Don’t Mess with Grandma Michigan Farmer and Grandmother Lynn Henning Wins the Goldman Prize for Challenging Dirty Feed Lots

Lynn HenningConcentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are large feeding lots that house anywhere from a few hundred to several million animals. They’re common in the livestock and dairy industries, despite the fact that they provide alarmingly inhumane living conditions for animals. And the high-powered hoses used to remove waste from such facilities contain toxic chemical solvents, which in turn combine with feces, urine, pesticides, hormones, bacteria, antibiotics, blood, birth fluid and decaying carcass parts, resulting in a noxious soup full of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. This same mixture is used as fertilizer, allowing it to seep into rivers, streams and local water supplies.

When Michigan farmer and grandmother Lynn Henning learned about CAFOs’ toxic legacy, she became determined both to expose the problem and to stop it. After nearly 10 years of research, Henning was able to pull together data and measurements more thorough than those developed by Michigan regulators. Henning’s work ultimately led the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to bring hundreds of citations against Michigan CAFOs, and in 2008, the DEQ denied the construction of a new Michigan CAFO site for the first time in its history.

For her efforts, Henning has been named a 2010 winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize for excellence in protecting the environment. E spoke with the prize-winning activist to learn more about her story.

E Magazine: How experienced were you with environmental activism before you began researching feedlot pollution?

Lynn Henning: I literally started from the ground up. I’m a family farmer, we farm about 300 acres, and I was ignorant as to what was going on around me. I actually got started by filing a Freedom of Information Act request, and literally started in kindergarten all the way up. I feel like I’ve had a total college education.

E: Did you end up working with any environmental organizations?

L.H.: I joined the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan back in 2000. So there we started water sampling, we started aerial photography and we started contacting other environmental organizations and groups.

E: As you began doing more research, running tests and sampling water, what were some of your most shocking findings?

L.H.: The state had come down and done DNA testing, and they found Cryptosporidium and Giardia [pathogens that cause diarrhea] 25 miles downstream that DNA tested back to the cattle. And it was at two drinking water intakes. And those treatment plants did not test for those things. The fact that people could be drinking this and getting ill without even knowing it was quite shocking.

E: Your story is one of success in that you’ve literally changed the industry and helped to bring hundreds of citations against CAFOs for environmental violations. Can you describe difficulties that you faced along the way?

L.H.: The difficulties are with the agencies. We have agencies that promote agriculture, and being a family farmer I understand this, but what you have to understand is that their practices and standards violate the law. They do not adequately protect the environment.

E: How widespread is the problem?

L.H.: I have contacts across the entire country and I do layouts for other locations all across the country. I can show you a CAFO in every state that has been polluting.

E: Were you confronted with any sort of backlash from the farming community as a result of your activism?

L.H.: I’ve received tremendous backlash. I’ve had dead animals put on my porch, in my mailbox and on my car. I’ve been chased to the sheriff’s department. I’ve been trapped on back roads by manure semis, we had combine damage on our farm and I’ve had my mailbox blown up.

E: In spite of all this, what kept you motivated?

L.H.: I have two children and I have a grandchild, and if I don’t try and do something to keep the water and the air clean, and the land alive, as a family farmer, I am doing just as much damage as they are. And we’ve already cited three facilities in Michigan for ground water contamination from these facilities.

E: What have you been working on today?

L.H.: Actually, I was out documenting creeks this morning, and followed a manure hauler that literally knew I was following him and actually opened up the truck and began dumping manure on the road trying to get me. So yeah, I’ve been through a lot. But this has been my life and my mission for the past 10 years and until we get the government’s attention that CAFOs are not sustainable, we have to quit subsidizing them, and they have to quit using a liquid system of handling waste, and using clean, fresh groundwater to make waste. We need to get these points across.

E: What would you recommend to people who live in similar conditions?

L.H.: The first step is to go beyond the local because the local is not going to help you. And the other factor is you’re going to have to go to your legislators and senators and we need to tell the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and we need to send letters to Washington, because these practices and standards are not adequate to protect the people.