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Nature Nut: From marshes to farms, from farms to mega-farms

September 17, 2018

On an early summer afternoon, I headed over to Dodge County to an area I’d gone to the past few winters to look for snowy owls.

Halfway between Claremont and Blooming Prairie, I would meet 89-year old Lowell Trom and his daughter, Sonja Trom Eayrs, to learn about their “legacy farm,” and how the way of life surrounding it has changed life for its inhabitants.

The Trom farm has been in the family since 1925, when Lowell’s grandfather emigrated from Norway. In the beginning, I envisioned the farm was typical of that period, with chickens, cattle and pigs all “free ranging,” providing food for the family, as well as income for other necessities.

Over time, Lowell states his “swampy” land was embedded with more than 750,000 feet of tile to dry it enough for pastures, and to raise crops such as corn and soybeans. He pointed out that before they drained the land, some areas were so wet and rich with waterfowl that ducks often “blackened the sky.”

Like many who did likewise, Lowell felt turning swampy land into productive farmland was a very good thing. But when I drive through these areas, I can only imagine the rich wetlands, Earth’s water filtration systems, that were once dominant in the state, here and further west.

In time, the Trom farm focused mostly on raising corn and soybeans, which still is the main focus, with no farm animals, not even a dog in the yard, seen during my visit. Instead, large buildings with huge John Deere equipment and storage bins holding thousands of bushels of grains, and a grain dryer, dominated the multiacre farmyard.

In recent years, another major change has taken place. Sterile-looking buildings loaded with pigs, cows or turkeys dot the landscape. Around the Trom farm, pigs rule, with 11 sites within three miles, each housing thousands of pigs. Although it is hard to see what they hold inside, at certain times the waft of pig manure permeates the air.

The Troms have resisted this movement, with one family member, Sonja’s sister and husband, getting out of farming rather than “going big” with one of the corporate setups. According to Sonja, “the operating loans they had relied on each year were no longer available, although the bank was willing to give them a larger loan if they put in a larger hog operation.”

While the smell of these hog operations, each with thousands of hogs, is often overwhelming, it is what these buildings sit over that has had the greatest impact on the environment. For, underneath most of the buildings that look clean from the outside, are pits that may hold a million gallons of manure, ultimately needing to be spread over the land.

Based on data Sonja has gotten, the pig operations in Dodge County alone account for a manure equivalency of waste from 830,000 people. In all of Minnesota, this number is equivalent the waste of about 50 million humans, or roughly 10 times the state population.

While most human waste is treated by wastewater treatment facilities, hog waste is not. And, although much of the manure spread on farmland is used by the crops it nourishes, some flows into local streams and rivers during rain events, or if it is spread when the ground is frozen. This pollutes rivers with nutrients they don’t need, as well as E. coli and other pathogens that are not desirable.

Therein lies the second problem, not only for the Troms and others who feel their quality of life has been ruined by corporate hog operations, but also for thousands of others living even many miles from the Dodge County farms. Some are concerned about the quality of water flowing in the Cedar River, which has its beginning on the original Trom farm, and flows through Austin. And, with some of the Zumbro River headwaters found in Dodge County, it even impacts us here in Rochester and beyond.

Sonja said, “large corporate factory farms are inconsistent with our value system and, I believe, the value system of most people in rural America.” And, although there is big money behind corporate farming, she is optimistic people will usher a return to the farming values she grew up with.

In next week’s Nature Nut, I hope to explore what citizens, and the Izaak Walton League, are doing to bring attention to water quality impacted by these corporate farms.

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