You can use up an impressive pile of nouns and adjectives talking about Lynn Henning, and people do it all the time. But a good one to stay away from would be “terrorist.” A neighbor found that out 13 years ago, and the ugly factory farm scene has never been the same.
Her friends might use “courageous” or “tireless” or “determined” or maybe “insanely energetic” to describe this Michigan grandmother. Her enemies on the other hand have run through most of the ones that can’t appear in a family newspaper. Henning’s personal favorite is “white haired witch.” But she still just thinks of herself as a family farmer.
Which is what she was on that day in 2000 when she walked into the local grocery store and one of her fellow shoppers asked, “Why did you turn your neighbor in?”
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Henning recalled. “What had happened was the large CAFO next to us had discharged into a county drain. The drain was named after our family, and they were telling people I had turned them in. So we formed a group and started water monitoring. We started that way because I had been accused of something I didn’t do.
“What you have to understand is these people are always trying to point the finger at somebody else. The CAFO operator had actually been in my wedding 33 years ago, and he literally accused me of being a terrorist.”
True story, and Henning will have plenty more of them to share when she appears at the FOCS Water Reality fund raiser on May 18 at the Lake Lucerne Camp and Retreat Center near Wautoma. A veritable “Who’s Who?” of experts on vital water resources will be there to speak, but she’s probably the only one among them who’s had her mail box blown up.
And been trapped on a country road by a manure hauler, and had her land sprayed with noxious chemicals by a crop duster, and had dead animals dumped on her porch. And — this is the most mind bending of all — had her granddaughter’s bedroom window shot out.
“It was about 11 o’clock in the evening,” she recounted. “Her bedroom was in the front of the house, and they shot out the window. It was a double pane, and the shot shattered the first pane, but it didn’t come through to the second. She was in the room sleeping. It was a miracle of God that she didn’t get hit.”
That’s how dangerous and bitter the opposition can become as Henning and her colleagues at the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan do their 25-hour-a-day best to help state and federal agencies protect everyone’s health and environment.
When Henning’s not driving, she’s flying, and when she’s not flying she’s talking, and when she’s not talking, she’s farming. A full-time staff member of the Michigan Sierra Club, she does speaking engagements all over the country, in addition to training people, driving 100 miles a day three to five days a week for water monitoring, and doing aerial flyovers with the help of an voluntary organization called Light Hawk. How much does Lynn Henning drive? Well, her email address is “Tigerpaw,” named for the tires she and her husband wore out on their car.
And in their spare time, they farm 300 acres.
“I’m still a farmer,” she said. “You make time for that. I can all of my own food. I have a lot of things happening all of the time. I’m already booked through October.”
In other words, she’s exhausted, right? “Nope,” she said. “You know what? I can sleep when I’m dead.”
In the meantime, she’s dedicated to helping other people live longer, healthier lives. Henning understands better than most the connection between health and environment. Her mother-in-law and father-in-law, who have lived within 1,000 feet of a CAFO, both have been diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning, and her husband suffered a heart attack at age 53 four years ago.
“He was out splitting wood, and the emissions from the CAFO near us literally sparked his heart attack,” she said. “The way the doctors put it, it was like a match to a stick of dynamite. I’m not saying the emissions caused it, but they were the final straw that set it off.
“My husband goes out with me monitoring, and my children support everything I do. I don’t get them in the middle of it, though. They have their families and working. But when I won the Goldman, we flew them all out to Washington.”
“The Goldman” is Henning’s off-hand reference to a very big deal. The Goldman Environmental Prize is a $150,000 award that goes only to the world’s leading grassroots environmentalists. There are six of them bestowed each year on six different international regions, Henning won the North American honor in 2010, and it’s helped her to make invaluable appearances for the cause, including one on HBO’s Real Time show with Bill Maher. As she put it, “It blew the barn doors open.”
It also helped tone down the harassment. Not that that’s ever slowed her down. Henning says she has had volunteers who have given up, saying they just can’t deal with the pressure. But she’s never considered doing that herself, and no one’s told her she should.
“I never had anybody say that to me, but I have had people giving me their prayers and blessings and saying they support me 100%,” she said. “What we have out here in the country is what we c all a rural code. You don’t do unto your neighbor what you wouldn’t want done unto you. I’ve put my life and soul into the three farms we have, and my children and my family were brought up here for generations. You stand your ground. You don’t walk away.”
You don’t always win, either. Not in every case. But Henning takes the long view, and from that perspective she says the good guys have won already. “Things are starting to change,” she said. “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen a local movement across this country. People are starting to raise their own food. They’re going to CSAs and cooperatives, and they’re buying local. We’re seeing a change in society.”
Setting that trend have been people like Lynn Henning, who likes what she sees. You can add “optimist” to those nouns and adjectives.