ALEC Exposed: Protecting Factory Farms and Sewage Sludge?

As suburbs engulfed the rural landscape in the boom following World War II, many family farmers found themselves with new neighbors who were annoyed by the sound of crowing roosters, the smell of animal manure, or the rumble of farming equipment. In defense of family farming, Massachusetts passed the first "Right to Farm" law in 1979, to protect these farmers against their new suburban neighbors filing illegitimate nuisance lawsuits against them when, in fact, the farms were there first. Since then, every state has passed some kind of protection for family farms, which are pillars of our communities and the backbone of a sensible system of sustainable agriculture.

Class B Sewer Sludge Sign

However, in the past few decades, intensive corporatization of farming has threatened both the future of family farming and the ability of neighbors to regulate the development of industrial agricultural operations that have transmogrified many farms into factories. Small-scale farms that resembled Old MacDonald's farm (with an oink oink here and a moo moo there) have increasingly disappeared or been turned into enormous livestock confinements with literal lagoons of liquified manure and urine, super-concentrated smells that could make a skunk faint, or vast fields of monoculture crops grown with a myriad of chemicals and pesticides and sometimes even sewage sludge. For example, the decade before the first right to farm law was passed, it took one million family farms to raise nearly 60 million pigs but by 2001, less than ten percent (80,000 farms) were growing the same number of pigs.

Capitalizing on the sentiment of protecting traditional farming, giant agribusiness interests have convinced some states to revise their Right to Farm laws to stealthily protect the most egregious of industrial farming practices from legitimate nuisance suits. The Center for Media & Democracy has recently exposed and analyzed a cache of bills voted on by corporations and politicians behind closed doors and then introduced in state legislatures without any notice to the public of the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) bill factory in the production of the legislation and no disclosure of the fact that corporations pre-voted on the bills, let alone disclosures of the names of those companies. In 1996, ALEC suddenly took an interest in expanding right to farm laws. ALEC's corporate backers, unsurprisingly, hale from the factory farm side of the equation.

ALEC's Corporate Backers

ALEC's corporate members and funders have included a number of agriculture interests, including Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill, and DuPont, as well as industry organizations like the National Pork Producers Council, the Illinois Corn Marketing Board, and the Illinois Soybean Association. Cargill is the nation's second largest beef processor, third largest turkey processor, and fourth largest pork processor. In three other areas, flour milling, soybean crushing, and production of animal feed, ADM joins Cargill as the biggest in the industry. Chemical giant DuPont is one of the world's largest makers of numerous pesticides, and in 1999, it purchased seed giant Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world's top seller of corn seeds, including genetically engineered seeds.

Unlike the corporations, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is actually led by farmers . . . and lobbyists for multinational pork processors, like Don Butler, past president of NPPC and lobbyist for Smithfield Foods, the largest pork processor in the world. The farmers who lead NPPC tend to own farms similar to that of NPPC president Doug Wolf. Wolf's farm produces 24,000 hogs per year - and it also has a beef feedlot and 1,200 acres of corn, soy, and alfalfa.

Perhaps the most surprising "agribusiness" donor to ALEC is the most powerful of all: Koch Industries. It turns out that an early part of the Koch empire was the Matador Cattle Company, founded in 1952. To this day, Koch Agriculture Company retains Matador Cattle Company, which has about 15,000 cattle. However, in the 1990's, Koch Beef Company was the nation's 10th largest cattle feeder, with feedlots that held up to 165,000 cattle. Koch bought a new feedlot in 1996 and, among other things, decided to expand its capacity by adding 20,000 more cows. The neighbors did not think that was a good idea:

"Some businesses and farm owners expressed concerns over the health of their employees, some of whom would be housed within 300 feet of Koch's cattle pens. Other neighbors cited concerns over the potential for groundwater pollution, the amount of dirt, insects, and odors added to the area contributing to health problems, a decrease in the quality of life for nearby residents, and the possible devaluation of land."

Koch overcame their objections with the ruling of a friendly regulator in Texas, winning the right to expand. With all these corporate interests in limiting regulation of factory farming, thank goodness their pals at ALEC approved a model version of a Right to Farm bill in 1996!

Why Corporations Care About Laws For Farmers

While nearly all farms in the United States are technically "family farms" (a tiny fraction are owned directly by corporations), multinational agribusiness corporations have a major stake in how these farms are operated. Often family farms take the form of Wolf L & G Farms LLC, the farm owned by the family of Doug Wolf (mentioned above). Particularly for chickens and hogs, individual farmers often contract with meatpackers like Cargill, Smithfield, or Tyson. In contract farming arrangements, the corporations provide the animals, medications, and feed to the farmers; the farmer is responsible for the animals' housing, manure, and the bodies of animals that die prematurely. When the animals are fully grown, they are picked up by the corporation, which slaughters, processes, and markets the animal and plays the farmer for the weight the animal gained in his or her care. The farmers have most of the debt and risk and the corporation has most of the power and profit.

Because the corporations tightly control the conditions in which the animals are raised (specifying how housing is constructed and the use of certain medications, etc., in the farmers' contracts), they woud be affected by nuisance claims by neigbors against the conditions they require of the farms. And because they need enough contracted farms in the vicinity of their slaughterhouses to keep the slaughterhouses operating year round, they would find themselves in a pickle if neighbors - and even fellow small farmers - who suddenly found their neighborly family farm mutated into an industrial agriculture operation were able to challenge and shut down animal factories.

For non-contract farms, agribusiness corporations' stake in the farms is much more straightforward. They want as many farmers as possible to buy and use their products (or in some cases involving sewage sludge, take the product for free!). If genetically engineered crops, aerial spraying of pesticides, or application of sewage sludge were banned in an area - or subject to nuisance suits from upset neighbors - agribusiness would have to adapt in response to local concerns.

ALEC's Model Right to Farm Act

In 1996, ALEC entered the fray with its version of a Right to Farm law. Like many such laws, it protects a farm from a nuisance suit if the farm was established before a change in land use around it (i.e. before a suburb encroached upon a rural agricultural area). However, the exemption applies even if the farm had a "change in ownership or size," adopted dramatically different "new technology," or changed "the type of farm product being produced." In other words, if the same family farm next door with two pigs and a cow was bought by new owners who built a mega-dairy on the land . . . too bad. The types of things that cannot be the subject of a nuisance complaint under the law are defined to include "the use of manure and other nutrients, agricultural waste products, dust, noise, odor, fumes, air pollution, water pollution, food and agricultural processing by-products, care of farm animals and pest infestations."

In ALEC's model bill, neighbors may not intervene in a farm's practices so long as the farm conforms to "generally accepted agriculture and management practices." Furthermore, anyone who brings a nuisance suit against a farm and loses must pay the farm's attorneys' fees and any other costs incurred by the farm as a result of the lawsuit.

While such changes would undoubtedly benefit small family farmers, the changes seem much more beneficial to the huge factory farms that were emerging in the 1990s and that dominate the market today. In 2005, Indiana Senate Republicans Bob Jackman, Vic Heinold, and Brandt Hershman introduced an update to the state's Right to Farm law that inserted language similar to that of ALEC's mode Right to Farm Act, shielding a farm from nuisance suits even if it changes in size or adopts a new technology. Both Hershman, who is currently the Indian Senate Majority Whip and a member of ALEC, and Jackman are farmers. Jackman operates a contract hog confinement. Heinold, while not a farmer himself, works in corporate agribusiness, and ultimately left the Senate before the end of his term in order to pursue a career with a multinational grain shipping company.

A local community that is unhappy about groundwater pollution from a large animal confinement or odor and health problems caused by a farmer spreading sewage sludge on his fields might try to pass local ordinances that prohibit those practices. Or could -- until 16 states added bans on any local laws that are stricter than the state's laws. Those states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.

Sewage Sludge: More Than a Nuisance

Obviously, barring neighbors the ability to file a lawsuit over water pollution, air pollution, by-products or waste products of agricultural processing, and the fumes from the use of manure or other "nutrients" is very far reaching. One product that seems likely to implicate several of these aspects is sewage sludge, which comes from both industrial and human waste flushed down the drains. Over the past several decades sewage sludge, ruled too toxic to dump in oceans, has been promoted has a fertilizer for farms and gardens. Dioxins, PCBs, medical wastes, industrial solvents and chemicals, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors, flame retardants, and pathogens have been found in sewage sludge and sewage sludge derived products marketed to farmers and gardeners (often without any disclosure that the products are made of sewage sludge).

Extraordinary odor is just one of the negative attributes of sewage sludge but it is a powerful one. Craig Pataky, a resident of Cottage Grove, Oregon, describes the stench of sewage sludge by saying, "It smells like all the residents of Cottage Grove are taking a crap in a field right down the road." Another Cottage Grove resident, Les Moore, links health problems to the smell. "It was so acrid that I had a severe headache. Never have a bad headache. And I was that close to throwing up," says Moore. A year before, residents of Rio Vista, CA, had the same problem when a nearby farm spread sewage sludge on its fields. "It made you feel energy-less," said Bob Tillisch, a Rio Vista resident who complained about the smell.

Sewage sludge, as a currently legal agricultural practice despite the objections of many people, is one of the many "nuisances" covered by Right to Farm laws.

What other practices might be barred from suit under the ALEC bill? Please help the Center for Media and Democracy identify additional examples.

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