Iowa Farm Bureau members applauded last weeks’ unanimous vote by the Iowa Environmental Pro­tection Commission (EPC) to deny two activist groups’ petition that would have radically altered the state’s 15-year-old master matrix, the scoring system used to evaluate the siting of livestock barns.

If passed, the activists’ petition would have effectively put a moratorium on construction of new livestock barns in Iowa, the Farm Bureau members told EPC commissioners during a public hearing at the Iowa Capitol before the commission’s vote. The farmers emphasized that the rule changes outlined in the petition would prevent young people from getting a start in agriculture, would kill jobs and stifle economic activity in rural areas and would penalize farmers who have worked hard to follow the Iowa Department of Natural Resource (DNR) rules to protect the environment while raising livestock responsibly.

“Changing the master matrix in this way would give others the ability to pick and choose where and how we raise livestock,” said Brianne Streck, a Woodbury County Farm Bureau member who raises hogs on a family farm near Moville. “The rule would be detrimental to farmers, like me, who are caring for the environment. And importantly, it would hurt the rural communities that live and thrive on what we do.”

The wrong message

The current matrix provides fair and predictable guidelines that livestock farmers need to determine the best places and methods to raise animals, said Colin Johnson, a Wapello County Farm Bureau member from Batavia. Changing the matrix signals to livestock farmers that they are not welcome in Iowa, he said.

“It would send a message to good young farm families like mine that we are unwanted and unwelcome in Iowa,” Johnson told the commissioners. “I refuse to believe that is true, because Iowa is a great place to raise livestock and families side-by-side.”

Brian Sampson, a Story County livestock farmer, said that the master matrix provides a clear set of rules farmers can follow to meet the Department of Natural Resource (DNR) rules on locating livestock barns. That certainty is very important for young people, like his son, who want to move back to the farm, he said.

“The current matrix gives my son, who in the process of moving back from California, an opportunity to come back and farm because it allows us to increase our production and do it in the right way,” Sampson said.

Streck, Johnson and Sampson were joined at the EPC hearing by Nick Hermanson, a Story County Farm Bureau member, Brad Moeckly of the Polk County Farm Bureau and Randy Dreher of the Audubon County Farm Bureau. Other Farm Bureau members, Heidi Vittetoe of the Washington County Farm Bureau, Al Wulfekuhle, a Buchanan County Farm Bureau member, and Jim Christensen of the Clay County Farm Bureau, represented Iowa livestock groups and also spoke against the petition at the EPC hearing.

As they spoke to the EPC commissioners, the farmers endured repeated catcalls and interruptions from activists, who were provided a chance to speak earlier in the hearing.

Ag group opposition

The petition to alter the master matrix, filed earlier this year by the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) and Food and Water Watch, was also opposed by all of Iowa’s leading agricultural groups. In a letter to the EPC, the groups said the practical effect of the petition would be to halt the growth of livestock farms, a result that the legislature went to great lengths to avoid. The current matrix they wrote, provides safeguards for the environment and public health and provides for input by county governments, they wrote.

“The proposal is a de facto moratorium which is contrary to Iowa law as established by the Iowa General Assembly in 2002,” the ag groups said in their letter to the EPC.

The DNR staff also recommended that the EPC deny the petition, calling the proposed changes to the master matrix “infeasible.” The proposal, the agency said, would have raised the scores required for approval of a livestock barn, while simultaneously lowering the number of points that a farm could earn by meeting the matrix rules on separation distances, manure storage and other factors.

“The department does not have the right to create a moratorium on the construction of confinement feeding operations, yet that appears to be the practical effect of the proposed master matrix,” the DNR staff wrote in its recommendation to deny the petition.

Good stewards

The Farm Bureau members, in their presentations to the EPC, highlighted the steps that livestock farmers take to care for the environment and to be good neighbors in their communities. In addition, they stressed the importance of livestock production to the state’s economy.

“We care for our livestock and care for our land because that is where we live where we work and, mostly importantly, because it’s the right thing to do,” said Streck. “We chose to live in rural Woodbury County to raise our children right alongside our hog barns because we truly believe this the best life we can provide for our children.”

Dreher noted that his western Iowa farm had spent approximately $75,000 on environmental improvements over the last five years. “These were required by no one, but we believe they were the right things to do,” he said. “I want to take care of the land and livestock and, for more than a century, my family has been able to do that.”

Raising livestock, Hermanson said, helps farmers create more diversity and provides nutrients than can be readily utilized by the state’s crops.

“Livestock, in addition to crop production, has allowed us to weather the cyclical nature of ag markets for nearly 150 years,” the Story County turkey raiser said. “Livestock made it possible for me to return to the farm after college, and someday I’d like the say the same about my kids.”