Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Frederick Co. hog farm has neighbors squealing; Officials consider ban on large pig feedlots


ROCKY RIDGE -- They love their farms in Frederick County, but they don't love being downwind and downstream from the largest hog-raising operation in Maryland.

Since a local man set up a feedlot for 4,000 hogs -- without local scrutiny or state oversight -- Frederick County residents and officials have declared war on what opponents deride as "factory farms."

The county is poised to become the first in Maryland to ban large hog feedlots, ones that operate like factory production lines and have caused serious pollution and odor problems in the Carolinas and the Midwest.

Meeting in Frederick yesterday, the County Commission voted unanimously to seek an ordinance that would ban new hog-raising operations of 250 pigs or more.

If passed by the council after a public hearing March 16, the ordinance would be the first of its kind in Maryland and would be in effect until March 2000, giving local officials time to draft zoning ordinances to control where and how the big feedlots can be built.

"I wonder if we'll affect national policy," said commission President David P. Gray. "The problem obviously is broader than what we have on our doorstep, but we have to protect the citizens at our doorstep."

Hog farmer Rodney Harbaugh, who recently inherited his 62-acre farm with a view of a trout stream and a picturesque covered bridge, refused to talk about the controversy yesterday.

"This doesn't belong in the newspapers," he said. "This belongs between neighbors."

But neighbors, conservationists and local officials see it as a bigger issue, one that pits protection of the environment and traditional rural life against the hard realities of modern farming.

"Frederick County is very protective of its farming tradition," said county attorney Michael J. Chomel. "But you wouldn't see a Norman Rockwell painting of a 4,000-swine operation.

"This is a national debate -- are these intensive animal operations really farms at all?"

In July, Harbaugh set up two large barns to house 4,000 hogs on the site of a former dairy farm. He got a building permit, the only local approval he needed.

Under Frederick County's right-to-farm ordinance, local zoning officials have no power to veto farmers' plans for their land, Chomel said.

But environmental officials said Harbaugh did not immediately apply for the federal pollution-control permit required of the biggest animal feedlots -- those with 1,000 cows or 2,500 pigs.

The permit program, administered by the Maryland Department of the Environment under the federal Clean Water Act, is designed to prevent big livestock operations from contaminating local waters and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay with nutrient-laden runoff.

It requires farmers who plan to get rid of the animal waste by spreading it on fields, as Harbaugh does, to show that nitrogen, phosphorus and other potential pollutants in the waste will not seep into ground water, eventually contaminating rivers.

Only one other hog farm in Maryland, a 2,500-animal Kent County feedlot in operation since the 1980s, is big enough to need a permit, MDE officials said.

They did not know about Harbaugh's operations until the fall, when neighbors began complaining of overwhelming smells from the hogs' waste, which collects in large concrete-lined pits underneath the barns, said geologist Michael Eisner of MDE's wastewater permitting section.

"I've had asthma for years, but they have doubled and tripled my medication since the [hog] farm came in," said Karen Kuhn, a 22-year resident of Rocky Ridge and Harbaugh's closest neighbor. "The minute that smell hits me, I'm done for."

Said Bonnie Dancy, who has lived on a nearby horse farm for 15 years: "The odor's enough to back you into your house. We moved out here because we really liked our animals, and now we're prisoners inside our own house."

MDE inspectors have checked neighbors' complaints but have not cited Harbaugh for offensive odors, which are "a very subjective thing," said MDE spokesman Quentin W. Banks.

The agency did order Harbaugh to get the required anti-pollution permit.

"The department's concern is that whatever happens, he dispose of the waste material in a manner that will not harm the environment," Banks said. "And let's face it, 4,000 hogs produce a lot of waste."

If Harbaugh's operation conforms to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates, the hog manure is piling up at the rate of about 1 ton per day.

The agency has ordered Harbaugh to leave it under his barns until he comes up with a disposal plan that won't harm the trout stream that flows below his farm, feeding into the Monocacy River and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay.

Harbaugh's first application for a manure disposal permit was rejected, mostly because the type of permit he sought didn't allow public comment, Eisner said.

MDE got Harbaugh's application for a more specific permit Monday and will hold at least two public hearings.

Neighbors hope MDE will force Harbaugh to scale down his feedlot, which would not be affected by the county's proposed one-year ban.

At yesterday's commission meeting, several local farmers said they oppose the spread of the big livestock operations.

"I've never seen a place in Frederick County that's capable of isolating 4,000 hogs and living with the neighbors," said David C. Poole, a 79-year-old farmer who said he has raised hogs in Jefferson since 1932.

The real problem is an agricultural economy that forces farmers to work under contract to big corporations to make a profit, said farmer Eddie Boyle of Jefferson.

"That farmer's probably doing what he has to do to survive," Boyle said.

"Just because you stop this one farm, will that save the other farms?

"No. Until we can stop and fix these problems, we're going to have empty farms sitting all over the county."

Pub Date: 2/03/99

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad