Confessions of a Weekend Activist

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Confessions of a Weekend Activist (as printed in The Lake Connection, the publication of Wisconsin Lakes organization)

In the old days, about 9 months or so ago, I liked to sit on my dock on Pleasant Lake in Coloma and catch up on my reading. The pressures of my day job would slip away as I listened to the gentle sound of waves brushing against the shore.

Those days are gone. I can’t go back. And I wouldn’t if I could. Too many people are depending on our outcome, and too many people don’t know where to start to defend our environment and our quality of life from specters like livestock factories and contaminated drinking water.

There are no primers on how to become a weekend activist. And if you’re going to make it work, it can’t be a weekend endeavor.  I had no idea what I was getting in to or what to expect. But in hindsight I have learned a great deal, the first being that I have so much more to learn.

My lesson on being an activist began when it became apparent that a large dairy CAFO was moving in just a few miles from our lake. Much is at stake with the excessive pumping of water and possible contamination that will negatively impact nearby Pleasant Lake as well as several nearby Class 1 trout streams. Significant increases in truck traffic will potentially damage roads and make them less safe. Noxious odors will invade our landscape, and much more.

Getting involved is something everyone should do, and someone needs to step in to the middle of it all. But when you do, you should know that it can (and will) consume you. Everyone assumes that the issue (whatever it is) is not as bad as it sounds, that the threat is somehow more distant than reality.

Success is measured in small increments. The granting of a public hearing, hundreds that show support, signs appearing in front yards, and decisions that are delayed are all small things that motivate to continue the fight. Progress has been made, but the foes are bigger and the terrain tougher than I imagined. This fact only makes me work harder, but you need to go into these fights with your eyes wide open.

Whatever your issue, the odds are good that your opponents are more experienced. They have fought these battles before, and have probably been working for years to have the laws and regulations of the land work in their favor. They are organized, they are well-financed, and they give no quarter. To succeed, activists need to match them on all three of those levels.

With that said, let me share a few observations on how to get off to a good start:

**Don’t delay. I first heard about the plans for the “dairy” months before I did anything. When the full impact of what the corporation was planning dawned on me, I assumed that someone somewhere must already be on the case. I was wrong, and we lost valuable time.

**Seek out allies. I knew nothing about activism before. Most of what I knew about environmental causes came from my son, and most of what I knew about Wisconsin’s natural history came through the work of Aldo Leopold. Through this new adventure, I have met a group of people whom I never would have met before. Very early on several people stepped forward to help and support all that needed to be done. They have surprisingly become some of my dearest friends – farmers, retired professionals, stay-at-home moms. Many of them are people of strong faith, and their prayers for me and this battle have been humbling and heartwarming. This group of people has been invaluable. I will never forget all that they have done.

**Keep going. You can’t walk away because the fight seems too daunting. It is, in fact, overwhelming. But if you slow down, or stop, the other side wins.

**Talk to your family.  This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of this journey. This consumes you. You have no time or patience to sit in front of the TV to “relax”…there is always more to do. They need to understand and support you. I cannot ask for a more supportive and understanding family than my own. Everyone should be so lucky.

**Find funding. Your opponents have deep pockets. If you can’t match them, you need to at least get on the scoreboard. T-shirts, signs, postage, websites, and campaigns to seek media coverage aren’t free.

**Draw inspiration from others.  When this started I had no idea where to turn. Soon people were connecting the dots to many other great organizations that have fought the fight before…WisconsinLakes, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Crawford Stewardship Project, PEPL of Rosendale, SRWN… and many others. These groups have been my inspiration, the standard by which I measured success. They gave me advice, help, counsel and a warning of what was up ahead. They have been invaluable.

**Educate the community. Most people assume that the government is there to help them, that elected officials (and their political appointees) will look out for the public’s best interests. This is a fallacy. My Number One biggest disappointment is that it often seems like no one in government is looking out for our best interests. In fact, they are often working against you. If I have learned anything it is that citizens working together can demand that our elected officials keep an eye on our interests, not just those of big business.

**Get some legislative help. Having a couple state legislators speak at our rally was in many ways a turning point for us. They have been very helpful, but with the stakes being as high as they are most politicians will tread very carefully. Be realistic about your expectations for their involvement.

**Stick to the facts. As counterintuitive as this sounds, keep emotion at a distance. There will be plenty of that coming from the community, both for and against, and your knowledge of the actual facts can sometimes help people see the light. Many people have said to me, “There has always been a farm on this property. What’s the difference?” There is a huge difference in the concentration of animals and in the amount of water they will draw from the aquifers and the amount of manure they will spread on the land. Know your subject, know your enemy, and know what a difference the facts can make in a fight.

**Steel yourself against disappointment. Expect little. If you can get in front of people, they will become enthusiastic and offer to help. But most people tend to fade back into their everyday lives. Few will follow through on their eagerness to help while others simply need to be given direction. You can’t let this infect you with sadness or bitterness. Most people believe that “you can’t fight city hall.” You need to remember what got you off the couch, or the dock, in the first place. What can one person do? A lot!

**Understand residents’ fears. In the beginning, a number of people were very outspoken against the factory farm. They very quickly got an education in peer pressure. One business owner found out rather quickly that her opposition would make enemies and cost her business. One family received intimidation from neighbors.

**Remember the media is not your friend – or your enemy. You may hit it off quite well with the media. Don’t get too cozy. They have a job to do, and you are one way they can do their job. I once felt like a reporter was lending a very supportive ear, but the article that came out felt like a stab in the back. They won’t necessarily forgive any naiveté you have about your topic. Research the media and the individual reporters just like you would research your cause.

The battle has not gone our way at every turn as we would have liked. Several months ago the WDNR granted the final permits required for the CAFO. After all we have done, after all of the evidence that had been provided, after the rally’s, the speeches, the  articles and letters, the meetings, the phone calls, the late nights, the early mornings. After all the effort that so many have put forth, the decision to grant the permits was kick in the gut. And for the first time, I cried.

**Finally, celebrate your victories. A local woman let me know early on in the fight that she was very much opposed to what I was doing. Months have passed; we have done our very best to educate the community about what is coming down the pike, and what it will mean to have this CAFO as their neighbor. I was shopping in a local store recently and ran into this woman. She came over and handed me a $20 check to help our non-profit organization in the battle.   I was speechless.  It was such a powerful statement of a changed heart.

That’s the stuff that keeps me going. If I stop, I let people like her down. We strongly disagree with the decisions and basis upon which they were made. We have committed to continue this battle whether alone or in support of others who may be better positioned for the fight. But one thing is for certain… this isn’t a job for the weekend. Once an activist you have to be all in.  What can one person do? A lot as it turns out.



Depression indeed…..

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Cone of depression indeed…

In attempting to learn more about the proposed dairy near Coloma, and the effects it will have on the environment, I have been relying on information from folks a lot smarter than I am.  A key source of information has been studies by hydrologist.

Basically they have been able to explain to me what is happening under my feet, things that I can’t see.  One interesting term I have been introduced to is the “cone of depression”. Here is the scientific definition:

Cone of depression: The zone around a well in an unconfined aquifer that is normally saturated, but becomes unsaturated as a well is pumped, leaving an area where the water table dips down to form a cone shape. The shape of the cone is influenced by porosity and the water yield or pumping rate of the well. The land surface overlying the cone of depression is referred to as the area of influence.

So in layman’s terms, a high capacity well has an influence over a much larger area than just the immediate land it is drilled on. Hmmm?

This got me thinking about the proposed dairy in general, and it’s “cone of depression”. While the dairy will sit on a relatively small amount of land, what is its cone of depression? Certainly with land spreading of manure over an estimated 16,000 acres, one can see that the cone goes out a LONG way.

People that are subjected to the smell, increased traffic, and potential water contamination of a factory farm are left with few options to complain about the operation. Daily family activities as simple as sitting outside on a summer night can be affected. Attempts to sell are mostly fruitless, if you don’t want to live there, who else will? This feeling of helplessness has been proven to be a source of increased depression for those living near factory farms.

Studies have shown a reduction of property values for owners located near factory farms. As the affected area becomes less desirable for living, an area of depressed property value is created. Depressed property value has a direct impact on the real estate taxes collected for local government.

Smaller family farms face increased cost for crops and land rental as the factory farm asserts its relative purchasing power in the local area. The large influx of milk production in a local market then depresses the milk prices for these producers. The increased cost vs. lower income is often too much for the family farm to cope with, and they close or sell out to the factory farm.

Long term studies have shown a direct correlation to hidden cost of a factory farm in terms of; economic, social and environmental impacts. I think that much like the unseen underground effect of the high capacity well, the far reaching “cone of depression” created by the factory farm is one we all need to take a long hard look at.


What a life….

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They’re called “pushers,” and while they have nothing to do with illegal drugs, you don’t want to be one.

If you are and you work at a CAFO, chances are your job is to wake a 1,000-pound cow from a sound sleep and move her from one crowded place to another. Do it 12 hours a day, every day for two weeks with a just single weekday off, and you can earn all of seven dollars an hour to start.

Not a great employment opportunity under any circumstances, and it’s much worse when

the sleep-deprived cows have other plans. They should be getting eight hours of sleep a day, but they frequently get as little as six and sometimes four.

“You have to move them from the place where they are sleeping to the place where they’re going to be milked. These cows are overstressed, pissed off, tired, sick or lame. You have to shout. You have to kick some cows, because they don’t want to get up and sometimes can’t. You do this by yourself at two in the morning, and you have to push them into a really tight space where they wait hours to be milked.”

The preceding are the words of a frequent eyewitness who has visited CAFOs in more than a dozen states. We’ll call him Dr. V. He’s a veterinarian and a certified top level dairy cow expert who works for the US Department of Agriculture at a highly regarded national university. He prefers to remain anonymous, because his highly regarded university has some highly sensitive fiscal connections to factory farms. But he’s seen too much to stay silent.

While he can’t speak to conditions at all CAFOs, he can share his observations from places where he worked and visited. These are his personal experiences.

“The reason I’m talking to you is because it’s unfair for people, unfair for animals, unfair for the state, unfair for the environment and unfair for the world,” he said. “I can’t see anything good about them. Anything, anything, anything, anything.”

Passionate words, and Dr.V is just getting warmed up. When the talk turns to conditions at factory farms, he provides the kind of inside information that can only come from working at one. Which he did as a manager for three and a half years, and he’s clearly not impressed when he hears owners promote CAFOs as local job creators.

“What kind of jobs are you going to create with a CAFO?” he said. “You’re going to need low level workers who need to be on the farm 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They need to be there because this is a factory.”

Dr. V estimates that at least 80 per cent of those low level workers are illegal aliens who pay rent for meager housing hundreds of miles from their families.

“Normally these farms buy houses around the farms and put, I would say, four people to a room,” he said. “Not per house, per room. You don’t want to go into those houses. They’re disgusting. If you don’t have that kind of housing you buy an old t

railer, move it onto the land and put workers there. And they don’t take care of the houses, so they’re going to decrease the value of (other) houses around the farm.

“A decent salary would be seven dollars an hour for starting, and it might increase 20 cents every six months if you’re lucky. The people need to work all day, through the weekends, holidays and at night. You work from Monday to Friday of the next week. You get one day off every two weeks. If you complain, you’re told you can find another job.

“You work a 12-hour shift, normally from 4 or 5 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. with a half hour or one hour for lunch. If you sleep eight hours a night that leaves you four hours to eat breakfast and dinner, take care of business, go shopping, maybe watch some TV or call your family.”

No overtime, says Dr. V. No pensions, no vacations and certainly no medical insurance.

“If you get sick, you’re on your own,” he said. “You don’t have insurance. If you have an accident, you’re on your own. The worst part is you’re not going to make money while you’re sick. Sometimes you won’t have a job when you come back.

“The reason they hire these people is they’re the only ones that are going to work under those conditions. They (also) need someone who can speak the language, so they hire somebody for management, or they hire translators. The second level management people will make more money, but we’re not talking a ton of money. We’re talking about $25,000 to $30,000 per year.”

Dr. V himself made $28 thousand as a manger, but he was lucky. He could see the light at the end of the tunnel. He was able to get a job because he was a veterinarian, and he would be around only long enough to earn his green card. That process took a little longer than the typical stay of low level workers.

“They want to stay as long as they can, because it’s a better salary than they’re getting from their home countries,” he said. “If you’re illegal and you get out of the country, it’s going to be difficult to get back. On average, I’d say they stay for three years. They send money back home, and then they quit working because they are homesick. They want to see their kids. They want to stay with their wife.”

They want what any worker would want. What they get at a CAFO is a vastly different thing . More from Dr. V next time.