Goshen News Staff Writer

GREENFIELD TOWNSHIP, Ind. — Confined animal feeding operations, commonly called CAFOs or factory farms, are proving to be controversial throughout the country.

Toll-Tail Dairy LLC, a 3,630-cow dairy farm that Shipshewana residents Marion and Aart-Jan Venema are attempting to build in northeastern LaGrange County, is no exception.

At every step of development, the 281-acre Toll-Tail has met with resistance from concerned LaGrange County residents.

The latest news from the battlefield is a motion for partial summary judgment filed in November by Jeffrey Wynn. Wynn is a neighbor of the site of proposed dairy and the plaintiff in a lawsuit against it, now pending in the LaGrange County Circuit Court.

By filing a motion for partial summary judgment, Wynn is contending that the facts necessary to make a ruling on a particular part of a case are present and settled, rendering a trial unnecessary.

The ruling this motion requests is that “any LaGrange County CAFO facilities and operations by Toll-Tail Dairy LLC are to be regulated under the LaGrange County Zoning Ordinance, as amended, April 16, 2007.”

Date of existence

It sounds like a simple enough request, but it’s not. The case hinges on the testing of a technicality — the actual date that Toll-Tail came into existence as a legal entity — as a way to halt the construction of the operation.

The lawsuit argues that Toll-Tail did not “come into legal existence until April 23, 2007,” one week after the LaGrange County zoning ordinances were amended.

Bob Hedges, president of Hoosiers for Sustainable Agriculture, an Orland non-profit company, stated that under the new ordinance, Toll-Tail could not exist at the proposed site, partly because it would need to be set back 1,500 feet from all other residences. The previous set-back ordinance was 500 foot.

Toll-Tail has until Jan. 18 to file a response, after which, according to Toll-Tail’s attorney Jim Federoff, a hearing will likely be set.

The issue of when Toll-Tail became a legal entity has come up before. Hedges said HFSA filed an appeal to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to revoke the permit it issued to Toll-Tail, because, Hedges claimed, Toll-Tail applied as a limited liability corporation, or LLC, before it legally became one. Hedges said despite this instance of what he considers perjury, the appeal was ignored.

Marion Venema, who owns the dairy with her husband, said the ordinance was being created as Toll-Tail submitted its plans to IDEM.

“You cannot change a law once someone has applied,” she said. “I don’t understand how someone can sue you if you are going by the law, but obviously it’s possible.”

Project opposition

So why are people opposed to Toll-Tail?

Hedges explained that locals are concerned for a number of reasons, the main one being that a dairy of Toll-Tail’s size produces an enormous amount of manure. The soil in LaGrange County already has high levels of nitrate, which, according to those who oppose Toll-Tail, will only increase with the application of more manure.

The dairy’s proposed site, near the intersection of U.S. 120 and C.R. 1100 East in Greenfield Township, has very high levels.

Tony Fleming, a geologist specializing in ground water who has authored geological maps for the LaGrange County Health Department, conducted a study of the area. In a summary of that study, Fleming wrote that the area is made up of highly permeable gravel, and that “due to the large extent and great thickness of the gravel,” the region is “one of the pre-eminent ground-water resources in northern Indiana, containing tens of billions of gallons of high-quality, easily-extracted ground water at a relatively shallow depth.”

According to ground-water mapping, wrote Fleming, this part of the county acts as “a regional ground-water recharge area for water supplies throughout northern LaGrange County and beyond,” and that “ground water moves rapidly in this setting . . . Hence, contaminants like nitrate that enter the ground-water system will potentially affect not just the shallow ground water … but the entire column of water down to depths of 100 feet and more.”

His opinion: “This location is a terrible place to apply large volumes of liquid manure to the land.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, excessive levels of nitrate can cause serious illness and sometimes death. In infants, the illness is sometimes called Blue Baby Syndrome, and occurs when nitrate conversion interferes with the oxygen-carrying capacity of the child’s blood. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blueness of the skin. Long-term effects can include diuresis, increased starchy deposits and hemorrhaging of the spleen.

Farm operation

Marion Venema said some people are concerned, particularly HFSA, which is understandable, but that HFSA’s concerns don’t correspond with how the farm will operate.

“We want an environmentally standout farm,” she said. “This farm is going to be state-of-the-art, environmentally.”

Regarding manure management and nitrate levels, Venema claimed that, “if anything, we’ll lower it.” She said that the manure will actually improve the quality of the soil by making it able to retain more water.

During the development of the dairy’s plans, Venema said she and her husband attended numerous community meetings to listen to residents’ concerns.

Because the fear of a manure spill was so great, Venema said Toll-Tail decided to add storm water retentions that were “two to three times larger than necessary.” She also said the dairy’s plans include two manure storage tanks, or a “double station lagoon,” which could hold up to double the amount that IDEM requires.

Underneath, each tank would have a seven-layer lining, with a geo-textile plastic liner at the center. According to Venema, this kind of liner is usually used in landfills, not dairies.

She also said the close proximity of the purchaser of the dairy’s manure, John Larimer of Lord’s Seed in Howe, should be a comfort to those worried about a spill. If one did occur, she said, Larimer could be pumping it out before damage was done.

Toll-Tail is contracted to provide manure for 3,000 acres of Larimer’s land, scattered throughout Howe, Brighton and Mongo. Toll-Tail will purchase the majority of their feed from Larimer.

Odor discussed

With so much talk of manure, it’s hard not to consider the smell, and odor is definitely an aspect of the debate. CAFOs are notoriously smelly, and the scent has been known to depreciate surrounding real estate values.

But Venema claimed Toll-Tail is ahead of this criticism as well. She explained that to control odor, the cows will be positioned over a sand separator system, which basically functions like a litter box. The waste will be separated, and the sand reused.

Also, according to Venema, manure is most potent when combined with water, as when farmers spray out their barns. Instead of this method, Toll-Tail would use a manure vacuum system that sucks up waste into a separate tank. “Scent separation,” said Venema, would occur inside, and the released air would be filtered.

But there’s really no way to judge how much something smells before it’s there. This kind of predicting and promising by Toll-Tail is something that residents like Hedges feel uneasy about. Hedges stated that although Toll-Tail has promised a lot, there is no way for the dairy to be properly inspected and regulated, which is unacceptable in light of its sensitive location.

According to an Indiana Senate resolution, IDEM currently employs 17 inspectors to regulate all of Indiana’s CAFOs, as well as municipal landfills, industrial waste disposal sites, open dumps, septage trucks and more.

Each year, 20 percent of Indiana’s CAFOs will be inspected, meaning each one is visited about once every five years. Hedges said because of the lack of inspectors, IDEM relies heavily on self-inspection by owners. His concern is that if left up to Toll-Tail, promises they initially made might not be kept.

Marion Venema responded to this commonly made critique by saying that if the promises are in the plans submitted to IDEM, which they are, they must be adhered to. Once plans are submitted and approved, they cannot be changed or deviated from.

When asked about the lawsuit, Venema said, “We have to be optimistic. It’s all we think about.”

She and her husband hope to begin groundwork when the winter snow melts, and to be building in late spring or early summer. By next fall or early winter they plan to be milking, and producing four to six semi trucks of milk per day. Each truck carries 50,000 pounds.

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