THE old proverb "good fences make good neighbors" may not always be the best advice for farmers and ranchers to follow when planning to expand or construct new livestock facilities.
Animal agriculture can play a pivotal role in the economic health of a community, yet many times, producers are so intently focused on providing a profitable, quality product that they overlook the value of being a good neighbor.
Economist Peter Goldsmith has extensively studied the economic benefits of the livestock industry in Illinois, but it wasn't until he attended a public hearing proposing the siting of a large livestock facility and heard the comments from members of the community that he realized the need for new strategies that could elevate the conversation and meet the needs of everyone involved.
"Sitting in that hearing, I became aware of a disconnect between the industry owner/operators and the community members," said Goldsmith, a University of Illinois agricultural and consumer economist in the College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences. "It sounded like two different conversations."
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Goldsmith obtained transcripts from public hearings on proposals to site three different concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Illinois.
In analyzing the textual data, he coded 589 statements from people in attendance at the hearings concerning the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the proposals into categories relating to the legitimacy of the facility and themes such as children, property value, health, air and water pollution and animal welfare.
Goldsmith heard the community voicing pragmatic concerns, while the livestock facility owners/managers focused on the eight criteria required by the Livestock Management & Facilities Act (LMFA) to site a CAFO. Examining the actual words that were spoken at the public hearings clearly demonstrated that the conflict arose because each side saw the problems from different perspectives.
"The owner/managers must address the law. They're doing their due diligence," Goldsmith said. "The problem is that the community has different concerns — concerns that may or may not always be factual, but concerns nonetheless."
Nic Anderson from the Illinois Livestock Development Group concurred that a disconnect can easily develop from the public's misunderstanding of the actual purpose of the public hearing, which is to inform the public on how any livestock farm will comply with the LMFA.
"Producers must follow the requirements of the act before any livestock are placed into production," Anderson explained. "Some of the concerned (members of the) public that opposes the construction of the farm bring up topics that do not pertain to the act and detract from accurate information about the farm and the rules of the LMFA."
Goldsmith said although the LMFA is an efficient and effective regulation for the construction of livestock facilities, businesses and neighbors could go the extra mile to get to know each other's concerns and see the siting firsthand from another perspective.
"There's too much at stake not to. What I realized is that we need to work at consensus building, education, listening and learning from both sides to develop a good working relationship," he said.
Some of the conflict that occurs at the public hearings may be exacerbated by the fact that the community often comes into the process late.
"Most concerns and complaints are received when the public is officially informed of a farm's building plans through the filing of the notice of intent to construct with the Illinois Department of Agriculture," in this instance, Anderson said. "There is a learning curve that occurs when the public realizes that the livestock producer must follow rules to construct a livestock facility."
Goldsmith said more and better communication will help both the owners/managers and community members reconcile important issues. It requires validation from both sides, and being factual is the key.
"There have been a number of cases of CAFOs bringing community members onto their farm or inviting them to visit other farms to see their operation and the various technologies — kind of an educational field trip," Goldsmith said.
The reverse is extremely valuable as well. He recommended that managers visit community members' homes to experience firsthand what it is like being a neighbor. In this way, common experiences are built, communication expands and the conversation becomes more factual, so goals and objectives can be specified.
Several state and national agriculture associations have educational programs that guide farmers in being better neighbors. Anderson attributed the decline in complaints and the need for public hearings to the efforts of Illinois livestock farmers in opening the lines of communication and inviting neighbors to visit the operations.
In 2012, 140 notices of intent to construct were filed with the Illinois Department of Agriculture; only four public hearings were requested through the LMFA.
Although Goldsmith's research dealt with siting livestock facilities, he said, "This is part of a comprehensive research program that looked at more than just the direct economic benefits of the livestock industry in Illinois. We had looked at the economic impact and saw what a CAFO does for communities, taxes, labor markets, input suppliers and lots of spillovers that are quite good. The research recognized that the industry is very productive and efficient, but this study showed that it's also about being a good neighbor."
His research, "Outlining a Strategic Legitimacy Assessment Method: The Case of the Illinois Livestock Industry," will be published in an upcoming issue of Agriculture & Human Values. Filipe Pereira was a co-author.
Tips for being a good neighbor
DAVID White, executive director of the Ohio Livestock Coalition (OLC), agrees that being a good neighbor is a two-way street and that farmers need to include public relations as a component of their management plan.
"The key to being a good neighbor is transparency and building trust," White said. "Producers need to acknowledge that the community has genuine complaints about noise, odor and traffic and work to address the community concerns."
Since 1997, OLC has focused its attention on assisting livestock farmers with making a positive contribution to the state and local community — and rightfully so, because Ohio agriculture contributes $107 billion to the state economy and leads in egg, dairy and pork production.
In a state with 11 million people and seven metro areas, Ohio livestock farms are often operated near residential houses. In a proactive step, OLC included tips for farmers on how to be good neighbors in its educational program.
Ohio livestock farmers are seeing the advantage of being good community members. Overall, the state is experiencing a decline in the number of complaints filed against livestock operations that want to build. White attributes this trend to a change in approach by Ohio livestock farmers; more livestock farmers are making community outreach a priority.
For example, a fourth-generation family swine operation wanted to expand. The family recognized the changing demographics of the neighborhood: The operation was now surrounded by rows of house inhabited by residents that worked in Columbus, Ohio, and sported different lifestyles.
The family quickly realized that changes in certain management practices must be adopted in order to avoid potential neighborhood conflicts. Some areas of improvement included changing the method of manure application from surface applied to injected, trying to avoid freshly applying manure on weekends and openly inviting the community to visit the farm.
The family fully reaped the benefit of being a good neighbor when it came time to file the permit to expand with the state; the family did not receive one complaint.
White said the key to being a good neighbor is showing that the livestock farmer cares about the local community and that the community can trust the livestock farmer.