In Tiny, Rural Hope, Large Hog Farms Spark Economic Fears

Jul 1, 2016

Many of Bartholomew County's concentrated hog feeding operations are close to neighbors in the small, poor town of Hope.
Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting

Indiana is adding more large-scale hog farms every year. They're good business for farmers, but some neighbors say they can be bad for property values.

It’s an argument people are having across the state, especially in small towns, like Hope -- population: 2,200 -- in Bartholomew County.

 

It's where Nancy Banta's family has lived for almost 200 years. She heads up the gravel driveway to her farmhouse, where rocking chairs on a white-washed wood porch look out over a cornfield, and a wind chime hangs over the creaky screen door.

 

"This is who I am," she says. "It defines me."

 

Old photos from the family farm are spread out on Nancy Banta's kitchen table in Hope.
Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting

 

Hope's residents are some of the poorest in Bartholomew County. It's led some farmers here to start building more large-scale confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. They can house thousands of pigs, which generate free manure to fertilize crops, and bring in extra cash themselves.

Hope's newest CAFO is a half-mile from Banta’s house: a short, white barn, about 500 feet long, and full of pigs. It looks like a normal barn except for the fans along the sides, where you might have windows, blowing the smell out.

Banta remembers the first time she caught a whiff:

 

"And to be honest, I thought I was going to cry." She gets choked up as she continues. "Not because of the physical ailment of it -- because of the realization that this is what we're going to live with, the rest of our lives."

Eleven-year-old Richard Ison greets Nancy Banta at the door of his house in Hope.
Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting

Down the road, Banta's neighbor Charline Ison says she's worried about the CAFO's economic impact.

"We don't want the value of our home to go down and lose the value of what we do have," she says.

 

Her 11-year-old grandson Richard agrees. He'd wanted to inherit this house.

 

"Except when that goes there, nobody's gonna wanna be here," he says. "Nobody."

 

Hope residents brought that up in public hearings about the new farm, but it still got approved.

It's a big argument across the state -- that these CAFOs help farmers make money, but can drive down property values.

Bartholomew County records do not show an immediate impact on property assessments since the new CAFO was built last year.

 

But it's only the start of the story. Property assessments don't change if homes in the neighborhood aren't selling -- which local realtor Shirley Wagner says is what happens when you live near a CAFO.

"The buyers have backed off totally. They want nothing to do with being close to these properties," Wagner says. "If they want to go to the rural setting, they want more of a serene environment than that."

 

That's why some residents, including Nancy Banta, are appealing to make their assessments go down -- arguing they shouldn't have to pay the same property taxes to live next to a CAFO.

 

A house in the Old St. Louis neighborhood of Hope, down the road from one of the town's new hog CAFOs.
Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting

Al Heber is an agricultural engineer at Purdue University who basically wrote the book -- well, computer model -- on how close you can live to a CAFO before its smell gets annoying. He uses it to help farmers and local officials decide where CAFOs should go.

The model makes some pretty obvious predictions: CAFOs with more, stinkier animals should be farther from houses. But Heber says it's not practical as a law itself.

"Just like I would prefer to change the setback guideline if you add one pig to the facility, I also cannot say that if you walk one more foot away from the facility, that, because my model puts out a number, that you will never experience the odor anymore," he says.

As in many counties, Bartholomew's rules for livestock facilities don't change based on type or quantity of animals. Its new ordinance just says farms with more than 600 pigs have to be 500 feet from people's homes. The county's smallest CAFOs contain twice that many hogs.

Still, Indiana Farm Bureau livestock specialist Greg Slipher says he encourages farmers to be good neighbors.

"Just because you can doesn't mean you should," he says.

 

But in Hope, some farmers did -- building about as close as possible to homes like Nancy Banta's. Those farmers either declined to talk or didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

Nancy Banta looks out at a hog CAFO across the street from Hope's schools.
Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting

Banta worries that as the town's population gets older, more CAFOs will hurt the property tax rolls as well as the real estate market, and hasten Hope's decline.

 

"I feel like they're dumping on us because we are poor," she says.

 

It's tough for her to escape, even at her two jobs -- because there's a pig farm right next to both of them. It's across the street from Hope's only school, where Banta is a music aide, and next door to the Dollar General, where she's a cashier.

This CAFO pre-dates the county's new setback rules, which will keep future livestock farms a quarter-mile from schools.

On a hot summer day, as in much of Hope, the smell of pigs wafts over the school parking lot on the breeze.

A hog CAFO (left of the Mason's lodge in at center) next door to Hope's Dollar General and across the street from the Hope schools, at right.
Credit Annie Ropeik / Indiana Public Broadcasting