KAT WILSON
C and H HOG FARM: Deal struck to end operation. Credit: Kat Wilson

Gov. Asa Hutchinson used an appearance before the Arkansas Municipal League today to announce that a deal had been struck to remove the C and H factory hog feeding operation from the Buffalo River watershed.

The farmers will get $6.2 million, mostly public money but also from the Nature Conservancy, to take their hog waste away.

Brian Chilson
SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENT: Governor gives Municipal League the news.

The farm has been an enormous controversy since it was approved with little notice during the Beebe administration. The owners, with significant support from the Arkansas Farm Bureau, have resisted efforts to shut it down. Lawsuits and regulatory hearings have dragged on as environmentalists argued that the porous limestone geology beneath the concentrated animal feeding operation allowed hog waste to seep into the water table and that land application of waste had also contributed to runoff that was polluting a nearby stream that feeds into the Buffalo National River, a prime tourist attraction. Coincidentally or not, the river has been marred recently by heavy algae growth.

The deal will include a payment, including state money, to the farm operators, who were under contract to supply pork to one of the world’s largest protein producers, JBSBrazil.  The state will get a conservation easement that ends a hog feeding operation on the farm at Mount Judea in Newton County.

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The operators, while suing to get a permit for continued operation, had also been investigating other potential sites. One in Franklin County was recently imperiled by the Arkansas River flooding, but a spokesman for Arkansas Pork Producers told me then that an effort to get a permit for a hog farm there had been withdrawn. The agreement today makes no mention of future plans by the hog farmers.

In the recent legislative session, the Farm Bureau narrowly failed in a push to remove hog farm regulation from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and move it to an agency where local farmers have strong influence and without less scientific expertise. The governor had urged a delay in that legislation after it passed the Senate. It was pulled down after it ran into House opposition.

Opponents had developed a scathing attack on the hog triangle created by the farm: The farm sends dollars to Brazil (JBS); JBS sends pork chops to China, the farm sends hog manure to the Buffalo River.

It’s a big win for the governor, though some social media criticism has already broken out about the $6.2 million payment. “Negotiating with terrorists,” was how one environmentalist put it.

UPDATE: 

While addressing city leaders and officials at the 85th Arkansas Municipal League, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced an agreement between the state and the owners of the C & H Hog Farm to shut down the operation. He also announced a permanent moratorium on large scale concentrated animal feeding operations being permitted to operate in the Buffalo River watershed.

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A full PDF of the agreement is available here.

The C & H farmers — Jason Henson, Richard Campbell and Philip Cambell — will receive a $6.2 million for shutting down the operation. Most of the compensation will be public money, but Hutchinson said the Nature Conservancy is finalizing a contribution between $600,000 to $1 million to cover the “gap” between the money proposed by the state and what the farmers “believed was needed.”

C & H will still own the land in “fee simple,” a legal term that means it will still have full ownership of the property, but its rights to to the land will be subject to the conditions of the conservation easement.

Hutchinson said the process of closing the C & H farm will take place over the next few months because “businesses do not shut down immediately,” and the operation will need time to sell the swine currently on the property, shut down the operation, and get it in the “right condition” before the conservation easement is granted. Lagoons in which hog waste is stored will have to be dealt with, for example.

Sam Ledbetter, an attorney for the Ozark Society in fighting the hog farm, said today is a “good day for our beloved Buffalo National River.”

“This will remove the largest single source of nutrients in the entire watershed and achieve a permanent ban on future medium and large swine CAFOs,” Ledbetter said. “Now we can focus on implementing the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee’s Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan so as to guarantee a pristine Buffalo National River for future generations.”

The governor told Municipal League members that the hog farming operation on the Buffalo River watershed is “something that has been on my mind for some time that I believe we needed to address as a state.”

“Prior to my administration, C & H Hog Farm in Newton County was granted a permit to operate a large scale hog farm in the Buffalo River watershed,” Hutchinson said. “This has been the source of constant controversy and litigation since the beginning. It has always been my highest priority to protect the Buffalo River and to assure it as a national treasure far into the future.”

He emphasized that the farmers “attained the permit fairly” and have operated the farm with “utmost care” since its opening.

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“They have not done anything wrong, but the state should have never granted that permit,” Hutchinson added.

The $6.2 million compensation figure was reached after several days of negotiation with C & H, and Hutchinson said the agreement was signed earlier on Thursday morning. The governor also said the $6.2 million will “pay off a multi-million dollar loan and compensate the farmers for their loss of an ongoing business.”

Hutchinson said the state settled for the $6.2 million today instead of entering into a legal process to determine compensation because it would be expensive, “uncertain in its outcome,” and could last an undetermined amount of time.

“That’s not a good outcome, and it doesn’t protect the river,” Hutchinson said.

The governor described the conservation easement as “another way that the farmers are being treated appropriately” since Arkansas does not “need the land for a state purpose.” Hutchinson said the conservation easement will be “similar to how the watershed of Lake Maumelle has been protected,” as the amount and type of operations allowed in the area will be limited to “protect the use of that land.”

Hutchinson said he’s asked Becky Keogh, director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, to start the process of making the permanent moratorium on granting permits to large-scale CAFOs in the Buffalo River watershed and ensure the state “won’t make this mistake in the future.”

“I believe in the right to farm, and I believe we are standing by those farmers today when we give this compensation to someone who was rightfully engaging in their enterprises,” Hutchinson said. “But if you look at the future, while want to have farming operations, we also want to protect the Buffalo River watershed from those large scale operations that would endanger a national asset.”

UPDATE: The Democratic Party tried to take a little credit.

“Arkansans can all rally behind a deal that will keep the Buffalo River clean. Hog farmers and everyone who enjoys the Buffalo River benefit from this deal. While it is unfortunate that these farmers were ever put in this position, I am happy that Governor Hutchinson has followed a suggestion made by me and many other advocates to make these farmers whole and to preserve our national treasure,” said Chairman Michael John Gray. “We should all be glad that this national treasure is being preserved for our families to enjoy. But we must also stay mindful and be ready to safeguard against future threats to the Buffalo National River and all our National Parks.”