Fillmore County farmer sets record straight about proposed sow facility


The Hein family explains the plan for a new sow farrowing operation planned for their land. From left are Alexandra Hein-Roberts, Melanie Solum, Laura Thorson and Al Hein. SUBMITTED PHOTO
By : 
LISSA BLAKE
Bluff Country Newspaper Group

Fillmore County farmer Al Hein would like to set the record straight regarding his family’s plan to build a new sow farrowing operation on their property.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation,” said Hein, during a recent conversation.

Hein, along with daughters Laura Thorson and Alexandra Hein-Roberts, said it is ironic the proposal to convert their family farm from crop production to animal agriculture has received so much concern from an environmental standpoint.

“I feel that although there has been some criticism for this move to incorporate a farrowing house from an environmental standpoint, the truth is that environmental concerns drove us to do this,” said Hein.

Sustainable

Hein has lived on his family farm since 1960.

Over the years, the family has raised dairy and beef cattle and hogs on the farm, which encompasses 2,100 acres in the Newburg area. They got out of dairying in the 90s.

As part of his farming operation, Hein said he has always grown his own corn and beans; however, in recent years, he has become concerned about the effect that type of farming is having on his soil.

“A few years ago, I began to see the way we were raising corn and beans was unsustainable. In visiting with an agronomist, I found that each acre of land requires between 600 and 800 pounds of dry fertilizer, which ultimately affects soil tilth.

Soil tilth is its physical condition, especially in relation to its suitability for planting or growing a crop. Factors that determine tilth include the formation and stability of aggregated soil particles, moisture content, degree of aeration, rate of water infiltration and drainage.

Hein explained without organic matter, such as manure, the land fails to act as a sponge and considerable runoff and soil degradation occur.

“With the rains we’ve had in recent years, we’ve seen an increasing amount of erosion from a loss of organic matter. It seemed to me, with this concern, it was a natural choice to move to animal agriculture. That way we’d have our own nutrient factory on our farm,” said Hein.

The plan

The Hein family, majority shareholders in Catalpa, LLC, is proposing a new 4,980-sow farrowing operation on their property.

The three closest residents will be Al and his wife, Merilee Hein, daughters Alexandra and Laura, and four of their grandkids.

The Waukon Feed Ranch of Waukon, Iowa, will build and manage the facility. Catalpa will have a contract with Holden Farms to raise their pigs.

The proposed facility’s manure management plan includes the management of an estimated 7.3 million gallons of liquid manure, which will be stored in concrete pits until it is removed each fall, then hosed and knifed into the family’s crop ground.

“This application minimizes traffic on the road, minimizes the smell at the application and maximizes nutrient usage,” said Daniel Dykstra, assistant general manager for the Waukon Feed Ranch.

Controversy

Since the public notice inviting area residents and neighbors to comment on the project, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has received more than 300 comments. 

A recent informational meeting hosted by the MPCA in Mabel drew a crowd of 400 people. Around 30 people expressed concerns about the proposal’s impact on air and water quality, given the karst topography in the area. 

Prior to the meeting, an opposition group, Responsible Agriculture in Karst Country (RAKC) held a rally calling for the MPCA to request an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project. 

Last week, a busload of concerned citizens traveled to St. Paul. The trip, organized by the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) and RAKC, coincided with the July 3 deadline for public comment. 

Skeptical

Thorson, who lives within a half-mile of the proposed site, said, like others, she was skeptical about the idea until she took the time to learn more about it.

“It was important that I spent many hours learning about something I knew little about. I would hope the opposing side would spend just an hour or two learning about it as well,” she said.

More information

The Heins said prior to the MPCA public information meeting in Mabel, they had worked with Dykstra to develop a PowerPoint presentation about the proposed project.

“The prescribed format of the meeting did not allow for Catalpa to present any educational information about the proposal,” said Dykstra. “It has always been our intent, when the proposal moves to the county level, to educate our neighbors and community members.”

“There’s been a lot of misinformation circulating,” said Hein.

Like a sponge

Dykstra added in talking with people about this type of facility, what they often don’t consider is that a manure management plan, such as Catalpa’s, is replacing the application of commercial, dry matter, with organic matter. 

“It acts like a sponge, and has a lot better water-holding capacity, which helps from an erosion standpoint,” said Dykstra. 

Concerns addressed

When asked how the group feels about project opponents’ lobby for an EIS, Dykstra said he feels anything that would be addressed in an EIS has already been addressed through the permit application process.

“We started this process in the summer of 2016 and started the application process that fall. We hired a consulting firm who specializes in manure management planning to help complete the application and it took an entire year to complete it. It was handed into the state in October of 2017,” said Dykstra.

Dykstra said as part of the “intensive process” the applicants are required to do air modeling in a nine-square-mile radius.

“We look at all registered feedlots and put those and our proposed facility into the model. We review five years or meteorological data and model what adding our facility into that equation could do and how that could impact any nearby non-owner residents,” said Dykstra.

Dykstra added as part of the state application, soil borings are done to review the makeup of the land at the proposed site.

“We had to move the site once because of our findings,” he said, adding the decision was made to include a compressed clay liner as added protection for the ground.

“The other thing that happened is that we had a geotechnical engineer walk the site,” said Dykstra.

He said the state had just updated its sinkhole database, and any areas of concern had to be validated visually.

“The engineer was here twice and he found those areas not to be sinkholes,” he said.

Referring back to the call for an EIS, Dykstra added, “The state has rules which are already in place. The application process is already in-depth. We’ve met all the state and county guidelines, and we feel the state has an extensive application process that addresses all of the concerns that were put forth at that (MPCA) meeting.”

Economic impact

Dykstra added the Catalpa project would be positive for the local economy, employing 15 full-time employees and a few part-time employees.

“Our payroll will be $800,000 a year with an annual operating budget of $2.5 million. A lot of that will stay local. We’re going to be paying for electricians, plumbers, truck drivers, feed mill operators . . . a whole host of support people,” said Dykstra.

Dykstra said the Waukon Feed Ranch has become one of Allamakee County’s biggest employers.

“I’m a perfect example . . . I finished college and moved away. I never thought I would have a chance to move back to Northeast Iowa and find this type of job. While agriculture might not be what we grew up with, diversity in ag is very encouraging to me. This type of ag has provided a lot of opportunities,” he said.

Why Catalpa?

When asked how he came up with the name Catalpa, Hein said Catalpa is “a very unique tree that resembles a magnolia and embodies resilience. I feel the name represents a new direction in environmental sustainability through animal agriculture,” he said.

“Years ago, every farm had livestock, which gave each farm the nutrients to feed the land, which in turn fed the crops. Perhaps we have lost our way a bit,” said Hein.

“To me, the most positive thing I can say about this project is that it is far more sustainable for our family farm to incorporate our manure into the soil, helping build it at the organic level and adding soil tilth and limiting erosion,” he added. “It’s a project that will allow all three of our daughters to participate on the farm with me.”

What’s next?

Dykstra said the state has 15 days after the close of the comment period (until July 18) to make a decision.

Meanwhile, Hein said in response to the busload of opponents traveling to the capital, he feels its only fair to ask Governor Mark Dayton to meet with the Hein family.

“I’m going to bring my message to him as well. I want to relay to him what’s going on the farm . . . Prices are cheap . . . We’re doing all we can to diversify and be friendly with the environment. I think Governor Dayton will understand. Sensitive land needs animal agriculture,” he said.

Dykstra said a series of informational meetings to educate the public about the project are being planned for the near future.