Blog | February 4, 2009

Summit to Fight Factory Farms

JoelIn mid-January I traveled to New Bern, North Carolina, for the “Pure Farms, Pure Water National CAFO Summit” sponsored by Waterkeeper Alliance. It was an exciting couple of days spent among a wide range of deeply knowledgeable and genuinely committed activists from all around the country and beyond. The conference offered examples and strategies for challenging the worst excesses of industrial agriculture, cleaning up polluted waterways, and posing constructive, humane, and just alternatives to the corporate system of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) that provides most of the meat Americans presently consume.

In my position as Farm Aid’s Hotline and Farmer Resource Network coordinator, I regularly take calls and emails from folks around the country who are seeking help to slow or stop CAFO construction in their home areas–often right next to the family farm where they live and work. For me, the great value of the National CAFO Summit was the chance to meet, converse with, and learn from anti-CAFO, pro-family farm activists to whom I refer Hotline callers for help.

These include, for example, Karen Hudson of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, whose dedication to the cause of sustainable farming means that she and her husband Rocky, who farm in Illinois, are willing to take “pig calls” at all hours of the day, all year long. Other long-time activists include Terry Spence, a Missouri cattle farmer whose 15-year battle against a Premium Standard Farms CAFO next to his own farm is an object lesson in the determination and endurance required to stand up to the power of Big Ag. And Devon Hall, co-founder of REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help), a community support organization in Warsaw, North Carolina. Devon said that within a two-mile radius of the REACH office, there are 15 hog and poultry CAFOs. These and other veteran activists, along with a great crew of enthusiastic younger activists, made “Pure Farms, Pure Water” seem like a genuine possibility.

I had seen some of the area CAFOs at ground level some months before during a bus tour of Duplin County led by Devon himself, who, at 53, with five kids and eleven grandchildren, has dedicated himself to countering the devastating affects of local CAFOs on the health and mental well-being of the rural, low-income, largely African American population in the area. However, when you see Duplin County from a low-flying plane, you begin to understand the claim I heard at the conference that this area has the greatest concentration of CAFOs of any spot on earth.

In addition to viewing the photos below that accompany this posting, try using the satellite function on Google maps and look around this area of North Carolina. You will see for yourself the long, low buildings (hog or poultry “houses”) laid out geometrically and surrounded by fields and fences. Hog CAFOs are readily identifiable because bordering the houses you will see artificial lagoons, usually rectangular-shaped, into which flow hog feces and urine through the slatted floors of the houses. (Poultry CAFOs do not use lagoons, since the relative volume of poultry waste compared to hog waste is small.) A single hog house will typically hold around 2,500 hogs, so when you look closely and count the number of houses, you can estimate the number of hogs on the CAFO. One photo I took shows a hog CAFO with 20 houses. You can do the math.

Flying above, you realize as well that CAFOs are not big “farms”—really not farms at all, but factories for producing meat. That is, the acreage of a typical CAFO is not great, which, of course, is part of the economic “sense” of CAFO installation. Since the animals or birds never get out of the houses except when being trucked in or out (including the dead ones, which are collected daily and tossed into “dead boxes” near the road for easy disposal), CAFOs do not require much land for their operation and are usually bordered by a set of small fields. Onto these fields is sprayed the waste collected in the hog lagoons, and from the air we could see blackened spots on the fields, burned by overdoses of sprayed waste. Furthermore, especially from the air, you can see how beautiful this part of southeastern North Carolina really is, or was, prior to the onslaught of CAFOs in the last few decades. It is filled with thick forests, and, even in mid-January, lush greenery. The countryside is striated and dotted by streams, watersheds, and lakes, whose purity has been starkly compromised by the boom in CAFO construction since the 1970s.

Big shout out to Waterkeeper Alliance for the summit in New Bern! Keep those calls and emails coming at 1-800-FARM-AID,, or try out our new Farmer Resource Network online search tool at www.farmaid/ideas. Together we’ll continue to clean up the countryside, take good care of our animals, and restore the good health of our rural populations.

Take a look at these photos I took from my plane tour of CAFOs in North Carolina.

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