WHITLEY COUNTY — “We’re all passionate about Whitley County. The farmer want to stay here, we want the lake people to stay here. We’re what makes our community. It shouldn’t be about conflict.”

Kelly Sheiss spoke to a group of about 40 Whitley County farmers who attended an Indiana Farm Bureau meeting last week. The farmers gathered to work together after increasingly feeling that their livelihood is under fire.

“We have to be proud and loud about what we do,” Sheiss said. “It’s vitally important to continue educating the general public about what we do.”

While there has been about 30 Confined Feeding Operations in Whitley County for the past several years, most of which were approved without conflict, several farmers have struggled recently due to push-back from neighboring property owners.

Farmers in the group want to disspell rumors and educate the public, especially those who serve on decision-making boards.

All in the family

“We want to continue agriculture for everyone,” Sheiss said. “We want to protect it for you, for our children, our grandchildren. We’re a special group that protects earth’s resources and feed a lot of people in the process.”

The group wants people to know that most farms are multigenerational, many with fourth generation farmers. Because the industry is changing, farmers are looking to CFOs to share resources within the family and ensure the farm will be profitable for years to come.

Shady Grove Farms, owned by the Johnson Family near Churubusco, began in 1947 and has continued to grow as new generations grow. Now, the farm is owned by six family members, farming over 5,000 acres and producing about 20,000 finished hogs per year.

“We came together as a family and decided we wanted to keep this as a family farm,” Mark Johnson said. “We could either have six individual farms, or stay as a family and work together.”

The Johnsons have had no issues with approval of their CFO permits, one of which took place just before the Lopez Farm had conflict when trying to grow its chicken operation.

Being good neighbors

Though some neighbors have been upset with CFOs, the Johnsons said their relationships with neighbors have been mutually beneficial.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Johnson said. “They moved to the country to live in the country — they don’t want more houses around. By us farming all of this land, there aren’t new houses being built around them.

“We have a lot of animals here, and they know that. We do what we can to be good neighbors to them.”

Many have cited concerns with groundwater, lake water and farm smells for being opposed to CFOs, however, the Johnsons said many who visit their farm barely smell an odor unless they venture far off the roadway to the hog barns.

The Johnsons use manure from the thousands of hogs raised as fertilizer for their crops. Many farmers use soil tests and GPS technology to track where and when manure should be spread, based on what crops will occupy the fields.

“It’s a valuable resource. We aren’t just dumping it. We want the crop to be at its fullest potential,” Johnson said.

Hinen Family Farms has been under fire after applying for a CFO in northern Whitley County, on State Road 9 near Tri-Lakes. Some of the proposed manure spreading areas for the CFO are near Tri-Lakes, which caused concern by lake residents, forming the group Whitley Water Matters to combat the CFO approval.

However, farmers argue that they too care about surrounding lakes and groundwater. Farmers with CFO status are especially held accountable for manure handling and are closely monitored by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

“We are not going to do something to harm our farmland,” Sheiss said.

Lucas More, a local farmer, noted that there are other factors causing issues with drinking water, such as the county’s former landfill, also in the northern part of the county. The landfill reportedly caused arsenic to be in the drinking water at Northern Heights Elementary School. Another concern is lawn fertilizers, which aren’t always used correctly and often end up running off lawns and into lakes and rivers.

Education effort

Local farmers have created a Facebook group, “Whitley County Farmers Matter,” to network with each other and formulate a plan to educate the public.

“We need to get people to our farms — put faces with names,” Sheiss said. “I know we have a lot of work to do. We need to have face-to-face discussions and talk to the people who are making the decisions. They need to make an educated decision.”

Whitley County is a state, national and world leader in youth agriculture programs. Columbia City High School’s FFA livestock judging team recently traveled overseas for an international contest after winning the national title. Several 4-Hers have been successful at the state fair.

Whitley County farmers want the public to know their farms aren’t “factory farms;” they’re family-owned farms that often run generations deep. Eighty-five percent of Whitley County is zoned agricultural. As of a 2014 census, there were 30 CFOs recorded in Whitley County, which contained over 50,000 animals total.

Whitley County farmers fear the current climate and push-back local farmers are receiving will discourage future generations from staying in Whitley County.

“There has been a lot of talk about retaining young people in Whitley County, but we’re telling a whole segment of our population that we don’t want them,” Sheiss said. “The kids won’t wait, they’ll go somewhere else that they’re wanted.

“We’re a quiet, proud industry. We do what we need to do to follow the rules and we do what we need to do to produce, but we have to have our voices heard. We have a lot of people in Whitley County who support us.”