No more dairy

Demolition of Elmwood dairy starts Monday

For The Weekly Post

ELMWOOD – Demolition of a controversial dairy south of town starts Monday, and new owners of the property pledge there will never be a concentrated animal feeding operation there again.

Doug and Diane Oberhelman purchased the 73-acre property after a Sheriff’s auction in late May for $160,000 from the Bank of Yates City. The Oberhelmans are the fifth owners of the dairy, whose last operators declared bankruptcy and were forced to halt operations.

That should effectively close the book on a mass milking operation that opened in the late 1990s and has struggled to find success ever since, with problems ranging from bankruptcy to battles with the Environmental Protection Agency.

There have been no cattle on the property since the most recent dairy operator – the Etcher family of Lovilia, Iowa – declared bankruptcy in 2018. Doug Oberhelman said there will be no more dairy cows there again, either.

“For 20 years, that’s been an eyesore and a nose sore for all of us. Moving forward, we want to make sure it’s something everybody in the community will be proud of and we’ll have no issues with the neighbors,” said Oberhelman, a former Caterpillar Inc. CEO who owns 1,437 acres west of the former dairy. “I could see where we could bale hay from time to time and maybe graze a few pastured cattle. But there will never be an issue with a CAFO or mass manure on that property again.”

Previous attempts to sell the dairy at auction in 2019 met with no success, as some would-be operators said the 1,800-head operation was too small to make a profit.

Starting Monday, that will no longer be an issue. Hitchcock Scrap Yard from Canton is scheduled to start tearing down, hauling away and recycling steel from buildings on the site.

“Everything metal on the property will be gone with the exception of the big shop on the north end and the scale,” Oberhelman said. “Everything down to the cement.”

Lots of cement. About 230,000 square feet worth. Disposal of that will take longer than demolition of the buildings, Oberhelman said.

“I’m going to take some time to see what options there are for that. Ideally I would like to break it up and remove it,” Oberhelman said. “But people will be able to see a lot of progress very quickly.”

Eventually, Oberhelman said he will plant trees, prairie grasses and native forbs and wildflowers on the property. That’s why the LLC affiliated with the property is Elmwood Habitat LLC.

“Our family is very committed to the Peoria region and we all love Elmwood,” Diane Oberhelman said. “Doug and I and our family want to be great stewards of the land, leave it a better place and hope our small part in returning the dairy land to habitat does just that.”

After the buildings are gone, Doug Oberhelman plans to address the 41-million gallon waste lagoon, which has been at the center of several problems for the dairy.

Oberhelman said the current level of liquid in the lagoon is “well within the EPA requirement” or he would not have purchased the property. His plan later this summer is to pump out all liquid to spread on farm fields.

“It’s mostly water at this point,” he said. “That will reveal the amount of solid in the bottom. Then we’ll determine what to do with that. At that stage it will be no harm to anyone and no risk of harm to anyone.”

Oberhelman said he will grant an easement to Elmwood Township for upkeep of an old Civil War cemetery located on the property.

“Everyone has been very positive, which makes me feel good about this,” Oberhelman said.

The Oberhelmans also praised the efforts of the Bank of Yates City, which wound up with the property after the Etcher bankruptcy.

“They did a phenomenal job for the year or two they had it, cleaning up the manure and dead animals and all the organic material that was creating problems,” Oberhelman said. “They were the best owner of that property in 20 years.”