Dave Nelson's brothers, Dennis and Neal, label the soft-spoken farmer as the “PR guy” of their family.
As a director for the National Corn Growers Association, past president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICGA) chairman of the board for Midwest Grain Processors and an ethanol producer, Dave Nelson has had lots of experience communicating his point of view.
That experience paid off in 2003 when opposition erupted in the Lakota, IA, community as Dave, 53, Dennis, 48, and Neal, 44, were planning to build two wean-to-finish barns near their hometown.
The new barns were a return to livestock production for the Nelsons. They grew up helping their father, Harold, with cattle, sheep and hogs. Dave started raising hogs after graduating from Iowa State University (ISU) in the mid-1970s. Dennis and Neal had their own sows. But as their facilities (including A-frame farrowing huts, Cargill-style finishers and converted cattle barns) deteriorated, each decided to disperse the hogs. By 1996, the last of the Nelsons' sows were gone.
Livestock Bug Bites Again
The Nelson brothers farm independently, but share equipment and labor on a combined 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans.
The bug to return to livestock production came after seeing the benefits of increased performance and lower input costs from injecting liquid hog manure into cropland. Manure was obtained through easements with local hog producers.
“We quickly realized how good a fertilizer it is,” says Dave. “The micronutrients you gain through manure are very valuable.” In addition to access to fertilizer, adding hogs provided a new source of income and offered an on-farm job for Neal, who now oversees the facilities.
When the Trouble Started
In August 2003, as the Nelsons were about to break ground on a pair of 50 × 190 ft., tunnel-ventilated buildings, they learned about a petition being circulated in nearby Belmond, a community of 2,500, in which they were active. The list of names included a wide sweep of people the Nelsons had grown up with, including several they considered as close friends.
Odor was the chief complaint, along with concerns about water quality, property values and the general quality of life in the community.
Six or seven “concerned citizens” paid the Nelsons a personal visit to voice their displeasure. A special city council meeting was called to discuss the project.
A flurry of newspaper articles, including a front-page story in the Des Moines Register, appeared. There were also calls to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) registering complaints about the proposed project.
It was not a fun environment to live in, explains Neal and his wife, Lisa, who have a home about a mile and a half north of the site in an upscale neighborhood where several vocal opponents also resided.
“The stress was awful,” Neal says. “People stopped waving and they were talking about us.”
Dave admits the debate affected him, too, as he recalls one morning when he absent-mindedly plugged the combine with soybeans after reading a particularly disturbing article in the local newspaper. “We started to question ourselves,” he says.
Regaining Piece of Mind
Resolve and reassurance came after the Nelsons reexamined their plans and sought outside advice. They double-checked to make sure they were exceeding the siting requirements with the DNR (which did not include a state permit because the 2,450-head facility was just under the 1,000 animal unit cutoff.).
The Nelsons brought in an ISU engineer to review their proposed site and facility plans. Dave recalls, “He said, ‘If you can't build at this site in the state of Iowa, where can you build a hog facility?’”
Dave also contacted public affairs advisors at the ICGA and Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF) for advice in communicating with local citizens and the media. The organizations sent representatives to meet with the Nelsons and their neighbors and to help answer questions about the economic and environmental impact of the proposed livestock facility.
Calls from other farmers across the state who had faced similar opposition brought words of encouragement, which “gave us the emotional fortitude to continue,” Dave says.
Ultimately, the three brothers called a family meeting and, with their wives, decided to move forward. “We knew we were doing the right thing, so we just went ahead and built,” says Dave.
The Nelsons formed a limited liability corporation (LLC) to own and operate the two buildings, which were sited on a farm owned by their father. They signed a production contract with Pork Technologies of Ames, IA.
Steps to Reduce Odor
When they designed the site and buildings, they took several steps to minimize the potential for foul odors emanating from the facilities, such as:
Locating the buildings a half mile away from the road, centered on a large plot of open ground and as far away from homes as possible. The nearest neighbor is three-quarters of a mile from the site.
Constructing concrete underground pits where liquid manure is stored. Manure is removed and quickly injected into farm fields once a year.
Building tunnel-ventilated barns with exhaust fans aimed toward a windbreak of evergreen, Aussie and dogwood trees. The goal for the windbreak is to catch odor-containing dust particles and direct air upward, rather than straight across the field. The fans are pointed eastward (away from Belmond). The nearest town is roughly five miles away.
Using technologies such as pit additives, water treatments and a spray mist that the Nelsons say was originally developed to neutralize scents in perfume laboratories. The mist, which requires an applicator, lines and nozzles, costs about 60¢/pig, but they think it has reduced the intensity of odor in the barn. “Really, you can't even smell pigs until you get close by,” says Neal.
Erecting a concrete compost bunker near the facilities for dead animals.
Installing an on-site shower that Neal uses each time he leaves the farm. “When I go in a convenience store in town, I don't want to smell like hogs,” Neal explains. “It is all part of the philosophy of leaving the smell here.”
By January 2004, the facilities were ready for pigs. But before the first load arrived, the Nelsons took an important step toward bringing harmony back to the neighborhood. An open house was held for anyone interested in visiting the site. About 100 people, including several who were originally opposed to the site, showed up for donuts and coffee and the opportunity to walk through the building and ask questions.
“Seeing what it looked like and the safety measures that were in force might have relieved some of the anxiety. It is a very modern, up-to-date facility,” says Caye Chelesvig, Wright County supervisor, who lives nearby and was originally opposed to the Nelsons' plans.
“We were all raised in an area where there were hogs — and hogs stink,” she says. “I think people were afraid of what could happen.”
The Nelsons say there have been no complaints since the barns were put in operation. “I've had lots of people actually apologize to me for signing the petition during the past couple of years,” says Dave. Some have even joked about being disappointed that they can't smell the building, he adds.
Chelesvig says her main concern was for property values at the subdivision to the north where there are several million dollars invested in homes, which represent nest eggs for many local people. “Both sides were wanting the same thing — a better life for themselves and their families — but they were coming at it from opposite sides,” she says.
Chelesvig confirms that she has not noticed an odor problem from the farm: “He is a good operator and we have not had any problems.”
Tips for Keeping Your Cool
The Coalition to Support Iowa Farmers (CSIF) was started in 2004 to help Iowa farmers navigate rules and regulations affecting animal agriculture. CSIF includes: Iowa Cattlemen's Association, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Poultry Association and the Iowa Soybean Association.
To date, the coalition has worked with 380 farm families to help evaluate sites, comply with regulations, enhance relations with neighbors or address environmental quality issues.
Staffers Aaron Putze and Rex Hoppes offer this advice for keeping your cool in the face of opposition during a building project:
- Examine yourself first
Realize that acceptance begins well before you decide to build a new livestock facility. Ask yourself, have I been a good manager of people and land at your farm? Have I done what's in my power to be a good neighbor up to this point? If the answers are “yes,” then you've made an important first step in gaining acceptance for your new facility.
- Seek advice
Discuss your plans with an advisor who is familiar with your farm and your business goals. Having a sounding board can help clarify your objectives and determine the best options for achieving them. Technical experts can help address site considerations such as geological or terrain issues, wind patterns, recommended distance to water sources and proximity to neighbors and public use areas.
- Communicate openly and honestly
“You better be visiting with your neighbors before you begin moving dirt,” Hoppes says. But, he warns, “Don't go into a big group. No matter what he (a farmer) says, in a big group of people it will be drowned out by the animosity in the room.” Instead, Hoppes says one-on-one discussions are best. Be personal. Share your family and farm history. Explain why you want to expand. When the media calls, respond in the same way as you would to a neighbor — directly, clearly and with as little emotion as possible.
- Celebrate the positives
“Share how the site fits in with future prosperity of your farm and the entire area,” Putze advises. “If we celebrate new business development on Main Street, we should be doing that in rural areas, too.” Putze suggests holding ribbon-cutting ceremonies and open houses like the Nelsons did to showcase technologies and engineering measures that go into building and managing new livestock farms.
- Be accountable
Describe what you are building, explain who will be taking care of the livestock, and who is in charge.
It is important to keep in mind that all situations are different, with varied circumstances and priorities. “There is no cookie cutter approach, but if there was one, it would be honesty and sincerity,” says Hoppes.