Fractious farms
Paul Patton administration tries to get a grip on factory farms over the objections of the Farm Bureau and The Agriculture Department
By Alex De Grand

Maybe it does take a tough man to make a tender chicken.

But it takes the kind of toughness found on the space shuttle heat shields to be in on the state's effort to regulate some of the environmental risk posed by giant animal farms known as "concentrated animal feeding operations" (CAFOs).

This is a fight that divides the farm community and even has the Democratic governor at odds with the independently elected Democratic agriculture commissioner.

At issue is not just the legal shin-kicking over a proposed state regulation, but also a philosophical war over the future of agriculture in America.

It's a world of poop...

Who's going to clean it up?

In February, Gov. Paul Patton issued an emergency regulation requiring setbacks of CAFOs from waterways as well as schools, cities, roads and churches. The regulation also specified permanent storage structures for poultry waste.

But perhaps the most controversial provision is the one requiring a company like Perdue to share the liability for water pollution problems with the farmers who produce livestock on contract.

Not all contracts are created equal, but a common type is the "production contract" that gives the company ownership of the animals and control over the kind of feed, medication and housing used to raise them. The farmer is responsible for providing the housing and handling the manure.

This arrangement has been denounced by some as shockingly unfair.

"When Minnesota's largest documented manure-caused fish kill occurred in 1997, the farmer running the guilty operation got jail time and a fine," reported Rural America magazine. "Meanwhile, the company he was raising pigs for - Christensen Farms and Feedlots Inc. - continued to climb the charts as one of the nation's largest pork producers."

Mark York, a spokesman for the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet, said companies are being held liable along with the farmers "because they maintain so much control over the product."

York added if the farm goes out of business and there is a manure spill, "the taxpayers won't be left holding the bag" for the cleanup costs.

Further, the Natural Resources Cabinet argues, the federal government is telling states they need to address the liability of these companies as part of a strategy to combat water pollution.

The state regulation defines CAFOs as farms with at least 1,000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cattle, 100,000 poultry, and 2,500 swine.

York said there are roughly 250 CAFOs in Kentucky with about 90 percent of them west of I-65. York said a CAFO with 2,500 hogs produces 1.25 million gallons of waste a year and a 100,000 poultry operation generates 600 tons of waste annually.

According to Bruce Scott, a branch manager for the state's pollution discharge elimination system, the federal Environmental Protection Agency could ultimately take over the program if Kentucky fails to propose a suitable clean water strategy.

But this emergency regulation is set to expire in August and an array of forces have gathered to stop the Natural Resources Cabinet from imposing these rules permanently.

The Kentucky Farm Bureau, joined by eight commodity groups and two farms, filed a lawsuit against the cabinet June 15 in Franklin Circuit Court.

Rebeckah Freeman, the Farm Bureau's director of natural resources, said her group is fighting to preserve the options for its farmers.

If the state imposes liability on companies, they will flee to other states that aren't so restrictive, she said.

"What other business structure in the United States has the government hold [a company] liable for the actions of the contractor?" Freeman asked. "That's not typically a government-imposed part of the contract."

"I don't think contract manipulation is the right thing for environmental protection," Freeman added.

In its lawsuit, the Farm Bureau complains the legislature never authorized the cabinet to require companies to share liability with farmers. The Farm Bureau also accuses the cabinet of imposing permit rules more stringent than corresponding federal regulations - something prohibited by Kentucky statutes.

"With what's happening in the tobacco industry, we don't want to limit the avenues farmers can go [by chasing companies out of the state]," Freeman said.

Ira Linville, an environmental specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, echoed Freeman's view.

"At this point, our concern about this is adding value to Kentucky farm products," Linville said. "[The companies] could go to other states and companies already here won't expand, limiting the opportunity for farmers."

Linville argued there are already enough regulations on the books to control water pollution and he fears these new rules are too broad.

Disputing the Natural Resources' assessment that only approximately 250 farms will be affected by the regulation, Linville said there are certain discharge situations that would allow the rules to extend down to operations with as few as 300 cattle.

But just as the agriculture department, headed by an independently elected Democrat, is breaking with the Democratic governor, the farming community is torn over these issues.

It's about the future

Former state senator John Berry, who currently serves as general counsel for the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative, puts the issue starkly.

"This fight is not about the regulations or whether the cabinet has overstepped its authority," he said. "It's about whether Kentucky has the courage to map its own future."

Contract farming is a bad practice that's part of a ruinous trend in agriculture, according to Berry.

"I know there are a lot of farmers out there who are desperate and think [contracting] is only alternative of last resort," Berry said. "But I have yet to find a redeeming characteristic of it."

Berry explained many contracts call on farmers to work punishing hours and go into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to buy the equipment necessary to meet contract specifications. Also, once a farm is converted to fit one company's needs, it can't be used for much else.

"It would be a joke to put up your own farm to feed someone else's chickens for $20 or $30,000 a year," Berry said. "And when the company pulls out, the farmers are left in debt with a farm improved for nothing else... And the property values surrounding the farm have fallen."

"I don't think that type of food production is any way to treat the farmer, their communities, the state of Kentucky, the nation, the animals, the people who eat them or the environment," Berry said.

Contracting seems like the only option if you assume the country's farm policy can't be changed, Berry said.

"The policy we have now is intentionally adopted for the profit of large agribusinesses at the expense of independent producers," Berry said.

Berry singled out the 1996 Farm Bill, known as "Freedom to Farm," as emblematic of this kind of policy.

"Freedom to Farm," drafted by Newt Gingrich's Republicans following their takeover of Congress, called for an end of government interference with supporting stable farm prices by controlling production.

Since its enactment, Freedom to Farm has led to steep drops in commodity prices, accelerating the trends that force many farmers out of business and help big farms get bigger.

The most recent ag census figures for Kentucky show the number of farms with 500 acres and more grew between 1992 and 1997 while all the other smaller farms shrank in number.

Berry said people have the power to arrest these trends and put agriculture back on a sustainable track.

"This is America," Berry said. "We're not the victims of inevitability. Things are the way we say they are."

Berry pointed to the continued success of the tobacco program as evidence that initiatives to control production to ensure reasonable farm income are not obsolete.

Unless the course of agriculture is changed from bigger and fewer farms, Berry said the quality of rural life will deteriorate.

"All the work going into HB 611 in the last session (which proposes to use phase one tobacco settlement money to preserve rural communities) will be wasted," Berry said. "All that money won't be worth anything if there are just a few farmers left with big contracts."

In the meantime, Berry predicts Kentucky will be where a great part of the struggle over agriculture's future plays out.

"This is a national issue and there will be a war over it," Berry said. "Kentucky will be a main battleground due to circumstances surrounding tobacco. Farmers are in a heck of a mess. These big companies have targeted us."

But Rebeckah Freeman of the Farm Bureau disagreed with Berry's assessment and praised many of the forces in agriculture for bringing plentiful and cheap food.

"Until people not in favor of confined animal operations want to give up 99 cent chicken sandwiches, [there will be a need for these operations]," Freeman said.

Of course, just as York noted the taxpayer is left to clean up after many of these large agribusinesses, there are costs not incorporated into the price of a 99 cent chicken sandwich.

Martin Richards, a past president of the Community Farm Alliance and a farmer in Mercer County, said when a large company offers chicken for $1 a pound and an independent grower charges $2 a pound, there is a public subsidy that makes the one cheaper than the other.

The independent producer doesn't get millions of dollars in tax incentives or have the state pick up the tab for cleanups, Richards said.

"I would like a level playing field with industrial agriculture," Richards said.

Hank Graddy, a Midway attorney who serves as counsel for the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club and is the chairman of the Sierra Club's national campaign against CAFOs, predicted the mega farms of industrialized agriculture will ultimately fail.

"Like nuclear power, this system doesn't account for the waste," Graddy said. "Anytime you design a system that doesn't account for waste, you can get away with it for a while... but eventually you have to incorporate those costs... If we cut off the public welfare, these farms won't seem as inevitable."

Other states besides Kentucky are taking steps to rein in the CAFOs, Graddy said. North Carolina, a state infamous for its giant hog farms and their equally gigantic manure spills, is taking steps to hold companies liable, he said.

Graddy charged the Farm Bureau with carrying water for the interests of industrialized agriculture.

Freeman denied the accusation, saying her group does not have any large agribusiness on its membership rolls.

"We stand up for mainstream agriculture," she said.

The Natural Resources Cabinet is moving forward with its plans to implement the permanent regulation.

As part of that process, the agency will hold a public hearing on the regulation 6:30 p.m. June 29 at the Madisonville Technology Center in the Byrnes Auditorium, 750 N. Laffoon Drive, Madisonville.

After the cabinet responds to the comments, Bruce Scott said a final regulation should be filed by mid-August. If that occurs, he said, the regulation would go before legislative committees for approval in September.

Only the lawsuit brought by the Farm Bureau and the other commodity groups would stand in the way. At press, Franklin Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden had not agreed to grant the restraining order these groups requested. There is no date set for the judge to rule.

Tastes Like Chicken
Factory Farms and Animal Cruelty

Animal rights activists have long taken issue with the inhumane living conditions promoted by factory farming.

For example, chickens and turkeys are crammed into warehouses, spending their whole lives in spaces that barely allow movement. Typically, chickens are given a half square foot of space while turkeys get less than three. As soon as the birds are hatched, their beaks are cut off and their toes are clipped to reduce the injuries that happen when stressed birds start fighting. They are genetically manipulated to produce more meat per bird, and many of the birds develop heart and lung problems because they can't keep up with their growth


The pork industry is laden with disease. Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, swine arthritis, epidemic transmissible gastroenteritis, and parvovirus seem almost common in the overcrowded conditions. Living in a constant state of pregnancy, sows have more than 20 piglets per year. While pregnant, they are confined to small pens, and at the end of the four month pregnancy, they are transferred to farrowing crates to give birth. In these crates, they barely have room to stand up and lie down. Once a sow is no longer a productive breeder, she is sent to slaughter.

The beef, dairy, and veal industries are famous for inhumane living conditions. Steroids and hormones are among the "advances" consumers have recently protested.

Beef cattle spend the last few months of their lives at feedlots crowded into holding pens with dirt and manure. They are forced to eat food far richer than their normal grass-based, high fiber diets to fatten them up faster. From this they develop metabolic disorders. And this is before the slaughter, where they are whacked on the head and hung upside down to bleed to death.

Dairy cows are constantly kept pregnant ("freshened") in order to produce a profitable amount of milk. They are expected to produce ten times more a day than a cow on a regular farm. For productivity, they are given high energy feeds which can cause fatal diseases. About half of the nation's dairy cows have mastitis, a bacterial infection of the udders that can make the udders so heavy that they drag on the ground.

Once the cows give birth, the cycle continues. Female calves are thrown back into the mix to produce more milk, while most male calves are killed for beef. Others are used for veal. A veal calf lives sixteen weeks in a small, wooden crate where it cannot turn around, stretch its legs, or lie down comfortably. It is fed a liquid milk substitute designed to make the animal anemic. The anemia gives the animal its prized light colored flesh.

On a factory farm, productivity and volume are the goals, and animals are commodities to be used up. -RST

Farmers v. Pharmers

by Jim Hightower

Who needs family farmers when factory farms and "bio-pharms" can produce such miracles as genetically-altered crops, milk laced with artificial sex hormones, meat juiced up with steroids and antibiotics, and other wonders of the Brave New Bio-Tech World of Agriculture? Old MacDonald in his overalls is simply no match for Monsanto technicians in their white lab coats, right?

Before you swallow that bit of corporate propaganda, you should go back to the future by visiting the Center for Urban Agriculture, located right smack in the center of suburban Santa Barbara, California. Amid the gas stations and shopping centers of this corridor of suburbia sets a small farm - the remnant of a homestead that dates back to 1895.

It's only 12 1/2 acres, but Michael Ableman and his able crew produce an astonishing abundance on this fertile plot. More than a hundred kinds of fruits and vegetables spring from the land here - enough to feed five hundred families and employ more than 20 people. No genetic manipulation, no chemicals, no steroids, no lab technicians, no corporate overseers are needed to generate this cornucopia of food, which not only is efficiently produced, but also bursts with flavor, nutrition and wholesomeness that don't seem to factor-in to the bottom-line mentality of the Monsanto-ites.

The corporate vision of agricultural production is based on the cold concept that nature must be bent to the bottom line, and if brute force isn't working - you're probably not applying enough of it. To the contrary, Ableman and crew apply the idea that good farming is the art and science of cooperating with nature, rather than always trying to overwhelm it.

For info on the Center, call 805-967-7369.