Having a win is a lot of work…

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Susan Turner’s attitude toward technology could be summed up best by the title her husband gave her when she launched the fight to keep a 1,500-acre mega-dairy out of her neighborhood. He dubbed her the “assistant monkey wrench.”

Since then, her family has promoted the irrepressible mother of five to “head monkey wrench.” Either way, she’s shown that old school tools can trump computers when it comes to rallying people. And she rallied hundreds for a totally improbable, insanely successful five-year battle with California factory farmer A.J. Bos.

Last November Turner’s HOMES (Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards) organization forced Bos to shut down his proposed 4,200-head operation in northwest Illinois, even though it was 60% completed. This was the first community ever to halt a CAFO after it had broken ground, and when you ask Turner what advice she would give to anyone who hopes to follow her example, she laughs.

“I’d say to get off the computer,” she said. “The computer is so clean psychologically. You just work things out, and you kind of have a wind at your keyboard. But that just isn’t the case when you have to get funds. We didn’t even have a website for probably the first month.”

What HOMES had instead was a tenacious campaign that started with a letter and a post office box, grew with endless face-to-face contacts and ended with a grass roots victory that no one could have seen coming. A hard drive? That’s what Bos experienced when he had to pack up without milking a single cow.

“I sent this hand-addressed letter snail mail to 500 addresses from petitions — industry addresses from hospitality, real estate, health care and salon businesses – and even suspected supporters of the project,” Turner recalled. “It was like fishing. You never know what you’ll catch.

“I also placed the letter in a small ad and ran it in two newspapers, and I began writing monthly letter to the editor at the same time. I was pretending to be about three people. Without a computer, I found many of the immediate residences that would be the first victims of pollution. They were afraid and hiding. I gave them an anonymous way to fight.”

The letter was four brief paragraphs outlining the environmental dangers of the CAFO and asking for financial support. The response was overwhelming.

“After the first mailing, $12,000 arrived in the post office box in three weeks,” Turner said. “People would hand me money at the grocery store and just walk away. So I kept collecting addresses and writing new letters. I began to meet and develop relationships with donors. Sometimes they would come to the courthouse to sit with me, or hand me a $2,500 or a $7,000 check right in front of Bos or his lobbyist. We fundraised right in front of their noses.”

Computers did have their place in the campaign of course. It was just kind of a small place. There was a website, and there was Pay Pal. HOMES used whatever weapons it could find to raise the $550,000 that it took to send Bos packing.

“Pay Pal on the website was less than 10%,” Turner said. “Talk is cheap. The rest came from direct interaction and fundraising events. But the most money came from the post office box. Sometimes it was $10 or $50 or $500. Some was cash with no return address. Some were cashier’s checks. We sent thank you’s and receipts out if we had the address. I kept a log for whatever came through the post office box.”

Turner also did a little outdoor advertising. She was in the process of selling the building that housed her art and antique shop in downtown Warren, Ill., and moving the business across the street when she learned about the CAFO plans. The three-story building had two giant picture windows and a fence, and Turner used every available inch of space on them to post signs and throw what she described as a “visual hissy fit.”

“This is what I called the Wilma Flintstone Website,” she said.

It might have been funnier if the subject weren’t so serious for so many people. They didn’t all agree with her either. And they didn’t all disagree legally. Turner said her house was vandalized repeatedly, and in some cases she knew who the vandals were. But there was no money left over to prosecute anyone.

Sweat equity played a big role in the campaign. Turner recalled a Fed Ex truck showing up at her attorney’s place carrying 35 cases of documents from the Bos camp. Volunteers had to sift through every one of them on the chance that something important might be there. Volunteers don’t have billable hours. It was times like that when Turner had to know who her friends were.

“There were people who were right away against the CAFO, and there were people who were just for it,” she said. “And then other people just totally hid or were neutral. Sometimes those people were more dangerous than the ones I knew were going to oppose me.

“People had a vested interest in the project, even if it was a very short job or short gig. Be it a guy who’s drilling a well or shoving some earth around with excavating equipment. It might be a merchant who thinks he’s going to sell some hammers or paint to a guy. Or land owners that want to grow the silage for the site. It’s a lot of stuff. They have this whacky peer pressure, like the dairyman who burned our road signs. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t have to make sense.”

What did have to make sense was the message that HOMES was sending to its neighbors. And the people there learned quickly that it would take a lot of hard work to deliver it.

“The assistant attorney general was in my dining room with about 30 concerned people,” Turner recalled. “And she told us, ‘Everything you’re saying is absolutely valid. We understand why you’re fighting, and you have every reason to fight. But we are not your white horse. You have to fight this yourself.’”

Fought it they did. And they won. Without a white horse. Or a lot of computers.




It sure feels good to win…

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When a California factory farmer decided to go east to expand his operation, he thought he’d found just the place in Jo Daviess County, just over the Wisconsin border in northwest Illinois. He’d been led to believe he’d get a rubber stamp from the Illinois Department of Agriculture for a 1,500-acre, 4,200-head mega-dairy. What he got instead was a five-year legal battle that sent him home $25 million poorer, thanks to a firestorm from stubborn citizens who loved their land and their lifestyle. They were led by a local shop keeper and mother of five, who was electronically challenged, didn’t like confrontation and couldn’t spell “environment.” Apparently, she couldn’t say “uncle” either, or A.J. Bos and friends might not have abandoned a project that was already 60% built and sold the acreage without milking a single cow. A landmark settlement announced last November by the Illinois Pollution Control Board marked the first time a community had ever halted construction of a CAFO after ground had been broken. Making it happen required time, determination, frustration and lots of money. And somebody like Susan Turner to put all of that together.

Talk of Bos’ proposal had already been going around for more than a year before Turner and her husband attended a public hearing at the local high school in January of 2008. “I’d seen some letters to the editor, but I didn’t know what a CAFO was,” she recalled. “I was thinking they’re talking about our water getting polluted, but I just kept thinking some agency would take care of that or the sheriff would get them. I was really pretty ignorant.” Turner didn’t stay that way for long. A lot of what she heard at the hearing that night just didn’t ring true. For one thing, the project engineer rattled off seepage rate statistics that her chemistry teacher husband knew didn’t add up. For another, the developers didn’t seem at all grounded. Literally. “They said there was no karst for 12 miles,” Turner said, referring to the fractured bedrock that makes the county’s soil porous and highly vulnerable to groundwater pollution. “Well, there’s karst in my yard. We have an extremely shallow aquifer, and they were going to dig 20 feet deep to make a manure pit. I’m like, ‘You’re going to be hitting the karst, and that’s where the water is.’

“They kept talking about enhancing tourism with a mega-dairy. I was in the tourism business, and I just kind of kept banging my head, because it didn’t seem like something the county needed. So why were they using that to bring in a big honking dairy? They totally hit my crazy button, and I could see I was like the crazy lady running down the street for help, and that wasn’t going to be enough.” The result was an organization called HOMES It stands for Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards, and it was Bos’ most expensive nightmare. A month after the hearing at the high school, the Jo Daviess’ County Board voted, 11-5, to deny him a permit. But he ignored the decision and bought the land anyway for $9 million. It seemed like a good idea, too, when the Illinois Department of Agriculture issued its own permit on May 30. Four days later, HOMES sued to stop construction.

What followed was a convoluted legal battle that raged from Bos’ land to Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C. Judges, politicians, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the lieutenant governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the road commissioner, the village attorney and a cadre of environmental organizations all got in on the fun. At one point, the US EPA even sued the Illinois EPA. At another, a tributary to the Apple River turned bright purple because of the over-application of silage leachate. It was this last outrage that prompted the Illinois Attorney General to file charges against the dairy that eventually resulted in the settlement that sent Bos back to California.

And none of it was cheap.

Turner owned an art store/antique store/coffee beanery on the main street of little Warren, Ill., when she dived into the fray, and she was planning to sell her building and move the business into a bigger facility across the street. She did sell, but she never made the move. Instead the proceeds went to establishing the HOMES treasury. “I sold the building and the inventory, and that went to court,” Turner said. “I didn’t get to reopen my business. Nobody else would sign the lawyer’s retainer. I was physically ill when I had to do that, but it was like you either fight this now or you move away. Cathy Hicks, my lifelong friend, signed on a couple of days later. Between Cathy and I, we were HOMES’ first $100,000, but we didn’t tell anybody because everybody would think we could just keep coughing up money. We didn’t have any more after that. We had to fund raise.”

And fund raise they did, collecting a total of $550,000 to combat Bos’ bottomless pockets. It would have been worse if they hadn’t found a sympathetic attorney. “My lawyer only charged us $100 an hour,” Turner said. “He was originally from Chicago, and he thought he was coming out here to retire and open a magician’s shop on the main street in Galena. He saw the corruption. He saw how they were breaking the rules and were going to get away with it. “We were ready to throw ourselves under the bus, but not to quit. There were low points, because they shifted the burden of proof onto us in court. The court was at this point going to ignore anything scientific. We knew going in that we would lose the last court hearing. We went to appeals and lost there, too. The only thing we got was A.J. Bos was not allowed to sue us because he built at his own risk, and citizens have every right to protect their homes.”

In the end, HOMES won through the permitting process what it lost in court, but it was never easy. “It’s like spinning plates,” Turner said. “You have to get them all balanced and spinning at the same time. Some are going to work, and some aren’t. There’s no safety net. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be this big hero or anything. You have chumps in your town who beat you up over it. They harassed us. They vandalized our house. “I painted 30 road signs, and they were stolen and burned in this other dairyman’s field because he wanted to show the farm bureau people that he was going to support the dairy. He was lied to, and he just wanted to show he was one of the good old boys. We replaced the signs within 24 hours. “I’ve had the lug nuts on my car loosened twice in the same month. I’ve had my tires slashed. I’ve had people drive across my lawn. I get hate mail and stuff over the phone.” And yet when Turner’s asked if she’d do it all again, she doesn’t miss hesitate to say yes. Would she do anything differently? “I don’t think so,” she said. “The people who rose to the occasion through our post office box … it still baffles me. The economy was getting worse as we were going through the courts, but they saw that something was being done, and we didn’t quit. Even though, it was nasty, we just kept chugging along.”

We’ll tell you more about that post office box and those people next time.