Photograph by Steven Higgs

Brenda Jones, left, ended up on a hospital respirator within hours of CAFO manure being sprayed on the field across from her rural Henry County home. Her husband Rex says Indiana politicians at all levels value money over human health.

Eric Stickdorn routinely employs proper medical terminology when he describes the human body's reactions to life near a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), a subject he knows intimately.

Wikipedia, for example, defines "olfactory fatigue" as "the temporary, normal inability to distinguish a particular odor after a prolonged exposure to that airborne compound." That's how Stickdorn explains the fact that, when his mouth burns from ground-level air pollution from the dairy CAFO next to his Wayne County farm, he can't even smell the manure gases.


Second in a series

"Unfortunately, I've become accustomed to that sensation," Stickdorn said, not explaining whether he meant "olfactory fatigue" or "burning mouth syndrome."

But the health impacts from constantly inhaling the gaseous excretions of hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of animals, like many rural Hoosiers do, are so overwhelming that Stickdorn sometimes has to invent terms.


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"Manure flu" is what he calls it when he or his wife Lisa feel like they're getting sick -- "severe headaches, strange, strange muscle and tendon pains" -- and then, after about a week, the symptoms just disappear.

"It seems like a strange flu episode," he said during an interview on the porch of his 120-acre organic farm near Cambridge City.

***

Judy and Allen Hutchison, whose small Randolph County farmhouse is surrounded by 75,000 hogs and cows in CAFOs, confirm Stickdorn's explanations.

"After awhile it will affect your senses, and you won't smell it anymore," Allen said. "You get used to it. It's a'workin' on ya, but you're not aware of it because it's killed your senses."

And the stench assaults much more than just the senses, he added. Judy nods when Allen says he just can't figure our how clothes can come out of the dryer smelling like hog waste.

"You can get a shirt out of the closet, and it will smell like manure," Allen said.

Stickdorn agreed that the stink is, for the most part, omnipresent.

"The stench is indescribable," he said. "At times it is so bad you cannot catch your breath. You have to physically run."

***

Kathryn Petry wasn't asked to explain how manure fumes can contaminate overalls in a clothes dryer. But she did outline how those who live near CAFOs, especially in Randolph County, are enveloped in ground-level air pollution from factory farms.


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Eric Stickdorn lives next to a small dairy CAFO in Wayne County. He suffers from a variety of health problems, including "burning mouth syndrome," from constant exposure to manure gases.

First, she ticked off how many corporate CAFOs operate in Randolph -- 44 before the County Commissioners lifted a moratorium on them in early March. Two of them contract with Country View Farms from Pennsylvania, one with Cooper Farms from neighboring Jay County and the rest with Maxwell Farms from North Carolina.

Second, she stressed that "concentrated animal feeding" is no misnomer. The six farms that Maxwell owns outright, for example, average more than 7,000 pigs apiece -- 42,466 in total. Before the commissioners lifted the moratorium, the company had already applied for another permit.

Third, she explained, that level of confined animal concentration requires that the barns be ventilated via multiple, industrial-sized fans on the ends of each barn.

"It's blowing it out to us to breathe," she said, adding, "In the summer and spring and fall, it's coming right at us."

Hutchison said the factory farm owners have no choice but to rid the facilities of the airborne methane gas, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia that the waste releases into the air. The consequences of inaction could be fatal.

"If they don't have those fans on those buildings. ... they're going to have a bunch of dead hogs and some dead people in there," he said.

Each CAFO also has outdoor manure lagoons, as large as seven-plus acres, to store liquid animal waste in, Petry said. When those pits get full, the liquid manure is applied to crop fields as fertilizer.

She cited one nearby CAFO whose lagoon is supposed to hold nine months to a year's worth of waste. "Before the first part of April or so they will empty this pit here," she said.

***

Rex Jones, who lives downwind from dairy and hog CAFOs in Henry County, said the smell from the barns and their manure lagoons, not to mention the fields on which the liquid manure is spread for fertilizer, isn't all that fouls the air around his country home.

"We had all kinds of flies hatching out, getting in the house, which we never had before," he said, dividing his and wife Brenda's 16 years in their home into pre- and post-CAFO eras.

Randolph County family farmer Loretta Miller said flies are drawn to more than just the waste.

In any population of farm animal, a percentage will die, she explained. In her father's day, farmers would call the "dead wagon," and the carcasses would be carried away for disposal, "due to sanitation issues," she said.

In the CAFO model of animal husbandry, dead animals -- by the hundreds -- are stacked in three-side buildings.

"They just cover the dead pigs up with sawdust," Miller said. "... We've got hundreds of animals rotting. The maggots are getting them. Coyotes drag them everywhere."


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Randolph County family farmers Judy and Allen Hutchison say their clothes smell like manure when they take them out of the closet. Allen needs three inhalers to breathe.

***

Eyes roll and faces contort when the subject of Mitch Daniels' Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) arises during interviews with CAFO neighbors.

Stickdorn said he started e-mailing IDEM in December 2003, shortly after the CAFO started next to his home. He pleaded with agency representatives, telling them the stench was so bad that he and Lisa couldn't get their breath at times.

IDEM's response: "We have no laws which we can enforce that have any effect on your air quality," he said.

Stickdorn isn't convinced IDEM is right, arguing that pollution victims can't get their breath, have fluid in their lungs and suffer coughing, gagging and projectile vomiting.

"That seems like a human health issue to me," he said.

Allen Hutchison is one case study.

"I'm on three inhalers so I can breathe," he said. "I was on one before, but I've picked up a couple more since these places were beginning to come in."

Brenda Jones, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is another.

She ended up in a hospital on a respirator after CAFO manure was sprayed on the field across from her house in March 2006. She doesn't know what to do.

"I can't live in a bubble all my life," she said.

***

None of these multi-generation family farmers see much in the CAFO approach to agriculture as farming. But they do know that the situation does not have to be as bad as it is. Steps can be taken under which mutual coexistence would be possible.

As far as applying manure to the fields, "knifing" it into the ground is far superior to spraying it on the surface, Allen Hutchison said.

"If you do it right, it will help control the odor," he said. "But, I've yet to see one that has done it right."

When asked what she would consider a satisfactory result, Miller said, first, that no more CAFOs be allowed into Randolph County and, second, that filtering systems be installed on the barn fans.

Hutchison said data from Iowa and other farm states shows that biofilters and scrubbers are effective in reducing odors from CAFO barns, by as much as 95 percent, he's heard.

"If it cuts it 80 percent, it's going to help a bunch," he said.

The problem is that the Daniels administration has given the out-of-state corporations authority to operate in Indiana on the cheap.

Rex Jones said the bottom line is a fairly simple equation.

"They don't care," he said. "It's the money. It's the money."

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