Activists hope to curb confinements
FAIRFIELD — The Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts was full of energetic people Wednesday for the annual meeting of Jefferson County Farmers and Neighbors.
The lower bowl and much of the second deck of the auditorium were packed with people who came to listen to guest speakers talk about animal confinements. The first several rows of the auditorium were reserved for people who are or have been plaintiffs in nuisance suits against animal confinement operators.
Another group of people sat in chairs on the stage, and they were members of a national organization called Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.
The guest speakers included a former professor and a team of attorneys who have sued hog confinement operators for nuisance damages inflicted on their neighbors.
The former professor was John Ikerd, who taught at the University of Missouri. Part of his research at the college centered on the economic impact of CAFOs on surrounding farmers. Through his work, Ikerd became involved with JFAN. Just one year ago, Ikerd moved to Fairfield because he felt so strongly about the issue and wanted to be around others who felt the same way.
Ikerd told the audience stories of people who acquired severe disabilities, in some cases forcing them into a wheelchair, which doctors attributed to living in close proximity to a confined animal operation.
Ikerd and many other speakers that evening stressed they were not against agriculture or raising livestock. What Ikerd opposes is industrial livestock operations. In fact, he recommends a boycott of food produced in CAFOs, telling the audience he believes CAFOs will someday be a thing of the past.
“People know the difference between a real farm and a factory farm,” he said. “The ag industry has brainwashed young farmers into thinking CAFOs are the future of farming. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
One of the arguments Ikerd said he hears in favor of factory farming is that it is more efficient because it requires less labor. Ikerd said he did not see this as necessarily beneficial.
“What’s wrong with having more farmers?” he asked the audience.
Ikerd mentioned a law passed by the Iowa Legislature in 2012 that makes it a crime to photograph or videotape inside a livestock operation without the owner’s permission. Ikerd said he was opposed to such “gag” laws.
“It’s now illegal to take pictures inside of CAFOs. What are they hiding?” he said.
The planned featured speaker was going to be Lynn Henning, who had to cancel because of a last-minute family emergency. Henning lives in Michigan, where she has achieved notoriety for documenting factory farm pollution and demanding action from local and state authorities to curb the problem. According to JFAN, Henning and her neighbors formed a group of concerned citizens who developed a body of information on CAFOs that exceeds the quality of data collected by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Ikerd said it was a shame the audience could not see Henning in person, but JFAN was able to play a video that summarized Henning’s work. In the video, Henning said not everyone has appreciated her work. She said people have left dead animals on her doorstep, have tried to force her vehicle off the road and once shot a bullet through the window of a relative’s house.
After the video, the three attorneys spoke, one of whom was David Sykes of Fairfield. Sykes said he has noticed an uptick in the number of confined animal feeding operations being built in the area, which he attributed to the price of feed dropping slightly.
Sykes said he heard a prominent attorney representing CAFOs recently declare that there had been no nuisance lawsuits against CAFOs in Iowa since 2008. Sykes said that seemed correct, and when he thought about it he realized that he was involved in the most recent suit in 2008. He told the crowd that the drought of nuisance lawsuits was about to end, to which the audience applauded.
Sykes introduced two other attorneys he has worked with on CAFO issues, and they are Charlie Speer of Kansas City and Richard Middleton of Savannah, Ga. Middleton began by speaking about Speer and an incident that showed his character.
Years ago, Speer was doing work for small farmers in northern Missouri who were fighting against the installation of a CAFO in their neighborhood. However, Speer’s law firm told him to instead represent the CAFO owner who was going to put tens of thousands of hogs on this property. Speer refused to do what he was told, and has made a career of helping small farmers ever since.
Speer and Middleton told the audience that some legal tools have proven more effective than others regarding CAFOs. They said trying to prevent CAFO owners from acquiring building permits has not been fruitful. However, the attorneys have had success suing CAFOs for damages once they were built to compensate the neighbors for not being able to fully enjoy their property. Middleton said juries can relate to people who cannot hold parties outside because their neighbor is spreading manure.