Livestock raised on factory farms are a major source of air and water pollution. As these farms continue to grow, the waste they produce becomes an ever increasing problem, but now neighboring communities have started to fight back.

Harrison is a small Arkansas town set in the Ozark Mountains. It has a city hall. Houses set on quaint tree-lined streets, and like any town of this size, a Public Works Department that takes care of city streets and manages waste. In fact, it takes a crew of four people working full time just to manage the waste produced in Harrison, and that system costs millions of dollars to build and run.

5000 hogs make as much waste as a small town like Harrison, so it made for an interesting situation when a HOG CAFO appeared a few miles away in Mt. Judea.

The Cerrell Report, a study done in the ’80’s but still true today, suggests that industry and government often look to poor, economically depressed regions, desperate for jobs, with little political influence or power, to site noxious or undesirable industries. Mt. Judea in particular is one of the lowest populated and poorest regions in one of the poorest states in the country. A large percentage of its population lives below the poverty level. Jobs are scarce and wages are low. Ironically, tourism is one of the largest sources of income in Arkansas and the Buffalo River is an economic engine for Newton County and the Ozarks. Despite this fact, the close proximity of this factor farm to the Buffalo River was not considered when its permit was under review by the state.

Instead, this new facility received permission to jam thousands of hogs into two warehouses. Beside the warehouses they placed two open ponds, which they quickly filled with hog waste. Welcome to Poopytown, a factory farm that produces as much waste as the entire town of nearby Harrison, with one major difference: Harrison spends millions of dollars each year to treat its wastewater, while the waste from this CAFO isn’t treated at all. So where does all that waste go?

The CAFO (which stands for “concentrated animal feeding operation”) spreads millions of gallons of untreated liquid hog waste on nearby fields as part of a plan called “Comprehensive Nutrient Management”. The “nutrient” they’re managing? Hog poop. This poop eventually leaches into the ground, which is a problem, because this region is characterized by topography referred to by geologists as “karst”; imagine a shallow topsoil layer over a highly porous limestone bedrock interlaced with cracks, sinkholes, caves and underground waterways, all of which make it easy for liquid hog waste to seep into the ground and end up Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo River, which Congress declared its first National River in 1972. Picture 135 miles of one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the United States.

The prospect of factory farms polluting this river led people living in the Ozarks to create the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. Working with data collected by scientists and with the support of respected figures in their community, these activists began a campaign to oppose the proliferation of factory farms not only in their community, but across the entire state of Arkansas.

“This is a national river. It belongs to the people of the United States. It is a treasure not only to us, but the nation. We live in one of the poorest, least populated counties in the state, and the Buffalo River pumps millions of dollars into our local economy. And this swine CAFO is the first and largest of its kind that was ever permitted in the state of Arkansas and it’s located five miles upstream on a major tributary of the Buffalo River. As people, individuals like myself, became aware of what a huge threat this was, we began to talk. We began to strategize about what we could do not only to stop this one, but to prevent more from coming into the area.”

Buffalo River Watershed Alliance


When the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) decided to test the water quality of streams near a factory farm built in the area, they got assistance from Dr. Van Brahana, a noted karst hydrogeologist. The Buffalo watershed is characterized by “karst” topography; contaminants can percolate through the region’s porous, limestone substrate to streams and wells miles away from their origin. When Dr. Brahana learned that state officials had granted a permit for building a CAFO in such an ecologically fragile location, he quickly went to work.

Dr. Brahana’s work includes using GROUNDWATER TRACING to record the presence of dyes injected near the hog CAFO, then registered farther downstream. His ongoing collection of data is vital in helping the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance monitor and hold accountable any polluters who might compromise the quality and safety of Arkansas waterways.


A scientist who explains the natural factors affecting water quality (plus the human and land-use activities that result in its contamination), by studying the underlying geology and processes associated with the movement of groundwater and its interconnection to surface waters.


A porous, limestone substrata interlaced with caves, sinkholes, sinking streams, and springs. When a contaminant like untreated hog waste is spread on fields, it percolates through the karst topography’s thin soil layer and finds its way through the cracks, crevices and pores of the soft KARST limestone. Eventually it emerges in springs, streams and wells, often many miles away from where it was applied. In our story, the waste from ahog CAFO endangers nearby Buffalo River, the first national river created in our national park system.


A CAFO is a concentrated animal feed operation. Our story talks about a CAFO used to raise thousands of hogs in two warehouses. These hogs produce as much waste as the nearby town of Harrison, yet there is no wastewater treatment facility on site.


A multiple step process first removes all inorganic solids (everything from tooth brushes to tampons), then separates biosolids from waste waster. Once the volume and odor of this waste is reduced and the presence of harmful microorganisms minimized, solids can be taken either to a landfill or sometimes further processed for use as a soil conditioner while the remaining water is typically disinfected by chlorine or an ultraviolet (UV) system before it cascades down stair-like steps and discharges into a receiving stream (or creek).

That journey includes a BAR SCREEN that removes non-sewage items such as rags, clothing, toothbrushes or solids that might damage or clog the equipment, a
PRIMARY CLARIFIER that slows the water so grit can settle into its cone-shaped bottom, then AERATION TANKS that store this sludge for least 30 days as bacteria breaks the solids down to reduce their volume level before being pumped to the Solids Handling Building. From here they’re pumped into a DIVISION BOX
that splits the wastewater into AERATION BASIN RACETRACKS that remove nitrogen from the wastewater. Cone-shaped tanks in the FINAL CLARIFIER remove additional solids before water is disinfected by an ULTRAVIOLET SYSTEM. Meanwhle sludge is pumped to the SOLID HANDLING BUILDING where a belt press squeezes all the water out, leaving dried biosolids to be land applied by a slinger truck. An ULTRAVIOLET SYSTEM disinfects the remaining water before it cascades down stair-like steps in the FINAL RACEWAY to rebuild oxygen levels before being discharged into receiving stream.

With the notable exception of slinger trucks, none of the aforementioned steps are applied to waste from hog CAFOS.

The story of the Buffalo River owes a great debt to environmentalists like Kenneth L. Smith, author of the Buffalo River Handbook (now in its 9th printing), who capture the essential beauty of this region and have inspired generational of environmental activists that have fallen in their footsteps.

“The Buffalo River is only one part of our environment. No less than for every other living species, our existence depends totally on clean air, clean water, and healthy soil. Along the Buffalo and everywhere else, the human economy depends on the natural economy.”

author, Buffalo River Handbook


The Buffalo River’s pristine state depends on stewardship of the surrounding watershed. CAFOs store animal waste in open lagoons and spray it on neighboring fields, posing a serious threat to water quality everywhere. When government agencies are slow to provide oversight, organizations like the BUFFALO RIVER WATERSHED ALLIANCE (BRWA) step in to ensure the region’s water quality. BRWA is a 501c3non-profit group with over 2,500 supporters. Their goals include halting the CAFO and have it relocated outside of the Buffalo River Watershed and preventing future construction of hog CAFOs in the area. To get involved you can sign up for their newsletter here.


People who appreciate the inherent value of clean, abundant water and work to protect, preserve and improve their watersheds.




Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Douglas Gayeton
Before we start, can you give us your background?
Gordon Watkins

I grew up in Mississippi and Washington, DC, the son of a civil rights attorney during the turmoil of the ’60s. I often came to the Ozarks for a respite during my teen years and fell in love with the region, and especially the Buffalo River country. I went to college in Memphis, met my wife, Susan, and we moved to the Ozarks in the mid-’70’s as back-to-the-landers. We built a homestead and became some of the earliest organic farmers in the state. I helped develop the language of the Organic Foods Production Act in the 1985 Farm Bill and helped organize farmers in 3 states by creating the Ozark Organic Growers Assn. I also helped create a marketing cooperative, the Ozark Small Farm Viability Project, a technical assistance provider, and FORGE, a community loan fund for small farmers. In addition to farming, we have a tourism business with rental cabins for those who visit the Buffalo National River.

Douglas Gayeton
Can you tell us how and why the members of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance originally mobilized?
Gordon Watkins
BRWA was created in 2013 in direct response to the alarming discovery that a 6,500-head swine CAFO, located just 5 miles up a major tributary of the Buffalo National River, had been quietly approved by the state and was 90% built before the public first knew of its presence. Only when the National Park Service, stewards of the Buffalo National River, became aware of it in late 2012 and wrote a scathing letter to FSA did the general public discover what had happened. C&H Hog Farms had been quietly approved by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) without public notice or the opportunity to comment. Those who treasure the Buffalo, and depend on the economic benefits in provides for our poor area, were aghast that the state allowed this facility to be built in this highly sensitive and ecologically fragile location. In early 2013 the numbers of concerned citizens rapidly grew and what had been an informal group ultimately coalesced into BRWA. We’re now a 501c3 non-profit organization with almost 1,100 supporters.
Douglas Gayeton
Would you define yourselves as “watershed activists”?
Gordon Watkins
Yes. Watersheds are the most basic natural feature that defines a bioregion. All water has its source in a watershed. Watershed activists appreciate the inherent value of clean, abundant water and work to protect, preserve and improve their watersheds. David Brower said, “Think globally, act locally”. Watershed protection is a prime example of how local action can have global consequences – we all live downstream.
Douglas Gayeton
Why is the Buffalo River Watershed a bad geologic site for a CAFO?
Gordon Watkins
The Buffalo watershed, and the Ozarks in general, is a karst region typified by thin, shallow poor soils atop a porous, limestone substrata. The region is characterized by caves, sinkholes, sinking streams, springs, and other karst features. When a contaminant, such as raw, untreated swine waste, is applied, especially in large qualities to small areas, it percolates through the thin soil layer and finds its way through the cracks, crevices and pores of the soft limestone, and eventually emerges in springs, streams and wells, often many miles away from where it was applied. This karst characteristic makes our ground and surface waters particularly fragile and vulnerable to contamination, so this region is among the worst possible locations for a swine CAFO.
Douglas Gayeton
Is the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance a model for community empowerment?
Gordon Watkins
We hope that anyone concerned about threats to their watersheds would see us as an example of what can be accomplished by concerned citizens with a shared goal. In a short period we have built a large base of support such that we are now able to influence state regulations and legislative actions. For example, the previously lax requirements for public notification of new CAFO permits have been significantly strengthened as a result of our efforts. We think it is unlikely there will be more swine CAFOs in the Buffalo watershed and we continue working to close the existing one. The power of our numbers has given voice to the voiceless.
Douglas Gayeton
The CAFO here hasn’t been shut down. Does that remain your goal?
Gordon Watkins
We have two goals, actually. Number one, to halt this operation, to have it closed or relocated outside of the Buffalo River Watershed. Second, to prevent any future swine CAFOs from coming into the Buffalo River Watershed. So we’re a very narrow focused, localized organization. Still, we’ve drawn attention from wide outside of our local area, because this is a national river. A lot of people don’t even know about the Buffalo National River, much less this threat to it, it’s been a well kept secret in the national parks system for years, but it’s enjoyed by millions every year. If they were to close sections of the Buffalo National River or post warning signs along sections of the Buffalo River warning against human contact because E. coli and bacteria levels exceeded what was acceptable, which is a distinct possibility, that will have a chilling ripple effect through not only our local economy here but throughout the state.
Douglas Gayeton
Is there something you’ve learned from this experience that other community organizations or groups could apply to challenges, like the arrival of CAFOS, in their own communities?
Gordon Watkins
I’ve learnt there’s a steep learning curve; the more people you can get involved who are knowledgeable about specific aspects of the problem, the quicker you’re able to respond. We’ve had to learn how about state regulations, about how our state legislature operates, how our governor’s office operates, had to learn about hydrogeology and how fluids move through soils. So within our group we have a hydrogeologist, a geologist, soil scientists, and farmers like myself who understand soil science and nutrition and the distinction between a nutrient and waste. I also think the lesson we learned is to reach out to as broad a spectrum of people as possible with as wide a knowledge base as possible and bring them into the fold.




Gordon Watkins only discovered, like most activists, that he possessed the ability to organize large groups of people and devise effective legal strategies after finding hmself in a dire predicament: a hog CAFO suddenly appeared in his rural Ozark community deep in the hinterlands of Northwest Arkansas.

He and I arranged to meet early one Sunday morning at Steel Creek, a campground on the Buffalo River. I expected to sit beside a stream and listen to his impassioned defense of one of the most pristine rivers in the nation. But something else happened. Yes, I met Gordon and we sat beside the river. But we were joined by hundreds of other passionate folks from neighboring communities. They came with stories and they came with signs. Woody Allen once famously said that “eighty percent of life is showing up.” Perhaps the other twenty percent is to show up with a sign.

Have a good sign or additional Activist Tools to share? Write us at


Iowa CCI has blocked over 100 factory farms from building or expanding their operations, and now they’ve gathered a series of tools you can use to topple the goliaths in your own community. These give you the ins and outs on everything with Factory Farm FAQs, Sample Petitions, Sample Letters to the Editor, Distance Charts, Rules & Regulations and tips for how to develop effective Three-Prong Strategies. You can download their toolkit here.

Rules and Regulations

3 Pronged Strategy

What We Can Do

Sample Petition

Separation – Distance Charts

Factory Farm Fact Sheet

Sample Resolution

Letter to the Editor