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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
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  COLD SWEAT:
Ice Manliness Cometh
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Growers and Greens Unite

Farmers and environmentalists shuck age-old stereotypes to fight common foes.

By Gerald Haslam

Brian Blain is a straight talker who will tell you what you need to hear, which is not necessarily what you want to hear. "A lot of farmers genuinely believe that environmentalists are out to destroy agriculture," the head of California's largest pecan- growing and -processing operation announces. "Many things can be done that would be good for farmers and for the environment, but suspicion prevents people from working together." In the central-valley city of Visalia, Blain and the Sierra Club's Richard Garcia smashed the stereotypes when they took on a local irrigation district hell-bent on cementing an earthen canal and ruining its riparian habitat, home to century-old valley oaks and the San Joaquin kit fox. "We had to work together," explains Garcia. "The stakes were simply too high to let ourselves lose."

Common concerns can bring diverse groups to the table, but overcoming mistrust between farmers and conservationists has been particularly vexing. Environmentalists are often lumped in with outsiders-particularly the bureaucrats who dispense rules and regulations from afar-who don't understand what's really happening on the farm, and conservationists often discount farmers as stubborn and narrow-minded. Both characterizations have, at times, been apt. But "grower-green" alliances are developing nationally, catalyzed by high-profile issues like the explosive growth of industrial livestock operations and the struggle to keep family farms afloat and maintain the rural character of local communities. (It's a good thing, too, since farms and ranches occupy more than half of all land in the Lower 48.) People with wildly different backgrounds are learning more about each other as they come together to defeat common opponents.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are among both groups' most determined and well-funded foes. "There are hog farms here so huge they seem to extend from horizon to horizon, and their stench has unified farmers and environmentalists," explains Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program. "The people who suffer as a result of hog factories aren't newcomers. They're people who've been farming for generations before the corporate hog operations showed up."

In Missouri, farmers defied the powerful Farm Bureau in 1998 and joined environmentalists to seek endangered designation for a small fish, the Topeka shiner. As cattle farmer Martha Stevens reasoned, "If the water kills the fish, it can't be good for us." That simple logic packed a hearing in the small town of Bethany, with local farmers concerned about what runoff from industrial hog farms was doing to their environ- ment. "The shiner is an indicator that stream water is safe and clean," Stevens notes, explaining why small farmers supported the designation even though they would be required to keep soil out of waterways. "They figured it was something we could live with." While Stevens's water comes from wells rather than streams polluted by massive hog farms, she suspects the two sources are intertwined; besides, she says, "my kids used to wade and swim in these streams. They can't do that with their kids today. Not when the water is loaded with E. coli and nitrates and other crap."

According to Ken Midkiff, clean-water campaign director for the Sierra Club, environmental groups are in a good position to lend a hand on farm-related issues. "We deal with everything from organic to sustainable to pesticides to monoculture to CAFOs and everything in between," he says. "Farmers recognize that we are much more in tune with their interests than the commodity groups, particularly the Farm Bureau." With more than 5 million members, 2,800 county bureaus, and a Washington, D.C., lobbying staff, the American Farm Bureau Federation defines clout-and conservatism. Over the years, the organization has regularly opposed plans to benefit the environment, fearing even the slightest impact on agricultural profits. The Farm Bureau is critical of the Endangered Species Act, the Food Quality Protection Act (passed unanimously by Congress in 1996), and of attempts to regulate CAFOs. The thorn in its side is the 300,000-member National Farmers Union, which has allied with environmental groups to oppose farm subsidy payments that disproportionately benefit very large operations. Last year, the Sierra Club joined the union in a major lawsuit against corporate hog-raising factories in the South and Midwest. "Ag-enviro" alliances succeed by stressing what both sides have in common, a lesson not lost on Scott Dye. "Some farmers think a Sierra Club organizer will show up looking like their image of an environmentalist nut, with a long ponytail and sandals," he says. "When I show up looking like an average farm kid, well, they're more apt to listen."

Not that there isn't still skepticism. "Farm folks tend to be distrustful of city people," acknowledges Dye. "You have to go to the farm where a family has lived and worked for a hundred years, and listen to their concerns. You have to show genuine empathy, not phony sympathy. They can tell in a hurry if you're an elitist. And they tend to be conservative, in part because their sources of information-the Farm Bureau, Agritalk radio programs, and so on-are conservative."

But farmers will reach out when they find themselves up against the offal of a hog factory. An average hog produces two to four times as much raw sewage as a human being, so the 80,000 pigs raised by one of Premium Standard's operations in Lincoln Township, Missouri, for instance, can actually create as much waste as a city with 300,000 residents. In fact, it's estimated that the nation's 60 million hogs produce about 100 million tons of feces and urine each year.

Premium Standard is one of a handful of corporations-Seaboard, Tyson, and Smithfield are others-that so dominate hog production that many family farmers can only hang on by contracting with them to grow the companies' animals. Increasingly, though, communities are realizing that hog farms aren't worth the environmental damage, and are rejecting the overtures of the megafactories.

In Oklahoma, rancher and state senator Paul Muegge, persuaded by arguments from the Sierra Club and family farmers' groups, became an environmental hero when he authored the strongest set of regulations on hog production in the nation. In Alabama, Sierra Club members joined agriculturists in a protest calling for stronger regulations of mass-production animal farms. And in Kansas, farmers and conservationists in Great Bend managed to rebuff Seaboard's attempts to locate a factory there. Next the corporation tried St. Joseph, Missouri, where the city council acceded to community pressure and voted to keep them out. Then Seaboard sweet-talked politicians in Elwood, Kansas, but the community again thwarted the corporation. As Midkiff puts it, "Seaboard is still looking for a home, wandering the plains in vain."

Brian Blain and Richard Garcia's home is the nation's second-most-productive farming county. Farmers and environmentalists here in Tulare County, California, came together as a group dubbed POWER (Preserving Oaks, Water, Environmental Rights), and stared down the Tulare Irrigation District, an agency accustomed to moving water where and when it wanted.

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