Dairy farmer and county commissioner Mike Yoder believes that incorporating animal agriculture into land-use plans can help communities protect the environment and boost their economy. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
A couple years ago, Albert Heber sat working on his laptop computer in a most unlikely place—a beach in Australia . He was there with his family on a windy day when flags warned beachcombers of the dangers of wading too far into the ocean.
But Heber, a Purdue University researcher, wandered into the frothy waters to experience the largest waves he had ever seen. It wasn't long before he realized his mistake of getting in too deep.
“I saw the wave curling over me, and that wave put me underneath the water,” Heber recalls. “And then the next wave suddenly hit me, and then quickly another. I just barely made it back to safety.”
Heber, an expert on farm-air quality, compares his overwhelming ocean experience to the “waves” that some livestock producers may feel they are drowning under. “The first wave that hits them is odor-related lawsuits from citizens. Second, there are state regulations and related state lawsuits,” he says. “The third wave is federal enforcement.” Other waves that roll over the industry include water-quality concerns, waste management, flies and other pests, and economic competition.
The livestock industry faces many challenging changes. At a time when the worldwide demand for meat is increasing—and operations are expanding—so are expectations placed on the industry. Environmental concerns top the list.
And while livestock farms are changing, so are the neighbors. Producers must raise animals in an effective and efficient manner that least affects the growing number of people who now call the countryside home.
This new environment in which the industry must operate is the basis for Heber's most ambitious research project yet. He heads a national, multimillion-dollar study to measure dust, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other air-quality elements associated with livestock operations.
Findings from the two-year project will help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establish air-emissions factors for the livestock and poultry industries. Currently, he says, only a limited amount of data exists to determine the types of operations and management practices that may produce emissions exceeding legal limits.
"The study will not determine acceptable levels because there are already EPA thresholds,” Heber says. “However, it will add to our understanding of how air pollutants and odor are emitted from farms. The dynamics of the emissions can be just as important as the total quantity of pollutants.”
In essence, the science should add some certainty regarding how emissions travel and what neighbors may experience.