At every crik, as they are called around here, Lynn pulls over to the side of the road and, craning her neck, scans the water. Is it flowing? Fast or slow? Is it clear or cloudy, brown like watery coffee or black as tar, milky white or acid green? Does it wear a rippling skin of algae or is it topped with dirty foam? If the water looks bad, she gets out to take a closer look. She may decide to test it for oxygen levels and temperature, or collect samples to be tested for E. coli, cryptosporidium, and giardia.
This is Lynn's home, and she had always taken an almost personal pride in its beauty. But that changed 14 years ago when large factory farms—otherwise known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs—capable of holding thousands of animals in very small spaces started to move into this rural area of small family farms in south central Michigan. Shortly afterward, Lynn began finding cow and hog manure in the waterways.
Straight ahead of us are four huge steel barns housing nearly 2,000 cows. "We're entering enemy territory," Lynn announces, pulling up the hood of her black sweatshirt to cover her distinctive mane of curly white hair. On one side of the road, the fields are bare of any vegetation and laid thick with a black, glistening layer of animal waste. Almost immediately my eyes begin to water from the stench, my heart races, and as a whiteness falls over my brain, I feel that panic that sets in before vomiting or fainting. "Like that smell?" Lynn asks cheerfully, but her voice is now scratchy. She pulls over at a small, swirling creek making its way down the south side of the manure-laden fields. The water is gray. Not the soft, translucent gray you would get on a cloudy day, but a gray like damp cement. "Could be animal waste," she says matter-of-factly, standing in the road and looking down at the water. She decides to come back early tomorrow and test it.
"When I was a kid we played in the criks," she says. "Today you can't do that. You touch the water, you get sick. We had catfish, we had pike—and these pike were two, two and a half feet long coming up this crik. We had a ball watching these fish and now we just have bloodworms. It's not right. This guy here can run his waste into a stream that someone else has to drink from without knowing it."
Lynn Henning and her husband, Dean, grow corn and soybeans on a 300-acre farm that has been in Dean's family for four generations. They've been married for 32 years and have two grown children and a 3-year-old granddaughter, all of whom live nearby. A local road is named after Dean's family—Henning Highway—and his 91-year-old father has been farming here for 70 years. As a young girl, Lynn helped her dad lay septic fields; as a teenager, she ran the family's small convenience store. She has worked in construction and as an administrative assistant, started her own sign-painting business, and farmed side by side with Dean. She taught Sunday school classes for the kids at her local church, and when neighbors needed help, she and Dean always pitched in. The Hennings and their friends loved to fish and picnic in the warm weather, and in winter they would hitch the toboggan to the tractor and give the kids the ride of their lives. It was a hard-working, fun-loving life wedded to the land and the seasons, and they had no reason to believe it would ever change. But in the late '90s when the factory farms started moving in (three of them surround the Henning farm), that life began to disintegrate; even opening the windows of their home on a fine spring day made them nauseated. Still, Lynn's activism began almost by accident.
In 2000 someone reported a CAFO for discharging manure into a creek (heavy rains later pushed it into nearby Lake Hudson). The owner wrongly blamed the Hennings for calling in the complaint. Lynn didn't like getting blamed for something she didn't do, so she decided to find out what was going on. She filed a Freedom of Information Act request, read the complaint—the factory-farm owner next door had dumped the manure and another neighbor had called it in—and then she and Dean drove over to Lake Hudson to take a look. They began scouting the area to see how many more of these factory farms had moved in, and then they started looking at the creeks that stripe the countryside—and they looked bad.
That spring Lynn helped start the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan (ECCSCM) and began testing the local water and sending the results to state and federal agencies. In 2001 she became a water sentinel for the Sierra Club. Using her knowledge as a farmer and her natural talent for research, she began to map out how the CAFOs were polluting—connecting the manure discharges to their source. Though almost entirely self-taught, she and the ECCSCM eventually compiled more data on these local operations than the state agencies responsible for regulating them. Those agencies are not only underfunded and understaffed but, according to Lynn, many of the employees dislike fieldwork. "A lot of these agencies have workers who are just there to get a paycheck till they retire," she says. "If they're gonna get paid the same amount to sit behind a desk and answer the phone as to go out and climb down in a crik and put cow shit in a bottle, they're not gonna go out if they don't have to. This is something not every staff person is trained to do. And because there are women that take on these jobs, and you can't wear high heels—I mean, I'll do it, but it's kind of hard to climb down a ditch bank with a pair of heels on."