The community of Mt. Judea sits on a hill along Arkansas 123, the scenic highway that snakes through the Ozarks in Newton County. This is the country that people have in mind when they think of the “Natural State” — clear rivers and creeks, craggy rocks, colorful cliffs and bluffs, springs, sinkholes, caves.
It is mostly quiet in Mt. Judea, save for when motorcyclists come roaring down 123 to take in the scenery. The people are protective of their small community and suspicious of outsiders and the federal government. “Everybody knows everybody and most everybody’s related,” they say.
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Big Creek, one of the largest tributaries of the Buffalo National River, runs up the valley below Mt. Judea’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town center: a school, a general store, the Eagle Rock Cafe. On a hill across the valley, around a mile away as the crow flies, is C&H Hog Farm, the first facility in the state to get a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit. The permit allows C&H to house 6,503 hogs: 2,500 sows, 3 boars, and another 4,000 piglets, which at three weeks old will be trucked off to another facility to be fattened for slaughter. The hogs belong to Cargill, by revenue the largest privately held company in the nation and the sole customer for C&H.
The farm has turned this quiet town into the center of a very noisy fight. Critics say it poses unacceptable risks to the Buffalo River watershed.
“I was alarmed about it for a couple of reasons,” said Gordon Watkins, a farmer who lives on the Little Buffalo River, the next valley over from Big Creek, and the president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, a citizens group that formed in reaction to C&H’s permit. “One was the size and the scale of this thing and its proximity to Big Creek and the town of Mt. Judea and the school, and of course the Buffalo River.”
“What really set me off was the fact that it was a done deal by the time we heard about it,” Watkins said. “It had been done very quietly with no fanfare and even some neighbors of the property didn’t know about it until after the fact.”
Last week, a coalition formed by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Arkansas Canoe Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Ozark Society sued the two federal agencies that backed the loan to build the facility, claiming that the Farm Services Agency and the Small Business Administration failed to do adequate environmental assessments and offer adequate public notice. The coalition has also been sharply critical of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and the state permitting process that approved the facility, though it hasn’t sued the state so far.
The controversy centers on the inevitable byproduct of the farm: pig crap. Based on C&H’s nutrient management plan (NMP), the facility will generate more than 2 million gallons of manure and wastewater per year. The waste is first collected in 2-foot-deep concrete pits below the animals. Once the shallow pits, diluted with water, are filled, the waste drains into two large man-made storage ponds. Eventually, as the ponds fill, C&H will remove liquid waste and, in an agreement with local landowners, apply it as fertilizer on more than 600 acres of surrounding fields.
C&H, which began operations in spring, is still gearing up to full capacity. It currently houses around 2,000 hogs — gilts, not yet fully grown into sows — and they have yet to fertilize any fields.
Ten of the fields that will be sprayed with hog waste are adjacent to Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo River less than six miles away.
Critics of the farm say that the amount of concentrated waste that will be produced is more than the vulnerable terrain of the Buffalo River watershed can take and that it will cause both odor and health problems in Mt. Judea. The farmers counter that the CAFO permit, and the nutrient management plan an engineer developed for them as part of the permit, offer sufficient safeguards and regulations to protect the environment and the town.
C&H is owned by Jason Henson and his cousins, Richard and Philip Campbell. According to Henson, before proceeding with the new facility, the three C&H farmers and Cargill wanted to get local input. They set up a meeting at the Mt. Judea firehouse months before they began the permit process. Henson said that the meeting showed Cargill that the farm would have local support.
An area resident who was in attendance at the meeting remembers it differently. The resident said that after a few tough questions, a Cargill representative shut the meeting down. (Many area residents with concerns about C&H were willing to speak only if their names were withheld.)
“They had no data, they had nothing at that meeting,” the resident said. “It was absolutely a fiasco in my opinion. They were not prepared. They thought they were going to come in with a bunch of ignorant hicks and they were going to roll over them.”
According to the resident, the meeting was not well publicized in Mt. Judea — the resident said that there were a large group of people from other areas but only a handful of people now impacted by the farm. It was “not a fair representation of the people that are going to be affected by it,” the resident said.
In any case, Cargill decided that it wanted to proceed and sent Henson a letter of intent to contract as a buyer for the farm. The next steps for Henson: getting a permit and getting funding. Henson decided to pursue a CAFO permit, becoming the first applicant in Arkansas to do so. The CAFO permit, established by ADEQ in 2011, is a general permit — as the name implies, it’s not individualized to the specific applicant, though the CAFO permit does require a nutrient management plan.
In using the general CAFO permit, C&H and ADEQ followed the letter of the law in terms of notice — the letter of intent and the nutrient management plan sat on ADEQ’s website for 30 days.
“Obviously the average citizen is not trolling ADEQ’s website on a regular basis,” said attorney Hanna Chang of EarthJustice, a California-based environmental law firm that is part of the legal team representing the coalition. Key stakeholders and even relevant public agencies, such as the National Parks Service, were, by their own accounts, unaware. The first CAFO permit in the state, which happened to be for a site in the Buffalo River watershed, managed to go through with hardly anyone noticing.
“All that C&H needed to do to get the general permit is to submit certain information,” Chang said. “If that information complies with what’s required under the general permit, then bingo, they’re in. There’s a posting on the ADEQ website and they’re finished. There was no individual hearing or comment on this facility. In terms of notice and comment, that was a huge flaw. Folks we know who were living within a half mile of the facility didn’t know about it until it was built.”
ADEQ Director Teresa Marks defended the general permit process. “You have to have some general permits because we deal with thousands of facilities and operations across the state,” she said. “If we have to have local notice for every person that wants to proceed under the terms of a general permit, it would be very difficult to manage that.”
However, the state is not dealing with thousands of CAFO applications — there has been only one. Marks acknowledged as much, and said that in hindsight, she believes that ADEQ should have gone above and beyond the minimum public notice required by law.
“In retrospect, I wish that we had a public meeting before and explained the nutrient management plan,” she said. “I’m not sure it would have changed anything. But I understand the way people feel. They feel like this happened and nobody knew anything about it.”
The notice process for a CAFO permit is now under review after a bill passed by Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville), Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) and Rep. Kelly Linck (R-Yellville) last session. “It’s definitely time to look at the notice requirements,” Marks said. “That’s certainly something that has been of great concern. … We are more than willing to revise those.”
Once it had the permit, C&H secured FSA- and SBA-backed loans totaling more than $3.6 million. The FSA prepared a federally mandated environmental assessment (the SBA did not), but did not publish notice of a public comment period in any local paper in the area of the farm. Critics say that like the ADEQ permit process, the notice for the public was inadequate — but this time, the federal agencies didn’t meet their minimum legal requirements.
“On the federal side, it’s not a matter of what is common sense or polite or professional,” National Parks Service Superintendent Kevin Cheri said. “It’s what is required by law. Legally we should have been notified.”
Cheri was particularly frustrated because the National Parks Service was listed as a cooperating agency on the cover sheet of the FSA’s environmental assessment, when in fact, according to Cheri, it knew nothing about the document. Cheri noted that FSA has offices in the same building in Harrison that headquarters the NPS Buffalo National River office, but no one walked down the hall to tell him about the CAFO or the federal loan guarantee. “There was ample opportunity to communicate this if they intended to do so,” he said.
In a February letter to the FSA, Cheri wrote that the inclusion of the NPS as a cooperating agency “gives the public and agencies reviewing the document the unrealistic view that NPS is on-board with the conclusions of the EA. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.” Cheri’s letter goes on to articulate 45 flaws with the FSA’s environmental assessment and their finding of no significant impact.
The FSA responded to Cheri in late March with 45 counterpoints, and argued that “although a cooperating agency, [NPS] was not required to be contacted.” Both Cheri and the coalition that has filed suit believe that FSA’s letter failed to address Cheri’s key points. FSA state executive director Linda Newkirk declined to comment for this article, citing the pending lawsuit.
The coalition believes that in addition to the lack of notice, both the ADEQ permit and the FSA environmental assessment were shoddily completed and essentially rubber-stamped. The complaint filed in the federal case describes multiple errors, omissions and inconsistencies in the FSA’s environmental assessment. While the coalition has not taken legal action against the state, Hank Bates — a Little Rock lawyer working with the coalition’s legal team — sent a letter on its behalf to ADEQ, arguing that the CAFO permit should be revoked because of deficiencies in their review of the permit and the nutrient management plan. “ADEQ did not review that permit,” Bates said. “The Buffalo River is too precious a resource to roll the dice on. When you look at the permit application, it doesn’t instill any confidence.”
One of the coalition’s main concerns is the nutrients, and potentially bacteria, that they believe may seep into the water given the proximity of the spray fields to Big Creek (though the permit requires that C&H maintain a 100-foot buffer from the banks). Seven of the fields are listed as “occasionally flooded” in the NMP’s soil maps. “Some people have voiced concerns about catastrophic failures,” said Watkins of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. “That’s a concern, but there’s also the danger of this slow, continual creep that’s going to occur once this gets into the groundwater and starts showing up in the creek and in the Buffalo. In the Ozarks, we’re lucky if we’ve got 6 or 8 inches of topsoil. Then we hit gravel and then we hit water. … Anything that’s applied in these fields, if it gets through that shallow topsoil layer and hits that gravel, it’s only a short way before it’s in the water itself.”
The coalition is particularly concerned about the 31,000 pounds of phosphorous that, according to the NMP, will be part of the makeup of C&H’s annual hog waste produced. The University of Arkansas’s soil tests recommended that no further phosphorous be applied to 15 of the 17 application fields included in the NMP. If phosphorous gets in the water, it could lead to nuisance algae, which would threaten the water quality, as well as the ecology of the river and surrounding areas, including plants, birds, and aquatic life.
The potential for problems is magnified because of the unique karst geology of this region in the Ozarks, with its irregular limestone formations. Karst areas are unusually porous and can have caves or sinkholes in unexpected places. Water often disappears underground; it’s extremely unpredictable where that water will reappear.
Dr. John Van Brahana, a just-retired University of Arkansas geology professor and a renowned karst expert, believes that this was a possible shortcoming in the permit and the review of the nutrient management plan. ADEQ focused on surface water but “surface water and ground water in these types of settings is intimately related. ADEQ didn’t look at ground water; they didn’t look at any karst. The karst involves very reactive rock — as water moves through the cracks and fractures it dissolves the rock and enlarges those openings, facilitating movement of water through the system.”
In a letter to ADEQ, Brahana wrote, “I know of no active karst consultant who recommends that a CAFO be sited on karstified limestone, particularly upgradient from so sensitive a natural resource as the Buffalo National River, with its direct-contact use by canoeists, fishermen, and swimmers.”
Based on what is known about the karst in the Big Creek area where C&H is located, Brahana continued, “The groundwater moves as quickly as water in a stream, except that exact location of pathways is very difficult to predict. The high velocity of the water in conduits is capable of transporting sediment, organic matter, fecal waste, and dissolved solids from the CAFO.”
If microbes in the hog waste ended up in springs and surface water after being flushed out by storms, Brahana said, it could lead to a public health disaster. “Those microbes cause more health-related problems than all other groundwater contamination combined,” he said.
Brahana is now testing in the Mt. Judea area to establish a water-quality baseline, as well as dye testing to establish water pathways, and identifying and mapping karst features. Numerous area residents have taken up Brahana’s offer to do free testing on their property. C&H has declined.
It’s not just the sprayfields but the storage ponds themselves that give concern to those worried about risks at C&H. Some amount of seepage through the clay-lined ponds may be inevitable — the permit allows up to 5,000 gallons per acre per day, though C&H says this is dramatically more than what will actually occur. A Newton County-based ADEQ engineer, Marysia Jastrzebski — who was unaware that the permit had been approved until months after the fact — sent an email to ADEQ officials in Little Rock expressing alarm that her team had calculated around 3,400 gallons of seepage per day.
The coalition also expressed fears about a catastrophic failure. Other states have experienced failures in manure ponds and lagoons that led to the flow of massive quantities of waste into surrounding land and water. Michael Dougherty, president of the Buffalo River Chamber of Commerce and one of founders of the Alliance, said he has “every confidence that these farmers are going to do everything they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. But the experience of wet hog CAFOs is very checkered. … We have a national treasure in the Buffalo National River. One failure and this national treasure is compromised.”
According to Brahana, the karst terrain gives additional cause for concerns about the clay storage ponds. “In some cases I’ve seen, relatively thick sequences of clay just get blown out there in the fractures themselves,” Brahana said. “The weight of the water will blow those out so it’s almost like somebody pulling a plug in a bathtub and it swirls, down it goes. Those are worst-case scenarios. But those are relatively common.”
“The general permit doesn’t have any requirements that whoever’s approving the permit look at the actual geology of the location and take that into account,” Chang said. “Just the very location of this facility is a problem.”
ADEQ is upfront about the fact that Chang is correct that no special consideration was given to the particular geology of the Ozarks.
“The regulations and the permit were designed to be applicable all through the state, including this area,” ADEQ Deputy Director Ryan Benefield said, adding that the permit requires setbacks if karst features such as sinkholes or caves were discovered, keeping the spray of fertilizer away from those features.
Indeed, the specific location of C&H, including its proximity to the Buffalo, could not have any bearing on approval of the permit at all, Marks said. “The law does not allow us to treat the Buffalo River watershed any differently than it does any other watershed in Arkansas,” she said.
Regarding concerns about phosphorous, ADEQ officials said that the permit relies on the phosphorous index (P-Index) developed by the University of Arkansas to evaluate the risk of phosphorous runoff. The soil tests referenced by the coalition — recommending no additional phosphorous — simply refer to optimum conditions for crops on the field, Benefield said. The P-index, he said, actually directly addresses the coalition’s concerns: evaluating numerous site-specific factors to ensure that C&H will only be allowed to spray on fields that do not have a high risk of runoff.
As for the storage ponds, the C&H farmers said that they are in fact over-engineered, with the liners and volume both oversized by 50 percent more than was required by the regulation.
“We wouldn’t have issued this permit if we didn’t feel like there were enough safeguards in place,” Marks said. “Could there be something that happens? Sure. In any permit we issue there are always certain risks that some catastrophe could happen. With the fact that we’ll be doing inspections on that farm, we feel like we will be able to know if there’s going to be a problem.”
If they did find an issue, Marks said, “Depending on the severity of the violation the Department may give the permittee an opportunity to correct the problem, fine the facility, or in a worst case revoke the permit.”
For the coalition, the responses from ADEQ simply repeat what they view as the deficiencies and limitations in the permit. They believe that the NMP’s safeguards are insufficient, but further point out that the safeguards that do exist are heavily dependent on perfect execution of the plan by C&H and enforcement by ADEQ.
“Their view is ‘trust us moving forward,’ ” Bates said. “We’re supposed to trust C&H, who has submitted a faulty permit application, to do the right thing. And we’re supposed to trust ADEQ, who never read it, to do the right thing.”
Jason Henson’s argument is straightforward: “I did everything the law required me to do. I feel like I went above and beyond what the law required. If you follow the law, what else can you do?”
He said that the new facility built for C&H is significantly cleaner, less odoriferous, and more environmentally friendly than the smaller hog farms that have long been in operation in Newton County. The CAFO permit, he said, includes strict rules and guidelines regarding which fields C&H can spray and when they can do it, depending on weather factors, manure samples, and soil samples.
“We have so many rules and regulations that we have to follow,” he said. “The way I see it, we are actually protecting the Buffalo River more than people that had it before us with no rules and regulations. If you are truly concerned with the river, you ought to be tickled to death.”
He said that C&H planned to be “neighbor friendly” about when they were spraying fields (the permit specifically mentions avoiding weekends and holidays “when people in the area are more likely to be outdoors”). He said that he did not believe odor would be a problem but wanted to be proactive about that issue, and was investigating various technologies to mitigate smell. “We want to farm and be good neighbors,” he said. “If we are hindering somebody else’s lifestyle, we want to make sure we do everything we possibly can to fix that.”
Henson said that the intense reaction to his facility caught him off guard, and said the local community supported him.
When I mentioned that a number of Mt. Judea residents told me that they were unaware of the facility until it was already under construction, Henson was incredulous. “We live in a very small community,” he said. “For them people to say that they didn’t know we was building a hog farm is really hard for me to believe because I had to get 17 fields to apply for this. So you’re saying those people kept their mouths shut for two years? It don’t make sense.” He said the same applies to the National Park Service — as mentioned, NPS has vigorously complained that it had no idea. “That’s a bunch of bull,” Henson said.
In Newton County, the controversy over C&H is the sort of argument that quickly escalates beyond the simple facts of one particular farm. For many, the National Parks Service remains a bogeyman — there are all sorts of stories of granddaddy losing land when they turned the Buffalo into the nation’s first national river.
“There’s residual anger over the park being here,” said Jack Stewart, a member of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. “It very quickly became a land rights issue. Once that happens, people close their minds.”
The farm has attracted protests in Newton County, and the Fayetteville City Council passed a resolution opposing the permit given to the farm, both of which have exacerbated the us-against-them mentality that hardens around disputes over environmental concerns.
“We don’t stick our nose in Fayetteville business and Fayetteville ought not stick their nose in ours,” Henson said. “That’s our mentality.”
Newton County is also a place where a history of violence, particularly arson, still keeps folks on edge.
“You’ve got some bad eggs,” one Mt. Judea area resident said. “They’ll burn houses, kill people and bury them. They’ll flat do it.”
“They may be exaggerating, or they may not,” said a resident of Jasper, the county seat and one of the biggest towns, population 466. “Where a lot of people live, by the time the sheriff gets there it’s too late.”
To be clear, nobody suggested that any of the C&H farmers would be involved in threats of any kind. Even among those that had concerns about the farm, the most common descriptions of Henson and the Campbells were “good boys,” “good old boys,” and “good Christian men.”
Still for whatever reason, numerous area residents I spoke with mentioned a general fear of getting “burned out” if they stirred trouble. “It may not be so,” one said. “But we’ve had a lot houses burnt down round here for some reason.” Henson and the Campbells brushed this off; Philip Campbell said that he is the chief of the volunteer fire department and hasn’t heard anything of the kind.
Of course, it doesn’t take anything so extreme to make locals hesitant to speak publicly about any problems they might have with C&H. As nearly everyone I spoke with reminded me, Mt. Judea is “a very small community.” People said they were reluctant to speak ill of their neighbors; many noted that the Campbells were an influential family in the county. As Henson himself said, “the community that we live in, you mind your own business and keep your mouth shut. That’s our community.”
Henson and C&H certainly have many strong local backers. The Newton County Quorum Court (of which Richard Campbell is a member) passed its own resolution expressing distaste at any “interference” from Fayetteville, and many residents have been vocal in their support. Barbara Hershey, who lives about a mile from the farm and has given C&H permission to spray fertilizer on her land, said, “These boys are trying to make a decent living. Leave them alone. I trust that they will do their best to keep the environment the way it should be because they were born and raised here. They don’t want to screw up everybody’s water.”
“I don’t mind you coming to enjoy my area,” Hershey said. “But don’t tell me how to do it.”
Hershey’s feelings of strong loyalty to the local farmers — and hostility to outsiders — are common among Mt. Judea residents. But I also spoke with around a dozen people in the Mt. Judea community who expressed concerns about the facility. These are folks with deep roots in the area, and their worldview is generally on the opposite pole from the people that make up the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (“I’m not what you would call a nut,” as one said).
These residents said that they could already smell the waste, despite the farm not being at full operational capacity and not yet having sprayed any fields. Several people that attend church with Henson said it had been noticeable from the church, though Henson said otherwise. “It’s been a little touchy,” one said. Said another, “They’re claiming it’s only Fayetteville people, that nobody local’s complaining. That’s just not true. A lot of local folks are upset.”
“In the beginning, we were all promised you would not smell any smells — well I smell it almost every day,” said another area resident. “If it’s a calm morning and the fog has settled in, it stinks to high heaven. It’s unbelievable … it just knocks you down. …There’s been afternoons where it would almost gag you. I wouldn’t want to put a barbecue grill in my front yard.”
Another said that the smell was noticeable but manageable, but had concerns about what would happen if it got worse. “I’d hate for it to get smelling so bad that you couldn’t go outside and enjoy,” the resident said. “That’s the kind of thing I think about because I’m outside 90 percent of the time. … They’re hard working people. I hate to down anybody for trying to work. But it’s something that’s going to impact everyone around them. It’s going to be beneficial to them and nobody else, pretty much.”
Several area residents expressed worry about Mt. Judea Elementary School, which sits just above spray fields; a play area behind the school is several hundred feet away from one of the fields as the crow flies. Others said the presence of the farm had severely damaged their property values.
“I don’t mind another man doing what he wants to do on his land, as long as it doesn’t affect me or my land,” said one. “The first big rain is going to wash all that crap down on my [property]. They only looked at themselves. They didn’t think about the community. … I don’t like it one bit but I’m just one against Cargill. If enough people get together I’ll be right in the middle and run this dadgum Cargill out of the county. It’s ruined me and ruined a bunch of other people.” The resident said that “all that crap is going to run into the Buffalo” but it was “too late to do anything. The doggone newspaper people didn’t do their jobs. Cargill has done bought the legislature.”
Another said it was “bullshit” that the controversy came as a surprise. “Them boys should have known that they’d get kickback from the River. I told [Henson]. … He’s a good kid. He got indoctrinated by Cargill.”
The coalition suing the FSA and SBA argues that concerns about air quality are about more than just stench — they say that particulate matter and gasses released into the air are a major public health concern. They point to studies showing links between respiratory and other health problems for people in close proximity to CAFOs, particularly vulnerable populations such as the children at the Mt. Judea school.
Henson said he was not concerned about health issues. “My two cousins have worked on a hog farm for over 14 years and they look fat and happy to me,” he said.
“As far as saying that they can smell it, it is a farm,” Henson said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep them from smelling it.” Henson said that they got a complaint about smell, passed on by ADEQ, prior to having a single hog at the site (a few residents suggested that there might be a tendency to blame any smell on the farm). In general, he was skeptical of claims about strong odors, and suggested when we were at the diner, “you can walk outside.” (I spent part of two days in the town of Mt. Judea and did not notice a smell in the air.)
“It don’t matter what it is, people have a fear of the unknown,” Henson said. “I can understand that there.”
“I’m worried about everything,” he said. “You have to be. This is our livelihood. This is our community.” He is a ninth-generation Mt. Judean, he said, and he’s invested in protecting the area. The creek was where he and his daughter learned to swim, he said, where they were baptized. His daughter is a student at Mt. Judea Elementary School. “If I thought we was going to pollute anything, I wouldn’t have done it to start with,” he said. “It don’t add up that we’re going to do something to it. It don’t make sense.”
Henson said that C&H’s impact on the community would be “very positive. We’re bringing in tax dollars, we’re helping local farmers [with free fertilizer], and we’re creating jobs.” Henson said they would be hiring between nine and 12 people to work at C&H.
The coalition argues that in fact, due to the impact on property values, the presence of CAFOs in communities tend to hurt the tax base. They also point to the economic impact on tourism, both in and around Mt. Judea, and all along the Buffalo, which generates $38 million per year and more than 500 jobs.
The tourism angle is what first caught the attention of Rep. Linck, who, in addition to the legislature, works as executive director of the Ozark Mountain Region Tourism Association. “Regardless of how well the farm operates, in tourism we’re selling a perception,” he said. “The perception of Arkansas is the Natural State. Although technology has changed what a hog farm is from years ago to what it is today, the perception of a hog farm is a nasty mess. … From the perspective of tourism, it’s a little frightening because we’re selling the Natural State and we’re selling the pristine river. … The other fear is if this thing does have problems with pollution soaking into the karst geology … my goodness, now you’ve really got a perception to overcome.”
The Times arranged to tour C&H, with Beau Bishop of the Farm Bureau as a go-between. Bishop said that Henson and the Campbells would be willing to give a tour inside the facility, and said multiple times that they had “nothing to hide” and were eager to show their operation in action. Two appointments were made to visit and then canceled the day before (both, according to Bishop, because shipments of pigs arrived).
The third time, we met with Bishop and Henson at the cafe in Mt. Judea but were informed that we would not be able to do a tour inside the facility after all. Asked why, Henson said “biosecurity.” This seemed to be a change in plans — had Cargill nixed the tour? Henson wouldn’t say.
Henson did take us up to see the outside of the facility, past the “DO NOT ENTER” sign with Cargill’s name just above C&H, along with the reminder “swine property of Cargill.” Walking around the grounds, the smell was significant but not overwhelming. One of the giant waste-storage ponds was still empty, but for some rainwater; the other had begun to accumulate hog waste, a thick dark sludge.
The hogs, more than two thousand of them, were audible, enclosed in the two large barns, with an automated system providing feed and massive fans helping to control temperature and air quality.
Opinions about C&H may vary depending on what one calls a facility like this. The Farm Bureau and the C&H farmers call it a multi-generational family farm. Others view it as a “factory farm.”
“It’s not like this was the family homestead,” Watkins said. “The Hensons and the Campbells, they often talk about how they’ve been there for eight generations. The fact is, this is land that they bought specifically to do this project. … They want to couch it as a family farm. It’s an industrialized factory farm. And they’re sharecropping for Cargill, if you ask me.”
Part of the fear expressed by the coalition is that C&H may be just the beginning. “One is bad enough, but once they get a toehold in there, then there will be a desire to put more and more farms in that area because it’s more cost effective,” said Emily Jones of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Arkansas should get ready, they’re coming.”
Linck, while careful to state that he respected that the C&H farmers followed the permitting process in place, said that he wished that the farm hadn’t been located so close to the river. “Maybe this is a great model farm,” he said. “Maybe everything about it is wonderful. I still don’t want to see the hilltops of the Buffalo River dotted with these things.”
A Cargill representative emailed the Times: “We hope to do business for many more years in Arkansas but we currently do not have any growth plans.”
Asked about the controversy and the impact on the watershed and the Mt. Judea community, Cargill wrote, “The family followed the process set up by the state … The farm has many supporters in the area … The regulations, and the nutrient management plan that are in place, were designed by professional soil scientists and certified engineers to allow the farm to operate and protect the environment.”
The hope of some, that Cargill might make it financially possible for the farmers to relocate, seems unlikely. (“We don’t speculate” was the representative’s response when asked whether there was any circumstance in which they would do so.)
Meanwhile, even if the coalition’s lawsuit is successful, it won’t necessarily do anything to slow down the operation of the farm. While the loss of the FSA and SBA loan guarantees would throw the C&H’s underlying financing into question, Henson was not particularly worried. It’s possible his creditors could proceed without a guarantee, he noted, and also possible that C&H could simply get someone else to guarantee the loan.While coalition members are adamant that they won’t back down, it’s not clear that they have any avenue to stop C&H now that it’s up and running. Henson and his partners have no intention of shutting down. “We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.