Two days before the first batch of 4,440 hogs arrived, the north side of Gelfius Farms in Clifty Township looked like a county fair.

During a 90-minute reception that kicked off a day-long open house Wednesday, 227 people turned off East County Road 200N and up a new, mile-long gravel road to tour Bartholomew County’s newest concentrated animal feeding operation.

After parking fair-style in a field on the 378-acre farm, attendees entered one of two new barns to see signs, banners and even video presentations promoting a variety of agribusinesses.

Just like at the fairgrounds, some socialized while others anxiously got in line to receive a pork chop meal. A popular display outlined nine stages of the recently completed construction.

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Among visitors this week to the new CAFO operation east of Anderson Falls were two prominent state figures: Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who oversees the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and serves as the state’s secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development; and Ted McKinney, director of the state agriculture department.

The growth, diversification, technology and innovation evident at the Gelfius operation speaks to the next generation of Indiana farmers, providing young Hoosiers incentives to stay with the family farm, Crouch said after her mid-afternoon tour.

Diversifying farming operations to include both crop and livestock production is also one way that Indiana farm families can generate a larger and more dependable income that protects homesteads, McKinney said.

While many local farm families were on the guest list, there were also unfamiliar faces of livestock producers from throughout the Midwest invited by business sponsors to tour the state-of-the-art, large-scale hog operation.

Farm patriarch Bill Gelfius listed three reasons for the open house: to educate, demystify the CAFO process, and illustrate how animals used for pork products are raised.

Nine CAFOs have been approved in Bartholomew County. Seven had long been operating, mostly in German Township, before permits were issued for Gelfius and Hope farmer Jeff Shoaf during the summer of 2014. Shoaf received permission to operate a 2,000-hog operation near Old St. Louis.

The two permits prompted strong local concerns from people opposed to new CAFOS that led to a one-year moratorium in September 2014 for building new or expanding existing concentrated animal feeding operations.

Bill Gelfius’ son and business partner, Justin Gelfius, said it would have been unfortunate if those opponents did not tour the facility when given the chance Wednesday.

“It would let them speak from the perspective of experience, instead of what they might have read or seen on the internet,” he said.

Family’s CAFO journey

Bill and Justin Gelfius said they spent two years researching CAFOs before moving ahead with their plans for an 8,800-hog operation in late 2013.But when the original proposal ran into strong public opposition before the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals, Bill Gelfius withdrew his initial application in February 2014.

In the early spring of 2014, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management gave its approval. A new proposal for a CAFO that would be half the size he originally sought was submitted by Gelfius in May, and approved by the BZA in June.

For the next two-and-a-half years, the Gelfius family obtained funding and worked with an Indianapolis-based engineering firm in designing and constructing the complex, McKinney said.

What’s inside

The first thing visitors see when approaching the complex are three towering bins that hold a combined total of 65 tons of feed. Tubing can be seen that distributes the feed into the two barns, where they are diverted into individual pens.Just inside the main entrance, located in the middle of the two barns, is a system called Room-Alert that monitors all environmental conditions within the four-room pen areas, tour guides explained. If anything goes wrong, the system is designed to immediately notify the operator, they said.

Solid doors found regularly throughout the complex can be used as an additional bio-security measure, guides said.

“Bio-security is the name of the game in this business,” said Andy Tauer, director of livestock for the Indiana Soybean Alliance and the Indiana Corn Marketing Council, who attended the event.

Several other monitoring devices dealing with water, air and nutrient management are installed on the north wall inside the main door.

The entrance leads to a concrete hallway that separates the two state-of-the-art finishing barns. As attendees were about to enter each barn from the hallway, they saw separate computerized control panels that the guides said operate fans and shade-like curtains to control temperature, moisture and ventilation.

When the baby hogs first arrive, sections of the steel-grating flooring in each pen are removed to reveal a smaller, underground sub-pen designed to keep baby hogs warm with sunlamps, guides explained.

Each incoming batch of pigs will be raised on the premises for six months before they are shipped off, Bill Gelfius said. After that, the entire facility is washed down, chlorinated and prepared for the next shipment.

Many livestock producers came to the farm southeast of Newbern to see the most modern and up-to-date equipment for CAFOs in operation, said Bill Gelfius’ sister, Kim Wolford.

While the equipment is modern, the state agriculture department director said all CAFO operators in Indiana follow the same precautions, even if it’s with older and more labor-intensive equipment.

“This is the norm, by and large,” McKinney said regarding all the precautions. “We need to dispel the myths.”

Included within the complex is a 10-foot concrete manure pit designed to minimize odor and potential health problems, said Kristin Whittington, a local agricultural environmental consultant.

After manure liquefies in the pit, it will be injected 3 to 6 inches below the soil in crop fields at a level that allows nutrients to reach the roots, said Whittington, who works with Landmark Enterprises LLC of Edinburgh.

At that depth, the soil and manure bind together and greatly decrease the potential of rainfall to carry contaminants to neighboring properties and waterways, she said.

Residents’ concerns

Before the Bartholomew County Commissioners adopted stricter setback rules in May, many residents expressed strong objections to opening regulatory doors to local CAFO operators.A top health concern was the link of hog manure to the bacteria Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which federal health authorities say can be deadly for people with weakened immune systems.

Worries have been expressed that MRSA could contaminate nearby wells and waterways. Other concerns ranged from odor to reduced property values for neighbors.

“I don’t think the concerns are unfounded, but I would be really surprised if any of them ever came to fruition,” Justin Gelfius said.

In regard to fears that outside partners that supply the pigs and grain would encourage irresponsible practices to raise profits, Justin Gelfius said those groups know it’s far more profitable to partner with farmers than attempt to buy land and hire CAFOS operators themselves.

Since producers such as the Gelfius family are independent contractors who own their operation, corporations are in no position to dictate dangerous and unsustainable demands, Justin Gelfius said.

Farm families have little to gain and everything to lose by cutting corners and breaking regulations, he said.

“This is a $1.3 million facility with substantial liability concerns. So if we mess up, they will close us down,” Justin Gelfius said. “We’re not getting into this business just to get out in two or three years. We’re doing this for a lifetime.”

And with combined federal, state and county environmental regulations now in place, “I think they have things covered,” he said.

Bartholomew County CAFO timeline

2014

Jan. 27 – The first public hearing on a proposal by Bill Gelfius to build an 8,800-hog CAFO on his 378-acre farm along East County Road 200N attracts 135 people to a meeting of the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals.

Feb. 24 – After a grass-roots organization called the Anderson Falls CAFO Fighters is formed, the second hearing before the board of zoning appeals is canceled after Gelfius withdraws his proposal.

May 28 – Gelfius submits a second application to the board to build a 4,400-hog concentrated feeding operation.

June 11 – The Bartholomew County commissioners announce they are forming a citizens committee to evaluate local livestock regulations, including ones dealing with concentrated animal feeding operations.

June 30 – Gelfius’ second application for a CAFO is approved by the board of zoning appeals.

July 21- The board of zoning appeals approves a 2,000-hog CAFO for Hope area farmer Jeff Shoaf.

Sept. 8 – A one-year moratorium on new concentrated animal feeding operations and any expansions is given final approval by the Bartholomew County Commissioners.

Sept. 17 – The 14-member CAFO Regulation Study Committee begins meeting monthly.

2015

Jan. 12 – The Bartholomew County commissioners speak out against Indiana Senate Bill 249, which would prevent counties, cities or townships from creating a moratorium preventing farmers from building a concentrated feeding operation. The measure was later withdrawn.

June 3 – Due to a lack of consensus, study committee members announce they will not have recommendations prepared by mid-June, as originally planned.

June 17 – Committee members vote 8-2 to maintain the current half-mile setback from a CAFO building to a residential zone. It will be the only recommendation to receive full committee support.

Sept 25 – County CAFO moratorium ends.

Sept 28 – Both majority and minority recommendations are presented by the committee to the public during an open house.

Nov. 2 – An announcement is made that only the majority opinion will be formally considered by county officials, although a copy of the minority opinion will be provided.

Dec. 14 – While the first post-moratorium CAFO expansion is approved, J&A Asset Management announces it will not add additional animals to a proposed enlarged facility on Stafford Road.

2016

Feb. 10 – The Bartholomew County Plan Commission hears 25 residents speak out on the majority recommendations before postponing the hearing.

March 9 – The plan commission approves the majority recommendations in a 6-3 vote, but makes one change to ensure CAFO applicants must continue appearing at public hearing before the board of zoning appeals.

May 23 – The county commissioners give final approval to the ordinance favored as the majority opinion from the committee.

2017

Feb 22 – More than 200 people attend a 90-minute reception to kick off an day-long open house of the newly completed Gelfius CAFO.

Feb 24 – The first batch of 4,400 baby hogs arrive to be raised at the Gelfius facility over the next six months.

Terminology

Difference between CFO and CAFO

In Indiana, an animal feeding operation with 600 or more swine in confinement is a confined feeding operation (CFO).

A concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) is a CFO that meets or exceeds the threshold of 2,500 swine, each weighing 55 pounds or more.

Source: Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Gelfius Farms CAFO

Address: North side of 378-acre farm at 20565 E. County Road 200N in Clifty Township.

Maximum capacity of concentrated animal feeding operation: 4,440 animals.

Operation: An all-in, all-out CAFO that takes in a complete new batch of animals every six months.

Features:

  • Three feeding bins with a total 65-ton capacity with sensor-activated vibration mechanisms.
  • Tubes running from bins directly into troughs within two finishing barns. Each barn is separated into two rooms with multiple pens.
  • Multiple monitoring devices to control water, air and nutrient management.
  • 10-foot concrete manure pit designed to minimize odor and potential health problems,
  • Computerized system for each barn that automatically controls temperature, moisture and ventilation.
  • Bio-security measures include a concrete hall separating the barns, a Room-Alert system that can remotely notify operators of malfunctions, and several doors that can quickly confine areas of concern.
  • Smaller, underground pens installed in regular pens that uses sunlamps to keep baby hogs warm.
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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.