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Erik Burgess, Published August 26 2012

Baers updating poultry farms

RURAL LAKE PARK, Minn. – For decades, the noses of residents here have been familiar with the Baer family poultry farms that straddle the border between Clay and Becker counties.

The Baer family, whose four brothers now own multiple farms in eastern Clay County, has a history of neighborhood complaints about their handling of livestock manure, which used to be allowed to mix with rain and run off into nearby waterways.

The smell and environmental impact were undeniable for neighbors and county officials.

Newer technologies have since been created that lessen the impact on the nose and the environment, and the Baers are updating their farms to make them safer and more efficient.

Amos Baer, president of Baer Poultry, said his farm is planning a barn upgrade that will remove their last remaining liquid manure pit and double their total chicken capacity.

But it all could be for naught.

Congress currently is discussing federal legislation that would require the cage sizes for chickens to double, which could halve the Baers’ production.

The Baers say they’ll still be able to operate, but whether or not the legislation will prevent them from paying off the new barn and staying afloat is another topic.

“Then the question becomes whether there’s enough money in the industry to pay for that,” Amos said. “You’d have half the income.”

‘A real sore spot’

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been concerned about the environmental impact of Baer manure runoff into Axeberg Lake since the 1960s.

“There was major pollution going on out there,” said Paul Krabbenhoft, chairman of the Clay County Planning Commission. “It was a real sore spot.”

Problems extended into the 1980s, and county meetings from that time are somewhat infamous among officials now, Krabbenhoft said.

“We’d have a room full of people complaining about odor and flies and mismanagement of manure,” Krabbenhoft said. “It was just crazy.”

Community complaints about the Baers have significantly decreased in recent years, Krabbenhoft said, and to his knowledge, dumping in Axeberg Lake has ceased.

Manure mixing with water troughs and running into waterways was common at the time, Amos Baer said, but not anymore.

He is planning to remove his last liquid manure pit and replace it with a fan system that dries the waste and stores it in a building, not a lagoon.

Amos Baer said the MPCA “tentatively put their endorsement” on the project, pending an environmental review that is due to be completed Sept. 5.

The two barns that Baer runs have never dumped manure into external waterways, he said, and the lagoon they are replacing is unique because it’s self-contained. But the new dry system is still more environmentally friendly and would allow the Baers to sell the dried manure to organic farmers.

Above all, though, the update is a business necessity, said Benedikt Baer, manager of the farm and Amos’ son. Their equipment is old and in dire need of an upgrade.

Krabbenhoft, who’s worked in county and state agencies for more than 20 years, said the changes should address the old concerns from neighbors.

“I’ve been in the buildings. I’ve stood next to the manure piles, the air-dried product that they export,” he said. “I am impressed. I’m just very, very pleased.”

Room for the birds

If the federal legislation, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., passes, chicken farms with more than 3,000 birds would be required to double cage size.

The proposal is based on California’s Proposition 2, which mandates a chicken be able to stand up and spread its wings in a cage.

Amos Baer said they’re in talks with lawmakers, who remain uncertain about the future of the proposal.

Currently, the Baer barn scheduled for upgrade can hold 140,000 birds, and would be able to hold 280,000 after the upgrade. Benedikt Baer said each of his hens have about 42 square inches of space. The proposal likely would require that space double.

Amos Baer’s farm is unique in his family because he raises pullets – chickens younger than 18 weeks that cannot yet lay eggs. When they get to be egg-laying age, he sells them to egg farms, including those of his three brothers.

The proposed law might not affect pullets, but it still will affect the companies that buy them from the Baer when they reach egg-laying age.

“It will affect us because of the decreased capacity that our customers will be able to take,” Benedikt Baer said.

Amos Baer says the life of the new barn would be about 30 years. The new law would require farmers to replace caging by 2030, decreasing by about 12 years the life of the new barn, which is being updated by the smaller-size standards.

“We’ll have 15 years to operate,” Amos Baer said. “We don’t know whether it’ll be paid for by then.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518