Amy Eddings: Missing the point in the Spencerville chicken megafarm debate

By Amy Eddings - The Lima News

So, 2.2 million chickens are coming to their new home in Spencerville to roost.

Last Friday, as reported by my colleague Craig Kelly, the Ohio Department of Agriculture issued final permits to Pine Valley Ranch LLC for its owners to install and operate an egg-laying operation on state Route 116, on farmland about four miles west of downtown Spencerville. Pine Valley Ranch will include six barns capable of holding 370,00 chickens each, an egg-washing facility and a 20-foot deep lagoon capable of holding 1.9 million gallons of egg wash effluent.

ODA officials stated that the facility was of “correct design capacity,” the manure and pest control plans “all conform to best management practices” and the facility was going to be “operated in a manner that protects the waters of the state.”

This official pronouncement, I suspect, offers no solace to those who are worried about so big a farm coming so close to their homes and businesses.

Opponents had told ODA that they feared eggwash manure contamination of the huge aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for Spencerville.

They worried about the 18,000 tons of dried chicken manure that will be produced by the farm each year and where it will go, and whether it will add its phosphorus to the tides that flooded Lake Erie to the point of toxicity in 2014 and left a half-million Toledo residents without drinking water for several days.

They scrutinized the application, pointing out what they saw as inconsistencies in manure and water usage estimates. They pointed out that partners of Pine Valley Ranch hadn’t listed some of their other businesses, and that those businesses were involved in litigation that, in their minds, raised questions about whether Pine Valley Ranch would be good neighbors.

ODA had an answer for every concern. It provided them in its Responsiveness Summary, released along with the final permits last Friday.

In most instances, the answer was “The applicants have addressed this to our satisfaction.” For questions regarding smells and traffic, property values and taxes, the answer was, “We don’t deal with these things.”

For concerns about incomplete disclosure regarding other businesses, ODA said these corporations didn’t need to be listed because they didn’t have an equity stake in Pine Valley Ranch LLC.

And on questions regarding manure management and phosphorus runoff, it said, “There are rules for these things, and we’ll be watching.”

Reading through ODA’s answers to the comments and questions — more than 50 were submitted — I wonder if we’re missing the point. The worry is misplaced. We shouldn’t be concerned that an egg-laying operation housing 2.2 million chickens is coming to a field near us. We should be concerned that modern agriculture has progressed to the point where it’s normal for a farmer to raise 2.2 million chickens, and then some.

Such high-density confinement in the chicken, egg and pork industries is state-of-the-art. It allows farmers the highest output at the lowest cost due to economies of scale and production efficiencies such as gestation cages for sows that keep them from rolling over and crushing their offspring. Those cages also keep these animals from simply turning around.

Inhumane? That’s debatable, but I know most of us would cringe at the thought of treating a dog that way. But we don’t eat dogs, and billions of dog burgers aren’t sold each day at our favorite fast food joints.

Necessary? That’s what Missouri farmers Julie and Blake Hurst argued in a 2013 article that took aim at “ethical foodies.”

“We’ll continue to help produce large quantities of reasonably priced food that satisfies the wants and needs of a large number of people,” said the Blakes. “That’s the actual crime we in the food industry have committed.”

I don’t think high-intensity farming is necessary any more than I think it’s necessary to lock exits to ensure productivity, a common practice in early 20th century American sweatshops.

We’re lucky, living here in Limaland, to be close to farmers who raise livestock on a smaller scale. I seek them out. It’s one of my deepest shopping pleasures, picking up my chickens and eggs from the farm down the road.

There’s no stopping “factory farming.” It’s what makes America an agricultural model. The laws, the market, the food industry, our most beloved foodways, all support it. But I, in my own little way, don’t have to. And perhaps that’s the best way to express my concern.

By Amy Eddings

The Lima News

Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379, [email protected] or on Twitter @lima_eddings.

Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379, [email protected] or on Twitter @lima_eddings.

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