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The Planet
Saga of the Corporate Swine

In 2000, the Sierra Club SWAT team of Ken Midkiff and Scott Dye helped out family farm groups in 37 states and three Canadian provinces.

By Ken Midkiff

Rolf Christen is an easy-going guy who, along with his wife Ilse and two children, has a large diversified farm in northern Missouri. They raise everything from chickens to cows to grain in a sustainable whole-farm system that has little impact upon natural resources.

But Rolf Christen gets all worked up over one of his "neighbors." His face gets red and he pounds the table. "No one - no one - should be allowed to get away with this....No one has the right to stink me out of my house, and we shouldn't have to live like this!"

The Christen's family farm, you see, is within spitting distance of a mega-hog operation owned and managed by ContiGroup, a subsidiary of Continental Grain. The facility, run on the industrial model, houses 80,000 hogs and there is no doubt: it stinks.

Such is the state of commercial farming in the United States. A few large companies - Smithfield, Premium Standard Farms, Tysons, Perdue, IBP, Seaboard and a few others - have integrated the production process so they own the animals, feedmills, boars, sows, nurseries and finishing facilities, slaughterhouses, packaging plants and distribution systems. They own the process, as one Illinois farmer put it, "from semen to cellophane."

The Sierra Club works alongside family farmers and animal-welfare groups, focusing on the overpowering (and unhealthy) stench and the water-pollution impacts of these operations, which dump millions of tons of urine and feces in waterways and groundwater. Each of the largest companies has been cited for violating the Clean Water Act, and now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating violations of the Clean Air Act. Even if you could reduce the stench by half, it just means that 80,000 hogs would smell like 40,000 hogs instead. Not much help there.

The Sierra Club's Clean Water/Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Campaign has tackled the problems of CAFOs head on, from direct community organizing in threatened rural communities to lobbying state agencies and legislatures, to pressuring the EPA and the Department of Agriculture.

There has been little progress in the halls of Congress: Only two bills have been introduced - one by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and the other by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) - and those have gone nowhere.

The EPA is showing some signs that just maybe, finally, belatedly, it will implement provisions of the Clean Water Act pertaining to industrial agriculture. The agency is set to issue new guidance for wastewater permits for CAFOs, is still in the process of developing new regulations and effluent guidelines and is working with the USDA to set standards for manure applications.

Most of the campaign's headway has come at the state and local levels. Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter members had been applying pressure - and in very creative ways - when their recent victory came through. This past summer, organizer Aloma Dew worked with volunteers to present "Tour de Stench," a close-up introduction to chicken mega-factories. "We did the tour in the summer because that's when these places are their stinkiest," said Dew.

Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton didn't take the tour, but he recently signed administrative regulations that make the corporations that run animal factories liable for meeting environmental regulations. In the past, it was the contract grower who was solely responsible, even though the corporations owned the animals.

"With this new regulation to hold livestock corporations accountable, Kentucky has a powerful new weapon to protect our water from pollution from big chicken and hog factories," said Hank Graddy, attorney for the Cumberland Chapter and chair of the CAFO Campaign Committee.

Superb organizing work and successes at the county level kept corporate "farmer" Seaboard on the run in the Midwest. In Kansas, intense opposition by local activists in Great Bend led Seaboard to forego plans to construct a large (16,000 hogs per day) slaughterhouse, supported by production of local contract growers.

"It seems as if the publicity was so negative that local farmers wouldn't sign up - or take out huge loans - to grow hogs on a contract basis," said Kansas Chapter member Craig Volland, who, with Charles Benjamin, worked with the group Great Bend Citizens.

So Seaboard turned to St. Joseph, Mo. Sierra Club staff and volunteers put together a public meeting to let citizens there know what was to come their way - and what it would mean to the community. The result: Local citizens organized and the St. Joseph City Council voted to keep Seaboard out. The motion stated they didn't want Seaboard operations within a 100 miles.

Seaboard then turned back to Kansas, to the little town of Elwood, across the Missouri River from St. Joseph. Via secret meetings with the Elwood City Council, Seaboard was successful at first in securing a location. But once local citizens - and the Sierra Club - learned of this, community organizing resulted once again in thwarting Seaboard's plans. As of this writing, Seaboard is still looking for a home, wandering the plains in vain.

Our goals are simple: Bring current CAFO facilities into compliance with clean-air and clean-water standards, and keep any new CAFOs from setting up shop.

Photo credits:
The Fowling of Kentucky: Kaysha Korrow, in costume, and her sister Gabrielle called attention to the evils of Big Chicken at the Fall Fowl Fun Fest in Kentucky. The girls' parents are organic farmers. In the bottom photo are Clean Water Campaign Committee members Chris Bedford of Maryland, left, and Arthus Unger of California. A Mississippi bumper sticker gave CAFOs a bad name.


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