Gene Tinker smelled his own demise in June. He was the worker who oversaw animal feeding operations for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Representatives from the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Pork Producers were in Director Chuck Gipps office complaining that Friday about Tinker educating county boards of supervisors what their capacity might be in objecting to hog confinement sitings.
He was not invited to the meeting.
Afterwards, he asked Gipp if he still had a job. Gipp laughed it off.
On Monday, Tinker said, his supervisor told him to quit educating boards.
Three weeks later he was gone. A victim of budget cuts, they said.
And if you believe that, you might believe that he has not been blackballed from further work for the state.
“I’m shocked at how difficult it has been to get an interview with the state,” Tinker, 56, said with a dollop of sarcasm.
He filed a grievance over his dismissal, after all. Tinker pointed out in his hearing that he was not fired for budget reasons. Fees collected from producers filing manure management plans are supposed to be used, per Iowa Code, strictly for oversight of animal feeding operations. The account had a $1 million carryover every year. The funds were scooped and spent internally for other IDNR functions, including the director’s office, Tinker alleged, which allegations might yet be tested in court.
Tinker started with the DNR 14 years ago after a career for Extension in Minnesota and at Iowa State. He says he was trained as an educator, and saw his obligation as educating everyone about livestock rules.
He is an ag guy. He has been exiled by the state to his farm near Edgewood in northeast Iowa, where he feeds cattle and hogs from about 300 acres. Tinker says it can support him but not the hired man he had running the place, too. So Tinker would prefer finding a job for himself and leave the young hired man alone.
Good luck with that. Fifty-six with a resume in environmental and agricultural public service. Who needs him? So far, nobody. Before him, Gov. Branstad fired Wayne Gieselmann, who used to oversee animal feeding. Wayne just landed a job as a doorman at the Iowa Legislature.
Meantime, oversight of confinements has been relegated to the district offices. Ken Hesenius, the supervisor at Spencer (which covers Buena Vista County) has been given the primary oversight responsibility for the agency. This is in addition to his existing job overseeing the Northwest Iowa region, including the Great Lakes.
It should come as no great surprise that IDNR does not want to enforce livestock rules.
The state government does not want anything done that could possibly get in the way of planting a row of corn or raising a hog indoors.
Tinker points to a dairy farm that built an earthen manure storage basin in a karst soil type. That violates the rules. Two years later, no legal action was taken. The complaint was never even referred to IDNR legal. The lesson to Tinker is that the less complaints there are the better everyone gets along.
Countless other examples abound. When the Des Moines Water Works sued over surface water pollution, the legislature tried to eliminate it. The lawsuit was dismissed after the defendant counties dipped into a bottomless well of dark money fed by the agri-industrial lobby. The legislature could not get the water works dissolved, so it defunded the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University instead.
“Make sure big business can do whatever it wants without limit,” Tinker says. “Everything is hunky dory so long as you don’t do anything.”
They will call him a disgruntled former employee. It was all about the budget.
But we all know better. He was the last man standing between the law and the livestock power players. The ones who were in Gipp’s office in June.
Art Cullen is the editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Storm Lake Times.