By Deb Theissen
It’s like a nightmare that just won’t end.
Last October, my husband and I found out that Maschhoff Pork, a giant, out-of-state corporation, was working with our neighbor, Matt Ditch, to build a factory farm right next to our home.
At first, we were stunned that Matt would do this without even taking the common courtesy of alerting his neighbors. But as we learned about the dangers this industrial operation would pose to us, to Linn County, and to our tight-knit rural community, we started getting angry.
Fortunately, we weren’t alone — as we talked to other neighbors, we found out they didn’t want millions of gallons of corporate manure polluting our air, water, and quality of life, either.
Together, we told Maschhoff Pork and the Ditch family that our community didn’t want their factory farm, but they ignored us. So we joined Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and fought back.
The construction permit application submitted last fall failed to meet basic requirements laid out in the “master matrix” score card. We demonstrated this to the Linn County Board of Supervisors, who recommended that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources deny the permit.
After this decision, Matt Ditch withdrew his application. We thought that was that — the system worked! Little did we know this fight was just beginning.
This May, Ditch submitted a new application. Maschhoff’s lawyers claim they found a loophole in state law that would allow them to build without county input just because Ditch’s father operated a 300-head hog lot in roughly the same place.
The law says that a factory farm built before April 1, 2002 can be expanded to a much larger size without a master matrix — but Ditch and Maschoff Pork do not qualify for this exemption for two reasons: the existing hog lot is not a confinement because the hogs are finished outdoors, and Ditch did not own the operation at the time he applied for the expansion.
Matt Ditch and Maschhoff are clearly trying to push a bad interpretation of the law in order to avoid common-sense public oversight. But the real problem is that the DNR is playing along.
The DNR’s mission is to protect our air and water quality from corporate pollution and ensure factory farms follow the rules. But they have actually worked with the Illinois-based Maschhoff Pork to force this plan through without demanding county involvement, against the wishes of the everyday Iowans who pay their salaries.
On June 12, DNR Director Chuck Gipp intervened in this controversy when he directed Animal Feeding Operations Coordinator Gene Tinker to call me. Tinker told me over the phone that the DNR had determined Matt’s proposal met all the qualifications for a permit and insisted I stop making such a fuss about it.
After my neighbors and I refused to back down, the DNR changed its position and informed Matt Ditch that he needed to buy the existing hog lot from his father, withdraw the current application, and resubmit it with the corrected ownership information.
A day later, as The Gazette reported in an article titled “DNR Flip-Flops …” the DNR changed its mind again and said such details could be fixed without resubmitting.
We, as citizens of Iowa, have to hold the DNR’s feet to the fire to make sure they don’t let this bad project move forward. The existing site is not a confinement, and Ditch and Maschhoff Pork must not be allowed to claim a loophole for which they do not qualify.
Unless we do, this nightmare of millions of gallons of untreated manure will be here to stay — for me, my husband, our children, our neighbors, and for our entire state.
Deb Theisen and her husband, Paul, are members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and live on a family farm outside of Center Point.