By Brad Flory
Emerging economic forces suggest a planned “concentrated animal feeding operation” for 5,000 pigs may be more than an isolated local controversy in Concord Township.
The proposed Litle Bend Piggery may be the beginning of a trend with potential to impact rural life anywhere in Jackson County.
Jackson County Drain Commissioner Geoffrey Snyder, who has weighed in on the Concord Township case by urging caution, believes a systematic, countywide approach is needed to evaluate proposed hog mega-farms now and into the future.
“What I am trying to do is develop an objective checklist,” Snyder said.
The reason more “piggeries” must be anticipated is found southwest of Jackson County in Coldwater, where a huge new slaughterhouse will soon need thousands of pigs every day.
Litle Bend Piggery, owned by Richard and Alyson Dobbins of Concord, would evidently be one supplier. Plans call for two barns holding a combined 5,000 pigs.
Controversy over the proposed pig farm at 2580 Litle Road can be summarized in one word: Manure.
The piggery would produce nearly 2.4 million gallons of hog manure each year, more than enough to fill three Olympic-size swimming pools. Manure would be stored for most of the year and injected into farm fields as fertilizer in the spring and fall.
Neighbors raise objections about odors, falling property values, and potential water contamination.
“Who wants a hog factory, essentially, in your back yard?” one man asked at a July 13 meeting of the Concord Township Planning Commission.
Later in the meeting, Planning Commissioner Greg Bradley responded.
“I don’t want it in my back yard, no,” Bradley said. “But if it goes into my back yard and it is legal, I can’t do anything about it.”
Planning commission members are just beginning to evaluate a site plan for Litle Bend Piggery. The site plan must eventually go to the township board for a final decision.
Doug Terry, a planning commission member, attempted to explain “why this is happening” to about 80 people who attended the July 13 meeting. He pointed directly to Coldwater and the Clemens Food Group pork plant set to open in September.
Terry said the plant will process 10,000 pigs every day, and suppliers relatively close to Coldwater have the advantage of lower shipping costs.
As one resident pointed out, 10,000 pigs a day equals 3.65 million pigs a year, making Litle Bend Piggery “the tip of the iceberg.”
Opponents of Litle Bend Piggery received some measure of support from Snyder, who urged caution and additional restrictions in July 11 letter to Concord Township leaders.
“There are some risks, from my point of view, both with surface-water contamination and groundwater contamination,” Snyder said.
Litle Bend Piggery would sit above a county drain that flows into the Kalamazoo River, Snyder said. Township approval of the site plan should be contingent on nine requirements that go beyond current plans, he said in the letter.
For example, Snyder advised the township to require engineering analysis and observation wells, increased manure storage capacity to 2.4 million gallons (enough for a full year), and construction of berms near county drains.
Synder ended his letter by saying it is in Concord Township’s financial interest to “design around” contamination problems “rather than to allow them to arise and then have to pay to fix them.”
Opponents of Litle Bend Piggery frequently speculated at the July 13 Planning Commission meeting that site-plan approval is a “done deal,” making the airing of public opinion something of a charade.
Planning commissioners disputed, sometimes indignantly, the insinuation that their minds are made up. Still, opponents have reason to suspect they cannot block the proposed pig farm.
Michigan’s Right to Farm Act significantly limits what local boards and neighbors can do to stop generally accepted agricultural practices.
In addition, the Clemens Food Group plant in Coldwater was a much-celebrated economic development project aggressively lured by the state of Michigan. It seems reasonable to assume the same government that wooed the facility would want to make sure it has a reliable supply of pigs.
Planning commission members said they will study both law and science related to pig farming, perhaps visiting similar operations in nearby counties, before making any recommendation to the township board.
There is no indication of how long the planning commission – which normally takes summers off – will need to make a recommendation.
“People are trying to hold us to a time frame,” Terry said. “We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to be backed into a corner.”