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.