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How Activists Are Taking on Factory Farms

“We are here because of a struggle for water,” said Mary Dougherty, an activist from Bayfield, Wisconsin as she opened the Factory Farm Summit held on the Oneida Reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin on September 10-11, 2016. Family farmers, activists of many stripes, lawyers, and a handful of academics traveled from across the country to this historic gathering. They came to teach, listen and learn from each other about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and their impact on the environment. Over the two days, I learned that this was a group with exceptional experiences and economic vision. Throughout the conference, these coalesced around the value of clean water.

CAFOs pose a threat to water because they often draw on exemptions from industrial pollution regulations that were originally awarded to family farmers operating on a smaller scale. This means that factory farms can spread untreated animal waste on the ground or contain it in “lagoons,” waste that often leaches into the watershed when it rains.

I was in attendance at the conference because I study the history of corporations and the public good. In the mid nineteenth century, corporations had a legal obligation to serve the public in some way. Over the past 160 years, the corporation—how it is legally defined and regulated—has changed dramatically. I am interested in the different visions of economic prosperity and value that become visible in the long struggle over corporate regulation. I went to Green Bay, then, as an economic ethnographer, in order to listen to activists’ vision of economy in their particularly tough battle against factory farms.

Brad Wilson of Springville, Iowa asks a question of a panel.

Brad Wilson of Springville, Iowa asks a question of a panel.

Activists’ fight against factory farm pollution is an especially challenging one for several reasons. In addition to CAFOs enjoying the less-regulated context of farming from the outset, factory farm entrepreneurs have successfully lobbied state governments across the country to pass laws that remove environmental regulations and eliminate local economic control.

In Wisconsin, for example, state law prevents a locale from saying no to a CAFO; concerned citizens must work to limit or regulate in other ways. Nor is the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources a reliable resource for local people wishing to hold CAFOs to environmental standards. Gordon Stevenson, former Chief of Runoff Management for Wisconsin’s DNR, spoke at the conference about the twenty-year history of deals between factory farmers and legislators from both parties. DNR employees are not allowed even to utter the phrase “factory farm.” It’s “the double f word”—he reported. One conference participant quipped, “DNR stands for Does Not Respond.”

Nationwide, an array of Right to Farm bills has limited citizens’ right to bring suits against CAFOs. This November, Oklahoma’s citizens will vote on a referendum, State Question 777, that would change the state constitution to prevent local or state regulation of technology, livestock or ranching. Every state in the union has passed some legislation of this type in recent years. Activists at the conference rejected the argument that this legislative activity defends economic freedom and emphasized its impact on local participation. “We have a democracy problem,” said Naeema Muhammad.

Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Networks, speaks at a workshop.

Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Networks, speaks at a workshop.

Who were these hundreds of Davids at the conference who stepped forward to take on such an intractable Goliath, I wondered? I could tell from the registration fee—$25 for each day, which also covered a meal—that this group could not challenge corporate powerhouses on economic terms. What passion or faith compelled them and kept them going?

Imagine if 80,000 hogs moved in next door to where you live. Stench and toxins from the waste generated daily would rise in direct proportion to the fall in your water and air quality and property value. In 1994, this happened to Scott Dye, a family farmer from Missouri, and it changed his family’s life forever. Dye is now the Midwest Regional Representative for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, a primary sponsor of the conference. Many others in attendance were similarly propelled to take on factory farms by their personal proximity to one or more CAFOs.

There were seasoned activists like Elsie Herring and Devon Hall from Duplin County, North Carolina, the first area to experience this phenomenon on a large scale. Lynn and Nancy Utesch came to the conference from nearby Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, where they raise grass-fed beef. Kewaunee County has fifteen CAFOs and a staggering one third of the county’s wells have been declared unsafe. Soon after buying their land, the Uteschs learned that a neighboring family’s baby was in intensive care after contracting e coli—in her own bathtub.

Craig Watts, a former North Carolina chicken contract farmer for Purdue Foods described his experience of a cycle of debt that keeps farmers tied to corporations, and contracts that dictate poor treatment of animals. “I know right from wrong,” he said. Mike Wiggins, Mary Dougherty and others from the Bayfield County area in Wisconsin, are currently fighting the plan to bring a 26,000 hog CAFO to a site only eight miles from the shores of Lake Superior.

There was a great deal of talk about manure. Poop, shit, manure, feces, there’s no getting around it: if you are talking CAFOs, you have to go there because waste disposal is the source of factory farms’ threat to groundwater. As Kimberlee Wright, of Midwest Environmental Advocates discussed, there are 20,505 people in Kewaunee County, and 98,000 cows. But cows are big: those cows produce waste equivalent to 2,254,000 humans, which is approximately the population of the Madison and Milwaukee metro areas combined. This manure is largely dumped on the ground, untreated. Speakers asked participants to imagine if Madison and Milwaukee areas had no sewage treatment facilities, arguing that this is a problem of that magnitude. They noted that waste treatment for municipalities is required but such regulations for waste disposal do not apply to CAFOs.

North Carolina activists take the stage.

North Carolina activists take the stage.

Though many avenues for debating and contesting CAFOs are closed, conference activists were determined to find new legal and social avenues. Participants learned about the legal possibilities of using the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, public health ordinances, Title Six and other social justice protections for applying legal pressure on factory farm practices.

Most intriguing to me was activists’ open-eyed optimism. Many believed that theirs is ultimately the winning hand in this game. “They talk big because their corporation has been around for 35 years,” said Mike Wiggins Jr., former Chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “My people think in terms of seven generations….We have babies on the way” that we need to plan and provide for. Wiggins acknowledged that corporations currently have the upper hand in the legal regulatory environment. “But natural law is on our side. The law of water and air.”

As Wiggins revealed, activists’ optimism is linked to an active theory of the local and an economic sensibility that rests on a notion of the commons. Stevenson, the former Wisconsin DNR manager, concluded his remarks by saying, “[We] have allowed a handful of entrepreneurs to commandeer the groundwater resources that belong to all of us.” Activists, many of whom are family farmers, did not reject or distance from economic motivations but rather cast themselves as stewards of strong and sustainable rural economies.

Wiggins’ notion of a law of air and water, for example, rests on giving legality to the permeability between people, animals, and the environment. For these activists, legal economic definitions do not always reflect non-negotiable environmental realities (or “laws”). Scott Dye quipped that a family farm is a “farm that stays on its side of the fence.” CAFOs may be legally bound by their property line, but their practices affect a much wider environmental cycle.

Mike Wiggins, Jr., former chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Mike Wiggins, Jr., former chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

For this reason, activists developed and discussed their vision of economy together at the conference. Noting that humans are more than 60% water, Wiggins said, “We are human seas.” And, he insisted, this is not water in the abstract. “I am more than 60% water from the Lake Superior water basin,” he said. “And I see out there [in the audience] seas of Madison Municipal Water Supply.” I was reminded that the words economy and ecology share the Greek root “ecos” (οίκος), which means household—economy is the management or measure of the home, ecology the study of the home. Though economic profit seeking can seem inherently at odds with prioritizing environmental considerations, these activists have a vision of economy—of home—that bridges this opposition.

Reverence for the local environment for this group, then, functioned as the foundation of an alternate economic theory and was regularly invoked. Mary Dougherty shared a portion of Words for Water, her photography project that she describes as a “love letter to Lake Superior.” “If you could speak for water,” she asks, “what would you say?” Many people spoke of loving to farm, of loving animals, and the land. They invoked Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Muriel Rukeyser, Terry Tempest Williams.

Activists’ optimism stemmed directly from this economic vision. “When you start talking about home,” said Wiggins, and when you speak of love, children and water, “the whole issue is weighted heavily on your side.”

Perhaps it was Nancy Utesch who best summed up the prevailing feeling in the room when she said simply, “We want democracy where we live. We want a place called home.”

All photographs are courtesy of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.

Nan Enstad joined UW as a professor of history in 2001. She is currently completing a book about the global cigarette industry and beginning a new project about corporate agriculture and the ability of local communities to control their economy and environment. She teaches courses on gender, race, culture and capitalism. She buys her milk directly from a small family farm near Madison. Contact

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1 Comment

  1. Great Article – I tweeted it to my climate action and sustainability followers. Good, solid , Social justice/community organizing, the way to go Van Jones outlines in Rebuild the Dream; just what is needed. On corporations, I have some background you may already know about in my article defining sharing capitalism, the collaborative commons etc at http://bit.ly/2cnHwnZ

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