At Michigan State University’s Wells Hall last week, a panel of experts, activists and farmers from the group called for public pressure to make Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, pay their own cleanup costs.
When thousands of animals are crammed into one small structure, animal feces, urine, body parts and chemical solvents often stew for weeks in nearby lagoons, waiting to be sprayed on fields as fertilizer.
“Waste is being made all the time, not just when it’s convenient for farmers to apply it to the fields,” California-based agriculture writer and farmer Daniel Imhoff said.
Thursday’s speakers laid out a stark choice between the wide range of pollution threats, health hazards and ethical issues presented by CAFOs and the lighter hoofprint of sustainable pasture grazing and small farms.
According to the sustainable farm advocacy group MoreforMichigan, federal Farm Bill subsidies dole out an average $42,000 to each of Michigan’s 238 permitted factory animal farms per year. The report also alleges that 37 Michigan CAFOs that have been cited and fined for unpermitted discharge got $26 million in Farm Bill subsidies between 1996 and 2011.
Thursday’s speakers zeroed in on the federal Environmental Quality Incentive Program. Nationally, since EQIP started in 1996, $120 million to $125 million in EQIP funds have gone to CAFOs for a range of purposes, including building waste lagoons that threaten nearby groundwater, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Sierra Club’s Anne Woiwode said EQIP has been diverted, if not perverted, from its original purpose.
Woiwode urged citizens to contact Garry Lee of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the official who handles applications for the state’s share of EQIP money.
“The decisions about what kind of practices get funded and at what levels are made largely right here in the state, by the state conservationist and a technical committee that advises him,” Woiwode said. “They can significantly shift it away from CAFOs toward sustainable farming.”
Reached by phone Friday at his East Lansing office, Lee declined to comment on the accuracy of the coalition report.
Lee said the emails are already rolling in, but the EQIP eligibility rules are “established.”
“We’re looking to clean up the watershed,” he said. “If a CAFO has a water quality problem and you’re really concerned about cleaning up the watershed, why wouldn’t you want to fund them?”
Imhoff said the cleanup subsidies tilt an already lopsided system further toward big farms.
“You don’t need a waste lagoon at all if you’re farming in a sustainable manner,” Imhoff said.
In other sectors of the economy, polluting operations are expected to pay for their own cleanup “rather than receive subsidies to pay for complying with the law,” Woiwode said.
Lee met last month with members of the coalition, but the sides seem to be talking past each other.
“We’re charged with helping people help the land,” Lee said. “The large operators have the same entitlement the small ones do. They’re asking us to discriminate against large programs for no reason.”
Thursday’s panel generated two hours of reasons, from water and air pollution to health problems raised by massive antibiotic use in CAFOs.
And the cost of cheap meat goes beyond the price tag. According to national data from the Union of Concerned Scientists, factory farms have reduced property values in areas around CAFOs by about $26 billion; taxpayers have doled out $4.2 billion to clean leakage from manure storage; and health costs from overuse of antibiotics is estimated at $1.5 billion to $3 billion a year.
There is growing evidence that the nation is also waking up to the ethical issues raised by jamming thousands of animals into confined areas.
Thursday’s panel was long on figures and technical data, but it ended with a rousing speech from former Missouri Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, now a national spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States. Maxwell still farms in Rush Hill, Mo., where a co-op of 52 small-scale farmers is holding out against factory farms moving into the area.
“Corporate ag takes our faces and our names and plasters it across America, and says, ‘Oh, look at our happy farmers,’” Maxwell said. “And behind them is this filth on the land, in the air, inside these buildings.”
Maxwell praised a 2009 law passed in Michigan that will phase out 2-by-7-foot gestation crates, where sows are unable to stretch their limbs or turn around, by 2019.
For a glimpse of sustainable farming in practice, the panel heard from cattle farmer Maynard Beery of Beery Farms near Mason.
More than 10 years ago, Beery stopped trying to compete with factory farms and switched to a pasture grazing, antibiotic-free system.
“We haven’t looked back,” he said.
He wants the city of Lansing to let him pasture his cows in the unused golf courses. “I believe the cows and the people can get along,” he said.
Despite Beery’s success, a big question hung over the panel: Could small farmers like him satisfy the world’s insatiable demand for cheap meat?
“Ninety-five percent of our animal products are produced in these feed concentration, waste-intensive systems,” Imhoff said. Maxwell told the group that in 1980, there were about 62,000 hog farmers in Missouri. The latest USDA census puts the figure at 67,000 nationally.
In a discussion following Thursday’s talks, the speakers agreed that the entrenched factory farm system would take decades to decentralize and downsize, as growing international pressures add to domestic demand for cheap meat.
“This is easily a 30-year fight,” Imhoff said. “Some say 50.”
For more info
“Less = More” report on CAFO subsidies in Michigan is available at nocafos.org/Restoring%20the%20Balance.pdf