Ruling awards hog producer $144,000

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SALEM, Ohio – Darke County, Ohio, hog producer Tony Knapke recently made headway in the expansion of his feeder-to-finish hog operation after a four-year court battle with neighbors who opposed his plans.

Neighbors Steven Longfellow and Everett Hart alleged the expansion would decrease property values and create a nuisance, and requested an injunction against the building. The injunction was denied in late 2000 and, after a dismissed appeal by the plaintiffs, hearings on damages began.

When all was said and done, it was the defendant who came out on top in a case that’s said to be crucial and precedent-setting for animal agriculture in Ohio.

The March 18 decision in Darke County Common Pleas Court by Judge William Millard awarded $144,450 to Knapke and his wife, Anita, for lost income and court-related costs.

Under Ohio law, plaintiffs who seek an injunction against a defendant are liable for damages if the injunction is not granted.

The plaintiffs have appealed the latest decision.

Chain of events. In 1998, Knapke proposed a 1,960-head expansion of his operation to feed hogs under contract for the northwest Ohio-based Cooper Farms corporation. Knapke also operates a 180-sow farrow-to-finish operation.

“Rather than expand my individual herd, I decided to expand in the feeder end of it. At that point, nothing was definite yet and I was still getting things together,” Knapke said.

Before estimates on the construction of two buildings and a wastewater lagoon were returned, Knapke found himself faced with the $10 million class action lawsuit filed by three neighbors. The filing put all financing and planning for the expansion on hold.

“The fact that these neighbors went to court and made these allegations is pretty outrageous,” said Leisa Boley Hellwarth, the couple’s attorney.

Facilities like the one involved in the suit are common in Darke and Mercer counties.

“There are at least 30 others like it in the two counties, so why would this be any different from the others?” she said.

The two counties ranked first and second in the state in hog production in 2000, with a combined 284,000 head of stock and cash receipts of more than $5.3 million.

Testimony. “This was a pretty crucial case. The court is saying the operation and its profits were damaged by the allegations,” Boley Hellwarth said.

“I think the homeowners thought they could intimidate the farmers,” she said, noting most producers are inclined to settle and keep their names out of the news when faced with a lawsuit.

One of the three plaintiffs settled with the Knapkes out of court.

The Knapkes’ defense included testimony by engineers, soil scientists, livestock odor experts and water quality specialists. Their defense also included testimony from some of the farm’s closest neighbors who had no complaints, according to Boley Hellwarth.

Also used in the operation’s defense were records kept by Knapke regarding manure application, weather conditions, and farm operations.

“He had no environmental complaints and good written documentation to back up his management practices, and that only helped him,” Boley Hellwarth said. “The courts love paper.”

Though the expansion did not require a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency, Knapke voluntarily developed a manure nutrient management plan and performed a site assessment. The site “ranked high in standards” for the expansion, according to Boley Hellwarth.

Substantiation. The plaintiffs’ side of the case included testimony from an Iowa family practitioner who “was on a crusade to do away with lagoons,” according to Boley Hellwarth. The testimony included no physical exams or records to back up any of the claims and no scientific evidence, she said.

“It really makes things look like disgruntled suburbia, with absolutely no merit to their claims and a lot of sensationalism about agriculture,” she said. “They had nothing to back up any of their arguments.”

Boley Hellwarth said she was surprised the plaintiffs brought the suit since one plaintiff is a former contractor who built several of the hog barns in the two-county area. Another plaintiff is a nearby grain farmer who leased the farm and raised contract hogs there during bankruptcy hearings before Knapke bought it.

Lester Ferguson of Xenia, the plaintiffs’ attorney, and Hart were not available for comment. Longfellow declined to comment.

The money awarded to the Knapkes includes lost profits and $18,200 in attorney fees. The couple was faced with over $220,000 in legal fees but was financially aided by Cooper Farms and the Ohio Livestock Coalition’s fund designed to help producers pay for precedent-setting lawsuits.

“Particularly now that this is appealed, the final decision could have even more of an impact and precedence on the future of animal agriculture in Ohio,” said David White, executive director of the coalition.

Take-home message. The ruling has sent a clear message to farmers and farm neighbors everywhere.

“The court has sent the message to not interfere with a farm unless you’ve got scientific data to back up your allegations,” Boley Hellwarth said. She said the Ohio nuisance statute generally supports agriculture, provided the farmer goes about everything right.

“It all boils down to a rural power struggle, with someone thinking things are all right until it’s done in their backyard,” Boley Hellwarth said. “But this is what happens when ag gets together and works for something,” she said.

“This whole thing could have been settled over the kitchen table, but I never had the chance,” Knapke said.

“I think it’s great that we won this case. Maybe it will help stop people from going to the courthouse so quick,” he said.

The ruling marks the first time an Ohio farmer has been awarded money in a number of nuisance claims filed, according to Boley Hellwarth.

“Other courts will look at this case to see what to do, so this is definitely a key case for agriculture in the state,” she said.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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