Egg megafarm ruffles feathers in Ohio

Agribusiness: Neighbors who endure fly infestations and polluted water are skeptical that a new corporate owner will make things right.

October 13, 2002|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JOHNSTOWN, OHIO - "Flies, Lies and Alibis," reads the hand-lettered sign made by Dan Perkins, known around here for his wild shirts, Burma Shave-style signs and nearly 20-year campaign against the corporate egg farm practically next door.

Perkins, 75, who has lived on his 238-acre family farm since he was 18, has watched the law come after Buckeye Egg Farm from every direction as flies swarmed in school cafeterias and people's kitchens, manure-laced dust filled the air and egg-wash contaminated streams.

He watched Buckeye owner Anton Pohlmann - a German national who was banned from owning animals in Germany after numerous infractions - pay $1.3 million in fines only to repeat the violations, then pack up and move back to Germany in the spring, leaving a management firm in charge.

In a classic Chicken Run move, Perkins even rescued a hen that fell off a Buckeye truck. (He named her Clara Cluck.)

But even with the state moving to revoke Buckeye's permits and a court ordering the shutdown of barns in two of the three Columbus-area counties where it operates, Perkins and other neighbors have little faith that their problems will be solved in the face of pressure from big agriculture and its big money.

"Agriculture is wide open; it's not limited like a chemical factory or commercial enterprise," said Perkins, holding up one of several traps in his yard that are packed with dead flies, which he keeps as evidence.

"As a result, you have these megafarms polluting the air and streams. You have egg-wash water that stinks like rotten eggs. On humid days, the ammonia from the buildings burns your lungs. Young people can't even invite friends out for a picnic."

In April, flies invaded the school cafeteria during an annual fund-raising barbecue at Marseilles Elementary. A Northridge Hartford School teacher testified in court that flies had gotten into her mouth. The mayor of Marseilles, Janice Kennedy, said she and her husband had to eat out three days in a row, so ubiquitous were the flies in her kitchen.

Promise of change

The company, speaking through CLM Group, the management firm that is under contract to run Buckeye, says it is now in compliance with environmental regulations and continues to make upgrades directed at improving the quality of life for neighbors. In some areas, residents report a measure of improvement in recent months, though fly infestations continue as a way of life.

Buckeye, which has asked for a hearing on the state's move to revoke its permit, is trying to sell the egg farm, the nation's fourth-largest with more than 100 barns in Hardin, Wyandot and Licking counties. The company has several potential buyers, said David Armentrout, a managing member of CLM Group.

"I'm convinced that this facility can be run in an environmentally friendly manner that can make it a continued asset to the state," he said.

Buckeye spends $30 million a year on local grain, $50 million to $60 million a year locally on other commodities and services, $14 million a year on salaries for its 500 workers and $700,000 a year on property taxes, Armentrout said. As a result, plenty of farming and business interests are hoping someone buys it.

Don Williams, a local farmer, estimated he sells Buckeye 80,000 to 120,000 bushels of corn a year and said Buckeye's presence adds at least 10 cents to 15 cents a bushel to the price. In addition, he sells 40,000 to 50,000 bushels of soybeans a year to local processors, which in turn sell bean meal to Buckeye.

Williams and other farmers say that while Buckeye has made mistakes, the company has moved to correct them, and much of the fuss has been made by city and suburban folk who don't understand rural life.

"They're not willing to put up with agriculture in its purest form," he said. "The manures and the smells and dust from the field are all part of agriculture, whether we like it or not."

But neighbors and environmental advocates don't want to hear about a new owner. They say the factory farm has had plenty of chances to clean up its act and should be shut down.

"If there is a new owner, they need to start from scratch," said Susan Studer King, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Council, a watchdog group. "The onus is on them to prove that they're going to be a good operator."

Wary of government

Neighbors were worried enough when the Department of Agriculture took over the regulation of large livestock farms from the state's Environmental Protection Agency in August, a legislative move that opponents say gives oversight of environmental practices to a pro-business arm of government.

Adding fuel to their suspicions, the agriculture director, Fred Dailey, said in a recent National Public Radio interview that his goal was not to shut Buckeye down, but to have it managed responsibly - just months after he had stood with the EPA chief in announcing the state's move to revoke the company's permits.

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