this space to try to reform industrial animal agriculture and transform the food system,” said Kelsey Eberly, the FarmSTAND attorney counseling on the case.

A community with specific characteristics

An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms and ranches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture. This population, mostly Latino, is roughly equal to the population of Chicago. About half are undocumented.

In Colorado alone, the agricultural industry employed 19,339 workers, experiencing a 5.7% growth in direct crop production jobs in 2022, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The farmworker community in Colorado constitutes 4.1% of the rural workforce.

Eberly emphasized the unique challenges faced by farmworkers.

“These workers are some of the most isolated and vulnerable,” she said.

Their remote residences and long and demanding work hours create significant barriers when seeking access to essential services, such as health professionals, that many other workers often take for granted.

Eberly also highlighted the importance of the existing law for farmworkers’ rights in Colorado for seasonal laborers who arrive to work on farms during the summer months and often find themselves entirely reliant on their employers for various aspects of their livelihood.

“They live at the place where they work, and they don’t have transportation necessarily, so the only way for them to get any help is for people to come to them,” she said. “That’s why this law is so important.”

Access to assistance becomes especially critical when workers have health issues, particularly given the challenges posed by the effects of climate change.

According to the National Institutes of Health, farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors. One of the reasons is that this demographic group has a higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease.

There is little legislation to protect agricultural workers in the U.S.

“This Colorado Law was so groundbreaking, and why it’s so important to protect it,” Eberly said, “so that it can be used as a model for other states.”

The post A new network of attorneys seeks to defend abuses of industrial agriculture. First up, Colorado. appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

Pillen’s Water: High nitrate detected on hog farms owned by Nebraska’s governor

Covered swine barns dot the landscape near Platte Center, where tens of thousands of hogs are raised and fed.

Many of these barns are owned by a local boy who grew up a few miles west of the village, built his small family farm into a global pork empire and then became governor.

Gov. Jim Pillen’s hog operations bring jobs and prosperity to this area near his hometown. They also may bring risk to Platte Center’s drinking water.

The town had to dig a new municipal well three years ago, after another well recorded nitrate at nearly 12 parts per million. That’s higher than the level the federal government says is safe to drink.

Ingesting high levels of nitrate has been linked to a variety of health conditions: A syndrome that can kill babies, thyroid disease, birth defects and cancers, including cancer in children. Nationally, Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate west of Pennsylvania.

Nebraska counties with elevated nitrate levels are often the places where children suffer higher rates of brain cancer, lymphoma and leukemia, a recent University of Nebraska Medical Center study shows.

Andrew Greisen, Platte Center’s water operator, says the area surrounding town has seen a handful of cancer cases this year.

“When I was young, there wasn’t that (many) people with cancer. Now it’s wild,” he said. “Prostate cancer, breast cancer and brain cancer, just everything. I just think it’s got to be the food we’re eating or the water we’re drinking.”

That’s why Greisen is now working with Natural Resources District experts as they map nitrate levels inside Platte Center-area aquifers – studying where the nitrate may be flowing from.

There are many potential culprits, including the nitrogen fertilizer applied for decades to corn fields surrounding this small town.

Another potential culprit: The Platte Center West hog farm. The farm, 6 miles northwest of town, recorded a 61.5-parts-per-million nitrate level – six times above the legal drinking water limit – in one of its monitoring wells last year.

Another nearby hog farm, Janssen Platte Center Nursery, which tested 21.2 parts per million nitrate in April, has shown “strong elevated nitrates and chloride levels,” according to a groundwater review by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy last year.

Both of these hog farms are registered to an owner at 4438 Old Mill Court in Columbus, the headquarters of Pillen Family Farms.

These two Pillen-owned hog farms have shown elevated nitrate for years. In both cases, downstream well readings are much higher than the upstream readings. This difference often suggests that contaminants from livestock operations have entered groundwater. Map by Hanscom Park Studio

Greisen suspects most of the nitrate comes from anhydrous ammonia fertilizer dumped on cornfields decades ago. He also said that there’s a “good possibility” that hog farms with high nitrate readings affect the area’s water quality.

“It throws a red flag, it really does,” he said.

Since 1993, Pillen and his family have owned or operated at least 108 livestock facilities – most of them hog barns – spread throughout the state, but clustered in eastern Nebraska, according to permitting records.

Only 27 of these facilities are required by the state to have monitoring wells installed on them.

Sixteen of those 27 have recorded nitrate levels higher than 50 parts per million at least once since monitoring began on site, according to a Flatwater Free Press review.

A few of them have violated the state’s livestock waste control rules. They have housed more hogs than permitted, the state alleged, failed to report wastewater discharge into a marsh and submitted groundwater test results and manure nutrient analyses late – all of which could conceivably increase the risk of nitrate contamination, research shows.

Pillen is far from the only big hog producer facing these issues. In many places, waste from concentrated livestock operations is a major contributor to ground and surface water nitrate pollution, the research noted.

These high readings on Pillen-affiliated livestock facilities result in little state action, the review shows. Like other hog farms and feedlots that have reported high nitrate in Nebraska, the elevated levels don’t automatically trigger any state intervention, as the Flatwater Free Press previously reported. The NDEE examines these results individually to determine potential causes and solutions, said Amanda Woita, a department spokesperson.

Andrew Greisen, Platte Center’s water operator, stands near a decommissioned well in the village northwest of Columbus. Platte Center and neighboring towns have faced escalating nitrate levels in drinking water sources – and six-figure price tags to pay for new wells that can deliver cleaner water – in recent years.
A likely culprit of the high nitrate is the anhydrous ammonia fertilizer dumped on cornfields for decades. Another potential culprit: The nearly 50 livestock operations, some hog farms owned by Pillen Family Farms, that surround the village. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

To be clear: No one is directly drinking from these monitoring wells on hog farms. But some of that nitrate will move along with groundwater, experts say, potentially posing a risk to residents living downstream and contributing to Nebraska’s nitrate problem.

Pillen did not respond to multiple interview requests from Flatwater Free Press and Investigate Midwest about his hog operations.

In a December 2022 interview with the Nebraska Examiner, Pillen portrayed nitrate pollution as a problem largely stemming from the past. He said much improvement has been made, and that remaining problems will take time to address. “And if there are a few silly things going on, it’s easy to be able to identify that and granularly fix that,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the governor directed all questions to Pillen Family Farms.

Pillen Family Farms CEO Sarah Pillen, the governor’s daughter, sent a general statement when reporters requested an interview. She said the company “(has) always placed a strong commitment on being positive environmental stewards of the land.”

She noted the company employs a 17-member team who work to protect Nebraska’s groundwater and ensure safe nutrient management.

She and other Pillen Family Farms executives did not respond to multiple email questions about high nitrate detected on specific hog farms, potential causes of these high readings and the company’s remediation efforts.

PC West, owned by Pillen Family Farms, is one of dozens of livestock operations near Platte Center. It’s upstream of the village, which has faced mounting nitrate issues in its drinking water. A monitoring well at PC West has recorded nitrate levels as high as 61.5 parts per million. Drone video by Matt Waite for the Flatwater Free Press

Many Pillen hog barns have few to no known nitrate issues, data show. Nitrate readings at modern hog confinements should be low unless waste storage pit leaks or manure is overapplied in nearby fields, said Chris Jones, former University of Iowa water quality researcher and author of book “The Swine Republic.”

Other Pillen hog barns look much like the hundreds of other pig farms spread across Nebraska, which tend to show at least slightly elevated nitrate levels at some points. Ray Ward, founder of a leading Nebraska water testing lab, said nitrate readings near livestock waste lagoons are “quite variable,” from near-zero levels to very high numbers.

Still other Pillen operations, like a Holt County hog farm, have recorded nitrate levels higher than Jones says he’s ever seen.

The Holt County farm, called CRB Finish, had multiple nitrate readings higher than 200 parts per million between 2015 and 2017.

In 2016, it recorded a reading of 445 parts per million – nearly 45 times the EPA standard for safe drinking water.

“If you’ve got a monitoring well that’s 400 parts per million and there’s drinking water wells in the area, that should be a 911,” Jones said.

Another expert, Rebecca Muenich of the University of Arkansas, said it’s a “huge, huge, huge human health concern” if nitrate anywhere near this level makes it into the drinking wells of nearby residents.

“That’s water that you can sell as fertilizer for sure,” said Muenich, who specializes in analyzing water quality data near livestock facilities.

Hough Nursery in Bellwood. A downstream monitoring well tested 114 parts per million nitrate in April 2023. That’s more than 11 times the legal limit for nitrate in drinking water. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

The nitrate levels in that Holt County hog farm monitoring well have dropped markedly since 2020, dipping to near zero in November 2022.

Many other monitoring wells on livestock facilities tied to Pillen Family Farms continue to show flashing nitrate warning signs.

Nine different hog farms that the state lists as being Pillen-affiliated reported nitrate higher than 70 parts per million this year, according to an FFP review of groundwater reports.

Two are near Platte Center, population 355. The monitoring well at Pillen’s Production Farms, a hog farm south of the village, had water tested at 70 parts per million nitrate in April. Another farm, Oconee Finisher, reported 76 parts per million this year, the highest level since it started monitoring.

Both are downstream of the town and have less impact on the town’s drinking water. But residents of rural Platte County – many of whom get their drinking water from private wells that aren’t required to be tested – are still at risk, experts say.

At least seven domestic wells are situated within three miles downstream of Pillen’s Production Farms, a Flatwater Free Press analysis of the state well registry found.

Platte Center is surrounded by nearly 50 livestock facilities within a five-mile radius, including feedlots and hog barns. Many don’t have monitoring wells installed on site. The three that do, including one not owned by Pillen Family Farms, all show significantly elevated nitrate levels.

The town recently drilled a new, deeper well that’s currently delivering clean water.

The project’s price tag: roughly $500,000. The state footed nearly half the bill.

Greisen is worried about Platte Center’s future, because he knows what is happening nearby.

The village of Lindsay has spent $826,000 digging a new well and running pipes into the village. One of that 283-person village’s wells has regularly violated the 10-ppm drinking water standard since 2010.

Bellwood is also under the threat of high nitrate.

Greisen wonders, and worries: Is more polluted water coming Platte Center’s way?

A nitrate mystery

Sometimes called “liquid gold,” hog manure contains a high concentration of nitrogen matter, which converts to nitrate when exposed to oxygen. Nitrate is great fertilizer for crops. But it can also easily find its way into groundwater, which supplies 85% of Nebraskans with drinking water.

The federal Clean Water Act gives states the authority to monitor water at certain livestock operations. Many states mandate the monitoring of nitrate because of potential water contamination.

Experts say these monitoring wells may pick up high nitrate originating from sources unrelated to livestock. The high nitrate detected could reflect plumes of nitrate, generated years ago, now entering the water table. It may also come from commercial fertilizer – many of Nebraska’s hog farms are near cornfields.

But sometimes feeding operations are the direct source of nitrate, depending on how they store feed, manage wastewater and apply manure to surrounding land, according to the NDEE and outside experts.

That’s why the NDEE typically requires multiple-well monitoring programs on certain sites — at least one upstream that indicates background contaminant levels, and two downstream.

High nitrate readings in a downstream well can indicate that the feedlot or hog barn has released large amounts of nitrogen into the aquifer, said Dan Snow, director of the University of Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory.

Snow said the high nitrate and spikes of ammonia at CRB Finish, the Pillen hog farm in Holt County, seem to signify multiple leaking events in the wastewater distribution system. It appeared a spill “allowed the ammonia and other contaminants to flow directly into the aquifer,” he told the Flatwater Free Press, after reviewing the groundwater monitoring data.

Pillen Family Farms executives didn’t respond to multiple Flatwater Free Press emails asking about the potential cause of the high nitrate.

The soil is also very sandy in Holt County, Snow said, so nitrate from animal waste can get quickly washed into the water table. “Maybe having animal feeding operations in that part of the state is not a good idea, just because it’s much easier to contaminate the local groundwater,” he said.

Hog manure is often applied to nearby fields to avoid high transportation costs, thus exposing nearby bodies of water and groundwater to contamination risks, said Muenich, the University of Arkansas water expert.

“… It can be accidental application or deliberate; it doesn’t matter,” Snow said. “If it’s at the surface … and the plant doesn’t use it, it can eventually end up at the water table.”

State regulators point out that there are restrictions for livestock facilities like the Pillen Family Farms hog barns. They must sit at least 100 feet from an existing domestic well and 1,000 feet from an existing municipal well.

Map by Hanscom Park Studio

Some animal feeding operations are also asked to monitor nearby drinking wells, said Carla Felix, an NDEE spokesperson, in an email.

No hog barn is known to have contaminated a rural resident’s drinking water, Felix said.

“NDEE is not aware of any documented incidences where a private well was impacted by a (Livestock Waste Control Facility),” she wrote.

And she noted that any investigation isn’t guaranteed to identify the source of high nitrate for a simple reason: Groundwater moves.

Jones, the Iowa water expert, suspects that this mystery about where high nitrate comes from isn’t one that regulators are clamoring to solve.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental nonprofit, gave Nebraska an overall rating of “low” for what it says is a lack of livestock operation data transparency.

To Jones, keeping the sources of high nitrate mysterious is the point.

“The uncertainty about individual operations … the industry uses that … to avoid responsibility and make the case that it can’t be regulated,” he said.

Problems in Hastings

In 2006, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee reported that workers at a Hastings-area hog farm were pumping hog waste onto a nearby federal wetlands area. State regulators later alleged that the hog farm, co-owned by Pillen Family Farms had “allowed or caused a discharge of livestock waste” onto the wetlands, then failed to report the spill.

In a separate incident, farm employees constructed a PVC pipe without a permit. They used the pipe to drain a storage pit into a freshwater channel, regulators alleged.

The operation near Hastings, named Inland Foods, eventually entered a court-ordered agreement with state regulators and paid a civil penalty.

Inland Foods is one of a dozen Pillen Family Farms livestock operations that have violated state regulations in the past three decades, a review of NDEE documents shows.

A notice of violation sent by the state to Pillen in 2006 about an unreported waste discharge from a hog farm he co-owned, Inland Foods, to nearby wetlands in the Hastings area. Photo excerpted from Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy documents

Current executives at Pillen Family Farms didn’t respond when asked about specific violations of state rules.

In a statement, Sarah Pillen touted the company’s general environmental protection measures, describing them as “far beyond regulatory requirements.” The company works closely with state regulators, she said. In the company’s history, she said, it has never had a permit revoked. (Read Sarah Pillen’s full statement here.)

The Hastings-area farm didn’t have groundwater monitoring when it paid a penalty for violating state rules.

In 2011, state regulators recommended the installation of monitoring wells. The nitrate readings came back high.

An inspection later that year suggested the hog farm violated state rules by housing more hogs than its permit allowed.

High nitrate on site has continued. A downstream monitoring well detected a level of 77.8 parts per million in May. A 2021 NDEE report concluded that “this facility is impacting groundwater quality with a depth to water of 85-100 feet.”

The high nitrate readings didn’t surprise Marty Stange, Hastings’ environmental supervisor. He said local construction projects might have altered groundwater flow, and high nitrate levels might not necessarily reflect the hog farm’s manure management.

The NDEE works with livestock operations it has deemed to have impacted groundwater, Felix said. Sometimes it orders these facilities to do things such as increase monitoring, plant trees or relocate lagoons, which can cost millions of dollars.

There’s no public record of NDEE further investigating or otherwise acting on its 2021 report. Woita, the NDEE spokesperson, declined to say whether the department has worked with Inland Foods, the hog farm co-owned by Pillen Family Farms near Hastings, on any remediation.

Despite record-keeping rules, state regulations aren’t stopping high nitrate from showing up in water near livestock operations, advocates say. The leaching of nutrients from manure into groundwater and surface water can kill fish, cause algae bloom and threaten drinking water, research shows.

State rules require hog barns to document where manure is applied to prevent overapplication.

But Anthony Schutz, a UNL law professor and board member of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, said such paperwork doesn’t guarantee good stewardship. After all, it’s nearly impossible for NDEE inspectors to watch every acre.

“You keep a bunch of records. You do a bunch of monitoring. You follow all of the rules that are in the permit. But it turns out the rules in the permit don’t actually require you to not pollute. And so you wind up with … where we are today,” said Schutz.

Stronger guardrails needed?

Last September, a handful of Nebraskans testified at a state hearing on proposed permitting changes for concentrated animal feeding operations. Some testifiers were grassroots organizers. Others farmed small plots of land next to a livestock operation.

Most wanted the state to hold large, industrial farms more accountable.

Algae blooms in a drainage ditch running toward the Platte River along Road M near Road 43 1/2 in Bellwood, Neb., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. The area is home to several livestock facilities, including Hough Nursery, owned by Pillen Family Farms. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

“The water in this state belongs to the people, not to any industrial ag interest,” said Nancy Meyer, a Cedar Bluffs resident, arguing Nebraska is neglecting to protect its groundwater.

“When does the alarm sound loud enough that we stop overloading our soils and waterways with nutrients?” said Ashlen Busick, a testifier from the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, in an interview with the Flatwater Free Press.

But many inside Nebraska’s ag industry are dubious.

Livestock nutrient management consultant Andy Scholting thinks current state regulations already provide ample guardrails.

“We’re doing more in regards to nutrient management compared to other states in the Midwest,” he said, noting the state mandates more frequent soil tests before manure application.

Osceola farmer Kevin Peterson owns a 4,800-head hog farm and serves on the state Environmental Quality Council, a 17-person, governor-appointed board that adopts some NDEE regulations.

Peterson thinks the current regulations, and a heavy emphasis on educating farmers, are working as intended.

Algae blooms in a drainage ditch running toward the Platte River along Road M near Road 43 1/2 in Bellwood, Neb., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. The area is home to several livestock facilities, including Hough Nursery, owned by Pillen Family Farms. Photo by Rebecca S. Gratz for the Flatwater Free Press

After all, overapplying manure is expensive, he said. And Nebraska farmers are increasingly heeding the nitrate problem and taking voluntary action to address it, Peterson said.

“It’s a lot easier to envision a robber baron sitting in the office … twisting his evil mustache and thinking about how they could destroy the environment in order to make an extra penny,” said Peterson. “I’ve yet to run into any of those folks … I do not think Governor Pillen is one of those.”

As governor, Pillen could strengthen rules and “stop the bleeding,” said Graham Christensen, an Oakland-area farmer who focuses on regenerative agriculture and runs a consulting firm.

“​He has such an opportunity as this known polluter to help bring farmers into a situation where they’re not (polluting), and his operations would benefit from that,” said Christensen.

Pillen could tap into federal funding to promote farming practices that can reduce nitrate leaching, such as planting cover crops, Christensen said. He could step up state regulations on manure application such as requiring buffer strips when manure is applied.

“He’s ignoring the issue. He’s not wanting to meet with anybody on this thing. He’s not publicly addressing our concerns,” Christensen said.

This April, the NDEE published a letter to Nebraskans concerned about the feedlots, hog barns and chicken farms that surround small towns like Platte Center.

The document summarized public comments and the agency’s response to 11 different points of concern over water quality and waste control, after some commenters said the agency didn’t adequately address concerns raised in the rule-making process.

In the April letter, there’s a spot in the document where the NDEE listed any changes it has made in the permit rules in response to these concerns.

In all 11 areas where potential change could occur, the state agency responded with a single word.


Sky Chadde, of Investigate Midwest, contributed to this story.

This is the second in a series. Read the first story here.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

The post Pillen’s Water: High nitrate detected on hog farms owned by Nebraska’s governor appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

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