CAFO cows die young. A dairy cow can live about 20 years, but most CAFO cows are slaughtered for beef at around 4, when their milk production declines or they become too ill to be profitable. Cows that die younger aren't always disposed of correctly, dumped instead on top of uncovered compost heaps—I saw this twice during my rounds with Lynn. Not only have rats and vultures multiplied in this area but so have coyotes. The laziest coyotes in the world, the hunters around here say.
But the stench and vermin are just part of the problem. CAFO emissions include the gases hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, airborne pathogens, and particulate matter; collectively, they can cause nausea, eye irritation, coughing, and respiratory issues. They can also contribute to the development of asthma, cause asthma attacks, decrease lung function, and increase the risk of heart attack.
We drive past a house where the waste is spread right up to a backyard with a swing set and slide. Lynn points out another house across from a CAFO where a teenage girl with asthma lives. The girl's mother called Lynn saying her daughter can't go outside because the fumes will trigger an attack. We see abandoned houses near every one of these factory farms—the owners couldn't take the stench anymore, but they couldn't sell their houses, either. Who would buy them? Well, sometimes the CAFO does—for very little money—and then, according to Lynn, uses the house for migrant labor or knocks it down and has more land to spread waste on.
One elderly couple who live across from a CAFO called Lynn to tell her they were considering suicide. Their well was contaminated, they couldn't go outside, couldn't open their windows. They had to wear face masks. Their children wouldn't visit because the stench was so bad, and they couldn't sell their house because no one else wanted to live there. "They felt they were worth more dead," Lynn says.
"My father- and mother-in-law have been diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning, and they're lifetime farmers," Lynn says. "They live within 1,000 feet of a CAFO, and they have irreversible brain damage."
During neurobehavioral testing, 91-year-old Gerald Henning and Gerald's wife, Cecilia, were found to have impaired balance, blind spots in their vision, and prolonged reaction times. Since there were no other signs of the usual degenerative neurological diseases associated with aging, the doctor concluded "their impairments are caused by hydrogen sulfide from the nearby cow husbandry operations, barns, and manure lagoons" and that "they are like workers exposed in oil or natural gas fields." Cecilia, whose memory is also severely impaired, has been affected far more seriously than Gerald, perhaps because Gerald spends each day moving all over his 140-acre farm while Cecilia stays home, next to the manure fields. When I met Gerald Henning, tall, stoop-shouldered, his strong voice undiminished by age, he said, "I've got a right to farm, too, without this stinking stink!"
But when Gerald called the Department of Agriculture's complaint line, he swore, and was charged in a local court with making obscene calls (the American Civil Liberties Union took up his cause and got the charges dismissed).
"We have lots of family farmers that support us, but they won't come forward because they'll be harassed and intimidated," Lynn says. The older residents are especially afraid to speak out, she says. And for good reason.
"We've had dead animals put in our mailbox, on our porch, on our car," Lynn says. "We've had our mailbox blown up. We've had combine damage. My granddaughter's window was shot out in December 2009—her bedroom window—while she was sleeping." Lynn's been called a white-haired witch and Osama bin Laden; she's even been asked to find another place to worship by the pastor of her church because an associate of a CAFO owner kept trying to pick fights with her there. The pastor wanted peace, and the CAFO associate—who raised heifers for the owner—was a township official with more allies than Lynn. "If God's work takes me out of the church and into the community where I can help others, that's fine, too," Lynn says calmly.