By Norm Gross
Spring Valley, MN
I was surprised to hear that Fillmore County is looking to double the Animal Unit Cap (number of farm animals under one roof). With the current state of our environ-ment, our concern for water and air quality, a growing desire for cleaner healthier food, and our need to revitalize rural America, I hoped that we would be moving towards sustainable solutions.
I grew up on a 160. We milked 25 Holsteins, Dad managed a small hog operation, and we all tended the chickens. Our large garden and orchard rounded out our circle of on-farm living. I would follow Dad in the early morning to do chores, making a point to stay in his shadow as we walked. It was a fine upbringing.
And yet, I never actually had the desire to be a farmer. I wanted to see the world and experience more than my sheltered life had shown me. So I got educated, traveled some, had a career. When Dad was close to passing he reflected, “Is farming, as I know it, becoming obsolete? Have I been a good steward of all that God has blessed me with?”
Once Dad was gone, I began to look at farming with new eyes, with a stirring heart. Could I be a farmer? Purchasing our home place was untenable given our financials and negotiations with 12 siblings. But my wife and I planned, saved and purchased our farm in Fillmore County in 2005. I now grow fruits, vegetables, herbs and eggs for folks like you. Life is good.
Change is inevitable, but we have choices. What are the goals we wish to achieve for ourselves and our community? Higher yields and greater profits? Or is there something even better that we can strive for? We need to be thoughtful and innovative while holding dearly the hard-fought wisdom of our ancestors. We need more good stewards of the land, farming with the guiding principle of creating robust health for the people, the land, and the community.
As someone who has visited SE Minnesota on numerous occasions since the 1950s to see relatives and friends who I met through those relatives, I’ve observed many changes in the area. Those visits have included multiple locations within Fillmore County’s borders. If someone from the 1950s were to fall asleep and awaken in 2023, I’m not sure how well they’d recognize their surroundings.
The changes likely seem far more gradual for those residing in the county year round, in the same way that parents may not recognize that their teenager is growing over the summer, although teachers in the fall, after an almost three-month hiatus, will instantaneously notice that the young man (or woman) has suddenly grown several inches taller. That has likely been the experience for me, since each subsequent visit reveals new surprises, which some may welcome, but as a visitor I cannot say that I do.
Little seems to be said about the person(s) who are seeking the increased limits. Is it a local person or persons? Is it a corporation? Would the profits from the enlarged operations remain in the county, be sent elsewhere in the state, nation or perhaps out of the country? What would be the impacts upon those who are neighbors to the proposed mega-operation? What about protections for creeks, streams and rivers, as well as underground aquifers? Would one 5,000 animal operation somehow be superior to several smaller operations? If so, why would that be, and what would be the benefits and risks for the rest of the people who reside in Fillmore County, in particular, in this case. The number of questions seems endless.
If super-sized confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) were allowed in Fillmore County, the owner of this operation would, if they were smart, live outside the area, leaving hired help to suffer from the probable health risks. This would be akin to those who owned large plantations along the Atlantic Coast in Georgia and the Carolinas who, during the summer months left their property in the hands of enslaved overseers, to face the risks of potentially lethal mosquito-borne diseases while they basked in the relative safety of the Appalachian mountain area. Here’s a 2018 story resulting from a study by Duke University researchers: https://corporate.dukehealth.org/news/nc-residents-living-near-large-hog-farms-have-elevated-disease-death-risks
Some of the deadliest and most contagious influenza pandemics have been associated with transmission between swine, birds and humans. Grown in close confinement, these animals are fed prophylactic doses of antibiotics, which can eventually lead to mutant strains that are increasingly antibiotic-resistant. This could potentially result in a horrifying catastrophe that could make the 1918 influenza pandemic seem like a relative walk in the park.
Then there are environmental concerns. Lime Springs, Iowa is located at Fillmore County’s doorstep, which makes this story all that much more germane: https://www.ehn.org/water-pollution-hog-farming-2504466831.html
As previously stated, the profits from such an operation may well end up being sent out of the county, out of the state or even the country, as Fillmore County residents bear the suffering and expense of potential health and environmental impacts, while their tourist trade will likely suffer as well. Contrary to what proponents might contend, bigger isn’t necessarily better. If some residents leave the county, that would presumably leave it to those who remain to cover the costs, although their share of those costs would increase with the departure of each resident from Fillmore County.
Will Fillmore County become the counterpart to North Carolina’s Duplin, Sampson and Robeson counties? If so, here’s a close look at that area, published in 2020: https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/2020-fields-of-filth/
Fillmore County stands at an important crossroads. The decision soon to be made will not impact just those residing in the county today, but those will live there for many decades into the future.
I am very much encouraged by the letters of concern regarding this most important topic, and want to commend all those who’ve chosen to make their voices heard.
May the well-being of everyone who resides in the county be protected by the decision that Fillmore County Board is about to make.
One can only hope that reason will carry the day.