Producer cooperative appeals revoked feeding permit.

Back in March 1995, the optimism of a group of Carroll County (IN) pork producers ran high. The plan was to build a 2,400-sow complex, producing 45- to 50-lb. feeder pigs to be finished at each of their farms.

But a judge's ruling stopped construction of the Top Sow Inc. complex in midstream, placing the whole project in jeopardy. That ruling has been appealed and producer spokesman Larry Trapp is hoping for a favorable court decision later this year.

A Long Fight Trapp, a Flora, IN, producer, recalls when the project started, they figured approval would be a shoo-in because the north central Indiana county leads the state in hogs produced. Besides, Top Sow Inc. would help several small hog producers survive while boosting the revenue flow into area small towns.

But within one short year of planning, the sow cooperative hit a wall. By March 1996, neighbors had formed an opposition group known as Neighbors For A Clean Environment and developed a 15-point list of grievances, punctuated by water quality concerns.

That was enough to scare off some producer investors. Plans for Top Sow downsized from 2,400 sows to a 1,200-sow breeding-farrowing-nursery system with a dozen potential investors.

The group spent three months diligently trying to find the right building site. They found an 80-acre tract of land and filed for their first permit, says Trapp.

The first permit was approved by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). But the permit was withdrawn after the citizen's group appealed it.

By this time, the producer group was down to four families, with a final share controlled by Excel Co-op of Flora, IN.

To bolster the odds that the second permit request would not be appealed, Top Sow members worked with state officials from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and IDEM. NRCS conducted soil borings, did water permeability tests and designed the two-stage anaerobic lagoons.

Trapp stresses when Top Sow submitted its second permit request in December 1996, they didn't follow their amended request for a permit for a 1,200-sow complex. He says that's still the size of the operation they intend to build. But they changed the permit request to a 2,400-sow complex because they planned to over-build the size of the lagoons to dilute the effluent and lessen manure odor.

In early 1997, one month after Top Sow applied and was approved for a second permit, the citizen's activist group appealed. Their major complaint was that Top Sow needed to have gauges to provide the depth of the lagoons they were going to build. A second complaint was that there were no provisions in case the effluent pipes from the buildings to the lagoons leaked. There were also related questions about the depth of the effluent pipes and the clean-out ports.

But the key complaint was that an underground field tile was within 300 ft. of one of the proposed lagoons.

According to Trapp, Indiana guidelines state that lagoons must be situated at least 300 ft. from a drainage ditch, and not a field tile.

But state geologists are saying that there is an intermittent stream where the field tile is located.

Trapp responds, "We planted 180-bushel-per-acre corn through that so-called intermittent stream this past year, and as far as we know, it has been farmed successfully for the past 15 years."

Top Sow members looked at aerial maps dating back to 1939, and couldn't come up with an intermittent stream.

The producer group felt confident they were on solid ground and began construction in September 1997.

In a month's time, partial footings had been poured. Work had begun on some of the concrete floors and flush systems for the two breeding-gestation facilities. But that's as far as building crews got. Indiana Environmental Law Judge Lori Kyle Endris issued a ruling ceasing construction in early October 1997.

Work had not started on the farrowing unit on the site nor the two nurseries to be built a quarter-mile away.

After the judge's ruling, Trapp says they dug up that field tile and learned that it was really more than 300 ft. away from the perimeter of the lagoon.

"So Top Sow meets the guidelines, but the court's ruling still stands," he says.

According to Trapp, Top Sow members have done everything they can to work with the citizen's group.

In short, if the court ruling stands that field tiles are waterways, there are larger implications for the state's crop and livestock producers. Currently, there are rules against spraying insecticides, herbicides and pesticides within certain distances from a waterway. Likewise, separation distances from waterways for applying manure and fertilizer must be adhered to. But the court ruling, as it stands, would make it illegal to spray or apply those chemical substances on many Indiana crop fields, explains Trapp.

And that ruling could crush the producer group's plans. Members have already spent around $120,000 on construction and at least half that again in lawyer's fees to keep the fight going.

Trapp shakes his head while noting that all the members of Top Sow are 100-200-sow producers, trying to build for the future. And, Excel Co-op General Manager George Green's vision that Top Sow would be a prototype for other Carroll County pork producers is in serious danger of fading away.