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.