Lynn has a fairly straightforward concept of what she does: "I look at it as holding up the mirror and saying, 'This is what is going on. This needs to be changed. You're not being told the truth about where your food comes from.' This is affecting people across the country and across the world and it's huge because this is our food supply, our water, our air, and our land. And being a farmer I think it's my obligation to help educate people on what's really happening out here."
The Henning home stands slightly back from the road. It's white with gray shutters, and a dirt driveway leads to the back of the house, where there's a red barn and a large garden bright and tangled with tomato vines, green and red peppers, onions, butternut and spaghetti squashes. Whatever Lynn and her family don't eat or give away, they can or freeze. Farm machinery is parked behind the barn. A path leads through a field to a pond full of snapping turtles, bluegill, bass, and perch and lined with oak, maple, pawpaw, and hickory trees. The family picnics back here and even goes ice fishing in the winter.
Dean is out back preparing their combine for the late fall harvest, and Lynn is leaving to make her rounds. She's wearing black pants, laced work boots, a cranberry-colored turtleneck, and a black sweatshirt. She's got apple cheeks, a creamy complexion, and bright blue eyes. Three or four days a week, Lynn drives a 125-mile circuit, observing CAFOs and monitoring the waterways. She knows the area so well she could probably drive it blindfolded, she says. She's got her water-testing equipment in the trunk, and a Flip video camera she always carries with her and uses to document each test.
As we head out the door, Lynn says, "Let's go play!"
Within a ten-mile radius of her home, there are 12 CAFOs. Between them they house about 20,000 dairy cattle and 10,000 hogs, which produce more waste than the city of Chicago. All within this small, rural area. Some of these CAFOs were set up by a company in the Netherlands that recruited local farmers there and helped them relocate here, promising them the opportunity to farm in a place with plenty of land and fewer costly environmental regulations than exist in the Netherlands. The rest are owned by local guys who decided to go big after the Dutch dairy guys moved in. One of those local farmers who now operates a CAFO next to the Henning farm was in their wedding 32 years ago. Now he calls Lynn a "terrorist."
That's the first CAFO we see. The owner used to have maybe 100 cows; now he has almost 700. The cows are kept inside steel structures that look like low-ceilinged airplane hangars. There they eat and they excrete. They will almost certainly never walk out in a field, chomp on grass, or feel the sun on their backs. The operation looks wet and dirty, but that seems unavoidable when you have 700 cows in an auditorium-size building. The fields surrounding the holding facilities, laid with waste, are a tarry black. Here and there the manure has puddled up where the ground is compacted or where it is simply overloaded with topping and cannot soak in any more. The land seems to sag under these dark, oily-looking pools. The cows stand flank-to-flank with their heads pointed outside.
"The CAFOs have taken the pride out of farming," Lynn says. "They've belittled farmers, basically. It's a matter of false identity."
"You don't think of them as farmers?"
"No, not at all," she answers. "Actually, if you want to get technical, CAFOs produce more waste than they do product. They're poop factories."
The animal waste is typically washed out of the barn with high-pressure hoses (so it is multiplied in volume by being diluted with fresh groundwater), and then channeled off into huge holding tanks known as lagoons. Within this ten-mile radius there are at least 40 lagoons capable of holding more than 250 million gallons of waste. And CAFO waste isn't just manure, urine, and groundwater: It can contain birthing fluid; blood; hormones; chemicals like ammonia and heavy metals like copper (copper sulfate baths are used to clean the cows' hooves); antibiotics put into their feed, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria; pathogens like E. coli, cryptosporidium, and salmonella; milk house wastes, including cleaning agents and bad milk; and silage leachate, which is basically liquid runoff from fermenting fodder. This stew can sit in the lagoons for weeks or months until it is pumped up and spread on the land—whatever land the CAFO owns or can lease from other farmers. Eventually, the solid waste at the bottom of the lagoons is dredged and that, too, is applied to the ground.