RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Know Your Neighbors, Look Out for CAFOs

It’s a little early for New Year predictions, but here’s one: You, rural resident, or your rural cousin, friend, co-worker or mom, will face an environmental blight in 2015. Rural places have become valuable because of their resources, yes, but also for the fact that there are few neighbors to protest when the big guys come along with evil schemes. It may be deep mining — blowing the tops off mountains to get coal. It may be fracking — drilling sideways holes from the surface to underground oil. It may be confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) ready to export meat and poke up America’s GNP.

The main resource for rural America, however, is the lack of population and that means the lack of protest.

The tradeoff — pollution forever, including downstream pollution flowing to the cities — doesn’t matter to the corporate giants seeking short-term income.

But this isn’t what we want or expect. We want (and expect) stability. Bits of income flowing our way and, well, staying. Families expect to build institutions that last for generations. Banks, schools, car dealerships, county governments, furniture stores, meat lockers.

When these things do us wrong, the community turns on itself.

So, in my neighborhood, one of the leading families has invested, big-time, in pollution. In the form of big pits that hold sludge from the cities. This was an unbelievable story, so I haven’t written about it, but I’d heard that the same family that had the successful grain-cleaning business back in the day before corporations patented seeds, the family that built the corn maze to bring city church groups out to enjoy a day in the country, were accepting tanker trucks of poo to be dumped on their land.

These stinking trucks were coming from portapotty renters, septic tank cleaners, and even city sewage facilities.

Think of what those trucks carry. Not only urine, feces and other bodily fluids, but everything that can be thrown into a portapotty hole. Hypodermic needles, condoms, sanitary “feminine” products, paper diapers. So, in other words, when we think we’re not part of the problem, review that list and think again about where our own “disposables” are going.

I said this was an unbelievable story. But last week, when I went to visit a friend’s new rotational grazing system — where he moves cattle around a pasture system every day to give them fresh greens — we passed a set of these sewage pits. A few guys were supervising the pumping from the tankers and OMG the smell was unbelievable. After years of living near a CAFO with 5,600 hogs, you’d think I’d be immune to bad smells, but no.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “How could they ...?” it’s a fascinating question. And distressingly predictable. Rural places are microcosms of the nation. There are certain families in charge, deferred to time after time even though the community might be better off without them. This one’s daughter is married to that one’s cousin and this one’s grandson is your grandson’s best friend. So that’s why, when this one does something nasty, the others keep their mouths shut or just speak in a whisper.

And don’t expect help from the government. It’s very likely that the corporates, playing ultimate chess with your land and lives, have already changed the laws in their favor. They may have made it illegal to speak out, to take pictures, to protect your land, air and water.

So it’s up to us to fight back. To emphasize community, justice, democracy, civilization.

In my neighborhood, threatened by the owners of the CAFO who now want to expand, we have written letters to the Department of Natural Resources, demanded and gotten a hearing, protested to our county and state governments. We were amazed to learn that evidence of past misbehaviors—like when the CAFO owners have spilled “effluent” into the public’s waterways, are not part of the evaluation process for issuing a permit for an expanded facility. We have a lawyer working on other issues of management. If the permit is approved, we will en masse demand reduced property taxes.

At the hearing, we showed we have a lot of support and the CAFO does not. Everyone told their stories in their own, personal ways. One woman, introducing herself as “a Sunday School teacher,” stole the show with a telling of David and Goliath. We took advantage of the chance to renew acquaintances with the DNR staff who have answered our questions, even though they have fewer resources than they would like. I noticed lots of chatting and lots of smiling. We are learning how to play the game, something that the CAFO guys learned 20 years ago.

Amazingly, their best players were noticeably quiet — the University extension was absent, Pork Producers were absent, commodity groups were absent. The Farm Bureau lobbyist, who had been sitting in the back of the room with some of her buddy CAFO owners, left early. Farm Bureau is, after all, an insurance company. Maybe she smells a liability coming her way.

So we began the column with a prediction. Let’s end with advice. This year, get to know all your neighbors. There’s still time to bake Christmas cookies together, host an open house, organize a carolling party.

A prepared community is a strong community.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2014

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