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The battle to protect the Buffalo National River is far from over.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson delivered a "wow" moment in Little Rock Thursday with his announcement the state and the owners of C&H Hog Farms had agreed to shut down the 6,500-hog operation near Big Creek in Newton County. We taxpayers will provide most of the $6.2 million payment to the owners of the hog farm.

In exchange, they promise to shut down operations within six months. The money will cover the remaining balance on a multimillion loan and provide some compensation to the farmers, who will end their contract with Brazil-based JBS Pork. The land will become state property and will carry a conservation easement, limiting its future use.

The state messed up royally in issuing the initial permit for the hog farm, which has operated since 2013. More recently, the state has ordered the farm to close, citing water quality concerns in the Buffalo River Watershed and insufficient geological investigations of the area's karst terrain.

Prior to Thursday, it was virtually assured that the farm owners, the state and other interested parties were going to spend the next several years in litigation. The family that opened C&H wanted to farm; they didn't get into farming so that they could spend hours upon hours in suits with lawyers in offices and courtrooms.

Hutchinson found what, in my mind, was an almost perfect solution: Make the farmers whole, acknowledge the state's responsibility to do much, much more in protecting the Buffalo and acknowledge its failures in the C&H debacle, and establish a moratorium on such environmentally challenging, large-scale farm operations within the watershed of the Buffalo National River.

Problem solved, right? Well, maybe not so fast.

This hasn't all just been about hogs and the byproduct of feeding them. The Arkansas Farm Bureau has vigorously battled on behalf of the farm operation. It seems the organization saw C&H as a sort of line in the dirt: Was Arkansas going to protect farmers or treat them as the enemy?

Warren Carter, executive vice president of the Farm Bureau, recently wrote in a guest commentary in this paper of the organization's struggle to keep C&H "open and operating." He blamed the challenges faced by C&H on "very vocal folks who don't like where that farm is located and believe if they scream loud and long enough and clutter the conversation with falsehoods, they can make the farm go away."

Jason Henson, one of the owners of C&H, said last week he and his two cousins/partners appreciate supporters who spent time "defending our right to farm."

Those comments provides some indication that the fight over the Buffalo is viewed by farming interests as one of property rights and preserving family farms. That, without question, ought to be a goal the state of Arkansas and the Farm Bureau generally can share.

Carter last month opined that the C&H families followed Arkansas' rules and ought to be left alone. But Hutchinson said last week the state should have never permitted the hog farm in the watershed. Now, Hutchinson says the state should make permanent a now-temporary ban on medium- and large-scale hog farms within the Buffalo River watershed. He's instructed the Department of Environmental Quality to start the rule-making process. Don't think for a second that means a permanent ban is a shoo-in. It would not be surprising at all that the Farm Bureau might fight such a change.

The state won't be offering million-dollar payouts to other landowners whose future farming options would be limited to some degree by a state ban within the Buffalo River watershed. Will the Farm Bureau sit still for that, or view it as a precedent that ill serves the interests of farming in an agricultural state?

Commentary on 06/16/2019

Print Headline: Hog farm pact not final word

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