Ohioans Fight to Reform Factory Farms
York Township is about 35 miles northwest of Columbus. In yards in front of modest two-story houses, signs proclaim in red and white: ‘No More Chicken Factories.’ For almost 2 years, residents have opposed a plan by Hi-Q Egg Products to set up a factory farm here.
by Tom Over
September 16, 2010
The Iowa-based company’s plan would bring at least 6 million more chickens to a community that has 3 million of them already in a 3-mile area. Though Ohio brokered a deal with the Humane Society of the United States in June which could nix the proposal, factory farming continues to be an issue, with or without the Hi-Q 'farm'.
Residents have plenty to deal with just from the existing factory farms. They say there is so much chicken manure it damages local waterways after it runs off saturated fields. They also say the manure generates airborne pathogens and toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.
"On any day you can come outside and just have this horrible reek in the air that burns and makes you squeeze your eyes shut and tears roll down your face," says local resident and activist Cheryl Johncox.
"Your nose will run. Your throat will prickle and burn and you cough and are driven back into your home.”
Speaking out about these problems can get you sued. In November of 2008, New Day Farms slapped Pam Williams--not literally. SLAPP is an acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation. New Day Farms has not responded to a request for an interview.
“A SLAPP suit is no different than the playground bully,” says Shawn Organ, a lawyer defending Williams.
"Basically, the cost of litigation is what the corporation that files the SLAPP suit is banking on. They, essentially, know that for a private citizen to defend themselves or hire council, you're talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Residents here can't just have a neighborly talk with the corporate farms at the township hall or after church.
"They’re not members of our community. A lot of times they don’t even live here. If they had to look their neighbors in the face everyday, maybe they’d feel some kind of guilt or responsibility to our community but that’s not the case.”
Owners of factory farms may be aloof to the people living with the swarms of flies and the stench that burns their eyes, but they have cozy ties to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, say residents here.
Robert Boggs, director of the department disputes that.
“The only thing we do for large farms is to regulate them with some of the toughest rules in the country.”
That could not be further from the truth, because state agencies are under the not-so-green thumb of the agribusiness lobby, says Rick Sahli, an environmental lawyer who served as Ohio EPA Chief Council from 1987 to 1991.
Sahli says Ohio’s right-to-farm law, which was enacted in 1982, has prevented residents from bringing nuisance suits against factory farms.
“They had no limits on the size of the farming operations that got the protections, so now these factory farms have come in under the radar and get the same protections--and I would say unearned protections-- that were initially designed for family farms.”
More recently, matters were made even worse, says Joe Logan, a 5th generation family farmer and former president of the Ohio Farmers Union who is now with the Ohio Environmental Council.
"In 2002, a law was implemented in the state of Ohio that said in no uncertain terms that there will be no local authority administered by any county commissions, any health commissioners...or any township trustees."
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, says this has been happening around the country in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.
“This is kind of the standard procedure for this industry to try to make sure the most accountable level of government--the local government--doesn’t have a say.”
Lovera also says states should use their departments of environmental protection to address factory farming issues instead of shifting that responsibility to their departments of agriculture, as Ohio did in 2002.
“Typically, agriculture departments are there to promote agriculture and they’ve tended in most parts of the country--and I don’t think Ohio is any exception-- to be places that are very tolerant of very large-scale production and they often even promote it in some places.”
Ohio's department of environmental protection could lose even more authority to regulate factory farms. Currently, Ohio is seeking federal approval for a recent state law that transfers control over Clean Water Act pollution permits to state agriculture officials.
Activists say if EPA approves the transfer, it will set a bad precedent for protection of the nation's waterways from factory farm pollution.
But residents here in York Center Ohio have not given up. With help from the Humane Society of the United States, they have pushed for a ballot initiative calling for improved conditions for the state’s 27 million egg laying hens and other farm animals.
The deal in June between Ohio and the US Human Society halted the ballot initiative---at least for now. People around the country are watching because Ohio ranks second in egg production while ranking low in farm animal welfare, according to the US Humane Society. The deal could be a significant step in a better direction for farm animal welfare, say activists.
Residents here say they will return to ballot initiative if Ohio does not implement the agreement by the end of the year. The more than 400,000 signatures gathered in support of the ballot initiative will still be valid next year.
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