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The Planet

April 1998, Volume 5, Number 3

Farmers Take Shine to Shiner


By Ken Midkiff

Ozark Chapter Program Director

    The Endangered Species Act is a remarkable document. It is a statutory verification of the respect for life held by the American people. In its arcane and stilted legal phrases, it sets out the processes for identifying and protecting those life forms with which we share the planet.

    The religious community has very deep feelings about this. Everything was created by God, and all things are therefore sacred. The earth is not ours; we were placed here as good stewards — to care for what God has created. In this theology, the web of life is a sacred principle, and all creatures have intrinsic value. All life is valued because all life is sacred.
    But some folks just don’t get it. They think that the sun rises and sets on human ambitions and that nothing should get in the way of us doing whatever we want with this remarkable planet.

    Listen to what a leader in the Missouri Farm Bureau has to say about the imminent extinction of one species, the Topeka shiner: “It is just bait — if it has no value, what does it matter? Some other minnow will take its place.”

    These statements — and others equally disrespectful — were made at a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife hearing on the proposed listing of this minnow as an endangered species. The Missouri Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen’s Association presented statements in opposition to the listing. They never gave any evidence to show that the fish is not in danger of extinction. But they gave plenty of evidence of their lack of concern about the natural world. At least they are consistent; these organizations have opposed the listing of almost every species in danger of being destroyed, from the wolf to the Indiana bat.

    But, in Missouri, at least, they made a mistake: The farm bureau asked for the hearing to be held in Bethany, presumably because a couple of their members owned property along a stream that has an existing population of Topeka shiners. Unbeknownst to the Farm Bureau, that is where I have been organizing and mobilizing opponents to concentrated animal feeding operations that house and process thousands of hogs and chickens — and their waste. Both Continental Grain and Premium Standard Farms have huge facilities near Bethany. We have quite a few members and allies in that area — many of whom are family farmers with small operations.

    We alerted those allies and members by letter and by phone. And we contacted the leadership of the anti-hog-factory group who quickly understood that polluted runoff from these hog factories contaminates local waterways and threatens the shiner — and family-farm operations, to boot.

    At the hearing, there were about 80 locals, 60 of whom adamantly supported the listing of the Topeka shiner. The Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen’s Association directors showed up and denounced the listing as imposing on sacred private-property rights. Fortunately, they spoke first, and assumed that the crowd was with them.

    Then farmer after farmer got up to speak in favor of the listing, and said angrily that the “Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen do not speak for me — they are wrong.” Several gave passionate statements about stewardship, respect for other species, protecting the rural way of life, and the desire to keep their streams clear and clean. One farm woman quoted from Genesis — and stated emotionally that anyone who was willing to destroy one of God’s creations for profit and greed should “be deeply ashamed.”

    In short, we ambushed them and it was sweet. The representatives of Fish and Wildlife were ecstatic; they had never had such support from farmers.

    Troy Gordon, volunteer Ozark Chapter leader on endangered species, and I spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, but we mostly just stuck to the facts.
    What is significant here is that the farmers we have worked with on hog factory issues are now with us on other “core” environmental issues.

    We are ever so grateful to have them — and they are grateful to have us.


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