Feedlot regulation is a growing patchwork

Hog farm
Rural areas of Minnesota are becoming battlegrounds between agriculture interests and residents who just want to live in the country.
Photo courtesy of the USDA

Feedlot regulation is a patchwork across the state.

In some parts of Minnesota, building a new feedlot requires a single permit from the state. That's relatively easy, since the Pollution Control Agency almost never rejects feedlot permits.

In some areas it's more complex. About two-thirds of Minnesota counties require some kind of feedlot permit.

And then there are township permits. Minnesota has nearly 1,800 townships, and no one is sure how many have feedlot regulations.

But it's clear a growing number of townships are establishing rules to limit the growth of livestock farms.

"The guess is maybe 100 to 200 townships out there have zoning, but nobody really knows," says Minnesota Department of Agriculture Planner Rob Sip.

Sip's job is to encourage townships to engage in long-range planning rather than reacting to livestock operations.

"For a lot of people, a setback of a half mile from a swine barn is not even close to being adequate."

"Since 2006, we've been tracking zoning activity, and over the course of two years we've had 12 new township ordinances out there. There may be more, it's just we don't know about it," says Sip.

Townships are required to notify the state if they pass a new ordinance, but Sip says that doesn't always happen.

Even the Minnesota Association of Townships is not sure how many townships have feedlot ordinances.

Township ordinances cannot be less restrictive than county or state rules, and townships generally have the toughest regulations.

"The initial adoption of an ordinance tends to be very knee jerk. Something will happen and it will prompt them to write an ordinance," says Clay County Planning Director Tim Magnusson.

"The problem with that is townships tend not to administer their ordinances. They put them in place, but it takes time and money to administer them properly. That may or may not occur," says Magnusson.

Magnusson points to a growing conflict in rural areas between agriculture and people who like living in the country. For example, Clay County requires a half-mile buffer between livestock operations and homes.

"But for a lot of people, a setback of a half mile from a swine barn is not even close to being adequate," says Magnusson. "Five miles might be on the edge, 10 miles is better. Not in my county, sometimes that even works."

Magnusson believes the most efficient way to regulate feedlots would be a county ordinance all townships would support, but he's doubtful townships could all agree.

Goose Prairie township officials say they'd rather not have a feedlot ordinance. But about a year and a half ago, the town board felt it had to respond to residents' concerns about a hog feedlot. Goose Prairie township is about 30 minutes from Moorhead, a mix of farms and single-family homes. Many township residents demanded the town board stop a proposed hog feedlot.

Instead, the board imposed a moratorium, and spent nearly a year researching and writing a new feedlot ordinance.

Then, they gave the farmer a permit. Board members say they are trying to control livestock operations, without getting mired in a costly court fight. Enforcing the ordinance will be a challenge. Township government is bare bones. In most cases there's no paid staff, just an elected town board.

Goose Prairie board members say writing the ordinance cost thousands of dollars. They don't know now much enforcing the ordinance might cost. If there are complaints about odor or pollution, they'll need to hire a consultant.

Board member Mary Colson lives about a mile from the feedlot and commutes to a job in Moorhead. She says the board worked hard to create a fair ordinance. They used research from the University of Minnesota, and they consulted with Agriculture Department Planner Rob Sip.

"The state is clearly pro-ag, and in favor of doing things to grease the skids for them," says Mary Colson. "But at the same time, I didn't ever feel pressured that we had to do it their way. We still had the freedom to think about what was good for our township."

Colson says township officials are on the front line of the conflict between agriculture and people seeking the quiet rural life.

"The township is zoned for agriculture. I'm not opposed to agriculture," says Colson. "I'm opposed to agriculture being able to destroy my quality of life, the air that I breathe, and make money off it."

Colson says township officials would prefer counties or the state assume the cost of feedlot regulation, but they're not willing to give up the right to react when local residents feel their quality of life is threatened.