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Arkansas Hog Farm Opens Doors To Reporters Amidst Environmental Oposition

Inside C & H Hog Farms near Mount Judea
Jacqueline Froelich

As opposition continues against a newly permitted industrial swine-breeding farm now operating in the watershed of the protected Buffalo National River in Newton County, its owners have remained mostly silent until Monday when members of the media were invited for a tour.

Campbell and Henson (C&H) Hog Farms is situated along a rugged mountain bench about 20 miles southeast of downtown Jasper. From the outside its new double-barn confined feeding animal operation (CAFO) looks ordinary, inside 824 large pink sows will soon give birth.

Half of the hogs ramble about in a maze of spacious corrals in groups of eight. The other half is pregnant, confined to narrow gestation pens. They are mostly quiet laying on their sides, listening to the ruckus.

No one can simply walk into these swine barns, so the several dozen print, television and radio reporters who were invited had to, like the farmers do every day, shower in and shower out to remove any biohazards and don protective clothing for the tour.

Preventing contamination from entering the climate-controlled facility is critical since these sows, boars and soon to be piglets are antibiotic free.

At the first stop, co-owner of the operation, Jason Henson, showed reporters a currently empty farrow to wean barn. It’s where crated nursing sows will suckle their piglets.

“And the reason she cannot [turn around] is if she can turn around, she may lay on her pigs or may actually kill her pigs, I mean it’s all to protect the baby pigs at this point,” Henson said.

Henson and his family, along with the Campbell family, co-own the farm. It’s permitted to house up to 2,500 sows and 4,000 piglets. They used personal assets as well as a multi million-dollar loan, guaranteed by U.S.D.A. Arkansas Farm Service Administration, which also conducted the environmental assessment. The assessment found no significant environmental impact.

This operation is all about raising piglets, which are weaned after 20 days, then shipped out to eventually become bacon and pork chops. International meatpacker, Cargill, is C&H Farm’s integrator. It provides breeding stock and feed.

The sows are kept perpetually pregnant through artificial insemination. Gestation lasts almost four months. They then nurse for three weeks in a huge complex of confined metal pens in the second barn next door.

The Hensons have farmed in the Buffalo National River watershed in Newton County for eight generations. Due to the river, they've cultivated a strong environmental ethic, Henson said.

They broke ground on the swine farm three months ago, after all the permits and loan were in order.

Wastewater from concrete pits beneath the swine barns drains into two newly constructed 3.6 million gallon sewage lagoons lined with almost two feet of clay. Water from the second pond is recycled back up into the swine houses as wash water.

The farm is required to have 180 days worth of sewage lagoon storage, but Henson said they have a 280 day capacity, just in case.

Honey trucks will suck swine effluent from the first pond to spread on 640 acres of permitted pasture, according to a strict schedule, only during dry conditions, to keep nutrients like phosphorus from contaminating waterways.

“We do soil samples and we have to test our organic manure to see how much nutrient factor it has in it so we can know how much we can apply,” Henson said.

However, opponents worry pollution from the farm will wash into nearby Big Creek, a major tributary to the lower section of the Buffalo National River, and cause contamination.

Steve Eddington, a spokesperson for Arkansas Farm Bureau believes this CAFO, the first like it in Arkansas, will become an agricultural model.

“A lot of argument, the rhetoric you hear is built on supposition that an accident will occur, it’s not when, [but] that it will,” Eddington said. “I think when you talk to Jason, you see the environmental safeguards that are in place… the environmental safeguards that are in place here, the first thing you come away with is, this is designed for something not to happen.”

The Buffalo National River Park Service, which has gone on record in opposition to the farm, operates a monitoring station near the confluence of Big Creek and the Buffalo River. Arkansas USGS is also looking for funding to provide monitoring upstream along Big Creek.

Newly organized opposition, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, has collected nearly 11 thousand signatures from concerned citizens. A coalition of groups have sent notice of intent to sue to the USDA claiming Arkansas Farm Service Agency’s loan guarantee and environmental assessment for C&H Farms may be in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and that it will affect aquatic life and two endangered species of bat living downstream.

One of the pastures, where swine waste will be spread is close to Mt. Judea school district, but C&H Hog Farms co-owner, Phillip Campbell says no worries. Manure has been spread on fields here for years, by all kinds of farmers and that residents are used to it.

Still, he and Jason figured once word got out about the hog farm, they might get some flack.

“Some, but not to this magnitude. They’ve got, concerns, I mean they’re real concerns,” Campbell said adding that the hog farmers share those concerns.

Campbell, who also has family roots in the area going back eight generations, has raised hogs for the past 12 years and therefore knows what he’s doing, he said.

Where there are environmental concerns, there is potential for an economic benefit. The new CAFO is providing a handful of jobs, he added.

“Eight jobs somewhere else might not mean too much to other counties, but it means quite a bit to us, and to be able to farm at home ... where we live,” Campbell said.

Opponents have claimed nepotism was involved in the USDA backed Arkansas Farm Service Agency loan that C&H was awarded. The agent who conducted the environmental assessment is husband to a distant Campbell cousin. Phillip Campbell denies any conflict of interest.

“It took 2 years to get this permit and loan, it wasn’t like we went to Wal-Mart and got this permit or this loan,” Campbell said.

Farmer Carl Smith ran Mt. Judea Feed Store for 33 years and is now retired. He used to raise piglets on a small 30-sow operation. He says this new CAFO fits right into the local economy.

“They’re hauling chicken manure, turkey manure in this valley, all over it,” Smith said. “They even put some of it on the banks of the Buffalo River down here, and it’s okay, because all of this here is organic.”

Warren Campbell, a relative of swine CAFO co-owner Phillip Campbell, is a Newton County Quorum Court judge. He says the farm will bring much needed tax revenue to county coffers in estimated amount of $40,000 to $50,000 per year.

Despite the opposition, Warren says lots of locals are flocking to C&H Hog Farms in support.

“I think more support than not support,” Warren said.

That’s evidence these farmers say that a majority stand in favor of C&H Hog farms.

Meanwhile, a protest is planned for Wednesday in Jasper. The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is scheduled to host a public meeting at 4 p.m. at the Buffalo Theater on the Jasper town square. At 6 p.m., the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is holding an informational meeting on the permitting process of C&H Hog Farms in the Carroll Electric Cooperative building at 511 E. Court St. in Jasper.

KUAF posted pictures of the C&H Hog Farm on its Ozarks at Large home page.