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Renville County's Lagoon Blues
by Mary Losure
December 15, 1999
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Big factory-style hog farming first came to Minnesota in the early 1990s. Farmers in Renville County were among the pioneers of the new technology. They built two of the biggest and most controversial hog farms in the state. The farms stored millions of gallons of manure in open lagoons the size of football fields.

Now both farms are in financial trouble. If they go under, Renville County taxpayers could be stuck with the cleanup.
North Carolina, the state that pioneered hog manure lagoons, has now banned them due to widespread environmental problems.

THE WATER TOWER in the small , south-central Minnesota farm town of Renville calls it the "Cooperative Capital". Farmers' co-ops own the beet-processing plant and the big egg farm on the edge of town. In the early '90s, local farmers decided to apply the same idea to hog farming. They formed the ValAdCo and Churchill Co-ops.

Between them, the co-ops built more big steel barns scattered across Renville County, each with giant holding ponds for manure from thousands of hogs. The result was anything but cooperation.

Renville County Commissioner Bob Ryan remembers.
Ryan: We've went from the point where we had restraining orders against neighbors, because they couldn't stop fighting amongst themselves over the ValAdCo issue.
People who lived next to the lagoons complained bitterly about the smell.

The controversy in Renville County helped prompt the Minnesota Legislature to require air-quality testing of manure lagoons. Later, lawmakers enacted a statewide moratorium on hog-manure lagoons.

Now, the hog farm mess in Renville County is getting deeper. Both ValAdCo and Churchill have been hit hard by the depressed farm economy. The Churchill Co-op disbanded earlier this year. Its hog operation is now in a state of financial limbo known as receivership. The ValAdCo Co-op also has seen heavy losses. One of its founding members is suing to have it disbanded. Amy Dawson is one of the lawyers for Mike Tisdell and his two sons.
Dawson: I can tell you that their investment in ValadCo has put the Tisdells in jeopardy of losing the farm that their family has farmed for five generations.
Both Churchill and ValAdCo also face environmental problems. Both farms are operating under expired environmental permits. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Renville County are investigating allegations of spills and discharges from the Churchill lagoons.

At ValADCo's lagoons, testing by the MPCA has shown chronic violations of the state air-quality standards. Officials at the Minnesota Pollution Control agency say they're working with both operations to try to solve their environmental problems, but some people in Renville county are getting tired of waiting.

Julie Jansen is a former day-care operator who became an environmental activist after ValAdCo built one of its lagoons near her house.
Jansen: It's been five long years for us out here. You sit there and you just shake your head. We're getting sick, our quality of life has gone down the tubes completely, they're breaking the law, and it keeps seeming that everyone wants to give ValAdCo a break. The patience is running very, very thin out here.
After years of complaints, Renville County commissioners are drawing up their own air quality standards. The standards could put additional pressure on ValAdCO and Churchill, but Renville County Commissioner Francis Schweiss says the county does not want to see the farms go under.
Schweiss: It's something we don't even want to think about because it wouldn't be good.
When the big farms first came to Renville County, Schweiss and others tried to get them to post bonds or put up land for collateral to pay for any future cleanup. But that effort failed.

Now, Schweiss says the county has no economic protection if the farms go under.
Schweiss: Say this happens like you're talking, it goes bankrupt and nobody picks it up, and the site has got to be cleaned up; it's going to come back on the shoulders of the taxpayer.
Officials at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency do not have estimates for a clean-up of an operation the size of ValAdCo or Churchill. County Commissioner Bob Ryan says the county board doesn't either.
Ryan: I have no idea at all. We haven't had a conversation, or any type of a conversation like that, nor do we want to. I firmly believe that these times - like all times - will change and things will get better, and we will eventually address these issues and move forward.
Board members of the Churchill Cooperative declined to be interviewed on tape for this report. Churchill's lender, Farm Credit Services, declined comment.

A court appointed lawyer overseeing the matter says Farm Credit sold the hog operation to an Iowa corporation, North American Pork, but that company also had trouble paying the bills. He says Farm Credit is now trying to find another buyer.

ValAdCo's CEO, Eddie Crum, declines to say how much money that co-op has lost, but he says it's not shutting down. He also says it's solving its environmental problems. He's eager to give a tour of ValAdCo's barns and lagoons.
Crum: (The) wind's kind of coming out of the south, we'll go on the north end so you'll be right downstream of the wind.
The company has covered 10 of its 14 lagoons with heavy black fabric. Crum drives up the steep bank of the berm surrounding one of the covered lagoons, then steps outside.
Crum: So here we are. For the record, the wind is blowing directly at us, over the face of the lagoon, the sow facility is just 100 feet there on the other side of us, you can see the lagoon in all its functions, sitting there before us, and I ask you, Mrs. Reporter, what's the level of odor here?
There is only a faint, musty odor; nothing like the gut-wrenching smell that once rolled off ValAdCo's lagoons.

But the company's air quality problems are not solved. Emissions from the lagoons are still violating Minnesota's standard for hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas. Over the years, the co-op has tried a long series of fixes for its emissions problems. Crum says it will continue to seek solutions.
Crum: We are not scientists here, we are farmers and we don't know all of the answers. Most recently, what we've done with covering the lagoons has been very been successful. We're extraordinarily pleased. We feel it's a good foundation, not an end, but rather a good start for eventually reducing odors to zero.
In the years since ValAdCo and Churchill were built, many hog farmers have come to consider manure lagoons an outdated and failed technology.

North Carolina, the state that pioneered hog manure lagoons, has now banned them due to widespread environmental problems. Renville County pioneered the technology in Minnesota, and ValadCo neighbor Julie Jansen says years later , everybody's losing.
Jansen: It just irritates me when we all know this facility shouldn't have been built in the first place.
Renville County Commissioner Bob Ryan says he doubts anyone would have gone ahead with the big farms if they had had any idea what lay ahead; the financial losses to Renville County farmers, and the rift in the community. Renville County commissioner Bob Ryan.
Ryan: It's been very hard on our people and I'd sure like to see neighbors be neighbors again. Maybe not everyone would get what they want, but at least get to a point where we can move on and have neighborhood children playing with each other again and families talking again that used to.