SPRING 1999 - ISSUE NUMBER 47
Hog Factories and State Government Tactics
Jerry and Louise Burns are the perfect model of rural American values and success. They've retired comfortably after a lifetime of raising crops, livestock, and eight fine boys on their farm near Carson City, which Mr. Burns' grandparents settled more than 100 years ago. And they've shared life's joys and sorrows with their neighbors, who live in the same type of family farm cluster of two-story house, big barn, and tall silos every quarter mile or so.
But now a newcomer, with no respect for neighbors or the land, is about to drive the Burnses off their Century Farm. "We were as happy as two peas in a pod until this thing came along," Jerry Burns says. This "thing" is a hog factory, and it stinks. Jerry and Louise now have to keep their windows shut all year against the stench of rotting pig flesh and manure, and people have come to recognize them when they walk into a room just by the smell.
Their story is not unusual. All across rural Michigan, hard-working, country families are now surrounded by hog, dairy, and beef factories, which pump out millions of gallons of sewage and sickening odors without any safety or good-neighbor requirements. State officials, however, are not concerned about the national trend toward industrial-scale livestock operations landing on rural Michigan. The Department of Agriculture and industry lobbyists have actually been working to subsidize and promote the growth of livestock factories here. Since 1993, Michigan has put $100 million into research and assistance for the factories. And state and industry leaders are actively using the state's Right to Farm Act, originally designed to protect traditional farmers from suburbs, to defend the livestock factories against people like Jerry and Louise Burns.
This new agricultural merger of industrial and political forces is one of the most significant threats to the last of Michigan's family farms and rural social fabric, not to mention the quality of life in places like Carson City. But rural people like Jerry and Louise Burns are not giving up and selling out. They're getting organized. State agencies, scientists, and lobbyists are all lined up on the factory farm's side of the fence. But hundreds of people in rural Michigan are tapping their grass roots. They're doing their homework and creating a network through which to advance their own experiences and evidence.
The statewide citizen effort kicked off this winter with a revealing investigation of the Michigan Department of Agriculture's complaint response program. The Michigan Land Use Institute, a grass roots organizing group based in Benzonia, examined internal documents that showed how the Department of Agriculture gives rubber-stamp approval to the livestock operations it reviews, allowing waste problems to persist and pollution to spread.
The investigation also revealed that the Agriculture Department's practices put smaller farms, which often expand haphazardly while trying to compete with the factories, in a double bind. Under the Michigan Right to Farm Act, livestock producers that pass the Department of Agriculture's review receive protection from neighbor's nuisance lawsuits. Department of Agriculture approval does not, however, protect them from fines and court costs for manure spills they could have avoided if the department had done its job.
A prime example is a dairy farm in Kalamazoo County that expanded from 410 cows in 1991 to 2,500 cows in 1998. Two years ago, E. coli concentrations in a stream that runs across the farm tested 130 times higher than maximum allowable levels. Numerous complaints from neighbors over the years were not enough to prevent this pollution because Department of Agriculture inspectors consistently dismissed their concerns with superficial inspections and inadequate responses to chronic problems.
The roots of MDA's failure in this and many other cases go deeper than mere incompetence or indifference. The two basic sources of the problem are: Vague, voluntary guidelines in a Right to Farm Act that was written for traditional farming practices, and a state agency that does not consider the pollution threat from the waste of 2,500 cows or 2,500 hogs to be much different than the waste from 410 cows or hogs.
Jerry Burns says he doesn't know what's worse: The hog factory's stench or state government's tactics. Despite the response program's failures, the Agriculture Department and industry lobbyists are currently arguing that Michigan does not need anything other than voluntary guidelines and superficial inspections to protect rural communities from the industrial-strength odors and waste of livestock factories.
That's why the Burnses and dozens of others around Michigan, including townships and public interest organizations, have joined forces. They are now calling for an audit of the Agriculture Depart-ment's complaint response program, a revamping of the Right to Farm Act, and a requirement that livestock factories go through the same kind of permit and inspection process that municipal sewage systems do.
Michigan has an opportunity to avoid the kind of pollution and community problems that have spread across other states with greater numbers of livestock factories. For more information about the citizens' effort to make the factories and the state accountable to rural communities, please call Patty Cantrell at the Michigan Land Use Institute, 616-882-4723 ext. 18.General Internet site for references:
A project of the Environmental Defense Fund (www.edf.org)
257 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10010
Telephone: (212) 505-2100
Fax: (212) 505-2375
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