WINCHESTER, Ind. (WISH) - It's a problem forcing some people from their homes and some say an Indiana law designed to protect farmers is making things worse. The issue involves big farms, manure and potentially dangerous chemicals.
Allen Hutchison and his wife Judy have lived in the small town of Winchester for 22 years. Flags line Main Street and cornfields stretch for miles. The Hutchisons say life was good, until eight years ago when their new neighbor moved in.
"We come home and it would knock you out of your car," Allen Hutchison said of the smell.
Allen says he and his wife were greeted by a powerful smell coming from their new neighbor's property. That neighbor was a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.
A CAFO is where animals such as cows, pigs and others are kept and raised in confined areas. Allen, a farmer himself, says that's not his idea of farming.
"These pictures you see on television from California and those cows and stuff where your milk comes from," Allen said.
His wife Judy chimes in, "Don't believe it."
"It don't happen that way,” Allen said.
Hutchison and other small farmers say they are literally being pushed out of their homes when large farms that confine animals move in next door. The problem, they said: the CAFOs also bring a large lagoon of liquid manure. Million of gallons right next door.
"After a while it kills your senses,” Allen said. “You don't smell anymore."
He says he can feel it burning.
"You can feel it, but you don't smell it,” he said.
The Hutchisons say besides the smell, the farm created health problems for them. The pits are full of ammonia, methane gas and hydrogen sulfide that can be harmful or toxic. For years they fought headaches along with burning in their throat and lungs. Allen was put on four inhalers.
But the Hutchison's say that wasn't the only problem.
They shared pictures of what they call "the bubble trouble." At the CAFO next door, the Hutchisons say part of a liner detached from the bottom of the manure lagoon and floated to the surface. It was as big as a house and full of gas. They wore gas masks to test their air, asked the county commissioners for help and were told to "move." Eventually they did. They said after 7 1/2 years they "couldn't take it any longer."
RIGHT TO FARM BILL
The Hutchisons and other farmers say the problem now is Indiana's Right to Farm Act. The original intent of the bill was to prevent people from moving from the city, having a problem with the smell from their neighbor's farm, and then suing their neighbors. But I-Team 8 discovered there are concerns that the law is being used to prevent people who have legitimate health concerns from suing the huge farms next to them. The Hutchisons say to make matters worse, they were there first.
"If we had moved there and he was already there, we wouldn't have a leg to stand on,” Allen said. “But we had lived there for 13 years before he had ever thought about coming in."
The Hutchisons are not the only ones facing this problem. The Stickdorn family of Wayne County also felt forced to move from their home.
At times they had to sleep in a church basement. The family ended up suing in a case that's made its way to the Indiana Court of Appeals.
"Clearly the Stickdorns were there first. They're farmers too. So the right to farm really should have applied to their case,” said Kim Ferraro, an attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Council trying to protect the rights of small farmers.
The court agreed. The court ruled the rights of small farmers, like the Hutchisons and Stickdorns, are protected under the same act. But Ferraro says the fight isn't over yet.
“Removing the Right to Farm Act as a blockade to them protecting their rights in court is a huge deal. But the General Assembly in the last year has been trying to rewrite that,” Ferraro said.
One way Ferraro says the legislature has been trying to change the law is in the form of a constitutional amendment called The Right to Fish and Hunt. The proposed amendment says, "The people have a right to hunt, fish, harvest game, or engage in the agricultural or commercial production of meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products." It's the part about engaging in the agricultural and commercial production Ferraro and farmers around the state say could be a problem.
"There isn't any other industry that is given this sort of legal protection,” Ferraro said. “That has this minimal amount of oversight. Nothing."
Opponents want to know if Indiana's constitution is being changed to protect an industry. Josh Trenary, executive director of Indiana Pig Producers says no.
"It's not to protect large farms; it's not to protect CAFOs,” Trenary said. “It's not to protect livestock farmers. It's to protect agricultural pursuits in Indiana."
Trenary says the amendment takes a longterm look at agriculture and is a way to make sure corporate farmers can always operate in Indiana.
The constitutional amendment is up for a vote on Nov. 4, 2014. Until that happens, people like the Hutchisons are left to wait and hope they can one day go back home.
"We're not the only ones,” Allen said. “There's a lot of people around here..." Judy finishes, saying, "...that feel the same way."
I-Team 8 tried to speak to the farmer who moved from the Netherlands next to the Hutchisons. The farmer would not allow our crew on the property, but he did come to the end of the long driveway directing all questions to his attorney. His attorney said with pending litigation, they can't comment at this point.
I-Team 8 asked to speak to Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford), who sponsored the amendment, but did not hear back.
On a recent Saturday in September, farmers from around Indiana sat in on a packed meeting of CAFO Watch, a grassroots group concerned with CAFOs. The farmers say the giant farms create a number of problems, and they're mobilizing under the direction of Barbara Shay Cox to try and do something about them.
People in the audience — many said they are sick from CAFOs — were hungry for answers, asking experts how to "help us deal, to help us mitigate the odorant toxins." One guest speaker at the meeting was Steve Wing, an epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina. That state has a moratorium on new CAFOs. He says the rise in the number of huge farms is creating a big problem for small towns.
“Rural residents in these communities are being sacrificed for everybody else's cheap food,” Wing said.
The group contends the increasing demand for meat is behind the rise in the number of CAFOs. Farmers who live near the large farms say besides the animals, there are health concerns from big pools of manure and chemicals.
"I believe there is a health issue,” Wing said. “We are smelling chemicals."
So, they're joining forces to try and fight the farms.
"If they have their way, Joe Consumer who goes to the grocery store and picks out their pork chops isn't going to understand where those pork chops came from," Ferraro says.
In the midst of the debate and strong opposition, the White County commissioners in July approved another CAFO. Up to 9,000 hogs and 46,000 gallons of manure will be 1/2 mile from Camp Tecumseh children’s camp.
The best way to find out if a store or restaurant is serving meat from a CAFO is to ask. There are also resources online with a simple search.
Below, search a database of pending CAFO permits in Indiana. Information is from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
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