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Wednesday, April 15, 2009 08:24 pm

Bigger isn’t always better

Karen Hudson has become a reluctant expert on the consequences of concentrated animal feeding operations

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Hudson hugs a piglet in Poland in 2001.
Karen Hudson marches with Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 2007.
PHOTO BY PAUL NATKIN

Karen Hudson didn’t know what to think when she first learned that factory farming was coming to her town. Elmwood, Ill., is a small but prosperous bedroom community about 20 miles west of Peoria, and a retired Caterpillar worker who owned some acreage there wanted to construct a “swine finishing” facility to raise hogs, a few thousand at a time, for the North Carolina-based pork-producing giant Murphy Family Farms. Hudson attended an informational meeting at Elmwood High School, and asked one of the guest speakers to send her more information.

A few days later, she received a book in the mail: Understanding the Impacts of Large-Scale Swine Production. She curled up in the window seat in one corner of her kitchen, read the entire 200-page scientific study in one night, and resolved to do everything she could to try to stop the hog farm. That was in 1996, and Hudson’s life has never been the same.

At the time, she didn’t foresee that this one simple decision would soon turn her home phone into a national hotline, her guest room into a cramped office, and her basement into a library of scholarly studies and manure management manuals. She couldn’t have predicted that she would find herself making speeches at scientific gatherings like the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, or that she would be interviewed by media ranging from the Washington Post to Forbes magazine to Japanese Daily American. She didn’t imagine that she would network with the likes of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance) and Farm Aid founder Willie Nelson, or that she would tour pig farms in Poland. She certainly never dreamed that, despite her fear of flying, she would learn to lean out of airplane windows to take pictures of massive animal excrement spills.

No, at the time, she just wanted to keep this one hog farm away, and she was only halfway successful at that.

With some likeminded neighbors, Hudson — who lives on a corn and soybean farm that has been in her husband Rocky’s family for five generations — started a group called Families Against Rural Messes, or FARM, hoping the catchy name would help generate publicity. One of their first initiatives took advantage of the annual Spoon River Valley Scenic Drive: FARM hosted an informational booth featuring a map showing other nearby communities where factory farms were in the planning phases, and a roll of butcher paper people could sign to ask then-Gov. Jim Edgar to intervene. Hundreds of people signed the petition. “It was the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Hudson says.

Murphy Family Farms abandoned its Elmwood site, citing potential drainage problems, and moved a little ways north to Knox County. The Elmwood property owner, however, brought in a different factory farm — a 1,250-head dairy operation.

Over the next few years, Inwood Dairy changed hands several times and is now called New Horizons, with a herd Hudson estimates at 1,600. The dairy has had numerous notices of violation, and in 2001 created a massive manure spill, purposely dumping 2 million gallons of waste into a ravine as a precaution to prevent the overflow of the dairy’s 41-million-gallon lagoon. No longer her sole focus, the nearby dairy has nevertheless provided Hudson with a constant reminder of why she quit her job with CILCO to work full time educating people about the hazards of industrial agriculture.

“I got bit by the bug of this-is-not-right,” she says.

Factory farming or industrial agriculture — whichever term you want to use, it sounds like an oxymoron. The image conjured up by the words “factory” or “industrial” are fundamentally opposite to the pastoral image associated with the words “farming” or “agriculture.”

But these mega-farms have managed to change animal husbandry into a process reminiscent of an assembly line, with animals artificially inseminated, raised in age-segregated environments (to prevent young animals from passing disease to older animals, and vice versa), fed a diet of supplements to speed their development, and then shipped off to a slaughterhouse without ever getting to roll in the hay or root around in the mud. Controlling the process “from semen to cellophane” is big ag’s mantra.

Illinois has more of these concentrated feeding operations, or CAFOs, than most states. Using U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2002 census, Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington D.C., ranked Illinois as having one of the highest concentrations of factory farms in the U.S., with the 4th highest number of swine CAFOs — 970, with a total of more than 3.4 million hogs — behind Iowa, Minnesota, and North Carolina. Though Illinois has a relatively small number of beef feedlots compared to no. 1 Nebraska, our state still ranks 7th with 139 facilities, and more than 124,000 head.

The modern system involves raising large numbers of livestock in relatively small spaces: according to guidelines promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency, any hog farm bigger than 2,500 head, beef operation larger than 1,000 head, or dairy farm with more than 700 cows counts as a CAFO. The animals are mostly kept in sheds, in small pens or crates on concrete floors that have slats to allow excrement to accumulate in an underground pit or be piped outside into massive holding ponds, called lagoons.

In 2006, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency observed 63 livestock facilities using underground pits, 28 using lagoons, and 13 using holding ponds. However, these numbers reflect only the facilities IEPA inspectors visited; there’s no publicly-available list of the number or location of CAFOs in Illinois.

There’s something undeniably unnatural about animals spending their lives indoors, in such absurdly large numbers, in such obscenely cramped quarters. David Kirby, a New York Times reporter now writing a book on CAFOs, has visited many factory farms and says even the “model” CAFOs are disturbing.

“It’s still depressing, I’m sorry. Pigs and cows and chickens want to be outside,” Kirby says. “Man’s laws can’t change nature’s laws.”

But Hudson — one of the three main characters in Kirby’s book — doesn’t waste her time talking about the health and comfort of the animals.

“The Farm Bureau likes to call me PETA,” she says, referring to the radical group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “They have their place in society, but I’m not PETA.”

Instead, Hudson focuses mainly on the effects factory farms have on human beings, and their first awareness of the problem usually involves the smell. In certain weather conditions, a motorist speeding down the interstate can catch a whiff of a CAFO.

The most obvious problem with putting so many animals on such relatively small acreage is that the animals produce more excrement than the land can absorb. Corporate farmers recognize the problem by drawing up so-called “nutrient management plans” with maps showing where the poop will be distributed — usually on the fields of cash crop farmers willing to accept the fertilizer. Some factory farms use systems that inject the excrement into the soil; most use simpler sprinkler-type systems that simply spray animal excrement around in a circle.

But the complicated calculus of “NMPs,” as they’re called in the biz, can go awry if, for example, rainy weather raises the level of the poop lagoons at the same time fields are too saturated to absorb liquid waste. Such dilemmas lead to corner-cutting like over-application of fertilizer, spraying beyond promised boundaries, and pumping raw animal sewage into waterways to relieve the pressure on swollen lagoons.

During a particularly wet season in 2001, Hudson got a tip that the nearby dairy was pumping millions of gallons of waste from a lagoon into a creek. She took a friend up on his standing offer to ride in his private airplane, and took her camera and two TV news crews along. She has aerial photos of a pumper posed next to a monstrous river of liquid dung. “It looks like they’re trying to suck up the Atlantic Ocean with a straw,” she says.

That same year, Hudson was invited to provide the “grassroots perspective” on factory farming at a conference with the lyrical title, Managing Manure in Harmony with the Environment and Society, in Ames, Iowa. For that occasion, she stitched together the most colorful tidbits of evidence gleaned from her basement library of studies into a scholarly report called “Rural Residents’ Perspectives on Livestock Factories: A Patchwork of Rural Injustice.”

That report, with occasional updates, has become her standard spiel. It’s scientific enough to recite in academic settings, and graphic enough to keep the attention of citizen groups who have called her in for advice upon learning that a CAFO is coming.

For example, in “Patchwork” Hudson lists state agencies and university studies that have documented lagoon leaks in Iowa (70 percent of the earthen lagoons were leaking faster than allowed), Kansas (one lagoon alone was projected to leak more than 87 million gallons over its life span), and Minnesota (some lagoons were leaking 500 gallons per acre per day).

In Illinois, policing leaks and other pollution violations is left to the IEPA, which is staffed with only five inspectors to monitor some 35,000 farms, large and small. IEPA’s current policy opts the agency out of any pollution permitting process [see “Land of stinkin’ ” April 8, 2008], limiting the inspectors’ work to responding to citizen complaints. Once it receives a complaint, the agency has six months to file a notice to the facility, and the farmer has another 45 days to respond. If the farmer proposes a solution (digging an additional lagoon, for example), the IEPA can enter into a compliance agreement with the farmer.

The IEPA’s 2006 report documented more than 60 farm facilities in violation of waste handling, storage and runoff controls requirements and 18 with air emissions violations. Seventy percent of the facilities IEPA contacted in 2006 had more than one violation.

Runoff isn’t just viscerally disgusting: the Center for Disease Control found that manure lagoons harbor bacteria, parasites, nitrates, pathogens, heavy metals and antibiotics. The antibiotics have been fed to the animals routinely, usually along with growth hormone, for decades. It’s a proven method for producing bigger, healthier animals, but there’s an unintended side effect: Along with the more robust animals come more robust, antibiotic-resistant bugs. In 2000, the World Health Organization linked farmers and livestock producers to a surge in drug-resistant infections.

Last month, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof devoted two editorials to the link between hog farms and MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which kills 18,000 Americans per year. Kristof cited studies from the Netherlands, where pork production is industrialized, showing that Dutch pig farmers are 760 times more likely than other people to carry MRSA. A study published this year, of 299 hogs and 20 farm workers in Iowa and Illinois, found almost half the swine and 45 percent of the workers carried MRSA.

The IEPA can refer agricultural polluters who refuse to comply to the state’s attorney general, which can pursue legal action. The AG’s list of currently pending cases includes

• A lawsuit against Ed Malone, Malone Farms and Feedlot, and Galesburg Livestock Sales Inc., alleging that Malone allowed water pollution of a creek, and Galesburg Livestock failed to comply with an EPA recommendation to cease manure discharge, remove manure stockpiles, and provide manure stacking structures for solid manure

The Meatrix and its sequels are animated short films about factory farming.

• A lawsuit against Mark Ray, Berwick Black Cattle Co. and others for feedlot and water pollution violations in Warren County

• A lawsuit against SF Ventures LLC and Great River Farms LLC, a 10,000-head swine CAFO in Gladstone, Ill., after a badly-designed waste pit leaked into a tributary of the Mississippi River

• A suit at the Illinois Pollution Control Board against a Clinton County dairy, J.B. Timmerman Farms, alleging three water pollution violations, and

• Another suit at the IPCB against Alan Durkee Swine Farm, a 2,200-head hog CAFO in Henderson County, for multiple pollution violations.

The Durkee suit is the second time the attorney general’s office has prosecuted this CAFO owner. In a suit settled in 1999, Durkee agreed to pay a fine of more than $5,000 for a manure spill that resulted in a fish kill, and promised to build a new manure storage facility and mitigate odors.

Jane McBride, the assistant attorney general assigned to such cases, acknowledges that she doesn’t have the legal tools to always satisfy citizens who call her office complaining about existing or impending CAFOs.

“I don’t think it’s any secret these are extremely controversial proceedings and there is dissatisfaction on all sides,” McBride says. “It’s a very, very difficult land use issue.”

If the caller is complaining about an existing CAFO, McBride talks to the citizen about proving his or her own case. “We need them to document what they’re experiencing, the extent of the interference with their lives, and to work with IEPA inspectors,” she says.

But there’s nothing the AG’s office can do for a caller upset about a planned CAFO. McBride, who has met Hudson on numerous occasions, will sometimes refer such callers to FARM.

“When the citizens get word that one of these [CAFOs] is coming in, they generally have a lot of questions,” McBride says. “And to be honest, that’s where some of the interface with Karen comes in. If they want to organize, I might mention Karen.”

It didn’t take long for Hudson’s work to catch the attention of other activists in the anti-big-ag arena. In 1999, she got a call from Diane Hatz, a former music-industry executive who produced the award-winning animated short film The Meatrix and its sequels. Hatz, who now runs a consumer education organization called Sustainable Table, contacted Hudson after hearing her call in to debate a pro-CAFO economist on National Public Radio.

“She was putting together a team, and she said, ‘Would you want to come work for us, doing what you do now, but you’d get paid for it?’ It was a midlife career change,” Hudson, now 53 says, “and I absolutely love it.”

The “team” Hatz was recruiting for was Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, or GRACE, which was co-founded by William Weida. Weida, retired professor emeritus at Colorado College, became interested in industrial agricultural (strangely enough) through his work with a nuclear disarmament group.

To shift gears from nukes to farm animals, Weida gave himself a crash course in industrial agriculture. “I got all the information I could find and started to read, because if you’re going to write about this in an academic sense, it takes a heckuva intellectual investment. I read for three years,” Weida says drily, “though I stopped and used the restroom a couple of times.”

He came to some fairly radical conclusions: first, that the industry didn’t need any more regulations — “We just need the ones we have to be enforced,” he says — and secondly, that the popular argument for CAFOs as a cheaper way to raise farm animals than on actual farms, is untrue. “There is no academic evidence for economy of scale in CAFOs,” he says.

On Hatz’s recommendation, Weida hired Hudson because she had basically done the same thing. “We didn’t want anybody who didn’t know what they were talking about,” he says. “I was the chair of an economics department, and I wanted someone I could basically tell, ‘Here’s a [figurative] classroom; check in with me at the end of the semester.’ She knows her stuff very well.”

Hudson now sets her own schedule educating people about factory farms. She is one of a dozen consultants working for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, the purely food-oriented nonprofit that Weida split off from GRACE a few years ago. The others are like her: family farmers outraged about their honorable, traditional way of life being turned into a mechanized money-making machine. They make speeches at conferences and community gatherings, and answer what Hudson refers to as “SOS calls” from people concerned about CAFOs.

Nowadays, much of SRAP’s work has shifted toward replenishing the infrastructure of services necessary for small producers to get their meat to market — services that have disappeared over the years as large-scale “integrators” have driven out traditional feed mills, auction barns and processing plants. For example, SRAP is currently converting two 53-foot refrigerated trailers into mobile slaughtering facilities to accommodate farmers with a few head of marketable meat, instead of a truckload.

Who funds SRAP is a well-kept secret. Weida says support comes from several sources that prefer to remain anonymous due to physical threats. But for Hudson and the other consultants, the money doesn’t much matter.

“Bill (Weida) always says that we were a group of people that would be doing this job even if we didn’t get paid to do it. And he nailed it,” Hudson says. “If I won the lottery tomorrow, it wouldn’t change anything.”

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