(Columbus, KY, May 2, 2012) – The story on Monday looked dire. Michael Russell had already received a construction permit from the Kentucky Division of Water to construct a 4800 pig capacity animal waste disposal system on Bluff Road near Columbus.
Bluff Road, at Kentucky 123 West, parallels the Mississippi River and is a mile, more or less, from Columbus Belmont State Park. Russell’s planned hog barn would be south of the tiny town of Columbus (pop. 350) and the Park. Prevailing winds from the south would carry eau de pig over residents and campers alike.
Agriculture is in the bones and blood of this rural far western county. Wheat, corn and soybeans grow on thousands of acres of rolling hills and flat bottomed fields. Hickman County has more chicken barns (200) than any other county in the state. Waste from chickens gets turned into fertilizer to be spread on the thousands of acres of row crops that stretch as far as the eye can see. Chicken barns, located off main roadways, do not produce smells that drift over locals in a big way. There are smells, of course, but residents, by and large, don’t seem to mind.
Just this past weekend, chicken growing was celebrated with the Second Annual Spring Chicken Festival held in Clinton, the county seat. Festival goers ate chicken, danced like chickens, crowed like chickens and displayed all manner of chicken related memorabilia.
Hog production is a different story. Hog barns that shelter over 4000 hogs have been fought by residents and environmentalists from Marshall to Fulton Counties, with mixed results. Hog waste is blamed for air and ground water pollution, river fish kills and respiratory ailments. Hog waste, collected in pools under the barns, is pumped out and transported to be spread on fields or otherwise disposed. Overfilling a field with the liquid waste can cause damage to local waterways. When there is a spill from a truck or an accident, it can be a big one. Each hog can excrete six pounds or more of waste each day.
So when Hickman Countian and former chicken farmer Michael Russell filed county and state permits to build a hog barn near Columbus, things began to happen.
Hickman County residents support agriculture, but the size, scope and location of this operation presented a problem. Many said that they didn’t mind a hog barn, just not where it would be located. Others saw the barn as the first of many to come.
Columbus residents had a sense of déjà vu recalling beating back a huge landfill over ten years ago. The proposed landfill would have accommodated trash from the Northeast brought in by barge.
Russell received a construction permit from the state. The county had questions and never issued its permit. Newspaper articles were written. Local officials and upset residents met and talked. They facebooked and texted and tweeted. They called state government. The word that Russell would raise hogs for Tosh Farms was taken to mean that the hog barn would be a serious commercial enterprise.
Hickman County Judge Greg Pruitt, visiting Frankfort with Carlisle County Judge Greg Terry, met with the Kentucky Secretary of Tourism about the proposed hog farm. Columbus Belmont Park hosts around 100,000 visitors every year. Civil War Days in October draws visitors from several states. The Park campground was named one of the best in the nation only a few years ago.
When Pruitt got back to Clinton, he received a phone call from Jimmy Tosh, head of Tosh Farms.
Tosh said that “he would not work with a facility located at the location we’ve been talking about.” Tosh told Pruitt that he didn’t know there was a park near the site and he would not be supplying hogs to that location.
Later that day, Michael Russell called to withdraw his application for the Bluff Road barn. Russell told Pruitt that he would be looking for another location.
Pruitt recounted the conversations at a meeting of the Friends of Columbus Belmont Park on Tuesday evening. When asked if Russell had withdrawn his state construction application, Pruitt wasn’t sure. He was sure that the county application filed by Russell would go “in a drawer tomorrow.”
Local residents have to believe that someone up there in Frankfort likes them. Someone in the Capitol got the message that, while the hog farm is "economic development, creating two jobs according to a story in this week's Hickman County Gazette, with a vagrant puff of wind, it would destroy a tourism industry built around Columbus Belmont State Park.
The potential of run off into the Mississippi River, damage to the water table, stress on the narrow winding Bluff Road, opposition from Hickman County’s largest employer, Ingram Barge were arguments that never had to be made to the powers that be. River Countians were reminded that Frankfort does remember the award winning scenic Civil War Park far to the west.
There is happy ending for Columbus. Forty eight hundred hogs will not be living nearby.
That doesn’t mean that Russell won’t try to put his operation near Oakton or Fulgham or Clinton. Residents, elated that “their” Park is safe, understand that Mr. Russell and Mr. Tosh have only given up on one spot. If they locate their hog operation near another small community with no signature landmark, they may not face the resistance created by the threat to Columbus Belmont State Park.