When her Michigan community was overrun by factory farms, Lynn Henning took a stand and got her hands heroically dirty.
Lynn Henning's on the prowl. At the wheel of her two-door metallic blue 1996 Ford Escort (the belly caked with dirt, a child's pink car seat strapped into the back), she's casing the creeks, drains, ditches, and wetlands near her small family farm in Lenawee County, Michigan. Some of the roads are paved but many are ground down into gravel, and the car rattles and shakes as she drives past acres of ripened cornstalks and young soybean plants. It's autumn and the sky is an upturned bowl of blue traversed by slow clouds and tripping breezes. The orderly farmland—rectangular, furrowed fields of yellowy gold, then green, then copper—is softened by low hills and stands of beech and cottonwood trees.
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." When her Michigan community was overrun by factory farms, Lynn Henning took a stand and got her hands heroically dirty.
Last year Lynn was awarded a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. The annual award is given to six "environmental heroes" from six regions of the world: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island nations, North America, and South and Central America. The recipients are always ordinary people working within their local communities to protect the natural world, often at great personal risk. When Lynn received the $150,000 prize, she kept a few thousand to buy more water-testing equipment, donated the rest to the Sierra Club and the ECCSCM, and then went right back to doing the work she had been recognized for.
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. When her Michigan community was overrun by factory farms, Lynn Henning took a stand and got her hands heroically dirty.
The operators don't just apply the liquid waste once, but again and again. "It will be so rank that you can't open your windows, you can't hang laundry," Lynn says. Weekend family picnics are canceled because a CAFO decided to spread on a Friday evening, knowing that the regulatory agencies will be closed until Monday morning. Children and grandkids stop visiting. "We'll have fly infestations. We'll have rat infestations because of the dead animals and stuff," she says. "You'll pretty much know where the dead animals are from wherever the vultures are circling."
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. When her Michigan community was overrun by factory farms, Lynn Henning took a stand and got her hands heroically dirty.
It's a shock to hear about farm families being bullied into submission by scare tactics, physical intimidation, and legal threats, but with their sparse and aging populations, these communities are especially vulnerable—they don't represent many votes, they don't have much money. And they are generally conservative; the people here believe in hard work, minding your own business, and not kicking or complaining.
One afternoon while Lynn was out monitoring water, a manure hauler started tailing her. Up ahead, another one was barreling toward her, charging down the middle of the road, leaving her no room to pass. Lynn pulled off the road, and the two haulers and one pickup truck belonging to a CAFO pulled in around her, blocking off her exit. The state police were called, and when the officer arrived, he told Lynn he was going to have to charge her with reckless driving. "I've got three witnesses," he said.
"Really?" was all Lynn said before pulling out her camera and showing the officer pictures of the semi coming straight at her, forcing her off the road.
"You're free to go, Mrs. Henning," the officer said. "We will take care of this."
Before we return to her house late that afternoon, we pass two great blue herons—they're at least four feet tall, their feathers, the pearlescent gray-blue of massive shells, and they're standing side by side in a field laid thick with animal waste. There have been no studies on the CAFOs' effect on local wildlife. Lynn can only talk of what she's observed and wonder if it's due to the infiltration of factory farms: There are fewer and fewer butterflies in the area, and frogs have gone silent in many of the wetlands. She has seen raccoons and possums standing stupefied in the roads in the middle of the day. Fish suffocated in dead water. Deer crowd onto her farm like never before. She assumes it's because this is one place where the food isn't growing in fields of untreated manure.
The next morning, after a night of rain, Lynn is clambering down into a ditch where oily brown water is flowing out of a pipe and into a creek. She's wearing latex gloves and holding a plastic bottle. She fills the bottle with the brownish liquid, which she'll take to the sewage treatment plant later this afternoon to have tested for pathogens. In one little creek she tested, she found infectious cryptosporidium. In another, seven and a half million E. coli (the state of Michigan recommends no body contact with water having an E. coli count over 1,000). This last was the worst manure discharge she has ever seen—and it took place the day after state agents conducted an inspection of the facility.
Animal waste can end up in the waterways because it's applied so heavily and the soil is so compacted that it simply rolls off the land and into the creeks, especially after a rainfall. But most often it enters through underground pipes, or tiles.
All of these farm fields have underground drainage systems, first laid here about 150 years ago. This area of Michigan was once the northern tip of the Great Black Swamp, an area that was treacherous to traverse, impossible to farm, a great sucker of animal and man and spawner of mosquitoes and malaria. In the mid-1800s, settlers began digging ditches to allow some of the water to drain off the land and then laying pipes under the ground to drain more water and direct it to the ditches, creeks, and lakes. When the draining process was done, the farming began. Driving around the area today, all of those ditches still line the roads (in fact, the roads came after the ditches; the dug-out soil was used for the roadbed, and so roads follow ditches, not the other way around), and the perforated pipes that were put in to drain excess water so farmers could work the land now drain excess manure. They're basically an underground sewage system. And the ditches have become open sewers.
Operators are not supposed to apply manure when there is a high chance of rain because rain washes the waste straight down into the tile system and off into the waterways, but some do anyway. When Lynn first started finding manure and parasitic bloodworms, algae blooms, and fish kills in the water, she would alert the health department or the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and again and again, she'd be ignored.
"After three years, the lightbulb went off," she says, "and I said, 'Let's send this to everybody.' By then we had a system of taking photographs with time and date for credibility—pictures of the samples, the waterways. We sent them to the health department, the Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ], the local Drain Commission, the Department of Agriculture, the DNR [Department of Natural Resources], the legislators, the governor's office, the attorney general, the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and said, 'This is what's happening right now. Who will be responding to this?' And when you send it to everybody, somebody has to jump."
In the past ten years, the ECCSCM has recorded more than 1,000 citations that state and federal agencies have issued against these 12 CAFOs for violations of laws such as the Clean Water Act, resulting in compliance orders, fines, and lawsuits. Lynn does the groundwork for the DEQ, sending them test results and photographs with her own written observations. One hog facility has been partially shut down as a result of her efforts.
Lynn's research methods have become such a valuable asset that the Sierra Club asked her to do a "brain dump," so people all over the country can now go to the Sierra Club's Web site and learn how to monitor and report the pollution practices of factory farms in their area.
But it was the ability to get aerial photographs of the CAFOs that made Lynn "lethal," as she puts it. "There were things happening at the facilities that we couldn't see on the ground, that we couldn't document and that the state agency wasn't there to see either," Lynn explains. "Now they could issue a violation based on the aerial photos, because they could see the hose [where the waste] was being pumped over to the ditch, or there was a pile of dead animals, or the lagoon was overflowing into the calf hutches. It was very visual and it was very definite." When her Michigan community was overrun by factory farms, Lynn Henning took a stand and got her hands heroically dirty.
On an autumn flight with Ed Steinman, a volunteer pilot for the environmental aviation organization LightHawk, and ECCSCM photographer John Klein, I saw the big lagoons from the air: rectangles of slate blue under a clear sky, rows of them, some covered with foam. They looked like giant mirrors reflecting nothing. When the clouds rolled over the sun, the pools turned black. As we flew overhead, John rapidly snapping photos, I could see a waste-hauling semi moving out of one facility and onto the road, a wide swath of dead trees in the back of one barn, a large wet area around another, a heap of uncovered silage. Clues that meant nothing to me but would reveal a great deal to Lynn. John usually takes 1,400 to 1,500 photos per flight. He covers the area so thoroughly that he is actually transporting the view from up there down to Lynn. Back on the ground, John downloads the photos onto a disc he gives to Lynn. She examines every photo, zooming in on many of them, and finds the kind of things only a trained eye could see. A thin white line is a pipe leading from underneath a barn to a woodland area. Dark splotches and browned-out trees may be caused by overflowing or leaking lagoons. Zooming in on an uncovered compost heap, she sees three dead cows—"just whole cows lying there!"—and there they are, their white legs sticking stiffly up into the air.
She takes the photos that show possible violations, writes down her concerns, and then forwards them to the DEQ and EPA. Most often she does this work at night after Dean has gone to bed. She seems to survive on little sleep. One morning when I meet her at 7 A.M., she has already sent several e-mails, prepared supper for that night, and carried loads of firewood into the house from the barn.
Later, as we drive away from an oily brown creek where no fish could live for more than a minute (they suffocate in manure-laden water), we pass a manure hauler coming in the opposite direction. He's charging straight at us. "Wanna play chicken with me?" Lynn asks, not slowing down. He moves over to his side of the road but gives her the finger as he passes. "He's hauling. We'll track him," she says.
The hauler is empty, which means he's already dumped his load of waste, she explains, and now he's heading back to the CAFO to pick up another. Lynn wants to see where he's dumping. In the sandy dirt and broken gravel of the road, she can make out the tracks of thick tires. Following those tracks, we end up turning abruptly off the main road and onto a piece of state land. A tin sign posted to a wood pole reads: RECREATION PASSPORT REQUIRED FOR ENTRY.
"Well, we'll just have to get a recreation passport," Lynn says. Ahead, a long metal swing gate like the type used to close off bridge traffic is open and the hauler's tracks can be seen going through the gateway and down a dirt road that disappears behind scrub and trees. "See, he's going clear to the back field and he's doing it where you can't see it," Lynn says.
Since she doesn't have a permit, Lynn won't go back and look. She does everything by the book, won't trespass, won't give the operators any chance to go after her legally. She'll inform the state about what's going on. "We know they're there. It's the state's job to follow through."
Back at the house at the end of a day of tracking and testing, Lynn tells Dean what she's seen. Dean's a solidly built man with a lively, friendly face. He has spent his day getting his equipment ready for the fall harvest, and then helping his dad get ready, too. As Lynn tells him about the CAFO trucker dumping his waste onto state-owned land, he raises his eyebrows in surprise, shakes his head dolefully, and laughs. During the whole recitation, his grayish blue eyes are dancing. The Hennings know all the characters involved and every acre of land, so they are sharing more than just their words imply. They seem perfectly suited to do this work. Neither of them veers toward despair or anger. They're pragmatic, caring, infinitely curious, and determined to outfox the foxes. "We need to continue doing what we do around here. We need to keep stepping forward," Dean says.
Their friends worry about them. "I can always tell when Lynn's been around manure now—she loses her voice! It's phenomenal. She shouldn't be doing this work anymore," says Kathy Melmoth, a registered nurse and farmer who is also a member of ECCSCM. Lynn has lost 30 percent of her lung capacity. Dean had a heart attack in 2008 while he was out cutting wood, on a day when the fumes from fresh animal waste applications on the surrounding fields was especially strong. Cause and effect? No one knows. But with three factory farms flanking them, their health is definitely at risk.
Lynn doesn't like talking about the issue in personal terms. She will mention the neighbor's daughter with asthma, the little creek choked with manure, the drain swimming with E. coli, the families abandoning their houses. There's simply no question for Lynn about the right thing to do under these circumstances. "You have to stand up for what's right because what we're seeing is a takeover where industrial ag is trying to come to the rural setting and set up factories that don't belong here," she says. "This isn't farming. It's a production line for food, and they're doing whatever it takes to control the community. We're seeing farmland that's being depleted, where crops aren't growing because there's been too much waste put on. We're seeing brownouts; people's wells are drying up. And we're seeing waste in the water that people are drinking downstream—people who don't know what's coming at them."
An ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances? Certainly a woman who rose to the occasion.
As I leave the Hennings that night, the quiet countryside seems to be breathing; trees, mud, insects, plants, field mice, bats, all minutely but intensely alive. Nine o'clock in Lenawee County. Darkness cloaks the fields. Farmers are watching TV, backyard dogs are slouched in their chains, children are dreaming. As I pull out of the driveway, I can see Lynn through the kitchen window already at her computer, sitting very upright, her gaze intent and flickering. She's examining aerial photos or drain maps or health studies or corporate documents. She will be at it for hours, looking for what is hidden and bringing it to light.